Monday, December 31, 2018

Time is . . .

On the Seventh Day of Christmas, we come to New Year’s Eve when people often think about time, taking stock of the use they have made of their time in the past year and contemplating a better use of it in the year to come.

Fill in the blank: Time is _________.

I expect most Americans would automatically answer, "Time is money." But Jesus and subsequent Christian tradition fill in the blank differently.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, those who are being purged of their sloth exhort one another with:

Faster! Faster! We have no time to waste, for time is love.
Try to do good, that grace may bloom again.
– ‘Purgatorio’, Canto XVIII, 103 – 105

To waste time is to waste the opportunity to love. That, in brief, is the sin of sloth.

We are reminded during this season that Love came down at Christmas:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
– Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

It is the fundamental message of Christianity, however poorly it has been lived by actual Christians.

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).

We have no time to waste. In the coming year, let us commit ourselves to lives that conform to the Love that came down at Christmas to reveal to us that at the heart of everything is God who is Love (1 John 4:7-21)

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Like Fire in Iron

"And the Word became flesh . . ." (John 1:14). How can the Godhead be in the flesh? And why? For the Sixth Day of Christmas, here is Basil of Caesarea’s (330-379) answer:

God is on earth, God is among us, not now as lawgiver–there is no fire, no trumpet blast, no smoke-wreathed mountain, dense cloud, or storm to terrify, whoever hears him–but as one gently and kindly conversing in a human body with his fellow men and women. God is in the flesh. Now he is not acting intermittently as he did through the prophets. He is bringing back to himself the whole human race, which he has taken possession of and united to himself. By his flesh he has made the human race his own kin.

But how can glory come to all through only one? How can the Godhead be in the flesh? In the same way as fire can be in iron: not by moving from place to place but by the one imparting to the other its own properties. Fire does not speed toward iron, but without itself undergoing any change it causes the iron to share in its own natural attributes. The fire is not diminished and yet it completely fills whatever shares in its nature. So it is also with God the Word. He did not relinquish his own nature and yet he dwelt among us. He did not undergo any change and yet the Word became flesh. Earth received him from heaven, yet heaven as not deserted by him who holds the universe in being.

Let us strive to comprehend the mystery. The reason God is in the flesh is to kill the death that lurks there. As diseases are cured by medicines assimilated by the body, and as darkness in a house is dispelled by the coming of light, so death, which held sway over human nature, is done away with the coming of God. And as ice formed on water covers its surface as long as night and darkness last but melts under the warmth of the sun, so death reigned until the coming of Christ; but when the grace of God our savior appeared and the Sun of Justice rose, death was swallowed up in victory, unable to bear the presence of true life. How great is God’s goodness, how deep his love for us.
– ‘Homily on Christ’s Ancestry’

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Vulnerable Love of God

Painting from St. Mary's Chapel, Wautoma, Wisconsin
On the Fifth Day of Christmas, something from William Placher on the vulnerable love of God incarnated in Jesus:

To read the biblical narratives is to encounter a God who is, first of all, love (1 John 4:8). Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering. God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to place his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross–condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53:3). Just this Jesus is the human face of God, not merely a messenger or a prophet but God’s own self come as self-revelation to humankind. If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something of how we might seek our own fullest humanity–not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and willingness to be vulnerable in love.
– ‘Narratives of a Vulnerable God’

Friday, December 28, 2018

Shaping imaginative and moral currents

On the Fourth Day of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. We are reminded that every person, however innocent–or not–is holy. This is a notion that came alive with the coming of Jesus. And, in the light of Jesus, the suffering of any person cannot be excused or ignored. 

