Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vulgate Verse: immaculate

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The verse I wanted to comment on today comes from one of the more controversial books of the Bible, called the "Song of Songs" (or "Canticle of Canticles"), and also the "Song of Solomon" (based on its traditional attribution to Solomon, to whom other wisdom books are attributed as well). In Latin, the book is called Canticum Canticorum. This ancient collection of love songs, seemingly ill-suited to the Bible's religious project, has been interpreted allegorically: instead of being about the love of a man and a woman, the songs are considered to be an expression of the soul's love for God (or the love of God and the church, God and his people, and so on). You can read more about the Song of Songs in wikipedia.

The particular verse I want to comment on here is Song of Songs 4:7, which reads:

Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te. (Latin)

"Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee." (King James)

The word that I want to focus on here is the Latin word macula, translated as "spot" here in the King James version. The Latin word means a spot or a stain, and corresponds quite nicely to the Hebrew word used here, moom. The hymn of praise here to the woman who is unspotted or unblemished eventually leads us to the Virgin Mary. Here's how.

From this word macula we get the English word "immaculate," which means un-spotted, un-stained. In the history of the Catholic Church, this word has taken on extraordinary importance because of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Most people seem to think, incorrectly, that Immaculate Conception means the same thing as the virgin birth, the conception of Jesus without a human father.

The Immaculate Conception, however, is something much more arcane. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary herself was conceived in an unusual way, created without original sin in the womb of her mother, traditionally known as Anna. Although Mary was conceived through sexual intercourse between a woman and a man (Anna's husband is traditionally known as Joachim), she was born suffused with divine grace, which preserved her from the state of original sin so that the body in which Jesus would later be conceived would be a fit vessel, unpolluted and unstained. Mary is thus the woman who is without the stain of original sin, the woman who is divinely without a blemish, without a macula; she is the immaculate product of the immaculate conception. You can read more about the fascinating notion of the Immaculate Conception at wikipedia. It is one of the distinctive doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, not shared by other Christian churches.

You might also have encountered this Latin word macula through its Italian reflex, macchia, which gives us the word "stained, spotted" - macchiato. Yes, a caffè macchiato is a spotted coffee, stained with a dollop of milk. It is not immaculate - it is maculate coffee, caffè macchiato.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Vulgate Verse: blessed are you, the poor

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The verse I wanted to comment on today comes from one of the renderings of the "Sermon on the Mount," and in particular the section of that sermon called the "Beatitudes."

The Beatitudes appear in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, but they are not identical. The wikipedia article provides an overview of the notable differences. Perhaps most importantly, the list of the blessed is considerably longer in Matthew. There are only three blessings in Luke (or four, depending on how Luke 6:22-23 is regarded), while Matthew includes four more which are not found in Luke (the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the pure of heart).

Yet there is a grammatical different between the two sets of Beatitudes that seems to me very remarkable. Here is the First Beautitude, as it appears in Matthew 5:3:

μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῶ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Beati pauperes spiritu: quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (KJV)

Here is the version in Luke 6:20:

μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ
Beati pauperes, quia vestrum est regnum Dei.
Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (KJV)

As you can see there are several notable differences here, such as Matthew's inclusion of the phrase "in spirit" (similarly, Matthew speaks about those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness," while Luke speaks only of those who "hunger"), and the variation between "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God."

What is most intriguing to me, however, is the difference in pronouns, which the King James Version actually captures quite beautifully, "Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Luke presents Jesus addressing the poor, speaking to them in the second-person form (second person plural, to be precise - given that King James English can distinguish between "ye" and "thee"). In Matthew, this element of direct address is lacking.

I think that is a very powerful aspect of the version in Luke, although it is the version in Matthew which is most commonly cited. Perhaps the version in Matthew is so much better known because it is longer, but the second-person form of address found in Luke is very much worthy of our attention. Here are the three Beatitudes as presented in Luke:

Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled.
Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.


So simple, and so powerful. What a difference a pronoun can make.

Here is an image of the "Blessing Christ" from a medieval manuscript, c. 1200. The banner shows the opening words of the Lord's prayer.



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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Vulgate Verse: What is truth?

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

Earlier this month I posted about some famous words spoken by Pilate, Ecce homo. Today I'd like to mention another famous phrase from the meeting of Jesus and Pilate, "What is truth?" Here is their dialogue as reported in John 18:
Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then?
Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.
Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?
In Latin, the words of Pilate are Quid est veritas?

These words take on a special quality in Latin, because they are actually an anagram. If you re-arrange the letters you obtain the following sentence: Est vir qui adest, "It is the man who is here."

Now, I don't know about you, but I find anagrams to have a magical, compelling power. With his novel The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown exploited the mysterious power of anagrams to great effect.

How much more powerful here, where the original question contains its own answer! It works in Latin, of course. In English, "What is truth?" doesn't yield the same answer. The wonderful WordSmith Anagram Server yields 392 phrases in English, most of them nonsense. Of the ones that are not nonsense, they are still not answers to the question that Pilate has asked, "What is truth?" "Hat with ruts" is not much of an answer, nor is "Art with huts" or "Art with tush."

