06/02/2019 § 1 Comment
The excerpt from Joseph Pike’s epistle to Friends in Ireland brought to mind a passage from James Nayler’s 1657 tract How sin is strengthened and how it is overcome. I have slighly monkeyed with the punctuation to facilitate reading.
I will editorialize here just a bit: I find it so helpful when someone describes their direct, visceral experience of the Spirit, this particular Spirit. Such descriptions, hints, indications, help me in the fundamental spiritual work, which is hearing, recognizing, and heeding the voice of the Shepherd.
You that love holiness, it is near you; power over sin and satan is near you: salvation is at hand; go not forth to seek that abroad which you have lost in your own house; He is your salvation that condemns sin in your bosom: He that reproves the wicked is with you: He that is pure is your peace: He that never consented to sin, but stands a Witness against it: if you have such a Spirit in you, you have the Spirit of Christ the Savior.
So take heed to Him, to believe in Him, and to mind His leading, and to follow Him; if you part not from Him, He will be your everlasting peace, and over-ruling power to subdue your sins; and by Him shall you tread down strength with ease and delight……
…As you become faithful thereto, you will feel the fruit of that Holy One springing in you, moving to be brought forth in you towards God and man, your faith will grow, and prayers with strong cries to the Father; as the Spirit sees your wants, your love will spring and move in you, and bring forth towards God and man upon all occasions; which if you willingly serve in its smallest motion, it will increase, but if you quench it in its movings, and refuse to bring it forth, it will wither and dry in you, not being exercised.
…And it is the like of gentleness, meekness, patience, and all other virtues which are of a springing and spreading nature, where they are not quenched, but suffered to come forth to His praise in His will and time, who is the Begetter thereof, and to the comfort of His own Seed, and cross to the world.
And if you be faithful daily to offer up your body as a sacrifice, to bring forth His image, name, and power before His enemies, then what He moves you to bring forth shall be your inheritance, and will daily increase with using; but if you will not give up for His names sake, but would hold the treasure, and escape the reproach, then will it be taken from you, and given to him who will yield the Lord of the vineyard His fruit in due season. For that which the Father freely begets, He will have freely brought forth, that the shining thereof in the dark world may praise Him.
What a glory is it to see peace shine in the midst of war, love in the midst of hatred, meekness in the midst of strife, righteous judgment in the midst of wickedness, innocency in the midst of violence and oppression.
As a lily among thorns, so is that of God among the men of the world; and therein does His nature and beauty appear in His temple, to which all must confess, and praise Him therein.
(The tract’s full text — well worth reading! — can be found here)
05/21/2019 § Leave a comment
A while ago, I wrote a letter to New England Friends on “Climate change as a spiritual challenge” (later pamphletized). This tried to articulate what “spiritual challenge” might mean, and to relate our engagement with those challenges to the early Quaker preaching on the Lamb’s War. Since then, many of the issues I was trying to articulate have continued on my mind, in part because I have been trying to see more clearly where the gift is in our present predicament. In this series of posts, I try to work up a progress report.
For some years now, I’ve been thinking about a passage in Penington’s “Short catechism for the simple-hearted” (you can get it here):
Why dost thou call him the light? Are there not other names every whit as proper, whereby he may as well be known?
A. Do not thus set up the wise and stumbling part in thee; but mind the thing which first puts forth its virtue as light, and so is thus first to be known, owned, and received.
But note how he goes on:
we call him light, because the Father of lights hath peculiarly chosen this name for him, to make him known to his people in this age by, and hath thus made him manifest to us. And by thus receiving him under this name, we come to know his other names. He is the life, the righteousness, the power, the wisdom, the peace, &c., but he is all these in the light, and in the light we learn and receive them all; and they are none of them to be known in spirit, but in and by the light.
Early in my grappling with this, I asked (in a talk to Illinois Yearly Meeting),
…we know that the life that is in Christ is the light of the world. Yet is there another manifestation of that life for our time, which is being offered to us, in the needs and troubles of our times, for insight, for comfort, for challenge, for nourishment? Not to replace “light,” but something that might be particularly important and tuned to our condition now?
