A Necessary Candle

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What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 3-5, NRSV

The gospels give us many metaphors for the Kingdom of God. They come at us like rapid-fire: the pearl of great price, the treasure in a field, the mustard seed, the sower and the soil, the wheat and the weeds. They are often at the center of parables, those enigmatic bundles of meaning that Barbara Brown Taylor says act more like dreams or poems than as a code to be broken.

They are vivid images, some that resonate with our twenty-first-century sensibilities, others that stretch our imagination. And we get plenty of metaphors for Jesus too. He gives us some of them: I am the Vine, I am the Water of Life, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way. Others are ascribed to him, most famously the Word and the Light of the world. They are contact points by which the veiled glory of his life and the courage of his death and the shocking eruption of his resurrection can jump-start our cold, dead hearts.

“To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man,” muses Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. He continues, “One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs . . . A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.”

When we read the prologue to the Gospel of John, those first 18 verses, they are like ancient tales spoken by bards in firelight. Their language and rhythm and repetition are mesmerizing; they speak of this world and time, and that which is beyond time, and of the creature not recognizing its Creator, and of the one who returns home from across the universe but is turned away by his own family.

Where does the story of Jesus begin? For John, it does not begin with a virgin carrying the divine seed inside her, but farther back and higher up, with the Word that begins all creation, not with a bang but a whisper of supreme delight, “Let there be light!” That Word, that Logos, is now concentrated, distilled down, purified to its essence so that sound becomes light, both a particle in Mary’s womb and a wave that carries everyone who sees: the Light has come into the world and the darkness will not overcome it.

John writes later, after the letters of Paul and Peter, and after the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are well established. John both synthesizes what is known of Jesus and transcends the day-to-day accounts by opening a portal for us to Jesus as the Logos, present at the creation and ever more as the present light that enlightens every person who comes into the world.

John may have known that in Matthew’s story Jesus announces to those gathered around him, “You are the light of the world.” These “lights” were a sorry lot by most standards. They were the lame, the blind, the ragged, the widowed and the orphaned, the restless and the rebellious, the defiant and the dumbfounded, the quarrelsome and the nearly invisible. And Jesus loved them all. Through the prism of eternal forgiveness, Jesus looked on these sheep without a shepherd and saw them refracted into beams of light that carried the eternal weight of glory.

Where do we fit in? We might not have seen Jesus as someone we wanted in our neighborhood. He kept bad company, he was homeless, he had a sharp tongue for the respectable and the wealthy, he made us damn uncomfortable. He drew comparisons to bone-boxes, made allegations of theft and cruelty toward the weak, and gave us slanderous names, like “slaves to sin” and “slayers of the prophets.” It was all too much. Something had to be done. And when it was done and dusted, and we could breathe again, there came word that he was inexplicably alive. The Light had not gone out after all.

Then along comes Saul, the living embodiment of the fanatic who is willing to kill for the glory of God and the sanctity of the Law. Breathing fire and threats, he terrorized those who had begun to carry the Light, taking names and rounding them up for a quick trial and summary executions.

And yet the Lord singled him out, considering him to be a pearl of great price, and broke through his armored heart to the pulsing flesh beneath, to the white-hot love of someone to whom he could give his all, even unto death.

This Paul, then, as sure now of the love of God in Christ as he had been of God’s hatred of traitors to the Law, becomes the apostle of the new, assuring all who would listen that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And the newness in our human experience is that God is eternally, irrevocably, joyously on our side, closing up the abyss between us and God that we had dug. He is the great reconciler through Christ. “Truth,” says Christian Wiman, “inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.”

Simone Weil says that “Absence is the form God takes in this world,” a saying that would be devastating if we did not know that against all odds God has chosen to appear to the world through those who carry the Light. “So we are ambassadors for Christ,” says Paul, “since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20).”

We are living in times so full of bile and darkness that we are more certain of bitterness than we are of acceptance. Yet, we have been called, all of us, any who wish to carry that Light, to be that necessary candle. “As people reconciled with God through Jesus,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey, “we have been given the ministry of reconciliation . . . So whatever we do the main question is, “Does it lead to reconciliation among people?”

My friend, Mike Pearson, has given us a ladder of communication, each rung of which leads us to this reconciling work in the world.

  • “Sometimes you have to settle for outcomes which are less than perfect in the name of maintaining relationships and forging community.
  • You have to hope that your trust will inspire trust in others with the real risk that you may appear naïve and be open to exploitation.
  • You have to use your imagination to find some fresh solutions.
  • You have to listen truly and not simply wait deafly for your turn to speak.”

(You can read more of his writing here)

“We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label,” says Nouwen. This sounds almost impossible, given that the way of the world is anything but nonjudgmental. “Only when we fully trust,” he says, “that we belong to God and can find in our relationship with God all that we need for our minds, hearts, and souls can we be truly free in this world and be ministers of reconciliation.”

Bearing the Light in this world begins with us “accepting that we are accepted,” in Paul Tillich’s phrase, an experience so simple that it is difficult to grasp. It is the foolishness that leaps over the logic that would keep us in the dark.

Photo: Joanna Kosinska, Unsplash.com

Hear the Pennies Dropping

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“He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’” — Luke 21: 1-4, NRSV

There are few things that get us Christians rearing up on our hind legs and clawing at the air as talking about Jesus and money. Talking about Jesus’ love is no problem, just as talking about money is easy. Money and its value is the lingua franca of our world, the language that all of us are taught to speak from an early age. But when we put Jesus and money together it’s a whole different story.

For one thing, he didn’t have any. The gospels record him as sleeping rough while on the road. Even animals, he noted wryly, lived better than he did. At least foxes had their dens to retreat to at the end of the day, and the birds had their nests. Having left his home, his mother, and his siblings, for a life as an itinerant teacher and healer, Jesus had nowhere to lay his head.

Not that he was complaining. We never get the sense that Jesus resented the path he was walking, although the burdens he carried just being himself were heavy enough. Nor did he chafe at thwarted ambition or linger wistfully at the edge of the crowd as the rich and powerful swept by. “I coulda been a contender,” never passed his lips.

On the other hand, their relative poverty was a sore spot with some of the disciples. “We here have left everything” was a common refrain among them. Mark shows us two of the disciples, James and John, asking Jesus to commit to giving them whatever they want. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. Without hesitation, they answer, “We want to sit on either side of you when you set up your kingdom.” Incredulous, Jesus responds, “You don’t know what you’re asking.” Later, in Matthew’s version of the story that he picked up from Mark, he has the mother of James and John ask the favor. Maybe it was just too embarrassing for the early church community to believe these two would try to muscle their way into positions of privilege, but a mother . . . well, that was to be expected.

Jesus talks about wealth and poverty more than almost anything else, including all the usual subjects one would expect, like heaven and hell, the law, sexual morality, and violence. Jim Wallis, co-founder of the Sojourners Community, says in The Call to Conversion, that “One out of every ten verses in the Synoptic Gospels is about the rich and the poor; in Luke, the ratio is one out of seven.” Some of Jesus’ most scathing remarks are directed against the wealthy for their callousness and their foolishness in putting all their attention and their trust in what they pile up. The disparity between the wealthy few and the many poor was evident — and evidently on Jesus’ mind a great deal.

