Veiled Glory

Sometimes an image captures a theological truth better than words.

This past weekend, my wife and I made a visit to St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. One purpose was to view the St. John’s Bible. This is a contemporary illuminated manuscript production of the Scriptures. It has been created in the tradition of and in tribute to the many illuminated manuscripts of the Bible that were produced in monastic scriptoria during the Middle Ages. It is the first such Benedictine-commissioned manuscript Bible in the last 500 years.

The Bible is written on vellum skins in an elegant, but very readable contemporary calligraphic script. Scattered throughout the pages are magnificent illuminations of the text. Some are small graceful decorations of the text. Others are small vignettes that relate to the text. Still others are full-page paintings.

One of those full-page paintings stunned me. It is a rendition of the crucifixion that is positioned opposite to Luke 23, which recounts the story in words. (I am sorry I can’t run a picture of it on my blog. I could not find any digital images of the page I could use that did not have copyright restrictions. But if you wish to see the page, I suggest you click on the posting for Good Friday, March 25, 2013, on the blog A Monk’s Chronicle. There you will find an image that you can click on to enlarge.)

The illumination pictures Jesus’ crucifixion. The body of Jesus is a bit indistinct, but you can still discern it. What strikes me about this image is the explosion of glorious light that emanates from this cross. The light is conveyed through gold leaf on the page. The glowing light seems not only to envelop the body of Jesus, but also to be expanding out from that body like an exploding supernova.

Often we see the crucifixion depicted in all its blood-and-guts violence and realism. No one has matched that vision quite like another favorite image of mine, the image of the crucifixion in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. But in the St. John’s image, the crucifixion is all light and glory, even though on the edge of the image the darkness seems to be trying to stab into the light with deadly dagger thrusts.

What stunned me about the St. John’s image is that it captures a recurrent theme in the Gospel of John. This is the theme that the crucifixion is the moment when Jesus is glorified. A couple of quotations from John illustrate that theme as the gospel recounts the final days before the crucifixion:

John 12:23

[Speaking of his upcoming death], Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

John 17:1

[In the context of the Last Supper], After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you….

So strong is this theme in John’s Gospel that scholars call the second portion of his gospel (John 13-21) the Book of Glory.

I have always had a hard time grasping how John could see the ugly crucifixion as the moment of Jesus’ glorification, and, for that matter, of God’s glorification. Were not the resurrection and the ascension really the moments of glorification? The crucifixion has seemed to me to be the moment of greatest degradation.

I could never understand this viewpoint of John’s Gospel until I saw this image in the St. John’s Bible. Here is the glory of Jesus shining brightly in the very moment of the crucifixion. The glory is there, but is veiled to our uncleansed eyes. For it is at this moment that the love of God for humanity and for all creation reaches its moment of greatest depth. The love of God is the glory of God, and that love reaches its ultimate expression in the death on the cross.

Christianity has a long history of iconoclasm where the word is exalted as far superior to the image in conveying theological truth. It has provoked moments of tragic destruction of Christian visual art. In the Protestant churches where I grew up it was especially strong.

But it is a false dichotomy. Sometimes images convey a spiritual insight far better than do words. That certainly happened for me as I viewed this image of the crucifixion from the St. John’s Bible. The image was a divine revelation. For that I am deeply grateful to the artist, Donald Jackson.

Advertisements

Theme and Variations

How a Biblical Verse Retains Meaning through Variations in Wording

I have great admiration for clever translators. Let me give an example.

In my last posting, I quoted Psalm 46:10. I commented how this verse resonates for me with the whole experience of contemplative prayer. What is so clever about its translation is that it retains its contemplative focus even when you vary it by successively subtracting one word after another. Let me demonstrate:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.

Now isn’t that cool?

Silent Persuasion

Silence Discloses a Hidden Presence.

I participate in an inter-religious dialogue group. One of the members, an engineer by occupation, says he’s an atheist. He is, he says, because he sees no rational or empirical scientific evidence for the existence of a god.

He has pushed me a lot for why I believe in God. I appreciate this pushback because it has helped me think deeply about why I do indeed believe God is. What I’ve discovered is that if you push me hard enough, I have to admit that it is not rational arguments. I find rational arguments convincing only because I already believe.

Nor is it emotional feelings or religious and mystical experiences. I have had some, but again I believe they are experiences of the divine because I already believe in the divine. Nor have miraculous or serendipitous events proved conclusive. Again I have had some events in my life where circumstances converged in a surprising way that I did not plan. But they do no prove God is for me or for others. They may be just pure chance.

No, none of these reasons are ultimately persuasive either to unbelievers or to me. What is convincing for me? In a strange way, it is the practice of silence. Let me explain what I mean.

I grew up in a deeply religious family, a family whose theological convictions ran in a fundamentalist groove. Like many young people after college, I too came into deep questioning of these convictions, largely because they made me feel so miserable.

My spiritual journey during my 20s, 30s, and early 40s was tumultuous. It amazes me that I did not just chuck Christianity out and settle into a totally unbelieving and uncaring lifestyle like so many of my generation. I continued instead to battle within myself.

