Archives For Advent

Untitled44Here’s a pop quiz based on the first 10 sections of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

 

1. Prior to the Incarnation, God the Word was:

A) Far away from us with God’s back turned against us because we are sinners and God is holy.

B) Nearer to us than we are to ourselves because even prior to the Incarnation the Word imbues all things in creation and holds them in existence.

C) In Heaven.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we typically think of God as remote? 

 

2. According to St. Athanasius, God the Word took flesh in order to:

A) Suffer God’s wrath in humanity’s stead.

B) To pay the price, suffering sin’s penalty for us.

C) To die our death and, in doing so, exhaust Death of its power over us.

D) To demonstrate God’s holiness by demonstrating the wages of sin upon the cross.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we interpret the cradle and the cross punitively when Genesis 1 speaks of death as sin’s consequence in no such tones?

 

3. Athanasius identifies the debt paid by the Incarnate One as:

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

Bonus: Why do we literalize scriptural metaphors like ‘debt’ when the Church Fathers felt free to use them without explaining exactly how they worked. 

 

4. For Athanasius, the place and purpose of Christ’s teaching in the Incarnation is: 

A) For us to get right with God through right actions.

B) To describe for us the ideal human life which will be possible only in the Kingdom.

C) To show us what we should do because Jesus told us to do it.

D) To reveal the means by which our tarnished humanity may be restored in God’s likeness.

Bonus: Why do so many of our understandings of how Jesus saves us on the cross have little place for the life and teaching of Jesus? 

 

You don’t really need the answer key do you?

Missing By Nine Miles

Jason Micheli —  December 15, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517This Sunday I continued our Mystical Christmas series by looking at Matthew 2.1-12, the Magi’s journey, through the lens of a journey of my own, both ordinary and not so ordinary.

I got the idea from the ancient Church Father, John Chrysostom, who writes of the passage:

“The star of Bethlehem was not an ordinary star, for no other star has this capacity to guide, not merely to move but to beckon and invite…The star remained after bringing them to the place, in order that the child might also be seen. For there is nothing conspicuous about Christ. The inn was ordinary. The mother was ordinary. The star needed to manifest and illumine the ordinary until they had reached their destination.”

- John Chrysostom 

When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any right-thinking person does.

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

A Kenny G musak cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ played- barely audible- over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their stuff above them.

Across the aisle, caddy-corner to me, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out.

His mother had her arm around him and was saying shush but the boy was inconsolable. He stomped his feet and screamed at the top of his lungs: I don’t care how much pumpkin pie Grandma’s made I don’t want to fly.

Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year I won’t keep my mouth shut.

On my right, on the aisle side, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know how much is too much.

Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his Blackberry- seriously a Blackberry. He had a Wall Street Journal as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap.

He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled so strongly of man-perfume that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it.

He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.

And there I was, the happy holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Bernie Madoff and Miley Cyrus.

While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2014 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes.

     Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?

The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.

 

I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air you could see the stars.

The fasten seatbelt sign chimed off and the captain came on and spoke reassuringly over the intercom about every angle and altitude of our journey ahead. Not that you could hear him over the boy who was still wailing and still stomping his feet and who’d started to hyperventilate.

Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow.

Seriously. Eyeshadow.

And the woman behind me- though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal- was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d had to spend with her husband’s mother.

Having had many of these same conversations with my own wife, I didn’t bother to turn around. Even without looking, I knew her husband was looking sheepish and emasculated, and probably gritting his teeth in a ‘serenity now’ kind-of-way.

Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.

And I thought to myself: Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.

I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.

He chuckled and said: Good luck.

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Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes.

It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a pastor can provoke interminable, unwanted conversations.

And I’ve discovered the hard way that sitting on an airplane in between strangers can be just like that.

     Ironically, though, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking a bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me.

You don’t even have to read it necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space.

Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo.

Stops them every time.

That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my bible out and opened, not to Revelation but to Matthew 2- not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left but also because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance.

Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc.

He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map.

Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop.

I watched him do this several times before I realized what he was doing.

He had Excel opened up on his computer and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift and then a hyperlink to the company’s website.

Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2014 Christmas.

I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Mockingjay pin, like the one worn by Catniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, for only $80.00.

I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake Mockingjay pin when the guy sitting next to me said: Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.

I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked Save.

     After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh.

And he said: It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?

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I looked over at him. You talking to me? I said as the fingers of my right hand deflty felt over my bible for the Book of Revelation.

 

You talking to me? I asked.

Yeah, he said.

Are you religious, he asked, and nodded at the bible on my tray.

Yeah, I guess so.

That’s good, he said in an absent sort of voice. I’m not, never have been.

I let his voice of trail off.

A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the bible.

It’s the story of the magi, I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights.

The what?

The wise men, I said.

He said: Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?

Not exactly, I said. They go to Jerusalem first not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.

Sounds like they must’ve let their wives drive, he laughed.

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I thought that might be the end of it. I was just about to turn to Revelation or pull out Guns and Ammo or pretend I was asleep.

But then he asked me: Why do they go to Jerusalem first?

Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us: educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation.

They went to Jerusalem first because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.

He smiled a wise smile at me and said: In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts and then getting back to their normal lives.

And I smiled and said: Something like that.

 

 

Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag.

The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment.

And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip.

The man next to me sat up and turned towards me.

Can I read it? he asked.

Well, you’ll have to ask her when she wakes up, I said, but I don’t think that’s the kind of book you borrow from someone.

No, not that book, he said.

And he held out his hand for my bible. So I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of chapter two: It’s this part I said.

He took a while with it. He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe.

When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back.

Then he turned it over and gazed at the back cover and then the front cover, gazing at the cheap, beat-up bible like it was a talisman or a treasure.

Then he held the bible out to me and he put his index finger down at the page.

What’s this? he asked me.

He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.

     That’s from Micah, I said, from the Old Testament.

Can you show me? he asked.

And I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him.

It’s short, I warned, only a few pages long.

I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words.

I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading. I wondered if it might be:

He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path. 

or

He will judge between many peoples. 

or

Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore. 

or

He will gather the lame and assemble the immigrants and all those who grieve. 

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

(in other words, will the Lord be pleased with all my stuff)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then he handed it back to me.

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A few minutes passed before he closed his laptop and said: That’s quite a gift you know.

The Mockingjay pin? I asked.

No, he said, the wise men.  For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked.

     For them to be able to look at a helpless baby in a poor woman’s arms in a little village, for them to believe he’s the one, the only one, they should honor, for them to believe he’s the one to make Micah’s words come true- for them to able to do that, it’s got to be a gift from God.

     I guess I never thought about it like that, I said, even though, now that he’d said it, I could think of an ancient Church Father who’d written something very similar.

I travel a lot, he said. I don’t get to see my family much. Every year I try to make up for it at Christmas. I search to find just the right gifts, but lately I feel like I’m always looking in the wrong places.

The Good News is so were the magi, I said.

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We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows.

I’d closed my eyes.

I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it, he said.

That’s Luke’s Gospel, I said. Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.

I guess we’re more like the wise men anyway, he said.

How so?

None of us have angels telling us what to do or making things easier for us. We’ve just got to search, and, when we find what we’re searching for, decide whether or not we’ll let it change us.

You ought to be a minister, I said.

He laughed and said: I don’t think so. Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?

I laughed and said…pretty much.

 

 

As we were getting off the plane, the journey over, I asked him:  Are you going back to DC after the holiday?

No, he said, I’ve made some commitments. I’m going home a different way.

