Noah: A dissection.

Noah

 

How far would you go for God? How sure would you have to be that he was speaking to you? That it wasn’t just some delusion? What is our responsibility as Christians towards the planet? How important are the choices we make?

Those are just a few of the questions that Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah asks. And they are all very, very good questions. This review is going to be full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, please go see it first. Do be warned, however – it is a dark movie, and quite disturbing at times. You know, kind of like the actual story of Noah.

There have been a number of responses to this movie, ranging from the EXTREMELY critical (as in, this movie is Satanic) to the academically critical, to the somewhat positive. A lot of reviews get caught up in the weird details that Aronofsky used (and there are a lot of weird details), rather than dealing with the thematic elements of the film. This is what I’m going to try and focus on, for the most part.

One more thing before I start. I’m a Christian, and I value the story of Noah. I don’t think it’s literal, but it’s probably based on some very important historical facts. However, this movie is NOT a Christian movie. It’s a Jewish movie. It’s heavily inspired by Jewish Midrash – this is a certain style of reading the Hebrew Scriptures. Essentially (and I might be getting this wrong), midrash is reading the scripture and then interpreting it several different ways, and letting the interpretations sit. It’s not about finding the ‘right’ way to interpret a scripture, but about providing possibilities. Noah is definitely in this vein.

Ok, let’s begin.

The film opens with a quick recap of the story so far. The world began because the Creator began it, and placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. They ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and were cast out. Shortly after, their son Cain killed their other son Abel. Cain was cursed and marked by God, and sent out into the wilderness where he began busily building cities and such (where the other people came from we’re not really told.) This is all true to the Biblical story. In the movie version, there are also certain creatures called The Watchers which descend from Heaven as well. These are taken from a stream of Jewish mythology. The Watchers, we’re told later, came to Earth as Angelic beings to help the humans who were cast out of the Garden. This was against God’s plan though, and so he cursed the Watchers to be coated in rock and stuck on the Earth forever. We’re not told, in the film, WHY God cursed them, but I’m going to take a guess. The Watchers didn’t understand God’s plan. This is a common theme throughout the movie – people THINKING they know what God wants, but getting it wrong.

The Watchers thought that they could help humanity by teaching them technology. God knew that teaching them these skills would be a bad idea, and it was. Humanity used the technology that the Watchers taught them to enslave the earth, killing almost everything. They then enslaved the Watchers themselves. Methuselah eventually shows up and protects The Watchers, freeing them from their captivity with a crazy fire sword. Again, part of Jewish mythology (I think. Or maybe Aronofsky just thought it was cool).

Ok, so we’ve got the lineage of Cain building cities all over the place and generally ravaging the Earth. This is scriptural, by the way – Genesis 6:11-12 read: The earth was ruined in the sight of Godthe earth was filled with violenceGod saw the earthand indeed it was ruinedfor all living creatures on the earth were sinful.
Alongside Cain’s lineage, however, is the lineage of Seth, Adam’s third son. From the lineage of Seth comes Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, and eventually Noah. The film opens with Lamech being killed by Tubal-Cain, the descendent of Cain. Tubal-Cain steals Lamech’s snakeskin, a ‘relic’ that has been passed down from father to son from the time of Adam. It is later revealed that the skin is the skin of the serpent, who shed it upon becoming evil and deceitful. It is a memory of a time when God was with His creation, and so is used to bless every generation.

Noah was noted for being a righteous man in the Biblical story, and in the movie he’s shown as loving his family and desiring to follow the Creator, no matter what the cost. He also doesn’t eat meat, unlike the Cain-ites. They’ve basically eaten everything on the planet.

So now we’ve got Noah and his family, the last ‘righteous’ people on the planet. Aronofsky takes ‘righteous’ to mean that they desire to follow God, not that they’re perfect. I think this is not a bad description of ‘righteous’. The planet has been basically ruined, with barren landscapes and dead stumps everywhere. Noah has a vision of water – water killing everything. Even he’s under water, although he can swim to the surface. From this vision he comes to believe that the world will be destroyed by water, and so he and his family (three sons, all young-ish, and his wife), pack up camp and head for Methuselah’s mountain, hoping the old sage can lend them some wisdom. Along the way they pick up a girl who was wounded badly by the cain-ites, and she becomes an adopted daughter of sorts. She’s barren (apparently they can tell by the wound she has), but you can see she’s going to fall for the oldest son, Shem.

So, this vision. This is the first major theme I want to touch on. In this film, God does not speak verbally. We never hear God’s voice. We get visions, dreams, revelations, signs from nature, and stories, but we never hear the voice of God. This is troubling for some. I admit, I found it a bit disconcerting. But if we’re doing midrash here, it makes some sense. When was the last time YOU heard God speak verbally? I never have. And yet I KNOW he has directed my path at times. I KNOW that He put certain things before me, and gave me the choice of what to do with them. You can read about many of these moments on this very blog. So in a way, Aronofsky is placing Noah into our story – God speaks to him through visions and dreams, but not verbally. God prefers to use the mouths of his servants, rather than a voice from the sky. This seems… right to me.

