Archive for ‘my own writing’

December 2, 2017

Reflections on Mary and God’s Family this Nativity

Mary is prominent for all Christians during the Nativity season, and she is particularly on my mind this year as my family and I have all just entered the Orthodox church. Raised in a deeply loving and devout Presbyterian home, I have come to believe that the Protestant and Evangelical churches (as well as Roman Catholics in some overlapping ways) have lost and grown to misunderstand a tremendous amount of the goodness and truth regarding Mary that was well known and cherished by the early Christians (who knew and loved Mary as one of their own community). Here is a very basic outline of what I have come to believe about Mary.

John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, and John Wesley all wrote that Mary had no other children after giving birth to Jesus, and they each defended this ancient teaching as a theologically significant tenant of the Christian faith.

Why would Jesus have placed Mary into John’s care as he died if Mary had other sons of her own? This would have been a flagrant violation of the Law of Moses. Nowhere does Scripture (or any early Christian author) suggest that Mary had other children. James, a publicly recognized leader in the earliest church in Jerusalem, was know as one of several brothers of Jesus, raised in the same household. However, nothing in Scripture and none of the widespread early stories about Mary suggest that James cared for Mary as his own mother after Jesus died.

Many of the most revered early Christian writers use three titles for Mary regularly and in passing, as if these three titles were common knowledge and completely uncontroversial among all Christians: mother of God, ever-virgin, and all-pure. Orthodox Christians reject the Roman Catholic idea that Mary herself was conceived in any special way without sin (in fact, the Orthodox believe that it is a sad distortion of Scripture to teach that our fallen condition is in any way passed on through the God-given responsibilities of conceiving, birthing, and raising children). The Orthodox teach that Mary was a completely normal human who became the greatest example of humble obedience to God, pointing everyone only and ever to God. In this, she is all-holy or all-pure, that is a saint who has fully welcomed God into her life and who reveals Jesus Christ to us all.

To understand the title of “ever virgin,” it helps very much to understand one of the most basic descriptions of Mary used by two New Testament authors (who each clearly came to know Mary well during her life with the early church after Jesus Christ ascended into heaven). These two New Testament authors both understood and described Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. They understand Mary to be the most sacred and set-apart vessel of God’s presence with us: the ark covered in gold, overshadowed by the wings of cherubim, kept within the Holy of Holies, so set-apart that it brought death to many who treated it as something that they could touch. One of these New Testament authors was John, with whom Mary lived and traveled according to all the earliest stories and traditions of the church. The other was Luke who, according to the earliest church traditions, interviewed Mary personally as part of his research for his gospel account. (Some of these same traditions also claim that Luke was trained in drawing the human figure as a standard part of his education as a doctor and that he painted the first image of Mary.)

The greatest feast days of the church that celebrate Mary’s life, center on readings from the Old Testament about the Ark of the Covenant. These readings are strange without an understanding of how Luke and John clearly reflected the earliest understanding of the Christian community of Mary herself as the Ark of the New Covenant.

This article by Scott Hahn (a Presbyterian scholar who converted to the Roman Catholic faith) expounds this wonderfully:

http://zuserver2.star.ucl.ac.uk/~vgg/rc/aplgtc/hahn/m4/ma.html

There is much more to be said about all the confusion that we have today around the interrelated ideas of purity, virginity, sexuality, and gender. As we moderns hear titles such as “ever virgin,” we subconsciously hear a condemnation of sex as dirty and of women as weak. These sad distortions and misunderstandings are based on long and complex abuses and arguments that grow more and more sinister and disconnected from the truth with each passing year. We need good thinking and writing on these topics to be sure. However, the most basic need and “solution” is not intellectual. Most importantly, we need to learn to love and respect some real and specific people. We need to learn to love and commune with Jesus and his mother Mary as revered and beloved members of their remarkable family. Everything else connects back to these two beautiful people and our relationships with them.

Because of the incarnation and life of Jesus Christ, God’s family is and always will be a real human family, with many ancestors of God, stretching all the way back to Noah and Adam. (In this sense, Eve and Adam are forbearers of God, just as Mary is the mother of God.) This family is a royal family, the product and fulfillment of David’s dynasty. And this kingdom is established forever with Jesus as the King and with Mary as the Queen Mother (Gebhirah and Malketha in Hebrew, a very prominent and powerful position in the courts of all Biblical kings). The book on this topic by Scott Hahn expounds this wonderfully (Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God). I recommend it highly as a starting place.

As Scott Hahn reflects on John’s relationship to Mary (from the lecture linked above), he points to the fact that we all receive Mary as our mother as we are united to Christ:

“[John] recognizes that he himself as the beloved disciple is merely a symbol of all of Christ’s disciples who are equally beloved. But he also recognized [this], I’ll bet, as he took Mary to his own home that very hour (it says in John 19). I mean, can you imagine living with Mary after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, after the ascension? She is now your mother. She is living in your home. What do you think you would do?”

