brianzahndmainbookThis week on the podcast we’ve got Brian Zahnd, author and the founding pastor of Word of Life Church in Missouri.

About a decade ago, Brian had an epiphany/spiritual crisis that eventually led him away from his previously held evangelical, word-faith Christianity and into a rediscovery of the sacramental faith of the ancient Church.

The result, in my opinion, is that Brian preaches the most theologically robust sermons of any preacher in America, rooted in the faith and understanding of the ancient Church Fathers and Mothers.

Because his is a pre-Western vision of Christianity, I think it’s one perfectly-suited for the post-Christian West.

Like me, Brian is a huge fan of David Bentley Hart, Bob Dylan, the National.

Like me, he’s a literature and art snob and I even get him to confess it.

The author of Beauty Will Save the World and Unconditional- both of which I highly recommend- Brian’s upcoming book is A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace.  51t1N+J6DgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Check it out.

Here’s the interview.

My underling left God’s work to go work for THE MAN so until I learn how to splice and dice you’ll have to listen sans the cute cue music.

You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app, which you can use to listen to old installments of the podcast and look for future ones.

No Easter, No Eschaton

Jason Micheli —  April 23, 2014 — 4 Comments

In terms of preaching experience, I’ve got a baker’s dozen.

Somewhere along the way I discovered that the most contentious, disputed doctrine among the every Sunday pew people isn’t homosexuality, abortion or biblical authority.

It’s belief in the resurrection of the body.

The literal, physical, historic and material resurrection of Jesus from the tomb as the first fruits of our eventual literal, physical, historic and material resurrection from our tombs, caskets and urns.

I know many more Christians who cross their fingers during that part of the creed (‘…and the resurrection of the body…’) and who are willing to argue with me about it than I do Christians willing to debate the ‘social issues dividing the church.’

The (mainline at least) Christians get their panties in a bunch like no else when you suggest that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy.

Except…it is.

Don’t believe me read the Book of Acts. Every sermon of the first church revolves around the resurrection. Peel away your penal substitution prejudice and read Paul again- it’s resurrection through and through.

Times may change but you can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us).

I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.

Christian speech falls apart without Easter.

Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.

Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.

Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but- think about it- we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

Actually. Really. Truly.

If the REZ is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.

Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.

In other words- in John Howard Yoder’s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.

In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality.

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Near the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator envisions a bombing mission in reverse. Fires go out. Homes are repaired. Bombs that were dropped over towns and cities are raised back up through the sky into the bodies of the American planes. The bombers fly home backwards where they are taken apart rivet by rivet and, eventually, even the soldiers become babies.

Vonnegutt’s vision is one where the violence and death of war is undone. Original beauty is restored.

While Vonnegutt was himself one of the 20th century’s most articulate atheists, he might be chagrined to discover how thoroughly biblical was his version of hope. Slaughterhouse Five reads like it was ripped off of the prophet Isaiah (65) or St John (Revelation 21-22).

Christian faith is expectant faith.

Christian faith expects for God to undo what Sin has done. Christian faith awaits and longs for God to complete the creative aim begun in the Garden. It anticipates God to consumate the redemptive work begun in Jesus Christ.

Christian faith is expectant faith. Just think of what little would be left of Jesus’ preaching if you excised those passages that look forward to the Kingdom of God. Consider how the prayer he taught us to pray is rooted in anticipation of the coming Kingdom.

Dusty yet impressive word to wow your friends and family: ‘eschatology.’

Literally, it means ‘talk of the last things.’

Eschaton means ‘End.’

It’s the basis for our hope, and even though we’re examining it last we could have just as easily begun our sessions with eschatology because it’s our vision of the End that orients our understanding of the remainder of our beliefs. Not just Christian service but our worship and devotional life become masquerades if they’re not rooted in what is going to do.

As Jurgen Moltmann says, tweaking a famous line from St Anselm, Christian faith is ‘hope seeking understanding.’ We have a hope of what God will do; we struggle to understand how our other beliefs relate to our hope.

Hope is a word that perhaps has too many miles on it in recent years, but that doesn’t change the fact that the bible is from beginning to end a testament of hope. If the bible were a novel then the dust jacket would summarize it as a book about how God gets what God wants, how God gets what God wanted in the very beginning, how God restores his creation to fellowship. It’s this hope that is the unifying thread throughout the disparate books and genres of the bible. The bible is a book of hope because, as Robert Jenson says, the God of the bible is essentially a promise-making God. The characters in the bible are people who place their trust and hope in the promises of God.

The concluding line of the bible, after all, is ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev 22.20). To speak of scripture or Christian faith in the absence of hope is to make both unintelligible.

Of course, that’s exactly what has happened.

As the letters of Paul and the Book of Revelation make clear, the early Christians were a community who anticipated Christ’s return and the inauguration of the Kingdom.

Their present was lived in light of the imminent future.

As the Church expanded, however, and adapted to its cultural environment, eventually becoming the state religion of Rome, the biblical hope in the coming of Christ and the transformation of the world by his Kingdom became marginalized. As the faith of the majority, no longer did Christians long for a Kingdom that would transcend, defeat or replace the Roman kingdom- which Christians now enjoyed, thank you very much. Who needs a New Earth when the one you have is treating you rather well?

With this transition, the Church became the dispenser of individual salvation (through the sacraments) rather than a community whose very life was a sign of their anticipation of the End.

Christian HOPE, as articulated by Isaiah, Jesus, Paul and John, increasingly became a hope for one’s personal survival beyond death. No longer- or not nearly as much- did Christians hope for the transformation of all creation.

Throughout history pockets of apocalypticism (belief in the end-times) have crept up within Christianity, usually in dark or trying times. The plagues of the Middle Ages, Millenial anxiety, the peasant wars in the 16th century, the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and the Nuclear Age have all fertilized the apocalyptic imagination. Nonetheless in mainstream Christianity biblical hope has been either neglected or altogether forgotten.

