The Fullness of Time

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son, born of a woman … 

— The Letter of Paul to the Galatians (4:4)

In my six years of blogging, I have always posted a reflection on New Year’s Eve. The symbolic border between old and new prompts the big questions: Where have we been? Where are we going? If “Time is our choice of How to love and Why,”[i] are we using it well? Here are links to all my past posts dated December 31, followed by some thoughts at the end of a year like no other.  

The Angel of Possibility (2014)     Fresh starts nurture fresh hopes, but the turning of the year is of itself not enough to save us. The only sustainable new birth is rooted in the Nativity’s marriage of earth and heaven, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, human and divine, and I am grateful that our passage into the New Year falls in the middle of the Christmas feast, enriched by faith’s larger hopes. We are not alone. As the Psalmist cries to the Holy One, “My times are in your hand; deliver me.” (Psalm 31:15)

Tick, Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve (2015)     On the one night of the year when countless human beings devote collective awareness to the vanishing Now (at least for the last 10 seconds of the 12th month), time is on everyone’s mind. And though there may be little consensus on the theoretical nature of time, we are all immersed in its flow, or what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt.” We feel keenly the effects of beginnings, transitions, losses and endings. At year’s end, we pause on the razor’s edge between old and new, memory and expectation, regret and hope. When we dance our welcome to the New, may that narrow boundary prove wide enough for our joyful steps.  

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017 (2016)      At the outset of our 4-year political and social nightmare, I beheld my country teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin. The New Year brought more dread than hope. It demanded a sturdier and steadier kind of moral resolve than the customary pledges of self-improvement. It required that we renounce despair. “We would do well,” I wrote, “not to be mesmerized by the abyss, but to focus on the greater power already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history. God neither causes nor prevents those sufferings, but divine ingenuity always outwits them in the end.” 

At the Mercy of the Future (2017)      My title came from Didier Maleuvre: So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future. 2017 was a painful year to be a person of hope, but I found consolation in Maleuvre’s study of ancient sculpture, contrasting the “readiness” of Greek statuary with the blank visages of Egyptian figures, who appear to expect nothing from the world, their minds closed to wonder, risk, or surprise. I myself am partial to the Greeks. “We are creatures of longing and hope,” I wrote, “and it is our fate to wade into the stream of time, come what may. But as the biblical God tells us at the beginning of every journey, Do not be afraid. I will go with you.”

On New Year’s Eve, My Inner Clown is Full of Hope (2018)     Midway through the Trumpian hell, I hear the voices of three poets tending the flame of hope. In “O Esperanza,” Catherine Barnett cites one of her teachers, the philosopher Richard Rorty: “Just before he died, Rory said his sense of the holy was bound up with the hope / that someday our remote descendants will live in a global civilization / in which love is pretty much the only law.” 

Farewell to a Decade. And then? (2019)     The strain of these evil times was taking its toll on everyone as the decade ended. I recalled how Thoreau ignored the outbreak of the Civil War in his voluminous journal while continuing to register the doings of nature in extensive detail. When asked how he could remain silent on such a momentous national subject, Thoreau said that refusing to let our attention be consumed by the hypnotic gaze of chaos “is just the most fatal, and indeed the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.” In that same spirit, I wrote: “2020 promises an immense struggle requiring the best of us, and I am grateful for those who plan to welcome the New Year with their most prayerful attention, keeping their eye on the Light rather than being transfixed by the dark abyss of malevolence.”

Harold Lloyd, Safety Last (1923).

As for 2020, does anyone expect it to go quietly, to cease at midnight from doing further harm? Though we may find catharsis in shouting our “good riddances!” tonight, this year’s manifold ills will linger a while longer, and fresh starts will take time. Tomorrow morning the world will look much the same. “A change is gonna come,”[ii] but not in an instant. 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife 
the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled 
two thousand years of wrong. [iii]

Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th-century English bishop, preached seventeen Christmas Day sermons before King James in the Chapel Royal. Preachers who struggle to come up with fresh Nativity sermons year after year must stand in awe of Andrewes’ inexhaustible richness of expression and range of thought. “He cuts and polishes a text, like a jeweler a diamond,” wrote a later editor of those sermons, “and the rays of truth from its heart of light flash from every facet.” [iv]

The bishop’s Christmas sermon of 1609 explored St. Paul’s verse (Galatians 4:4) about the “fullness of time.” For Andrewes, St. Paul’s phrase itself is full, generating a surplus of meanings and implications. It suggests a condition of completeness, where nothing essential is lacking. More specifically, it designates the pivotal moment of history’s ripening, producing the Incarnate Word, the crown of creation. But the fullness is not just a property of time. It is an attribute of God: the overflowing fullness of Divine Love pouring itself endlessly into the world. The birth of Christ, said Andrewes, entails “the full measure of [God’s] sending.” 

At the same time, there is a receptive dimension to the term, which Andrewes called “the fullness of the benefit we receive” from the Incarnation—not just redemption from sin but the means of union with God—and the joy which fills us in consequence. Fullness is not just divine gift; it is something that happens within us, a grace in which we participate. 

“And after our joyfulness or fullness of joy, our fullness of thanks or thankfulness is to ensue; for with that fullness we are to celebrate it likewise. Our minds first, and then our mouths, to be filled with blessing, and praise, and thanks to Him, that hath made our times not to fall into those empty ages of the world, but to fall within this “fullness of time,” which “so many Kings and Prophets desired to have lived in …”

Adoration of the Christ Child, follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar, c. 1515.

But the fullness comes and goes, ebbs and flows. What do we do in its absence? At the end of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being, the poet laments the relative emptiness of time once the Vision fades:

To those who have seen 
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

Once we have experienced “the stable where for once in our lives / Everything was a You and nothing was an It,” how can we go back to the way we were? How can we settle for anything less than “the fullness of time?”[v] We don’t. Instead, we make our longing an instrument of change, energizing us—by the grace of the Spirit—to manifest and embody the fullness in our own stories, whenever and however we can.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rimes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.[vi]

When we beat our gongs, bang our drums, and blow our whistles on the porch at midnight, I will recite these lines of Tennyson. But when we go back inside, I’ll put on Rachel Platten’s “Soldiers”—a rousing response to 2020’s time of trial—and we will dance to the fullness of time.