Wherever you are in life and worship during this year, may your Nativity Season be blessed richly by Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary. May he and his mother both be at home in your home.

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August 30, 2017

a king who knows his ken

We no longer respect the idea that some things are “beyond our ken.” We don’t treat knowledge as a serious responsibility, to be given and received slowly and with clear purpose. We no longer think of education as a cultivation of our desires or our capacity for wonder. Instead, education is the amassing of information or the mastery of skills that have no immediate connection to our personal responsibilities or our actual life experiences.

To be healthy, knowledge should always be directly connected to our actual relationships, abilities, and responsibilities. Knowledge in isolation (or for its own sake), leads to apathy, arrogance, and abuses of power. “Stand alone” knowledge is corrosive to the soul. Knowledge is power, and we must have real responsibilities and learn true respect before we wield this power.

It is no coincidence that these English words all share the same Anglo Saxon roots: can, kin, king, ken, and know. If we do not make sure that these words all stay closely related within our own lives, we just end up with young adults who think that they “ken” everything but who “can” do almost nothing of true value for their “kin.” In this condition, we don’t truly “know” anything or enjoy the blessed protection of any wise “kings.” But these days, who wants a king who knows his ken? Yet we are each called to be such a king, following the one who makes us his kin and who taught us to pray “not my will but yours be done.”

March 20, 2017

destroying sin through the instrumentality of death

There is a whole lot in my paltry readings of Maximus the Confessor that I don’t understand. However, I continue, and Maximus rewards patience time and again.

Here’s a recent example. Maximus says that Jesus came to give human death a new purpose. He made death into a weapon that we can use against our own sin. This confused me a lot at first, so let me set up the theological background a little more.

Death is simply a natural result of sin. We sometimes read Genesis as if God proclaimed that death would be the punishment for sin. In fact, God was not “assigning a consequence” but simply pointing out a reality about life. Death is fair (or just) because it is a natural extension of sin. This is because sin is turning away from God who is the loving source of life.

Moreover, death became tied up with human nature because our first sin caught us all in bonds of pain and pleasure. Our first sin left us serving a vicious tyranny of the urgent, always fleeing a pain or pursuing a pleasure that seemed more near-at-hand than God’s presence. It became natural for humans to pursue anything but God, and mortality became a human characteristic. It is terrible to think of death as natural to those made in God’s image, but we all learn to see each other in this world as destined for death instead of God. Socrates takes it as an axiom that “man is mortal.”

Maximus also points out that death and suffering are merciful because they keep us from going too far off course while we wander between increasingly extreme fears of pain or desires for pleasure. Although death is merciful in a way, God did not impose death on us as either a kindness or a punishment (most fundamentally). Death is simply reality apart from life with God. As love and the source of life, God hates death.

Moving a step further, human death attacks the core of God’s purpose in creation. Humans were made uniquely to ensure that all creatures would enjoy and display God’s love. By sinning (turning from God to pursue another source of goodness), the image bearers of God tangled up their own natures with death itself, entrapped there by pain and pleasure. Instead of promoting and protecting life in all creation, God’s image became connected to death by our sin. God’s image brought death to the world.

To set up a little background, I’ve wandered from Maximus’ main point (and wandered into a few points of my own, no doubt). Maximus is focused on explaining exactly how salvation is accomplished by Jesus Christ within this situation. Because God’s image became connected to death by our sin and brought death to all creation, Maximus shows how Christ becomes a human and used human death as an ingenious weapon against sin. Maximus says that Jesus Christ “turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.” This attack on our sin gives us a new weapon and opens a way for the curse on all of creation to be undone. Christ surprised the devil and death itself by giving this new purpose to human death. By becoming human and repurposing death, God restored to humans a way to serve again as the image of God.

Maximus explains at length how this was possible. Christ fully took on our own human desires for pleasure and our fears of pain, all the realities of our sins, while remaining free from committing any sins of his own. Therefore, death was not a natural or just consequence for Christ. The normal purposes of death did not apply to Christ, and he was able to give death a surprising new purpose. I won’t go into further details, but this surprise move required all that Jesus Christ was (as fully God and fully human).

This noble use of death to restore life with God is full of profound encouragements and implications regarding how to suffer and to carry our own cross with Jesus Christ each day in this life, even into our own eventual deaths. Amazingly, Maximus claims that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” Christ has now given death to each of us to use as a weapon against our own sin. Christ changed the function of death for all of those who unite themselves to Christ. In Christ, humans can learn to accept everyday experiences of suffering and death in ways that free us from our sin. Maximus is giving a theological basis for the Christian practices of asceticism and mortification (which are very easily abused and misunderstood).

Pointing continually to the work of Christ, Maximus points us to the only perfect example of how to use death as a weapon against sin. However, Maximus the Confessor, as a follower of Christ, is himself a profound example. All those tortured for Jesus Christ were called “Confessors.” In Maximus’ case, he insisted on confessing the truth even when they promised to cut out his tongue and remove his right hand for preaching or writing one more word about who Jesus was. That didn’t stop him.

