Jesus, Darwin, and Hermione on Transfiguration

Well now, what was that all about? We call this event in the life of Jesus his transfiguration. But what is transfiguration anyway. Here’s a quote I found when trying to find a good explanation. See if you can tell who said it:

I do hope they start right away; there’s so much to learn. I’m particularly interested in transfiguration, you know, turning something into something else.
Of course, it’s supposed to be very difficult.

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Got it? It’s Hermione, in the first Harry Potter book. Transfiguration was a core class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which taught the art of changing the form and appearance of an object or a person. It was considered very hard work and more scientific than any other form of magic.

Although the transfiguration of Jesus was about something – or rather someone – turning into something else, I think it’s safe to say that Mark, the gospel writer wasn’t referring to a magic spell. But it did get me thinking. 

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The Transfiguration of Jesus is a big deal in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have versions of the story. It’s also referred to in the Second Epistle of Peter. And while it’s not specifically in John’s gospel, some think that it’s what John means when he says, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld this Word’s glory, the glory as of the only begotten of God, full of grace and truth.” So this strange event obviously had a great deal of meaning for those early followers. 

We celebrate the Transfiguration on the last day of the Epiphany season, the season we’ve focused on the revelation of Jesus to the world. Transfiguration is sometimes called the “Small Epiphany” – the “Great Epiphany” being the Baptism of Jesus at the start of the season. This is also the last day of the first half of the Christian church year. Transfiguration is the bridge between the Advent/Christmas/ Epiphany cycle (the birth and revelation of Jesus) and the Lent/Easter/Pentecost seasons (death, resurrection, and the Church). 

OK, so here we are, sitting on this bridge recognizing that transfiguration should be as important to us as it was to Hermione. But maybe we’re still not sure why. I have always loved the Transfiguration as the culmination of Epiphany. It’s a magnificent ending to this season of awe and wonder, like the grand finale of the biggest and best fireworks display ever. And I never really questioned what happened up there on that mountain, how it happened, what could scientifically explain not only the appearance of two long-dead biblical heroes but the being of brilliant light that Jesus became as he talked with them. Science, I thought, can’t always explain what went on in the spiritual realm. Or can it?

The second part of the description of the class at Hogwarts claimed transfiguration was more scientific than any other form of magic. Now, fear not, Harry Potter isn’t the only place I’ve found a connection between science and religion. In fact, today is also Evolution Sunday. No, it’s not on the church calendar. 

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Evolution Sunday began as The Clergy Letter Project in 2004. The school board in Grantsburg, WI had passed some anti-evolution policies and biology professor Michael Zimmerman felt a call to action. Working with  clergy throughout Wisconsin, they prepared a statement in support of teaching evolution. Zimmerman said, “For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.”

Now to be clear, it is not only many evangelical Christians who have trouble reconciling faith and science, but fundamentalist atheists as well. As John Worrall, professor of philosophy of science stated: “There is no way in which you can be both properly scientifically minded and a true religious believer.” The Clergy Letter Project would disagree.

The project began with 200 clergy signing the statement. As of today that number is 15,658. And that’s just Christian clergy. In addition to the Christian Clergy Letter, there is a Rabbi Letter, a Unitarian Universalist Clergy Letter and a Buddhist Clergy Letter. 

Then, in 2006, congregations were invited to participate in the first Evolution Sunday (later changed to Evolution Weekend to be more inclusive) The date chosen is the closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12. The stated purpose is “an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science” and an effort “to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries.” “Religious people from many diverse faith traditions and locations around the world understand that evolution is quite simply sound science; and for them, it does not in any way threaten, demean, or diminish their faith in God. In fact, for many, the wonders of science often enhance and deepen their awe and gratitude towards God.” 

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I have to say that I love the picture I sent along with your bulletin of the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish kissing – seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day today!

