A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

I am a fan of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, in spite of the fact that it is an utterly incomprehensible jumble of mostly biblical images that are mashed up in an illogical manner. It still, somehow, comes together into a truly great and mournful “love is hard and confusing” meditation.

One of the things that makes the song so incomprehensible is that, beyond the canonical four or five verses, Cohen has written scores (the New York Times has tracked down 80) of other scattered verses to the song that grew out of other scattered life experiences and emotional traumas, some of which he evidently makes up on the fly during performances. As a result, an artist can pick and choose three or four verses from the multitude and turn the meaning around or make it even more incomprehensible than the original.

My favorite version is from k.d. lang’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel (2004), which we picked up years ago so Brenda could use it as soothing background music in the baby room where she worked. The album’s been on my playlist rotation ever since.

Coming home from Omaha last night, it popped up on my rotation. The third verse hadn’t caught my attention before like it did last night. It sounds a lot like what the monks of Mt Athos have to say about the Christian life.

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / But love is not a victory march / It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Silouhan the Athonite was gifted with seeing the Uncreated Light shortly after he became monk and saw it again a handful of times throughout his life. He said the gift was both a blessing and a curse: A blessing because he received a foretaste of heaven. A curse because his everyday life was marked with deep longing (and the accompanying sadness) to live eternally with the perfect Love and Light he had experienced. He told of watching children playing at a park and being overcome with grief and unstoppable tears because this glimpse of joy, beauty, and love that he witnessed at the park was such a dim shadow of the reality he had experienced. For Silouhan, love was not a victory march; it was a cold and broken hallelujah of faithfulness and obedience.

Previously for me, the arresting line in “Hallelujah” was, “the fourth, the fifth, / the minor fall, the major lift.” It is (all at the same time) a beautiful piece of poetry, a wonderful musicology pun (because the accompaniment moves from a major fifth to  a minor fourth at this point in the song), and an apt description of life (a new take on “two steps forward, three steps back).

The next line (after the fourth/fifth pun) is “The baffled King composing Hallelujah.” It’s this third verse that explains the bafflement. Even victory is something less than all that. It’s not a Pyrrhic victory, because it’s not a matter of winning or losing or the greatest win being transformed into the greatest loss. It’s rather that even our greatest victories fall short. It’s a “Hallelujah moment,” but it’s a “cold and broken Hallelujah” when considered in the larger context …

Well, actually, in the context of the song, since Cohen is singing about love lost, it is a Pyrrhic victory. But while the ongoing struggle in the Christian life is remarkably similar, it’s not a loss precisely because God remains faithful. This is the nature of Christian hope. It is being able to recognize the “Hallelujah” in the midst of the chill brokenness. It is the ability to mourn what’s not quite there because of a sure hope of what lies behind the veil: the true Secret Chord.

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God, Salvation, and Word Pictures

Reading the Daily Common Lectionary, which is going through Hebrews at the moment, I am reminded that there are different metaphors for salvation, and those metaphors are not necessarily compatible with each other. If the metaphors are taken too literally or too far it will appear that there are contradictions within scripture. The four big salvation metaphors are slavery and freedom (based on Israel’s escape out of Egypt), the temple and the sacrificial system (based on the Law given to Moses after the escape from Egypt), the banquet and the invitation of unworthy people to the banquet (one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors, at least according to John), and the legal system (Paul’s favorite metaphor).

God is unknowable to us in a manner similar that human culture and pathos is unknowable to an ant. But God takes things that are within our experience and that we can understand (systems of sacrifice, big banquets, the court system, jails, and fines, etc.) and says, “I am like this,” or “The reasons for my actions are similar to this.” But I suspect we forget that God’s relation to us is ultimately beyond our understanding and that the only way to get a handle on God’s actions is to speak of it in metaphorical terms. Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet hall where we will eat forever and ever, but it is a helpful image that offers a counterpoint to our getting kicked out of the Garden where food was both easy and always available.

Growing out of the idea of metaphor or analogy is a second principle in talking about God called apophatic language. The essence of apophatic thinking is to say what God is not, rather than what God is. A simple and hopefully obvious example, since we began with my reading of Hebrews and the metaphor of the sacrificial system is to start with a metaphorical statement, “Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God,” and then add an apophatic clarification, “But Jesus is not a lamb,” or “Jesus had skin, not wool.” Or, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, “Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet.” That’s an apophatic clarification.