So, for the magic of the anagram, which is more than just the rearrangement of letters, but the rearranging of letters into what appears to be a secret message, the prize this time goes to Latin. Quid est veritas? Est vir qui adest.

If you are interested in more wonderful examples of anagrams, check out the wikipedia article. Meanwhile, here is a picture of Jesus before Pilate, by Duccio di Buoninsegna:



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Monday, January 14, 2008

Vulgate Verse: out of Egypt

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

Today I'd like to comment on a verse connected with a medieval holiday celebrated on January 14, the "Holiday of the Donkeys," or Festum Asinorum as it was known in Latin. This was a burlesque medieval holiday, prompted by the Bibilcal tradition of the flight into Egypt, as told in the gospel of Matthew. According to Matthew, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt, so they would be safe from the persecutions of Herod. Then, after Herod died, Joseph was visited again by an angel, who told him it was safe to return. You can read more about this at wikipedia.

In Matthew 2:15, there is a "proof-text" which provides some insight as to why Matthew thought this story was important to tell. Ex Aegypto vocavi filium meum, "Out of Egypt I have called my son," are the words that Matthew cites, quoting from the book of the prophet Hosea.

Matthew is the only gospel writer to make reference to the journey to Egypt, and God then summoning Joseph, Mary and Jesus "out of Egypt," fulfilling Hosea's prophecy. Yet the story of the flight into Egypt was widely popular in the Christian tradition, spawning many ancillary legends and tales. (In a previous post, I reported the tradition that the two thieves crucified with Jesus had met him earlier, during the Egyptian sojourn.)

Which brings us to the Festum Asinorum. Chambers' Book of Days, available online (!), provides a great account of this medieval tradition:
Formerly, the Feast of the Ass was celebrated on this day, in commemoration of the 'Flight into Egypt.' Theatrical representations of Scripture history were originally intended to impress religious truths upon the minds of an illiterate people, at a period when books were not, and few could read. But the advantages resulting from this mode of instruction were counterbalanced by the numerous ridiculous ceremonies which they originated. Of these probably none exceeded in grossness of absurdity the Festival of the Ass, as annually performed on the 14th of January.

The escape of the Holy Family into Egypt was represented by a beautiful girl holding a child at her breast, and seated on an ass, splendidly decorated with trappings of gold-embroidered cloth. After having been led in solemn procession through the streets of the city in which the celebration was held, the ass, with its burden, was taken into the principal church, and placed near the high altar, while the various religious services were performed. In place, however, of the usual responses, the people on this occasion imitated the braying of an ass; and, at the conclusion of the service, the priest, instead of the usual benediction, brayed three times, and was answered by a general hee-hawing from the voices of the whole congregation. A hymn, as ridiculous as the ceremony, was sung by a double choir, the people joining in the chorus, and imitating the braying of an ass. Ducange has preserved this burlesque composition, a curious medley of French and mediæval Latin, which may be translated thus:

From the country of the East,
Came this strong and handsome beast:
This able ass, beyond compare,
Heavy loads and packs to bear.
Now, seignior ass, a noble bray,
Thy beauteous mouth at large display;
Abundant food our hay-lofts yield,
And oats abundant load the field.
Hee-haw! He-haw! He-haw!

True it is, his pace is slow,
Till he feels the quickening blow;
Till he feel the urging goad,
On his hinder part bestowed.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

He was born on Shechem's hill;
In Reuben's vales he fed his fill;
He drank of Jordan's sacred stream,
And gambolled in Bethlehem.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

See that broad majestic ear!
Born he is the yoke to wear:
All his fellows he surpasses!
He's the very lord of asses!
Now, seignior ass, &c.

In leaping he excels the fawn,
The deer, the colts upon the lawn;
Less swift the dromedaries ran,
Boasted of in Midian.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

Gold from Araby the blest,
Seba myrrh, of myrrh the best,
To the church this ass did bring;
We his sturdy labours sing.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

While he draws the loaded wain,
Or many a pack, he don't complain.
With his jaws, a noble pair,
He doth craunch his homely fare.
Now, seignior ass, &c.'

The bearded barley and its stem,
And thistles, yield his fill of them:
He assists to separate,
When it 's threshed, the chaff from wheat.
Now, seignior ass, &c.

'With your belly full of grain,
Bray, most honoured ass, Amen!
Bray out loudly, bray again,
Never mind the old Amen;
Without ceasing, bray again,
Amen! Amen! Amen! Amen!
Hee-haw! He-haw! He-haw!'
For those of you who might know some Latin, I thought I would present the Latin version (with French chorus) which is cited here in translation!
Orientis partibus
Adventavit Asinus,
Pulcher et fortissimus,
Sarcinis aptissimus.
Hez, Sire Asnes, car chantez,
Belle bouche rechignez,
Vous aurez du fom assez
Et de l'avoine a' plantez.