We’re at the end of the road
We’re all soldiers on our own
Trying to find our way back home
And at the end of the day
Nothing matters anyway
Just the love that we have made

So let’s let go of our mistakes
We’ve all got hearts that easily break

No matter how the light may fade
We’ll carry on, it’s how we’re raised
We might fall
But we won’t break
Yeah, we won’t break …

And now our hearts will beat, now they’ll beat as one
We made it through, and after all, came the sun
And now our hearts will beat, now our hearts will beat as one

— Rachel Platten, “Soldiers” [vii]


Happy New Year, dear Reader! Thank you for reading and sharing through this challenging year. “We made it through!” I am grateful for your thoughtful attention to things that matter. I wish you much joy, health, love and peace in the days to come. Great joy to the New!

[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, ed. Alan Jacobs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 46.

[ii] Sam Cooke wrote his great song, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964), in support of the Civil Rights movement.

[iii] Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876), “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

[iv] The Editor is uncredited and the date, probably early 20th century, is not given in my reprinted volume of Lancelot Andrewes Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Trieste Publishing, 2017). All the Andrewes citations are from Sermon IV (Dec. 25, 1609), pp. 44-62.

[v] For the Time Being, 64-65.

[vi] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam.” Emphasis mine. The “fuller minstrel” is the Christ, embodying the fullness of our humanity united with divinity, singing Possibility into being.

[vii] Rachel Platten, “Soldiers” (2020). Platten recently explained her commitment to speaking out through her songs: “We need to use our art right now, because I truly believe beauty can save the world.”

The Advent Collection (updated)

I’ve blogged about Advent—my favorite season—many times on “The Religious Imagineer” website. Click here for the updated list and links for all 15 Advent posts (2014-2020), covering theology, prayer practices, and innovative worship. I hope these words may be useful for your own Advent journey.

Coming next week: Praying the Hours (6): Vespers and Compline

“Subjected thus”—The President Gets COVID

Richard II (Georges Bigot), Téâtre du Soleil at Los Angeles Arts Festival, 1984.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murdered – for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends – subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

— Richard II [i]  

Shakespeare’s tragedy of Richard II dramatizes the gradual stripping away of royal power, until the mighty king is but a naked subject—“subjected thus” to mortality and the threat of nonbeing like everyone else. The moment comes when the impregnable aura gives way, “and farewell king!” Almost 40 years ago, I saw Ariane Mnouchkine’s Téâtre du Soleil perform the play as Kabuki theater, and the wrenching transformation of the richly vested monarch, who could “kill with looks,” into a caged prisoner, naked and helpless, remains vivid in my mind to this day. It was an important part of my political education, and it came to mind when I heard that the President has COVID.

Dante also came to mind. In Canto XX of the Inferno, the pilgrim Dante is rebuked by Virgil for weeping over the fate of the damned. While Dante certainly condemned their fraudulent deeds on earth, their disfiguring pain in hell moved him to tears. “Reader,” he says, “imagine if you can how I could have kept from weeping when I saw, up close, our human likeness so contorted…” 

“Stop acting like an idiot,” Virgil tells him. “There’s no place for pity here. You will never learn piety if you sorrow over the shape of justice.” [ii]

This is not the only time that Dante the pilgrim experiences feelings of sympathy in hell. Modern readers always side with him, sharing the natural human response to the suffering of others. But Dante the writer and theologian remains committed to the poem’s implacable design. For the damned, there will be no exit. But then, none of them shows any desire for escape. Hell is populated by souls who refuse to change. As Helen Luke puts it in her Jungian reflection on the Divine Comedy, “the damned are those who have not only fallen into the unconscious but have chosen to remain there and so have lost their will to choose.” [iii]

Souls in Dante’s hell are no longer really persons in the sense of autonomous individuals engaged in a process of development and growth. Instead, they are indistinguishable from the sin which possessed them in their mortal life. Although they may appear vividly lifelike, with memorable personalities, they are ghostly simulacra, like cinematic images of long-dead actors, repeating the same self-absorbed words and actions, without change, for all eternity. 

So our horror at the Inferno’s ingenious punishments is meant to be directed at the sins rather than the punishments. As Dante scholar John Freccero points out, “The punishments fit the crimes, provided we understand ‘fittingness’ as an aesthetic category.… If the bodies in hell are really souls, then it follows that their physical attitudes, contortions and punishments are really spiritual attitudes and states of mind, sins made manifest in the form of physical punishment. It is therefore correct to say that the punishments are the sins.” [iv]

Dante’s ambivalent interplay of sympathy and judgment resonates with my own response to the news that Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19. I do not wish suffering on anyone, nor do I even find much satisfaction in the blatant ironies of his case. It is a terrible disease and he is in an especially vulnerable category, and when I pray daily for the 7.5 million Americans who have the coronavirus, he and his wife will now be in that number.  

At the same time, there is a degree of Dantean “fittingness” to his case. The pandemic, which Trump has made worse by things done and things left undone, has come home to roost. The sin has become the punishment. Trump is responsible for 38% of dangerous misinformation about the virus; he has encouraged millions of Americans to engage in reckless behavior; and even after learning of his own exposure, he continued to endanger others with physical proximity. 

