I Must Decrease (And Why That’s Good News)

Seattle Midsummer twilight (10:05 p.m., June 22, 2017)

The 24th of June is, in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In Europe, it’s also known as Midsummer Day, marking the critical moment when the longest days begin the six-month journey toward the longest nights. Even though we still have months before us of warm weather and brilliant sunshine, the light is now (imperceptibly at first) beginning to slip away minute by minute. Thus in the old days, on the night before Midsummer––called Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night––bonfires were lit to encourage the waning sun, and people were on their guard against any supernatural mischief. As we know from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a good night just to stay home. Whatever you do, don’t go into that magic forest!

The ancient traditions may seem obsolete, but are we free of the anxiety they represent? This turning point in the sun’s journey is a metaphor for our own mortality. We are temporal beings––creatures of time. For us, nothing lasts forever. The very moment that we reach the peak of the Summer Solstice, savoring what the poet Wallace Stevens called “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change…”, the sense of having all the time in the world starts to seep away––imperceptibly at first, as we enjoy our fun in the sun and the long unhurried twilights. As Stevens goes on to say in his great Solstice poem, “Credences of Summer”: “This is the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” After the perfect moment, then what?

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is running around in a frenzy, shouting, “It’s July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June? Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It’s going too fast! We’ve got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!”

Meanwhile, his friend Hobbes the tiger is watching Calvin’s panic with studious detachment. Then he says to himself, “I don’t think I want to be here at the end of August.”

My Minnesota relatives still have the summer house my grandfather built on a bluff above Lake Pepin, a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River that becomes a lake two miles wide and thirty miles long. About fifteen years ago, in late June, I walked down to the beach from the house, passing through a grove of maple trees and birdsong. When I emerged from the woods onto the sandy lakeshore, I saw one of the great spectacles of Midwest summer: a storm of mayflies.

Thick black clouds of insects with transparent wings whirled in the air above me. Millions more covered the willows and cottonwoods, darkening the summer greenery with their densely packed masses. It was an explosion of pure fecundity: “The feast and fairy dance of life,” as one naturalist has described it.

But this dance is oh so brief. After incubating for two long years in the mud of the lake bottom, the mayflies grow wings, float up to the surface and rise into the air to mate. Within 24 hours of this eruption into ecstasy, they fall lifeless back to earth. Roads and bridges covered with their greasy remains are too slick for driving, and must be closed until a cleanup crew arrives.

Is this not a sped-up version of the human condition––here today, gone tomorrow? As they sang in medieval England, “Merry it is while summer lasts; but now draws near the wind’s cold blast.” The Bible was equally frank about our radically transient status: “All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades.”

Contemporary poet Mary Oliver delivers the same message, lightened by a dose of whimsey:

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.[i]

For me, this mortal life is like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So glorious and wondrous––and so quickly over. Every year my wife and I walk a mile down to the local harbor to watch the display, and when it’s done, as we make our way home in the darkness, I always feel the melancholy of endings. The pyrotechnics of July 4––the American version of Midsummer Night––have come and gone. Only two weeks old, summer is already beginning to slip through our fingers! This is the barrenness of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

John the Baptist knew how the story goes. He knew that his given moment on the stage was coming to an end. Remember what he said about Jesus? He must increase, I must decrease. My time is passing, but Jesus’ time is coming. Thus at the Nativity of John the Baptist the days start to decrease, while at the Nativity of Jesus the days start to increase.

John the Baptist is rightly remembered as the voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is come (let every heart prepare him room!) As his father Zechariah foretold when John was only eight days old, the Baptist was born to be “the prophet of the Most High…. to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins.” In paintings, John is often seen pointing away from himself, toward Jesus, the “dawn from on high” who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist (1513-16)

John gave us expectant hearts. But he offered us another great gift as well. He taught us the art of letting go. Jesus must increase, I must decrease. That’s what he said, and what he did. It’s what we all do. As the old shape note hymn says with such brutal honesy, “Passing away, we are passing away.”

All flesh is grass––a melancholy thought at the dawn of summer. But wait; there’s more, and it’s good news. Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Isaiah tells us, the word of God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). And what is this “word?” Jesus is the word, the speaking of divine reality in human be-ing. And that divine reality, which we are made to mirror, is all about self-diffusive, self-forgetting love. God is a Trinity of persons, giving themselves over to one another in an eternal circulation of gifts offered and gifts received.

So the great secret at the heart of existence, the word that stands forever, is that it’s all about letting go instead of holding on. Jesus made that perfectly clear in his death and resurrection. And John the Baptist, who was martyred before he could see that first Easter Day, intuited this truth even before it was fully revealed.

