Bathed in Glory – Br. James Koester

Bathed in Glory - Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester,
Superior

Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20

There is a line in this evening’s lesson from Isaiah that has always appealed to me. In fact, a number of years ago when I was asked what my favourite line from Scripture was, I quoted this one. I don’t know if I would still say it remains my favourite, but it continues to intrigue me. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.[1]

The line, and indeed the passage, intrigues me, because of what it tells us about God, and God’s nature.

In my imagination, what unfolds before us this evening is a great courtroom drama, with all the twists and turns that implies. Think, if you a certain age, Perry Mason. And I think that’s what Isaiah had in mind. Isaiah is not speaking of an argument, between two angry and hostile parties. He is speaking in terms of a legal argument, where all the facts of the case are laid before the court, which has the power to make an ultimate decision or judgement.

If Isaiah is describing a court of law, and not a verbal argument between two antagonists, then we can ask ourselves, who are the actors in this courtroom drama? Who is judge or jury? Who are the opposing attorneys? Who is the defendant? Most particularly we can ask, what is this case about.

The answer to the last two questions is clear. The defendants are those children of God Isaiah references, who have rebelled, who do evil and deal corruptly, who have forsaken and despised the Holy One, and who are utterly estranged from God. The case is one of rebellion, and it is they, the children of God, who have rebelled, and who are now clothed in the scarlet and crimson of their sins.[2]

Last Holy Week, I had fun dyeing eggs for Easter. Rather than using commercial food dye, or buying an Easter Egg dyeing kit, I looked around the kitchen, and created various dyeing solutions using different spices, vegetables, and fruits.

Not only is Isaiah giving us a lesson in Biblical legal procedures in this passage, he is also giving us a lesson in the art of dyeing fabric. What I learnt dyeing eggs resonates with what Isaiah hints at.

It is no accident that Isaiah uses the colours scarlet and crimson to denote sin, and it is not simply because they are the colour of blood. To dye something scarlet or crimson requires that the article be left in the dye solution for quite some time. As I discovered with my Easter eggs, the longer something is left in the solution, the deeper the colour, and the harder it is to wipe off. Those whose sin has coloured them scarlet, who are red like crimson, Isaiah tells us, have utterly forsaken God, and walked far from the paths of righteousness. We are not speaking here of a pale colour that will soon fade. We are speaking of a colour, indeed a sin, that is deeply, indelibly set.

Nor should it surprise us that Isaiah is not speaking of a nameless, or anonymous people in this passage. He is speaking of a people known to him. Indeed, he is speaking of a people to whom he is speaking: the people of Judah and Jerusalem. By extension, he is speaking to us. We are that sinful, rebellious, corrupt people, whose sins have clothed us in scarlet and crimson.

Because our sin is so indelibly set, like the colours scarlet and crimson, the outcome of our legal case is certain. The judgement can be nothing less than guilty as charged. But that’s where things get exciting. That’s why I find this passage so fascinating.

While the identity of the defendant is clear, and they are clearly guilty, the judge, jury, and attorneys switch sides in an instant, and go from prosecuting the defendant, to pleading with them. …though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.[3]

Isaiah’s audience would have known how difficult it is to reverse the dyeing process, and take something scarlet or crimson, and turn it white. They would have known the impossibility of such a transformation. No amount of washing, soaking, scrubbing, or bleaching, would be able to totally remove the scarlet and crimson dye. What had been dyed scarlet or crimson was indelibly coloured. Nothing can change that.

The surprising thing is that Isaiah suggests it can be changed. The surprising thing is that scarlet and crimson can be made white. With that, the legal case is turned on its ear, and the judge, who one minute was ready to find the defendant guilty, is equally prepared to find them innocent. …you shall be like snow…you shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land. And we know now, the judge, jury, and attorneys to be none other than God, the Holy One of Israel.