A better Christian blogger would bite his virtual tongue and remain diffident. After all, beating up on American Atheists Dot Org is like making fun of Joel Osteen’s teeth or pointing out that Ted Cruz is a McCarthy-esque a@#-clown.

It’s just too easy to ridicule a group that takes itself even more seriously than the evangelicals they’re wont to battle.

Sure enough it’s Advent and American Atheists Dot Org are putting up their annual craptastic ‘War on Christmas’ billboards all over the Bible Belt.

That American Atheists Dot Org apply the same obtuse, tone-deaf literalism to the Christmas story as do the conservative Christians with whom they’re supposedly locked in pitched rhetorical battle makes me suspect their ‘War on Christmas’ is just a franchise of Bill O’Reilly’s ‘War on Christmas.’

If not, it at least provides bipartisan consensus that unimaginative killjoys exist in both fundamentalisms, Christian and None.

At the very least, it proves that fundamentalism itself- with literalism as one of its dominant motifs- is itself the product of modern liberalism.

Here’s their 2014 billboard:

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Don’t even get me started on their (false) assumption that the absence of Christian mythology equates to freedom from any and all other mythology (Secularism, Freedom, America, Racism, Capitalism, Individualism).

With tones of self-congratulatory enlightenment, American Atheists Dot Org’s website etc enumerates in sensationalist fashion the ‘fairy tales’ from which they would have us closeted non-believers rise up in erudite opposition.

You know the ‘secrets’ that the leaders of ORGANIZED RELIGION like me hide from the poor ignorant bastards who comprise their faithful flock.

Among these church-shattering revelations:

1. The bible does not say what year Jesus was born (gasp!).

2. The bible does not say Jesus was born on December 25, originally a Roman holiday (what? no!)

3. The bible doesn’t say there was an ox and an ass in the manger (how dare artists elaborate the story for the sake art!).

4. There are extra-canonical gospels that include other details about Jesus’ birth and childhood (No! It can’t be! Didn’t the ancient Christians know this?).

5. The bible doesn’t say there was 3 wise men (see #3).

6. Only 2 of the 4 Gospels have nativity stories (really? I never noticed that, damn).

7. Matthew’s Nativity story is different and, chronologically, irreconcilable with Luke’s Nativity story (how did I miss that?).

The membership of American Atheists Dot Org boasts some pretty impressive names so one can presume they’re not all stupid or intentionally dense, yet their craptastic billboards are a breathtaking exercise in missing the point.

It just goes to show that one can be smart yet have no imaginative, poetic sense of how narrative functions to tell ‘truth,’ convict, shape faith and elicit transformation.

It also goes to show, I’d wager in many of their cases, how destructive it can be to raise your kids in an idiot Christianity (Fundamentalism) that they then react against with their own version of black/white, overly rationalistic, idiot Fundamentalism.

American Atheists Dot Org brand of muckraking billboards never lets on that all of these supposed ‘secrets’ and ‘fairy tales’ have been known and accepted by the Church for centuries.

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For the Church catholic these revelations are a snore and for that reason their billboards should provoke a pitying ‘there, there’ chuckle.

For example, Christians only began celebrating Christmas in the 4th century. Meaning: it’s possible to worship God-in-Christ without the nativity stories (Mark and John obviously thought so); therefore, none of these breathless ‘fairy tales’ drive the dagger into the heart of Christianity as AA imply.

Yes, Matthew and Luke tell different stories. That’s the freaking point. They tell the stories they do the way they do NOT because they’re attempting to construct the sort of biography AA apparently expects. They tell the stories the way they do to make a particular confession about who Jesus is.

Matthew tells his story through Joseph and by way of Egypt to profess that Jesus is the New Moses for a New Israel through whom God is working deliverance.

Luke tells his story the way he does to make the oldest of Christian claims: Jesus (ie, not Caesar) is Lord.

And yes, I know Luke and Matthew didn’t actually write those Gospels. They were attributed to them later in a honorific gesture. But guess what? St Augustine beat American Atheists Dot Org to that newsflash by about 1600 years.

What American Atheists Dot Org gets right is that there’s not much first century documentation about Jesus.

Which the Church has always known.

And never been bothered by.

Because the point isn’t that Jesus lived.

It’s that he’s alive.

Untitled44These short sections of On the Incarnation brought two different, disparate movies to mind.

The first film is last spring’s Noah starring Russell Crowe (#4 on Jason’s Man Crush List). I watched it with my boys until the scene just after the Flood when things felt like they were about to get a little rapey on the boat and I pressed pause.

Just before that scene, though, after the many waters have come and you can hear the agony of all those creatures great and small dying a terrible death outside the ark, my youngest son, who’s got at least a dozen storybook versions of this same story in his bookcase, said aloud, as though an epiphany:

‘God doesn’t seem very nice.’

Yeah.

No wonder God promises never to do such violence again.

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Reading Athanasius’ account of the incarnation, it hit me that the way we often speak of the cradle and the cross would have God break that post-Flood promise.

If Jesus is born in order to suffer the punishment we deserve, as we so often sing and say, then doesn’t God- at least symbolically- renege on his promise never to flood the earth again?

How is God killing all but a few of creation by water substantively different than saying Jesus was tortured the torture all of humanity deserve in God’s eyes?

Is it just a matter of quantity versus quality? Is God off the hook because he only kills Jesus this time?

Or can we surmise that when God forswears flooding he also rejects crosses? Rejects ‘redemptive violence?’

Noah and these thoughts came to mind because in §6 of On the Incarnation I was struck by the different tenor with which Athanasius speaks of the Word’s coming.

Due to the corrupting nature of death, Athanasius writes that the creation made by the Artificer was disappearing; in fact, you could follow Athanasius’ logic and argue that prior to the incarnation ‘humanity’ no longer existed.

But such is what God had said would happen: ‘If you eat of the fruit of the tree…you will surely die…’

Athanasius notes that it would be ‘monstrous’ if God, Goodness itself, turned out to be a liar. Once set in motion, Death spread inexorably, not as a punishment, but more like a disease that infection’s allowed to set in.

If it would be monstrous for God to be proved a liar, Athanasius also argues it would be ‘unseemly’ should God prove neglectful. ‘Neglect reveals weakness,’ Athanasius posits, ‘and not goodness on God’s part.’

If the Artificer let his creation dissolve into ruin and nothingness, then it would be better had he not made us in the first place, for ‘…it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things he made should waste away.’

If we deserve restoration as God’s creatures, if God must restore us if he is to be worthy of his goodness, then the question turns from one of why to how.

How is God to restore us?

By our repentance?

While Athanasius doesn’t dismiss the value in repenting, repentance itself does not protect the veracity of God’s words in the Garden. Death is the problem. God said we would die and our repentance can’t undo death.

What’s more, repentance does not set us on a permanent course back to incorruption. We can’t say we’re sorry all the way back to Eden.

As Athanasius puts it, ‘…repentance [does not] call men back from what is their nature- it merely stays them from acts of sin.’ Put differently, ‘I’m sorry’ from creatures who are now less than creatures doesn’t cut it.

Death, which prevents us from living a fully human life, a life in God’s image, is the problem.

The only way to restore humanity then is for a true human life to be lived. For a true human life to suffer death and, in dying, triumph over death. This is a key different between Athanasius and many popular notions of cradle and cross.

For others, the incarnation is instrumental; it’s simply the means by which God gets to the end of the story- the cross- where the suffering Christ can elicit our repentance.

For Athanasius, the incarnation is the means and the end in itself. The Word taking flesh is like the antidote for which resurrection from death is the full and final cure.