He must increase, I must decrease. Less of me, more of Christ. More of God. And the Christian life is all about making that truth our daily practice, as individuals and as communities of faith. We learn to let go of things which are passing away––and of the stories which are no longer true for us––and to remain open and grateful for the new gifts we are about to receive. Welcome every gift, but hold on to nothing but God, who is not only the Giver of every gift, but is also the only gift worth having.

God is not a thing, an object, a commodity to be possessed. God is a dance we do. We become most truly ourselves only to the degree by which we participate in, and surrender to, the choreography of that dance: the eternal giving and receiving of self-diffusive love. Letting go, not holding on, is what completes us.

As Mary Oliver reminds us,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[ii]

 

 

Related post:

Sacraments of Summer

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things,” New and Collected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 122.

[ii] ibid., 178

The Holy Trinity and American Politics

Masaccio, The Holy Trinity, Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1425-27)

When you are praying, do not fancy the Divinity like some image formed within yourself. Avoid also allowing your spirit to be impressed with the seal of some particular shape.

– Evagrius[i]

The Trinity reminded Christians not to think about God as a simple personality and that what we call “God” was inaccessible to rational analysis.

– Karen Armstrong[ii]

 

Trinity Sunday (June 11 this year) originated in the 10th century as a kind of epilogue to the Christian year’s Incarnation narrative from Advent to Pentecost. The coming of Christ, his life among us, his death and resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit all spring from a single Source: the God whose triune nature became manifest in the interwoven processes of creation, redemption and sanctification. Trinity Sunday is a doxology to the Trinitarian template shaping salvation history since time began.

Some preachers dread the Trinity sermon as a doomed exercise in higher mathematics or abstract philosophy or a futile attempt to cram some theology into the minds of the congregation before they take off for summer vacation. But recent decades have seen a tremendous revival of Trinitarian thought as foundational for Christian faith and practice. Two years ago I wrote three posts about the Trinitarian mystery. Here are the links if you want to have a look:

Three Things You Should Know about the Trinity

Part 1: God is relational

Part 2: You can’t make this stuff up

Part 3: God is a dance we do

This year I have been thinking about the Trinity in relation to American politics. In a commencement speech at a Christian college last month, popular-vote-loser Trump said, “In American we do not worship government; we worship God.” Since “God” is a generic term which may apply to any object of worship, Trump is certainly free to apply it to whatever conjured projection of his own monstrous attributes he pleases. But no one should mistake it for the God whose essence is not the narcissistic solitude of monarchical power but the self-diffusive relationality of loving communion.

Trump’s dis-ease in relation to the underlying reality of divine communion is but an extremely grotesque example of modernity’s critical error about the nature of human be-ing. As I said in my “God is relational” post:

“We tend to think of a person as defined by his or her separateness. I’m me and you’re you! We may interact and even form deep connections, but my identity does not depend upon you. I am a self-contained unit. You can’t live in my skin and I can’t live in yours. That’s the cultural assumption, which goes back at least as far as Descartes in the seventeenth century, and continues today in such debased forms as rampant consumerism, where my needs and my desires take precedence over any wider sense of interdependence, community, or ecology.”

Pretty much everything the White House and the Congressional majorities are trying to do now is a grievous offense against the Divine Trinity whose very being is communion. Attacking immigrants, inflaming racism and violence, abusing women, starving the elderly, sentencing tens of thousands to early death by taking away their health care so the rich can get richer, poisoning the wells of public life, telling the planet to go to hell––the list of injuries to God’s desire grows daily.

I get it. Evil has been prowling around like a ravenous lion ever since the Fall. America is no exception in this regard, and we should be dismayed but not surprised by those who want to make America hate again. But I wish they would at least purge “God” from their rhetoric. I know it’s a generic, non-descriptive term when severed from liturgical or theological context. They’re not talking about any God I know. Still, their implicit claim of reference to the biblical God is blasphemous and tiresome.

How does God’s love abide in anyone rich in worldly goods who sees the needs of his brothers and sisters and acts heartlessly toward them? (I John 3:17)

Whoever fails to love does not know God, because God is love. (I John 4:8)

I couldn’t help noting that on the Thursday closest to Trinity Sunday, 2017, James Comey and Sen. Angus King, in a Congressional hearing watched by millions, both cited the medieval martyrdom of Thomas Becket at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket, who spoke truth to power in the name of the Trinitarian God, was consecrated on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, 1162.

KING: “[W]hen a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like, ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or ‘would you’, do you take that as a directive?”