Lentus erat pedibus,
Nisi foret baculus
Et eum in clunibus
Pungeret aculeus.
Hez...
Hic in collibus Sichem
Iam nutritus sub Ruben,
Transiit per Iordanem,
Saliit in Bethleem.
Hez...
Ecce magnis auribus
Subiugalis filius,
Asinus egregius,
Asinorum dominus.
Hez...
Saltu vincti hinnulos,
Damas et capreolos,
Super dromedarios
Velox Madianeos.
Hez...
Aurum de Arabia,
Thus et myrrhum de Saba
Tulit in ecclesia
Virtus Asinaria.
Hez...
Dum trahit vehicula
Multa cum sarcinula,
Illius mandibula
Dura terit pabula.
Hez...
Cum aristis hordeum
Comedit et carduum;
Triticum a palea
Segregat in area.
Hez.
Amen, dicas, Asine,
(hic genuflectabatur)
Iam satur de gramine:
Amen, amen itera
Aspernare vetera.
Hez...
So, HEE HAW, everybody! And here is a picture of the flight into Egypt, by the great painter Giotto:

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Vulgate Verse: ecce homo

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The verse I have chosen to comment on today is one that is famously still used in its Latin form: ecce homo, "Behold, the man" (in Greek, Ἱδού ό ἄνθρωπος).

The context is John, Chapter 19:
Exivit ergo iterum Pilatus foras, et dicit eis: Ecce adduco vobis eum foras, ut cognoscatis quia nullam invenio in eo causam. Exivit ergo Jesus portans coronam spineam, et purpureum vestimentum. Et dicit eis: Ecce homo.
Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. 5 Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!
This phrase has retained its currency in Latin because it is used as a kind of shorthand in the art history tradition to refer to that genre of pictures which shows the scourged Jesus, crowned with thorns, presented to the audience.

There are two main types of "ecce homo" paintings. One type can be considered an illustration of the scene in John, showing not just Jesus, but also Pilate, and perhaps something also of the setting and even the audience to whom Pilate is speaking. You can this fully contextualized scene in an "Ecce homo" painting by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1480). Click on the image for a larger view:



Another type focuses in on the figure of Jesus alone, out of context, sometimes staring dramatically at the audience of the painting itself, sometimes with gaze downcast. Here is an example in scultpure, 15th-century, from France. Click on the image for a larger view:



As a result of its continuing vitality through the art history tradition, the phrase "ecce homo" has become a kind of Latin saying in its own right. Nietzsche provocatively titled his own memoir, Ecce Homo. And, in a sheerly comical usage, wikipedia informs me about the British television show, Mister Bean, starring Rowan Atkinson: "At the beginning of episode two onwards, Mr. Bean falls from the sky in a beam of light, accompanied by a choir singing Ecce homo qui est faba - Behold the man who is a bean."

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Vulgate Verse: my brother's keeper

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The phrase I wanted to comment on today is a famous statement in the Book of Genesis, 4: Num custos fratris mei sum? This is famously rendered in the King James translation as: Am I my brother's keeper? Although the use of the word "keeper" here has a somewhat archaic feel to it, its use in King James has exerted a decisive influence in English Bible translations, as you can see from this page showing different English renderings of Genesis 4:9.

The story is that of Cain and Abel, two brothers, the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel is a shepherd, while Cain is a farmer. When they offer sacrifices to God, God accepts the sacrifice of Abel with favor, but he rejects the sacrifice of Cain. Here is what happens next:
And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
It is one of the most amazing stories in the Bible, all told within just a few verses, and giving rise to this very famous Biblical saying, "Am I my brother's keeper?" By negative implication the answer is, yes, you are your brother's keeper.

This is one of the many stories from the Hebrew Bible which also figures in the Koran, although the brothers are not given names in this account from Surah 5, The Table:
Relate to them exactly the story of the sons of Adam when they each offered an offering; accepted from the one of them, and not accepted from the other. The one said, "I will surely slay thee." Said the other, "God only accepted from those that fear Him. Even if thou stretch forth thine hand against me to slay me, I will not stretch forth my hand against thee to slay thee. Truly I fear God the Lord of the Worlds. Yea, rather would I that thou shouldest bear my sin and thine own sin, and that thou become an inmate of the Fire: for that is the recompense of the unjust doers." And his passion led him to slay his brother: and he slew him; and he became one of those who perish.
You can find various English translations of the Koran, along with an Arabic text, at Sacred Texts Archive.

You can also find at Sacred Texts Archive one of my favorite books for learning about extra-Biblical stories and legends: Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews. As you would imagine from a story as striking and dramatic as that of Cain and Abel, there are many ancillary accounts of the story.

For example, one legend tells us that Cain was not the son of Adam at all, but the son of Satan (in an attempt to explain such marked differences between these two brothers, and Cain's evil proclivities). Here is what Ginzberg reports: "After the fall of Eve, Satan, in the guise of the serpent, approached her, and the fruit of their union was Cain, the ancestor of all the impious generations that were rebellious toward God, and rose up against Him."