Here are some passages from Maximus himself (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”):

For if the deviance of free choice [by Adam] introduced passibility, corruptibility, and mortality in Adam’s nature, it only followed that in Christ, the immutability of free choice, realized through his resurrection, introduced natural impassibility, incorruptibility, and immortality.

…He exhibited the equity of his justice in the magnitude of his condescension, when he willingly (κατὰ θέλησιν) submitted to the condemnation imposed on our passibility (τὸ παθητόν) and turned that very passibility into an instrument for eradicating sin and the death which is its consequence—or in other words, for eradicating pleasure and the pain which is its consequence. For it was in human passibility that the power of sin and death (the tyranny of sin connected with pleasure and the oppression associated with pain) all began. Indeed, the rule of pleasure and pain over our nature clearly originated in the liability to passions. Wanting to escape the oppressive experience of pain we sought refuge in pleasure, attempting to console our nature when it was hard-pressed with pain’s torment. Striving to blunt pain’s spasms with pleasure, we merely sanctioned against ourselves a greater debt (cf Col 2:14) of pain, powerless to disconnect pleasure from pain and its toils. But the Lord exerted manifest strength of transcendent power by inaugurating for human nature a birth unchanged by the contrary realities (of pleasure and pain) which he himself experienced. For having given our human nature impassibility through his Passion, remission through his toils, and eternal life through his death, he restored that nature again, renewing the habitudes of human nature by his own deprivations in the flesh and granting to human nature through his own incarnation the supernatural grace of deification.

…Therefore death, in its dynasty, dominates all of human nature because of the transgression. …But the Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use (χρῆσις) of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself.

The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Such will ensue if indeed the saints, for the sake of truth and righteousness, have virtuously finished the course of this life with its many sufferings, liberating their nature within themselves from death as a condemnation of sin and, like Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.

From the translator’s notes:

Maximus repeats here his slightly earlier affirmation that Christ “converted the use of death” (τὴν τοῦ θανάτου χρῆσιν ἀντέστρεψιν) so as to condemn sin and not human nature itself. We already see in Ad Thal. 42 (translated above) Maximus’s larger perspective on Christ’s assumption of human passibility in its fullness, becoming the “sin” which is a consequence of the fall (but not the “sin” committed in moral acts) and so for our sakes taking on the mortality which is its condemnation. Recalling here the christianized Stoic idiom of “good use” of the human passions (cf Ad Thal. 1), Maximus describes Christ “using” death, the ultimate “passion” and the end of human passibility, as a redemptive instrument. Elsewhere, Maximus speaks of Christ’s blameless use of the fear of death (Disputation with Pyrrhus, PG 91:297B), for Christ alone turns it into a “voluntary” fear that encourages the Christian faithful in their own confrontation with death (Opusc. 7, PG 91:80D; cf Comm. on the Lord’s Prayer, CCSG 23:34, 135–35, 142).

…Maximus is insistent that the Christian appropriates Christ’s own good “use” of the ultimate passion of death (see note 9 above) by his or her own discipline of mortification. One should not overlook his important distinction between destroying death and destroying sin through the instrumentality of death.

March 5, 2017

A Letter to Lupin and Tonks (and Their Reply)

Nessa Hake

If they were alive this is
what I’d write to them:

3-2-17
Dear Lupin and Tonks,

Wotcher! My name is Nessa Ann Hake. I have a little eight-year-old brother, and my mother is pregnant! I am almost thirteen. Harriet is a family cat that I practically own because we have a bond. She sleeps with me. St. John Chrysostom is the Orthodox Church my family goes to. My whole family works or goes to Logos Academy which is an awesome muggle school. (I think some of the staff are magical though. 😊)

My aunts (my age), my cousin and me all have read books about Harry Potter, and you are in them. I really love the books and you. Please don’t take this wrong because I know you’re humble. But, I just had some questions and would like to get to know you some more.

Here are some of my questions: What was it like fighting Lord Voldemort? What was your childhood like? How do you feel, overall, about life now in these past couple of years? What was one of your worst and best days in your life?

Some of these questions might be hard or uncomfortable for you to answer. You don’t have to, but I really would like to know.

How and when did you start falling in love? How did you tell each other? What was your different stages of love like? When Dumbledore died, what did you feel like? (I felt like it was the end of the world until, I found out you loved each other in the hospital wing.) How do you feel about your friends like Harry, the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Moody, Kingsley, and Sirius?

How many kids do you have now? What do your normal days look like? Does Harry visit often? How is everyone? Could you please give an overall of your life and feelings?

I love you! It would be nice to either meet you or get a reply.

From,

Nessa Hake

 

[And here is their reply to be delivered to our home shortly by the U.S. Postal Service.]