So they arrive at the mountain, and Noah climbs the mountain with his son to see Methuselah. the old sage helps Noah have another vision, and in this vision Noah sees the Ark. He sees all the animals being preserved. on the Ark, and all the people dying below. When he awakens, Noah knows that he must build the ark. He apparently has knowledge of how to do so as well, which must have been given to him by God, although again, not verbally. Methuselah also gives Noah a seed from Eden, which he plants, growing enough trees to build the ark. Oh yeah, those Watchers decide to help Noah build the ark, in the hopes that they can be forgiven for their sins of pushing humanity along this path to self-destruction.

Are you with me so far? The ark is being built, Noah believes that he’s supposed to save the animals from the coming flood, and there’s a storm a’brewing.

Flash forward ten years. The Ark is almost finished. Ham is mad that he doesn’t have a wife like Shem. Jeph is too young to care still. Tubal-Cain shows up with an army, carrying weapons made of iron (gen 4:22), hoping to storm the ark and take it by force. They kinda-sorta believe there might be a flood coming, but more they just want the fertile land. Noah keeps building, but promises Ham that he’ll find wives for him and Jeph before the flood. Tubal-Cain sets up camp near the ark. Noah is still sure he’s doing the right thing, and that his family is the last righteous family on earth.

Here’s the important part – a part that I think many reviewers miss. Noah goes into the Cain-ite camp in an attempt to find a couple women for his sons. I guess he assumes that he might be able to rescue some slave girls or something. Upon entering the camp, he realizes that it is chaos. Pure evil. But it’s not an evil that he expected – it’s an evil of survival of the fittest. Men killing other men for food, men dragging away women to have their way with them, men fighting over and eating raw meat in desperation. In the midst of the chaos, Noah sees a man, the man looks at him, and Noah sees himself in the man. The man’s face is bloody from the meat he’s been eating, and there’s anger and fear in his eyes. He runs off, and Noah, shaken, leaves the camp alone.

When Noah returns to the ark, he has changed. Seeing his doppelganger in the camp has made him realize that there are none who are righteous – no, not one. Even he and his family is corrupt. He says so to his wife – either of them would kill for their family. They’re no better than those out in the camp. From this revelation, Noah begins a new course of action. He believes that all humans must die. Illa, the girl, is barren, and his wife is too old to conceive. They will all board the ark, and they will be the last humans on the planet. This, Noah believes, is the will of God – that all should die due to their sin and corruption. He doesn’t see anything good in himself.

His wife disagrees, and so asks the sage Methuselah to provide a way for humanity to survive. She sees good in her sons and in her husband. The sage agrees, although he warns that it will hurt. He heals the girl, Illa, so that she may bear children once again. Ham, not knowing what his mother has done, goes to the camp himself to try and find a bride. He finds a woman, but she is killed as they flee to the ark. Ham blames Noah for her death, because he didn’t try hard enough to save her.

The floods and the rains come, and the army tries to board the ark. There’s a horrific fight scene, with the stone Watchers fighting off the horde of unrighteous men. In the process they are killed, but forgiven by God – their Angelic selves are seen returning to Heaven.

Some commentators on the film have said that the forgiveness of the Watchers was salvation by works – they did something good, so they got forgiven. I don’t see it that way. They helped Noah not because they hoped for redemption, but because they realized their folly. It was through this realization that they were allowed to go home.

Anyhow, the ark leaves with all its passengers, plus one – Tubal-Cain has hacked his way through a wall, and is hiding in the bowels of the ship. We’ll return to this in a moment. First, I want to mention the story that Noah tells his family while they sit on the ark. He tells them the story of creation, and it is shown in a way that I’ve never seen before on film. It nearly moved me to tears. Now, if you’re a literal seven-day creationist, you’ll probably hate it. I thought it was incredible. Watch it and judge for yourself.

Back to Tubal-Cain hiding in the bowels of the ark (with the snakes, I might add). Now, this is not Biblical, at all. But it is useful for the midrashic style of the movie. Noah, Tubal-Cain, and the women provide three distinct and separate interpretations of God, the Creator.

First, Tubal-Cain sees himself as equal to God. Before the flood he cries out to God, saying something along the lines of ‘I give life, and I take it, just as you do! Why won’t you answer me?’ He thinks God has given him the ability and the right to ‘subdue’ the planet. He quotes Genesis 1:28b to Ham, in the belly of the ark: ‘Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it!’ – It sounds an AWFUL lot like the serpent in the garden – ‘Did God REALLY say that you would die?’ or like the tempter Satan with Jesus in the wilderness – ‘Doesn’t the scripture say…?’ For Tubal-Cain, God doesn’t care what happens to the Earth. He abandoned his people, gave them the tools they needed, and they just have to do as they see fit. Echoes of Judges ring here as well.

