Speaking Carefully About God

Posted: March 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking Carefully About God

Last week Sarah Moon published an interesting blog post, Our Mother who art in heaven… I read the post and its comments and, as such things tend to do with me, it started percolating in the back of my head. At one point, I started to comment on the post, but then realized the things I had to say would work better as blog posts than as comments.

I want to begin by noting that I agree with the central theme — or at least what I understood to be the central theme — of Sarah’s post. There are far too many strands within Christianity that attempt to turn God not just into an exclusively male figure, but into a very narrow vision of what it means to be male. While some strands, such as that loudly (and often angrily) proclaimed by Mark Driscoll, are openly misogynistic and hateful, many are more subtle, but nonetheless deadly.

When we assign gender to God in any way we must always recognize apophatically that as much as an aspect of our experience of God might be like a certain gender, at the same time it is also not like that at all. For God transcends everything we can possibly say about him, every metaphor we could use, and every analogy we could possibly draw. God is deeply and thoroughly personal, though, not impersonal, so I think it’s even worse to use a neuter pronoun (such as it) instead. But when we use gendered pronouns to refer to God, we must always hold them loosely.

I have noted in the past, as Sarah does in her post, that our Holy Scriptures are clear that mankind is created in God’s image, both male and female. And while yes, we must say that God cannot thus be defined as some sort of super-powerful man, I think sometimes people miss what it says about humanity. Our gender is an inextricable aspect of each of us, but it does not define our humanity or our nature.

Jesus, the God-man, became fully human, taking on all that we are in order to defeat death and evil on our behalf and bind our nature to the divine nature. And while Jesus became a human man, his work was universal in nature. It is a continuing act of cosmic new creation. In and through Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah, mankind — male and female — is now not only in the image of God, but shares through the Resurrection the unending nature of God and is able to participate in the divine energies of God. Jesus did not merely rescue humanity; he took us where we otherwise had no ability to go. So we all have a common nature that goes beyond gender, otherwise as a male, Jesus’ humanity could have only freed and made new the nature of human males, not the universal human nature.

I also believe it’s important that in our struggles with certain almost or even overtly misogynistic strands that we not read that struggle into places where it didn’t or doesn’t exist.  I read another post last week, On letting Junia fly, that makes that point well. It’s true that some Western Protestants attempt to deny that St. Junia was a woman and an apostle. It’s true that they can try to construct systems that cage women.

But St. Junia was never and is not now caged as a result. St. Junia does not need to be released. She does not need us to let her fly. She flew. She worked tirelessly as an apostle and accomplished much for the one she knew and called Lord and for his Church. And she has been venerated as a saint for centuries as a result. St. Junia flew. Nevertheless, as with all the apostles, her flight called her to tireless service of others for her entire life rather than personal glory or power.

So we do need to speak carefully about God in every way. I’ll explore how to speak of God in my next post.


Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


The Jesus Prayer 7 – Seriousness of Disciplines

Posted: March 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica points out that Orthodox Christians, at least those who actively practice their faith, take a more serious attitude toward spiritual disciplines than a lot of what you find today in the other Christian traditions.

This rests on the assumption that life is serious, salvation is serious, and in every moment we must decide anew to follow Christ.

It’s not that there is any question about God’s love or his forgiveness, as we’ve said; our salvation was accomplished on the cross. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). But we retain this terrifying freedom: we are still free to reject him. Judas’ tragic story is a sobering example. The end of our own story is not yet written, and every day exposes us to new temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses, probably better than we do, and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

That is why there is in Orthodox spirituality a quality of urgency. We don’t assume that we have already made it to the end of the race, put “press on,” as St. Paul said.

