20 December 2010

In the Flesh

Matthew 1: 18-25 & John 1: 1-18

Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 19th December 2010

At the Candlelight Service on Christmas Eve this week we will hear (again) the majestic Prologue of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  It’s read as the church is full of darkness and shadow, read from the light cast by the Christ Candle in the center of the Advent wreath.  We then share the light from the Christ Candle with everyone in attendance, each holding a candle.  The effluence of the light soon fills the space with a warm, soft glow.  Toward the end of the reading from John we then hear these words, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” 

            This is how John tells the story of Jesus’ birth.  The Gospel of John was probably written around 90 AD, which means he could have been aware of Matthew or Luke’s version of the birth; but there’s little evidence to suggest this.  There’s the minority view among scholars that John was actually written prior to 70 (when Mark was written) and smuggled out of Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed it in 70.  Matthew and Luke probably never read John.  In John, we don’t find dreams to Joseph, annunciations to Mary, no shepherds or magi or angelic choirs.  John’s account is heady; it’s grand, actually it’s philosophical through and through, making extraordinary claims – this is theology using philosophy to make an amazing claim: that in the birth of Jesus we have witnessed the source of all Being now become flesh.  The Creator has become creature and taken on the weight of the created order. 

            This is heavy stuff.  “In the beginning was the Word.”  It begins with an echo of Genesis 1, “In the beginning…,”pointing to the creative act of God.  ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος  (en arche en ho logos).  John says in the beginning was the Word or, in Greek, the Logos.   Logos doesn’t mean “word” in a conventional English sense.  Logos is not a part of speech.  Logos was actually a common philosophical term in the first century.  Many philosophical schools, including the Stoics, referred to the Logos as a way to describe “the deepest structure of the universe, more fundamental than anything studied by physicists then or now.  The Logos was the creative or ordering principal of the universe, giving rise to the laws and patterns that science discovers.  The orderliness of nature, the elegance of mathematics, the beauty found in music and art, the complexity of the human mind are all expressions of the Logos.”[1]  Logos is the beginning, the arche, the source or origin of all that is.    John is making the point that “the original source and sustaining power of the universe is the Logos energy that is revealed in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.”[2]  And, what is more, the source, the ground, the origin, the divine creativity that creates and recreates the universe and holds it all in being (see Colossians 1: 15-20), the very pulse and rhythm of life itself has now become enfleshed in this person Jesus. 

            Matthew does it his own way.  He has his own reasons to tell the story from a different angle.  His audience is not the Hellenist philosophical world, he’s not writing to intellectuals, yet what he offers isn’t any less intellectually demanding.  Matthew makes a similar point to a primarily Jewish audience and provides us with a narrative, a story. The revelation comes to Joseph in a dream.  Mary will bear a child, a son, to be named Jesus – Yeshua – meaning, Yahweh saves.  They will call him also Emmanuel, meaning, “God is with us.”

            It’s unusual to link John and Matthew, but they both raise the one point I want to focus upon.  They’re both making the same mind-boggling, earth-shattering, gracious claim:  God is with us…in the flesh.  Sure, we find plenty of places throughout the Hebrew scriptures where we are told that God is with us, that God’s presence goes before us, leads the way, is known in the still small voice.  And yes, we find in the religions of the Greco-Roman pantheon the gods were also a kind of presence in one’s life.  There’s nothing new about this.  However, it’s the manner or way of God’s presence that’s different.  Yes, the Roman emperors were viewed as deity, starting with Caesar Augustus (63 BC- 14 AD) who was actually called, in his lifetime, “son of a god,” he was worshiped and revered as a god (that’s why he was given the title Augustus, “revered one.”).[3]  But no emperor could ever take credit for actually creating the very world in which he inhabited.  What we find in the Christian claim is something different and new.  In his poem, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the eighteenth century English poet, Christopher Smart (1722-1771), captures this point:

God all-bounteous, all creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made.

            Smart here alludes to the mystery of the Incarnation.  That’s really what we’re talking about here.  Incarnation.  Et incarnatus est, from the Nicene Creed, “and was made flesh.”  This is one of the central claims of the Christian experience.  God embodied in human form.  If there’s one think you leave with this morning, I hope it is this:  we come to know conclusively in the birth of Jesus that God is one who desires to be with us and desires to be embodied in the world and desires still to be embodied in our lives.