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To reference the promised second movie, the Word taking flesh is like Aslan’s rumored arrival in Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aslan’s landing in Narnia alone begins to melt the White Witches’ snow long before the Christ-like lion suffers death on the stone table.

His coming alone initiates healing.

Untitled44In the 26th verse of Genesis, God declares ‘Let us make humankind in our image…’ The first person plural is not peripheral for Athanasius. If the ‘us’ is a referent to the Trinity, then you and I do not on our own constitute the divine image. If God is only God as a community of fellowship and love between Father, Son and Spirit, then what it means for humankind to be made in the image of God is for the human community to be a fellowship of love in, with and under the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The imago dei is plural because God is triune.

Which means you’re more you when you’re in loving friendship with the ‘we.’

Moreover, because God created from nothing, God is literally the Source of all that is. God is Life. The opposite of such a God is privation. Death. Nothingness.

This is key to how Athanasius and the other Church Fathers construed the Fall. By seeking life independent of God, humanity incurs not sin and wrath but death. Adam and Eve do not provoke a long story of humanity offending God’s honor or holiness, as Calvin et al later held. No, as the Genesis text makes abundantly clear, Adam and Eve’s choice leads to death- not as a punishment but as a logical, do-that-and-you’re-gonnna-die, consequence.

The Fall for Athanasius simply induces a return to our ‘natural’ state. If God is the Source of everything than turning our backs on God leads to nothingness.

If God is the Source of Life, then the Fall leads to Death and, ultimately, to our disintegration.

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Disintegration is the closest Athanasius comes to speaking of Hell but already therein you have a wide departure from the popular notion of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment. Implicit in the latter view, is that the things in Hell remain things. Hell is a place that has a population.

For Athanasius, if God creates from nothing and holds everything in existence then there is no ‘hell,’ for hell, or the ‘people’ in it, are no-thing.

So there could be no more discordant concept to force upon On the Incarnation than the popular notion that God predestined sin in order to display God’s holiness in Christ’s Cross. Only the categories of guilt and punishment require such logic. Instead, for Athanasius, sin is better understood as an illness to be healed not an infraction to be punished.

The Fall leads to death.

Sin is illness.

Nothing could be more important to understand how Athanasius understands the incarnation.

The Word comes in the flesh because the flesh is sick.

The triune God who is the Source of Life created us in his image; therefore, sin is like a deprivation of what makes for life and a disintegration of the community for which we’re made.

So the incarnation is for our healing and reincorporation.

As sinners, we’re not reprobates worthy of wrath.

We’re sick. We’re broken.

And we’re alienated.

Most pop renderings of the incarnation and atonement stress how, as a result of sin, we’re alienated (‘separated’ is the preferred term) from God. I was only a youth director for little more than a year but even I resorted to the terrible, Romans Road illustration of Christ’s cross bridging chasm between God and you.

Athanasius hints at a different sort of alienation.

If the God who made us is community, then the Fall names a fracture of community. Because of sin, we’re alienated.

Not from God.

God is the One who sustains us at every moment of our existence; we’ll never be so great that we could alienate God from us- that’s idolatrous.

No, because of sin we’re alienated from one another:

“ Cities were at war with cities, and nations were rising up against nations; and the whole earth was rent with civil commotions…” 

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Athanasius’ On the Incarnation isn’t as archaic as you might think, not nearly as irrelevant as you’re tempted to suppose.

Take Ferguson. And Michael Brown.

Take Staten Island and Eric Garner.

Take ‘Hands Up. Don’t Shoot’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe.’

Take those police and the (not so?) grand juries.

Some on one side call it sin. Others, maybe on the same side, call it injustice.

Others on the other side call it tragic necessity. Or duty.

Whichever side, those on one side see those on the other side as ‘other.’

Whatever else you can or would like to say about Michael Brown or Eric Garner, what you can say without debate- what even the grand juries would have to concede- is that they are exhibits A and B for how alienated we are from one another in America.

Black and white.

Poor and not nearly as hard-up as you like to think.

Athanasius looks at Ferguson and Staten Island and the eventual forgetfulness among whites that will settle in and he says that the Fall begat not God’s wrath but disintegration.

A loss of the communal fellowship we call Trinity and in whose image we were made.

Sin then, for Athanasius (like Flannery O’ Connor 1.5 centuries after him) isn’t something we do. It’s something we’re in.

All of us.

Untitled44Take a random stranger, walking down the street.

Look at them. What do you see?

Do you see a sinner, deserving of God’s wrath punishment?

Or do you see a creature, made by and loved by God?

I recall my Jedi Master, Dr. Robert Dykstra, posing that multiple choice to us as an aside one semester at Princeton. The question was one that had been put to him by the chair of his ordination committee.

His answer was something like ‘I know the first answer makes me ‘right’ theologically speaking, but I think the second answer will make me a better pastor.’

I remember thinking: Damn, slick response.

And: Yup, probably so.

In §2-3 of On the Incarnation Athanasius begins to unspool his case that the second argument not only makes for better pastors, it makes for a better God. He does so by linking together creation and incarnation, cross and new creation all as one single work grace.

In my own little cul-de-sac of the Christian tradition, United Methodism, we spend a lot of time parsing and divvying up, labeling and sequentially ordering, the many forms or  movements of God’s grace.

Prevenient grace.

Justifying grace.

Sanctifying grace.

We memorize on individuated flash cards.

Among Methodist ordinands, there’s even a terrible likening of the ‘stages’ of God’s grace to a house with a front porch as though the mystery of God’s sharing of God’s own life with us is analogous to a Thompson Creek commercial on 106.7 The FAN.

For Methodists, ‘prevenient’ (from the Latin- our lone moment of slumming it with the papists- for ‘to come before’) grace is the work of God which comes before your Christian conversion. It’s the grace by which God gives you sight to recognize and character to accept the (real) grace God does in Jesus Christ the Cross.

Contrary to Methodists, Athanasius would countenance no such divisions or distinctions when it comes to God’s unmerited work among us. For Athanasius, everything, every last single damn thing, is completely gratuitous.

It’s all grace.

Viewed from the Artist’s perspective, it’s all the same grace.

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Before and after make no sense when it comes to grace. Seeing the Cross as the ‘amazing’ grace is to make a category mistake for it obscures that you likewise don’t deserve for the Creator to hold you in existence at every moment of your existence.

Everything, it’s all gratuity.

To so argue, Athanasius roots his understanding of the incarnation where others seldom even give a passing glance, with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

Creation from

Out of

No-thing.

In §2 Athanasius contrasts creatio ex nihilo with the two rival views of his day.

On the one hand, there was Plato who believed that ‘God’ had created from pre-existing materials- which would’ve meant that ‘creation’ in some sense was eternal.

On the other hand, there were those who believed that the Supreme (remote) Being would not have deigned to create the world; therefore, creation was the result of exalted, subsidiary being(s).

The former view, Athanasius argues, would imply that God is not an Artificer, creating from things which did not exist, but is more like a mechanic or tradesman, crafting-not creating- from the stuff around him. And hence something less than thoroughly, sheerly gratuitous.

The latter view, Athanasius points out, renders Jesus something less than divine.

For Christian speech to be intelligible, neither view is acceptable.

The Word which created must not be distinct from the Word which comes in the flesh, but the Word which took flesh from nothing in Mary’s womb must also have created originally from nothing.

Lest grace be something less than constitutive God’s very character, which would make creche and cross something more like a change in God’s mood.

The One God created gratuitously, every thing from no thing.

But the Word was with God, present, at creation.

Therefore the Word is God.

