Friday, December 21, 2012

O Dayspring

O Dayspring, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Enlightenment is a funny concept.  The images it conjures up for me are radically contradictory.  On the one hand, the eastern sage - the cliche of films without number - who is possessed of a supernatural calm and a deep spiritual awareness of his one-ness with the Universe; on the other hand, Immanuel Kant - the spokesman par excellence for the European cultural movement known self-consciously as 'the Enlightenment' - daring to know, having the courage to think for himself, mastering the universe through understanding.

These two figures have two things in common.  One is that they are driven by autonomy.  The spiritual figure, for all his sense of one-ness with all that is, seeks and finds that one-ness within himself.  It is not so much that he is part of a larger whole, as that he is the whole, and vice versa.  The more rationalist figure, committed to the throwing off of authority, deems his own mind to be the source and criterion of truth.  Both figures claim to have light, but neither can really claim to be enlightened; on neither of them does light fall from without.

The other similarity is that neither of them perceives the world to be a place of darkness.  It is not that they are oblivious to the presence of evil or suffering, but fundamentally evil and suffering are treated as soluble problems, issues waiting to disappear.  Perhaps they will be shown to be imaginary, or perhaps they will be shown to be really good once we see or feel the big picture.  Or perhaps we will just see them as problems to which we can set our intellects; hurdles to be overcome.  Fundamentally, the world is a place of light, and that of course stems from the fact that fundamentally both figures see themselves as having light within themselves.

How different the perspective of Scripture - the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned.  Indeed, we must not seek to walk by lights we have kindled ourselves.  Christ alone enlightens, as a light entering a dark place,

Thursday, December 20, 2012

O Key of David

O Key of David, and sceptre of the house of Israel,
who opens and no one can shut, shuts and no one can open:
Come and bring the prisoners from the prison house,
who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

That Jesus opens is wonderful news; that he shuts seems to me right now to be even better news.  Open a door, let the prisoners out - but where will they do, and what will they do?  What if the prisoners are sinners?  What if they - we - are so accustomed to darkness that they would wander back into the prison without a second thought?  A life set free in this way is a shapeless, under-determined, and ultimately desperately dangerous life.

But Jesus also shuts, and no one can open.  He bars the way back into darkness.  Try as we might, we can't go back to where we were or who we were before.  God has come into our world, and that can't be undone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

O Root of Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign to the people,
before whom kings shall shut their mouths
and whom the nations shall seek:
Come and deliver us and do not delay.

Isaiah sees a Davidic King, a monarch for Israel and the earth.  Elsewhere this figure is the Branch; why, here, the Root?  Isaiah lives amidst the collapse of Davidic hopes - the dynasty corrupted, its territory diminished.  Not long until the end of it all.  Is it, perhaps, that he looks behind the Davidic dynasty - not so much to a son of that line, but to the very source of the significance of that line?  At the least, we can say that the Root of Jesse is the only Person who can make sense of the OT picture of kingship.

Universal and absolute monarchy - a nightmare, unless it is this King.  He is the one who carries all our hopes, who reigns and rules for goodness, in goodness.  A signal.  Lifted up, for all to see.  We will come to him, and he will come to us.  And of his government and peace, there will be no end.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

O Adonai

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

"Jesus", says the book of Jude, "saved a people from Egypt".  I once had to write an essay on the tedious question of how the Exodus and Sinai traditions became associated in the Pentateuch - the assumption behind which was, of course, that they were not originally connected.  (And the assumption behind that was that neither of them happened anyway)  I wanted to write that sentence from Jude as my answer.  In the end, I wrote something longer, but hopefully it was to the same effect.

The connecting theme in the story of the Bible is God Incarnate - Jesus Christ.  I am not one of those who thinks that people in OT Israel knew everything that we do about Jesus.  I can't see that from Scripture at all.  But what I can see is that without Jesus there is a deep ambiguity to the OT story.  The OT is full of God's transcendence and presence; it is full of God near and distant.  It only makes sense if it ends in Jesus, and if it ends in Jesus it also contains Jesus throughout.  Every time we encounter God in the OT, we are encountering the Triune God, and the only way we can understand the interaction of this holy God with the world is in the light of Jesus.  When God interacts with human beings in the OT, we are right to see Jesus foreshadowed - and because he is God the Word, not only foreshadowed but personally present in the foreshadowing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

O Wisdom

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
ordering all things well:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Early Christians, just like Christians today, were accused of being irrational, illogical. We have a tendency to respond to this accusation by seeking common ground with the accuser.  We look for some reason why they should, on their own worldview, see us as rational people holding logical beliefs.  The response of early Christian thinkers was generally different.  They argued that Christianity was logical because it was Logical.  It makes more sense in Greek.  Jesus is the Word - the Logos - who stands behind all creation; he is the reason that makes anything else reasonable.  How could Christianity be illogical when it was all about the Logos?

