The Priority of Christ

Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”.
~Mark 13:31

A Theology of Advent
Things that are eternal – by definition – cannot pass away. Everything else does and will as Jesus reminds us today. In the opening lines of John’s Gospel, we are reminded that “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh”. The Word Made Flesh is none other than Christ, the eternal one. All things that were created were created through the Word. Put differently, all things were created through Christ. Heaven and earth were created through Christ; yet, they too will pass away. Why? Because God’s crea-tion can never be God – the Crea-tor. If we believe otherwise – that the created order is the same as God – we would be considered pagans. Instead, we are Christians, and the priority of Christ is front and center because Christ (the Word of God) will not pass away. With this beautiful theology and divine truth, we begin our journey through another season of Advent. Without this truth, we are lost in the dark – left to our faltering senses.

The Cycle of Darkness is a Cycle of Change
Darkness. This time of year there is more darkness than light. The days are short. The night is long. This too shall pass.

Change. This time of year deciduous trees shed their leaves while in the fir tree we recognize changelessness. Although these created things (i.e. light/dark; trees and their leaves) are indeed, normal; they are not eternal – so “keep awake”, says Jesus, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.” Isn’t that just like God; that is, to come at us suddenly? It’s been said that life happens when we are making plans. Christ coming into the world was sudden, and there were only a few who were awake enough to receive him. Christ coming into the world in the future will be similar; yet the difference is that all will see him but not all will be gathered up; therefore keep awake.

How do we keep awake? How do we acknowledge the humbling truth that heaven and earth will pass away? The appropriate response is to focus, to practice, and to live into the eternal – those eternal things that will not pass away. When we practice these eternal virtues, we awaken more and more each day. We prepare our bodies, minds, and spirits to receive the love, life, and light found in the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ Our Lord.

So let’s stay focused on Christ today. To help us, listen to this: For centuries the Church has traditionally found the symbols of “priest”, “prophet” and “king” as appropriate archetypes for describing Christ and his priority. Bishop Robert Barron in his new book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age describes the various archetypes attributed to Christ like this:[1]

Christ as Priest
“The priest is the one who gives right praise. That’s the Biblical way of naming who we are. What goes wrong is that we praise the wrong things. Augustine said that too, that we end up worshipping creatures rather than the Creator. We become priests of the wrong god. From bad worship flows everything else, meaning the disintegration of the self, sin, violence, and so on.

Getting us back on track means we’re like Adam before the Fall…[Adam]’s a priest because he’s in the attitude of right worship. [One of the paintings] on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel [has] Eve [coming] forth from the side of Adam…she has her hands folded in an attitude of prayer. That’s humanity before the Fall; it knew how to worship right”.

Christ as Prophet
“Before the Fall, Adam names the animals, that is to say he catalogs them. He names them according to the Logos [Word] that God has placed in them. [Adam]’s not making up their meaning, he’s recognizing (re-cognizing, to use the term of Joseph Ratzinger). He’s thinking again what’s already been thought into them [by God], so he’s a prophet. From that prophecy, correct speech flows, the whole range of literature and science, philosophy, everything.”

Christ as King
“The idea of king is that Adam…is made to expand out. Now that Eden’s okay, let’s move out and turn the whole world into a place of right praise. What it gives you is the whole vocation of Israel. [Israel] is a priestly people, a prophetic people that knows the divine truth, and then, finally, a kingly people that will go on the march.

These vocations of priest, prophet, and king were not fully achieved until Christ, Barron argues. Barron says, [Christ], in his own person, is the place of right praise. It’s humanity turned to divinity. He’s not just the speaker of truth, he is the [Word] incarnate, so he’s prophet in the full sense. Then he’s king, because he’s going on the march to ‘Edenize’ the world, to ‘Christify’ the world. What goes wrong with us…is that we get all three of those things wrong. We worship the wrong things, we start making up our own meaning, and then we also privatize the faith. A restored focus on Christ…is the only exit strategy from those temptations.”

Re-Order Your Life around the Priority of Christ 
Advent is the season to re-order our lives – not around ourselves – but around the eternal Word of God, that is, Jesus Christ. Doing anything else in this season deprives us of re-cognizing, or thinking again on the things that are eternal. Doing anything else puts to sleep those eternal longings that are tangibly felt and experienced during the mystery of Advent. Sure, it’s dark – but the light of Christ is eternal. Sure, things are changing – but what about the changelessness of God? Sure things are scary – but fear not, for Christ is with us. These are the teachings of Advent. These are the teachings of the Church that pour forth from the Divine Word of God – Jesus Christ.

