recognizable and transfigured

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still—a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls. The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy.

From Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.

a bit of overt pressure from his mother

The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon (excerpts from chapters 1 and 2):

The problem, which is historical, is easily stated: Just where did Matthew and Luke discover the historical material that fills the first two chapters of each of these gospels? Since this material had not been part of the early preaching of the apostles, how did the two Evangelists know about it? The only reasonable answer, it seems to me, is that the “source” was Jesus’ own mother, of whom we are told, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). Later in the first century, when Matthew and Luke wrote, she alone was still alive to remember those details, which could have been known to no one else.

…The evidence, however, indicates that this was not the case. Joseph was not a person given to anxiety. He appeared, rather, as a man of extraordinary serenity. We find Joseph in five scenes in the gospel of Matthew, and every single time he is sound asleep (Matthew 1:20–24; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). Whatever troubles Joseph endured, they did not include insomnia. Perhaps we see Joseph’s mark on Jesus—particularly the example of his serenity and simple trust in God—when we contemplate a later New Testament scene:

…Mary’s “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) was also the first step along the road to Jesus’ “Not my will, but Yours, be done” (22:42). I believe the correspondence between these two verses indicates, likewise, the important spiritual mark of Mary on her son. It was from her that he learned to respond in faith to the call of God, not counting the cost. Their destinies were inextricably entwined in the mystery of redemption.

…There is no doubt that Jesus was literate, for we find him reading, and there is every reason to believe he learned the Scriptures as did any other young man from a working-class Galilean family: at the local synagogue. Normally, in fact, in a small town such as Nazareth, copies of the Scriptures, or any other books, were available only at the synagogue.

…Jesus was not “working out” a religious theory. He was taking possession of his own identity. This was a process of growth, and Jesus’ study of the Hebrew Scriptures was integral to that growth. He did read books, and he learned from them. The works of Moses, David, Jeremiah, and the others truly contoured his mind and conscience. The mental horizon of Jesus, as we discern it in the four gospels, took shape during those long years at Nazareth, where—Luke tells us—he went to the synagogue “according to his custom.” So when Luke also tells us, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature,” it is wrong to imagine his growth was unrelated to what he read—any more than his increase in stature was unrelated to what he ate (Luke 2:52).

…Nonetheless, to speak of the “influence” of the Hebrew Scriptures on Jesus’s mind dramatically transcends our normal use of that expression. The Law and the Prophets shaped his self-awareness in an unparalleled way because the Savior found in those writings his identity, vocation, and mission. His grasp of those texts—an understanding at the root of Christian theology—is the very substance of Jesus’ “self-regard.” It was in studying the Hebrew Bible that Jesus became convinced, “I must be about the things of my Father” (Luke 2:49).

…Christian theology begins with—and is inseparable from—understanding the Old Testament as Jesus understood it.

…I believe it is misleading, however, to inquire “when” with respect to Jesus’ self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is not objective. One does not acquire it as “information,” like the study of biology or business law. Self-knowledge is an extension and activity of the self; it is, by definition, subjective. It is necessarily tautological—that is to say, self-knowledge is its own cause. The knowledge of one’s self is inseparable from being oneself.5 It is important not to “objectify” Jesus’ self-awareness and then try to determine at what point—“when?”—he acquired the knowledge of his identity. Self-knowledge is intrinsic to, and an extension of, self-being. His consciousness of his identity came from his identity. Self-knowledge, however, does take place in a process of growth. It is historical, like all components of human consciousness. Human self-knowledge is an ongoing “event.”

…There is a subtle hint in this juxtaposition. Luke seems to imply that the sustained contemplation in Mary’s heart was in some way related to her son’s increase in wisdom. The author paints here a provocative picture of the home in Nazareth where Jesus and his mother, joined in a common faith during the three decades of their shared life, continued to mature spiritually in each other’s company. Given the delicacy of this subject, it is important not to sail off into speculations beyond the data provided by Holy Scripture. Does the Bible give any sign of this personal and interpersonal growth of Jesus and his mother? As it touches their relationship—especially their shared faith in the Father’s purpose and the mission of the Holy Spirit—is it possible to discern in the relevant biblical texts some indication of this spiritual development? I believe it is.

