Tuesday, November 18, 2014

CHRIST THE KING 2014

Christ Pantokrator
The last Sunday of the Christian year is now quite widely celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King, or The Reign of Christ. This is a relatively new practice, instituted by the Roman Catholic church in 1925, and one that has been followed by other churches for only the last few decades. Although it rounds off the year appropriately with a culminating affirmation of the supremacy and majesty of the risen Jesus, there are at least two reasons to hesitate.

First, the language employs a rather antiquated conception – kingship. The world in which kings and queens, surrounded by immense wealth and splendor, were held in awe because of their absolute power, has long since disappeared. Apart from a few isolated cases, no one attributes such an elevated status to another human being any more, or makes the mistake of treating them like gods. So how can applying ancient royal images to Jesus Christ enrich our understanding or increase our devotion? Second, invoking the image of Christ the King runs the risk of being unattractively triumphalist. Is this not an expression of Christian superiority in a world that rightly emphasizes the need for inter-faith dialogue?

Christ in Silence Odilon Redon (1897)
In this week's Epistle, Paul, even though he is writing for a world in which supreme imperial power was indeed the norm, offers us a way of responding to the first point  . He tells the Ephesians that God --the creator of all that is -- has used his power to raise a criminalized Jew in an obscure part of the empire ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion’. That is to say, the truth about Jesus sets the political power of earthly kings in its proper perspective. For all their majesty, such rulers are powerless to save us from sin and death. Their kind of ‘kingship’ is importantly hollow. This is an assessment that applies to modern states and rulers no less than to ancient ones.

To hail Christ as king, therefore, does not mean claiming supreme power for an alternative political candidate, but reversing our whole way of thinking about power.  It is on the Cross, after all, that Jesus receives his Crown of Thorns. It is of course true, as the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats affirms, that Jesus has been given the final word of judgment over all creation. Still, this does not license Christian triumphalism. On the contrary, it leaves believing Christians with a new and far more demanding responsibility, also reflected in Gospel parable – to make sure that they see and honor Christ’s kingship in the poorest and humblest people and places of the world.

Monday, November 10, 2014

PENTECOST XXIII

Parable of the Three Servants JESUSMAFA (1973)
The Gospel parable for this Sunday has entered our thinking so deeply that it has changed the meaning of a word. In Biblical times ‘talent’ was a monetary unit (distantly connected, in fact, with our word ‘dollar’). Now it means a special gift or aptitude. This change has come about largely because Matthew’s story has consistently been interpreted to refer to the special aptitudes we find in ourselves. Calling them ‘talents’ has lost all its monetary associations.  The term ‘gifts’, too, has largely lost the theological overtones that it had in former times. Yet, it is precisely because we continue to speak, and to want to speak, in this way, that an important question opens up. Gifts imply a giver. Who is the giver of these 'gifts', if not God? The special aptitudes we delight in – a talent for music or mathematics, or just as importantly, a gift for friendship – are not ours by right. Still less are they our personal accomplishments. Our gifts underlie our best efforts; they are not the result of them. 
 
Here is one place where even the most secularized culture has difficulty abandoning a truly religious sensibility. 'Gifted' people are 'blessed'. Both they and we ought to be grateful for such 'blessings', in exactly the way we are grateful for gifts from friends and family. Without these blessings, we could not make our way in the world. Yet they are benefits we have not earned, and to which we have no natural or human right.

 The Seven Virtues, Faith -- Giotto
The parable Jesus tells relies upon this acknowledgement. But it also goes beyond it. Gifts bring responsibilities, notably the responsibility to use them well. And this, the parable reminds us, implies risk. To use your gifts to the maximum, you have to take a chance. The cautious servant who buried the talent  was ‘risk averse’, understandably so, no doubt, given the severity of the master who gave it to him. Still, however understandable his attitude may be, it brought him to judgment. Life is a gift that we waste to our eternal cost.

The message seems clear. Each of us must make an accurate assessment of the gifts we have been given, and launch out on paths that make the most of these. Of course, there is no guarantee that doing so will bring success as the world understands it. For the Christian, though, this does not mean that we are left stumbling in the dark. On the contrary, Paul tells the Thessalonians in this week’s Epistle, ‘You are not in darkness; you are all children of light’. This is not because they know what the future holds, but because by following Christ they have ‘put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation’. It does not require predictive foresight to be guided by faith, love and hope.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

PENTECOST XXII 2014

Head of a Prophet Mikhail Vrubel (1905)
Depending on what choice is made from the unusually wide range of alternative passages set for this week, it is easy to identify some key themes  -- wisdom, final judgment, and the life hereafter. But how are they connected? The different writers seem to say quite different things about them. The prophet Amos is full of foreboding and paints a gloomy picture -- 'Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light'. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, on the other hand,  says that everyone who gives heed to wisdom's laws has an 'assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God'. Saint Paul, however, tells the Thessalonian Christians, that it is not wisdom but the faith that 'Jesus died and rose again', which  gives them reason not to  'grieve as others do who have no hope', and brings assurance that 'the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first'. 

