ODE TO CRIMBO

 

It’s a cliché often used by churches who don’t like Christmas that

“Jesus is the reason for the season” which is of course a flat

Rejection of the history that at least in the northern hemisphere

The church inserted its nativity into the food and wine and beer

And fire and fun festivity of the winter solstice. Pagans have priority

In devising the symbols and the stories of midwinter jollity.

Maybe piety has a bad conscience and so fails to seize us

With any sense of the real presence of Jesus.

 

 

 Priest for the people I therefore encourage them to gather

On Christmas Eve to worship although maybe they’d rather

Watch a good film; and faithfully they come, sing carols, and listen

To the gospel. They see the (pagan) Christmas tree glisten

With lights and baubles happy that it’s here beside our crib.

They are kindly men and women, content enough that a seasonal fib

Has taken the place of a Palestinian birth; but there’s nothing here that frees us

From consumer capitalism or helps us meet with Jesus.

 

So I go back to the Bible and read Luke’s great fantasy

Of Messiah’s birth: bright angel multitudes who chant and say,

“To you is born in Bethlehem a saviour who is Christ the Lord!”

“And there were in the same country shepherds “ If a word

Could do the job these would, but although I’m charmed I ask after fact

And wonder if this beautiful play is more than just an act.

All the inspired myth-making may simply freeze us

Stopping our intelligence from reaching towards Jesus.

 

Flicking through Rembrandt’s Etchings, a Christmas gift,

I come across his Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, she in a shift,

Pulled up, revealing her lower torso and strong legs, twisting

In desire towards the fleeing, terrified Joseph insisting

On his virtue. A clear line marks her vulva. Her white belly

Shines. This is the flesh the Word became to tell me

Love takes on the whole humanity that pleases

It, including mine, which brings me close at last to Jesus.

 

                                                                   

 

 

 

 

D

Literally the Latin and Greek originals use words meaning “of an age, of the ages etc” both of which have some reference to quality of life as well as mere length. The English picks up the length without the quality. That’s a problem since only the best and the worst of humanity desire simply more time in which to love or hate. Most of us are less passionate about more time and get tired of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and are happy enough to arrive at the last syllable of recorded time.

Everlasting life is only a gift if it is creative and fulfilling life, which as it happens is what we are promised: the life of God, whether this is depicted as the life of the holy city, or with the words, ‘we shall be as he is.’ ‘Set free from captivity to decay’, ‘ they shall be my people and I will be their God.’

It does not say in the Bible that only Christian believers will have this state, but rather that it is limited to those whose names are written in the “lamb’s book of life“, which means those rescued by the compassionate and crucified one. The Bible also states that there are those who rejected the compassionate and crucified one in life and still do so. Their lives will not be everlasting.

To regard oneself and others as eternal beings is a profound and difficult revelation, since we are so deeply marked by time. How can we not anticipate or dread tomorrow? We are promised a transformation in which this (sweet) mortal being will be swallowed up by immortality, so will just have to meet the challenges of eternity. Perhaps, as a late friend of mine once said, it may not be too bad.

The Creed is not a summary of the life of faith but rather a list of what were considered to be FACTS of faith, namely things or events that believers considered to be so. As can be seen from these blogs, I also accept most of them to be so, although I may understand them in unorthodox ways. My main criticism of this summary is its neglect of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Popular belief, even amongst people who identify as non-religious, inclines towards some kind of hope in the survival of the soul or spirit. Today I’m conducting a funeral service for a man described as non-religious, whose family are also without religion, yet they want me to read the words of Jesus about preparing a place for those who trust in him. But equally, for this family, the idea of the resurrection of the body would seem daft.

Paul, who may not have heard of an empty tomb, experienced the presence of the risen Jesus, and seems to have assumed that the risen Lord was some kind of body. He defined resurrection life as bodily, not thinking of a reanimated corpse, but rather of a spiritual body whose relationship to the mortal corpse was that of plant to seed- a certain identity but a clear distinction between them. As ‘spirit’ is one of Paul’s words for God, we can deduce he saw the resurrection body as godlike, but as fulfilling rather than annulling human being.

