Reflection

Sacramental Politics: A Review

In Sacramental Politics: Religious worship as political action, Brian Kaylor explores the various ways religion and politics commingle, focusing on acts of worship and political activism.   The book presents a problem: Two things that don’t go together and we think of as separate and radically different things do in fact often come together, religion and politics. Religious worship can influence and affect politics and politics can effect religious worship.  Given the dominant view of religion and politics that they are two irreconcilable and separate realms, Kaylor offers a theory of how to account for the times that religious worship and political action and activism do come together and commingle.  His theory for how this occurs uses the doctrine of transubstantiation as a  controlling metaphor as he explores this commingling of religion and politics varying from prayers said at Democrat and Republican party conventions to Shane Claiborne’s 2008 Jesus for President tour.

At first Kaylor’s uncritical acceptance of our current beliefs and assumptions about religion and politics was disorienting.  At first it seems that Kaylor merely accepts the assumption that politics and religion are entirely separate spheres that have (or should have) nothing to do with each other while seeking to give an account of the many and varied ways religion and politics do in fact have a great deal to do with each other.  This apparent acceptance of this view, affirmed that religion and politics really were these two absolutely distinct substances that couldn’t naturally commingle, yet the author also seemed to want to give a positive or at last neutral account of the transubstantiation of politics in worship and worship in politics.  It was difficult to tell in the early chapters whether Kaylor was arguing that this “transubstantiation” was something to avoid that violated the clear and true realms of political and religious activity, or if the author was meaning that religious worship had a relevance to the world and politics and thus “transubstantiation” was the way this was allowed to occure.

The first four chapters given the acceptance of our general assumption that religion and politics should be and are separate and irreconcilable things, seems to critique the ways both the religious left and religious right make use of  transubstantiation.  Though, Kaylor’s stance is one of academic and scientific description of what occurs without judgement.  Also, I had the unease of if one accepts the absolute separation, then religion and worship are meaningless activities that can have no relation to any real action in the world political or otherwise. By the fifth Chapter “Religious Worship as Political Space” the transubstantiation theory begins to be an indirect critique of the assumptions about religion and politics the author seemed to accept as a given.

Chapters 6 and 7 get to the heart of Kaylor’s position: “Religious worship as inherent Political Action” and “Relgious worship as Politics.”  For Kaylor there is no way to actually separate out religion and politics, politics will at moments simply be transubstantiated in religion or worship and religion and/or worship will be transubstantiated in politics.  However, Kaylor believes we should be aware of how and when this occurs and shouldn’t accept all instances of this transubstantiation

Sacramental Politics offers a good and extended reflection on the various ways that religion and politics interact, mix together and influence and participate in each other.  His theory of “transubstantiation” is useful only in the rhetorical structure of the book that seeks to undermine our assumptions about the absolute and impenetrable “wall of Separation” between religion and politics that if it were true would render religion and worship to be a merely meaningless private individual subjectivity that would have no effect or consequence for how one would live their daily life.  And would render politics as a realm that any true person of faith couldn’t enter into as a person of faith.  What Kaylor in the end offers is a way to move beyond our current assumptions and dogmas about the separation of religion and politics offering a way to evaluate and critique any particular instance of the commingling of religious worship and political action. However, I’d argue since the “theory” presented in the book functions more as a rhetorical device to avoid a direct critique of our cultural and societal assumptions and dogmas, for Kaylor or anyone to move forward one would need to leave the author’s theory behind.

On the Web:

Brian Kaylor

Brian Kaylor on Twitter

Biran Kaylor on Facebook

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

God Forever Physical: Mystery of the Feast of the Ascension of Christ

Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, into heaven.  As this feast is on a Thursday, it is at times transferred to the 7th Sunday of Easter or passed over altogether. This feast may also seem superfluous, or merely a marking of one last event in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles.  Many of us pass this feast by and don’t give it much thought, I know I did this for much of my Christian life even after seminary.

