The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation

Millennials give me hope. I think if we let them, they will actually make a better world.

Born Again Minimalist

I was in graduate school when I first heard the term “millennial.” It was at a conference. The session was about how to serve millennial students, because they have different characteristics than the Generation X students that went before them. It was here that I first started hearing things like “millennials need to be recognized for participation,” “millennials feel they are special,” “millennials are sheltered,” “millennials are likely to have helicopter parents,” and more. Society as a whole loves to hate on the millennial generation (those born between 1980-1999), calling us “special snowflakes” and sarcastically referring to us as “social justice warriors,” calling us out for “being offended by everything” and, everybody’s favorite, pointing out how very entitled we are.

Here’s the secret: We’re not.

millennial late for work.jpg

The negative opinions directed at millennials are a perfect example, on an enormous societal scale, of cultural gaslighting.

What’s Gaslighting?

Glad you asked. I learned…

View original post 1,638 more words

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

The following links open in a new window or tab, in case you’d like to keep them open for reference:

Today’s Gospel lection focuses on St. Joseph and what must have been a very difficult time for him. He is engaged to be married to Mary, and somehow learns (the passage doesn’t say how—did he notice? did someone tell him? did he hear gossip?—that she is pregnant. He knows the baby isn’t his. Joseph, St. Matthew tells us, was a “righteous man.” But the context in which Matthew declares him righteous is interesting. It’s not a blanket statement; it’s linked with his habit, his inclination to behave in a certain way:

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

In our own time, we have seen self-declared righteous folk condemning others for being single mothers, for being LGBT, for using birth control, or whatever else is the current affront du jour against their religious sensibilities. Some have gone to court to demand their “religious right” to discriminate against—and, let’s face it, attempt to publicly shame—others. But Joseph, “being a righteous man,” was unwilling to do that to Mary, even when he could only assume she had been unfaithful to him before they were even living together as husband and wife.

So the question, for me, arises: Is Joseph not to be emulated?

The wider context is the story of a miraculous birth, unique in all human history. I think the question is related to the way we read the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ—for short-hand, I’ll use the phrase, “the Christ event.” Is the Christ event, in its uniqueness, something otherwise outside of human history? Is it so unique as to be essentially unrelated to our lives, except by appropriating Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation? Or is it a revelation of the deepest patterns in the cosmos itself, the very form of all human stories?

After all, Joseph’s plans—while good and even righteous—are changed by a rather other-worldly event: an angel appearing to him and instructing him in what to do. Don’t be afraid; marry Mary; help her raise this son; in fact, you’re going to be the one to name him—and, by the way, you’re going to name him Jesus. Such a clear set of instructions…but I doubt I’m making a great stretch to say these instructions are probably pretty much his heart’s true desire. If someone had known his dilemma, and had asked him, “Joseph, how do you wish this would play out?” I suspect he might say, “An angel would come and tell me it’s all OK, and the baby is from God, and I should marry Mary and help raise her child.” The name Jesus is icing on the cake: it means, “God saves.” That angel is quite the deus ex machina for Joseph, but what Joseph was called to do was, well, rather ordinary.

Nevertheless, naming the child Jesus and agreeing to be part of his story is a very dangerous undertaking. Soon the Holy Family will become exiles, refugees, fleeing to Egypt to save their child from a (literally) petty governor, whose self-image can’t survive even the possibility that a baby has been born that some weird foreigners called a “king.”

Matthew refers us back to (his reading of) Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” For Matthew, Jesus’ birth is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. But as we read the lection from Isaiah, we see that God is telling Ahaz (King of Judah), through the prophet, that something is about to happen in his own time. The chapter in which this passage appears (Isaiah 7) begins by telling us that Ahaz was afraid of an alliance between the kingdoms of Aram and Israel (which Isaiah calls “Ephraim”). Isaiah says to Ahaz that a young woman, who was with child at the time, would give birth and name her child Immanuel. Before that child is old enough to know right from wrong, the kings and kingdoms Ahaz was afraid of would be gone. In other words, soon. Verse 8 even says, “Within 65 years, Ephraim [Israel] will be shattered, no longer a people.” So it doesn’t quite do justice to the text to say that Isaiah was predicting the birth of Jesus.