If scarlet and crimson are the colours of indelible sin, then the purity of snow, and the loveliness of wool point in the opposite direction. We saw that direction several days ago.

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.[4]

In the Transfiguration, we see Jesus as he truly is, radiating God’s glory, and being shown to be God’s son. ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’[5]

Baptized as we are into Christ Jesus, we see ourselves as God intends us to be. Like Jesus, in him we too are clothed in dazzling white, and bathed in glory. What a far cry is this vision of ourselves, from the one Isaiah holds before us. There we see ourselves stained by sin and indelibly coloured scarlet and crimson. Now we see ourselves pure and lovely, radiating God’s glory.

Both Isaiah and Jesus tell us this transformation, indeed, this transfiguration is possible. All it takes for us to go from being indelibly coloured by sin, is to wash ourselves by ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.[6]

This transformation, indeed, this transfiguration, from scarlet to snow, and crimson to wool, from a people utterly estranged from God, and indelibly marked by sin, to the beloved daughters and sons of God, happens when we remember who and whose we are. Baptized into Christ we are called to be a people of justice, mercy, and peace, who like the ox knows its owner, and like the donkey knows its master’s crib.[7]

Acknowledging whose we are, and where we belong turns the legal case against us and our sin on its ear. Judge, jury, and attorneys go in an instant from prosecuting our guilt and sin, to pleading our innocence, and forgiving our sin. In an instant the mark of rebellion and estrangement from God is wiped out, as we come to know ourselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons.

For many, Lent is a time to recognize our sin. It is a time to acknowledge they are like scarlet and red like crimson. Lent is a time to recognize that we do evil and deal corruptly. But if that is the only message of Lent, no wonder it makes us miserable.

There is another message of Lent. It is the message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus.  [Though our] sins be like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

No matter how set is the colour of our sin, the message of Lent, the message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus is a message of ultimate release and forgiveness when we will know ourselves as God intends us to be, clothed in dazzling white, and bathed in glory, like fresh snow, and washed wool.

I am intrigued by the passage, and by God’s desire to argue it out with us, because in the end it reminds us that God’s nature is always to have mercy and forgive, just as our nature is to be clothed in dazzling white and bathed in glory as the beloved daughters and sons of God.


[1] Isaiah 1: 18a

[2] Isaiah 1: 2 – 4, 18

[3] Isaiah 1: 18 – 19

[4] Luke 9: 28 – 29

[5] Luke 9: 35

[6] See Isaiah 1: 16 – 17

[7] See Isaiah 1: 2

Whose Property is Always to Have Mercy – Br. James Koester

Mark 7:24-37

I love this story of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from the Gospel of Mark! I love it in part, because I get to say the word Syrophoenician! Just throw that into the conversation and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can hear the urgency, as in just six verses Mark tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to my childhood growing up at St. Mary’s, Regina. It is from this passage, among other sources, that Cranmer created, what some of you will remember, as the Prayer of Humble Access, or the Zoom Prayer, as a friend calls it:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us. Amen.[1]

Mostly I love this story because it shouldn’t have happened! There is a hint of the forbidden. We see Jesus acting out of the box. He shouldn’t be where we find him, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point. Read More

Show Mercy – Br. Luke Ditewig

Luke 10:38-42

Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is upset that Mary sits listening rather than helping her with the work as host. Some hear this as about work versus prayer or balancing action and contemplation. Paul Borgman points to parallel structure. This story is right after the lawyer who tries to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘Then who is my neighbor?’”[i] The lawyer and Martha are both anxious and trying to justify themselves.[ii] I am doing what is right, am I not? I know and follow the law. I am upholding our virtue of hospitality. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”

Jesus replies to the lawyer with a story of a man robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both pass him by, but a despised Samaritan stops to cares for him. Which one was a neighbor? The one who shows mercy. Jesus says: “Go, and do likewise.”[iii]Jesus replies to Martha. “You are worried and distracted by many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.” What does it mean to inherit eternal life? Listen to God’s Word like Mary, and do it like the Samaritan.[iv]

How are you relating to Jesus? Like the lawyer and Martha, where are you anxious? How are trying to justify yourself?    What good is getting in the way?

