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Archive for May, 2013

Silence is golden. Zechariah learned that perforce during his nine months of silence that preceded the birth of his son, St John the Baptist. If the birth of Zechariah’s long-awaited son and the filling of the Holy Spirit gave exuberance to his song the Benedictus, I’d be inclined to attribute its depth to Zechariah’s long months of deep, silent reflection. The song is a glorious summary of the law and the prophets (as far as they went), and of Luke’s gospel: In fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant the Davidic king arrives, saves his people from the merciless hands of their enemies, pardoning their sins.

BLESSED be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited
and redeemed his people;
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the
house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets, which
have been since the world began;
That we should be saved from our enemies, and from
the hand of all that hate us.
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers, and
to remember his holy covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather
Abraham, that he would give us;
That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies
might serve him without fear;
In holiness and righteousness before him,
all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people for the
remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the
day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the
shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah saw that Israel did not need an abstract or isolated declaration of innocence or pardon. They did need pardon, but they needed more than pardon. They needed deliverance from (read: an executed judgment against) dreadful, merciless enemies — and they were getting it.

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Text: St Luke 1:39-80 (the morning New Testament readings for Wed.-Fri. after Trinity Sunday)

St Luke’s two-volume history has a grand scope. It runs from small-town Galilee to Jerusalem, then from Jerusalem to all Rome’s empire, and ends in the great capital city of the empire itself. By structuring his grand narrative thus, Luke creates a brilliant apologetic concerning the kingdom of God — established through Jesus, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, for glory of his people Israel and for a light to lighten the Gentiles.

For a story of global ends and high apologetic ambitions, Luke’s gospel has quite provincial, and some might say unpromising, beginnings: an old priest with a barren post-menopausal wife, a virgin in a blink-and-you-miss-it town.  Mary visits Elizabeth in a town in the “hill country of Judah,” a town so small that it has no name.  Luke doesn’t scoff at these beginnings.  On the contrary, he narrates them with the utmost care and respect, without a whiff of condescension.  The humble beginnings appear neither as little obstacles to be razed by the global kingdom, nor as the small confines from which the story has to emerge before it can really get going.  The characters do not appear as blinkered, ignorant hicks who need to be educated after the manner of, say, Luke himself.  Their knowledge of their nation, culture, theology and liturgy is so deep, when it’s stirred by a fresh promise of fulfillment, it bubbles over in songs of beguiling subtlety – and revolutionary power.

The visitationGiven the breadth of Luke’s narrative, it is striking that he, alone among the four evangelists, pauses to record the song Mary sings during her visit with Elizabeth, and the one Zechariah sings at the birth of John the Baptist.  It is doubly striking because Luke is the only Gentile evangelist, and the Magnificat and Benedictus are, in structure and symbol, thoroughly Jewish songs. There they are, two songs for the summing up of the old covenant and the dawn of the new.  We still sing them today, magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God our Savior, in ancient words first heard in the remote hillsides of a faraway land. For that, we are indebted to a man who, like A. P. Carter and Lesley Riddle in Appalachia, did not regard hearing and transcribing the songs of the hill country as too light a thing for him.

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I. Introduction

One of the sweet things about having followed the table of Psalms and lessons in the Prayer Book for a few years is that you start to look forward to certain seasons because of the appointed daily readings. For example, I look forward to the beginning of Trinity season (which commenced Sunday) because, on the Monday following Trinity Sunday, I start a twelve-week course of daily morning readings from the Gospel according to St Luke.

Since writing about something is a fine aid to reading it, it occurred to me to start posting regularly about Luke’s gospel in this space, in the hope that I (and anyone else who might happen to drop by) might read Luke better. “Regularly” is the key word. It isn’t realistic to think I’ll have time to write lengthy essays on every daily reading. But it is realistic to set out to post something on every daily reading, and so to blog my way through the entirety of the first volume of Luke’s two-part magnum opus.

