Tag Archives: Christ

May 18. What is Theology Saying? LV: Salvation outside the Church IV.

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We know that Christian missionary saints believed God would commit to the flames of hell those not baptised into the Church, even when living in good faith. They were saints – but they were austinmistaken. Christian missionaries forced converts to renounce all their previous ways of striving after God, making them adopt Western ways that had nothing to do with religion. Much cruelty was inflicted through the inability to distinguish between cultural and social customs, and religious convictions.

Modern Social Sciences make it easier for us to accept this as missionaries sought to try to understand the different cultures and ways of thought of non-Christian folk, and they began to understand non-Christian religious convictions from the way the people saw them. Like being less than impressed looking at stained glass windows from outside – so different when seen from inside.

The patristic scholar Jean Daniélou proposed seeing the great Eastern Religions as being pre-Christian but leading to Christ. Their followers are saved by their commitment, the hope that seeks a future fulfilment. The fact that these people live after Christ [today] is not important, because their experience is before Christ as long as they have not heard the Gospel in a form that makes sense to them. While there is one Hindu living the Hindu tradition in good faith and with conviction, we cannot speak of the Hindu religion as false.

It is not only through their sincerity in striving after God as best they know how, that God comes to meet them; it is also because their striving is true. Our religious language is symbolic in a special way. It describes realities we have hardly glimpsed, and cannot comprehend. In the Jewish tradition it was important not to make images of God – because all images are false, the only image of God is the human person. So they speak as though God is a human person – masculine gender, a father-figure, who can get angry and change his mind. These characteristics are not literally true of God – but are true in another sense – they are true of our experience of God.

Other faith communities also know that language about God cannot be literally true. They express their experience of God. Asian faiths tend to be more contemplative than those of the Western world; they leave symbols in their symbolic form rather than seek explanations. Hindus say when you have images you understand you are making only a remote comparison, but when you have explanations you might be misled into thinking you understand much more than you do. God cannot be understood.

AMcC

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24 April: My Heart awaking.

 

sunrise.sjc

When morning gilds the skies,
My heart awaking cries:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

This short verse from a hymn translated by Edward Caswall is a good morning offering in Easter Week, when hearts are awaking as morning gilds the skies.

Christ is risen, Alleluia! May Jesus Christ be praised!

Picture from SJC. The full hymn can be found here.

 

 

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22 April: Blessed is the evil that fell upon me. Brownings IX.

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Among Elizabeth Barrett’s letters to Robert Browning I found this final paragraph from February 1846:

“May God bless you, best and dearest. If you are the compensation blessed is the evil that fell upon me: and that, I can say before God.”

Elizabeth had been housebound and largely bed bound for some years. Robert fell in love with her from a distance, a love that had firmed up on closer acquaintance. He seems to have gained entry to her room as a fellow poet, in Elizabeth’s father’s eyes a fellow-artist, not the potential husband he had become. It would not be possible to conceal this relationship for ever.

I was reminded of the line from the Exsultet which the deacon sings before the Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil:

O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem.                              O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.

It is good to have pictures, physical or mental to understand redemption. Words are not enough, but we must use them. Elizabeth Barrett’s personal epiphany is a way into understanding the poetry of the Vigil Anthem and the theology of our redemption. She came to realise that Robert Browning loved her as no-one had loved her before. He wanted with all his being to share everything with her. He did not pity her but loved her. That allowed her to love him.

If all God felt for human beings was pity he could have sorted out our redemption and the mess we are making of our world with a word, at a distance. But love meant he  shared everything: he lets us experience the divine ‘best and dearest’, seeing his glory as far as our feeble frame allows; but also himself sharing human experience to the full. ‘The Word was made flesh and lived and died among us. He rose again and prepares a new life for us, as Robert Browning did for Elizabeth, but in God’s case on what Pope John Paul II would call a cosmic scale.

Wikipedia, Public Domain.

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4 April. Before the Cross XX: Dancing in the blazing fiery furnace.

