Sunday, December 31, 2017

Jesus = Something that's Going on Eternally

This year, the 7th day of Christmas falls on the first Sunday of Christmas. The Gospel appointed for this Sunday is John 1:1-18. Here is a reflection on that passage by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury:

It's a slightly strange way to start a Gospel you might think. We expect something a bit more like the beginning of the other Gospels: the story of Jesus's birth perhaps or his ancestry, or the story of Jesus's arrival on the public scene.
But at the beginning of St John's Gospel what St John does is to frame his whole story against an eternal background. And what he's saying there is this: as you read this Gospel, as you read the stories about what Jesus does, be aware that whatever he does in the stories you're about to read is something that's going on eternally, not just something that happens to be going on in Palestine at a particular date.
So when Jesus brings an overflow of joy at a wedding, when Jesus reaches out to a foreign woman to speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation to her, when Jesus opens the eyes of a blind man or raises the dead, all of this is part of something that is going on forever. The welcome of God, the joy of God, the light of God, the life of God  all of this is eternal. What Jesus is showing on Earth is somehow mysteriously part of what is always true about God.

And that's why it's central to this beginning of John's Gospel – that he says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn't swallow it up. How could the darkness swallow it up? If these works of welcome and forgiveness, of light and life and joy, are always going on, then actually nothing can ever make a difference to them.
And that's why at the climax of this wonderful passage, St John says, the Word of God, the outpouring of God's life, actually became flesh and blood. And we saw it  we saw in this human life the eternal truth about God. We saw an eternal love, an eternal relationship; we saw an eternal joy and a light and a life.

So as we read these stories we know that nothing at all can make a difference to the truth, the reality, they bring into the world. This is indeed the truth; this is where life is to be found. And this explains why at the end of St John's Gospel, he famously says that if we tried to spell out all that this means, there would be no end of the books that could be written.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Jesus = How God Brings His Love to Bear

Austin Farrer
For the sixth day of Christmas, here is something from Austin Farrer (1904-1968), one of the great Anglican theologians of the 20th century. He was a friend of C. S. Lewis and gave the eulogy at Lewis' funeral.

How can I matter to him? we say. It makes no sense; he has the world, and even that he does not need. It is folly even to imagine him like myself, to credit him with eyes into which I could ever look, a heart that could ever beat for my sorrows or joys, and a hand he could hold out to me. For even if the childish picture be allowed, that hand must be cupped to hold the universe, and I am a speck of dust on the star-dust of the world.

Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts his hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men, and the folly of God proves wiser than men. Love is the strongest instrument of omnipotence, for accomplishing those tasks he cares most dearly to perform; and this is how he brings his love to bear on human pride; by weakness not by strength, by need and not by bounty.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Tortured Wonders Restored

Trinity Episcopal Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin
On the fifth day of Christmas, here is something from Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels by Rodney Clapp:

`           The Anglican poet George Herbert, in his eloquent way, got it just right. We are together and each of us “once a poor creature” simply lost and self-destructing, yet also “now a wonder” remembered and revisited by the Spirit. We are a wonder tortur’d in space/Betwixt this world and that of grace,” the grace of a new heaven and a new earth, of creation whole in all its parts. Christian spirituality, then, is spirituality for tortured wonders.
(p. 23)

The incarnation acknowledges that the human being is a creature of great value that has been seriously wrecked–but insists that (unlike a wrecked automobile) neither the whole nor any part of it can be rejected or forgotten. Even damaged, bent, and distorted, the human being retains inestimable worth: as a whole and in its parts.
(p. 38)

In Christ God assumes or takes humanity into God’s self. Orthodox Christian spirituality denies that humanity, whatever its powers and aspirations, can save itself from its own wreckage, its own self-destruction. Yet it is true humanity, or humanness, that will be saved. The original creation, though marred in and by sin, will not be tossed away and forgotten, as a potter might trash inferior clay and move onto a new and different clay pit. Nor will God forget about the human project altogether. . . . Humanity will be assumed and resumed, restored to its pristine wholeness and reset on the path to the maturation and fullness of that wholeness.
(p. 40)

Tortured Wonders is a fine book on spirituality in light of the Incarnation. That means, among other things, that it takes seriously the essential fact that we are bodies.