Part of a reason to pass it over is that given our current cosmology it seems a little embarrassing. Space is up not heaven.  The spatial ascension, which would have confirmed some ancient (not all mind you) cosmologies, and would be all this was about if all we have on this day is a description of Christ going from earth to heaven. The crude (and false) interpretation of this feast is that we celebrate how Jesus got back to heaven.  This isn’t what this is all about as a careful reading of say the Gospel of John shows.  Jesus Christ wasn’t walking around for 40 days waiting to return to heaven, he was already there.

Then what is this all about?  If Jesus Christ didn’t need the conveyance of clouds and slowly lifting up into the air to get to heaven then what is this spectacle all about?  Well first we should recognize that yes this is spectacle!  None of the descriptions of Jesus’ ascension are necessary, rather they are all symbolic, visual cues and clues to the meaning of the incarnation, Christ’s death and Resurrection.  Without this symbol of ascension and its spectacle, that transfixed the Apostles and disciples gaze, we miss a very important point, if Jesus just one day disappeared in a poof, like his appearances to the disciples or his disappearance with the two disciples in Emmaus, then we loose an important assertion about Jesus’ and thus God’s physicality after the incarnation.

The physicality of the spectacle is important.  Jesus of Nazareth is a real and physical human being.  Granted something extraordinary is happening with this physical body of the Christ, but after the Resurrection Jesus’ body does strange things and has strange properties (walks through doors and walls, has wounds that can still be touched but aren’t’ a problem for the body) but it is still physical Jesus eats food, touches people, breaks bread.  The spectacle of the ascension tells us that  Jesus Christ as a body is in heaven with God.  To go up, is symbolic, one ascends to a throne, heaven is the throne of God.  Up represents transcendence, divinity as beyond the physical plane.  Yet in this beyond there is now and forever a physical body.

In short: the Ascension of Christ through spectacle and symbol tell us that the incarnation is a permanent reality.  God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is permanently human, with the wounds of the Cross, and forever united with creation and the physical universe.  God and matter are forever united. This is the ultimate meaning of the Gospel, and our salvation, it is the means by which all is made whole and the world is transformed. Now, forever, God is part of creation and the universe, in and through the body Jesus of Nazareth.  We can be united with God because God has united God’s self to us in our humanity and in our physicality.

Mystagogy of Easter: Vine and Branches

If you are like me raised in Sunday School the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Easter may be very familiar to you: I am the vine you are the branches. This familiarity shouldn’t render impotent this rich and deeply mystical analogical reflection.

Part of what this analogy convey’s is our dependence upon Christ.  Yet, this isn’t the focus that Christ gives to the metaphor of vine and branches. Rather Jesus clarifies his metaphor with the injunction to abide in him. “Abide in me as I Abide in you.”   Here is the intimacy of a deep and mystical relationship. Dependence is to speak of need, abide speaks of desire and rest.

Christ in interpreting his own metaphor of vine and branches pushes the metaphor to an absurdist level. a branch of the vine doesn’t make a choice of whether or not to abide in the vine. It is the vine the grows the branches.

If we abide in Christ like a branch abides in a vine then we will have the same life and love flowing through us that is in Chirst, we will have the love of God available to us.  This abiding is for us and for ourselves.  This abiding empowers us to present Christ and the life of God to others, as God the spirit leads us.  In this way we are transformed and the world is transformed.

are you living in the life of God through participation in Christ.

Now it is true that certain things are contrary to participation in the life of God, but some things that we have thought exclude one form life, like the being a eunuch for the people of Israel isn’t.

God is love, love and hate in the member of Christ can’t coincide.  Love of God and love of other human beings are intimately linked. We know this, but I think more often see the failure to love in others, than in ourselves

The Mystery of the Good Shepherd: Easter Mystagogy Week 4

How are we to hear the parabolic speech of Christ and God as our shepherd?  “The Lord is my shepherd…” and “I am the Good Shepherd...”?  In these passages of the third week of Easter and in the image of the Good Shepherd we are contemplating belonging. We are contemplating hearing and speech: “...they will listen to my voice.“.