Second, Noah simply wants to obey God. He wants Justice. He sees God as just, and that justice MUST be satisfied, even if it means the extermination of all human life. Humans are all sinful, and so all must die to satisfy the justice of God.

Third, the women, Naamah and Illa, feel and see God’s mercy. They see him as merciful, as having saved them from the flood for a purpose, and appeal to that mercy. All three of these voices appeal to the same facts, the same revelation of God, but not all see the same thing.

Things come to a head when Noah realizes that Illa is pregnant. He swears that if the child is male then it will live to be the last person on Earth, but if it is female and able to bear children eventually, that he will kill it. He firmly and completely believes that God’s Justice must be satisfied, and that the only way it can be satisfied is with the end of the corrupting force of humanity.

Illa gives birth – to twin girls. After fighting off Tubal-cain (and Ham killing him), Noah climbs to the top of the ark, knife in hand, ready to kill the children. The scene echoes Abraham – one almost expected a ram to come wandering over. With the knife poised, Noah’s resolve falters. He feels only love towards the children, not the righteous justice he believes is necessary. he drops the knife, defeated.

Fast forward. The ark has made landfall, and Naamah, the boys, and Illa have started a small farm. Noah spends his days at the shore, cultivating grapes and turning them into wine. Many commentators have been confused at this point – why is it that Noah is drinking? Is it survivor’s guilt? No, actually – it’s the opposite. Noah drinks because he believes he has failed God. He still believes that the right thing, the just thing, would have been to kill the children and to let the human race die out. He drinks because he sees himself as having failed God. After all he did, after all he suffered, he still failed.

He drinks himself into a naked stupor. Ham, seeing him, scoffs, and throws back the snakeskin he took from Tubal-Cain. There is no curse like there is in scripture, but the emphasis is there – Ham is disgusted with his father, angry at him for allowing his bride to die, and upset with how everything turned out. He packs his bag and leaves, ‘cursed’ to wander. The other sons cover Noah, and allow him to sober up.

Once sober, Illa speaks to Noah. Once again, it is through the female voice that Noah hears of mercy. Illa believes that God gave Noah the ability to choose – here we hear echoes of Deuteronomy 30:19 – Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! Noah was given the choice of saving humanity, of giving it a second chance, or of ending it all. Through the love he felt (finally) towards his grandchildren, he chose life.

The film ends with a dedication ceremony of the twins, and a rainbow pulsing through the sky. God, it seems, is pleased with the choice of Noah. He truly has become a righteous man.

 

I loved this film. It humanized the characters of the story for me, and placed them in a world of real choices and real consequences. The various ‘voices’ speaking about God were delightful – it was if the characters were having a conversation, debating who God really was. We still do this today, don’t we? I also loved the theme of misunderstanding God. Tubal-Cain, even quoting scripture, missed the point of our relationship with the earth. We’re not called to destroy the Earth, but to use it wisely. This is a lesson we desperately need to hear today. Noah, likewise, misunderstood God. Even though he was given revelations directly from God, and signs from the Heavens, he was still able to misunderstand God – because he only understood God in terms of justice, rather than in terms of justice AND mercy.

Now, are there some weird things about this movie? Yeah. The rock monster/angel things are weird. I kind of like their redemption moment, but it’s weird. Also, the snakeskin took me a while to figure out, but I think it does make sense – as a symbol. I don’t think it’s magic. Also, Methuselah the sage with a flaming sword, a seed from Eden, and a drink that helps with visions? Weird. Finally, Adam and Eve are shown in one shot as glowing beings. While this is weird, and seems to lean towards a spiritual/carnal divide that I don’t like, there is some evidence in Scripture which connects glowing light to God – the pillar of fire in the desert, for example, or the glowing of the face of Moses coming off the mountain of Ararat, or the glowing of Jesus coming off the mount of transfiguration. I would have preferred to see more fleshly Adam and Eve, though. It would have fit better with the larger themes of the movie as well.

I think far too often we dehumanize the characters found in Scripture. We don’t think about their emotions, their thought patterns, their doubts and insecurities. We don’t imagine Joseph as actually wrestling with lust towards Potiphar’s wife, or imagine Moses wrestling with his anger and disappointment towards God and towards the Hebrew people. We don’t think about David as his power and love of power begins to corrupt him. We don’t think about Noah wrestling with doubt. If we really believe that the Bible has something to say to real people, It’s important that we engage in these stories in a real way. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the midrashic style of teaching.

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Doubt, Anxiety, and Witness.

I have been very busy with school since Christmas. Besides this fact, it has also been the Dark Months – working nights, I wake up after the sun has disappeared, and go to bed just as it is rising. January and February represent  for me a particular kind of Hell for this reason. Thankfully, It is now March and I am getting a little sunlight every day. Easter and summer are coming, finally.

That’s not what I want to write about right now. Well, not precisely at least. It’s maybe connected, but in a loose sort of way.