I signed the letter back in 2006 and decided to sign up my church for the first Evolution Sunday. One member of the congregation, though, wondered why we were doing it since no one there needed to be convinced of the compatibility of science and religion; after all we had scientists in our congregation – as we do here. But I felt it was important to take a public stand on the issue and I’ve been observing the day ever since. Although I have to say that in the beginning it was rather a perfunctory effort.

That is until I began to learn about evolutionary Christianity, which goes beyond the realm of mere support of evolution theory and more deeply into the heart of Divine Mystery, in which the Christ of the cosmos is a central figure.

Usually, when we hear ‘evolution,’ we think about the history of the earth and the development of human life. But evolutionary Christianity says there’s even more to it and says that, just as the universe is evolving, so is Christianity and so is the Church. As Rev. Bruce Sanguin, author of If Darwin Prayed- Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics writes: “We are meant to evolve. If the Spirit is involved in the evolutionary process – as I believe is the case – then we need to start thinking about our lives in Christ through an evolutionary lens.”

There are a number of thinkers and writers on evolutionary Christianity who see the evolution of the universe as an ongoing sacred story connecting all people, all cultures, all religions, and virtually all of creation. But the grandfather of them all has to be the paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And lest you think this is some new-fangled, new-age nonsense, Teillard (as he was known) was born in 1881 and died in 1955. He was a Jesuit priest. He was also a scientist, trained in geology, botany, zoology and paleontology. He participated in the discovery of Peking Man in 1926. In his 1929 book, The Divine Milieu, Teilhard synthesized scientific discoveries of his day with what he believed about God and how God was at work in the world. 

As is often the case with new ideas, his religious superiors would not allow the book to be published. The French edition was not published until after his death. The English translation was not available until 1960.

In an unpublished piece written in 1933, “Christology and Evolution,” he re-envisioned the gospel message, shifting the emphasis of a redemption-centered theology to a creation-centered one.

So rather than seeing life on Earth as a test for worthiness to get into heaven, and Earth to be a dangerous place full of sin and temptation, Teilhard saw Earth, our home, as an unfinished divine project, brimming with opportunities toward the fullness of life, and open to continual improvement. He saw Jesus’s teaching as integral to a universe in continual evolution. He wrote, “If we are to remain faithful to the gospel, we have to adjust its spiritual code to the new shape of the universe.” 

For him, evolution is the underlying force driving growth in the kingdom of God. He calls the gospel “the very religion of evolution.”

Now, this isn’t just a heady theological exercise. Not only are we invited to rationally understand ourselves more fully as part of the body of the Christ of the cosmos, but to experientially become mystics who are continually in awe and wonder of where we live. Teilhard said that we exist in the ‘divine milieu.’ For him, the most important spiritual fact of our existence is that at every moment we are swimming in a divine sea. Like fish who live in a milieu of water yet are unaware of its importance until they are taken out of it, we are at every moment inhaling and exhaling the divine life. In the divine milieu we live and move and have our being. 

For Teilhard, the divine milieu is the Cosmic Christ. He resonates with the theology of St. Paul and others in passages such as: “Christ is the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all creation, for in Christ were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and invisible, thrones, dominations, sovereignties, Powers—all things were created through Christ and for Christ. Before anything was created, Christ existed, and all things hold together in Christ.”

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We can go still further back than Teilhard. St. Hildegard of Bingen, along with other medieval mystics, expressed her experience of this Cosmic Christ. Through music, writing and painting, she formulated a cosmological vision that transcended male/female, human/divine, earth/heaven duality. Her visionary work, Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), is a result of what she called “an extraordinary mystical vision” in which she experienced insights into the cosmic dimensions of the Prologue to John’s Gospel. One of the ten visions Hildegard illustrates in this work is of the cosmos, with a human figure at its center, inside the womb of divinity: a visual portrayal of the Cosmic Christ. Hildegard explains: “From the primordial source of Divine Love, in whom the cosmic order rests, shines her exceedingly precise ordering of things. It comes to light in ever-new ways, holding and tending everything there is.”

