thinking theology

Advent 4 Christmas 2017

For most of Advent, Ive been grumbling about the collision of dates but in preparation for the 8 am service, I suddenly realized how this year “trues” the message of Advent. it has come upon us suddenly, even though we knew it would come. It came as a surprise, illogically enough. I certainly was not as ready as I thought. Over breakfast, wremarked that it looked as though the apocalypse had happened in our living room, and baking, cleaning, decorating still had not happened. Despite all my obsessive organizing, things assumed new paths, new configurations, and it was all very good. Indeed, my organizing ales got in the way.

The message of John is prepare for God’s judgement, and that judgement i Jesus. Prepare for something new and unexpected to erupt in our midst, and a child cries in the night. Advent asks us to get ready, but nothing we can do will prepare us, nothing we can practice, will let us anticipate this improbable event. The judgement of God has come, and the judgement is love. The judgement is a blessing on our humanity. The judgement says all things shall be well. Open your hearts, and feel forgiven, freed and loved. And now we are ready for Christmas!

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Holiness, Woven and Revealed

Many years ago, I was asked to be a guest on a CBC radio show. My task was to talk about the Marian Antiphons with Jürgen Goth, a personal hero. It seemed like an odd thing to have happened, but I didn’t want to miss the chance so I took myself for some research not only on the antiphons, but on a new understanding of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In my early church days, like everyone else I guess, Mary was a background figure. Despite the Magnificat, she seemed to be silent and passive, being caught between the plans of a father god and a divine son.

The antiphons presented quite a different picture of her, of course. Written between the 11th and 13th centuries CE, their prayer is to a woman of power and authority. Jesus may be entreated through her in times of danger or stress and struggle. In may parts of the world, icons and altars in her honour have been created. Nonetheless, in most of the paintings, frescoes and statuary, she remains a demure figure.

As a young and pious woman, I wanted to be as obedient and as demure as she; however, I am a fiery Sagittarian and such meekness could not be fulfilled without serious damage to my identity. Nor was my mother much of a traditional figure of humble, womanly behaviours. She was too much fun and too alive for all that. And thus, until the radio programme, I spent very little time considering Mary’s presence in my life or in the life of the church.

Study and reflection have caused me to re-evaluate this figure in the story of Jesus. Mary had enough influence that legends rose up around her, supplying her with an immaculate conception and a bodily resurrection along with her son. This would suggest the authority of her presence in the deliberations of the early church.

From her role as an apostle and leader in the fledgling church, she gradually became reduced to a supporting role in the church’s theology, although she remained influential to ordinary people. When the reformation came, she was finally demoted, except as a model of virtue and obedience.

Many women have commented on how poorly this affected their ideas about themselves, their autonomy, and their potential. I suspect that not only women have been colonized by these ideas of submission and obedience to a higher authority. The whole church, in many ways, forgot itself over the millennia. The activity of the church became caricatured as the laity supporting a highly regulated and dominant priestly caste. Not only that, while laity were reminded of their human weaknesses and need for salvation, the ruling classes of the church functioned above critique or judgement.

And so we come to the 21st century. In our time, the moment is upon us to rehabilitate the reputation and role of Mary. It is in her mouth that Luke places a song very like that of Hannah who has conspired with God and who will produce Samuel, that great leader in Judaism. In Mary’s song, she expresses joy and hope for the poor and a reversal of fortune for the selfish. Her response to the angel Gabriel, when told of how she could understand her pregnancy, is basically, “Lets get on with it then!” She raises her child and, in the non-canonical literature, it is she who demonstrates his power to heal. She travels with Jesus, possibly working with the women followers who were the probable funders of the mission. At the cross, when others flee, she remains with her son, in life and in death. Her confidence in him and her unwavering strength in the face of resistance, oppression, violence, and her own heartbreak, is an incredible model of discipleship. Not so much obedient as responsive; not so much demure as defiant.

With Jesus, Mary reminds us that the divine works within the human body and spirit. Within the fibres of our being, holiness is woven and revealed; within our lives — our human, bodily lives — healing and hope, compassion and relationship, are sanctified and made real; not just ideas or philosophies, but actions.