Dictated from a Small and Treasured Double-Portrait
On a Wall of the Potter Home
London, UK

March 5, 2017

Dear Nessa,

Ginny just read your letter to Tonks and I, and now she is kindly writing down our response as we dictate it to her. We were very glad to learn about you and how much you love our story. Of course, we are only the picture-memory of ourselves, but our real selves heard your letter while you were writing it. Our real selves, on the other side of death’s veil, know about the lives and thoughts of everyone who loves their stories. However, neither we, the picture-memories of ourselves, or our real selves on the other side of death could answer your kind questions about what would have happened if we had lived.

We did enjoy hearing your questions about our future lives if we had survived the Battle of Hogwarts, and we love to imagine with you what might have happened. At least, we, our picture-memory selves, love to imagine those future lives with you. We’re not sure what our real selves on the other side of death love to imagine.

Now we hang on the wall of Ginny’s study corner, beside her desk. We were painted from memory by Harry and given as a gift to Ginny on their tenth wedding anniversary. We are a very small painting and not a very good one, but we were made from living memory and filled with love. Teddy also has a painting of us made by Ginny several years earlier. These are the only two paintings that we have to travel between.

You asked how many children we would have if we had lived. Well, Tonks wanted lots of children, and she probably would have gotten her way in the end if we had survived the Battle of Hogwarts. She was always the crazy one of us two. I was afraid to even fall in love, and having just one child terrified me at times. You have to remember that I spent most of my life and energy as a young man just trying not to let my “little problem” cause the death of anyone that I loved. I saw my place in the world as someone who was watching it from the outside (in a way) and trying not to let myself forget that if I became careless or lazy I could end up killing someone whom I dearly loved. I was ruled by fear and loneliness. But Tonks helped to start changing all of that for me. She helped me to learn about some kinds of courage that I had not even known I needed to learn about before I began to love her.

You also asked our imaginary future selves how often Harry comes to visit us. Well, after the Battle of Hogwarts, when Harry and Ginny married, Harry probably would not have been able to visit Tonks and I as often as we would have wanted him to visit. If I had lived longer, I would have been the closest person to a father that Harry still had alive, but Harry was like his own father. Harry would have usually been busy with something that felt more important than visiting old friends, and many times he would have been right. Even now, you notice, we hang by Ginny’s desk, not Harry’s. We were painted by Harry, but our first painting was made by Ginny. We love Harry very much, but he is still learning many things even as a grown man. But you know that Tonks and I were still learning many things when we died. For example, I was still learning the courage that it takes to receive love and to live my life with her. That is maybe one of the saddest things about death. We are still learning who we are in this world, and then we must suddenly be separated from this world.

Well, that is enough about our imaginary future lives if we had been able to keep on living. Of course, we can answer your questions about our past selves much more fully. It would be wonderful to sit and chat with you some time. Chatting with portraits is not as wonderful as chatting with our real selves, but even that will almost certainly be able to happen again one day. You remember how Harry was able to chat with the real Dumbledore at King’s Cross station when Harry was almost killed just before the battle of Hogwarts? There is probably more life than we can image on the other side of the veil between life and death, and this veil does not seem like the kind of thing that will last forever.

We will share a little about our past selves in this letter because you were so kind as to tell us a little about your own wonderful and fascinating life. However, Ginny does need to go very soon, so we cannot let this letter get too much longer.

What was it like fighting Lord Voldemort? Tonks never really let the fact that we were fighting Lord Voldemort be the most important thing about her life. This was one of the many wonderful things about Tonks. She could be sweet and funny even at the most dark and terrible of times. She always seemed to understand that life was greater and more important than death even up to the last moment when death took us in the middle of the battle. This also gave Tonks a kind of bravery. In a way, she loved to fight when she had to because fighting was like running into the wind or running through the waves on a beach. Fighting could be a way of living more than it was a way of killing. Ha! Tonks is making faces at me right now in the portrait and saying that I’m too philosophical. We’ve talked together about you, Nessa, before we wrote this letter, but I am doing most of the dictating to Ginny because it saves time. However, Tonks wants to add that I was one of the greatest heroes in the fight against Lord Voldemort because I had learned so much about darkness in my own hard life. She says that fighting Lord Voldemort was sad, so terribly sad. She wanted so much to see life on the other side of this battle with Lord Voldemort, but she never got that chance. But she says that terrible sadness can train some of the greatest warriors like Dumbledore, Snape, and I. So she laughs and says that she loves sadness. I secretly think she is the philosophical one and that she must love sadness so much that she always keeps it hidden quietly in her heart and all she ever shares with other people is life and joy.

What was your childhood like? Tonks had a very normal childhood (except for her clumsiness which was a little more than normal). She says her childhood felt boring to her sometimes, but I think that her childhood is one of the great gifts that she carries with her and gives her a power that I don’t have. My own childhood was stolen from me by Fenrir Greyback, and in a way the love of Tonks has shown me what I lost and helped me to learn some lessons about life and love that I never had the chance to learn as a child.