Ilia Delio, who bases her theology of the “ecological Christ” on the cosmic Christ mysticism of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure, concludes: “Every age must discover Christ anew. Our traditional Christology – the formal study of Jesus Christ – was formulated in the 4th and 5th centuries: Jesus Christ is true God and true man, fully divine and fully human without change, without confusion, without separation, without division, two natures in one person. The language is a mixture of  New Testament, Greek metaphysics, and Plato and Aristotle, and reflects an understanding of the universe as fixed and unchanging, not dynamic and evolving.

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Which brings us back to the Transfiguration. I read someplace once that physicists are the new mystics. Now I’ll be the first to admit that much of what I attempt to read about quantum physics and even quantum theology is way beyond me. But I am intrigued. For instance, in recent decades there’s been continuing debate over what really happened at the resurrection of Jesus. One side argues for the absolute truth of the biblical witness, even though the versions in the gospels vary greatly. The other side argues for the absolute truth of the impossibility of a physical resurrection; the story is myth created for the grieving followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration itself has often been described as a resurrection story, either misplaced in the timeline by the writers or a vision of the resurrection and new creation to come. 

But a new way of looking at it, combining science with theology, sees the Transfiguration as more than the historical self-revelation of the divinity of Jesus on that mountain. It’s also the basis for a new form of perception, a new mode of existence, a transformed way of being in the world. On that mountain, the possibility of a new unity between matter and Spirit became reality. Even time became blurred as the lines between the dead and the living were erased. Scientists and theologians are coming together to help us make sense of the wide universe in which we live, as well as the small places in which we shelter. 

“A case for consonance between science and theology: The cosmological Christ as the scriptural and confessional focal point for dialogue”

Evolutionary Christianity might seem like a foreign language to us. We may feel more like Hermoine, worrying that transfiguration is supposed to be very difficult. But evolutionary Christianity offers us some new ways of thinking about and experiencing our faith, as well as promoting an ecology theology that is much more helpful and hopeful for our planet.

It also gives us hope as we navigate the evolution of our world as we adapt to the pandemic, the aftermath of the pandemic, the future of the church at large, as well as the future of our own little congregation. 

We might not understand all the theories and scientific and theological language, but we can rest assured that the bottom line of the life and love offered to us in Christ never changes. But we do. Transfiguration is about transformation. And in the freedom of that love and grace, we can grow into what we will become. 

Amen 

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Continue reading Jesus, Darwin, and Hermione on Transfiguration

The Christ of the Divine Milieu

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God save the queen
Have any of you been watching the Netflix series The Crown about Queen Elizabeth and her family in Great Britain? I was really enjoying it until it got to this season which is all about the unfortunate marriage of Charles and Diana, and I admit that I had to stop watching. My opinion of the system of monarchy – of course as an American I’m glad we broke away from it – was relieved of any romanticized notions. 

The Origin of Christ the King
But let’s go back almost 100 years. In 1925, Pope Pius XI was very troubled by the political climate of that time. Dictators, like Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were exerting alarming authoritarian power in Europe. Pius, concerned about rising nationalism, as well as the decreasing authority of the Church, introduced a new day onto the Church calendar – the Feast of Christ the King. By doing this, he was hoping to show that the authority of the Church was separate from and free from the state. 

Having said that, I’d venture a guess that Christ the King Sunday hasn’t been a particularly meaningful day on your calendar. Maybe you recognize it as the last Sunday in the church year, the Sunday before Advent. I  confess that I’ve often looked at this day as an archaic remnant of a bygone time. Thinking back, most sermons I can remember giving began: “Now we live in a democracy, so it might be hard to get the idea of being subject to a king.” 

Be careful what you wish for
Of course, we can read about it in the Bible. The reading from Ezekiel is a condemnation of Israel’s kings, whose failed leadership led to their captivity in Babylon. I imagine the prophet Samuel laughing from the Great Beyond. Because Samuel had long before tried to talk the people out of their desire to have a king at all. He warned them: 

He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots for him to ride in luxury. He’ll take your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and give them to his friends. He’ll tax your harvests to support his extensive bureaucracy. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you’ll cry in desperation because of this king you want so much.

