Saturday, December 16, 2017

Lighting the Way

O come, Thou Day-Spring
Come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
O Come, O Come Emanuel, verse 3
Darkness is a natural phenomenon, woven into the fabric of life on Earth: the sun rises and sets each day as the Earth rotates; night follows day in a rhythmic pattern.  Here in Maryland, this is the time of year when darkness reigns. Those first few nights after we “fall back” to Standard Time in mid-November are always a shock to my system.  All of a sudden, it’s dark at 4:30 in the afternoon!  How dare the sun go away that early?  What brain trust came up with the idea of taking away an hour of daylight in the afternoon, to give it to the morning?  Those long midsummer evenings during which we enjoyed outdoor activities seem like a distant memory.  The trees shed the last of their withered leaves and the darkness and bareness of winter advances. The darkness and bleakness can drag us down a bit.  Extended time in darkness can have health impacts;  Seasonal Affective Disorder is a temporary malaise linked to lack of sun exposure.

It can sometimes be challenging to “believe in the sun” when it isn’t shining. This is especially true when the darkness is prolonged, or when the clouds of doom and fog of despair seem impenetrable. Try as we might to “beat the darkness”—it eventually gets the better of all of us.  We use artificial lights to fend of darkness as best we can, but left to depend on human power alone, eventually the darkness will prevail.

In the movie, The Two Towers, the Lady Galadriel gives Frodo a phial—a piece of EĆ„rendil, the beloved Elven Star. She hopes it will be a light to him in dark places when all other lights go out.  He puts it aside and almost forgets about it—until the moment he is in the lair of a huge spider demon creature named Shelob, a hellish place where no mortal light can penetrate the darkness.  Frodo uses the piece of immortal light that Galadriel gave him to drive away Shelob and find his way to freedom.

Scriptures tell similar stories of light shining in darkness against all odds—probably because Tolkien was at least somewhat inspired by God’s Story when he wrote his epic tale of Middle Earth. Consider, for example, this passage we read during Advent:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. Isaiah 9:1-2

The Prophet Isaiah addresses people sitting in darkness. In this context, the darkness is the loneliness and isolation that comes from many years spent living in exile in Babylon, far from their homeland. Isaiah does not mince words; there will be judgment for their failure to honor God—but after the exile would come restoration (salvation).  Jerusalem will once again shine; Israel will be a light to the nations.

Later in history, the Jewish people once again dwelled in darkness, this time oppressed by Rome, with no word from God for over 400 years. They waited for a savior—a Messiah—who would come and set them free. Christians believe that Jesus was indeed that long-expected Messiah. The Creator became part of his creation.  God became human in every way, even going so far as to experience death on a cross for the Creation he so loved.  By becoming so thoroughly human, God saved us in every way a person could be saved.  Jesus’s resurrection showed us that even the ultimate darkness—death—could not stop the Light of the World from shining.

The opening of John’s Gospel proclaims that in Jesus, this Light of the World has come, and will never be overcome by the world’s darkness—John 1:1-5. Although we  humans tend to cling fiercely to our comfortable darkness—John 3:19—if we allow it, the Light that Jesus brings into our lives, and into our world, can put darkness into full retreat. To say another way, in Jesus, God provides the only power source that will never fail us.  Eventually all human lights fail, but the Light of the World is eternal.

Today we believe the Light of the World is present with us through the Holy Spirit.   During Advent we sing, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, because we recognize we still need “rescue” from the darkness of our present world.  We also anticipate Jesus’s second coming, when he will judge the world and, in the words of N.T. Wright,  “ put the world to rights”. Advent is thus a time to prepare.  After all, if the King is coming, we need to roll up our sleeves and get “cleaned up” for his arrival.   We can start doing the work of remaking the world now, that we believe Jesus will bring to completion when he returns. Just like John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus’s first coming, we are the ones who prepare the way for his second coming.
Paul reminds us repeatedly in his letters that Christ dwells in us and we dwell in Christ. Teresa of Avila said that: “Christ has no body here but ours, no hands, no feet on earth but ours…”  To me, that means that if the Light of the World is going to penetrate the darkness of our world, it will be because Little Lights of the World like you and me, carried it there.  Perhaps like Frodo, we’ve been worn down by our journey and forget the light we carry within us—or even doubt we have any to share.  But the promise of Scripture is that it’s there, and if we remember it—and choose to shine it— it can be a powerful force for good in this world. Sometimes our mere presence might be what pushes back the darkness on a face we meet along our way,  in a place we go, or in a space we dwell.  Seen that way, maybe the most wonderful gift we can give this Christmas is to share our light with someone in darkness.  We can become the Elven Stars of this world, offering bright light when all other light fades—Philippians 2:15.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The King Who Kneels

A 15th century illuminated manuscript showing
King David kneeling in adoration before God.
Aragorn (the rightful King of Gondor) kneels before Frodo
the Hobbit in The Lord of the Rings movie.