…However we name it, nonetheless, both stories—in the temple at Jerusalem and at the wedding party in Cana—portray Jesus and his mother as “not agreed.” They are not in harmony. The two conversations convey, between Mary and her son, a sense of initial opposition. Their questions to each other disclose a rough patch, as it were, a foothold of friction that serves to move the narrative forward.

…I suspect, by the by, that Jesus’ answer to Mary was a sort of continuation of his discussion with the rabbis. Recall that Jesus, when his parents discover him in the temple, has been engaged (for three days, apparently) in discourses with the rabbis; he has been asking them questions and answering theirs. In other words, Jesus has been engaged in a pedagogical and rhetorical method where a favored device is the “counterquestion”—the answering of a question by a further and more probing inquiry. We find this style of debate frequently in rabbinic literature and in the Gospels. The boy Jesus, then, so recently exposed to this pedagogical and rhetorical method here in the temple, spontaneously has recourse to it in order to answer his mother.

…Luke’s story, which chronicles Jesus’ growth in wisdom, is told here through the person who witnessed that growth and who was obliged, in a very personal way, to explore its meaning. It was certainly from her that Luke learned the facts of the case.

…Mary was not just a temporary or purely physical conduit of the Incarnation. The relationship between Jesus and his mother was transpersonal and transcendent to biology. She was truly the mother, and not simply the “bearer,” of God’s Son. When, during her pregnancy, she declared, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49), she was aware of at least this much. Day by day she measured, and now continued to measure, what this meant. If she knew Jesus at all, if being the mother of God’s Son meant anything, then it certainly meant she was entitled to speak to him about a shortage of wine.

…Perhaps our English “ma’am” comes closest to the sense of the Aramaic idiom. It is especially noteworthy that in John’s gospel Jesus addresses his mother this way as he is dying (John 19:26). In this gospel, Cana and Calvary are the only places where Mary’s son speaks to her, and the same word is used both times.

…Jesus was declining his mother’s suggestion that he intervene in the wine problem. De facto, he was telling her no. And how does Mary respond to his objection? She ignores it! Mary does not argue the point with her son. She simply turns and boldly says to the waiters, “Do whatever he tells you.” She thus puts the pressure squarely on her son, manifestly confident that he will not disappoint her. It is worth remarking that “Do whatever he tells you” are Mary’s last recorded words. We know the day’s outcome: Mary’s son, at the direct instigation of his mother, transformed the water into wine. We surmise, too, that the wedding party was transformed, once the guests discovered that the host had “kept the good wine until now!” Indeed, Jesus’ own ministry was transformed. Here it was that he “manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The “signs” have begun. Up to this point, it was possible for their contemporaries to think of Jesus and John the Baptist mainly in terms of similarity, inasmuch as both were teachers. No more, however, because “John performed no sign” (John 10:41). After the Cana event, people in the region would tell “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38).

…The organic particularity of Jesus’ life included a bit of overt pressure from his mother. The doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that we were redeemed through the personal experiences of God’s Son in human history—the very things that the Word underwent—from the instant of his conception, through his birth and infancy, through the events and phases of his life, through his tears and laughter, through his ministry and teaching, through his obedient sufferings and death on the cross, through his resurrection and entry into eternal glory. Human redemption “happened” in the humanity of the eternal Word as he passed through, transformed, and deified our existence.

…“Imagine,” Augustine wrote of Jesus, that the Almighty did not create this man—however he was formed—from the womb of his mother, but abruptly introduced him before our eyes. Suppose he passed through no ages from infancy to youth, or that he neither ate nor slept. Would that not have proved the heretics correct?9 An adequate Christology, then, affirms that the Word’s becoming flesh refers to more than the single instant of his becoming present in the Virgin’s womb. He continued becoming flesh and dwelling among us, in the sense that his assumed body and soul developed and grew through the complex experiences of a particular human life. We see this actually happening in these two conversations between Jesus and his mother.

