As my friends on Facebook and Twitter know, I am a huge fan of Christmas carols. At least, certain ones on my special list… Ok… yeah, that’s right… I really like both of them.
In honor, then, of this genre that I hold so dear, I thought I’d do a little series from time to time over the next week and a half in celebration of some of the riches buried in in our Christmas time songs. (And here I apologize to those of you who scrupulously separate Advent and Christmas. This is for the rest of us.)
Today’s offering is “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” a song that I only stopped to listen to as part of the album I just linked.
The song picks up on the tension between the angel proclamation in Luke 2, “on earth peace among those whom he favors” (CEB) and the reality we live in day to day (cf. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”).
The points where the song digs deep into the reservoir of biblical imagery, and biblical hope for peace include this verse:
- Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
The image of the angels speaking their chorus over the earth’s Babel sounds is fantastic, and perhaps a nice connection to the start of Luke’s volume 2, Acts, where Babel seems to be undone by the advent of the Spirit. This, though, captures the discord that marks life lived on the earth “after Babel,” and the need to have our voiced tuned as one, in humble praise of God, in order to know the peace about which the angels speak.
The next verse, then, calls oblivious humanity to stop our futile, factious toiling, and hear. It calls us to stop. (Have you stopped yet?) And to listen.
- Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
The next verse goes on from this reproving call to beckon us to the good news of rest. For those who are weary, there is grace to set aside heavy loads and hear the call of peace:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
Finally, the song reminds us that our life, like the life of Israel of old, is a perpetual time of “Advent,” of waiting for the coming, of celebrating in anticipation of what will one day be. No, we do not see the world fully and finally redeemed, but we know that the age of peace is coming, and so we strive to realize that peace in the present:
- For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
The peace that comes is in the transformation of heaven and earth–such that the whole world undoes Babel by lifting its voice in harmonious praise to God.
For peace comes, and only comes, when Babel is undone by the unification of voices glorifying God: “May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice. So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory. I’m saying that Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors, and so that the Gentiles could glorify God for his mercy.” (CEB)
In The Story of God, The Story of Us there’s a character who starts coming around an early Christian community to hear its story. The man is a merchant, curious about this strange group of friends who act more like family.
As the story goes on, the rumor of his association with the Christians starts to spread. Business at his store begins to slow. The other folks in town are avoiding his shop, persecuting him economically we might say, for his association with the Christians.
Do we as Christians feel the pathos of that story because such economic persecution is wrong? Or do we feel it simply because it was happening to us? Is religious difference a reason to avoid a shop? Put yourself in an open air market, even a farmer’s market if you can visualize that better.
Do you avoid the stall with the Muslim vendor? Or is that a sort of economic persecution that good Christian folk should avoid?
Well, it seems that part of how we’re supposed to use our collective buying power as Christians is to engage in precisely this sort of reciprocated economic persecution. In celebration of those vaunted words of the Bible, “They may persecute us now, but we’ll one day have enough political and economic power to persecute them back,” there is now the official Grinch Alert website, dedicated to helping good Christian folks avoid those who would take Christ out of Christmas by saying “Happy Holidays” and playing only Jingle Bells type music on the PA system (HT: Michelle Van Loon at Her.meneutics Blog).
It makes me wonder: how are we telling our story such that we Christians understand our identity in such a way that we think this type of economic boycott is the calling of those who are commanded to imitate our Father who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike?
How are we understanding this “Christ” we want to keep in Christmas that we follow the one who forgave his enemies on the cross by making them pay for it at Christmas time?
How are we narrating the Christmas story that we can simultaneously participate in the materialistic gorge fest that we all enjoy each December and yet persecute as insufficiently Christian those who would sell us our
When we get to this point, where we are shunning those non-Christian merchants who will not put on a Christian veneer to lure us in on a false-pretense of sharing our religious convictions, we need to step back. Perhaps we should return to one of our favorite Christmas-time hymns and reflect.
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
What if we decided that our calling was to be agents and instruments of that flow? What if we decided that our story demands of us that we bring all our blessings to the lost and hurting world around us, rather than attempting to build a hermetically sealed Christian container to hold it all in?
I think we can do it. Go get ‘em.
And Happy Holidays.
