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Advent 2013: God Loves the Real World

2004weihnachtsbrief-2

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

(From O Come O Come Emmanuel) 

Introduction: This is an article that I wrote last year. I have updated with this introduction and made a few edits for this year for a couple of reasons. One reason is that I think that it is worth the read for those unfamiliar with the season and what it means. Secondly I see the observance of Advent as a way to actually discover something spiritual and eternal that can help us in the real world today, not just in the by and by, but today, in how we treat our neighbors and care for others. 

In a sense this very traditional observance can be counter-cultural in amid the usual din of the shopping orgy that began on Thanksgiving and will end as retailers squeeze out the last profits on Christmas Eve. The observance of Advent is also an antidote to the politically charged “the war on Christmas” emanating from certain Christian “conservatives” and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Newscorp empire. The sad thing is that for all of their alleged “defense” of Christmas most of these culture warriors and their media allies have reduced the mystery of God’s great love at Christmas to a religious holiday so covered in consumerism that it is hard to find that tiny babe in the manger of Bethlehem. Finally, I write this in the hopes that discover the joy as we wait in the anticipation of the the message of the angel who said “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy….”

I think that each Sunday of the Advent Season I will write a short reflection on the various aspects of hope, expectation and love that is the heart of the season.

Today is the fist Sunday of what we in the liturgical Christian world know as the season of Advent.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, in a sense the opening day of a new season of faith, as much as the Opening Day is in Baseball. It is a season of new beginnings, of hope looking forward and looking back. It is a season of intense realism. It is a season where the people of God look forward to their deliverance even as they remember the time when God entered into humanity.  It was not simply entering the human condition as a divine and powerful being inflicting his will upon people but deciding to become subject to the same conditions know by humanity. As Paul the Apostle, wrote about him: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5b-8) 

In the incarnation Jesus Christ shows his love and solidarity with people, humanity, the creation, reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” 

That simple fact is why Christ came.

He didn’t come to found a government or even for that matter a religion. He did not come to exemplify “Christian” virtues or to condemn people that religious people condemned as sinners. He came simply to save and redeem the world and people like us from themselves.

The meaning of the incarnation, and the hope of the season of Advent is that God loves people. Yes, even the people that the Christian culture warriors despise.

In the next few week there will be much written and said about Jesus. Much of it will not actually deal with Jesus or the people that he came to save but instead about the worldly power and influence of those who seek the profits of being “prophets.” Some of them will talk fervently about the “War on Christmas” as if somehow God and Christ are so small that they need government sponsored displays in the public square in order to be real, relevant or or for that matter important. What a small God they must have.

Somehow the message of Advent, the coming of Jesus is contradictory to the message of the for profit prophets. Certainly the early Christians had no government backing of any kind. They simply lived the life and showed God’s love to their neighbors, often at the cost of their lives and paradoxically the message was not crushed, but spread and overcame an empire. It was only when they became co-executors of government power that the message of reconciliation became a bludgeon to be used against those who did not agree with the theology of the clerics beholden to the Empire.

The Christ of the Season of Advent, the one who came and who promises to come again is not captive to the capricious message of the for profit prophets and their political and media allies. I would dare say that God is much bigger than them or those that they believe will somehow end the Christian faith as we know it. But then maybe the Christian faith “as we know it” is more a reflection of us and our culturally conditioned need for physical, economic and political power over others than it is of Jesus.Nativity-extr

All I know is that the simplicity of the message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” is more powerful than any political-religious alliance.

The time of waiting in expectation during advent also helps us to focus on Jesus’ words to  “Love God with all your heart and love our neighbors as ourselves.” It also calls to mid the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah, who asked “what does the Lord require of thee? To love show justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Advent stands in stark contrast to the politically charged consumerism of the War on Christmas.  I think that the message that God loves the real world is worth repeating in such an environment. In fact I think that because the message of God’s great love for those deemed “repulsive” by so many supposedly “conservative Christians” is so amazing that it must be proclaimed. As distasteful as it is to the “for profit prophets” of our time that it is not only worth repeating, but actually believing and acting upon.