To venerate Mary is to venerate the generative power of life in all of us, our capacity to be creative, insightful, courageous. To venerate Mary is to recognize that life itself is holy and we are called to defend God’s choice for life in all its complexity and beauty. I am fairly certain that it is not obedience that frees the world, but rather truth-telling, reconciliation, and forgiveness. And so I say to you, don’t be a shrinking violet! Be like Mary, an outrageous dusky rose who said to the messenger, “All right, lets do this!”

Alma Redemptoris Mater
(From the First Sunday of Advent to the Feast of the Presentation)
Loving mother of the Redeemer, that passage to heaven,
gate of the morning, and star of the sea, assist the fallen, you who cure, lift up the people: you who bore to the wonderment of nature, your holy Creator,
Virgin before and after, who received from Gabriel
that joyful greeting, have mercy on us sinners.

Ave Regina Cælorum
(After the Presentation to Holy Saturday)
Hail, Queen of the heavens, hail, Lady of the angels,
hail, root of Jesse, hail gate of heaven, from whom light has come into the world.
Rejoice, Virgin most glorious,
Above all most beautiful; hail, o most highly honored, and entreat Christ for us.

Regina Cæli
(From Easter to Pentecost )
Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia, for he whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia,
was resurrected as he said, alleluia; entreat God for us, alleluia.
Be joyful and rejoice, Virgin Mary, alleluia,
Because Christ has truly risen, alleluia.

Salve Regina
(After Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent)
Hail, Queen, mother of mercies, life, sweetness, and our hope, hail,
To you do we cry, exiled children of Eden.
To you do we sigh, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Ho! therefore, our advocate; Turn your merciful eyes to us.
And after this exile, show to us Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb,
O clement, O holy, O sweet Virgin Mary.

More from the wilderness

I am still thinking about John and Jesus. John looks back into his tradition to find solutions for what he perceives to be a recurring problem that ultimately can be  resolved only by Divine judgement. Jesus, on the other hand, carries his tradition with him, reshaping it for new circumstances. He understands the rabbinical idea that Torah does not change, but people and the world do. Thus Torah is perceived in new ways for every generation.
I do not think Jesus’ ministry is problem based, so much as responsive, open to previously unimaginable possibility. Jesus seems aware that only compassion can unseat violence and only vulnerability can challenge power. No amount of institutional obedience or even piety will bring the world to a new era. For Jesus, the Divine is in the world in relationship, in the flesh , in the struggle, joy, and grace of living and dying with integrity, with love.
John looks to the past, as the Church often does. Jesus opens the door of the future, inviting us to step through death into a re-embodied eternal present.

John the Baptizer’s story is created from bits and pieces of older scripture. The strain in the story rises from the disparity between John’s message and Jesus’. To this day, in the Mandean community, John the Baptist is still revered as the Messiah of the two ways, one of death and the other of life. In Islam, he is the great prophet Yayah. For the first writers of Jesus’ story, their problem was clear. How could they weave the story of John into that of Jesus without compromising Jesus’ message of reconciliation and forgiveness. Their solution was brilliant. We will never know if Jesus began as a follower of John or if he simply existed and preached at the same time. In any case, the solution lay within Torah; present John as the Forerunner of the true Messiah. Relate him to Elijah (although John himself rejected that idea).

‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.
2 Kings 1:8

The Forerunner would call for a new purity, a reclamation of the values of tribal culture, preceding that of king and city state. Jesus’ message, too, offered a possible return to the covenants of Noah and Abraham. John, in this case, is the trumpeting angel who calls for repentance and the subsequent promise of sanctuary. The Exodus passage 23:20 for example, suggests a requirement of absolute obedience to a way of life, and terror for those who oppose the righteous.

I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.

Another echo comes from the prophet Malachi 3:1-3

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

What is notable, however, is that it is the community that is called and individuals, only insofar as they constitute the newly redeemed and restored tribal community.  So how do we reconcile these two prophets for our time. John demands that the community remember a history and a covenant that probably existed as an ideal, rather than a lived reality. And Jesus, who called for a developed humanity that would choose justice with compassion, that would stand against power and privilege without violence, that would judge with forgiveness and reconciliation.

