"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Williams: 'A new human community becomes possible'

(this post is part 1 of a series - part 2,  part 3)

I've been enjoying The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.  The book consists of reflections on four of the most well known icons of our Lord: the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, 'the Hospitality of Abraham' (Christ as one of the eternal Trinity), and Christ Pantocrator (ruler and judge of the world). I highly recommend it, and look forward to reading more of Williams.

As we near the end of this Eastertide, I offer the following excerpts from Williams' reflection over the icon of the Resurrection.  In this depiction of Christ's victory over death, Williams sees a victory that bridges our human walls of division, gives living meaning to the witness of the Bible, and redeems and reconciles the whole created order.  In this and the next couple of posts, I'll briefly share some of his insights, beginning with how Christ liberates we "compulsive dividers ... (who) deny ourselves the life God is eager to give."
"Christ stands on a precarious-looking bridge, as if he is the one who by the great risks and pains of his incarnation connects what we have pulled apart.  And in those icons where we see him reaching out simultaneously to Adam and Eve, it is as if he is reintroducing them to each other after the ages of alienation and bitterness that began with the recriminations of Genesis.  The resurrection is a moment in which human beings are reintroduced to each other across the gulf of mutual resentment and blame; a new human community becomes possible.  And similarly, remembering the other figures from the first covenant in the background of the picture, we realize that this community is unaffected by any division between the living and the dead: David and Solomon, Abraham, Moses, Elijah and Isaiah are our contemporaries because of Jesus' resurrection."  


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Two Ancient Readings for Eastertide

O God, whose blessed Son didst manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.
~ Collect for the Third Sunday of Easter

Two readings from the ancient Fathers, which are appropriate for Easter, and which I have found inspiring.  First, from a sermon by Saint Ephrem the Syrian.  I'm always delighted by the way in which the Fathers see the whole of Scripture as turning upon and pointing to the supreme event of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I also love the triumphant Christus Victor understanding of the work of Christ, so prominent in the early Church.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  

From Saint Ephrem the Syrian:
"Our Lord was trodden underfoot by death, and in turn trod upon death as upon a road.  He submitted to death and endured it of His own free will, in order to destroy death against death's will.  For our Lord went out carrying His cross, according to death's wish; He cried out on the cross and led the dead out from hell, against death's wish ...
And so, since death could not devour Him without a body and the world of the dead could not swallow Him up without flesh, He came to the Virgin, so that He might receive from her a chariot on which to ride to the underworld.  In the body He had assumed He entered death's domain, broke open its strong-room and scattered the treasure.
And so He came to Eve, the mother of all the living.  She is the vineyard whose hedge death opened by Eve's own hands, so that she might taste death's fruit.  Thus Eve, the mother of all the living, became the source of death for all the living. 
But Mary blossomed, the new vine compared with the old vine, Eve.  Christ, the new life, lived in her, so that when death, brazen as ever, approached her in search of his prey, life, the bane of death, was hidden within her mortal fruit.  And so when death, suspecting nothing, swallowed Him up, death set life free, and with life a multitude of men.
This glorious son of the carpenter, who set up His cross above the all-consuming world of the dead, led the human race into the abode of life.  Because through the tree the human race had fallen into the regions below, He crossed over on the tree of the cross into the abode of life.  The bitter shoot had been grafted on to the tree, and now the sweet shoot was grafted on to it so that we might recognize the One whom no creature can resist.
Glory to you!  You built your cross as a bridge over death, so that departed souls might pass from the realm of death to the realm of life.  Glory to you!  You put on the body of a mortal man and made it the source of life for all mortal men.  You are alive!  Your murderers handled your life like farmers: they sowed it like grain deep in the earth, for it to spring up and raise with itself a multitude of men."          ~ Saint Ephrem, Sermon on our Lord, 3-4.9
Having "set up His cross above the all-consuming world of the dead", Christ grasps Adam and Eve to lead them "from the realm of death to the realm of life."