But as much as I desire an end to the abuse he has inflicted on our country, our world and our planet, I want that to come from a vote, not a virus. However, there are some who are openly enjoying the poetic justice. “I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal,” writes one blogger, “the same care and consideration they have given to those struggling to survive COVID19.… I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal the same care and consideration they have given to those grieving lost loved ones – the children, parents, and grandparents, friends and family who mourn.…  I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal – Justice.[v]

Eric Stetson, a Unitarian minister, blogged an admonition in “Don’t be a jerk about Trump getting COVID.”[vi] Not only would too much shadenfreude risk political blowback, he cautioned, but indulging our hates is “spiritually dangerous” for ourselves and our country. As Bobby Kennedy urged us after Martin Luther King’s assassination, “We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.” [vii]

Another blogger, a therapist, disagreed, arguing that it was fine, even healthy, to gloat. “I am not religious or spiritual,” he wrote. “I do not think there is any danger to me if I take pleasure in the suffering of evil people.”[viii] Really? God forbid! There’s more than enough such “pleasure” going around. A better world will not be built out of our darkest shadows. Resistance without love is the road to nowhere.

In addition to pleading mercy and care for all who suffer from COVID, I will pray that Trump’s time of trial may effect the healing of his soul. If he is going to suffer, may his illness be for him a birth of empathy, compassion, humility and goodness. Impossible, you say? The business of prayer is precisely the impossible. The possible can take care of itself.

In his poems on “affliction,” 17th-century poet/priest George Herbert, who died at 39 from consumption, discerned a transformative dimension in suffering. In “Affliction (III),” he prays:

My heart did heave, and there came forth, O God!
By that I knew that thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief …

In “Affliction (IV),” Herbert confesses to be “broken in pieces all asunder, / … tortur’d in the space / Betwixt this world and that of grace. / My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart …” But, he finds, all “those powers which work for grief” are actually in God’s employ. “And day by day” they work for “my relief,” 

With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more thee.


[i] Scene III, Act 2 (151-173. As Marjorie Garber notes in Shakespeare After All (2004), the more the king’s power wanes, the more poetic and reflective he becomes. “The failed ruler becomes a poet, writing the tragedy of Richard II.” As in Herbert’s poems cited at the end, suffering can be a teacher, guiding us toward our best self.

[ii] Inferno xx.19-21, 27-30.

[iii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 13.

[iv] John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), k105-106.

[v] Onamastic, “I wish them justice,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/2/1982751/-I-wish-them-Justice

[vi] Eric Stetson, “Don’t Be a Jerk About Trump Getting Covid,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/1/1982696/-Don-t-Be-a-Jerk-about-Trump-Getting-Covid#comment_78754030

[vii] Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks to the Cleveland City Club” (April 5, 1968): https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/the-kennedy-family/robert-f-kennedy/robert-f-kennedy-speeches/remarks-to-the-cleveland-city-club-april-5-1968

[viii] Hal Brown, “As a therapist I want to remind you not to feel guilty if you have dark thoughts about Trump,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/2/1982773/-As-a-therapist-I-want-to-remind-you-not-to-feel-guilty-if-you-have-dark-thoughts-about-Trump

Should “God” Be Spoken at a Political Convention?

“I alone am God; there is no other.” (Phrygian Sybil, Vito de Marco, pavement of Siena cathedral, c. 1482)

I always cringe when political figures conclude their speeches with “God bless the United States of America.” In that context it is not a prayer; it is an assertion of privilege and dominance, invoking divine consent and protection for a sinful status quo. At best it is a formulaic trivialization of divine-human communication, lacking the humility, attentiveness and depth proper for addressing the Holy. At worst, in the mouths of scheming hypocrites and cruel tyrants, it’s blasphemy.

How many times, at this week’s Republican National Convention, did we hear the word ‘God’ on the lips of angry, hateful, lying partisans? I don’t know which is worse—the cynicism of unbelievers who speak the word only to dupe the gullible, or the bizarre piety of those who seem to believe that God blesses corruption, deception and violence.

One might debate degrees of difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding the promiscuous appropriation of “God” in their rhetoric. No one is without sin in the world of politics, and the abuse of rhetorical piety is a bipartisan failing. It’s hard to remain spotless when it comes to power struggles. But can we at least agree that anyone who has committed, condoned or enabled the torture of caged children should never dare to cry “God!” unless they are lying prostrate on the ground, weeping bitter tears, begging forgiveness in fear and trembling?

Time magazine cover, July 2, 2018.

When I was a young man studying theology with Robert McAfee Brown, he read us a passage from Martin Buber’s Eclipse of God. Fifty years later, I still remember the passionate wisdom of the Jewish theologian’s words. He was responding to a friend who thought “God” to be a word so defiled by centuries of misuse that its utterance should be suspended indefinitely, giving it time to recover its proper purity and depth. Buber replied:

“Yes,” I said, “it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. The generations 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. Human beings 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! If I took the purest, most sparkling concept from the inner treasure-chamber of the philosophers, I could only capture thereby an unbinding product of thought. I could not capture the presence of the One whom the generations have honoured and degraded with their awesome living and dying. I do indeed mean God whom the hell-tormented and heaven-storming generations mean. Certainly, they draw caricatures and write ‘God’ underneath; they murder one another and say ‘in God’s name.’ But when all madness and delusion fall to dust, when they stand over against Him in the loneliest darkness and no longer say, ‘He, He,’ but rather sigh ‘Thou,’ shout ‘Thou,’ all of them the one word, and when they then add ‘God,’ is it not the real God whom they all implore, the One Living God, the God of the human race? Is it not He who hears them?

“And just for this reason, is not the word ‘God’, the word of appeal, the word which has become a name, consecrated in all human tongues for all times? We must esteem those who interdict it because they rebel against the injustice and wrong which is so readily referred to ‘God’ for authorisation. But we may not give up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about ‘the last things’ for a time in order that the 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, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.”

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

Easter Wings: An Ascension Homily

All the other Distance
He hath traversed first –
No new mile remaineth –
Far as Paradise –

 His sure foot preceding –
Tender Pioneer –
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture – now –

 –– Emily Dickinson, “Life is what we make it”

 

“He ascended into heaven. . .” We say this every time we recite the Creed. But what does it mean? Why do we say it, and what are we being asked to believe? Is it an embarrassing myth, a problematic metaphor, or an inexplicable fact? Many Christians would prefer to hurry past the doctrine of the Ascension, as if it were not something we should examine too closely. Nothing to see here, folks, just keep moving.

