Who Am I?

On the Incarnation of the Word 52 – United In Peace

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 52 – United In Peace

I’ve spent no small amount of time reflecting on the Christianity Athanasius describes in today’s section of his treatise. The things he takes for granted are more difficult to see among Christians today.

Who then is He that has done this, or who is He that has united in peace men that hated one another, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Saviour of all, even Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation? For even from of old it was prophesied of the peace He was to usher in, where the Scripture says: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their pikes into sickles, and nation shall not take the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The above is a fairly consistent ancient interpretation of that famous Scripture. They saw the peace of Christ as something real already working itself into and through the live of those who joined the already present and growing Kingdom. These days, it seems that many Christians instead interpret the peace of Christ that passes all understanding as something internal, individual, and purely spiritual, not as something that has any real, tangible, communal reality. They view the description of the prophecy above as something that will happen in the future, not as something that is already in the process of being fulfilled.

And this is at least not incredible, inasmuch as even now those barbarians who have an innate savagery of manners, while they still sacrifice to the idols of their country, are mad against one another, and cannot endure to be a single hour without weapons:  but when they hear the teaching of Christ, straightway instead of fighting they turn to husbandry, and instead of arming their hands with weapons they raise them in prayer, and in a word, in place of fighting among themselves, henceforth they arm against the devil and against evil spirits, subduing these by self-restraint and virtue of soul.

Athanasius is saying this peace is breaking out among warring peoples as they turn to Christ. It’s not an ideal. It’s not hypothetical. It’s real. He was writing in a age in which wars were not at all unknown. Athanasius lived within the context of an empire that defended itself against those who warred against it and by the time of this writing, Christians were participants within the government of that Empire, sometimes the emperors were Christian, and many in those armies were Christian. His head was not off in the clouds and out of touch with reality. He dealt with those realities every day.

And yet, Athanasius still writes the above. What did he see and experience that we are missing?

Why, they who become disciples of Christ, instead of warring with each other, stand arrayed against demons by their habits and their virtuous actions: and they rout them, and mock at their captain the devil; so that in youth they are self-restrained, in temptations endure, in labours persevere, when insulted are patient, when robbed make light of it: and, wonderful as it is, they despise even death and become martyrs of Christ.

It was, of course, St. Paul who famously wrote that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. The weapons of the powers haven’t changed and the above captures some of them well in its list of things those who follow Christ resist and overcome. The threat of death, of course, remains the ultimate weapon. Death’s power over us may have been broken in the Resurrection, but we still often give it power through our fear.


The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

Posted: November 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

In other posts, I’ve looked at the Eucharist in history, at the mystery of the Eucharist, at its place in liturgy, and many other questions. A conversation with my youngest daughter this past week left me reflecting on the elements or gifts themselves or, to put it more prosaically, the bread and wine. There have been a number of practices regarding both over the course of the centuries. I would wager many modern Protestants are unfamiliar with all but the most recent.

One of the variations of practice that sometimes rose to the level of dispute was the use of leavened vs. unleavened bread in the Eucharist. Over time, the West settled into a practice of using unleavened bread and the East leavened bread, but that did not happen all at once. For centuries, there was a mixed practice in both East and West. All too often today, the concept of leaven is conflated with yeast. While scientifically accurate, it fails to capture the ancient mindset well. It would be more accurate to think of leaven as what we might call starter, if you’ve ever made bread in some of the more traditional ways.

Unlike much of what you might hear people in some corners say today, neither in the Holy Scriptures nor in the Fathers is leaven ever simply synonymous with sin or evil. Rather, leaven more describes a process of one substance permeating and changing the nature of another. Sin often acts that way. But, if you remember Jesus’ parable, so does the Kingdom.

The theology developed by proponents of either perspective is varied and rich. It’s worth spending time to explore if such things interest you. But, to summarize and over-simplify, there did tend to be some noteworthy trends.

Among those who favored unleavened bread, the primary point was the connection of the Eucharist to Passover because Christ is our Passover. And on Passover Jews ate unleavened bread. Why? Because on the night of the tenth plague, the Israelites prepared in haste to leave. You have to wait for leavened bread to rise, usually more than once whereas unleavened bread is prepared quickly. It is the bread of haste and the bitterness of departure.

