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?


Heterodox?

Posted: March 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The brouhaha over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has continued to percolate in the back of my mind. Last week I expressed my frustration over the more modern and truncated understanding of “hell” that many were calling the traditional or historical view and tried to share perspectives that are at least as traditional and historical, if not more so. But even underlying that, I’ve been bemused by those tossing around the idea of an orthodox or heterodox view.

By and large, the individuals using those words have been Protestants of one sort or another. For that part of my life in which I’ve been Christian, I’ve only ever been Protestant, but I’ve still never really understood the basis on which a Protestant calls their own belief orthodox or that of another heterodox. The traditional meaning of heresy flows from the idea that those who hold and promote a particular idea have chosen their own, different faith in practice or belief. Any particular heterodox teaching or understanding is always contrasted to the right worship or belief according to the common tradition of practice and interpretation in the church.

By that definition, it seems to me that to one degree or another, every Protestant is, of necessity, a heretic. One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism, at least as I’ve understood and experienced it, is that every individual determines or chooses for himself or herself the truth of any given practice, belief, or interpretation. The fact that the thousands of groups of Protestants share some superficial similarities perhaps disguises that underlying reality and what are actually some pretty deep differences. Even when the same words are used, they are often defined and understood differently within different groups.

There is much in that particular Protestant perspective on faith that appeals to me. After all, my formation was more deeply pluralistic and even relativistic than that of most modern, conservative Protestants and that perspective is deeply relativistic. I’m not even sure how I could ever stop deconstructing propositions and choosing what I believe and practice. It happens that I’ve discovered that much of what I’ve come to believe about God (or in many cases had always believed about God) actually coincides with Orthodox teaching. But that doesn’t even vaguely make me Orthodox. I see the distinction even if it’s not as clear to others.

One of the largest groups of Bell’s critics seem to lie among the Neo-Calvinists or those with Calvinistic leanings. I try not to pick on Calvinists too much, but they have been very vocal in their evangel of Hell, and they do have a well-articulated theology that describes a very different God and a very different humanity from that described by most of Christianity. I’ve also noticed that group seems particularly quick to use the orthodox and heterodox labels.

But on what basis?

After all, Roman Catholics in the Council of Trent and in other places and the Orthodox, at least in the 17th century Council of Jerusalem, have both anathematized the core tenets of Calvinism. Taken together, that represents well over a billion Christians world-wide and two of the most ancient traditions in Christianity. Whether you agree or disagree with them, isn’t it strange for the comparatively small and relatively modern sect of Calvin to be acting like the standard-bearers for Christian orthodoxy?

Or is that just me?

As a Protestant, it seems to me we can each say that, as an individual, we either do or don’t believe something is true. And it also seems to me that’s really all we have the authority to say. Having asserted our right to define truth for ourselves, we have relinquished any credible authority to assert it over another. Oh, that obviously stops no-one from attempting to assert their will to power in various ways. And in the history of Protestantism, many of those ways have been violent. My stint as a Christian has been in the Baptist tribe and many of our martyrs were killed by Calvinists and other Protestant Christian groups.

Nevertheless, having asserted our own right to choose, we are hypocrites when we try to deny that same right to another.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 12

Posted: January 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 12

37. All suffering has as its cause some pleasure which has preceded it. Hence all suffering is a debt which those who share in human nature pay naturally in return for pleasure. For suffering naturally follows unnatural pleasure in all men whose generation has been preceded by submission to the rule of causeless pleasure. I describe the pleasure that derives from the fall as ‘causeless’ because clearly it has not come about as the result of any previous suffering.

Suffering is a debt we owe to unnatural pleasure, that is the pleasure that does not rest in God and which runs contrary to our created nature. For example, as human beings we can not only choose to eat and drink too much, but we can derive great pleasure from the act. That runs contrary to our nature and it’s something that most created animals will not do. But when we do, we will suffer. Eating and drinking can become passions that rule us. (Remember, the passions in this sense are the things we suffer.) We can suffer ill health as a result. Or, if we attempt to break free of the passion, we can experience the suffering of a restricted diet and exercise. We pay a price one way or another for all unnatural pleasure. Moreover, we are fully embodied beings and the things we do in and through our bodies shape the sort of human being we become.