But prophecy isn’t about predicting the future. It’s speaking forth of God’s word. The authors of the New Testament seem to understand it in those terms, because they keep claiming prophecies like this one in Isaiah apply to their own time. I think this is a good example of recognizing and explicating how God has revealed, and continues to reveal, the deep structure of the cosmos. When the earliest Christians had an experience of God in and through Christ, they went to their Bibles (so to speak; they didn’t exactly have books they could tote around—in fact, they often seem to be quoting from memory). They searched the Scriptures not for some magical puzzle that was missing just the piece they had in their hand; but rather to learn how to recognize the new thing God was doing. I like to call it God’s mantra: “See, I am doing a new thing; do you not perceive it?” We perceive it by learning to recognize how God interacts with our world; we find the basis of that in Scripture, which testifies to God through the record and interpretation of those experiences in which people of faith before us have encountered God.

Which brings me back to Joseph. What is happening in Joseph’s life—his plans, their disruption, and the surprise the angel brings, which leads to a very challenging but blessed future—this is a recognizable pattern for those who are familiar with the records God’s people kept of their experiences of God through history.

Jesus is unique, and his life was extraordinary; but when you follow close to him, you commit to making his life ordinary: incarnating it here and now. If we all did that, his would be the most ordinary of lives ever. In fact, his life is the pattern our lives ought to take. Joseph, being a righteous man, was already living his life in such closeness to God that when God became human in the son Joseph’s wife was about to bear, Joseph was ready to be right there. Yes, it proved to be more complicated than he would have thought. But God knew he was up to the task.

We are, too, if we simply commit to loving and following Jesus. Not that it’s easy, but it is simple.

The lection from Romans is a classic Pauline run-on sentence. It’s easy to miss how much he’s actually saying in this passage, which is, on the surface of it, just a greeting. In that greeting, he introduces himself and identifies his audience…but with all the theological weight you might expect in an introduction to a book like Romans. He names himself and his audience in terms of relationship—each party’s relationship to God, and the parties’ relationship to each other. In doing so, he traces the patterns of God’s self-revelation in human history: the Gospel is foretold through the Prophets; Jesus is descended from David; all of this is confirmed in the Resurrection; and it establishes the role and function of the apostles, who are prophets in their own time, speaking forth the word of God to even Gentiles, who, by the way, are called by God. That central story of Christ is seen to echo back and forth through history. The Christ-event is what has established our identities, has called future generations to God, and even commissioned prophets and ancestors long before the Incarnation.

The Psalm is a timeless cry to God, echoing our own longings as well as what we might imagine Joseph to have been feeling just before the angel showed up. It acknowledges failures, expresses suffering, and calls with a certain degree of confidence for God to come and save.

1 Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

2 In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.

. . .

16 Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

17 And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

18 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

The Collect of the Day might be a new way to pray that Psalm now that we know this great story:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(Book of Common Prayer)

When we pattern our lives after the Christ-event, the event which echoes through time and space and is seen in Joseph, Isaiah, St. Paul and the church in Rome, and in saints everywhere—our lives become a resting place for God—a mansion prepared for Christ, a place where he will be at home. The whole cosmos, all that exists, was created precisely to be a home for Christ, and we are invited to help make it so. He found a home in the family of St. Joseph; may he find a home in all of us.

Advent 3-A

 

 

For well over a year now, we’ve been hearing the slogan, “Make America great again!” What an enticing rallying cry. Forget the implicit claim that America is not great now. The real trouble with this slogan is that it’s so imprecise. Its vagueness allows it to be taken up by people with wildly different visions of what “great” means, let alone what time in our past “again” refers to.

