By the third day, I'm certain life had begun to gain some sort of semblance of normal for the followers of Christ. His mother, once unconsolable, probably finally started to get some sleep, albeit interrupted by the recurring nightmare of her son, beaten and bloody, stretched out on a cross for all to mock and revile. The smell of his blood as she carried him to the tomb likely still permeated her senses, and the sounds of the cries of her child indelibly burned into her mind. Never mind that he was the Son of God, he was her son. The boy she had held within her womb, the divine child, incarnate grace and love was now quickly becoming nothing more than a memory.
The ground had already shaken when he died, the temple veil torn in two—something that makes us take a step back and contemplate the death of this man—revealing to all around Him that the "presence of God" does not dwell in temples made with human hands. The rending of the veil is the revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven within humanity rather than stone and pomp.
And during all this shaking and mourning, Christ is descending, deeper and deeper into the darkness and pain of human experience. Descending into all that we could ever be in the worst way. Descending into the past hatred of his people by the Egyptians, into the present hatred by Rome, and into future hatred by Hitler and laying hold of that hatred—rendering it powerless. Descending and with every step His still freshly pierced hands and feet "trampling down death by death", dripping blood on everything He touches.
In this Study will we be looking at the last 7 prayers that Jesus prayed on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34), "Father, forgive them; they don't know what they're doing." (Luke 23:34), "Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom." He said, "Don't worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise." (Luke 23:42-43), "Father, I place my life into your hands." (Luke 23:46), He said to his mother, "Woman, here is our son." Then he said to the disciple, "He is your mother." (John 19:26-27), "I'm thirsty" (John 19:28), "It's done...complete." (John 19:30)
So why should we study these prayers? How are they going to help me grow closer to God? Eugene Peterson, in his book 'Tell it Slant', said, "We are not at the cross to remember or do homage. We are here to probe the meaning of our daily dying in the company of Jesus." (pg. 241) Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:31, "I die daily". Jesus said, "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the drivers seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding you self, your true self." (Matt. 16:24-26) As Christians, every day we should be dying to self and giving Jesus more control. But do we? I hope that as you go through these 7 prayers with Jesus, that you will get to know Jesus in a deeper and more personal way in your daily dying.
Jesus, I would like to meet You. Guide me on my way. Teach me to hold onto your Word when I have to walk up the Calvary of my life. Help me so that I - like You - am ready to obey and say, "May Your will be done." Help me to do what You ask me to do. Father, here I am. I would like to embrace the secret of Your Son so that You may acknowledge me as Your child who is returning to You. Amen.
One of the unique aspects of being human is the role stories play in our lives and have played as far back as the human story is told. Stories inspire, enlighten, connect, delight, warn, admonish and surprise. We need them with an urgency that resembles hunger. Not merely entertainment, stories can save lives or turn us into killers.
In 1955, when I was thirteen, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see a photo exhibition that has haunted me ever since. Its theme was “The Family of Man.” The curator, Edward Steichen, brought together a vast sequence of photos that not only asserted but demonstrated that, for all the diversity of culture, skin color, local economy and development, varieties of religion and differences of clothing, we are indeed one human family bound together in love, pain, labor, awe, anger, gratitude and death. I bought the exhibition book and have hung onto it through many moves, returning to it ever since as if it were a Bible without words. Taken as a whole, the collection has as its golden thread the radical us-ness of being. It helped me understand that beneath our separateness is our unity. It’s about the “our” in the Our Father.
Among the images that I especially love is one of an old African storyteller in a fire-illuminated hut. We see him at the top of a circle of young people, boy and girls who are listening to the old man with absolute attention and wonder. The storyteller’s eyes are wide open, his mouth a perfect O, his eyebrows arched high into his forehead, his hands raised above his head, all ten fingers outstretched. If he were telling the story of Jesus’s life, this might be the moment when the disciples discover the empty tomb.
