You Gonna Have to Serve Somebody: Thoughts on Christ the King

The Enthronement of Christ (Bamberg Apocalypse, early 11th century).

The extremists in American politics say that God is on their side, but such statements are lacking in content. Their “God” is not really expected to supply any concrete assistance, such as plagues or angelic legions, to carry them to victory. “God-on-our-side” language is just a dramatic way to say that “we are right and you are evil.” 

However, a new video ad is selling the startling idea that God has indeed, in these latter days, directly intervened in history by anointing a human messiah to enforce divine will through political power. Over God’s-eye aerial views of land and sea, we hear a caricature of Charlton Heston recite a text with biblical cadences and a lot of reverb:

“And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise, and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.… God said, ‘I need someone to be strong, advocate truth in the midst of hysteria, someone who challenges conventional wisdom, and isn’t afraid to defend what he knows to be right and just.… someone who will take the arrows, stand firm in the face of unrelenting attacks.’” 

As we hear these words, photographic images of the Chosen One fill the screen. The new messiah is revealed to be—wait for it—Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida! I knew he had presidential ambitions, but now he’s in the running for the Antichrist! Are there really enough rubes out there to fall for the old false messiah gag? [i]

About 60 years ago a southern preacher named Clarence Jordan liked to ask his fellow Christians: “What’s the biggest lie told in America today?” He’d let that sink in for a bit, and then he’d say, “The biggest lie told in America today is: ‘Jesus is Lord.’”

In other words, if you say “Jesus is Lord” and foster racism, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and support white supremacy, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and foment bigotry and hate, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and afflict the vulnerable, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and do harm to your fellow beings, you’re a liar. 

Someone recently posted a short video on the internet depicting Jesus as the incarnation of our worst politics. It shows Jesus teaching his disciples in a variety of settings: 

“I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. And behold: Now I’m all lazy and entitled. You shouldn’t have done that.”

“What is a man profited, if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul? A lot! He has profited a lot. One soul for the whole world, that is an amazing deal!” [ii]

Sad to say, some people would prefer the anti-Jesus who does nothing but reflect their own pitiful values. In any case, as the song says, “You gonna have to serve somebody: Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gonna have to serve somebody.” [iii]

So who’s it going to be?
Whom do we serve?
Who—or what—rules our life?
To whom do we belong?
To what do we surrender?

In a culture of hyper-individualism, the idea of submission to a larger reality, a greater good, goes against the grain. But we are all governed by something, maybe even a whole crazy stampeding herd of somethings, pulling us here, driving us there. Whether we are conscious of it or not, there are voices, inside us and outside us, which direct and rule our hearts in every moment.

A hundred years ago, Scottish theologian P. T. Forsyth suggested that “The first duty of every soul is not to find its freedom, but its Master.” And then he added: “If within us we find nothing over us, we succumb to what is around us.” [iv]  When that is the case, there is no shortage of impulses, passions, ambitions, ideologies, agendas and distractions to swallow us up and sweep us away.

On the last Sunday of the Christian year, the Feast of Christ the King, we pledge allegiance to the Divine Love that governs the universe. As Frederick Denison Maurice, nineteenth-century Anglican priest and social reformer, reminds us, the reign of Christ extends into every province of our common life: 

When we say, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we desire that the King of kings and Lord of lords will reign over our spirits and souls and bodies, which [belong to God]… We pray for the extinction of all tyranny…; [we pray] for the exposure and destruction of corruptions inward and outward; [we pray] for truth in all departments of government, art, science; [we pray] for the true dignity of professions [and labor]; [we pray] for right dealings in the commonest transactions of trade; [we pray] for blessings that shall be felt in every [dwelling].[v]

“Crown him Lord of all,” we sing at the Feast of Christ the King. But the gospel for the day does not show us a mighty ruler, but only a naked man nailed to a tree. Soldiers mock the pathetic absurdity of his “kingship.” The sign above his head—“King of the Jews”—is a mocking irony. His only apparent subject is the dying thief hanging next to him. “Jesus,” he gasps, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [vi]

Some kingdom!
Some king!

Does Christ’s kingdom exist only in the future? Or is it somehow breaking into the here and now, even in the killing fields of history, where you need the faith of a dying thief to see it? 

The question we began with—whose world is it?—is, alas, undecidable within the flux of history. You can’t choose on the basis of the evidence, because for the time being the evidence is mixed, like the wheat and the tares.

But you can decide who’s got the better story—Jesus or Satan.
And you can choose which story you want to belong to:
The story which overflows with life, 
or the one that ends in death.

Your choice.


[i] You can see the video here: https://youtu.be/U9oTBA-MvZk

[ii] The “GOP Jesus” video, produced by Friend Dog Studios, is here: https://youtu.be/SZ2L-R8NgrA

[iii] Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” on Slow Train Coming (1979).

[iv] Quoted in Leander E. Keck, Who is Jesus? History in the Perfect Tense (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 164, 167.

[v] Goeffrey Rowel, Kenneth Stevenson, Rowan Williams, eds., Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 416.

[vi] Luke 23:33-43.

Can the Right Please Stop Taking God’s Name in Vain?

Fra Bartolomeo, St.Dominic (c. 1506-7), Museo di San Marco, Florence.

How hath man parcel’d out thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which thou hast made …

— George Herbert, “Love (I)”

I sometimes meditate on a poem by George Herbert in my morning prayers, assisted by Helen Wilcox’s marvelous annotations [i] (the poet’s 17th-century idioms can be obscure for the contemporary reader).  And although “Love (I)” is not one of Herbert’s best poems, these lines jumped out at me when I read them today, for the debasement of the divine Name by American extremists has been very much on my mind. 

For example: Last week on Newsmax, a far-right cable channel, Eric Bolling (fired by Fox News in 2017 for sexual harassment) was interviewing conspiracy fabulist Lara Logan (“dumped”—her words—by Fox six months ago). Their subject was immigration at the southern border, which Logan said was a plot “to dilute the pool of patriots” in the United States. 

Bolling: “How does it end?”

Logan: “… this is a spiritual battle. I am a firm and solid and immovable believer in God and I believe that God wins.… and if you fight for god, god will fight for you.”

Bolling: “I have to ask you, because my audience is very god-fearing, god-loving, etc. Final thought, please, just a couple seconds: Is god ok with a closed border?”

Logan: “… God believes in sovereignty and national identity and the sanctity of families and all the things that we’ve lived with since the beginning of time, and he knows that the open border is Satan’s way of taking control of the world through all of these people who are his stooges and his servants … the ones who want us eating insects, cockroaches and that while they dine on the blood of children.”

Bolling (nervously): “Ha, ha, yeah.” [ii]

A day later, the opening prayer at the “ReAwaken America” tour in East Hempfield Township, Pennsylvania, went like this:

“Father god, we come to you in the name of Jesus. We’re asking you to open the eyes of president Trump’s understanding, that he will know the time of divine intervention, that he will know how to implement divine intervention, and you will surround him, father, with none of this Deep-State trash, none of this RINO trash. You will surround him with people that you pick with your own mighty hand. In the name of Jesus.”

The crowd, including Eric Trump, Michael Flynn (his father’s disgraced national security adviser), and the current Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, repeated this evil prayer phrase by phrase.

White “Christian” nationalism is on the rise in America. It’s a toxic mixture of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, resentment and rage, thinly dressed in pious nostalgia, theological ignorance, and historical lies. For the increasingly extreme right, these are features, not bugs: 61% of Republicans—and 78% of Republican evangelicals—believe the United States should be declared “a Christian nation.” [iii]

I shudder to imagine what they have in mind, but I’m sure it has more to do with reactionary tribal identity and fear of the “other” than with the gospel, or love, or justice, or caring for the vulnerable, or welcoming the stranger, or healing God’s creation. And it’s not just a disgruntled and deluded mob that wants a more theocratic and less inclusive America. The defilement of both democracy and religion extends to the highest levels of government. 

I have written previously about the Supreme Court rushing in where angels fear to tread, substituting highly contested theological assertions for legal reasoning. If Republicans have their way in upcoming elections, it will only get worse. In a carefully argued response to the Dobbs decision on abortion, legal scholar Laurence Tribe warns, 

“… as the Court continues on the path of replacing long-settled individual rights with religiously inspired mandates, the odds would increase that the rules under which we live will reflect the preferences of ever smaller minorities.” [iv]

Gilead, here we come. 

In the January 6 insurrection, the rallying cry was “God! Guns! Trump!” The mob carried signs and shouted slogans proclaiming the will of God and the will of Trump to be identical. One attacker later told the Wall Street Journal how he sought divine guidance before storming the Capitol: 

“Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?” He says he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward. “I checked with the Lord,” he says. “I checked with Him three times. I never heard a ‘No.’” [v]

Insurrectionist wanted photo.