It’s really an appeal to nostalgia. Whatever golden age you use to measure the present against—that’s what “great” is, and that’s what “again” points to. For some reason, humans tend to frame our histories in some kind of decline narrative: things were great once upon a time, but have fallen apart since. Nostalgia is a longing for that golden age…

…but that golden age never actually existed. The past we long for was rife with its own problems and populated with people sighing for their own idea of an idyllic past. Nostalgia really is a longing for a future that hasn’t materialized. What we’re longing for when we long for the time, say, of our youth, is the promises and potentials that remain unfulfilled. (Svetlana Boym wrote convincingly about this phenomenon in former Soviet countries in her book, The Future of Nostalgia.)

We know all this in Detroit, where for several years now, we’ve been hearing about our city’s “comeback.” Back to what? The prosperous Detroit that occupies local nostalgia was an unsustainable bubble. The narrative of decline shaping the national (and international) perception of Detroit neglects the fact that the city’s boom happened much faster than its population loss. Various factors, like the success of our industries and the lack of jobs in other places led to an explosion in our population (even before we started making cars) and in local wealth. The city’s boundaries grew, absorbing small communities around it. Churches (so many churches), museums, libraries, commercial and civic buildings, parks, and highways all went up quickly and defined a modern landscape here. Because this was happening at the peak of modernity, with its myth of progress, it was assumed such expansion could go on forever. But only cancer does nothing but grow. Life cycles.

And the unregenerate human heart intervened. Then, as now, racism—which seems to be precisely that unrelenting cancer in Western culture—metastasized around insecurities over employment and housing. You can read about all that in Thomas Sugrue’s classic, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. My point is that we don’t want to go back to that supposedly glimmering past: it was toxic. Like our city motto says: “We hope for better days.”

The biblical authors knew that our hope must be anchored not in a past, however glorious, but in the future as promised by God.

Isaiah presents us this week with much more than a slogan. As with the readings the past two weeks, the prophet gives us an actual vision, albeit in poetic language, of a time that has never yet been, but which God intends to be our very real future. Of course, prophecy isn’t about predicting the future; it’s about speaking forth God’s truth. In this case, that truth doesn’t involve looking back to Eden, but, well, hoping for better days. Isaiah describes it so that we can recognize it—not only when it is finally consummated, but also in those moments when it breaks into history.

This is a vision in which the feeble are strengthened, the blind see, the deaf hear, the disabled leap for joy. Water (water is life) isn’t bottled up and sold for someone’s profit; it springs forth, quenching the thirst of all living creatures and filling the earth with the beauty of new life. There’s also a sound infrastructure: a safe highway you can’t get lost on. If there is a slogan for this vision, it’s in verse 4: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”

The Psalmist further secures our hope in God, “who made heaven and earth…who keeps his promises forever…who gives justice to those who are oppressed,” who sets us free, heals us, cares for us, and “frustrates the way of the wicked.” As creator, God is the one who gets to say where creation ends up. And we have not only the testimony of Isaiah, but, frankly, we know God, we know what God is like. We can trust whatever God plans for us. It’ll be good.

In the Magnificat, the canticle the lectionary allows in place of the Psalm, Mary, the (future) Mother of God, sings on our behalf our deepest longing for God’s justice. There is a little bit of looking back here, but only to underscore the places where God’s character has been revealed in history: “He has shown the strength of his arm…He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” The themes are all there: provision, strength, promise, thwarting the plans of the wicked.

So maybe we’re starting to get the idea. St. James builds on it, assuring us that this beautiful vision really is on its way, as surely as the harvest comes when seeds are planted and rains fall. Meanwhile, we’re encouraged to act on this hope: “Strengthen your hearts,” he begins, then instructs us in practical ways we can live as if the promise of Isaiah were fully realized: have patience; don’t judge or “grumble” against each other; be willing to suffer as the prophets have before us. (Clearly, they weren’t living in a golden age!) For prophets nearer our own day, we might think of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Harvey Milk, Alice Paull, Sojourner Truth…

…but we might also think of John the Baptist. He was an abrasive fellow, but he spoke truth to power if anyone ever did. Our Gospel lection finds him in prison. We’ve heard the story before, so we know how it ends. He’s about to be beheaded.