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If so, the salvation wrought by the Word made flesh is but a continuation of the original grace that is creation by the same Word. Or better put, according to Athanasius’ reasoning, ‘salvation’ is a word that names everything in between ‘let there be light’ ‘behold, I tell you a mystery.’

It names it all because the only reason for a creation from nothing is that there can be no reason. It’s all gift. And so the only ‘reason’ is that God desires to share triune life. Just as each moment in Jesus’ ministry is but a part of what it means for Jesus to be incarnate, each moment after creation is an episode in the large, seamless drama of God bringing us into union with God.

So it’s true that, within that drama, there are chapters in which Dr. Dykstra’s first possible answer is demonstrably true. We are sinners worthy of wrath. But if the Word made flesh also made everything ex nihilo, then the bigger, truer, older answer is B.

We are completely gratuitous creatures of the Creator and, thus, loved as precious children.

lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517This Sunday I continued our ‘Mystical Christmas’ Advent series by looking at my visit to the dermatologist’s office through the eyes of 4th century theologian and mystic, Gregory of Nazianzus. The text for the Sunday was Paul’s in 2 Corinthians 5.17-21.

You can listen to the sermon here below, to the right in the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes here.

‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’

     So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.

It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck.

My wife, Ali, has been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. It’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.

I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.

To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until last summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.

Now obviously me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E), a moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.

Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.

 

But I digress.

The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool last summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.

Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.

But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.

Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.

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I called the doctor the next morning.

Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us communists.

No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.

The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.

First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month? Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.

Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’

‘Just about’ she replied.

‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’

Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.

 

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When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough. Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.

I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.

‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness. A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.

Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.

The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.

“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that. I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle. Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.

Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.

All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.

‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.

For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.

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She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but I’ve never been a patient before and most of the patients I do see are underneath sheets and blankets.

Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear one it is not as self-evident as you might think.

Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?

Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’

So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.

And, I was naked.

If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’

‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.

‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’

‘No, I’m fine,’ I said, my cheeks heating the room a degree or 20.

The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD. He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’

So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.

He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’

Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’

‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.

With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, and clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.

The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.

Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.

‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.

‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him, because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.

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Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.

But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.

‘I’m a minister’ I said.

‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.

‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.

Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop. You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.

John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’

Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.

The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.

Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.

She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.

Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.

‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.

She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’

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‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.

She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’

‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’

‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.

The doctor laughed too.

They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.

James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.

Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.

Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.

On the inside-

I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.

The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.

And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.

What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.

So I pretend.

I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my shit together even when my shit’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, faith when I feel doubt, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.

I don’t keep it real.

I pretend. I play-act. I hide.

And so do you.

And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.

Which is odd.

Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. And we don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.

No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.

All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.

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On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’ As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.

‘St. Gregory!’ I said out loud, mostly to myself.

‘Sorry,’ the doctor apologized, ‘maybe it’s not numb enough.’

He thought it was a curse- St Gregory. He thought I was referring to the pain in my skin.

But it wasn’t a curse. I wasn’t referring to the pain.

Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.

Gregory of Nazainzus.

The 4th century Church Father and mystic who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.

All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.

It has to be.

Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’ Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed. Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.

Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.

So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.

We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already. Says Gregory.

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With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’

‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.

Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.

Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born in us today.”

O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.

The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.

And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself that that is not our Gospel.

 

 

Jesus Doesn’t Exist

Jason Micheli —  December 5, 2014 — 1 Comment

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I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

3. Is Jesus a Human Being?

No.

Not like you or me even though he’s every bit like you or me.

Jesus is the union of humanity and divinity.

He is the ‘God-Man’ as the early Christians put it; in other words, the two natures- human and divine- share, in Jesus, one substance. The two natures are not discrete properties which for a time share the same real estate in Jesus. They share same existence.

To bring the distinction into still greater focus:

Jesus has no existence of his own apart from his existence in the Word.

There is no mortal, historical person called Jesus of Nazareth who still would have existed had there been no incarnation. Apart from his existence in the Word, Jesus has no existence as a human being. The human Jesus exists only also as the eternal Son.

So, yes, Jesus has an authentic human existence, as human as you or me, but Jesus’ human existence is only by virtue of his existence in God.

Unlike you and me.

Whereas we get our human existence from God, the human Jesus exists in God. The very existence of the human Jesus is God’s existence.

So, no, Jesus is not just a human being because Jesus is never not of one Being with the Father.

“He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” 

– Hebrews 1.3

Untitled44When it comes to Christ’s cradle and cross, we typically use words like ‘goodness’ and ‘worthiness’ in a very specific way. In a very particular direction.

Jesus is the (only) one who is good. Jesus alone is worthy of God’s love and vindicating resurrection, making Jesus the only one who is worthy of our worship.

We- it need not be added but frequently is- are manifestly NOT good. We are sinners.

We’re worthy only of God’s wrath, deserving the punishment we God mete(s) out on Jesus.

As the popular CCM Hillsong song puts it:

Thank you for the cross Lord/Thank you for the price You paid/Bearing all my sin and shame…Thank you for the nail pierced hands/Washed me in Your cleansing flow/Now all I know Your forgiveness and embrace/Worthy is the Lamb…

We are not good.

Like Wayne and Garth before Alice Cooper, we’re not worthy.

This is the same acknowledgement most Catholics admit after they receive the host in the Mass: O Lord, I am not worthy/That Thou should’st come to me/But speak the words of comfort/My spirit healed shall be. 

We do not deserve the gift of salvation God offers to us in Christ.

That’s the very definition of grace, right?

Maybe.

Maybe not (exactly).

In §1 of On the Incarnation, Athanasius begins hinting at a theme that will recur throughout the essay. Of the many names by which Athanasius will refer to God, the first one he employs here in §1 is ‘Artificer.’

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noun- archaic

1. a skilled craftsman, artist or inventor.

2. God

The image of God as Artist and humanity as God’s art governs Athanasius’ understanding of the whence and whither of the incarnation. Having been made ‘very good’ by this Artist, who made us for no other motivation but as an expression of his Goodness, humanity fell into disrepair. The Artist’s original intent has been sullied. His art has been defaced.

The effect of sin and death upon the Artist’s art is not unlike the grime that obscures the frescoes on Medieval church walls.

Notice-

The problem for Athanasius isn’t guilt, which must be punished. It’s corruption, which requires restoration. Healing.

So it’s not so much that you are a loathsome bastard who deserves the punishment Jesus, the only worthy one, bears for you, a la most CCM praise songs. Instead, for Athanasius, it’s more like you’re the Artificer’s exquisite art whose original beauty has been defaced and needs to be restored.

The art motif is not incidental in On the Incarnation for it provides Athanasius with the means to illustrate the logical consistency of the faith and its scriptural arc. In his treatment, what was once made by the Word and declared by the Word to be ‘very good’ remains good- if marred- because of the surpassing Goodness of the Artist.

Not only do we remain the Artist’s good creation, the Goodness of the Artist would be called into question if he allowed his art to languish without repair. No matter our appearance or condition, we remain precious art simply because of the Artist who made us.

Our provenance makes us worthy of reclamation.

And if the Artist abandoned his matchless art, left it to waste away, then we would rightly judge the Artist no longer worthy of his title.

‘O Lord, I am You would not [be] worthy/That If Thou should’st [not] come to me…’

The Mona Lisa, for example, remains a great painting even if today it retains a fraction of the original sheen DaVinci gave to it. Likewise, you’d never suggest that the Mona Lisa is undeserving of painstaking restoration. It’s too rare and precious a work of art.

The Mona Lisa, in other words, is worthy of restoration. Indeed you’d likely argue that the art community was not worthy of the Mona Lisa if it turned its back on her and refused to restore her to her intended beauty.