This Advent, challenge yourself to re-organize your life around the priority of Christ coming into the world, then think on the things that are eternal. Think on, and then practice love, forgiveness, humility, patience, hope, joy, gratefulness, and compassion. Practicing these virtues of the Spirit helps prepare your hearts to keep awake, even as the rest of the world has fallen asleep dreaming of the wrong gods.

[1]          This section describing Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King is a full quotation from the book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, Robert Barron with John L. Allen, Jr., Image Publishing, New York, 2017, pgs. 101-102.

A Lenten Meditation

Step 1: Find a cross. Notice that it is made up of a vertical beam and a horizontal one. Meditate on one beam at a time. Let the vertical beam represent your relationship with God. Let the horizontal beam represent your relationship with the world (family, friends, God’s creation)

Step 2: Read John 3:1-17

Step 3: Read the below meditation. What sentences are vertical relationships with God? What sentences are horizontal relationships with God’s creation?

When we encounter Christ as Nicodemus did, we are offered an invitation to deepen our relationship with Christ. What at first may start out as a surface level relationship can be extended out deeper and wider within us as we learn how to trust and obey God. With the deepening of the relationship, greater healing and wider faith is extended from our hearts to having a heart for others. For God so loved the world… God loves the world because it is God’s creation. Because we are part of creation, this must mean that God loves us, and when we can acknowledge that we are not the center of the universe, the love God has for His creation can be easily found within each one of us. If this is the case, we are called to love as God loves us. This may seem simple enough at first, but if we look at the world within us and around us, it is anything but simple. For starters, when we enter into relationship with God, we are inviting God into all aspects of ourselves –those parts we acknowledge and are proud of as well as those parts we dismiss and are ashamed or fearful of. God penetrates our hearts and souls so deep that it takes our senses, our faculties, and our brains a very long time to even register God’s healing presence. What can be experienced as ambiguous and partial on our end is made whole in Christ. In other words, we don’t see the whole picture, but only a part of the puzzle. It takes faith to trust and obey God wherever he may be leading our bodies and souls. Mystics call this experience of God a deep knowing that is very different from knowledge. Put simply, it’s a difference in knowing God rather than knowing about God. When this type of knowing is experienced, God gets to view the world through us, and visa-versa. Everything has changed in these moments; yet everything is the same. It’s as if a shift has happened in our very perspective, and God has settled in nicely to a comfortable warm heart. This was the deeper invitation Jesus was extending to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was impressed with the knowledge of God represented in the signs Jesus was performing; however, his spirituality was arrested and he could not move past the signs. He stayed in the flesh instead of moving deeper into God’s Spirit.

Let this be a lesson to us, and the lesson is this: God is constantly calling us into deeper ways of knowing and being in relationship with Him. Why not let go, give in, and say, ‘Yes.’

Step 4: Call to mind the cross in Step 1. What do you believe your default beam to be – the Vertical or Horizontal one? Is your relationship with Christ where it needs to be (regular prayer, worship, accountability group/mentor(s)) represented by the Vertical Beam? Is your relationship with the world where it needs to be (you, your family, your society – God’s creation is taken care of in your neck of the woods) represented by the Horizontal Beam?

Step 5: This Lent, work on the beam that is not your default one. Notice when the two beams are joined a cross is made, and a center formed. Crucify your self/ego on the cross. What remains is only Christ in the center of your life calling you into further relationship with him and his creation.

 

Remembering Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17 – Year A – The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

“Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.” ~Richard Rohr

 “[T]o understand baptism, we must understand the reality, the physicality, of being human, and what it means to say that God saved us by becoming just like us.” ~Steven D. Driver

Throughout scripture, mainly in the writings of St. Paul, we learn that who we really are and why we are has everything to do with Christ. We live, move, and have our being in Christ. We love and are loved in Christ. We forgive and are forgiven in Christ. It was Jesus – The Christ – who taught these things, and lived out these things in His own ministry. By taking on the mind of Christ, and through imitation of Him, we practice His ministry when we, walk in love as Christ loves us. So it is no surprise that many first century Jews and Gentiles imitated Christ through the two sacraments Jesus instituted: Baptism and Communion. Two sacraments we will remember and renew today. Two sacraments that take meaning out and into the world every time gathered Christians are dismissed to go forth in the name of Christ (BCP, 366).

It’s been said imitation is the first form of flattery, and I would argue that humans have been trying to imitate God ever since the beginning. Our ancestors first imitated God by creating. God, the Book of Genesis reads, created the heavens and the earth [and] the earth was a formless void; yet, God formed something out of this void. Likewise, the first humans formed something out of a void through the act of procreation. It can be argued that the family was one of the first expressions of humans creating, and how mind boggling this must have been for earth’s first mother. First there was nothing – then (for Eve) – there was something. A true miracle; and, like all creation God and mankind use what they have around them to create, and in doing so create a new thing.