How do you feel, overall, about life now in these past couple of years? This question actually seems to be about our future selves, and we can’t really answer it. We would be guessing just like you. It’s fun that your questions actually slip back and forth between our future and our past selves.

What was one of your worst and best days in your life? One of the best days of my life was when Tonks first announced publicly that she loved me. This forced me to deal with my love for her which, for a long time, had terrified me and caused me to run away into the most dangerous and serious work that I could find. Tonks says that one of the best days of her life was when she first caught me watching her without even seeming to notice what I was doing. She didn’t let me know about this until much later, but it is one of the things that made her so sure that I loved her just as much as she loved me (even though I would never admit it to anyone for so long). For both Tonks and I, the worst day of our life was definitely when I left Tonks after learning that we were having a child. I had been afraid all my life of hurting someone whom I loved, and becoming a father made me so afraid that I had just passed on all of my own fears to another person. I couldn’t face this, not even with the help of Tonks, but Harry was a help to me that time. He knew something about what it meant to have no father.

How and when did you start falling in love? How did you tell each other? What was your different stages of love like? Our last answer talks a little about this, and this is a topic we could say way too much about because once we start, the stories just keep going. I think that I started falling in love with Tonks first. I used to find myself thinking about her after we had been working together on assignments for the Order of the Phoenix. Everyone in the order respected her teacher Mad Eye Moody, and so they treated Tonks well. However, I think that everyone was also a little annoyed by how clumsy this young auror could be. We were living a dangerous existence, and a clumsy mistake could easily mean that someone would die. But I couldn’t help noticing that everyone always forgave Tonks and that their trust in her continued to grow each day. She was so generous and humble while at the same time having a kind of bravery that was not like the kind of bravery that I knew about. Fear didn’t seem to exist in her world. She was just always modest, hard-working, and full of fun no matter what we were doing: cooking dinner at 12 Grimmauld Place or dueling with Death Eaters. She says that she loved me from the first time that she saw me but only started to notice what she was feeling after she saw that I was falling in love with her. She says that one of the things she loved about me was that I still obviously had so much to learn about falling in love.

When Dumbledore died, what did you feel like? In our own ways, we each felt a little like you did. We felt that the world had ended in some way. Tonks says that she immediately felt that we would all be doomed to die in our fight against Voldemort but that this wasn’t what really mattered to her. Everyone who she admired most had loved Dumbledore so much. She always suspected that, even though Dumbledore held more sadness in his heart than any of her other great teachers and friends, his mischievous smile came from some place deeper than all that sadness. His smile seemed like an invincible charm and a promise of victory even at the darkest moments. She gave up hope of victory when Dumbledore died, but that didn’t matter compared to her sadness at the loss of his smile. She did not despair herself in any deep way, but she felt that one of the brightest signs of life had gone out of the world. She didn’t know Dumbledore in the same way that I did. I was probably more tempted to despair. Neither of us gave up caring or fighting after Dumbledore died, but we shared a sadness at the loss of everything he had been for us and for so many of our friends.

How do you feel about your friends like Harry, the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Moody, Kingsley, and Sirius? I guess that some of our earlier answers have hinted at how we feel about Harry, Moody, Dumbledore and other dear friends. We each loved them in different ways, and it was wonderful to learn a little more about each of our friends when we began to fall in love with each other. We could share more about each one of them, but we really do need to end this letter now.

We do want to add that you are a wonderful girl, and we are so glad to be loved by you, Nessa. Keep on enjoying the secretly magical people at your school, your cat, your little brother, and your family’s new baby on the way. We’re glad to have been introduced to them all by you. Tonks likes to tease me for reading some muggle philosophy and theology now and then, but I couldn’t help noticing that your letter understood how we were real. You were sad that we had died but you were not wishing that we were real. Maybe you will find our portrait someday. That would be fun, but, if not, we are sure that we will all find something even better. This is something that we all enjoy each day on this earth: life together. We have lost that for now. However, we think that Dumbledore’s smile is a sign that life comes from a deeper place than pain and death, and we hope that somehow life together can be restored. In that life, our story will be with you, we are sure.

Love,

Tonks and Lupin

P.S. Here is a wonderful part of another story about life that Lupin once read by a great muggle author who you probably know about, too. This part of the story reminds us of the way that we are able to speak with each other, even though others cannot see the world that we share:

Celeborn and Galadriel … had journeyed thus far by the west-ways, for they had much to speak of with Elrond and with Gandalf, and here they lingered still in converse with their friends. Often long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world, or holding council, concerning the days to come. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands.

June 18, 2016

Learning to Laugh with Angels

He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. …He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.

Coming across this passage yesterday in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday and being flat on my back today with a high fever, I spent some time reflecting on his theme of heavenly humor. This topic is taken up by several other Christain authors including C.S. Lewis. For example, this scene in The Magician’s Nephew when a Jackdaw has an awkward moment just after Aslan has given voices to all of the animals in the new world of Narnia:

“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said:

“Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”

“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everyone laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground.