Jesus alludes to Psalm 23 when he says he is the Good Shepherd. Within this parable we are in the midst of John’s subtle but persistent high Christology. Though, Jesus takes the shepherd analogy, in a different direction than the psalmist.  Jesus uses the economic investment a shepherd has in his flock to illustrate Jesus’ investment in us.  Investment is elided with care.  The shepherd will care for the sheep and defend them from danger in ways a hired hand simply wont.  The hired hand doesn’t have the same investment in the sheep as the shepherd does.

What sort of investment does the Good shepherd have in his sheep?  Life itself.  God in Jesus Christ lays down his life, undergoes death.  God invested God’s very life in us.  This is even greater than any human shepherd will actually do for his sheep.  a Shepherd may risk more in the face of danger than the hired hand, but actual death?.  Here the analogy is exploded to give us an image in which God’s love for us can come through in its extra-ordinariness.

But what is the point of all this the laying down of the life to take it up again.  A shepherds care, sheep responding to the shepherds voice and not the hired hand or the thief?

Is not the point love and relationship that leads to life.  Is it not an appeal to continue to respond to God’s voice to as the psalmist says: “Today, oh that you would hear his voice! Harden not your heart, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness:”

God speaks to us a continual invitation into the life of the Holy Trinity.  This Life will shepherd us in the way of life.  But are we listening? Do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, and the invitation into the community the fold of God?  Do we trust and listen as sheep who know the difference between the one who really cares for them and the one paid to care for them?

Are our hearts softened by the voice of the Good Shepherd and do we turn to the voice?  Are we transformed by our name being spoken and do we allow are hearts to be softened thus that we can love as the Good shepherd has loved us?

Are we in the fold? or have we wondered off?  Are we in the fold of the very life and love of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit?

This is our life, this is the place of transformation : hearing God’s voice in our hearts, invited into the fold of God’s love.

 

 

The Mystagogy of Easter: According to what Reality Do We Live?

(For the first in this Easter mystagogy series see The Doubt of Thomas the Twin)

Mystagogy for the Third Week of Easter: The Meaning of God’s Union with Humanity

We are encouraged in the texts for the third Sunday of Easter to revel in the joyful astonishment of the Resurrection and to ecstatically contemplate the amazing work of God in Jesus of Nazareth. In the Gospel of Luke we continue to hear of that first Easter day, with the Twelve and the disciples of Jesus in that upper room.

Now that we have passed through the waters of baptism and have died and been risen with Christ, in the Easter Vigil, we see two things:  1) Christ’s death and resurrection is an amazing thing and is contrary to what we intuit and expect from Scripture and 2) it is what God had always set out to do and has been part of God’s revelation and what the witnesses to this revelation have consistently been saying.  Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the Scriptures and Hebrew prophets.  Moses, the writings and prophets all anticipated what is unexpected and astounding.

These two things show us that only after the incarnation passion and resurrection can we then read the Scriptures in the fullness of God’s self-revelation, and through this new reading and renewed understanding, enter God’s saving and loving work in the cosmos for all time.  If we look and interpret the world and the Scriptures from outside this vantage point of Jesus of Nazareth we see a very different world and hear a different word. We read a different text.

This is a source of the joy and awe of the Resurrection: without the Resurrection and prior to the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, the universe and the human condition makes sense but leads one to only death and futility (“vanity”).  While this understanding leads the Church to affirm God’s revelation in the particularity of the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, this biological identity isn’t a guarantee of hearing God’s revelation. The church also affirms that human reflection and contemplation on divinity and the cosmos has encountered something of God. Yet thsi all needs a consummation and completion accomplished by God.  God’s theophanies and self-revelation to the particular people of Israel and human seeking to know and understanding the divine share a similarity in these understandings of God are only completed or fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God.

There is a further mystery: the fullness of God found in Jesus Christ doesn’t impart new knowledge , rather the fullness of God in Jesus Christ becomes a way to see all knowledge, and previous understandings of God.

The mystery we wrestle with now after – after Jesus’ Resurrection and ascension, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after our baptism- is that after is often much like before.

What makes the difference? 