It is distressing to hear the word “god” on the lips of the wicked. But not shocking. Taking God’s name in vain is an ancient sin, from the Crusaders and Inquisitors of the past to the terrorists and extremists (including elected officials!) of our own day. Whether they sincerely believe that ultimate reality is backing them up, or cynically employ the word to authorize their own seething id, “god” on their lips becomes drained of meaningful content. It refers to nothing outside themselves. To borrow Herbert’s image, they have “parcel’d” out the divine Name, cut it into tiny pieces and tossed it into the trash.[vi]

Of course, “God” has never been a proper name. It’s more of a nickname, enabling us to talk to or talk about the “ground of our being” (Paul Tillich) or the “Love who loves us” (my personal favorite[vii]) without thinking we have reduced the Real to the dimensions of language. The Holy One has many such nicknames: Kyrie, Deus, Abba, Creator, Deliverer, Father, Mother, Spirit, and countless others. In Herbert’s poem, the “glorious name” is “Immortal Love.” If “love” had been invoked instead of “god” by the mob at the Capitol, might it have tempered their violence or extinguished their rage? Or would Love, too, have been thrown so carelessly into the dust?

Seventy years ago, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote a moving defense of the problematic necessity of “God” language in human discourse. I first heard this passage read aloud in a theology class by one of my great mentors, the saintly Robert McAfee Brown. It touched my heart then, and has remained with me through the years: 

“‘God’ is the most heavy-laden of human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of men have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. The races of man with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger-marks and their blood. Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! … We may not give the word ‘God’ up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about the ‘last things’ for a time in order that misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word ‘God’ and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.” [viii]


[i] Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Each poem is accompanied by extensive notes and a survey of modern critical views.

[ii] I have not capitalized “god” in these kinds of statements, since they speak of something quite other than God. https://twitter.com/JasonSCampbell/status/1583069972267696134?s=20&t=KwdkjkDH7hvg0GSnYm79NA

[iii] https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/09/21/most-republicans-support-declaring-the-united-states-a-christian-nation-00057736

[iv] Laurence Tribe, “Deconstructing Dobbs,” New York Review of Books, Sept. 22, 2022, p. 81.

[v] Michael M. Phillips, Jennifer Levitz, and Jim Oberman, One Trump Fan’s Descent Into the Capitol Mob, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/one-trump-fans-descent-into-the-u-s- capitol-mob-11610311660 I found it in Andrew L. Seidel, “Attack on the Capitol: Evidence of the Role of White Christian Nationalism,” which contains many such examples. Seidel’s article is Part VI of a highly recommended report and analysis, “Christian Nationalism and the January 6 Insurrection”: https://bjconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Christian_Nationalism_and_the_Jan6_Insurrection-2-9-22.pdf

[vi] Herbert’s poem was contrasting the immensity of divine love with the trivializing reductions and diminishments of love we creatures of dust make when we apply it to the wrong object. But as I say at the outset, his lines seem a perfect match for the misuses we make of “God” in our political life.

[vii] From Terence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life (2011).

[viii] Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God (1952), 8-9.

“No Dove, no Church”—Keeping Pentecost in a Dispiriting Time

Gerard David, Annunciation (detail), 1506

“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. 

— Romans 5.5

What do you believe?
“I believe in everything.”
“You make it sound almost easy.”
“It’s hard as hell.” 

— Frederick Buechner, The Book of Bebb

Hope is hard to come by these days. Overwhelmed by climate apocalypse, exhausted by COVID, horrified by mass shootings, outraged by war crimes, saddened by the evisceration of democracy, savaged by racism, maddened by tribalism, sickened by political insanity, many of us have grown increasingly dispirited. Are we just going from bad to worse, or is hope still a viable practice? On this Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit, I choose hope, no question. But I have to admit, it’s hard as hell. 

My hope does not rest in any existing social mechanism or political ideology. As an American embedded in this historical moment, I will continue to support political efforts and movements to bend our political, economic, and social order toward justice and human flourishing. But recent years have left me with few illusions about the capacity of our frail and broken system to deliver us from crisis. Although the stupidest man in Congress complained last week that “you can’t even lie to Congress or lie to an FBI agent or they’re coming after you,” the safeguards aren’t what they used to be.[i] And the prospect of America becoming a dystopian “Gilead” is no longer inconceivable.[ii]

But despite the heretical and dangerous claims of America’s “Christian nationalists,” God’s friends do not rest their faith in any nation-state, which by its nature has no theological aim or sense of ultimate purpose (telos). “The Church as a community transcends every political order because it is animated by the Holy Spirit and has as its telos and aim friendship with God and neighbor.… What distinguishes the community that is the body of Christ is not only its redirection to humanity’s proper telos, but also the regeneration of the heart that makes redirection toward the pursuit of this telos possible.… As such, it stands in contrast to every other polis [communal society] insofar as no other shares its narrative (the Scriptures) or is the site for the Spirit’s regenerative, sacramental, and sanctifying presence.” [iii]

Is it realistic to expect communities of faith, consisting of flawed human beings, to be sites of the Spirit’s sanctifying and renewing presence? Many of us have encountered spiritless churches in our own day, and through the centuries far too many Christian communities have managed to extinguish the Pentecostal flame. But for God’s friends, “people of the Spirit” is who we must be. In the 17th century, Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes used a memorable image to preach the centrality of the Spirit to Christian identity: 

“The Holy Ghost is a Dove” he said, “and He makes Christ’s Spouse, the Church, a Dove … No Dove, no Church.” Noting that the dove is a symbol of peace and blessing, innocence and gentleness, he warned against all who “seek and do all that is in them to chase away this Dove, the Holy Ghost.” In its place they would have a monster of their own making, with “the beak and claws of a vulture.” Instead of an olive branch, this terrible creature would “have a match-light in her beak or a bloody knife.” [iv] (“Christians” who love your guns more than children, I’m looking at you!)

We may not always make the best Spirit-people, but that is our only true vocation—to receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts and our communities, not hoarding it for ourselves, but distributing its gifts for the repair of the world and the flourishing of humankind. 

Edwin Hatch, a nineteenth-century Oxford scholar who wrote the famous Spirit hymn, “Breathe on me, breath of God,” said that “the fellowship of the Divine Spirit is a sharing in [its] Divine activity, in an unresisting and untiring life, always moving, because motion and not rest is the essence of [the Spirit’s] nature—always moving with a blessing.”  In other words, the Holy Spirit is a gift, and gifts exist to be shared—passed around freely in perpetual circulation. As Jesus exhorted us, let your light so shine, that all the world may see and know Divine blessing. Or as Hatch put it:

“The blessing of God, if it be within us, must shine forth from us.
No one can see God face to face without [their] own face shining.” [v]

The gifts of the Spirit are many, but hope is my subject today, so I’ll stick with that. As divine gift, hope isn’t a mood that comes and goes. Nor is it something we work hard to produce out of our own psyches, willing it with all our might against all odds. Rather, it comes from beyond ourselves, as a gift from God, not to be grasped in blindness or indifference to the chaos and sufferings of history, but as an enduring disposition, a habit of being, practiced daily in confident fidelity to the divine future which “broods over the world warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” [vi]

I will close with two compelling affirmations of the nature of hope. May they be an encouragement to your own practice of life in the Spirit. The first is by theologian John Cobb: 

In spite of all the destructive forces [we] let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles [we] put in its path. In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in others also.… what makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another, but a Spirit that moves us all.” [vii]

And from the inimitable Frederick Buechner:

But the worst isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well. [viii]


[i] Louis Gohmert, a Republican representative from Texas, made this sadly revealing remark in an interview on right-wing media on June 3, 2022. 

[ii] Gilead is the name of the scary theocratic American state in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). If you don’t have HBO, just watch the latest news from Texas and Florida. 

[iii] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 237, 239.

[iv] Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 118.

[v] Ibid., 491.

[vi] The full line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” is: Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of God’s future, nurturing the new creation into being, even as the Spirit brooded creatively over the waters at the beginning of time.

[vii] John B. Cobb, Jr., Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology (Beverly Hills, CA: Bruce, 1971), cited in Marjorie Hewitt Suchoki, “Spirit in and through the World,” in Trinity in Process: A Relational Theory of God (New York: Continuum, 1997), 180.

[viii] Dale Brown, The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 124.

What Will the Cross Make of Us? — A Good Friday Sermon

Christ on the Cross (Auvergne, 12th century), Cluny Museum, Paris.

A sermon preached on Good Friday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA

I’m going to ask you some questions, 
and the answer you will give is, “I am here”.

Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?…
Peter, slave of fear, where are you?…
Thomas, slave of doubt, where are you?…
Men and women of Jerusalem,  enslaved by mob violence, where are you?…
Pilate, slave of expediency, where are you?…

You’re all here, then. Good. 
Because the crucified God has something to say to you: 

Mercy.

Let us pray.

God, we pray you, look upon your family 
for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to undergo 
the torture of the cross. Amen.

