Tag Archives: Incarnation

Advent Time

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I love the season of Advent for a lot of reasons, not least the way it embraces the messiness of existence in a manner appropriate to the chaos of the month in which it falls.

But today I’ve been thinking about the way that Advent forces us to reflect on time in a unique way, in both looking back and looking forward, remembrance and imagination of times past and times to come.  The fact that today is my birthday aids in my reflection. Birthdays are steps out of time in a weird way, “just another day” but also not. They are 24 hours long just like any day, but they hold a disproportionate place in our memories and our hopes. They are kairos moments (as opposed to chronos)and as such they remind us that time is less mundane and more miraculous than we often give it credit.

Movies capture this as well. An excellent recent essay on Interstellar illustrates how the film becomes a sort of meta reflection on the way movies reflect the realities of time back to us:

A movie is, itself, an act of relativistic time compression. All movies are a capture of moments of time reconstructed into a semblance of persistence… The universe’s rules are given dramatic life after [Interstellar’s] tragic first expedition to the water planet. Upon return the astronauts learn that 23 years have passed in just over an hour. When Cooper watches a series of messages taking him through two decades of his children’s lives, it is the maximal example of the universal act of anyone watching recorded footage of a loved one. Because all recorded media is a capture of a moment of the past, and to view it is to observe that the true constant in the universe is not the speed of light but our passage through time. Time may distort, your reference perception of it may shift, but we only ever move forward through it. Interstellar compresses the brutal truth of this absolute into a purely expressionistic tragedy, the movie itself distorting time in order to let us feel the full weight of its tragedy, the way our lives slip through our hands, our loved ones age, our children proceed into the future, into a few minutes.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, one of 2014’s best films, also captures this “lives slipping through our hands well.” Time is a frequent subject of Linklater’s (see the Before trilogy), but Boyhood is the director’s most forceful embrace of cinema’s ability to confront the viewer with the reality of time. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time:

“As he buys his ticket, it’s as if the cinema-goer were seeking to make up for the gaps in his own experience, throwing himself into a search for ‘lost time.’ In other words he seeks to fill that spiritual vacuum which has formed as a result of the specific conditions of his modern existence: constant activity, curtailment of human contact, and the materialist bent of modern education.”

Advent does the same thing; it meets us where we are but helps us transcend time. On one hand it zooms us back to history’s most kairotic moment ever: the incarnation of God in flesh, the Creator involving himself in the physical story of creation, in the fulness of time. But Advent also zooms us forward to the “not yet” consummation of history, the coming again of Christ judge and rule and restore this broken world. All of it is held together in the mystery of the incarnation.

In our house this week we’ve been listening a lot to “Nine Lessons & Carols” by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. It’s beautiful Christmas music. As I listen to it I feel the back-and-forward, now-and-not-yet tension of Advent. The live recording makes me imagine what it must have been like to be there, in the glorious King’s College Chapel, listening to the choral voices and organ in person. It reminds me of times I’ve been in that sacred space myself, worshipping with dear friends who I may not see again in my lifetime. The music stirs longing in my heart for eschatological resolution–for the day when the absence of friends, family members, and the agony of time’s relentless forward motion will give way to a cathartic presence and rest.

The relentlessness of time can be unbearable, but Advent helps us bear it. It allows us to slow down, pause, and enter into time in a new way. Devotionals like the Biola Advent Project help us in this. I pray that God grants you a profound, out-of-time encounter with his presence this Advent.

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Loving the Secular for its Secularity

Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013) died yesterday. He wrote a splendid book on food called The Supper of the Lamb, which has been significant for me. Here is a passage from the book that I quote in the food section of Gray Matters:

“The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms; wine is in order to be wine: Things are precious before they are contributory. … To be sure, God remains the greatest good, but, for all that, the world is still good in itself. Indeed, since He does not need it, its whole reason for being must lie in its own goodness; He has no use for it; only delight. Just think what that means. We were not made in God’s image for nothing. The child’s preference for sweets over spinach, mankind’s universal love of the toothsome rather than the nutritious is the mark of our greatness, the proof that we love the secular as He does—for its secularity. We have eyes which see what He sees, lips which praise what He praises, and mouths which relish things, because He first pronounced them tov. The world is no disposable ladder to heaven. Earth is not convenient, it is good; it is, by God’s design, our lawful love.”