The big difference, perhaps, is that they really believed (in a way which we struggle to do) that the whole of reality was about Jesus.  We need to get our heads around that.  Jesus.  The Logic of the universe is the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.  It makes sense only in him.

One implication of that is that to learn the way of prudence is to learn Jesus.  He is the Way.  Learning to see every situation in the light of Jesus - more than that, learning to see him in every situation - is what it means to be wise, and logical, and rational.

This is a reflection on the first of the Advent antiphons - there might be more if I can keep up!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Defending the Indefensible

I've had two conversations recently which have steered me into dangerous territory.  In the first one, I think I was being checked out as a representative of Magdalen Road Church.  What sort of people were we?  In particular, since we seemed like lovely people (that wasn't said, but surely it goes without saying), we surely weren't like those 'hellfire and damnation' Christians that you might find across the southern states of the US?

In the second conversation, I was being asked why - why on earth? - a Christian Union would restrict itself to having male speakers.  Surely this is hugely sexist and unethical?  Shouldn't religious people be showing the way forward, rather than perpetuating bigotry?

There are several things about these sorts of conversations which could become awkward.  For one thing, nobody much likes talking about hell; and in the current climate, nobody much likes talking about women and the church either.  Both are difficult.  Moreover, neither topic easily leads you into the main thing which, as a Christian, you want to talk about: the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

What was difficult about both conversations for me, though, was that I sympathise with the questioner.  I know exactly what is meant by a hellfire and damnation Christian, and I surely do want none of it.  I can also guess why a CU might bar women from speaking, and I think it's defective theology.  I'd love to be able to distance myself from both groups.  The person I'm speaking to wants me to do that too.  In both cases, they are predisposed not to think me an idiot, or (I hope) a bigot.  They are willing me to say that, no, I am not like these people, and in fact my brand of Christianity is much better than theirs.  Which, let's face it, I am at least partly inclined to believe that it is.

But instead I have to stand up for these folks - more than that, I have to show the closest solidarity.  Because they are trying to follow Jesus, trying to understand the Bible and apply it to their lives and their world.  If they've got some things wrong, goodness knows so have I.  I have to reply knowing and feeling in my heart that I am talking about brothers and sisters of mine.  I stand with them.  I don't have to say they're right about everything, but I need to be careful.  The desire to look good has to be suspected whenever it pops up.  I do want people to think well of me.  But if I sell my (to my mind erring) brothers down the river in order to get that, what happens next?  Sell my Lord as well?  It's not so different.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Advent texts: Mumford and Sons

Well I came home like a stone
And I fell heavy into your arms
These days of dust, which we've known
Will blow away with this new sun

But I'll kneel down, w
ait for now
And I'll kneel down know my ground

And I will wait, I will wait for you

So break my step, a
nd relent
Well you forgave and I won't forget
Know what we've seen and him with less
Now in some way shake the excess

And I will wait, I will wait for you

Now I'll be bold as well as strong
And use my head alongside my heart
So tame my flesh, and fix my eyes
A tethered mind freed from the lies

And I'll kneel down, w
ait for now
I'll kneel down know my ground

Raise my hands paint my spirit gold
And bow my head, keep my heart slow

Cause I will wait, I will wait for you

Monday, December 03, 2012

Goblins and Gospel

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of my favourite theologians.  I wouldn't imagine that he would appear in many people's lists of favourite theolgians (I assume that other people keep such lists).  For starters, his stories have 'gods' in them, and don't mention Christianity at all.  In fact, this was a conscious choice for Tolkien.  "Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error)", he once wrote, "but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world."  In fact, he felt that for myth to contain or reference Christianity explicitly was "fatal" for the story.  In the form of myth, art could never capture Christian themes if it set out to reference explicitly the Christian story.  That makes Tolkien a subtle theologian, but I love him for three main themes which he teaches me to feel, rather perhaps than to think, through his stories.