I find this opening Collect for Good Friday so moving, because it doesn’t make any requests for particular outcomes. It simply asks God to look at us—just look at us—with the loving gaze of mercy. In the middle of a terrible war, with a million dead from COVID in this country alone, and a pandemic of hate and racism and sheer folly leaving us dispirited and exhausted: Lord, have mercy. That’s our prayer at the foot of the cross. Lord, have mercy

In the 1965 Jesus movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told, the Holy Family is returning from Egypt after the death of Herod. And when they’re back in their own country, on their way home, they come up over a rise, and there before them are dozens of crosses along the road, with a man dying on every one—human billboards advertising Roman justice and the cruel fate awaiting anyone who might trouble the tranquility of the empire. In those days, it was an all too common sight.

The camera gives us a good look at those suffering victims, anonymous in their pain, and then cuts to a closeup of the two-year-old Jesus, riding on a donkey in his mother’s arms, looking at those crosses with wide and wondering eyes. 

Thirty years later, another donkey would bring Jesus toward his own cross, and there he would be cradled one last time in the arms of his grieving mother.

Can’t we have a better story? Why couldn’t the people have been transformed and the authorities converted and the Anointed Son of God lived to a ripe old age teaching and healing and wisely overseeing the first generation of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

That’s what the disciples expected of the Messiah. Of course, you and I know better. We expect the good to die young. We’ve seen enough of it in our own day. As someone says in an A.S. Byatt novel: “There will always be people who will slash open the other cheek when it is turned to them. In this life love will not overcome, it will not, it will go to waste and it is no good to preach anything else.” 

But it could have been otherwise. Everyone had choices. That was the problem, of course. God let everybody choose, and God’s own choices were limited by the choices that his creatures made. When Jesus fell upon the ground and begged for an alternative to the cross, God remained silent. There was no reversing the choices already made by Judas and the clergy and the police who were already closing in on the garden.

But God never stopped working to bring good out of the situation, to accomplish the purpose for which Christ was sent into the world. An illuminating perspective on this can be found in that notable theological work, The Joy of Cooking, In its advice to the host of a party, it says, 

“Satisfy yourself that you have anticipated every possible emergency…Then relax and enjoy your guests….If, at the last minute, something does happen to upset your well-laid plans, rise to the occasion. The mishap may be the making of your party…[As the Roman poet] Horace observed, ‘ A host is like a general: it takes a mishap to reveal genius.” 

The mishap of sin revealed God’s genius. O felix culpa, as Augustine said. O happy fault. God never gave up on the party we call the Kingdom. But since God refused to control others’ free will, God had to improvise, to work with whatever hand God was dealt by the choices made by human beings. And the hand God was dealt was the cross. But God said, “The cross will not foil my plan. In fact, I will make of it the cornerstone of salvation.” And so it was that Jesus could say with his dying breath: “It is accomplished.”

A century ago, Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov described the accomplishment of the cross this way: 

God tells His creation: you are created by My hands. You are my work, and you would not exist if I did not will it. And, since I am responsible for you, I take upon Myself the responsibility for your guilt. I forgive you; I return your glory to you, for I take your sin upon Myself; I redeem it with My suffering.[i]

There are those who recoil at the idea that the death of one innocent man somehow atones for humanity’s collective guilt. But the death of Jesus was not a crude transaction where Jesus just picks up the check for our feast of follies when we prove unable to pay the debt ourselves. Admittedly, there is some language in our tradition which might prompt such a misreading of the cross. For example, in the beautiful Easter Vigil chant, the Exultet, there is the line, 

“O blessed iniquity, for whose redemption such a price was paid by such a Savior.”

That may be true poetically, but not theologically. There’s plenty of guilt to atone for, no doubt. Just watch the news. And by ourselves we can never hope to set it right. But redemption has nothing to do with accounting. It has to do with love. For God so loved the world, and there is no love without vulnerability—and sacrifice. Anyone who has ever suffered because of their love for another knows the truth of this.

Christ’s death didn’t just happen on Golgotha. It took place in God’s own heart. And the salvation wrought on the cross wasn’t because somebody named Jesus got punished for our crimes, but because love proved greater than sin and death. 

The powers of hell have done their worst to God this day, but Christ their legions hath dispersed. The victory didn’t have to wait for Easter. Love wins today—on the cross—because it absorbs every evil without returning the violence, and it refuses to give up on any of us—not even the killers who know not what they do. 

David Bentley Hart, a contemporary Orthodox theologian, sums this up beautifully:

“The only true answer to the scandal of this blood-soaked cosmos is the restoration of the very One who was destroyed … the only horizon of hope is that of the humanly impossible; and the only peace for which [we] can now properly long is not that which can be bought by a victim’s blood, which is a plentifully available coin, but that which can be given solely by that One who has borne the consequences of human violence and falsehood all the way to the end and then miraculously returned, still able and willing to forgive …”[ii]

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.[iii]

One of my Facebook friends, an Episcopal priest in Delaware, posted a story this week about a young woman, a newcomer to her parish, who asked her, “What are the qualifications to carry the cross in church? Because, you know, well, see? I was homeless for about five years. Yeah, and you know, see? I did some things I’m not proud of, but it was really the best choice between some really bad choices. So, I’m kinda embarrassed and I don’t want a lot of people asking a lot of questions so, you know, am I qualified?” 

“Oh, sweetheart,” said the priest, “I don’t know anyone in this congregation who is more qualified than you are to carry the cross. I have no doubt that you will be one of the best-qualified crucifers in the history of crucifers in The Episcopal Church.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” she said. “But thank you. Just one more question: Do I get to wear white gloves?”

“Absolutely, my friend. Let’s go find you a pair.”[iv]

That’s such a perfect story because Jesus made his own cross an act of solidarity with people just like her—with the outcast, the homeless, the powerless, and the survivors of bad choices. He shared their condition and he suffered their pain. He bore their griefs and carried their sorrows. He made the sin, alienation, and brokenness of the world his own, so that no human experience would ever be alien to God. 

As a Franciscan scholar has written: 

“The Crucified is the diffusing center of God’s love in the world whereby he reaches down to that which is furthest from [God] to draw all into [the divine] goodness and thus into the love of the Trinity.” [v]

And an Anglican theologian puts it this way: 

“In [God’s] own Trinitarian history of suffering, God opens [Godself] to include the uproar of all human history; oppressed and forsaken people can find themselves within the situation of a suffering God, and so can also share in [God’s] history of glorification.”[vi]  

I love the image of that young woman carrying the cross as she herself, I would say, is being drawn into the divine goodness and sharing in the history of Christ’s glorification. And it being an Episcopal church, she got to do it with white gloves!

So here we are on God’s Friday, at the foot of the holy cross, puzzling over its multiple meanings. Why did Jesus have to die? How exactly has that death broken the power of sin and death? What does the cross tell us about God’s love for us? 

These are all profound questions, but I will let the liturgy’s hymns and prayers speak to those questions rather than my trying to reduce the mystery of Good Friday to a few paragraphs. Just open your heart and the liturgy will speak the word you need to hear today. It may come in a hymn, or when you venerate the cross, or receive Sacrament. But it will come.

So rather than explore what we make of the cross, I will conclude with a few thoughts about what the cross wants to make of us

On Palm Sunday, we heard St. Paul urge us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … who humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This isn’t telling us to try harder, but to see differently, or as Paul says in Romans, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

When we start to put on the mind of Christ Jesus, when we begin to think God’s thoughts instead of our own, not only will the world become different, but we will begin to live differently—not in fear of death, despairing over the uproar of the times, or retreating into our fortress egos—but in self-diffusive love, offering all that we have and all that we are for the sake of others, as we move deeper and deeper into the holy communion with God and one another that is our destiny. The cross proves that Jesus lived that way until his last breath. And the cross invites us to do the same.

The gospels never tell us what’s going on in the mind of Christ. They simply show us what kind of life that mind produced. But if I were to venture a glimpse into Christ’s mind, I might choose a passage from The Brothers Karamazov, where young Alyosha, the most saintly of those memorable siblings, is out looking at the stars when he is suddenly seized, as it were, by the mind of Christ: 

The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears. . . ,” rang in his soul. 

What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything. . .[vii]


[i] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 364.

[ii] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2020), 23.

[iii] “Ah, holy Jesus,” verse 5, text by Johann Herrmann, tr. Robert Seymour Bridges.

[iv] Thanks to the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton for letting me use her story.

[v] Ilia Delio, Crucified Love: Bonaventure’s Mysticism of the Crucified Christ (Fransciscan Media, 1999), 165.

[vi] Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 151.

[vii] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, Vintage Classics, 1990), 362.

Tending Hope’s Flame on an Anxious New Year’s Eve

Little Nemo dreams about the New Year (Winsor McCay, Dec. 27, 1908).

My times are in your hand; deliver me.

— Psalm 31:15

Time is our choice of how to love and why.

