Monday, April 17, 2017

Using Participles to Get at Religious Truths

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” – Matthew 20:17-19.

Now after the Sabbath, ... Mary Mag’dalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightening, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. . . . So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. – Matthew 28:1-7.

On the first day of the week (after the crucifixion) at early dawn, they (the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee) went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them . . . “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” . . . [And the women spent the day with Jesus, broke bread with him, and ‘he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.’] And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. . . . And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” --Luke 24:1-34

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. –Luke 28:50-53.
Matthew and Luke had their grammatical verb tenses straight. They were telling a chronological tale of physical resurrection witnessed by the two Marys (Matthew), or the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee (Luke). “He will be raised” predicted Jesus, referring to himself in the third person; “he has risen” said the angels to the two Marys staring at the empty tomb, “go quickly and tell the disciples that he has risen;” and “the Lord has risen” said the disciples.

So what’s up with “He is risen?”

This weekend my Facebook feed was full of the celebratory greeting “He is risen.” “He is risen, indeed,” is the expected response. My daughter noticed the phrase  "The Lord is risen" on a church marquee and asked about the odd sentence structure. She is studying to become a teacher, and all of a sudden she worried about having this question pop up on her grammar exam. 

What is the grammatical form of "risen" here, and what is being said?

It's like "Eureka, the dough is risen" I offered unhelpfully. Is that really likely to be a multiple choice option on the exam? 

In thinking about dough, I suggested, “It is risen” does not seem to refer to a chronological event in the sequence of baking bread, but to a metaphysical state of the dough as risen, or not risen. It's like a mother (sarcastically) saying to her teenage son: "he is risen." The mother is not referring to the act of her son getting his butt out of bed, but to his metaphysical state of "sleepy head vs. up and active." 

“You are on the right track” suggested one of my Christian friends. “Risen is His state of being.”  My sister, who knows about these things agreed. “Keep in mind that ‘risen’ can be used both as a verb and an adjective,” she said.

“Risen” as Adjective

Participle we call it. “Risen” in “He is risen” is used as a participle. A "participle", says Websters is: "a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective; especially an English verbal form that has the function of an adjective and at the same time shows such verbal features as tense and voice and capacity to take an object."

"Risen" modifies "He." It's a past participle in this case because it uses the past tense of "rise."

Not a Verb Form: perfect tense and continuous (imperfect) tense

The passages from Matthew and Luke, above, are using “risen” in its verb form. “(I) will be raised on the third day”  predicts Jesus in Matthew 20.  “He has risen from the dead” confirm the angels in Matthew 28. “The Lord has risen” agrees Luke 24. They are all telling a literal, chronological tale. They are referring to the action of rising from the grave.  They are using the perfect tense--signifying this rising was completed at a definite time (three days after Jesus died on the cross). The perfect tenses of "to rise" are: a) he arose, b) he arises, or c) he will arise (past, present, future). Those are the tenses being used by Matthew and Luke.

The continuous (imperfect) tense of the verb form "to rise" is used to speak of actions that continue for a period of time. If we use the progressive form for the verb, we get: "He was rising," "He is rising," or "He will be rising."

The church marquee “The Lord is risen” is not using a verb tense of rising: it's all participle.

So what’s in a Participle?

Because the marquee’s "risen" is used as a participle, the sentence is not speaking about the act of rising at all. The marquee is not telling the literal, chronological tale that Matthew and Luke tell. The marquee is using the present "is," so the sentence suggests we are dealing with Jesus's present state of being. And what is that state?  He is in a state of "being risen." The marquee suggests that Jesus is not dirt in the ground like all those other folks who lived ~1987 years ago. He is part of the godhead. 

It's 2000 years later later and we are no longer using verbs to tell literal tales of resurrection.  We are using participles to communicate more ephemeral religious ideas. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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