Monday, 5 January 2009

King and God and sacrifice...

Until Francis of Assisi came along and subverted it all, the most popular scene in Christian art to be drawn from the infancy narratives was the adoration of the magi. The reasons, as often in church history had less to do with theology or devotion than with more earthy matters. Art was, by and large, commissioned by rulers, and such men had a natural interest in having the infant Jesus portrayed as a king among kings. Even in pictures of the mother and her child we see no vulnerable human baby but a miniature sovereign, often with crown and sceptre, enthroned on Mary’s lap. The message was clear, if Jesus is like your earthly king then your ruler is like Jesus – treat him accordingly. Maybe it was under such pressures that legend had transmuted Persian astrologers into royalty in the first place.

The irony lies in that, in doing so, the church had made a bulwark of human authority out of the very tale that was intended to subvert it. For each of the three gifts offered by the magi strikes a blow directly into the heart of the traditional imagery it employs. Gold for a ruler; incense for a divinity; myrrh for a death, as the hymn puts it, Jesus is greeted as “king and god and sacrifice”, but each of them is the very opposite of what it seems.

Centuries earlier prophets had cautioned the Israelites about kings, warning that they would rule over them more for their own personal benefit and aggrandisement rather than for the wellbeing of the people. By that first Epiphany in Bethlehem a thousand years had proved it all too true. As Herod accurately observed, Jesus was there to undermine and supplant his authority. But not simply to supplant in name, replacing one tyrant with another as the devil would tempt him thirty years later. Jesus offers a new way of being king that has its roots in service, in love, in self-emptying and will blossom in healing and in teaching. Meanwhile each earthly empire, from ancient Rome via Victorian Britain and the Soviet Union to 21st century USA, remains satanic; serving the powerful and their interests before anyone else.

Likewise, Jesus seeks to deconstruct our familiar notions of divinity. He brings no set of dogmas for unthinking assent; no comprehensive list of unchallengeable moral precepts. He comes instead with a fund of simple stories and a natural critique of all that passes for human behaviour. He lays down not “what” to believe and to do but “how” to live and “why” it matters. Arguable as to whether it’s enough on which to pin a couple of creeds and a handful or so of sacraments, it’s the very opposite of the efforts his followers continue to make to separate, exclude and anathematise each other.

Finally he turns the whole concept of sacrifice on its head. Instead of the one to whom sacrifice is to be made, God becomes himself the victim. It’s a notion so challenging to conventional wisdom that, from catholic Eucharistic theology to the concept of substitutionary atonement beloved of the more firm Protestants, many Christians have sought to restore the natural order rather than root themselves in the one who gives himself not simply for us but to us.

So, as metaphorically we travel with the magi today on the final leg of their journey to Bethlehem, remember this: Epiphany is startling. It overturns what society, secular and religious, is comfortable with. It’s as shocking as the notion that God should be revealed as a Jewish baby to the gentile followers of religious practices condemned by the Old Testament.

Enjoy!

Posted by David Walker on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 6:58am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking
Comments

He lays down not “what” to believe and to do but “how” to live and “why”

I think I have a list of "what" which is why I continue to attend but have somewhat pulled back from full participation, and the problem of "what" has always been the problem.

Posted by: Pluralist on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 9:40am GMT

"Jesus seeks to deconstruct our familair notions of divinity. He brings no set of dognmas for unthinking assent; no comprehensive list of unchallengeable moral precepts. He comes instead with a fund of simple stories and a natural critique of all that passes for human behaviour. He lays down not 'what' to believe and to do but 'how' to live and 'why' it matters".
- Bishop David Walker -

How good to see yet another Anglican Bishop (cf
Bishop Geoffrey Rowell) offering a refreshingly different 'take' on the Epiphany story; where Jesus comes - not to 'lay down the Law' but to offer a different focus for how God's rule ought to be understood.

In our present conflicts within the Church, which seem to focus mainly on literalist & legalistic interpretations of the Scriptures, here is hope of another way - of advocating togetherness based on our common humanity - rather than divisiveness based on our perceived differences.