“But woe to you who are rich,” he warns, “for you will go hungry.” It will be impossible for the rich to enter heaven, he says bluntly. You might as well try to jam a camel through a needle’s eye. The disciples are duly staggered. Then who can be saved? they want to know. Jesus looks hard at them and says, “With man this is impossible.” He pauses, and as they gasp, he finishes, “But with God all things are possible.” Only God can save the rich.

Jesus is teaching daily in the temple in these passages, and he is sitting with his disciples one day, watching as people drop their offerings into the temple box. The rich come up with their long robes and their bags of money and make a show of pouring the coins in for maximum effect.

Then, as Jesus and the others watch, a widow slips up quietly and drops in two coins so small and light they barely make a sound. She does not raise her head nor look around, but simply disappears into the crowd. Jesus watches thoughtfully, two fingers tapping his lips, then shakes his head.

“She out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on,’” he says.

The verses immediately preceding this in Luke’s gospel are warnings by Jesus about position and power.

“In the hearing of all the people Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Beware of the lawyers who love to walk up and down in long robes, and have a great liking for respectful greetings in the street, the chief seats in our synagogues, and places of honour at feasts. These are the men who eat up the property of widows, while they say long prayers for appearance’ sake; and they will receive the severest sentence (Luke 20:45-47).’ ”

This is a difficult story. Our sympathies are with the widow in her plight, and our admiration even more so for her unshakable faith. This woman and her pennies stand before us like a moral stop sign for her willingness to contribute everything she had to an institution she believed in because of the God she believed in. The rich believed in God too, but they believed more in the power of position and social influence.

She may well have been one of the victims of the lawyers who snatched up homes and displaced their owners. In any case, a widow, especially one without grown children to support her, had a hard road to walk, as it has ever been.

Jim Wallis gives us another insight into the significance of her act when he writes: “The gospel story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44) makes a related point . . . It had to do with her relationship to God, which had transformed the economics of her life. . . How much is given is less important than how much is left over after giving.”

Jesus says in another context, “Take no thought for tomorrow, for tomorrow has troubles of its own.” But we do take thought; we take thought so much that it can tie our brains and our stomachs in knots. As I write, close to a million federal workers are out of work and without pay, as the government shutdown grinds on. That doesn’t include the small businesses which are dependent on providing services to a functioning government. For millions of people, the norm is living two paychecks away from homelessness.

Perhaps the meaning here is best conveyed by another translation which says, “So do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself. Each day has troubles enough of its own.” We cannot help thinking hard about such things. But we can learn to live by faith without anxiety.

Jesus says without a trace of irony that everyone who lives in the kingdom that is here and still to come could live without anxiety, “For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”

And so, our widow, bless her heart, lives from hour to hour, supported by the gossamer threads of her own unpretentious faith, and slips out of the temple, unaware that her silent act, remarkable in its unassuming nature, becomes a witness remembered for as long as Jesus’ words are treasured.

And Jesus? After teaching all day in the temple, “at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple (Luke 21:38).”

Photo: Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com

Unveiling Reality

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What in Greek was called epiphaniea meant the appearance, the arrival of a divinity among mortals . . . Epiphany thus interrupts the everyday flow of time and enters as one privileged moment when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things and persons. — Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things

In Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, the blustering, bumbling, red-faced, and violently suffering protagonist, confides to us that, “when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, ‘The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.’ This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself.”

This is an insight that arrives unexpectedly, cracking open his hard and aching heart, and setting him on a picaresque journey of self-discovery to Africa, where he learns humility and wisdom — and where he finally feels that his spirit is no longer slave to his body. It’s an epiphany, a moment when he understands his reality in a way that he never could have before.

It is reminiscent of another story, one that Jesus told, in which a young man, impatient and strident in his demands, took his inheritance and left for a far country, breaking his father’s heart and setting ablaze a fire of resentment in his older brother. Later, after his money has burned up in moments of profligacy that have begun to blur and fade, he takes whatever work he can to sustain himself. One day, while mucking out the pig pen of a farmer outside the city, he “comes to himself,” a telling phrase that both reveals the split within himself as well as the potential of reintegration. It’s an epiphany that wells up within him while he is up to his knees in pigs, proving that a life-transforming moment can break in on us, no matter where we find ourselves.

Czeslaw Milosz calls an epiphany “an unveiling of reality” in his international anthology of poetry, A Book of Luminous Things. He writes of ancient cultures in which streams were inhabited by the naiads and forests by the dryads, and the gods sometimes walked among humans. “Not rarely, they would visit households and were recognized by hosts.” Abraham entertains God in the guise of three travelers and later, “the epiphany as appearance, the arrival of Christ, occupies an important place in the New Testament.”

We are living, says Milosz, in a world that has been deprived of clear-cut outlines and has been drained of color. This deprivation is not much helped, he continues, by theology, science, and philosophy. While they try to provide cures for nihilism, they are not usually effective, and instead, give us descriptions that simply confirm our condition.

Poetry, however, looks at the singular rather than the general; it focuses on the leaf, not the forest, and thus it cannot help but see the variations, the diversity, the abundance of throbbing, colorful life. A poem, by describing a particular moment of present reality, illuminates the human experience and brings the divine into the mundane. A poem bears epiphanies.

***

Epiphany, from a Greek word for ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’, is for Christians the season after Advent and Christmas in which we celebrate the unveiling—just for a moment—of the divine nature of Christ, that moment in which a young Jewish carpenter arises from baptism in the waters of the River Jordan, as the heavens split open above him and the voice of God declares him to be his beloved son.

It is just a breath, a heart’s beat, a hummingbird’s jeweled flash of winged light, a disturbance in the space-time continuum, but it is gratefully grasped by Jesus. John the Baptist hears it too; they share a look between them, John all fire and sword and Jesus with a muscular tenderness.

We who watch from the riverbank twenty-one centuries later may only hear thunder in a cloudless sky and shrug:

“Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.”1

John, with his fierce, hooded, hawk’s eyes, understands the moment: it reverberates in his chest like a bell. This is the moment he has prepared for all his life; it is here now, and he gives himself to it without hesitation. John had disciples, followers, people who revered him and did not shrink from his shouts into the desert wind. ‘He must increase, and I must decrease,’ he thinks. A gate, sensed but hidden, swings open behind his eyes and he steps through and knows somehow, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he will not live to see this King crowned.

“God Speaks:

It is innocence that is full and experience

that is empty.

It is innocence that wins and experience that loses.

It is innocence that is young and experience that

is old.

It is innocence that grows and experience that

wanes.”2

***

You wonder if these epiphanies can be prepared for. If they add to the quality of life, then shouldn’t we figure out a way to generate them? Yet, they come when we need them and not before. They are gifts and as gifts, we accept them or misuse them. But, faith, like poetry, cannot be duplicated: every experience is a new reading of meaning.

“If we could get the hang of it entirely

It would take too long;

All we know is the splash of words in passing

And falling twigs of song,

And when we try to eavesdrop on the great

Presences it is rarely

That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate

Even a phrase entirely.”3

Milosz shows us that epiphanies are the inbreaking of the divine in unexpected ways and places. They are ‘aha’ moments, flashes of intuition that reveal an eternity in a grain of sand. Poems may carry epiphanies for us, Nature may as well. We learn to see with our hearts as well as with our heads.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43: 18,19)

The season of Epiphany is also a time to reflect on the experience of the magi, the travelers from another land, who searched with mind and heart for the Christ child, leaving behind their familiar ways and traditions for something or someone they could not be sure would accept them.