Those who made this connection often also saw the meal at which Christ instituted the mystery of the Eucharist as a Passover meal at which they would have been eating unleavened bread. From very early on, you can see that this is a disputed point. And, indeed, if you read the gospels some things are clear. The connection to Passover is evident as is the fact that Passover is near. The room was one in which Jesus said he intended to eat Passover with his disciples. That is also certain. It is unclear whether or not the actual meal was a Passover meal and, if it was, whether or not Jesus was celebrating it on the “right” day. If you try to figure out exactly what day each event occurs you’ll give yourself a headache. Trust me, I know.

However, those who favored the use of leavened bread were not primarily concerned about whether or not the institution in the upper room happened in the context of a Passover meal or not. They drew from the parable of the leaven of the Kingdom and saw the leaven of Christ working itself into and through the people of God as the Kingdom spread into the nations. Although that last supper in the upper room was a night of departures, we do not eat in haste, ready to leave. Rather, we live in the Kingdom now and the Eucharist is as much about the Resurrection as it is the Cross.

I don’t have a strong opinion either way, though I tend to lean in the direction of the arguments for leavened bread. They seem to hold more weight to me. Of course, as a diagnosed celiac, it’s largely a moot point for me in practical terms. Leavened or unleavened, I can’t consume the bread. But it is still a very interesting aspect of the practice of our faith to explore.

The other ancient dispute over practice which continues to this day revolves around the wine of the Eucharist. No, it’s not the dispute that would probably immediately spring to mind for most of my fellow modern American Protestants. We’ll get to that one later. No, this one is the practice of using pure wine in the Eucharist vs. wine mixed with hot water. Nobody that I’ve read on this dispute argues that Christ used anything but pure wine during the last supper. And on that basis, it became the standard practice in the West.

In the East, however, it has long been the practice to mix hot water with the wine. There are many different reasons given. One (from St. Cyril of Alexandria, I think) was that the water was the Church and in the Eucharist we take Christ into our body and become part of his body. Another makes reference to the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the Cross, arguing that it is thus appropriate for our Eucharist to be wine and water. Another perspective, especially in the Armenian and Ethiopian Churches holds that the water represents the Holy Spirit, since water is normally connected to the Spirit.

This debate became so heated that at one point in time anathemas flew. Personally, I can see both perspectives and find them both not without merit. I am also certain that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we receive either as the blood of our Lord, which is really all that matters.

The last dispute about the nature of the gifts themselves is the modern Protestant practice, connected to the 19th century temperance movement, of using grape juice instead of wine. I’ve heard and read myriad scriptural interpretations and theological circumlocutions to justify this particular innovation. If you think you have one that I’ve not heard, feel free to share it. This is a modern issue because it could only have arisen in our technologically advanced modern era. This is also where a dose of practical reality is needed more than theology.

In the modern West, we have become disconnected from the realities of food. We can have anything we want almost any time of the year. I know that personally, on those rare occasions I cannot find produce I desire at that moment, I’m irritated. But that is not how things have worked for much of human history. In the northern hemisphere, grapes are harvested in the fall. Oh, in some climates, like Cyprus, they might be harvested as early as late July and in Germany and some other places, grapes like icewine grapes might be harvested as late as January, but in general grapes are harvested in the fall. Passover is in the spring, all the way on the other side of the annual calendar. Moreover, there was no refrigeration or pasteurization in the ancient world.

What does that mean? It’s very simple really. That night in the upper room with Jesus of Nazareth, nobody had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the city had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the northern hemisphere had grapes or grape juice.

They had raisins and wine.

And the same realities carry through most of human history. There was not even the possibility of a question about whether to use grape juice or wine. All that anyone had available to use was wine. That’s why this is an uniquely modern dispute.

In 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch, dentist, physician, and Methodist Communion steward, successfully applied the process of pasteurization to grape juice producing an “unfermented wine” with a long shelf life when properly sealed. He used the product for communion in his church. His son Charles, the enterprising sort, saw an opportunity and began marketing their “unfermented wine” for use by other Temperance Movement minded churches. It’s on that basis that the Welch company and fortune was built. Good, bad, or indifferent, the possibility of using grape juice in communion dates from 1869. Before then, it was not possible.

My perspective? I’m skeptical of the claim that only Christians in the last 150 years have been able to do Communion the right way. I tend to distrust modern innovations in a two thousand year old faith, especially when I can specifically locate the person and events responsible for the innovation. I just can’t drink that particular koolaid. This particular practice has no connection to anything in Scripture or the historic practice of the Church. It’s a very recent modern novelty. And it seems that it’s primarily churches who hold the Eucharist in relatively low regard, at least to judge by the frequency of their participation in it, that adhere to this modern innovation.