Chesterton, like Lewis, clearly had a high view of humor and defended it often. His two main themes on the topic are the goodness of human laughter vs. the awfulness of divine laughter. Chesterton suggests that human laughter is an almost unmitigated good. Here are several examples from over the course of his lifetime:

  • Laughter has something in it in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves; something (as the common phrase goes about a joke) that they cannot resist.
  • For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
  • Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.
  • Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.
  • It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.
  • Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.

And this one (which most directly sheds light on the hornbill passage at the start of this post):

Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.

In another vein, however, Chesterton suggests that God’s laughter is a serious (even terrible) thing—too wonderful for us—something that we must be protected from or that we are mercifully incapable of hearing:

We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

In a later passage, Chesterton suggests that divine laughter is not so much inaudible to us as it is mercifully hidden us:

The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

In an even more serious-sounding passage that I cannot find, Chesterton says (if my memory serves me), that exposure to the raw power of our Creator’s laugh, in our current sickened condition, would virtually unmake us. Certainly God’s laughter in some Old Testament passages is something very close to judgement. We may also, perhaps, learn something about God’s humor (and I say this tentatively because I doubt that I am right but I still think it worth considering) through a study of the lives of holy fools or through the preaching and the satirical skits of certain Old Testament prophets (see God’s compromise with Ezekiel in 4:15, for example).

Of course, this point about God’s laughter being dangerous is part of a larger theme in Chesterton as well as Lewis and Tolkien: heavenly things are so good that they (in one sense) pain or hurt us in our current condition. In The Great Divorce, Lewis famously describes people from hell stepping off of a bus that has taken them to heaven. They decide that the grass in heaven is too painfully real. They would rather return to hell than endure the too-substantial grass of heaven. However (and Lewis would agree), God’s goodness is always and ultimately wholesome, even when it pains us. We see this perfectly in Jesus Christ. His divine humor may have been heavily veiled as Chesterton suggests, but Jesus clearly teased and jested with those closest to Him. This simple human laughter of Jesus never comes up directly in scripture, but it is easy to imagine what a gift it would have been in the hearts of those who loved Him. In helpful contrast to Chesterton’s reflections on Christ’s awful and hidden divine humor, Patrick Henry Reardon talks about Christ’s sense of humor, and Reardon fully humanizes it. He makes the case that Christ regularly enjoyed laughter with those closest to him:

Jesus related to these original disciples—even from the beginning—as ‘individuals,’ as particular men. He does not permit their specific identities to become lost in the group. Philip, Andrew, Thomas, and the others preserve their individual characters. Observe, for instance, how he teases them. Jesus’ irony toward Nathaniel is a perfect example of this [John 1:45-47].

…What shall we say of the nickname Jesus gave to the two sons of Zebedee: James and John? He called them “sons of thunder,” which in our modern idiom would be “hotheads.” One suspects the brothers received this moniker because … they [once] said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:52–54)

…Luke relished the irony of it: John bar Zebedee … got his wish … when the church at Jerusalem sent him … as one of its delegates to call down on the Samaritans the true fire from heaven—the Holy Spirit.

…Peter, when he felt enthusiastic, imagined himself invincible … [and ] readily mistook a rush of adrenaline for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit…. Jesus surely recognized the name’s improbability in Peter’s case. The only time [that Peter] showed any rocklike quality was on that memorable occasion when he attempted to walk on water!

…In all these instances, we perceive a light and jocund side of Jesus’ relationship with these men, whom he chose ‘that they might be with Him’ (Mark 3:14). With these disciples, Jesus carried himself as a man among men, to whom he was bound by the sorts of habits, attitudes, and discourse [by which] normal men establish friendships and maintain loyalties.

There are some clear parallels between Reardon’s portrait of Jesus (jesting with his closest followers) and Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan (the first joker encouraging laughter over the vivacious Jackdaw). However, there is also a comforting difference between these two accounts. The humor exercised by Jesus is more gentle, subtle, and deeply personal than that of Lewis’ Aslan. To those learning to follow Him, Christ is a gentle friend (in the aggregate at least).

Finally, in Reardon’s account, Jesus’ joking is connected almost entirely to renaming and nicknames. It is remarkable that Jesus’ humor is bound up so closely with something that is so central to His identity as the Logos, by whose words all things are made and sustained. Naming is a task that God calls humans to share with Him, and Adam’s naming of each animal might have involve more laughter than we imagine. Chesterton may be onto something with his idea that the angels themselves are still learning to laugh at the hornbill. Furthermore, simply by process of elimination, it seems possible that humans with a healthy sense of humor could provide an important example for any angels who are still learning to see God’s mirth on display throughout creation. This line of thinking about Jesus’ enjoyment of clever nicknames also puts new possibilities into play when it comes to the intimate name that Christ has prepared for each of His saints (Revelation 2:17). Each of God’s children may be revealed as an even better joke than the Jackdaw before all is said and done. For my part, I take some comfort in the hope of garnering a few laughs as the trillion-and-first joke when my own time comes.