I think I’ve always intuitively understood that the things we do shape us — that they matter — and I’ve always had at least some awareness that we become like what we worship. In fact, I think I’ve sometimes confused my fellow Christians when I’ve told them I’m not interested in their arguments about the correctness of their particular vision of God. I’ve understood the image of the God they describe and it’s not a God I’m willing to worship, much less love. Once I’ve made that decision, I no longer care about their arguments or their logic behind their vision and understanding of God. I reject their version of God whether they are right or wrong, so I might as well assume they are wrong. It makes perfect sense to me, but it often seems to confound certain sorts of Christians. They are so used to living within their arguments and logic — within the cogitative intellect — that they don’t seem to know what to do when someone refuses to engage the entire framework itself. “I don’t care about your arguments” doesn’t seem to be a response for which they are prepared. When I wasn’t Christian, I used to have fun from time to time deconstructing some of the arguments and leading people in circles, but as I Christian I see that was mean-spirited and ultimately destructive, not least for what it did to me. So I try to catch myself now and simply disengage. Or describe the God I perceive, however dimly, to the  best of my limited ability, and just continually return to that rather than engaging in arguments. Or say nothing to start with if I don’t think it will be helpful. That’s probably the hardest thing of all for me to do.

With that said, I think it’s important that I pass along Khouria Frederica’s warning. The Jesus Prayer is a tradition embedded within the entire context of the life of Orthodoxy and it can be spiritually dangerous to try to lift it out of that context and practice it alone. Spiritual disciplines are accomplishing something real or there is no reason to practice them. If that is true, then without the proper context and guidance, they can be particularly risky. A spiritual practice will generally change you, for good or ill.

When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you are invoking the name of Jesus of Nazareth. You are proclaiming him the Jewish Messiah. You are acknowledging him as Lord and God. And you are asking his mercy as both God and King. These are not light things. Moreover, it matters who you say Jesus is when you do this. The less your perception of Jesus aligns with his reality, the more distorted your practice becomes. If that were not true, then it would not have mattered that the Arians believed him to be a creature or that the Nestorians believed his divine nature had obliterated his human nature. A spiritual discipline undertaken wrongly can engender pride, among many potential pitfalls. I agree with her warning.

Obviously that’s an odd thing for me to say. I’m not Orthodox. I have no spiritual father or mother. Yet I practice the Jesus Prayer. That’s true, and I freely confess I may be foolish in my actions. I certainly don’t recommend that anyone use my practice as a guide.

The only thing I can say is that the Jesus Prayer came to me unbidden. It came when I knew practically nothing about Orthodoxy (even if I later discovered they believed and taught so many of the things I had come to understand and believe about God). The Jesus Prayer came to me when I hardly knew who Jesus was or which of these myriad Christian Gods described in modern Christianity was real. My rule of prayer remains a poor one, but I don’t think I could stop praying the Jesus Prayer now any more than I could stop breathing.

I accept it humbly as a gift of God.

I will note that I don’t “play” Orthodox as I’ve heard some do. My fast is the one required of me by celiac disease. I don’t try to follow Orthodox fasting rules. In some sense I’m just not very good at prayer. In another sense, I deliberately keep my prayer rule simple. I think I can be prone to pride and it’s better if I don’t foster it. I don’t have an icon corner. I take spiritual practices seriously and I recognize fully that I am not Orthodox. I try not to delude myself.

So yes, I practice the Jesus Prayer, at least to a limited extent. But absent spiritual guidance, you may not want to try this at home. I feel I would be remiss if I did not share this warning from the book.

Peace.


The Jesus Creed 10 – Peter: The Story of Conversion

Posted: August 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 10 – Peter: The Story of Conversion

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Luke 5:1-11.

Conversion, like wisdom, takes a lifetime.

McKnight has a whole lot more in depth on conversion in his book, Turning to Jesus. Nevertheless, Peter is a good story to explore. He’s nice and complex.

For some, conversion is like a birth certificate while for others it is like a driver’s license. For the first, the ultimate question is ‘What do I need to do to get to heaven?’ For the second, the question is ‘How do I love God?’ For the first, concern is a moment; for the second, the concern is a life.

The Jesus Creed is more like a driver’s license than a birth certificate.

The Jesus Creed is about the totality of life, and so conversion to Jesus and the Jesus Creed is total conversion — heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I think the present-day American church has failed to grasp that, for a lot of us, the question of ‘how to get into heaven‘ just isn’t particularly interesting or compelling. It’s not much of an incentive for conversion. And if you ask any sort of more complicated question, it becomes much harder to pinpoint an instant of conversion. Peter is a good example. Let’s start by asking what should be a simple question: When was Peter converted?

