Sunday, December 24, 2006

Incarnation . . . Immanuel

Jesus is our childhood's pattern;
day by day, like us he grew;
he was little, weak, and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew;
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.
--Cecil Frances Alexander “Once in Royal David’s City,” verse 3

We all live off his generous bounty,
gift after gift after gift.
We got the basics from Moses,
and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
This endless knowing and understanding—
all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
No one has ever seen God,
not so much as a glimpse.
This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
who exists at the very heart of the Father,
has made him plain as day.
--John 1:16-18, The Message

And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love;
for that chlid so dear and gentle
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.
--Cecil Frances Alexander “Once in Royal David’s City,” verse 4

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Gospel According to Mary, Part Four: Emulating Mary

Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived a hero’s journey. She’s surely not alone; many biblical characters can comfortably bear Joseph Campbell’s template. But Mary has proven her heroism. As such, we cannot simply venerate her; we ought to emulate her.

Mary’s heroism is linked to her self-identification as the Lord’s servant. In response to the herald angel she embraces her calling and lives it out in possibly its most challenging way. She attends to Jesus throughout his life, all the while letting Jesus go his own way. She stores up in her heart words and deeds that will over time come to change the course of history. She never leaves her life’s station, in the peasant class of a nation under bondage, but she transcends it nonetheless by enduring trial after trial and standing firm in her attentiveness to her son, her Lord.

Mary’s heroism is not simply a model for us; it’s an invitation. A simple life, we learn from Mary, is no excuse for the abdication of a heroic calling. Mary could be a hero where she was or where the Spirit led her: in Nazareth, in Bethlehem, in Egypt, at the foot of a cross. Mary could be a hero when she was unmarried and pregnant, when her son was embarrassing her, scaring her, breaking her heart.

Our hero’s journey as followers of Christ, as the family of God, will involve this kind of mother’s love, this kind of servant’s devotion. We are called upon to attend to Jesus, to do what needs doing in his service. We are called upon to store up Jesus in our hearts, to acknowledge and remember what he’s promised, what he’s done for us and for others. We are called to stand with Jesus, not drawing our swords but braving the stones thrown at him, attending to him even on the cross. Mary’s son is our son; Mary’s God is our God.

Like Mary we are given the ultimate boon and asked to carry it. Our otherwise normal life is changed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As another sort of theotokos, our own hero’s journey thus awaits us, propelled by the strength that the Lord gives us. Like Mary, we may endure many things and see no superficial change to our life’s condition, but one thing will definitely change: we will cross a threshold, we will no longer be satisfied with life on the shelf. We’ll be too busy living a life that others can emulate.

***

Merry Christmas from Loud Time. This season may you bear Jesus wherever he wants to take you.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Gospel According to Mary, Part Four: The Shadow of Death, the Ultimate Boon

We've been exploring over the past few weeks the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. We've looked at the gospel through her eyes and looked at her life through the filter of the hero's journey, made popular by Joseph Campbell and his many disciples, among them George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. The hero's journey is a template that helpfully organizes most epic adventures, and Mary's experience is no different. Perhaps, in a way, neither is our own experience.

Mary's joy over Jesus' birth is interrupted by the prophecy of Simeon, who warns her that one day he will suffer and she will be devastated. The entire telling of her story and his sits in the shadow of this prophecy, but life must go on, and it does for them both. Last week we saw Jesus enter public ministry, and saw the personal and social trials and travails that this move created for his mother. This week we both their hero's journeys fulfilled in very different ways. But the path necessarily takes them through the shadow of death.

I'm currently reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, which include a great deal of correspondence between him and his parents. Bonhoeffer's imprisonment led eventually to his death; I don't yet know what ultimately happened to his parents, but along the way their own life was shaped by his persecution. So it is with us; at Christmas we are reminded that Jesus bound himself to us to live in solidarity with the trials of the human experience, but we're also reminded that when we bind ourselves to him--for our own benefit--we are necessarily binding ourselves to his passion.

This week, think about the moments of hardship that have defined your life in various ways. Think of how a mother bears her children not only during pregnancy but during all the hardships that they endure. Think of how in many ways God is like a mother, bearing with us and carrying us through the "many dangers, toils and snares" that enter our lives through our acts of nobility and through our acts of foolishness. Think of the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Surely he has borne our iniquities." Embrace and celebrate the mother-love of God this week.

***

Jesus has pulled away from his family as he has brought together his followers; Mary no longer has a guaranteed audience with her son. This separation relegates Mary to the background for much of the remainder of the Gospels, until we reach Jesus’ passion, where Mary resurfaces at the foot of the cross. She watches her son die a horrid death; you might say that a sword has pierced her heart.

It’s here—in the moment of her greatest trial—that Mary encounters in her own son the divine ruler of the world. Jesus is revealed—the gospel is revealed—in his passion. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Jesus is God and God is dead.

Mary mourns the death of her son while simultaneously mourning the death of her God. And then she encounters her risen Son, her risen Lord. All along she attends to him, treasuring up in her heart the things she has seen and heard and felt even as she prepares the spices and perfumes for her son’s proper burial. Her risen Son orders her and her company to return to Jerusalem, and then her God—her Son—is exalted to the highest heaven.

