Advent

Advent VIII: ‘Advent’, by Trygve David Johnson

I am told that just before dawn,
there is a moment
when it is neither dawn nor night.
It is a blink after the dark
and a flash before the light.

It is promise of life held in an instant;
moving but not yet ours to see;
suspended between what was,
and what is yet to be.

We exist in this holy interregnum,
for the old is past, and behold a new day,
but not yet. Not yet.
In this moment between movements,
we strain and ache for the promised
joy that comes with the morning.

This is time between time,
a breath between days;
the rupture of epochs:
marking a border between the inauguration
and the consummation of all things.

Here, the Word whispers softly,
disturbing our sleep,
so that we might awaken
in the embrace of the son,
whose life is the light
that illuminates the world.

This is the moment when all is quiet
before creations sings.
A stillness heard so deeply
it is barely heard at all.

It is advent,
the silence
between notes.

Behold!

Trygve David Johnson, ‘Advent’. A Poem written for Hope College Vespers 2010, Dimnent Chapel.

[Image: Flandrum Hill]

Advent VII: ‘The Man Who Was a Lamp’, by John Shea

Legend says,
the cave of Christmas
where the child of light
burns in the darkness
is hidden
in the center of the earth.

Access is not easy.
You cannot just amble to a mantle,
note the craft of the crib child,
and return to the party for more eggnog.
You may see a figurine in this way,
but you will not find the child of light.
The center of the earth is not the surface.
You must journey
and, wayfarer,
you need a guide.

Even the Wise Men had to risk
the treacherous courts of Herod
to consult the map of Scripture.
They knew that a star, no matter how bright,
could not take them all the way
It is true
that sometimes angels hover in the sky
and sing directions,
but they cannot be counted on
to appear.
Besides, you are not one
to keep watch over a flock by night.

There is another pointer of the way,
a map of a man,
who when you try to read him,
reads you.
Unexpected angels are pussycats
next to this lion,
a roar that once overrode Judea.
You may not heed
but you will hear
his insistent,
intruding,
unsoothing voice.
Some say this thunder is because his father
stumbled mute from the Holy of Holies,
tongue tied by an angel who was peeved
by the old man’s stubborn allegiance to biological laws.
The priest was silenced in the temple
because he thought flesh could stop God.
The son of the priest shouted in the wilderness
because he feared God would stop flesh.
His open mouth was an open warning.

His name is John,
a man who was a lamp,
at least that is what Jesus said,
“a burning and shining lamp.”
The implication is clear:
The lamp is a torch through the darkness
to find the Light of the World.
As the lamp comes closer to the Light,
its radiance is overwhelmed.
It is in the presence of a stronger shining.
It decreases as the Light increases.
Yet there is no comparison.

The child cannot be found by competition.
The lamp and the Light meet
in the mystery of communion.
The two become one
while remaining two.
Follow John and find Jesus.
Find Jesus and find the Illness of John.

But John is not so easy to follow.
He is no toady
He lacks senility
and does not work for pay
In truth,
he is more guardian than guide,
more dragon at the gate than porter at the door,
more fire on the earth than lamp on a stand.
Opposite of the sought-after child in every way
The child is round,
this one has edges;
the child nurses on virgin’s milk,
this one crunches locusts;
the child is wrapped in swaddling clothes,
this one is rubbed raw by camel hair.
Yet they know one another
even exchange smiles.
They share a mystery,
this hairy man and smooth child.

Jesus came out of John
as surely as he came out of Mary.
John was the desert soil
in which the flower of Jesus grew.
John was the voice in the wilderness
who taught Jesus to hear the voice from the sky.
John would push sinners beneath the water
and Jesus would resurrect them on the waves.
John was the fast
who prepared for Jesus the feast.

No man ever less a shepherd than John,
yet loved by one.
If you are surprised that Jesus came from John,
imagine John’s prophetic puzzle
when the predicted “wrath to come” came
and he said, “Let’s eat!”
John expected an ax to the root of the tree
and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
and along came a singing seed scatterer.
He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
then found a bridegroom on the bench.
When John said, “There is one among you
Whom you do not know,”
he spoke from experience.

So from prison
John sent his disciples to Jesus.
He will send you too.
Despite his reputation,
he is best at introductions.
It is simply who he is,
preparer, primer, pointer,
a tongue always on the verge of exclaiming,
“Behold!”

His question was, “Are you the One Who Is to Come
or should we look for another)”

This arrow of a question was sent from prison
but the bow was bent in the desert
by “none greater born of woman”
who was awake before the sun,
waiting,
watching the vipers flee before the morning
his eyes welcomed.

“Are you the One Who Is to Come”
is the question of John highway,
his road under construction,
hammer and pick and hardhat song,
“I have leveled a mountain
and raised a valley
to make even the path of the Lord!”

You
are the mountain
his sunburnt muscles
are slamming to cracked rock.
You
are the valley
his tattooed arms
are filling with broken earth.
He will trowel you to smooth,
and when there is no impediment,
when there is nothing in you
which would cause a child to trip,
you will yearn for someone to arrive
and ask the question
that guards the cave of Christmas,
“Are you the One Who Is to Come?”
So do not go fearfully
into John’s wilderness,
beaten from civilization by others
or driven by your own self-loathing.
Go simply because it is the abode
of wild beasts and demons
and, given all you are,
you will most certainly feel at home.
Wrestle with the rages of the soul,
talk to the twistedness.