Thus, it is a season to reflect on and seek out what unifies all Christians. Michael Mayne, the former dean of Westminster, wrote in Responding to the Light, “We Christians are as diverse and varied as the colors of the rainbow . . . Though at one level we are divided and have been divided by history into our separate traditions, yet there is a deeper truth, for those with eyes to see . . . All who believe that in Jesus we see God and put their faith in him are at the deepest level already one in Christ4

An epiphany is a manifestation, an appearance, perhaps of something that was always there but overlooked or excluded out of habit and tradition, brushed aside in our haste—only to become, when revealed, so compelling that we can’t take our eyes off it.

That which changes us from the inside may be the outside seen through new eyes.

  1. Eliot, T. S. Choruses from ‘The Rock’ 1, Collected Poems 1909-1962. Harcourt, 1963.
  2. Péguy, Charles. “Innocence and Experience,” God Speaks. Trans. by Julian Green. Pantheon, 1943.
  3. MacNeice, Louis. ‘Entirely’, Collected Poems. Faber, 2007, p. 171.
  4. Mayne, Michael. Responding to the Light. Canterbury Press, 2017, pp. 87-88.

Photo: Joel Valve, Unsplash.com

Sing, and Keep Walking

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For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15,16, AV

One of the memories that ties Protestants of a certain vintage and social class together is the revival meeting. In my religious neighborhood this was visited upon us longsuffering teenagers during our annual Week of Prayer. At our parochial elementary school or high school, a speaker, usually known as a ‘youth pastor’ for his position in guiding the youth, would take up residence in our midst for a week to bring us to the Lord. This meant that we had chapel every day of the week, instead of our usual assembly once a week. Invariably, the last day of the week would be given over — we were tensed for it — a Call, in which the speaker would appeal to us to give our hearts to Jesus.

The organ or piano would play, the speaker would stand astride the platform, an immovable object through whom we would have to pass in order to see the sky, the light, the earth again. Our ticket, our passport to freedom, was to admit our sins and to publicly stand for Jesus, proclaiming by our verticality that we had cast aside our old life and had given ourselves over to a new attempt at sanctification. I was usually tolerant of this, sometimes moved by it, but on one occasion I hardened my heart toward the speaker and his wiles.

For wiles they were, and he wielded them with the skill of a trained propagandist. There were the glittering generalities, the card stacking (only certain facts allowed), the plain folks approach (I’m just like you; I sin too), the testimonials (I turned my life over to Jesus and you can too), and — as the numbers of those standing inched upward — the bandwagon effect (won’t you join us?). But the twin screws of fear and guilt were usually enough to break the most recalcitrant. It was our sins that had nailed Jesus to the cross and that kept Him there — never mind the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The sight of squirming 14-year-olds trying to come up with sins toxic enough to kill Christ was disheartening.

There was a point in this emotional fire-hosing when we realized that we’d left a real encounter with Christ behind and that now the speaker was running up the score, carving notches on his belt, and counting scalps. That’s when I hardened my heart and prayed for release. Not wanting to offend or cause another to stumble, I was struggling to stay in my seat, and yet I knew I should not be false to my own relation to Christ. I had a tentative, but sincere, connection with God; if there remained anything standing between me and a commitment to Jesus, it would not be bulldozed aside just to give The Speaker the satisfaction. So I remained sitting, to the consternation of my teachers and some of my friends, since I occasionally assisted as a student leader in religious activities.

Fear and guilt, endemic as they are to humans, are not the best roads to Paradise. I think guilt has a place in waking us up to our situation — the move is called repentance, metanoia in the Greek, and it means ‘to turn around’ — but no one ever built a lasting and healthy communion with another based on fear and guilt alone.

Moreover, such tactics in the hands of a skilled and unscrupulous religious leader too easily result in counting for numbers, herding impressionable people toward a decision they barely comprehend and cannot articulate. It is enough that we see how futile our efforts to walk on water really are and that we reach out to God in Christ.

Wendell Berry has said that “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” It is in that context that we can ask what it means to say that Jesus was tempted as we are.

However, we derail ourselves if we insist on a detailed catalogue of the temptations that a first-century Jesus couldn’t have been subjected to. How would Jesus have handled the easy access to online pornography, the money to be made in drugs, plagiarism by students of term papers, or vaping?

If we broaden the scope beyond personal temptation to include ethical dilemmas made unavoidable through advanced technology, it illustrates the fact that as a society our achievements are double-edged: they are gifts that change our environment and our values even as they benefit us. What about genetic screening for inherited diseases, surrogate pregnancies, assisted suicide and DNRs, biological and neurological enhancement, and the use of placebos in clinical testing? Science and technology in our era often outrun ethics; this is the world that we have made. So, presenting God with a list of exemptions based on our technology isn’t going to help us nor does claiming that He couldn’t possibly understand what we are going through. As the Buddha said about discussions on the afterlife: “This does not lead to edification.”

We are opened to a new perspective with Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Hebrews 4:15,16 as he writes: “For the high priest we have is not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, since he has suffered all the trials we have, except that he did not sin.” The solidarity Jesus extends to us comes not from specific temptations faced, but from suffering the weaknesses of being human.

To be human is to live in paradox. We are made of earth but aspire to the heavens. We wish to be infinite but are bounded on all sides. We want to please those whom we love, placate those whom we fear, be admired by those we admire. We want to be the masters of our destiny, but on some days we fall and we can’t get up.

“We work our jobs

Collect our pay

Believe we’re gliding down the highway

When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away”1

We can stand apart from the path we are on in the present and ask ourselves what the trajectory of our lives points toward and where we might arrive at if we continue. No other creature can do that, and it is both the blessing and the curse of our condition that we can perceive — if only in hindsight — our misdirections, wrong turns, willful diversions from the way, and lost opportunities.

We are flesh and spirit; we are blind, but we can see that we are blind. We give in to the power of sin and yet we resist. “The fact that we accuse ourselves,” said Paul Tillich, “proves that we still have an awareness of what we truly are, and therefore ought to be. And the fact that we excuse ourselves shows that we cannot acknowledge our estrangement from our true nature. The fact that we are ashamed shows that we still know what we ought to be.”2

God may not snatch us out of temptation or even necessarily lessen our suffering. We may ask, then, how God is present to us in our time of trial. Christ’s credentials here are not a smug “been there, done that” throwaway line. Nor does he peddle cheap grace like some ham-fisted TV evangelist. Christ lives with us in our temptations, suffers with us in our temptations, and does not abandon us when we are tempted.

Christian Wiman says in My Bright Abyss, that “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.” And, we might add, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

“Let us sing alleluia,” says Augustine in a sermon from 418 CE. God doesn’t say he will keep us from temptation, but “with the temptation he will also make a way out, so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).”