There is also an ingenious story of why the two brothers were assigned such different occupations by their father - it was an attempt by Adam to prevent Abel's death, which Eve saw prophetically in a dream: "The slaying of Abel by Cain did not come as a wholly unexpected event to his parents. In a dream Eve had seen the blood of Abel flow into the mouth of Cain, who drank it with avidity, though his brother entreated him not to take all. When she told her dream to Adam, he said, lamenting, "O that this may not portend the death of Abel at the hand of Cain!" He separated the two lads, assigning to each an abode of his own, and to each he taught a different occupation. Cain became a tiller of the ground, and Abel a keeper of sheep. It was all in vain. In spite of these precautions, Cain slew his brother."

In the spare account provided by Genesis, it is possible to feel a bit sorry for Cain, when his offering to God was slighted in favor of Abel's (when I was a child, I never understood just why it was that God would reject Cain's offering, preferring the shepherd's fruits to those of the farmer). This is obviously something that has troubled others in their understanding of the story, and Ginzberg reports this extra-Biblical detail which would explain the problem: "Abel selected the best of his flocks for his sacrifice, but Cain ate his meal first, and after he had satisfied his appetite, he offered unto God what was left over, a few grains of flax seed."

As you saw in the version of the story in the Koran, the confrontation between Cain and Abel in the field, before Cain murders his brother, provides a dramatic opportunity for dialogue between the two of them, even though the Book of Genesis does not tell us what was said. Ginzberg reports a Jewish legend which, like the Koranic version, has the brothers engage in a debate in the field. This version also explains just what Abel was doing there in Cain's field to begin with:
One day a sheep belonging to Abel tramped over a field that had been planted by Cain. In a rage, the latter called out, "What right hast thou to live upon my land and let thy sheep pasture yonder?" Abel retorted: "What right hast thou to use the products of my sheep, to make garments for thyself from their wool? If thou wilt take off the wool of my sheep wherein thou art arrayed, and wilt pay me for the flesh of the flocks which thou hast eaten, then I will quit thy land as thou desirest, and fly into the air, if I can do it." Cain thereupon said, "And if I were to kill thee, who is there to demand thy blood of me?" Abel replied: "God, who brought us into the world, will avenge me. He will require my blood at thine hand, if thou shouldst slay me. God is the Judge, who will visit their wicked deeds upon the wicked, and their evil deeds upon the evil. Shouldst thou slay me, God will know thy secret, and He will deal out punishment unto thee." These words but added to the anger of Cain, and he threw himself upon his brother.
In Genesis, the text reads simply: "And Cain talked with Abel his brother." As so often in the Hebrew Bible, there is a hint of more: if Cain talked with Abel, what did they say to each other? There is a gap here, a gap which the extra-Biblical stories and legends naturally try to fill.

Many people tend to assume that there are two camps in the field of Biblical interpretation: literal reading and figurative reading. Speaking for myself, however, I am more interested by far in this other way of looking at the Bible, studying the relationship between intra-Biblical stories and those extra-Biblical stories, legends beyond the Bible which both expose the gaps of the Biblical text and attempt to fill them.

The book I used in writing this post, Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews, is available online, and it is a marvelous place to begin to study the extra-Biblical storytelling tradition. For more, check out any and all of the marvelous books by James Kugel, such as The Bible As It Was - an amazing and delightful feat of scholarship and storytelling.

Meanwhile, for an image, here is Jan van Eyck's rendering of the slaying of Abel for his painting the Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432. I may be wrong, but it looks to me like Cain is slaying Abel with a jawbone - perhaps an echo of the jawbone of an ass from the story of Samson? What do you think?

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Vulgate Verse: victima holocausti

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

I recently finished watching the very long but surprisingly thought-provoking television mini-series from 1988, War and Remembrance, a 27-hour follow-up to the highly successful 15-hour miniseries, Winds of War from 1983. Over the past several months, I watched the entire series, and in the midst of those 40 hours of television melodrama I was amazed to see the most graphic footage of German death camps that I've seen anywhere outside of a traditional documentary. I was not a television-watcher when these miniseries came out, but I am indeed sorry to have missed them when they first came out; kudos indeed to the director and producer who did not shy away from including incredible graphic historical photographs and film footage, along with absolutely heart-rending dramatic recreations, including the death of one of the main characters in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, up to and including the thrusting of his body into the crematorium oven.

Having just finished the last episode of the series, and thinking much about the Holocaust, I was prompted to comment on this particular Vulgate verse today, where you can see the word "holocaust" used in Latin. The passage is a very sad one indeed, where Isaac, like the Jews of Auschwitz, is being led without knowing it to his own death. He has noticed, however, that while they have fire and wood with which to build the sacrificial fire, his father has not brought a sacrificial animal for the "holocaust," the burnt offering they will make:

Genesis 22:7. Ecce, ignis et ligna; ubi est victima holocausti?