Once we understand metaphorical language, then we begin to realize that the whole sacrificial system in the Old Testament is a gigantic metaphor about God and humans. Even the ancient Jews understood this: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22).

The origins of sacrifice have been lost beyond the time horizon. Granted, God “made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). This is often called the first sacrifice and is considered a pointer toward Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, but in truth that is speculation. The text actually says nothing about sacrifice. What we do know is that God used practices common to humans and then revealed glimpses of his true self by redefining those common practices and giving them new meaning.

Anthropology has shown us that sacrifice, for ancient cultures, was a way of appeasing and manipulating the gods who were either angry or non-cooperative. It was an attempt to gain some small amount of control in a capricious and dangerous natural world. Some of that same sensibility is present in the Old Testament system. Appeasement is certainly a big part and is at the root of the theological arc that we might call the “wrath of God.”

Going back to our original exploration of analogic and apophatic theology, the question of divine wrath must be explored. Is wrath actually a divine attribute, a dark side to the attribute of holiness? Or is divine wrath actually a metaphorical description of the distance between Almighty God and his human creatures? And if that’s the case, must we put wrath into the context of other things God has revealed about himself and say, “God is not literally full of wrath (ie, an apophatic statement); making wrath an attribute takes the metaphor beyond its reasonable conclusion. Making wrath a metaphor (in contrast to an attribute) gives the distance between God and us a great deal of emotional punch.

No doubt it’s obvious by now that I fall into the camp that believes the idea of the wrath of God is a helpful metaphor, but metaphorical none the less. Not all interpreters take this same position. But I hope this essay helps us move beyond the idea that to reject divine wrath as an attribute of God is to somehow reject or deny scripture. It is rather an attempt to allow scripture to mean what it wants to mean rather than to force what we want scripture to mean on to the text.

Genesis 1 – It’s Almost Poetry

I became acquainted with the Angolan novelist Ondjaki in an interview not long after he won the Jose Saramago prize in 2013. The interviewer asked if the stories in the earlier Good Morning Comrades, and the award winning Gramma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret were true. Ondjaki carefully didn’t answer the question. Later when reading the books I came to understand how complicated the question and answer was. Truth and facticity are not the same things. “Just the facts” don’t always convey the truth because reality is more complicated than just the facts as we can grasp them. Listen to any politician and you quickly realize that facts are frequently used to avoid, obscure, and even obliterate the truth. Listen to a poet and you understand that what is true often transcends the events that convey the truth.

Similarly, the “facts” of Genesis 1 can easily get in the way of its truth. More often than not a presupposition of what the truth of the matter must be is imposed on the text and the text is then molded to fit into the particular version of the truth the reader wants to find. Consider three words in Genesis 1: 11, 20, 24, in which God tells the earth and sea to bring forth living creatures. “Let the earth bring forth grass …” (v 11). “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the living creatures” (1:20). “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after his kind.”

I’ve always found it amusing to point these three verses out to Christians who assume they adhere to a very literal interpretation of scripture. The KJV (quoted above) sounds very friendly to evolutionary theory because it attributes the direct agency of creation to the land and sea and only indirect agency to God. This is not to say that the earth is Creator; that is always applied to God. With this interplay in mind, let’s look at Gen 1:24-25 again, this time from the NRSV:

[24] And God Said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. [25] God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Note that in this translation (which is typical of English translations) the origination of creation is clearly attributed to God while the agency of creation is attributed to the earth, not of its own volition, or by chance, but according to God’s command. But is this translation an accurate rendering of the text?

The first extant translation of Hebrew scripture into another language is a translation into Greek, called the Septuagint three or so centuries before the birth of Christ. This is especially valuable because Hebrew, being a Semitic language, is radically different both in structure and thought process, to languages that grow out of the Greek and Latin lines, such as English. Rather than tense and mood, the force of verbs is expressed through something called stems and verb forces. This system is utterly disconnected from how we typically parse verbs. The Septuagint offers us an invaluable insight into how Semitic scholars translated their own language into Western form.

