Mary 23 – Queen of Heaven

Posted: February 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mary, Queen of Heaven

I thought it would be fitting to close my series on Mary with a reflection on her title as Queen of Heaven. I know from experience that many of my fellow Protestant Christians find that appellation disturbing, though I’m not sure if it’s for theological reasons or because of our American discomfort with monarchical titles. In order to understand this title for Mary, we have to first look at Christ and specifically his Ascension.

To be honest, it’s not clear to me what the typical modern Evangelical thinks or believes about the Ascension of Christ. Sometimes I almost get the sense that they have a vision of Jesus as some cosmic spacemen flying off into outer space. But that’s certainly not what the Scriptures of Christian tradition are describing. When someone was crowned king or emperor, they ascended to their throne, which means they entered into their power. That’s what we see happening with Christ, but he was not ascending to a typical throne. Rather, he was ascending to the throne of God, to the seat of power in the Kingdom of the Heavens (which is to say God’s Kingdom).

And that’s where the “clouds” enter into the picture. Smoke or clouds were associated with the visible presence of God in Hebrew imagery. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt in the desert, he did so as a pillar of clouds. When the shekinah glory of God entered and rested upon the first temple, it did so as smoke. When Isaiah enters the presence of God in visions, he is surrounded by clouds and smoke. And so when Jesus ascends into the clouds, it’s a way of saying he is entering his power and taking the throne of heaven. Heaven, of course, is overlapping and interlocking with the material creation, but it is presently veiled from us, so as Jesus enters his power, he vanishes from their sight. But he didn’t leave and go someplace else. As we read in Matthew, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” And sometimes that veil is pulled back. Stephen, the protomartyr saw the throne of God at the time of his death. Paul experienced the reality of the third heaven.

So Jesus the Christ, Son of God, is in Christian terms, the reigning King of heaven and earth. In Hebrew culture, going back at least to the time of the Davidic kings, who is the queen? It’s the king’s mother, also called the queen mother. In fact, that’s true in many cultures. In England, the mother of the monarch is even affectionately called the Queen Mum.

So Mary is rightly called the Queen of Heaven because her son is the reigning King of Heaven. Of all her titles, this should be one on which every Christian can agree. If we deny her the title of queen mother, we deny her son as king.

Now, as the Queen of Heaven, what does Mary do? She does what she has always done, which we see exemplified in the story of the wedding at Cana in John 2. She points to her son and commands us all, “Whatever he says to you, do it.”

Are not those the words we all need to hear?


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

Posted: July 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

If the Christian vision of ultimate reality does not revolve around a concentration camp in the midst of paradise, what does it then involve? As I discussed earlier in the series, God is seen as everywhere present, filling and sustaining all things. Although that is both the present and future reality, that glory is now veiled. We do not fully or readily perceive the reality of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

But that will change one day. It’s the tension between Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 11. On the one hand, the world is filled with his glory right now and has been from the beginning of creation. But one day, it will be filled with the full knowledge of the glory. It’s the image we see in Habakkuk 2:14.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

As the waters cover the sea? My first reaction to that verse was that the waters are the sea, but as I learned more of the ancient Jewish perception of reality, I came to understand that the “sea” stood for chaos and evil. The “monsters” come from the sea. This is the image of God’s healing waters covering and healing a disordered reality as creation, which is already filled with the glory of the Lord, becomes filled with the full knowledge of that glory. We see similar imagery in Revelation when we are presented with the healing streams and are told there is “no more sea.”

If God’s all-sustaining glory is no longer veiled and suffuses all creation, then one thing is immediately apparent. We will all experience exactly the same ultimate reality. The glory of God, the light of God, the love of God will be inescapable. We will understand and perceive God suffusing all creation, even our own bodies. There will be no place we can turn where that will not be true. And if that’s the case, then we can’t speak of some people (or any created being) or places being treated differently from others. It’s not the case that some are punished and others aren’t.

No, the question becomes rather, “How will I experience the fire of God’s love? Will it be warmth and comfort to me? Or will it be a consuming fire?” We will not be tormented because we have been confined somewhere and tortured by some external agent. No, if we are tormented, it will be because we do not want God yet cannot escape his presence.

Or perhaps we will lock ourselves in our own interior world consumed by passions we can no longer express outwardly. I think of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia book, The Last Battle. Huddled in the midst of a creation made new, with a feast before them, in the very presence of Aslan, they perceive themselves as in a dark, rank stable eating garbage and drinking dirty water. They will not be fooled again and render themselves incapable of sensing the reality around them. They are bound in delusion. I believe we all have the capacity for such delusion within us.