And so it did. What’s really important about this warning is that’s an expression of the tension between prophets and rulers. Remember: the prophets of ancient Israel weren’t predictors of the future or foretellers of Jesus; they were critics of the government, thorns in the side of kings, emperors, and other officials of both church and state -which is still the role of prophets today. 

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Dismantling Patriarchy
Which brings me back again to Pope Pius and Christ the King. Even though the original intent of the day was a good one, there are still some problems. As you’ve gotten to know me, you may have learned that inclusive language is very important to me. I’m a firm believer that language matters, and that includes the words we use in church. In fact, I was part of a panel at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2018 on “Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy.” (Part 1; Part 2) And #1 on my list of action items was: “Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God” – which, by the way, we got incorporated into the ELCA’s latest social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.”

“We don’t have a king.”Monty Python
So I’ve always resisted using ‘king’ language because of the gender issue. Many churches have switched over to the gender-neutral title: Reign of Christ. But that doesn‘t completely solve it. If you’re a fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you might remember the scene where Arthur reveals himself to a peasant as his king. The  peasant, who is not impressed replies, “Oh, King, eh, very nice. And how d’you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By ‘anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society?” 

You see, patriarchy isn’t just a gender issue. It’s about hierarchies of power, of one group over another: white over black, straight over gay, privileged over poor, etc.  And in light of our growing awareness of these issues, we’ve also begun to question our understanding of a God who is ‘up there’ somewhere reigning ‘over us’ – embracing instead the realization of the presence of God all around us and within us.   

The ‘Basileia tou Theouhas come near.
Now I’m not big on throwing out words and images just because they’re not working for us anymore, at least not throwing them out without an attempt at transforming them. This is still a work in progress. But an important one as we continue to navigate the language of the church of the 21st century in the midst of the issues of our day. Therefore, along with ‘king,’ there is also the question of ‘kingdom.’ ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But ‘basileia’ is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Some New Testament scholars are even calling it the ’empire’ of God – because Jesus’ main agenda addresses his major antagonist, the ’empire of Rome.’

Others aren’t so enamored. Theologian John Cobb, who describes ‘basiliea tou theou’ as a counter-culture based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day, prefers to call it the ‘divine commonwealth.’ Kin-dom of God is coming more and more into use. 

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Living in the Divine Milieu
As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind ’empire of God,’ I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to ‘kin-dom’ or ‘divine commonwealth’ because they get us away from feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the ‘divine milieu’ of early 20th century scientist-priest Teilhard de Chardin. 

In this ‘divine milieu,’ Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ. For Teilhard, Christ isn’t just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops, like living cells in a huge organism. 

With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teilhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He shows how, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king, but a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love. 

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If that sounds too far out, remember that even a spirituality of the divine milieu includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day. Our relationship with the Divine is a personal one, as near to us as our breath. 

And when we look at each other, we can even see Christ embodied. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that. Simple when it’s the people we love or the people who are like us. And even that gets challenging at times, right? The face of Christ in the spouse you’re fighting with? The child having the temper tantrum? The parent being intrusive? Even harder when it’s the people we don’t like, the unlovely and unlovable. The difficult, the challenging. All these people matter to God, as Jesus always made clear. 

This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem too big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or our national and global challenges, the truth is that in this commonwealth, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message of this final Sunday of the church year. 

It is a countercultural way of being – being willing just to be open to loving all God’s people and thus being open to finding ways to love even the most challenging. It’s a recognition that we live in the gracious reign of Christ, the commonwealth of God, in which love rules – not political maneuvering, economic gain, national boundaries or military might – in this realm the only legitimate exercise of power is the non-coercive way of the open heart.