I will assume that my readers do not read Greek, so I will not quote the Septuagint directly. Rather I will quote a contemporary English Language version called “The Saint Athanasius Academy Septuagint, which is a very literal translation into English. “Let the earth bring forth (blastao) the herb of grass …” (Gen. 1:11). “Let the waters bring forth (exagageto) creatures having life …” (1:20). “Let the earth bring forth (exagageto) the living creature according to its kind …” (1:24). If one wanted to quibble, it might be argued that the first word, blastao, would be better translated “sprout” or “produce.” But again, the command is not given to the plants, but to the earth itself. “Let the earth produce or sprout plants …”

So we find that the translation is correct. But what does it mean? The answer to that question depends on what sort of literature Genesis 1 was intended to be in the first place. In the previous essay I noted that Augustine rejected the idea of interpreting Gen. 1 literally. A century before Gregory of Nyssa similarly didn’t treat it as a literal description of what happened but rather believed it was an allegory. Neither give a precise explanation of why they didn’t believe it was to be taken literally. That is interesting in itself. The fact that they didn’t feel the need to defend their position implies that it was obvious to them that it should not be read literally. Their opinions likely have something to do with its literary structure.

It would be a stretch to call Gen. 1 a poem but it does have a Semitic poetic structure. The opening words are no doubt familiar: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters …” (Gen 1:1f, NRSV) This is the initial creation, creation in an instant, creation in a Word. For whatever reason God chose not to make a beautiful, complete, well-formed, and static creation. Rather God’s initial creation was a “formless void” about which his Spirit (ruach, which can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit) blows. The rest of Gen. 1 then describes, in a highly formalized way, using the categories of “separation” and “filling” how this formless void was ordered and became “very good.”

Realm Separation Population
Heavens Day 1
Light and Dark
Day 4
Sun, moon, and stars
Waters Day 2
Firmament/Waters
Day 5
Fish and birds
Land Day 3
Sea/Dry Land
Day 6
Land animals

Day six also includes the creation of man. Genesis never explains or defends its own structure, but we can assume that this part of creation is described separately because man is unique. While formed from the earth man is created directly by God (rather than being brought forth by the earth). Second, the Divine Wind (ruach) is breathed into him whereas in v. 1 the Divine Wind (the two uses of ruach in this chapter) blows over the formless void.

The sparse, impersonal character of the first chapter also brings attention to this poetic structure. Genesis 1 is declarative while Gen. 2 is narrative. The first chapter is impersonal, referring to God with the impersonal and generic title, “Elohim,” and the first created person with the equally impersonal “the earth creature.” The second chapter, on the other hand, describes creation through characters: God has a name (Yahweh — God’s personal name that contemporary religious Jews never say out loud). Adam and Eve are sympathetic characters in the second story. The serpent serves as a memorable and villainous foil who interacts subtly with Eve. While the first chapter is tightly crafted in its poetic structure, chapter two is a rambling narrative. The first paints the backdrop, the second assumes the backdrop (in the form of the Garden) and offers us the first human drama. Both are creation stories, but with fundamentally different interests and scope.

At this point I also point out that the cosmology of Gen. 1 is not only different, but simply incompatible, with what we know about the universe. It was assumed by early Semitic cultures that there was a hard dome over the earth. Scholars committed to a treating Gen. 1 as a text completely compatible with observational science have tried to soften or change this understanding of the firmament, but Paul H. Seely, in a monograph that appeared in the ultra-conservative Westminster Theological Journal [53 (1991) 227-240] demonstrates quite conclusively that the firmament (Hebrew: raqia) was conceived in the ancient biblical world as a hard dome. The sun, moon, and stars were either lights that slid across the bottom of the dome, or holes in the dome. And, in the Genesis account, the waters were divided above and below the dome. Below the dome they formed the seas, lakes and rivers; above the dome were the “storehouses of heaven” (i.e. Mal. 3:10) where rain was kept.