Athanasius uses this image of God as the ultimate Artificer to turn our categories like ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ on their heads and, by doing so, Athanasius seeks to show how what God does in Christ isn’t a counter-intuitive surprise but is logically consistent with God’s very first creative impulse.

And dammit if I don’t think it would produce better praise songs.

Untitled44Many of you emailed me to say you planned on reading On the Incarnation along with me during Advent. Here’s my ‘intro’ to the essay. I’ll be posting my thoughts on sections 1-10 in the days ahead.

But Advent’s Not About the Incarnation, Right?

It’s chic in mainline churches to point out (in finger-wagging fashion) that Advent is actually the liturgical season given over to longing for the return of Christ not anticipating his arrival at Christmas.

Advent then is about the second-coming not the first.

Advent is about the eschaton not the incarnation.

Maybe but in my experience Advent so understood is so counter-cultural as to be unhelpfully unintelligible.

What’s more, the official season of Christmas gives preachers precious few days (only 12) and 2 of the lowest attended Sundays of the year to devote their congregation’s attention to the incarnation, the central doctrine of the faith. By the time people return to church from the Christmas holiday, the lectionary cycle of scripture already has Jesus being baptized by John.

There’s been no time spent reflecting on the core mystery that preoccupied the first centuries’ worth of Christians; namely, that Jesus of Nazareth is the image of the invisible God, the Word, which called things into existence, made flesh.

Regardless of appropriate and sanctioned liturgical sensibilities, I think Advent- this time before the ‘Feast of the Incarnation’- when people in and out of the Church imbibe at least the passing intimation that the baby in the creche is God made flesh, is the perfect time to ponder the why of it all. Why does God take flesh in Jesus?

 

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Who is Athanasius?

This is the question St. Athanasius addresses in his classic, little treatise On the Incarnation, which I invite you to read and reflect along with me over the coming weeks.

You can download it free here: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word

It’s no understatement to say that, like St. Paul before him or St. Augustine after him, the Christianity you know and practice would be significantly different were it not for Athanasius. Even if this is the first you’ve heard of him, his fingerprints are all over your faith. His conviction has been on your tongue any time you’ve said or sung the Nicene Creed and, for that reason alone, On the Incarnation is a worthy devotional for the Advent season.

Whether his name was chosen or a harbinger of things to come, I’m not sure and I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia.

‘Athanasius’ though means literally ‘man of immortality.’

Not only is this a suitable name given the legacy he bequeathed the Church, the name is like a little, 5-syllable Cliff Notes reminder of his governing theme, immortality.

Like Cliff Notes however that doesn’t tell you the whole story because ‘immortality’ for Athanasius didn’t connote what it does for Christians today.

Immortality didn’t mean eternal life, at least not in the Jesus Prayer way we so often hear it. Immortality wasn’t shorthand for going to heaven when we die, some place that is not God where God is.

No.

Immortality meant union with the Triune God.

Immortality referred to the finite uniting with, becoming, joining the infinite.

So while his enemies called him ‘the black dwarf,’ his given name, Athanasius, gives you everything you need to know to read On the Incarnation rightly, for Athanasius believed that the eternal purpose of the incarnation and the very point of the Christian life is our union with the infinite we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

His incarnation is for our immortality.

Our union with God

Higgins, Mary, Scan

It’s an Evangelical Essay 

You can read online more about Athanasius’ historical context than I wish to regurgitate here. Suffice it to know that Athanasius wrote as a Bishop in the early part of the 4th century, a time for which 2 dates are key to understanding him.

In 313 AD, after 3 centuries of often brutal persecution, the Roman Empire- noticing the rapid growth of Christianity and reading the tea leaves- shifted to a posture of toleration towards the Church. Suddenly, Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had a stake in using the Church to unify his empire so in 325 he convened the first ecumenical council at Nicaea and “invited” its episcopal bishops to hammer out a consensus creed of the faith where a diversity of confession had previously been the norm.

Prior to 313 the experience of the Church was one of persecution. Post 325 the experience of the Church was one of theological infighting. Athanasius’ career and writings span the periods inaugurated by those two dates.

While most of his writings were occasioned by the intramural debates of the latter and are thus polemical in tone (he was frequently exiled when his views fell out of favor), Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation in the optimistic, take-a-deep-breath period following 313. Rather than being provoked by nasty in-fighting and controversy, it simply attempts a concise statement of the Christian faith, and rather than trying to settle an in-house theological question in dispute, On the Incarnation is an evangelical essay.

It’s 40-odd pages are meant to elicit a response in the reader, to compel the reader to make a decision for the Christian vision and life.

Athanasius’ imagined readers were neither the mass of the poor in Alexandria nor its philosophers but the ‘Nones’ of the 4th century, i.e., educated pagans. With them in mind he presents- as the Church must learn to do today for our Nones- Christianity as a rival to the world views which vie for humanity’s attention and loyalty.

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They Had the Opposite Hang-Up as Us

As critical, if not more, as historical context, is locating Athanasius in his theological context.

Whereas modern believers (and skeptics) have little trouble countenancing the real, genuine humanity of Jesus yet struggle with conceiving how the fully human Jesus could ever also be God, Christians for the 4 centuries of the Church’s history took it as self-evident that Jesus was fully God.

They had the opposite hang-up we do.

We struggle to comprehend how the human Jesus could be God; they struggled to comprehend how God could be One, since the human Jesus was self-evidently divine.

How could God be the Father and the Son and still be the one Lord of Israel’s shema?

To answer the question, Athanasius and his peers turned to a philosophical term common in their day, homo-ousios, which meant ‘of the same being’ or ‘of the same essence.’

Jesus is God, but God remains One because the Son is of ‘one being with the Father’ as we recite in the creed- thanks to… Athanasius.

Unlike you and me, the human Jesus- though still fully human, has no being or essence apart from the Being of the Father.

Being and essence are tricky terms for us (more on them later) but the divinity of Jesus and the oneness of God are the building blocks for Athanasius’ central theme in On the Incarnation: the re-creation of the fallen world by the Word who made the world in the very beginning. 

What Athanasius’ evangelical essay wants you to accept is the new life made possible by the life of Christ- which itself is made possible because that human life was lived by God!

As he puts it, and this is the whole essay in a nutshell:

Jesus’ divinity makes his human life powerful, and his humanity makes his divine life ours.

Holy Spirit

The Incarnation is the Most Natural Thing for God

Athanasius’ strong view of Jesus as the incarnate deity draws a sharp contrast to the two competing views of his day.

Plato believed the Supreme Being too remote and humanity too lowly on the scale of creatures for God ever to become incarnate. Meanwhile, Arius was a Christian thinker and eventual heretic who thought Athanasius’ doctrine of the incarnation threatened the unity and oneness of God. Alternatively Arius  understood Jesus as an intermediary creature between the true God and humanity, a demigod who can connect us to God without being God himself in the flesh.

Both the Platonic and Arian views, it’s important to note, saw God as a being within the universe albeit an exalted one, and, as a being within the universe, they assumed God was limited by the differences between creatures.

In other words, for Plato and Arius God cannot become incarnate because ‘divinity’ is categorically different from ‘humanity.’

Athanasius, on the other hand, believed God was absolutely transcendent, not a creature within the universe but a God, Father, Son and Spirit, in whom is contained all difference; in fact, the Trinity, a union of peace and difference, is the Source of difference itself.

For Athanasius, then, to say the incarnation is the most natural thing for God renders it no less mysterious.

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Things to Notice

In the next couple of days, I’ll post my thoughts on sections 1-10 of On the Incarnation.  In the meantime here are some points that might help you make sense of what you read.