Here is the whole poem by George Herbert (1593-1633) from which the title of Clapp's book is taken:


BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart ;
As wat'ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face :
Nothing performs the task of life :
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God ! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life : dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief :
With care and courage building me,

Till I reach heav'n, and much more, Thee.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

On Rachel's Lament and Not Looking Away

Peter de Francia
The fourth day of Christmas is the Feast of Holy Innocents rooted in the story of Herod’s slaughter of baby boys of Bethlehem in an attempt to annihilate the infant Jesus as recounted in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It is also a reminder that many little ones continue to suffer and die due to hunger, disease, neglect, abuse, and violence.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopalian priest famous for her preaching preacher and author. Her blog, GenerousOrthodoxy, is a fine resource. The following is taken from one of her sermons, Monsters at the Manger. In the sermon she refers to another sermon preached by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Lucic, at a church in Sarajevo during the siege and bombardment there in the 1990’s:

The priest’s final words were, “Jesus teaches us that human judgments are not the last judgments, that human justice is not the last justice, and that power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power”

How can we believe this? How can we go on singing “Joy to the world, the Savior reigns,” in view of the fact that the monsters continue to devour our children with undiminished ferocity?

The Christmas story is anchored to our lives and to the wickedness of this world by the grief of Rachel, “weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The authors of Scripture did not turn away from the unimaginable suffering of children. God the Father did not turn away. Jesus did not turn away. We see in his death on the Cross and Resurrection from the dead the source of our conviction that “human judgments are not the final judgments, that human justice is not the final justice, and the power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power.” But we must keep Ivan Karamazov’s protest in our minds every day. The nativity story might as well be about reindeer and snowmen for sure, if it has nothing to say about the small victims. I believe that by putting Rachel’s lament at the heart of the Christmas story, Matthew has shown us how to hold onto faith and hope until the Second Coming. Only as we share in the prayers and the laments of bereaved families, not looking away, can we continue to believe that the savior reigns even now in the faith and tenacity of Father Lucic and all those who continue to stand for humanity in the face of barbarity. Only by attending to the horrors of this world can we continue tossing the words of that great eighteenth-century hymn-writer Isaac Watts;

He comes to make his blessings known
Far as the curse is found
(Hymn, “Joy to the World”)

For only a faith forged out of suffering can say with conviction that the angels and monsters will not coexist forever, that Muslims and agnostics and Christians and Jews will be drawn together in ways we cannot yet imagine, that the agonies of victims will some day be rectified, and that the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ will be the Last Word.

Here is a performance of a boys' choir illustrating the tragic reality that a child dies every three seconds around the world:

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Jesus = the very face of God

We continue to commemorate the mystery of the Incarnation on the 3rd day of Christmas:

Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance tells about how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation–and they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see Jesus is to see the very face of God."
William Placher, Jesus the Savior, p. 21 (quoting Torrance, Preaching Christ Today, p. 55)

There is a phrase associated with two of the greatest Anglican thinkers of the last generation, Michael Ramsey and John V. Taylor: ‘God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all’. What is seen in Jesus is what God is; what God is is the outpouring and returning of selfless love, which is the very essence of God’s definition, in so far as we can ever speak of a ‘definition’ of the mystery.

It is because of Jesus that we grasp the idea of a God who is entirely out to promote our life and lasting Joy. . . Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God's life 'translated' into another medium. Here God is supremely and uniquely at work.
– Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 57

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Jesus = Peace

The 2nd day of Christmas is the Feast of Saint Stephen, deacon and first martyr of the Church. Stephen's last words before he died were a prayer for those who were stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (see Acts 7:54-60). Thus, he proved himself a worthy servant of Jesus Christ who commanded, "But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28) and who himself prayed from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

As we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace and sing of peace on earth, good will to all, let us serve him as Deacon Stephen did by embracing the daily witness/martyrdom of peaceableness. Here is something along those lines from Gregory of Nyssa (335-386):

He is our peace, who has made both one. Since Christ is our peace, we shall be living up to the name of Christian if we let Christ be seen in our lives by letting peace reign in our hearts. He has brought hostility to an end, as the apostle said. Therefore, we must not allow it to come back to life in us in any way at all but must proclaim clearly that it is dead indeed. God has destroyed it in a wonderful way for our salvation. We must not, then, allow ourselves to give way to anger or bear grudges, for this would endanger our souls. We must not stir up the very thing that is well and truly dead, calling it back to life by our wickedness.

