Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation. In layman's terms, today we celebrate the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary in Luke 1. "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus..." (Luke 1:31).

Why today? Isn't this Lent--isn't Good Friday just next week? It does seem like an odd time for this suspiciously Christmasy celebration, but there is good reason: pregnancies take nine months. You can do the math.

In celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation, I'm again posting a poem by the great English poet John Donne (1572-1631), "Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608." Because Good Friday moves around from year to year, it happens on occasion that it will fall upon March 25th--this happened in 2005, and it's coming up again in 2016. Donne wrote this poem, as the title makes clear enough, on such an occasion. I think this piece is beautiful, and I've personally found it to be a great way to consider the weight and majesty of the Annunciation while nevertheless keeping an eye to Holy Week, fast approaching.

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who's all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she's seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she's in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgment of Christ's story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels' Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God's court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or 'twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood's extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all;
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

speaking true identities

Yesterday I sat through a fantastic lecture in my Old Testament course, where the professor lamented the Church's loss of a serious familiarity with the Psalms in the last century. At the heart of this lament was a respect for the power of a community's shared language.

What do I mean?

Nate: ... and that just didn't work at all. Oh well--now we know.
Joe: And knowing is half the battle.
both: [raising fists in the air] G.I.JOOOOE!

Sub-culture. Right there.
A culture or a sub-culture is bound together by shared experiences--experiences that were here articulated through and recognized by a shared language. These guys are both 80s kids, and now they know it. I could have used a hundred different examples, with talk of red-shirts, or "Who Dat?", or dropping Hennys--the point remains the same. Shared language can forge community.

The Church, too, is bound together by shared language. We have particular language of God, creation, sin, grace, membership, that expresses the particular beliefs and experiences of the Church. Of course the Church is also bound together in a more fundamental way than this--in Christ through the Holy Spirit. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:27): in Christ we are made into something new and communal that we simply were not before. But socially, as the people who have different visions for the Church's budget, who have to work with each other's kids in the nursery, who have to make long car rides together, and who pray together, we need to be bound by language. Language of faith, hope and love; language of judge not, bear one another's burdens, and pure and undefiled religion.

How is this supposed to happen? Where do we get this language, and why is it common to us all?

It's the language of scripture.
This may sound simplistic, but the Church needs to know the language of scripture--we need to be reading and teaching the Bible. As we are immersed in the words of scripture, not only can we familiarize ourselves with them and be formed by them, but our communities have a foundation. We are the people called out of darkness into His marvelous light; we are the taking-up-cross people; we are the Body of Christ. This is our identity as the people of God, and we learn it and can articulate it from scripture. It is only as we do this that the distinctive culture that is the Church can be properly defined.

Of course, there's also the language of Tradition--the words that the Church has found, over two-thousand years, to best illuminate the scripture, speak where scripture does not, or describe new realities that we are forced to acknowledge. This is the language of Incarnation, Trinity, Fall, Eucharist, and so on. After we've learned the language of scripture--or, rather, as we continue to learn it, for this process won't ever be really concluded--we must begin to learn the language of the Tradition. Only then can we really appreciate the self-understanding of the Church that we've inherited from previous generations, and only then can we converse with the centuries of brothers and sisters who have gone before us, to learn from their insights and inspiration. This also is the language of the properly defined Church.

Why is this so important? Why am I writing about it now?
Though it may not seem so, this message is pressing. It's pressing because the members of the Church are also people in the world, and they are learning the language of the world. The language of The Bachelor or YouTube or SportsCenter. In this context, a subculture has to be purposeful about maintaining its particular identity.
The subculture that is the Church is going to be defined by something. If we are indeed not to be 'of the world' (John 15:19), then we do need to distinguish ourselves from it somehow, don't we?
We can start here. The language of the Church must be the language of the scripture. Therein will we find the perfect articulation of our identities--as a community and as individuals--and learn to articulate it for ourselves. Therein will we find an expression of the beliefs and experiences that bind us together as a particular people in the middle of the melting pot of the world.

Monday, March 08, 2010

fun with Martin Luther

Occasionally the great Reformer will say something really entertaining, at least to me.
This is from Luther's commentary on the book of Genesis:
We all realize how much of the dominion which man received in Paradise was lost after our defilement by sin. And yet what a great blessing it still is that this dominion was turned over to man and not to the devil! For how could we withstand our invisible enemy if he had not only the determination to inflict harm but also the power to do so? In one hour, in one moment, we would all be annihilated if Satan stirred up merely the wild beasts against us.

A man of great insight.

I hope to have some proper posts up soon, but I'm making no guarantees there. This has been an insanely busy semester--Luther & friends have been taking up much of my time and energy. We'll see how the coming weeks treat me, though.