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Saturday, December 31, 2005

From the Old to the New


New Wine Posted by Picasa

The civil New Year coincides with the Feasts of St. Basil the Great and the Circumcision of our Lord. There is a certain appropriateness here in respect of the Circumcision although coincidence of the dates is, of course, entirely accidental.

The Gospel of St. Luke (2:21) records that Christ was circumcised according to the Law of Moses on the 8th day. According to this rite, like all male Jewish children, Our Lord was joined to the Covenant relationship between God and His chosen people. In being made a part of this Covenant he received the traditions of Israel concerning God and the Tenakh, (Law, Prophecy and Wisdom) as his own. It was from within this Covenant and Tradition that our Lord subsequently worked to teach and to heal.

At first Jesus worked within the confines of Israel yet there was something new and authoritative about his teaching and healing that attracted the Gentiles as well. The Messianic fulfilment of Law, Prophecy and Wisdom in his Person and Work turned out to be much more than a restatement of Israel's faith but a deepening, enriching and extending of that faith and Kingdom life to all who would receive it, both Jew and Gentile alike. In this, our Lord was attacked by religious conservatives in Israel for not being faithful to Law, Prophecy and Wisdom. His teachings on the Sabbath, for example, provoked outrage ... as did his claim to forgive sins, a prerogative of God alone. Nonetheless in Him all the Messianic prophecies came true and more.

This was enough to convert Jews and the Gentiles were inexorably drawn to the universal appeal of his message of God's unconditional Love and impartial Justice. Even when he died an ignominious death on the Cross, a destiny not traditionally ascribed to the Messiah, many pragmatic Jewish rabbis such as Gamaliel counselled a "wait and see" approach. When he rose from the dead, scurrilous rumours were put about that the disciples had stolen his body. You can almost taste the salacious conspiratorial appeal of the Da Vinci Code back in those days as well! Nevertheless, this paschal triumph itself forged something entirely new in Israel, a mission to the Gentiles. And so the Church was born, the new Israel of God.

In all of this we see two undercurrents of keeping and breaking ... of keeping faithful to an Old Tradition and Covenant, hence circumcision, and the breaking of the mould that the new work of God might emerge thereby creating a New Covenant and Tradition, represented of course in the practice of baptism, as St. Paul calls it, a "circumcision made without hands." (Colossians 2:11f).

This revolutionary shift from the Old to New is not achieved without some conflict but neither does it represent some radical breaking with all of the old ways. Much of the subsequent Apostolic Tradition is taken up with what is to be retained as mandatory, what is to be permissible but not required and what is to be abandoned for something else. Our Lord did not settle all these Old to New issues in his own earthly work and ministry of course. That's why the Holy Spirit came, "to guide you into all truth." {John 16:13).

The Church worked through all these knotty problems in Council, the first being in Jerusalem of course to resolve the contentious matter of how the Mosaic law applied to Gentile believers. Since then, the Church has continued to meet and pray and discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit on disputed issues. There is nothing static or set in stone about Holy Tradition. As a New Covenant revelatory principle it is alive and dynamic under the sovereignty of God who often insists on "new wineskins for new wine."

That much ought to be a twofold warning for us. First, not to neglect the Tradition that we have received, but then not to traduce it by closing our minds and hearts to the new work that God is seeking to do in our own time and place. The balance between those two principles, faithful conservatism and creative advance is one not achieved without difficulty. If we are listening to God though and prepared to act together on his Word we shall not go amiss. Truly the Old is always the seedcorn of the New. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

All Our Humanity


Christ is Born. Glorify Him! Posted by Picasa

At this holy feast the Church rejoices with one voice:-
"Christ is born; Glorify Him."

Note that … "Christ IS born … " present tense.

The Nativity is a present reality for us Orthodox Christians. It’s not just that we celebrate a past event now; there’s more to it than that. Christ is eternally born for all generations in the same way that he is both referred to in the Scriptures as "slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8] and also eternally risen and alive in the Cosmos. He is slain so that we might know that he dies for us. He is risen so that we might taste the fruit of his victory over death. But, how is he born for us, for such is our confession on the feast of his Nativity?

St. Gregory of Nazianzen, one of the 4th century Cappadocian fathers and my patron wrote a letter to a certain priest Cledonius. In that letter we read these crucial words concerning the Incarnation …

"For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved."

And there we have it. He is born for us because our humanity … ALL our humanity must be saved, restored, healed. God took upon himself our WHOLE humanity, entire and complete from the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Theotokos in order to return it back to us WHOLE, in one piece, restored to its primal beauty … and more, glorified in the resurrection.

This means that there is NOTHING in our humanity that we cannot not now find in God; ALL is there, all our faculties, body, mind and spirit … all our relationships, all our fears, hopes, joys and dreads … ALL is present in the Christ and, today, this night the Eve of Christ – Mass, our childhood, that most precious thing that should endure until our death if we are to live fully and enter the Kingdom of God … as a child.

It is not necessary, indeed it is entirely wrong and dangerous, for us to lay aside anything of our humanity in receiving Christ, yet there are Christian traditions that demand precisely that. These hold that one must lay aside pleasure or art or laughter or sexuality or questionings or all manner of normal natural things to be spiritual. Such joyless, depressing damaging ideas take flight as Christmas time for now we affirm that God indeed has come in the flesh and made holy all that is human.