Try no tricks on him.
Parade no pedigree.
Who you know will not help you.
If the children of Abraham and stones
have equal standing in his eyes,
you will not impress him
with anything you pull from your wallet.

Also do not ready your brain for debate.
He is not much for talk.
He has washed his mind with sand.
Injunctions are his game.
If you have two coats or two loaves of bread,
share them.
Do not bully,
do not exploit,
do not falsely accuse.
Do not object that these actions are
economically naive,
culturally inappropriate,
insufficiently religious.
Just do them.
Afterwards,
you will be unencumbered,
yet lacking nothing,
freer to move, to bend.
The entrance to the cave is low.

John’s desert is the place between slavery and promise,
out of Egypt but not yet in the waters of the Jordan,
Your sojourn there will burn away
the last marks of the shackles
and you will stand unfettered.
You will be between the castle and the crowd,
between fine garments and reeds shaken by the wind.
You will not lord it over others
and you will not be pushed around.
Prophet?
Yes, and more.
But in the thrill of freedom
it will take you a moment to notice
what that more is.
In the emptiness of John’s desert
you will find yourself waiting,
like a bowl that waits for wine,
like a flute that waits for breath,
like a sentinel that waits for the dawn.
You are a highway ready for traffic,
and here comes One
who seems also to have been waiting,
waiting for the construction to be complete.
The more is arriving,
and there is only one question,
“Are you the One Who Is to Come?”

Jesus answered,
“Go and tell John
what you see and hear.”

So they did.
The disciples of John returned on the night of Herod’s birthday
The music and laughter of the celebration
twisted down the stairs to the dungeon
beneath the earth.
They talked to John through the bars.
They could barely make him out
in the shadows.

“We saw a blind woman staring at her hand,
first the palm, then the back,
over and over again,
twisting it like a diamond in the sun,
weeping all the time and saying,
“I can see through tears! I can see through tears!”

We saw a lame man
bounce his granddaughter
on his knee.

We saw a leper
kiss her husband.

We saw a deaf boy
snap his fingers
next to his ear
and jump.

We saw a dead girl
wake and stretch
and eat breakfast.

The poor we saw
were not poor.

They paused.
Although there was no light in the dungeon,
there was a glow around John.
It softened the fierceness of his face
yet took no strength away
When he had preached on the banks of the Jordan,
they could not take their eyes off his fire.
Now this new light made them look down.
“Jesus said
we would be blest
if these sights did not scandalize us.

John was silent.
When he spoke,
the words had no urgency.
There was no strain in his voice.
It was no longer
the voice in the wilderness.
“The guards tell me that Herod,
panting,
has promised Salome
half a kingdom
if she will dance for him.
Surely she will ask for me
for I am half a kingdom.
I can denounce a king
but I cannot enthrone one.
I can strip an idol of its power
but I cannot reveal the true God.
I can wash the soul in sand
but I cannot dress it in white.
I devour the Word of the Lord like wild honey
but I cannot lace his sandal.
I can condemn the sin
but I cannot bear it away
Behold, the lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world!

Yet he came to me
to go beyond me.
He entered the water
to rise out of it.
He knew I would know him when he came
even though I did not know him before he came.
The fulfillment is always more than the promise,
but if you hunger and thirst in the promise,
you will welcome the One Who Is Not You
as All You Are,
and more.
Go back
and tell Jesus
what you see and hear –
John,
not scandalized but fulfilled,
witness to his coming.

When you told me
what you saw and heard,
I knew who I was:
the cleanser of eyes but not the sight that fills them,
the opener of ears but not the word that thrills them.
A prophet?
Yes, and more.
Friend of the Bridegroom.
And more.
It was love in the desert and I did not know it.
It was love by the river and I did not know it.
It is love in this cave and now I know it.
Bridegroom myself!”

The guards clattered down the stairs,
their impotent swords drawn.
They pushed aside the disciples
and unlocked a dungeon of light
to find John dancing,
his feet moving to the long-ago memory
of womb kicks.
Who was about to lose his head to Herod
had lost his mind to God.

The cave of Christmas
is hidden
in the center of the earth.
You will need a lamp for the journey
A man named John
is a step ahead of you.
His torch sweeps the ground
so that you do not stumble.
He brings you,
at your own pace,
to the entrance of the cave.
His smile is complete,
perfect,
whole,
lacking nothing.

Inside
there is a sudden light,
but it does not hurt your eyes.
The darkness has been pushed back by radiance.
You feel like an underwater swimmer
who has just broken the surface of the Jordan
and is breathing in the sky
John is gone.
Notice
from whom the light is shining,
beloved child.

– John Shea, Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 174–83.

Advent VI: ‘Gift’ by Marion Armstrong

Not then; and never since
Have we quite reached the stable, King and Prince,

Nor clearly seen the manger
As shepherd saw it, and as money-changer,

Nor worshiped with our hearts the small
Body which bore the weight of miracle;

But stand, have stood forever in our night
While the beloved Baby made of light

Sleeps in the stillness that his Father sent
Where animals’ eyes are eloquent.

And if (O God) I move from my self and come
And call the stable suddenly heaven and home

And bend my scarred unvirgin knee:

Receive, O Word, dumbstricken me.

– Marion Armstrong. ‘Gift’, The Christian Century, 22 December 1965, 1575.