 And here is Origen, reflecting on "the ransom", a common theme in patristic writings on the atonement:
"But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for many?  Surely not to God.  Could it, then, be to the Evil One?  For he had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, namely the soul of Jesus; and he had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength greater than he was equal to.  Therefore also Death, though he thought he had prevailed against Him, no longer lords it over Him, He having become free among the dead, and stronger than the power of death, and so much stronger than death that all who will amongst those who are overcome by death may also follow Him, death no longer prevailing against them.  For everyone who is with Jesus is unassailable by death.                   ~Origen, Commentary on Matthew xvi. 8
It's interesting to me that Origen's concluding remarks here represent essentially my own attempt to explain the resurrection to my young children.  More than once, when we've talked about the meaning of Easter, I've said something to the effect of, "Because Jesus was raised to life, it means He is stronger than death.  And since we are with Jesus, we don't need to be afraid of death either."

A question for the reader (if I may be so presumptuous): When we seek to explain a spiritual truth (e.g. the atonement, the Trinity, the Eucharist) to an inquiring child, should we expect to find ourselves coming nearer to the heart of the matter than we might in a "mature, adult conversation", or is it more likely that we shall find ourselves trying to convey complex, theological doctrines in a simplistic manner that does not adequately plumb the depths of deep concepts which deserve nothing less than a lifetime of reflection? I am not suggesting that we shouldn't try to impart the faith to our children in terms that they can understand. I am wondering if we should generally look to such conversations as valuable distillations of essential truth, or rather be wary of them as attempts to state simply truths which are not in fact simple. I suppose I am here asking that ancient question posed to our Lord: What is truth? Is it by nature simple or complex?


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Yes, The Resurrection Actually Is That Important

I am not much given to ranting.  I'm a pretty non-confrontational guy, and I like to look for the good in things, and focus on that.  I'm committed to the Church and to living faithfully as a follower of Christ and helping others to do the same, and I don't see how an incessant focus on the shortcomings of the Episcopal Church or individual leaders in that church does much good for the Kingdom, or helps others to live as disciples of Jesus.  I hardly ever visit places like Virtue Online, and I try to steer clear of those blogs that seem to have nothing to say other than to righteously lambast the most recent demonstration of TEC's "apostasy".  Honestly, I have no desire to be that guy.  And frankly, as someone who is seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church, I'm not sure I could keep my sanity if I didn't simply accept that there are indeed a lot of people in this church who say and do some pretty crazy things, and I can't change that.  I'm not going out looking for reasons to bewail the sad state of TEC; if I was, I would just be angry and frustrated all the time.  Definitely not my thing.

That said, I'm now going to allow myself a rant.  For one thing, it's probably good for me, at least every once in a while, to stand up and state something emphatically.  Because that's really not my style.  Like I said, I'm non-confrontational -- probably a bit too non-confrontational.  Sometimes, confrontation is unavoidable, and to simply let things go may not so much be a demonstration of loving patience as a proof of cowardice or apathy.  But more to the point, the source of my angst in this instance has just been really bugging me, and the more I think about it the more upset I get, so I'm going to get it out here.

The bishop of Washington recently posted a reflection on her blog, which I think may not unfairly be summarized as follows: 'Yes, the resurrection of Jesus is of vital importance to the Christian faith -- but, the resurrection really means whatever you want it to mean.'  Seriously?  I mean, I wish no ill will to the bishop, but seriously?  Sometimes I just want to throw my head back, Charlie Brown-style, and yell "AAARRRRGGH!  I can't stand it!"  It's just hard to conceive of how we've arrived at this point, where the sermons, statements, and books of so many of the leaders of our church seem to be so wanting.  It's embarrassing.  It's not simply that basic doctrine is being questioned, and in some cases flatly rejected; it's that the "rational, philosophical" alternatives so seldom strike me as even being very creative or interesting.  God's revealed truth is not being displaced by the enlightening truth of enlightened man, but by intellectual laziness built on a foundation of feelings.