Most Protestant Christians celebrate Christ the King Sunday on the Sunday just prior to the beginning of Advent.[1]  Advent is viewed as the beginning of a new liturgical year, so I guess Christ the King Sunday could be viewed as the liturgical calendar’s equivalent of New Year’s Eve. We don’t have streamers and noise makers, but it is a day to celebrate the Lordship of Christ.

When compared to other milestones along our journey through the liturgical year, such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday has a short history.  Whereas these other seasons have been part of the church calendar for millennia, Christ the King Sunday is less than a century old.  (Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925.)  Despite its relative youth, however, I think Christ the King Sunday is an important—albeit often overlooked—addition to the liturgical year.

When Pope Pius XI instituted what Catholics now refer to as, The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, here’s what he said he hoped it would represent for laity: 

"If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God." —Quas Primas (Papal Encyclical), Section 33

Masculine language of the era in which he wrote notwithstanding, Pius gave all followers of Jesus—then and now—quite a challenge! We must ask ourselves:  How do we do at making Christ King over “all our faculties”—i.e., over all aspects of our daily living?

We frequently sing about Jesus being our King in our hymns and praise songs.  A well-known contemporary tune is called, “Amazing Love (a.k.a., You Are My King)”.  In the bridge of the song, we repeat several times the lyric: “You are my King.  Jesus, you are my king.”  Our voices build a bit more each time until we continue with the final chorus:
Amazing love, how can it be?
That you my King would die for me?
Amazing love, I know it’s true            .
And it’s my joy to honor you…
In all I do, I honor you.
But who is this King we claim it is our joy to honor? When the world thinks of Kings (and we could add Queens), it’s usually someone you bow down before and show reverence.  And on one level, that’s what we are called to do with Jesus.  We need to remember that Christ is not simply Jesus’s last name.  Jesus, whose coming we anticipate during the season of Advent, and whose birth we celebrate on Christmas, is the human manifestation (or incarnation) of the eternal Christ (the eternal Word of God), which has been part of God (and part of Creation) from the beginning of time. I always like Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase of the Gospel writer’s words describing the coming of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood”—John 1:14 (The Message).

Jesus is the Christ—the Second Person of the Trinity.  This is the one of whom John speaks when he says: he was in the beginning with God—see John 1:1-3; the one of whom “Paul” says:  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead —see Colossians 1:15-20; and the one of whom the writer of Hebrews says: in these last days, he has spoken to us through a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and sustains all things by his powerful wordHebrews 1:1-4.

So, we definitely should have reverence for Christ as King, but it comes from a different source than the reverence we show all other kings (or other earthly rulers).  For most Kings, Emperors, and even to some extent, Presidents, you bow down because you are fearful of what will happen if you don’t.  In Jesus’s day, Caesar was Lord, and you bowed to him—or you placed your life in jeopardy.  The Emperor was thought to be Divine.   Jesus comes into the world and challenges prevailing assumptions about who is in charge of the world.  When the early followers of Jesus proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord”, they were making a political statement that didn’t go unnoticed by the powers and authorities.  To say, “Jesus is Lord”, meant that Caesar was not the ultimate authority in their lives—and making that claim was treasonous. Refusing to renounce that claim has cost many followers of Jesus their lives over the millennia. Jesus claimed his authority to rule came from a different source—from one not of this world, from the Ultimate Source of all things.  Jesus did not rule by fear; he ruled by love.  He claimed he followed his Father’s example.  It is this more excellent way of love that Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 13, but you can’t discover it standing over your subjects.  No, if you want to understand the mysterious Way of Love, you’re going to have to kneel as Jesus did.