  • Was it when Shimeon was introduced to Yeshua and Yeshua tells him that one day his name will be Kephas? His brother told Peter that this man might be the Messiah.
  • Was it when Peter confesses he is a sinner? Remember? That’s the odd conclusion to the fishing story. I never have quite figured out how a big catch of fish prompts the declaration, ‘I am a sinful man!’ But there you go. Is this when he’s converted?
  • Or is it when Peter confesses Jesus is Messiah? Peter does get it right when Jesus asks, but then almost immediately screws up again.
  • Or is he only converted after the death and resurrection of Jesus? After all, Peter had flatly denied even knowing Jesus and had had to be restored by Jesus after the resurrection.
  • Or is his conversion only complete when he and the others receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? After all, it wasn’t until then that Peter was willing to publicly proclaim Jesus to others.

Two other events are of note. Peter receives a vision that converts him to the reality that the church will include Jews and Gentiles. And finally, there is the Peter who writes the letters to the churches. He’s surely converted by the time these occur, but they are still noteworthy.

Still, a credible case can be made for any of the first five as the point of Peter’s conversion. And then Scot McKnight says this.

No one doubts that Peter is converted, but we may not be sure when the ‘moment’ occurs, when he gets his birth certificate. And therein lies the mystery of conversion. Conversion is more than just an event; it is a process. Like wisdom, it takes a lifetime. Conversion is a lifelong series of gentle (or noisy) nods of the soul. The question of when someone is converted is much less important than that they are converting.

That was a very freeing statement for me. Of course, I could shape my story to fit many boxes, but none of them ever felt quite right. There were many points of ‘decision’ and all of them were legitimate and authentic. They were also mostly of the ‘noisy’ rather than the ‘gentle’ variety. McKnight was the first Christian voice I heard who basically said my story of conversion could be my story, whatever it looked like. I didn’t have to have a singular Pauline experience. I didn’t have to have a point where I turned and was forever different. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but “There is no reason to think Paul’s is the definitive model.

Moreover, even Paul doesn’t seem to fit within the context of what many today seem to mean by a Pauline experience of conversion. Paul, after all, still had a race to complete, a mark to keep before him, a finish to achieve. The thief on the cross seems to be the sort of conversion that many evangelicals really seem to have in mind. And while God can do all things, that was clearly an exception, not the rule. After all, most of us aren’t in the process of being executed.

McKnight outlines the seven stages that we see in Peter’s story as follows:

  1. Peter suspects Jesus might be Messiah.
  2. Peter recognizes Jesus as someone profoundly superior.
  3. Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah. [But Peter disagrees with the Messiah on whether or not the Messiah ought to suffer.]
  4. Peter perceives the Messiah must suffer.
  5. Peter confesses Jesus is Lord.
  6. Peter realizes that Jesus is not just the Lord of the Jewa, but the Lord of all. Here Peter sees that the Jesus Creed is about loving all others.
  7. Peter embraces Jesus’ life as the paradigm of Christian living.

Peter illustrates a progression of conversion. And I would hazard that his example is more common than Paul’s.


The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Posted: August 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat) (also Psalm 149).

As with Joseph, this chapter on Mary adds context to our reading of the story in the Holy Scriptures. McKnight finds in that story another theme. “Our vocation is to be what God made us to be.” Dwell on that for a minute. It’s not to be like Mother Theresa, or Daniel, or anyone else. “You are to be who God meant you to be.” If that’s not a tall order, I don’t know what is, especially for those of us who have almost buried what that might be.

Mary must instantaneously grasp that she will be labeled a na’ap (adulteress). But she also recognizes that God has something special in store. She is to be the mother of Messiah! And she responds immediately with a song of joy. However, in her song, McKnight sees evidence of more about Mary.

Joseph is a tsadiq, a man totally observant of the Torah. But Mary pokes her head out of a different nest, the Anawim (the pious poor). Historians agree on three characteristics of Mary’s people, the Anawim. These people suffer because they are poor, but they express their hope by gathering at the temple in Jerusalem. There they express to God their yearning for justice, for the end of oppression, and for the coming of the Messiah. Each of these characteristics of the Anawim finds expression in the life of Mary and especially in the Magnificat.