And here’s another lovely passage from Supper:

“For all its greatness (trust me—I am the last man on earth to sell it short), the created order cries out for futher greatness still. The most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetites than they satisfy. They do not slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds. Dogs eat to give their bodies rest; man dines and sets his heart in motion. All tastes fade, of course, but not the taste for greatness they inspire; each love escapes us, but not the longing it provokes for a better convivium, a higher session. We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature, discloses cities more desirable still.

You indict me, no doubt, as an incurable romantic. I plead guilty without contest. I see no other explanation of what we are about. Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is anoutlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself—and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetittes, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.”

On Aging and Advent

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we could remember as far back as the moment of our birth–that slimy, turbulent transition from the comfort of a warm, dark womb into the unkind cold, harsh bright light of life outside. What emotions, thoughts, hopes, and fears would accompany such a memory? As it is, I can only remember about 27 of my 30 years… my memories begin around age three.

When Jesus turned 30, could he recall the moment of his own birth? That epic, heavenly-hosts-rejoicing mystery in which God incarnate dwelled within a teenage girl’s womb one minute, and cried and breathed in Bethlehem air the next? Was his memory God-like and infinite, or was it as limited as mine, recalling only shadows and bursts of nascent consciousness from his earliest years?

I like to think it was the latter.

Here on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent, and two days before my 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking a bit about aging. Turning 30 feels to me to be the first birthday where I’ve really contemplated the reality of mortality–that my body is gradually breaking and my breath will one day fail me.

Time and aging are weird, earthy, fleshly things. But it’s what we know. All we know. How does it, then, feel so peculiar and unnatural? Why is it that, when I pause to venture into my own distant past–waiting for the school bus, building campfires with my dad, playing in the creek and the riverbank with my friends–my heart feels so weighty with longing? How can instants gone by, archived pictures in my mind, stir up such discontent?

I think Lewis captures it well in Reflections on the Psalms when he writes:

We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

The eternal enveloped in time, embodied in humanity, Christ must have felt this bafflement with temporality even more than I do. If it feels to me that I’m a fish out of water, I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to Christ.

Or perhaps it felt just the same.

I stand in awe of the Incarnation for precisely this reason: that in Jesus Christ, the Divine became a man just like me, a breakable body with tender emotions, longings,  vulnerabilities, maladies. In “the fullness of time” (I love the mystery of this phrase), the hopes and fears of all the years were met in a man called Emmanuel. God was with us. Walking the same mountains. Breathing the same air. A part of the same decaying system of life, death and earthiness.

As I consider my own life–the 30 years already lived and whatever I may live from here–I take solace in the fact that Jesus Christ was here too. He turned 30 once. Maybe he also reflected on his first three decades of life with a mix of gratefulness and curiously somber nostalgia. I wonder if he knew where he was going at that point… where his 30s would lead him. Or maybe he felt as open-ended and uncertain as I do now, confident only that he would seek his Father’s will.

All I know is that the Incarnation gives me hope. Christ is familiar with the struggles I face and the wonders I behold. He knows that feeling of joy mixed with sorrow when one looks back on the past: that purple sunrise in the desert, that night of endless storytelling around a campfire, those special breakfasts Grandma used to make. He understands the disconcerting realization that one’s capacity for dreaming and accumulating “to-dos” is far bigger than the breadth of accomplishments one’s fleeting life can accommodate.

Ours is a life of chronic dissatisfaction and unrelenting pace. We are all speeding forward in time and age, leaving in our wake the things we did and didn’t do, plunging ahead with only a vague sense of purpose and perspective. It would be enough to drive anyone crazy.