When you marginalize the authentic biblical hope, you also unintentionally render Jesus an incoherent teacher.

As Karl Barth said: ‘If Christianity is not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatsoever with Christ.”

That is, Christianity doesn’t make any compelling sense if it’s not rooted in the conviction that the words, way and witness of Jesus about the Kingdom were exactly what God raised from the grave.

The majority of Jesus‘ preaching and teaching is apocalyptic, geared towards God’s End. The Kingdom dominates Jesus‘ concerns. The community of disciples lived Jesus‘ teachings not because it made ‘sense‘ or because it promised to make the world a better place. They lived Jesus‘ teachings to be a sign and foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom.

What do you do with Jesus‘ teachings once they’re divorced from Kingdom hope?

Beginning in the Enlightenment and running up to the present day, many Christians and critics alike saw the New Testament’s apocalyptic language as archaic. As a result it  was deemphasized and in its place Jesus’ teachings were construed in such a way so that any enlightened, rational modern person could applaud them.

The Gospel’s teachings, however, were unmoored from a community’s anticipation of the End. Instead they were treated as principles, encouragements, for an individual’s life or, at the other end of the spectrum, they were seen as descriptors for our future life in heaven: impossible to live now (because who wants to suffer for their beliefs?) but possible in the future.

Jesus’ teachings then do not require a correlative hope for a future Kingdom nor do they require a community in the present living towards that future.

And this how Christian service becomes unintelligible to someone like Bob. Divorced from our future hope, we have no other grounds on which to judge our acts of mercy beyond the criteria the world gives us: realism or idealism.

lightstock_63141_small_user_2741517Here is my Easter sermon from John 20.24-31.

You can listen to it below. Or, you can download it in iTunes here or, better yet, download the free mobile app here.

Romans 8.1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” is my favorite verse of scripture.”

 

The most challenging verse for me is Matthew 5.48, Jesus in the sermon on the mount: “Be perfect therefore as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” 

 

     The funniest verse to me is 2 Kings 2.23:

Some boys jeered at the prophet Elisha “Get out of here, baldy!” So Elisha called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

 

But I’d have to say the biblical verse that really ticks me off, the scripture verse that irritates the you-know-what out of me is John 20.30:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, 

which are not written in this book.” 

 

He left stuff out?

Seriously?

 

You mean there were other miracles Jesus performed, other lessons he taught, other questions he answered, that John just decided…uh…not to include?

 

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, 

which are not written in this book.”

 

Of the four Gospel writers-

 

Matthew’s the one whose church I’d want to attend; he’s all about life application.

 

Mark’s the one who most unsettles me; his Jesus is a bit too wild-eyed, other-worldly, and urgent for me.

 

Luke is the evangelist I’d introduce to in-laws and unbelievers; he has the best stories with the most satisfying endings.

 

But John-

John is the Gospel writer I would most like to punch in the teeth and dropkick to the floor.

And it’s all because of this irritating Easter verse:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, 

which are not written in this book.” 

 

What’s that about?

 

Did John’s first draft come back to him marked up with red ink?

Did John have a word limit?

Should our response to scripture reading be:

“This is most of the Word of God for the People of God.

Thanks be to God”?

Think about it.

John believes he’s telling you the most important thing that’s ever been told- about the most important person who’s ever been and the most important cosmic event that’s ever happened.

 

Why would John leave anything out?

 

If the whole point of the Gospels is to convince beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord…

 

if the whole point of the Gospels is to prove to us that the world responded to God’s love made flesh by crucifying him but that God vindicated him by raising him from the dead…

 

if the whole point of the Gospels is to explain to us why he came and why he died and what that means for us today…

 

Then why would John not include every detail?

 

Why would John not submit every possible piece of evidence?

If the whole point of the Gospel is to convince us, then shouldn’t John’s Gospel be Stephen King long not Ernest Hemingway brief?

 

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples

which are not written in this book.” 

 

Of course, the operative phrase there is ‘…in the presence of his first disciples.’ 

Because we weren’t there.

We weren’t there like John was.

We weren’t there like Peter was.

We weren’t there like Matthew or Andrew or Mary Magdalene.

 

We didn’t get to see with our own eyes the things Jesus did.

We didn’t get to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him with our own ears.

Jesus didn’t wash our feet.

 

I know Easter is a time when many of you come to church against your will- just to make your spouse or your mother-in-law happy.

 

So I realize that especially on Easter there are many of you here who harbor serious doubts about God to say nothing of God raising a crucified, Galilean Jew from from the dead.

 

I also realize that Easter is an occasion when the every-Sunday sort of Christians think they need to hide their doubts.

 

And usually we hide our doubts by acting as though others shouldn’t have any doubts of their own.

 

As my muse, Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

“We try to assure ourselves that we really believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.”

 

Easter is an occasion for doubt as much as it is an occasion for faith.

So why don’t we just admit it?

 

This whole believing business would be a lot easier if we had just been there ourselves.

 

But then again-

Thomas was there.

With Jesus.

Every step of the way.

 

With his own two eyes, Thomas saw Jesus feed 5,000 with just a few loaves and a couple of fish.

 

When Jesus raised Lazarus, called him out of his tomb, stinking and 3 days dead, Thomas was there.

 

And Thomas was there to hear for himself when Jesus told Martha, the grief-stricken sister of Lazarus:

 

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

 

But all the first-hand evidence, all the eyewitness proof, all the personal experience wasn’t enough to convince Thomas.

 

Because on Easter night, after the women in Mark’s Gospel have run away from the tomb terrified and not breathing a word to anyone, the disciples hide.

 

They hide behind locked doors and the Risen Christ comes and stands among them- just as he’d predicted he would- and says “Peace be with you.”

 

But Thomas wasn’t there.