 COMEY: “Yes. It rings in my ears as, well, ‘will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

 KING: “I was just going to quote that, in 1179, December 27th, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of the meddlesome priest?’ and the next day, [Becket] was killed. Exactly the same situation.”[iii]

At that moment, church history nerds across America sprang from their couches to applaud the survival of learned discourse. And I suspect that God, who holds evil tyrants “in derision” (Psalm 2:4), found the Trinity coincidence amusing.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981), 66

[ii] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 115

[iii] Transcript of James Comey testimony before United States Senate Intelligence Committee (June 8, 2017):  http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/08/full-text-james-comey-trump-russia-testimony-239295

Ascension Day “Charade”? – The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

Ascension Day at the Episcopal Theological School, May 4, 1967 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

I first fell in love with Ascension Day in the seventh grade, when my Episcopal school in Los Angeles kept the day holy by giving us the afternoon off. When solemn high mass ended at noon, 350 boys raced out of chapel to make the most of a sunny spring day. I may not have had a keen grasp of the Ascension’s theological significance, but if it meant a half-day vacation, I was all for it. So how did I spend that free time? I went to see the Crucifixion.

My father, James K. Friedrich, priest and film producer, was shooting the last episode of a 6-hour miniseries on the life of Christ. I met my friend Ricky McGarry, whose Catholic school also observed a half-day, and we took a bus to Hollywood’s Goldwyn Studio to visit the set. The irony of going to “Golgotha” on Ascension Day escaped me at the time. Although it could be said that the Fourth Gospel sees as much glorification on Mt. Calvary as Luke sees on the Mount of Olives, this was not an argument a seventh-grader was prepared to make.

The Rev. James K. Friedrich on the set of “Crucifixion and Resurrection” (1956)

My most memorable––and notorious––Ascension Day came a decade later, reported under the title “Ascension Day Charade “ in The Christian Century magazine.

On Ascension Day, May 4, approximately 40 men and a few women and children gathered at a conspicuous place at noon and conducted a premeditated, burlesque celebration of the day of Christ’s “Glorification.” To one end of a long cord they had fastened several gas-filled balloons; to the other, a crude effigy of the Christ made of tissue paper and cardboard. As high noon approached, the crowd began a hilarious countdown beginning at 100. The volume of the shouting and the air of boisterous jollity heightened until with a mighty shout of “Zero” and “Blast-off” from the crowd the cord holding the balloons and the effigy was released. A naïve bystander did not realize what the raucous crowd was mocking until, as the balloons ascended dragging behind them the paper Christ, he heard one of the men quote Scripture: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

 

Who were these people? Were they Russian atheists or members of the Chinese Red Guard taunting Christians with their gibes? Were they “hippies” taking a trip on LSD or Black Muslims reviling Christianity? Where did this parody of the Ascension occur? It occurred on the campus of a highly respected seminary, and the men who contrived and conducted it were seminarians, studying for the office of pastor, prophet and priest in the high calling of Jesus Christ.

The unsigned editorial went on to shake its finger at such “profanations,” expressing “revulsion and pity,” and “a heavy sense of abiding sadness” over the “absurd and despicable” actions of those naughty seminarians.

On the day designated by the church and by generations of Christian people as a reminder of the exaltation of Christ, these people debased the Christ… What will they try next for thrills? The Black Mass?[i]

But another mainline publication, the Methodist Christian Advocate, jumped into the fray on the students’ behalf. It couldn’t resist needling the low church Century for fussing over a liturgical calendar item to which their liberal mainline constituency in fact paid scant attention. And it worried that the establishment’s “disturbing defensiveness about surface material” may signal that its symbols are already on the decline. In contrast, said the Advocate,

the seminarians who are able to deal so lightly with symbols of a previous day… are indicating a certain freedom toward their faith. Be reminded that they are seminary students, who presumably have some desire to serve their world through their church. Their lightness toward tradition may well reflect a desire to shake loose from dead forms in order to better serve the God who has called them.[ii]

Dear reader, it may not surprise you to learn that this controversial liturgical observance was cooked up in my seminary dorm room. A youthful Religious Imagineer, joined by two other first-year students at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was seeking a dramatic finish to a series of spontaneous “art actions” during a four-day gathering of major church leaders. The conference agenda was certainly serious and daunting––the reunification of ten American denominations. But the addition of news media and right-wing Christian protestors to the mix was too tempting to resist. It seemed a good time for some religious guerilla theater.

Our helium-powered ascension was not mockery but play, with precedents going back to the medieval practice of tying a rope to an effigy of Christ and pulling it up through a hole in the church ceiling on the Feast of the Ascension. But in the late twentieth century, the explicitness of a material ‘figure’ rising into an empty sky prompted some discomfort among the Christian modernists in the crowd. How much were they being asked to believe about the Ascension? What was really at stake in our ‘Ascension Day Charade?’