Last night promised to be an auspicious evening. Not only was my man-crush John Darnielle, of Mountain Goats fame, going to be performing, he was going to be playing in the Castro Theater. Man crush + the Castro = Good Times.
In addition to being geeked and otherwise excited about the event, I was curious to see how well Darnielle could pull it off. From the clips I’ve seen of him in concert, he’s a free-flow performer, taking time between songs, often, to interact with the crow and often taking his time moving between instruments. Accompanying a film would be a very different animal. And, after the film, he confessed that this was the first time he had been nervous about a performance in a long, long time.
The other thing I wondered was what sort of style he would use. Silent films have their own genre of melodramatic accompaniment that’s not exactly the stuff of Mountain Goats lore.
So how did it go?
To be honest, it took me several songs to not be distracted by the strange conjunction of old silent movie with the contemporary, standard fare Mountain Goats style music Darnielle was performing. I would say that he wasn’t so much performing a soundtrack for the movie as singing a soundtrack that was inspired by it. He didn’t confine his songs to the scenes or acts of the film, and at times was singing rather melancholy music during humorous slap-stick moments.
But about four songs in I started appreciating the way that the music was actually capturing the drama in a way that the speedy-action silent film wasn’t doing for me on its own. I started to realize that the “darkness with redemption” motif of Darnielle’s writings was perfect for the film.
For me, however, the show really took off when Darnielle was joined on stage by an electric guitarist, bassist, and drummer. That would be John Vanderslice on the electric, btw. Somehow, the sound worked a bit better for me as an accompaniment (and, yes, the chemistry was awesome), and the lyrics were more clearly drawing us into the world of the film’s love and heartbreak and self-sacrificial attainment of justice.
As the film drew to its close, it become increasingly clear to me why the SFFS might have chosen Darnielle to perform this piece.
The film demands of its watchers that the story be seen as unfolding under the close scrutiny of God’s own eye, such that the plot will not be resolved until all is rectified according to God’s justice. The self-sacrifice that makes the final resolution possible is another nod toward a traditional model of redemption through sacrifice.
These are analogous to the themes that suffuse Darnielle’s own work. Like the film, Darnielle’s lyrics are often a dark mix of suffering and hope, of death and redemption. Even though he was not singing the song of the film, Darnielle’s music was typical in its employment of those themes–so often his, anyway, and now reinspired by the visual backdrop of Sir Arne’s Treaasure.
So unlike some, I don’t wonder what were supposed to extract from the pairing, I just wonder what it’s going to take for me to be able to see it again.
This is another one of those posts on Christology, in particular, it’s about the biblical and/or Jewish matrix within which the New Testament’s statements about Jesus make sense.
As often as not these posts will at some point generate the question, “What’s your agenda? What is the theological payoff for highlighting the humanness of Jesus as something we should be homed in on rather than the divinity?” So let me start with that.
I do not have a theological agenda that I am trying to shore up through exegetical arguments; I have an exegetical agenda that I am confident will ultimately be profitable for the church’s theology because it offers a better reading of the church’s sacred texts. I believe that the Bible we actually have is the Bible Godwanted us to have–even when it surprises us, drawing us in unexpected theological and ethical directions.
Let me also say (again) that arguing for a viable “human” framework for making sense of Jesus is not to say either (a) that Jesus is not, in fact, fully God as well as fully human (which I do believe) or that (b) indications that the theological reflections of the church were heading in the direction of high Christology are not present already in the NT (I believe they are, for example, in the Christological developments between the Synoptics and John).
So there is a high Christology voice to be heard and honored, and there is this other that I think needs a bit more attention in order to continue filling out what we mean by saying Jesus was not only “fully human,” but “true to his humanness” (“truly human”) in a way that no other person has ever been.
Today’s thoughts, then, come from two directions.
My children are currently addicted to Handel’s Messiah. When we get in the car, little dude says, “I want ‘Why do the nations?’” He also likes the “other bad guys song,” what he calls the chorus that goes, “He trusted in God that He would deliver him, let Him deliver him, if He delight in him.”
As I’ve backed them up from those Good Friday/Easter movements to the annunciation and birth portions, we’ve found ourselves listening to “For unto us a child is born.” Christmas classics, here we come!