Jesus shows mercy to one who tried to test him and to Martha. Jesus also comes to us as a friend, into our homes, knowing our hearts, listening with compassion, and redirecting us on the way to life. Read More

The Defeat of Horrors – Br. Todd Blackham

Martyrs of the 20th and 21st Centuries

1 Peter 4:12-19
Ps. 69:31-36
Mk. 10:34-39

As recently as 2015, the extremist group ISIS produced a video to terrify the world.  Dressed and hooded in black, the militants marched a group of 21 Coptic Christians dressed in orange, prison-style jumpsuits along a beach in Libya.  The horrifying scene concluded with the cruel beheading of all 21 Christians.  It shocked and horrified the world to see such a brazen act of violence not only perpetrated but promulgated to a global audience.  One of the men was from either Ghana or Chad, the other 20 who had been kidnapped were poor immigrants from rural Egypt who were willing to risk the instability of Libya to escape the poverty and religious persecution of their homeland.

Such are the martyrs we remember today.  It was a gruesome event and without the anesthetizing gloss of centuries it stands out like a raw wound on the Body of Christ in our own time.  We remember these martyrs and others of the recent century.  3 million Armenian Christians martyred in genocide during the first world war.  A million Orthodox killed by the Soviet regime in the 1920’s and 30’s.  Countless other hidden martyrs vanish in parts of the world to which the western media is indifferent or blocked.  Among groups who track the numbers of Christian martyrs in the world there seems to be agreement that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in the second millennium of Christianity than the first.  These horrors are not history, they are news.

Why remember such horrors?  The memory is fresh, it almost seems unnecessary.  Remembering in order to prevent horrors of martyrdom hardly seems to be working either.  Remembering so as to seek out a violent death like theirs would be pathological. Read More

Open the eyes of our faith – Br. Sean Glenn

Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1—7; Luke 24:36b—48

You have put gladness in my heart *
more than when grain, and wine, and oil increase.
[2]

We brothers pray the words of Psalm 4 nightly as we say the office of Compline. And almost nightly, since I first arrived in the community more than three and a half years ago, the strange abruptness of the transition between verses six and seven has never ceased to captivate me. And it is this strange abruptness that fittingly captures the difficulty I encountered as I set about preparing this sermon. Let’s hear those verse again,

Many are saying,
“Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord.

You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase. [3]

Do you notice it?

In the space of one breath, the whole tenor of the psalmist’s prayer changes. One moment, the psalmist lays before God the pains and wounds of the world; Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” / Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord. And the next moment, without any obvious referent or explanation, the psalmist describes a sense of inner gladness. A gladness free from a dependence on worldly success or material security, surpassing the gladness when grain and wine and oil increase. Read More

Lifted up in Glory – Br. Todd Blackham

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33
Psalm 51:1-13
or Psalm 119:9-16

We are in the deep end of Lent now, the far side of the wilderness.  The forty-day path of prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy, is drawing ever closer to the cross.  It’s like the last few miles of a marathon; the last set of finals before the end of term; the last month of a pregnancy; all yearning and aching to end well but not quite there yet.  Too far to go back, and so we continue to strain forward.  There are so many ways that life in the world in general these days has been like a long journey.  You would be forgiven for feeling a little or even very weary.  But, take heart, because there is hope on the horizon although, it may not be readily apparent.

The Jesus whom we encounter in this 12th Chapter of John has also set his face toward Jerusalem and the completion of the race marked out for him.  In fact, Jesus is more aware of this unravelling than most.  When Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus about a whole new group of people that want to see him you can feel a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm at beginning to know Jesus.  His fame is spreading.  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!”