The four gospels describe the earthly life of Jesus, his death, and various appearances to his followers after the resurrection. But only Luke describes the moment the appearances ended. Matthew provides a farewell scene on a mountain, but we never see Jesus actually leave. Instead, he promises to be with us always, to the end of time. Mark concludes his account with three women being told by a mysterious figure that the risen Christ is “not here.” But if they go back to Galilee, they will see him there. It’s like the teaser in a season finale: To be continued. John, who devotes several chapters to a long and moving farewell speech at the Last Supper, ends his gospel with a another conversation over food––a picnic breakfast at the beach––but now the talk seems less urgent, as though Jesus and his friends have all the time in the world together.

Only Luke delivers the emotional image of seeing the Incarnate One go for good, like Shane riding off into the sunset. As I wrote in my 2014 post on the Ascension, “Where Did Jesus Go?”:

Luke might have had Jesus disappear around a corner, or over a hill.
Or the disciples might have looked away for a moment, or blinked,
missing the exact moment of vanishing.
But the cloud is a nice touch. Artists have always loved it.
In any event, Jesus is suddenly gone.

Christians ever since have been left with a number of questions? Where did he go? Is he still locatable in space and time, or is he only in a transcendent, placeless realm? What form did he take in order to be in a ‘place’ beyond embodied existence? What does it mean to say Christ is still present and in relationship with us? Does the Ascension tell us anything about our own future?

If Jesus exchanged the spatially locatable body of a first century Jew for the omnipresence we attribute to the divine, can we still say he is fully human, or did the Word “unbecome” flesh in the Ascension? Did it somehow reverse or cancel the Incarnation?

Martin Luther, insisting that the ascended Christ was not “a stork in a nest in a treetop,”[iii] argued for his ubiquitious presence in the here and now, but that still leaves the particularity of Jesus in question. As one contemporaray theologian has framed the dilemma, “Christ everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.”[iv]

One ancient solution was to understand the Church as the continuation in space-time of Christ’s incarnate presence. Jesus’ individual body was succeeded by the community of the faithful, the visible ‘Body of Christ’ in the world. As Ephesians says, “The Church is Christ’s body, the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere” (Eph.1:23). But where is the church which has truly fulfilled this high calling, except in momentary flashes of grace? We may be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, but we are still not all that good at it, despite centuries of practice. The perfection of Christ is not contained within the ecclesia, though we may hope to meet it there.

It was easier to take Luke’s ascension imagery seriously when the cosmos was vertically arranged into earth below, heaven above. The heavenly realm might be invisible, yet it could seem nonetheless near enough to shed its influence on the world below. Indeed, many paintings of the Ascension show heaven to be, as the Celts say, only about a foot and a half above our heads.

Pietro Perugino, The Ascension of Christ (1495-98)

Recent centuries have abandoned such a dualistic cosmos. Heaven as a separate place in the old sense has receded into infinity––and beyond!––distant and remote, unengaged with the mechanisms, causalities and presences of this world. But a God who has nowhere to ‘be’ in space-time is a God without ‘existence.’ In modernity’s cosmology, it isn’t just Jesus who has ascended out of sight, but the entire Godhead. The question became not just ‘where is Jesus?’ but ‘where is God?’

Theologians have puzzled over the seeming ‘unthinkability’ or absence of God within the social imaginary of modernity. I won’t go too far into the weeds to catalog the rich variety of their responses here, but they include thinking of God not as a noun (an object among others) but as a verb (known through actions, situations or relations), or expanding the notion of transcendence to mean not only ‘beyond’ but ‘within’––the hidden inner source of every possibility which Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘the dearest freshness deep down things.’ But whatever the approach to the mystery of divine presence and absence, language fumbles when it reaches beyond the senses. In the matter of the divine who, what, where, when and how, words fail.

The true God is the unknown mystery of the world whose holiness is violated as soon as God acquires a name. God is beyond being and nonbeing, belief and unbelief, theism and atheism. God is hidden, holy, mysterious, the ineffable source of revelation and grace.[v]

The Ascension epitomizes the dilemma of locating and describing ‘the unknown mystery of the world.’ We may catch a glimpse the disappearing feet, but if Jesus has indeed returned to God, where exactly is that? And how do we ourselves get there?

The Ascension of Christ, Limoges (Late 16th century)

A nineteenth-century Danish theologian proposed a temporal approach to the question of ‘where.’ Instead of looking for the ascended Christ in space, might we discern him within the unfolding of time, replenishing and perfecting the world ‘with the energies of the future’?