…She was, like himself, a person of faith. Indeed, her faith pertained very much to his own person and mission.

taught by a Star

This sampling of ancient Christian hymns connected to Mary and the Nativity (and taken from Orthodox service books) represent a remarkable range of theological insights:

From the most common megalynarion (used in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom):

It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos,
ever blessed and most blameless and the Mother of our God:
More honourable than the Cherubim,
and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,
who without corruption gave birth to God the Word,
true Theotokos, we magnify thee.

From the Propers for the Feast of St. Nicholas (Preparation for the Nativity of Christ):

O cave, make ready, for the Ewe Lamb comes, bearing Christ in her womb!
O manger, receive Him Who by a word has released the dwellers of earth from lawlessness!
Shepherds, abiding in the fields, bear witness to the fearful wonder!
You magi from Persia, offer to the King gold, myrrh and frankincense,
for the Lord has appeared from a Virgin Mother!
And she, bending over Him as a handmaiden,
worshiped Him as He lay in her arms, saying to Him:
“How were You sown as seed in me?
How have You grown within me,//
my Deliverer and my God?”

…Unwedded Virgin, from where have you come?
Who has given you birth?
Who is your mother?
How can you carry your Creator in your arms?
How is your womb free from corruption?

Most holy one, we see great and fearful mysteries upon earth fulfilled in you;
we adorn the cave as a house worthy of you;
we ask the heavens to send us a star,
for behold, the Magi proceed from the East to the West,
desiring to see the Salvation of mortal men//
shining in your arms as a Pillar of Flame.

From the Royal Hours of the Nativity:

Troparion (Tone 4)
Mary was of David’s seed, So she went with Joseph to register in Bethlehem. She bore in her womb the fruit not sown by man. The time for the birth was at hand. Since there was no room at the inn, The cave became a beautiful palace for the queen. Christ is born, raising up the image that fell of old.
…Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.

Troparion (Tone 8)
Make ready, O Bethlehem. Let the manger be prepared. Let the cave show its welcome. The truth comes and the shadow flees. God is born of a virgin and revealed to men. He is clothed in our flesh, and makes it divine. Therefore Adam is renewed, and cries with Eve, Thy favor has appeared on earth, O Lord, For the salvation of the human race.

From the Great Compline and Matins of the Nativity:

Nativity Troparion (Tone 4)
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom. For by it, those who worshiped the stars, were taught by a Star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee!

The Litiya
Let heaven and earth as was foretold rejoice today. Angels and man let us keep the spiritual feast.
…Heaven and earth are united today for Christ is born. Today has God come to earth, and man gone up to heaven.

Aposticha
A great and marvelous wonder has come to pass this day: a Virgin bears a child, and her womb suffers no corruption. The Word is made flesh, yet ceases not to dwell with the Father.
…Today the Virgin gives birth to the Maker of all! Eden offers a cave. To those in darkness a star reveals Christ, the Sun! Wise men are enlightened by faith and worship with gifts.
…Sing, O Jerusalem! Make merry, all who love Zion! Today Adam’s ancient bonds are broken! Paradise is opened to us! The serpent is cast down! Long ago our first mother was deceived by him. Now he sees a woman become Mother of the Creator. O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! Through Eve, woman became a tool of sin, bringing death to all flesh; but through Mary she becomes the first-fruits of salvation for all the world. For God, the All-Perfect is born of Her. By His birth He seals Her Virginity. He is bound in swaddling cloths to loose the bonds of sin! Through His birth, the pains of Eve are healed! Let all creation sing and dance for joy, for Christ has come to restore and to save our souls.