Those are the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head this week about the physical nature of the elements themselves. If anyone knows of any significant variation in the bread and wine which I’ve missed, let me know.


On the Incarnation of the Word 51 – No Longer Mind the Things of War

Posted: November 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 51 – No Longer Mind the Things of War

Now Athanasius is stressing the point that Christ is passing among all people everywhere, crossing all national and cultural boundaries, and drawing people away from their former gods. Moreover, he notes that the savagery of war and murders that has always reigned among people is being ended by Christ. Here is his closing statement in this section.

But when they have come over to the school of Christ, then, strangely enough, as men truly pricked in conscience, they have laid aside the savagery of their murders and no longer mind the things of war: but all is at peace with them, and from henceforth what makes for friendship is to their liking.

I once held a strong perspective on doing whatever it took to protect house and hearth. While the way I was raised left me with a fairly strong compassion toward the weak, my attitude toward the strong was often, “Do unto them before they do unto you.” I considered what it would mean to kill someone in battle before I enlisted, and though it’s not something I ever had to do, I was satisfied that it was something I could do. I was also a whole-hearted supporter of the death penalty and perhaps even the idea that an armed society is a polite society.

Since my journey led me to self-identify with Christ, I’ve gradually found my basic assumptions about life and the nature of reality upended. I doubt I’ll ever be a St. Martin of Tours, who renounced all violence, but I find that is hard to both hold close a heart ready to do violence and follow the King of Peace.

Christianity was known for the peace it wrought among warring peoples. Is that still true today? Is it true when Christians in our nation are markedly more likely to support the use of torture than non-Christians? Is it true when people gather not to discuss concerns and find consensus, but simply to shout the other party down by any means possible? The words once asked of Jesus seem to hang in the air today?

Who is my neighbor?

Do we believe that Jesus’ haunting and penetrating answer to that question has changed? Or do we believe it doesn’t apply to us today because our situation, of course, is different?

Or do we simply not care?


On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

Posted: November 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

In this section, Athanasius continues to refute pagan perspectives. His comment against the sophists is probably difficult to understand without some understanding of their development in ancient and classical Greece. This history is interesting if you want to look it up, but by Athanasius’ time sophists were regarded as teachers of rhetoric rather than actual wisdom. As such, when Athanasius compares the common language with which the Word taught and communicated to us and which his followers largely used to the sophists, he is comparing it to their eloquence and rhetorical ability. And he says the Logos overshadows them all. It’s an interesting way to formulate the idea and I didn’t want anyone to miss it.

However, I want to focus on this excerpt.

Or who else has given men such assurance of immortality, as has the Cross of Christ, and the Resurrection of His Body? For although the Greeks have told all manner of false tales, yet they were not able to feign a Resurrection of their idols,—for it never crossed their mind, whether it be at all possible for the body again to exist after death. And here one would most especially accept their testimony, inasmuch as by this opinion they have exposed the weakness of their own idolatry, while leaving the possibility open to Christ, so that hence also He might be made known among all as Son of God.

This emphasizes a point the N.T. Wright makes in his big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which a lot of modern people overlook. And it’s this one. Everyone in the ancient world knew what resurrection meant. It meant new bodies after death, a new embodied life of the same person. But other than some of the Jews, no group actually believed that resurrection was possible. The tale of Orpheus is as close as you come in the pagan Greek mythos and the point of the narrative is that resurrection can’t happen.  This was actually one of the problems in the Corinthian Church that Paul was trying to address. They had accepted that Jesus, as the Son of God, had somehow been resurrected, but they didn’t believe that as a result we would be resurrected. A lot of people use Paul’s words today to emphasize the importance of the bodily resurrection of our Lord, and that’s not a bad usage. But Paul was actually taking their acceptance of that truth as a given and from it arguing that we would all one day be resurrected.

Without the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no Christianity and there is no point to our faith. But if he did not defeat death for all humanity in his death, if we also do not rise, then again there is no point in being Christian.


For the Life of the World 15

Posted: November 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 15

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 4-5 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter three which more or less tracks this post.

Fr. Schmemann now turns from the “day” to the “year.” And he does so in a way I found unexpected. In order to understand the “Christian year,” you have to understand what it means to feast. And we have largely lost that understanding today. (Oh, we have no problem consuming great quantities of anything. But that has little to do with knowing how to feast.)

