Saturday, December 31, 2011

Jesus, Yule and Life-Renewal

Reflections for the 12 Days of Christmas: 4

As we unpacked our trove of Christmas ornaments and placed them, one by one, on the fresh-cut Tree, special moments and people from the past came up from memory to meet me.

This half-eggshell bird’s nest ornament was the gift of a parishioner who crafted her own ornaments as gifts each year. That dachshund in the red Volkswagen with the Christmas tree on top was one of the many annual ornament gifts my wife’s mother began to give annually to her children as they started their own homes. The tiny red bell—broken this year, alas—was “my” childhood ornament to hang on the tree even as a toddler, and had come to me through my mother from her own childhood in rural Tennessee. We have a treasury of ornaments which turn our Christmas tree into a rich tapestry of relationships and remembrances.

No Puritan simplicity desired.....

My appreciation was heightened this year by mild annoyance at a pre-Christmas blog by a Presbyterian minister proudly announcing that “as for me and my house we will abstain from Christmas.” So corrupt, he said, had its commercialization become that there would be no gifts. No Tree. No decorations. Nada. Nothing. How could he give his children gifts when other children in the world were disadvantaged? “How can he send them to school, then,” I wondered, “when so many go uneducated?” In the place of Christmas, they had put to together a “wish list” a bit like John Lennon’s famous “Imagine” when hoped for everything from the abolition of the sex slave trade to world peace.

Couldn’t he have modeled a moderate Christmas, instead? A few gifts and contributions to the causes that serve his “wish list?” Fine. It’s a free country. Do what you wish. But his righteous rant against the “festival” aspects of Christmas—and the wider Mid-Winter Yule Festival which is its seasonal context—only increased my appreciation for being part of a long and deep strand of Christianity that doesn’t shy at adorning fir trees with light and color, enjoying the figgy pudding, rum and all, and relaxing into some general good times in the dark of the year.

Not that my Calvinist dissenter is the first to decry Christmas. The Puritans abstained in pious horror from the clearly pagan roots of the midwinter festivities surrounding the alleged birthday of Jesus. And the patristic Church placed Christmas on the Winter Solstice, hard on the Roman Saturnalia, as a fast day to keep the faithful from frivolity. Only as the power of pagan religion waned (and was suppressed, to be honest) did it become safe to tolerate the blending of the natural human urge to celebrate with lights and food during the cold and dark of the year with the celebration of the Nativity.

Pagan roots, to be sure, but why not?

And a good thing, too, so far as I’m concerned. My spiritual father “was a wandering Aramean,” as the book of Deuteronomy puts it, but the spiritual mother of the mid-winter festival was a European pagan, someone devoted to the rhythms of nature and the more earthy needs of the human soul. The spiritual and psychological genius of the Church Kalendar of feasts and fasts that arose from that covertly interfaith marriage consists in keeping the prophetic witness of the Hebrew tradition in dynamic balance with the nature rooted witness of “earth-based spirituality”.

For me, that glowing Tree in my living room is not only an offering to honor the Babe who carries the “ever-greening” powers of the soul (as Hildegaard of Bingen might put it). Garnished with lights large and small, and in a multitude of creatures represented in the ornaments, it also symbolizes the cosmic Tree of Life itself, that ever-renewing miracle of the life in the universe, where the death of the first stars gives birth the elements that make up everything, including the hands that hung the decorations and the eyes that behold them.

So it’s not hard, at New Year’s, to see it is an entirely apt symbol of the life-renewal, the letting-go of the past and the leaning toward the future, that is also part of the Good News of Christmastide.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Spray Effects

Reflections for the Twelve Days of Christmas 3

When Jesus said that the effect of his message would bring a sword of division between family members—and by implication, other groupings as well—he spoke truth.

The this-world effects of the movement that carried his message have, time and again, sparked just such divisions. Sometimes they have been Jesus-followers clashing with each other. The Christian witness to prophetic values has provoked social division and outright hostility to the messengers in every century. And, on occasion, total innocents have been caught in the backwash from the conflicts, or been the outright victims of those thinking they are serving God.

The Christmastide calendar plunges straight from angels and shepherds to the martyrdom of Stephen, takes a breath for the remembrance of John the “son of thunder” (who once wished fire from heaven to descend on a Samaritan village and was imprisoned in his old age), and takes up the theme of conflict again with the slaughter of the Bethlehem innocents on December 28. No breather the next day for the liturgically observant: December 29 remembers the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral by henchman of King Henry II—the fall-out from a falling-out of two former bosom buddies who found themselves at loggerheads over the border between church hierarchy and the crown.

Unanticipated consequences

All these are unanticipated consequences from the life of Jesus and the movement he began. Life is like that; there is no great good that happens in this world that does not have unintended consequences, sometimes very evil ones. As a young seminary student recovering from a rigid, black-and-white, good or evil moralistic background, my moral theology professor’s observation that all actions, both good and evil, have an unpredictable “spray effect” was a true word of wisdom. I have never forgotten the lesson. It illumined baffling moments in my own life where a word or deed meant for good had gone sadly awry, and shed light on so many results of historical events, especially those undertaken in the passion of idealism.