Advent V: ‘The sign of God is powerlessness in the world’

‘And to us who come, in the midst of the wicked world torn by malice, to venerate the Infant lying in the manger, what law and wisdom of life are given by this miraculous sign? To what do the angels now call those who come to venerate Christ? They call them to receive into their hearts His humiliation, His persecution, His Crucifixion, as the sole sign of the Christian life, as its power and triumph.

For the best self-attestation of the Good is its defenselessness in the face of the power of evil. The best attestation of Truth is silence in the face of much-talkative falsehood. The supreme manifestation of Beauty consists in the unadornment by vain adornment. The power of God triumphs by means of itself, not by means of the power of this world. For the world, there is no power of God. The world does not see and does not know the power of God: it laughs at the power of God. But Christians know that the sign of God is powerlessness in the world – the Infant in the manger.

And there is no need to gild the manger, for a gilded manger is no longer Christ’s manger. There is no need for earthly defense, for such defense is superfluous for the Infant Christ. There is no need for earthly magnificence, for it is rejected by the King of Glory, the Infant in the manger. But there is a need for the authentic revelation of the God of Love. There is a need for the image of all-forgiving meekness, praying for His enemies and tormentors. There is a need for the image of the way of the cross to Christ’s Kingdom, to defeat evil by the triumphant self-evidence of good. There is a need for the image of freedom from the world. And powerless, we are powerful. In the kingdom of this world we desire to serve the Kingdom of God; we believe in, call, and await this Kingdom. For we have come to know the sign of the Infant in the manger. Power in powerlessness, Triumph in humiliation. And let our heart be our manger, in which we bear the divine sign, the sign of the cross.

By this sign reigns the King of kings, the Infant in the manger. In Him and with Him we are united forever by the fact He was made man. We call him Emmanuel – God with us’.

– Sergeĭ Nikolaevich Bulgakov, Churchly Joy: Orthodox Devotions for the Church Year (trans. Boris Jakim; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 39–40.

Advent IV: ‘The process of Your coming’, by Karl Rahner

‘Every year we celebrate the holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and sing those lovely songs of hope and promise. Every year we roll up all our needs and yearnings and faithful expectation into one word: “Come!”

And yet, what a strange prayer this is! After all, You have already come and pitched Your tent among us. You have already shared our life with its little joys, its long days of tedious routine, its bitter end. Could we invite You to anything more than this with our “Come”? Could You approach any nearer to us than You did when You became the “Son of Man,” when You adopted our ordinary little ways so thoroughly that it’s almost hard for us to distinguish You from the rest of our fellow men?

In spite of all this we still pray: “Come.” And this word issues as much from the depth of our hearts as it did long ago from the hearts of our forefathers, the kings and prophets who saw Your day still far off in the distance, and fervently blessed its coming. Is it true, then, that we only “celebrate” this season, or is it still really Advent?

Are You the eternal Advent? Are You He who is always still to come, but never arrives in such a way as to fulfill our expectations? Are You the infinitely distant One, who can never be reached?

Are You only the distant horizon surrounding the world of our deeds and sufferings, the horizon which, no matter where we roam, is always just as far away? Are You only the eternal Today, containing within itself all time and all change, equally near to everything, and thus also equally distant?

When our bleeding feet have apparently covered a part of the distance toY our eternity, don’t You always retreat twice as far away from us, into the immense reaches filled only by your infinite being? Has humanity drawn the least bit closer to You in the thousands and thousands of years that have elapsed since it boldly began its most exciting and fearsome adventure, the search for You?

Have I come any nearer to You in the course of my life, or doesn’t all the ground I have won only make my cup all the more bitter because the distance to You is still infinite? Must we remain ever far from You, O God of immensity, because You are ever near to us, and therefore have no need of “coming” to us? Is it because there is no place in our world to which You must first “find your way”?

You tell me that you have really already come, that Your name is Jesus, Son of Mary, and that I know in what place and at what time I can find You. That’s all true, of course, Lord – but forgive me if I say that this coming of Yours seems to me more like a going, more like a departure than an arrival.

You have clothed Yourself in the form of a slave. You, the hidden God, have been found as one of us. You have quietly and inconspicuously taken Your place in our ranks and marched along with us. You have walked with us, even though we are beings who are never coming, but rather always going, since any goal we reach has only one purpose: to point beyond itself and lead us to the last goal, our end.

And thus we still cry: “Come! Come to us, You who never pass away, You whose day has no evening, whose reality knows no end! Come to us, because our march is only a procession to the grave.” Despairing of ourselves, we call upon You – then most of all, when, in composure and quiet resignation, we bring ourselves to accept our finiteness.

You promised that You would come, and actually made good Your promise. But how, O Lord, how did You come? You did it by taking a human life as Your own. You became like us in everything: born of a woman, You suffered under Pontius Pilate, were crucified, died, and were buried. And thus You took up again the very thing we wanted to discard. You began what we thought would end with your coming: our poor human kind of life, which is sheer frailty, finiteness, and death.

Contrary to all our fond hopes, You seized upon precisely this kind of human life and made it Your own. And You did this not in order to change or abolish it, not so that You could visibly and tangibly transform it, not to divinize it. You didn’t even fill it to overflowing with the kind of goods that men are able to wrest from the small, rocky acre of their temporal life, and which they laboriously store away as their meager provision for eternity.

No,You took upon Yourself our kind of life, just as it is. You let it slip away from You, just as ours vanishes from us. You held on to it carefully, so that not a single drop of its torments would be spilled. You hoarded its every fleeting moment, so You could suffer through it all, right to the bitter end.