Mary is poor. At Jesus’ temple dedication his parents present two birds rather than a lamb. That is the offering prescribed in Torah for those too poor to afford a lamb. (Actually, if you dig into the history of first century Judaism, you’ll find that that’s not the only possible explanation. History, especially ancient history — where the data tends to be sparse, is often like that.) Mary is not hopeless though. Read the Magnificat and see the lines expressing a yearning for liberation from injustice.

Mary’s Song is actually announcing a social revolution. The King at the time is Herod the Great, and he is a power-tossing and death-dealing tyrant. Mary is announcing that he will be dealt his own due and have his power tossed to the winds. In his place, Mary declares, God will establish her very own son. Unlike Herod, he will rule with mercy and justice.

And then these very powerful words.

If spiritual formation is about learning to love God with our ‘all,’ then one dimension of loving God is surrendering the ‘all’ of our past to God. We dare not make light of our past — whether it was wondrous or abusive, reckless or righteous. All we can do, like Mary, is offer to the Lord who we are and what we’ve been. He accepts us — past and all.

Perhaps those words are less powerful for those who have a past that appears easy for God to accept. I don’t know. At the end of the day, I have only my own experience against which to judge. And I know more people with … difficult pasts than I do with wondrous ones.

Mary’s vocation, whether the ‘siblings‘ of Jesus were cousins, children of Joseph from an earlier marriage, children to whom Mary actually later gave birth (the latest developing and least likely idea — it’s an idea that’s actually only about two hundred years old), or some combination,  is clear. Mary assumes responsibility for these children, at least two girls and four boys besides Jesus. And since many scholars think Joseph died when Jesus was fairly young, that responsibility becomes even more significant.

McKnight points out that the names of the boys tell a story as well. Their names are the names of the patriarch Israel’s sons. Yakov, Yosef, Yehudah, and Shimeon. With Yeshua, they become five Jewish boys whose names tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery.

Mary’s vocation was also to teach the children. It should have been obvious, but I didn’t see the connection between the Magnificat and Jesus’ teachings until this book pointed it out. Duh. We often miss what’s right in front of our face. First, Mary blesses the holy name of God and asks him to fill the hungry. (Sound familiar?) Then, Mary is poor and from the Anawim. Jesus blesses and opens the banquet doors to the poor. Mary is a widow. Jesus frequently shows mercy to widows. (And his brother James speaks about taking care of widows and orphans in no uncertain terms at all.) Mary’s prayer emphasizes God’s mercy and compassion. What is Jesus known for? Mary’s own concern for Israel’s redemption is seen in Jesus’ wrenching prayer for Jerusalem. “These similarities are not accidents.

We modern Protestants tend to ignore Mary too much, I think.


The Jesus Creed 8 – Joseph: The Story of Reputation

Posted: August 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 8 – Joseph: The Story of Reputation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The one for this chapter is: Matthew 1:18-25.

This chapter adds depth to our understanding of the social and cultural context. Joseph is a ‘righteous man.’ That is, he is tsadiq.

This is the reputation of anyone who studies, learns, and observes the Torah scrupulously. In Joseph’s world, that means he recites and lives the Shema daily, that he follows the food laws, that he supports the synagogue, and that he regularly celebrates the high holy days in Jerusalem. Joseph is proud of his reputation. In Joseph’s world there are no reputations more desirable than tsadiq — unless you are a priest (unusual), a prophet (rare), or the Messiah (very rare).

I will note that this perception and understanding of Joseph lends credence to the Orthodox memory of Joseph as an older, widowed man chosen to wed Mary. I’m somewhat familiar with the way cultures who name such men function and it’s unlikely that a young man just entering adulthood would have been seen and recognized as tsadiq. I’m not sure that Joseph’s age matters all that much, but this cultural lens does bolster the Orthodox story of Joseph.

That provides the depth to understand Joseph’s dilemma when he hears that Mary is pregnant. If he continues his association with her, it will cost him his place among the tsadiqim. He will become Am ha-aretz, one of those who does not observe the Torah. So what does he do? He consults the Torah. Here are the options Torah would have given him.