How do you live out your faith in your life?
A while back, I got a call from a local high school student who needed to interview a Christian for her paper on world religions. One of the questions she asked was how do you live out your faith in your life. That might seem like a no-brainer for a pastor; after all I get paid for being a professional Christian. But after giving that smart-alecky answer, I gave my real response. I said that I’m called – as every Christian is – to follow the wisdom of Christ in everything I do: what I eat, where I shop, who I love, how I respond to those I find hard to even like, how I vote. 

The Charter for Compassion
I’m talking about how we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, the Alpha and Omega into action in the world. And I’ve come to one conclusion. One word: compassion. Maybe you think that’s too simplistic and unrealistic.  But at the of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in both 2015 and 2018, I learned more about The Charter for Compassion, a global movement that connects organizers and leaders from around the world to create networks to provide all kinds of resources for creating compassionate communities and institutions.

The charter, adopted in 2008 and endorsed by more than two million people around the world, calls upon “all men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion – to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate – to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures – to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity – to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies.”

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As Christians, we come to the table of initiatives like this in awareness of our mandate from the teachings of Jesus. As difficult as they may be to follow – and let’s admit it, they can be difficult – they comprise our job description as disciples. Thankfully, we also know that as hard as we try and with all our best intentions, we can’t save the world. Sometimes we’re even the goats in the gospel story. Knowing our limitations, knowing the complexity of our response to the call of discipleship, we are grateful to be able to run to the offer of grace always open to us. And then return, with renewed conviction to the ethic of the divine milieu, the kin-dom of God. 

Which then brings us back around to the call to be prophetic witnesses. For as Pope Pius worried about the political climate of his day, so we worry about ours. We live in an unprecedented time. Our government in crisis, we’re a severely divided nation, our very environmental system is in crisis, we’re suffering the effects (physical, economic, emotional) of an out-of-control pandemic. Add all that to our individual lives with our everyday stresses and strains. Add it to the church, where we long to go for comfort and peace, yet already before COVID struggling to adjust to new realities. 

The Cosmic Christ in the World
How do we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, Christ the Alpha and the Omega into action in this world? As we stand on the cusp of a new church year, ready to enter the season of Advent waiting and expectation, we are gently reminded not to succumb to discouragement. Because as we go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, we go knowing that we’re loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. It’s bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we take heart – and action. In the name of Christ, the true anointed one.   Amen.

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Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
For thus says the Holy One, the God of Israel: I, I myself will search for my sheep; I will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when their flocks are scattered in every direction, so I will search for my sheep and rescue them, no matter where they scattered on a day of cloud and thick shadow. I will bring them out from the countries and bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by its streams and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them on good pasture land, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing ground. 

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and have them lie down, thus says the Holy One, the God of Israel. I will seek out the lost, I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. 

I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, for you shove aside the weak with flank and shoulder; you butt them with your horns until they are scattered in every direction. I will save my flock and they will be ravaged no longer. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will set up over them one shepherd to care for them: my servant David. He will care for them and be their shepherd. And I will be their God, and my servant David will be their leader. I, YHWH, have spoken.

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Matthew 25:31-46
“At the appointed time the Promised One will come in glory, escorted by all the angels of heaven, and will sit upon the royal throne, with all the nations assembled below. Then the Promised One will separate them from one another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be placed on the right hand, the goats on the left.

“The king will say to those on the right, ‘
Come, you blessed of God! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world! For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me.’ 
Then these just will ask, 
‘When did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we see you ill or in prison and come to visit you?’ 

The king will answer them, 
‘The truth is, every time you did this for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me.’

“Then the king will say to those on the left, 
‘Out of my sight, you accursed ones! Into that everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels! I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome; naked and you gave me no clothing. I was ill and in prison and you did not come to visit me.’ 
Then they in turn will ask, 
‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or homeless or naked, or ill or in prison, and not take care of you?’ 
The answer will come, 
‘The truth is, as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’ 
They will go off to eternal punishment, and the just will go off to eternal life.”

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