It is a good reason for me to during this season of Advent to look forward to our celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation, the coming of the God who “emptied himself” and took “the form of a slave” in order to save his people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Advent and Life: God Loves the Real World

2004weihnachtsbrief

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

(From O Come O Come Emmanuel) 

Today is the fist Sunday of what we in the liturgical Christian world know as the season of Advent.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, in a sense the opening day of a new season of faith, as much as the Opening Day is in Baseball. It is a season of new beginnings, of hope looking forward and looking back. It is a season of intense realism. It is a season where the people of God look forward to their deliverance even as they remember the time when God entered into humanity.  It was not simply entering the human condition as a divine and powerful being inflicting his will upon people but deciding to become subject to the same conditions know by humanity. As Paul the Apostle, wrote about him: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5b-8) 

In the incarnation Jesus Christ shows his love and solidarity with people, humanity, the creation, reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” 

That simple fact is why Christ came.

He didn’t come to found a government. He did not come to exemplify “Christian” virtues or to condemn people that religious people condemned as sinners.

The meaning of the incarnation, and the hope of the season of Advent is that God loves people, even those that some that presume to be his spokesmen and women despise.

In the next few week there will be much written and said about Jesus. Much of it will not actually deal with Jesus or the people that he came to save but instead about the worldly power and influence of those who seek the profits of being “prophets.” Some of them will talk fervently about the “war on Christmas” as if somehow God and Christ are so small that they need government sponsored displays in the public square in order to be real, relevant or or for that matter important. What a small God they must have.

Somehow the message of Advent, the coming of Jesus is contradictory to the message of the for profit prophets. Certainly the early Christians had no government backing of any kind. They simply lived the life and showed God’s love to their neighbors, often at the cost of their lives and paradoxically the message was not crushed, but spread and overcame an empire. It was only when they became co-executors of government power that the message of reconciliation became a bludgeon to be used against those who did not agree with the theology of the clerics beholden to the Empire.

The Christ of the Season of Advent, the one who came and who promises to come again is not captive to the capricious message of the for profit prophets and their political and media allies. I would dare say that God is much bigger than them or those that they believe will somehow end the Christian faith as we know it. But then maybe the Christian faith “as we know it” is more a reflection of us and our need for temporal physical power over others than it is of Jesus.

All I know is that the simplicity of the message that “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” is more powerful than any political-religious alliance. Likewise the two things that Jesus said to do in order to “inherit the Kingdom of God” were to “Love God with all your heart and love our neighbors as ourselves,” and similarly the words of the old Testament minor prophet Micah, who asked “what does the Lord require of thee? To love show justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.” But then there is not much money or political power in that is there?

But despite the inconvenience of a direct temporal profit or power which is so central to most churches, I do think that the message that God loves the real world is worth repeating. In fact I think that because the message of God’s great love for those deemed “repulsive” is so distasteful to the “for profit prophets” of our time that it is not only worth repeating, but actually believing.

It is a good reason for me to during this season of Advent to look forward to our celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation, the coming of the God who “emptied himself” and took “the form of a slave” in order to save his people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Paradox of the Passion: Reflections on Palm or Passion Sunday

I celebrated a quiet Palm Sunday liturgy this morning.  As I read the scriptures, especially the Passion Narrative of Mark the Evangelist I was moved in a way that I have not been for some time and found that my time of prayer following the readings and the recitation of the Creed was perhaps more impassioned on account of all the suffering and injustice that I see in the world.  As such I wondered what to write and thought about the story of Longinus the Centurion who was according to tradition the Centurion at the foot of the Cross of the day of the crucifixion.  I went back through a number of articles that I wrote last year about what I imagined a soldier and officer of his time might imagine in such a situation and I will repost those articles on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter. However today I decided to go back into my archives and repost with a few modification a more theological reflection on this Sunday which marks the beginning of Holy Week for Christians around the world. 