(Greek: ἰδοὺ τὸ πῦρ καὶ τὰ ξύλα ποῦ ἐστιν τὸ πρόβατον τὸ εἰς ὁλοκάρπωσιν)

The Latin word holocaustum is a word formed from Greek roots, holo- (meaning "whole, entire") and caust- (meaning "burnt"). The word is used in Biblical Latin to refer to offerings which are burned in their entirety at the altar.

The Greek word, ὁλοκάρπωσις (holokarposis), is rather different, and means "whole fruiting," without anything about burning, the idea being that the fruit (symbolic, in this case) of the sacrifice is offered whole. The Greek word ὁλοκαυτῶσις (holokautosis) is found in other Bible passages, but it is not the word spoken by Isaac in this passage. The Hebrew word is simply "olah" (עולה), from a root meaning "going up, ascending steps," with the idea being that the burnt offering sends up smoke.

In the King James version of this passage, the Latin holocaustum is not adopted as "holocaust," but is instead interpreted into familiar English words: "Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"

The word "holocaust" was used in English religious vocabulary as early as the thirteenth century, however, and also included extended metaphorical meanings, as I learned from consulting the Oxford English Dictionary. For example, in 1648 Beaumont in his Psyche could refer to "the perfect holocaust of generous love." It could even refer to destruction by fire in even a trivial sense, i.e. B. M. Croker's Pretty Miss Neville in 1883: "Major Percival has made a holocaust of your letters."

In the twentieth century, however, the word "holocaust" acquired a definitive new meaning in English, referring specifically to the systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis. It is less clear whether people who refer to this holocaust also have in mind the five million more people - Slavs, Gypsies, communists, religious minorities, the handicapped, and others - who were also executed by the Nazis. The Oxford English Dictionary documents that the word "holocaust" was already being used in this way during World War II, and such usage became even more widespread after the war.

There is also a tendency now to spell the word with a capital H, Holocaust, when referring to the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. In Hebrew, the standard term of reference is "Shoah," meaning a disaster or catastrophe.

What has always surprised and disturbed me about the use of the word holocaust in this regard is both its staggering literalness, invoking the burning of whole bodies and the rising smoke from the crematoria. The use of the crematoria is one of the most shocking and unprecedented elements of "efficiency" in the Nazi's so-called "Final Solution" (German Endlösung). If you have any knowledge of the etymology of the word "holocaust," you are forced - rightly, I think - to think of the staggering physical fact of what happened.

At the same time, there is something disconcerting about the use of "holocaust" here, which is that in the religious tradition, the burnt offering, the "holocaust," was something good given to God, a positive manifestation of religious practice in ancient Judaism. When Isaac unwittingly asks about the "victim of the holocaust," he has nothing grim in mind (unless you have in mind the rights of the animals themselves, a very modern issue not relevant to Isaac's thoughts at that moment). The Bible is filled with references to "holocausts" which are indeed, in Beaumont's words, "perfect holocausts of generous love," affirming the relationship between God and his followers. What happened, it seems, is that English vocabulary of the Bible, profoundly affected by the Christian rejection of this kind of animal sacrifice, came to use the term "holocaust" in a negative sense, even though it began as a positive term in the Hebrew Bible tradition.

You can find more information about the use of the word "holocaust" in the detailed Wikipedia article on this subject, which provides a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion of this shocking moment in human history. It is a topic that I think we all need to study, and to study in detail - which brings me back again to the films Winds of War and War and Remembrance. There is a lot of Hollywood schlock in those 40 hours of film, but there is also a brutally honest depiction of the Nazi death camps, something almost unbearable to watch and therefore something which must be watched. You will not find anything like it in Schindler's List.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Vulgate Verse: Deus lux est

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

Tonight is the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. After tonight, the days will start getting longer, so the celebrations of the solstice often feature the symbolism of light and the triumph of light over darkness, which is why I chose this verse from New Testament letter I John to comment on today:
Deus lux est et tenebrae in eo non sunt ullae

God is light and there are no shadows in him.

(Greek: ὁ θεὸς φῶς ἐστιν καὶ σκοτία ἐν αὐτῶ οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδεμία)
We are so used to this type of Biblical language that it is hard to see it again with fresh eyes. The way I read this, although others might read it differently, is that it is a metaphorical statement, but one that is combined with a paradox.

It is a metaphorical statement in that the statement does not mean God is is the light that we see with our eyes, the physical light of the world, the particles and waves studied by physicists. Rather, God is like light; we can use our everyday experience of light in order to attempt to understand an extraordinary divine realm.

The paradoxical part is the second part of the verse: God is a light without any shadow part in him. The idea that light and shadows coexist is part of our everyday experience. Any object that is placed in front of a light casts a shadow. The day of light is succeeded by a night of darkness, and night's darkness is succeeded by day, and so on in succession. The night of the Winter Solstice, commemorated tonight, marks a pivotal moment in the balance of the day's light and the night's darkness, but it is still light with darkness.