A second somewhat related point, is the close connection of sky and sea in the ancient Hebrew world. Although the sea is portrayed as part of the ordered universe in Gen. 1, the Hebrews never trusted it. Sky, and to an even greater extent, sea, if not the embodiment of chaos, were on the very outer edges of order. “Leviathan,” the great sea monster, was not so much an embodiment of evil as it was the embodiment of chaos and the unknown. Given that Hebrews were very much people of the land, and the belief that the firmament was a dome, the idea of three realms, all created, ordered, and populated by God — the land (where we live), the heavens (God’s abode), and the sea and sky (that unknown, still seemingly chaotic and certainly frightening place that existed between the land and the heavens) — was a powerful theological statement as to the ultimate power and authority of God.

And a third and final point: Grass, shrubs, and trees were not conceived as living in quite the same manner as the fish and animals. They are not creatures, per se, and thus are not created on the sixth day along with the land animals. Rather they are a part of the earth. God tells the earth to bring them forth on the third day.

In summary, although Gen. 1 offers a picture of an orderly creation with everything in its place, and ultimately “very good,” it is not a summary that matches what we know nor is it a conception of the world with which we are familiar, beyond the clear and unambiguous statement that God is ultimately the creator of everything. If you want to nit pick, it doesn’t even quite match the order of events in Gen. 2.

This is a reminder that we need to allow scripture to speak on its own terms. We should never try to force it into our framework. It is accurate in what it is trying to say, but not necessarily in line with what we might want it to say. This is more apparent to us in the Psalms, for instance, where it is more obvious that the text is poetry, and thus we more naturally allow for poetic license. Even the strictest literalist does not believe that trees have hands, much less clap them on a regular basis (Isaiah 55:12, another bit of biblical poetry). And yet anyone with the least bit of poetic sense realizes just how true a description of reality that is. So it is with Gen. 1. We need to allow this text, which is clearly structured in the popular parallel poetic fashion of the Semitic world, to be what it is trying to be rather than force it into a style (in this case, scientific rationalism) which is utterly foreign to it. That does violence to the trueness and literalness of scripture in a profound way because it forces scripture into our tarnished image and opinion of the day rather than allow it to reflect God’s image.

When we allow it to be what it is, what we find is a remarkably powerful affirmation of the power of God over everything. This power of God over everything, was in doubt, after all, among those who wanted to relegate the oceans to an utterly chaotic existence. Gen. 1 says that is not the case. Even the sea is ordered by God. That, given the context, is an amazing statement of faith in an all-powerful God.

When I taught confirmation class to Junior High kids they would often enter into the process as adversaries to the church and the faith. (Isn’t that what Junior Highers are supposed to start doing? Reject everything their parents stand for and begin to create an identity for themselves?) All my pastorates but one were in the Midwest and the other was in interior Alaska which might be even more conservative than the Midwest. Even though six day, young earth creationism is not the norm out there in the world, the parishioners I served seemed to assume that this was what the Church believed in. My Junior High catechumens were no different. It was inevitably one of the issues on which they would take a stand when they explained that they weren’t sure they believed all this church stuff.

I took great delight in saying, with all the gravitas I could muster, that the creation story of Genesis 1 actually taught evolution. I would pull out a King James pew Bible (not so much because of the translation, but rather because it was old and dusty with a slightly musty smell — nothing said, old-and-out-of-date-church like an ancient King James Version pew Bible) and have one of them read Gen. 1:24. Then I would ask them, “According to this verse, what brought forth the animals? God or the earth?” Of course someone would inevitably say, “God!” because that’s always the right answer in church. But I would have them read it again until the sense of it finally began to sink in.

That moment often changed the dynamic of confirmation class. With that secret knowledge (that even their parents didn’t know) that just maybe the Bible taught evolution, we could begin to have a serious conversation about living God who is active in our world instead of what they had come to perceive as old, musty, and dead religion.

But does Genesis 1 actually teach evolution?

Hardly!

Genesis 1 can be legitimately used as a defense of evolutionism to same degree as it can be used to support creationism. This text is an enigmatic description of Creation that has almost nothing to do with modern Rationalism and Enlightenment Rationalism’s two warring children, Atheistic Evolutionism and Biblical Creationism.

On the other hand, the character of Gen. 1 described above is why Gregory and then Augustine, both living long before the existence of modern evolutionary theory, were convinced that Gen. 1 was not literally true in the way we use that term today. It is profoundly true in so many different ways; it is a multifaceted gem that describes the majestic Creator in all his awesome glory. To try to turn it into a science text is to turn it into a macabre caricature of isolated modern man peering out into what he mistakenly assumes is the great emptiness of space and time. I encourage all of us to not do that. God is majestic. This text is majestic. Let’s keep them that way.