Imagine the devastation the followers of Jesus must've felt the day after they laid his body in the grave. No hope that tomorrow would bring anything to calm their grief. No hope that they would see Jesus again. No hope that Rome would ever be defeated. No hope that love would win the day. Jesus' mother was likely unconsolable, no parent wants to bury their own child.
The miracles? Memories.
The sermons? Silent.
I'm sure their minds traced back and forth, I doubt anyone got any sleep, and I'm sure nobody was smiling.
In the midst of the sadness and pain of loss, Jesus was laying waste to the gates of hades. His descent into hades signifies to us that there is nowhere he won't go to be with us, to reach us, to save us.
The text really doesn't tell us that Jesus descended "into flames" or "into fire", because hades isn't a place of burning in mythology. It was a place of darkness, where all souls go post mortem. It was a place of fear and trembling, where the souls of the ages eagerly awaited the King of Glory.
"The light shines in the darkness".
The light of the world sent to the darkest place the world "knew" existed? What darkness can stand in that presence? "Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess" just might be historical commentary as well as eschatological prophecy, as Jesus was preaching to the souls gone before. In the darkness of humanity's rage and self deceit, the man of sorrows, the lover of our souls began to preach.
And what do we think he preached?
There is little doubt that there is a form of "culture wars" going on in almost every part of our world (the world does not have "corners"). Too many people misread this culture dislocation in terms of "left/right"; liberal/conservative; religious/anti-religious dichotomies". This is not useful.
The culture wars are far more generational and have more to do with the information and knowledge revolutions than any political "wingism". Another, profound aspect of the rift is the brain evolution of younger generations, enhanced and driven by the technology age.
Much of the dichotomy is in mental and attitudinal orientation. Clinically we are aware that people with enlarged or over-active amygdale regions of the brain are more reactive because of the fear generated emotions, and this is often beyond their control. "Liberals" are often too quick to embrace any new notions that appear, without due consideration or research.
For younger people, particularly the millenials, liberal/conservative dichotomies are not so significant, they are more facts and knowledge based. This is where the real culture war divisions arise, particularly in religious bodies.
Remembering the cross of Christ, as well as the crucifixion (for clarification, see yesterday’s post) is crucial to our understanding of the atonement, but it isn’t the whole story. That’s likely why I’ve never really liked the old hymn “The Old Rugged Cross”. I get the point, it’s a big part of our faith, but it’s only the beginning. There’s all sorts of metaphors we can make about the piercing of his side and the fact that it remained open, shades of how Adam’s side was opened for the bride to come out. Isn’t it great that Jesus’ side was left open?
Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf. – St. Isaac the Syrian (1)
The age of relativism is also the age of zealousness. They go hand in hand, codependent twins in service to the same human passion, symptoms of a shared dis-ease. Both are responses to the longing of the human heart. Relativism and zealousness are distinct ways of misunderstanding our deep desire for a firm truth. Both are misunderstandings in the strict sense for they fail to discern aright what stands under the desire we have for that which is true. In both we see this human desire turned into an appetite. Whatever we come to look at and care about is then forced into conformity with the idea, image, or ritual that we have erected as absolute. We begin to hang all our hopes and dreams on the truth of our chosen framework, our precious absolutes (including the relativists’ precious absolute that there is nothing of ultimate value). Our longing is captured by an absolute of our own making. It follows, almost without saying, that once we hang all our hopes and dreams on something that we claim as absolute, it is a short step to hanging all our fears on it as well. In this moment the holy longing of the human heart and mind that lies behind the search for absolutes becomes polluted. Zealousness for the truth frames how we see and understand and reshapes our response to the fragility of the life of the world.
It is this passion, this disease, that St. Isaac says we are freed from when we learn what truth is really like. But we are only open to learn what truth is like when our understanding of truth itself is transformed.
For the relativist this transformation requires the letting go of the deep disappointment in the discovery that no abstract value, no matter how ultimate it may appear, holds in all times and all places. The spiritual source of relativism is often if not always a result of the loss of faith in the god of the philosophers and it leads directly to cynicism. “If my absolute is not claimed by all, including god, then the search for absolutes is itself nothing but human foolishness.”
