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Archive for December, 2011

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.[1]

I have occasionally been asked whether the Bible is the Word of God or a word from men. The answer I give is the one I think St John would have given: Yes.

StJohnKellsThe definitive communication of the Divine Word – the Divine way, wisdom, and logic – was the Incarnation.  And among the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, or at least the disciples who left us writings, it was John the Evangelist who pondered that mystery most deeply, and stated it in the most powerfully succinct sentences.  He would not, then, have had much difficulty seeing that a God-breathed word could be fully expressed in and through the words and characteristic idioms of human authors.  In this way John is a true humanist: for while he has no pretensions about the greatness of humanity in itself, he also has no false modesty about a regenerate man’s ability to receive and reflect the clean light of the Creator God.  And John’s writings do not just say this – they display it.  There is no clearer looking glass through which to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ than the writings of John.  Yet none of the other Evangelists communicates so much of himself in his Gospel as John.  You cannot read John without getting to know him.  Yet this is not because he places himself in the reader’s view.  It is because he gives the reader his own eyes and ears: “Do you see what I see?  Do you hear what I hear?”

How fitting, then, that on the third day of the great Christmas Feast, we come also to the Feast of St John the Evangelist, whose writings extol and display the mystery we celebrate at Christmas – the Incarnation – most profoundly.

Among the praises I could heap up about John, probably the one that gets closest to the heart of his excellence would be this: In the art of stating deep mysteries with economy and directness, he has no peer.  For example:

The Word [logos] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.[2]

Here in kernel form is everything that much later would be worked out by the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Chalcedon (A.D. 451), set forth in ancient Exodus symbols,[3] and with words (especially logos) that resonated deeply with the Greek philosophy of John’s time.  The Russian proverb says that “one word of truth outweighs the world.”  Quite so.  And if I put John 1:14 on one side of a seesaw, and the entire cosmos on the other, I’d fully expect to see the John 1:14 side hit the ground in the blink of an eye.

If John’s skill at capturing profound simplicities in single sentences is above reproach, though, his ability to compose coherent paragraphs, chapters, or books is more generally questioned.  The charge often leveled against him is repetitiveness.  I have sometimes joked that if Mark is the gospel for those with ADD, John is the gospel for those with OCD.  And I have heard others compare John to a doddering old man who’ll tell you something three times because he forgot he just told you twice.

I presently have no fewer than three diverse theses about John’s frequent repetitions.

The first is exactly the opposite of the senility theory: the repetitions aren’t signs of senility and age, but of perpetual youth and vitality.  We wouldn’t be surprised to see this in a man so delighted with the prospect of eternal life.  G. K. Chesterton once wrote that children, precisely because of their vitality, always say “’do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.”[4]  John loves repetition the way children love repetition.  If we don’t feel like keeping up with him, it is because he is younger than we.

The second is that John loves repetition the way a patient teacher loves repetition.  The reason you keep covering the same ground is that true mastery requires that it be re-trod.  I say this because, when John repeats himself on a subject – as he does, often – each time he approaches the subject he does so from just a slightly different angle.  If you have the picture of a great artist patiently pointing out to a young protégé the subtle variations in lilies, or leaves, or sunsets, or shoulders, or strands of hair, or the colors of eyes, I daresay that’s not a bad picture of John’s method.

The third thesis brings me around to one of John’s titles: “the Apostle of Love.”  There is nothing so guaranteed to produce lengthy outbursts of praise, complete with lots of repetition, as love.  John, possessed of childlike vitality and sagacious patience, was possessed by love.  “See what kind of love the Father has given to us,” he says in one place, in astonishment; and “we love because he first loved us.”[5]  He is love’s contemplative; he cannot help but turn over and over in his mind the glory, the steadfast love, and the faithfulness of God, as it was perfected in his dear friend Jesus of Nazareth.

And in the writings he left us, he has kindly given us means to look over his shoulder, and to be gripped by the very steadfast love and faithfulness that gripped him.


[1] 1 St John 1:1-4 (ESV)

[2] St John 1:14 (ESV).

[3] “Dwelt among us” = tabernacled among us.  This is a reference to the tent of meeting, the dwelling of Israel’s covenant God with His people.  “Full of grace and truth” = “full of steadfast love and faithfulness”; cf. Exodus 34:6.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy ch. iv (1908).

[5] 1 St John 3:1; 4:19 (ESV).

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[T]he Son of God, . . . instead of accepting the sacrifice of one of his creatures to satisfy his justice or support his dignity, gave himself utterly unto them, and therein to the Father by doing his lovely will; [and] suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection.[1]

One of the bracing features of the calendar for the Feast of Christmas is how quickly murderous opposition and mourning arrive on the heels of Christmas Day’s “Gloria in the highest, peace, Alleluia!”

Day two of the great Christmas Feast is St Stephen’s Feast Day.  Just when we were starting to appreciate the homely and quiet beauty of the manger scene, the Church calendar casts us forward some thirty-odd years to the ordination of Stephen as Deacon in the Church in Jerusalem.  He was ordained for the unobjectionable purpose of serving the poor Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem their daily distributions.