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When I first saw this picture that Rupert sent I had not read his reflection but I soon realised that our perceptions, thoughts and intuitions differed but in a creative way. Perhaps my grandson’s baptism attuned me to baptismal themes here. Thank you Rupert, for sharing this arresting image.

It was the dove descending that I first noticed, coming from the fiery light that overflows from the left hand side of the painting. The Spirit seems to be aiming for the water jar, just left of centre. ‘Fill the jars with water’, the Lord commanded at Cana, and the water and the wedding feast were transformed. To reinforce this connection, the jar at the very left has tongues of fire over it, the Spirit hovering over the waters. We are very much in John’s Gospel here: the cross is part of creation! There are six jars, as at Cana, and a basin in which to wash each other’s feet as in John’s account of the Last Supper.

The figures at the top right are in an attitude of adoration, which they express physically, they are not mere armchair Christians. And their attitude, their bowing, is athletic rather than abject. Thus is fear and trembling felt at a moment of great joy.

The three dancers across the middle of the painting are in harmony rather than unison with each other: there are may ways for Christians to be united, after all, but all hear and react to the same music.

The Cross – the blood-spattered Cross as Rupert points out – dominates the space, but is not a symbol of defeat. Rather like an Eschler work, its perspective is more than two dimensional, thrusting out of the frame, And where its shadow would be, were it not a blaze of light, the Light of the World, the undefeated Christ is carrying his banner forward. The dancers have seen him and respond in joy: the fourth person has appeared in the blazing fiery furnace: they are joyful, suffering, people of the light.

MMB.

Worship by Jun Ramosmos.

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29 March. Before the Cross XV: at the bedside of good Pope John XXIII

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The words that follow were attributed to Good Pope John XXIII as he lay dying, by his secretary, Monsignor  (later Cardinal) Loris Capovilla in his memoir ‘The heart and mind of John XXIII’, London, Corgi, 1966. We found a few copies for sale on-line. The shadowy Crucifix above is in the dark chapel of Saint Nicholas at Canterbury Cathedral. During the Second World War the future pope was Apostolic Delegate to Turkey, where Saint Nicholas was Bishop of Myra (Dembre). I imagined Pope John seeing such a shadowy cross during the long nights when he lay dying but later read that it was a white Crucifix. The one below hangs in Christina Chase’s room; here she is holding it for us to see clearly.

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This bed is an altar, and an altar wants a victim. I am ready. I offer my life for the Church, the continuation of the Ecumenical Council, for peace in the world, for the union of Christians.

The secret of my priesthood lies in the crucifix I wanted in front of my bed.

john xxiii Christ looks at me, and I speak to him. In our long and frequent conversations during the night, the thought of the world’s redemption has seemed to me more urgent than ever. ‘And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold.’ (John !0:16).

Those outstretched arms tell us he died for everyone, for everyone. No one is refused his love, his forgiveness. But especially that ‘they may be one’ he entrusted to his church. The sanctification of the clergy and of the people, the union of Christians, the world’s conversion are therefore urgent responsibilities of the Pope and of the bishops.

I had the great fortune to be born in a modest, poor Christian family that feared God, and the fortune to be called to serve. Since childhood I have thought of nothing else, or desired nothing else.

for my own part, I do not think I have offended anyone, but if I have, I ask pardon. And you, if you know someone who has not been edified by my behaviour, ask him to tolerate me and to forgive.

In this last hour, I feel calm and certain that my Lord, through his mercy, will not reject me. Unworthy though I be, I wanted only to serve him … and bear witness to the Gospel. …

My days on earth are ending, but Christ lives, and the Church continues her task. The souls, the souls, ‘may they be one, may they be one.’

 

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25 March: The Annunciation of our Lord.

A poem for the Feast of the Annunciation, from Sheila Billingsley, mother in the days before scans and ultrasound, and now grandmother and great-grandmother – and poet.

 

And the Word … 

Sitting before the scan,

An embryo great-grandchild.

Fitting so safely, so securely.

What are you feeling ?

What are you hearing ?

Did you hear your mother singing ?

Her laughter ?

Did you feel in your enveloping nest,

Her touch as she moved ?

The warmth of your sun ?