The zealous, often religious men and women, have yet to walk through the valley of shattered absolutes. They erect elaborate temples of truth, statement-by-statement, fact-by-fact, temples that have turrets strategically located, each well armed and poised to fire at a moment’s notice. Both the relativist and the zealous are spiritual adolescents at best, and in our fragile world, where the news media often shape the public discourse, they have bonded with each other to divert attention away from serious encounter with “what truth is really like.”
“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” –The Apostle Peter, Acts 3:15
Golgotha is where the great crimes of humanity — pride, rivalry, blame, violence, domination, war, and empire — are dragged into the searing light of divine judgment. At Golgotha we see the system of human organization that we blithely call “civilization” for what it is: an axis of power enforced by violence so corrupt that it is capable of murdering God in the name of what we call truth, justice, and liberty.
Golgotha is also the place where the love of God achieves its greatest expression. As Jesus is lynched in the name of religious truth and imperial justice he expresses the heart of God as he pleads for the pardon of his executioners. At the cross we discover that the God revealed in Christ would rather die in the name of love than kill in the name of freedom. Our savior is Jesus Christ, not William Wallace.
The cross is both hideous and glorious, simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It’s as hideous as human sin and as glorious as divine love. It is a collision of sin and grace. But it is not a contest of equals. In the end love and beauty win. We call it Easter.
What the cross is not is a quid pro quo where God agrees to forgive upon receipt of his Son’s murder. What the cross is not is an economic transaction whereby God gains the capital to forgive. These legal and fiscal models for understanding the cross simply will not do.
Jesus does not save us from God, Jesus reveals God as savior.
As postmoderns, we often criticize Evangelicalism (the particular religion we grew up with). However, all religion has (necessary) stages of growth that mimic human development. All religions can serve the ego and/or the Spirit.
I see religion as the stem and husk that can house and serve the growth of the seed (Spirit). The problem is, we tend to get attached to the stem and husk and mistakenly consider them to be our nutrition!
I think it's helpful to not only look at fundamentalist/conservative Evangelicalism or even ‘religion’ itself as the problem. In a recent CNN show on atheists, one atheist claimed that if we got rid of religion, humanity would have no problems. Really? No more racism, classism, genderism? Talk about a belief system rivaling pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die! As it turns out, key atheist apologists, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are huge male chauvinists!
I think it's more helpful to look at religion anthropologically—including its political, sociological, and psychological aspects. Regardless of the religion, human nature is prone to us-versus-them and is constantly finding reasons to divide and feel superior (e.g., Catholic vs. Protestant, Shiite vs. Sunni, and various denominational splits ad nauseam) and to find a scapegoat (gays, infidels, women, whomever).
The cross of Christ is much more than just a horrendous method of torturing someone. The cross reveals to us the heart of humanity, rather than the heart of the Father. The cross gives us a picture each and every year of the depths of human depravity and violence.
As our Lenten journey becomes Passion Week and Easter, there is just too much unrest and tragedy in the world for me to simply focus liturgically on the passion of Christ as a sacred event of the past. It was for the world, the present world included, that Jesus was born, suffered, died, and rose again. In this our 21st century world there is still so much unbelief, abuse of power, and suffering born of humanity’s inhumanity to itself, that one can ask, “has anything changed?” In our humanity we can’t help lament as we connect with the suffering of our co-humanity in the world, mostly because of senseless acts of destruction, war, and exploitation….I need not list the arenas of conflict and war, or of political rhetoric arguing to expand the scope of waging of war and living by the sword. I listen to our nation’s policy makers take advantage of public fear to pass heartless, not to mention needless, crime policies, to them minimizing poverty and homelessness issues to name a few. Too long have I experienced our country’s leaders avoiding proactive problem solving in areas of social and criminal justice, poverty, homelessness, and racism, that I no longer ask, where is God? I ask rather, “What were they thinking!”; “Where are the wise and just citizens of our society, the compassionate and humble servants for the Good; where is the Church, the Body of Christ?” I no longer believe that absolutely everything that happens is by the will of God; much that happens is simply sinful individual and corporate moral irresponsibility, in a social mentality, consumptive individualism, and, positivist liberalism; and as has been said, that, too many good people do nothing.