She has either been seduced or raped. If she has been seduced, the Torah says that both Mary and her seducer are to be stoned to death. If she has been raped, the rapist is to be put to death. But, if no one confesses, the Torah says that Mary is to drink the ‘waters of bitterness.’ If she dies from the water, she is guilty; if she doesn’t die, she is innocent. Or, from yet another part of the Torah Joseph could have consulted, her parents could produce ‘tokens of virginity,’ which needs no explanation.

In the midst of this, Joseph hears Mary’s story. She says that she has not been seduced or raped, but that the child is the result of a miracle. God has done this.

Joseph is on the horns of a dilemma. He would do anything to follow Torah. But what if Mary is telling the truth? Would God do something like this? Should he preserve his reputation? Or love Mary and take her as his wife? This is the dilemma the Jesus Creed often creates.

With all that tension swirling, Joseph opts to quietly preserve his reputation with a ‘private‘ divorce. And then an angel tells him not to fear. Don’t fear the loss of reputation. Don’t fear the future. Mary is telling the truth. He knows it’s unlikely that anyone will believe his story of angelic visitation, so he must decide. Surrender to God (that sacred love thing, remember — ALL) and ruin his reputation in the public square or protect his reputation by ignoring God. We all know how Joseph chose. “He did as he was told.”

Joseph is then legally tied to two people with sullied reputations. “Mary is perceived as an adulteress (a na’ap) and Jesus is considered an illegitimate child (a mamzer). … Joseph is no longer a tsadiq. Instead, he is husband of Mary and the (legal) father of Jesus.”

His next thought is key. “The first story heard around the table of Jesus is that identity is more important than reputation. Joseph learns that who he is before God (his identity) is more important than who he is in the circle of his pious friends (his reputation).” And that’s a hard lesson for any of us to truly learn. Yet until we do, we can hardly be said to love God at all. For God chooses to lose his reputation when he provides for his Son to have two parents with bad reputations. And then he does it even more thoroughly in a scandalous and thoroughly disreputable death as a common criminal on a cross.

God asks us to sacrifice everything to find our identity in him. But it’s no less than he’s already done.


On the Incarnation of the Word 40 – No More Kings, Prophets, or Visions

Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 40 – No More Kings, Prophets, or Visions

In today’s section of Athanasius’ treatise, he continues to make his point that the time has passed for the Messiah. There cannot yet be a future one. I recommend meditating on the entire section (as I always do), but wanted to highlight this statement.

If then there is now among the Jews king or prophet or vision, they do well to deny the Christ that is come.

But there isn’t. And there hasn’t been. And it does not appear that there will be.

If I weren’t posting on Athanasius’ treatise, I would say little about Judaism beyond noting how many attributes Christian worship shared with Jewish synagogue worship, how clearly Christianity extends and is built upon Judaism. As I was growing up I remember Jewish families who were friends of our family. My cousin married into a Jewish family. And I did not join Christianity unaware of our collective poor history of treatment of the Jews, especially in the West and in Russia. I think that in the ways we have wronged them, we have lost the right to say much of anything at all. Until we can prove by our actions over the course of generations that we, as Christians, love them and perhaps earn some small measure of forgiveness, we have no real room to speak at all. There are no excuses for the things we have done in the past. None.

But Athanasius lived at a different time under different circumstances. And he certainly speaks. And, since this lies pretty much at the core of Christianity, I do agree with him. If I did not, I would not be Christian. But read his words. I find I have nothing to add.


On the Incarnation of the Word 39 – There Cannot Be Another

Posted: October 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 39 – There Cannot Be Another

I had to read this section of On The Incarnation several times before I really grasped his point. Basically he is refuting the Jews who say the Messiah or the Christ or the Anointed is yet to come. There are two key sentences.

But on this one point, above all, they shall be all the more refuted, not at our hands, but at those of the most wise Daniel, who marks both the actual date, and the divine sojourn of the Saviour, saying: “Seventy weeks are cut short upon thy people, and upon the holy city, for a full end to be made of sin, and for sins to be sealed up, and to blot out iniquities, and to make atonement for iniquities, and to bring everlasting righteousness, and to seal vision and prophet, and to anoint a Holy of Holies; and thou shalt know and understand from the going forth of the word to restore and to build Jerusalem unto Christ the Prince”.