But as we bear the name of Christ, who is peace, we too must put an end to all hostility, so that we may profess in our lives what we believe to be true of him. He broke down the dividing wall and brought the two sides together in himself, thus making peace. We too, then, should not only be reconciled with those who attack us from without, we should also bring together the warring factions within us, so that the flesh may no longer be opposed to the spirit and the spirit to the flesh. Then when the mind that is set on the flesh is subject to the divine law, we may be refashioned into one new creature, into a man of peace. When the two have been made one we shall then have peace within ourselves.

The definition of peace is that there should be harmony between two opposed factions. And so, when the civil war in our nature has been brought to an end and we are at peace within ourselves, we may become peace. Then we shall really be true to the name of Christ that we bear.

When we consider that Christ is the true light far removed from all falsehood, we realize that our lives too should be lit by the rays of the sun of justice, which shine for our enlightenment. These rays are the virtues by which we cast off the works of darkness and conduct ourselves becomingly as in the light of day. Then, when we refuse to have anything to do with the darkness of wickedness and do everything in the light, we ourselves shall also become light and our works will give light to others, for it is in the nature of light to shine out.

But if we look upon Christ as our sanctification, then we should keep ourselves free from all that is wicked and impure both in thought and in deed and so prove ourselves worthy to bear his name, for we shall be demonstrating the effect of sanctification not in words but in our actions and in our lives.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Isaac of Nineveh for Christmas

One of my favorite figure of the early Church is Isaac of Nineveh, aka, Isaac the Syrian (613-700). For Christmas Day, here is a selection from one of his sermons. Of course, Isaac would affirm that his exhortation is not just for Christmas. To be a Christian is to seek to make all of one’s life rhyme with the life of the life of One whose birth we celebrate this day.

This Christmas night [Christ] bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;

This is the night of the Most Gentle One 
Let no one be cruel;

This is the night of the Humble One 
Let no one be proud.

Now is the day of joy 
Let us not revenge;

Now is the day of Good Will 
Let us not be mean.

In this Day of Peace 
Let us not be conquered by anger.

Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.

Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.

This present Day casts open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.

Today the Divine Being took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the seal of divinity.

Christ is Born!
Glorify Him!

More Isaac the Syrian: The Challenge of a Merciful Heart

Friday, December 22, 2017

Does God Pass Gas? A Christmas Meditation

When our oldest daughter, Sara, was a little girl of around six, she took ballet. I sometimes drove her to ballet lessons in our old Volkswagen Beetle. Once, as Sara pulled her seat belt and shoulder harness on, it made a slight hissing sound. This prompted her to observe with a giggle, “It sounded like the car passed gas.”*

Being the kind of dad I am, I replied, “I thought it was you.”

“Dad, I don’t do that anymore.”

“Sara, honey, everyone passes gas.”

“Yeah, I guess so. But God doesn’t.”

“No. Probably not. But, I expect Jesus did when he lived on earth.”

“Dad, they didn’t do that back then!”

I assured her that they did and that such has always been part of being human and having bodies. From there I offered a brief lesson on the wonder of God creating and delighting in our bodies. And how God affirmed that delight by becoming a body in the person of Jesus with all the usual things that go with having a body. Including passing gas. The fact that God not only made her body, but took on a body himself meant that her body – all of it – was beautiful and blessed. Even if it was sometimes kind of funny.

God "abhors not the Virgin's womb" we sing in the carol. God abhors not the messiness of mere humanness. As Rodney Clapp observes in Tortured Wonders:

In St. Augustine’s estimation, the human is “an intermediate being,” created and poised between the beasts and the angels. . . Godlike in some regards, animalistic in others, we can find our intermediate being incongruous, mysterious, and self-contradictory. It can appear monstrous as well as wondrous, and sometimes it is not easy to tell which.