You too felt the inexorable wheel of blind, brute nature rolling over Your life, while the clear-seeing eye of human malice looked on in cruel satisfaction. And when Your humanity glanced upwards to the One who, in purest truth and deepest love, is called “Father,” it too caught sight of the God whose ways are unfathomable and whose judgments are incomprehensible, who hands us the chalice or lets it pass, all according to His own holy will. You too learned in the hard school of suffering that no “why” will ever ferret out the secret of that will, which could have done otherwise, and yet chose to do something we would never understand.

You were supposed to come to redeem us from ourselves, and yet You, who alone are absolutely free and unbounded, were “made,” even as we are. Of course, I know that You remained what You always were, but still, didn’t our mortality make You shudder, You the Immortal God? Didn’t You, the broad and limitless Being, shrink back in horror from our narrowness? Weren’t You, absolute Truth, revolted at our pretense?

Didn’t You nail yourself to the cross of creation, when You took as Your own life something which You had drawn out of nothing, when You assumed as Your very own the darkness that You had previously spread out in the eternal distance as the background to Your own inaccessible light? Isn’t the Cross of Golgotha only the visible form of the cross You have prepared for Yourself, which towers throughout the spaces of eternity?

Is that Your real coming? Is that what humanity has been waiting for? Is that why men have made the whole of human history a single great Advent-choir, in which even the blasphemers take part – a single chant crying out for You and Your coming? Is Your humble human existence from Bethlehem to Calvary really the coming that was to redeem wretched humanity from its misery?

Is our grief taken from us, simply because you wept too? Is our surrender to finiteness no longer a terrible act of despair, simply because You also capitulated? Does our road, which doesn’t want to end, have a happy ending despite itself, just because You are traveling it with us?

But how can this be? And why should it be? How can our life be the redemption of itself, simply because it has also become Your life? How can You buy us back from the law, simply by having fallen under the law Yourself (Gal. 4:5)?

Or is it this way: is my surrender to the crushing narrowness of earthly existence the beginning of my liberation from it, precisely because this surrender is my “Amen” to Your human life, my way of saying yes to Your human coming, which happens in a manner so contrary to my expectations?

But of what value is it to me that my destiny is now a participation in Yours, if You have merely made what is mine Your own? Or have You made my life only the beginning of Your coming, only the starting point of Your life?

Slowly a light is beginning to dawn. I’ve begun to understand something I have known for a long time: You are still in the process of Your coming. Your appearance in the form of a slave was only the beginning of Your coming, a beginning in which You chose to redeem men by embracing the very slavery from which You were freeing them. And You can really achieve Your purpose in this paradoxical way, because the paths that You tread have a real ending, the narrow passes which You enter soon open out into broad liberty, the cross that You carry inevitably becomes a brilliant banner of triumph.

It is said that You will come again, and this is true. But the word again is misleading. It won’t really be “another” coming, because You have never really gone away. In the human existence that You made Your own for all eternity, You have never left us.

But still You will come again, because the fact that You have already come must continue to be revealed ever more clearly. It will become progressively more manifest to the world that the heart of all things is already transformed, because You have taken them all to Your heart.

Behold, You come. And Your coming is neither past nor future, but the present, which has only to reach its fulfillment. Now it is still the one single hour of Your Advent, at the end of which we too shall have found out that You have really come.

O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of Your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in You forever, in the blissful hour of Your eternity’.

– Karl Rahner, Encounters with Silence (Westminster: Newman Press, 1965), 80–87

Advent I: On Matthew 11.25–27

In keeping with my practice in recent years, I propose to again post a series of short Advent reflections. Here’s the first:

‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Mt 11:25–27)

It is God’s way—it keeps being so—to hide Himself from those whom Jesus ironically calls “wise and learned.” It is God’s way—it keeps being so!—to reveal Himself to the humble. The relevance of this text to understanding the mission of Jesus is decisive. His God can only be known through the revelation made to the “little children.” There is no other place where Jesus has wanted to reveal his Father to us. This is how God has wanted it. He does not want human beings to identify Him with the Law, with the cult, with power, with ritual purity, with judgment, and with punishment. He does not want to be identified with the encyclicals, the canonical code, liturgical rubrics, or other fanciful things. Only in the revelation to those who do not count—the marginalized and those who remain excluded from everything—can the true face of God be known. For this reason, Jesus perceives himself as a relief for the afflicted and the oppressed. (see Mt 11:28-30). Jesus frees God from His own yoke. And he frees the poor from the God that had condemned them to their fate by showing them that God is with them, that He has decided to undergo the same fate as the poor. For this reason, he calls them “blessed.” The new times they have hoped for have come’.

– Oscar Campana, ‘Jesus, the Poor, and Theology’ in Getting the Poor Down From the Cross: Christology of Liberation (ed. José María Vigil; np: International Teological Commission of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, 2007), 58.

BTW: It’s always worth heading over to Hopeful Imagination this time of year to read the Advent reflections.

Advent Reflections – 2009

Advent I: O Love, aren’t you tired yet?