The word "paradox" is from Greek and means, literally, beside or beyond (Greek para-) accepted appearances or common sense (Greek doxa). So a paradox is a statement beyond everyday experience, something outside accepted beliefs, yet which is nevertheless true. The idea that God is light is not paradoxical, but the existence of pure light, without shadows, introduces an element of paradox. The language of Christianity often revels in paradox, although sometimes we have grown so accustomed to the cliches of Christian expression that its paradoxical qualities escape us.

It is perhaps worth noting here also that "shadows" are at the heart of the Philip Pullman books, the trilogy comprising His Dark Materials, which has lately been upsetting some Christian organizations. In the universe imagined by Pullman, there is something called "dust" or "shadows," the embodiment of self-awareness, and also free will. Rumor has it that Pullman is working on a fourth volume which will be called the Book of Dust. We shall see what he has to say about shadows there! For me, rather than seeing a war between different systems of belief here, I believe we can learn more on both sides from the exploration of these different ways of seeing the universe, in all their metaphorical paradoxes.

Pullman's novels are famously set in an alternative Oxford, so I will use for an image here the motto of Oxford University itself, which is built on the metaphor of light which is at the heart of Christianity: Dominus illuminatio mea, "The lord is my illumination," as shown here in Oxford University's coat of arms:



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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vulgate Verse: stella matutina, morning star

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

In my previous post about a verse from the Vulgate, I commented on the use of the symbolism "alpha et omega" in order to describe God. For this post, I thought I would write about a symbol that is much more confusing and controversial within the Christian tradition: the morning star, Latin stella matutina.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus declares: ego sum radix et genus David stella splendida et matutina, "I am the root and tribe of David; (I am) the bright and morning star." (The Greek reads: ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ῥίζα καὶ τὸ γένος δαυίδ, ὁ ἀστὴρ ὁ λαμπρὸς ὁ πρωϊνός.) This imagery fits in perfectly with the symbolism of divinity as light, with the annunciation of Jesus's birth accompanied by a star, etc.

Yet if you look at a similar image in 2 Peter, you can see the problem that arises: donec dies inlucescat et lucifer oriatur in cordibus vestris, "until the day becomes light and the morning star (Latin, lucifer) rises in your hearts." (Greek: ἕως οὖ ἡμέρα διαυγάσῃ καὶ φωσφόρος ἀνατείλῃ ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν).

The problem is the Latin word lucifer, which is indeed where the name "Lucifer" comes from. In Latin, the word lucifer means "light-bringer" (luci-fer, a calque of the Greek φωσ-φόρος), and it refers to the morning star, or the planet Venus.

As you can see from the stella matutina in Revelation and the lucifer in 2 Peter, the early Latin-speaking Christians had no hesitation in labeling Jesus as the "morning star" and using the Latin term lucifer in a positive way. Yet the term lucifer also came to be closely associated with a passage in Isaiah which seems to hint at the story of a fallen angel, although Isaiah is actually writing, metaphorically, in reference to the king of Babylon: Quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer qui mane oriebaris corruisti in terram qui vulnerabas gentes, "how you have fallen from the sky (heaven), lucifer, who arose in the morning! how have you fallen to the earth, you who wounded the peoples!" (Here the Greek reads ἑωσφόρος, "dawn-bringer," compared to "light-bringer," φωσφόρος, in the passage from 2 Peter; the Hebrew word is helel, from a root meaning "to shine").

Over time, in the Christian tradition the word Lucifer became more and more strictly identified with Satan, so that it seems a bit of a shock to see the word used in 2 Peter to refer to Jesus. As the Catholic Encycopedia maintains, "The Fathers [of the Church] maintain that Lucifer is not the proper name of the devil, but denotes only the state from which he has fallen." Still, for all that there is a theological way to manage this linguistic state of affairs, I would be very surprised to find an English translation of 2 Peter that uses the word "Lucifer" for the Latin lucifer in that passage.

I was prompted to comment on this verse today because of the recent controversy among the Republican presidential candidates, with Mike Huckabee attempting to work people into a lather about Romney, as a Mormon, believing Jesus and Lucifer to both be the offspring of God. For a clear discussion on this specific topic from the Mormon point of view, here is a page at the Church of Latter Day Saints website. For all that Huckabee seems to have wanted to get a rise out Christians by invoking this Mormon tradition, the early Christian tradition also saw both Jesus as "Lucifer," the morning star, stella matutina, the light-bearer, lucifer.

Meanwhile, here is a picture from a CalTech "Ask An Astronomer" webpage answering the astronomy question, Why is Venus so bright in the night sky? You can see from the image what a strikingly bright light in the sky the "morning star" provides!



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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Vulgate Verse: alpha et omega

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

For the eClassics ning website, I've been posting Latin holiday songs and carols, and yesterday's carol, In dulci iubilo prompted me to write something here today about "Alpha et Omega," which is repeated three times in the book of Revelation, in chapters 1, 21 and 22:

Greek: ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ,
Latin: Ego sum Alpha et Omega
English: I am Alpha and Omega

The Greek alphabet is being used here metaphorically, with the alpha the first letter of the Greek alphabet and omega the last letter. The Biblical text itself glosses this expression, explaining that it means God is the beginning and the end, principium et finis in Latin, or initium et finis, or primus et novissimus (in addition to meaning "newest," novissimus can also mean "latest," as we talk about the "latest fashion," or "last").

