Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent: A New Hope

The beginning of Advent is the beginning of the Church year. And like other New Years, it is a time to both look at the past and the future. The story of Christianity, depending on how one frames it, is one of looking to the past or looking to the future. Through grace, sins of the past are washed away, and we are given new life and promised new earth. We await Christ’s victorious return, the second coming, the restoration of creation to God. But return, second coming, restoration…all of those imply that what we anticipate once was already. We are not moving forward so much as arriving back home.

In the nineteenth century, some Protestant groups began identifying as restorationists, believing that they were returning Christianity to the beliefs and practices of the earliest churches. But surely one could see the futility in such a proclamation. 1,700 years had passed. Empires had risen and fallen. What these nineteenth-century Americans thought they knew about first-century Jews and Greeks was obscured by language, cultural differences, missing information, and most of all, time. To say one could return to first-century Christianity is to ignore the vast influences of the world for the past few millennia.

Even when we say that we follow traditions, handed down through the centuries, we are not living in a temporal vacuum. Greek gave way to Latin which gave way to the vernacular. Traditions, while still honored and passed on, acknowledged the changing of people and culture. In post-colonial studies, one of the first tasks of a post-colonial state is to figure out its cultural identity. Is the culture what existed 400 years ago before the empire arrived? Or must the empire’s influence now be incorporated? Is that a betrayal to the ‘authentic’ culture? Returning to a pre-colonial time is not realistic; the empire left its mark, and even if it didn’t, no culture stands stagnate for hundreds of years. Change is always happening, and there is no one 'authentic' culture. A return to some perfect past is an illusion.

There is no going back.

Judaism is marked by Babylonian captivity. Christianity is marked by Roman persecution. Humanity is marked by our own sin. We can never return to a pre-Fall state. A reconciliation does not erase the history we have experienced. A return to God is not going into the past; it is going into the future. It is arriving home with the battle scars and being healed. The first week of Advent is about hope. We acknowledge our bondage and anticipate our liberation. And when that day comes, when that Savior arrives, we will take on our new identity.

Monday, November 24, 2014

St. Peter of Verona

St. Peter of Verona was born in 1205 to Cathars. Cathars believed that there were two gods, the good New Testament God of the spiritual world, and the bad Old Testament God of the material world. Everything of the material world came from Satan and was evil, including sacraments. However, Peter was educated in Catholic schools and at the University of Bologna. He became a Dominican friar and preacher. In 1251, he was appointed as inquisitor of Lombardy, where many Cathars lived. He converted many Cathars but also made several enemies. 

On April 6, 1252, he and another friar named Dominic were travelling to Milan when they were attacked by hired assassins. Peter was struck in the head with an ax. He died in the road after writing the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed in his own blood (Credo in unum Deum). Dominic died five days later. Peter was canonized the next year; this was the fastest papal canonization in history. Peter came to be known as St. Peter Martyr. One of his assassins repented and became a lay Dominican.

St. Peter of Verona’s feast day is April 6. (From 1586 to 1969, his feast day was April 29 because his death date would often conflict with Easter.) I find his icons one of the goriest, as he is often depicted with the ax still cutting into his head.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

And Crown Him Lord of All

Today is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. When I saw that on my calendar, I thought, what a cool title. King of the Universe. It sounds at first expansive, all-encompassingly powerful. However, it is not all-encompassing. It’s one title of many. The universe is only one of Christ’s realms. That’s what makes the title even cooler; King of the Universe is such a grand title, but even it falls short. 

However, the day is normally shortened to Christ the King Sunday. While it sounds less impressive, the more I thought about it, the more I found just Christ the King to be a better description. The title king is not attached to a specific place or people, instead it is a description. Christ is prophet, priest, and king. He’s king of the Jews, of the universe, of creation, of heaven and earth. 

The royal title and his humble life is intentional. The Jews were waiting for a very traditional king: royal birth, wealth, power, respect. He was supposed to take control of the land and lead armies. But Jesus didn’t do that. He was born into an unimpressive family. He had no home or belongings. He had no political power. He led no battles. He died a poor criminal’s death. He overturned our preconceptions of what king means. But that’s because our preconceptions are limited, earthly ideas. As always, there is so much more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The End is Near

As the liturgical year draws to a close, those uncomfortable passages come along. The ones about judgment and who gets into the Kingdom of Heaven. Lines get drawn in the sand, and I awkwardly would just rather skip ahead to an angel visiting Mary. I’ll recite the Nicene Creed every week, but I’d really rather not think about the ramifications of the “life of the world to come.” 

When the Left Behind series first came out, my grandfather didn’t read them. He said he didn’t need to know what would happen to those left behind, because he wasn’t one of them. Now, while that mostly may have been a dig at the whole rapture doctrine, the point still stands that he didn’t see that as a realistic prospect for him, so it didn’t interest him. I feel must the same way on atonement theories. It’s not so much that I’m pridefully assured of my salvation, but I just don’t see not being with God as a realistic prospect.  

I’m too surrounded by him. He’s ever present in my life. I feel his love. I try my best to respond. The concept of being outside of his grace is not too painful; it’s too unimaginable to even be painful. Fire and brimstone won’t work on scaring me into submission. It would be like telling me that my earthly father is going to start hitting me; while I know people experience family violence, my experience says otherwise, so such warnings seem unfounded. 