But maybe wondering what we do with the story isn’t the right question. What we really need to ask is: What is the story going to do with us?  Where does it want to take us? How might it change us?

John Calvin, the great Reformation theologian, called the Ascension “one of the chiefest points of our faith.”[i] Really? Compared to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior’s disappearance into a cloud seems a relatively minor part of the story. How much does it matter for Christian faith and practice?

Let’s begin with three things that the Ascension is not. First of all, it is not the end of Jesus’ presence in the finite and temporal world, the world of human experience. In the sixth-century Ascension hymn by Romanos, the disciples express their anxiety about being abandoned:

Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?
You speak to us like someone going on a journey. . .
Do not take yourself far away from those who love you. [ii]

We know that feeling. In a secular age, sometimes is seems that all divinity has just up and left this world without a trace. But if the Ascension was the end of one kind of presence, it was the beginning of another. Jesus is still here, but in a different way.

Secondly, the Ascension is not the Incarnation in reverse, as though God was briefly one of us, and now he’s not. A human life is finite, vulnerable, dependent and particular. It’s radically different than being the infinite God of power and might. But when, as the Bible puts it, Jesus ascended to “the right hand of the Father,” he didn’t leave his humanity behind. He took it with him into the heart of God.

Finally, the Ascension is not just about Jesus.
It’s about us as well.
If we are in Christ, then wherever Jesus goes, we go too.

Let’s look at each of these themes more closely. First, the question of presence and absence. The unique particularity of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish male who lived and died like one of us, could only be experienced the way every finite existence is experienced: in its own place and time. If it’s here, it can’t be there. If it’s then, it can’t be now. Once Jesus was laid in the tomb, he could no longer be one object alongside all the other objects in the world. That physical walking-around-the-neighborhood Jesus was gone for good.

When Jesus rose from the dead, his identity and presence were no longer bound by the rules of time and space. His risen body could be both here and there. And the reason the resurrection stories lack the chronological realism of the Passion narratives is because they occur outside historical time. Encounters with the risen Christ were not additional chapters in the life and times of the earthly Jesus. They took place outside of history, at the border between our spatiotemporal world and whatever lies beyond it.

If Easter is not a historical narrative following the rules of space and time, then Ascension was not the next thing that happened after the resurrection appearances, because things don’t happen in sequence outside of time. So instead of thinking of the Ascension as another event in time, think of it as another dimension of resurrection. In his Easter appearances, the risen Jesus assured his friends that he would be with them always. In the Ascension, however, he made it clear that his presence would now have to be experienced in new ways and different forms. First there is Jesus. Then there is no Jesus. Then there is.

Ever since the resurrection,
seeing Jesus has required an act of recognition,
a moment in which we ask, “Jesus, it that you?”

Discerning the myriad forms of Christ’s presence is a fundamental practice for God’s friends in these latter days. We find Christ in sacrament and community, prayer and Scripture. We find Christ through forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and service, justicemaking and peacemaking. Christ meets us in our neighbor and in the stranger; in solitude and solidarity; in church and on the street. Christ hangs on every cross, and returns in every resurrection.

As Jesus said before he left,
“I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).

But if Christ now tends to appear incognito, quietly “as One unknown,”[iii] what do we make of the Ascension’s theology of exaltation, celebrating the Christ “whose glory fills the skies?”

Hail the day that sees him rise,
Glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Enters now the highest heaven. [iv]

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn is one of many envisioning the enthronement of Christ as the governor of the world. And we all appreciate the theological irony: the humiliated and rejected one turns out to wear the crown. But such a dramatic reversal risks undoing the Incarnation, as though the finite and vulnerable humanity of Jesus were only a temporary thing, given back after Easter like a rented costume. But that’s not what happened. The Incarnate word came to stay.

Yes, divine and human are radically different. Infinite and finite are radically incommensurate. Creator and creature can never be confused. And yet, without God ceasing to be God or Jesus of Nazareth ceasing to be human, heaven and earth have been joined in holy union, never to be put asunder.

The understanding of Christ as the divine Word, the shaping power of love through whom all things are created and sustained in their being, is not a theological footnote. It is key to the story of redemption that our Savior not only has the whole universe at his back, but that his way, the sacrificial way of self-diffusive love, is the very truth of God, and therefore the truth of how things are meant to go in the world which God has made. To be in Christ is to conform to the most fundamental reality, and the Ascension imagery of divine enthronement celebrates this crucial fact. Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Self-diffusive love is the law of the universe.

However, too much of this and we risk highlighting the divine at the expense of the human in the story of Jesus, as if more of one means less of the other. If we fully embrace our humanity, is there less room for God? Or if we are to be more like God, must we diminish or abandon our humanity because it is essentially incapable of receiving and containing divinity?

Jesus answers these two questions with “no” and “no.” In the self-emptying act of becoming flesh, God lost nothing of the divine nature, for the essence of God is love: the ceaseless mutuality of giving and receiving that constitutes the Holy Trinity. As for human beings, whose very existence is dependent upon, and constituted by, the reception of God’s gifts of life and breath and Spirit, our creaturely nature was never more itself than when Jesus managed to receive divine fullness with an open heart.

In other words, God was never more like God than in the act of giving Godself away. And humanity was never more perfectly realized than when Jesus exercised his created capacity to receive that gift in a finite way. Communion with God does not obliterate our humanity. It fulfills it.

Irenaeus, one of the first great theologians, said in the second century that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[v] And this fullness of creaturely life is attained, he said, not by “a casting away of the flesh, but by the imparting of the Spirit.”[vi] God loves us just the way God made us: finite, vulnerable, embedded in the absorbing and messy narratives  which comprise human be-ing. And what God desires is for us to live into our creaturely capacity to receive every gift, every blessing, and ascend into the divine communion which is our true and lasting home.