          Death vs. Wrath:

Unlike many Christians today, Athanasius sees the consequence of the Fall not as God’s wrath but as death. Thus God comes in the flesh not to suffer God’s wrath towards sin but to undo death by dying our death.

          Salvation is Restoration:

How you define the problem determines what you see as the solution. Because Athanasius sees death, not sin and wrath, as the problem ushered into creation by the Fall, he does not view salvation, as we so often do, in terms of forgiveness and redemption. Those are but motifs within his larger theme of salvation as restoration, the revivification of humanity in God’s image.

          God’s Like an Artist or a King:

Taking restoration as the main theme of the incarnation, Athanasius uses metaphors of artwork or kingdom to unpack the reasons for God’s coming in the flesh. It would not be good or worthy of an Artist such as God, he argues, to allow his handiwork to go tarnished and without repair. Suppose a king’s kingdom was pillaged by vandals in his absence. A good king must return, dispatch the invaders and set his kingdom to rights.

Whereas we typically use the term ‘worthy’ to denote our lack of worthiness for God’s gift of salvation, Athanasius turns it around. As God’s artwork, we are worthy of salvation. Indeed God would not be worthy (to his own goodness) should he leave us in our state.

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517This Advent we kick off a sermon series entitled ‘Mystical Christmas,’ looking at Advent through the perspective of some of the Church’s ancient mystics.

This past Sunday I borrowed from St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) who viewed the Incarnation as the absolute and primary purpose of God in creation.

In other words, according to Maximus, the Incarnation is neither occasioned nor determined by the Fall.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it here. Though, I’ve got to admit that the holiday combined with my birthday produced a rather flat delivery. Mea culpa.

Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the building to take an informal poll of you all.

Armed with paper and pencil, they’ve snuck up on you here in the sanctuary as service begins. They’ve accosted hangers-on still lingering in the fellowship hall after the 8:30 coffee hour, and they’ve barged into Sunday School classrooms, emboldened by the permission to be as irritating as necessary in order to get answers to the questions we’ve given them.

In years’ past more than a few Sunday School teachers have told me they don’t particularly like anyone interrupting their class time.

A couple of people, including He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, have balled me out for putting them on the spot and making them looking foolish in front of sixth graders.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

About 15% of people always respond that Jesus comes to teach us how to love one another and help the needy. I suppose those are the liberals among us (I’ll get an email about that).

Without fail, a reliable 85% of people answer, in so many words, that Jesus comes to forgive us for our sins. That Jesus is born to die.

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all. More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out, that Jesus comes in order to die for us.

And the problem with that answer is that it’s wrong.

Or rather, it’s incomplete.

We lament the commercialization of Christmas. We talk about how Jesus is the reason for the season, and we root for Kirk Cameron to put the Christ back in Christmas.

But it’s not clear to me that we’re at all clear on what the reason for Jesus is.

A few Advents ago, as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was chewing me out in the church hallway after having been grilled by confirmands and their poll, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named grumbled at me:

‘Well, if I don’t know the answer to your questions is that my fault or my pastor’s fault?’ 

I told him that was a fair point and that if he wanted he could go right ahead and assign blame to his pastor…Rev. Dennis Perry.

Seriously, in the 13 years I’ve spent at bedsides and gravesides, the more  confessions I hear and struggles I listen to, the more people share their faith and their fears with me, the more kids and youth ask me questions, the more I’m convinced that the question ‘Why does Jesus come?’ is the most important question we can ask.

So today I want to do something different.

I want to give it to you straight up.

No personal stories. No clever rhetoric. No funny anecdotes. No desperate or ironic antics to win your attention. Not even a Joel Osteen crank.

Nothing to distract you away from what I want you to know.

Today I want to make a theological argument, and I’m going to take the gamble that you all can handle it.

My wife, Ali, assured me you were up for it. I told her I doubted it; she told me that you might find that insulting. If that’s the case, then I leave it to you to prove her right.

And if you’re not up for it, or if that’s not your cup of tea, then it’s your fault for coming to church the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Higgins, Mary, Scan

The problem in answering that Jesus comes to forgive our sins, the problem in suggesting that he’s born to die, is that it makes Christmas determined by us. It makes the incarnation contingent on us: on our sin, on the Fall, on Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

     The infinite (i.e., God) is determined by that which is finite.

You and me.

Instead of something that flows from God’s abundance, the incarnation is something provoked by our weakness. Instead of a gift God gives out of joy for us, the incarnation is the outworking of God’s frustration and disappointment in us.

Christmas then isn’t something God freely does of his love and grace; it’s something God’s compelled to do because of our plight. It’s something God has to do to rescue us from Sin.

     But by definition God doesn’t have to do anything.

And, secondly, to say that God sends Jesus; so that, we can be forgiven of our sins is to make Jesus a solution to a problem.

It’s like saying I married Ali; so that, I wouldn’t be lonely. I shouldn’t need to say that Ali is surpassingly more than just a hedge against loneliness. She’s not simply a solution to my problem.

But when we say God sends Jesus so that we can be forgiven of our sins, that’s exactly what we do. We reduce Jesus to a strategy. We circumscribe him according to his utility. We render Jesus down until he’s little more than a device God uses to bail us out of our situation.

Jesus isn’t a device.

No matter what Joel Osteen promises you, Jesus isn’t merely a solution to our problems.

Even our problem of Sin and Death. (I couldn’t help myself)

     Jesus isn’t a strategy made flesh; he’s the eternal fullness of God made flesh.

The image of the invisible God, as Paul’s Christ hymn puts it in Colossians 1.

Third, by saying that Jesus comes to forgive us our sins, we picture creation as a sinking ship and we imagine Jesus as God’s last ditch effort to save us. Or worse, we imagine ‘sin’ as something predestined or concocted by God merely to display his holiness and mercy upon the Cross.

But to picture Jesus as God’s last ditch effort to save us is to presume that Jesus would not have come if we hadn’t sinned.

That if there’d been no exit from Eden there’d have been no journey to Bethlehem.

     To suggest that Jesus might not have come is to say that the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s.

Indeed it’s to say that Jesus isn’t really the image of the invisible God because if the incarnation is not an eternal decision of God’s, if the incarnation is not something God was always going to do irrespective of a Fall, then that means at some point in time God changed his mind about us, towards us.

And if God changed his mind at some point in the past, then what’s to stop God from changing his mind again in the future. What’s to stop God from looking at you and your life and deciding that the Cross is no longer sufficient to cover your sins?

It’s true that Jesus saves us. It’s true that his death and resurrection reconcile God’s creation. It’s true that through him our sins are forgiven once and for all, but that alone is not why he comes.

That’s not why he comes because he would’ve come anyway, because he was always going to come.

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The ancient Christians had a catchphrase they used to think through this.

In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra. That was their way of saying: Who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is eternally in himself.

If what Jesus teaches us is really the Word of God, if the Cross is in fact a perfect sacrifice for your sins, if your salvation is indeed assured, if the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel- God with us- and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must’ve always been so. Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, of the Trinity.

 

That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.

That’s what we profess in the creed when we recite that Christ is the one ‘by whom all things were made.’

That’s what the first Christians sang in the hymn Paul quotes in his letter to the Colossians that Christ is:

‘…is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; all things have been created through him and for him…‘   

He was before was was.

He’s back behind yesterday.

There is not when he was not, and there can not be when he will not be.

What’s that mean?

     It means the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning.