Advent II: On the pseudonymous activity of God

Advent III: But then … they appear

Advent IV: Weighing the virgin conception

Advent V: ‘He was born for the Cross’

Advent V: ‘He was born for the Cross’

Ralph Hotere, 'Towards Aramoana', 1982

‘That Cross was deep embedded in the very structure of Christ’s Person, because nowadays you cannot separate His Person from His vocation, from the work He came to do, and the words He came to speak. The Cross was not simply a fate awaiting Christ in the future; it pervaded subliminally His holy Person. He was born for the Cross. It was His genius, His destiny. It was quite inevitable that, in a world like this, One holy as Jesus was holy should come to the Cross. The parable was spoken by One in whom the Cross and all it stands for were latent in His idea of God; and it became patent, came to the surface, became actual, and practical, and powerful in the stress of man’s crisis and the fullness of God’s time. That is an important phrase. Christ Himself came in a fullness of time. The Cross which consummated and crowned Christ came in its fullness of time. The time was not full during Christ’s life for preaching an atonement that life could never make’. – P.T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 107–8.

‘Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, But yet the body is his book’

  • Jason Byassee on tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan and the Masai creed: ‘I love the way Herbert McCabe, the Dominican priest and theologian, put it: “We don’t know what Christians will believe in the 24th century, but we know they will not be Arians or Nestorians.” Creeds, usually occasioned by a new teaching the church must either bless or condemn, cut off certain roads. But they do not mandate which road we all must go down for all time. Future ages will have to figure that out, while submitting to what has come before. But that submission is a granting of freedom, not a tragic cutting off of possibility’. There are some important implications here for the conversation currently going on in my own denomination about writing a new confession of faith.
  • Anthony Gottlieb on God and gardens.
  • Cynthia R. Nielsen continues her series on Gadamer with two more posts.
  • Stanley Hauerwas responds to Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
  • Renardo Barden reviews Dylan’s Christmas album: ‘Occasionally Dylan chases and misses the high notes and botches daring full-throttle endings. His church Latin is no good, and he’s losing yet more ground on his claim to sing as good as Caruso. But he’s still out there, making new of what’s old, light of what’s silly, and merry for merriment’s sake’.
  • Halden Doerge offers some critiques of individualism as will to power: ‘… “individualism” is only scary to those who want to control the social lives of others. Honestly I don’t think it can possibly be a coincidence that the folks most virulently critical of individualism are white males who have significant university posts. Indeed I’m hard pressed to think of a single female scholar who has attacked individualism in ways akin to say Robert Bellah or Zygmunt Bauman … It seems to me that critiques of individualism invariably come beset with a totalizing vision of “the good society” that, ostensibly should be actualized whether people like it or not (because obviously they don’t like it or they’d be doing it already). In short, I don’t know how critiques of individualism, as such, avoid the charge that they are simply instances of the will to power. They are always animated with angst, fear, and revulsion towards the current shape of social life and deeply desirous of reshaping society in accordance with their own vision. It’s hard for me to image that not being ultimately fascist (Milbank is perhaps the most sophisticated example of a theological fascist writing today)’.
  • Andre Muller posts on music.
  • Finally, I’ve been posting on advent: Part I, II, III, IV.

Advent IV: Weighing the virgin conception

Today’s New Zealand Herald ran this image and its accompanying story about an Auckland church’s (St Matthews’) new billboard. I’m not really interested here in engaging with the controversy around the offensiveness or cleverness or otherwise of the image, or about how I feel about its defacement some five hours after it was erected. I am interested, however, in taking up the image’s and St Matthews’ (both St Matthews in fact, the apostle’s and the Auckland church’s) invitation to enquire about the Christmas event of Mary’s virginal conception, and about the Church’s ongoing proclamation of that event as part of the Good News for which it exists to bear witness.

So here’s my response to that invitation: The miracle of the virgin conception is a judgement against the possibility of the creature producing its own word of revelation and reconciliation. It is a judgement against us thinking that we can know God apart from God’s initiative, and that we might save ourselves apart from God’s bloody intrusion into our situation. It is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to be God for us, to unveil for us, to reconcile us. And it is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to save us, and that by becoming personally involved – literally enfleshed – in the deepest depths of creaturely experience. This is why it is Good News. In PT Forsyth’s words, ‘The Virgin birth is not a necessity created by the integrity and infallibility of the Bible; it is a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the Gospel, and by the requirements of grace’. (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 14).

Advent III: But then … they appear

After W.H. Auden had visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and seen Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s c.1558 work, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he went away and penned the following cynical words:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

William Willimon recalls Brueghel’s painting, and Auden’s poem, in his book On a Wild and Windy Mountain, wherein he observes that we trudge past bleeding crosses with a shrug of the shoulders, that Good Fridays are so commonplace among us as to be unnoteworthy, and that tragedy achieves nobility only in the theater. ‘Everydayness and ordinariness’, he writes, ‘become our best defenses, the most effective relativizers of the tragic in our midst. Some young Icarus falls from the sky every day, so one had best get on with the business at hand until the extraordinary comes. For now, go to work, eat, make friends, make money, make love, mind your business – that’s the best way to cope, for the time being, with the expectedness of the tragic. The old masters knew best’ (p. 15).

Willimon proceeds to compare Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with another of the Dutch masters’ works: Numbering at Bethlehem. He notes the ordinariness of the depiction, a day mundane and unpromising – in its highlights at least – and nothing beyond the expected.

But then … they appear.

They appear. ‘An inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a little donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. Old masters like Brueghel’, Willimon rightly suggests (and we might add Rembrandt), ‘were never wrong’. Rather, they understood, and bore witness to in their work, the truth of Emmanuel, the scandal of the unostentatious God living – and dying – with us, of God stained with the sweat of human bondage and soaked – baptised – in the blood of human violence, of God incognito. ‘They understood our blindness not only to the tragic but also to the triumphant in our midst … In life, the Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper. And so we wait, sitting in the darkness of the everyday until something extraordinary breaks in. Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, eat, make love, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business. The old masters knew it best’ (p. 16).