“Although we praise our common Lord for all kinds of reasons, we praise and glorify him above all for the cross. Paul passes over everything else that Christ did for our advantage and consolation and dwells incessantly on the cross. The proof of God’s love for us, he says, is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Then in the following sentence he gives us the highest ground for hope: If, when we were alienated from God, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son, how much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!” John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

“God speaking to Luther: “Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend—it must transcend all comprehension. … Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from His father… not knowing whither he went. … Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man… but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all you choose or contrive or desire—that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Cost of Discipleship

Palm or Passion Sunday always is a day that invokes mixed emotions in me. It is the last Sunday of the Lenten Season and in modern times has become a juxtaposition of two events, the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where he according to all four Gospels was greeted by crowds of people who lined the street with palms as Jesus riding on a donkey processed from Bethany and Bethphage where he had been staying with Lazarus into Jerusalem and the narrative of the Passion.  As such it is a roller coaster ride in our experience of walking with Jesus in the most difficult times.

This particular occasion is the Sunday where the disciples of Jesus are confronted with the reality that our earthy expectations of him do not meet the reality of his condensation to walk among us fully Divine yet fully Human but one too well acquainted with suffering, rejection and shame.  He shatters our expectations that he will bless any particular political or social ideology that we allow to take pre-eminence over him, even those that invoke his name. Thus our liturgy brings us to this strange day where in a sense we are confronted with celebrating the entrance of the King and in the next breath cursing him and betraying him to those who torture and crucify him.

In the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgy the observance is divided between the Liturgy of the Palms which takes place outside the Church Nave either outside the church building or in the Narthex in cold or inclement weather.  After an opening collect and reading of the Gospel passage from one of the synoptic Gospels, which one depends on which of the three year liturgical readings that the church is in. Following the reading of the Gospel the congregation led by choir, acolytes and clergy process into the church reciting the words of Psalm 118: 18-29 or singing a hymn such as “All Glory Laud and Honor.”  Once the congregation is in the church the Liturgy of the Word continues and when the Passion Gospel is read and specific roles may be assigned to members of the congregation, while the congregation remains seated through the first part of the Passion the congregation stands at the verse where “Golgotha” is mentioned and remains standing.

The liturgy takes the congregation on an emotional and spiritual roller coaster.  As the congregation begins outside the following is read:

When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Luke 19:29-40

It is hard when you read this passage and be caught in the reenactment of this procession not to feel the excitement that must have accompanied that procession.  It has the feeling of a victory parade but this road ends in a manner that those present, those seeking an earthly king and Messiah who would drive our the Roman oppressor and restore the kingdom to Israel would not expect with some of them perhaps playing a role in the drama that would take place later in the week.  I particularly like the hymn “All Glory Laud and Honor.”

All glory, laud and honor,
To Thee, Redeemer, King,
To Whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.

Thou art the King of Israel,
Thou David’s royal Son,
Who in the Lord’s Name comest,
The King and Blessèd One.
Refrain

The company of angels
Are praising Thee on High,
And mortal men and all things
Created make reply.
Refrain

The people of the Hebrews
With palms before Thee went;
Our prayer and praise and anthems
Before Thee we present.
Refrain

To Thee, before Thy passion,
They sang their hymns of praise;
To Thee, now high exalted,
Our melody we raise.
Refrain

Thou didst accept their praises;
Accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest,
Thou good and gracious King.

During the Liturgy of the Word one of the following is read, either Isaiah 45:21-25 or Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the second being the Song of the Suffering Servant.  The Psalm is Psalm 22 where the Psalmist foretells Jesus’ anguished cry from the Cross; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”And then we have the New Testament reading Philippians 2: 5-11, the hymn to Christ is read:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This year the Passion Narrative is that of Mark (14:1-15:47) but I find the passage in Luke 22:39-71 and 23:1-49 (50-56) to be more dramatic.  The three parts of Luke’s narrative that stand out in this narrative for me are Peter’s denial of Jesus, the interaction of Jesus with those crucified with him and that of the Centurion:

“Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.”

Peter’s denial is in large part because he has had his illusions about Jesus shattered and the fact that he had not understood the message up to that point.  As Bonhoeffer says “Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ.”