I think these two voices represent stages of our own insight into the problems of our own era. Some of us think to look back to an imagined better time and some of us look forward to the resolution of this stage of human history. Without doubt, we can hear the cry of and from creation, the cry of and from those being assaulted and oppressed.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Isaiah 40:1-4

We know with every fibre of our being that the world is at a turning point, a critical time, when change will come upon us suddenly and inexorably. I think many people in the world feel as if they have already been baptized with fire, either of the heart or physically and socially. The earth is wounded and lashing out in pain. This is not a question of an angry God, but of a body, the body of the world crying out to us to act, to teach the faith again, the faith of a new humanity, and death to our old ideas about power and safety. Our salvation is at hand but it involves protecting others, our world and all of us its creatures. We can forget about the old ideas of personal salvation and instead see the cosmic spirit within which Christ acted, that spirit into which we are all invited, that spirit that promises healing for all and life for all we had thought to be dying.

We can make Advent this year our commitment to act, to learn, to be faithful, not out of personal fear, but out of the love of Christ, who called us to be his friends and co-workers in the in the kindom of peace and joy.

 

Already here: Matthew 25:1-13

I am grateful to D. Mark Davis for reminding me that Matthew puts his own twist on Jesus’ parables, in this case to explain the delayed parousia. I also agree that this parable seems more like what the kingdom of God is not like.

I have some problems both with the parable and in how we translate it. Firstly, I do not think these unmarried women are bridesmaids as we understand them, guests and attendants. I think these are the servants for the event, or the household, with some particular set of tasks. They are probably tired after a day or a month of preparation and so they drift off to sleep. Some of them are shrewd and some of them are “morons’ as the text says. Some of them guess about how the rich behave and prepare for that eventuality; others do not even consider the possibilities.

In the story, it seems to be night, so it is unlikely that the women without enough oil would be able to leave to go into town and get more; nor is it likely any would be easily available. Oddly, there is no offer to share what oil remains.

I wonder if people might have heard the parable as a cautionary tale about trusting in princes to deliver justice and prosperity. The state is notoriously fickle and unreliable for the least of its citizen. There are promises made, but delivery on those promises may be attenuated, if they happen at all. The danger in trusting in the state is that it tends to pit the least in society against each other. So the shrewd have to always be on guard. The unprepared, the “morons,” will be left to their own devices, which will be disastrous; in the harsh world of the state, there is no mercy for these people, even from their own class.

In the kingdom of God, on the other hand, the bridegroom is always present, always available to heal and to restore, to lift up the lowly and scold the proud.The kingdom of God is about abundance and enough for all, not more for some and less for others. Worthiness has less to do with morality or wisdom and more to do with compassion and cooperation. In the kingdom of God, the bridegroom already has come and is returning simultaneously.

It is only “in the world” that a person would look for external signs; they are immaterial in the land of the faithful. In the life in Christ, time has ceased to hold its power over human life. The banquet of the Lamb has begun and continues, despite being unrecognized by those who took for signs of power or “put their trust in princes.”

This is an opportunity to interact with the text and ask who the bridegroom is in our world. Does it matter whether we are asleep or awake? Does it matter how much we have or how prepared we are? Is it really more a question of showing up? of being present to serve and to celebrate? to die and to live in the life of the Holy One, expressed in Jesus?

The Time for War

What is it we are remembering at this time?

I am remembering how many young people are sent to kill or be killed by other young people. They are the sacrifices for our resistance to peace making. Whether they survive or die, war scars everyone and we know that each war begets the next war.

I am remembering the futility and waste wrought by violence, revenge. I want to rescue the children of the world from these desperate and hopeless efforts. I want to say to the rich men whose greed and ambitions require the sacrifice of our children, “Show us how much you will profit from this war. Show us what you hope to accomplish.  And then we will tell you whether or not we think it is worthwhile.” When the revelations about how the world wars were engineered and the propaganda that hid greed and prejudice, my war hero father was reduced to tears. He had broken his soul for the sake of what he believed to be pure ideals of freedom and safety for all.

Please understand, I am not depreciating the courage and commitment of those who serve in the military. I am not suggesting that their sacrifices should go untold or unrewarded. I want us to understand that we must be prepared for the healing that will need to ensue and its expense in time, money and energy.

I am also suggesting that we admit the period of war as it has been fought is over. No one wins wars any more, if they ever did. We are all the puppets of large corporate interests unless we resist. As Christians, part of our task is just that, to resist the powers that choose violence and prejudice, that choose colonization over cooperation, that have very little concern for the individual lives they affect.

The time for fighting on battlefields is over. We must insist on other forms of conflict resolution. We must not support the voices that use fear and ignorance to make political gain. The time for the sacrifice of generations is over.