Firstly, Tolkien teaches me to feel the doctrine of creation.  The creation myth from the Silmarillion is, to my mind, absolutely beautiful and to a very great degree truth-full.  (I would say absolutely truth-full, but Tolkien's Roman Catholicism does peek through a bit in the role he assigns to his 'subordinate gods', the Valar - God is never quite so close to his creation as you feel he is in Scripture).  I can't really describe it, except to say that portraying creation not as one act, but as the whole of history, and not as a fiat but as a composition, touches my heart with the wonder of God's creative act more than any other text I've come across.  Tolkien really loved stuff - the stuff God has made (he had a much more ambiguous relationship with the sub-creativity of humanity).  He makes me want to love stuff too, for the sake of its Creator.

Secondly, Tolkien helps me to feel the doctrine of the Fall.  The Silmarillion is full of futility, and that same futility haunts the Lord of the Rings.  We need heroes, but whenever we have had them they have been broken.  Feanor is the greatest of the Noldor, but he dooms his people to exile and his family to destruction. Turin is noble, but ultimately is doomed by his own evil.  Numenor is great, but is pulled down by its own pride, as will be in time its daughter realms in Arnor and Gonder.  (As an aside, Tolkien's portrait of evil is profound - it is about wanting mastery, and in pursuit of mastery actually making yourself a vulnerable slave.  Sauron seeks mastery through the ring; but by investing his energy in it, he makes himself vulnerable in ways he would never have been otherwise).  An intervention is needed - at the end of the Silmarillion this is the Valar riding to war; in the Lord of the Rings, it doesn't really come, except in the sense of my third point below.  In both cases, Tolkien understands that brokeness is brokeness, and evil is evil - even when both are redeemed for good.  In the creation myth again, the theme of Melkor - the embodiment of evil - is woven into Iluvatar's (God's) overall purpose, but it is still ruinous.  And Iluvatar's counter-theme is "deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came".  That seems to me to be the way the gospel deals with evil.

Thirdly, Tolkien gives me a picture of providence.  Throughout the Lord of the Rings, the 'goodies' are preserved and at crucial moments very definitely helped by an outside force (think Frodo in the tunnel, chanting the name of Elbereth).  The theme is shown profoundly in the two characters of Frodo and Gollum. Frodo wishes the ring had never come to him - "Why was I chosen?"  Gandalf can only reply that he "may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess".  In fact, "Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker.  In which case you also were meant to have it,  And that may be an encouraging thought."  Frodo represents providence working itself out in the light.  Gollum represents providence working itself out in shadow.  He has just as much of a role to play as Frodo.  Without him, the ring would not be destroyed.  But he is the unwilling tool of providence.  He is in some ways the Judas Iscariot of the book.  And all of this relates back to the music at the beginning of the Silmarillion - which encompasses all themes, even those which rebel against the Chief Composer.

Okay, I admit it, I am a Tolkien fanboy.  Now to get back to my 17th or 18th read through the Lord of the Rings (I lost count somewhere along the line)...

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Advent texts: The Silmarillion

"Now Fingolfin, King of the North, and High King of the Noldor, seeing that his people were become numerous and strong, and that the Men allied to them were many and valiant, pondered once more an assault upon Angband; for he knew that they lived in danger while the circle of the siege was incomplete, and Morgoth was free to labour in his deep mines, devising what evils none could foretell ere he should reveal them.  This counsel was wise according to the measure of his knowledge; for the Noldor did not yet comprehend the fullness of the power of Morgoth, nor understand that their unaided war upon him was without final hope, whether they hastened or delayed."
Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin

"In those days Maedhros son of Feanor lifted up his heart, perceiving that Morgoth was not unassailable...  Then in the plains of Anfauglith, on the fourth day of the war, there began Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Unnumbered Tears, for no song or tale can contain all its grief... The field was lost; but still Hurin and Huor and the remnant of the house of Haldor stood firm with Turgon of Gondolin, and the hosts of Morgoth could not yet win the pass of Sirion.  Then Hurin spoke to Turgon, saying 'Go now, Lord, while time is!  For in you lives the last hope of the Eldar...'  Last of all Hurin stood alone.  Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried 'Aure entuluva!  Day shall come again!'  Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive by the command of Morgoth..."
Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad

"But at the last the might of Valinor came up out of the West, and the challenge of the trumpets of Eonwe filled the sky, and Beleriand was ablaze with the glory of their arms, for the host of the Valar were arrayed in forms young and fair and terrible, and the mountains rang beneath their feet...  Then an end was made of the power of Angband in the North, and the evil realm was brought to naught..."
Of the Voyage of Earendil and the War of Wrath