Wise and Foolish Virgins William Blake (1822)
So is the prospect of the Last Day a cause for fear or for hope? And from the point of view of this prospect, does it matter or not whether we have lived wisely? The Gospel reading consists in a single parable which throws light on this. Traditionally known as 'the wise and foolish virgins' it recounts the eagerly anticipated climax of a great wedding, the moment when the Bridegroom arrives. Everyone is equally eager for the Bridegroom's arrival. Experience tells us that this crowning moment could be delayed for some reason or other, and it is simple wisdom, not special genius or expertise, that should lead us to prepare for such an eventuality. Yet when the moment comes, it finds some 'foolish' people who lack this modicum of wisdom quite unprepared. And yet their vain attempt to put things right at the last moment reveals the ease with which they realize the importance of the thing they have lost through lack of foresight. Wisdom is not the cause of the bridegroom's arrival, nor lack of it that causes his delay. Wisdom has to do with the guests' preparedness.

The Wise Virgins Paul Delvaux (1965)
The 'faith' of the Thessalonians was that the death and Resurrection of Jesus is the focal point of the meaning and purpose of the whole creation. That is where their hope did, and should, lie. Nevertheless, they still needed wisdom to properly prepare for the implications of this truth, and could, therefore, foolishly fail to do so. With wisdom we can hope, contra Amos, that the 'Day of the Lord' is a day of light. Without it however, along with the 'foolish virgins', we may discover that it is possible to be excluded from this light and left in darkness.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ALL SAINTS 2014

Icon of All Saints

The Gospel for All Saints in this year of the lectionary consists in ‘The Beatitudes’, so called because they comprise a list in which each item begins with the word ‘Blessed’. Jesus tells his disciples that they are ‘blessed’ when they are persecuted, reviled and slandered. This is deeply counter-intuitive. It is also contrary to those Old Testament passages where the same word is usually translated ‘happy’ and refers to the emotional and material benefits that can be expected to flow from following God’s law. Here, it seems, Jesus is warning his followers that, in ordinary human terms at least, discipleship is likely to be bad for them.

So why would anyone go in for it? Sometimes the answer is thought to lie with post-mortem rewards – benefits that we can expect in heaven, if only we persist. But to follow Jesus for the sake of future benefits has the unwelcome implication that there is nothing to be gained from faithful discipleship now. A traditional hymn begins ‘My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby’. That seems right.

Cloud of Witnesses
The short but beautiful Epistle from the first letter of John contains a central Christian affirmation on just this point. The greatest possible blessing in life is ‘that we should be called children of God’ and ‘we are God’s children now’. Speculation about heaven and the hereafter is not really relevant because ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed’.

None of us wants to be persecuted or reviled. Being ‘meek’ or ‘poor in spirit’ is not a goal we are inclined to set our children either. Yet at All Saints we are invited to acknowledge this deep truth.  Though ‘the world did not know it’, the lives of the poor and persecuted who truly lived as ‘children of God’ were as blessed as we can ever hope our own will be.

PENTECOST XXI 2014

Pharisees - Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976)
In the Gospel passage for this week Jesus contrasts those who use religion as a means for self-promotion and aggrandisement, with those who find in it a cause for deep humility. Humility of this kind may be said to be the most distinctive of Christian virtues. Love, compassion, hospitality, and a sense of justice, are all virtues in other creeds, both religious and non-religious. But humility stands out as something on which Christians place particular value, an emphasis that served to set their faith far apart from the Roman world in which it first emerged.

It has never been an easy virtue to accept, and may indeed be even harder now than it was then. A sense of self-worth is crucial to psychological well being, and so we rightly lend importance to self-esteem. In the consumerist world of today, however, this sense easily slides into an assertion of individual rights, desire satisfaction and personal accomplishment. Indeed, these are so often taken to be the marks of what self respecting people should strive for, that humility comes to be despised as a kind of self-abasement. Conversely, praising humility is dismissed as a  covert way of undermining the rights of the poor, the abused or the oppressed.

Micah -- James Tissot
There are indeed dangers here. Telling others to be humble is a familiar form of domination. Still, Jesus could hardly be more explicit in his endorsement of humility against the Pharisees’ great failing -- spiritual pride. Their confidence in their own righteousness was so secure, they assumed they could pursue their own interests with impunity. It is precisely the same fault that Micah eloquently condemns in the accompanying Old Testament lesson.