Fire is a symbol of God (“For the Lord your God is a consuming fire,” Deuteronomy 4:24), and the burning bush, which was not consumed by fire, is considered a symbol of Mary, who carried the fire of the Divinity in her womb and was not consumed by it. References to Mary’s womb containing God “without corruption” refer to the miraculous fact that her womb was not destroyed by God’s presence. Also, language about the Christ child “shining in your arms as a Pillar of Flame” recognize that Mary continued to handle the Divine fire in intimate ways even after Christ’s birth. Because Mary caries this fire and light, she is therefore also called the “Golden Lampstand” and “Golden Censor.” Mary’s identity as the “Unburnt Bush” is depicted here in a painting by Nicholas Froment called “The Burning Bush” (1476, Wood, 410 x 305 cm, Cathedrale Saint Sauveur, Aix-en-Provence):

Nicholas Froment The Burning Bush 1476 Wood 410 x 305 cm Cathedrale Saint Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence

This unburnt bush image also brings to mind the tree of life imagery used of Mary in the Nativity hymns above. Below are three examples of the traditional Orthodox “Unburnt Bush” icon. They depict Mary within a green or brown star (representing the bush) and superimposed over a red star (representing the fire). They are also filled with many other Old Testament symbols connected to Mary, Divine fire, and epiphany:

neopalimaya_kupina_2

Russian_-_Presentation_of_the_Virgin_in_the_Temple_and_the_Virgin_of_the_Burning_Bush_-_Walters_372664_-_Back

unburnt bush icons

God who uses corporeal objects continually

Blessed is God who uses corporeal objects continually to draw us close in a symbolic way to a knowledge of God’s invisible nature. O name of Jesus, key to all gifts, open up for me the great door to your treasure-house, that I may enter and praise you with the praise that comes from the heart.

From The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.

faculty of wonder

There is a deep similarity between the union of the soul and body and the mystery of the family. In both cases we are in the presence of the same fact, or rather something which is far more than a fact since it is the very condition of all facts whatever they may be: I mean incarnation. I am not, of course, using this term in its theological sense. It is not a question of our Lord’s coming into the world, but of the infinitely mysterious act by which an essence assumes a body, an act around which the meditation of a Plato crystallised, and to which modern philosophies only cease to give their attention in so far as they have lost the intelligence’s essential gift, that is to say the faculty of wonder.

From page 69 of “The Mystery of the Family” in Homo Viator by Gabriel Marcel (1965).

the divine in him contracted to an ache

By Scott Cairns in his “Recovered Body” collection and recently shared here on the Huffington Post.

The More Earnest Prayer of Christ

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly
–Luke 22:44

His last prayer in the garden began, as most
as his prayers began–in earnest, certainly,
but not without distraction, an habitual…what?

Distance? Well, yes, a sort of distance, or a mute
remove from the genuine distress he witnessed
in the endlessly grasping hands of multitudes

and, often enough, in his own embarrassing
circle of intimates. Even now, he could see
these where they slept, sprawled upon their robes or wrapped

among the arching olive trees. Still, something new,
unlikely, uncanny was commencing as he spoke.
As the divine in him contracted to an ache,

a throbbing in the throat, his vision blurred, his voice
grew thick and unfamiliar; his prayer — just before
it fell to silence — became uniquely earnest.

And in that moment — perhaps because it was so
new — he saw something, had his first taste of what
he would become, first pure taste of the body, and the blood.

where you want your slave to go

Good stuff from an honest man. These are the lyrics to another Leonard Cohen song from his album Old Ideas.