Creationism: We’re Still Arguing About This?

One would think the creationism/evolutionism debate would just go away, but it hasn’t. I have been surprised at how many staunch creationists still exist. They’re not noisy for the most part, but when they find out I used to be a pastor, they assume that I must be a creationist also. Because of the persistence of this old nineteenth century war between the two siblings of the Enlightenment (Rationalistic Fundamentalism and Rationalistic Scientism), I find myself revisiting again the question of creationism and the Bible.

This essay is a look back at a couple of notable approaches to Genesis 1 in the early church. I also explore a possible reason why the ancient approach to Gen. 1 was so different than it is today. In the next essay I’ll consider the first creation story specifically.

There is a notable difference in the focus of interpretation of Gen. 1 before and after the Enlightenment. In the current approach, there is an attempt to defend scripture. The earlier interpretations, on the other hand, were attempts to describe the majesty of God.

I’ll start with Augustine as someone who neither shared our modern presuppositions nor those of the very ancient Middle East. He was a Biblical scholar, churchman (Bishop of Hippo, a coastal city in the area that would be modern Algeria, in the 5th century) and devout Christian. Today he is best remembered for his little volume called Confessions.

Augustine struggled with the early chapters of Genesis his whole career and wrote about Genesis 1 at least four different times. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (a book which I have not read, although I’ve read at it — it’s an impossibly dense neo-platonic tome) Augustine emphasizes that Genesis 1 cannot be read in isolation. For instance, Psalm 33 seems to describe an instantaneous creation not unlike Gen. 1:1. “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth … For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (vv 6, 9). But Augustine compares this with John 5:17 (a text we may not necessarily associate with creation). “My father is still working, and I am also working.” From this Augustine observes that God is still active in creation. Adding these texts together, he argues that creation is dynamic and not static. Looking at the instantaneous creation in isolation would tend to reduce it to a static thing which God put in place long ago. Although his argument goes into a great deal more depth, his conclusion is that he rejects the idea of a literal six day creation, largely because of his dynamic view of creation. The text is not describing what happened, but rather is categorizing creation. It provides a framework so that God (the actual subject of Gen. 1) can be better understood in view of the various pieces of creation and parts of the story.

Far to the east in Turkey and Syria and a century prior to Augustine, the burning question was whether the material world was eternal alongside God (or the gods), as in Greek philosophy, or whether the material world was created by God, and thus subject to him. Closely tied to this question was whether the Son of God, who was “eternally begotten of the Father,” was “very God of very God” or on the same side of the divide as the supposedly eternal material world. (This is the philosophical background of the Arian heresy.)

One of the key debaters in this controversy, Gregory of Nyssa, had quite a lot to say about the nature of creation as he defended the divinity of the Son. He rejected the idea that Gen. 1 could be treated literally (in the sense that conservative Christians use that term today). Rather, he implied that we simply have no idea how it all actually got started. Genesis 1 is not a description of the beginning, it is an allegorical reflection explaining how the immaterial God could bring about the material world.

What we see with both Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers (of whom Gregory is representative) is a common method of interpreting Gen. 1 shaped to meet the needs and challenges of the day. Until modern times the creation stories were used primarily to say something constructive about the true majesty of God in the face of non-Christian systems of thought that either reduced God to manageable dimensions or elevated the material world to something outside of God’s control.

The contemporary creationism/evolutionism debate is rooted in similar challenge, but the creationism side has focused, not on a proclamation of God and his majesty, but on the defense of scripture itself. Scripture has become the object of interest rather than a tool in the battle to maintain a proper view of God. The perspective has changed, becoming increasingly Bible centered and less God centered.

This reflects the epistemology of post-Enlightenment Protestant Christianity (a subject I chew upon in these pages frequently). In the Protestant West, nous is the mind or intellect. [Rom. 1:28, where it is translated “mind,” is typical.] In the Orthodox East, the intellect is part of the problematic passions (along side the will and emotions). In contrast, the nous is the deepest inner being with which God can communicate directly. (This, by the way, was the attitude of both Augustine and Gregory.) If, as most Protestants assume, the nous is the mind, then scripture is the heart and soul of our link with God; its defense is paramount. If the nous is the deep heart, then it is God’s quiet voice of stillness that matters, scripture being a tool in that quest.