As I said earlier, hell cannot have the same sort of reality that creation – heaven and earth – has. It’s not a place where God is not, for no such place exists. It cannot be a place that is not renewed within creation. “Behold, I make all things new!” proclaims the Lamb. Hell can only be the experience of a renewed creation and of a God of relentless and consuming love by those who do not want either one and are not formed to live within that reality. The seeds of our own hell are within each of us. As the Didache opens, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 8 – The Concentration Camp and Separation from God

Posted: July 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

There are two common interpretations of hell today that I think are particular troublesome. Both are variations of “the basement” in the two-story house metaphor I discussed in an earlier post. Both tend to be linked to descriptions of heaven and hell as “actual places” that are in some sense distinct and separate from our reality. And both portray God and reality in ways I find disturbing and inconsistent with traditional Christian views.

I tend to think of the first view as the “Concentration Camp.” There are a lot of variations on this view, but its central feature is that those human beings who are not “saved” (with differing definitions and sometimes different words used) will be relegated by God to some “actual” location or place where they will suffer in torment forever. In a common SBC version of this view, the earth is seen as fleeting and will eventually be destroyed. That reduces the metaphor of the two story house with a basement to just the second floor and the basement. Those are the only facets of reality that endure forever.

The problems with the Concentration Camp perspective of ultimate reality seem legion to me. The immediate question to me seems obvious. This view places a gulag in the middle of “paradise” where people we have loved are being tortured. In what possible sense is that paradise? Doesn’t that really just turn “paradise” into another form of hell?

This view also turns God into the Torturer-in-Chief. Instead of a God even vaguely like anything we see in Jesus of Nazareth, we see an angry God who has a problem with forgiveness. We see a God whose thirst for blood and suffering in recompense for “wrongs” committed against him can never be satiated. I’m unable to understand why anyone would worship this God. It makes no sense to me at all.

Probably in reaction against the above, I’ve often heard hell described in a similar overall framework, but with the torture characterized instead as the pain of “eternal separation from God.” This view is not as bad as the above and, as we’ll explore later, has elements of truth in it. However, the way it is typically explained has some serious problems.

The first problem is the way this idea is usually framed. A typical introduction to this idea begins along these lines. “God is holy and can’t be around evil.” There are a variety of ways this idea can be phrased, but that’s the gist of it. I’ve explore elsewhere what “holy” actually means, so I won’t go into that here. The idea that God can’t be around evil is deeply flawed and has no connection to anything I can find in the Holy Scriptures or Christian tradition. After all, if we see and understand God through Jesus of Nazareth, what do we see? We see Jesus embracing sinners and unclean people. We see Jesus eating and drinking with the people with whom you don’t dine. And he takes a lot of flak for it.

But that’s hardly a new image of God. One of the very first pictures we get of God in the creation narrative shows him seeking out the man and the woman, caring for them, and clothing them. God’s entire relationship with Israel is one of them being unfaithful and God seeking them out again and forgiving them. God has no problem being around evil. Evil undoubtedly has a problem surviving in God’s light, but God is not driven from the presence of evil. Evil and darkness do not have the same reality God has.

From there, the “separation from God” view devolves into a sort of “concentration camp lite” idea. God can’t be around evil, so if your evil is not “covered” by Jesus so God doesn’t see it anymore, you have to be relegated to this actual place where you suffer not from direct torture but by being deprived of the light and presence of God – because God is not in this “hell”.

And that, of course, creates another problem. Tied to the idea that God can’t be around evil is the idea that Hell is an actual place where God is absent. But that utterly contradicts the true Christian view of reality. Nothing has independent existence. In the Christian view, as I’ve already explored, everything was created by Christ and is sustained moment to moment by him. As we see in Isaiah, all creation is full of God’s glory.

It’s not possible for anything or anyone in the whole creation to exist and actually be “separated” from God. There is no place where God is not present, filling, and actively sustaining it nor is it possible for such a place to ever exist.