As prisoners of conscience often do, John was looking for signs of hope, signs that everything he has worked for and now will die for have not been in vain. Reports about Jesus were coming back to him, so he sent his disciples to ask Jesus the only sensible question: “Are you the real deal, or must we keep waiting?” John does not have the luxury to accommodate the powers-that-be, to wait and give them a chance, to work from within the system. He needs to know if he’s wasting his hope on the one he had baptized and proclaimed to be the Lamb of God.

Jesus’ reply is shocking, if we take time to really set it alongside what our culture admires in its heroes and leaders. Jesus has no law degree, no business empire. He has no connections, no resumé, no mandate from a popular vote. But his moral authority comes from the fact that he is making present in the world Isaiah’s vision: the sick and disabled are healed, and the poor are receiving good news. Can you imagine anyone running on such a platform in our political climate? (St. James, by the way, just might invite us to find out what the poor around us would consider good news, and then live into it.)

I think that’s why Jesus immediately follows his “messianic manifesto” with the words, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The opposite, I think, of taking offense at Jesus’ self-presentation here is acceptance of it. And that is acceptance of Isaiah’s vision, of God’s plan for our future.

As if to drive the point home, Jesus then speaks to the crowd about John, contrasting him with the rich and powerful, and reminding them that there was something so compelling about John and his message that they went to great lengths—they went into the wilderness—to see him. But John’s real message was Jesus. (This is why so many paintings of the Crucifixion, for example, the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, show John the Baptist standing under the cross pointing to Christ.) John points us to Jesus because Jesus is Isaiah’s vision. In his incarnation, he joined heaven and earth—that is, Creator and creation—thus planting the seed of new creation that St. James referenced. “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John]”: we are invited into the work of watering and tending the new creation. As St. Athanasius said, “God became human so that humans might become divine.” Because human and divine nature have been irrevocably wedded in Christ, God’s work is also ours: incarnating that new creation of justice, healing, peace, and plenty.

Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

The following links will open new windows to each passage on The Lectionary Page (lectionarypage.net):

One nice thing about blogging on the lectionary as reflections rather than as a sermon-prep aid is that you can wait till after you’ve been to church and heard a sermon. This morning at my church, the preacher mentioned that all the readings (not including the Psalm) mention roots. It’s a little less remarkable when you note that the Romans passage is essentially quoting Isaiah; but it’s still an interesting theme.

Roots sustain plants, pulling water and nutrients out of the soil. But they also keep a plant in place, allow it to resist being moved by outside forces. When we settle down into a community—maybe buy a home, start a family, take a long-term job—we often call it “putting down roots.” So naturally, thinking about roots leads me to think about place.

Place, the scholars will tell you, is storied space. Since the advent of “Enlightenment” modernity, we’ve tended to think in terms of “space,” which is abstract and geometric. We imagine a grid that can be superimposed over terrain, or in outer space, or wherever we wish to neatly organize or conceptualize physical things. But it’s important to remember that’s an abstraction. What’s more primal to our species is a sense of place. Place is tied up with identity. We name places. We consider some places sacred. We speak of the genius loci, or, the “spirit” of a place.

Space, on the other hand. is a useful conceptual tool for the modern world. When we look out on a landscape and see space, we can cut down trees, clear the land. level the terrain, lay out streets in a grid, and divvy up the space thus created. The space might be zoned: homes go here, businesses go there—not an organic way of building a community, and often not sustainable, as it requires mass transit or private cars for people to get from the residential zone to the areas where they work, shop, and consume entertainment. But zoning conveniently places consumer options together: you go to the theater district to see a show, and restaurants are clumped together, as are clothing boutiques, auto dealers, you name it. This is possible when place has been cleared away in favor of undifferentiated space.

In such a configuration, nothing is sacred. If you want to build a highway, you invoke eminent domain and raze a neighborhood. Or run a pipeline for oil through what looks like vacant space…except it’s actually a sacred place.

How does this relate to today’s readings?

When Isaiah speaks of a shoot growing out of the stump of Jesse, he’s talking about the continuity of a royal line in a particular place. The promise that the throne of David would again be occupied with one of David’s own descendants makes little sense without the context of the Holy Land.