Longtime readers of this blog (all three of you) may know that I struggle with anxiety at times. often it is minor, a kind of tic in the back of my brain telling me that something is not quite right. Every four or five years, though, the feeling of ‘wrongness’ explodes, filling my entire body with a palpable sensation of unease. It hits my gut, full-on – my digestion gets screwed up, I stop eating properly, I can’t sleep well. My mind fixates on far-off and uncontrollable events – back in 2009 it was the outbreak of the H1N1 pandemic, this time it was the Ukraine crisis – and I find it hard to concentrate on anything.  I begin to doubt.

First the doubt is vocational – I’m thirty years old, is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life?
Next comes educational - I’m not smart enough, I can’t write well enough, I’m not up to this.
Finally the doubt manifests as theological. God? Who is this God? What kind of God would put us here, in this broken screwed up world? Afterlife? What afterlife? Once the electrical signals stop flickering in your obsessive brain, you’re done man. Just done. That’s it. Stop bothering with God. He can’t hear you.
Then I get scared.

This all takes place over the course of a few days, with the theological part usually hitting suddenly and lasting a few hours, a day at most. Life seems almost pointless – not in a suicidal kind of way, just in a ‘everything is meaningless’ sort of way. That’s what we’re looking for, isn’t it? Meaning? That’s what we’re all looking for. The idea that we’re alone in the universe is terrifying.

Every time this happens (and it’s happened maybe three or four times in my life), I’m always afraid that it won’t end. I pray, and I’m terrified that I won’t hear anything back. I think, and I’m terrified that my brain will lead me down rabbit holes that there is no escape from.

Don’t get me wrong, some doubt is helpful and healthy. If we never doubted, we would never discover anything. If we never doubted, we would still think the sky to be a solid dome, and think that hell was somewhere below us and if we just dug far enough we would find it. Doubt, the refusal to accept things to be the way they seem, and a desire to find out how things actually are, is good. When my anxiety gets going, though, the doubt becomes soul-sucking and destructive. It starts to feel like there is no hope, no answers, just a big rotten hunk of rock hurtling through space. Meaningless. A nihilist would call these ‘moments of clarity’. I think the nihilist would be wrong.

Fortunately these anxiety attacks do not last long for me. I’m sure others struggle with the same thing though, and so here I’m writing down the process through which I find hope in chaos.

First, I pray. I don’t pray often enough, and usually the anxiety hits when my praying has ceased almost entirely. Prayer is helpful. Maybe Psychosomatic – I don’t care. It feels good. In the early stages of an anxiety attack, I’m just trying to feel good.

Second, I remember. I remember the times when God has shown up for me. I remember my friend Ricky, and the light in his eyes before Jesus took him home. I remember the feeling of standing on the beach, the wind in my hair, sure, absolutely sure, that this creation is no mere accident. I remember that our God is a God who suffers. He is not aloof, not distant, and not impotent… But also not domineering and not compelling. Our God is not coercive. Having a coercive god would be much easier actually. But no, our God, rather than coercing us, suffers with us. His heart breaks for the abused and battered woman, for the child left alone thanks to the horrors of war, for the poor, the marginalized, the addicted and the cast-out. He suffered, and suffers – we worship a God who understands suffering intimately – or so the story goes.

But in the midst of my doubt and anxiety, I question the story. What if it is just a projection, as Freud and others have suggested? What if religion is the opiate of the masses? What if that whole Jesus thing never took place? It is absurd, after all. The dead don’t rise. A car battery can’t jumpstart itself. Once the lights are out, no one is home.

And then I remember the witnesses. Men and women, throughout the centuries, willing to die for the sake of the Gospel, but unwilling to kill for it. I think of Stephen, the first martyr. of Perpetua and Felicity, singing hymns as the lions of the colosseum approached. Of Dirk Willems, who rescued his pursuer knowing it meant certain death for his own life.

These witnesses, especially the early ones, point me to Christ. They point me to an individual so radical, so different from the rest of society, that people were willing to die for him. This remembering has been the role of martyrs (which means ‘witness’) for centuries now. And it was the realization of the conviction of the martyrs which caused my anxiety to ebb again. If they can go to death trusting in Christ, surely I can place my faith at his feet as well.

This doesn’t mean I don’t doubt. I absolutely do. And I’m sure the anxiety will flare again in the future, and all the insecurities will come rushing back once more. But for now, for now I am content. For now I trust. For now my heart is at peace, and I know that God is for me rather than against me. This may not seem satisfying to some, but for me it’s the difference between heaven and hell, light and dark, day and night. Christ is lord, and the resurrection of the dead is true. Hallelujah.

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Advent through the centuries: the twenty-first century

Tuesday, December 24, 2013
The twenty-first century of the Church.

Scripture:
Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.

Reading:

Brian Zahnd, speaking through a series of tweets and facebook posts. I thought this was appropriate given the digital and postmodern world that we find ourselves in.

For God so loved the world…that he did not send a text message.

God did not communicate “virtually” — by the Gnostic means of disembodied 1’s and 0’s. God came to us incarnate — in human flesh and blood. Selah.