 

The Gospel doesn’t give even an inkling of where Thomas was.

It just says “Thomas was not there with them when Jesus came.” 

‘Seeing is believing’ we say, but three years of seeing for himself, of hearing for himself, of being right there with him- it wasn’t enough to convince Thomas that Jesus really was who he claimed he was.

 

Afterwards when the disciples tell Thomas what had happened, Thomas doesn’t respond by saying:

All ten of you saw him? Alright, that’s good enough for me. 

 

No.

Thomas says: ‘Unless.’ 

 

I will not believe unless.

Unless I see his hands and his feet.

Unless I can grab hold of him and touch his wounds.

Unless I can see for myself what Rome did to him.

 

I need proof. I need facts. I need evidence before I will believe.

Just this week, my boys and I drove to Ohio.

To help bury my grandpa.

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     The night before the funeral the boys and I camped out in a tipi, which seemed like an awesome fatherly idea until, as I put the kids to bed, I discovered that an inch of snow was forecast that night.

 

We woke up the next morning, wet and freezing cold, and drove to my grandpa’s funeral, smelling like smoke and ‘smores.

My grandpa was 93.

He’d led a good and interesting and fruitful life. And so my family wanted the funeral to be a ‘celebration of his life.’

For a full life like his- they didn’t want it to be a sad occasion.

 

Except it always is.

Before the funeral service I was standing in the lobby of the church, greeting people.

 

My cousin, Paul, a lawyer in Denver, was standing next to me doing the same.

After a few handshakes with strangers, he said to me ‘I bet you do this sort of thing a lot.’

I said ‘yeah.’

‘How many have you done?’ he asked me.

 

‘About 200’ I said, rounding it off.

‘How many of those were difficult ones?’ he asked.

 

’13’ I answered without needing to think.

13: 8, 3 and 2.

The babies, children and suicides respectively on whom I’ve tossed dirt and said ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’

 

‘This is my first funeral’ he said, and after nervously clearing his throat he shook his head and said: ‘I couldn’t do what you do.’

 

I assumed he meant funerals, couldn’t do funerals, couldn’t do the sorts of funerals where the caskets are less than 4 feet long.

‘Couldn’t do what?’ I asked.

 

‘Believe’ he said, ‘as much as I’d like to have faith I just can’t.

I have too many doubts and questions.’

 

Thinking especially of my grandpa- and the loose ends we’d left between us, I replied: ‘What makes you think I don’t have any doubts and questions?’

 

‘I guess I’m just someone who needs proof’ he said.

 

The first Easter wasn’t just a day.

The Risen Jesus hung around for 50 days, teaching and appearing to over 500 people.

 

7 days after the first Easter Day, Jesus appears again in that same locked room as before and Jesus says ‘Peace be with you.’ שלום be with you. שלום which is the Bible’s shorthand way of saying ‘God’s power to restore and heal and forgive and make all things in creation new again…שלום is yours Jesus says.

 

And this time, this time Thomas is there.

 

Jesus offers Thomas his body: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 

 

     And Thomas reaches out and Thomas touches Jesus, grabs at the wounds of Jesus, to see the proof for himself…

 

Actually no.

He doesn’t.

     That’s the thing-

We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds.

Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands.

 

Duccio drew it that way.

Caravaggio illustrated it that way.

Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way.

Artists have always shown Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.

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And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations.

 

Yet, read it again, it’s not there.

The Gospel gives us no indication that Thomas actually touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands. John never says that Thomas peeked into Jesus’ side. The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.

 

No.

That’s got to be important, right?

 

I mean, the one thing Thomas says he needs in order to believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to mention.

 

Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: ‘My Lord and my God!” 

 

     Which is kind of a strange thing to say. If it’s all about ‘proof,’ if it’s all about believing, if it’s all about getting answers to your questions and getting over your doubts then you’d expect Thomas to say something like ‘Oh, it’s you! You’re really back!’ 

 

But Thomas doesn’t say anything like that; he says “My Lord and my God!”

     The one thing Thomas says he needs before he can believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to give us.

 

Which, I’m willing to bet, is John’s way of telling us that:

 

Thomas doesn’t need the proof he thinks belief requires.

He doesn’t need to hold the hard, tangible evidence for himself.

He doesn’t need exhibits A and B of Jesus’ hands and side.

He doesn’t need to have all his lingering doubts and questions resolved in order to have faith.

 

The one thing Thomas says he needs before he can believe is the one thing John doesn’t mention.

 

Which, I’ll bet, is John’s way of saying that Thomas, even if he doesn’t realize it, has already been given everything he needs in order to believe.

 

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As much as it ticks me off and aggravates me, I think that’s why John does not bother mentioning “the many other signs” Jesus did in the presence of his disciples.

 

John doesn’t tell us more because he’s given us all we need. He’s given us everything we need to take a chance, to say “My Lord and my God” and then to have life in his name.

 

John doesn’t tell us more because the Gospel is not meant to be information about which we make up our minds.

 

The Gospel is an invitation, an invitation to have life, to live life in his name.

Which just means to live as though your name is Jesus.

To have life in his name is to live as though your name is Jesus.

 

We think we need proof.

 

But being a Christian-

It’s not about being convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt.

It’s not being able to prove that Jesus fed 5,000 hungry people.

It’s not about being able to explain how God created, how Jesus undid Death or why our world isn’t what God wants for it.

 

If being a Christian is about knowledge or facts or certainty then, by all means, John should give us every detail he’s got.

 

If the point of Christianity is eliminating our every doubt then John should leave nothing out.

But if it’s about living life in his name, living as thogh then John’s told us everything we need.  To live.

If it’s about proving the resurrection, then John hasn’t provided nearly enough to convince me.

 

But if it’s about living the resurrection- living our lives as proof of the resurrection- then John’s already told us everything we need.

