Thursday, December 23, 2010

Advent Hope

This passage in Wright's Surprised by Hope struck me yesterday, particularly because of its relation to the present season:
"Christ has died," we say in the Anglican Eucharist, "Christ is risen; Christ will come again."  And of course in the creed too: "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."  If we sing it once during the season of Advent, we sing it a dozen times.  "Alleluia! Come, Lord, come!"
And if we are ordinary mainstream Christians in Britain today - and in many other places too, including parts of North America - we may well add under our breath, "even though I haven't a clue what it means." The so-called second coming of Jesus is not a hot topic in the preaching of the mainstream churches, even in Advent. (117)
The truth of this struck me, both saddening me and making me want to read on to better understand the theology of the church in this matter.  Wright goes on to first discuss why it is that people have become confused on this topic and then to carefully explain the problems with some of the troubling but popular perspectives on this.  He begins by writing,
At one end, some have made the second coming so central that they can see little else.  At the other, some have so marginalized or weakened it that it ceases to mean anything at all.  
Both positions need to be challenged.  I shall shortly show that the focus on the so-called rapture is based on a misunderstanding of two verses in Paul and that when we get that misunderstanding out of the way, we can find a doctrine of Jesus's coming that remains central and vital if the whole Christian faith is not to unravel before our eyes. [...] (121)
Side note: 
Please don't mis-interpret this quotation as leading into a speculative chapter on end-times.  Instead, Wright calls the church back to orthodox theology (based on careful study of the New Testament) and warns us of the dangers of diverging from this  (for example, an escapist perspective which abandons the world to its future destruction).   It is not so much "who has the right interpretation", but "is it sound?" and "does it fit with scripture as a whole?" As he states,
We must remind ourselves yet once more that all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist.  Signposts don't normally provide you with advance photographs of what you'll find at the end of the road, but that doesn't mean they aren't pointing in the right direction. (132)
I highly recommend this book to all of us who pray, "come, Lord Jesus, come" during Advent, with only a dim sense of what that ancient prayer has meant throughout the history of the church and of what it means to us today.

A Scientist and the Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith.  In his book Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright argues that we must grasp its significance in order to understand the present and the future.  A physically alive, transformed and risen Jesus Christ is indeed the worshiped Lord of the church.

The problem is that this event - bodily resurrection - doesn't fit into our framework of how the world usually works.  Wright gets at the heart of this in a passage in his book I will now quote.  In addition to its centrality in his argument, I think this passage is especially relevant to those of us in science - even (or perhaps even more so) simply to those who subscribe to a scientific worldview.
But how far does the "scientific" position go?  When we ask what a scientist can believe about something, we are asking a two-level question.  First, we are asking about what sort of things the scientific method can explore and how it can know or believe certain things.  Second, we are asking about the kind of commitment someone wedded to scientific knowing is expected to have in all other areas of his or her life.  Is a scientist, for example, expected to have a scientific approach to listening to music?  To watching a football game?  To falling in love?  The question of whether a scientist  can believe in Jesus's resurrection assumes, I think, that the resurrection, and perhaps particularly the resurrection of Jesus, is something that might be expected to impinge on the scientist's area of concern, somewhat as if one were to ask, "Can a scientist believe that the sun could rise twice in a day?" or "Can a scientist believe that a moth could fly to the moon?"  This is different, in other words, from asking, "Can a scientist believe that Schubert's music is beautiful?" or "Can a scientist believe that her husband loves her?"  There are those, of course, who by redefining the resurrection as simply a spiritual experience in the inner hearts and minds of the disciples pull the question toward the latter pair and away from the former.  But that is ruled out by what, as we shall see, all first-century users of the language of resurrection meant by the word.  Resurrection in the first century meant someone physically, thoroughly dead becoming physically, thoroughly alive again, not simply surviving or entering a "purely spiritual" world, whatever that might be.  Resurrection therefore necessarily impinges on the public world.
But at this point we meet a third element in knowing, a puzzling area beyond science [...].
The challenge is in fact the challenge of new creation.  To put it at is most basic: the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is, but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be.  It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting pint of the new world.  The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religions possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation."
(p 66-67, boldface added)
Our celebration of Christmas is not complete without understanding the resurrection.  The resurrection means we celebrate not just a historic event of God coming to us, but a present reality as well.  I hope the above quotation, though perhaps a bit lengthy, was as helpful to you as it was to me on this topic.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Surprised by Hope

What is the central Christian hope?  What happens to you when you die?  These are questions that N. T. Write seeks to answer in his book Surprised by Hope.  This book was highly recommended to me by my family and I am enjoying reading it so far.  Reading of this book - as well as a nearly finished knitting project - are the main reasons for my lack of posting earlier this week.  I apologize for the delay and hope that, in the meantime, you can have a chance to ponder the two questions at the beginning of this post.  Or maybe just browse the archives... or go make Christmas cookies or cards ... or find that book to read it for yourself!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seasons of the Church (Part III): Christmas

Just as Christianity is pointless without Christ, so Advent makes no sense without Christmas.  For Christ is at the center of our faith, and it is His coming, His Advent, which we eagerly anticipate in the four weeks before Christmas.

We all have things we look forward to at Christmas.  For students, it means a pause in the pace of studies, a welcome time with family.  For many of us, we have traditions with family to anticipate.  There is decorating and gift-making and baking.  If we pay attention to the messages of our culture, we should look forward to rushing about to make everything perfect, to spending lots of money on people (regardless of what they really need), and an ideal, cheery, holiday.

For centuries, the church has also provided something to look forward to  - a rich celebration of the coming of Christ.

Salisbury Cathedral
Photo Credit: Ash Mills
A brief history of Christmas
(summarized from Ireton's book)
Christmas became a Christian holy day in the fourth century, and was chosen to coincide with pagan solstice celebration.  Whatever the reasons for this choice, it is profound for us in the northern hemisphere that we celebrate the coming of the light of the world during the darkest time of the year.

By the twelfth century it was a major celebration with three masses, each celebrating different aspects of the birth of Christ.  Then, and now in some churches, Christmas was not a day but a season, stretching to Epiphany on Jan 6.

In this sense the long wait of Advent makes sense: it culminates in a season of celebration and rejoicing.  Wouldn't it be great if we could bring this tradition back?   Do you have any ideas for celebrating Christmas differently this year?

The Liturgical Colors
white - symbolizing the light of Christ, as well as his purity and innocence.
gold - symbolic of Christs  royal kingship and triumph over sin and death.

Grief in the mist of Joy
Ireton makes an interesting point: that in the midst of the Christmas season is the remembrance of the slaughter of innocent children.  The church calendar does not shy away from the reality of the world to which Christ came.  Ireton states,
Placing [The Feast of the] Holy Innocents here, in the midst of Christmas, forces us to face the wickedness of this world, which will intrude on even our most joyful celebrations, showing them to be incomplete, premature. (39)
I'm not sure that is the reason for it's placement, but nevertheless it does give us pause for thought, and lends a reality, even an audacity, to the celebrations which would not be there otherwise.  The evil and sin in the world does not make Christmas less worth celebrating - rather it is for this reason that Christ came.  And it is because of Christ's coming that we have hope of a time when all evil is truly and forever defeated and we can rejoice in endless light.