I wish I’d understood that when I chose to remain seated during that call to stand. The way it was presented to me, I was either in or out: sunk in sin and at war with Jesus or cleansed and on the right side. Somehow, instinctively, I knew that it wasn’t that cut and dried. My heart’s cry and my intention were to live in Christ; the reality was that this would take some time.

What I later came to realize is that Christ takes the intention of our hearts as what we really are. Living up to that intention is living within the new being, the new reality, one day at a time. “So now, my dear brothers and sisters,” concludes Augustine in his sermon, “let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil . . . Sing, and keep on walking. Don’t stray off the road, don’t go back, don’t stay where you are.”

Sing, and keep on walking.

  1. Paul Simon, “Slip Slidin’ Away”, 1975. Universal Music Publishing Group
  2. Paul Tillich, “The Good That I Will, I Do Not,” The Eternal Now. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1963, p. 54.

Photo: Nathan McBride, Unsplash

The Edge of Innocence

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To choose what is difficult all one’s days

As if it were easy, that is faith.— W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

I have been thinking about the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. It features in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it is a story that somehow connects heaven and earth, faith and doubt, God visible and God hidden, the past, the future, and the present—and so it is a subject for a New Year’s Day.

On New Year’s Day we come the closest to innocence that we are capable of as adults during the cycle of seasons in the year. We are done with the old year and its failures. We’ve shed that year like a snake sheds its skin, and we look to the new year with a touching naiveté, believing that if we want to fly, we can make it so. We will make new beginnings, we’ll have a breakthrough, all our false starts will fade away. Never mind all the home gym equipment that was set up in the basement with such resoluteness the day after Christmas, only to appear on the curb in March with the rest of the trash.

And so, we keep at it, this starting again and making promises to ourselves, because we absolutely must have a way to break up the surge of time and divert it at intervals. If December 31 is the lowest trough of the year, then New Year’s Day is the wave crest. End and beginning curve back to touch each other like one of Einstein’s sinkholes in time.

At the bottom of the worn-out year, scraping the barrel as it were, all the social norms for many ancient civilizations could be reversed or at least suspended for one night. Kings could be dissed without fear, peasants could don kingly robes. For a few hours, in a bacchanal celebration, all the fears and anxieties of the year could be discarded like old rags. It was a time for the expulsion of sins, for starting afresh, for the regeneration of time itself.

Recently, I read a news article about a dairy farmer who was finally selling off his cows after four decades of running the family farm. “It is said that farmers get forty chances,” he wrote in conclusion. “I’ve had my forty and I’m getting out.” Forces beyond his control had made it impossible to carry on, despite the efforts of him and his family. The plight of small family farms only highlights how important it is to us that we have a chance to start over.

Our lives are played out in an arena of paradoxical claims, as we try to unite opposing elements. “Be ye therefore perfect” sniffs at “All our righteousness is as filthy rags.” “Why hast thou cast us off, O God? Is it for ever? Why art thou so stern, so angry with the sheep of thy flock?” gapes in disbelief at “The Lord’s love never fails those who fear him.” For those who search for God with all their hearts, the wry observation of R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet-priest, rings true:

. . . He is such a fast

God, always before us and

leaving as we arrive. — R. S. Thomas, Pilgrimages

We may be breathless to keep the back of God within sight, but the time between Christmas and New Year’s offers a chance to catch one’s breath. It is a fertile field of both regret and promise, of challenge and joy, of surrender to the Incarnation and determination for the year ahead. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration reveals the poles-apart thinking of the disciples; we see his glory revealed even as his compassion drives him deep into the common suffering of the world, and he is shadowed by the ordeal to come.

He had taken three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, to the top of what might have been Mount Tabor or maybe Mount Herman, leaving the other disciples at the foot of the mountain where they soon attracted a crowd. The three accounts in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are substantially the same, with Matthew and Luke drawing from Mark’s core story, but adding significant details of their own.

Maybe Jesus anticipated what was in store for him on the mountain, or maybe he just needed to get away for a bit with his three good friends. In any case, there is an eerie resemblance to his night of sorrow in Gethsemane. The same three disciples are close to him while Jesus has a divine encounter; in Luke’s gospel account the disciples grow heavy with weariness and fall asleep, and Peter—bless him—speaks and acts in ways that Jesus must reject or risk losing his focus.

The outlines of the story are simple enough. Jesus and the disciples are on the mountain, when Jesus is suddenly radiant with light, his robe so white that it is almost blinding. Two resplendent figures appear and the three of them speak together.

The symmetry is arresting: Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, bookend Jesus with support just as he is growing into the conviction that he will die violently at the hands of authorities, religious and political, in Jerusalem. (An aside: how did the disciples know who they were? Were there introductions all round?) The disciples are both awed and terrified, so much so that Peter is babbling giddily about constructing three shelters when a voice thunders from heaven, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” The disciples fall to the ground, overcome, and the apparitions vanish, leaving Jesus to touch the disciples: “Stand up,” he says, “do not be afraid.” And when they raise their heads, they are alone with Jesus.

What were they talking about? Luke tells us they “spoke of his departure, the destiny he was to fulfill in Jerusalem.” On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells the three not to talk of what they have seen until he has been raised from the dead. Ah, they say, apparently unfazed by talk of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. In Matthew’s account, the disciples raise a question on a technicality. Wasn’t Elijah’s appearance supposed to precede all this? Yes, responds Jesus, Elijah has already come, but nobody recognized him. “Then the disciples understood that he meant John the Baptist.” What remains unremarked upon by the disciples is that this future event, Elijah preceding the Messiah, is already in motion. John the Baptist is dead, the Messiah is Jesus, and he is going to die.

When they reach the bottom of the mountain, they see a commotion in the crowd gathered there. A man has brought his epileptic son to the disciples to be healed—and they can’t do it. The father implores Jesus to heal his son and Jesus explodes: “What an unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you and endure you all? Bring your son here.” There is a final convulsion as the boy writhes on the ground, the demon departs, and Jesus hands the boy back to his father. Mark up another victory against the forces of darkness. All’s well that ends well, right?

If we were filming this episode, we would have used tight shots on the contorted face of the boy, closeups on Jesus as he casts out the demon, and then a slow zoom out to encompass the crowd, ecstatic at the miraculous healing, filled with admiration and awe for the power of Jesus. Luke says that after this Jesus went indoors and the disciples, those who had remained at the foot of the mountain, had a private word. Why couldn’t we cast out the demon? they ask. Well, says Jesus, this kind takes prayer.

***

Pull the cameras back into a high, wide shot stretching to the horizon, high and behind a group of tiny figures making their way south on the Jerusalem road. We know that Jesus has set his face like flint toward the holy city and that ahead of him lies the final conflict and his approaching death. Nothing is scripted here, no one’s hand is being forced; each actor in this drama sets his own lines and actions, according to his will. The events jerk and tilt toward their bureaucratic finality in a way that seems, in retrospect, foreordained, but for those caught up in it, the outcome is realized too late.

***

For us, poised on the cusp of the new year, the transfiguration offers us a way to into the times ahead. The Incarnation has been our transcendental experience on the mountaintop, our unexpected blessing coming out of the darkness; we would like to remain there — if only for a few more days. It’s a time when people seem to set aside their egos and think of others. If they — we — can do that consciously for several days, why can’t we continue? Perhaps we can keep that going for a week and then New Years’ can act like a slingshot to keep us in orbit above the Earth.