And this brings us to my final point. Ascension is not just about Jesus. It’s about us as well. As members of Christ’s body––with Christ and in Christ––we too are being drawn up to dwell in the vivifying presence of the Holy One––to enjoy God forever.

We call Jesus the Word made flesh because he showed, in the language of human flesh and earthly story, how the divine life could be translated into finite form as a life for others. From birth to death, Jesus was pro nobis: for us. And his Ascension was for us as well, to take us heavenward with him. Jesus did not abandon us. He went on ahead, as the “Tender Pioneer,”[vii] to prepare a place where we may join him.

John Calvin explained the Ascension’s shared, collective dimension in this way:

“Christ did not ascend to heaven in a private capacity, to dwell there alone, but rather that it might be the common inheritance of all the godly, and that in this He has also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for us to share in the divine presence [viii]. . . . “Ascension follows resurrection: hence if we are members of Christ we must ascend into heaven.” [ix]

If we are members of Christ, we must ascend. This is the pattern of the Christian life: moving Godward. When I walked the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims encouraged one another with a wonderful word for this Godward movement: Ultreia!, which means Beyond! We are all pilgrims to the Beyond. Growth is our vocation. Transformation is our vocation.

But we can only advance with Christ and in Christ. No wings of our own can defy the gravity of our situation. The sins of the world weigh us down––all that heavy baggage that Thomas Merton called “the contagion of [our] own obsessions, aggressiveness, ego-centered ambitions and delusions.”[x] And in a time of pandemic, fear, illness and grief pile on their own crushing load.

Only the rising and ascending Christ can deliver us from so much gravity. Only Christ can give us what Anglican poet-priest George Herbert called “Easter Wings.” In his poem of that name, in which the words on the page are arranged in the shape of angels’ wings, he admits he can only fly “if I imp thy wing on mine.” He borrowed that peculiar term from falconry: to “imp” means “to engraft feathers in a wing to restore or improve its power of flight.”[xi] In other words, if we want to ascend, we need the help of Christ’s own feathers. If we’re going to fly, we need Easter wings.

As Herbert prays,

With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories.

If you’ve ever heard an English lark, ascending high into the sky as it utters its ecstatic song, you will appreciate the charm of Herbert’s metaphor. A century after Herbert, hymnwriter Isaac Watts wrote my favorite Ascension lyric.

Thence he arose, ascended high,
to show our feet the way.
Up to the Lord our souls shall rise,
on the great rising day. [xii]

Of course, heaven is not susceptible to prepositions: “above,” “beyond,” or even “within” do not tell us where heaven is, since anything beyond space and time has no spatial dimension, and therefore no location. Neither heaven nor God are a place on any map. Still, by God’s grace we may discover their nearness even so, and breathe their atmosphere, in both this world and the next.

For physical and directional beings like ourselves, the imagery of ascending into the sky feels true enough. “Seek the things that are above,” St. Paul tells us (Col. 3:1). “Lift up your hearts,” says the priest at every mass. We don’t have to deny astronomy to know what these things mean. We feel the upward pull.

It’s not a matter of leaving creation behind, or shedding our bodies to become immaterial beings. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the Holy One. All things––not just our souls. The whole creation is being drawn higher and higher, further and further, deeper and deeper into God. Let everything that has breath shout “Glory!”

 

Related posts:

Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

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

 

[i] John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 1:9, cited in Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), K1249 (The Kindle edition has no page numbers, so I use the Kindle location numbers). Canlis’ rich and thoughtful book is a great read, and has increased my appreciation of Calvin immensely. My other invaluable sources for this essay were Christ the Heart of Creation (Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury 2018) and The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of Incarnation (Ian A. McFarland, WJK 2019).

[ii] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension” in Kontakia: On the Life of Christ, trans. by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (Harper Collins, 1962).

[iii] This phrase is from a famous passage by Albert Schweitzer: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”

[iv] Charles Wesley, “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise” (1739). The prolific 18th century writer composed over 6000 hymns, at least 10 of which are on the Ascension. However, his brother John, who gave some 40,000 sermons, never preached on the topic.

[v] Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202), Adversus Haereses IV.20.7, cited in Canlis, K2246.

[vi] Adversus Haereses V.8.1, in Canlis, K1960.

[vii] Emily Dickinson, “Life – is what we make it.” I quote the last 2 stanzas in the epigraph.

[viii] Calvin, Commentary on John 14:2, in Canlis K1218.

[ix] Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 3:1, in Canlis K991.

[x] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 158, cited in Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 11.

[xi] Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 148 n.19.

[xii] Isaac Watts, “Why do we mourn departing friends” (1707). Set to a shape note tune by Timothy Swan in 1801, it is #163b in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991). A powerful version from the 2nd Irish Shape Note Convention (2012) can be heard here: https://youtu.be/7mCFMKNJIAg

 

“Water the earth with the tears of your joy”: An Earth Day Reflection

Marilyn in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton, CA, 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.

A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.

The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.

–– Richard Powers, The Overstory

 

Toward the end of the last century, I sat in a circle of religious environmentalists in a California wilderness. Each of us wore a mask we had made to represent a species or element of the nonhuman world: bear, eagle, butterfly, elephant, whale, mountain, river, redwood, maple leaf, wind, ocean, wetland, desert––some part of Creation which had “chosen” us to speak for them in a Council of All Beings.[i]

We began by describing our particular existences, what it was like to be whatever we were.  Then we shared our worries and our sorrows over the harm being inflicted upon us by the human race. At some point, two volunteers removed their masks, resuming their human identity in order to receive the complaints of their fellow creatures––complaints so often unheard or ignored.