The readings started on Monday, so I’m starting two days behind. So today’s post will cover the readings appointed for Monday and Tuesday — St Luke 1:1-38 — and tomorrow’s post (DV) will cover the readings for today and tomorrow (St Luke 1:39-66).

II.  The nature and structure of Luke’s work

A word, then, about the nature and structure of Luke’s gospel.

The first thirty-eight verses of Luke tell us much of what we need to know about how to read the whole.

Luke’s prologue (vv. 1-4) tells us he’s writing an historical account, in the Greek historiographical style. It is a narrative account of “the things that have been accomplished” — or fulfilled — “among us.” In other words, Luke’s prologue tells us that he is not writing a kind of spiritual treatise or parable, nor is he writing a sort of intellectual history. Luke’s genre is history. His work relates the history of certain men of action, not teachers or quietist mystics.

And what agenda did these men fulfill?

Luke’s answer, while retaining the form and following the methods of Greek historiography, narrates the fulfillment of a specifically Israelite agenda. Writing his gospel, Luke has a Bible at his right hand and a newspaper at his left. We begin to see this in Gabriel’s visits to Zechariah and Mary, and in the startling conceptions that follow those two visits. To Zechariah (vv. 8-20), Gabriel says “Elizabeth will bear you a son.” To explain the significance of this son, he refers to two biblical types, Samuel (implicitly) and Elijah. When Gabriel visits Mary (vv. 26-38), he tells her, first, that she will bear a son, and then, that this son will be the king of whom David was just a type. In short, Luke tells the story of the fulfillment of Israel’s agenda, which was (and is) a royal agenda.

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One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. . . . Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces on the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real – though of course an unconscious – difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters 5-7 (Harper 2009)(1942).  HT: Sam Smith.

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“I am familiar with the name Bassington-Bassington, sir. There are three branches of the Bassington-Bassington family – the Shropshire Bassington-Bassingtons, the Hampshire Bassington-Bassingtons, and the Kent Bassington-Bassingtons.”
“England seems pretty well stocked up with Bassington-Bassingtons.”
“Tolerably so, sir.”
“No chance of a sudden shortage, I mean, what?”
“Presumably not, sir.”
“And what sort of a specimen is this one?”
“I could not say, sir, on such short acquaintance.”
“Will you give me a sporting two to one, Jeeves, judging from what you have seen of him, that this chappie is not a blighter or an excrescence?”
“No, sir. I should not care to venture such liberal odds.”

P. G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Chump Cyril (1918).

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I have a wasp in my fedora about the movie Pleasantville.

Among other reasons, it’s because I’m a color freak.  So while the idea of applying color to a black-and-white town and its black-and-white inhabitants thrills me, I hate that Pleasantville is so slapdash about applying it.  The application of color gets progressively more slapdash as the story hastens to its conclusion. By story’s climax, anything “in” a character — even cold fury — is enough to make him appear in color.

And what happens when all Pleasantville has taken on color?  Thus saith William H. Macy: “I don’t know.”  The story has shot its bolt.  Pleasantville purports to champion growth and change, but it ends in a place of indifference. Any further change would be as good as any other.  By the story’s own principle – as Toby Maguire’s hero says, “it’s not supposed to be anything” – straight-up stagnation, or even a return to black-and-white, would be as good as further change.  By defying the law of pleasantness, Pleasantville’s inhabitants win a town that’s . . . well, pleasant.  Granted, the place looks better in color, but at its end it’s a town colored by an idiot, full of vivid pigments, signifying nothing.

Pleasantville is a kind of postmodern broadside against the idea of perfection.  By its frequent allusions to Genesis’s account of the Garden it draws a parallel between the black-and-white perfection of Pleasantville and the perfection of Eden.  And so Paradise comes off as deathly stultifying, uninhabitable for actual flesh-and-blood humans.  Eden becomes Egypt; rebels become Moses; and the Fall turns into an Exodus.

ascensionMuch could be said by way of untangling the various threads (not all bad) that Pleasantville has left in a terrible tangle. On the occasion of this Feast of the Ascension, though, I seek to salvage just one thread from the knot: the thread of perfection. Our age has a perfection allergy.  This allergy shows itself particularly in ideas that perfection is boring, static, doesn’t allow for change and growth, doesn’t “translate filmically,”[1] and so forth.