To speak of it [Christian year], however, is even more difficult than to speak of Sunday, because for the modern Christian the relation between this “Christian year” and time has become incomprehensible and therefore, irrelevant. On certain dates the Church commemorates certain events of the past — nativity, resurrection, the descent of the Holy Spirit. These dates are an occasion for a liturgical “illustration” of certain theological affirmations, but as such they are in no way related to the real time or of consequence to it. Even within the Church itself they are mere “breaks” in the normal routine of its activities, and many business minded and action-oriented Christians secretly consider these festivals and celebrations a waste of time. And if other Christians welcome them as additional days of rest and “vacation,” no one seriously thinks of them as the very heart of the Church’s life and mission. There exists, in other words, a serious crisis in the very idea of a feast, and it is here that we must begin our brief discussion of the Christian year.

I want to note that Fr. Schmemann is primarily speaking to Orthodox above. He is not critiquing other groups. He is critiquing the life of the Orthodox Church. I would say the situation is much, much worse elsewhere, especially in those of us who have abandoned all semblance of a Christian year.

Feast means joy. Yet, if there is something that we — the serious, adult, and frustrated Christians of the twentieth century — look at with suspicion, it is certainly joy. … Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. … The modern world has relegated joy to the category of “fun” and “relaxation.” It is justified and permissible on our “time off”; it is a concession, a compromise. … With all these spiritual and cultural connotations, the “Christian year” — the sequence of liturgical commemorations and celebrations — ceased to be the generator of power, and is now looked upon as a more or less antiquated decoration of religion. It is used as a kind of “audio-visual” aid in religious education, but it is neither a root of Christian life and action, nor a “goal” toward which they are oriented.

And, of course, in traditions like my own we’ve largely discarded even the “audio-visual” aid. And in so doing, we no longer experience time together as a shared experience. We no longer know how to properly feast. We’ve rendered “church” itself irrelevant.

To understand the true nature — and “function” — of feasts we must remember that Christianity was born and preached at first in cultures in which feasts and celebrations were an organic and essential part of the whole world view and way of life. … A feast was thus always deeply and organically related to time, to the natural cycles of time, to the whole framework of man’s life in the world. And, whether we want it or not, whether we like it or not, Christianity accepted and made its own this fundamentally human phenomenon of feast, as it accepted and made its own the whole man and all his needs. But, as in everything else, Christians accepted the feast not only by giving it a new meaning, by transforming its “content,” but by taking it, along with the whole of “natural” man, through death and resurrection.

And that is important, as Fr. Schmemann moves to that peculiarly Christian lens.

“Through the Cross joy came into the whole world” — and not just to some men as their personal and private joy. Once more, were Christianity pure “mysticism,” pure “eschatology,” there would be no need for feasts and celebrations. A holy soul would keep its secret feast apart from the world, to the extent that it could free itself from its time. But joy was given to the Church for the world — that the Church might be a witness to it and transform the world by joy. Such is the “function” of Christian feasts and the meaning of their belonging to time.

Fr. Schmemann then proceeds to illustrate his point in this section using just Easter and Pentecost as examples. They are rich illustrations, but not really the sort of thing that can be summarized. In the podcast you’ll find a good discussion of the feasts and what they mean within the context of the Christian year.


For the Life of the World 14

Posted: November 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 14

This post continues with my thoughts on section 3 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

From the beginning Christians had their own day, and it is in its peculiar nature that we fine the key to the Christian experience of time.

The day is a basic unit of our experience of time. I get up. I go to work. Kids go to school. We have meals. We engage in activities. All these things are contained by days and often by a cycle of days. So it’s not surprising that in order to understand the Christian experience we start at the day. As I noted earlier, the Christian day is not the Sabbath, but it is also not divorced from the Jewish experience of Sabbath, something that can be lost if you simply understand it as “doing no work.”

In the Jewish religious experience Sabbath, the seventh day, has a tremendous importance: it is the participation by man in, and his affirmation of, the goodness of God’s creation. … The seventh day is thus the joyful acceptance of the world created by God as good. The rest prescribed on that day, and which was somehow obscured later by legalistic and petty prescriptions and taboos, is not at all our modern “relaxation,” an absence of work. It is the active participation in the “Sabbath delight,” in the sacredness and fullness of divine peace as the fruit of all work, as the crowning of all time.

No, I have nothing against Sabbath, but even Sabbath properly understood has a problem.