It means that what we unwrap at Christmas isn’t simply a rescue package but an even deeper mystery:

The mystery that the Nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation. The mystery that the incarnation is God’s primal, primordial, eternal decision not to be God in any other way but God-with-us. The mystery that there is literally no limit to God’s love. There can be no time at which you can exhaust God’s love for you because Jesus Christ is before time.

And so Jesus doesn’t just come to forgive us our sins. He isn’t born just to die. Because when we say that Christ is pre-existent, we say that he would’ve come anyway, that he always going to come, that even if there hadn’t needed to be a Cross there still would’ve been a cradle.

Because before he brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins. Because if Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction.

     Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him.

We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life.

It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas; it’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.

Higgins, Mary, Scan

Jesus is the reason for the season, but the reason for Jesus is that before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed God’s deepest desire is, was and always will be friendship. Fellowship.

With us.

In the Trinity we discover that God is a community- an eternal friendship- of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In Jesus Christ, we discover that God became what we are so that we might be taken up into what God is. A friendship. A community of Father, Son and Spirit.

So the next time someone asks you ‘Why does Jesus come at Christmas?’ you’ve got no excuse.

You can’t blame Dennis. Now you know the answer.

Jesus comes because God wants to be friends with you. Or rather, Jesus comes because God wants you to join the friendship we call Trinity.

And that answer’s not as simplistic as it sounds.

‘Being forgiven’ doesn’t ask much from you, but friendship- the kind of faithful friendship Jesus displayed with the Father- that kind of friendship could potentially ask everything of you.

Untitled44There’s no better time than the Advent season of ‘holy anticipation’ to reflect on what I think is the most important question for Christians to ponder:

Why does God takes flesh in the first place?

Does God become incarnate in Jesus in order to die upon the cross; so that, we can be saved from our sins?

Is Christmas merely instrumental? Is the Incarnation just the means by which humanity pays the sin-debt owed to God, satisfying God’s wrath against us in the process?

Or is the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas itself salvific in some way?  Is humanity in some measure saved simply by God assuming our humanity?

And what do we mean by ‘salvation?’

For all you theology nerds, church geeks and preachers desperate for sermon ideas, I invite you to join me this Advent in reading and reflecting upon the Church Father Athanasius’ short essay On the Incarnation.

A bishop in the early 4th century and a leader against the Arian heretics (those who did not believe that the fullness of God dwelt in Christ) at the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation is one of the very first texts of developed Christian theology.

Plus, its short. 40 pages.

Even better, it’s free. Right here: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word

Print it out and after you’ve stuffed your face like the pilgrims of yore, get to reading.

Starting the week of 12/1 we’ll go at a 10-15 page pace a week.

Each week of Advent I’ll post my thoughts on what we’ve read, the context behind it and why it matters for thinking about and following Christ today.

Plus, each week I’ll post a podcast conversation about On the Incarnation between me and some special guests:

061213soulenDr. Kendall Soulen, Professor of Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary

Michael Harden, a Rene Girard scholar, author of The Jesus Driven Life and Executive Director of Preaching Peace

Bobby Ray Hurd, House Church Planter at Simple Church and the smartest dude I ‘know’ on the interwebs.

So read, listen, and send me a thought or question via email or the Speakpipe on the screen.

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To wet your whistle, here’s this money quote from Athanasius:

“Because the true story of the world has been lost in the seemingly endless epic of sin, Christ must retell- in the entire motion and content of his life, lived both toward the Father and for his fellows- the tale from the beginning.

The Logos became flesh in order to reestablish the original pattern after which the human form was crafted in the beginning, and to impress upon creation the beauty of the divine image.”

Want to know just how important those two sentences are for making sense of Christmas, Good Friday, the teachings of Christ and our hands-on embodiment of them for others?

Read.

Listen.

Ask.

12.1

Do it.

 

Rubens-adoration_des_magesFor the 4th Sunday of Advent, we did something a little different. The text was Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, a song Mary takes from the Old Testament Matriarch, Hannah, and makes her own. A cover song so to speak. A sample.

With Mary as my muse, I decided to prepare 5 different beginnings to a sermon.

We spun a wheel to choose a beginning at random. I preached that introduction and then tagged in to Dennis Perry who, like Mary, had to take my words and make them his own and then I finished up where Dennis leaves off.

I’d almost forgotten, but here’s the video from the 4th service that weekend. The theme chosen at random was ‘virgin birth.’

 

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

As the 12 Day Season of Christmas comes to a close so does this series of posts:

#1 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because God is like John Irving

I’m a rereader. I’ve been that way since I was a boy. One of the novels to which I return nearly every year is John Irving’s best, The World According to Garp.

The novel’s final scene depicts the writer, wrestling-coach and father, TS Garp, calmly dying an assassin’s gunshot as a helicopter carries away the man who as a boy had dreamed that his absent father was a pilot.

The novel’s last line:

“But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”

It’s much the same in all of Irving’s books. Before ever committing one word of his story to paper, John Irving already knows what will be the last line of his story, and that last line always makes it way into his story’s title.

He knows the story’s ending before he’s ever conceived of the beginning, much less the plot that will get the story there.

Maybe by the end of chapter 1, Irving the author knows that before his creations get to that already-established end, they’ll have to suffer the loss of a child, betrayal and reconciliation.

But, for Irving, that last line and closing image are first in the author’s intentions.

Irving, I believe, is no different than most a/Authors.

While some Christians insist that the incarnation of Christ presupposes Sin, that God would not have come in the flesh had human flesh never fallen, other Christians read the narrative arc of scripture and reflect on the mystery of the Trinity such that they come to a different conclusion.

For instance, the way John Irving conceives of his stories is analogous to how the Franciscan tradition has conceived the divine Story.

The Franciscan Duns Scotus puts it this way:

“Everyone who wills in an orderly manner, wills first the end, then more immediately those things which are closer to the end; but God wills in a most orderly manner; therefore, that is the way He wills.”

- Opus Parisiense

Another way Scotus puts this:

‘That which is last in act is first in intention.’

In other words, the End God desires is the first thing God determines.

According to scripture, what is the End God desires and towards which God is driving history?

It’s not saved souls leaving Earth to go up to Heaven; it’s Heaven coming down to Earth.

It’s God remaking the Earth.

It’s a restoration of what was intended but it’s also a realizing of something else so as to be called New: no more pain, no more tears. no more Death.

But it’s not all new things; it’s all things new.

It’s Heaven (the presence of the Creator) coming down to dwell with his creation.

It’s the community of Father, Son and Spirit joining the community of creatures.

– Revelation 21 & 22

This is the End which God desires and thus, according to Scotus, is the First God determines.

But how can God dwell with creatures when a creature, something created, is the one thing God absolutely cannot be?

 For God to reside with us God must reside in us.

The End desired, which is first in God’s determination, already presupposes an incarnation.

According to Scotus, to deny this and insist on thinking the other way ‘round requires us to believe God foresaw and predestined the fall of Adam prior to the predestining and begatting of Christ:

“If man had not sinned, there would have been no need for our redemption.  But that God predestined this soul [of Christ] to so great a glory does not seem to be only on account of that [redemption], since the redemption or the glory of the soul to be redeemed is not comparable to the glory of Christ’s soul.

Neither is it likely that the highest good in creation is something that was merely occasioned only because of some lesser good; nor is it likely that He predestined Adam to such good before He predestined Christ; and yet this would follow [were the Incarnation occasioned by Adam’s sin].

In fact, if the predestination of Christ’s soul was for the sole purpose of redeeming others, something even more absurd would follow, namely, that in predestining Adam to glory, He would have foreseen him as having fallen into sin before He predestined Christ to glory.