            Unfortunately, the history of the Christianity has done a terrible job actually conveying this to the world, living as if this were true, living from it.  The Incarnation stands at the heart of the Christian experience and yet we’ve done a really good job disincarnating Jesus; that is, thinking of Jesus as if he didn’t have a body. There is a very deep and destructive anti-body heritage in Christianity that made its ways into Christian thought and practice quite early.  It’s found in the rise of asceticism that made its way into the church from Greco-Roman sources.  Actually, it was the Greeks who did a good job separating spirit from body and favoring spirit over body. (This has contributed to a mind-body dualism that continues to plague the church, science, and even the way we treat illness.  Even the contemporary ecological crisis is an extension of this divide, that is, how we treat the earth.  If spirit is more important than matter, then it doesn’t matter how we treat matter.)  This antagonism runs deep.  A lot of the blame can go to the 4th century theologian, Augustine (354-430), who possessed all kind of fears regarding the body as sinful, viewed sexuality outside procreation as sinful, and had a low view of women.  These ideas continue to inform the way the church approaches a whole variety of issues today.  These ideas make it difficult for Christians to be, well, human – real, embodied, with feelings and emotions, and bodies that freely know desire and pleasure and respond to beauty – and to do all of this without guilt or shame.  I’m told the hanging of Christmas stockings originated in Germany, where each stocking contained five gifts, one for each of the senses in celebration of the Incarnation.[4]  And yet, that said, the guilt and shame associated with being human runs deep.

            The shame runs very deep.  True story.  Here’s a good example.  Four years ago when I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land our group went to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  It’s an enormous Roman Catholic Church built, as tradition has it, on the site of the home where Mary first heard that she was going to bear a son. Deep underneath the church is a cave.  There’s been an altar there since about 384 AD.  Carved in the floor in front of the altar are these words:  ET INCARNATUS EST HIC.  And was made flesh here.  Right there!  Now, earlier that day we were working at an archeological dig – at a site that had been left untouched since the first century.  We were dusty, dirty, sweaty, cleaned up best we could and then drove off to Nazareth.  The women were told to make sure they brought something along to cover up their shoulders, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed into the church.  They were prepared.  What the guys didn’t know is that we couldn’t wear shorts – and we had on shorts.  As we approached the high wall around the church we found the guard at the gate who was checking for skin.  The women went in first.  Some of the guys got through because their shorts covered their knees.  Not mine.  I was barred from entry.   I was mad.  I came all this way and I was not going to be kept from seeing this place.  So I pushed my shorts down as far as I could and still walk and then stretched my t-shirt down to cover the difference.  It was quite a sight.  I was let in and had a very funny walk through the church.  Now, in Nazareth there are two churches of the annunciation.  One is Roman Catholic, the other one is Greek Orthodox and they’re just as strict about skin, if not worse.  I tried my trick again, but they wouldn’t let me in.  How ironic that there in a town that claims the actual site of the incarnation itself, the church still has a problem with bodies, skin, flesh.  Obviously, God thinks they’re pretty good.  How can exposed shoulders be an affront to the gospel?  And – for God’s sake – what’s so scandalous about my knees?

            The controversial Italian filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), gets it right in his film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), when he has the wise men approaching the infant Jesus, kneeling before him and then kissing his feet. They didn’t kiss an idea of Jesus; they didn’t kiss his teachings; they didn’t kiss the spirit of Jesus. Et incarnatus est. “Good is the flesh that the Word has become.”[5]

            The Incarnation is the mystery of God’s embodiment in the world.  It tells us something about God’s style, God’s way, what God values and honors; that the world is saved through a body.  God seeks embodiment in the world in Christ because of love, God’s love for us as bodies, and God’s love for creation as heavenly body.  The way of Christ is the way of God and the way of God hasn’t changed.  God continues to seek embodiment – wants to dwell in us, dwell with us, around us, through us, for us, God wants to tabernacle with us, hang out with us, and, most of all, grow in us.