This has set me off on a long tramp to figure out things like, What actually do I think the Gospel is about? Does Quakerism still provide the means to reach to that meaning? How does all this connect with the systems crises that we have, mostly unwittingly, brought upon ourselves, and which will shape the human project for the foreseeable future? What distinctive contribution might a Quaker practice of the Gospel life make to someone living in such times? And what, on the other hand, do the times and systems of the world tell us about the Gospel itself? In the end, what does it mean to (as our Faith and Practice says) “take your part in the ministry of reconciliation between individuals, groups, and nations”?
I often hear echoes in my mind of John xxiii’s Pacem in Terris, the first contemporary prophetic voice I ever heard, challenging us to listen to “the signs of the times”, a listening that is a core activity of prophetic awareness and prophetic action. As Bill Taber put it, the tasks of the prophet are:
to discover, or recover, or reinterpret law…to walk in this law, and show others how to walk in it… to make spirit available. (The Prophetic Stream)
I have suspected that, if we can see all these questions and their answers as threads in one fabric, and we can go some way to describing the pattern interweaving those threads, it could be a way to renew Quakers’ engagement with the Gospel and with the sources and methods of hope in action, hope in contemplation.
In this series of posts, I envision (at the time of writing) the following “chapters”, though I will feel free to elaborate if need be.
- This introduction
- Swords and sparrows: on awareness of God
- Remembering unity with creation
- “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”
- Quaker spirituality: Becoming reconcilable
- Aftermath and open questions
I am quite aware that others are working in the same fields; within the Quaker world, Doug Gwyn’s A Sustainable Life is very rich, and comprehends in larger scope some of what I am aiming at here. (A nonQuaker book that I have been fed by is Douglas Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind.)
No doubt you, Reader, can think of other voices that you’d like to recommend (perhaps your own?) in comments or in other ways. All I am doing, really, is continuing my apprenticeship in the ministry, working out things for myself, and making some of them visible in case they’re helpful somehow.
An apologetic footnote on quoting oneself. It is sometimes strange to see someone quoting themselves in their writings. I know not what others may have in mind when they do it, but I wanted to go on record about my own practice. I have two reasons to do so. First, in my professional world, it is a species of plagiarism to quote one’s prior works, or incorporate material from them, without attribution. Consequently, I’ve developed the habit.
More germane here, however, is that this blog represents, to a great degree, my thinking aloud, my inner dialectic, sampled in case the samples have some savor. When I think a thing, I often wonder: Is this a step forward, or just the tracks of prior wanderings? Am I creating an increasingly coherent account of the world for myself, or am I just strolling in circles? So I look back, with curiosity and trepidation, hoping that maybe, one time or another, I’ve stumbled on a tool or a story or a trail that remains useful for my present labors in the undergrowth — but aware that sometimes one has to discard that old stuff.
05/16/2019 § 3 Comments
From the Epistle of Barnabas, §6, a line for meditation:
“Humans are earth that suffers: for of the face of the earth was the molding of Adam.”
05/14/2019 § Leave a comment
— and you want to resume getting those emails — check out this helpful post from Mercedes Schneider.
05/13/2019 § Leave a comment
We give thanks to you, our father, for the life and knowledge of which you made us aware through your child, Jesus. Yours is the glory forever. Just as this fragment (morsel) was scattered upon the mountains and, gathered together, became one, even so let your church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. (Didache, or the teaching of the twelve apostles, §9)
In the earliest days of the Christian movement, the fundamental evidence and process of unity with the mystical body of Christ was the gift of the Holy Spirit — when the gift was seen to have been bestowed, baptism was a secondary ritual. Once someone was accepted as a member of the fellowship, the union of the body was reaffirmed, strengthened, and sometimes, perhaps, repaired by the shared love-feast commonly known as the “thanksgiving” or eucharist.