Nonetheless, if I make light of myself, this is not to make light of humanity or of my own high calling to communion with God. (As Chesterton says: “Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”) In Christ, Peter did live up to his nickname.

June 11, 2016

Myrrh, Mercy, and Oil: Deciding What to Do with It All

I don’t know what to do with two small zip-lock baggies of myrrh that my wife and I collected last Sunday (June 5, 2016) from a miraculous myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos in Taylor, PA. These two swabs of white cotton soaked in a bright yellow-orange oil are shut up tightly inside plastic, but they still give off a pungent, sweet fragrance that definitely includes rose blossom (along with other scents that are less easily discerned, such as two that my children suggested: “honey comb” and “new doll”).

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy this year (March 20) my kids and I went to church, and the priest said that he had thrown out the notes for his homily yesterday evening after he participated in the Triumph of Orthodoxy vespers at a neighboring parish where several churches from the region were gathered together. During this joint prayer service (which celebrates the restoration of icons after a dispute about them within the early church), my priest witnessed the myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos that was visiting from Taylor, PA. In addition to watching sweet smelling oil flow from its surface, he heard stories of the many blessings and healings associated with this icon. For several years, visitors to this icon had been healed from cancer and other diseases that doctors had declared incurable by medical means. My priest is Father Peter of St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in York, PA, and the priest visiting with the the myrrh-flowing Kardiotisa (“The Tender Heart”) icon was Father Mark of St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA. (See image of the Kardiotisa icon at bottom of this post.)

One story told by Father Mark touched Father Peter in particular. It was about a teenage girl who struggled with a horribly negative self-image and who faced harsh bullying at school. When anointed by myrrh from the icon, she was delivered from thoughts of self harm and became a strong and confident young lady who was filled with thanksgiving for God, her family, and her friends. Father Peter also relayed how God clearly did not discriminate between various types of believers when it came to granting mercy through this icon. Those healed included Christians from many traditions as well as Muslims and others. Father Peter had seen many other myrrh streaming icons over his decades of ministry, but this experience had clearly moved him in a fresh way.

While he spoke, I was thinking of my mother who was diagnosed over a year ago with stage four breast cancer that doctors said could never be eradicated by medical means. My eight year old son was evidently thinking of my mother as well. He leaned over to me and whispered, “We should take grandma to see this icon.” After the service, he and I joined the line of those going forward to be anointed with the sweet-smelling oil collected from this icon.

As I said, that was March 20, and it was June 5 before we made it there with my mother. Our visit to St. George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA was rescheduled twice. Then, on the morning of the visit, it was difficult to get up on time, to pack up and clean the house where we were staying for the weekend as an extended family, and to keep our cool while following GPS directions that took us via an extremely strange and circuitous route. (Truth be told, I did not fully keep my cool during this last leg of the road trip.) We made it to the Sunday morning service (called the Divine Liturgy) about half way through (near the end of the sermon), and my extended family followed me quietly into seats within the first two rows of pews on the far right side of the sanctuary. We did our best to pray and sing our way through the remainder of the highly elaborate and largely unfamiliar service. Visiting along with my mother and I that morning, there were also my wife and two children, my father, my young twin sisters (the same age as my daughter), and two of my grown siblings, a brother and a sister (a mother of five) who had her baby boy along with us.

At the end of the service, Father Mark had a lengthy announcement about the proposed purchase of a walk-in freezer for the congregation as well as comments about a recent chemical analysis of the myrrh from the streaming icon (an analysis by a Ukrainian association of chemists that had not been sanctioned by the bishop but that had produced some fascinating results that Father Mark detailed quickly to his congregation). He finally concluded the service by inviting anyone to come forward and to receive an anointing with myrrh from the icon. Every member of my family and extended family came forward, and a visiting priest gave the blessing and the anointing, placing a small dab of myrrh in the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads with his thumb. As we were all going up front for this, my wife checked that all of our family members had noticed the location of the streaming icon near the center of the sanctuary. Its entire surface was visibly wet with myrrh, and some oil could be seen on the outside of the icon’s protective case.

My mother needed to use the restroom after this, and I hung out near the sanctuary hoping to catch a word with Father Mark, who I had corresponded with several times over the past few weeks in preparation for this visit. He was busy with a portion of his congregation offering a prayer service for a recently departed member of their church. I checked on my family situated in the social hall attached to the church and returned to the sanctuary, where I waited and finally had an opportunity to greet Father Mark. He was praying with a devout and emotional young couple who were clearly also there to seek help from Mary at her myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was also busy with some of his deacons and several remaining members of the congregation, lifting the protective cover from the icon and examining the cotton swabs packed into a tray along the icon’s bottom edge to collect the myrrh. He and several others were expressing joy at the quantity of myrrh as it dripped from the protective case itself, and one woman reached out to catch the drops before they fell to the floor.