I have posted elsewhere on the pseudonymous activity of God, suggesting that ‘in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise’. It is precisely that we may ‘see’ what Willimon so beautifully refers to as ‘the triumphant in our midst’ that we are graced, and that that we might witness to the day when good will triumph over all, certain that the grace of holy love will win at last because it did not fail to win at its most decisive time. In the meantime, such seeing typically requires what is another great advent theme: waiting, or what R.S. Thomas, in his poem ‘Kneeling’, called ‘moments of great calm’:

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

[This meditation was first written for the Advent series over at Hopeful Imagination, and I have posted other Advent reflections here.]

Advent II: On the pseudonymous activity of God

In a fascinating collection of personal papers and essays on public theology penned against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and titled The Pseudonyms of God, Robert McAfee Brown invites us to imagine finding ourselves in a place where we are waiting for some tremendous manifestation of God’s activity. He invites us to imagine a situation where we have heard – or thought we had heard – a promise that God would intervene in our human situation, and that it was now clear that the time was at hand. Where would we look for God?

Brown suggests that we might most likely be found looking ‘in one of the great nations, where as many people as possible would be exposed to this important fact; surely in a well-established family with much influence; surely in such a way that all the resources of public opinion and mass media could be used to acquaint people with what had happened; surely it would be the most public and open and widely accessible event possible’ (pp. 84–5). He then paints a scenario more in keeping with the event of divine disclosure now known to us, but is no less in the stream of divine pseudonymity for that:

A child would be born into a backward South African tribe, the child of poor parents with almost no education. He would grow up under a government that would not acknowledge his right to citizenship. During his entire lifetime he would travel no more than about fifty miles from the village of his birth, and would spend most of that lifetime simply following his father’s trade – a hunter, perhaps, or a primitive farmer. Toward the end he would begin to gather a few followers together, talking about things that sounded so dangerous to the authorities that the police would finally move in and arrest him, at which point his following would collapse and his friends would fade back into their former jobs and situations. After a short time in prison and a rigged trial he would be shot by the prison guards as an enemy of the state. (p. 85)

Contemporaries ought not to be surprised to find the outcast – and the outcasted – God among the outcast. We must look for signs of the Servant God’s presence among those who serve. Numbered among an oppressed minority, we must expect to hear the echo of God’s voice among those who are oppressed. The pieta-like image above recalls that since 800 million of the planet’s people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, we might well expect that God’s availability is made tangible in loaves and fishes, rice and safe drinking water. Since God’s identification with the world involves God’s becoming creaturely, we ought look for God not only in ‘holy’ places or by means of ‘holy’ words, but we will look for God also in the very common, ordinary things of life, in the well over 500 million people who are living in what the World Bank has called ‘absolute poverty’, and in all those gathered up in the one great movement of divine kenosis-plerosis. ‘We will not be surprised to discover’, Brown writes, ‘that [God] suffered also, nor will we flinch when Bonhoeffer pronounces the initially disturbing words, “Only the suffering God can help,” even though it is probably the ultimate in the pseudonymous activity of God that he could be acquainted with grief’ (p. 86).

Brown then turns to Kierkegaard, and specifically to the Danes’ parable of the king and the maiden:

The servant-form is no mere outer garment, and therefore God must suffer all things, endure all things, make experience of all things. He must suffer hunger in the desert, he must thirst in the time of his agony, he must be forsaken in death, absolutely like the humblest – behold the man! His suffering is not that of his death, but his entire life is a story of suffering; and it is love that suffers, the love which gives all is itself in want (pp. 86–7).

Truly, in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise. Jesus is God’s grand pseudonym, the supreme instance of God acting in ways contrary to our expectation, the point at which we are offered the criterion in terms of which the action of God elsewhere can be measured. And so if we miss God’s presence in the world, it will not be because God is absent. It will be because we have been looking in the wrong places.

Advent I: O Love, aren’t you tired yet?

For the past few Advents, Andy Goodliff has been inviting a group of bloggers (and others) to post some wee reflections over at Hopeful Imagination. The posts have become a mirthful part of my Advent tarriance, helping me to reflect in a sustained way on the divine magic through what is typically a very busy, and seemingly most unmagical, time.

In addition to posting over at Hopeful Imagination, over the next few weeks, I’ll also be posting some Advent-inspired reflections here at Per Crucem ad Lucem (something in the tradition of my Advent 2007 reflections). I want to kick this off with a re-post from Roddy Hamilton, one of Scotland’s most creative liturgists, who just yesterday posted a wonderful reflection on Isaiah 7 based on ‘The Faith’, a song from the album Dear Heather by Leonard Cohen.

The gathering of darkness,
and the will to fight,
the pain born in conflict,
and the story of loss and fear:
these are the ways we live together.
O Love, aren’t you tired yet?

The turning from light,
and the work of injustice disguised as right,
the journeys we make that lengthen the distance between us.
O love, aren’t you tired yet?

The call unheard,
the silent questions we leave unlived,
and a graveyard of truth
left uncared for,
the bowing of the earth to extravagance,
and the weeping of the rivers.
O love, aren’t you tired yet?