Oh, but glory looks different than fame and notoriety, which is why Jesus immediately begins to explain what it means for him to be glorified.  It’s like a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies so that it may bear much fruit.  Without descent and death, there can be no new life.  Without transformation and conversion, it’s just a lone grain of wheat, small and ineffectual.  Without being broken open, it remains closed and unto itself.

Cognitively we know that seeds produce plants.  But, it’s a hidden process that takes place in the darkness of soil and isn’t immediately apparent to the eye.  Planting a seed in the hope of new growth takes trust and patience.  Experienced gardeners and farmers grow in that trust but planting is never without risk.  What if the seed doesn’t grow?  What if something goes wrong and it’s all for naught?  That waiting in the dark can be terrifying when a crop is badly needed.

These days of sowing the seeds of renunciation and penitence can feel exhausting when spiritual fruit is hard to see and only the darkness, fear, and pain of death are near.  Our rule of life describes the nature of this kind dying, “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations, and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.  Through them we practice the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us.” (Ch. 48, Holy Death)

At this point in our Lenten journey, Christ points to a glimpse of the glory we await because seeing is part and parcel of God’s glory.  The root words in Greek and Hebrew that are ascribed to God both take on the meaning of visible splendor, power on display.  Glory is outward.  Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God and displays God’s power in his life.  The death he was willing to die, like a grain of wheat falling to the earth, has produced great fruit for us to see.

I can still recall the wonder of the childhood experiments where we would place little beans against the side of a clear plastic cup lined with just some wet paper towel.  It seemed like overnight we would come back to find that the outer casing had cracked open and little shoots were coming out, top and bottom.  Before long, that original little bean was hardly recognizable as the plant grew right before our eyes.  It was quick and gratifying to young attention spans and it gave me the visual confirmation of the process that typically goes on in secret in the soil.  I could see with my own eyes how the death of that seed produced new life.

But the stakes are higher with a human life.  The fear and uncertainty of death are magnified.  And they get personal when Jesus tells us to follow him into a death like his.  Thanks be to God, Jesus was willing to feel this, and to make it evident.  “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Faced with death, and the ignominious death of the cross, Jesus goes to great lengths to encourage us along.  “Father, glorify your name.”  Show them what I have seen!  And like, thunder the voice replies, I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.  The signs and wonders of Jesus were all God’s visible splendor.  The work of the cross is God’s power on display.  “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”

Christ was lifted up in his obedience to the Father as the letter to the Hebrews says.  His obedience and submission to the Father has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.  As Jesus calls us to follow him, to serve him, to lose our life like him, we are inexorably drawn to him like a strong magnet.  Pulled inwardly to remain with him.

And we have seen this glory.
Who in your life has drawn you to Jesus?
Can you see them?  Name them?
Do they know what fruit has been born of their dying to self?
They may not know it just as we may not know who is being drawn to Christ because of us.
The good news is that is has happened, it is happening, and it shall happen.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”  (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Take heart, dearly beloved of God.  The path we walk with Christ will lead us all the way to through death until our baptism is complete.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain”  Unless we lose our life in this world we cannot keep it to everlasting life.  Unless the bread is broken it cannot be given.  Bind yourself to Christ in his passion.  Pray for the consolations of Christ in this home stretch of our pilgrimage.  Be nourished by the prayer, Anima Christi, in poetic translation by John Henry Newman:

 

Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.

Amen.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant – Br. David Vryhof

Matthew 18:21-35

Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.

Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response.  Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father.  Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened.  Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.

Unforgiveness does that.  It hardens the heart.  It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us.  If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction.  In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i] Read More

I Will Take You To Myself

I Will Take You to Myself

Monastic Wisdom

for everyday living

Br. Sean Glenn marvels at the incredible, redemptive promise of the Incarnation, when God shared our tent in the wilderness.