Christ was born into a society we can hardly imagine . . . in which any notion of the sanctity of every life was completely alien; some were born only to die–handicapped children, girl children in some places, exposed on hillsides to starve or freeze; slaves who existed to serve every passing desire of their masters and mistresses; outsiders, foreigners, who were not really human; gladiators whose job it was to kill or be killed for public amusement. It’s not– let us be clear–that human behaviour has improved so spectacularly since the first Christmas that we can look back on these atrocities with complacency. A country with our current rates of abortion cannot afford to rest on it ethical laurels; there is effective slavery among the poorest of our world; civilized societies have started flirting once again with the idea that torture might be acceptable. It is not that we have left Roman-style inhumanity entirely behind; what has changed is that no-one now could possibly take these things for granted without coming up against a challenge from most of the main imaginative and moral currents [indelibly shaped as they are by the memory of Jesus] of our Western and Middle Eastern cultural history.
– Rowan Williams, ‘Choose Life, Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The fire in the equations

Window from St. Peter, Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin

On the Third Day of Christmas

Stephen Hawking:
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?
– ‘A Brief History of Time’

Rowan Williams:
When we're invited into the stable to see the child, it's really being invited into the engine room [of the universe]. This is how God works; this is how God is. The entire system of the universe, 'the fire in the equations' contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh.

The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross.

[Christmas] tells us exactly what Good Friday and Easter tell us: that God fulfils what he wants to do by emptying himself of his own life, giving away all that he is in love.

Our life as Christians, our obligations, our morality, do not rest on commands alone, but on the fact that God has given us something of his own life. We are caught up in his giving, in his creative self-sacrifice.
– ‘Choose Life, Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral’

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

At the back of our own heart

On the Second Day of Christmas, some thoughts on Christmas from G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936):
No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical, or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. . . . It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being. . . . It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into goodness.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The promise of our quickening

On the First day of Christmas, a poem by Scott Cairns:

Christmas Green

Just now the earth recalls His stunning visitation. Now
the earth and scattered habitants attend to what is possible:
that He of a morning entered this, our meagered circumstance,
and so relit the fuse igniting life in them,
igniting life in all the dim surround.
And look, the earth adopts a kindly affect. Look,
we almost see our long estrangement from it overcome.
The air is scented with the prayer of pines, the earth is softened
for our brief embrace, the fuse continues bearing to all elements
a curative despite the grave, and here within our winter this,
the rising pulse, bears still the promise of our quickening.

(Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2006 pp.136.)

Friday, December 7, 2018

St. Ambrose and the Emperor

In the year 390, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, sent a letter to one of his parishioners. Ambrose was convinced that this parishioner had committed a grievous and public sin. In his letter, Ambrose told the parishioner that until he repented publicly he would not be allowed to receive Communion. Ambrose had excommunicated him. But this was no ordinary church member. It was Theodosius, emperor of the Roman Empire. 

There had been a riot in the Greek city of Thessalonica and one of Theodosius' officials had been murdered. In response, Theodosius had done what emperors always do. He sent in the army to teach the people of Thessalonica, and by extension the rest of the empire, a lesson. Some 7,000 people – men, women, and children – were killed, the vast majority of whom had had nothing to do with the death of the official. 

Ambrose knew that the emperor's actions needed to be condemned even if it meant the very real possibility of his being sent to prison or killed. Emperors don't usually like to be challenged. In addition, Ambrose had reason to be favorably inclined to Theodosius as a political ally since he had made Christianity the official faith of the Empire. It was not only dangerous, but also politically inexpedient for Ambrose to confront Theodosius. He did it anyway. Against all odds, Emperor Theodosius repented and publicly sought absolution from his bishop.

I thank God for Ambrose's example of courage and integrity.

 After all, he was the Emperor who had made Christianity the official faith of the Empire. Were there theologians or evangelists around to reassure him that his use of force was necessary and justified for the law and order of the Empire? Were there defenders of the Emperor who argued that “sometimes you put your Christian values on pause to get the work done”? After all, you don’t want “a Sunday School teacher or pastor” running the empire. You shouldn't "look to the teachings of Jesus for what my political beliefs should be.” You don’t “want some meek and mild leader or somebody who's going to turn the other cheek.” You want “the meanest, toughest SOB you can find to protect the nation.” 

That was not Ambrose's take. I am thankful that Ambrose was not willing to compromise his integrity as a follower of Jesus. I am grateful that he was no political lackey or sycophant. I am glad he was willing to stand for the Gospel and call the most powerful and dangerous member of his congregation to account for failing to lead and serve in a Christlike manner. And I am grateful that, as a Christian, Theodosius knew what it meant to ask for God's forgiveness and repented.