Saint Francis is said to have met with a Sultan to discuss the possibility of a peaceful way of settling differences. His disarming sincerity won over the confidence of the Sultan, who shared a meal with him and allowed Francis to speak about the peace of Christ, whose example he followed.

Religious fanaticism never gained a disciple for Christ, whose pattern of outreach is sadly needed today - based, not on legalistic puritanism, but rather on an 'attitude of gratitude' to the God who reconciles himself to all who will be reconciled. Such an attitude enables us to honour the integrity of the other, without the need to consider ourselves superior. Francis called his followers 'Little Brothers' (Friars minor).

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 10:17am GMT

"It’s a notion so challenging to conventional wisdom that, from catholic Eucharistic theology to the concept of substitutionary atonement beloved of the more firm Protestants, many Christians have sought to restore the natural order rather than root themselves in the one who gives himself not simply for us but to us."

"Epiphany is startling.'

This, surely, is the point. The Incarnation overturns all our understanding of how things are. God is a human being? Power is to be found in weakness, True Kingship is not be found in force? Power, pace Mao, does not come from the barrel of a gun? Self sacrificing love is better than standing for some great principle, indeed, it is the ONLY great principle? God doesn't care how well you live by some set of rules, but about how much you love others? It isn't all about me? We have practiced the religion of the Empire for so long, we forget its radicality. We define "countercultural" to mean opposition to what we don't like. Crossan speaks of the titles of Jesus being the titles of the Roman Emperor, and how it was a subversive act for Christians to call Jesus, not Ceasar, Son of God and Saviour of the World. We sometimes forget that this applies equally to Elizabeth II, George Bush, Marx, Lenin, and any other earthly leader. They didn't use those terms to reject Roman Imperial rule, they used them to reject ALL earthly rule. And not as a matter of revolution, either, but as simply a matter of faith. SomeOne has power over me, but He isn't some Roman Emperor, nor some elected leader, nor a member of some People's Democratic Soviet whatdoyacall, And his Kingdom is not an earthly Kingdom. That doesn't mean He's just an alternative to whatever political system we currently think is God Given. It means the Kingdom is utterly unlike any political system we know, and the worldview of the citizens of the Kingdom is not at all that of the rest of the world. It is a worldview where people are valued because they are people, not because of how obedient they are or how virtuous, or of what they do, but simply because they are God's creatures, a world where the worst serial killing child molestor is as loved by God as I am, because to God "all hearts are open, no secrets are hid", where, as the ABpofC said in his Advent message, no principle is greater than love of neighbour, no principle is good if ignores human suffering.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 1:22pm GMT

"Religious fanaticism never gained a disciple for Christ"

But it has gained a heck of a lot of church people.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 2:42pm GMT

OK Father Ron Smith (and indeed David Walker) - can we organise this then? Would you agree with the inclusion of the likes of James Martineau, broad Church and anti-denominational Unitarian, being part of this universal Church of which he dreamed and which was never possible.

Posted by: Pluralist on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 5:17pm GMT

What a wonderful meditation---thanks!

Posted by: JCF on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 6:58pm GMT

Just a quibble about the reference to 'catholic' eucharistic theology. I presume David is referring to the notion of the priest re-offering Christ to the Father, which does indeed seem to parallel penal substitution theory; but the 'best' (read 'my preferred') catholic take on the Eucharist is that the Second Person of the Trinity is eternally receiving life from the Father (eternally being begotten) and the Son does not cling to this life as something personally possessed, but instead eternally returns the life lovingly (Phil 2.5 ff.). Jesus' life and death not only accomplish this living and dying-to-self, but they also reveal that self-giving is eternally what it's all about. In the Eucharist we're invited to enter into this eternal movement, to do the same in our lives, not just as individuals but especially as a community, in communion with Christ -- acommunio effected not so much by our desire for him as by his desire for us, as we find ourselves drawn by love to love, sharing in the very life of the Trinity by the subversively simple signs of sharing simple bread and wine.

Yes, sacrifice is turned on its head, as David suggests, but I think there are threads of authenticity in the best of our tradition.