I Will Take You to Myself

when God shared our tent in the wilderness

In general terms, one might say that the problem of incarnation in Christian theology concerns how one imagines God’s difference in a way that makes it consistent with God’s presence in our world. Can the absolute be present in the concrete without coming too near or being too far away?

 – Ola Sigurdson 

 

A Claim to Stake a Life on

At the climax of his sermon On the Holy Transfiguration, St. Ephraim the Syrian speaks at length through a cycle of complementary questions. Of the strangeness and paradox that we find in the very being of Jesus Christ, he writes,

If he was not flesh, whom did Joseph take and flee into Egypt? And if he was not God, in whom were words “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” fulfilled? If he was not flesh, whom did John baptize? And if he was not God, to whom did the Father from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”? If he was not flesh, who fasted and hungered in the desert? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and serve? If he was not flesh, who was invited to the wedding in Cana of Galilee? And if he was not God, who turned the water into wine? 

This cycle of call and response (“If he was not flesh … / If he was not God …”) takes up more than a quarter of the entire sermon. What is Ephraim getting at? Why ask his congregation questions like these? Through this repetition of an apparent contradiction, our second-century saint is trying to read two seemingly incompatible forms of being together. As his refrain echoes back and forth, one deep calling to another, Ephraim undoes a common division between the material and the spiritual. In the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the material and spiritual sing together in harmonious concert.

Ephraim does not stand alone among the voices of the Christian movement. In the pages of the New Testament we find this strange claim made again and again, particularly in the work of our own spiritual patron here at SSJE, Saint John the Evangelist. “The material and the spiritual,” writes Shelly Rambo, “are often read in opposition to each other. But […] the Gospel of John positions them together.” From the very beginning of John’s gospel the astonishing affirmation is made: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Or, as David Bentley Hart’s recent translation evocatively (yet faithfully) renders it, “And the Logos [Word] became flesh and pitched his tent among us… and we saw his glory, glory as of the Father’s only one, full of grace and truth.” By pitching himself in the tent of our frail humanity, the glory of God’s desire for us is unveiled in Jesus. 

From as early as I can remember hearing about the figure of Jesus, this strange claim always accompanied him. As a convert to the faith in early adulthood, I still remember how outlandish it sounded to me during my childhood and adolescence. Given the centrality of this proclamation to Christianity, the whole of the faith must have seemed just as outlandish and, frankly, impossible to me. 

Looking back, I can see a number of reasons I balked at the idea that God could become human (… or that a human could be God). Some of these reasons were emotional, grown from the seeds of my sense of shame at my own body, judgements about the bodies of others, or ways my culture had taught me to see and value bodies. No, I would think, how could the creator of the universe (if there were such a thing) become human – so frail, so limited, so full of rage and anger and spite? How could the divine come so close to something that makes foul smells and produces substances like urine and feces? Some of these reasons were intellectual, the result of my unfamiliarity with the gospel and Christian thinking through the centuries. Surely, the great power of the creator would completely overwhelm the tiny frailty of a human being. How truly human could this Jesus have been if he were also God?

Yet more deeply, all of these reasons really grew from one crucial blind spot: the God revealed in Jesus Christ wound up being a far cry from the god I had been imagining God to be. Even as I refused to believe in a creator (let alone one who would come to share our lot with us) I was aware of keen tension already expressed in the pages of scripture. As Ola Sirgurdson fittingly expressed it at the outset of these pages, “Can the absolute be present in the concrete without coming too near or being too far away?” 

Even now, years after my own confirmation, God continues to be very far from anything I could ever imagine. But I find it easier to live with this kind of unknowing because of the unique relationship enabled and sworn by what the church calls the Incarnation – that is, the very claim I had misunderstood. God has made it plain that any distance between our flesh and God’s self is forever closed, because in Jesus Christ both the fullness of God’s divinity and the fullness of our humanity meet in one form. It is the event by which Saint Paul knows that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not only is the absolute present in the concrete, it neither competes with nor destroys it. It perfects it. Like the burning bush encountered by Moses, the Incarnation reveals that God does not consume the fragile creature the nearer it comes, but instead makes the creature more beautifully what it is. 