He considered that this liberation would happen at the eschaton, the completion of God’s perfect creation, which means that he removed human resurrection from ordinary time: we cannot say when it happens, but we can be sure it does.

The body is the human being as articulated in the material universe, and as marked by its experiences and relationships within that universe. Death may be “swallowed up in victory” but material being is transformed rather than discarded. Life on earth contributes to life in heaven; human experience contributes to the experience of God.

That last statement is heretical. But surely we want to think that the experience of Jesus contributes to God’s experience? Ultimately we are part of what A N Whitehead calls the “consequent nature of God.”

For me, this clause is critical: I cannot believe in a God who permits so many lives to be so miserable, or so many others to be so wicked, without redress. If there is no resurrection, there is no God. Some, including my late daughter, have argued that this belief dispenses with the urgency to establish justice and peace upon this planet, by providing an other-worldly cop-out. As a life-long socialist I disagree. The urgency for this-worldly justice come from a) disgust at injustice b) love of neighbour and c) knowledge of how we and our society will be judged by Messiah Jesus.

My daughter’s other objection to traditional doctrine on this matter, was that it excluded animals. Her views on this influenced mine, so that now I cannot imagine resurrection life without animals. They are included in the resurrection of the body.

Of course this clause is at the heart of Christian faith, but we should look carefully at the original Latin and Greek. Latin has the word, remissio, which comes from the verb to send back, and means release, cancellation, forgiveness; while the Greek has ,Ephesus, meaning liberation, release, letting go, forgiveness. There is certainly good reason to think that the image of the release or liberation of a slave may lie behind the biblical teaching . This is a little different from the usual meaning of the English ‘ forgiveness‘ in that it envisages freedom, not only from guilt or punishment, but from the power of sin, which would reflect the teaching of St Paul, and the actions of Jesus.

It seems good, nevertheless, to retain the usual translation which does point to the one who liberates believers from the power of sin, as well as from any punishment for it. Jesus announced forgiveness from sin as an evangelical promise made without confession of sin or request for pardon, as a means of transformation of the sinner’s life. The sometimes dreary concentration of the church on sin and on its management of forgiveness is not evangelical, nor is the sumptuous celebration of forgiveness without transformation of life, in some evangelical assemblies. In Jesus’ sober prayer, the request for forgiveness of sins matched by a promise to forgive others in turn, points to ‘living in a climate of forgiveness’ as the true meaning of this clause

Thomas Merton has many good thoughts on forgiveness, for example:

“God has left sin in the world in order that there may be forgiveness: not only the secret forgiveness by which He Himself cleanses our souls, but the manifest forgiveness by which we have mercy on one another and so give expression to the fact that He is living, by His mercy, in our own hearts.”

I believe in the forgiveness of sins; but when I go to forgive my enemies I realise how few there are, because I have already overcome them with lies, evasion and charm.

In the Holy Spirit, that is, when we live in God, we share the lives of other believers, who can be called saints because they are holy people. The tendency of modern reformed churches to translate the Latin sancti as ‘God’s people’ by-passes any reference to their holiness which is certainly not the intention of St. Paul who invented this term. He believed that people who lived in the spirit would be holy, not perfectly and not all at once, but slowly and imperfectly they would separate themselves from the standards of the world, to live in the character of God, as Jesus did. So I would keep the term ‘holy’.

The Latin word ‘communio’ comes from the Greek koinonia, meaning a shared enterprise or shared life. It’s a business word, not holy at all. Paul and John use it to characterise the life of the first church assemblies. Both teach that the life they share is not just that of other believers but the very life of God. This lies behind Paul’s concept of the body of messiah, in which the differently gifted members contribute their unique lives to the life of the whole.

If believers share each other’s lives in the assembly, they also share the lives of the members of all the assemblies, even although they may never meet in person. Paul, as I have mentioned above, was always keen to nurture this sense of communion.