Christians rightly sing this song with a full theology of Jesus as divine in mind: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
But that prophetic celebration meant something before God’s people had any idea about an incarnate Son. The song is a glorious song of praise to a coming, quite human, Davidic king, who is so aligned with God in his representing God’s rule to the world, that the very titles of God are applied to him. God’s covenant faithfulness works itself out in fulfilling the promise to David.
All of this sits in my mind as I’ve been reading Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, beginning with his essay, “God Crucified.”
Bauckham argues that there is an absolute distinction (his phrase, used repeatedly) between God as creator and sovereign over the universe and other creatures who are neither seen as creator nor as exercising God’s own sovereignty.
Bauckham makes an interesting case for God’s exclusive sovereignty. But at the end he cites the Son of Man from the Parables of Enoch as someone other than God who exercises God’s sovereign rule over the earth. Bauckham calls this “the exception that proves the rule,” but it made me wonder when we get to call something that falls outside our preferred paradigm an exception that “proves” the rule rather than “shows us that the rule has important exceptions that might undermine the force of the argument.”
Bauckham is surely correct that, in general, heavenly beings are not depicted as sharing God’s rule in early Judaism. But what if the reason that heavenly beings don’t share in God’s identity by sharing in God’s rule is because this is not what God created heavenly beings to do–but the vocation with which God created humanity?
Why might the Son of Man in Enoch be allowed to sit on God’s throne and rule the world on his behalf? Maybe because he’s The Man. Why might the Davidic king in Isaiah be called “Mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace?” Because the Davidic king is the son of God, begotten at his enthronement, who represents God, specifically God’s rule to the world.
When God created humanity he said, “Let’s create humanity in our own image and let them rule the world on our behalf.”
To share in the sovereignty of YHWH is the unique provenance of humanity. It’s a calling circumscribed to Israel and within Israel to Israel’s king.
Yes, there is a divine identity Christology–because the Davidic king shares in the name, power, and reign of God. “Where is he who was born king of the Jews? For we have come to honor him!”
The kingdom of God has come near. The Man has been born.
JSN, regular participant in the Storied Theology, has drawn my attention to The Theology Project of Trinity Lutheran Church. In particular, this church has recently formulated its understanding of who Jesus was and is and what this means for a community of believers.
What do you think about its Jesus statement?
I want to say a couple of things: First, please note that the church does not engage in this exercise instead of confessing the creeds, but in addition to making those historic confessions.
And, I think that taking this sort of ownership, within the community, to return to scripture and be challenged afresh, is good. It is good to confess in concert with the church, and it is good to set out on the journey of discovery as a community and come to own the theology with greater depth.
In terms of the content, I really like its lengthy column depicting salvation. Two things about it strike me as exactly right: (1) it is a long, all-encompassing type of statement that challenges us to recognize the significance of Jesus in every aspect of our lives and the world–and to see how “salvation” is depicted throughout the Gospel stories; and (2) the list pairs “saved from” with “saved for” so that both the old life we are called to leave behind, the symptoms of our brokenness and sin, and the new life we are called to put on are held in tandem.
If I have one quibble, it is with the depiction of the Kingdom of God. I don’t think that kingdom of God is merely a new way of living in the world. I think there is a cosmic reality of God’s reign, being brought to bear by Jesus, that Jesus is putting on display, demonstrating, and inaugurating. There is a power in the reign of God that comes with that cosmic reality, and I’m not sure the statement quite does justice to that reality.
Those were my initial thoughts–mostly quite positive. What do you think of the Jesus statement?
Today was the day when all the holy, righteous, and good order of Advent was broken by lighting the pink candle before finishing off the purple ones. Seriously, people, finish dinner before you head for dessert, ok? But I digress.
The candle in question, the pink one, is the joy candle (or, at least it is in our little world, so if you do it differently just enter my world for a few minutes). Being solemnly charged with the leadership of Bible time, I therefore had to figure out how to talk about joy in a manner apropos of the season.