Likewise Jesus interaction with the condemned thieves that were crucified with him:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Mark (15:25-32) records that interaction in this manner:

“It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.”

The final passage from this narrative that strikes me is the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross:

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

Mark records that event in Mark 15: 33-39. In Mark’s account the reaction of the Centurion (15:39) to the death of Jesus is even more salient than the account of Luke.

“When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

The darkness of this is event is perplexing to those who want to find God in some place where he is untouched by human suffering to them the Cross is folly for what kind of God would submit himself to such ignominy but as Martin Luther wrote “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly. For they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross, evil and the evil of a deed, good. God can only be found in suffering and the cross.” It is in the contradiction of this week that we come to know God, not a God who seeks not the righteous or the powerful, those who seek the power of an earthy kingdom backed by an ideology of power which tramples the weak, but rather those who will simply walk in the footsteps of Jesus the Christ who rules by serving the least, the lost and the lonely.

The liturgy of this day be from any of the Passion narratives takes us to the heart of the Gospel as we led by the writers through the triumph of the entrance into Jerusalem, to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the abandonment of him by the disciples and the denial of Peter.  As the writers lead us through his trial, conviction, scourging and trek to Golgotha we see the gamut of human emotions and reactions to Jesus and we know that we can be there as well in any of the characters simply because we are human and capable of compassion or betrayal.  As Jesus is on the Cross it is not the religious or upstanding that remain with him.  He is left with his mother, the other Mary and John the beloved.  He is shown compassion by a thief and recognized as the Son of God by the Roman Centurion, a gentile serving an empire oppressing the people of Israel and whose governor had pronounced the sentence of death upon him.  In this liturgy we have been taken from the heights of exhilaration in the triumphant entry to the depths of despair felt by his disciples that Friday afternoon. It is in this time that we realize how right Dietrich Bonhoeffer is when he writes “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

It is the Centurion for which I have the greatest affinity in this story. He is a soldier and in the words of so many soldiers who have obey orders carried out the sentence upon Christ by crucifying him and then as the life ebbs out of Christ’s crucified body exclaims “surely this was a good man” or in other accounts “surely this was the Son of God.” That is the cry of a man who knows that he has executed an unjust sentence, the reaction of a true penitent, the reaction of a man who comes to realize even before many of Jesus’ closest followers understood.  According to tradition the Centurion was named Longinus who left the service of the Imperial Legion, was baptized by the Apostles and was martyred under the orders of Pontius Pilate by soldiers of the unit that he had once commanded.

It is important for the Church not to lose this identification.  The Church is not to become enmeshed and co-opted by those who attempt to use the Gospel to promote ideologies foreign to it as is the temptation in times of crisis.  As Jürgen Moltmann notes:

“In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian… The Christian life of theologians, churches and human beings is faced more than ever today with a double crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own Christian identity….Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself.” The Crucified God [pgs. 7, 19]

Nor is our task is not to attempt to invent “crosses” for ourselves in acts of pseudo-martyrdom but simply to be faithful in loving Jesus and our neighbor as Bonhoeffer noted “Must the Christian go around looking for a cross to bear, seeking to suffer? Opportunities for bearing crosses will occur along life’s way and all that is required is the willingness to act when the time comes. The needs of the neighbor, especially those of the weak and downtrodden, the victimized and the persecuted, the ill and the lonely, will become abundantly evident.” The mark of the Christian is not to blindly give his life for a cause or be consumed by the false “messiah’s” promoted by politicians, pundits and even preachers captivated by the lust for power and glory.

As we walk through the mystery of Holy Week together let us renew our faith in the Crucified One and not be conformed to those things that seek to turn us from the way of discipleship and the way of the Cross.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Advent of Early Onset Holiday Commercialization Syndrome 2011

I hate to sound like a Grinch or Scrooge type of killjoy but here on November 20th I am bothered by an attack of Early Onset Holiday Commercialization Syndrome (EOHCS). EOHCS is not yet recognized as a Disorder in the DSM IV I have to wing it here but I think that the average person probably realizes that this condition is epidemic in our society.  Since I tend to avoid malls and the big retail outlets in general I can usually avoid attacks of EOHCS mostly by ignoring the incessant “Christmas” or holiday commercials of which car commercials seem to be the most offensive this year.  However I do  have to go out in public sometimes and on those occasions must do all that I can to stay sane as EOHCS seems to come earlier than it ever did.