The presence of Christ in the universe must be looked upon, not so much as actual being, but rather as an essential becoming; it must be treated as a progressive advent, a continual coming, in virtue of which, by the growing development of his fullness, he makes himself the center of the whole creation; and the creation itself is thus being prepared and created anew as a living, organic, and growing temple of Christ.[vi]

To contemplate the mystery of the ascended Christ as a process, shaping the interrelated destiny of everything that is, may prove a way to collapse the infinite distance between earth and heaven into a nearness, a presence, which can be known and experienced even if not understood. Wherever Christ went, it was to prepare a ‘place’––or situation––where we all may become our truest selves, completed at last in Christ’s glorified and expanded body. Like Dante at the end of Purgatorio, through the mystery of ascent we become ‘rifatto … puro e disposto a salire a le stelle’ (‘remade . . . pure and ready for the stars’).[vii]

So the ultimate question for Ascension Day may not be ‘where is Jesus?’, but ‘where are we?’ And where do we need to go from here to be with Christ and in Christ? An old shape note hymn says it perfectly:

Then he arose, ascended high
To show our feet the way…

 

 

 

 

Related post: Where Did Jesus Go?

 

[i] “Ascension Day Charade” (unsigned editorial), The Christian Century, vol. LXXXIV, No. 21 (May 24, 1967), 675-76.

[ii] “Jesus in the Clouds,” Christian Advocate, vol. XI, No. 12 (June 15, 1967)

[iii] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Edinburgh, Grand Rapids: T & T Clark, 1999), 269.

[iv] Ibid., 12.

[v] Gary Dorrien, The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 238

[vi] Hans Martensen, in Farrow, 192.

[vii] Purgatorio xxxiii.141-143.

End photo by Marilyn Robertson.

My body shall rest in hope: A Holy Saturday reflection

F. Holland Day, It is Finished (1898)

Over the next three days, Christians will undergo a ritual immersion into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The liturgies of the Triduum – the Great Three Days – are where we do our best theology and our most heartfelt common prayer. Richly layered, multi-sensory, dramatic and moving, the Triduum is a three-act liturgy like no other. By the time it’s over you may be someone else. You can read more about the Triduum in my 2015 post, “The Journey is How We Know.”

The Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection all find expansive liturgical expression in the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, but the interval of Holy Saturday, when Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, has received relatively little ritual attention. It is a time to “wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought” (T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”). A time for the silent suspension of ritual. Still, I can’t help but wonder how to read the profound quiet of Holy Saturday.

So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb which he had hewn in the rock. (Matthew 27: 59-60a)

After the anguished drama of the Crucifixion, the shouting mob, the screaming victims, the weeping witnesses, the coolly descriptive neutrality of this verse delivers the shock of finality. Jesus is dead and gone. The presence who had shaken the world like an earthquake is suddenly no longer. All that remains is “the body”––and the profound silence of an irreversible absence.

Enguerrand Quarten, Avignon Pieta (1456)

Everyone who has seen a loved one die knows this silence, knows the numbing realization that a voice so familiar will never be heard again on this earth. As W. H. Auden imagines the first hours after the cross, “we are not prepared / For silence so sudden and so soon; / The day is too hot, too bright, too still, / Too ever, the dead remains too nothing. / What shall we do until nightfall?”

And a 6th-century hymn for Holy Saturday laments:

Great silence reigns on earth this day!
Great loneliness embraces all!
For death has had its ruthless way,
And caught the Lord and Love of all.

Although theology likes to declare victory over death and sin on Good Friday, and Christian imagination has envisioned Holy Saturday as a triumphant storming of the gates of hell by Christus Victor, we must not deny Jesus’ full humanity by exempting him from the fate of every mortal: the complete and absolute draining away of life. “He descended into hell,” the condition of non-being, non-relation, and non-communication which are the opposites of God.

Hans Holbein the Younger,
The Dead Christ (1521)

Whatever “the Father” was doing on Holy Saturday, the Son was lying in the tomb, enduring the same lifeless solitude and silence which are every mortal’s fate. As Hans Urs von Balthasar astutely notes, this was the final form of the Redeemer’s solidarity with the rest of us. Among the dead, “solidarity means: being solitary like, and with, the others.” Stripped of all life and power, Jesus still found a way to keep us company. As we all shall one day be, he was dead and gone, passively awaiting the next move by the Creator who always makes something out of nothing.

In this final and utter surrender to death, the Incarnate One made even the dire extremities of the human condition part of divine experience. He took the nothingness and silence of nonexistence into the heart of the Creator, where it was finally and decisively overcome. As Irenaeus said, “only what has been endured can be healed and saved.” No matter how lost we get, no matter how deep we fall into the abyss, Christ has already gone there before us, making that abyss into a road––the unexpected path to life eternal.

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad;
even my body shall rest in hope.
For you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor let your beloved know decay.  (Psalm 16: 9-10)

Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516)

 

Related post: Are we too late for the Resurrection?

 

 

 

Our Revels Now Are Ended

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Old Christmas is past,
Twelfth Night is the last,
And we bid you adieu,
great joy to the new.

