Archive for the ‘Third Bundle’ Category

MATTHEW 2:13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Already in the opening chapters of Matthew’s story we become aware of the guiding archetype (creative image) in his portrait of Jesus. His story is intentionally shaped according to the narrative figure of Moses.

The narrow escape in infancy from the murderous plans of an imperial ruler, a visionary experience in the wilderness where his mission is tested and confirmed, a miraculous victory over the sea, the revelation of a new ethic (commandments/beatitudes) from a mountaintop, his message of God’s kingdom, his provision in ratifying a covenant between God and the community, and his central role as liberator – such are merely the broad strokes of comparison between the Moses of old and the New Moses in Jesus.

Some of us begin to get nervous when we learn that there is no historical record whatsoever of Herod the Great’s pogrom against male infants in or around Bethlehem. And when we are made aware of the significant discrepancies between the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, we might begin to question the truth and reliability of their conflicting “reports.”

In Luke, for instance, Jesus is born in a Bethlehem manger behind an inn with no vacancy, while Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary had a house address in Bethlehem. Luke has to get the unborn Jesus from Nazareth to Bethlehem, simply because Bethlehem was in the prophecy of the messiah, and Nazareth – well, he was called Jesus of Nazareth after all. Who’s right? The non-logical answer is that they both are, depending on the story you’re in.

                                                                                                 

The reader may believe that all this comparing and contrasting of the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke only raises the possibility for confusion and a crisis of faith. Why push us to an edge where we must make a choice between one or the other, or even discard them both as ungrounded fictions?

We should note, however, that this was never the claim. The point is that we don’t have to choose one or the other, and furthermore, that they are not ungrounded fictions at all. They are indeed grounded fictions, and the ground in this case is not historical fact but spiritual truth.

Underneath the dramatic action of Matthew’s story is his personal conviction that Jesus is the New Moses. And just as Moses was the heroic liberator of God’s people from their bondage in Egypt, so is Jesus the one who sets people free from their spiritual captivity to guilt, fear, and futility.

Moreover, as Moses revealed the covenantal principles of the Law, so also did Jesus reveal the principles of a New Covenant – this time not based on the logic of retribution (“and eye for an eye” or “you get what you deserve”) but of forgiveness (“Your sins are forgiven!”). It is as if Jesus is recapitulating the life of Moses, but at a spiral turn higher up, so that salvation history is seen as shifting to a new level of fulfillment.

As long as our critical relationship to these stories is held to the task of determining (or denying) their factual reliability we will be prevented from stepping through the narrow gate of a deeper understanding.

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HEBREWS 2:10-18

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

13 And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again,

“Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

As “the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people,” Jesus’ suffering and death are being interpreted by the author as having accomplished the reconciliation of the world to God. How is that?

The imagery and its meaning is fairly straightforward. In the ritual of atonement as described in the book of Leviticus, the dynamic of reconciliation is represented in two separate but essentially related “episodes.” In the first, a goat (selected by the casting of lots) is sacrificed and its blood used to sanctify (make pure) the communal space between  God and the people. This was understood as God’s provision and initiative (since it is the first of the two episodes) on behalf of human salvation.

Following this, a second goat was brought before the people. The high priest placed his hand on the head of the animal and confessed the collective guilt of the community, effecting a transaction whereby the goat was made to carry this burden of guilt into the outlying wilderness and away from the people. This, then, was the response of the people to God’s provision of grace and forgiveness. God acted first and the people responded. Grace was revealed, guilt was confessed, and reconciliation was accomplished.

In using this ritual of atonement as a paradigm for the interpretation of Jesus’ passion and death, the New Testament authors were offering a lens into its meaning for human salvation. His blood sanctifies the place of contact (the cross), and our confession places the burden of our guilt on his body in order to receive a forgiveness already accomplished.

                                                                                               

Whereas early Christian reflection upon the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ centered its attention on his atoning death on the Cross and the Resurrection mystery, later generations expanded the frame with the symbols of Nativity and Ascension (the coming and return to God) of the world savior, and still later with Incarnation and Pentecost (the embodiment of the cosmic-creative Word in Jesus and the indwelling Spirit of Christ in the disciple community of the church).

A responsible theology will not simply throw these concepts under a common category, but will search out the evolution of Christian experience by following their expansion as symbols in the growing traditions of the New Testament.