Of course, all of this “deep thought” stuff has no place around the water cooler (… yes, my place of employment still has a water cooler! It’s just under the coffee pot …) or even the weekly men’s Bible Study. Instead, when the subject of creationism/evolutionism comes up, I sometimes treat the conversationalist like my Jr High kids in confirmation class many years ago. More about that in my next post.

An After Harvest “Hi Cow” Poem

After the corn was harvested across the road from our house, our neighbor put up an electric fence so he could run some cows in the corn field.

Cows in a Harvested Corn Field

The view from our house.

They’re a skittish heard, so every time I walk out to get the mail or say anything to them, like, “Hi cow,” they move farther south away from my threatening behavior. Instead of feeling bad about myself or signing up for therapy to overcome the rudeness of the cows, I decided to write poetry about the experience. For this particular work of art, I chose the “hiaku” form.

When I say “Hi cow”
they run away. I am bad
for their digestion.

The Name of Jesus

Today, Jan 1, is eight days after Christmas, and is therefore, according to Luke 2:21, the day Jesus was received into the Covenant (ie, circumcised) and received his name. This brings to mind one of my favorite hymns, “At the Name of Jesus,” by Caroline Maria Noel. It is typically associated with the great hymn tune by Ralph Vaughn Williams, King’s Weston.

Here is that wonderful hymn for your edification. (All seven stanzas! Hymnals typically only include four of the seven.):

At the name of Jesus
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him
King of glory now:
‘Tis the Father’s pleasure
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.

At his voice creation
Sprang at once to sight,
All the angels faces
All the hosts of light,
Thrones and Dominations,
Stars upon their way,
All the heavenly orders,
In their great array.

Humbled for a season,
To receive a name
From the lips of sinners
Unto whom he came,
Faithfully he bore it
Spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious,
When from death he passed:

Bore it up triumphant
With its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures,
To the central height,
To the throne of Godhead,
To the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory
Of that perfect rest.

Name him, brothers, name him,
With love as strong as death,
But with awe and wonder
And with bated breath:
He is God the Savior,
He is Christ the Lord,
Ever to be worshiped,
Trusted, and adored.

In your hearts enthrone him;
There let him subdue
All that is not holy,
All that is not true:
Crown him as your captain
In temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you
In its light and power.

Brothers, this Lord Jesus
Shall return again,
With his Father’s glory,
With his angel train;
For all wreaths of empire
Meet upon his brow,
And our hearts confess him
King of glory now.

Humorous postscript: The time signature of King’s Weston (the hymn tune) is 3/2, which means there are three beats to the measure. For ages of ages, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, NE used this hymn as the processional. On feast days we had a rather glorious full procession led by the acolytes and the crucifer, and followed by the clergy and the choir.

On many feast days the music director made arrangements for the Nebraska Brass to play the prelude, offertory, and postlude, and accompany the processional. Listening to “At the Name of Jesus” being played by the Nebraska Brass and the pipe organ, with the choir leading the congregation in singing (in full voice!) “At the Name of Jesus” is one of those truly glorious moments in worship.

But, the hymn is in 3/2 time. It means that on the first measure you lead with the left foot, the second measure you lead with the right, etc. For anyone who has had any training in marching (military, marching bands, and drum corp types), this is very confusing. While the music was always glorious, the marching was often ignominious. (Even after years of practice.)

The choir director despised using this hymn as the processional because processionals, by their nature need to be in 4/4 time (ie, a marching beat). Once, after one of the music director’s obligatory rants during the weekly staff meeting, I suggested we use “Onward, Christian Soldiers” instead.

… cricket sounds …

At least the secretary thought it was funny. But then again, she named her dog “Otis” … her pastor’s first name. So, I suppose having her support in all things sacred is not necessarily a good thing.