– Welsh carol

For now the time of gifts is gone­–
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill–
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will…

– Louis MacNeice[i]

Christmas ends tonight. That may surprise those who thought it done by December 26th, or with the final New Year’s game. I do get funny looks when I utter “Merry Christmas on days 2 thourgh 11. But for those who keep the traditional Feast of the Incarnation, it is best when savored the full twelve days. With the gathering, gifting and communal celebrations mostly behind us, the last days of Christmas can be a peaceful inbreathing of wonder before ordinary time resumes. The angels have returned to heaven, but the starry nights are no less radiant. The shepherds have returned to their flock, but we still linger in the stable, desiring to adore the newborn Mystery just a little longer.

Poet Mary Oliver, experiencing an intuition of charged significance at a New England pond, wrote, “oh, what is that beautiful thing / that just happened?”[ii]– Her question perfectly expresses our devotional response to the Nativity. The event itself is but a moment, but its meaning generates a lifetime of reflection and adoration. So in these last days of Christmas I have continued to carol with guitar, bowed psaltery and hammered dulcimer, read the poems of Incarnation, contemplated the crèche by the light of the decorated evergreen, and gazed in attentive silence at our candlelit icon of Madonna and Child. Oh what is that beautiful thing that just happened?

 But tonight, it’s all about to end. A few savvy churches may observe the playful but largely forgotten Twelfth Night revels tonight, and tomorrow we will make some fuss about the arrival of the Magi to worship the holy Child, but then our retreat into festive space/time will be over and done. The Holy Family’s Christmas concluded that way: abruptly, with a quick exit to escape Herod’s swords. So too will ours, as we resume not only our private travails but also the current dismal prospects of our public life, so well described by W. H. Auden in his “Christmas Oratorio”:

The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear …

There’s no escaping history. We can’t stay dreaming forever in holy and silent nights. “Well, so that is that,” Auden wrote. “Now we must dismantle the tree, / Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes … The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory…”

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

As for the Christmas revelation of Incarnate Love, will it also fade away in the glare of the everyday, after being too briefly entertained as only “an agreeable possibility?”[iii]

Joseph Pieper, writing about the way we wish each other well at Christmas, says that “the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth.”[iv]

Renewal. Transformation. Rebirth. Were these among the gifts you received this Christmas? And if so, what are you going to do with them? How will your life be different, now that you have seen the Child of Bethlehem? How will your world be different?

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Thirty-five years ago, on the Ninth Day of Christmas, I was running on the beach in Santa Monica, California, when I saw four young men standing along the shore, gazing out at the vast Pacific. They wore sweatshirts printed with their school name: IOWA. They had come west for the Rose Bowl, held the previous day. Their team had lost to Washington, 28-0, but now they were discovering the real reason for their journey: the sea.  It was perhaps the first time they had ever seen it. They were standing quite still, not talking, transfixed by its boundless liquid infinity. Wonder shone from their faces.

Earth and sky had been washed clean by a pre-dawn storm. Cumulus billows erupted along the horizon, while the morning sun, having won its battle with the longest nights, blazed above us in a pure blue heaven. It was one of those days when the world seemed freshly made.

I continued running down the beach, but when I returned twenty minutes later, the Iowans were still there, staring at the sea, taking all the time they needed to absorb so much wonder.

I thought to myself: When they return to Iowa, will they carry that bright ocean with them? Would we someday hear about puzzled farmers who swore they’d heard waves roaring in their cornfields?

And when you leave Christmas behind, heading home to your Nazareths, or fleeing to distant Egypts, will you carry its bright immensity with you? Will the people you encounter ever hear its roar?

 

[i] “Twelfth Night,” q. in William Sansom, The Book of Christmas (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 187

[ii] Mary Oliver, “At Blackwater Pond,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 226

[iii] W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976): “The evil and armed” is in Advent section, 272; the rest is in “The Flight into Egypt,” 307

[iv] Joseph Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard & Clara Winston (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 30-31

Caroling in the Dark: A Christmas Meditation

"And a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6)

“And a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herod then with fear was filled.
(Medieval carol)

The first Christmas Eve, in the old legends, was “so hallowed and so gracious” a time that flowers bloomed in the Bethlehem snow, kindly beasts knelt to warm the Child with hay-scented breath, the birds of dawning sang all night long, and angels bent near the earth to sing of peace.

Oh that it were so again! Desperate to exit the gloom and foreboding of the present time, “we too would thither bend our joyful footsteps”–to see the birth of New Possibility, to welcome the marriage of heaven and earth, to recover hope for what we might become. But the Christmas story is not about escaping this broken world. It is about repairing it.

The Incarnation began with unconditional acceptance of the human condition. To know our griefs and carry our sorrows, God began mortal life as a refugee from political violence and ended it as a victim of torture and capital punishment. Risk and violence were not confined to the latter days of Jesus. They were there from the start.

That is why, only a few days after singing “Silent Night” at the holy manger, the Christian calendar insists that we take time to remember Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s children. We are allowed no illusions about how the story goes: Love is born into the world, and the powers try to kill it.