These are hardly the only two flawed ideas about heaven, earth, and hell. But I wanted to highlight them because they seem to be very widespread in the circles in which I move. A variation of one or the other of these ideas probably describes what the majority of Christians I personally know in “real-life” believes. Many if not most of them practice our faith better than I do, so at the individual level these distortions do not necessarily create problems. But when they begin to dominate our collective proclamation, these ideas and the God they portray are often rightly perceived as repellent and easily dismissed.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

Posted: June 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

There are many threads one can use to begin unraveling the somewhat common modern caricature of the Christian perspective on reality I described in the last post. I want to start with the affirmation of the very basic Christian belief that God is not somewhere else. The Christian God is everywhere present and filling all things. As Paul said to the Areopagus of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being.” Again, as the Seraphim sing in Isaiah 6, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” And as Paul writes about Jesus in Colossians, “He is before all things, and in him all things consist.”

God is not off in some “place” called heaven that is separate or distinct from the earth. I often hear people assert that heaven is an actual place and heaven is thus “real”. It may be that they are trying to push back against the various forms of materialism with that statement. It’s actually unclear to me what their purpose or goal is, but the assertion does seem to be a response “against” something. However, by making heaven into a place that is separate from earth, they actually enable and express a secular perspective of reality.

Heaven and earth are instead overlapping and interlocking dimensions of our one, unified reality. They are not separate “places” in any sense that we understand “place”. Heaven and God are not any distance at all from us. Heaven is never more than a step away. God is the air we breathe. There is presently a veil between heaven and earth, a veil that appears to be part of the grace of God for our healing and salvation. But even before I was Christian, I recall having a sense of what I’ve since learned the Celtic Christians called “thin places.” In certain places and at certain times, that veil can be thin indeed.

The proper Christian division of reality, then, is not between the earthly and the heavenly, the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, but between the created and the uncreated. That’s not to say that other categories do not ever have value. They may certainly have situational or contingent value. But the fundamental divide is between the uncreated, which in the Christian view is God in three persons alone, and the created, which is everything else that exists.

When we begin to grasp that perspective, we can properly see heaven and earth as united aspects of God’s one creation. It’s from this perspective we draw the traditional eschatological vision of a time when the present veil between the two will be no more. Heaven and earth together and everything in them (except God, of course) are creation.

What then of hell? While much of this series will actually be spent exploring that question, as it seems to be the focal point of much confusion within modern Christianity, there is one point I believe needs to be made clearly from the outset. Hell is not “real” in the same sense that heaven and earth are real. Whatever reality it has flows from a distortion of God’s good creation. Hell has substantially less innate and substantial reality than heaven and earth. I think C.S. Lewis illustrated that point well in the imagery he uses in The Great Divorce. Those visiting heaven from hell find that heaven has so much more tangible reality that even the blades of grass are like knives to them.

Christianity is not dualistic in the sense that good and evil are equal and opposing forces. Evil is the shadow of darkness that is dispelled simply by the presence of light. Evil is real, certainly. Those of us who have experienced it would never confess otherwise. The Christian perception is quite different from, for example, the Hindu concept of maya. But as “hell” does not and cannot have the same sort of reality that God’s creation — heaven and earth — has, so evil does not and cannot have the same sort of reality as good. We do not live in the universe of the yin and the yang. In Christian parlance, God and Satan are in no sense equal. In the end, the tempter and accuser is simply another creature, even if he is a powerful creature by our standards. He is still nothing next to God.

The meaning behind the way I structured the title of this series should be clear now.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 3

Posted: April 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 3

12. When the intellect is ravished through love by divine knowledge and stands outside the realm of created beings, it becomes aware of God’s infinity. It is then, according to Isaiah, that a sense of amazement makes it conscious of its own lowliness and in all sincerity it repeats the prophet’s words: ‘How abject I am, for I am pierced to the heart; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’ (Isa. 6:5)

The construction of this text is complicated, but I felt it worth selecting and discussing. I have come to understand that a lot of modern Christians hold to a belief that faith or “salvation” (whatever they might mean by that word) begins when a person recognizes their lowliness or wretchedness before God. As a result, they tend to orient the things they say to people about themselves and about God in a way designed to instill guilt and possibly fear of retribution. In other words, their proclamation of the good and victorious king (which is what an euvangelion was) begins by trying to make their target feel bad about themselves and afraid of God.

Read almost any modern “Gospel” tract. Some take a hard line approach while others soft sell it, but that is almost always the entry point. It’s also what people hear almost every time they encounter Christianity in the US today. In the past, I think the majority of our culture was perhaps preconditioned to respond in some sense to that message. And it appears to me that a steadily shrinking minority may still be. But that was not the case in the ancient world and it is increasingly not the case in the modern world. Moreover, I think that even in the contexts in which it has worked or even still “works” this approach produces a distorted understanding of God.