But there are these warnings. The sheep and the goats. The places of fire and gnashing of teeth. The end is coming. Or, rather, ends are coming. There is the end of the world, the second coming, the new earth, the all shall be well, and the Last Judgment. And there is the end of me, my death, my particular judgment. Winter harkens, death loom, and warnings of ends and judgments abound. Shouldn’t I be worried or sad or shocked? Why the malaise over the end? 

I think there are several reasons. The first, like I mentioned, is that it’s just too foreign a concept for me to grasp fully. Another, although selfish perhaps, is that I’m optimistic that I’ll rest under God’s grace. Lastly, I feel that the end is good, even if it has seemingly terrible ramifications. The judgments are ultimately about God’s power and Christ’s victory over death. Creation is purged and fully reunited with its Creator. All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. 

Or maybe I’m just seriously lacking in Catholic guilt.

Friday, November 14, 2014

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 94)

Buddhist edition!

1. Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta were on campus this week working on a mandala. This is from the opening ceremony in which they sanctify the space where the work will be done. There is a series of chants and a few moments of instrumentation.
2. After the opening ceremony, they sketch out the mandala's design based on instructions found in their scriptures. There is a lot of sacred geometry and symmetry.
3. Once the design is sketched in chalk, they begin to apply sand. A mandala is sacred sand art representing sacred space and unity of the universe. The monks who work on the mandala study for more than 15 years on the meaning and meditations behind the mandala and then another 2 or 3 years on the actual artistry of it.
4. There was a station for people coming through to practice using the chakpur, the instrument that funnels sand onto the table in a manageable way. I was able to do straight lines but couldn't get creative. The girl next to me made this.
5. An altar with a picture of the Dali Lama was set up in the room as well.
6. The four main colors used represent four elements: yellow=earth, red=fire, green=water, and white (with blue in it)=air. Orange represents heat/spirituality. The mandala begins in the center and works outward. 
7. Here is the mandala near completion. Once it is finished, there is a closing ceremony, then the mandala is destroyed. The sand is poured into the closest moving water.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Shaking and Quivering and Why I Stand Still

It occurred to me today that there is a similarity in two traditions that seem so dramatically opposed. The first of these is the Shakers. They were a revivalist branch of Quakers that began in the eighteenth century. The “shaking” come from their charismatic, prophetic services. They had women leadership and promoted equality of sexes to the point that there was both a male and female manifestation of Christ. They were pacifists. And most notably, they were celibate. Sexual impurity was understood as Adam’s sin, and since there is no marriage in heaven, there would be no marriage in Shaker communities either. This meant their numbers could only grow by conversion (and in some cases, adoption).

The other tradition is the Quiverfull movement. It’s not a particular denomination, but can be found among various fundamentalist-Baptist-Pentecostal-nondenom families. Quiverfull has extremely strict gender roles; women must submit to their fathers/husbands. It is expected that everyone get married and have as many children as they can. The term “quiverfull” comes from a verse in the Bible saying that having many godly children is like having a quiver full of arrows in which to fight evil. 

At its peak, there were only ever about 6,000 Shakers. Today, there is only one active community of three members. The Quiverfull movement began in the 1970s and has grown rapidly, both through conversions and by high birth rates. So what do these traditions have in common? I could point out some similar worship styles: low liturgy, prophecy, charismatic services. However, the real similarity is the disregard for vocational differences. 

In Shaker communities, marriage is not an option. In Quiverfull communities, celibacy is not an option. Both treat sex as an absolute that applies to all people equally. To me, that misses the point of both celibacy and marriage, neither of which should primarily be about sex. This conversation isn't about sex. Making it about sex separates the act from the fuller understanding of chastity. All Christians should be chaste. Whether or not that chastity includes having sex or not depends on vocation, which is much bigger and more important than sex. A vocation is the path one follows to best serve God. Some do that through celibacy; some do that through marriage. It’s important to discern the best path for the individual, not being forced into a vocation by a social mandate. 

While there is some comfort to be found in having that decision pre-made, I don’t think I would like being told that I have to be celibate or that I have to get married and have children. I don’t want my life dictated by social pressure like that. I don’t want to say that vocations should be a choice, because they should be a response to God’s direction. Maybe I do have to be celibate or have to get married—but getting that pressure individually from God is much different than getting it from a community of people.

There are many different ways to serve God—cloistered prayer, raising children, preaching, teaching, lives of busy schedules and hundreds of people, and lives of simple living and meditation. I’m glad I have the freedom to sort out God’s call for me. I don’t have to shake in fear or quiver in submission to a community’s narrow definitions.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 93)

1. Yes, this Quick Takes is on Saturday because I've slept a lot at weird hours and lost track of what day it is. Grad life.

2. So, elections were this week. Actual results aside, nothing makes me question democracy like elections.

3. I didn’t really pay that much attention to this election cycle as November means there is only one month before all my classes finish up. The stressful season is upon me!

4. To add to that, I have a thesis proposal due next week. I’m glad that’s it’s starting to come together, but it’s all going very fast.

5. A good thing about November’s arrival means Advent is just a few weeks away! Mom’s knitted nativity is getting me prepared for the time of preparation.
6. I’ve been thinking of covering my head in church during Advent this year. I’m not feeling particularly called to, but it is a practice I would like to try at some point to see if it enhances or distracts during worship. I guess I need to make a decision soon in case I need to find veils.

7. So this exists. Gregorian-ish version of Oasis. I’m not sure if I actually like it or not, but it fascinated me as much as when I discovered bluegrass covers of 80s pop songs.