— W. H. Auden

The turning of the year is the only ritual observance shared universally by humankind. Each religion has its own sacred days scattered across the months, but tonight everyone on earth will join in one great procession, time zone by time zone, into the New Year. We pause a moment to look back, with a mixture of gratitude and regret; then we turn our faces toward the unwritten future. We usually do this with gleeful clamor and warm embraces, welcoming the New with our brightest hopes. The arrival of 2022 may strike a more tentative note. 

In my seven years of blogging, I have written a reflection every New Year’s Eve. Most of those posts have been about hope. On the eve of 2017, with my country “teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin,” I hoped that we would “not to be mesmerized by the abyss,” but rather be on the watch for the divine ingenuity “already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history.” 

Three years later, with the flag of hope tattered and torn by endless battles, I drew inspiration from Thoreau, who continued his quiet work of studying the natural world even as the Civil War ravaged the American consciousness. We must, he argued, refuse the hypnotic spell of the chaos which seeks to seduce our gaze. The refusal to take our eye from the transcendent goodness and beauty at the heart of things is “the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.”

At the end of 2021, such spiritual poise feels elusive, if not unimaginable. This was supposed to be the year we returned to normal. With COVID now raging like the fires and storms of climate change, and our body politic critically ill with malice and madness, normal is no longer on the itinerary. 

Didier Maleuvre, a specialist in the study of Western culture, describes hope as an inherently perilous task: “So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future.” Isn’t that where we find ourselves on the eve of 2022—at the mercy of the future? It is an unnerving time for sure, and few of us will be stepping so bravely into the New Year tonight. 

Yet we must, now more than ever, light our candles in this dark and declare our fidelity to the dawn, whenever and however it may come. God desires a better world. However our follies may frustrate and obstruct divine hope, God is wiser than despair. “Behold,” says the Holy One, “I make all things new.”[i] May we all heed the summons to embody that great redemptive labor in our own stories, whether it be in small acts of kindness or collective works of social and spiritual transformation.

The world as we know it is passing away. But death is never the final meaning, only the portal to new birth. Can we embrace this moment in time as an invitation to radical transformation? The Indian writer Arundhati Roy expresses such a hope:  

“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus … It has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”[ii]

Imagine a better world and walk toward it.

Dear reader, I believe that our faith and our love, as well as our hope, will be severely tested in the coming year. When the demons of weariness and discouragement do their worst, remember the Paschal Mystery: The way down is the way up

When Dante’s descent into the abyss of Hell reached its deepest point, his downward trajectory ceased. Once the poet passed through the nadir—the center of the earth—his motion became, without a change in direction, an ascent back toward the surface. His journey taught him that even the “lightless way,” if you take it far enough, is bound for glory.  

… we climbed the dark until we reached the point
where a round opening brought in sight the blest

and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars.
And we walked out once more beneath the Stars. [iii]

Virgil leads Dante out of Hell (14c MS).

Dear readers, thank you for engaging with my posts over the last year. I am especially grateful when your own thinking is stirred or your soul is fed by what you find here. My work is to pass on whatever comes to me in reading, experience and the occasional inspiration, planting what seeds I can in the community garden. It is a labor of love. To all who take the time to write a comment or share a post with others, thank you for valuing and extending the conversation. 

I wish for you both courage and joy in the New Year. Keep tending the fires of hope!

For summaries and links for previous New Year’s Eve posts, click here.


[i] Revelation 21:5.

[ii] Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” in Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, (New York: Penguin, 2020). This quote has been widely posted on the Internet, and you can see her read the full text on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7hgQFaeaeo0

[iii] Dante Alighieri, Inferno xxxiv.140-143. John Ciardi translation.

On the Morning After the Nativity

Simone di Filippi, Nativity (c. 1380, Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable, 
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty, 
Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high council-table, 
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity, 
He laid aside, and here with us to be, 
Forsook the courts of everlasting day, 
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay. 

— John Milton, “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

What on earth happened last night—at that little stable on the edge of town? It was all so strange, so unbelievable. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time and it was all just a dream. 

There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time. 

And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling beside her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did. 

I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home. 

And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? Part of me hopes it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I have no idea what happens next. But I have to admit I’m a little nervous about where all this is going to take me.[i]

That’s how I imagine the “morning after” speech of a Bethlehem shepherd. After such a vision, he’s intoxicated by wonder, struggling to make sense of it, and feeling both curious and anxious about what happens now, after this wondrous birth. What will happen now—to me, to you, to the whole wide world? A change gonna come, yes it will.[ii] Yes it will, because what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again. 

And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:1-14).

In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the confines of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

What a fantastic thought: God wants to be with us—not just love us at a distance but to be intimate with us. Joy to the world, the Lord is come … let every heart prepare him room. But perhaps we have some doubts about our capacity to receive such a guest. 

I’ve been reading a couple of 17th-century poets who expressed their own doubts our capacity to host divinity. Matthew Hale (1609-1676) in a poem titled “Christmas Day” (1659), said:

                                    I have a room
‘Tis poor, but ‘tis my best, if thou wilt come
Within so small a cell, where I would fain [willingly]
Mine and the world’s Redeemer entertain … 

Here he’s speaking about his heart as the place he would entertain the Redeemer. He goes on to describe sweeping up the dust and cleaning up the mess, just as we would if we expected an important houseguest. The poet even attempts to wash this “room”—with his own penitent tears.

And when ‘tis swept and washed, I then will go,
And with Thy leave, I’ll fetch some flowers that grow
In Thine own garden [i.e., the flowers of faith and love];
With those I’ll dress it up …
yet when my best
Is done, the room’s [still] not fit for such a Guest. 

Well, if we can’t make our hearts fit dwellings to house the divine, who can?
Only God can make us so:

            Thy presence, Lord, alone
Will make a stall a court, a cratch [manger] a throne.  

The poet/priest George Herbert, in his own “Christmas” poem (1633), expresses the same need for divine assistance:

O thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,            
Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,    
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:             

Herbert’s poetry is always resonant with Scriptural references. “Beasts” recalls Psalm 49:12—prideful humans are like “the beasts that perish”—while “a stranger” evokes Ephesians 2:12—without Christ, we remain “strangers to the covenants of promise.”

Then Herbert, like Hale, calls upon God as the only one who can complete his moral and spiritual remodeling project: 

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have         
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave. 

“Rack” is another word for a manger, but it can also mean an instrument of torture, suggesting the cross. In other words, the first time Christ came, humanity provided him the cross and the grave. The poet prays that next time Christ comes to us, we may give him better lodging—a newly furnished soul, adorned with God’s grace. 

Both of these poets were saying: Let every heart prepare him room. But they were also confessing that such preparation is more than we can do by ourselves. However, with God’s help, we may yet become fit lodging for divine presence. 

In the 20th century, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.” 

Merton wrote this after a life-changing experience at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville. As he was studying all the faces of the milling crowd, he suddenly felt an overwhelming love for all of them, even though they were all strangers to him. It was like what the shepherds experienced in the Bethlehem stable, where, as W. H. Auden said in his own Christmas poem, “everything became a You and nothing was an It.” [iii]  Merton would later put his street-corner epiphany at into words.

“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race. 

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person], a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [iv]

Just so, on that wondrous Christmas night in Bethlehem, our human nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We are still works in progress no doubt, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory” (II Cor. 3:18).

A thousand years later, St. Symeon the New Theologian echoed Paul’s luminous text: “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”

They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness. Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And even when we turn away from the Light, the Light comes looking for us. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger. 

What happens in Bethlehem does not stay in Bethlehem.

Nativity (12th century), Cloister of St. Trophime, Arles, France. 

Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future. And Christmas Day is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey deeper and deeper into God. And whether we know it or not, as we walk that pilgrim road, we are all shining like the sun.

As we used to say back in the day, “Can you dig it?” Can you embrace the wonder of the holy birth: the immensity of heaven cloistered in one small room, be it the Virgin’s womb, the Bethlehem stable, the human heart, or whatever place you’re in right now? Can you embrace the wonder? Will you?

The world wants you to believe far less. 
But why would you want to do so?  

In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but she finds herself touched by a carol they are singing:

Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
Whereon the Savior of the world was born;
Rise to adore the mystery of love, 
Which hosts of angels chanted from above. 

The young woman leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to divine love, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[v]



[i] It’s a risky thing to follow Jesus. At the end of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that “someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go” (John 21:18).

[ii] Sam Cooke’s prophetic cry for social transformation was influenced by Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke said the song came to it in a dream. Listen to it and imagine a shepherd singing it after the Nativity: https://youtu.be/fPr3yvkHYsE

[iii] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. The line is from the Narrator’s concluding speech. Auden’s marvelous poetic dramatization of the Nativity, written during the dark days of World War II, is imbued with hope. Alan Jacobs’ helpful annotated edition is highly recommended (Princeton University Press, 2015).