In later centuries, what originated as a shared meal (sometimes the occasion of excess, see for example 1 Corinthians 11) developed into a highly stylized ritual in which the eating and drinking is strictly symbolic (with exceptions such as the Anabaptist and Moravian love-feasts. And sometimes meeting potlucks). Whatever the form, table-fellowship has been seen as a necessary part of Christian practice, indeed a sacrament of central importance.
Quakers from the beginning have preached that Christians should strive towards the inward experience of communion, rather than an outward dramatic re-enactment of the Last Supper and Passion. The outward ceremony can be perforned by rote, having no real effect on the participant. Someone can participate with unclean or insincere heart (see 1Cor 11 again). Moreover, as early Friends knew well, during the Middle Ages, the eucharist, or the consecrated elements, came essentially to be seen as magical — and indeed, the legend of the Holy Grail as it developed incorporate much of this magical thinking.
Robert Barclay laid out the Quaker view of the matter in Proposition XIII of his Apology:
The communion of the body and blood of Christ is inward and spiritual, which is the participation of his flesh and blood, by which the inward man is daily nourished in the hearts of those in whom Christ dwells, of which things the breaking of bread by Christ with his disciples was a figure, which they even used in the Church for a time, who had received the Substance, for the sake of the weak: even as abstaining from things strangled, and from blood, the washing another’s feet, and the anointing of the sick with oil, all which are commanded with no less authority and solemnity than the former yet seeing they are but shadows of better things, they cease in such as have obtained the Substance.
This spiritualized account of the sacrament — emphasizing that the ceremony was not necessary, nor helpful unless one experienced the reality it symbolized — is pretty much the Quaker position today, even though our testimony against ceremonies is not as complete as it was. (There is also maybe more to say about the early Quaker preaching on this point; in a future post, I hope to undertake a comparison of Barclay’s understanding with that of James Nayler.)
The prayer from the Didache opens up an additional dimension, however, which I find moving and challenging. The people are portrayed as fragments of bread scattered on the mountains, in an echo of prophetic compassion throughout the centuries. In 1 Kings, the prophet Micaiah, when he finally tells the truth to King Ahab, says (1Kings 22:17),
I saw all Israel scattered on the hills as sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, These have no master; let them return every man to his house in peace
Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah among others echo this vision, of the Lord’s people scattered over the mountains, untended by neglectful shepherds. A return to faithfulness, under the guidance of the Shepherd of Israel, will mean a gathering of the people together under the hand of nourishing shepherd, and the return of peace — to each heart (“every man to his house in peace”), but not in isolation, but in a society united under the shepherd’s guidance.
The vision of us, not as sheep, but as fragments of bread scattered across the rough places, echoes the prophets, but more directly echoes the stories in the gospels, in which Jesus, seeing the people scattered, yet drawn in their need to look towards someone who might offer hope of clarity or direction, indeed doesn’t teach about or prophesy the gathering and nourishing of the people, but enacts it. So in Mark, chapter 6, in “a desert place” (but in parallels in other gospels, the scene is a mountain), Jesus
saw much people and was moved with compassion toward them, bceause they were as sheep not having a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things
As the evening approaches, the disciples urge Jesus to let folk go “into the country round, and into the villages” to get something to eat — one gets the picture of individuals and little groups dispersing again, each fending for themselves. But Jesus, acting on behalf of the Great Shepherd (John 14 “The Father that dwelleth in me, he does the works”), feeds the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, amplified by gratitude and compassion. The community that has gathered around him remains intact as a people, and with a reminder of abundance: “of the fragments they took up 12 baskets.”The word “fragment” here translates directly the Greek klasma (plural klasmata). This is the same word used by the Didache for the bread used in the community meals of thanksgiving, which were a time of social prayer.
There is thus one more teaching about “communion” hidden in the nuances of the Didache prayer: we are fragments of an original unity. We have indeed our own value, even as morsels of bread do, but by Christ’s work of reconciliation, in which we all are to be collaborators, we are gathered together again, our unfragmented state restored to a communal integrity, which we can then see is the body of Christ (the Bread of Heaven, John 6): the staff of life, bread for the journey, to be given for nourishment and as an invitation to be gathered: Standing in that re-gathered unity, no longer scattered on the mountain as broken isolates, we are transformed to be newly fragrant fragments (klasmata) for sharing, a whole loaf always to be broken for others’ need.