Yet this “good” world, which the Jew blesses on the seventh day, is at the same time the world of sin and revolt against God, and its time is the time of man’s exile and alienation from God. … In the late Jewish apocalyptic writings there emerges the idea of a new day which is both the eighth — because it is beyond the frustrations and limitations of “seven,” the time of this world — and the first, because with it begins the new time, that of the Kingdom. It is from this idea that grew the Christian Sunday.

Seven represent completeness in Jewish (and for that matter Christian) thought. That’s what makes the structure of John’s telling of new creation in his gospel so significant. On the sixth day, Pilate says, “Behold the man!” and Jesus is crucified. On the seventh he rests in the tomb. And then, rather than being the end of John’s narrative of new creation, John 20 opens amazingly, “Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” There is a second first day in John’s narrative which is also the eighth.

Christ rose from the dead on the first day after Sabbath. The life that shone forth from the grave was beyond the inescapable limitations of “seven,” of time that leads to death. It was thus the beginning of a new life and of a new time.

From the moment Christ rose from the tomb, the time of the Kingdom began. As Christians, we already live within that time, rather than the old time bounded by sevens. We live in the unbounded eighth day of creation.

A “fixed day.” … If Christianity were a purely “spiritual” and eschatological faith there would have been no need for a “fixed day,” because mysticism has no interest in time. To save one’s soul one needs, indeed, no “calendar.” And if Christianity were but a new “religion,” it would have established its calendar, with the usual opposition between the “holy days” and the “profane days” — those to be “kept” and “observed” and those religiously insignificant. Both understandings did in fact appear later. But this was not at all the original meaning of the “fixed day.” It was not meant to be a “holy day” opposed to profane ones, a commemoration in time of a past event. Its true meaning was in the transformation of time, not of calendar. For, on the one hand, Sunday remained one of the days (for more than three centuries it was not even a day of rest), the first of the week, fully belonging to this world. Yet on the other hand, on that day, through the eucharistic ascension, the Day of the Lord was revealed and manifested in all its glory and transforming power as the end of this world, as the beginning of the world to come.  … The week was no longer a sequence of “profane” days, with rest on the “sacred” day at their end. … Every day, every hour acquired now an importance, a gravity it could not have had before: each day was now to be a step in this movement, a moment of decision and witness, a time of ultimate meaning. Sunday therefore was not a “sacred” day to be “observed” apart from all other days and opposed to them. … By remaining one of the ordinary days, and yet be revealing itself through the Eucharist as the eighth and first day, it gave all days their true meaning. It made the time of this world a time of the end, and it made it also the time of the beginning.

The above is dense and you may need to read it a few times. But it captures something that is important and that we have almost completely lost in our modern world. If we cannot recover it, we will not live within a Christian sense of time and our ability to shape and sanctify the time in which we live will continue to be severely muted. Sunday is not first and foremost about a day we remember and keep holy. It is a day set apart. It’s not that somehow every day is now Sunday in a way that renders no day special. But Sunday, representing all “ordinary” days is set apart so that in and through our recognition of the Resurrection of Jesus on the first day, we make all days now holy. There are no days, just as there are no places, in a Christian perspective of reality, that are not holy. The first day and the eighth day are one.


For the Life of the World 13

Posted: November 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 1-2 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

As we leave the church after the Sunday Eucharist we enter again into time, and time, therefore, is the first “object” of our Christian faith and action. For it is indeed the icon of our fundamental reality, of the optimism as well as of the pessimism of our life, of life as life and of life as death. Through time on the one hand we experience life as a possibility, growth, fulfillment, as a movement toward a future. Through time, on the other hand, all future is dissolved in death and annihilation.

Fr. Schmemann dives right into the existential crisis of time in his opening to this chapter. Time is not some uniquely Christian problem or paradox. Philosophers of all stripes have tried their hand at it. However, I like the way he puts Christianity’s response to the conundrum of time.

Here again what the Church offers is not a “solution” of a philosophical problem, but a gift. And it becomes solution only as it is accepted as freely and joyfully as it is given. Or, it may be, the joy of that gift makes both the problem and the solution unnecessary, irrelevant.

We cannot accept that gift if we turn Christianity into a religion (in the pejorative sense that Fr. Schmemann uses the word) that saves us from time rather than within time.