Listen. There’s something you need to hear.
If your mind were only a slightly greener thing,
we’d drown you in meaning. [ii]

The Council spoke its anger as well as its hurt. Afterward, participants in the exercise seemed both surprised and shaken by the surges of fierce emotion in such a playful exercise. It was a foretaste of the Last Judgment: humanity has a lot to answer for. But judgment was not the last word. Before the Council adjourned, each of its nonhuman members was asked to give the humans one of its own attributes to assist them in the healing of a wounded Creation. The mountain gave patience. The butterfly, transformation. The bear, strength. The river, ceaseless flow. The leaf: letting go. Renewed by such generous wisdom, we departed in peace.

On the 50th annual celebration of Earth Day, despite decades of progress in both awareness and behavior, the wellbeing of “all creatures great and small” remains under grave threat. Climate change, mass extinctions, degradations of air, water and soil, destruction of habitats, deforestation, deregulation. . . who can count the ways? And the incapacity of our political and economic systems to respond justly, rapidly, or effectively is disheartening at best, fatal at worst.

In the United States, we can certainly point to the unfettered greed, stupidity, and maliciousness in White House and Senate as deplorable accelerants of environmental conflagration, but the problem goes deeper than the heartless actions of particular villains. Our entire culture has an attitude problem. Or rather, we have lost track of the narrative. We have forgotten what kind of story we are in.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and all who dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1)

Who believes this anymore? Fewer and fewer. And even the faithful among us find ourselves deeply embedded in the systems and premises of secularity, where nature is not divine creation or sacred web, but an exploitable resource, valued primarily for the usefulness it provides or the pleasure it gives. Drained of its inherent sacredness, it no longer commands reverence. Its value is entirely contingent on human needs and desires.

Erazim Kohák, Czech philosopher and environmentalist, frames this epistemic crisis in the starkest terms:

“If there is no God, then nature is not a creation, lovingly crafted and evolved with purpose and value by its Creator. It can only be a cosmic accident, dead matter contingently propelled by blind force, ordered by efficient causality. In such a context, a moral subject, living his life in terms of value and purpose, would indeed be an anomaly, precariously rising above it in a moment of Promethean defiance only to sink again into the absurdity from which he rose. If God were dead, so would nature be––and humans could be no more than embattled strangers, doomed to defeat, as we have largely convinced ourselves we in fact are.” [iii]

Fifty years ago, the first Earth Day initiated an impressive legacy of awareness and action on behalf of the earth and all that is in it. And I pray that today will be a time of renewal and rededication to the immense labor of protecting, preserving and nurturing the natural world. But our work must not be limited to the scientific, the political and the economic. It must also, I believe, include the spiritual––the recovery of the Sacred in our collective awareness.

Christian ethicist Richard L. Fern has written, “the experience of living in an ‘enchanted world,’ a place of belonging where personal and communal destinies matter all the way down, depends, not surprisingly, on the adoption of a religious point of view.”[iv] But what would that look like? And how might we get there?

I have no idea. Maybe we begin by entering a forest, or sitting by a lake, becoming still enough to listen, letting our mind become “a slightly greener thing.” Perhaps then the earth may whisper its forgotten secret.

Thrush song, stream song, holy love
That flows through earthly forms and folds,
The song of Heaven’s Sabbath fleshed
In throat and ear, in stream and stone,
A grace living here as we live . . .

–– Wendell Berry, “Sabbaths, 1982––IV”

May each of us, in our own unique way, realize the grace of belonging to the “holy love that flows through earthly forms.” And may our collective awareness likewise awaken to the mystery of the world. And then . . . ?

In The Brothers Karamozov, the young monk Alyosha, suddenly filled with grace after a spiritual crisis, falls prostrate on the bare earth to kiss it, just as the Orthodox do reverence to holy icons. This scene has raised theological eyebrows, but Rowan Williams interprets Alyosha’s dramatic gesture to mean that “the earth is another defaced icon, whose inner and nonnegotiable dignity is secured only when its relation to the creator is acknowledged.”[v] In other words, when the earth is understood as a created reality, a material expression of divine intention and divine love, it becomes, like an icon, a window into the eternal reality in which it lives and moves and has its being. Dostoevky’s description[vi] of Alyosha’s revelation is one of literature’s most ecstatic moments:

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. . .

Comet Falls, Mount Rainier National Park, July 2005 (Photo by Jim Friedrich/Karen Haig)

+

The divine power that sustains the universe has been described as an immeasurable flow or fountain of energy, and in celebration of Earth Day’s semicentennial, I offer this video pairing of Charles-Marie Widor’s exuberant Toccata for organ, played by Paul Roy, with footage of three western rivers I shot over the last two summers. May it be an icon of the divine energeia, pouring ceaselessly through the life of the world.

 

 

 

[i] The Council of All Beings is a communal ritual developed by Joanna Macy. https://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/Joanna%20Macy.htm

[ii] Richard Powers, The Overstory (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 4. See epigraph above. Powers’ extraordinary novel takes the reader into a new way of seeing the natural world and one’s own place in it.

[iii] Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, 1984, p. 5), cited in Richard L. Fern, Nature, God and Humanity: Envisioning an Ethics of Nature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 120. Kohák died at 86 on Feb. 8, 2020.

[iv] Fern, 121.

[v] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008), 225.

[vi] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pever & Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 362.

Holy Night

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (detail, c. 1438-1443, Convent of San Marco, Florence).

Today the virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is, in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, universe, when you hear it heralded: with the angels and the shepherds, glorify the One who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, while remaining God in all eternity.

                                                          ––– Preparation of the Nativity, Orthodox Liturgy

O Emmanuel (Dec. 23)

Climate March, Seattle (Eastertide, 2017).

O Emmanuel, 
you show us the face of divinity,
you reveal the fullness of our humanity.

Come: enable us to become who we are.

As Advent draws to a close, we speak the most impossible of divine names: Emmanuel––God with us. “How can this be?” wondered the young woman chosen to be the Mother of God. How can human flesh contain the Infinite? It is the profoundest of mysteries, and the how of it is beyond our grasp. But this much we are meant to know: Incarnation doesn’t just happen to God. It happens to us as well. 

In the Nativity, our humanity became a place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. As St. Paul put it, “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). Imagine that!