The question of what is not holy gets re-defined. It is a life lived unmindful of God, ungrateful and hateful … in short a denial of our very humanity. That is why the Incarnation is good news because for the very first time we hear the liberating message that God IS intimately concerned with our human condition and potential because He has taken this to Himself in the coming of our Lord and his birth, not only once for all in Bethlehem but also right here and now in our hearts. And so we close with words from a 17th century Christian mystic, not himself Orthodox but expressing himself in a very Orthodox manner, Angelus Silesius.

"Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, But not within thyself, thy soul shall be forlorn."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jesus Who?


Nicholas Forgets Posted by Picasa

Sometimes on entering the ruin of a venerable old church it is possible to imagine ancient voices in prayer shimmering around the worn old stones. Listen very hard and you may catch something recognisable but long forgotten, a snippet of prayer perhaps, the invocation of a saint barely understood by the passing tourist. Such is Christianity and the Church now in this country. The echoes of this great Faith are adorned with baubles of consumerism and sentiment but they have lost their power to convert, to transform, to topple even Empires. There is nothing lacking in the words of course, their power; nothing lacking in God himself; but there is a great lack in our culture and it seems that I particularly feel it even more keenly as Christmas succeeds Christmas.

The Church I think, (and I mean the Orthodox Church and all those outside her who nonetheless share her faith), the Church needs to rediscover and enhance her presence and voice, not by compromise with the world in order to put a few more half-hearted Christians in the pews, (here today, gone tomorrow), but by living authentically and fully the Christian life. If that means that the Church numerically is smaller that matters not for the most needful thing is that her presence and voice is sure.

In respect of Christmas this means that Christians should simply observe and celebrate the festival on their own terms. We should neither sneer at the commercialism nor begrudge people their Winter Solstice festivities but we should certainly not confuse all of this with the birth of Christ. In many ways, perhaps, it becomes easier and easier to celebrate Christmas as it should … our society resembles, religiously and culturally, more and more like pagan Rome as year follows year. A bitter sweet message for Christmas then, but one doubtless that we all recognise in the echoing ruins of a former glory, an age long gone.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Balls of Wavy String


Albert Einstein Posted by Picasa

The recent Solvay Conference in Brussels is reported by the New Scientist as having some sombre news for those expecting great things from a Theory of Everything that will reconcile Relativity’s theory of gravity (courtesy of Einstein) with that of quantum mechanics. This elusive goal, the “holy grail” of contemporary physics and cosmology has eluded science for decades. It was hoped that string theory would do the job but the estimation of that cluster of theories is now much more modest. The problem is that conceiving of matter and energy as vibrating strings with frequencies matching observed (and un-observed but hypothesised) subatomic particles simply generates an embarrassingly large number of models with little way of sorting out which applies to our universe and why. Moreover, we have no real way as yet of testing these theories to destruction. The reason scientists are at an impasse is that few can yet see what might compete with such a theory that is long on promise but short on delivery. Many are calling for a real “out-of-the-box” idea that will move things along. Such intuitions some when least expected and in surprising places. The last time it happened, arguably, was to an amateur scientist, a self-taught Austrian patents clerk called Albert Einstein.

Now all of this, for all my interest, is way, way beyond me but one thing may be not. It concerns how scientists model reality. There have been many different ways of modelling matter … point-like particles, waves, strings (open and closed). What one notices about these are that they are concepts extrapolated from the macro world of snooker balls, ripples on a pond and vibrating rubber bands. Sometimes the models only work in combination. The quantised approach to electromagnetic radiation for example depends on a combination of the snooker ball and the pond ripple. At this level of complexity it is very difficult to visualise what is being represented; hence the title of this article. Herein though might lay a clue to future developments in the search for a true Theory of Everything, (assuming such a theory can be devised, which is itself disputed). I want to suggest that science can learn from theology. Some may now want to take a deep breath and sit down!

In theological modelling no single concept or analogy will suffice; the more the better. However, there is order in this accretion of models; certain integrating and governing principles – in Christianity for example the primary key of “God is love.” In and around that key, however, all sorts of analogous statements may be made, every bit as metaphorical as a model of matter constituency. God is Light, God is Good, God is a Rock etc. This is called cataphatic theology ... it says:- “God is like this.” However, this is not the whole story. Theology is also apophatic, by which I mean it proceeds by denying that such models bear any exact correlation to God-in-himself. So God is not a light bulb, male, an inaminate object etc. What if scientific modelling were to work in a similar way? Matter is constituted by vibrating strings but not as we see in a twanged rubber band. We would then move on to a host of other models, each qualified by the apophatic approach and each assembling into a holistic key … utterly unimaginable but which works to unlock observable and repeatable experimental results. In other words, the modelling has to get a lot more complicated before it gets a lot simpler and easier to handle. It may be that we shall have to wait for quantum computers to be developed, enormously increasing our present number crunching powers, before such really sophisticated modelling can be designed and tested against new experimental data coming out of CERN’s forthcoming new accelerator and orbital gravity wave detectors. In short, we need more imagination (not less) and more raw computing power. We certainly need a healing of the historic divorce between science and philosophy / theology without either discipline(s) being confused or applied inappropriately. Maybe it will then be possible to speak of “balls of wavy string” and more besides. It might even usher in a new and more creative dialogue between a more humble theology and a less dismissive science. I hope so anyway.

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