Friday, December 30, 2011

A Late but Merry Christmas


Although it is already long past Christmas day, I don't plan to let the season go by without comment. It has been a good time for me, and a great ending to the secular year. I am spending the time with my family and preparing to take canonical exams for ordination next week. It has also been an exhausting time, and so I am not going to write a long post. Instead, I am just going to post two unrelated quotes that have been on my mind this Christmas season.

It surpasses all thought, it amazes, it confounds, to think of God becoming man; the Infinite enshrined within the finite, the Lord of all blended with His servant, the Creator with His creature! It is a depth of mystery unsearchable. We must shrink with awe when we pronounce it. Of old they fell down and worshipped, when, in our Creed, they uttered it― “God was made Man.” It was an unimaginable condescension for God to create. From Eternity, in Eternity, (since it had no beginning), He was Ever-blessed, Love loving Love in the Holy Spirit, Who is the Bond of Love and Unity. He was, in Himself, All-perfect. He needed nothing, changed not. And yet, in that He created, He did a new thing, and formed those who needed Him, as though He needed them. He formed them to serve Him Who needed them not, and He accepted their service. It was much, as Scripture saith, to “humble Himself to behold the things which are in Heaven and earth.” But that He, Who was Perfect in Himself, should take into Himself something without Him; that He, Who is All in all, should add something to Himself; that He Who is a Spirit, should take into Himself that which was material; in a word, that God (if we realize to ourselves what that word God is) should take into Himself what is not God; one must stand speechless with awe at so amazing a mystery. How must we be amazed and scarce believe for joy, to think that that which He so took was man, ourselves, our fallen, sinful, in Him Alone unsinful, unsinning nature. - E.B. Pusey, From a Christmas sermon on Philippians 2:5-7 entitled "THE INCARNATION, A LESSON OF HUMILITY."
And then there is this little Gem from Karl Barth. It is not particularly about Christmas, but about the cross, and Christmas, too, points us towards the cross.
Now certainly something needs to be said about human sins and errors. Yet it ought to be said from the standpoint of sin forgiven and error removed. Sin undoubtedly has to be taken seriously, but forgiveness even more seriously. For either forgiveness is the first word, or it is not true at all. Sin must be spoken about only as the Sin which is taken away by the Lamb of God. - Homiletics, 52.
And that, I think, is a pretty good explanation of the meaning of Christmas, after all, that is why Jesus was born.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Horror, the horror...

I can't even tell you how happy this makes me...

if you don't get it, go read more Calvin and Hobbes.

Monday, December 12, 2011

All Things Upside Down, or Men, Women and The Magnificat


At the moment, I should really be writing something more directly connected with the overwhelming number of final papers I need to hand in next week - but a man can only spend so much time checking the formatting of his footnotes before he needs a break.

I continue on my Auden kick, and I am reading through For the Time Being his extended poem written in the form of a Christmas oratorio. I figure it's good preparation for Christmas.
Reading that poem, together with this excellent post over at Without A Map, and some personal conversations with the wonderful author of that blog, has got me thinking again about the really extraordinary role of Mary in the history of Salvation.
One of the most striking passages so far is the "Temptation of St. Joseph."
The words of the 'Narrator' are a really amazing meditation on the relationship between Mary and Joseph, and the relationship between Men and Women generally.

The temptation of St. Joseph was the temptation to doubt Mary's fidelity when he discovered that she was pregnant, and to divorce her. In Eastern icons of the nativity, there is often an image of St. Joseph in the corner, conversing with an old man who represents the devil. Somehow, Joseph overcame his doubts, and did not send Mary away. I'm sure that God sending Gabriel (who probably got more work in this one six month period around 4 BC than he had since the book of Daniel) to drop him a line helped with this. Anyway, all of that is just by way of background. Here's what Mr. Auden has to say.
For the perpetual excuse
Of Adam for his fall - "My little Eve,
God bless her, did beguile me and I ate,"
For his insistence on a nurse,
All service breast and lap, for giving Fate
Feminine gender to make Girls believe
That they can save him, you must now atone,
Joseph in silence and alone
While she who loves you makes you shake with fright,
Your love for her must tuck you up and kiss goodnight.

For likening Love to war, for all
The pay-off lines of limericks in which
The weak resentful bar-fly shows his sting,
For talking of their spiritual
Beauty to chorus girls, for flattering
The features of old gorgons who are rich,
For the impudent grin and Irish charm
That hides a cold will to do harm,
Today the roles are altered; you must be The Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity.
Auden focuses in on something that is present in the gospel narratives, but which is, at least in my experience, rarely commented on. Mary is often presented as a meek and passive figure, the essence of some kind of idealized femininity. But this, it seems to me, is hardly biblical. Mary is passive in a certain sense - the incarnation was God's initiative, obviously, but Mary's willingness to participate in the whole plan was not a passive decision in the sense that she just sat there and watched things happen. She took it upon herself to endure outrageous difficulty, to be the bearer of the eternal word of God - to risk being the object of mockery and outcast. She even risked her life - Joseph could have had her stoned. Mary became the protagonist and hero of this small story within the wider gospel narrative.
And Mary seems to have known that God was working in her, and turning all things upside down. I say she seems to have known it, because the Magnificat, her own hymn, is full of this imagery.
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me,
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever.
The Magnificat is not the hymn of passive femininity - it is a battle hymn. The whole theme of it is that God has chosen the weak, the poor, the foolish things of this world as the instruments of his salvation. Ultimately, of course, we see this reversal in the cross, where the death of Christ, becomes his victory. In God's plan it is the weak and the poor who will be exalted, the slaves who will save the masters, and the woman who will save the man.
Mary herself is a remarkable instance of this kind of reversal. She describes her self as "a handmaiden" - a female slave. And in that society, there really wasn't a lower rank than a female slave. Mary was poor, obscure, and a woman, and after God made her the mother of his Son, a woman who was regarded as an adulteress.
She was the lowest of the low, but God made her, after her son, the most important player in the whole drama of salvation. Mary, the obscure Jewish girl, is in the words of the Eastern hymn, the "Champion Leader" of the Church. Joseph has a part to play in all this, of course, but it is not the role of leader. He is the passive one, the man who must stand by and be the servant to his wife and the child she carried.