And yet the Incarnation.

God redeemed creation. Christ took on temporality to make possible for us a timeless future. In the fullness of time. A new world of peace. A weary world that will soon see rest.

Rejoice.

Prometheus

The Avengers was a great, entertaining summer film, and yet I’m pretty sure I stopped thinking about it before I even pulled out of the parking lot of the movie theater. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is also great entertainment, and yet two days after seeing it I have yet to stop thinking about it. This is not to say that the latter is smarter than the former. Both of these films are smart as well as entertaining. But Prometheus actually wrestles with interesting questions and asks the audience to wrestle with them as well, which I almost always prefer to the “that was fun!” one-off popcorn movie.

Prometheus has a lot going on. A lot of big-picture, metaphysical questions about  existence, creation, evolution, etc. Questions come fast in furious in the film, far more than answers do. It’s a film that–like any given Lost episode–allows the audience to merely see one part of what is obviously a much bigger reality (Lost’s Damon Lindelof wrote Prometheus). I won’t speculate here about what lies beyond the limited field of view of this film (I’m not a fanboy), but I do have some  scattered thoughts on what we do see in Prometheusand I’ll share some of them below (SPOILERS ahead!).

I think the film can be read as a dark, secularist’s perversion of the Christian narrative–particularly the theology of Incarnation. Images of Christmas and Incarnation abound in the film, albeit with a horrific twist. The Christmas tree aboard the ship tips us off to this motif. The events of the film unfold (not coincidentally) during Christmas. But the most visceral nod to Incarnation is the actual literal entrance of the alien species into the body of the film’s heroine, Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace).

Christians celebrate Christmas as the moment that the Creator took up residence within his creation, humbling himself to the place of a tiny fetus within Mary’s womb. In Prometheus, we are led to believe that the creatures the humans encounter are in some sense their own Creator Gods (“Engineers”), and yet when one of their biological creations sprouts inside Dr. Shaw’s womb, the results are far less “Emmanuel” than they are “Get this monster out of me!”

In Prometheus, Scott’s vision of the relationship between Creator and created is one of spite and hostility. In the Christian narrative, God is a benevolent creator who takes on the form of his creation so he can rescue and redeem those he created in his image. In Prometheus, the “gods” also seem to have created man in their image, and yet they despise humanity and want to destroy it. Incarnation for the purposes of redemption is re-imagined as infection for the purposes of eradication.

The hubris of the humans in the film is that they assume that once contact is made with the “Engineers,” it will be a pleasant experience–that Creator and created will be reunited in a lovely moment of discovery and redemption. But of course, it doesn’t turn out that way.

Meanwhile, the humans are themselves “engineers/creators,” having spawned robot creators like “David” (the phenomenal Michael Fassbender) in their own image. But the humans resent David because he is fundamentally different than them: lesser, devoid of soul. Why should they expect that those who engineered humanity would feel any differently toward their “lesser” offspring? Indeed, Scott’s vision of the “Creator” perspective on creation is one of resentment, disgust and hostility rather than sacrificial love. Humans are misguided, pride-driven fools if they expect to be welcomed with open arms by the vastly superior Engineers who created them, Scott seems to suggest.

Certainly Scott is correct to chastise the pride of man and his penchant toward self-destructive hubris; and he’s also right to paint in more favorable light the characters who shun the need “to know” and end up saving mankind when they sacrifice their lives to prevent the alien ship from leaving for earth.

Yet Scott also seems to critique the very notion of curiosity and discovery–man’s wiring to inquire about his origins and his Creator. Is it science Scott is critiquing? Religion? Both seem to drive the Prometheus and its crew in their ill-fated expedition.  If the film has a bone to pick with Christianity, it has at least as much of a beef with science and industry–the innovations of mankind which are simultaneously his most crowning glory and most explosive source of destruction. Indeed, Prometheus is on one hand a showcase for the impressive creativity and reach of mankind (the technology, the ship, the weapons, the robots are given more than just passing screentime). But on the other hand, the film’s quick “in over their heads” descent into hell demonstrates the humility of mankind against the vast mysteries of the universe that remain outside our reach.     The film seems to go outside of its way to hammer home the point that–in juxtaposition to other alien species and unexplained phenomena–earthlings are not especially savvy, adaptive or impressive.