We are living through a season in the world when the importance of this unique meeting of the finite and the Infinite cannot be underestimated. I feel the significance of the Incarnation now more than ever. For as pandemic, social division, racism, and nationalism(s) threaten to divide the vibrant body of our humanity, this supreme gift of God invites us to reimagine our relationship to one another, our bodies, our nature, and our destiny in a most unexpected way. 

How truly human could this Jesus have been if he were also God?

An Existence Reaffirmed “Good”

The Christian believer cannot but honor the body as an integral part of man’s complex being, the work of God’s hand, the Creator of all things in heaven and on earth, material as well as spiritual. The Christian believer must honor the body as redeemed from degradation and restored to its true dignity by the Incarnation of the Eternal Son; “the Word was made flesh” – conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary; as sanctified moreover by the Holy Ghost, the shrine of His indwelling presence, Who in many ways appeals to our inner being through our bodily nature, and confers on us the highest gifts of spiritual grace through material channels.          

 – Fr. Arthur C. A. Hall SSJE

By taking a human body to himself, the God revealed in Jesus reminds us that our bodies are good gifts. In our fallen state, however, it can be easy for us to either forget or (worse) all out deny this affirmation. Consider how often we tend to think of the body as something that holds us back, something to be escaped. The body is where we experience the dualities of pain and pleasure, freedom and confinement, identification and alienation. Our bodies reveal us to be at once like other creatures, yet imprinted with this strange otherness to other creatures. 

It is easy to caricature the Christian worldview as one that is deeply mistrustful of the body. To be sure, there are historical reasons for this and the Church has had its own part to play in the ways we have tended to misread the role of the human body. Yet the Church still affirms something that tends to scandalize other forms of religion around the world (including western secularism), an insight named at the very beginning of the Bible: Creation (the material universe) is good. The author(s) of Genesis show no ambivalence about this: God beholds all that God creates and names it “good.” Still, it is only after God speaks the words “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” and creates human beings that we read, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” 

The Incarnation of Jesus echoes the scriptural affirmation that human beings bear the image of their Creator, reminding us to affirm the goodness of our own bodies and the material of Creation all around us. In fact, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ testifies, in flesh and blood, that God is at work in our fragile, time-bound bodies. God shows us in Jesus that the material body is “the shrine of His indwelling presence, Who in many ways appeals to our inner being through our bodily nature, and confers on us the highest gifts of spiritual grace through material channels.”

Yet through this self-revelation, God did much more than merely reaffirm our image-bearing status. In fact, the whole picture of our image-bearing status is refined and clarified in the way God interacted (through the humanity of Jesus) with our bodies. The kinds of bodies with which Jesus moved, the bodies who experienced Jesus’ love, the bodies with which Jesus identified himself tended to be bodies most societies cast off, disregard, or pity. Jesus, however, shows us the very power of God on display and at work in them. Even more, by freely handing himself over to be tortured and crucified by the very creatures he came to save, Jesus allowed his own precious body to become one of those so often cast off, disregarded, or pitied. He allowed the marks of death to fall upon his body in the same way they fall upon all bodies. Indeed, these marks would become pivotal identifiers after his Resurrection.

By “pitching his tent among us” in this way, God has definitively met us – and promises to meet us – in the body. As such, any spirituality that denies the body a place and role in the redemption of the human person must confront the cross of Jesus. God has met the human being truly and concretely in the tortured, suffering body of Jesus. All bodies, astonishingly, may become chalices of God’s active grace – but in particular those bodies Jesus identified with, those the world may find deficient, broken, disturbing, or repugnant. Not the bodies we have moralized into a strong, sound independence; but the broken bodies, discarded, harassed, or ignored, dependent upon God and one another. The world may try to tell us the body is for any number of things, including escape. Yet the Incarnation tells us that the body is good, that the body is for the showing forth of the divine love. 