“At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey. “But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves, “This is it… everything fits… all I ever hoped for is here.” This is what Peter, James, and John experienced on the mountain with Jesus. “This is the experience of the fullness of time,” writes Nouwen. “These moments are given to us so that we can remember them when God seems far away, and everything appears empty and useless. These experiences are true moments of grace.”

But we can’t remain on the mountaintop, up there in the glorious light with revered figures from our past. Down below, back in the world, there are the constant reminders that suffering continues and that we are not complete. This kind takes prayer, says Jesus.

Up ahead are trials, but also moments of transcendent joy, communion, beauty. We are blessed by the Spirit, by the epiphanies granted to us that open us to a steadfast courage. There are crosses up ahead, no doubt, but Spring is coming and there is a resurrection.

Photo: Stephen Pedersen, Unsplash

The Light Coming Into the World

Photo: David Beatz, Unsplash

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. — John 1: 9, 10

God’s entry into the world in the Gospel of John begins with two powerful metaphors: the Word and light. The author plays with these metaphors, turning them this way and that, like a craftsman looking to join two pieces of wood with mortise and tenon rather than nails and glue.

Words, the building blocks of meaning, stack up behind us in the long histories we come from, and we pull them down to make anything out of something, a trick we’ve perfected over eons. But the original magician of words is He who creates something out of nothing with the Word alone, who morphs an idea into action and the ineffable into flesh.

The Word, according to John, becomes flesh and lives among us. The Word lives among us in grace and truth; we see his glory, the glory of God reflected somehow through the lens of a human being, a human being in whom all the fulness of God dwells. This is a mystery too deep for us, a treasure we leave buried in our field for a later time.

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Does the Word mean what we want it (Him) to mean? Is it a screen upon which we project whatever image fits our mood? Or is this metaphor one so rich in variant meanings that it becomes — in the way Paul characterized himself — “all things to all people”?

We read these verses of John’s gospel, especially within this Christmas hour, as we might read the letter of a relative who, long ago, writes to a friend about her love for another. We are witness to this love through her words. We ask ourselves if ‘glory’ could be a form of love. The letter falls into its remembered folds; we follow in a reverie as the traffic of our lives passes blindly before our eyes, but we see only what we are longing for. We see it wordlessly, the Incarnation of Emmanuel, God with us, the Word, logos, become flesh.

In some readings, the Logos is that energy of life which pours through the universe and is expressed within every molecule and sinew. The resonance of that expression — glory compressed into vulnerability — creates a new reality of kenosis, an emptying out and a pouring in of God to birth.

The poet Anne Ridler places birth in the context of Christmas:

To bear new life or learn to live is an exacting joy:

The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way

It will happen, or master the responses beforehand.

For any birth makes an inconvenient demand;

Like all holy things

It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end;

Freedom it brings: We should welcome release

From its long merciless rehearsal of peace.1

That the Word is life and can call forth life is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition. From the creation of the world to the healing of a leper to the awakening of faith in a person, the Word, in the form of Jesus and in the words of Jesus, has been the content of character for those who have awakened through the Spirit.

***

For many people, Christmas is a memory formed of light. In the deepest, darkest, engulfing days of the year, we raise our lights and are drawn to them. In our churches, our cathedrals, in our windows, and even around our public squares, the lights go up as in no other time of the year. At Christmas, we are drawn into these overlapping circles of light that show us a way forward, like stepping-stones across a river of light. We are drawn out of our darkness to them because from within our darkness we cannot not see them.

But it remains a question whether the light defines the darkness as all that is not light or if the darkness actively resists the light. Therein lies the mystery of evil and suffering.

“The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light,” Matthew says, paraphrasing Isaiah. “They were sitting in the land of the shadow of death, and the light dawned on them.” 2 Isaiah’s wording, by contrast, is that the people were ‘walking in darkness,’ stumbling their way toward the light of dawn. Matthew’s people are no longer even walking; they’ve given up. They’re huddled in darkness in a country that lies under the shadow of death.

We may feel this way too. The darkness comes for us in different guises, but it comes for us all. It may come in a diagnosis of cancer, or the death of a loved one at the hands of a drunk driver or the pitiless drip of poverty and the daily gusts of discrimination and racism. At Christmas, for those who are alone, the darkness can seem impenetrable and its weight all the heavier for all the brightness seen in other people’s windows.

W. H. Auden concludes his famous poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written soon after he converted to the Anglican faith, with these lines.

He is the Way.

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.

Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;

You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.

Love Him in the World of the Flesh;

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

God can be found, suggests Auden, in the Land of Unlikeness, in the Kingdom of Anxiety, and even in the World of the Flesh. Roger Housden, whose For Lovers of God Everywhere, quotes this excerpt of Auden’s, muses that in the midst of the glitter and gifts of a commercial Xmas it may be difficult to perceive the redemption of the Incarnation, but in the “confusing and uncertain world we live in from day to day . . . in the drab period of the year that follows” Christmas, we find the light we need.

Can we sing the Lord’s song in the dark times as well as the light? We may not have the words, but the Incarnation means we can sing, even if only about the dark times.

But the dawn comes! It comes whether we are walking toward it or whether we can no longer walk or even remember what the dawn looks like. Christmas, with all its lights, reminds us that the dawn comes with power that is beyond our imagination. It is a gift from the Father of lights, the one in whom we may trust, against all odds.

A birth in the midst of death and dark forces is a tragic commonplace in our world, but in this wildly improbable tale, this Christmas story of God the Word becoming Light and Life in a manger, there is a touchstone for millions. Yet, the gospel storyteller reminds us that He who is Light shines on in the darkness and the darkness will never eclipse it — a message for all of us who find ourselves in a country shadowed by death.

  1. Ridler, Anne. “Christmas and the Common Birth.”
  2. Mt. 4:16, The Four Gospels, Richmond Lattimore, translator.

A Scandal We Can Live For

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He was in the form of God, but did not think to seize on the right to be equal to God . . . being born in the likeness of a human being; and being found in the guise of a human being, he humiliated himself and was obedient to the death, death on the cross. Philippians 2:7-8, Richmond Lattimore, translator

Every life that begins points forward to a death, a truth we mortals carry like a stone in our shoe.

Does every father grasped in the clenching fear and joyous awe of the birthing hour cast his mind forward to the death of his son? Perhaps Joseph did, caught up in a mystery whose dimensions seemed to waver in and out of focus with his young wife’s hoarse cries. There is no mention of a midwife in the Gospel nativity stories. Does Joseph deliver the child himself?

Questions like these are how we fumble our way to the heart of the nativity story. We ask them because we want to time-travel back, to be there in that moment to try to grasp how—no, why?—an infinite God plunges deep into our world in order to surface as an infant, an infant for whom the mere rumor of existence is enough to trigger a massacre.

From a reasonable perspective, it would be hard to find a less auspicious beginning for a clandestine King of kings and Lord of lords: a baby born into poverty under one of the most corrupt governments of an empire notable not only for its reach but also for its cruelty. From a revolutionary standpoint, chances for success in overthrowing the Empire hover around zero. I don’t think we can exaggerate how awful the odds are here.