My quick, unscientific search indicated to me that joy surrounding the birth of Jesus is the particular focus of Luke. (Ok, so he didn’t have much competition since only he and Matthew tell stories surrounding Jesus’ birth, but throw me a bone, ok?) Yes, Matthew tells of some rejoicing over the sight of the moving star, but Luke tell us:
- John the baptist will be a source of Joy for many
This same John leaps for joy in the womb at the voice of Mary
Mary sings a song of rejoicing at the work of God
Elizabeth’s neighbors rejoice at John’s birth
The angel tells the shepherds of the coming joy for all
As I wrestled with the content of joy in the context of Advent, it seemed to me that joy in these stories is particularly slanted toward the theme of faithful waiting. Joy abounds here not because of what has already been brought to pass, but because of what the faithful characters in the story believe is right around the corner because of the faithfulness of God.
John is a source of joy–because he is calling many back to the God of Israel in anticipation of God’s visitation.
Mary’s voice is a source of joy, not merely because she is carrying the Messiah, but also because she believed what the Lord had spoken to her (*ahem, Mr. Zechariah*).
Mary’s song is full of joy–because she looks to the coming acts of God and proclaims them in the past tense as though the advent and exaltation and subduing of the powers is a done deal.
And it all got me thinking about what joy looks like in 21st-century advent. Somehow we have to live into, grab hold of, the promised future of God. The boldness that would seem to be an over-realized eschatology must proclaim that the Kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah–even as we still await the throwing down of the tyrants and the coming consummation of God’s reign.
How can we have joy? Not [just] by looking at our present circumstances and believing that somehow God has orchestrated it all and thus we should be thankful. Advent joy speaks to a different field of vision altogether.
Joy is faithful looking to the future and celebrating it–not as something to be trusted in as what is yet to come (which is hope)–as something that has already dawned and is reaching back into its past, our present, to transform now into the Age to Come.
So get ye up unto a high mountain, behold the coming salvation of your God, and rejoice.
Mark 4. Kingdom Parables. “The reign of God is like… a sower who went out to sow….”
So Jesus, what is all this parable talking you’re doing? ask the disciples. Well, says Jesus, this parable is the parable story, the way you understand all parables is to get hold of this one.
You see, Jesus continues, I speak in parables so that the outsiders will see without perceiving, hear without listening, so that they might not turn and be forgiven!
As Jesus goes on to explain the parable, he speaks of the seed as the sown word. Those who hear can have the word snatched from them before it takes root, they can have the word take root and be choked or scorched, or they can bear fruit 30, 60, or even 100 fold.
So what’s that fruit? Is it a life of good works? Is it other people being drawn into the kingdom?
Wait! Don’t answer yet.
It seems that Mark wants us to hold this episode in mind later. When we see the same sort of absurd multiplication–in the feeding stories.
Give them something to eat! Jesus says. Um… Jesus? 5,000 people? Really?
Later, after its all said and done, they are terrified to meet Jesus on the water because they didn’t understand about the loaves, but their heart was hardened.
Just to make sure they’ve learned that there is no lack in the economy of the kingdom, Jesus sends them on a parallel mission in Gentile country: ok, guys, dish up lunch. Um… Jesus? 4,000 people? Really?
As if to finally bring home their failure to grasp the economy of the kingdom, another boat ride also doesn’t go so well: Gosh, we forgot to bring bread with us, what are we going to do?
Jesus seems to think they’re missing something. They’re the insiders, right? The mystery of the kingdom is given to them, right? They’ve participated in two miraculous feedings, right?
“When you fed 5,000 with 5 loaves, how’d that work out for you? When you fed 4,000 with a bit more, how’d that turn out? Having eyes do you not see? Having ears do you not hear?”
The purpose of parables–to blind and deafen, has inexplicably worked itself on the disciples as they participated in the lived parables of feeding the 5,000 and 4,000. The insiders have become outsiders, misunderstanding even as they themselves participated in the advent of the reign of God.
They have beheld the coming kingdom of God: one seed may not have literally broken out to yield a 100-fold harvest–but one loaf has fed 1,000 people. The kingdom of God has come near.
So what sort of fruit are we looking for? What sort of kingdom do we serve? A kingdom in which there is no economy of lack: not a stingy kingdom with food only for those who were insiders (Jews) to the exclusion of outsiders (Gentiles). Not a kingdom of lack where we need to wring our hands over forgotten meals.