“It can be said, therefore, that with a priority of nature God chose for His heavenly court all the angels and men He wished to have with their various degrees of perfection before He foresaw either sin or the punishment for sinners; and no one has been predestined only because somebody else’s sin was foreseen, lest anyone have reason to rejoice over the fall of another.”

- Opus Oxoniense

I’m no NT Wright but let me resort to a less literary illustration:

Imagine I wanted to meet my friends for a great party.

With this end in mind, I set out to drive the way there. 

Failing to trust the instructions I’ve been given and insisting on finding my own way, I very quickly get off the intended path; in fact, I eventually happen upon a rupture in the road, too large to travel around or traverse down. I’m now so far off the path I was meant to travel I can’t return to the starting point but neither can I ever hope to fix the separation in the road on my own. I can’t get back from whence I came and I can’t get to where I’m meant to go. I’m lost and need someone to rescue me. And only such rescuing will ever deliver me to my original destination. 

And let’s say one of the friends who’d promised to meet me at that great party, who was already there and waiting for me, left it to come and help me. 

It’s true I’d gotten myself good and lost. It’s true that what separated me from my destination was too great to repair on my own. It’s true that I’d be without hope had my friend not come to save me.

However the getting lost, the rupture in the road, the friend coming to deliver me to the destination are not the point of the journey.

They are necessary and instrumental parts of the journey, but they are not the reason for the journey.

The destination is the point of the journey.

Had I not needed that friend to save me as I was lost, I still would’ve met that friend at the party because the End in action was always the First in intention.

Likewise, Revelation 21 comes before Genesis 1.

“Look the home of God is among mortals” precedes “And God said: Let there be light…”

Indeed incarnation, God taking up residence with us, is the reason God turned on the lights in the first place.

And that’s the good news, the reason for which Jesus is the reason for this season: that God wants not simply forgiven creatures; God wants friends.

 

 

 

 

adoration-of-the-shepherds-el-greco-domenico-theotocopuliTomorrow is Epiphany, the denouement of the 12 Day Christmas Season when the magi arrive from the East and offer gifts to the Christ child, gifts that are themselves a tacit recognition of  Mary’s boy’s true identity.

Epiphany hints at the Gospel’s finale: the inclusion of Gentiles into the People of God.

Epiphany shows the promise to Abraham coming to fruition: the healing of the entire world through God’s People.

Since tomorrow is Epiphany, and will be celebrated in most churches today, here’s a sermon on the magi story from Matthew 2.

I’ve aways thought Matthew lends the magi story a fable-like quality with a star that leads the wise men from the East and even hovers over Jerusalem while they sojourn there; therefore. I always tend to write magi sermons that are themselves whimsical.

Like Matthew, I’ve taken what is ‘true’ and bent it for my story-telling aim.

Thus…

When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any of you do.

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

A musak cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ played- barely audible- over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their stuff above them.

Across the aisle, caddy-corner to me, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out.

His mother had her arm around him and was saying shush but the boy was inconsolable. He stomped his feet and screamed at the top of his lungs: I don’t care how much pumpkin pie Grandma’s made I don’t want to fly.

Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year I won’t keep my mouth shut.

On my right, on the aisle side, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know how much is too much.

Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his Blackberry. He had a Wall Street Journal folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap.

He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled strongly of some kind of man-perfume.

He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.

And there I was, the happy holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Gordon Gecko and Hannah Montana.

While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2010 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes.

Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?

The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.

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I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air you could see the stars.

The fasten seatbelt sign chimed off and the captain came on and spoke reassuringly over the intercom about our journey ahead. Not that you could hear him over the boy who was still wailing and still stomping his feet and who’d started to hyperventilate.

Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow.

Seriously. Eyeshadow.

And the woman behind me- though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal- was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d spent with her husband’s mother. I didn’t turn around but I’m sure her husband was red-faced and gritting his teeth.

     Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.

And I thought to myself: Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.

I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.

He chuckled and said: Good luck.

Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes.

It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a minister can provoke unwanted conversations.

I’ve discovered the hard way that sitting on an airplane in between strangers can be just like that.

     Ironically though I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking a bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me.

You don’t even have to read it necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space.

Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them.

And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, you can just open it up to the Book of Revelation.

This past Wednesday morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my bible out and opened, not to Revelation but to Matthew 2- not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left but also I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance.

Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc. He pored over them like he was reading a map. Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop.

I watched him do this several times before I realized what he was doing.

He had Excel opened up on his computer and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift and then a hyperlink to the company’s website.

Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2010 Christmas.

I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Harry Potter wand for only $70.00.

I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake Harry Potter wand when the guy sitting next to me said: Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.

I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked Save.

After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh. And he said: It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?

I looked over at him. You talking to me? Meanwhile I was kicking myself for not having opened my bible to the Book of Revelation.

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     You talking to me? I asked.

Yeah, he said.

Are you religious, he asked, and nodded at the bible on my tray.

Yeah, I guess so.

That’s good, he said in an absent sort of voice. I’m not, never have been.

I let his voice of trail off.

A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the bible.

It’s the story of the magi, I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights.

The what?

The wise men, I said.

He said: Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?

Not exactly, I said. They go to Jerusalem first not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.

Sounds like the GPS in my car, he laughed.

I thought that might be the end of it. I was about to turn to Revelation or pretend I was asleep.

But then he asked me: Why do they go to Jerusalem first?

Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us: educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation. They went to Jerusalem first because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.

He smiled a wise smile at me and said: In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts and then getting back to their normal lives.

And I smiled and said: Something like that.

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Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag. The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment. And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading a Nicholas Sparks’ book, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip.

The man next to me sat up and turned towards me.

Can I read it? he asked.

He held out his hand for my bible. So I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of chapter two: It’s this part I said.

He took a while with it. He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe.

When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back.

Then he turned it over and gazed at the back cover and then the front cover, gazing at the cheap, beat-up bible like it was a talisman or a treasure.

Then he held the bible out to me and he put his index finger down at the page.

What’s this? he asked me.

He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.

That’s from Micah, I said, from the Old Testament.

Can you show me? he asked.

And I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him.

It’s short, I warned, only a few pages long.

I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words.

I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading.

I wondered if it might be:

He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path. 

or

He will judge between many peoples. 

or

Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore. 

or

He will gather the lame and assemble the exiles and all those who grieve. 

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord,
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? 

(in other words, will the Lord be pleased with all my stuff)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

 

When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then he handed it back to me.

     A few minutes passed before he closed his laptop and said: That’s quite a gift you know.

What is? I asked.

For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked.

For them to be able to look at a helpless baby in a poor woman’s arms in a little village, for them to believe he’s the one, the only one, they should honor, for them to believe he’s the one to make Micah’s words come true- for them to able to do that, it’s got to be a gift from God.

I guess I never thought about it like that, I said.

I travel a lot, he said. I don’t get to see my family much. Every year I try to make up for it at Christmas. I search to find just the right gifts, but lately I feel like I’m always looking in the wrong places.

The Good News is so were the magi, I said.

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We started our descent. The sun was coming in through the windows.

I’d closed my eyes.

I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it, he said.

That’s Luke’s Gospel, I said. Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.

     I guess we’re more like the wise men anyway, he said.

How so?

None of us have angels telling us what to do or making things easier for us. We’ve just got to search, and, when we find what we’re searching for, decide whether or not we’ll let it change us.

You ought to be a minister, I said.

He laughed and said: I don’t think so. Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?

I laughed and said…pretty much.

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As we were getting off the plane, the journey over, I asked him:  Are you going back to DC after the holiday?

No, he said, I’ve made some commitments. I’m going home a different way.