I am reminded that we were told to stop sacrificing our children early in our history. We were told that although we had understood that to be God’s will, we were wrong.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” …..So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22)

About this passage, Michael Lerner comments in Jewish Renewal (p.48) “Here Abraham stands out as the being whose life gives us the barest hint, yet enough to be a message of hope, that it is possible to break the chain of necessity, that we do not have to pass on to the next generation what was done to us.”

For Christians, one of the stories that illuminates this idea is Jesus’ arrest in the gospel of Luke:

When those who were around Jesus  saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (22:49-51)

It is time to put an end to war. As a way to honour those who have died in military service, let us say that we will do our utmost to make their sacrifice result in peace, because it is that for which they meant to fight. Let us say that we will do our utmost to make their sacrifice result in freedom for everyone, because it is that for which they meant to fight. Let us say that we will do our utmost to save all children from violence, because that was their dream. 

Perhaps we should wear these poppies every day to remind us that violence is a choice we make for others, but that peace is a gift for the living. May all those who have fought in war, rest now in peace. May their souls be at peace. May they send us their strength to renew the earth in compassion.

The Thin Times

If you look on the internet, you will discover many articles about “thin” places or experiences. The common characteristic of both is the element of surprise. In the midst of walking, or feeling, or doing something, suddenly, the reality of the moment collapses, only to expand to a sense of being that is linear, unquantifiable, ineffable. And really any time and any place can become a burning bush, a voice in the clouds, a dazzling ray of sun. The thin time or place allows us to know the world of both spirit and matter as a sacred whole. In the season of All Saints and Souls, we connect the communion of those who have lived amongst us with this present community of faith and practice. It is a season meant to offer us the opportunity to see time as a tapestry being constantly woven with threads of our lives. We are invited to open ourselves to seeing and thinking beyond the limitation of our knowledge.

In speaking about faith as trust in the intrinsic goodness of creation, Marcus Borg wrote that it was through “mystical” experiences that he discovered the God that permeates reality with grace and compassion and wonder. (Awe and Wonder, p.26) These thin times grant us similar moments of possibility, moments when we remember that we are not alone, that our consciousness is bigger than our brains, and that we are intimately connected to a work in progress.

I was visiting an elderly friend this week. She felt distressed that she has memory issues. As the conversation went along, this became apparent as she kept forgetting who I was and saying how familiar I looked. She was embarrassed by these lapses. I told her that she was living in the thin time when past and future had less value than the present moment. She was delighted by a cheeky blue jay that kept coming to her window to eat bird seed and peek at her. I asked her if it was important to her which bird came. “Well, no” she replied. I said that it was the appearance of the bird that mattered most of all. She concurred. I told her that there exist whole schools of spiritual discipline that attempt to teach people to live in the moment and that now she was perfecting that way of being. It seemed to comfort her that it was natural and acceptable not to have to remember but to be content with the moment.

In the back of my head I was hearing, “Consider the lilies.” At this season of the thin time, perhaps we can practice letting go of our needs for control. We cannot initiate a mystical experience, but we can monitor our way of being in the world. We can develop the spiritual discipline of awareness, of being fully present both in our soul and in our body. My parents ashes were interred in our memorial garden. Now I know that those ashes have long since dissipated into the earth, but it still gives me a sense of peace to sit in the garden and remember those two loving people. I try to remember to make “Thank you for life” the first thing I say in the morning. I work at paying attention to my surroundings rather than the voices in my head, clamouring for attention and worry.

Mostly we rush about, but if we can intentionally get out of our heads and move into observer status, we might just discover an amazing world inviting our wonder. We might also reflect that being in the world, we can never leave it. We are, at the least, a part of its history, but maybe our energy, our souls, if you like, are part of this incredible package of stunning reality. Maybe we could trust Jesus when he says that we will be together always. Maybe we can trust the power of transformation to mold us into the forms we need.

In this thin time, let us open ourselves to moving beyond fear to trust, beyond cynicism to the wonder of childhood. Let us cease evaluating and categorizing for a time and just breathe with the world. Maybe we could just let the ancestors drift past us knowing that we belong to them as much as we belong to the dreams of our children. And the earth awaits our awareness that we are part of the planet. Not a dream, but the reality of life constantly living and recreating itself. We shall not die but live in the twinkling moment of revelation, in the heart and mind and body of God.