In this economy, there is plenty of bread even for the dogs to fill themselves on the crumbs from the children’s table–there’s bread all over the place.
I too often read Mark 4 as referring to “Spiritual” things, and I think there’s something to that. But if our gospel is worth anything, then the reality of life in this world must reflect and embody that kingdom fullness as well.
To a world whose entire economy is based on the dual equations of a zero-sum-game coupled with lack and scarcity, we proclaim that the reign of God comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found.
And, we are made aware, by the disciples, of the difficulty of believing that the advent of Jesus really makes this difference. They, the sight-given insiders, are blind. They, the insight-given insiders, are deaf. They cannot see the abundance that comes–not only despite lack, but from lack itself.
A single seed becomes a plentiful harvest.
A single loaf becomes a banquet.
A single death becomes cosmic redemption.
Once upon a time, I was writing a book on Jesus and Paul. One issue I tackled was whether or not Jesus proclaimed himself. Did Paul skew Jesus’ message of self-proclamation into a message of Jesus-proclamation? Here was my take:
If it is faithful to the Gospels to say that Jesus proclaims God, it is equally true to say that in these same Gospels God proclaims Jesus. There are only two or three times in the Gospels when God’s voice literally sounds from heaven, and in each the heavenly witness is testifying to Jesus’ identity as God’s son.
In Mark’s Jesus, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon addresses this and other interesting narrative complexities by carefully distinguishing among real author, implied author, narrator, and characters. (See part 1 of my engagements here.) While the character Jesus consistently and continually deflects attention and glory from himself to God, the narrator introduces the divine voice bearing witness to Jesus–and the implied author allows the narrator’s perspective and Jesus’ perspective to sit in complex, unresolved interrelationship.
Jesus is the one who continually draws us to God rather than Himself. And the God to whom he draws us says, “This is my beloved son.”
Similar paradoxical indicators of Jesus’ identity meet us when we attend to the narrative of Jesus’ use of the “son of humanity” language. This is generalizing language that is applied to himself as one acting on God’s authority to suffer and then enter into glory. Here is a place where my pursuit of high human Christology sees tremendous theological potential.
Reading an overview of a book is always going to leave you with a few gems of exegetical insight you would not have known before. One that I do not think is going to leave me is her drawing attention to what it means to be Christ versus what it means to be false Christ.
We see in Peter’s confession that “Christ” is a title that is difficult, near impossible, to hold together with a suffering self-giving one. Is it any wonder, then, that when false Christs come (ch. 13) they will do signs and wonders and thereby lead people astray? What Jesus as Christ refused to give to the Pharisees in ch. 8, what Jesus refuses to give to the mockers at the foot of the cross, is a “sign” by which they should believe.
The sign of this Christ is that he gives his life as a ransom for many.
If I had one quibble with the book’s overall argument, it was that the section in which Malbon showed Jesus to be continually deflecting glory back to God was repeatedly drawing God into the story where God is not explicitly mentioned. This made the case somewhat stronger than it might appear on simply a “narrative” reading of the book.
In the final chapter, Malbon does a remarkable, albeit brief, job of addressing the use of Mark by historical Jesus scholars. She points out the category mistake that besets much of their use of the text as they fail to distinguish between not only history and literature but also narrator and implied author on the one hand and the actual author, Mark, on the other.
Thus, for example, by not paying attention to these dynamics, and how Jesus as a Character in the story presents a view of son of man and kingdom of God that is not found on anyone else’s lips, historical Jesus scholars often make the mistake of quickly assigning these emphases to history rather than recognizing them as narrative characterizations.
The character of Jesus is solely responsible for these views in Mark, but this does not mean that the real author’s concern is simply to depict this as the truth about the historical Jesus in contradistinction to his own theological agenda. All this has a place inside the narrative world and is much a part of the constructed story as the narrator’s counter-voice, in which God testifies to Jesus.
This is an excellent book for folks who want to wrestle further with the way that Mark (and the Gospels more generally) make their theological points as carefully constructed narratives.
Disclaimer: I bought this book with my own money. Therefore I do not have to put a disclaimer on this book review. This statement is placed here in playful mockery of the Federal Requirements that such disclaimers accompany all products received for free.