God did not send us a digital message of 1’s and 0’s. God joined us in our sweaty, smelly, earthy humanity so we could meet face to face.

In the Incarnation the truth of God is expressed in one Word: Jesus Christ (God’s one Word made flesh).
(from Facebook)

Christ is not something that will nicely accommodate your cherished assumptions.
Christ is the most radical thing that has ever happened to this world.
To see Christ as Christ, the King of the Jews who is now King of the World—
Is to realize that Caesar is not Lord, Pharaoh is not Lord, but Jesus is Lord.

Jesus cannot be owned or incorporated or subsumed into any other nation—
Not Babylon, not Egypt, not Rome, not Russia, not England, not America.
Jesus is building his own nation (kingdom)—it’s the Kingdom of God.
Christ does not come to endorse any nation—he comes to set up his own.
But the nations of the world—all of them!—will resist this.

Because every nation insists that national sovereignty trumps everything.
As long as nations believe that their national sovereignty trumps everything—
They’ll be at war with Christ. Christ insists that his lordship trumps everything!

So to see the birth of Christ for the Epiphany it is—
Is not only to witness a Birth, it is to encounter a Death:
The death of loved and cherished lies. (Oh yes, there are lies we dearly love!)

What are these lies? I can’t tell you. You love them too much.
You have to see these lies as lies for yourself.
But I can tell you what will happen when you see the lies…

When you see the lies, you’ll no longer be at home in Babylon.
(All the nations of the world insisting on their own sovereignty add up to one big Babylon.)
To have the Epiphany of which I speak will make you an alien in your own land.

As Eliot said, you will no longer be at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
The old magi says, “I should be glad of another death.”
What about you? Are you ready for the Birth of the New?—
If it means the Death of the Old?
(from The Magi and I)

The Mary of the Magnificat was not the medieval “Madonna” but a prayerful Jewish peasant with revolutionary expectations.
(From Twitter)

Ascension, by George Grie. 2013.

Ascension, by George Grie. 2013.

Prayer:

Something a little different tonight, this Christmas Eve. I’ve posted a lot of prayers over the past three weeks or so, but I want you to realize that you are part of this grand tradition. Ignatius, Origen, Menno Simons, Thomas á Kempis – they are all humans seeking after God, trying to understand this mystery called the Incarnation of Christ, this magic called Christmas. You are part of that tradition! If you have been following along with this journey, i encourage you to add to the journey by posting your own thoughts below, and possibly your prayers as well. Here’s mine.

Lord Jesus, God incarnate, God with skin on,
Have mercy on us.
We fail each other, and we fail ourselves.
We fight, we bribe, we lie, and we steal.
We’re broken, Lord, and if left to our own devices,
We will continue to stumble and fall.
As we pause this Christmas season,
Help us to remember each other
Help us to hold each other
Help us to love each other
like you do.
Help us to have mercy on each other
To forgive as you forgive
To love as you love.
Amen.

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Advent through the centuries: the twentieth century, part IV: 1970-1999

Monday, December 23, 2013
The twentieth century of the Church.

And we’re almost up to the current day. As there are more days left before Christmas than there are centuries in church history, We’re going to alter slightly here. Today will be the late 20th century, roughly 1970-1999. Tomorrow (The 24th) will be roughly 2000-2013. The 25th will be a little personal reflection on this whole experiment.

Scripture:
Zephaniah 3:14-17

Shout for joy, Daughter Zion!
Shout out, Israel!
Be happy and boast with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has removed the judgment against you;
he has turned back your enemy.
Israel’s king, the Lord, is in your midst!
You no longer need to fear disaster.
On that day they will say to Jerusalem,
“Don’t be afraid, Zion!
Your hands must not be paralyzed from panic!
The Lord your God is in your midst;
he is a warrior who can deliver.
He takes great delight in you;
he renews you by his love;
he shouts for joy over you.

Reading:

Óscar Romero, two quotes, both from 1978.

Christ became a man of his people and his time:
He lived as a Jew,
he worked as a laborer of Nazareth,
and since then he continues to become incarnate
in everyone.
If many have distanced themselves from the church,
it is precisely because the church has somewhat
estranged itself from humanity.
But a church that can feel as its own all that is human,
and wants to incarnate the pain,
the hope,
the affliction of all who suffer and feel joy,
such a church will be Christ loved and awaited,
Christ present.
And that depends on us.

A Christian community is evangelized
in order to evangelize.
A light is lit
in order to give light.
A candle is not lit to be put under a bushel,
said Christ.
It is lit and put up high
in order to give light. That is what a true community is like.
A community is a group of men and women
who have found the truth in Christ and in his gospel,
and who follow the truth
and join together to follow it more strongly.
It is not just an individual conversion,
but a community conversion.
It is a family that believes,
a group that accepts God.
In the group, each one finds that the brother or sister
is a source of strength
and that in moments of weakness they help one another
and, by loving one another and believing,
they give light and example.
The preacher no longer needs to preach,
for there are Christians who preach by their own lives.
I said once and I repeat today
that if, unhappily, some day they silence our radio
and don’t let us write our newspaper,
each of you who believe
must become a microphone,
a radio station,
a loudspeaker,
not to talk, but to call for faith.
I am not afraid that our faith may depend
only on the archbishop’s preaching;
I don’t think I’m that important.
I believe that this message,
which is only a humble echo of God’s word,
enters your hearts,
not because it is mine,
but because it comes from God.