It is central to the Christian confession that Jesus Christ entered and embraced our intermediacy. A truly Christian spirituality, then, must not flee from earthiness. It will make some sense of and help us inhabit our in-betweenness. In other words, we are spiritual creations not just in our churches and dining rooms, but in our bathrooms and on our sickbeds. Christian spirituality comprehends not only the sparkle in our eyes but the grime under our fingernails.
p. 177

A traditional Christian spirituality . . . insists on embracing our physical creatureliness entirely, from head to toe and in between. The spiritual and the scatological meet and, however odd, are not at odds. This spirituality, sweats – and breaks wind. But Christian spirituality also takes the body more seriously than does postmodern spirituality. The body in all its physicality is real. It is not merely a sign or instrument to be manipulated for surface effect. It is a true, honest body inside as well as out. It is a body so true and central to human being that it will, transformed, be borne into eternity.
p. 188

Similarly, Charles Williams:

The body was holily created, is holily redeemed, and is to be holily raised from the dead. It is in fact, for all our difficulties with it, less fallen, merely in itself, than the soul in which the quality of the will is held to reside; for it was a sin of the will which degraded us.

Among other things, this means that to truly celebrate the miracle of Christmas:

·         we cannot treat or think of the body  ours or others'  in all its earthiness as something ugly or repulsive. The Incarnation affirms the fundamental goodness of being human with all our vulnerability and awkwardness. There is no human body, however unusual, and no aspect of authentic human experience, however mundane, that is not blessed and honored by the divine enfleshment.

·         we cannot hope to fully engage the divine while ignoring our embodied neighbors. This is true in general. It is also true in worship. Christian worship is an embodied, full-sensory affair involving the embodied members of the body of Christ gathered together.

·         we cannot neglect the bodily needs of our neighbors.

·         we cannot pretend that hurting another body is ever other than sacrilege.

·         we cannot pray for someone without "putting skin on our prayers" by doing what we can do to tend to the need ourselves in the name of Christ in whose name we pray.

A good Christian axiom, taking the Incarnation seriously, might be: “Don’t try to be more spiritual than God.” It is an axiom worth remembering as we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. Merry Christmas.

*This story is shared with Sara’s permission. She is now 35

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Virginal Conception and Other Preposterous Things

Annunciation Window, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin
It has become traditional this time of year for some clergyperson or theologian to confidently declare that “modern” people can no longer believe in such a thing as the virginal conception (virgin birth) of Jesus. It goes against the way we know things work.

The virginal conception does seem preposterous. But, it always has. It’s not like people in the past had no idea how babies get made. I expect Joaquim and Anne found it preposterous when their daughter first tried to explain her pregnancy. I don't believe glibly in the virginal conception of Jesus. I've had and will have my reservations, questions, and doubts about this and other aspects of the Christian Creed. But, I figure once you believe in something as preposterous as resurrection or that God loves you and desires communion with you; you're in for a pound, you might as well toss in the penny.

But, preposterous as the virginal conception sounds, I find other Christian teachings more preposterous and harder to accept given how we know the world works:
  • Jesus is the measure of all things? The turn-the-other-cheek guy from Nazereth who got himself crucified?
  •  I must love my enemies and pray for them, repaying evil with good?
  • I must receive every stranger as though he or she is an angel sent by God.
  • We are expected to live nonviolently in such a world as ours? Peace is always better than violence?
  • Humility is a virtue? Patience?
  • Self-control is better than self-indulgence?
  • Forgiveness is always better than revenge or resentment?
  • God desires mercy, not sacrifice?
  • Money is "unrighteous" and dangerous to my soul? That my best investment is to give as much of it away as I can?
  • Love, joy, and peace are REAL?
  • God delights in the world and so should I?
  • God will restore all things to the goodness for which they were created?
  • All people are created equal? Including the weak, the feeble, the handicapped, the vulnerable, and the poor? Is there any other "truth" that is less self-evident or more easily contradicted by reason and scientific evidence? The closest I can get to that is we are, all of us, equally created in the image of God, equally loved by God, and equally the objects of Christ’s redeeming. It’s still pretty hard to believe from a purely empirical perspective.
  • My salvation is wrapped up in my care for the least of these?
  • We will be judged based on things like the above?
Heck, believing that the Mystery at the heart of it all chose to become incarnate in a particular time and place from a particular girl named Mary without the usual male contribution is a relative piece of cake. In truth, most of the time I am only able to entertain these other preposterous things precisely because I believe God has done something so preposterous as being born of the Virgin Mary for us and for our salvation.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Margaret of Antioch & the Dragon of Sexual Harassment