 

Look, I remember what it was like- to go to church on Easter before I became a Christian and I remember what it was like to feel put off by the black-and- white, rock-solid faith everyone else seemed to possess.

 

So I want to make it plain:

 

To follow the Risen Christ is not to be certain.

It’s not to understand or to know.

It’s not to have had something proven to you to the point where you can prove it to others.

 

To follow the Risen Christ is to take a chance, to take a risk, to trust that whatever we mean by ‘Lord and God’ is found in Jesus.

 

To follow Christ is to risk that trust and then to have life in his name- to live in such a way that makes absolutely no sense- no sense- if God has not raised Jesus from the dead.

 

‘Seeing is believing’ we say.

Except when it comes to Jesus, it works the other way round: believing is seeing. Believing gives you a whole new way of seeing.

 

Believing is seeing.

Seeing the world the way God sees it: as broken and sinful and corrupt yet precious and loved and worth redeeming.

 

Believing is seeing.

Seeing you as God sees you: as beautiful and beloved and worth dying for and worthy of a more interesting life than our culture even asks of you.

Believing is seeing.

Seeing forgiveness and mercy and grace and loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and blessing those who curse you as the building blocks for a New Creation.

 

Believing is seeing.

Seeing the future Kingdom Jesus taught about as something that can be lived and made present in the here and now.

 

Believing is seeing.

Seeing God, the infinite, eternal, all-powerful God, in the face of the poor and the weak. Seeing that whenever you do something for one of them, the least among us, you’ve done it to God himself.

 

Believing is seeing.

Seeing the sin you committed and knowing that it’s forgiven.

Seeing the broken relationship in your life and knowing it can be repaired.

Seeing the despair and forsakenness you feel and knowing you’re not alone.

Seeing the hurt and abuse you’ve suffered and knowing it can be healed.

Seeing Death, staring it straight in the face, and knowing that Love wins.

 

Believing is seeing.

Seeing that the proof of Resurrection isn’t in touching the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet. The proof of Resurrection is in our being Jesus’ hands and feet. It’s in reaching out, in his name, to the wounded places and people in our world.

 

Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen Indeed.

Just imagine what you can see if you take a chance and believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is my friend, Janet Laisch. I was last week so didn’t get to post it on Holy Thursday. Better late than never…

 

In AD 200, the birth of Christian art represented the new covenant through abstract references to the Last Supper where Christ commanded us, “ to Love one another as I have loved you.”  Christians began making art on the very walls of the catacombs where they buried their dead and among the first brush strokes they painted were grape vines and leaves to express their belief in an afterlife and their belief in Christ’s new commandment. During the second half of the third century, artists began to depict Christ and His disciples reclining at the Last Supper and other agape feasts.  Ancient Christians blurred the lines between eschatological agape feasts and the Last Supper believing that all feasts celebrated agape love as commanded by Christ.

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In the Gospel of John, for theological reasons, John put the Last Supper before the Passover feast from John 13:1; Jesus was killed at the same moment the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple—making Christ the new Passover sacrifice. In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels, the Last Supper is explicitly identified as the Passover meal from Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7. Early representations corresponded more closely with the Jewish practice of conducting Passover meals round low tables, or no tables at all, with diners semi-reclining on low lounges. The Gospel writers explicitly reference reclining at this meal.  This catacomb fresco (above) shows Christ beardless and young surrounded by disciples and like later Last Supper paintings it represents the moment when Christ says one of you will betray me as the disciples respond to Christ by pointing at themselves and saying is it I? Mark 14.

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At Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, a sixth century Basilica, mosaics (above) depict men and women processing toward the altar with communal offerings for the Eucharist.  These images reenact communion as it was celebrated at this church and others like it in the sixth century. Just above these processional mosaics are scenes from Christ’s life including an image of the Last Supper where Christ and his disciples recline together in a communal meal with fish and wine on the table.  Christ is the only figure shown with a halo. Just as a typical Roman feast featured diners reclining on couches—propped up on their left elbows—around a central table or a few smaller tables in a dining room or triclinium, early Last Supper representations depict Christ and the disciples reclining as described in the synoptic Gospels: Luke 10:39. Food was generally served in a few communal dishes, in which diners would dip their bread or eat with their hands. Wine flowed freely and was served in bowls.

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 In 1305 Duccio painted this image (above) as part of an altarpiece originally placed in the Siena Cathedral. Beginning in the early Renaissance, artists preferred to represent Christ and the Disciples sitting upright along a communal table with Christ in the center and an elaborate Passover dinner including lamb lay out on the table. Last Supper images continue to reflect traditions of when they were painted rather than Christ and disciples from first century Palestine and Christ and the disciples look more Italian than Middle Eastern.  Judas the betrayer is most likely sitting opposite Christ with his hand reaching toward Christ’s outstretched arm.

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In the Renaissance artists begin to distinguish Judas the betrayer more explicitly from the other disciples as seen in Fra Angelico’s example from 1450 (above).

By the middle Renaissance Last Supper images moved from churches to monasteries as this one by Fra Angelico decorates the Monastery of San Marco in Florence. Fra Angelico’s painting makes clear what Renaissance artists sought to achieve: a clear parallel between the Last Supper and Catholic mass. Disciples sit at the table where only a white table cloth and the Eucharist cup remain. Here, the disciples kneel as Christ distributes the communal wafer and holds a common cup. In the foreground on the left a woman kneels probably the blessed mother, Mary while on the right, Judas is depicted as the only disciple wearing a sinister black halo.

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lstsupMore often Last Supper images like this one by Leonardo da Vinci from 1495 (above) decorated the refractory or monk’s dining room wall throughout the Renaissance.  Artists rendered the figures life size and at eye level so monks could imagine participating in the meal along with Christ.Viewers became so familiar with this drama-charged image and so accustomed to the iconography of Christian art, that they would hardly remember it as a cross-cultural art work. They might even need to be reminded that the Last Supper was an event which involved Jewish people and occurred in Palestine. Judas sits beside Christ and rests his hand on the table as referenced in the Gospel that the one who betrays me rests his hand on the table. Through a carefully delineated under drawing and one point perspective where the vanishing point meets at Christ’s head, Leonardo da Vinci achieved serenity in this scene. This painting marks the calm before the storm of the Reformation, before Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door in 1517 (below).