Joe

Posted by: Joe on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 7:18pm GMT

I sort of agree with this piece. It's true and wonderful (etc.) that Christianity, foundationally Jewish, reaches out to (relatively) despised Gentiles.

BUT:

(a) those 'magi' were (or not actually 'were', since their participation is presumably fictional) Zoroastrians, and Zoroastrianism seems actually to have influenced Judaism (because Zoroastrian Persians 'liberated' Jews from Babylon [though actually a lot of Jews remained IN Babylonia]), and Zoroastrianism was monotheistic before Judaism was);

(b) this 'pluralism' stops far short of saying: 'pluralism really is OK'. Instead it says: join us and all is forgiven. Different thing entirely and - sometimes - not very nice. The better thing is to say: there are all these commonalities and AT THE END OF THE DAY/TIME Jesus will sort it all out. That way, one can simultaneously say: (a) all (reputable) religions are admirable and tenable; (b) Christianity is the best (even as Jews/Muslims/Hindus, etc. maintain their religion is the best).

This formulation and only this formulation preserves religious harmony.

Posted by: john on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 8:12pm GMT

Joe, I would only add that the idea of the "resacrifice" of Christ is a misunderstanding. Our Eucharist is sacrificial because it becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, just as that first Bread and Wine did, so our sacrifice is "grafted on" so to speak. It isn't a repetition, it is the same sacrifice. We eat the same Bread and drink the same Wine as they did in the Upper Room, and that all Christians across time have eaten and drunk. When you receive, you truly are compassed about by a great cloud of witnesses. Have you ever seen the rather saccharine Victorian, I think, picture called "A Place of Meeting"?

And John, I just finished saying on another thread, far far more verbosely, what you said! I totally agree! I just wish I could be so frugal with my words!

Posted by: Ford Elms on Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 12:37am GMT

"In the Eucharist we're invited to enter into this eternal movement, to do the same in our lives, not just as individuals but especially as a community, in communion with Christ -- a communion effected not so much by our desire for him as by HIS DESIRE FOR US, as we find ourselves drawn by love to love, sharing in the very life of the Trinity by the subversively simple signs of sharing simple bread and wine.' - Joe -

Joe, what a lovely and poetic way of putting the efficacy of our Eucharistic participation with the eternally-giving Christ in our daily (weekly)offering of ourselves to him and to one another.

And as for Pluralist's question: "Can we include (whomever)', to my mind, we can never exclude - anyone. When Jesus said "They'll know you're my disciples by your LOVE", I guess he really meant that. And if that means I am a 'universalist', perhaps that what the word 'catholic' really means. Jesus also said: "Come to me all...."

Kalo Epiphania!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 9:52am GMT

A splendid sermon!

The one thing that keeps me with this obscurantist religion and its insufferable followers is the very radical subversion at the very heart of it all.

In the Incarnation, and in His life, His suffering, death, and resurrection, Christ takes all our concepts of success, even moral success, and discards them. Christ takes the whole grim arithmetic of success and failure, victory and defeat, strength and weakness, by which the world has always worked, and throws it in the trash.

Of course the wise and the powerful should travel far to see that child born in poverty with a price on His head. He more than anyone, turned the world upside down.

Posted by: counterlight on Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 1:49pm GMT

Yes the incarnation, and Jesus showing forth, rather put both the progressive parts and the believer parts, right into being a progressive believer in the current century.

Not a customary deity then, notable for an all too typical males first males only blood lust, delighting in flattering submissions and fawnings and yes too many sacrifices to ennumerate. Rather, another sort of deity, amost incomprehensible as deity when weighed solely on customary cultural and religious terms.

How many stories did Jesus tell in the NT, saying the last shall be first and the first shall be last?

So far as the magi are concerned, fictional they may indeed be; yet I am not at all ready to shelve my score of Amahl and the Night Visitors and let it gather nothing but dust as the pages yellow.

Posted by: drdanfee on Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 9:25pm GMT

Ford,

Thanks. Missed other thread. Happy New Year to you and your partner - and indeed to all here,

John.

Posted by: john on Wednesday, 7 January 2009 at 12:01am GMT
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