Scott may well intend all of this to add up to a cynical view of humanity, religion, and our hapless tendency to destroy that which we create. And yet something about the film also evokes–perhaps inadvertently–a sense of wonder and worship. What does lie beyond? The unapologetic open-endedness of the film’s inquiries puts man in his place and yet affirms the validity of our skyward-gaping curiosity. The film may slap humanity on the wrist for its reckless hubris, yet ultimately it seems to suggest that there is something valuable to discover in our search for answers. And though many may die trying, it might still be worth the pursuit.

I Understand Very Little (Some Advent Thoughts)

Yesterday I read this Newsweek article that attempts to debunk the apparently misguided biblical argument against gay marriage. I will say nothing more about it, except that the article hammered home one major point: Christianity and the Bible are frightfully misunderstood.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been researching an article that I am writing on the “missional” movement in Christianity. I’ve been interviewing dozens of professors, theologians, pastors, and church historians in efforts to understand what “missional” is saying about the purpose of the Christian church in the world. I will say nothing more about it, except that it reminded me of one thing: even Christians have trouble agreeing upon what Christianity really means.

These two instances, in combination with scores of other things (including but not limited to the plane crash that killed four people in San Diego, Oprah getting fat, and Handel’s Messiah), have reinforced to me the deep and abiding mystery that is Christianity. I mean, the word and the religion are not all that mysterious, but how it all works—the birth of Jesus, the death, the resurrection, and all the fancy words we use to make sense of it all (incarnation, justification, salvation, atonement)—is utterly and unavailingly mystifying.

But really, could it be any other way? We’re talking about God here, the eternal, omni-everything Being of beings, the Ultimate Concern (as Tillich would say) who created all things… and he condescended to our little planet in the form of an infant? And as this human, the person that history recorded as Jesus Christ, God made himself fathomable. This is how I look at Jesus: as the form through which God revealed the knowable part of himself to his creation.

It makes sense that Jesus was the complicated, counterintuitive, controversial figure that he was. He was God in a man’s body—fully human and fully God. No wonder we’re still talking about, wrestling with, trying to make sense of this guy. No wonder people still argue about what he meant by this or that, or “what he would do” in this or that scenario. No wonder we pray to him and sing songs about him, and go crazy every December in commemorate his birth.

God (aka Yahweh) was pretty complicated and mysterious before Jesus happened (i.e. in the Old Testament), but his mystery increased exponentially when he became a human. I mean, who does that??? I’ve read the Bible many times, I’ve heard Paul and the others when they talk about why God sent Jesus to earth and to the cross. And I still can’t fully understand what is going on. I mean, I understand enough. I understand that it was all out of love, for me, for a divine purpose, and that it was God moving to rescue his creation from self-destruction and sin. I understand the creeds, the theology, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But so much of it is still totally over my head.

And that is why Advent and Christmas are so wonderful. They are blatantly, audaciously inexplicable. They embrace mystery. They are about the mystery of God and Jesus. It’s comforting to know that all these thousands of years later, with centuries of intellect and science and progress and theology, we are just as awed and brought to our knees by the mystery as we ever were. The phenomenon is just clear enough that it has survived millennia and will survive forever onward, and mysterious enough to be worthy of worship.

And so we’ll press on, continuing in faith to be the church that God founded through Christ for the world. We don’t have to understand it all to be useful or meaningful. God is using his people in ways they scarcely can imagine. Our cognizant compliance is irrelevant.

But thanks be to God that we can understand some things. In the Christmas star, the cold winds, the nostalgic reverie of tinseled trees and warm rum and spiced cakes.

We can understand some things.