John the Baptist was creating a new thing out of a very old thing. Just like the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation, John the Baptist would wade into the waters of the Jordan, and invite others to do the same. He intuitively knew that water cleansed, that water washed, that water nourished, and anyone who wanted to participate in this new/old thing were welcomed. By baptizing, John’s intention was to publicly name (right then and there) that this person (or persons) have repented. But then, Jesus wades into the waters. They must have been familiar to Him; after all, if we believe in a Trinitarian God, then Christ was present in the very beginning hovering over the face of the deep dark waters. After Christ swept over this water, then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Similarly, Jesus told John, “Let it be so now,” then, the Gospel reads, John consented, Jesus was baptized, and God (yet again) created a new thing. Going back to the book of Genesis, God said that the newly created light was good. Then Matthew’s Gospel reads, that [God] was well pleased with His Son. God always sees the good in His creation and is well pleased with His creativity. God the Father always loves His Son through the Holy Spirit. God, at all times and at all places is constantly inviting us to participate in His goodness. God saved us by becoming just like us. It was a new thing. It was a good thing. It was a holy thing.

This Epiphany, ask yourself what it means to imitate God, to take on the mind of Christ, to live into the waters of creation. Marvel in the miracle of new life, new birth, and new opportunities to co-create with God. Remember your baptism, renew it with Christ’s Body and Blood, then you will be invited to “go forth in the name of Christ. Thanks be to God.” AMEN.

 

 

Balancing the Bigger Picture of Christmas

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. ~John 1:14 

“Take a step back,” my Dad called out to me. “You’re standing too close. Take a step back, and you can see it better.” We were visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, and what IT turned out to be was Georges Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting’s iconic because up close one realizes the whole piece was painted with little dots. Artists call this technique pointillism, and at the time I wasn’t so interested in the bigger picture. I had studied this painting in school, and I wanted to experience the dots myself, so my face was as close to the painting as I could possibly get without making the security guard standing to my left suspiciously nervous. I eventually backed away, marveled at the size and scope of the painting, but for some reason, I kept focusing in on those silly dots.

The dramatic lead up to Jesus’ birth is found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Within Luke’s Gospel, we have the angel, Gabriel, visiting Mary and revealing she is with child; while in Matthew, we take a step back from the pregnancy and begin with the genealogy of Jesus. (Mark’s Gospel has no birth narrative. It begins with the baptism of Jesus as an adult). It is only with the Gospel according to John where the largest step away from the nativity scene happens. From its angle, the bigger picture, the idea, the point, and the revelation all stand revealed. John steps all the way back to the genesis where we discover that God, through the person of Jesus Christ, has always been and always will be. (What a picture John paints for those who believe). And what is this belief? The belief is what theologians call the Incarnation, what the prophets of old named as Emmanuel, and why worshippers celebrate Christmas. God took on flesh and walked among us. This is the Christmas miracle. This is the new beginning.

If we contemplate this theological space of new beginnings, the world opens up its mystery to us. We begin to experience within us and all around us those creative aspects found in God’s creation. A sense of awe, wonder, and imagination pricks the senses as we surrender ourselves to truth, beauty, and love. John’s Gospel reveals that God’s master plan has always been incarnation; and now, with the living breathing person of Jesus his mark on the painting is now complete. It is God’s most important point. The one holding the whole picture together; and yet I find myself torn between wanting to focus my whole attention on the dot that is Jesus Christ while at the same time feel compelled to take a step back and see the bigger picture. In that delicate space of contemplation is where the greatest mystery opens itself up to me. It is in the tension of the manger where I also find the cross of Christ. It is in the details of Jesus’ life where God is fully revealed to me. In this Christmas season, I know that I am called to the one who will feed the hungry, heal the sick, and forgive our sins. I know that I am called to love like Jesus for in doing so I realize the same love God finds within me is found in the other, the stranger, and the neighbor. These are crucial and oftentimes overwhelmingly crushing details where I feel compelled to take a step back and remember the larger picture. I wonder if that is the point of Jesus? That is, to remind us how to love, while at the same time pointing us in the direction of Love itself? I suppose it is a balancing act for us. A discernment. A knowing and an un-knowing all at the same time.

This Christmas, marvel at the point on the picture. Take notice that the security guard standing to your left is supposed to be a bit nervous. After all, institutions and those in charge do get nervous when we all start taking our art, our religion, and our Lord Jesus Christ seriously. Get close to the dots and at the same time don’t forget the picture as a whole. Each dot is important. Dare I say we can find our own dot within the picture, for in doing so, we discover God within us. How humbling it is to know incarnation was part of the plan the whole time. How sobering it is to know we are all part of the bigger story – a story within a story – the art and painting of God.