[iv] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966).

[v] Charles Williams’ Christmas novel is The Greater Trumps (1932).

Say Yes: A Homily for Advent 4

The Visitation, German c. 1444.

In calling me, the call does not leave me intact; it surges only by opening a space in me to be heard, and therefore by shattering something of what I was before I felt myself to be called.

— Jean-Louis Chrétien

In Mahler’s Third Symphony, the first movement is an eruption of massive orchestral sounds: horns, drums, fanfares and marches, a shaking of the foundations to make way for a new world to appear. And for the next four movements, the music rarely takes a breath. The adagio, the slow, contemplative movement which usually comes in the middle of a symphony, is delayed until the very end. And what an ending it is—23 minutes long!—taking us with unhurried solemnity ever deeper into the mystery of the world. Mahler called it “the higher form in which everything is resolved into quiet being. I could almost call the Third’s finale ‘What God tells me,’” he added, “in the sense that God can only be understood as love.” [i]

Advent is like that symphony, it seems to me. Over the first three Sundays, the prophets roar, the heavens shake, the voices cry. Repent! Make way! Stay awake! Cast away the works of darkness! Put on the armor of light! But on the Fourth Sunday, it’s suddenly quiet. No more cosmic thunder. No more urgent warnings. The Baptist’s big crowds have drifted on home. Advent’s adagio finale is a miniature: two pregnant women in a humble courtyard, having an intimate conversation. 

But what a conversation it is! “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” says Elizabeth. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” replies her cousin Mary. Their ecstatic words have been on our lips in worship ever since.[ii]

The cousins had a lot to process. One was carrying the last of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist. The other was carrying the founder and pioneer of a transformed humanity. They held creation’s future within them, ever since they had each said “Yes” to a story that was no longer their own. They now belonged to God, come what may. I imagine they both did a lot of laughing and crying that day.

The Rev. Mark Harris, a dear friend I first met in seminary a half-century ago, began last year’s challenging Advent by writing a poem about Mary’s consent. It’s called “Implications of Yes.”

The neighbors talked about it for a while,
How the young girl who was beginning to show 
Came back from meeting her cousin
And seemed kind of quiet,

How she was seen leaving her house 
Early one morning with a small sapling 
Bundled in rough cloth in one hand, 
And a shovel in the other.

Later she was seen coming back,
No sapling, the shovel over her shoulder, 
Her hands and dress smeared with dirt, 
Her eyes red and swollen.

Later, sitting with the others, she spoke 
Of her longing for a lost simplicity
And her preparations for realities 
that follow from her quiet Yes .

Years from now, she said, 
There will be need for this tree grown,
Just as there is need now 
for this Child that grows in me. 

The tree will bear the body of the Man, 
As I bear the Child.
We will each be ready in our turn
To do as the Holy One requires.

We will, with the Holy One we bear, 
Be broken by the bearing, 
And will give our lives
For the healing of the nations. [iii]

The poet gives us a stunning image here. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, plants the tree that will become his cross! Both mother and tree will, like Jesus, offer all that they have and all that they are for the healing of the nations, the repair of the world. That’s how the story goes in a fallen, broken world, and if you say ”Yes” to this story, it will cost no less than everything. 

When Mary said “Yes” to the angel of the Annunciation, it was neither the first nor the last time she would do so. Her whole life up to that point had been a series of consents that would prepare her to receive the Holy One into herself. And in the years that followed, she never renounced her acceptance of the story that would one day take her weeping to the foot of the cross. It is no light thing to say Yes to such a story.

We will each be ready in our turn
To do as the Holy One requires.

Mary was ready in her turn. But now it’s our turn. 

The Incarnation of the Divine Word was a singular event. Only Jesus could be who he was and do what he did as the unique conjunction of human and divine—God in the flesh. But in another sense, the Incarnation is a continuing event to the degree that we ourselves become open and receptive to the divine that wants to be born in us.

The Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) put it this way: The purpose of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. In other words, our human destiny is to be filled with Divinity, to dwell in God and let God dwell in us. What did we ask in today’s collect-prayer? May our own souls and bodies become “a mansion prepared for Godself.”[iv] We weren’t kidding around. It’s our most serious Advent prayer, committing ourselves to becoming God-bearers. 

The first Christians made some strikingly bold claims for humanity’s potential for “divinization” (becoming like God). The Second Letter of Peter (1:4) says: “God has given you such precious and majestic promises, that you may become partakers of the divine nature.” The First Letter of John (3:2) says, “We know that when God appears, we shall be like God, because we shall see God as God is.” And St. Paul, in Second Corinthians 3:18, insists that “all of us, with faces unveiled, mirroring the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” 

The two most famous summations of divinization as corollary to incarnation were made by Irenaeus in the second century and Athanasius in the fourth. “In God’s immense love,” said Irenaeus, “God became what we are, that he might make us what he is.” Athanasius was even more explicit: “The Divine Word became human that humans might become God.”

Now many have argued against this whole idea of divinization. There’s too great a gulf between Creator and creature, some say. Who can hope to cross that infinite abyss? Others say that humanity is simply not up to it. Just look at world history over the past century, or the last few years in America. On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2021, for example, did anyone see Christ’s glory being reflected from those tormented faces at our nation’s Capitol? [v]

But if we believe that the Divine Word was truly made flesh, and that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, then we must acknowledge the existence of an innate human capacity to receive and embody God. Absent that capacity, Mary could never have conceived our Lord and Savior. There is an integral part of our human makeup which is designed to answer when God calls. In other words, our humanity always contains a mansion prepared for Godself. That receptive capacity to say Yes to God may be buried beneath multiple layers of ego and sin, but it cannot be destroyed. It’s a feature, not a bug.

One of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the last century, Sergius Bulgakov, insisted on the indispensable role of humanity in the Incarnation: 

Christ did not bring His human nature down from heaven, and He did not create it anew from the earth; rather, He took it from “the most pure flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary”… [T]he Incarnation of Christ is realized not in one Person but in two: in Christ and in the Virgin Mary. The icon of the Mother of God with Infant is therefore the true icon of the Incarnation.[vi]

To become fully human, the only-begotten of God did not destroy human nature, making it something it was not. Rather, Christ fulfilled human nature, manifesting our human potential to dance with God. But we need help to realize our full humanity. It’s not just that our wills are impaired by sin. The fact is that we are not made to function as autonomous beings at all. We are choral beings at heart. We need the full choir, the whole company of heaven and earth, in order to be our truest selves and exist not in isolation but in holy communion.  

So let us admit that Mary was capable of divinization. She could contain and give birth to the holy in our midst. But what about the rest of us? Are we capable of embodying divinity? Many Christians have said yes, absolutely! The great hymn writer Charles Wesley put it this way:

Heavenly Adam, life divine, 
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.[vii]

That’s a high bar for sure. But it happens. The saints prove that every day. And we ourselves are here because we are engaged in the same transformational project.

Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

Less me, more God.

Our parish hosted a film series this Advent, and last week’s feature, Of Gods and Men (2010), told the true story of French Trappist monks who served an impoverished Muslim village in Algeria. Their monastery, Our Lady of Atlas, had been there since 1938, but in the decades after the end of French colonial rule in 1962, their community was threatened by civil unrest and a lingering suspicion of Europeans. In the 1990s, returning to France was clearly the safest choice, but the village leaders begged them to stay. They depended on the monks, not only for medical care, but for their stabilizing and loving presence.

On Christmas Eve, 1993, terrorists broke into the monastery and held the monks at gunpoint, making it clear that they were now in mortal danger. The terrorists eventually departed without incident (even apologizing for disturbing the holy feast of Jesus’ birth), and the monks celebrated Midnight Mass with special intensity. But the threat remained.

Two years later (March 1996), that Christmas Eve of both fear and deliverance was still reverberating in their hearts. Dom Christian, the prior, told the brothers in a Lenten reflection: 

… through that experience we felt invited to be born again. The life of a man goes forth from birth to birth … In our life there is always a child to be born; the child of God who each of us is … We have to be witnesses of the Emmanuel, that is, of “God with us.” There is a presence of “God among us” which we ourselves must assume.[viii]

A few weeks after Dom Christian wrote these lines about giving birth to God, the monks were taken hostage just before Holy Week. They would be martyred during Eastertide. If they had fled the country when they had the chance, they could have preserved their lives. But the brothers would not abandon the people they served. And their writings and their actions made it clear that they had already surrendered their lives long before, in both their baptismal vows and their monastic vows. They were people who knew what it meant to say yes when Jesus calls, come what may. 

Of Gods and Men (2010). The monks say yes to remaining in harm’s way.