God has definitively met us – and promises to meet us – in the body.

Nature: Body and Soul

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father.

… by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made truly human. 

            – The Nicene Creed

 

There is profound wonder in the fact that God would take a human body to himself. It scandalizes or undoes so many of our ideas about the physical’s relationship to the spiritual. It shows us that the fire of divine Love does not intend to consume and destroy us, but to enliven us and make us more gloriously who we are. But there is a larger significance to the Incarnation. When we confess that, in the words of the Creed, Jesus is “God from God” and “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made [truly human],” we are naming something much larger than the fact that Jesus took to himself a human body. 

By becoming incarnate from the Virgin Mary and becoming truly human, God not only took a human body to himself, but took a human nature. Not simply our physical condition, our poverty, our bodily limitation; but our psychological poverty, our spiritual poverty, our experiences of separation, loss, anxiety, and death. Both realities he transfigured in the Spirit. Although Christians are called to live lives in the Spirit, this does not elide or undo the fact that Jesus Christ took to himself this crucial aspect of our humanity, something the scriptural tradition rather unfortunately and misleadingly calls “flesh.” 

While commonly mistaken as another word for our bodies, “flesh” is more than our physical embodiment. Although flesh is wrapped up in our experience of being embodied, flesh was generally understood before the Reformation as distinct from body. Reading imagery of the flesh informed by the Gospel of John, Shelley Rambo reclaims early Christian insights about this strange area of human experience. “Flesh binds individual bodies to a world. Flesh is marked by the world and by its various processes of life and death. Flesh attests to a way of being constituted in relationship with everything that is around us.” Our psychology, our social formation, our wounds and traumas, even the languages we use (all of these realities that seem to share in the material while always somehow transcending it) are the world named by the word “flesh.” And the world with which it is in relationship, we remember from Genesis, is created “good.”

Further, wondering at the significance of the wounded body the resurrected Christ presents to Thomas in the twentieth chapter of John, Rambo names another revelation for us:

Thinking of Jesus’ return in terms of a marked body, we see him as one subjected to the … realities of his day. He was crucified under Roman imperial rule. But this is not the whole account. [John’s] prologue also presents him in incarnational terms, as the eternal Word taking on flesh. If we read his return in terms of marked flesh, the history is not just singular but collective. His entrance into history affirms all that is fleshly, but also moves it toward its fullness. 

All of these material-yet-not-material realities of our total humanity – the intersections of our embodiment and our inner nature – are taken up by the Only-Begotten-One when he pitches his tent among us. By retaining the marks of his torture and death, the resurrected Christ reveals that he has not just entered our embodiment, but indeed has entered all of the realities that inform our very spiritual condition, our humanity in its wholeness: wounds and joys, body and soul.

Even this is not the end of the story, however. It would be one thing if God had met us in our condition and then simply departed as he came. But that is not the story the Church preserves. Not only does God the Only-Begotten-One stoop his infinity down into our physical and spiritual limitations, failures, and struggles. That kind of identification would be gift enough, to be sure, but God’s generosity revealed in Christ’s Incarnation goes even further – even to the very heart of the God.

God’s generosity revealed in Christ’s Incarnation goes even further – even to the very heart of the God.

Glorification: I Will Take You to Myself

After his glorious resurrection he openly appeared to his disciples, and in their sight ascended into heaven, to prepare a place for us; that where he is, there we might also be, and reign with him in glory. 

I want to attempt to illustrate this further significance of the Incarnation with a musical image first. One of the most deeply moving experiences I can have when listening to a piece of music is encountering a moment, say of a symphony, when the composer takes a musical idea that initially sounded melancholic or dejected and then completely re-clothes it with a new harmony, a new texture, a new color. Moments when a theme of despair will come back, emerging from the texture of the orchestra with a new color, lit and transfigured by a new set of chords, singing a new song of celebration. Because of their initial appearance as themes of sorrow, their unanticipated transformation into songs of joy is all the more palpable, mysterious, and miraculous. These moments speak to me of the kind of destiny God has disclosed for us in the revelation of Jesus.

Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection give us a foretaste of the way God has promised to incarnate us all in the age to come. The Ascension of his Incarnation shows something equally remarkable: the generous destiny for which God has made us from the very beginning.

Having been made flesh, having pitched his tent – body and soul – among us his creatures to live and eventually face the shame of death, Jesus resurrected – wounds and all – reveals the glory for which it has all been purposed. It has all been purposed for an unanticipated glory. That is, the divinization of the human being. An early Christian phrase summarizes this glorious destiny in this way, “Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus” (God became human so that the human might become [like] God). Or, as our visionary founder, Richard Meux Benson has written, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.” Like the transfiguration of a melancholy motif, the Risen Lord carries the body of this glorified humanity (still bearing the marks of death – both physical and spiritual) into the very heart of God. Not only has God pledged to meet us in our bodies, not only has God vowed to meet us in the fullness of our humanity, God has promised to take us, with the Risen Jesus, to his very self. 

In an act only the power of God could accomplish, God came as close to humanity as is possible and has invited humanity to enter into that tender intimacy, which is God’s desire. God became human so that our humanity could be healed and redeemed from the inside. God became human so that our humanity might be taken to the place for which it was always destined: the heart of the Father. God’s Incarnation in Jesus Christ reveals to us that our creatureliness will be neither consumed nor destroyed by the fire of his Love, but will be at last enlivened as we become more completely the creatures God creates us to be.

Redemption Song – Br. Jim Woodrum

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a

If you love domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and horses, or even some unconventional critters like monkeys, beavers, and squirrels, you have probably run across a website called ‘thedodo.com.’ The Dodo serves up emotional, visually compelling, and highly sharable animal-related stories and videos with the aim of making the care of animals a viral cause. The videos that bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive guy like me are the dog rescue videos. There are countless versions of this scenario: someone comes across a mangy, emaciated pup, that is tired, scared, weak, and not far from death. Animal rescuers are called to gather the animal, carefully and patiently doing what is necessary to subdue it while protecting themselves from the pups self-preserving, fear-filled growls, yaps, and snaps. Ultimately, the animal resigns and is taken to a veterinarian for rehabilitation with the hopes of finding it a forever home. The dogs are bathed, shaved, treated for mange, parasites, and other injuries, fed and nourished. Each video is a brief time-lapse record of its recovery, ending with the dog fully recovered, happy, and unrecognizable from the condition it was found in; it’s disposition one of unreserved love and affection. Read More

Aslan is on the move! – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

John 10: 22-30

‘It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.’  ‘It was winter.’  I have been to Jerusalem in the winter, and there was snow on the ground, and it was bitterly cold. We think of Jesus in light, flowing robes and sandals, preaching in warm and sunny climes. But not in our Gospel today. John tells us very specifically that ‘it was winter.’ Usually John marks time by referring to the Jewish religious festivals, but here, very pointedly, he tells us that it was winter. As so often for John, seemingly insignificant words carry a profound, symbolic meaning. ‘It was winter, it was night…’

This story at the end of chapter 10 marks the climax of several chapters describing the increasingly hostile controversies between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Here on this winter’s day, in the very temple itself, the words become ever more cold and bitter. Jesus finally seals his fate by declaring unequivocally, “The Father and I are one”, and the Jews pick up stones to stone him to death.

It was winter in Narnia, when those children in C. S. Lewis’ much-loved stories, first entered through the wardrobe into that magical land. Lucy went first. ‘She was standing in the middle of a wood, with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. “Why is it winter here?” “The witch has made it always winter and never Christmas. But Aslan is on the move.”’ Read More