The sun,
the land,
the sea,
limited in what they can give,
for they have given too much already;
the soil,
the faith,
still your holy turf,
but un-renewed by a future un-owned.
O love, aren’t you tired yet?

When the world leaves scattered,
holy words that seem like hope,
torn out from every page,
and past generations’ lessons
are thrown crumpled in a forgotten alley
darkened by the shadow cast from a new world empire,
O love, aren’t you tired yet?

But the seed of a promise
uncrumples,
in a name spoken in passion,
that holds out the future
as the past unwinds,
a love that will never let go,
called emmanuel.
O love, aren’t you tired yet?

[Image: skyrie’s photostream]

‘For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else’

invisible man

Christmas as judgement

adventAs part of my advent journey this year I’ve been reading Schleiermacher’s 1806 novella Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas (trans. W. Hastie; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890). It’s a beautiful read, not least because undergirded by Schleiermacher’s enormous respect for childhood as childhood. Like Rahner, Schleiermacher believes that children teach adults, that children – as children – are full human beings and so worthy of all the respect and dignity due to creaturely personhood.

For example, one of the characters in the story (Agnes) poses a series of important questions:

Is it then the case that the first childish objects of enjoyment must, in fact, be lost that the higher may be gained? May there not be a way of obtaining the latter without letting the former go? Does life then begin with a pure illusion in which there is no truth at all, and nothing enduring? How am I rightly to comprehend this? In the case of the man who has come to reflect upon himself and the world, and who has found God, seeing that this process is not gone through without conflict and warfare, do his joys rest upon the eradication, not merely of what is evil, but of what is blameless? For it is thus we always indicate the childlike, or even the childish, if you will rather so have it. (p. 33)

The book is a revelation into Schleiermacher’s – and Barth’s – theology (on many levels) and not least Schleiermacher’s (overly)-optimistic view of human personhood. It was this that Barth, in his 1923/24 Göttingen lectures on the theology of Schleiermacher, rightly picked up on, criticising Schleiermacher for positing an anthropology too without regard for an adequate account of the realities of sin, conversion and the in-breaking of the Word of God.

In those lectures, Barth’s reading of Schleiermacher’s ‘Christological Festival Sermons’ (as Barth calls them) spans some 50 pages wherein Barth expresses his usual mixture of appreciation and criticism for the Silesian-born theologian. One place where Barth’s praise for Schleiermacher’s Christmas sermons is noted concerns Schleiermacher’s sermon on Acts 17:30-31 [‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead’]. On this, ‘the most powerful and impressive Christmas sermon that Schleiermacher preached’, Barth comments:

Let us look beyond the narrow sphere of individual life, Schleiermacher asks in the introduction, to the large and universal sphere. It is the Savior of the world whose coming we celebrate. A new world has dawned since the Word became flesh. His appearing was the great turning-point in the whole history of the human race. What is the change whereby the old age and the new may be distinguished? The fact that ignorance of God is no longer overlooked and tolerated by God. Christ’s life was from beginning to end an increasing revelation. The world’s childhood ended with it. Sin is now known and the image of God is evident. Hence judgement passes on all human action, and we ought to rejoice at this. We are now told that he commands everyone everywhere to repent. [Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24 (ed. Dietrich Ritschl; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 72.]

For the world to have been judged so graciously is indeed the good news that advent dare not dream to hope for.

Still … Maranatha.

Thinking Advent: Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope

I read a delightful essay today by Jürgen Moltmann entitled ‘Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope’ [Theology Today 56, no. 4 (2000): 592-603]. In this essay, Moltmann recalls that Jesus was ‘not merely a “gentle friend of children,” as the sentimental nineteenth century liked to picture him’ but a revolutionary contrast to the Roman world of antiquity wherein children were undervalued and where their legal status (alongside that of women and slaves) was very low; indicative of the fact that as the property of the paterfamilias, they could be sold or abandoned, and often were, particularly girls. Moltmann then offers some helpful commentary on key NT verses concerning children:

(1) “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10: 14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:19). The disciples view children as unworthy and therefore try to keep them from their master. After all, they are not children anymore. Jesus reprimands the disciples; embracing and blessing the children, he proclaims what he embodies, that the kingdom of God is already theirs. According to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God already belongs to the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying,” In the same way, it also now belongs to children, children are made partners in the covenant with God. Why? Did they deserve it? No. it is exactly because they do not deserve it and are unable to effect it, but in fact receive it like their own birth.

On the other hand, the kingdom “where peace and justice kiss” (as the psalm says) does not appear at the heights of human progress, among the clever and just, rich and beautiful of this world. Rather, it appears among the oppressed, the powerless, the poor, and the children, turning the status quo of human value systems upside down. If the kingdom comes into the world “down below,” those “up there” have been deprived of any religious legitimacy supporting their presumption to dominion. Just as the blessing of the poor was complemented by the lamentations over the rich, the benediction of children belongs with the curse pronounced over the violators of children: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). If God’s kingdom comes into this world by way of the poor and the children, so does the judgment of God.

(2) “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes rne, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). And the one who sent Jesus, as we know, is the Father. By way of these identifications, Jesus declares children his representatives in society: Just as the God of his messianic mission is in him, so Christ is present in every child. Thus, whoever takes in a child, takes in Christ. This is exactly how Matthew describes the great judgment day: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” “For I was hungry and you gave me food … I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:40, 35-36). The one who will judge the world identifies with the lowly. He is hidden and present in them already now and will eventually judge how the just and the unjust treated the least among humans. Children and the lowly are not, unlike the apostles, agents sent by God. Rather, in them, the poor, powerless, and imprisoned Christ is waiting for his followers to act. Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is also the spontaneous impression the image of the child in the manger awakens in us.