In the course of making those distributions, though, Stephen did some pretty extraordinary things.  Evidently these were enough for some of the other Greek-speaking Jews in the area to notice and hate what he was doing, and to rise up to accuse him of blasphemy.  Specifically, they accused Stephen of speaking against the Temple and against Moses.  He was brought before the Council to stand trial.  For his defense Stephen gave orthodox accounts of the lives of Israel’s patriarchs (focusing specifically on Abraham and Joseph), of Moses, and of the significance of the Temple.  Stephen concluded, though, with a counter-charge: he called his accusers “stiff-necked” people, “uncimcumcised in heart and ears,” the latest brood in a long, dreary line of lawless prophet-killers.  The result was predictably hideous: they hauled Stephen out and stoned him.  But the awful scene was beatified in that Stephen died interceding for his murderers, praying that his blood would not be held against them.[2]

This happened within ten miles or so of Bethlehem, and only thirty-five years, give or take, of Jesus’s birth.  Conceptually, though, the distance between the Nativity and Stephen’s stoning was much shorter:

Simeon blessed [Mary and Joseph] and said to Mary [Jesus’s] mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”[3]

In Jesus, Simeon detected that a shoot had sprung from the stump of Jesse[4] — in other words, that the true Davidic King had come to a land sick with the reigns of usurpers like Herod, and occupying governors like Pilate. And Simeon rightly foresaw, when that shoot from the stump of Jesse was yet a holy infant, tender and mild, that His appearing would provoke opposition and cause division.  Whatever the peace of Jesus was at His birth, it was not, as Dorothy Sayers once said, the peace of amiable indifference.[5]  His presence under swaddling cloths in the manger was nothing less momentous than the beginning of Heaven’s decisive invasion of the world. Pushback would come swift and violent.

The theme of the first day of Christmas (and the overarching theme of the whole feast) is the Creator God improbably joining together His glory and our flesh and blood. After the Fall, this is a sign that provokes opposition by its nature.  The ultimate collision between the Sign as a full-grown Man and His enemies would produce another startling conjunction: His suffering at the hands of lawless enemies, and His prayers for those enemies.

What God had joined together, St Stephen did not put asunder.

* * *

[1] George MacDonald, The Consuming Fire, in Unspoken SermonsSeries One (1867).

[2] The account of Stephen’s ordination, arrest, apologia, and martyrdom are found in Acts 6-7.

[3] St Luke 2:34-35 (ESV).

[4] Isaiah 11:1.

[5] Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? in Letters to a Diminished Church 55 (Thomas Nelson 2004).

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Today is the segue from the penitential/preparatory season of Advent into the celebratory one of Christmas.  To mark this transition, I posted a little something on Christmas for my friends at Lantern Hollow Press here.

To all who find their way here today and during the great twelve-day Feast of Christmas, Merry Christmas, and welcome, to you.

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Today is the last day of Advent before the December 24 segue into Christmastide. It feels like Advent just started; and now it’s almost spent. And that’s all right: one of the things I have come to appreciate about Advent is its brevity.  Its blink-and-you-miss-it pace quickens the pulse and sharpens the senses.

This effect is heightened by the contrast between Advent and the six-month season which precedes it, Trinity.  In Trinity we spend about half the year focused on living in a good Creation in light of the Triune God’s reign over it.  This is time well spent.  We are, after all, created beings, set in a world of things God called “very good.”  We need extended time to appreciate the grace that God gives us daily, mediated through His creatures.  And more, we need time to better learn how to steward those things God has entrusted us with: how to wisely inhabit our land, our communities, our bodies.  This work, incidentally, follows quite naturally from observation of the great Feasts of Easter and Pentecost.  The Resurrection was and is a bodily resurrection.  The Spirit, sent in power at the first Pentecost, fills the bodies of the redeemed, knits them together into one body – the Church – and with the earth groans in anticipating its last liberation from its present futility.

And so in Trinity we work out the lordship of the Triune God over the world, bringing His lordship to bear on every aspect of life: buying and selling, working and resting, sowing and reaping, making war and making peace, being born and preparing to die, marrying and being given in marriage.  To the extent we do this well, we may[1] reap in joy.  To the extent we do it unwisely or slothfully, we will have to repent.  But however we do it, we will learn something very important: Namely, that under the sun – even in our redeemed-in-principle world – all is vapor, and our work a vain attempt to shepherd the wind.

And this ought to annoy us like pebbles in our shoes.  We ought not allow this annoyance make us (and everyone around us) miserable, but we do need it to goad us into hoping for – groaning with hope for –  something else.

For we can be quite confident that something else is on the way.  And we don’t have forever to get ready for it.  That is what Advent is about.

It’s interesting to look at the Anglican Advent propers, and their sweep and character.  After twenty-odd weeks of present-focused Trinity propers, the Advent propers call us to cast our glances forward and backward.  We look back at the promises of God, to Abraham and his offspring, forever, and the many of those promises that have been kept.  And we look forward at the rest of the promises, which will be kept, until the knowledge of the steadfast love of God covers the earth as waters cover the seas.