Imagine the storyline pitched by the producers of a film company to the head of a major studio:

What kind of film is this?

It’s kind of an action-adventure, but with a strong underdog angle.

Let’s hear it.

Okay, a baby is born under mysterious circumstances to a poverty-stricken couple who have to flee to another country to avoid a massacre of all children under two by a corrupt and paranoid tyrant.

I see.

And the kid survives and grows up to form a roving band of —

Guerrilla fighters?

No. They go around this country healing people and teaching them about loving their enemies and turning the other cheek.

(silence)

And finally, he’s captured, all his friends desert him, and he’s killed.

Wait. He’s got no superpowers?

No.

No last-minute rescue mission?

No.

Too depressing. What’s the point?

Well, he comes back to life.

Like what, a zombie? That could work—

No, no zombies. He comes back to life and then after awhile he disappears.

And that’s it? Are you kidding me?

Well, he returns later and sorts everything out.

When?

When what?

When does he return?

Nobody knows, it’s just that—

Get outta my office.

We have an advantage over Joseph—we know that the end of his son’s story is the beginning of an even greater story. We know the end of our story, too, the one we share with our human community. What we cannot fathom is the beginning of this baby’s story.

The nativity scenes we witness in paintings are as peaceful and placid a scene as one could imagine. The baby Jesus coos and waves his little fists. Mary is dressed in robes of cerulean and white and gazes benignly on her infant son. The magi are there, having arrived not a moment too soon, but months after they set out from their city. In some of the paintings there are shepherds kneeling by the manger. They’ve already seen angels that night, a heavenly host of them, their burning towering forms lighting up the hills for miles around. Naturally, the shepherds are terrified, but it’s a terror that becomes raw energy; they race down off the hills and into the town. (How do they know where to go?) But they find the place and slip inside, some to kneel, some to stand in the shadows, panting and glancing at one another with wondering eyes.

***

The Coming

And God held in his hand

A small globe. Look, he said.

The son looked. Far off,

As through water, he saw

A scorched land of fierce

Colour. The light burned

There; crusted buildings

Cast their shadows; a bright

Serpent, a river

Uncoiled itself, radiant

With slime.

On a bare

Hill a bare tree saddened

The sky. Many people

Held out their thin arms

To it, as though waiting

For a vanished April

To return to its crossed

Boughs. The son watched

Them. Let me go there, he said.

— R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems

***

God must now think from behind the eyes of a human being. Those considerable limitations are what remains to work with. No superpowers here, just the steady consistency of vulnerability and love. Will that be enough?

If this really was the kairos, the right time for this intervention in Earth-history, we wouldn’t have seen it had we been there. Even if we had been in Jesus’ roving band of disciples, we couldn’t have understood it. As long as power meant violence to take down the enemy none of this would have made sense. And if we’re honest it still doesn’t make sense. The reason we accept it, this Incarnation, this embodiment of God in human flesh, is that we no longer see it as the skandalon, the scandal it really is. What kind of god would have the patience, not to mention the love, to work with creatures who resolutely kill everyone who offers them hope?

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation,” said C. S. Lewis in The Joyful Christian. “They say God became Man. . . Every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.”

This is where it begins for us. It doesn’t really matter if we can’t figure out the biological status of a virgin birth or even if parthenos means a “young girl of marriageable age” versus a virgin who has never had sex. What matters is that we accept this gift of God become human, scandal and all.

Advent for me means the coming of the Christ-child into this world, through the back door of the world, under the silent stars of the world, for the world. It always catches me off-guard, which is good, because we should always be surprised at Advent. Surprised that the kingdom begins in such a quiet way; surprised that at least once during the year we can say in all honesty, that we were blind, but now we see; surprised that silence carries a deeper truth than we could think of on our own.

After surprise comes wonder, since Christ comes to us in every breath we take, every person we meet, in the dust on the road to Emmaus, in the waves we sink into, in the beauty of communion with one another. All of these are Advent moments; they give us a way to live inside the saying, ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the age.’

Photo: Ruben Bagues, Unsplash.com

No Guarantees

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“Communication as a bridge always means an abyss is somewhere near.” — John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod slaughtered every child of the age of two and under in Bethlehem and its surroundings, because he was trying to kill the king of the Jews whom the magi from the East had come to worship.

To put the Bethlehem massacre by Herod in its full horrific context, the writer of the gospel reaches back to the prophet Jeremiah’s lament for the slaughter of children in Ramah, an Ephraimite village eight miles north of Jerusalem, before those who remained were deported to Babylon. He needs a historical parallel of sufficient magnitude.

“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because

they are no more.”

Thus, the good news (for that is what euanggelion, the ‘gospel’, means) of the coming of the Christ child, the promised one, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, unfolds in haste and secrecy in the midst of a bloodbath. But it has ever been so, as powerful and corrupt rulers are threatened by women and children.

The family escapes to Egypt, being warned in a dream, and they remain there—we don’t know how long—until news comes that Herod is dead. They make plans to return to Bethlehem, but Joseph is again warned off in a dream. Instead, they find their way north to Nazareth, a village in Galilee so insignificant that there is no mention of it in historical records outside of the New Testament. Their caution is well-founded, for Herod’s son, King Archelaus, rules for only two years before the Roman emperor, Augustus, removes and banishes him for brutality. If Herod could kill a generation of Judean children with impunity, what must Archelaus have done to incur the wrath of the emperor? Or perhaps it was a pragmatic decision on the emperor’s part, knowing that even the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed will eventually rise up.

Advent is a season when Christians celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, the earthly beginning to Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the short, intense journey that brings that child, now a man, to an abrupt end on the cross. But then there is Easter and resurrection; the unexpected turn of a tragedy become comedy, the ultimate trick on the Trickster, and a silent nod off-stage to where Job stands alone in the wings, with an amused shake of his head and a smile. There are innumerable crucifixions without a resurrection, but in this story, there is no resurrection without a crucifixion.

When lies become the norm we cherish the truth even more, and for us in this century, truth is found in facts. We want the gospels to be history, a medium we think we understand as a story that corresponds to the facts. But behind the facts lie assumptions, and assumptions are most often invisible to those who hold them and inaccessible to those who don’t. What is not mentioned in the gospels about Jesus may not have been known by the gospel writers, or was known, but thought so obvious that their concise narratives did not include it, or was known, but considered insignificant to the core of the story. Their assumptions are not our assumptions; the stories that result are strange to us and sometimes even inexplicable.

Albert Schweitzer devoted years to a search for the historical Jesus and finally concluded that “Each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus,” because one typically “created him in accordance with one’s own character.” “There is,” Schweitzer said, “no historical task which so reveals someone’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”

Thus, there are multiple versions of Jesus in all ages, as Jaroslav Pelikan so lucidly illustrates in his Jesus Through the Centuries, a cultural history. “For each age,” he comments, “the life and teachings of Jesus represented an answer (or, more often, the answer) to the most fundamental questions of human existence and of human destiny, and it was to the figure of Jesus as set forth in the Gospels that those questions were addressed.” And we could add that people of faith, as well as those who profess no faith, nevertheless carry refracted images of Jesus in their minds that are often at odds with each other. We see Jesus as through a kaleidoscope rather than through a microscope. The gospels give us a collage, not a portrait.