Are these charges warranted?

The Church’s teaching about Jesus of Nazareth has traditionally maintained His perfection, from conception to Passion, Resurrection to Ascension.  Yet St. Luke says of Jesus that he “increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.”[2]  This isn’t an instance of Luke being a bad boy evangelist, defying the apostles’ teaching about Jesus.  Rather, it tells us something about the nature of true perfection: it can grow in wisdom and stature.

The startling conjunction of perfection and growth appears yet more boldly in one of the traditional readings for the Feast of the Ascension, the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Its author writes of Jesus that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”[3]  Having said that, he goes one better in this rather astonishing passage:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.[4]

That is the perfect Man, the faithful, sympathetic High Priest. He is the only man yet to appear truly in color. Having entered into heaven, He has added to its rich palette the bright red of His own blood, bringing earth into heaven and full-color humanity before the God and Father of all. There He has gone to prepare a place for us, just as He had come here to prepare us for that place, giving us some of His color. There He lives, making intercession for us until the great day that He will be satisfied, when we will appear in color with Him and the colors of Heaven and Earth bleed into one.


[1] What Lord of the Rings screenwriter Philippa Boyens said to justify the transformation of Faramir from the “sea-green incorruptible” character who appears in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic into the Boromir-lite version who appears in Peter Jackson’s films.

[2] St Luke 2:52 (ESV).

[3] Hebrews 4:15 (ESV).

[4] Hebrews 5:7-10 (ESV).

Adapted from Ascensiontide: Who’s afraid of a little perfection?, posted 5/21/2012 at Lantern Hollow Press’s blog, While We’re Paused.

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Every now and then someone crosses our path and insists we think about an important matter which, on account of sloth or cowardice, we would sooner avoid. Recently Andrew Osenga has been performing that office for me. He doesn’t know he’s been doing that. Last year, though, he released a concept album, Leonard the Lonely Astronaut, that has pressed me to think through a subject — loneliness — I’d usually shy away from thinking about.

Some people steer clear of thinking about loneliness because they’re afraid of loneliness itself. I usually shy away from thinking about it for a different reason: it’s kind of my beat. It’s a pet I’m often quite happy to feed and groom with mindless solicitude, forgetting that, for all its soft fur, it has some damn sharp teeth, and it can bite. Leonard confronts me about this.

leon-535x266

Andrew Osenga as Leonard Belle.

The album goes about confronting me in several ways. Without going into a review proper*, I will note its general musical excellence, and its lyrical cogency and depth, which prevent me from writing it off on style points before I hear what it has to say**.  That is especially important since what Leonard says hits uncomfortably close to home. Osenga sings it in the character of Leonard Belle, a loner who was in the process of divorcing his wife when she suddenly and unexpectedly died. Following that succession of tragedies, he jumped into a space freighter and set off into space all by his lonesome. Like Leonard, I have a pronounced tendency toward introversion, and I am divorced; had a spaceship been available immediately following my divorce, the idea of a solo space mission would have presented a very real temptation. Leonard was released a bit late for it to be cathartic, but it carries a great deal of credibility with me because of its realistic portrayal of divorce’s aftermath. Its verisimilitude extends down to small details. To take one example: there’s a line in “We Never Said Goodbye” where Leonard says, “to look at my bed is such defeat now” — too well do I remember that sense of defeat, which drove me to sleep on the couch for a solid year.

In short, when Leonard insists that I think sharp about loneliness, I listen. What follows is some of the fruit of that thinking.