My implicit neo-Calvinist vita activa disposition also asks, “what is the relevance our Easter liturgies and of the Easter messages to our lives and this world in this our 21st century world that seems to be falling apart at the seams; is the church corporately and individually not called to be salt, light, and servants for the common good, especially for the least of those in our global world, including our enemies?” Something must be done! Perhaps, to Use Bonhoeffer’s phrase, it is time to be” this- worldly” in our following Christ today, not other-worldly or narrowly “religious” sense by merely going down memory-lane. I conclude, though, that “church services” are vital, but not sufficient in themselves, and that the manner of our response to this world must conform, not to this world, but to the model of God in Christ. The relevance of our liturgies of the word and sacrament is that they point us to the person and work of Christ and invite us to follow in his footsteps.
Brad Jersak's A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (CWR Press, 2015) can now be pre-ordered at https://www.ptm.org/uni/resources/order/form_christlike.php
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There can’t be a holier place than the Holy Land, can there? We first visited the land of the Bible nearly twenty years ago, and it was a life-changing trip, 1996. Brian and I had gone on a Christian pilgrimage trip while we were in the midst of building our sanctuary and church building here at Word of Life. This building program that had stretched on for nearly two years had turned into a nightmare. We had given all our savings to the building program, and could never have even considered the trip if complete strangers had not arranged to have our way fully paid.
The trip was a surprise gift that came right out of heaven, a chance for a true rest from the relentless stress. From the very first day we were somehow able to forget everything we had left behind. (Even our three boys!) We both went asking God to speak to us and renew our hope — to do something special for us. And he did. I remember walking through the woods of the northern Galilee to an archaeological site that was being excavated — the ruins of the ancient city of Dan, the northernmost point of the land to which Abraham had been called. Archaeologists had found the gate, the four thousand year old gate of that ancient walled city and had exposed it to view. I stood in awe, looking right at the very stones that the Patriarch Abraham had walked on when he first set foot in the land of the Canaanites, the Promised Land.
Something deep inside me shifted when I saw that gate. My perspective changed. I had always believed in Abraham, I believed the Bible, I believed it was possible to walk by faith and do by the help of God what we could not accomplish on our own. But when I saw that gate, I somehow knew it more deeply than ever before.
There is no formal doctrine in the Orthodox Church concerning the afterlife for animals, including our pets. Those Fathers of the Church who have expressed themselves on this matter were simply expressing theological opinions that have not become universally accepted, and remain known as “theologoumena” (personal opinion).
The Church has wisely refrained from pronouncing conclusively regarding the afterlife, for much remains unknown. We will not truly understand what awaits us after this life until we have entered into the afterlife. As Orthodox Christians, we simply accept the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Creed, reciting the words, “I look for….the life of the world to come.”
By God’s grace and our cooperation with this grace, we expect to inherit eternal life. We believe that all beings who have been a part of our lives will also be there. Some of us would even hope, along with C.S. Lewis, that it might be possible Paradise will also include our beloved pets, and even the animals that have contributed in a myriad of ways to our own well being. Would it be possible that the cow that provided milk for our children, and cheese for our table, might one day join us in a Paradise where there is no death and no pain?
C.S. Lewis describes something like this in his book “The Great Divorce” in which a sanctified lady in paradise is accompanied by a myriad of animals as she walks in glory through the fields of Paradise.