Modern Day Jesus, by Dan Beers. 1990.

Modern Day Jesus, by Dan Beers. 1990.

Prayer:
Creation Care prayer from 1992.

All people of the earth, each and every nation
Arise and rejoice at the continued creation
Of beauty, of springtime, the yearly rebirth
Of our protector, our home, our own Mother Earth!

Who despite our apparent lack of care
Creates bountiful splendor for all to share
From mountain tops to the deepest sea
All wonderful earthly miracles bursting free!

Yet this miracle of renewal requires the helping hand
Of the people to replenish and renew the land
From the largest of cities to the most remote farms
To unite in spirit and with the strongest arms.

Become a midwife to the birth of each flower
A guardian of our resources hour by hour
We must learn to take time to appreciate
The miracles of which we did not create.

For God has given this wonderful treasure
And its preservation will be the measure
Of people who recognize and will celebrate
The birth of each season before it’s too late.

In citizenship, in willingness to toil
We must bend our backs and tend to the soil
In stewardship, arise and applaud the worth
Of the wondrous marvel of our Living Earth!

Consider creation. . . . Consider it now.

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Advent through the centuries: the twentieth century, part III: 1945-1970

Sunday, December 22, 2013
The twentieth century of the Church.

And we’re almost up to the current day. As there are more days left before Christmas than there are centuries in church history, We’re going to alter slightly here. Today will be the mid-20th century, roughly 1945-1970. Tomorrow (the 23rd) will be roughly 1970-1999, and The 24th will be roughly 2000-2013. The 25th will be a little personal reflection on this whole experiment.

Scripture:
John 9:1-7

A shoot will grow out of Jesse’s root stock,
a bud will sprout from his roots.
The Lord’s spirit will rest on him—
a spirit that gives extraordinary wisdom,
a spirit that provides the ability to execute plans,
a spirit that produces absolute loyalty to the Lord.
He will take delight in obeying the Lord.
He will not judge by mere appearances,
or make decisions on the basis of hearsay.
He will treat the poor fairly,
and make right decisions for the downtrodden of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and order the wicked to be executed.
Justice will be like a belt around his waist,
integrity will be like a belt around his hips.
A wolf will reside with a lamb,
and a leopard will lie down with a young goat;
an ox and a young lion will graze together,
as a small child leads them along.
A cow and a bear will graze together,
their young will lie down together.
A lion, like an ox, will eat straw.
A baby will play
over the hole of a snake;
over the nest of a serpent
an infant will put his hand.
They will no longer injure or destroy
on my entire royal mountain.
For there will be universal submission to the Lord’s sovereignty,
just as the waters completely cover the sea.

Reading:

Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics,  IV/1, 186.

It is in full unity with Himself that He is also – and especially and above all – in Christ, that he becomes a creature, man, flesh, that He enters into our being in contradiction, that He takes upon Himself its consequences. If we think that this is impossible it is because our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human – far too human. Who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. And if He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does this, it is not for us to be wiser than He and to say that it is in contradiction with the divine essence. We have to be ready to be taught by Him that we have been too small and perverted in our thinking about Him within the framework of a false idea about God. It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to constitute them in the light of the fact that He does this. We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can and must be the “Wholly Other.” But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ. We cannot make them the standard by which to measure what God can or cannot do, or the basis of the judgement that in doing this He brings Himself into self-contradiction. By doing this God proves to us that He can do it, that to do it is within His nature. And He Himself to be more great and rich and sovereign than we had ever imagined. And our ideas of His nature must be guided by this, and not vice versa.

Nativity, by Marc Chagall. 1950.

Nativity, by Marc Chagall. 1950.

Prayer:
From Martin Luther King Jr., 1953. 

Most Gracious and all wise God, Before whose face the generations nse and fall,
Thou in whom we live, and move, and have our being. We thank thee for all of
thy good and gracious gfts, for life and for health, for food and for raiment, for the
beauties of nature and the love of human nature. We come before thee painfully
aware of our inadequacies and shortcomings. We realize that we stand surrounded
with the mountains of love and we deliberately dwell in the valley of hate. We stand
amid the forces of truth and deliberately lie, We are forever offered the high road
and yet we choose to travel the low road. For these sins 0 God forgive. Break
the spell of that which blinds our minds & our hearts that we may see thee. 0
God in these turbulent day when fear and doubt are mounting high give us broad
visions, penetrating eyes, and power of endurance. Help us to work with renewed vigor
for a warless world, for a better distnbuhon of wealth, and for a brotherhood that
transcends race or color. In the name and spint of Jesus we pray, Amen.