In responding to a parishioner's question about whether or not "we needed to be bound by so unreasonable a proposition that Jesus’ tomb was, in fact, empty", Bishop Budde responds,

"To say that resurrection is essential doesn’t mean that if someone were to discover a tomb with Jesus’ remains in it that the entire enterprise would come crashing down. The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves."
Well, I'll have to differ on that.  First, I think the New Testament writers go to some lengths to prove precisely that Jesus was, in fact, raised from the dead by the power of God.  The tomb really was empty, and this really is the vital point that ultimately declares the victory of God in Christ and gives power and legitimacy to the gospel message.  The Apostle Paul stresses this numerous times in his epistles, nowhere more clearly than in I Corinthians 15, where he writes that if Christ has not been truly raised from the dead than this whole Christian faith thing is a sham, his preaching and their faith is empty and worthless, the dead who had placed their hope in Christ have perished, and we find ourselves the most pitiable people on earth, because we've been duped.  Pretty strong language.  But to Paul, yes, the resurrection actually is that important.  The gospel writers take pains to relate clearly that Jesus truly did die, and then truly was raised in His body.  He gave up His spirit and was sealed in a tomb.  But then God raised Him to new life.  The apostles and many others witnessed and attested to this fact, they embraced His resurrected body, they ate with Him.  Yes, His was a new resurrection body, "sown perishable, raised imperishable"; yes, He appeared in a locked room; but the testimony remains emphatic: Jesus was raised from the dead, leaving behind an empty tomb.  This is the Gospel.

I was recently reading the book of Acts.  Perhaps it's due in part to our now being in the midst of the Easter season, but I was struck by how truly central the resurrection is in that book.  Right off the bat Luke sets the tone by asserting that after His resurrection, Jesus presented Himself to the apostles with many "convincing proofs" that He was indeed truly alive.  The resurrection as the ultimate demonstration of Jesus' exaltation as the true Messiah of God is the whole thrust of Peter's message to the crowds on Pentecost, and later before the Sanhedrin.  Later still, when Paul preaches to the Athenians at the Areopagus, his address culminates in the assertion of Christ's resurrection.  The Athenians sneer, and later Festus says that Paul has gone out of his mind when he speaks of the resurrection.  To which Paul replies, "No, you misunderstand.  I'm not necessarily talking about an actual bodily resurrection.  Ha!  That's crazy!  I mean, I know that's what I said, but it's not what I meant.  I'm not asking for your 'intellectual acceptance of an outlandish proposition' (to borrow a phrase from Bishop Budde) --"  Oh, wait ...

See, it's not just that the whole New Testament obliterates the kind of subjective, experienced-based interpretation of the resurrection that is put forward by Budde and others.  It's that I don't find the alternative even remotely compelling.  Budde's remark about how the disciples' "experienced his resurrection" sounds like the old Borg-Spongian idea that the disciples had some kind of mystical, indescribable "experience" of Jesus after His death, and that we don't really know what that means.  I remember reading an explanation by one of the two (I think it was Spong), that "the disciples just knew that Jesus was with them in a special way now, so special that they could even talk about him being alive" or something like that.  You know, like how Aunt Sally said that she could really feel grandma's presence at the family reunion, that grandma was here, even though we all know grandma is actually stone-cold dead underground.  Real earth-shattering stuff, this "resurrection experience".

I wouldn't mind it so much if this was simply an individual Christian thinking out loud, pursuing truth and asking questions and groping towards God.  But this is a published reflection by a bishop of the Church.  She solemnly swore before God "to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church" (BCP pg. 513).  The office of bishop entails a number of duties, but perhaps none so important as that of serving as a "guardian of the Church's faith" (ibid pg. 519), which faith is sufficiently summarized in the Nicene Creed, which states that "On the third day, he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures".  I imagine Bishop Budde would claim that she does indeed believe that He rose, but I feel at this point that words don't even much matter to the people who make these kind of subjective arguments in an attempt to make the faith rationally palatable.  According to the BCP ordinal, the bishop is to "boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience" of the people (ibid pg. 518).  When we look to our bishops to do this, surely, surely the Episcopal Church deserves to expect better than to hear, "Yeah, the resurrection, like, whatever."