Speaking of all things sacred: Back to the Circumcision of Jesus. I suppose my favorite line of this hymns is from the third stanza in the poem: “Humbled for a season, to receive a name from the lips of sinners …”

God gave Adam authority to name the creatures he (that is, God) created. That in itself is remarkable. But for God to then become incarnate and allow the children of Adam to name him (that is, the Son of God) as well is astonishing!

The Word of God, the one who created all words, became human and was given a word, a name, Jesus, and at that word “every knee should bend, on heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10f).

Amen and Amen.

Happy Feast Day, John Damascene

The previous post was written as a preamble to this post about the feast day (today) of John of Damascus (Syria), also called John Damascene. I discovered John much like one discovers a good Syrian Baklawa – a layer of phyllo dough, a layer of unspeakable golden goodness, a layer of phyllo dough, a layer of unspeakable golden goodness, etc.

The first layer of golden goodness was his theological treatises, Apologetic Treatises and Fountain of Knowledge (probably the first significant Christian critique of Islam (or the Ishmaelites, as he calls them). It was John who helped me understand the profound incarnational implications of icons.

The second layer of golden goodness was his hymns, of which we sing quite a number during worship. Talk about arrows to the heart. It’s no wonder that he is sometimes called Chrysorrhoas (literally, “streaming with gold,” meaning he was a golden speaker of the Church, not unlike another John, John Chrysostom, which literally means “John the Golden Mouth”).

And finally, later on I discovered a third layer of golden goodness – his spiritual life, especially what he was willing to let go of in order to take hold of Christ. He was an official in the court of the Caliph and the city prefect of Damascus. His writings would also indicate that he was a scientist, mathematician, and theologian of some renown. His book, Theological Treatises, in which he condemns the heresy of Byzantine emperor Leo III, got him fired from his job and persecuted for his faith. Through divine intervention and miracles he was healed and was offered his old job by the Caliph but chose instead to enter the monastery at Mar Saba.

At the monastery his spiritual father forbade him to continue writing treatises and hymns and take up menial work, such as basket weaving, instead. In this John was mostly obedient. (His disobedience is another story altogether beyond the scope of this essay.) And through obedience … through the letting go of that which on the surface seemed most holy – theology and hymns … became even more Christ-like, holding on to Christ himself rather than just theological constructs of and lovely words about Christ.

The Anonymous God-blogger quotes Richard Rohr, who says, “Much that I thought was my wheat, my true gifts, have turned out to be the source of my greatest and most denied faults. Only time and suffering sorted them out a bit.” (You can read her whole post and the rest of the quote here.) Did John’s spiritual father recognize such a fault in John? Thank God in Christ that he had the courage to tell a man as famous and gifted as John his hidden faults.

And thank God, who revealed himself as the living Word, for John, a man of golden words, who was willing to give up those golden words (which we so love) for the sake of grasping hold of the Word himself.

I will close with two of his hymns. In the first he does what he does so well – illustrates profound mysteries with Old Testament stories:

He who in the fiery furnace
Kept from harm the faithful three,
Suffering in our mortal nature,
Decks with life mortality,—
Him, our fathers’ God, we praise,
Blest and glorious always.

Holy women bearing ointments,
Sought the mortal, bathed in tears;
But their sorrow changed to gladness,
For the Living God appears;
And they tell the news abroad
Of the risen Son of God.

Now we celebrate the triumph,
Death and Hades overthrown,
Earnest of a life unending;
All the glory is Thine own;
God, our fathers’ God, we praise,
Blest and glorious always.

Hallowed feast of holy gladness!
Night that waits salvation’s birth,
Till the Resurrection morning
Breaks with splendour on the earth,
And eternal light is poured
By the Christ from death restored.

This second hymn is the one which John of Damascus is probably most famous in the West, translated by John Mason Neale as “The Day of Resurrection.”

The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad;
The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain,
His own “All hail!” and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.

Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end.

A few of his hymns, translated into metered verse (the form most comfortable to Western sensibilities), can be found here.

Good Hymns, Bad Hymns and Praying to “The Christmas Jesus”

In the previous post I praised the gift of song as possibly the best vehicle of authentic theology. When the hymn is pure, the poetry has the ability to pass through the intellect and other fleshy, fallen weaknesses and speak directly to the heart. There is a flip side to this gift of song. When the hymn is flawed, the error can also be taken straight to the heart.