“Show Me The Place”
by Leonard Cohen

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

Show me the place
I’ve forgotten I don’t know

Show me the place
For my head is bending low

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

Show me the place
Help me roll away the stone

Show me the place
I can’t move this thing alone

Show me the place
Where the Word became a man

Show me the place
Where the suffering began

The troubles came
I saved what I could save
A thread of light
A particle a wave
But there were chains
So I hastened to behave
There were chains
So I loved you like a slave

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

Show me the place
I’ve forgotten I don’t know

Show me the place
For my head is bending low

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go
The troubles came
I saved what I could save
A thread of light
A particle a wave
But there were chains
So I hastened to behave
There were chains
So I loved you like a slave

Show me the place
Show me the place
Show me the place

Show me the place
Help me roll away the stone

Show me the place
I can’t move this thing alone

Show me the place
Where the Word became a man

Show me the place
Where the suffering began

all but invisible through that lavish debris

The Glass Man

He is the transparence of the place in which He is…

This is where he washed to shore
during rough weather in November.
We found him in a nest of kelp,

salt bladders, other sea wrack—
all but invisible through
that lavish debris—and we might

have passed him by altogether
had he not held so perfectly
still, composed, so incoherently

fixed among the general
blowziness of the pile.
Unlikely is what he was,

what he remains—brilliant,
immutable, and of speech
quite incapable, if revealing

nonetheless. Under foot,
the landscape grows acute, so that it seems
to tremble, thereafter to dissolve,

thereafter to deliver to the witness
a suspicion of the roiling
confusion which brought him here.

By Scott Cairns in Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (pages 55).

redefining sacred space around himself

This collection of passages captures several key theological ideas about the temple as well as the human offices of king and priest. Christ comes to replace the temple with Himself: becoming the perfect temple, king and priest. This is all clearly connected to the idea that Adam was also a king given the task of tending and protecting the temple-garden (including the jobs of protecting it from evil as well as conducting further planning and planting). We also encounter the overarching idea that “creation was itself a temple, the Temple, the heaven-and-earth structure built for God to live in.” Many basic and overlapping truths:

The same is true when we consider the other great “royal” aspiration: to cleanse or rebuild the Temple. We regularly refer to the striking action Jesus performed in the Temple as his “cleansing of the Temple.” We don’t, perhaps, always realize that any such action was staking an implicitly royal claim: it was kings, real or aspiring, who had authority over the Temple. It was Israel’s kings or would-be kings who planned it (David), built it (Solomon), cleansed it (Hezekiah, Josiah, Judah the Hammer), rebuilt it (Zerubbabel, Herod the Great), and hoped to defend it (Simon bar-Giora) or to rebuild it once more (Simon the Star).

…So when Jesus came into the Temple and performed another dramatic action, driving out the money changers and the dealers selling animals for sacrifice, this too would have been seen within a web of prophetic allusion and symbolism. Jeremiah, after all, had famously smashed a pot at the same place (Jer. 19), symbolizing the coming judgment. But what was Jesus intending to communicate? What did he mean by his action? Like many others, I have become convinced that Jesus’s dramatic action was a way of declaring that the Temple was under God’s judgment and would, before too long, be destroyed forever.

…The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember the angels celebrating in heaven and people joining in on earth?), where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living. As many people will see at once, this is the very heart of what later theologians would call the doctrine of the incarnation. But it looks quite different from how many people imagine that doctrine to work. Judaism already had a massive “incarnational” symbol, the Temple. Jesus was behaving as if he were the Temple, in person. He was talking about Israel’s God taking charge. And he was doing things that put that God-in-chargeness into practice. It all starts to make sense. In particular, it answers the old criticism that “Jesus talked about God, but the church talked about Jesus”—as though Jesus would have been shocked to have his pure, God-centered message corrupted in that way. This sneer fails to take account of the fact that, yes, Jesus talked about God, but he talked about God precisely in order to explain the things that he himself was doing.

…If Jesus is acting out a vision—astonishing, risky, and one might say crazy—in which he is behaving as if he is the Temple, redefining sacred space around himself, something equally strange and risky is taking place in the realm of time.

…Creation was itself a temple, the Temple, the heaven-and-earth structure built for God to live in. And the seventh-day “rest” was therefore a sign pointing forward into successive ages of time, a forward-looking signpost that said that one day, when God’s purposes for creation were accomplished, there would be a moment of ultimate completion, a moment when the work would finally be done, and God, with his people, would take his rest, would enjoy what he had accomplished.

From Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N.T. Wright.