Only Matthew’s gospel records Herod’s monstrous act. Its clear parallel to the Exodus story, where Pharoah’s slaughter of the Hebrew children fails to eliminate the child of destiny, suggests some narrative invention. There are no other historical accounts to corroborate Matthew’s tale. But who cannot testify to the truth it contains? The powers will stop at nothing to achieve their ends. That, too, is part of the Christmas story.

Julia Hartwig, a Polish poet, gives a harrowing account of the massacre. It seems haunted by memories of Auschwitz, but reading it today I think of Aleppo.

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces

But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown this
and not the monstrous uproar on a street drenched with blood
the wild screams of mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soldiers
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm with milk

Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescue
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful numbness of despair

At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place…[1]

And the good news? The coming of God means the shaking of the powers. Even as a baby, the incarnate God struck fear into the hearts of rulers and oppressors. And when Jesus grew up and began to bear witness to the purposes of God, he made it impossible for the powers of this world to claim divine sanction for their monstrous behavior. They still try. Even “pious” rulers can do terrible things, as we know all too well. But the incarnate God has torn the mask from power’s face. By dying at its hands, like all the other victims of hatred, violence, and abuse, the Word made flesh has made absolutely clear which side God is on.

Like the women of Bethlehem weeping for her children, we are not easily consoled in the face of so much human suffering. And yet, even in the worst of times, we must never forget the kind of story we are in. It is, ultimately, a story of mercy and possibility:

I am going to tell of God’s kindness to the people of Israel… All of God’s deeds of mercy… All of God’s many acts of faithful love. (Isaiah 63:7)

Isaiah wrote these encouraging words in his own darkest hour. His people were in exile from the land of promise. Hope was dead and gone; their story had reached its bitter end. And yet, said the prophet, it is precisely in the place of desolation and loss that we are called to make our song. It is how we resist.

Sixty-three years ago, such a song was composed on a scrap of paper in a Soviet labor camp by a Latvian prisoner, one of 50,000 Latvians condemned to exile and imprisonment in Siberia under Joseph Stalin, a twentieth-century Herod, after the Second World War.

When the Kings College choir was touring Latvia in the summer of 2007, singer Emma Disley spotted the carol, scrawled on its original piece of paper, in a museum. She transcribed it and brought it back to England, where it was arranged for four-part choir and sung, in Latvian, in that year’s worldwide Christmas Eve broadcast.

The text was by a Latvian writer in exile, Valda Mora. As for the woman who composed the tune, we know neither her name nor her fate. All we do know is that she wrote it down on a scrap of paper as a handmade Christmas card for a fellow prisoner, Marta Zalaiskalnson, on Christmas Day 1953. Marta, who had been in the labor camp since 1945, sewed the paper into the lining of her dress so that her Soviet guards wouldn’t find it.[2]

The history of this carol has a lot to teach us about faith and hope. Born in a time of terrible darkness, it concedes nothing to the powers. Instead, calmly and assuredly, it sings of only one thing: the Light which has come into the world, a Light which the darkness can never extinguish.

On this holy night earth and heaven shine,
On this night the heart and stars commune,
And enmity fades, each loves the other,
And o’er the stillness warm wings hover.

On this night your footsteps glimmer;
This night transfigures doubt to hope;
This night must banish every sorrow,
And teach you to forgive and love.

On this holy night, in this holy night,
On this holy night, each loves the other;
On this holy night, in this holy night,
On this holy night, each loves the other.

On this night the gates of heaven open,
Above earth’s darkness arc the burning stars,
And softly on each person’s head this night
The Lord in blessing lays His loving hand.

 

 

 

 

Photograph adapted from an uncredited image of a demonstration against an Islamophobic national registry. Source: MoveOn.org email 12.22/2016.

[1] “Who Says,” by Julia Hartwig, trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

[2] Translation by Mara Kalnins. The carol was arranged by Stephen Cleobury. The 2007 Lessons and Carols bulletin is at http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/chapel/festival-nine-lessons-2007.pdf

“God is alive, surprising us everywhere”

Advent moon 2014

I know people who can’t stop crying. America has gone mad. Those who “love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth” (Psalm 52:3) are the new normal. Democracy’s traditional safeguards­–checks and balances, constitutional law, vigilant journalism, the Electoral College, the voices of principle, factual empiricism, and a healthy sense of shame–are being undermined or ignored with impunity. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Rev. 13:4)

That cry of despair in the Book of Revelation is answered by heaven itself: “Look, I am making all things new.” (21:5) The world of evil and suffering will not stand forever. The world of God is being born, and we are invited to make our home in it. That does not mean we get to exit cleanly the dying world for a more perfect one. History consists of both worlds messily mixed like the wheat and the tares. We interact with both simultaneously. But we can still decide which world claims our allegiance: the world of death or the world of life, the world of hate or the world of love.