Christians were tempted to reject time altogether and replace it with mysticism and “spiritual” pursuits, to live as Christians out of time and thereby escape its frustrations; to insist that time has no real meaning from the point of view of the Kingdom which is “beyond time.” And they finally succeeded. They left time meaningless indeed, although full of Christian “symbols.” And today they themselves do not know what to do with these symbols. For it is impossible to “put Christ back into Christmas” if He has not redeemed — that is, made meaningful — time itself.

I didn’t remember that last line above when I wrote my first post. I think his sentence definitely sums it up quite well. Christ entered into all creation in the Incarnation and that definitely included time. In the Resurrection he has made creation new. The Resurrection itself happened within time, as I’ve already mentioned, on the first day that is also the eighth day of creation.

And thus our question is: did Christ, the Son of God, rise from the dead on the first day of the week, did He send His Spirit on the day of Pentecost, did He, in other words, enter time only that we may “symbolize” it in fine celebrations which, although connected with the days and the hours, have no power to give time a real meaning, to transform and redeem it?

N.T. Wright points out that in every description of the eschaton which we have there are still sequences of events. There are still ongoing activities. In other words, though time (which is fundamentally the ordering of events) is assuredly made as new as everything else in creation, it doesn’t simply go away. Yes, we will be partakers in the very life of God through theosis, but the leaves of the tree are still for the healing of the nations. The Christian eschaton seems to be many things, but it is not boring or somehow timeless. Why do we seek to make it so?


For the Life of the World 12

Posted: November 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 12

This post continues my reaction to the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

Before I really dive into this chapter on a Christian perspective of time, I want to comment on something that seems to be a pervasive misunderstanding within modern American Christianity. Deacon Hyatt speaks on it briefly in his podcast. I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright speak about it. And I’ve read and heard it from multiple sources. It’s never been a surprise to me, though, since I entered Christianity with a long-standing interest in the ancient Greco-Roman world. I knew the realities of that time, within which the Church initially lived and grew as soon it spread to the Gentiles.

The issue is the issue of Sabbath. I realized it was issue when a BSF class I once attended made the blanket statement that all ten commandments still apply and are still observed by Christians today, that they were somehow a universal “Law”. I immediately pointed out that Christians don’t keep Sabbath, so that’s at least one commandment of that ten which no longer holds for us. You would have thought I committed sacrilege from the reaction. Some just immediately responded that of course we do. Others, who knew a little bit more about the Holy Scriptures and about Sabbath acknowledged that we no longer kept it on the seventh day of the week (Saturday for us), but then went on to assert that we observe Sunday as Sabbath and so we simply shifted the commandment to a different day. (Never mind, I guess, that there’s nothing in Scripture to support such a shift.) One other person in my group understood my point and we spent a little bit more time explaining it, but realized it was a major issue for many in the class and dropped it. (And yes, the “official” BSF position on that question is one of many places they are simply historically and scripturally mistaken.)

Yes, Christians have always worshiped on the morning of the first day of the week. But that worship, in its origin, had nothing to do with Sabbath. Christians met and worshiped on that morning in order to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. He rose on the first day, and we will discuss that some in this chapter. He rose in the morning. And he is also associated in scripture with the rising sun. (Which is also why churches traditionally are built facing east and the west is associated with the devil and evil.) That is all true.

However, the Jews who became Christians in the earliest centuries continued to observe their “lazy day” (which is what the Romans called the Sabbath) on the seventh day of the week. And Gentiles who converted? They didn’t get a “lazy day” like the Jews did, either before or after their conversion. Arguably the relatively few wealthy converts might have been able to get away with adding such an observance to their week if there had been a reason to do so, though that would have drawn attention to their conversion to an illegal religion. For the vast majority of Gentile converts — slaves and poor — there was no such choice at all. So throughout the first centuries, the Church met for worship very early on the morning of the first day of the week and then everyone went off to their full day of work, Jew and Gentile alike. (Actually, the worship of the first day actually began in the evening of the day before. Christianity inherited that sense of time from Judaism and you still see that pattern in liturgical churches. It was probably that feast in the evening that Paul was particularly chiding the Corinthians over rather than their first day morning gathering. But that’s just a guess on my part. I haven’t particularly studied it.)

That pattern continued at least until Constantine made Christianity legal. I would have to do some refresher research, but either Constantine instituted the idea of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath or it came sometime after him. If it came later, it probably coincided with the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire.