The fervently noble, reformist intentions of Prohibition resulted in a social disaster, making the law a joke among the majority of citizens, and opening the city gates to the rise of massive organized crime. When human beings go on all-out crusades against vice and evil the cure can become as bad as the crime. Jesus himself may well have seen this, for he tells us, mysteriously, "do not resist evil" (Matthew 5:3) and reveals his m.o. is to “bind” the Devil and rob his house, not seek to destroy him completely (Matthew 12:29).

And yet, in spite of Jesus’ apparent intention for non-violent divisions, leaving judgments up to God, his life, from the beginning, had a spray effect of violence, at least as the Story is told. No angel asked permission of the Bethlehemites for the heavenly king to be born in their obscure cave-stable; yet blood ran in the streets two years later as the tyrant king sought to eliminate any threat to his power. The crowds flocking to be near the miracle-worker Jesus were so thick on one occasion people “trampled one another” (Luke 12:1). Such crowd pandemonium caused the Pharisees to accuse Jesus of being possessed by the “Lord of the flies” (Luke 11:24-25). More division.

For every action, there is a reaction; and it is not always clear that the actor’s push is purely good and the reactor’s push-back wholly evil. Values clash, and motives are seldom simple. That’s life. Even hermits have to deal with the disagreements and divisions in their own minds.

"The bestial floor"

The message of Christmas—like the message of the Hebrew Bible as a whole—is that God is willing to mix it up with the whole messy business. The underlying, overarching love, wisdom, and goodness out of which the worlds are born chooses not to be aloof the ambiguities that arise in pursuing the Good.

The birth of the Babe of Bethlehem, that “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” as Yeats puts it in The Magi, manifests that the Divine is not divorced from the difficulties and ambiguities we face. And the Babe, indeed all of Scripture, promises that through all the mayhem that even the best actions and accomplishments can provoke, threads of grace are seeking to “work for good” and bring about unanticipated blessings. The Incarnation is into this mess, nothing less. Nor does the Divine seek to escape accountability for its own actions as it participates in the planetary mayhem.

A great spiritual teacher once suggested to me that one of the many sins of humanity that Jesus bore to the cross was the one caused by the spray effect of his birth—the slaughter of the Bethlehem infants.

Whatever else that might mean, I think it shows that their wounds—all wounds—become his. Which is to say the wounds of our inevitable divisions, conflicts and hatreds are carried in the heart of God, who like us, has regrets.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Divinely Human, Humanly Divine

Reflections for the Twelve Days of Christmas 2

John, one of the two sons of the fisherman Zebedee—the “sons of thunder” according to Jesus—seems to have been part of the same radical, anti-establishment Judaism that propelled Stephen the deacon to his lynching death. Reportedly a follower of the fiery John Baptizer before he met Jesus, he was a passionate devotee of the dream of the Kingdom, extreme in his judgments and his loves.

The gospel traditionally attributed to him is also the most extreme and passionate of the Four, with its Qumran-like contrasts of light and darkness, good and evil, love and (though it is never named as such) hate. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Fourth Gospel contains the most passionately exalted assertions about the nature of the man Jesus, who is seen as nothing less than the eternal Word or Wisdom of God, the divine Glory or Shekinah, “pitching its tent” among us—that is, shining from the heart of our very own fleshly nature.

Divinization of the human in pre-Christian Jewish tradition

It may very well be the case that such an exalted view of a Tzaddik, or Righteous One, is part-and-parcel of the “third force Judaism” in which John, John Baptizer and Jesus all moved, distinct from the aristocratic ruling Sadducees or the law-codifying Pharisees, rather than being an import from the Greek world, as many biblical critics have contended. In addition to the startling revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls (whoever imagined Jewish monks, after all, or "unbloody sacrifices" of bread and wine?) more than two generations of Christian scholars have now revealed more fully the apocalyptic and mystical landscape of “inter-testamental” Judaism, in which the “divinization” of great spiritual heroes like Enoch and Melchizedek is a major theme.

The tales about both involve ascending into heaven, clothing with divine glory and enthronement in power and glory, and sometimes return to earth. Enoch himself was said to have returned to earth after his heavenly glorification, cloaking his Glory, to teach the way of righteousness (1). So also, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel claims to have had a heavenly ascension experience during his lifetime. (John 3:12-13).

According to the newly emergent, but strong, school of ‘early Christology’ scholars, Jesus may have lived in a stream of Judaism quite ready to believe that a human being manifesting such Spirit-power in healing, preaching and moments of spiritual rapture, was nothing less than the earthly presence of a humanly divine and divinely human Light and Life (2). The Jews, unlike the Greeks, were content to assert a paradox like this, rather than trying to figure out the exact relationship between humanity and divinity, a task which led to many later, and perhaps unnecessary, theological headaches.