“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race,” said Thomas Merton, “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],” he continued, “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.”

Confirmands at Saint-Sulpice (Paris, Eve of Pentecost, 2012).

O Adonai (Dec. 18)

Christ in Majesty, Basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, France (12th century).

O Adonai, 
ruler of time and history,
manifestation of divine dominion
to your chosen people,
may your presence be our burning bush.

Come: bring justice to the poor,
food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless
protection to the vulnerable
,
freedom to the prisoner.

For the ancient Jews, the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush was too holy to be spoken, so they substituted the word Adonai (“my Lord”) when addressing God in their worship. This became Kyrios in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. We still pray Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) in Christian ritual.

Will Campbell, the Baptist preacher who wrote The Cotton Patch Gospels, once asked, “What’s the biggest lie told in America?” The answer he gave was: “Jesus is Lord.” What would our lives––and our neighborhoods, our nation, our economy, our politics––look like if we really believed that the Lord of love and justice, the divine defender of the poor and vulnerable, is in fact the ultimate ruler of time and history? 

Adonai, bring that day closer!

Christ as Pantocrator (ruler of the universe) on the dome of the Katholikon, Hosios Loukas monastery, Greece.

Blinded by the Light –– An Advent Meditation

spectra III, an installation by Ryoji Ikeda at Venice Biennale 2019: “a blinding excess, rendering the space itself almost invisible.” (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart describes atheism as “a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd. . . [T]rue philosophical atheism,” he says, “must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”[1]

For the people of Advent, “a world proportionate to our own hopes” is too mean a thing. The mystery of the world and the destiny of mortals are too deep, too immense, to be contained by language or thought. They exceed everything we can ask or imagine. They explode our limited notions of what is real and what is possible.

Not for the people of Advent that “tragic absence of curiosity” so common in a complacent secular culture too busy amusing itself to consider the deepest questions of human existence. Advent people want to know who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going, and how long we’ve got. Most of all, we want to know whether we matter, and whether we are loved.

But are such questions answerable? Our thoughts and concepts only take us so far, like a compass pointing north. “North” is a pretty useful guide––until you reach the North Pole, where the very concept of north loses its meaning. Just so, the closer our thoughts take us toward the divine center, the less they are able to tell us.

At the end of The Divine Comedy, when Dante beholds the presence of God unveiled at last, words fail him:

What then I saw is more than tongue can say.
Our human speech is dark before the vision.
The ravished memory swoons and falls away. [2]

The mystery we call God is always beyond us. Beyond our grasp, beyond our language, beyond our sight. The mystics and great spiritual teachers sometime use the word darkness to convey their experience in close encounters with the divine.

But what they call the darkness of God is not so much a matter of cognitive deprivation, where divinity simply hides its incommunicable essence from finite minds and hearts unprepared to receive it. No, they say, the darkness of God is not deprivation, but saturation. It is not an absence of light, but an excess of glory, that makes our eyes become so dim to divine presence.

It sounds paradoxical––to be blinded by the light of God––but only paradox has the wings to carry us beyond the prosaic into the heavenly place where all contraries are reconciled. The metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, like John Donne and George Herbert, reveled in such holy paradox. Henry Vaughan, for example, wrote that

There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim. [3]

Was Vaughan just playing with words, or was he on to something? At this year’s Venice Biennale, I had a very literal experience of being blinded by the light in an installation by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda. What happened to me there is perfectly described by the text posted at the entrance:

“spectra III” consists of a corridor of bright fluorescent tubes. This all-encompassing installation bathes the visitor in light so bright it is difficult to see. Akin to a blizzard of data, the experience short-circuits our ability to process what we are seeing, and results paradoxically in a sensory wipe-out. Ryoji Ikeda sees this state of overload as opening the door to an experience of the sublime––a landscape of light too complex to comprehend. The installation functions in parallel to the experience of total darkness, yet inverts this experience. We are similarly disoriented but instead of an absence of light by which to see, there is a blinding excess, rendering the space itself almost invisible.

That’s exactly what happened to me in that corridor. I had never before experienced such a literal analogue to the blinding luminosity described by the mystics. It was truly a “deep and dazzling darkness.” Almost painful, to tell the truth. Certainly too much for my mortal eyes to take in.

It may seem paradoxical to speak of the darkness of God at the beginning of Advent, when we light candles against the lengthening nights, and pray for the “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light,” as if the soul’s journey were a straightforward itinerary from deepest midnight to eternal day. But as the mystics and poets insist, God-talk must be paradoxical to be useful and true. “God draws straight with crooked lines,” they say. God is the burning bush and the cloud of unknowing. You can’t have one without the other.

“God goes belonging to every riven thing,” says the poet Christian Wiman.

He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
 
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made. [4]

God is “apart” from what we know, transcendent to our empirical minds––minds which themselves keep God at a distance through our forgetfulness, idolatry, and egoism. And yet God wants to be near, wants to be known. God “goes belonging” to every riven thing: the broken, the wounded, the lost. God goes belonging to us all. And in so doing God’s own self is riven into the contraries of darkness and light, near and far, infinite and incarnate, present and absent, visible and invisible.

Advent’s great themes are seeking and waiting, hoping and expecting, longing and desiring. We go looking for God, searching for signs of God’s appearing.

Sometimes, in our search, we seem only to find darkness, silence, or absence, because we are looking in the wrong place, or in the wrong way. Or we are simply looking for the wrong thing, and need to be denied the fulfillment of inadequate expectations because they are too small or ill-proportioned to fit the immeasurable desire of God. For example, we might expect a well-armed conqueror instead of a servant and sufferer. Or we might expect an irresistible righter of wrongs instead of a helpless refugee child lying in a manger­­––or, these days, lying in a cage.