The Turning Point in My Life

When I reached my mid-40s, I had reached my limit. I remember one night sitting on the sofa in my living room and trying to pray. Finally in exasperation, I said, “God, I’ve had it. I’ve tried everything I can to break through to you, but nothing has worked. From now on, if and when I sit down to pray, I’m just going to sit here in silence. If you are real, you are going to have to reach out to me and make your presence real.”

Well, no sky opened. No heavenly voice spoke. No vision of light flooded my soul, not then nor in the coming months. If I prayed at all, I did indeed sit in silence saying nothing or doing nothing.

Then over the coming months and years, something strange did happen. A sense of the reality of a divine presence in the world and in my own life did begin to settle into my life.

It was not a particularly rational thought. Nor was it a deeply emotional feeling. It was not any kind of bodily sensation. And it certainly was not a mystical experience. It was just there. I cannot describe it except that it was simply there, nothing more. And yet that presence felt real, very real.

Coming to Know through Letting Go

Shortly after that fateful night, I also stumbled onto a book that introduced me to the practice of centering prayer, which is a prayer of silence. It is a form of prayer taught by the Trappist spiritual master Thomas Keating. In centering prayer, you do not say anything, do anything, or even try to feel anything. You simply be, be with God and yourself in silence.

I cannot explain the power of this kind of prayer. You give up any effort to do anything. You just simply try to be during the time you practice it. Yet, I have come to be convinced there is an amazing power to this just being with the divine presence in the world and in our lives. You begin to have a sense of real communion with God but it cannot be expressed in words or images. In this respect silence discloses the divine presence in a way that nothing else can, at least for me. It has led me to an experience which theologians label as pure grace.

Some can say I am deluding myself. They may be right. I concede that possibility, for I cannot rationally explain the conviction that has settled into my being. Yet I feel compelled to live trusting in that conviction and trying to live in harmony with the him/her/it it discloses. And so I do.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Psalm 46:10-11, which reads:

“Be still, and know that I am God.

I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!”

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Hebrew translated “be still” can be translated in various ways. An alternate translation is “stop fighting.” But I love the wording “be still.” It is sheer poetry to me. For in a paradoxical way, the practice of emptying oneself in silence seems to lead to a knowledge that cannot be acquired in any other way.

 

 

If Jesus Can Change His Mind, Why Can’t We?

If we take the incarnation seriously, we must let Jesus grow in his understanding

Sometimes a gospel story about Jesus blows my mind. For example, the story recounted in Matthew 15:21-28.

Jesus and his disciples are traveling outside Galilee, into the region around the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. There they encounter a Gentile woman, whose daughter has a severe mental disorder. She desperately wants Jesus’ help.

Jesus first responds to her with silence. When she continues to nag, he rejects her request, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus apparently does not see his mission as bringing healing and salvation to non-Jews. He intensifies the rejection by adding, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

In ancient Israel, dogs were regarded as unclean animals. You did not keep them as pets. Many Jews at that time considered Gentiles as the religious equivalent of dirty dogs. They were religiously unclean and had no place within God’s people.

Matthew reflects this ancient prejudice. The Gospel of Mark [see Mark 7:24-30] tells us the woman was Syro-Phoenician, indicating her ethnic identity. But Matthew calls her a Canaanite, referring back to the name this ethnic group had in the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament, the Canaanites represented a wicked people whom God displaced so Israelites could occupy the land of Palestine. The prophets denounce them for their idolatry, immorality, and violence. Calling the woman a Canaanite would raise all these negative associations in a Jewish audience.

The woman is a complex character. She may be a pagan, but she is a sassy pagan. When Jesus implies she is a dog, she responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

This woman does not accept her rejection quietly and passively. She has a mouth, and talks back. Jesus recognizes in her brazenness an expression of faith. And he immediately grants her request.

Why Does Matthew Tell This Story?

Well, as I said, this story raises many questions. In Sunday school I was taught that Jesus was meek and mild. In this story, however, Jesus comes across as somewhat narrow minded and rude. How can this story be the true Jesus?

First, a suggestion as to why Matthew tells it. Matthew is writing his gospel at a time when Gentiles are entering the church in droves. In another 100 years Christians will almost always be Gentiles.

Matthew may see in this story a hint of the future development of Christianity. The early disciples never expected to convert Gentiles. But when God started drawing Gentiles into the church, Christianity was forever changed. It became much more inclusive than anyone had ever anticipated.

Maybe Matthew wants his listeners to recognize that this strange transformation of Christianity was always a potential in the ministry of Jesus. He sees this story as evidence.

Taking the Incarnation Seriously

Still I are troubled by Jesus’ words and actions. Here’s how I have come to terms with it.

When we confess that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, we Christians confess that Jesus was a real and complete human being, not some phantom man. God entered into the full dimension of what it means to be a human being.

One of the amazing things about human beings is how long it takes for us to become mature. We are born as helpless babies. We are like the acorn. A full-grown tree lies in the seed of the acorn, but it takes years for that seed to mature into the tree.

So it is with human beings. We are not physically mature until we are about 25. It often takes many people even longer to reach emotional maturity.