I had to go get groceries this afternoon and went to a “Wal-Mart Super Center” in Morehead City because they carry a particular brand of pita bread that I cannot get at any of the grocery stores in my local area.  Now I expect that when I go to any retailer after Labor Day to find Christmas specials and an encroachment of Christmas paraphernalia and gifts with each passing week.  That is a given in our consumer driven society and whether I like it or not it is a fact of life and I am not going to change it.  However I just wanted groceries and not the full on Christmas press.  Now to be sure I only go to Wal-Mart when necessary because frankly the place sets off almost every alarm in my post PTSD mind and body.  When I go my goal is to get in and out as soon as possible and avoid any crowds, congested areas and noise.  Thus I will usually go late at night as if I were a stealth commando, but today I needed to go early to get it done.

Of course the store was littered with pre-Black Friday specials and had aisles of candies, cakes, toys, and trimmings. I felt like the Grinch walking through Whoville without the sweet ambiance of that cartoon town.  As I went made my foray into the store, knowing exactly what I needed and where to find it I was assaulted by and overwhelmed with the sound of Christmas music which was louder and more obnoxious than usual. I think the most annoying of the songs I heard today was “Rocking around the Christmas Tree” sung by Brenda Lee which seems to repeated about every 15 minutes during the holiday season.  I find her voice particularly grating and about as soothing as Pee Wee Herman scratching his nails scratching on a chalkboard when I am out shopping.  Now this song is simply annoying but when I hear songs that are meant for worship of the Lord being used as a means to condition us to buy things I get offended.  Thus when I hear “Silent Night” sandwiched between advertisements on November 20th in a store I want to scream, not that there is anything wrong with that; the screaming that is.

Now I like Christmas music, so long as it is actually somewhat close to Christmas even even the non-religious songs of which Grandma Got Run over By a Reindeer is my all time favorite, but I digress.  Since liturgically speaking it isn’t even Advent yet I find such a bombardment of secular and sacred Christmas songs while grocery shopping to be offensive to my somewhat liturgically correct sensibilities.  That may seem harsh but the musical assault at Wal-Mart only increased my desire to finish shopping and get the hell out of the store as fast as my cart would carry my food.  It did not induce me to hang around to see if I wanted to spend extra money on stuff that I probably don’t need.

And we wonder while there is little sense of the Holy in our society.  The fact is that somehow we have allowed our culture to devolve to the point that we utilize actions and holidays meant to point us in the direction of the Holy and use them to satisfy our most base desires. The Holy is subordinated to the profit margins of retailers who make their money satiating our desires for the newest and greatest stuff that we can get our hands on.

I am not against people getting nice things at all or giving gifts in abundance to their loved ones or even for themselves.  I like nice stuff too and I love the celebration of Christmas in its spiritual as well as cultural derivatives.  I like Christmas trees and decorations and the festiveness of Christmas especially with friends enjoying each other and a good glass of hot Gluhwein.

I guess I think that when we turn Christmas into a months long pursuit of profits and stuff that it really cheapens and degrades the holiday, even for people that are not Christians. Really, Black Friday is the real holy day in our consumer society and what gets more push back, a store being open briefly on Christmas or Black Friday sales encroaching on Thanksgiving?

Even allegedly “Christian” retailers take advantage of the holiday even selling trinkets that say “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” or “What Would Jesus Do?” at a healthy profit.  Again I am not against people making a profit from their labors people should be compensated well for work well done. But the fact that most Jesus junk like almost everything else is now made in China or Third World countries by workers that are all but slaves doesn’t seem to enter into the equation for jesus is the reason for the season“Christian” retailers and even ministries; just as it doesn’t for everyone else seeking to make a profit off the baby born in the manger.