This view of the “communion of the saints” (or, as Trueblood called them, the “company of the committed”) is thus far more than a happy time to celebrate our friendship. It is a vision of transformation, enabled by the compassion of the Shepherd/Prophet, who shows care for each individual sheep, but sees us always as a flock, a gathering in which we listen to the shared teacher — and in the course of being fed, pass on something of our life to each other.
05/03/2019 § 2 Comments
Too long ago (March 27th), I wrote the first of two posts on a passage from Hannah Stratton’s memorial minute (see that post here).
Now at last the other shoe drops: two more reflections — I’ll reproduce the passage I’m thinking about first.
After having passed through many deep preparatory baptisms, Hannah H. Stratton appeared in the weighty work of the ministry, and through faithful obedience to her Divine Lord and Master she grew in her gift and was acknowledged a minister in the year 1869.
“After having for many years engaged in the work, she remarked to a younger friend, ‘It don’t get easy.’ In our religious meetings the weightiness of her spirit and her humble, reverent waiting for the arising of Divine Life were instructive, not daring to open her lips without feeling a renewed qualification and necessity laid upon her to stand forth in the work. Thus, her ministry partook of the savor of life, and was sound and edifying, reaching to the witness for Truth in the hearts of those who heard her…. Soon after returning [a minute for travel in 1901-2] she penned the following: ‘I feel that, as I am nearing the setting sun of life, I may be released from this awfully responsible field of labor.’
C. The savor of life; baptisms; witness. Friends will sometimes want to let a person know that their message in worship was helpful or valuable. It is true also that some kind of indication of encouragement from the community — at least once in a while — helps the minister, maybe even relieves her/him from anxiety about whether their discernment whether to speak was sound or not. On the other hand, you don’t want to feed the ego of someone who does something helpful in meeting. Our theology makes the claim that messages in meeting arise and are given under the direction of the present Christ (even if they “taste of the pipes”), so the speaker should not take credit that is due to God.
We have various ways of expressing encouragement to avoid praise — you say to the Friend “I appreciated what you said,” or “Thee was used,” “The message you gave this morning was helpful,” or even something less direct — “What you said in meeting got me thinking about X…” (Such expressions of gratitude are even heard from Friends who do not believe that God is invovled in the origination or deliveray of messages — keeping ego in its place is wise regardless of theology.)
Even if a community has told a Friend that they are seen to have a sustained gift for the ministry (as was Hannah Stratton’s case, when her gift was “acknowledged”), such general encouragement does not relieve the Friend of careful attention on each particular occasion: Hannah made a practice of “not daring to open her lips without feeling a renewed qualification and necessity laid upon her to stand forth in the work.”
But there are three key words in this short passage that lie close to the heart of the spirituality of Hannah Stratton’s community. Baptism is used here in a peculiar Quaker meaning something like a powerful and meaningful spiritual experience, immersive in its feeling. But more than that, it often connotes (as once I wrote) “a renewed clarification in the Spirit, an exercise in which a person moves past some barrier to be open in compassion and insight.” The result is thus a fresh experience of one’s participation in the body of Christ.
If someone speaks in ministry while their consciousness is alive to the presence and work of God, in which they are participating, their self is for that time used not as a performer or focus, but as an instrument for others’ benefit. In that condition, words that are offered will have the taste of truth, authenticity, the flavor of the divine, living water from which they are drawn — a savor of Life.
At such times, words coming from such a source, and through a person “qualified” or prepared as messenger, will reach past our everyday faculties of analysis and critique, and touch the witness, that active presence of God in each of us, which resonates with the message, and shows us the truth of our own condition. Whereas the old oath, ‘As God is my witness,” suggests that the Almighty saw the whole thing, the Quaker would say that God is the witness in our hearts, testifying to us in secret about the way things are, and pointing out how next we should and can move towards life and away from death. As Penn famously wrote:
O friends, turn in, turn in, I beseech you! Where is the poison, there is the antidote; there you want [are in need of] Christ, and there you must find him; and blessed be God, there you may find him. Seek and you shall find, I testify for God.