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Advent through the centuries: the twentieth century, part II: 1920-1945

Thursday, December 21, 2013
The twentieth century of the Church.

And we’re almost up to the current day. As there are more days left before Christmas than there are centuries in church history, We’re going to alter slightly here. Today will be the mid-20th century, roughly 1920-1945. Tomorrow (the 22nd) will be roughly 1945-1970. The 23rd will be roughly 1970-1999, and the 24th will be roughly 2000-1013. The 25th will be a little personal reflection on this whole experiment.

Scripture:
Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one shouting in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be brought low,
and the crooked will be made straight,
and the rough ways will be made smooth,
and all humanity will see the salvation of God.’”

Reading:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Letter to the Finkenwalde Brothers Christmas, 1939.

No priest, no theologian stood at the cradle in Bethlehem. And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of all wonders, that God became man. . . . Theologia sacra arises from those on bended knees who do homage to the mystery of the divine child in the stall. Israel had no theology. She did not know God in the flesh. Without the holy night there is no theology. God revealed in the flesh, the God-man Jesus Christ, is the holy mystery which theology is appointed to guard. What a mistake to think that it is the task of theology to unravel God’s mystery, to bring it down to the flat, ordinary human wisdom of experience and reason! It is the task of theology solely to preserve God’s wonder as wonder, to understand, to defend, to glorify God’s mystery as mystery. This and nothing else was the intention of the ancient church when it fought with unflagging zeal over the mystery of the persons of the Trinity and the natures of Jesus Christ. . . .

The ancient church meditated on the question of Christ for several centuries. It imprisoned reason in obedience to Jesus Christ, and in harsh, conflicting sentences gave living witness to the mystery of the person of Jesus Christ. It did not give way to the modern pretense that this mystery could only be felt or experienced, for it knew the corruption and self-deception of all human feeling and experience. Nor, of course, did it think that the mystery could be thought out logically, but by being unafraid to express the ultimate conceptual paradoxes, it bore witness to, and glorified, the mystery as a mystery against all reason. The Christology of the ancient church really arose at the cradle of Bethlehem, and the brightness of Christmas lies on its weather-beaten face. Even today, it wins the hearts of all who come to know it. So at Christmas time we should again go to school with the ancient church and seek to understand in worship what it thought and taught, to glorify and to defend belief in Christ. The hard concepts of that time are like stones from which one strikes fire.

By Warner Sallman, 1941. Distributed to American servicemen during WWII.

By Warner Sallman, 1941. Distributed to American servicemen during WWII.

Prayer:
Let Our Hearts be Stout, given by Franklin D. Roosevelt on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.

Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.

Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keeness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

Thy will be done, Almighty God.

Amen.

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Advent through the centuries: the twentieth century, part I: 1900-1920

Thursday, December 20, 2013
The twentieth century of the Church.

And we’re almost up to the current day. As there are more days left before Christmas than there are centuries in church history, We’re going to alter slightly here. Today will be the early 20th century, roughly 1900-1920. Tomorrow (the 21st) will be roughly 1920-1945. The 22nd will be roughly 1945-1970, the 23rd will be roughly 1970-1999, and the 24th will be 2000-2013. The 25th will be a little personal reflection on this whole experiment.

Scripture:
John 9:1-7

Now as Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but he was born blind so that the acts of God may be revealed through what happens to him. We must perform the deeds of the one who sent me as long as it is daytime. Night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said this, he spat on the ground and made some mud with the saliva. He smeared the mud on the blind man’s eyes and said to him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated “sent”). So the blind man went away and washed, and came back seeing.

Reading:

Sergei Bulgakov, Russian Orthodox priest, from his undated work Du verbe incarne’, translated by Andrew Louth in The place of theosis in Orthodox theology

God wants to communicate to the world his divine life and himself to “dwell” in the world, to become human, in order to make of human kind a god too. That transcends the limits of human imagination and daring, it is the mystery of the love of God “hidden from the beginning in God” (Eph 3:9), unknown to the angels themselves (Eph 3:10; 1 Pet 1:12; 1Tim 3:16). The love of God knows no limits and cannot reach its furthest limit in the fullness of the divine abnegation for the sake of the world: the Incarnation. And if the very nature of the world, raised from non-being to its created state, does not appear here as an obstacle, its fallen state is not one either. God comes even to a fallen world; the love of God is not repelled by the powerlessness of the creature, nor by his fallen image, nor even by the sin of the world: the Lamb of God, who voluntarily bears the sins of the world, is manifest in him. In this way, God gives all for the divinization of the world and its salvation, and nothing remains that he has not given. Such is the love of God, such is Love.