In the Cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle, Fond du Lac, we have a statue of St. Margaret of Antioch. It is a beautiful, award-winning work of art. St Margaret is not well known these days. It is possible she never actually existed. But, her legend was very popular in the Middle Ages (legends, actually, since there are multiple versions with varying details).

I've been thinking about Margaret in light of the proliferation of stories of women sexually harassed, assaulted, and abused by powerful men. Hers is a story a woman's courageous and powerful resistance to the unwanted sexual advances, and eventual violence, of a powerful man (and the demonic character of his behavior).

Here is a version of the legend.

Margaret was born near Antioch of Pisidia located in what is now, Turkey. Her father was a leading priest of a pagan cult. Her mother died in childbirth and Margaret was raised by a nurse. Her nurse was a Christian and under her care, Margaret became a Christian. With that, her father disowned her. Margaret continued to live with her nurse and tended her sheep.

When she was fifteen, Margaret was noticed by Olybrius, the pagan magistrate of Antioch and the surrounding area. He was infatuated with her beauty. He made sexual advances toward her which she rejected. Unable to have his way with her, he had her arrested and charged with being a Christian which was illegal. She was threatened with death if she did not renounce her faith in Christ (or submit to Olybrius' sexual demands). She refused to either recant or submit. He then had her tortured. Still, she stood firm, even through grievous torment. Finally, he sentenced her to death.

The night before her beheading, Margaret prayed for strength and courage. An angel was sent to encourage her and gave her a wooden cross to hold onto. The angel left and, clinging to the cross, she continued to pray. Then, demon appeared to her in the form of a dragon. The dragon attacked and attempted to swallow her. Standing firm, Margaret held up the cross as the dragon demon tries to consume her. The beast choked on the cross, spit her out, and died. Then, Satan, himself, appeared to Margaret saying he had done all he could to defeat her, but her faith and courage had defeated him. With that he disappeared.

The next morning, Margaret of Antioch strode to her martyrdom as a victor with her head held high, singing and praying.

As I said there are many versions of the story. This is my retelling. And there are many similar stories in the Church of women who refused unwelcome sexual advances. It is almost a genre unto itself (see 11 Saints Who Endured Sexual Abuse). In each of them, a woman is pressured sexually or attacked by a powerful man or men. In each the woman resists.

There might be problematic elements to these stories. But, like other stories of female saints, they do extol female agency in ways that were not common in their wider cultural context. Margaret would decide for herself whether and with whom she would have sex. She resisted the sexual harassment of a powerful man. For the sake of classic Christian virtue. For the sake of her own integrity.

What of Margaret’s tormentor? His behavior is not excused or explained away.  We might interpret the vision of the dragon as reflecting his beastly behavior. If he, himself, is not inherently a dragon-demon, he has surrendered himself to a beastly abuse of sex and power. In classic Christianity, we all need to resist the dragon of lust. And faithful Christians have historically, through honest self-examination, guarded against it in thought, word, and action. But, when that dragon is combined with the dragons of other deadly sins like pride, malice, envy, etc., particularly in those with power; it becomes something worse. 

Lately, we have been made aware of just how common that is. Some powerful and famous men have been revealed to be very much like the dragon that tried to consume Margaret in their sexual ‘consumption’ of women. Some of them have paid a price in loss of job and reputation. Others have yet to. Stories like that of St. Margaret remind us of classic Christian virtues and remind us whose side we should be on when women are sexually harassed or assaulted by men – however famous or powerful the man is, however inconvenient it might be politically or personally for us. Men, especially, need to examine our own collusion and be prepared to call other men out when when their words and behavior is degrading or harassing or worse. And we need to support women when, like St. Margaret, they speak out and resist.
If you would like to read a poetic version of St. Margaret's story, here is one from the 13th century