In other words, Daniel predicts the time and that time was the time of Christ. Moreover, there are other particulars.

Perhaps with regard to the other (prophecies) they may be able even to find excuses and to put off what is written to a future time. But what can they say to this, or can they face it at all? Where not only is the Christ referred to, but He that is to be anointed is declared to be not man simply, but Holy of Holies; and Jerusalem is to stand till His coming, and thenceforth, prophet and vision cease in Israel.

Jerusalem was to stand until the coming of the Anointed. But Jerusalem fell and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. So that can no longer happen.

I’m struck most, though, by Athanasius’ point that Jesus was not anointed as a man only, but also declared the Holy of Holies, that is the place where God dwelt among his people. Of course, that’s what Christians have always proclaimed, but I never thought of it in precisely those terms before.


On the Incarnation of the Word 16 – Was the Cross the Sole Aim of Christ’s Birth?

Posted: September 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 16 – Was the Cross the Sole Aim of Christ’s Birth?

This section of On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius is a very short one, but I think critical for us today. I very much recommend that you read the entire section several times and reflect on it. It seems to me that some segments of modern Western Christianity have so emphasized the Cross that the life of Jesus simply becomes a preparation for it and the Resurrection is reduced to little more than an afterthought.

I was particularly struck by this fact some years ago when the SBTC Texan, the newspaper for our state convention, published a series of articles defending and discussing the Resurrection. They all strongly defended the historicity of the Resurrection and clearly held it to be important. However, when they tried to express why it was so important, the best that anyone could say was that it proved that the Father accepted the Son’s payment for our sins on the Cross.

It was one of those moments of crystalline clarity for me. I had been a part of this group of Christians for more than a decade and I had never until that moment really begun to understand how they perceived Christ. I thought I had, of course. But I realized then that I really hadn’t, after all.

In all of the ancient writings, as in Scripture, you will rarely ever find the Crucifixion separated from the Resurrection. If you’ve been reading the posts on my blog where we’ve been working through some of them, perhaps you’ve noticed that. Without the Resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth was simply another first century failed Messiah wannabe. In this section, however, Athanasius points out that we also can’t reduce the work of Christ to simply his death and resurrection.

Now for this cause, also, He did not immediately upon His coming accomplish His sacrifice on behalf of all, by offering His body to death and raising it again, for by this means He would have made Himself invisible. But He made Himself visible enough by what He did, abiding in it, and doing such works, and shewing such signs, as made Him known no longer as Man, but as God the Word.

When you look at it that way, it’s obvious. Of course, in one sense the Word did become flesh to die. That is he became fully human in every way and inherited the fullness of our mortal nature. At the same time, though, he joined it to the divine nature which could not die. And in the heart of that paradox, he defeated death on behalf of all mankind.

However, that was only part of his work. As Jesus said, he came to make the unknowable God known to us. In him, we know and experience the fullness of God. We are able to participate in the life of God. We can be one with God and with each other. We can know true communion. So Jesus also came to make God known in the only way we could know him.

For by the Word revealing Himself everywhere, both above and beneath, and in the depth and in the breadth—above, in the creation; beneath, in becoming man; in the depth, in Hades; and in the breadth, in the world—all things have been filled with the knowledge of God.

When we try to reduce the work of Christ to something simple which we can rationally grasp in its entirety, we render it meaningless. When we reduce the Incarnation of the Word to a single task, whatever that task might be, we strip it of its transcendence and mystery. The Incarnation transformed all creation in ways that go beyond any words we might use.

Christ was born to live, to die, and to rise uncorrupted and incorruptible from the grave. No single act is of greater purpose or necessity than the other. It is in the fullness of Christ that we find salvation. Had Christ not filled creation in a new way in the Incarnation, had he not made himself known to us through our senses, had he not recreated us as human beings in his death and resurrection, Pentecost could not have happened. Man has been united to God in Christ, thus God can particularly indwell man in the fullness of the Spirit through Christ without consuming us. (Remember, our God is a consuming fire.) And through the physical body and blood of Christ, we know the unknowable God.

Is your mind blown yet?