The deepening silence of your night ?

Oh! Minute yet transparent child,

Complete

With those predestined hands and feet ?

And later, did you feel joy

In your growing infantile strength,

Those fingers that would touch and heal ?

Your limbs so weak, so strong, the skin so soft.

Until the womb could no longer hold you.

Did you hear your angel voices that night ?

Feel your winter’s chill ?

The hands that held you, wrapped you, touched you …

Oh, but your eyes

Opening tentatively in the dim light,

Your eyes, did they seek

The eyes that sought for yours ?

 

 

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March 24: Before the Cross XI: The Truest Love of All

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If clouds of doubt should ever fall,

A fog so thick that I should cry:

Is this the truest love of all –

Where men still suffer, bleed and die?

A quiet voice might ask of me

What other love I thought so true

What greater, deeper love I see

More heartfelt than the God I knew?

 

See there, beside the poor and weak,

Among the broken, there, he stands,

And with the voiceless, there to speak

With grieving heart and nail-pierced hands.

Abandoned once by dearest friends,

He meets the lonely, brings them near,

His mercy and gentle presence mends

Souls bound by bitterness and fear.

 

And he would show me in my prayer,

His woundedness, his cross, his shame:

The truest love of all was there –

There, even there, he knew my name.

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19 March: Before the Cross VI: Why?

 

Saint Anselm’s feast falls on 21st April, Easter Day this year. So let’s visit him during Lent, reflecting on Good Friday and Easter with another Archbishop of Canterbury.

The crypt of Canterbury Cathedral was closed as they prepared for a service, so I went upstairs to Saint Anselm and sat opposite his post-war window. The focal point, it seemed to me that morning, was not the central figure of Anselm in bishop’s robes and pallium, holding his cross and giving his blessing, but the three Latin words on the book below the Saint and the descending dove of the Holy Spirit:

CUR DEUS HOMO

in English we would say, ‘Why did God become Man?’ Look again at the open book. There is also a sturdy tree on the page, a reminder of the Cross; it bears a cruciform flower. And indeed, Bishop Anselm carries a cross, not unlike the one we saw in the photograph from Algeria in the first post in this series. 

in his introductory chapter, Anselm says, ‘to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.’ We cannot disagree with that, even if we find his rather legalistic argument off-putting. 

Where Scotus would later argue that God wanted to become man anyway, Anselm argues that the way for sinful man to be reconciled to God was for the perfect sacrifice to be offered in atonement. A perfect sacrifice could only be offered by a perfect man, and that man was Jesus, and the perfect sacrifice was his death at the hands of sinners.

On the other hand, Anselm’s successor, Rowan Williams, argued in a Lenten talk in this cathedral that Christ lived a life-long passion: his whole life was a sacrifice, making holy the human race and all of creation. Here is Anselm (II.viii):

No man except this one ever gave to God what he was not obliged to lose, or paid a debt he did not owe. But he freely offered to the Father what there was no need of his ever losing, and paid for sinners what he owed not for himself. 

We are all obliged to lose our lives, but we can learn, not just from Anselm’s writings, but from his example. He left home to travel to Bec in Normandy to become a monk; at Bec he became a teacher and leader of the community before he was sent as Archbishop to Canterbury, where he continued teaching. But as Archbishop he had other duties, and was exiled twice for opposing the Norman Kings of England, William II and Henry I. He risked the same fate as Alphege his predecessor,  his successor Thomas, and his crucified Master.

‘Freely offered to the Father’ sounds like love to me, as does ‘lifelong passion’, as does Friar Austin’s view that:

Jesus is revealed in a life no longer under threat. The Resurrection is the realisation of his message of total freedom.

Different views of the same event, which was not Good Friday only, but the 33 years before that, and Easter Sunday and the eternity following that.

The text of Cur Deus Homo can be found here .

 

MMB.

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18 March. Before the Cross V: An Absent Presence.

'Still', a major work by Scottish artist Alison Watt, is installed in the Memorial Chapel

Psalm 46:10 ‘Be still and know that I am God.’