This is our awe. Nothing is erased, not even the suffering of God the Son. Rather it is all taken up into God, and thus sin and our separation are transformed.  What makes the difference is only the incarnation of God the Son as Jesus of Nazareth. We live either in the awareness of this reality or the reality of the universe before the incarnation, before the union of God and humanity and all creation.  We can see the world and in seeing experience the world in very radically different ways, one of true liberation or one of bondage and futile struggle.

This is the meaning of the Resurrection, there is a new way to be in the universe, and there is a new way of being for all of creation.  The created, physical, and human order is now united to God – reconciled to God.  The logic of this way of being is life that has passed through and overcome death and futility.

We can still be blind to this reality.  We can still fail to understand and see that God, in Jesus of Nazareth, accomplished a new thing. But if we commit to the path of theosis, to living in the Resurrection, we live in the age to come and no longer need to be bound to the age that was and is now passing away, but is still here bound to sin and death.

The Mystagogy of Easter : The Doubt of Thomas the Twin

The lectionary each season of Easter brings us back to the same texts. Lent has a similar structure but there is a little more variation between each year in the three year cycle, while for Easter we read the same  passages from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John.

This all is related to Baptism: preparing for the waters of Baptism at Easter and then unpacking the meaning of living in our new life given at baptism.  The teaching that prepares one for baptism is called catechesis and the teaching of the meaning of the baptismal life is called mystagogy, teaching about what had remained hidden before one gained sight in the waters of baptism.  We must learn to see.

The texts for the Second Sunday of Easter direct us to sight and touch.  The author of the epistle of John claims the reality he is speaking of and witnessing to is what he and the other apostles not only saw but handled. And of course the Apostle Thomas famously says I will not believe unless I touch the wound in his side and holes in his hands.

We can get caught up in Thomas’ doubt.  When so many Christians act so very certain, Thomas becomes the patron saint of those who aren’t always so sure.  This use of  this story of the Resurrection of Christ allows many to have the faith of Thomas in the face of the absolutism in which doubt is seen as akin to darkness and thus a sign of God’s absence in a distorted interpretation of 1 John 1:7.  Yet, we shouldn’t settle into the comfort of this interpretation, which still focuses on the doubt rather than the encounter.

1 John 1 is about the tangibility of the truth which the Twelve Apostles handed on and which has come down to us.  They saw and handled.  Thomas, an Apostle needs to handle his faith. While, Jesus’ words of blessing to those who believe without the tangibility given to the Twelve and the disciples, still affirms that we have faith in  something that was visible and tangible: that is in the physical and not just ethereal, spiritual or psychological, but something that affects the whole of us and the universe.

1 John 1 expands upon the story of Thomas the Twin: It invites us into faith beyond mere assent.  We misread the testimony of the epistle of John if we think it says just accept what I say because I say I handled and saw.  No, this witness of seeing and handling is an invitation into the tangibility of the faith of the Church, the Body of Christ.  We are invited into the actualization of the Blessing Christ bestows on those who will hear Thomas’s story and his encounter with the Risen body of Jesus Christ, still bearing the wounds of his passion.  This is real, no fantasy, no story to make us feel better. The doubt of Saint Thomas the apostle tells us there’s no point to go along with it all if one has never had the encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

If someone tells me they don’t believe because they have never encountered God, or experienced the reality of Christ (and especially if they say this as one who had been formerly a Christian, as one merely assenting to propositional belief), I think of Thomas, and I say yes, there is nothing I can say to you – mere assent to belief you haven’t encountered isn’t the faith of the Church.  All I can do is witness to my own encounter within the realm of the faith of the Church that has been handed down from Thomas the Twin and the other eleven Apostles, who handled and saw this mystery. Through their witness handed down through the centuries I too have handled and seen.

Good Friday: Just another day in Post-Christendom

Yesterday, I had an appointment with someone, in the conversation my being pastor came up (it wasn’t about anything church or religiously affiliated), but that we met on Maundy Thursday, nor that today was Good Friday came up in the conversation.  The person whom I met seemed to have no sense that I as a Western Christian was in the midst of our high holy days, and that Sunday was Easter.