            God wants to be born in humanity.  Throughout Advent I invited us to consider the journey to Bethlehem.  Yes, we know the story of Joseph and Mary and the Magi, of God’s own journey, as it were, to earth in the birth of God’s son.  It’s this story, of course, that drives this season, as it should.  But it’s also about realizing our story, how we fit into this story.  It’s not just about their journey to Bethlehem – it’s also about ours.  What matters is that we get to Bethlehem too.  It’s also about our journey to the place of birth, of hope, of love.  Bethlehem – meaning, the house of bread – is the place where we are nourished, where we are given life.  That’s where God is born in us and that can be any place.

            In my own journey this season I have come to see in a new way that God really does want to be born in humanity.  A guide for me this season has been the writings of the Dominican master theologian, philosopher, mystic, Eckhart von Hochheim (c.1260-c.1327), otherwise known as Meister Eckhart.[6]  In his commentary on the Prologue of John, Eckhart draws our attention to John 1: 12b, “He gave them the power of becoming sons of God.”  For Eckhart, the mystery of the Incarnation is not just that God took on flesh in one particular person Jesus, but it also points to the deeper theological truth that what Jesus experienced is being offered to everyone who is also in Christ.  He pushed his hearers to move beyond celebrating just the fact of the Incarnation, that it happened, but to ask, why?  What is the purpose of Incarnation?[7] 

            This is what he said, God’s intention in sending the Son was that “man may become by the grace of adoption what the Son is by nature.”[8]  This is his way of saying the ancient motto from the early church, best known in the Eastern Church (not so much in the West); in the words of Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293-373),“God became man that man might God.”[9]“Why did God become man?” the Meister asked in a sermon, “So that I might be born God himself.”[10]  He is not saying that we become equal with God.  There is always the distinction.   But he’s trying to lift up the value of humanity. 

            This is radical stuff.  Not surprisingly, he was charged with heresy and was tried in Avignon and Cologne.  He didn’t survive the trial and was condemned as a heretic after his death.  If this is heresy, then put me in that camp too.  I think he was on to something.  The point here is that the purpose of the Incarnation shows God’s desire to take humanity into Godself and gives to humanity more and more of Godself.  The Incarnation brings something new into the world; it changes us.  Or, to put it a different way, Meister writes, “It would be of little value for me that ‘the Word was made flesh’ for man in Christ as a person distinct from me, unless he was also made flesh for me personally so that I too might be God’s son.”[11]

            That I too might be God’s son…  That I too might be God’s daughter…  That I might come to see myself, personally, existentially as one in whom God dwells, “full of grace and truth.”  That God is among us, within us, with us.  This is your birthright; this is your royal claim. Oh that the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve might know who they are, that we are daughters and sons of God, that we might know who we truly and authentically are – the object of God’s immeasurable, fathomless love that moves through the cold, dark expanses of the universe in order to be born and born again and again in us.  The birth of Jesus is the pattern; this is how God does it for all of us.  In this sense it can be said that Jesus truly was and is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:5) for us.

[1] James W. Jones, The Mirror of GodChristian Faith as Spiritual PracticeLessons from Buddhism and Psychotherapy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 23.  See also Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries:  His place in the History of Culture (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1985), 57ff.  Basil of Caesarea (330-379) refers to Jesus as the Cosmic Christ, the Word of God who pervades the creation” from the beginning to the present day.   Gregory of Nazianus (c. 329-389/390) said, “This name [Logos] was given to him because he exists in all things that are.”  Humanity participates in this presence of the Cosmic Christ by “mirroring forth the presence of the creating Logos,” as Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335- after 394) put it.  See also Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Comic Christ: The Healing of the Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (HarperOne, 1988), 108ff.
[2] Jones, 23.
[3] See Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (HarperOne, 2007), 159-160.
[4] Thanks to Fritzi Scott for this reference.
[5] “Good is the Flesh,” hymn text by Brian Wren (b.1936).
[6] Meister is German for Master, referring to his academic title Magister in theologia, obtained in Paris.
[8] Expositio sancti Evangelii secundum Iohannem (LW 3: 5-167), n.106, cited in McGinn, 118.  Emphasis added.
[9] See also 2 Peter 1:4, we are “partakers in the divine nature;” or Clement of Alexandra (c. 150 - c. 215), “The Logos of God has become human so that you might learn from a human being how a human being may become divine.”  Cited in Fox, 109.  Also, Irenaeus (2nd century AD – c.202), “God became man so that man might become God.”  Adversus haereses (Against Heresies), the earliest rendering of this understanding.
[10] Predigt and Predigten (DW 1-4), Pr. 29, cited in McGinn, 118.
[11] Iohannem, n. 117, cited in McGinn, 117.