There’s a great scene at the end of the movie, The Return of the King, that I believe perfectly illustrates the kind of King Jesus is.  The One Ring has been destroyed, Sauron is defeated, and Aragorn can now become King of a unified Middle Earth.  The Fourth Age (or The Dominion of Men) is now rising.  All the people of the realm gather in the glimmering city of Gondor to celebrate the coronation of the rightful King.  The Wizard Gandalf places the crown on Aragorn’s head and says, “Now come the days of the King… May they be blessed.”  The King gives an uplifting (and mercifully brief!) inaugural address, sings a song in Elvish, and the crowd cheers. As Aragorn is walking through the throngs of people, he greets his companions in the Fellowship of the Ring in the crowd, and they each bow their heads in reverence. The king even has an unexpected reunion with the Lady Arwen, who has forsaken Elven immortality so she can be with the love of her life.  (How romantic!)  It’s all the things you would expect at a coronation. 

The Kingdom of Gondor bows before the Hobbits
 in Return of the King.
But then comes the twist that no one expects. The king comes to Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry—the Hobbits who played such a pivotal role in the success of the Fellowship. Hobbits are small and easily forgotten—and conditioned to bowing down before Men.  But after a year in intimate fellowship, Aragorn knows that these diminutive creatures have huge hearts, and are capable of great acts of courage and valor.  He knows that without the sacrificial service of Frodo and Sam, his coronation as King would never have happened, and even Pippin and Merry played important roles in the story.  As the Hobbits begin to bow, something shocking happens—something most kings would never do.   Aragorn’s words move me every time I watch the scene:  “My friends, you bow to no one”, but the action that follows is even more amazing.  The King doesn’t just bow his head, he kneels before the Hobbits.  Arwen follows, and soon every person in attendance follows the lead of their King and kneels before Frodo and his friends.  The Hobbits stand with stunned looks on their faces as the scene ends.

I think that scene speaks to me because there’s a sense that, in the coming of Jesus the Christ, the same thing happens: The King of the Universe kneels before humanity.  This is the mysterious self-giving of the Second Person of the Trinity that we intentionally explore during the seasons of Advent and Christmas.  When this King (this Messiah) comes, he is not riding on a stallion leading an army as the Jewish people expected.   With deference to the popular Christmas hymn, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, in the incarnation, God bends near the earth, not to touch harps of gold, but to connect with fragile humanity. The Creator humbly becomes part of creation, being born the same way every human that has ever lived was born: utterly helpless and dependent on human beings to nurture him, and continuing to depend on them throughout his earthly life.    Unless you have “eyes that see”, as the Shepherds and Wise Men did, each in their own way, you most likely won’t recognize that this baby is the King the world has been waiting for.  After all, he is born in an obscure place, to a poor young couple via amazing circumstances. He begins life in a stable in the company of farm animals.  How many kings do we know who would be born like that? 

But then again, maybe the way this King comes shouldn’t surprise us. All those passages I cited earlier—and others we could mention—point to exactly the form that Jesus takes.  Jesus is a King, yes, but he’s not a human King.  He is the image, the reflection, the imprint of the God who loves humanity so much that he was willing to do whatever it takes to connect with us—up to and including sending Himself and eventually dying a violent death for us on the Cross.  Jesus became fully human in every way so we could, if you will. become more fully Divine.  And here’s something that N.T. Wright reminded me recently; Jesus is still human today, as fully human as it’s possible to be. I’m still wrestling with this, but what I think he means is that after the resurrection, Jesus seems to have had a physical body, and that body ascended to heaven, where he presumably dwells in that human form with God and still reigns over Creation, as he always has, and from whence he will someday return.[2]  

Advent is the season to anticipate the coming of Christ.  We remember the First Coming in the manger of Bethlehem, but we also anticipate the Second Coming.  As our Communion ritual says we anticipate the day when: Christ (the King) comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

But even as we anticipate that future reality when the fullness of the Kingdom will appear, we recognize, “These are the days of the King.” Christ is King now and we live, as Wright puts it, as “advanced foretastes” of what will someday be realized in full.   May we who follow this King today be granted eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts open to receive the King Who Kneels in the coming weeks.   

 For Reflection/Discussion:
  • ·      React to the idea that Christ is more than Jesus’ last name.
  • ·      React to the idea of Jesus as the King Who Kneels.
  • ·      What have you learned about the nature of the Second Coming of Jesus?
  • ·      Where do you get your idea?  (The Book of Revelation is often our source.)
  • ·      What does the nature of the First Coming of Jesus tell us about what to expect in the Second Coming?  

[1] It originally was observed the last Sunday of October, prior to the Festival of All Saints.  Under Pope Paul VI, the date was moved to the Sunday before Advent, to emphasize the theological importance of the date.  However, some groups continue to celebrate it on the original date in October.
[2] To learn more, see Chapter 7 of Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

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