There is, nonetheless, an element of paradox in what Jesus says – ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted’. Does this not imply a kind of ‘mock’ humility – appearing humble, but really harboring a desire to be exalted? Here it is essential to remember that it was on a Cross that Jesus himself was ‘exalted’. The exaltation that true humility seeks is for spiritual heights, not social or material status -- even in the next life. The prayer of the Psalmist expresses it perfectly – “Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling”. The humility that should result from such a prayer is not a sign of timidity. Rather, it will reflect deep confidence born of honesty about who we are and who God is.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

PENTECOST IXX 2014

The Tribute Money Jacek Malczewski


‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. The punch line from this week’s Gospel (in its more traditional version) has become a familiar saying. But how should we interpret it? Is this simply a retort by which Jesus cleverly avoids a trap the Pharisees have set for him when they try to show him to be out of step with popular anti-Roman feeling? Or should we read into it a much more serious warning against confusing spiritual aspiration with political protest? To settle this question, we need to see the exchange in a wider context.

In the eighth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, the Israelites ask Samuel to appoint a king. At first he takes this to be a painful rejection of his own authority, but then he learns that its true significance lies in what it says about their faith in God. Thus a long history begins in which royal power and the sovereignty of God come into regular conflict. Notwithstanding the short lived triumphs of David and Solomon, the end result for Israel is political division, and conquest. Moreover, in one of the Old Testament lessons for this week, Isaiah actually voices God’s explicit commission to one of these conquerors, Cyrus King of the Persians. “I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they [the people of Israel] may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me”.

The Tribute Money Emil Nolde
The Roman conquest in New Testament times was just one more episode in the long history of Israel's subjugation. In John’s account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, the subject of kingship figures prominently. When the leaders of the Jews shout ‘We have no King but Caesar!’, they reveal a radical division in their own minds between the hopes they place in God and their recourse to political power. In response, Caesar puts a sign above the dying Jesus. It reads ‘King of the Jews’. Though prompted by a desire to provoke, no doubt, it is an insightful action. The sovereignty of God is indeed, mysteriously, revealed in the Cross. The imperial power of Caesar ruled the ancient world; it counts for nothing now. At the time of his execution Jesus was virtually unknown. Yet he turned out to be the Incarnation of God, and as the real Christ counts for everything now.  

Against this background, the instruction, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ warns us about getting our ultimate priorities wrong. In the Epistle Paul praises the Thessalonians who “turned to God from idols”. Political power is one such idol, and it has proved endlessly alluring, even to Christians with the best of intentions.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

PENTECOST XVIII 2014

Wedding Feast at Cana -- Hieronymous Bosch
The image of a 'banquet’ or 'feast' is one that recurs with great regularity in Christian thought and art, not least in the Bible itself. The reason is easy to see. Religion is about life, and food is  essential to life. The need for food is the new born baby’s first orientation to the world, and by tradition, an offer of food is the last humane act extended to those condemned to death. Nor is food simply a necessity. Specially prepared food and drink provided in abundance is the universal mark of human celebration – at births, weddings, religious holidays and communal festivals.So it is completely natural for human beings to think analogically of spiritual gifts and blessings as ‘heavenly food’, and by extension to conceive of God’s promise of salvation as a ‘heavenly banquet’.
 
At the same time, some of  the most famous feasts and banquets that the Bible depicts have a dark side -- sin subverting celebration and turning it spectacularly in the wrong direction.  Belshazzer's feast in the Book of Daniel is one famous example -- an extravagant celebration that augurs the collapse of a Kingdom. Herod's feast at which Salome dances is another -- her reward taking the gruesome form of the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Feasting, then, ought to mark a joyful celebration, but it can go badly wrong.
 
Jesus' use of the image in the parable that forms this Sunday’s Gospel has something of this ambiguity about it. His audience's familiarity with the passage from Isaiah that provides the Old Testament lesson -- “the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” -- means his use of this image to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven could not fail to resonate. However, it is given a special twist. To begin with, the people who ought to come to the celebration can't be bothered to come, despite the status of the host and the quality of the food. In response, the king tells his slaves to go out into the streets and gather “all whom they found, both good and bad”. Is the message this ---  that social elitism has been abandoned in favor of a wonderful inclusion?
 
King's Feast Pavil Filonov (1883-1941)
Things are not quite so simple. To begin with, the guests on the original list, who treated the invitation lightly, are not included, but punished. And, it turns out, even the people gathered up from the streets and brought in without asking are not assured of a permanent place at the banquet. The hapless man who did not bother to dress properly for the occasion, is promptly thrown out.

The message seems clear. God longs for us to share 'joys that pass our understanding' with him. Good news indeed -- provided we don’t allow willfulness or carelessness to make us lose them.