So what does that mean? I don't know exactly. The gospel turns everything upside down - especially human power structures, and that includes gender roles. I don't think that men and women are interchangeable, and I think there are real differences between the sexes which go beyond the obvious and merely physical. For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I am even ambivalent about Women's ordination. Still, no anthropology can claim to be Christian if it privileges men over women, or ignores the fact that in the gospel there is an inherent critique of gender roles.

I am not going to attempt here to come up with an anthropology that does justice to the biblical picture of men and women. Plainly, it is a big topic, and it raises all sorts of issues in the life of the Church (Women's ordination being the most obvious), so for now, I am just going to be content to raise the issue, and welcome thoughts and comments.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Incompleteness of Anglicanism

Archbishop Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, is certainly one of the patron saints around here, even if his picture isn't up on the side bar.
His book, The Christian Priest Today, has been an important book for me in considering my own sense of calling. He was also another "Barthian Catholic," which is one of the descriptors I would use for myself these days.
This year, I have had several opportunities to dip into his classic book, The Gospel and The Catholic Church. I was really prepared for it by reading Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology - thinkers like Zizioulas, Dumitru St─âniloae and Thomas Hopko - and have discovered that Ramsey speaks especially to many of my own concerns, with his dual commitment to Ecumenism and to the Catholic order of the Church.
Here is what Lord Ramsey had to say about the place of Anglicanism in the broader Church.
While the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the Gospel and the Church, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history, to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness.
Anglicanism is a mess, and it always has been. It is broken, but its brokenness also points to its vocation. What Anglicanism has to offer the wider Church is not just a slightly more liberal Catholicism, or a slightly more liturgical Evangelicalism. Rather, Anglicanism's gift is its peculiar witness to both the unity and the brokenness of the Church, and to the final hope that all who confess Christ may one day be one. And Anglicanism has the potential to stand as an authentic via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, not as a compromise, but as a bridge, calling the whole Church into a greater realization of the unity we have in Christ.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Advent Poetry

I am on a W. H. Auden kick after having seen Allan Bennett's The Habit of Art, about Auden and Benjamin Britten, performed recently. So to celebrate Advent, here is an excerpt from the Advent section of his poem, "For the Time Being."

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Internet is for Platonists

*WARNING: This post is really just a series of random thoughts. Do not attempt to extract a thesis from it*
I do not have the nerve to even hazard a guess at how many hours I spend online each week. It is doubtless vastly accelerating the progress of myopia, and for some reason it really bothers me to think about how much of my time is spent in the company of my decrepit iBook G4 (This little trooper has lasted since before Mac started using Intel).
Now, don't get me wrong, I love the internet and technology and all that, and if Facebook, Blogger, Gmail, and the archives over at First things disappeared tomorrow, I would be in a very bad mood. On the other hand, I might get more actual work done.
I have just been thinking recently, how the internet, and electronic media have transformed the idea of place. Not so long ago, your life and interests were confined to a relatively small geographical area. Now, much of my social interaction, on a daily basis, is with people on the other side of the country. If I were a teeny bit more cosmopolitan, it would include people on the other side of the globe. There is something bizarrely disincarnate about the internet. It takes flesh and blood people and turns them into pixels and information. I wonder, how will this effect our theology in the next few generations? It seems to me like it might exert a pressure in a generally idealist direction. What will it do to our whole notion of place? I tend to be sympathetic to the Eucharistic ecclesiology of Eastern thinkers like Zizioulas, but place plays an essential role in that ecclesiological scheme, with the bishop understood as the head of the Church in a given place. What does place even mean anymore for most of us? If the most important parts of our life are not lived within the limits of a physical place, does it make sense that the Church's structure should be determined by those limits? Why not have dioceses determined by affinity, as the ACNA seems to be doing for the most part? But then, does the concept of a diocese become evacuated of its real meaning? These are not, I think, merely academic questions. They seem to me to be highly relevant to a number of churches, most notably the emerging ACNA, but also the Orthodox churches in this country, as they continue their task of trying to achieve a unified Orthodox church.
All this just because I spend too flippin' much time on Facebook.
Maybe I'm crazy, I don't know, but the medium is the message and all that...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Memento Mori

I am really pleased, generally speaking, that we wear white for requiems these days, what with Christ having trampled down death by death... still, I have to admit, old black requiem vestments are among the coolest looking pieces of religious garb. I just can't resist posting a link to these images of a high mass set from Daniel Mitsui's blog. The set is from Chimay, the abbey much beloved of beer drinkers everywhere (mmmm... Chimay).
As a note, Mr. Mitsui is doing a delightfully bleak series of posts (perhaps for the penitential season of Advent) on Christian art dealing with death, which I highly recommend. It appeals to my inner goth.
h/t: Eve Tushnet