Furthermore, as we like to say, it takes a village to raise a child. Our families, our neighbors, our teachers, our church friends all have a share in our upbringing. As a result, we unconsciously absorb the customs, manners, the values, and the language accents of our native culture. Likewise we unconsciously absorb its assumptions and prejudices.

Acquiring those prejudices is not a sin, in my opinion. Sin arises when we come to understand that a particular prejudice is against God’s creative will and we then choose to affirm it and live with it instead of changing our minds and our behavior. Sin arises when we come to know the truth, but refuse to live by the truth.

None of us is born understanding God’s perfect will. We grow into that understanding as we grow ever deeper in our relationship with God through a life lived in faith. The challenge to grow in our thinking and in our attitudes never ends. There is always more to learn about God and his will than we have learned so far.

I see Jesus as no different from us in this respect. He was born into a Jewish family and grew up in a Galilean village. As a child, I suspect he absorbed many of the attitudes—and even prejudices—of Jewish life in his time, as we do in our own communities.

He may have begun his ministry believing God was calling him to revive faith among only the straying sheep of Israel. He may not yet have come to appreciate how God was calling him to a mission that would ultimately embrace the whole world.

But Jesus also had an amazing ability to grow. We see how different were his attitudes towards tax collectors, prostitutes, and the Samaritans from the attitudes common among his people. As he grew in his understanding of his heavenly Father’s character, he came to understand God’s love for them as well.

When he met the Canaanite woman, he confronted the genuine need of a Gentile family and the genuine faith that was there in that family. His mind saw how God’s work was bigger than he imagined.

He saw the wrongness of the prejudice he had grown up with. He changed his mind and his behavior into something more inclusive than before. He confers healing on the woman’s daughter.

God’s Circle is Wide Indeed

If Jesus can change his mind, if Jesus can grow beyond the attitudes and prejudices of his own culture, why can’t we? That is the question this story poses for me.

Over and over again, life confronts us Christians with that question, as we confront needs and faith outside our own church community. Over and over again we are challenged to broaden and deepen our understanding of what God is up to in the world. Especially as to whom God is calling to belong to his people. We discover that God’s family circle is far larger than we assume.

Something like this has happened for many Christians in the last century through the ecumenical movement within Christianity. When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, I remember well being taught in my church that only Baptists were real New Testament Christians. Only we had a full understanding of the Bible.

All other Christians were somewhat suspect. They might be Christians in name, but if they were true New Testament Christians, they would be Baptists.

This is why I grew up just a little bit suspicious of Christians from other denominations, especially if they baptized babies. The Baptists of my upbringing were not alone in holding to a prejudice that they and only they understood the Bible. Many Roman Catholics also believed that they were the only true church and Protestants would be going to Hell.

And even some Presbyterians (the denomination I now belong to) believed that Christ did not die for everyone, but only for that select few (who by the way were largely Presbyterian) that God had predestined to salvation.

But as we look at the Christian world today, we find a broad recognition of one another as fellow Christians. Catholics talk of us Protestants as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if separated ones. A year or so ago the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Church signed an agreement to recognize the validity of each other’s baptisms.

Christians recognize as never before that God’s family is a wide family. God’s family includes people as diverse as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Mennonites, Copts, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. All this is, I believe, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, at work especially in the ecumenical movement of the last 100 years.

Recognizing Faith Wherever It Occurs

Now in our increasing world of religious pluralism, we Christians are facing the even deeper question of how we affirm the real faith we may discover in the religious lives of people who adhere to other religions than Christianity.

How do we respect such faith without denying the distinctive beliefs that set us Christians apart from other religions?

For me that is a profound challenge. I am a Christian to the core of my being. I confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior not only for me, but for the whole world. I do not believe that it makes no difference at all what religion we practice.

The various world religions hold some very different understandings of God and his ways in the world. Those differences have profound practical consequences. So I believe the search for the truth is of supreme importance.

But like Jesus in our gospel story today, when I encounter genuine faith in people of other religions, I now ask how can I affirm such faith without compromising my own?

This brings us to, what in my opinion, is one of the deepest challenges Christians are going to face in the 21st century. How do we hold firm to our own beliefs and practices without denying to others the freedom to practice their faith in the way their conscience dictates?

This is becoming an important struggle in America. In some cases, we hear Americans declaring that America has always been and must remain a Christian nation. Such a stance compromises, I believe, our American commitment to religious freedom.

In other cases, we hear secularists declaring all religions are dangers to the human spirit. They argue that all religion should be banished from public life. This, too, in my opinion, compromises religious freedom. It banishes religion to the realm of private opinion and denies it can have any voice in public affairs.

In this story from Matthew 15, Jesus speaks and acts like the first-century Galilean Jew that he was. He is as faithful to his understanding of his heavenly Father and his will as Jesus could be as a human being. In his faithfulness I believe that Jesus was perfectly sinless, as Christianity has traditionally affirmed.

Yet when confronted with the sassy Canaanite woman’s own peculiar expression of faith, he broadens his perspective and affirms faith wherever he finds it.

Jesus was able to change his mind, his attitudes, and his behavior. My question is: Why can’t we?