How sad that as a culture we have reduced the celebration of God humbly entering into the human experience to a celebration of crass economic Darwinism much more in tune with Ayn Rand than Jesus.  Paul writes in Philippians though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness….” Somehow that concept seems lost in our culture.

Oh well, what can I say?  Maybe I am a Grinch after all or maybe I can get counseling for Early Onset Holiday Commercialization Syndrome.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Palm or Passion Sunday…the Paradox of the Triumphant Entry and the Cross

The Triumphant Entry

“Although we praise our common Lord for all kinds of reasons, we praise and glorify him above all for the cross. Paul passes over everything else that Christ did for our advantage and consolation and dwells incessantly on the cross. The proof of God’s love for us, he says, is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Then in the following sentence he gives us the highest ground for hope: If, when we were alienated from God, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son, how much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!” John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

God speaking to Luther: “Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend—it must transcend all comprehension. … Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from His father… not knowing whither he went. … Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man… but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all you choose or contrive or desire—that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Cost of Discipleship

Palm or Passion Sunday always is a day that invokes mixed emotions in me. It is the last Sunday of the Lenten Season and in modern times has become a juxtaposition of two events, the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where he according to all four Gospels was greeted by crowds of people who lined the street with palms as Jesus riding on a donkey processed from Bethany and Bethphage where he had been staying with Lazarus into Jerusalem and the narrative of the Passion.  As such it is a roller coaster ride in our experience of walking with Jesus in the most difficult times.

This particular occasion is the Sunday where the disciples of Jesus are confronted with the reality that our earthy expectations of him do not meet the reality of his condensation to walk among us fully Divine yet fully Human but one too well acquainted with suffering, rejection and shame.  He shatters our expectations that he will bless any particular political or social ideology that we allow to take pre-eminence over him, even those that invoke his name. Thus our liturgy brings us to this strange day where in a sense we are confronted with celebrating the entrance of the King and in the next breath cursing him and betraying him to those who torture and crucify him.

In the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgy the observance is divided between the Liturgy of the Palms which takes place outside the Church Nave either outside the church building or in the Narthex in cold or inclement weather.  After an opening collect and reading of the Gospel passage from one of the synoptic Gospels, which one depends on which of the three year liturgical readings that the church is in. Following the reading of the Gospel the congregation led by choir, acolytes and clergy process into the church reciting the words of Psalm 118: 18-29 or singing a hymn such as “All Glory Laud and Honor.”  Once the congregation is in the church the Liturgy of the Word continues and when the Passion Gospel is read and specific roles may be assigned to members of the congregation, while the congregation remains seated through the first part of the Passion the congregation stands at the verse where “Golgotha” is mentioned and remains standing.

The liturgy takes the congregation on an emotional and spiritual roller coaster.  As the congregation begins outside the following is read:

When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Luke 19:29-40

It is hard when you read this passage and be caught in the reenactment of this procession not to feel the excitement that must have accompanied that procession.  It has the feeling of a victory parade but this road ends in a manner that those present, those seeking an earthly king and Messiah who would drive our the Roman oppressor and restore the kingdom to Israel would not expect with some of them perhaps playing a role in the drama that would take place later in the week.  I particularly like the hymn “All Glory Laud and Honor.”

All glory, laud and honor,
To Thee, Redeemer, King,
To Whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.

Thou art the King of Israel,
Thou David’s royal Son,
Who in the Lord’s Name comest,
The King and Blessèd One.
Refrain

The company of angels
Are praising Thee on High,
And mortal men and all things
Created make reply.
Refrain

The people of the Hebrews
With palms before Thee went;
Our prayer and praise and anthems
Before Thee we present.
Refrain

To Thee, before Thy passion,
They sang their hymns of praise;
To Thee, now high exalted,
Our melody we raise.
Refrain

Thou didst accept their praises;
Accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest,
Thou good and gracious King.