As we walk the tightrope stretched out between beginning and end, this dual vision has two present practical implications – both of which also appear in the Advent propers.  First, we can walk boldly.  The ends of the rope are firmly tied, and the middle is taut.  Since we don’t have to fret the end, we can let it fly in the present.  Second, we don’t have much time for dillydallying.  The rope before us is getting ever shorter, and, in fact, is actively pulling us forward.  So we fling away the rags of darkness, the sins and weights with which we are “sore let” in finishing our course, and we put on better things which will serve us better in the short window of time remaining to us.


[1] “May”: the prosperity gospel is false.  A faithful sower may not get a good harvest every year.

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God rest thee, little mandolin,

let nothing you dismay;

I’ll have more time to chop and strum

come morning, Christmas Day —

To pluck thy strings, and laugh and sing

’til Satan flees away.

O! tidings of comfort and joy.

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Well, things here have livened up a little since the days when the place was sleepier than the meetings of the Third Amendment Defense Council — but still some grogginess hangs in the air.  That’s especially unfortunate at Advent, which is all about waking up and shaking off besetting sleepiness.  This place should reflect the general sense of alertness that characterizes this brief but stunning opening season of the Christian year!

So, if you happen to visit sometime within the balance of the wonderful season of Advent, now fast approaching its climax, do check out this post I wrote about Advent for the blog of my friends at Lantern Hollow Press.  I have a companion piece in mind to post in this space in the days to come, which, Lord willing, I will be able to write and post before Advent ends, and Christmas comes like a thief in the night.

To any of you that do pop in from time to time to see whether there’s anything new on tap here, thank you.

Grace and peace,

David

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One of the great delights of familiarity — with a person, animal, story, piece of music, whatever — is that there comes a point after which the familiar person or thing almost cannot fail to surprise us. The source of the surprise isn’t usually that the familiar object steps out of character. I suspect it’s more that our familiarity with the whole of the thing frees us to appreciate its details more fully — and these details will regularly surprise us. We may never have noticed the quirky intake of breath at the end of Jack’s laugh had we not heard it a thousand times. We might only catch a brilliantly significant quote buried in the middle of a mystery on the fifth reading. It may take ten listens to unstop our ears to the reappearance at the concerto’s end of a little countermelody that hadn’t shown up since the concerto’s beginning.

Something like this happens every time I read the parable of the Prodigal Son. It may be the most familiar story in the world, but it can surprise an attentive listener on every telling. What caught my attention for the first time on a recent reading was the elder son’s slander of his brother, and how perfectly it echoed the slander the scribes and Pharisees routinely threw at Jesus: “This son of yours, who has devoured your property with prostitutes . . . ”

One of the awful things about slander — perhaps the reason why God thought it a sufficiently grave offense to include it in the Ten Commandments — is its power to color what we think of a person, even when we do not find the slander credible. The elder son in the parable, the one who stayed home and by his own testimony never had disobeyed his father, now lets fly all of his latent disobedience: he falsely accuses his younger brother of devouring the father’s property with prostitutes. Now for all anyone knows that may have been true. But only incidentally — for Jesus in telling the parable tells us nothing of how the younger son spent his inheritance, or that the elder son investigated the matter before spouting off. The common pigeonholes to the which the two sons are assigned — the elder as chilly bean-counting prig, the younger as hot-blooded libertine — are based more upon the elder son’s slander than anything else, and obscure what Jesus is really doing by telling the parable.

The Pharisees leveled the same accusation against Jesus that the elder son leveled against the younger. Their slander, in fact, occasioned his telling the parable:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’*

Now since truth is an absolute defense to a charge of slander, and the Pharisees and scribes have technically uttered truth, how is this slander?  Because of a significant little word St Luke inserts here: “grumbled.”  It’s the same word used repeatedly of the Israelites in the wilderness, who were serial grumblers.  The obvious implication is that they’re accusing Jesus of doing something he ought not to have been doing.

And what was that?

Let me sum up. The remnant of Israel, kicked around and under the foot of occupying Rome, still knew by faith that God had entrusted them with treasures: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of Torah, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs.** Faithful Israelites were faithful stewards of these treasures. Jesus, by the account of the scribes and Pharisees, was opening the storehouse of Israel to the wrong people, to faithless Israelites who had squandered their inheritance. By receiving and taking up for them, Jesus, no less than the younger son in the parable, was devouring the Father’s property with prostitutes. The parable was Jesus’s defense, not only of repentant sinners, but of himself; he was letting his slanderers know where he and they stood, respectively. He was not squandering but investing, and wisely — for the lost sheep were coming back into the fold, lost coins were being found, lost sons and daughters were coming to their senses. The Pharisees’ situation was dire but not hopeless: They were being tightwads, resolved to sit on their inheritance until it rotted, looking out at the rest of the world with a jaded, stingy eye. But, at that moment, their Father was still pleading with them.

* Luke 15.1-2

** Romans 9.4-5

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