But it’s also an example of a deep pattern we find in Scripture: one of salvage (which is one way to read the concept of “salvation”). The flood story in Genesis is primarily differentiated from similar flood myths by the fact that God doesn’t destroy the earth and create a new one; God salvages the world, and continues the family tree—not only of the human family, but of all the animals, too. There’s even a wikipedia page for the concept of the “remnant” in the Bible: that faithful group of God’s people God will preserve. I’m pretty sure if God were planning Detroit’s “comeback,” the old buildings would be salvaged and the neighborhoods would not be gentrified.

It’s a wonderful theme, and an important one to remember in Advent. God does not abandon God’s people or promises. There’s an organic, genetic continuity to God’s activity in our world.

So when the earth “will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea,” that will not be the result of a disjointed divine fiat. It will grow out of the stumps of all God has done before. God has put down roots in this world: most especially when God became human in the person of Jesus.

St. Paul, writing to Gentiles, assures them (and us) that God is including Gentiles in the beautiful vision Isaiah has described. Got is reinvigorating that stump of Jesse, not digging it out and planting a new tree. But, as Paul says earlier in Romans, Gentiles have been grafted into the tree.

The Gospel lection is a good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone passage. John the Baptist is preaching repentance, and warning that those who do not repent will be chopped down at the root, or burned as chaff with “unquenchable fire.” Some have used this as a proof-text for the doctrine of a literal lake-of-fire hell. But first, we should note that John has moved into metaphor. He could easily have said more straightforwardly that unrepentant individuals would be damned. And we should remember that Isaiah speaks of a stump of Jesse. What is a stump? It’s what remains when you chop down a tree. As we’ve seen in Isaiah, and elsewhere in Scripture, God doesn’t give up on even a seemingly-dead stump. It might be a mercy to have the unfruitful tree chopped down and burned, so that God can bring forth something new from the stump. It might be good news that all the chaff in your life will burn.

I think we can read these passages together as something hopeful. Through them, God gives us a vision of God’s plan for God’s creation: one of (what is to us now) an inconceivable peace. And God promises that this future is in fact continuous with our present and past. We’re gonna get there…somehow…in some way that requires divine action, bringing out of a stump a fruit-bearing tree. And all the worthless and harmful things we’ve produced in the sacred place where God intends peace? It will be destroyed. We’ll be free of it…someday. The Incarnation is God’s promise that God is salvaging us and our world. Through the Incarnation, God has made all places holy. God has rooted Godself right here, in our world.

So, “rejoice, O Gentiles, with [God’s] people.”

First Sunday of Advent, Year A

This is the first in what will be a series of commentaries on the Sunday readings from the Revised Common Lectionary as used by The Episcopal Church. It’s not the kind of commentary a biblical scholar would produce, but rather theological reflection from someone who’s studying photography of industrial ruins while living in Detroit. There’s no particular theme—I’m not going to tie everything into Detroit, or ruins, or anything like that. But I do wear the lenses I wear, whether looking at derelict buildings or Scripture.

Scripture quotations are taken directly from The Lectionary Page website, which uses the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (“NRSV,” ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA). Psalms and Collects, also taken from The Lectionary Page, are  from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

To honor the copyright of the NRSV, full Scripture passages will be linked to, and excerpts given when necessary.

_________________

Advent is all about preparedness.

And I’ve been planning to launch a commentary on the lectionary here for quite a while now…yet got distracted by many things, and am posting this at the last minute.

TL/DR: Don’t be like me.

OK, I’m joking there, of course. This post isn’t about my lack of preparedness, but about this week’s lectionary readings—Advent 1, Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm (122); Romans 13:11-14; and Matthew 24:36-44. (Note: the individual lessons’ links all go to different parts of the same page. They’ll take you directly to that Scripture. To read them all, along with the Collect of the Day, you only need to click on the first link of this paragraph.)

These passages are so familiar—especially to those who know a lot of choral music!—that it’s easy to sleep through them despite the watchfulness they call for.

They speak of great mysteries. Soon, we will be earnestly anticipating a birth that happened two millennia ago. But first, we must be sure we’re alert and prepared for his coming again.