A mysterious and endearing quality of art and music is that they can open a door within us to a stillness in which we can inwardly sense the knowing of God. For ultimately this knowing is not a theory in our heads, but the kind of knowing that ripples through our being in a way in which we most probably don’t understand and yet we can say of it ‘I just know’.

‘Still’ is by the Scottish painter Alison Watt OBE (b. 1965), and is hung behind the altar in the Memorial chapel of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Edinburgh. If ever you have a few moments free in the centre of Edinburgh, or arrive by train to the central Waverley Station it is conveniently just across the road from the back entrance to the station. The church is usually open for visitors, offering a respite from the vibrancy and noise of the city centre by the contrastingly silent and poignantly serene space which is this chapel – dedicated in memory of those fallen in World War 1. It is a dark space which holds both the sadness of the memory of those who gave their lives, and the light of hope through the risen Christ.

This unique work somehow expresses the sense of beauty and light and continuing movement of the spirit, through its enigmatic focus on folds of fabric. The work is a quadriptych (a work in four parts) 12 ft by 12 ft, and so naturally echoes the cross in its layout, a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice taken by Christ. The theme of the painting is hanging drapery. The implication is that the cloth is that of the shrouds of Jesus, though what hangs behind it is only alluded to. Certainly the subtle implication is of a body beneath, causing the shaping and the folds. Watt says of the work: ‘‘Although the body is not explicitly represented, it’s still echoed in the landscape of the cloth. The paintings are about an absent presence.’

An absent presence – something we can’t see or physically perceive and yet we know and sense is there. And so it was for those who experienced that first Easter morning – the confusion of a mysterious absent presence. It is that very quality which, without words or analysis, settles within me as I sit with this work of art.

When I first saw this painting I felt mesmerised by the beauty and the impact of the white simplicity of the hangings amidst the stark silence of the chapel. It stills me, and yet the stillness is not rigid but full of gentle movement and flow. The meaning is not obvious and yet in my unknowing it offers me opportunity to sit and just to absorb. It offers that doorway to ‘Be still and know that I am God.’

I often like to pop in when I am back in my home town; By stepping aside from all that energises the centre of town into the entrancing beauty and stillness of being in that place, I experience a way into the serenity of prayer which settles and recharges my inner resources through this beautiful work of art.

Janet McDonald

Alison Watt is the youngest artist to have had a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2000) and to serve as an Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London (2006-8). For Still, she won the ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry) award for a Commissioned Artwork in Ecclesiastical Space in 2005. See:

 

Janet McDonald is a member of the L’Arche Kent Community.

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18 February: What is Theology saying, XLIV: What is Christian morality?

What is Christian morality? In terms of content there is no Christian morality distinct from human morality. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the precepts of the New Testament are simply human demands. But there is something different about Christian morality – just as people in Old Testament and New Testament times saw these human demands in the context of covenant with God and solidarity with Christ, faith today obliges us to see the demands of being fully alive as a response to the call of God.

What difference does Faith make? It puts before us the attractiveness of Christ’s life – one that bears fruit in Resurrection, and promises the same Spirit, the same energy to anyone interested. Sensitivity to his values lifts lives above the minimum of good manners – turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, foregoing legitimate rights for wider benefit. Belonging to a community of faith also makes demands – sharing a Sacramental life, which is not the case for non-believers.

Important as these differences are, the basic moral demand is to become what we are potentially – fully human: “God is praised when we are fully alive…” – Irenaeus. And we don’t grow alone. Our roots are in the earth, and life and health and growth emerge from our relationships – we are what our relationships let us be. A moral life is to be in a right relationship to all of these. Our love for God is only known via the test of service – “unless you did it to these…”!

Sin turns self into God – and pride, lust, avarice, abuse and aggression are the certain fruits. Sin is not a problem, problems can be solved, sin is an ever present mysterious reality, in the world, the Church and individuals. It is a reality to be concerned about, but not to be afraid of: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more” – Romans 5.20. Jesus is the forgiveness of sin, but unless we are convinced of our sinfulness, how do we recognise our need for him, or rejoice in what he makes possible?

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