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In newly-Lutheran parts of Germany, Protestant iconoclasts, sometimes in mobs, physically stripped and defaced countless works of church art. By 1522 Martin Luther recognized art as a valuable educative tool and artists once again created art to instruct viewers.

 

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The German Reformation painter, Luis Cranach the Elder painted this Last Supper in 1547, (above) replacing Leonardo’s long bench with a round table. Jesus is not even placed at the center, but appears on the far left, consistent with the Lutheran practice of distributing the bread and the wine from the side of the altar. Cranach depicts Martin Luther at the Last Supper. Luther symbolized everyman and is taking part in the meal as he receives the cup of wine from a servant.

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As the Counter Reformation warred throughout Catholic Europe, Veronese a celebrated Venetian painter was called before the Inquisition to defend his choices for this rendering of the Last Supper in 1573 (above).  Venice long a trade crossroads attracted people of diverse cultures, so unlike earlier paintings, in addition to Last Supper participants, Veronese decorated the foreground with “foreign” people, a young dwarf holding a parrot, a man with a bloody nose and a dog. When questioned Veronese explained that he liked to adorn with figures of his own imagination to fill any left-over space in the picture. After being asked to remove the dog depicted in the center foreground, Veronese decided instead to rename the image Feast in the House of Levi which ended the controversy.  This Inquisitorial hearing inspired a hilarious Monty Python sketch:
 

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The Pope commissioned works of art as part of the Counter Reformation and Poussin found the Pope and a circle of patrons in Rome interested in stoic philosophy commissioned canvases like this one (above).  Similar to catacomb paintings and early Basilica mosaics, Poussin painted the Palestine tradition of Jesus and the disciples reclining during the Last Supper meal as referenced in the Bible. Poussin’s objective as a classical antiquarian was to study and depict ancient traditions. Washing feet before a meal is an ancient tradition and though not explicitly stated in the synoptic gospels is an understood tradition of the Jewish Palestine. In John 13 , he explicitly states that Christ washes the disciples feet as an act of love and purification. A copper bowl and clean bare feet figure prominently in the foreground referencing Christ washing the disciples’ feet as a way of demonstrating His love for the world. At the Last Supper Jesus gave his disciples a new command to love one another as I have loved you, so you must love one another. One way Jesus demonstrated His love at the Last Supper was to wash his disciples’ feet and take the role of the servant.

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Hundreds more Last Supper images fill the pages of Art History books, many adhered to Leonardo’s format. In 1955 Dali painted the Last Supper (above) in a unique and poignant way where Judas is not included at the modern low stone table. A single glass cup and broken bread adorn the table as the remaining 11 disciples bow their heads in prayer rather than eating or gesturing as commonly depicted in earlier portrayals. Dali created a hologram rendition of Christ who both sits at the table and floats in the baptismal waters below. Christ gestures as if speaking. He points to His body and to the heavens symbolizing his two natures: completely human and completely divine. A third aspect of Christ hovers above to complete the trinity: the Holy Spirit is present above the communion table. As in the Bible the meal takes place in the second floor of a home though all the furnishings are ultra modern and a glass enclosed space reveals a lake and canoes below referencing also when Christ first called the disciples from their fishing jobs to be fishers of men. The placid nature of the water and the color palette give the scene an other-worldly feel. Dali painted in an ultra realistic classical manner that appears almost like a photograph yet he includes many dreamlike impossible details to create a style called surrealism. Dali paints this image as a way to recall Christ’s memory and as a way to depict his view of heaven so it is both an image of the Last Supper and an image of the agape feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.

As varied as these art images of the Last Supper are and as varied as the descriptions of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels and John are, we know that Christ invited us all to the table. As Christ said about the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me…I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine in the Kingdom of God.” Christ invites us all to partake in the meal as a foretaste of the feast to come.

Christ is Risen.

He is Risen indeed.

And indeed (sorry NT Wright) it’s not with ambiguity.

I marked this Holy Week by dipping again into the work of the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe. Here is an excerpt from his essay on Easter Vigil.

In it, McCabe reads the Easter stories as they are, straight up, in the Gospels- not as full-throated victory shouts but as qualified, murky signs of something more to come.

Jesus’ resurrection, says McCabe, belongs better to that category the Church calls sacraments.

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“The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection.

It says something permanent about God:

not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering.

The cross, then, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph and it is just as important to see the ambiguity in the resurrection.

If the cross is not straightforward failure, neither is the resurrection straightforward triumph.

The victory of the resurrection is not unambiguous; this is brought out clearly in the stories of the appearances of the risen Christ.

The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, in any sense, be an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time.

Perhaps we could think of Christ’s resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either in history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection).

‘Your brother’ said Jesus to Martha ‘will rise again. Martha said ‘I know he will rise again on the last day.’ Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection…’

Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of humanity, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself.

Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times.

Just as with the change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the resurrection can have a date within history without being an event enclosed by history, without being a part of the flow of change that constitutes our time.

The resurrection from the tomb then is ambiguous in that it is both a presence and an absence of Christ. The resurrection surely does not mean Jesus walked out of the tomb as though nothing had happened.

On the contrary, he is more present, more bodily present, than that; but he is, nevertheless, locally or physically absent in a way that he was not before.

It is important in the Thomas story that Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus but reaches into his bodily presence by faith.

It is important in the Mary Magdalene story that Mary does not at first recognize Jesus.

Here is a resurrected, bodily presence not too tenuous but too intense to be accommodated within our common experience.