(3) “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Jesus’ answer to the question of the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:3, 1) By saying this, Jesus underscores the point that whoever wants to be the greatest of all will have to be everybody else’s servant, “deny themselves,” and become “like a child” (18:4). He asks the disciples to accept themselves not in their power, but in their weakness, not in their wealth, but in their poverty: not as grown-up children, but as the children of their adulthood. He asks the disciples to reclaim the facets of their own being, which had been repressed by development and education. We can only come into the kingdom of God if we receive it like a child with empty hands. That does not mean one has to go back to being a child (which would be childish) but become upon analogy “like a child.” We don’t have to imitate children to become part of God’s future, rather we must be in solidarity with them, respecting their intimate proximity to God’s future. The point is not that children are closer to the kingdom of God because of especially childlike properties (like innocence or naivete that adults have lost), but rather that the kingdom of God is closer to them because they are loved, embraced, and blessed by God. We could also say: Whoever experiences God’s closeness in the community of Christ — as humans experienced it in the proximity of Jesus – will become like a child. Another, later way to phrase this is: Gotteskindschaft – “the community of God’s children.”

This stirred a number of questions in me that I’ll go to bed tonight thinking about:

  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s identification of children with Jesus’ words (in the Sermon on the Mount) regarding the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying”?
  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s claim that just as the God of Jesus’ messianic mission is in him, so too ‘Christ is present in every child’, so that ‘whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God’?
  • What might it mean for us to ‘reclaim the facets of [our] own being, which [have] been repressed by development and education’? Are there implications here for pastoral leadership?

Later on, Moltmann unsurprisingly draws on Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope:

“Jesus is himself present among the helpless, as an element of this humbleness, standing in the dark, not in brightness … This is why the child in the manger becomes so important, along with the humbleness of all the circumstances in the out-of-the-way, cramped stable. The unexpectedness of finding the redeemer as a helpless child.” Christian love therefore “regards the helpless as important, that which is discarded by the world as called” and “gathers up its own in their out-of-the-wayness, their incognito to the world, their discordance with the world: into the kingdom where they do accord.”

sinead-1I was reminded of another essay that I recently read by Tony Kelly where the author suggests that in a world of violent competition and the exponential growth of problems and responsibilities, the child calls for the rebirth of wonder, trust and playful contentment within the great womb of life and time. Where the harried adult might see only problems, and become weary in mind and heart, children live otherwise. ‘They breathe another air, content to play within the inexhaustible mystery of what has been so uncannily given. Every child is a call to return to the gift that was at the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’.

So too does this same refrain echo through Moltmann, who concludes his essay with three reasons for why children remain metaphors of hope:

(1) With every child, a new life begins, original, unique, incomparable. And while it seems that we always ask, who this or that child looks like (apparently because we seem to think we can only understand the new in the comparison with what is already known or similar), we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future.

(2) With every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance. It is important to see children in their own transcendent perspective and so to resist forming them according to the images of our world. Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

(3) The last reason to see “a new beginning” or a “beginning of the New” in the beginning of a child’s life is the fact that, for me, children are not only metaphors of our hopes, of that which we want, wish for and expect, but also are metaphors of God’s hope for us: God wants us, expects us, and welcomes us. Humanity is God’s great love, God’s dream for God’s earthly world, God’s image for God’s beloved earth. God is “waiting” for the “human person” in every child, is “waiting” for God’s echo, resonance, and rainbow. Maybe that is the reason God is so patient with us, hearing the ruins of human history, inviting one human generation after the other into existence. God is not silent, God is not “dead” – God is waiting for the menschlichen Menschen the “truly humane human.” “In all of the prophets, I have waited for you,” Martin Buber has the Eternal One speak to the Messiah, “and now you have come.”

Advent Conspiracy

This is insane: how am I ever gonna get all the stuff I need when this kind of thing is doing the rounds? Does Advent really have to be about the great interruption? You bet!

Advent Reflection 12: Not an ethereal figure

‘So deeply is this need [for love] rooted in human nature, and so essentially does it belong to being human, that even he who was one with the Father and in the communion of love with the Father and the Spirit, he who loved the whole human race, our Lord Jesus Christ, even he humanly felt this need to love and be loved by an individual human being. He is indeed the God-man and thus eternally different from every human being, but still he was also a true human being, tested in everything human. On the other hand, the fact that he experienced this is the very expression of its belonging essentially to a human being. He was an actual human being and therefore can participate in everything human. He was not an ethereal figure that beckoned in the clouds without understanding or wanting to understand what humanly befalls a human being. Ah, no, he could have compassion on the crowd that lacked food, and purely humanly, he who himself had hungered in the desert. In the same way he could also sympathize with people in this need to love and to be loved, sympathize purely humanly’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong; vol. 16; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 155.

Advent Reflections for 2007

Advent Reflection 11: God’s Self-Placement

‘He was man as we are. His condition was no different from ours. He took our flesh, the nature of man as he comes from the fall … His sinlessness was not therefore His condition. It was the act of His being in which He defeated temptation in His condition which is ours, in the flesh … He emptied Himself … placing Himself in the series of men who rebelled against God in their delusion … In so doing, in His own person, He reversed the fall in their place and for their sake’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 1956, 259.