Now, I’m not saying the idea of Sabbath is not a good one. I believe it is a very good practice and discipline. I’m just saying that it is not a primary Christian belief or practice. Our focus is not on the rest of the seventh day, but the work of the new creation of the eighth day.  In the Gospel of John, which from his opening words is clearly (and daringly) a retelling of the creation narrative, the seventh “day” is the day Jesus rested in the tomb in death. Make of that what you will.

Well, I had intended to begin working through the book, but I’ve meandered down another rabbit trail. I’ll work my way into the book on my next post. I promise.


For the Life of the World 11

Posted: November 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 11

This week we move on to the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three.

In his podcast, Deacon Hyatt makes a statement that stuck in my mind. He says it in an off-hand way, but for some reason his statement kept bouncing around my head. I want to start with it before I dive into my thoughts on this chapter in the book.

You can’t put Christ back into Christmas without a Christian view of time. You can’t put the Resurrection back into Easter without a Christian view of time.

In recent years in the Christian circles I’ve inhabited, the first one in particular has been a big deal as people take offense over commercial retailers using the Happy Holidays salutation rather than saying Merry Christmas.

(In truth, it’s my impression that my tradition doesn’t really know what to do with the Resurrection, anyway. It’s sort of the adjunct event that proves that in their particular perspective on the Cross — which is the important thing — the payment has been accepted. The Resurrection itself is pretty anti-climactic and almost devoid of meaning. I once made the mistake of greeting one of our ministers, whom I do like, with the traditional Christian greeting on Easter, “Christ is risen!” I clearly confused him to the point that he didn’t know what to say. I felt pretty bad for doing it. I wasn’t being snarky or anything. It just bubbled out of me.)

But back to Christmas. Personally, the whole outrage struck me as pretty ridiculous. What possible difference does it make what sort of greeting retailers use? What does the ancient Christian celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord have to do with the American holiday — an orgy of consumption celebrating our wealth and propping up our economic system — beside a common name? Might as well eliminate even that vestige so there is no way the two can be confused. That was the part of my reaction I was able to put to words at the time.

Part of the reason the above quote stood out to me, I think, was because I recognized the futility of trying to put Christ back into Christmas in such a shallow way. After all, Christmas did not become a Christian holiday in isolation. Rather, pagan practices around the winter solstice were christianized by incorporating the celebration of the nativity of our Lord within a framework that sanctified all of time. And the nativity feast itself covered many days and the people prepared for feasting through a season of fasting. Instead, we throw ourselves into our cultural holiday of consumption and feast in many ways until, on the actual day, after we indulge ourselves in the “gifts” we have received and feasted one last, we collapse in exhaustion. We’re done.

Does anyone even remember the gifts you received last year? The year before? The year before that? In what way will retailers having their employees say Merry Christmas to you as you enter or leave their store put Christ back into that Christmas? Since this seems to matter deeply to many evangelicals, I’m sincerely curious. What possible difference does it actually make what store employees do or don’t say to the customers they are serving?

My tradition has rejected almost the entire framework of the Christian year, of Christian feasts, of Christian time. And then we wonder that our experience of time is no longer shaped by Christ, but rather by our culture? Without a Christian view of time, without a Christian practice of time, it’s not possible to sanctify the experience of time within a culture. Our ancestors knew what they were doing as they replaced a pagan experience of the cycles of time with a Christian one. By abandoning their wisdom, we are culpable for the “de-christianization” of time in American culture.

I was part of the group who began a sometime practice of the observance of Good Friday in our church, which I gather is fairly unusual within Baptist circles. We never did anything like a traditional Good Friday service. Rather, we put together different sorts of dramatic presentations. Even so, there were a number of people who considered it an odd thing to do. And we were pretty insistent at leaving each service with Christ’s death, a particularly dark moment. The Resurrection was for Sunday. On Friday, we wanted those participating to leave with a temporal experience of the death of Christ and the anticipation and longing for the Resurrection on Sunday. There was often some resistance or push back against that point, though never anything major. I never really understood why, but I think it has something to do with our adoption of a desire to escape time rather than make time Christian.

Well, I’ve meandered quite a bit and never really got to the book itself in this post. I’ll do that in the next one.


Saturday Evening Blog Post

Posted: November 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post

I’ve read Elizabeth Esther’s blog for a while now, but have been hesitant about participating in her Saturday Evening blog post. I finally decided to go ahead and add a link. I chose my reflection last month on holiness. No particular reason beyond the fact that it was the one I most enjoyed writing.

Cheers!