A moment ago I compared loneliness to an animal with soft fur and sharp teeth. But there are many such animals, and these present us with a broad spectrum, both as to danger and goodness. House cats present little danger (opinions as to their goodness vary). Pet dogs may present a little more real danger, though we generally think of them as “good.”  Tigers and bears appear to us as very real, but amoral, dangers. Wargs are really evil, and really dangerous. And Aslan is simultaneously the most good and least safe being you’d ever meet. As with furry animals with sharp teeth, so with loneliness: there are different kinds, ranging from bad to good, and these kinds present diverse dangers.

I.  Common (bad) loneliness

After the weekend
He was standing at the corner,
With his hands itching for pockets;
He was looking for another just like him.
And the heart of God broke for his creation:
It was not good for man to be alone.

Osenga, “It Was Not Good for Man to be Alone”

I start with common loneliness, which we may also call bad loneliness. The first thing God described as “not good” was the man’s being alone. And so we have to admit that most — probably almost all — loneliness is bad. Some of the simple causes of bad loneliness are listed in Osenga’s “Out of Time”: spite (“fine, tell your father he was right, I wasn’t worth your time”), sloth (“guess I just didn’t try”), cowardice (“I was scared, I don’t know why”), and presumption (“oh, how I loved you, but I never told you . . . always thought there was time”). There isn’t anything for this kind of loneliness but to go after its root causes.

II. Difficult loneliness

When we said “I need you”
It didn’t sound right;
We were hurt and confused,
Fragile as the breath of a candle,
Staring in silence at the Tower of Babel.

Where do we go from here?

Osenga, “Tower of Babel”

There is another kind of loneliness, though.  I call this the “difficult loneliness,” and its causes tend to be more complex than the causes of common, bad loneliness: confusions in cultures and languages, differences of worldviews and characters. Difficult loneliness arises from the fact that everyone is to us an “other,” and from our being an “other” to everyone. There may be very little about any of us that is truly sui generis, but there are lots of wrinkles to all of us that aren’t easily understood. Difficult loneliness is a goad to make us explain these wrinkles, particularly to those we trust and love. In that sense, difficult loneliness is a good thing. It makes us think, grow, communicate; it makes us step out in faith. Difficult loneliness also presents us with the real, profound dangers of frustration or betrayal.

When we shrink in fear from trying to overcome difficult loneliness, or when our efforts to overcome it end in frustration or betrayal, its ultimate effect may be to send us back to bad loneliness.  Or it may point us to a place through which we must press, into a third kind of loneliness.

III. Peculiar loneliness

As the fir-tree lifts up itself with a far different need from the need of the palm-tree, so does each man stand before God, and lift up a different humanity to the common Father.

George MacDonald, The New Name, in Unspoken Sermons, First Series (1867).

This third kind of loneliness is, when found, exceedingly good; finding it is also exceedingly rare. This is the loneliness that comes from the thing about us that no other created being will ever understand, though we spend ages trying to explain. George MacDonald described it thus in The New Name:

In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter. I say not it is the innermost chamber — but a chamber into which no brother, nay, no sister can come.

The existence of this loneliness presents us with several dangers. It’s exceedingly difficult to locate this “chamber of peculiar life.” For we never really know if or when a brother or sister might come along to give us the secret handshake; and, if we then refuse our brother or sister entry to the inner chamber, on the ground that we’d already called it “ours,” our miserliness would place us in mortal danger of falling into the most diabolical loneliness of all. On the other hand, if we make no progress in finding out where this inner chamber lies, the frustration arising from its unknown, unacknowledged existence could well consume us.

Here is the loneliness that would embitter us for all eternity — or the secret joy, the inside joke between each of us and God, that would sustain us, even if all hell rained its fury upon our heads.

* If you’re looking for one of those, I suggest checking out Jason Gray’s review here. If you’re interested in another, more elegant Leonard-inspired essay, I suggest Stephen Lamb’s, which you may read here.

** Yes, I am that small.

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