As I traveled to the Oratory’s Maundy Thursday service with a member of the Oratory, the business of the City was unchanged, people coming home from work as any other day.  I went out briefly today and the feeling is the same.  This week I’m running on a different time than many of those who are about me.  In this post Christian and post-Christendom world we have these strange remnants like Christmas, and people talk about the war on Christmas, and of course the Media has been putting out the requisite biblical or Jesus stories (though even that seems less prevalent this year, than in past years.)

This isn’t a complaint.  But it does feel like I’m going about this celebration in secret. Part of this is that the week has been less intense for me since, the Oratory will only have held a Maundy Thursday service.  We are going together to other congregations for Good Friday and for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday services.  I have more time to see that many others, some of whom may be Christian aren’t as taken up in to this the central holiday of Holy Week and the Three Days.  I’m also more attuned I guess that for many Easter Sunday will come and that will be that.  The center of our faith will be a blip on events that fill up their lives.  That this is so for the Christmas and Easter crowd is fine, what I find more problematic is when due to a variety of factors otherwise committed Christians won’t take the time to sit with the passion, death and Insurrection of Christ.

Even so, I understand.  This week has, as I said above, has been less focused then in previous years where we had a dramatic liturgy of Palm?Passion Sunday with Palms and processions and dramatic reading of the passion Gospel, and having the full three days celebrated with one or two other congregations.  This year I will be celebrating the three days but this week hasn’t been so consuming.

This isn’t a complaint. There is something of a truth in that Holy Week seems to be something barely noticed and passing by without remark.

What God did in Jesus of Nazareth isn’t obvious.  What was happening on that Friday in ancient Roman occupied Palestine, was just another execution of yet another failed resistance to Roman rule.  Yet another “messiah” crucified.  Move along and make a few snarky comments, nothing more, life goes on.

Tonight, I along with many other Christians will adore this once common implement of execution.  Granted it has other symbolic resonances, yet at base we adore tonight what should have been failure and the end of the story. We do something strange, because what we adore is hidden from view. The significance of these three days is almost to common, or rather like a treasure hiden in a field, it isn’t obvious or remarkable on the surface.

This is just another day, nothing special, life will go on.  Yet, we assert something remarkable happened and happens.  Something slowly is transforming the ordinary into something more, revealing the inner beauty and reality of the ordinary as what is quite extra-ordinary. And this began in a torture and death of one particular human being, a seemingly unremarkable and ordinary human being on the edge of a great empire over 2000 years ago.

 

Lenten Reflections

In the past here at Priestly Goth, I’ve taken Lent to offer up my reflections on this time of fasting, penitence and Self-Reflection.  This Lent my writing is focused on worship liturgy and tradition (continuing reflections begun here and here) , and human sexuality .   However, I thought as we conclude the first full week of Lent that I would direct readers attention to past reflections with brief comment.

Why Fast?  and  Further Reflections on Fasting.  Wrote these two posts Last year because the Oratory of Jesus Christ Reconciler decided to share in the fast (as each was able) fasting using Eastern Orthodox Lenten fast guidelines. We are doing so again this year.  Fasting has been and still remains for me a bit of a puzzle.  It is a spiritual practice I take part in (or maybe better attempt ) to but I don’t do it well, and I don’t Intuit the fast.  Fasting makes most sense to me in the patterns of the Church year of having periods of fasting and periods of feasting and celebration.  These aren’t the only reasons to nor patterns of fasting, but when I’ve tried fasting  outside of these liturgical patterns I become way to focused on the not eating, then any intensified sense of prayer or other spiritual benefits.

A couple of years ago I engaged Peter Rollins on his Atheism for Lent program and explored  the “atheism” Rollins was offering for lent with ST. John of The Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.  I found certain parallels, but also significant differences.  thinking about that conversation in relationship to some of what I’m currently thinking on: I don’t want to offer and develop some new approach based on some idea or practice from the history of the Christian Church of some Saint of the Church, nor do I want to simply take whole cloth some past practice or idea and attempt to adhere to it as if time hasn’t passed.  What I seek to do is see those who have gone before as companions on the Way and to see what is passed down in the Tradition of the Church as something to live into as a person of the 21st century.  As I see it these two approaches need no retrieval, or bringing things forward, rather it is bringing myself to the Church and seeing what springs up from taking what i know and experience and offering it to what has been given to me through the life giving blood of the Church and the Mind of Christ, and the inspiration of the Spirit.  I receive and offer, not take and mold.  In both approaches something new will emerge.  One forms a new kind of Christianity, in the other one discovers in the treasury the old and new together..