D. “I may be released…” Ministry (of any kind) is a gift from God, given through someone for the common life. The person in whom it appears, first as an opportunity or opening, can accept the responsibility, and (as Hannah Stratton did), grow in their gift. But they do not own it, and indeed it can feel like a burden to carry, sometimes, especially if it continues for a long time. Rarely, one hears a Friend expressing a hope that at some point the burden can honorably be laid down (rather than withdrawn because it was neglected or misused — think of the parables of the faithful and unfaithful servants or stewards in the Gospels). The carrying and employment, the stewardship of the gift, includes not just the enacting of the gift (for example, the giving of a message or teaching a lesson) — that’s the tip of the iceberg, but all the necessary waiting, learning, preparation — the baptisms — which are the rest of the iceberg. Hannah expressed the hope that she could come down from the watchtower.
There are lessons to be learned and shared, in a spiritual community, about how to know when a gift, a task, a concern, is completed, and the load can be set down, or passed along to others. If such a time of liberation does not come, then the continued work will be accompanied by renewed strength and new growth, and a fresh savor of joy in the service. If the word comes, “Well done, and that’ll be all,” that can bring its own kind of joy, and the gift has been carried rightly, there will be no regret at the transition, but rather “the reward of peace.”
04/26/2019 § 11 Comments
this (all 10 minutes!),
and pass it on.
Many of you have heard of Greta Thunberg, but you may not have watched this.
If you have watched it, you may not have passed it on.You may have watched and passed it on, but you may not have talked with anyone about it, or started quoting from it.
These are all things you could do today.
Some of us, some of you, may have been saying such things for a long time, and even taking some action. So what? Greta Thunberg is a new, welcome, powerful voice, saying some very basic stuff — basic, as in fundamental, foundational, cornerstone…
And just because I’ve heard music in the key of A before doesn’t mean I can’t get something out of hearing Beethoven’s 7th symphony.
04/21/2019 § 3 Comments
I am happy to announce that Quaker Press will be bringing out a second, revised edition of On living with a concern for gospel ministry — the current plan is for publication in mid-June — about 15 years after the first version was completed. The book has seen good service, for individuals and study groups, but it finally sold out last year.
For those who know the book in its 2005 form, I enclose some excerpts from the note to the revised edition.
in the fifteen years since the first version of this book was published, I have learned some lessons which I felt I should incorporate as best I could.
The first edition was written as and when I could find time, and therefore took the form of separate short essays, with little “flow.” This suited my hope for the book, that it would be used not as a treatise, a systematic and complete account, but rather as a companion, with each chapter opening up a conversation with the reader.
While I have tried to keep that tone, I have organized chapters into thematic groups and have added (at the editor’s request) a short study guide which is intended to help direct attention to key questions or themes in each section of the book.
I have had much additional experience with gatherings of ministering Friends (however labelled), with elders and being eldered, watching new (often younger) people come forward into the work, and living with my own leadings. Mostly, these lessons are reflected whenever possible in small or large changes all through the book. In a few cases, I have brought additional material (for example, on the community of ministers, or on the minister’s eye), or removed or re-shaped things (for example, on the vexed question of “recorded ministers”).
I have felt with increasing urgency the need for Friends to regard the spiritual gifts in their meetings as different manifestations of one Spirit at work, and to cultivate them and inhabit them in this light—mutually supportive, mutually needed, and as “community property” rather as matters of individual interest. For this reason, I have included two letters written to meetings under this concern.
It seems to me that a practical realization of this unity in the Spirit can help Friends delve more deeply and openly into the process of the gospel, that is, the power of God at work for our liberation. From the resulting immersion in the Holy Spirit and fire, we can live, witness, and speak with the authority of experience that is not only our own.