If any of you still have doubts about the human capacity to embody divinity, listen to what Dom Christian wrote after that pivotal Christmas Eve, imagining what he would say to his future killer at the hour of his death: 

And also you, my friend of the last moment,
who will not have known what you are doing:
Yes, I want this thank you and this “a-dieu
to be for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves 
in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. 
Amen! In h’allah! [ix]

Who could write such a thing had God not filled him to the brim! Another monk, Fr. Christopher, wrote in his journal during that same Christmastide: “We are in a state of epiclesis.”[x] Epiclesis is a Greek term denoting the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic prayer, asking for the sanctification of our lives as well as the holy gifts on the altar. 

We are all in a state of epiclesis—the acquisition of Spirit. And indeed, it is God’s desire to give us more spirit, more grace, more love, more humanity and more divinity. All we need to do is say Yes



[i] Gustav Mahler, letter to Bruno Walter in 1896, the year he composed the Third Symphony.

[ii] Elizabeth’s words are part of the “Hail Mary” prayer used in the Rosary; Mary’s Magnificat (“Song of Mary”) is one of the oldest Christian hymns, and draws upon the Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and other Old Testament texts. This scene of the two cousins only appears in Luke 1:39-55.

[iii] Mark Harris is an Episcopal priest, poet and artist living in Lewes, Delaware. The poem, written December 1, 2020, is used by permission. 

[iv] The Collect for Advent 4 in the Book of Common Prayer reads: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

[v] January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the world. It is a bitter irony that that date has now been corrupted by the violence, hate and delusion of the insurrection. A similar irony taints the Feast of the Transfiguration, when the brilliant light of Christ’s divinity must share August 6 with the incinerating explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. 

[vi] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 200, 202.

[vii] Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Since the Son Hath Made Me Free.

[viii] Dom Christian de Chergé, Reflections for Lent (March 8, 1996), in Bernardo Olivera, How Far to Follow: The Martyrs of Atlas (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1997), 103, 99. 

[ix] Testament of Dom Christian, dated Dec. 1, 1993 & Jan. 1, 1994, opened, after his death, on Pentecost Sunday, May 26, 1996, in Olivera, 127.

[x] Fr. Christopher Lebreton (January, 1994), in Olivera 111.

Words Fail: Thinking the Divine Name(s)

“… “to think God without any conditions, not even that of Being.” — Jean-Luc Marion

It seems that we can use no words at all to refer to God.

— Thomas Aquinas [i]

As soon as there are words … direct intuition no longer has any chance. 

— Jacques Derrida [ii]   

Dionysius the Areopagite, a sixth-century Syrian mystic, made the classic case for theological modesty. We should not presume to say too much about God. When it comes to what he called the “Unutterable,” he said, words fail. An encounter with divine reality leaves us speechless. 

“Reject all that belongs to the perceptible and intelligible … and lift yourself as far as you are able to the point of being united in unknowing with the One who is beyond all being and all knowledge.” [iii]

Dionysius’ insistence on divine ineffability was a subversive counterbalance to the theological project of the ancient ecumenical councils, which devoted intense intellectual energy to the pursuit of dogmatic precision. Words, phrases, even individual letters had been fiercely debated over the course of several centuries. With the stakes so high, no one wanted to get it wrong. But Dionysius’ caution about saying too much would have a lasting influence on both mystics and theologians from the Middle Ages to post-modernity. 

Thomas Aquinas, whose exhaustive systematic theology, Summa Theologica, used 1.8 million words to speak of God, issued a striking caution in one of his shorter works: “as to the mode of signification [for God] goes, every name is defective.” [iv] A modern Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, agreed, since transcendence “presents itself to us in the mode of withdrawal, of silence, of distance, of being always inexpressible, so that speaking of it, if it is to make sense, always requires listening to its silence.” [v]  That kind of listening without making words is hard, when our heads are so full of ideas. But if we desire accuracy, we must try, as Jean-Luc Marion has said, “to think God without any conditions, not even that of Being.” [vi]

It’s not just that God is unknowable; language itself is chronically imprecise—“a raid on the inarticulate,” T. S. Eliot called it, “with shabby equipment always deteriorating.” [vii] But of the One who is “the Wholly Other, for whom we have no words, and whom all our poor symbols insult,” can we say anything at all? [viii]

The “veil” before the Altar of Presence in the author’s worship installation, “Via Negativa.”

Even Dionysius admitted the necessity of God-talk. We need to understand something about ultimate Reality if we are to be in relation with it. In Divine Names, Dionysius wrote at length about the attributes of God, and so have countless Christian thinkers before or since. While God is always beyond our conceptual reach, we still have religious experiences through which we learn something of who—and how—God is for us. Sometimes we speak in literal terms, as when we say that God loves us. God’s love may be more perfect than human love and mediated in a different way, but it’s love all the same. 

Metaphors, on the other hand, use something familiar to tell us about the unfamiliar. God is not literally a shepherd, a shield, or shade from the heat, but God has been known to be like these things in some way. Those three are all biblical images, but every age provides new metaphors. A British youth minister told me that skateboarders use their experience of what they call “flow” as a kind of divine name. But metaphors are only provisional—“scaffoldings around invisible reality,” in Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s aptly metaphorical image, “liable to vanish” when pressed to become literal. [ix]

What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy?
Or what can anyone say who speaks of you?”

— St. Augustine, Confessions [x]

St. Augustine’s questions were on my mind when I composed an experimental “creed” for an alternative liturgy at our local Episcopal parish.[xi] The Nicene Creed, crafted by the fourth-century Council of Nicaea to be a concise summary of orthodox belief, is still recited in the Sunday rites of most liturgical churches. Its insertion into the liturgy 150 years after the Council resulted from a now-forgotten doctrinal quarrel, and some of today’s liturgical theologians question its continued use in the rite. [xii]

My own intent, however, was not to critique the Nicene Creed per se, but to explore God-talk in terms of the One and the Many, drawing upon something Thomas Aquinas said about the names of God:

“[We] see the necessity of giving to God many names. For, since we cannot know Him naturally except by arriving at Him from His effects, the names by which we signify His perfection must be diverse, just as the perfections belonging to things are found to be diverse. Were we able to understand the divine essence itself as it is and give to it the name that belongs to it, we would express it by only one name. This is promised to those who will see God through His essence: “In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name shall be one” (Zech. 14:9). [xiii]

I divided the assembly into three parts. Each droned the same Latin text, slowly, in 4 beats: Crèdo in ùnum Dè-ùm (“I believe in one God,” the opening words of the Nicene Creed). They sang on a single tone in unison, but in three harmonizing pitches, with a 2-beat silence between the repetitions. As they continued their droning ground, I both chanted and spoke a descant of divine names.

The people’s repeated line was the One; my recitation of diverse names was the Many. The division of parts was a reverse complementarity: many sang the One and one sang the Many. I drew the names from many sources—hymns, prayers, theologians, mystics, poets, and one filmmaker—absorbed into my own prayer and preaching over the years. I can’t remember exactly where all of the names came from. Some you will recognize. A few sprang from my own religious experience. 

A divine name?

The torrent of words, coming and going so quickly, evoked multiple associations, perspectives and meanings without letting any single “name” linger long enough to permit an idolatrous fixation, as if it alone were the one most accurate or true. No sooner did a “name” appear than it was replaced by another—affirmation and negation in a perpetual dance, just the way Dionysius liked it. People told me later that they stopped trying to grasp individual words and simply sank into the flow, surrendering to the meditative state generated by their repetitive chanting and silent breathing. 

If any liturgists and musicians out there want to try your own variations, please feel free. Trained singers might add more complex harmonies (think Arvo Pärt), and a speech choir could explore creative arrangements of the many names. And of course, you or your community might want to compile a fresh list of names from your own traditions and personal experiences. That this particular list is woefully incomplete is part of the point.

Credo in unum Deum …

Holy and eternal God, 
Beauty so ancient and so new,
Source and sustainer of everything that is. 

Author of life, mender of destinies, 
desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.

Mystery of the world,
most deeply hidden and yet most near,
fount of our being, inexhaustible and overflowing. 
Grace abounding.

Constant and just, wiser than despair, 
joyful Yes against all negation.  

The great I am, beyond all knowing,
yet called by many names:

Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver,
Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing,
Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history,
ineffable and untamable Spirit.

Presence. 
The depth in every moment.

Eloquent silence, dazzling darkness, blinding radiance,
so far beyond us—and so deep within us, 
in whom we live and move and have our being.

Holy One: Thou—Abba! ThouAmma! 
Love who loves us. 

Our true and lasting home. 

+

Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten,
who by the power of the Holy Spirit
became incarnate from the Virgin Mary:
fully human and fully divine.

Word made flesh, to live and die as one of us,
that we might see and know the self-diffusive love of God,
and realize the fullness of our humanity. 

As God’s icon, the face of love for us, 
Jesus renounced privilege and power,
living without weapons or self-protection,
giving himself away for the sake of others:
servant and sufferer, healer and helper,
Savior and friend! 

Handed over to the enemies of life,
Jesus died on the cross.
But on the third day he rose again,
breaking the power of death,
opening the way for us
to live in God forever.