The Greek letters alpha and omega became widely used as Christian symbols, even in non-Greek-speaking lands. As you can see, the Latin Vulgate adopts the use of the Greek letters, even though "omega" was not a letter in the Latin alphabet. So, too, in English, which refers to "alpha" and "omega" rather than the letter "z," the last letter of the English alphabet (as in our expression "from A to Z," meaning everything). The word "alphabet" itself is based on the same idea, being formed from the first two letters of the alphabet in Greek, "alpha-beta."

The Greek alphabet itself was modeled on a Semitic alphabet, which is why the letters of the Greek alphabet for the most part have names that sound like the names of the same letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet begins "aleph-bet-gimel." Compare the Greek: "alpha-beta-gamma." The Hebrew alphabet did not dedicate a letter to represent the vowel sound "o" but the Greek alphabet did, hence the unusual names for the two letters in Greek "omicron" (o-micron, "the little o") and "omega" (o-mega, "the big o"). You can read about the Greek alphabet and Hebrew alphabet at wikipedia.

For a wide variety of depictions of Alpha and Omega in Christian symbols, check out the wikipedia gallery.

The Christmas song "In Dulci Iubilo" that prompted me to write about this today is a "macaronic" song meaning that it mixes two languages, in this case German and Latin. The song dates to the fourteenth century and is attributed to the German mysic Heinrich Suso who is supposed to have had a vision of angels and to have heard them singing. He joined in the dance of the angels and then recorded the experience in this mixed German and Latin song. This German-Latin song was extremely popular, and inspired an English-Latin macaronic version. You can find the English-Latin macaronic version with a MIDI file and sheet music at the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website, along with a later adaptation into English, Good Christian Men, Rejoice.
Now let us sing with mirth and joy,
Our heart's consolation
Lies in præsepio, (= the manger)
And shines as the sun,
Matris in gremio. (=in his mother's lap)
Alpha is and O, Alpha is and O.
Although Christian scholars debate about whether the appellation "Alpha et Omega" belongs properly to God only, and not to Jesus, it is clear in this song that at this birth, Jesus is being greeted as the "Alpha et Omega."

Meanwhile, here is an image by a modern Christian artist, Roberta Williams, which she has entitled "Alpha and Omega."


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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Vulgate Verse: sanctus sanctus sanctus

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

One of the audio items from my Vulgate Verses book this week was part of the "holy holy holy" verse from Revelation:
Et quattuor animalia singula eorum habebant alas senas et in circuitu et intus plena sunt oculis et requiem non habent die et nocte dicentia sanctus sanctus sanctus Dominus Deus omnipotens qui erat et qui est et qui venturus est

(King James) And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
The "holy holy holy" portion is from the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah:
Et clamabant alter ad alterum et dicebant sanctus sanctus sanctus Dominus exercituum plena est omnis terra gloria eius

(King James) And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
This special repetition, "holy holy holy" (Latin sanctus sanctus sanctus) is called the "trisagion" in Greek, the "thrice-holy," and it forms an important part of the Christian liturgical tradition, especially in the Orthodox churches. You can read more about that at wikipedia.

In the Catholic tradition, there is a liturgical prayer called "Sanctus" which you can also read about at wikipedia. Here is the Latin text of that prayer, which opens with the triple sanctus:
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabbaoth;
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria Tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
The Hebrew Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh, "Holy Holy Holy," is found in a prayer called the Kedusha; more on that at wikipedia also (what on earth would we do without wikipedia?).

Any form of repetition has a poetical or magical effect in language, and the triple repetition has a special symbolic significance, especially within the Christian tradition. The technical rhetorical term for this type of repetition, two or more repetitions, with no intervening words, is epizeuxis. Here are some famous examples, many of which are also based on triple repetition:
Hamlet: "Words, words, words."

Milton's Samson Agonistes: "O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon."

Tennyson: "Break, break, break / On thy cold gray stones, O Sea"

Samuel Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Alone, alone, all all alone, / Alone on a wide, wide sea"."

Scarlett O'Hara in the film Gone With the Wind: "Rhett, Rhett, Rhett! If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?"

Captain Renault in the film Casablanca: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

Winston Churchill: "Never, never, never quit."

The Beach Boys: "She’ll have fun, fun, fun 'til her daddy takes her T-Bird away."
The etymology of "epizeuxis" is words that are yoked ("zeug"-ed) one upon (epi) of the other. The same notion of things being "yoked" is found in the related rhetorical term, zeugma.

Of course, all the rhetorical terms are just window dressing. The real power is not in the terminology but in the speech act itself. Reptition is POWERFUL, and as such it forms a vital part of the tradition of ritual religious language.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Vulgate Verse: gloria in excelsis

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

Since it is the Christmas season, there are some folks who will be singing Christmas carols with the words "gloria in excelsis Deo" in the lyrics, so I thought I would comment on this phrase today.