So then Christ’s resurrected presence to us [through the sacraments] still remains a kind of absence: ‘…we proclaim his death until he comes again.’

Good Friday is ground zero for speculating about the atonement.

Many of ‘theories’ of the atonement rely upon a literal reading of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis to which probably Jesus himself, being a Jew and Rabbi, did not subscribe.

That’s not the only problem with how we often speak on Good Friday.

To many Christians, the crucifixion is the means by which God solves the problem incurred by Adam’s Fall. Not only does this ‘solution’ seem much worse than originating problem (fruit of the tree vs. torture and execution of an innocent man), it seems to miss the (obvious) extent to which the crucifixion is an intensified instance of the first sin: the rejection of God’s love.

Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who died a decade ago, enjoyed subverting the conventions of popular piety. In the excerpt below, McCabe meets head-on the challenges posed by Darwin et al to any literal understanding of the ‘Fall.’

By first concurring that social science suggests humanity’s ‘Fall’ was up not down, McCabe locates what Christians mean by ‘original sin’ not in a mythic, primordial Garden but in the historically concrete case of the crucifixion:

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“I can remember a time, it seems quite long ago, when it was definitely not respectable to talk about original sin. The notion plainly belonged to some depressing and pessimistic version of Christianity…the other thing that made original sin less respectable was its connection with the whole Adam story.

It seemed ludicrous that one man’s failure should somehow infect everyone else.

And, any way, how many people could still possibly believe in anyone called Adam?

But it seems reasonable for us to try in terms of our ways of thinking to answer the question ‘How come human society is the way it is?’

I would say that the answer is that human beings ‘fell’ not down but up.

That is to say, humans are maladjusted because they have powers which are greater than they can control…

I would also like to propose a Pickwickian sense in which the occasion on which original sin was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus- that this finally gave meaning to this state of Sin.

In the crucifixion of Jesus it is finally manifested that the maladjustment of man amounts to a rejection of God’s love.

The sin of the world comes to a head in the crucifixion, shows itself fully for what it is. And, of course, in coming to a head is simultaneously conquered.

The Cross is both the manifestation, the sacrament, of the sin of the world, and the manifestation, the sacrament, of the redeeming act of God. It is just as we realize our death that we find life. It is only when it appears as sin that it can be forgiven…

To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, people are making the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of themselves.

The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular society showing its inhumanity. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The resurrection is the Father’s refusal to accept this self-rejection of man.”

 

I’m marking Holy Week this year by reading the work of the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe.

Here, McCabe cautions against any understandings of Good Friday that are exclusively religious or theological. The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:

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“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

 

Holy Thursday is often called ‘Maundy Thursday’ from the Latin word ‘mandatum.’

Thought most Christians mark the day by recalling the Passover meal Christ celebrated with his disciples, ‘Maundy’ instead recalls John’s scene of Christ washing his friends’ feet and then giving them the ‘mandate’ to wash one another’s feet as a sign of love.

Consequently, Maundy Thursday is a day when Christians give a lot of lip service to the word ‘love.’ However Christians often exhibit little awareness of how impossible love is- especially when we speak of God’s love for us.

The late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote much on the impossibility of God’s love. Taking Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity with the seriousness it deserves, McCabe works out a response that mines the riches of the ancient Christian tradition.

I’m marking this Holy Week by wading through some of McCabe’s relevant work:

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“From one point of view, the cross is the sacrament of the sin of the world- it is the ultimate sin that was made inevitable by the kind of world we have made.

From another point of view, it is the sacrament of our forgiveness, because it is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.

Love requires a relationship of equals.

To love is to give to another not possessions or any such good thing. It is to give yourself to another, but this other must share equality with you (or, as in the case of parents and children, the potential for equality) or it is not really love you share…

You will, I know, recognize immediately that this presents a problem about God.

God is evidently incapable of loving us simply because there cannot be this relationship of equality between God and his creatures.

In one very important sense then the Father can only love the Son because only in the Son does he find an equal to love.

The Father can be kind and considerate to his creatures as such, he can shower gifts and blessings upon them, but in so far as they are simply his creatures he cannot give himself, abandon himself to them in love.

That is why any unitarian theory, or any Arian theory that diminishes the divinity of Christ, leaves us as our only image of God that of the supreme boss.

It leaves us, in the end, with a kind of master/slave relationship between God and his creatures. In a sense, it leaves us with an infantile God who has not grown up enough to have learnt to lose himself in love. Such a god may be a kind and indulgent boss, but he remains a master of slaves- even if they are well-treated slaves.

This is exactly the idea behind the rejection of Christianity made (rightly) by Nietzsche.

If, however, with traditional Christianity, we take the Trinity seriously, we too have to join Nietzsche in rejecting the idea.

For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved.

But that is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son.

It is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love we call the ‘Holy Spirit.’

God loves us because we are in Christ and share in his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals, which is the Godhead.

Nietzsche was absolutely right. God could not love creatures; he still can’t love creatures as such, it would make no sense.

But Nietzsche omitted to notice that we are no longer just creatures: by being taken up into Christ- whom the Father can and does love- we are raised to share in divinity, we live by the Holy Spirit.

To trace the line of the argument again:

 

  1. God the Creator cannot love creatures as such. To think he could is not to take love seriously. It is like speaking of someone loving his cat- except even more so.
  2. But God, as the Gospels continually affirm, loves Jesus. Therefore Jesus must share equality with God. There cannot be two individual Gods any more than one individual God.
  3. Jesus came forth from the Father as it is said in the New Testament: ‘the Father is greater than I.’ He is sent from the Father both in his mission in history and in the eternal procession that that mission reflects.
  4. We can say this only because we have been taken up into the mystery itself, taken up into the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son.

Or have we?

If we have not, we have no right to say any of this, no right to say that God is love.”