It is, rather, only as we are ravished by God’s love, as we turn to him and begin to know him, that we begin to see ourselves as we truly are. This is the normal order in the progression of Christian faith. I know it has been so far for me.


Original Sin 8 – Job

Posted: March 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 8 – Job

In this post I want to turn to Job. It’s probably the oldest text in our Holy Scriptures and it has always been fascinating to me. I don’t think modern Christians spend enough time with this ancient poem or song (which is the form in which much oral tradition was preserved). For that is its literary form and it has always felt to me a lot like other ancient texts in this genre. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. It’s one of the relatively few texts with which I immediately felt at home, as it were. (John’s gospel, by contrast, was at once almost comfortable on the one hand and deeply disturbing on the other.)

Sometimes people try to trot out Job in discussions of theodicy (the problem of evil). But that’s not really what Job is about. And that’s good, actually, because Job never actually gets the answer for why evil happens to righteous people and evil people often flourish. He does get the chance to ask God directly at the end, but he never does so. And God never answers that question. No, there are a lot of themes going on in Job, but that’s not one of them.

Obviously, I can’t explore all the themes in Job in a single post. And most of them don’t have much to do with the topic of this series. Still, I urge you to go back, read Job, and look for prefigurations of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus. They are very much present in this earliest of works. In fact, this is fundamentally a narrative of resurrection. I know we tend to leap to the Psalms and to Isaiah for such things. But take some time to suss them out in Job as well. It’s worth the time and effort.

In Job, we stand as the external observer. We know from the outset that the accuser has been allowed to test Job specifically because of his righteousness. And that’s a fact nobody in the narrative knows. Obviously, our knowledge of that fact is meant to condition the way we hear the story. One of the things I noticed right away is that Job’s friends raise many of the more sophisticated ancient explanations for suffering over the course of the story. Job sometimes replies that they do not apply to him and other times he rebuts them completely. It’s interesting, for example, that Job notes at length that evildoers often prosper.

Bildad approaches something like the concept of inherited guilt when he asks, “Or how may he who is born of a woman purify himself?” Of course, he is speaking more in ritual and ontological terms than in the strict legal sense of inherited guilt, but it is close enough that we should not overlook it. Job, in response, defends his righteousness — a defense which seems justified since God himself calls Job righteous.

God, of course, ends by expounding how far beyond the ken of man he is. And notably, God tells Job’s friends they were wrong. God never explains why Job suffered in particular or human suffering in general, but he does reject the ancient explanations. Like those ancient explanations, the notion of the inherited guilt of all mankind shares their same ‘pat’ nature. It’s simply too neat and too simple an answer, and therefore too small to be the truth.

God and reality are more complicated than that. Job, I think, teaches us to never lose sight of that truth. When we think we have the answer all wrapped up in a neat little package, we need to be especially wary. It’s a lesson most of us don’t want to learn — and I definitely include myself among those who tend to disregard it. God is larger than our minds can compass. We need to constantly remind ourselves that anything we think we know about God is at best incomplete. This is one of the reasons the center of Christian faith has always revolved around communion with God over knowledge of God.


On the Incarnation of the Word 45 – The Whole Earth Filled With the Knowledge of the Lord

Posted: October 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 45 – The Whole Earth Filled With the Knowledge of the Lord

This section invokes one of my favorite quotes from Isaiah 11 ( especially as held in tension with Isaiah 6). It’s something affirmed again in Habakkuk. One day the whole earth, already filled with God’s glory, will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. There is no place that is not so filled. There is no place of eternal separation from God as many Protestants like to proclaim.

But if a man is gone down even to Hades, and stands in awe of the heroes who have descended thither, regarding them as gods, yet he may see the fact of Christ’s Resurrection and victory over death, and infer that among them also Christ alone is true God and Lord.

Not even Hades, or death, is a place that is not filled with Christ’s victory and presence.

By these arguments, then, on grounds of reason, the Gentiles in their turn will fairly be put to shame by us. But if they deem the arguments insufficient to shame them, let them be assured of what we are saying at any rate by facts obvious to the sight of all.

Christ is revealed in all. There is no other reality.


Holy, Holy, Holy

Posted: October 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory. Isaiah 6:3

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Trisagion

A couple of days ago, @tomcottar retweeted @edstetzer:

Holiness is not separation from sinners. It is separation from sin.