As I read this text, I also reflected on the sufferings of the martyrs. It strikes me that the suffering for Christ is a very different sort of thing. It’s not a debt we owe, but a privilege and honor we are sometimes granted. At least, that seems to be how all the martyrs considered it. Like Paul, they counted it all joy and gave thanks to God for the opportunity to share, even just a little, in the suffering of Christ. I find it hard to understand, myself, but it’s one of the strongest underpinnings of the Christian witness through the ages.


Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

Posted: January 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Resurrection and the renewal of all things lie at the very center of the Christian faith. Christ has defeated death through his death and Resurrection and it is no longer the nature of man to die. The New Testament resounds with the proclamation of salvation through union with Christ and with the promise that those who are in Christ will never die. We will never see death. We will never taste death.

For that reason, it’s been the tradition of the Church, already established by the time the New Testament was written, to say that Christians have fallen asleep or reposed in the Lord. Paul writes that to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. We aren’t told much about the period between the time our still mortal bodies repose and the general Resurrection of the Dead, but it is clear that we continue to live in Christ.

With that said, the attitude of many modern Protestant Christians toward those who have reposed in Christ is almost an outright refutation and denial of the core of Christian faith. Some relegate those who have reposed in the body to a sort of soul sleep which bears a closer resemblance to the ancient experience of death or to the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty than anything recognizably Christian. Others agree that those who sleep in the body are conscious and with Christ, but then proceed to place them at a far remove from us — as if Christ were someplace distant rather than with us always, even unto the end of the age. No, if those who have reposed are with Christ and if Christ is with us, then truly a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us as we are told in Hebrews. Heaven is not distant. Though presently veiled, it is as close as our next breath, overlapping and interlocking with our sensible reality.

If that is not true, then as far as I can tell, there is no reason to be Christian.

So ultimately, the difference between an Orthodox Christian and a Protestant, with regard to the saints or in any other matter, is essentially this: In all things, we Orthodox Christians see the world through Jesus’ eyes, and not our own. He sees our departed brethren as alive and joined with us in worship of Him. Thus, we must see them that way, and act toward them accordingly.

Those who have fallen asleep in the Lord can and do pray for us as much or more as those who have not. And we are certainly able to pray for all those who have reposed — even though we may not know their disposition toward God — because it is no longer in the nature of mankind to die. And it makes even more sense to honor or venerate those who were martyred for Christ or lived holy lives than it does to honor the great Christians who are still among us in the body.

Perhaps this distortion of Christian faith and practice within Protestantism is one of the reasons so many modern Christians are vulnerable to alternative ideas about reality such as reincarnation or the various practices of spiritism. I don’t know. But it would not surprise me if there were indeed a connection.


Thirsting for God 17 – Mary, The Theotokos

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Hail Mary,
full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus.

Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Amen

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin discusses something which I’ve noticed often leads evangelicals to act and react in strange ways, the veneration of Mary, the mother of our Lord. The prayer which I’ve quoted above is one I learned when I attended Catholic school (as a non-Catholic) and it has stayed with me across the decades. It’s a prayer I remember finding myself praying even when I considered myself more Hindu than anything resembling Christian. It would spring to my mind at odd times — sometimes when meditating, at times under stress, and from time to time during other activities as well. It was never constantly running through my mind, but I never forgot it and at odd moments it would surface.

I suppose that experience, as much as anything else, made me skeptical of evangelical critiques of Mary as I encountered them. While the factors that ultimately led to the completion of my journey into something like Christian conversion are many and varied, Mary certainly deserves part of the credit. Some part of me believed the prayer above long before I accepted anything else about Christianity.

Moreover, the evangelical aversion to Mary, the Mother of God, does not strike me as entirely rational. After all, the first sentence of the prayer above pretty much comes straight from the Holy Scriptures and the second sentence is simply a humble request for intercession. Mary, herself, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesied in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. It’s almost as though evangelicals have adopted the view that the Mother of God was nothing more than a vessel for the Incarnation and that if she had said no, any other woman would have sufficed. Such a view is actually a fresh expression of an ancient heresy, for it diminishes the humanity of Jesus. He was not merely inhabiting flesh and needed an impersonal vessel to grow that flesh. No, Jesus became fully human which means that Mary was an active agent in the Incarnation. Everything human that Jesus was and is, he drew from her.