We start to prepare for the birth of Christ by looking at the Big Picture: Isaiah’s description of the kind of world God has always planned for us—and for God, in Christ—to inhabit. Perhaps we need to see that vision as clearly as possible in order to properly orient ourselves toward the coming baby in the manger.

The Gospel reading, one of the “little apocalypses” in the New Testament (the big one being the book of Revelation), sounds incredibly ominous. Two women are cooking; one “taken” and the other “left.” Two (men, we presume) are out working in the field; one is “taken” and the other “left.” This conjures up images from certain branches of Christianity, where the coming of Christ puts a catastrophic end to history. But before God destroys the world, the righteous are pulled out of it—quite literally. In the “rapture,” those “taken” are caught up into heaven with Christ, and those “left” behind will suffer a terrible fate. But here, Jesus sets up a parallel with the flood, which “swept away” all those who were not prepared as Noah was. I don’t quite know what Jesus is talking about here, but I don’t see the rapture paradigm in it. What I see very clearly is that he wants us to “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” And that is true whether you read it in terms of a rapture-event or the fact that none of us knows, or can control, when we will die.

Full disclosure: I was raised in a tradition that taught the rapture as dogma; I am now in one that remains agnostic about what these things really mean.

The genre of apocalyptic literature, common in Second-Temple Judaism, was designed to reveal, as though pulling back the curtain of the world as we understand it, what is actually more real than what we perceive with our physical senses. It wasn’t about predicting future events. The catastrophic imagery we now associate with the word “apocalypse” (which actually means “unveiling”) is a metaphor for just how dramatic an adjustment we have to make to both see and live into the reality being revealed. It reflects the fact that to go from our world into the world Isaiah is describing, for instance, we have to make painful adjustments.

That’s why we tend to reduce an image like the lion lying down with the lamb into cute pictures for the fronts of Christmas cards. We actually aren’t fit yet to fully see that kind of radical peace. It seems childish to us—naïve—but if it were, it would be vulnerable. We see it that way because, in our world, peace is the absence of conflict; but that kind of peace can be destroyed at the whim of a tyrant, an intruder, a disaster, an election, or the stock market. The peace that Isaiah only really hints at by way of metaphor is one that cannot be threatened, because it is grounded in God.

So we look at the long-term plan for the cosmos, and find that it is one of safety and peace. The Psalmist recognizes just how compelling this vision is: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.'” The tribes of Israel all stream toward God’s dwelling, God’s Temple. Why? “To praise the name of the Lord.” In other words, to enjoy it. To delight in it. Nothing to ask for, no cause to plead; just a place, where God dwells and human beings belong, and all is harmony: “Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself.”

We’re getting closer to being able to start thinking about God becoming human, and to see God as a human baby in a particular time and place. But we still have some dots to connect: OK, I’m here…and God’s vision is…well, over there. What do I need to do to start heading in that direction? (Chances are, I need to do a 180-degree turn; that’s really what “repentance” means.)

Luckily for us, the peace of God enters our world, embodied in a baby in a manger. We may not be able to get to the world Isaiah describes, but we can get to that manger. Let us go! (Traveling music: David Hurd’s setting of Psalm 122.)

If we’re going to find the baby, though, we need to know which baby we’re looking for. Remember, we think of peace like we think of innocence: something a sweet little baby enjoys but soon loses. We need to find the baby who is peace, who is innocence. Maybe that’s why, this first Sunday in Advent, we focus on Christ’s second coming. I think that invites us to build on the insights built into the way the liturgical year cycles around. The first Sunday of Advent follows on the heels of Christ the King Sunday (a.k.a. The Reign of Christ), leading us to look for this King’s return. So we would do well to remember what Christ the King is really like.

For the earliest Christians, to claim that Jesus was Lord (or King) was a political statement, and a radical one. The gospels, in fact—the fourth in particular—overtly depict Christ’s crucifixion as his throne. That actually makes some sense, since, as Joel Marcus has, I think, convincingly argued, crucifixion was a parody of enthronement, reserved for such crimes as insubordination, slave revolt, or rebellion against the governing authorities. (You may need to create a free account to read the article online, or pay to download it, through JSTOR with the link just shared; here’s a link to another blog that discusses it a little.)