+

Holy Spirit, Love’s consuming flame,
the eager, wild wind of divine surprise: 

Quickening power, creative energy, inner light,
divine imagination, disturber of the peace,
dearest freshness deep down things,
the strong force of love, drawing the universe into communion.

Sustainer, Sanctifier,
Counselor, Comforter,
Dancer.

The breath in every prayer, 
the longing in every heart.

+

Holy and undivided Trinity, 
your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone.
We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism,
making us Christ’s own forever—forgiven and free.

Grant us to live always in the light of resurrection,
overflowing with love and steadfast in hope.

May the faith we confess in this assembly
be visible in the lives we lead and the choices we make. 

Let all the people say: Amen!



Photographs by the author. The view of the sky through the arch of the south porch baldaquin of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Cecilia in Albi, France, is an image for the limits of theological speech: the stairs of language take us upward, but only so far. After that: a wordless sky. You can read about the “Via Negativa” installation here. Arne Pihl’s “Gentle” sculpture (2014-15) was part of an installation in a razed lot in Seattle, responding to questions about the future of a changing neighborhood.

[i] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1a.13.1. Thomas quotes from Dionysius to support this statement.

[ii] Jacques Derrida cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, ed. William J. Wainwright (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 489.

[iii] Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.1, cited in Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 247. The anonymous mystic’s name is a pseudonym taken from Acts 17:34 to suggest apostolic authority.

[iv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles 30.3. Italics mine.

[v] Karl Rahner, S. J., Foundations of Christian Faith (1983), p. 64, cited in Thomas M. Kelly, Theology at the Void: The Retrieval of Experience (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2002), 130.

[vi] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (1991), p. 45, cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, 484.

[vii] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” in Four Quartets.

[viii] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 1999/2008, orig. published 1911), 337.

[ix] Jerzy Peterkiewicz, The Other Side of Silence: The Poet at the Limits of Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 45.

[x] St. Augustine, Confessions 1.4. The full passage has a wonderful list of divine names: Summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime, misericordissime et justissime, secretissime et presentissime, pulcherrime et fortissime; stabilis et incomprehensibilis; immutabilis, mutans omnia. Numquam novis, nunquam vetus, … Semper agens, semper quietus; colligens et non egens: portans et implens et protogens; creans et nutrigens et perficiens: quaerens cum nihil desit tibi … Quid dicimus, Deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sacnta? Aut quid dicit aliquis, cum de te dicit? (“Highest, best, most potent, most omnipotent [transcendent], most merciful and most just, most deeply hidden and yet most near, fairest, yet strongest, steadfast, yet ungraspable, unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, yet never old.… ever busy, yet ever at rest; gathering yet needing not; bearing, filling, guarding; creating, nourishing, and protecting; seeking though you have no wants … What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what can any say who speaks of you?”).

[xi] St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA.

[xii] In his 1995 commentary on the liturgy at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, Richard Fabian writes that Peter the Fuller, Patriarch of Antioch, whose Monophysite party was defeated at the Council of Chalcedon (451), inserted the creed into the cathedral liturgy to show his loyalty to the earlier Council of Nicaea (325). Though he was soon deposed, the creed remained, “a massive monument to doctrinal quarrels ever since.” Its inclusion was resisted in the western church, especially in England, but slipped into English worship in the 15th century, and incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th. Today, some question its lack of inclusive language as well as the ancient Greek terminology whose original meanings are obscure to many. And some liturgists wonder about its effect on the natural flow of the rite. (Worship at St. Gregory’s, All Saints Company, 25-26).

[xiii] Summa contra Gentiles, 31.4. As to just how many names there are, I’ve always liked the number from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

What is God? — A Trinity Sermon

Abbey at Conques on Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle, France (Jim Friedrich)

What is God? When the biblical Jews asked that question, they responded from their experience of salvation history.  God is the one who told me to leave behind everything I knew and set out for God-knows-where, says Abraham. God is the one who asked me to go back to the land of oppression and enslavement so I could speak truth to power, says Moses. God is the one who made a covenant with us on Mount Sinai, in the cloud of unknowing. God is the one who remembered us in the days of exile. God is the one who brought us home from Babylon. 

Then Jesus came along, and even though he lived and died as a human being, there were those who experienced the fullness of God in the unique particularity of his life, death, and resurrection. The risen Lord, who said “I am with you always,” would become an object of worship very early in the life of the Church. 

And after the Ascension of Jesus came the Holy Spirit, not only as an indwelling presence but also as a radically transformative force, in whom divine fullness was equally and uniquely manifest.  

For the early Christians, then, the One they called God had been revealed to have three distinct ways of being: Source, Savior, and Spirit. Love who loves us; Word who saves us; Spirit who renews us. And before long they were offering worship not only to the God of Israel, but to Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well. 

They were not polytheists. They rejected pagan notions of a heaven and earth populated by competing deities. But their experiences of God in Christ and God in the Spirit were unique enough to differentiate them from the Holy One who sent Jesus into the world. 

At the same time, the second and third Persons were not understood to be partial or lesser versions of God. Only the true God can save us, as Christ did. Only the true God can sanctify us, as the Spirit does. 

Those first Christians couldn’t deny their experience, or the witness of Scripture. Christ was God. The Spirit was God. But that posed a conceptual problem. 

How can the Three be One? How can the One be Three? Mathematics or logic can’t solve this puzzle. Several centuries of ecumenical councils struggled with the questions, doing their best to preserve the paradox of Three in One and One in Three from collapsing into the simplicity of God as “One is One and all alone.” 

Although it would have put a lot of theologians out of work, It would have been a lot easier just to stick with the Oneness. But that would not have been true to Christian experience. The Threeness is essential to our informed—and formative—encounters with God. As contemporary Catholic theologian Catherine LaCugna puts it, “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.” [1]

Does that mean that the friends of God have to master the bewildering terminology and complicated nuances of ancient dogma in order to live the Christian life? Will heaven admit only the most sophisticated thinkers? Let’s hope not. 

I’ve read a lot of theology and Church history over the last fifty years, and I still have trouble remembering the differences between Monophysites, Monothelites, Monarchians, Modalists, Ebionites and Sabellians. As Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wonders, what if we were to exchange the metaphysical tangles of the West for more down-to-earth analogies. For example, he asks, what might the yin-yang of “pepper” and “salt” tell us about the divine nature? [2] Or St. Patrick’s shamrock, for that matter. 

For the Offertory anthem at the liturgy for Trinity Sunday, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, I’ve assembled 26 concrete images of persons and objects grouped in threes. As you watch the video, I invite you to contemplate the Christian koan of Three-in-One and One-in-Three. 

Now then, what shall we say about the Trinity? One of the sixteenth-century reformers counseled intellectual modesty. “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead,” he said. “That is better than to investigate them.” [3] In a similar vein, a contemporary theologian reminds us that the “triune God is not simply unknown, but positively known to be unknown and unknowable—which is a dear and profound knowledge.” [4]

But on Trinity Sunday, it is the preacher’s ritual duty to offer a sacrifice of ignorance on the altar of unknowing. So here we go.

Back in the day—the fourth century, that is—when the Council of Nicaea was parsing theories of the divine life, theology was a popular sport, and people kicked around trinitarian doctrines the way some of us recite the arcane numbers of baseball metrics today. But in the late Middle Ages, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity went into cold storage. By the time of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant could say that Trinitarian theology had “no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it.” [5]

In recent centuries, any sort of God talk has been drained of content for many people. We live in a secular age, where a divine power who is in but not of the world has become increasingly unthinkable. Religion, in the world’s eyes, has become more of a private matter than a public truth. 

And yet, the Spirit continues to work, and in the last few decades we have seen a remarkable resurgence of attention and thought devoted to the meaning and relevance of the Trinity. It’s not just white, western males doing this work. Feminists, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans are all bringing fresh and urgent perspectives to Christianity’s core doctrine of God. And their work is of enormous consequence for both our personal faith and our common life.

The Nicene Creed declares that the three Persons are “of one substance.” In other words, whatever God is made of, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have all got it—and in equal measure. 

But what is that “substance?” Is it a divine essence which existed prior to, or in addition to, the Persons themselves? Is there a one God hidden behind or beyond the Trinity? Such a notion would undercut the completeness of the Trinity, making it dependent on something external—in other words, less than fully divine in itself. 

Or is the divine substance like a pie which has been cut into three equal pieces? That would divide God into parts and lose the unity of the whole. It would also make the Persons less than eternal, since the whole pie would have to precede the creation of the separate pieces. 

But what if we were to give up the idea of divine “substance” as some kind of stuff which exists on its own and gets divided into three, or possesses a reality in addition to whatever the three Persons consist of? What if being the divine Trinity does not mean to have a divine substance, a kind of primordial stuff. What if being a Trinity means to be in relation with one another? 