06 December 2010

What Blocks Your Journey to Bethlehem?

Matthew 3: 1-12

Second Sunday of Advent/ 5th December 2010/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

Last Sunday, I invited us to look at Advent as a journey.  Not Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.  Not the Magi’s journey following a star.  Although their stories are never far from us, they set the pattern or template for our lives, I invited you to consider Advent as your journey toward the place of birth, toward your birth or rebirth, maybe even God’s journey toward you.   Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the Magi, their stories are given to us to shape the story of our lives.  And like all good stories, there’s movement.  The Christian life has often been understood as a journey.  Think of the medieval search for the Holy Grail.  Think of John Bunyan’s (1628-1688), Pilgrim’s Progress (1678/1684).  The truth is, when we get mixed up with God or God gets mixed up with us, things change, people change, the world changes.

            Yes, God accepts us as we are, but God never leaves us there.  God’s acceptance of us always includes a summons – to heed the summons means the direction of our lives inevitably change.  The summons sets us off on an adventure.  Perhaps, then, we might think of Advent this year as the Lord summoning you on a kind of journey:
            Where is the road to your Bethlehem? 
            Consider your life, where are you on that road toward birth? 
            Where is God birthing something of Christ in your life? 
            What is Jesus trying to birth in you? 
            Why were you born? 
            What does your life mean? 
            Where is the Lord trying to take you? 
            Where are you being led? 
            What road are you being called down?

            The image of the road is all over scripture.  We find it here in Matthew’s account of John the Baptizer.  He stands in the wilderness of Judea calling people to repent – meaning, literally, to change their minds – then with a new-found perspective and clear head, set forth on the royal road. 

            “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  John didn’t come up with this slogan.  He got it from Isaiah.  Actually, Matthew’s John misquotes Isaiah.  Isaiah reads, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh” (Isaiah 40:3).  Matthew has Isaiah say, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord make his paths straight.”  Isaiah’s focus is upon the way, the road; Matthew’s focus is John as the voice in the wilderness who prepares the way.  The point here, both for Isaiah and for John, is a way has to be prepared.

            We need to keep in mind that Isaiah’s reference here is the movement of God’s people from Babylon back to Judah.  Isaiah envisions a time when a new highway, a new road will be cut, as straight as any Roman road blazing a new trail back.  The Romans always cut straight roads between two points, when they could.  (Along the border between England and Scotland you can always tell when you’re traveling along an original Roman road because they are straight, they don’t meander around hills and dales.) The way, the road, the highway of God is the road of a new exodus, which means, in Greek, a way out; it’s the road that leads from captivity to liberation, it’s the road that goes from oppression to freedom, it’s the way from exile to home.  This is God’s royal way; it’s always God’s way.  Isaiah said, “A highway shall be [in the desert], and it shall be called the Holy Way…and it shall be for God’s people” (Isaiah 35: 8).
God will be transported along that path, leading God’s people to the place where they might start again, to their place of rebirth.
            John comes as that trailblazer, the one who cuts a new path, who prepares a way.  Matthew has John the Baptizer spewing all kinds of venom against the Sadducees and Pharisees, that “brood of vipers” as he puts its, preaching to them and to the crowds, “Repent!” Sometimes it’s difficult for us to “hear” a text like this.  It just sounds so harsh – and it is.  Even the word, “repent” smacks of Bible-thumping tent revivalists uttering warning.  But what if we reframed the way we look at this text.  What if heard the word repent said in love?  What if we heard repent – change your mind – as a gracious invitation?  What if the change of mind, the change of heart, the change of perspective John calls us toward is actually the first step in preparing the way of the Lord?  One of the ways we can prepare for the coming of the Lord is to repent – to change mind, heart, perspective.  If all of this leads us to the Lord, then we can say it’s because of love.