The Scripture, hymns and prayers of Advent are cognizant of the old broken world and the damage it can do. This prophetic season, mindful of time’s arc bending toward justice, calls every believer to engage evil not just as critics but as activists, resisting it wherever and however we can. But Advent also reminds us that the powers we contend with are neither ultimate nor lasting. The best way to resist the darkness is to be a bearer of the light. Don’t fixate on the dying world, granting it more seriousness than it deserves. Live in the coming dawn, even before you can see it. Be a prisoner of hope.

For most of us, such hope is sustained less by awesome displays of divine power than by small moments of daily grace, the merest hints of benevolent Presence bathing the ordinary with a holy light. Advent spirituality–the poetics of hope–is mostly a matter of paying attention. And while I wish I could report a grand vision of the beast and his minions being cast into a lake of fire, my own Advent revelations this year have been small and personal.

The first was ten days ago, when I was taking a bus to the Roman Catholic cathedral in Seattle for a concert by the Medieval Women’s Choir. I struck up a conversation with a homeless woman who was on her way to a women’s shelter at a local Episcopal church. When we got off the bus, I offered to haul her rolling suitcase for her, since we were going in the same direction. As we walked, she shared her story. Now 72, she had to stop working years ago due to a variety of illnesses. She now has colon cancer. She hopes to get into a housing project soon. Her conversation was articulate and insightful. When we parted, I gave her some money to see her through the weekend. “Give me your hands,” she said. She took them into hers, and began to pray for me and my ministry with eloquent, heartfelt words. Whatever I may have given her, this impoverished woman bestowed upon me far greater riches.

Later, at the concert, the women’s choir sang a 13th century English carol that made a lovely Latin pun about Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary:

Verbum bonum et suave
Pandit intus in conclave,
Et ex Eva formans ave,
Eve verso nomine.

The good and sweet word
Spreads through the room
Forming “ave” out of “Eva”
By changing Eve’s name.[1]

Forming “ave” out of Eva. As I listened, it occurred to me that the “good and sweet” words the woman had prayed over me had transformed her from “Eva”–a mortal woman of the Seattle streets–into a kind of angelic messenger. Had Gabriel himself appeared to utter an “ave,” I could not have been more sure of the divine presence behind that chance meeting.

My second Advent revelation also involved a concert, this time by the Seattle Pro Musica, whose exquisite renderings of seasonal choral music from many centuries moved me to tears more than once. It wasn’t simply that the pieces, ranging from Dufay and Praetorius to contemporary composers like Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, were sublime marriages of text and music, flawlessly performed. It was that such perfect beauty was being offered up in the gloom of the post-election nightmare. That is why I wept. Those superb voices, expressing everything that is best within the human heart and soul, seemed so brave and yet so vulnerable as we sink deeper and deeper into the American abyss. When the powers of hell have done their worst, what will be left of such beauty? Will all of it, human and divine, just be swept away?

One of the carols they sang, an e.e. cummings text in a setting by Joshua Shank (b. 1980), provided the answer I sought:

mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall
even prevail a million questionings against the silence of his mother’s smile
–whose only secret all creation sings.[2]

My third Advent revelation began with a dream the following night. A woman (my soul?) asked me why I liked living in this place. I said I enjoyed the balance of nature and culture. You can hike in a mountain wilderness and attend a symphony on the same day. “Is nature where God has gone?” she asked, perhaps echoing my recent immersion in Thoreau studies. “God is alive, surprising us everywhere,” I told her, aware that it was not exactly a reply to her question. But that’s what came out of my mouth.

Then I awoke. Bright moonlight shone through the window. Though it was only 3 a.m., I felt impelled to go outside for a better view before the big moon disappeared into the Douglas-firs. Small masses of low cumulus clouds raced across the lunar face, veiling and unveiling its brightness. Orion stood watch on the moon’s right. Faint barking of distant seals. A coyote’s cry. Winter cold. Silence. What did the night want to tell me?

God is alive, surprising us everywhere. The message of a dream, intimating something more real than language. But what? Not an idea in my mind. A feeling in my body. I tried briefly to give it words. Nearness. Urgency. Strength. Presence. Then I let the words go, and rested in whatever it was. In times so dark and dangerous, it felt . . . consoling. Heaven and earth may pass away, but this Presence will not. We are not alone. Perhaps, even loved.

 

Related post

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

[1] Missus Gabriel de celis is a late 13th century chant for the Solemnity of Mary (Jan. 1). English translation by Ginger Warfield & Ali Corbin

[2] Text from “from spiralling ecstatically” by e.e. cummings. Joseph Shanks’ piece is called “Winter”