With some persistence, I was able to get Father Mark’s direct attention and introduce myself. He seemed to vaguely remember corresponding with me, and then he warmly welcomed my entire family and extended family. He asked each person to hold out their hands as he held up the icon and waited for one drop of myrrh to fall into the hands of my father, mother, four siblings, wife, son, and finally my little nephew. My daughter quietly declined. During this time, as the drops fell one-by-one into outstretched hands, two older women from the congregation were alternately praying out loud and chattering with members of my family (telling them many stories about the icon). Father Mark invited us to leave any written prayer requests in little decorated blue boxes at the back of the church. These requests would be read out loud in the sanctuary and placed into a large wooded chest that was kept near the icon. One of the elder ladies explained that a member of the congregation had given this chest to the church for this purpose and let us know that hey had another chest stored within their altar area that was already filled with paper slips holding prayers from previous visitors. In one last effort, I asked Father Mark if he would pray specifically for my mother right then and there. He agreed and prayed for her out loud before the Mother of God’s myrrh-streaming icon. Father Mark was a generous and unassuming man who radiated simple joy and good humor. I felt bad to ask for so much, but he gave graciously.

As we were finally leaving, several members of the congregation came forward to receive pieces of cotton that were torn off, one-by-one, from the larger swabs that were packed into the trough at the base of the icon. These were soaked with myrrh and were placed in small zip-lock bags for members of the congregation to take with them. My mother and sister hesitated at first. However, Father Mark was clearly liberal in the distribution of these bags, and they each ended up with one. My grown sister overheard Father Mark telling a little girl in the congregation to take one with her and teasing the girl by telling her to go and tell her brother that Father Mark said he couldn’t have one today. My wife and I each got a separate bag as well.

Scripture is full of references to oil used for cooking, with sacrifices, and for anointing. All four Gospels speak of the myrrh bearing women who came to anoint Jesus with the same kind of expensive perfumes that Mary had poured over his feet and wiped off with her hair not long before his crucifixion. These ladies are described beautifully in the book Christ in His Saints by Patrick Henry Reardon. He explains that they spent a lot of money and some no doubt risked the wrath of their unbelieving husbands to get up before sunrise and take this myrrh to anoint the dead body of their Messiah whom they had seen placed within a cave behind a massive stone and under the watch of a professional Roman guard. How they planned to move the stone and get past the soldiers is unclear, but one thing is clear: they had not imaged the possibility of a resurrection. When they arrived, however, the stone was gone, and they met angels instead of soldiers. Reardon ends his account of these devoted women with an intentional note of irony by asking us to consider “all of that myrrh gone to waste.”

In 1 Kings 17 and then again in 2 Kings 4, we read of first Elijah and then his disciple Elisha making a jar of oil flow continually in the service of God as well as an old widow who is seeking to care for her destitute family. In a vision from Zechariah 4, we again see an endless supply of oil. In this account, two olive trees provide a continual stream of oil to keep a beautiful lamp stand alight with seven flames (like the lamp in the tabernacle and temple as well as the seven lamps that represent each of the churches written to by Jesus Christ at the beginning of St. John’s Apocalypse).

In many of these Biblical references, the oil is connected to the Spirit of God bringing light and life to all His creatures. And there is also another theme, one of anointing with medicines and perfumes. The word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word is based on an older Greek root meaning olive oil, a substance that was used as a soothing agent for bruises and wounds (as we see in the story of the Samaritan who was a good neighbor).

Keith Green sings: “My heart is hard, my prayers are cold / And I know how I ought to be / Alive to You and dead to me // Oh what can be done for an old heart like mine / Soften it up with oil and wine / The oil is You, Your Spirit of love.”

And before this, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote within an astounding poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / …It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?”

This song and this poem both capture a lot, in different ways, about God’s presence as it has been mediated to us all daily, in unexpected ways. After writing all this, however, I am not much closer to making a decision about what to do with my bag of myrrh. My wife and I have shared a few ideas with each other, both immediately afterward and in the following days. Regardless, I am simply grateful to have had its beautiful smell in my home for this week and to be faced with the strange dilemma that it brings. I’ll probably try to share my myrrh somehow (the wise men gave away all of their myrrh after all), and I will also seek ideas from others who are older and wiser than myself. And your suggestions, dear reader, are welcome too.

[Note: shown in the photo at the top of this post are the two bags that I mention, containing cotton swabs soaked with myrrh. Also in the picture is my son’s small prayer book (a recent gift to him from my mother) and two small (prayer-card-sized) icons gifted to us by friends about a year ago (depicting Hawaii’s Myrrh-Streaming Iveron Icon and Saint Elizabeth the New Marty who is a granddaughter of Queen Victoria).]

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