The fragmentary glimpses we get of Jesus are not the result of inattention on the part of the eyewitnesses nor are they lapses in the discipline of the story. Rather, they are the best that people could do to reveal a figure so mysteriously complex and yet so transparently good, that no one close to him could ever say they knew him through and through.

Jesus was not an open book to those who knew him. The disciples were often confused and distraught by his words, drawing him aside to ask for the meaning of a parable or to clarify for them his differences with the religious authorities. Jesus rejoices that God has hidden His truths from the sophisticated and has opened them to those who learn best from actions and images.

We simplify the story of the nativity down to what we can carry without dropping all the other things that fill up our lives. In a creche, the animals form the background, their benign expressions of placid acceptance mirroring our own. Joseph stands to one side, proud but peripheral. The wise men, kneeling or standing, present their gifts with reverence. Mary and Jesus are front and center, the focal point of everything and the period to the exclamation mark of the star that stands above the stable. There is something so achingly touching about this, a child’s toys arranged just so to mimic the world she imagines. Add to this the innumerable Christmas plays in schools and churches acted out in front of proud but anxious parents, each play another means to build a bridge from an ancient culture to our own.

The question for Christians and other people of faith is how to tell this story, this coming-to-Earth story of divine kenosis, of an emptying out and pouring in of God become human. As the epigram suggests, a bridge implies an abyss, otherwise what is its purpose? In communication with one another, in telling the story yet again, we recognize the abyss to be the fact that we cannot clearly and completely express the truths we comprehend, nor can we be assured that our comprehension is correct. We are the ‘speaking animals’ whose verbal options are almost limitless, but by that very fact, we must often grope for the words to match the images we have in our heads.

From within our comfort zone, the Advent story is theologically safe, hermetically sealed, predictable in its results. It’s a ritual we cannot do without, yet it often bypasses the heart.

We need to recapture the ‘otherness,’ the very alien nature of this story of God become a human, a story that rings through history with tones both dark and bright. There are other gods who have appeared in human form, but none of them as a baby and none who stayed around to be murdered—and then rose again.

The thing that we must never forget, that if understood will disrupt our lives and break our complacency, is that nothing in the events of this story can be taken for granted. Joseph could have laughed off his dreams, Mary could have said no, the baby could have died before the age of five from diseases that take the lives of 15,000 per day of newborns in this world. The family seeking asylum in Egypt could have been turned away at the border, held for questioning, or simply murdered on the way.

People made choices without much to go on, save what they held in faith. As strange as those times and that culture may be to us, the common factor we may share if we wish is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that from the foundation of the earth this has been a work of love.

Photo: Vincent Fleming, Unsplash.com

Seeing Things

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In this Advent season we await the coming of the Christ-child. Our sources for this are Matthew and Luke. Mark begins his gospel breathlessly with Jesus as a man, coming up out of the waters of baptism, the skies splitting open above him. John’s gospel begins even farther back, among star-trails of light in the cosmos, the Word materializing out of the blackness of the space between the stars, to arrive uncloaked as the very being and presence of God across the universe. It’s Matthew who gives us the credentials first, the genealogy of the Saviour, beginning with Abraham and running neatly through three sets of fourteen generations each until we arrive at “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

And it’s Matthew who calls up astrologers from Babylon who, in their glad and awe-struck homage, ply the family with precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then, after being warned of Herod’s baleful intentions in a dream, take another road back home. No sooner had they gone and the family settled down for fitful sleep, when Joseph yields to a dream (a language he was learning still) to take his wife and newborn child and slip through Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. So, with the gold he buys his neighbor’s horse in whispered haste at three a.m., shuts up the house, and off they go, under the stars, across the rock-strewn miles of desert to seek asylum in Egypt.

With Luke we get the bells and whistles—no wise men this time—but more dreams and angels and shepherds and cousins and songs of humility and unalloyed triumph; an older woman with child who thought herself barren, and a mere girl-child, trembling before the sudden, glittering form of a being who stoops to enter her room, and toward whom she bows her head and shields her eyes because, against the evidence, she is certain she is seeing things.

We look at our own infants and imagine who they might become, what they might do, even (God forbid) the harm that might come to them and the resolve we feel to protect them from anything like that. We wonder how the world will change in the time that passes as they grow into adulthood.

In time, we realize that they are not clones of ourselves, but persons in their own right, with personalities and temperaments that may reflect our influence, yet with their own perspectives and motivations. They are not us; they have their own path to travel.

The being whom Luke names as Gabriel greets Mary in a way that is deeply troubling to her. “Greetings, most favored one! The Lord is with you.” The angel hastens to add, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus.”

The singular event that transforms human history has begun. It begins, as Luke tells us, with a girl, one among thousands, who is filled with awe and confusion at being singled out, placed at the head of the line, in the spotlight, up on the stage.

Every woman and girl could wonder in quiet moments if she might be the one to bear the Messiah. More than one watched with secret joy at the sweetness of her child, only to have her hopes dashed when he turned out far less messianic than even the most generous grandparent could vouch for.

Luke’s Gabriel is hitting all the keys with full chords now. “He will be great,” the being sings out, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

There is silence. The being looks at Mary expectantly. “How can this be,” she says deadpan, “since I am a virgin?” She may have only been 14 or 15, but she knows how babies are made. The being sighs; this is going to be tougher than he thought.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he says, and glances sidelong at her. “And the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” A simply deductive syllogism, he thinks. Two premises followed by a conclusion—a conclusion which must be true if the premises are true. And, of course, they are. There is silence. Mary’s head is down, but the being can see that her gaze is fixed and unmoving. She does not blink. He looks more closely; yes, she is still breathing.

He tries again: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” He pauses. “For nothing is impossible with God,” he finishes up with a flourish. Mary’s shoulders shudder and she lifts her head. Her cheeks are wet with tears, but now she is smiling as she presses her palms into her eyes. She looks up, this girl who has been lifted and spun, whose heart is ablaze with ancient titles, prophetic proclamations, words spoken that were always like objects of wonder heard but not touched, words so overwhelming that they overshadowed the sky and made tense the present.

“Here am I,” she says in a whisper, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And Luke recounts laconically, “Then the angel departed from her.”

Let us not diminish the utter awesomeness of this scene. The word ‘awesome’ has been debased in our time, liberally applied as easily to ice cream as to lending someone a stapler. I want to reserve it for the numinous, that which raises the hair on the back of your neck, that which is awe-full. “The Lord is in this place,” breathes Jacob, looking around in the velvet desert darkness as his eyes adjust to the explosion of light as ten thousand angels ascend and descend on a stairway to heaven. That’s awesome.

No matter how many times we may read of angels appearing to people in the scriptures, we mustn’t forget that it was at least as strange to them as it would be to us. The difference between them and their time and us is that we’ve built in defenses against this kind of thing, so that the numinous cannot be part of any algorithms we might use to calculate what we agree is reality.

She could have said no, Mary could. That is just one of a thousand decision-points that could have diverted or ended the stream of this story. Without that yes, that heart-stopping yes, none of our own yeses would have been possible.