Soon thereafter Mary and her company are given the ultimate boon: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. With Jesus’ story and God’s law now written on her heart, Mary takes this treasure and returns to the normal world—still under Roman occupation, still rigidly segregated by class, but now no longer held in bondage to sin and death. She is free, but life is different.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Gospel According to Mary, Part Three: Trials and Travails

The second Sunday of Advent brings us into touch with Mary's trials and travails on her hero's journey. They are, in a sense, the typical trials of a parent; I know this because I subjected my parents to more than their fair share of such hardships. But Mary's challenges were extraordinary because of the extraordinariness of her call. Mary was the mother of the Son of God who was also the son of Mary; if that's confusing to you, imagine how confusing it must have been for her. Enjoy this week's look at Mary the hero, and perhaps give some thought to how the trials and travails you're facing today may relate to the hero's journey that God has set you on.

***

Mary endures the typical trials of raising a boy, we can be sure, but she also faces the growing awareness of the scope of her son's heroic journey, and so she must contend with the gradual surrender of her son to the mission of God. At twelve he leaves his parents to take his place among the teachers in the temple. At thirty he enters into public ministry and is driven out of his hometown. He becomes an itinerant teacher, which is to say a homeless, jobless vagabond. He is ridiculed as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’”

These may seem like Jesus’ trials, not Mary’s, but consider the context. When Jesus is chased out of Nazareth his neighbors name him as the son of Mary; his shame falls on her. Another family faced similar scandal when their blind son was cured by Jesus; out of fear for their repuation that family chose to distance themselves from their son, for “anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.” In the wake of Jesus’ bizarre behavior, his family’s honor was at stake; to stand with him would be to endure isolation from the larger community. Mary suffers on her hero’s journey as she chooses to attend to her son.

Meanwhile, the mystery of Jesus’ divinity is only gradually being revealed, and in the process his ties to his earthly family are steadily fraying. “Even his own brothers did not believe in him,” speculating instead that Jesus was "out of his mind.” While strangers flock to him, some members of his family pull away from him; but more to the point, Jesus' attention shifts from them to his disciples, so that for all practical purposes, Mary no longer has a guaranteed audience with her son.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Urbanarama

Anyone going to be in the St. Louis area between December 26 and January1? The Urbana Student Missions Conference is taking place in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, and since several Loud-Time participants have indicated that they're thinking about/planning to go, maybe we can all meet up at some point. My schedule is pretty tight, as is probably anyone's who's involved with the conference, but lunches might work--or early breakfasts or really late-night snacks. I think I'm getting hungry.

Post a comment with some potential times if you're interested.

Spam of the Day--It's a Tie!

Subject Line #1:

That Tic Tac Feeling

Subject Line #2:

Don't Be Inadequate Anymore

Either one would be a great slogan for Tic Tacs, don't you think? Spam-flavored Tic Tacs, however, would be a big strategic blunder.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Gospel According to Mary, Part Two: The Hero's Journey

I'm not so classy as to actually keep current with the Advent calendar, so you'll notice that I missed the first Sunday of Advent with my post about the gospel according to Mary. Better late than never, I suppose. Today's post introduces the concept of the hero's journey and begins to explore how Mary's experience rivals the great epics of history. Read with care . . .

* * *

The hero’s journey is a mythic template made popular by Joseph Campbell in his book from the mid-twentieth century The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s analysis of classical myth structures was influential during the writing of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings, and served as a veritable style guide for George Lucas as he wrote the epic Star Wars. But Campbell’s research reaches not only forward but far backward; the hero’s journey can be consistently applied with only minor adjustments to all sorts of myths from all sorts of cultures. It can even be seen in the stories of major characters in the Bible. Campbell had the sheer moxie to apply the hero’s journey to Jesus Christ; I’m inclined to do the same with his mother.

The hero’s journey involves several stages broadly interpreted:

v Normal life is interrupted by
v a herald, whose call to adventure is met by
v refusal of the call, which elicits
v supernatural aid. Our hero then must pass through
v the first threshold, which is crossed in such a way that it
v appears to be death. Our hero must then
v endure trials before encountering
v the divine ruler of the world in
v the shadow of death, which must be endured. Our hero is then given
v the ultimate boon, and
v ordered to return.
v Life is now free but different.

The Gospels begin before Mary is pregnant; we meet Mary before we meet her Son. We learn of Jesus’ dedication at the temple not from the eight-day-old Jesus but from his mother, and we learn from her that Simeon and Anna called Jesus Messiah. We also learn from her that Simeon prophesied pain for her; her hero’s journey didn’t end with Jesus’ birth. She has a much bigger story to tell—a hero’s journey to fulfill.

The case for Mary’s heroic journey begins in her meager origins. She describes her life as a “humble state” (Luke 1:48). She is about to embark on a very normal married life among the peasant class of a kingdom under occupation when she is visited by a herald angel. “You are highly favored!” the angel cries. “The Lord is with you!”

Mary is “greatly troubled,” unable to fathom the possibility that she will carry to term, will raise as her child, “the Son of God.” But the herald reassures her, granting her the supernatural aid of the Holy Spirit and reminding her that “nothing is impossible with God.” Mary concedes and embarks on her first of many trials: the crossing of the first threshold.

The pregnancy of an unwed woman is still scandalous today, but not nearly so much as in first-century Palestine. Her betrothed receives a vision so that, rather than abandon her, he chooses to join her fellowship. She is given the support and the blessing of loved ones and strangers until her child’s birth, when she and her family must flee the wrath of an evil king. Our hero and her child escape the king’s killing spree and are presumed dead as they pass the first threshold, crossing alive into Egypt and entering into a long journey fraught with peril.