I was reminded of this at dinner last night when Jerry and I were discussing strange incarnational theology taken straight from beautiful but badly formed carols. The Christmas of many of the carols is a sentimentalized version of the incarnation that sucks much of godly terror of that holy night right out of the story. And this has a tendency to sentimentalize our faith. Like Ricky Bobby many of us like the Christmas Jesus best precisely because it is so sentimental.

Which is why when I speak of hymnody in Orthodox church I so rarely talk about hymns in general but rather use those foreign technical terms such as kontakia and troparia: hymns written specifically for worship that have been vetted and combed over so that the truth of the matter is stated with no sentimentality, no personal opinion, no axes to grind, etc. I do believe that song is the best vehicle of theology, but not just any songs, rather, hymnody that has stood the test of time and the inspection of the theologians.

The Abode of Heaven

“Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.” (from today’s Kontakion celebrating the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple).

In a recent essay I was comparing the preferred metaphors of salvation within the Presbyterian & Reformed churches (being adopted into the family of God) and the Orthodox churches (being joined to Christ and engrafted into his life).

In today’s Kontakion (cited above) another metaphor is found that expresses this same mystery. But in order to appreciate the metaphor we must remember that Mary, the Theotokos, Jesus’ mother, is the archetypal Christian and as such is a symbol or sign of the Church as a whole. Mary is us just as we are Mary, and when we call her blessed (as she herself says that we will, Lk 1:48) we are blessing the Church itself, the Body of Christ, which we do because God himself is blessed now and forever.

In her pregnancy, she was not merely a vehicle of God’s salvation, but rather for that time was the very abode of God, her womb the Creator’s throne as all creation awaited the revelation of their King and Maker.

It makes the idea of inviting Jesus into my heart (certainly no trivial matter!) sound almost trivial in contrast to the immense implications of the Kontakion: “Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.”

When our children ask us where heaven is, do we vaguely point “out there” implying that God’s house is far away? Or do we drop our chin into our chest (as the monks do when they pray) and look deep inside to the very center of our being, saying, “The whole expanse of heaven is here, my child.”

(Well, okay, maybe we wouldn’t do precisely that; it would probably confuse the little tikes and make our adolescents think we were loony.)

Ah, but isn’t there something slightly daft in saying the expanse of God indwells human flesh? Isn’t it just as daft to tell our children that Jesus can come into their hearts?

Not daft, but certainly mysterious, the ways of God: not that he would circumscribe his boundless self into our small self (as we imply when we tell our children of Jesus in their hearts), but rather that he expands the believer’s heart, the Church (ah yes, Mary!) into that which can embody the expansiveness of heaven, the very abode of God.

“Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.”

A Preamble, before you are Assimilated

The next essay, divided into two posts, will sound familiar to those of you who have been reading the blog. It deals with the same thorny issue that a previous series of six essays dealt with.

In the discussion related to the previous series of essays I was criticized for not having a concrete solution to offer. I will gladly embrace the same criticism for this two-part essay.

As I will say in the first part, theology is not about circumscribing truth nor about offering solutions. It is a poetic vision of what the reality is in which we participate. Michael Polanyi, the Oxford philosopher of science, claimed that science was more closely related to poetry than it was to engineering and technology (fields that apply science to the “real world”). Mathematics applied to engineering circumscribes. Mathematics applied to science qua poetry rends the heavens so that we can see what’s really there.

(I don’t even have a direct quote, much less a citation of where Polanyi wrote this. It was scribbled quickly during one of Harold Nebelsick’s theology classes. His good friend, classmate, and professor at the University of Erlangen (Germany), was lecturing and had just described Karl Barth as contemporary theology’s greatest poet. We students, who were struggling through Volume 1 of Church Dogmatics promptly snickered. Prof. Nebelsick came to St. Karl of Basil’s defense by loosely quoting this passage from Polanyi. And yes, Prof. Nebelsick assured us that Polanyi’s apocalyptic imagery was quite intentional.)

Think of these two essays as two different images of the same problem. They are two stories that highlight two facets of one sticky wicket. My theory is that if I tell enough stories, present enough images, eventually the way forward (ie, the “concrete solution” I so famously never get around to) will eventually show itself to me.