And then of course, as believers died, there grew also a sense that the shared life continued across that barrier, because both the living and the dead believers shared the one life of God. The New Testament authors are careful about this sharing: there is no claim that we can speak with our own dear dead, or consult them about our worldly dilemmas. But we remain in a shared life, albeit separated, until the arrival of God’s new world, where there shall be no separation. And the assemblies may keep special remembrance of their saints, as part of the regular liturgy of the Eucharist, where we “rejoice in the communion of saints.” There is one table although it may exist in different dimensions.

Neglect of the “shared life” of believers on earth and in heaven is common and regrettable, weakening their worship and mission.

The word, Catholic, comes from the Greek, katholiky, which in turn is derived from the Greek preposition kata, meaning according to, or to do with: and the noun holos meaning whole. Used of the church it means worldwide, universal, all-inclusive. This clause indicates that the church in which we believe is universal and all- inclusive, as opposed to say, national and sectarian. Roman Catholic might be thought an oxymoron, and often it is. The Anglican Communion is almost as bad, dragging echoes of colonialism. The Church of Scotland is a modest title which however allows a lot of scope for being national rather than universal in outlook. Some local baptist churches are concerned only with the salvation of their members, and the sinfulness of abortion and homosexuality. This is a populist sectarianism.

Still, I believe in a Catholic Church, where all are welcome to worship father son and holy spirit, one God, and are encouraged to live in justice, peace and love for the planet and its creatures. It may never wholly exist but it does at various times and in various places show itself in its true beauty.

It can be seen coming into existence in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of St Paul, who never ceases to urge his local assemblies to be Catholic by remembering other assemblies in their prayers and by contributing to the relief of poverty in Jerusalem. The local church can be universal in its worship, and its communion across distance. The world church on the other hand, is not a mighty army, but a communion of local churches, concerned with the specifics of local existence. It may be essential that the world church has no power structures.

The first thing to note about the Holy Spirit is that it is absence- the absence of powers that enslave a person, whether these are compulsions internal to a person, deriving from trauma visited upon them, or external forces of society, culture or religion. The first apostles for example were unbound from the guilt of having deserted Jesus, and of their own ordinary sins. They were liberated from race, language, nationality, and from the compulsions of wealth. Above all, the spirit of individualised life was absent and in its place was communion, koinonia, shared life.

The Holy Spirit, which is God’s spirit, is not some kind of supernatural gloop which enters into a person, nor is it a secret power which determines positive emotions and beliefs. It is the absence of false determinants and permits the person to live and move and have their being in God. It is the ministry of Jesus which enables a person to die to the powers that control the world and worldly people, and to rise into the liberating spirit of God, which does not enslave, but invites people to live as children of God. They are persuaded to live as God intended.

It is important to reiterate that the Holy Spirit is no-thing. It is not something of the same sort as any worldly thing. It is God, an undefinable reality. The Johannine tradition names it as love and koinonia (shared life). Paul names it as the spirit of adoption by which we cry out to God, Abba, dear father. Although it enters individual persons, it makes them no longer isolated individuals but members of the ecclesia, the assembly of brothers and sisters, citizens of God.

As is evident from my own attempts here, it cannot be fully described, because it is not a reality of this world. Like judgement (see above) it is an eschatological reality, which will only be fully known in the completion of God’s creation. It comes to human beings from the future and is creative of the future. But it is not unknowable: it is known by its fruits, which Paul describes as love joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The living Jesus, who has known life in the world, will be the judge of worldly people. No details are given here about the nature of that judgement, but something like the judgement of The King in Matthew 25 is often assumed.

There is a whole industry in the US based on images of the last judgement from St. Paul and the book of The Revelation, all of which mistakes eschatological events for historical ones. The judgement of the living and the dead does not take place in our space/time continuum; it happens in God, and can only be asserted as prophecy or vision. It expresses the faith that our universe does not have the last word on the story of creation. The brief mention here affirms that faith as part of the truth of God. I am happy to go along with that.