The threshold at which we can linger and then stumble through into Mary’s room after the being is gone, is in the thought of the perilous journey ahead for this promised child. In a matter of moments, Mary has gone from a girl with a predictable life ahead of her to the promised portal through which the Son of God enters the world undetected. This is a joy so deep it can only be expressed with tears. There is a holy terror that rockets her up above the world, giddy at that height and breathless as she yields to the heat that courses through her body.

It is a glorious madness that she has opened herself to. If we are brave enough, we will not turn our eyes away as the arrow arcs into the sky to pierce her heart with the certainty that darkness impenetrable also lies ahead. Joy and terror; this is how her ‘Yes!’ thrills through her body.

***

In his tripartite poem, Seeing Things, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney tells of crossing open water as a child from County Galway by boat to the island of Inishbofin in the Atlantic.

All the time

As we went sailing evenly across

The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,

It was as if I looked from another boat

Sailing through air, far up, and could see

How riskily we fared into the morning,

And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.

From our distance, looking back, we are both the girl-child that says yes to the being and we are the guardians of the child still to come. Our hearts are full for that child in his early peril. In the Advent season we await his coming into a world both cruelly cold and wondrously beautiful.

Photo: Ilya Yakover, Unsplash.com

The Acts of the Disciples

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The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor

He has sent me to proclaim release to

the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s

favor. (Luke 4:18,19)

And Luke’s gospel says that Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were upon him.”

Let us sit with them for a moment, in that holy silence. Jesus carefully, reverently, rolls up the scroll. He does not hurry. He holds the knurled ends of the scroll in his hands, feels the polished wood turning against his palms, as the papyrus curls back to its resting position. The attendant reaches to take the scroll as Jesus sits down. No one stirs. It is the silence of expectancy, not of inattention and boredom.

What were they expecting, and why would they be transfixed, holding their breath for the next moment? Perhaps it was the way Jesus read the passage, ascending the hills of the text to each crest, hitting the “me” of each one with emphasis, descending to the plains in between, and then scaling the highest one to summit in triumph on “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

If you have always been told that a day was coming when everything that breaks you every day would vanish, and you would be able to take a full breath, and you could lift your head and you could stand up and you could smile and even laugh—then you will know what each person knew when Jesus said, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

The people in that meeting place that Shabbat turned to one another excitedly and remarked at how well Jesus spoke. They were not talking about his elocutionary style, but about the thrill of hope that jolted through them in that moment. The words from Isaiah 61, so familiar and so tantalizing, rang in their ears.

But then there were doubts. Wouldn’t the Day of the Lord come with trumpets, thunder, signs in the heavens? And wouldn’t it be announced by the Messiah, the awesome figure of power and glory of whom the prophets spoke? Instead, we get a local boy, smart but shiftless, who left his mother and travels the countryside. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. “We’ve known him since he was a little kid. Is he saying that he’s the One? He’s getting way above himself.”

And then Jesus went off-script. You’ll probably tell me to heal myself, he said. You want me to do tricks, like what you think I did up in Capernaum. If I don’t do the same thing here, you won’t believe me. Well, let me tell you something. No prophet is ever welcomed in his own country. There were a lot of widows in Israel during the famine, but our own prophet, Elijah, was sent to a widow in Sidon instead of them. And there were a lot of lepers in our country, but Elisha was sent to heal Naaman, the Syrian. Not one of ours was healed.

As they say, ‘the optics weren’t good.’ Excitement and admiration turned to doubt, and doubt to hostility and rage. More than just grilling the preacher’s sermon over Sabbath lunch, they were infuriated. Leaping to their feet, the whole congregation—families, men, women, and children—dragged him to the cliff on which the town was built to fling him bodily out and down.

Imagine the scene: people so angry, so completely consumed by rage that they seem demon-possessed. Neighbors he has known all his life, shoving and kicking him, his arms stretched out in their grasp, and him falling and stumbling back up, his eyes riveted ahead to where the ground drops away for hundreds of feet.

This is a video that will go viral, but before it does, let us freeze the frame with Jesus at the lip of the cliff—and since this is imagination we can do this—and ask ourselves what they are thinking.

If you saw them on the street you would have no idea they were capable of killing. They look like ordinary people. But seeing them now, ranged behind the figure twisting in their grasp, we see the leers, the harsh laughter, the sweat. A woman’s face is framed behind his shoulder. She is jeering, the veins in her forehead distended and throbbing. She feels forgotten, neglected, the hopes that were stirred by the promises of the prophets have vanished, and all that fills her mind is the thought of foreigners receiving the healing that is rightfully hers. Next thing they’ll be pouring across the border, Syrians, Caananites, Samaritans, lepers! It is a betrayal of everything she stands for, made worse by one of her own, a traitor in their midst like a devil among them.

Luke places this story near the beginning of Jesus’ mission, while Mark and Matthew record it as further down the timeline. Commentators suggest that Luke’s purpose is to show us that this is how Jesus’ mission is going to play out. The rejection he endures by his own people is triggered by his hints that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all who need it, those in other nations as well as in Israel. The nationalist fervor that roils this crowd into a murderous rage fulfills the prophecy that Jesus speaks.

We know how the incident ends, although we don’t know how it is done. Jesus teeters on the cliff’s edge, and then suddenly he is striding back through the crowd, parting them before him as if a force-field surrounds him. Luke gives it one line, ending with “he went on his way.” What matters most is that the kingdom has been announced, the Spirit is present, and Jesus is on his way into the world. Evil is no longer safe.

Jesus announced the kingdom in that dusty town on that Sabbath. He also denounced the fear that gripped the congregation in a snake’s coils. Annunciation and denunciation, two sides of a coin that has been carried by prophets and preachers and ages of sages. Wherever there is denunciation by the prophets, annunciation can be found in the neighborhood. And where the announcement falls upon deaf ears, denunciation of their callous disregard soon follows. The denunciation clears away the thickets, allowing the annunciation to spring forth.

But we must add something else to this prophetic witness between these two movements: the renunciation of our sins. Denunciation of the power structures in church and society, the uncovering of that which is intentionally hidden, is a necessary step toward the freedom of justice. But for the Christian, and any person of good faith, there follows in response another step equally important— that of renunciation.

Jesus began with the annunciation because he is the one who brings in the kingdom. In our time it is up to us as people of faith to begin with the denunciation of systems and structures that oppress and break the spirit of people. It would then be the most natural thing in the world to leap to the annunciation. Problem and solution; it’s how the world works.

But we are called to walk humbly as we act for justice. It is with the gospel in trust that we are invited to renounce our sins. The public renouncing of the sins of our discrimination opens the way to announce the good news of the gospel. And the gospel lived out is what reconciles us to God and to each other.

These are the acts of disciples who follow Jesus: they denounce, renounce, and announce. A movement begun by one is carried on through the Spirit by those who are willing to follow.

***

Twenty centuries after Jesus announced the kingdom we tell ourselves that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr., famously uttered that phrase we look up to see that arc crossing overhead, but with no discernible point on the horizon where it could touch down. That is, unless we prepare the way by renouncing our sins of injustice, as a nation, as a church, and as individuals.

Unity without equality for everyone is conformity to injustice for all.

Mark Oakley, in The Splash of Words, invokes a Franciscan blessing: “May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, doing in his name what others claim cannot be done.”

Photo: Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com