And as our meetings learn and recognize the unity of all gifts, each with its own characteristic ways of learning and working, Friends will feel less reluctant than they do at this time to step forward into the experimental life of gospel ministry.
04/14/2019 § 4 Comments
Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch, who was sent to Rome for execution (by wild beasts in the arena) somewhere around 100 CE. As he travelled towards Rome, he was in contact with several Christian groups along the way. As he moved on, he wrote letters to the meetings (if you’ll allow me to call them so) that he had recently visited ( this is a kind of concern that I understand very well), and these letters constitute some of the earliest surviving Christian writings — the current best guesses suggest that this is about the same time that John’s Gospel took its present shape. The Ignatian letters are part of the early writings called “the Apostolic Fathers.”
In his letter to the Ephesians (§3), Ignatius, who is writing about harmony in the church, says (my translation of the Loeb Library text 1912)
I am even now a beginner in discipleship, and I am speaking to you as to my fellow-learners
Although Ignatius is famous for advising his readers to respect and follow the leaders in these meetings, who were plagued by faction and disunity to varying degrees, this statement is his claim to authority: I am a learner, I am a disciple, as you are.
No doubt, he recognized that as a bishop, from Antioch no less, and as a public sufferer for Truth, he might well be seen as a celebrated figure— though at this stage, perhaps 65 years after Jesus’ death, the movement was not so very numerous. His statement could be seen as a rhetorical move, to build a sense of solidarity with his readers, to make them more receptive to his advice.
Yet he had just been among them, and if he had assumed a posture of command or superiority, this sentence would not have rung true at all, and closed the ears of its recipients. The fractious nature of early Christian communities suggests that people were quite ready to see defects in their leaders, and would not be slow to reject false modesty. One is reminded here of Paul’s self-description in writing to the Corinthians:
And brethren, when I came to you, I did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).
Ignatius has a powerful sense of the “unsearchable depths” that were opened by the addition of Christ’s revelation to all that had come before, the re-framing of the world — the renovation of mind that is part of discipleship. Any good researcher knows that he or she may have discovered something very cool, even revolutionary — but that that is just a beginning, in comparison with what lies undiscovered. Isaac Newton’s famous comment comes to mind:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
But ignatius also has something concrete to say about how a fellowship of learners matters:
For I had to be prepared (literally “anointed,” prepared like an athlete for the struggle) by you, with faith, admonition, endurance, and patience (long-suffering)
Ignatius had to grow in these qualities, and he found nourishment for this among his fellow learners — even though he feels led at this moment to exhort them to live according to the mind (wisdom, or maybe will) of God — who is Christ (a statement that represents a mystical challenge). Indeed, it is only as a member of the body that he claims standing to speak.
There are many times when one feels at odds with one’s community. This may result from some inward discomfort or trouble of your own, or from something that is “the matter with the meeting.” The feeling of discomfort may be evidence of some dawning insight — about oneself or the meeting — that one is needing to recognize and deal with. ( I remember a time when, in an opportunity, Bill Taber asked me how I felt in my home meeting, and I said I was feeling somewhat at odds with them. After a long pause, he said, with perhaps a hint of a smile, ‘That can be a good thing.’)
But reflecting this morning on Ignatius, I feel that the “problem” can’t be left in terms of “me vs. them”. Rather, it has to be framed as Ignatius does here, which I might put thus:
I am of you, we share a common life, and I can point to ways that I have been nourished by it. From that shared life, and for its continued health, I need to convey something that I have been given to understand. Come now, let us reason together, with the Spirit’s help, about this thing that has been brought to our awareness.
This does not mean that eveyrone is equal in experience, that there is no progress nor accumulation of insight. A comparison might be made by thinking about different people who happen to be walking on a popular mountain trail. Everybody climbing along is equally a walker, can put one foot before another — but not everyone is an experienced mountain hiker. Sometimes experience matters and the tenderfoot is glad for some advice that is distilled from a life-time of trekking. Yet on the other hand, the experienced walker knows very well that even on an easy trail, you can stumble if you aren’t paying attention, or feel the need to take a break and a sip of water.
