Friday, December 24, 2010

Eve of the Nativity: 24 December 2010

O come, let us rejoice in the Lord, as we declare this present mystery: The partition wall of disunion hath been destroyed, the flaming sword is turned back, and the Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life, and I partake of the food of Paradise, whence, because of disobedience, I was expelled. For the Image Immutable of the Father, the Image of his Eternity, taketh the form of a servant, having come forth from a Mother unwedded, yet having suffered no change: for that which he was that he remaineth, being very God; and that which he was not he hath assumed, becoming very man because of his love toward mankind. Unto him let us cry aloud: O God, who wast born of a Virgin, have mercy upon us.

Let heaven and earth today prophetically exult, and let Angels and men spiritually rejoice: for God hath revealed himself in the flesh unto those who were in darkness and sat in the shadow, and hath been born of a Virgin. The cavern and the manger have received him; Shepherds proclaim the marvel, and Magi from the Orient bring gifts unto Bethlehem. And we, also, with lips unworthy, do bring unto him praise in Angelic wise: Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace: for the Hope of the nations is come, and having come hath saved us from bondage to the enemy.

Christ is born: extol him! Christ from heaven: go to meet him! Christ on earth: be ye lifted up! Sing unto the Lord, all the whole earth, and praise him in song with joy, O ye people: For he hath glorified himself.

Glory to thee, O our God; glory to thee.

Andjeli Pevaju : Angels Sing -- A beautiful Serbian Christmas song

Prayers and hymns taken from the Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church, Hapgood, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent 2: Christmas Carols and the Love of God

A local radio station begins non-stop Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. As hard as I try to observe Advent and Christmas as separate liturgical seasons, I confess that I do reset my car radio dial (buttons, really) to make this the station of choice. After all, you don’t want to miss Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey.

I like the schmaltzy old Christmas tunes and their classic singers: Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Burl Ives, Perry Como, and that whole generation of crooners. I don’t much like modern re-makes; their performers seem to try too hard to be novel, to “put their own spin” on the songs, and it mainly comes off as labored or pretentious or just poor quality music. I do very much like the instrumentals – selections from the Percy Faith Orchestra to the Windham Hill Christmas collections to Tingstad and Rumbel to Mannheim Steamroller. My wife and daughter mainly share these preferences so that our home and car are filled with music and there are no epic battles for control of the CD player or radio.

What I don’t care for are the songs – primarily of recent vintage – that get all touchy-feely with God’s emotions as he beholds his Son made flesh. A song new to me this year, and typical of the genre, treats God as a proud and protective Papa looking over his sleeping child, soothing him and wishing him sweet dreams. I've done that with my child; probably every father has. So it only makes sense that God acts this way too. Right? The trouble with this, with such cheap and easy sentimentality is that it reasons upward from man to God, that it creates God in our own image – God as man writ large. It posits God’s love as different in degree only – and not in kind – from human love. Take the best in man, increase it by a notch or two, and there you have God. While there is not a total disconnect between man and God – we are, after all, created in God’s image and likeness – reasoning upward from man to God is always moving in the wrong direction. We don’t know the love of God by comparison to human love; we know the love of God because he has revealed it to us in Jesus Christ and we try our best, in the Spirit, to conform our human love to this pattern. We do not so much reason our way to God as we listen to and observe his revelation, and ultimately as we unite ourselves to his revelation in Christ through faith and sacrament and obedience. As the great Advent prophet Isaiah calls to us:

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; *
call upon him when he draws near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways *
and the evil ones their thoughts;
And let them turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion, *
and to our God, for he will richly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.[1]

Christmas is a sentimental time, bound inextricably with memories of family and friends and children – especially children. But, we can’t allow our sentimentality to compromise our theology. God is love, as shown in the incarnation of Christ, yes, but also as shown in the Garden, on the cross, and in the tomb – not so much sentimental as absolutely determined to put creation to rights regardless of the cost. God’s love is a purifying fire, a “reckless, raging fury” as Rich Mullins described it.

These truths don’t necessarily make good Christmas carols, but they do make good Christians who can and do and will sing the praises of God now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Canticle 10, The Second Song of Isaiah.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Advent 2: Icons and Suffering

What follows cannot really be considered an Advent reflection except by the strictest of definitions: it is Advent and I have been reflecting on this lately; thus, it is an Advent reflection. Thematically, however, it is not so. Rather, it is a reflection on icons and suffering, occasioned by a book I have been asked to read – The Pursuit of God – and by certain experiences of my own which should and will remain private. Even out of season, I pray it might prove helpful to some.

Abraham was old when Isaac was born, old enough indeed to have been his grandfather, and the child became at once the delight and idol of his heart. From that moment when he first stooped to take the tiny form awkwardly in his arms he was an eager love slave of his son. God went out of His way to comment on the strength of this affection. And it is not hard to understand. The baby represented everything sacred to his father’s heart: the promises of God, the covenants, the hopes of the years and the long messianic dream. As he watched him grow from babyhood to young manhood the heart of the old man was knit closer with the life of his son, till at last the relationship bordered upon the perilous. It was then that God stepped in to save both father and son from the consequences of an uncleansed love.[1]

A. W. Tozer interprets God’s command to sacrifice Isaac as the destruction of an idol – an unholy love for the son of the covenant – that had displaced Abraham’s single-hearted devotion to God. Perhaps it is so, since both Old Testament and New Testament commentators consider the binding of Isaac as a test of the old man’s faith in and devotion to God.

If we read the text Christologically, however, as did the Church Fathers, we find much more than a test of loyalty there. If in Isaac we see a type of Christ, then in Abraham we must also see a type of God. In asking him to sacrifice his son, his only son Isaac, God was inviting Abraham – and what an agonizing invitation it was – to image God before his son and ultimately before the world. Abraham was given the opportunity – and dare I say, the privilege – to become a flesh and blood icon of the God who would one day complete the sacrificial offering Abraham was asked only to initiate. It was in this act of faithful sacrifice that Abraham was conformed most fully to the likeness of the God who had called him. As with Abraham, so with Isaac: Isaac was never more conformed to the likeness of Jesus as when he was bound on the altar awaiting the fall of the knife.

Do we consider these men blessed to have been made iconic through their sacrifices: Abraham of his son and Isaac of his life? Is there any greater blessing than to be an image-bearer of God the Father or God the Son? How we answer these questions is important, not least because we have been called likewise to be image-bearers, specifically to be conformed to the likeness of the Son. And we will never be more iconic than when we are united to the suffering of Christ. It may well be that the world will never see Christ in us until we lay bound on our own altar of sacrifice awaiting with faithful fear the fall of the knife. May we, like Abraham and Isaac be faithful in our day as they were in theirs.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.[2]

[1] Tozer, A. W. The Pursuit of God.
[2] The Book of Common Prayer 1979. Morning Prayer II, Collect for Fridays.