We were made to be in union with God, and our desire for that union is the deepest truth within us. We feel incomplete and unfinished without it. But our desire often goes astray and misses its mark, attaching itself to something well short of God. If our desire gets stuck on anything less than God, we will waste our lives worshipping the wrong thing,

In a 1967 film by Jean-Luc Godard, a well-dressed couple in a sporty convertible pick up a hitchhiker who tells them he is God. They are very excited to meet him. “Can you do miracles?” asks the man, “Can you make me richer?” His wife adds her own requests: “Can you make me young and beautiful?” And “God” replies, “Really? Is that all you want? I don’t do miracles for idiots like you!” [5]

One of the reasons that Christians worship together and pray together and learn together is to train our desire, so we don’t wait for the wrong thing, or hope for the wrong thing, or love the wrong thing, but always keep our eyes on the prize. Admittedly, God isn’t all that easy, and God is certainly not tame. As Emily Dickinson said, the divine “invites––appalls––endows–– / Flits––glimmers––proves––dissolves–– / Returns––suggests––convicts––enchants / Then––flings in Paradise––“[6]

Still, we are not deterred. Still, we cry Maranatha! Come, Lord, come! At least some of us do. There are those who don’t, for they think God is too invisible or too impossible to take into account. But isn’t that the point? Nothing we can see can save us. Nothing that is possible can rescue us. Paradox, paradox…

The human condition, suspended somewhere between the finite and the infinite, is a complicated puzzle, a question with no clear answer. As for the times we live in, Humphrey Bogart summed it up nicely in the film Beat the Devil:

“What’ve you got to worry about? We’re only adrift on an open sea with a drunken captain and an engine that’s likely to explode any moment.”

Is God coming to save us? As we know, that question is often answered by delay. Or worse, silence. We peer toward an uncertain horizon, looking for the One who comes with clouds descending, or at least for the comforting glow of dawn. But the horizon is hidden by what Nicholas of Cusa, a fifteenth-century German theologian, called “that obscuring haze of impossibility.”

And the darker and more impossible that obscuring haze of impossibility is known to be, the more truly the Necessity shines forth and the less veiledly it draws near and is present… I give You thanks, my God, because… You have shown me that You cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility appears and faces me.” [7]

I love Nicholas’ name for God: “the Necessity.” And I love his image of divine revelation as the moment when “impossibility appears and faces me.” The impossibility, the beyondness of God––beyond all knowing, beyond all saying, beyond all seeing––abolishes our limiting notions of what is possible, making a way where there is no way. O for that Night! where I in him may live invisible and dim.

All this talk of the darkness of God, the hiddenness of God, the elusiveness of God, may seem to run counter to the more affirmative language we usually employ in the liturgy as well as in the conversations we have together as people of faith.

We call ourselves God’s friends. We experience God’s closeness in times of gratitude and times of need. We see God’s hand in works of justice and mercy, and feel God’s Spirit in the reconciling and sacrificial love of human relationships. We meet God in Scripture, in community, in nature, and in beauty. We meet God in the poor, the vulnerable, and the dispossessed.

But sometimes God is hard to find or hard to perceive, and in those times we must speak the Advent language of not-exactly, not-here, and not-yet. That’s why the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent always has Jesus warning us to be on the ready. “Out with the old and in with the new! The world of the past is falling down, falling down. Whatever is going to happen next, expect the unexpected.”

Faced with the collapse of old ways and familiar certainties, where shall we look for God in the brave new world?

There’s a story about a man who dreams he is wandering among the labyrinthine stacks of the immense Clementine library in Prague. A librarian wearing dark glasses approaches him to ask, “What are you looking for?”

“I am looking for God,” he says.

“Ah,” said the librarian. “God is one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes in the Clementine Library. My parents and my parents’ parents searched for that letter. I myself have gone blind searching for it.” [8]

We’re all searching for that word, that moment, that appearing. It may bring the holy blindness of the mystics, or it may bathe you in the gentler glow of illumination. God only knows. Either way, you will not be left comfortless. God goes belonging to every riven heart.

In this season of Advent, I invite you to contemplate the paradoxical depths of the divine, to immerse yourselves in periods of wordless prayer within God’s luminous darkness. Set aside your concepts and your dogmas, and wait in the stillness of unknowing for the Word to speak. The God who is beyond all language and beyond all knowing wants to disclose Godself to us, wants to give Godself to us. That is the divine desire––the siege of God at the gates of our heart.

Stay awake. Pray for grace. Do not lose faith. As Jackson Browne exhorts us in his great Advent song, “For a Dancer”:

Keep a fire burning in your eye,
and pay attention to the open sky––
you never know what will be coming down.

One last thing.

Paul Celan was a Romanian Jewish poet who survived the Holocaust. It has been said that his difficult poetry “is not willed obscurity” but “comes out of lived experience and is ‘born dark.’” [9]  Celan knew the darkness of hell, but he also knew another kind of darkness, a darkness which paradoxically contains the seeds of light.

His poem called “The Narrowing” [10] includes a stanza of four short lines that express the spirit of Advent people––the people who sit in darkness without losing faith in the light to come. In just 16 words, the verb “came” is spoken 5 times, like an incantation in response to our beseeching prayer, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” What comes, comes in the dark, but it brings a desire for light:

Came, came.
Came a word, came,
came through the night,
wanted to glow, wanted to glow.

 

 

 

This post was delivered as a sermon on the First Sunday of Advent, 2019, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

For links to other Advent resources: How Long? Not Long!––The Advent Collection

 

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 16.

[2] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso xxxiii: 55, trans. John Ciardi.

[3] Henry Vaughan, “The Night,” cited in Peter O’Leary, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 85.

[4] Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing,” in Every Riven Thing (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011).

[5] Jean-Luc Godard, Weekend (1967).

[6] Emily Dickinson, “The Love a Life can show Below.”

[7] Cited in Didier Maleuvre, The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 143.

[8] From “The Secret Miracle,” a story by Jorge Luis Borges.

[9] From Shoshana Olidort’s Chicago Tribune review of Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, cited on the Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/paul-celan

[10] The original German title is “Engführung.”