Perhaps the Trinitarian God is best described not as a fixed, objective entity, but as an event or activity, an eternal communion shared between the Persons. The Greek word perichoresisdescribes the divine communion as a dance where the partners are in continuous motion, weaving in and out of one another. 

This conceptual shift from substance to relation is a central theme of contemporary theology. As feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes (using inclusive terms for the Persons):

“The mutual coinherence, the dancing around together of Spirit, Wisdom and Mother; or of mutual Love, Love from Love, and unoriginate Love; or of the three divine persons – this defines who God is as God. There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.” [6]

A couple of British theologians elaborate this point when they say that the divine Persons do not “exist over against the others as self-enclosed centers of consciousness, as with human persons … but rather each dwells in the other through a kind of inter-permeation.” Then they sum it up this way: “The consciousnesses are fused but not confused.” [7]

This is not a new idea. The First Epistle of John assures us that “God is love” (4:8). And love, as we all know, cannot exist alone, without an “other” to share with, give to, receive from. Love exists only by going beyond the self in a process of perpetual self-offering.

Love is not a secondary or optional property of God. Love is who God is, and how God exists. Simply put: “the Trinity is not derived from God’s essence; the Trinity is God’s essence.” The communion and community of the Persons is God’s nature and essence.” [8]

Jürgen Moltmann notes the impossibility of a loving God being otherwise. “God cannot find bliss in eternal self-love,” he writes, “if selflessness is part of love’s very nature. God is in all eternity self-communicating love.” [9] A Kenyan Christian, John Mbiti, who comes from a more communal culture, puts this even more succinctly:

“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”[10]

We may struggle with this interdependent Trinitarian model because our culture has taught us to think of a person as an autonomous individual, whose identity, mind and will are separate and independent from every other person. 

But what the doctrine of the Trinity tells us is that you cannot be a person alone. You can only be a person in relationship with others. Addressing another, listening to another, conversing with another, loving one another, offering ourselves to one another—these are the means of becoming a person and existing as a person, if we are to live in the image of the relational personhood of the divine, in whom the one does not exist without the many. 

When we hear Jesus say, you must lose yourself to find yourself,[11] we may think he’s speaking of death, either metaphorical or physical, some kind of painful stripping away. And sometimes that is the case. 

But I think Jesus is also describing the divinely grounded process of communion and community. “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” St. Athanasius had a wonderful term for this state of being in communion. He called it “reciprocal delight.”[12]  We are all in this together, God says, and so say God’s friends as well.  

It seems especially fitting at this particular moment to contemplate communion as the essential and constitutive fact of divine life, for in one week’s time we will gather together, in person at last, as the Body of Christ at St. Barnabas. It has been fourteen months since we last did this. What joy it will be to share the sacrament of God’s self-diffusive love once again and celebrate the bonds between us.

After so many words about the Holy Trinity, let me conclude with an image. Thirty years ago, Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a series of 10 one-hour films called Decalogue. Each of the films is based on one of the Ten Commandments, and the series is one of the masterpieces of spiritual cinema. [13]

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

In the first film, there’s an exchange between Pawel, an eleven-year-old boy, and his aunt Irena. Pawel has a great curiosity about God, which his single-parent father, an unbeliever, cannot satisfy. So Pawel takes his questions to Irena, his devout Catholic aunt: 

Pawel: Do you believe that God exists?
Irena:  Yes.
Pawel: What is God?

Irena doesn’t answer with words. 
Instead, she puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.

Irena:  What do you feel now?
Pawel: I love you.
Irena:   Exactly. That’s what God is.



[1] Catherine M. LaCugna, cited in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville, KY: Westminster ]ohn Knox Press, 2007), 179.. This is the opening sentence of LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991). As you will see, I found Kärkkäinen’s study of recent Trinitarian theology to be an invaluable resource. 

[2] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 312.

[3] Philip Melanchthon, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, xvi.

[4] Elizabeth Johnson, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 212, from Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse(1993).

[5] Immanuel Kant, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 206.

[6] Elizabeth Johnson, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 56.

[7] Ninian Smart & Steven Konstantine, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 249, from their Christian Systematic Theology: Theology in a World Context (1991).

[8] Richard Rice, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 140.

[9] Jurgen Moltmann, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen,106;  from Moltmann’s classic Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (1981)

[10] John Mbiti, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 352.

[11] Matthew 10:38.

[12] St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), a bishop in Roman Egypt, was a key defender of Trinitarianism. Cited in in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 39.

[13] See my post, Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema (Jan. 28, 2017): https://jimfriedrich.com/2017/01/28/kieslowskis-decalogue-a-masterpiece-of-religious-cinema/

The Spirit That Moves Us All: A Pentecost Reflection

Piero di Cosimo, Incarnation (detail), 1500-1505. “Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

In spite of all the destructive forces [we] let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles we put in its path. In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in others also … what makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another but a Spirit that moves us all. 

— John Cobb [1]

Of perfect love thou art the ghostly flame.
Emperor of meekness, peace and tranquility,
My comfort, my counsel, my perfect charity,
O water of life, O well of consolation,
Against all storms of hard adversity …

— 15th century English lyric 

On the fiftieth day of Easter, our liturgical prayer addresses the Holy Spirit more than on any other day. Most of the time our words of supplication and praise address an “other” who is metaphorically outside or beyond: God, Jesus, Father, Mother …. But the dominant prayer of Pentecost calls upon the most obscure and elusive of the divine “Persons”—One who is not “out there” but “in here.”

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come, Holy Spirit.

The tricky thing about such a prayer is that it is not prayed to the Spirit. It is prayed in the Spirit and by the Spirit. The Spirit is not the object of our prayers, but the subject, dwelling within our inmost parts more surely and substantially than the transitory, constructed “I” produced by the particular confluence of history, biology, and personality which has sculpted our individuality over time. When truth speaks through us, when our energies are directed toward the well-being of all, when our lives are written and rewritten as narratives of divine love, the Spirit isn’t just in us—the Spirit is us. 

This is to claim nothing for ourselves. Only those driven by unholy spirits make that mistake. Participation in the divine reality—life “in the Spirit”—is always a matter of giving yourself away, becoming part of something larger. The Holy Spirit’s proper name is communion. When we’re in the Spirit, that’s our name too.  

Compared to writings about “God” and “Christ,” theological expositions on the Holy Spirit can seem relatively thin. The early creeds didn’t have much to say either, making the Spirit seem like an afterthought—oh yeah, and the Holy Spirit too. But this isn’t due to neglect so much as it is to the Spirit’s way of disappearing into the world as anonymous giftedness. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky put it: 

“[T]he Holy Spirit effaces himself, as Person, before the created persons to whom he appropriates grace … He mysteriously identifies himself with human persons while remaining incommunicable. He substitutes Himself, so to speak, for ourselves.” [2]

Canadian poet Margaret Avison addresses the Spirit’s indescribability in her poem “… Person or A Hymn on and to the Holy Ghost.” 

How should I find speech 
to you, the self-effacing
whose other self was seen
alone by the only one,

to you whose self-knowing
is perfect, known to him,
seeing him only, loving
with him, yourself unseen?

Let the one you show me
ask you, for me,
you, all but lost in
the one in three,

to lead my self, effaced
in the known Light,
to be in him released 
from facelessness,

so that where you 
(unseen, unguessed, liable
to grievous hurt) would go
I may show him visible.

The poem’s profusion of pronouns makes it hard, at first, to tell which divine Person is doing what. “You” is clearly the Holy Spirit, but who is “him?” Is it Christ, or the Father, or God in general who releases us from “facelessness,” or whom we ourselves make visible in the practice of holy living? The “unseen, unguessed” Spirit may be “all but lost in / the one in three,” but without it (or him, or her, or they), Love Divine could not do its proper work in the world and in the heart.

O fiery Spirit, come burn in us.
O sacred breath, come breathe in us.
O blazing love, come flame in us.…
O delight of life, come live in us. [3]

This past year has generated its share of anxiety, fear, madness and grief, but as John Cobb reminds us, “the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles we put in its path.” It is in this Spirit that I have shaped my retelling of Ezekiel’s vision in the Valley of Dry Bones (see video below). When the divine breath comes into the lifeless bodies, I layer multiple inhalations and exhalations to make a chorus of breaths. For me that collective sound symbolizes the Spirit’s fierce resistance to every power that would silence and choke us. As the Psalmist says, You send forth your Spirit, and the people are created; and so you renew the face of the earth (Psalm 104:31).


[1] Cited in Marjorie Suchocki, “Spirit in and through the World,” in Suchocki and Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 1997), 180. And yes, masculine pronouns are problematic. Depending on the language, Spirit has been feminine and neuter as well. Do you think She minds?

[2] Vladimir Lossky cited in Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 200), 261.

[3] Jody L. Caldwell, after Hildegard of Bingen, in Voices Found (New York: Church Publishing, 2003), #62.