The most famous carol that uses the phrase "gloria in excelsis Deo" is "Angels We Have Heard On High," which is an adaptation by James Chadwick of a French carol, Les Anges dans Nos Campagnes. The refrain of the English carol is traditionally sung in Latin: Gloria in excelsis Deo!, which literally means "Glory in the high (places) to God."

The Latin phrase Gloria in excelsis Deo! plays a part in the liturgy of various Christian churches. You can read more about that at wikipedia, which offers some useful observations about the Greek versions of the phrase. There is also an extremely detailed article at the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia online.

What is interesting is that the Latin phrase itself, in this form, is not found in the text of the Latin Bible itself. Instead, the words are a combination of elements found in different passages.

In Luke 19, Jesus is making his entrance into Jerusalem, riding on a colt. His followers begin to sing his praise with these words: benedictus qui venit rex in nomine Domini pax in caelo et gloria in excelsis, "blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven and glory in the high places." This is the only place in the Latin Bible where the phrase gloria in excelsis is found. The parallelism here between caelo and in excelsis helps make the meaning of "in the high places" more clear, as a parallel way to describe God's above in the heights of heaven.

In an earlier chapter, Luke 2, angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds with these words: Gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis, "Glory in the highest places to God and on earth peace among men of good will." This verse uses the phrase in altissimis, "in the highest places," rather than in excelsis. In addition, this verse pairs the highest places of heaven with pax in terra, rather than pax in caelo as we saw in the other passage.

Hence the phrase Gloria in excelsis Deo is built both on the nativity passage (Gloria in altissimis Deo), but with an important element (in excelsis) from Jesus's entrance into Jerusalem. Much of the beauty of the liturgy consists precisely in the way that it is not simply a list of direct quotations from the Bible, but rather a language of its own, made up of motifs and phrases from the Biblical text which then take on a life of their own in the living reptition of the liturgy.

I wonder, though, what people really think (if they think about it) when they hear the English words, "Glory to God in the highest," which is the usual English rendering of Gloria in excelsis Deo (a translation, I should note, which seems to be colored by the use of altissimis rather than simply excelsis). What do people understand by the phrase "in the highest" when they hear these words? In English, I would guess that this suggests not so much the very high places, the celestial realm, etc., but rather a metaphorical sense of "in first place," "to the highest degree."

Compare the much less ambiguous translation in the Book of Common Prayer, which reads: "Glory be to God on high." I think this is actually a much better translation of Gloria in excelsis Deo, as opposed to the modern English version used in Roman Catholic Mass today, "Glory to God in the Highest."

Now, back to the subject of Christmas carols, where we started. For a Christmas carol based on this English version of gloria in excelsis Deo as found in the Book of Common Prayer, you can turn to Glory be to God on High, composed by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, and co-founder of the Methodist church. Happy holidays!
(Gloria greeting card)

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Vulgate Verse: Martha, Martha

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The verse I have chosen for today is Luke 10:41: Martha Martha sollicita es et turbaris erga plurima, "Martha, Martha, you are a worrier and you are getting upset about so many things." This comes from the story of Jesus's visit to the house of Martha and Mary.

The two sisters Mary and Martha have, for centuries, served as paradigms of two different modes of life, although in an era of declining familiarity with the Biblical tradition, their story is perhaps not as familiar to people as it once was. Here is the larger context in Luke, from the King James version, Luke 10:38-42:

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

In addition to this passage in Luke, Martha also figures in the Gospel of John, in the story of the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. In this passage it says that it was Martha who came to greet Jesus, while Mary stayed at home (John 11:20). When Martha finds Jesus she rebukes him for not having been present to save her brother! Yet she still has faith: "But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee" (John 11:22). Jesus then preaches to her about the resurrection. Then, later, when Jesus orders that the stone be removed from Lazarus's tomb, Martha protests: "Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days" (John 12:39). Jesus then reminds her that she must believe.

Martha's boldness and everyday qualities make her a striking figure in the Bible, one of the most interesting female characters in the New Testament. Not surprisingly, there are also legends about Martha beyond the Biblical text.

According to one legend, Martha journeyed with Lazarus and Mary to the island of Cyprus, where Lazarus was a bishop. The three of them died there in Cyprus.

According to another legend, Martha went with Mary to France and battled the dreaded monster called the Tarasque! You can read about that in the life of Saint Martha in the Golden Legend.

There is also a fine poem by Rudyard Kipling: The Sons of Martha.

The subject of Martha and Mary has attracted many painters, and you can find quite a few examples collected at wikipedia. Not included there is a fascinating study by Caravaggio. Probably the most famous is a painting of Martha and Mary by Velázquez: Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Here we see Martha, looking despondent in the foreground (attended by a dire-looking old woman), while we can glimpse Mary with Jesus in the background. The painting combines the qualities of a still-life (with the symbolic fish and eggs on the table) as well as illustrating the Biblical passage!

Incidentally, Martha is regarded as the patron saint of both servants and cooks.



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