Thomas Merton, like C.S. Lewis and Simone Weil, has not always been best served by his most ardent admirers. It is a welcome thing that—in all these cases—we have so much ‘informal’ material to help us see them actually developing their ideas, testing out thoughts without feeling they have to take full responsibility for them. The trouble comes when those admirers, rather overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material, feel obliged to defend everything their heroes wrote, formal and informal, so that the fallible and multi-coloured humanity of the writer becomes a bit fixed and frozen.1
– Rowan Williams
I think that Thomas Merton could easily be called the greatest spiritual writer and spiritual master of the twentieth century in English speaking America. There is no other person who has had such a profound influence on those writing on spiritual topics, not only on Catholics, but non-Catholics, as Merton. The only contender would be the enormous popularity of C.S. Lewis. I think that they are very different kinds of persons who led very different kinds of lives. They both were greatly shaped by the English literary tradition, both of them were excellent writers, and both of them wrote out of very deep experience.2
— Lawrence Cunningham
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Thomas Merton (1915-1968) have tended to have different followers and devotees. Many are the articles, books, conferences and societies that hold high Lewis and the Inklings (and those like MacDonald, Chesterton, Barfield and others), but such a committed tribe often know little about Thomas Merton. Many are the conferences, learned journals, books and articles that celebrate the life and writings of Thomas Merton, but many in the Merton clan often know little about Lewis and friends. This essay will, hopefully, transcend such tribalism by examining and exploring both the thematic affinities between Lewis and Merton and, equally important, the explicit references both men make, in an appreciate manner, about one another.
Making peace is what the Gospel is all about. But there are difficult sayings of Jesus that may, on the surface, make it appear otherwise. In this series, I attempt to wrestle a blessing from those sayings, and today, I’d like to focus on a couple that are especially problematic for peacemakers. I’m referring to the verses in which Jesus mentions “swords.”
Two verses in particular, Matthew 10:34 and Luke 22:36, might be used to justify violence. Though the sayings are very different, as the former refers to a metaphorical sword and the latter refers to a literal one, they have some contextual connections, and both statements have been used to refute pacifism. However, through the lens of mimetic theory, both statements can also be used to show how Jesus’ peace subverts the human understanding of peace founded on the corpses of victims. Jesus’ rejection of the language of peace is ultimately his rejection of the premise on which human cultures build their peace; likewise, his invocation of the “sword” subverts our understanding of and reliance on violence.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—one’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)
I first met Jim Forest -- author of Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment (Orbis, 2014) -- about five years ago when he made the trek from Holland to the south coast of British Columbia to, among other speaking gigs, give an intimate talk on St. Ephrem's Lenten Prayer at my small Orthodox parish then meeting in a converted barn. While giving him a ride from the church to the place he was staying that night, our conversation veered into Eastern Orthodoxy's somewhat underestimated inclusive embrace despite its miscalculated reputation of cold exclusivism -- even if falling victim to this unfortunate reputation at times. From this initial encounter, I was instantly impressed by the judicious and calm manner in which Jim reflected on, in this case, a somewhat thorny ecclesiological issue that reflects the need for more peacemakers to engender ecumenical hospitality.
The inspiring talk he gave at an Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference I organized in Abbotsford, BC in the summer of 2012 only reaffirmed his stoic humility. And the open arms of Orthodoxy that we had discussed a couple years earlier was echoed by Jim's hospitality when he opened his cozy and welcoming home in the historic heart of Alkmaar, Holland to my friend and I while en route to Egypt for a research project on interreligious peacebuilding between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Over the years, I have witnessed -- even if mostly from a distance -- and come to admire Jim's ability to speak calmly, though no less confidently, in hostile arenas and on contentious issues. This is the avoidance of making enemies when speaking on the topic of loving our enemies -- however demanding and imperfect such attempts may be for anyone dipping their toe in such vexed exchanges and themes.
Like Jim Forest himself, Loving Our Enemies exudes gentle wisdom. Ever the engaging and vivid storyteller, Forest weaves together profound anecdotes and quote-worthy insights to ennoble the cessation of enmity and cultivation of reconciliation in this latest offering. For my money, the chapter "Holy Disobedience" is worth the price of admission alone. The book avoids highfalutin jargon and the reader won't get bogged down by esoteric theological terminology, making this a very accessible and fluid read befitting a lay audience -- which a book on this perennially sidelined topic should be. Much deserved, Loving Our Enemies is also the Gold Medal winner in the theology category of the 2015 Illumination Book Awards.