God Matters

 

I’m marking this Holy Week by reading the work of the late Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who had a gift for articulating the ancient Christian tradition in concise, clear, crisp prose.

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“In the first place, it seems to me that Jesus clearly did not want to die on the cross. He was not crazy, he was not a masochist, and we are, of course, told that he prayed to his Father to save him from this horrible death. Matthew, Mark and Luke all picture him as terrified and miserable and obviously panicking in the Garden of Gethsemane.

He came through this terror to a kind of calm in accepting the will of his Father, but he is quite explicit that it is not his will- ‘not my will but thine be done.’

He did want to accept his Father’s will even if it meant the cross, but he most certainly did not want to the cross itself.

Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified?

And, if so, why?

The answer as I see it is again: No.

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.

Any minimally intelligent people proposing to become parents know that their children will have lives of suffering and disappointment and perhaps tragedy, but this is not what they wish for them; what they wish is that they should be fully alive, be human.

And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid upon him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to the Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human is to be crucified is not something the Father has directly planned but something we have arranged.

We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not lead to suffering and crucifixion.

Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience and his obedience was to the command to be fully human.

Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, Jesus, not Adam, was the first human being, the first member of the human race in which humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love- and this is what beings are for.

The aim of human life is to live in friendship- a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends upon a friendship God has established between ourselves and God.

When we encounter Jesus, in whatever way we encounter him, he strikes a chord in us; we resonate with him because he shows the humanity that lies more hidden in us- the humanity of which we are afraid.

He is the human being we dare not be.

He takes the risks of love which we recognize as risks and so for the most part do not take.”

- Good Friday: The Mystery of the Cross

This past Palm Sunday I fielded questions about the Cross and Holy Week off the cuff, a format I like to call ‘Midrash in the Moment.’ Because so much of my thinking is indebted to McCabe, you might have hear some resonances.

Here’s the audio:

michelangelo_pieta_grtI’m in Ohio this week for my grandfather’s funeral.

Six years ago I attended the funeral of my other grandfather. His death occurred in the winter, just before Advent.

This is the Advent sermon I preached shortly after his burial. Though the sermon is about Mary’s ‘Let it be…’ I think it’s still appropriate for Holy Week, for this is the week we confront the full measure of Mary’s words.

November 30, 2008

This past weekend I helped Father Stephen Bloom bury my father’s father.

It was the first time I’ve participated with the funeral of someone in my own family. The service was held at St. Charles Catholic Church in Northern Ohio. In the sanctuary, stained glass scenes wrapped around the pentagonal spire. In the center was a picture of creation. To its left, the disciples were fishing in what looked like the Ohio River. Next to it, Jesus was feeding loaves and fishes to a multitude of hungry factory workers.

Carved, wooden reliefs of the Stations of the Cross lined the circumference of the cross-shaped sanctuary, and in front of the front pew where I sat with my sister was a copper drum filled with baptismal water.

I watched numbly as Father Bloom draped a pall over my grandpa’s oak casket- the casket’s pewter crucifix bulging through the pall’s gray cloth. I watched as the Father took what looked like twiney bristles from a broom and flicked baptismal water over my grandpa.

Try as I might I didn’t really hear any of the scripture readings read by my cousins and I sang along to the 23rd Psalm without really thinking- but then, maybe that’s the point of such familiar words.

I spoke and when I was done I watched Father Bloom celebrate Mass for the Catholic members of my family. I knelt in the front pew and watched while others received the sacrament.

Now, there was a statue of Mary with her hands folded together on the wall in the front end of the sanctuary. While I was on my knees- because of the architecture and lines of the room- I noticed that it looked like Mother Mary was standing directly above my grandfather, praying for him. A sight my Protestant eyes are unused to seeing.

In fact, Mary was more of a fixture in my grandpa’s funeral service than I was prepared for.

During the intercessory prayer when the priest intoned over and again: ‘Blessed Mary, pray for us…’ I wasn’t sure whether or not I should join in and echo back.

And during the committal, when Father Bloom placed his hands on my grandpa’s casket and prayed: ‘May angels guide you and may Holy Mother Mary come forth to welcome you and lead you into the Holy City’ I didn’t know whether to say ‘Amen’ or ‘Hold on just a minute!’

When it comes to Mary, it’s my experience that most Protestant Christians know more about what they do not believe than they actually know about her.

For example, as a Protestant I know I don’t believe that Mary, after Jesus’ birth, was forever, perpetually a virgin. Nor do I believe that Mary herself was immaculately, miraculously conceived in her mother’s womb.

As a Protestant Christian I know I’m supposed to shake my head ‘no’ at the notion that- rather than suffering death- Mary, like Elijah, was lifted up into heaven. And I know that Mary is not the one whom I worship. Mary is not the one who decides my salvation and praying to her seems to walk a suspicious line.

When it comes to Mary, I know what I don’t believe.

I know too that we could rename this church St. Matthew’s, St. Paul’s or St. Stephens. We change the sign out front to read Faith or Wesley or Collingwood Community United Methodist Church. No one would ever let us get away with St. Mary’s United Methodist Church.

As a Protestant Christian, I know Mary’s name would be off limits but, to be honest, I don’t know why.

After all, Mary’s name comes up 217 times in the New Testament, nearly as many times as Peter or Paul. When almost everyone else has given up and fled, it’s Mary who’s at the foot of Jesus’ cross. And if she was in Jerusalem for Jesus’ arrest and trial then chances are she was by his side throughout his entire ministry.

As a Protestant Christian I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but why is it I forget that when Pentecost comes and the Holy Spirit descends like fire on the faithful, Mary is among those set loose to prophesy and proclaim?

Or that when Luke describes the early church breaking bread, praying and sharing their possessions with one another, Mary is one of the few leaders he identifies by name.