At the time I had several thoughts, but none that would fit in 140 characters, so I let it go. I saw it retweeted some more that day, so it stayed on my mind. Then yesterday, I was following up a reference in the OSB when I saw this note with Ephesians 1:4-6.

Becoming a Christian is not so much inviting Christ into one’s life as getting oneself into Christ’s life.

As I reflected on that, I realized that I would need to capture my reaction to the initial tweet on holiness in writing and it would take me considerably more than 140 characters to do it.

I believe many people think of holy as roughly synonymous with good or pure or moral. And, at least in the sense that Christians use the word, that’s really not what it means. We draw our use and understanding from that of the ancient Jewish people and qadosh, to the extent that I understand it, draws more from the idea of being distinct, set apart, or separate. As an illustration, variants of the word refer to the male and female temple prostitutes that were common in the ancient pagan world. The ancient Hebrews certainly did not think of the practice as pure or moral, but did recognize that the temple prostitutes had been set apart for worship, even if pagan worship.

As an aside, that does also illustrate an interesting point. Monotheism, the belief that there is only one God, is not actually the belief of the ancient Jewish people. Rather, it’s a belief that developed over time and we probably don’t see it really in evidence until around the 2nd century BCE. For much of the Old Testament, the faith of the Israelites is better described as henotheism, or the worship of one God even as you accept the reality of other gods. God guided them through a long transition from polytheism to monotheism rooted in the commandment to worship only him. The story of the people of God makes a lot more sense if you read it with that understanding.

One of the tidbits I’ve picked up along the way about the ancient hebrew language is that it did not have comparatives and superlatives (as was not uncommon in ancient languages) in the same way that we modify words to express those concepts. Rather, it repeated the word being emphasized. Thus “holy, Holy, HOLY” as the angels are singing in Isaiah’s vision is a way of saying the most Holy or the most apart, distinct, separate, or different. God, in his essence, is entirely other from creation. He is the uncreated. And yet in the same song, we find the remarkable tension of our faith. God is entirely other from creation, and at the same time all creation is filled with his glory. God is immanent. This is the truth we see  fully realized in the Incarnation of our Lord. The God who is wholly other becomes fully one of us. The God who is other enters into and joins his creation in the most intimate way possible. Why? Because our God is a God who is love and love sacrifices for the other. Our God is good and the lover of mankind. He is not other and distant, but other and near. We pray in the Trisagion for the thrice holy God to have mercy on us. And the raw beauty of the Incarnation is that he does, in the only way possible.

And that, finally, brings me to my reaction to the tweet. The words from which “sin” is translated draw from a theme of “missing the mark“. Since our mark is God and our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), it is true that as we draw toward our mark, we will move away from that which is not our mark. And the point of the tweet is an important one. As the people of the Christ (indeed, in so intimate a way that a description of the Church as body and as bride is natural in Scripture) who dined with tax collectors and sinners without regard for the laws regarding ritual cleanliness, as those who are already being healed, we must not draw away from those who need healing. We are the hospital.

As another aside, in the laws of ritual cleanliness by which, in part, the Jews were set apart as a people, it’s clear that one could be made ritually unclean by touch. Ritual cleanness or holiness, however, could not be similarly transmitted. That was utterly dependent on your own actions and required positive effort. Jesus, however, acted utterly differently. Not only did he act as though he could not be made unclean by contact, he acted as though those who came in contact with him could be made clean. Unless you understand that part of the context, you will miss part of the power of the Gospel narratives.

Back to the point, though I agree with the intent of the original tweet, I think there is a problem with the way it’s phrased. Whatever our intent, when we express an idea of “holiness” in the negative sense, as something that it is not, we put the focus and emphasis on that thing which it is not. So by describing holiness as separation from sin, we place the focus on sin. And when that happens, I can find no place in history or experience where our efforts do not collapse into moralism and legalism. We inevitably end up doing exactly what Ed Stetzer was tweeting against. We draw away from sinners.

I would suggest that we are better served by focusing on what holiness is rather than on what it is not. And, as Fr. Alexander Schmemman says in For the Life of the World: “Holy” is the real name of God. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God. We seek to live by growing in communion with God. We are on a journey to rejoin our life, toward union with the only source of life. Holiness lies in the journey of theosis.

Holy is God and holiness is our life in Christ.