In fact, Jesus’ cross was his throne of judgment: from it, he forgave those who crucified him, and invited one of the bandits (read: political rebel) crucified with him to also join him in Paradise. In his crucifixion, we see what kind of king he is—what kingship, or lordship, really is. Apocalyptic literature—such as the brief passage we have in today’s Gospel—is meant to reveal what we don’t see. Unfortunately, it often seems obscure to us modern(ist) readers, and hides what it reveals behind some rather violent imagery. For too long, some Christians have believed that the Second Coming is when Christ flips over the tables and wrests worldly power away from his enemies and claims it as his own. Behaving much like the despots and egotistical leaders we see all around us, their Christ is out for revenge and for blood. But we have to hold such readings up to the Cross, where God is most clearly revealed. There, we can see that God is not a perpetrator of violence, but suffers violence and refuses to condemn!

That is the King we await this Advent. Last Sunday, we received the welcome news that, although Donald Trump is President-Elect (and, frankly, this would apply no matter who was elected), JESUS IS LORD. Again, to say Jesus is Lord, or Christ is King, is not to say the position of Lord or King remains stable but Christ occupies it instead of Caesar; it’s to say that human kings and human lords are getting it all wrong. Fundamentally wrong, not just in the particulars. True power is not coercion, it’s not money, it’s not violence; it’s self-giving, kenotic (self-emptying) love. Its throne is not in a palace—or in a cathedral—but in the cross-hairs of Caesar’s wrath: on a cross, where traitors to worldly power are routinely and publicly made examples of.

Isaiah promises that one day, all the world will orient itself to God and look for this kind of King. He presents a glimpse into what that might look like. But that vision, for him, gives way to a call: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Like the Psalmist, he finds that vision so compelling, the only response is to run toward it. Like Paul, Isaiah is saying that now is the time to live by the rules of the eschaton, the time when all things are made new. Yes, one day, the armies of this world will not be shooting enemy combatants or bombing civilians; they will be feeding them instead. It’s not despite the fact that we’re not there yet; it’s because that future is more real than a solid thing that exists, that we must live our lives as if it were already fully realized.

And I think that’s where the violent imagery of apocalypse comes in. For this world to realign all its values with the kind of King that Christ is on the Cross will feel like terrible violence, chaos, and destruction. For us inhabitants of this world to live into that future will require painful changes and drastic commitments. But in our baptism, we’ve already died to this world and have been raised into the new life of Christ. We are not yet fully oriented toward God; but we are set at odds with this world and its ways. We cannot play by this world’s rules: might makes right…people deserve what they get…a person’s value depends on what they contribute to the GDP…you are not your brother’s keeper…

Advent is famously a season of “now and not yet.” We know that Christ has come, and we await his coming. Christ has come, and Christ will come. So while we wait for the re-creation of the world, its re-orientation God-ward, we live as though it has already happened. Thus St. Paul instructs that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers,” and we should therefore “live honorably as in the day,” making “no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

In other words—the words of Isaiah—”Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

Full Circle

Today is the second and last time this century that Good Friday and the Feast of the Annunciation fall on the same day. Historically, though, they’re linked. In the earliest centuries of the Church, the death and resurrection of Christ were observed, but Christ’s birth was not. However, the symbolic value of placing Christ’s conception – the Feast of the Annunciation – on the same calendar date as the day he died is actually where the date of Christmas came from: nine months after the Blessed Virgin Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word,” Jesus was born.

God Incarnate sojourned with us, moving through the entire mortal circle of life, from conception to death. For us, that’s all there is. No immortality, no rebirth. The natural cycle for the whole created order was fulfilled by Christ on Good Friday.

An early Christian hymn declares Christ to be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” We know the story, how Easter changes everything. But this language, “image of God” and “all creation” also suggests, first, that the life of Christ is not a closed circle, and further, that it has cosmic significance.