And lastly a Lenten sermon for the firs Sunday of Lent “Seeing the Lie Behind the Truth.

I hope you may find these Lenten thoughts of benefit and an aid to your Lenten journey and practice this year.

Celebrating the Holy Nativity, #StayWoke

A friend of mine in a Facebook post comment thread mentioned that the Christmas story is often told as a children’s story.  I think there are several layers to this characterization.  One the Holy Nativity is often seen as a cute and comforting story, a G movie  safe for the viewing pleasure of the entire family.  Secondly, as a cute, safe and comforting story it takes on the character traits of the Disney fairy tale (in contrast to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales).  Lastly the Christmas story is often simply kitsch, as most nativity sets for sale in Christmas isles clearly demonstrates. The above is all part of the celebration of Christmas that knows nothing of the season of Advent.

Here, and at the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconicler, I took up reflecting on the season of Advent as a time to stay woke.  But what now in this twelve day season of Christmas (yes Christmas day is simply the first day of Christmas, we have Christmas all the way until January 5th.)?  The seasons of Advent and Christmas are seasons of the Holy Nativity, God’s revelation in and through a the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  As such can we see the Holy Nativity not as some comfortable story but something that stirs something in us, even something that disturbs us from slumber?

I think so and I think the Icon of the Holy Nativity is more helpful in this than the typical nativity set one can buy on the Christmas shelves in stores.

holynativity

 

Take some time to reflect on this icon and it’s meaning: at its center is Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger.  If you are familiar with iconography, the cave and the manger should remind one of icons of the empty tomb, the manger is a sarcophagus the cave a tomb.  Also, Mary is lying down, she has after all just given birth.  In one corner two midwives are washing the baby Jesus.  These midwives not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, are part of a type of realism, there surely were midwives, but also hearken back to the story of Moses. Midwives are an important part of the story of liberation and salvation.  And Jesus is not only  a second Adam but also a second Moses, come to deliver God’s people.  In the other corner sits Saint Joseph, in conversation with an old shepherd, or is it the shepherd who is attempting to draw Joseph out.  This is a great deal to take in.  Joseph, perhaps has his doubts about what all this means.  How is it that the messiah is born in such rough conditions and greeted by such rough persons.  Does God reveal God’s self in such common rough and uncouth ways? But then Above Joseph are the Magi traveling following the sign in the heavens.  These are men with power and wealth, but they aren’t Isrealites and Children of Abraham.  One may look at this icon and simply see confusion.  The whole story here depicted in form and color may not make much sense.  How is this a holy image.  How in such common place things, midwives at work, a feeding trough and Mary and Joseph silent puzzled without answers, a depiction of a holy and revelatory event.

Can it truly be that this even changes everything.  That God is found not only in this crazy story, but in that little infant born so long ago, Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this how liberation comes?  Does this shock and disturb?  Perhaps it should.  In this infant God dwelt in our midst and is now united with the entire cosmos.

But the story of Christmas and it’s celebration doesn’t end here: the next three days we in Celebrating God’s revelation in coming as a little child, we mark the first martyr, Saint Stephen, remember the Evangelist Saint John the Apostle, and Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents.  If you haven’t guessed this isn’t a children’s story, nor Disney Fairy tale.  This is a celebration and a story that isn’t afraid to face the worst humanity can offer.  It certainly is a match for facing our countries continuing struggle with the Racism that has been woven into the very fabric of its history and policies. It’s also a story and an icon that can encompass our questions, doubts, confusion and despair, and say at the same time God has come, liberation, justice and revelation have come in the midst of all this horror and confusion.