Such it is in the interior life of the Trinity, in the reciprocal surrender of the three hypostases, and such it is in the relation of God to the world. If it is in such a way that we are to understand the Incarnation–and Christ himself teaches us to understand it in such a way (Jn 3:16)–there is no longer any room to ask if the Incarnation would have taken place apart from the Fall. The greater contains the lesser, the conclusion presupposes the antecedent, and the concrete includes the general. The love of God for fallen humankind, which finds it in no way repugnant to take the failed nature of Adam, already contains the love of stainless humankind.

And that is expressed in the wisdom of the brief words of the Nicene Creed: “for our sake and for our salvation.” This and, in all the diversity and all the generality of its meaning, contains the theology of the Incarnation. In particular, this and can be taken in the sense of identification (as that is to say). So it is understood by those who consider that salvation is the reason for the Incarnation; in fact, concretely, that is indeed what it signifies for fallen humanity. But this can equally be understood in a distinctive sense (that is to say, “and in particular,” or similar expressions), separating the general from the particular, in other words, without limiting the power of the Incarnation nor exhausting it solely in redemption. The Word became flesh: one must understand this in all the plenitude of of its meaning, from the theological point of view and the cosmic, the anthropological, the Christological and the soteriological. The last, the most concrete, includes and does not exclude the other meanings; so too, the theology of the Incarnation cannot be limited to the bounds of soteriology; that would be, moreover, impossible, as the history of dogma bears witness….

The Incarnation is the interior basis of creation, its final cause. God did not create the world to hold it at a distance from him, at that insurmountable metaphysical distance that separates the Creator from the creation, but in order to surmount that distance and unite himself completely with the world; not only from the outside, as Creator, nor even as providence, but from within: “the Word became flesh”. That is why the Incarnation is already predetermined in human kind.

Christ at the Whipping Post, by George Desvallières, 1910.

Christ at the Whipping Post, by George Desvallières, 1910.

Prayer:
The Litany to the Lamb of God in Time of War. Written in 1915 by, or under the auspices of, Pope Benedict XV in response to World War I.

V. The Lord give you peace;
R. Peace and good will.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Who didst say to Thy Apostles, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you,” look not upon my sins, but upon the faith of Thy Church, and vouchsafe to her that peace and unity which is agreeable to Thy will, Who livest and reignest, God forever and ever. Amen.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Jesus hear us.
Jesus, graciously hear us.

By the hymn of the Angels at Thy birth, Grant us peace.
By Thy salutation to the Apostles, Grant us peace.
By Thy voice to the waves of Galilee, Grant us peace.
By Thy blessing to the sinner, Grant us peace.
By Thy prayers for unity among Thy disciples, Grant us peace.
By the love that was to mark Thy followers, Grant us peace.
By the great peace offering of the Cross, Grant us peace.
By Thy parting promise, “My peace I leave you,” Grant us peace.

From the ambition of empire, Deliver us, O Lord.
From the greed for territory, Deliver us, O Lord.
From the blindness that is injustice, Deliver us, O Lord.
From the selfishness that is theft, Deliver us, O Lord.
From the liberty which is license, Deliver us, O Lord.
From the love of money which is idolatry, Deliver us, O Lord.
From the hate that is murder, Deliver us, O Lord.
From the hardness that will not pardon, Deliver us, O Lord.
From the pride that will not ask pardon, Deliver us, O Lord.

By the helpless cry of orphans, We beseech Thee, hear us.
By the anguished tears of widows, We beseech Thee, hear us.
By the groans of the dying, We beseech Thee, hear us.
By the dead in unblessed graves, We beseech Thee, hear us.
That Thou wouldst make all nations to dwell as one, We beseech Thee, hear us.
That the hearts of rulers may be as wax in Thy hands, We beseech Thee, hear us.
That having learned in affliction, we may turn to Thee, We beseech Thee, hear us.
That wars may cease from the earth, We beseech Thee, hear us.
By Thy title, “Prince of Peace,” Lord God of Armies, We beseech Thee, hear us.

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, Grant us peace.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, Grant us peace.
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, Grant us peace.

V. I am the Salvation of the people, saith the Lord;
R. In whatever tribulation they shall cry to Me, I will hear them.

Let Us Pray: Jesus, meek and humble of heart, teach us, who have sinned against Heaven and before Thee, the saving grace of a true humility, that we and all the peoples of this world may acknowledge and bewail that spirit of materialism and self-seeking and lust for power and vengeance which has plunged the family of nations into war, until in Thy just wrath the world suffers that punishment which, by turning from Thee, it has brought upon itself. In humility and penance, may we lessen the guilt and hasten true peace, without victory, save the victory of union with Thee. Amen.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have mercy on us.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have mercy on us.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have mercy on us.

Give peace, O Lord, in our days,
For there is none other that fighteth for us, but only Thou, Our God.

V. Let there be peace in Thy strength, O Lord,
R. And plenty in Thy strong places.

Let Us Pray:  O God, from Whom proceed all holy desires, all right counsels and all just works, grant unto us Thy servants that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be devoted to Thy service, and that being delivered from the fear of our enemies, we may pass our time in peace under Thy protection, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

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