Alleluia!  Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Vigil at the Altar of Repose

Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me."          ~Matthew 26:38

This year, my parish again provided the opportunity to take part in a "vigil at the altar of repose".  In this centuries-old tradition, the bread and wine for the Holy Communion on Good Friday are consecrated at the Maundy Thursday liturgy, since there is no celebration of the Eucharist on Good Friday.  The consecrated Sacrament is then placed somewhere apart from the main altar.  At this "altar of repose", parishioners are invited to keep vigil, to keep watch for one hour or more with the Lord, present in the Sacrament.

Our "altar" was in the parish hall.  There is a slightly raised platform set into the wall at the far end of the hall, which houses a stained glass window from the sanctuary of the original 19th-century building, as well as some other woodwork from that church.  Here several members of the parish had brought in potted plants, shrubs, and candle lanterns, to create a garden atmosphere.  The Sacrament was placed on a small table in the center of this area, and covered with a white linen cloth.  There was a sign-up sheet in the parish hall, on which individuals could mark down an hour in which to keep vigil, from the end of the service on the evening of Maundy Thursday, through to 12 o'clock noon on Good Friday.

I signed up for an early morning hour.  With family responsibilities, it made the most sense for me to take the 6 a.m. to 7 a.m slot.  Still, I kind of felt like I was cheating, since I prefer to be up and about in the early morning anyway, as opposed to a late night hour when, no doubt, I would find myself struggling with Peter, James, and John to keep my heavy eyes open.  It didn't help that I was late.  And I had my morning mug of coffee with me.  So, yeah, talk about sacrificial devotion.

One of the songs from the previous evening's service was the Taize chant "Stay With Me".  I was singing it as I settled in for my vigil.  The first few times through, for some reason, I was rather absent-mindedly ascribing the words to the apostles.  Perhaps I was confusing the chant with the hymn "Abide With Me", and the petition of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, as they urge the Lord to stay with them for the evening.  Of course, that episode is not the inspiration for the Taize chant.  The words are those of our Lord in the garden -- a sober reminder of the agony of soul that, as true man, He willingly endured for our sake.

The hour passed quickly -- too quickly, actually.  Part of the reason, I think, was that it took a while for me to settle in and quiet my spirit.  I was late arriving, as I said.  When I did get there, I needed to use the restroom.  Then I went to get a light for the several candles scattered around the altar, as it was still quite dark out.  During this early busy-ness, as I went several times to and from the altar, I felt as if I was letting Jesus down.  Believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, I felt especially conscious of His presence, and also of the fact that I was not duly attending to Him.  All He asked was that I sit and keep watch with Him there in the garden for one hour, but I seemed unable to fully grant even this small request.  The experience kindled in me a desire to cultivate a more conscious awareness of the presence of Christ in my daily life.  For though I believe Him to be specially present in the Sacrament, I believe also His word to the disciples: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  And as the Psalmist said, "Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?"  Truly, God is ever present, irradiating all of creation, if I would but open the eyes of faith to behold Him.  Incidentally, it is interesting to me that a very catholic concept (that of the Real Presence) has reawakened in me a longing for that most evangelical spiritual reality, the personal and ever present friendship of Jesus.

Now, of course, is Eastertide.  And as John Chrysostom adjured me at the Great Vigil of Easter, this is not the time to lament my own unworthiness, but to rejoice in His victory.  Too soon though, Ascension Day will be here.  And then, even as we wonder at His glory, we will indeed be the ones pleading, "Lord, stay with us."