Beholding with the eyes of love

Which brings me back to John, traditionally believed to be the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved.’ Whatever this may mean beyond ‘his favorite,’ it surely implies some kind of affectionate relationship that opens the eyes of the lover to see the gold at the heart of the beloved in ways others may not see as clearly. Infatuation may indeed blind us to our love-objects faults, but enduring love sees into the soul. Such love is likely to include moments of ‘ordinarily transfigured’ vision when the Beloved is adored and praised—which is to say, worshipped (as in the old English form of the wedding vow: “with my body I thee worship”).

The English mystic and author Charles Williams sees such love, which can appear in deep friendships as well as enduring sexual partnerships, as humanity’s “most common experience” of the Divine Love. For the passionate and 'beloved' John, direct experiences of the earthly form of Jesus as the "tent" of Divine Glory—-the way Jesus smiled, walked and laughed as well as his mighty deeds and powerful words—-may well have been far more important proof of a divine humanity than any stories of Enoch or Melchizedek.

In Jesus’ presence, John had felt the actual embrace of the Divine Glory, “grace upon grace” (John 1:16) He was among the first to know this, but he was not the last, by any means.


1. When Enoch was taken into heaven God enthroned him, “set a crown upon his head in the presence of the heavenly family and called him the little lord....his body was turned into celestial fire--his flesh became flame, his veins fire, his bones glimmering coals, the light of his eyes heavenly brightness, his eyeballs torches of fire, his hair a flaring blaze, all his limbs and organs burning sparks, and his frame a consuming fire.” See Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews (online at

2. Notable among the ‘early Christology’ scholars (who rattle both the cage of conventional orthodoxy and minimalist interpretations) are: Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament; Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God; The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy; and The Risen Lord: The Jesus of History as the Christ of Faith; Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.

Monday, December 26, 2011

First Blood

Reflections for the Twelve Days of Christmas 1

The white joy of Christmas turns blood red on the First Day after Christmas as the Christian movement remembers its first martyr, Stephen the Deacon. His death at the hands of an enraged mob marks the beginning of wrestling match between the movement Jesus inaugurated with the harsh realities of history—the first, that is, since the Master’s similar death.

The brash young man—surely he was young, being so impetuous—had been chosen to handle the distribution of food among elderly, widowed women in the burgeoning Jerusalem commune created by the people of the Way of Jesus while the men of the commune’s Council—the Twelve—took care of presenting the Message.

But Stephen just couldn’t stick to his assignment and began to debate critics of the movement. One thing led to another and he found himself “speaking truth to power” in a way sure to offend — and was summarily slaughtered by a enraged mob of Judeans not happy to be dubbed, along with their ancestors, the enemies of God’s purposes.

The first blood of the movement had been shed—after the blood of the Instigator. The first blood was followed by more as “a great persecution arose” against the Commune, leading to its dispersal to smaller towns in Judea, Samaria, Galilee and beyond.

Jesus: Movement Initiator

It’s fashionable in many liberal circles to say that Jesus didn’t start a church; but one of the things I think we can be quite certain of historically is that he instigated a movement.

The Jesus movement (according to its own records) was organized enough after his death to receive thousands of new members into its charitable programs. Organized, as in ruling council, codes of conduct, ceremonial meals, financial folks, the whole ball of wax—apparently like other Second Temple era anti-establishment movements, like the Community of the Scrolls at Qumran.

It might be nice to dis-identify Jesus with his movement; indeed, it is one of the most popular themes of some liberal religious scholarship and fantasy—a Jesus free from all that the movement, a.k.a. “the church,” has become in history. Some Christians scholars are have alleged that even the Gospels don’t represent Jesus, but are full of the mis-impressions of his followers and their converts. The “real” Jesus was so much better than that terrible movement, it would seem.

A bit too convenient, this fashion; for it allows the whole idea of Jesus to float in some non-historical hyperspace, vulnerable to fashioning in the image of the beholder. As unromantic as it may seem, the institutionalization of the message of Jesus is actually part and parcel of what Christians call “incarnation” — for institutions are the bodies that ideas wear in history. The message of Jesus had to become institutionally incarnate, or it would just be a set of glittering ideals.

The Challenge of Historical Incarnation

The difficulty the Christian movement has had living into the full implications of what he said simply shows how hard it is for souped-up primates like us to see any further than our own immediate interests. The “failures of the churches” are an inevitable part of any movement that hopes to have an influence on history. Movements always need reforming, refreshing, restoring to a rooting in their original goals. Or else they’re not worth living for.

Or dying for, as so many thousands have through the centuries. The early community Stephen served had its own flaws, and would develop many more. But Stephen had been captivated by the message—Jesus’ vision of what human community could be—and for it he risked his life. In so doing he demonstrated that the lovely birth we celebrate had real-life consequences for Jesus and anyone willing to sign on to his own crazy, daring hope: that humanity might actually turn back from its foolish ways and choose love over hate, peace over war, and justice over oppression. The sort of thing that might just save us from bringing the whole planetary house down around us.