            Why do we need to be changed?  Because very often it’s the thoughts of our minds and the disposition of our hearts and the limited-views of our perspectives that actually stand in the way and block our ability to set off on the path that leads to the way of God.  That’s probably why John is so furious with the religious establishment – the Sadducees and Pharisees – who have come out from Jerusalem into the wilderness of Judea to monitor what John and his followers were up to out in the desert.  Sometimes it is actually the religious establishment, the priests and ministers and the religious communities that follow them who stand in the way of what God is trying to do in the world.  Sometimes it’s religion itself, along with false piety that obstructs the movement of God.  As odd as it might sound, the Bible is no friend of religion (the religion word isn’t even found in the Bible!). 

            John and his followers are out in the wilderness, far from the religious authorities, seeking renewal in the desert.  John calls them a “brood of vipers.”  This is a strong word.  It’s a phrase that was common in the Greco-Roman world.  In Ovid’s (43 BC – 17/18 AD) Metamorphoses (8 AD), Pentheus sees a reveling mob rush out of a city to celebrate some new religious rites, he shouts against them, “You sons of the serpent, you offspring of Mars, what madness has dulled your reason?”[1]  The phrase has also been recently tied to the apocalyptic Jewish religious sect called the Essenes who lived in the wilderness of Judea.  This phrase can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and links John to the Essene community at Qumran – a community formed to prepare for the coming of the Messiah to save Israel from Roman oppression.[2]

            And speaking of Rome, the ideology of the Roman Empire is never far from any chapter of the New Testament.[3]  Many of the titles given to Jesus at his birth were the same titles given to Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) throughout his life.  At the age of 48, Augustus was given the title Pontifex Maximus:  the great bridge builder.  It was a liturgical title – he became head of the college of priests.  He was the chief priest who was charged with the task of maintaining peace with the gods (pax deorum).   He was seen as the mediator between heaven and earth.  Pontifex Maximus can also be translated, Preparer of the Road – as in the road to the gods.[4]  That sounds remarkably like the role given here, not to Jesus, but to John the Baptist, preparing the way, not for or to the gods, but the way of and to the fullest manifestation of the God the world has ever known – to Jesus, the Christ.

            It’s the way, the road, the path that leads to Jesus that matters most.  It’s the way, the road, the path to God’s way that matters most.  God’s way – and not Caesar’s – is the way that leads us from captivity to liberation, from oppression to freedom, from exile to home, the way that leads to birth or rebirth – the way to Bethlehem.

            As we journey to the Table this morning, as we reflect on the way of the Lord, let us consider our journey:
            Who is the Baptizer in your life? 
            Who calls you repent? 
            Who helps to prepare the way? 
            Who is the one challenging you to change – your mind, your heart, your perspective in                              order to move toward the direction of birth? 

            While I’m at it, I’ll lift up a few more questions for us consider as we make our way to the Table:              Who or what is standing in your way toward the Lord? 
                        Are there things within your own faith and practice, in the way you imagine God                                      to be, that are blocking your journey to Bethlehem? 
                        What’s hindering you? 
                        What’s holding you back? 
                        Is it maybe all the stress and strain and busy-ness that comes with this season? 
                        Is it the expectation that it has to be a Christmas worthy of
                                                                                    Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)? 
            Perhaps it’s the disappointments and losses of this year or from over the years, ache and sorrow from ages past that come into painful focus this time of year.
            Maybe its fear – fear of really trusting God, trusting yourself to let go, to fall into the arms of God, to step out and venture toward the God who through Christ has made and is making God’s way to the place of encounter and birth.
            Maybe it’s the fear of repenting itself. 

            John wants us to go to Bethlehem and his job is to help us along the way.  As the Holy Spirit once said to his father, Zechariah, “And you…will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 76-79).  John wants us to go to Bethlehem.  In the meantime, let us to the Table of the Lord, to receive bread and wine for the journey.

[2] See Charlesworth, 359ff.  As found in the Thanksgiving Hymns (from Qumran) and in the recently published Dead Sea Scroll 4QMysteries (4Q299 Frg. 3aii-b).
[4] Every Roman Emperor since Augustus held the title Pontifex Maximus.  Emperor Gratian, in 381, is the first to decline the role.  It was then taken up and used regularly by the Pope.