And throughout, we must keep our eyes on the figure who is the axis around which all these symbols turn: Jesus of Nazareth, the one who lived among us, proclaimed the New Reality, reached compassionately into our pain, confusion, fear and need, suffered our rejection but came back every time with forgiveness and the promise of authentic life.

In the end, the full meaning of his life eludes the grasp and control of our rational minds. Jesus revealed something, and in Jesus something was revealed that escapes the logical formulas of dogmatic orthodoxy, something that instead invites us to ponder its mystery and contemplate its meaning for the adventure of our human journey into God.

 

PSALM 148

1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels;
    praise him, all his host!

3 Praise him, sun and moon;
    praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens,
    and you waters above the heavens!

5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for he commanded and they were created.
6 He established them forever and ever;
    he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and frost,
    stormy wind fulfilling his command!

9 Mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Wild animals and all cattle,
    creeping things and flying birds!

11 Kings of the earth and all peoples,
    princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and women alike,
    old and young together!

13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his glory is above earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up a horn for his people,
    praise for all his faithful,
    for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

What we have described as the third phase in the spiraling ascent of spiritual growth is also the trimester of new birth. We can see more clearly now that God was present with us all along, and that the angels (friends and strangers) who reached out to us in our time of need were truly the auspicious incarnations of God’s grace and peace.

Relieved for having made it through, but even more thankful for the sunrise of a new day after the soul’s dark night, we look out on a world that seems more colorful than before, more radiant with meaning and miracle.

If our understanding of God has been allowed to evolve along with the dynamic progression of our personal and spiritual growth, then God also is experienced in a new and more relevant way. Most typically our idea of God becomes more universal and mystical at the same time: the One who is “Lord of All” is also the inner ground of my being.

This is a time for reflection on the deep crisis and transformation variously called the Nativity, Incarnation, and Apocalypse of Love. The startling way by which the Light of Truth entered the world throws all of our orthodox notions of God out of balance. If we have any hope of receiving its genuine mystery, we must pause, look back, and make the connections.

Especially now, in fact, as the world is returning to “normalcy” (business as usual, status quo, the half-asleep condition of ordinary consciousness), we need to catch hold of Bethlehem’s star.

ISAIAH 63:7-9

7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
    the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
    and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
8 For he said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
9     in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
    but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) was likely composed sometime after the return of the exiles from Babylonia, when the people of Judah were rebuilding upon the ruins of once-glorious Jerusalem. While the author of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), writing during the period of exile, had developed the metaphors of his displaced generation as the scapegoat of world redemption and the suffering servant of God’s saving purpose in history, this last section of the book reflects the concerns of a more settled community.

References to God carry a consistent acknowledgment of divine transcendence, and the community is quite obviously shifting in its self-awareness as an agency of evangelistic fulfillment (Second Isaiah’s theme) to becoming increasingly involved in the sacramental practice of remembrance and worship.

The spiritual life very clearly moves through seasonal cycles, with each “season” presenting the organizing motifs of our journey into God peculiar to its location in the larger rhythm of time. Typically a period of establishment and expansion (thesis) will give way to a season of crisis and redefinition (antithesis), which in turn opens out to yet another time of reorientation and new (or renewed) commitment (synthesis).

Eventually this synthesis itself becomes the status quo that must break open or break down for the deeper impetus of growth to advance. Staying in one place or remaining permanently the same is never a viable option – unless our goal is extinction!

                                                                                                    

It is typically in retrospect that we can see God’s present hand at work through the ordeals, adversities, and bereavements of life. When we are blessed in these difficult moments with an “angel” of mercy, guidance, or strength (depending on our need), the timely ministry of our angel is often seen only afterwards as the incarnated grace of very God (in the language of the old creeds).

This may be because our notions of the Divine have become so trapped in transcendence as to disqualify in our minds even the possibility of the Real Presence of God in the midst of it all.

That is, in fact, the essential crisis of the middle period, experienced and universally symbolized in the imagery of autumn (fall) and winter, when the life seems to be draining from the world we once thought was so secure. According to the theory of faith development, this is the “dark night” when our (idea of) God is no longer sufficient to our actual need.

The danger is that we might insist even more frantically (and fanatically) that our (idea of) God remain unchanged, and thereby deny (reject, suppress, rationalize) our actual experience – and with it the authenticity of our spiritual life.

In the third phase of synthesis (the coming-together of a new perspective), that earlier time of denial and absence becomes the birthplace of Emmanuel – “God with us.”