I certainly would not be the first person to map Holy Week onto the week of creation in the Genesis myth (“myth” here meaning a story with deep layers of truth beyond a literal reading). Good Friday, being the sixth day of the week…oh, dear. That’s the day God made humans in God’s image. And the day God Incarnate dies. But it’s also the day God Incarnate is conceived. So the whole mortal human life of God begins and ends with God creating human beings. That makes sense.

The seventh day, God rested.

In Holy Week, that is the full 24-hour period in which the human God is dead. In our tradition, though, he descends into hell to free all the souls imprisoned there. Well, he’s still the guy who stirred up trouble healing people on the Sabbath. Yes, Christ is indeed “the same yesterday, today, and forever!”

This mapping was not lost on early Christians, who saw that the week could not just turn over into another week as we’re used to them doing. Once God has been conceived in the Virgin’s womb, has been born, has lived a human life, and has died a human death, something new has to happen.

The Resurrection, we’re told in the Gospels, happened early on the first day of the week. But just as Christ’s conception and death can be mapped onto each other, so can the first day and the eighth day.

The eighth day is the day of resurrection – the new creation, in which, in the hypostatic union of Christ (fully God and fully human), God creates something new: a completely new way of being human. We’re baptized into that new way of being when we’re baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s why so many baptismal fonts – or their bases, or the platform/steps they’re on – are octagonal.

That adds another layer: Christ’s death on Good Friday is a new kind of conception (as if a virgin conceiving weren’t enough!). In his death, Christ’s human body becomes the seed that must fall to the earth so that a different kind of life can bloom.

 

I feel a little bad that I’m only getting to this now, near the eleventh hour (literally) when the fruitful* coincidence is almost over. It’s been a long day, in a busy week with so little time to think. And now with all those circles and cycles interlacing and intertwining, I fear I’ve made myself dizzy! But I did not want to let this day pass without remark.

 

*And, yes, that’s a pun. The coincidence of today’s fast and feast is pregnant, we might say, with meaning. Just like the Blessed Virgin is beginning this day on one arc of the circle.

Merry Christmas! God is with us!

Gaudete! Christus natus est! Alleluia!

Tonight God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled.

Nativity reredos painting edited

Detail of reredos in Nativity Chapel, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit. Photo by the author, who is not too proud to admit this.

I love this gaudily-colored painting from the reredos of one of the side-chapels in my church. Christ is born, and everybody, human and otherwise, has shown up to celebrate! I’m reminded of a phrase from the requiem Mass (quoting from the Psalms): Ad te omnis caro veniet—“To you all flesh shall come.” As many Christmas carols—and the Bible itself—remind us, it’s not inappropriate for the mind to turn to death on this holy night. Christ’s death was inscribed into his birth:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’  Luke 2.34-35

And yet, isn’t that true of us, too?

In becoming human, God the Son destined himself to die. This is no surprise if you take the Incarnation seriously: all living creatures eventually die. Through his death, however, Christ made his divine eternal life available to all flesh. No surprise, then, that “to you all flesh shall come!”

His birth, life, death, and resurrection, however, were not a “plan B” contingency for human sin, but rather the very purpose of creation: by doing the impossible and becoming a creature, the Creator, having loved creation out into existence has loved it back to Godself. St. Ireneus put it this way:

“…it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality.”

Human DNA is now in the Godhead. That is the radical truth of Christmas. Tonight (paraphrasing Ireneus), God became human so that humans may become divine.

All flesh is involved, too, because all flesh is related. By uniting creatureliness and uncreated Creator in his Person, Christ saves a cosmos that, of its own power, would tend toward extinction. Think of it as a rescue or a salvage operation; either way, creation was not meant to be disposable.

“You hate nothing you have made…” – BCP Collect for Ash Wednesday

It’s a miracle that anything other than God should exist at all. It’s a far greater miracle that God should enter creation. Again, this is no contingency plan. It was the point all along. God made us because God wanted to be with us, and God is with us, forever, in Christ.

Merry Christmas.

“O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the
brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known
the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him
perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he
lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.”
– BCP Collect for Christmas