The most stark images of judgement are attributed in the gospels to Jesus himself, and therefore deserve respect. In the story of the sheep and the goats, I like to think that the line between them runs through each and every person, rather than dividing one from another. After all it is a story. And I look forward to being judged; As in any test, I would like to know my score. An objective estimate of my attempt at goodness would be helpful. And I would like to be finally rid of the bits of me that are “goat”; I’m happy to surrender them to the fire. And if Jesus is in charge of this process, I can trust it will be done in love.

Are there people who are all goat? If so, they may be complete goners, but the purpose of God’s judgement is to rescue all the goodness of persons by separating it from all the evil. in the classic medieval view of judgement, as in the Divina Comedia, I cannot see the point of Hell. It does nothing that a properly organised Purgatory could not do.

The “third” day did not originally mean the Sunday after a Friday, but rather the day of revelation, the day when an event is completed. The gospels have made this theological adjective into history. So I do not think there is much history in the gospel narratives of resurrection. That judgement includes the empty tomb. I believe in the resurrection but imagine that the bones of Jesus are in Palestine.

Paul mentions the “facts” of the resurrection: Jesus had really died and been buried, but he “appeared” to specific disciples, then to many unnamed disciples and last of all to Paul himself. Paul describes this appearance: “it pleased the Lord to reveal his son in me.” Doubtless, although the description in the book of The Acts is almost wholly an invention by the author, the revelation of which Paul writes is his conversion to discipleship of Jesus.

I conclude that the historical part of a resurrection narrative is a) the conviction of the real presence of Jesus and b) the call to give witness of his aliveness. This experience is then used to assert another fact which is not historical, namely that God has raised the crucified Jesus from the dead to be part of the identity of God. Such a fact cannot be given a place and a time and is therefore presented as an eschatological fact belonging to the action of God in bringing creation to its ultimate perfection. The resurrection witnesses experienced this as a creative act of God; while I think of it also as a creative act of the believers, similar to the act of creating the God of Genesis chapter 1. In response to experience, human beings, including Christians, invent their Gods. The resurrection of Jesus is the creative invention of the God who is ultimately known as the Holy Trinity. That is not to question its truth.

Narratives of the ascension, such as provided by Matthew and Luke are unsuccessful attempts to turn eschatological fact into historical fact. They point to the truth but they do not embody it. Sitting at the right hand of the pantocrator, the all-powerful, is the position of an emperor’s son and heir, but this clause has not taken seriously God’s identity as the father of JESUS, which reveals him as all- related (all-loving) and all- persuasive.

This composite clause in the creed points to the success of Jesus’ mission and the explosion of creative thought and action by the first believers.,who however attribute it to the work of the creative spirit of God.

This is a mistranslation of the Latin, infernos, and the Greek katotatos, meaning the depths (of the earth). There is certainly no reference to a place of posthumous punishment. From the 3rd century interpreters invented the mighty drama of the Harrowing of Hell in which Jesus liberates the saints of the pre-Christian era from the power of Satan. That is a fine piece of theology, but it may have nothing to do with the Creed as such. Of course if one translates accurately one is left with the question, what was he doing in the depths of the earth? It must mean something more than just being dead.

Can it refer to Hades, the classical place of the dead, described by Homer as “the after-images of used-up men”? The Hebrew word Sheol also refers to a realm of shades. This would envisage Jesus sharing the uselessness of the dead, their lack of agency.

1st Letter of Peter 3 mentions “Christ announcing the gospel to the spirits in prison.” Nobody knows for certain what this means, but it may have contributed to the development of notions of his ministry after death. In any case more general statements by Paul make it clear that no dimension of the cosmos, and therefore no person, is left untouched by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Me? I like the notion of the “harrowing of hell” which is truly evangelical, meaning that even in hell the good news is announced by Jesus, and that souls can respond. This is probably not very orthodox, as hell is excluded from Hope, but I like to think that may be a mistake.