Jesus spoke as one with authority, but he stayed teachable. It is good to reflect upon Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30):
Jesus has come to the hills near Tyre and Sidon for retreat. A woman not of the Jews nevertheless gets to him,and asks the healer to free her daughter of a demon.
Jesus refuses in terms that strike the reader as xenophobic bitterness, “It’s not good to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.” The woman turns the cheek, does not address the harsheness of the remark, but instead says, “Even the dogs can eat the crumbs under the children’s table.”
Jesus hears the prophetic rebuke (there is an echo of Nathan’s rebuke of David 2 Samuel 12), and reverses himself, saying, “Because of this word of yours, the demon has already left your daughter.”
“Teach by being teachable.” There’s steady work in that Advice.
04/05/2019 § Leave a comment
I have been reflecting on 2Cor. 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” ‡ This, it seems to me, is the kernal, the nub, of the “drama of salvation,” and it includes in highly condensed form the “mystery” — the hidden meaning — of the Incarnation.
I keep trying to word this mysterium magnum for myself. Tonight’s version is that the Incarnation is God’s demonstration that the Divine is intimately acquainted and interwoven with life as humans know it, in suffering and in joy, in knowing and in uncertainty. This is not a new formulation, but in light of the work of reconciliation, it means that part of the work that God was doing was getting to know humans from the inside out, expressing Godself in terms of flesh and blood.
(It reminds me of the famous passage from Woolman’s Journal, when he’s meditating on how it came about that he was on his way to pay a spiritual visit to the Indians: Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them.)
All through the gospel narratives, we see Jesus discovering the truth of human life as each of us does– through growth, encounter, relationship. We are told he was tempted in all things as we are, but there was more than temptation to learn. We see him in family, with friends and colleagues (male and female), at parties and in debate, with children, with the powerful and the powerless. He may not have had a wife, but he was no stranger to the nature of that kind of relationship — he not only supplied wine for a wedding, but the stories of the woman at the well, the one taken in adultery, and others suggest that he was unsurprised by sexual passion and the complexities that accompany it.
By the time he gets to Golgotha, he has seen death, betrayal, cynicism, and cowardice, experienced uncertainty, fear, the descent of the Dove, the beauty of the lilies, and the Transfiguration, when the veils of the material world were drawn back.
But I wonder if the Cross brought the last lesson, maybe the lesson that Jesus had to teach God, if I may be permitted to put it so, which is the loss of God. I don’t think you can know what it is to be a human, what our incarnation feels like, until you have some experience of radical, fundamental alienation, the experience of being alone in the universe. Jesus didn’t even feel that in Gethsemane, that hour of agony.
So tonight I am sitting with the notion that the Incarnation was not complete, and reconcilation was not possible, until Jesus could finally use the Psalmist’s words to describe his own condition: My God, my God, why have you foresaken me? A death indeed, for one who had spoken of God as “Our father,” as the rock foundation, as the elusive, powerful, multiform Breath of life, the maker and fulfiller of promises.
Having given that shout from the cross, he gave up his spirit to the Hidden One, whose face he could not see, even though he had been raised up. When Jesus had said, “Don’t be afraid of someone who can kill your body; instead be afraid of one who can cast your soul to destruction, along with your body, ” he had not yet felt the loss of the soul from a body that nevertheless kept on going through the motions of life.
When he did, and his identity as the Son was shaken, then the last barrier between the Light and the Children of Light came down, and the incarnation was completed. His followers, his friends — his Body — dwelt then for a while in the darkness into which he had gone, tasting his abandonment in their measure, until the Easter Nevertheless…, and then soon the Spirit came back into the body once more.
‡The Greek word translated as “reconcile” is an interesting one. A compound (whose root verb sometimes means “transform”), it seems to connote “to change a relationship from enmity to friendship.” **
** Thus, this passage echoes many others in Paul and in the gospels: “Repent = change your mind/come back to your senses”; “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”; “if any one is in Christ, they are a new creation”