And there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that God had a Plan B. Mary’s yes to God is poetically described in Christian tradition as healing Eve’s no. Mary is sometimes called the new Eve as Jesus is the new Adam. In this sense, then, Mary’s yes to God saves us all, for without that yes, there would have been no Incarnation and our salvation rests wholly in Jesus of Nazareth.

In a lesser sense, the same thing is true for each of us, though the magnitude and scope of our choices and their consequences are not as broad as Mary’s were. When we say no to God, he doesn’t go pick another vessel to magically replace us. If that were true, creation would not be as broken as it is.

Matthew opens with a poignant story of his brother, who died many years before.  I’m going to quote his next few paragraphs because I think they reveal a problem which has long bothered me in my Baptist circles.

Now, not one of my Protestant friends would think it strange if, while standing before that bookshelf [holding the picture of his brother], I were to pick up Barry’s photograph and give it a kiss. But what happens when I take two large strides to the right to my icon shelf, and kiss the icon of Mary, the Theotokos? Now, suddenly, I’m an idolater. What changed? What’s wrong with Mary, that she’s not worthy of the kind of love and respect I would give to my departed brother?

Or suppose I kiss the icon of my daughter’s patron saint, Vera. Just like my brother Barry, she died a violent death. Nineteen centuries ago, at the age of twelve, she was martyred for the sake of Christ, along with her mother and two younger sisters. But in Protestant eyes, showing her the kind of love I would give to my brother is a sinful thing to do.

Just what is the problem here? When I began to struggle with this issue, I saw something paradoxical in my old Protestant attitudes. On the one hand, I would condemn people who honored Mary and the saints; yet on the other hand, I saw nothing wrong with honoring respected Protestant preachers and teachers, living or dead. It was perfectly okay to sing the praises of these people, to watch videos and slide shows that recounted their deeds, and get all misty-eyed as someone performed “Thank You for Giving to the Lord.” But if I saw someone giving laud and honor to the woman who bore the Savior in her womb — why, the very act made that person’s Christianity questionable!

Is Mary special or isn’t she? Be careful how you answer that question, for one thing seems to me to be certain. Mary is at least as special to the one called Jesus the Christ as our own mothers are to us. But it goes even deeper than that. Mary is not called Theotokos (literally God-bearer) by chance or accident. Although the title can be traced as far back as the second century, it was affirmed in the Council of Ephesus in 431 over and against competing titles such as Anthropotokos (bearer of a man) and Christotokos (Christ-bearer). The competing views were not really about Mary, but about the nature of the child she bore in her womb. And the competing groups rejected the idea that Mary had carried and given birth to God. The affirmation of the title Theotokos was an affirmation that Jesus was fully God.

Me? I tend to believe that Mary did, in fact, pray and intercede for me, even when I didn’t really believe in her or her Son, much less believe I was a ‘sinner.’ In fact, I believe to this day she is more likely to pray for us than many of the people who tell us to our faces that they will. I do the best I can not to tell someone that I will pray for them unless I’m sure I will, but even so my record is less than stellar. I have a sense that failing is not unique to me.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 21

Posted: May 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

73.  Listen to the words of those who have been granted perfect love: ‘What can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written, “For Thy sake we are put to death all the day long; we are regarded as sheep for slaughtering (Ps. 44:22). But in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:35-39). Those who speak and act thus with regard to divine love are all saints.

Many of our clearest witnesses to the perfect love of Christian faith are those who have suffered exile, torture, and even death for Christ, even as they refused to revile or curse their tormentors. Like their Lord, they loved those tormenting them. Once upon a time, ‘martyr’ merely meant any sort of witness. Christians gave it a different connotation with their lives.

Today, of course, Christianity is often presented as a way of ‘blessing’ and material gain here and now. Janis Joplin captured the flavor of American Christianity in her classic song. I’ll close with it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z031l0E_5n4