Most commentaries on today’s passage go out of their way to stress how the Annunciation is a story of God’s initiative and power. When Gabriel climbs in through Mary’s bedroom window, it’s God’s grace at work. You don’t see Him but God is the main character here.

The Annunciation, these commentators stress, is a display that God can work through the unlikely and unable- just like with Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth. What God can do through Mary’s womb is just a foretaste of what God can accomplish on a Cross.

Nothing, after all, is impossible with God.

It’s a story of God’s initiative. It’s not a story set in motion by Mary’s goodness- that’s all you need to remember in order to be a good Protestant. But once you’ve gotten that bit of doctrine nailed down, what else do we say about Mary?

Because there’s got to be more to say.

For most of us, Mary disappears from Jesus’ story as soon as the Christmas crèche is put away, but it’s ridiculous to think that once he’s born Mary simply disappears from Jesus’ life.

If Jesus is fully human, if the paradox is true and he’s as much flesh and blood as you or me, then someone taught Jesus his aleph, bet and gimmels.

Someone taught him to pray. Jesus sat on someone’s lap and learned the meaning of his name: God saves.

Someone taught him to treat others like he would want to be treated. When other children were mean to him, someone probably patted Jesus’ back and said ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.’

And once a year someone sat Jesus around the family supper table and broke bread and poured out wine and taught Jesus to remember the violent night when God rescued them from bondage.

Someone kept faith and kept Gabriel’s promise alive during those growing up years when the angel’s promise was anything but obvious- and that someone was probably Mary.

Mary was most likely only 13- certainly no older than 16. She was poor, from a poor, obscure town.

Maybe she was dreaming or praying or planning her wedding day when the angel Gabriel erupts in her room and surprises her with the news that just like the opening day of creation God was about to bring a very big something from nothing.

But the biggest surprise has to be that Mary says ‘Yes.’

A surprise because Mary says ‘Let it be’ to Gabriel, many months before she says ‘I do’ to Joseph.

Mary and Joseph were not yet married but Mary’s betrothal to him was legally binding in 1st century Judaism. She couldn’t yet sleep with Joseph, but she could be charged with adultery should she sleep with another man.

Maybe Gabriel didn’t know that but you can bet Mary did.

Don’t forget. No one else is in the room when the angel breaks the news. What’s Mary supposed to tell people- that the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she’s pregnant with the long-promised Messiah?

As far as public scrutiny went, God was asking Mary to become an unwed, teenage mother.

When Mary says ‘Yes’ to Gabriel, she’s saying ‘Yes’ to being labeled an adultress.

People would question the integrity of her marriage. People would gossip about her son’s real father. People would curse her, shun her, call her names not fit for church or temple and they would wish disaster on her pregnancy. Her husband’s reputation would be ruined and her son would be forever ostracized.

You see, Luke doesn’t spell it out in his Gospel because he assumes you know what treatment Mary can expect to receive for saying ‘Yes’ to God’s calling.

According to Old Testament law, for her untimely pregnancy, if accused Mary would have her clothes torn and her body exposed. She’d be forced to let her down. She’d be displayed at the town entrance where the public and passersby would be encouraged to stare at her and shame her.

If Mary protested or denied any wrongdoing, then, according to Numbers 5, Mary would be forced by a priest to drink a bitter concoction mixed of dust, ink from her written condemnation and holy water.

If the potion made her sick, then she was guilty and, according to Deuteronomy 22, she would be led to the town gate. There, she would be stoned.

Mary’s suffering begins 33 years and 9 months before her son’s suffering.

She carries her cross before Jesus even learns to walk.

That’s what Luke assumes you know when he tells us that Mary was “troubled” by the angel’s news.

What’s remarkable is that, in spite of the many risks, Mary says: ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’

Unlike Moses or Jonah or Jeremiah, Mary doesn’t protest: Isn’t there an easier way? Can’t you choose someone else? Can’t you wait until next spring when Joseph and I are married? Can’t you send out a press release so everyone will know who his real father really is? But I’m afraid.

Mary doesn’t protest. She just says: ‘Yes.’

As a Protestant Christian, I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but how is it that I so easily miss the fact that, in the middle of Galilee, was an ordinary girl whose faith had prepared her to make a risk-filled commitment to God?

My skepticism about her perpetual virginity or her assumption into heaven doesn’t change the fact that Mary knew and trusted God in a way no one had since Abraham.

The only explanation for Mary’s unhesitating ‘Yes’ is that she knew God, in his mercy, would look after her.

She knew that following God doesn’t necessarily lead to comfort or safety or material blessing, but it does guarantee that God will use you to be a blessing to the world.

Mary must have known the stories of people like Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab- she must have known that more often than not God uses ordinary people with ordinary means and ordinary gifts to do redemption’s work.

Mary knew that faith in our God doesn’t exempt you from hardship or struggle, but it does mean you’ll never be alone. You’ll never be forgotten. You’ll never be abandoned.

If you were to tell the story of my grandfather’s life, you would find that it’s a simple story to tell. Still, in the telling of it, you would, from time to time, have to use words like: FEAR, WORRY, DESPAIR and DEPRESSION.

Depending on which part of my grandpa’s story you were telling, you would have to use other words like: ADDICTION, INFIDELITY, ANGER, ILLNESS, GRIEF, LONELINESS.

Because of my parent’s divorce and our having moved away, I hadn’t seen much of my grandpa since I was 12 or 13 so I don’t honestly know what role faith played in my grandpa’s story.

But I know enough of his story to know that faith could have made all the difference.

It was only 10 degrees at my grandfather’s burial- so cold that Father Bloom’s numb fingers couldn’t turn the pages of his prayer book when it came time for the final prayer and benediction.

Standing at the head of my grandpa’s casket, Father Bloom improvised. He looked at the living gathered around my grandpa and said: May the grace of Jesus Christ fill you, and may the faith and obedience of Mary guide you. 

You could see my breath hit the cold air so loudly did I say: Amen.