During the Liturgy of the Word one of the following is read, either Isaiah 45:21-25 or Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the second being the Song of the Suffering Servant.  The Psalm is Psalm 22 where the Psalmist foretells Jesus’ anguished cry from the Cross; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”And then we have the New Testament reading Philippians 2: 5-11, the hymn to Christ is read:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Peter Denies Christ

This year the Passion Narrative is that of Luke (22:39-71) 23:1-49 (50-56).  The three parts that stand out in this narrative for me are Peter’s denial of Jesus:

“Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.”

Peter’s denial is in large part because he has had his illusions about Jesus shattered and the fact that he had not understood the message up to that point.  As Bonhoeffer says “Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ.”

Likewise Jesus interaction with the condemned thieves that were crucified with him:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Crucifixion

The final passage from this narrative that strikes me is the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross:

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

The darkness of this is event is perplexing to those who want to find God in some place where he is untouched by human suffering to them the Cross is folly for what kind of God would submit himself to such ignominy but as Martin Luther wrote “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly. For they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross, evil and the evil of a deed, good. God can only be found in suffering and the cross.” It is in the contradiction of this week that we come to know God, not a God who seeks not the righteous or the powerful, those who seek the power of an earthy kingdom backed by an ideology of power which tramples the weak, but rather those who will simply walk in the footsteps of Jesus the Christ who rules by serving the least, the lost and the lonely.

The liturgy of this day takes us to the heart of the Gospel as we led by the writers through the triumph of the entrance into Jerusalem, to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the abandonment of him by the disciples and the denial of Peter.  As the writers lead us through his trial, conviction, scourging and trek to Golgotha we see the gamut of human emotions and reactions to Jesus and we know that we can be there as well in any of the characters simply because we are human and capable of compassion or betrayal.  As Jesus is on the Cross it is not the religious or upstanding that remain with him.  He is left with his mother, the other Mary and John the beloved.  He is shown compassion by a thief and recognized as the Son of God by the Roman Centurion, a gentile serving an empire oppressing the people of Israel and whose governor had pronounced the sentence of death upon him.  In this liturgy we have been taken from the heights of exhilaration in the triumphant entry to the depths of despair felt by his disciples that Friday afternoon. It is in this time that we realize how right Dietrich Bonhoeffer is when he writes “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

St Longinus, Centurion at the Cross and Martyr

It is the Centurion for which I have the greatest affinity in this story. He is a soldier and in the words of so many soldiers who have obey orders carried out the sentence upon Christ by crucifying him and then as the life ebbs out of Christ’s crucified body exclaims “surely this was a good man” or in other accounts “surely this was the Son of God.” That is the cry of a man who knows that he has executed an unjust sentence, the reaction of a true penitent, the reaction of a man who comes to realize even before many of Jesus’ closest followers understood.  According to tradition the Centurion was named Longinus who left the service of the Imperial Legion, was baptized by the Apostles and was martyred under the orders of Pontius Pilate by soldiers of the unit that he had once commanded.

It is important for the Church not to lose this identification.  The Church is not to become enmeshed and co-opted by those who attempt to use the Gospel to promote ideologies foreign to it as is the temptation in times of crisis.  As Jürgen Moltmann notes:

“In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian… The Christian life of theologians, churches and human beings is faced more than ever today with a double crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own Christian identity….

Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself.” The Crucified God [pgs. 7, 19]

Nor is our task is not to attempt to invent “crosses” for ourselves in acts of pseudo-martyrdom but simply to be faithful in loving Jesus and our neighbor as Bonhoeffer noted “Must the Christian go around looking for a cross to bear, seeking to suffer? Opportunities for bearing crosses will occur along life’s way and all that is required is the willingness to act when the time comes. The needs of the neighbor, especially those of the weak and downtrodden, the victimized and the persecuted, the ill and the lonely, will become abundantly evident.” The mark of the Christian is not to blindly give his life for a cause or be consumed by the false “messiah’s” promoted by politicians, pundits and even preachers captivated by the lust for power and glory.

As we walk through the mystery of Holy Week together let us renew our faith in the Crucified One and not be conformed to those things that seek to turn us from the way of discipleship and the way of the Cross.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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