Prayer for Lent (Walter Breuggemann)

“Loss is indeed our gain”

The pushing and shoving of the world is endless,
We are pushed and shoved.
And we do our fair share of pushing and shoving
in our great anxiety.
And in the middle of that
you have set down your beloved suffering son
who is like a sheep lead to slaughter
who opened not his mouth.
We seem not able,
so we ask you to create the spaces in out life
where we may ponder his suffering
and your summons for us to suffer with him,
suspecting that suffering is the only way to come to newness.
So we pray for your church in these Lenten days,
when we are driven to denial
not to know the suffering,
not to engage it,
not to acknowledge it.
So be that way of truth among us
that we should not deceive ourselves.
That we should see that loss is indeed our gain.
We give you thanks for that mystery from which we live.
Amen.

(Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth [2003], 153)

Poems for Lent: Luci Shaw

Continuing the series on Lenten poems, here is “Royalty” by Luci Shaw (fitting for the week of Palm Sunday).

He was a plain man
and learned no latin.

Having left all gold behind
he dealt out peace
to all us wild men
and the weather

He ate fish, bread,
country wine and God’s will

Dust sandalled his feet

He wore purple only once
and that was an irony

(A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation, edited by Luci Shaw [1984], 91)

Poems for Lent: Ephrem the Syrian

ephrem-the-syrianEphrem the Syrian (d. 373) was a theologian and poet of the ancient Syrian Church. He wrote Bible commentaries, sermons, and hymns, but it is for his poetry that he is most widely known – his contemporaries called him “the harp of the Spirit”. Some poems were verse homilies and probably recited, but the majority were composed in stanzas and meant for singing in communal worship. For Ephrem, the poetic form was ideal because it suited his understanding of the Christian mystery: God takes flesh to himself and offers it for us to consume as Bread and wine. The Christian life is enveloped in mystery, and Ephrem’s poetic hymns are meant to guide Christians into an encounter with the mystery of grace and participate in it through worship.

This is from Ephrem’s poem “On the Resurrection (1)”

1. The Lamb has come for us from the House of David,
the Priest and Pontiff from Abraham;
He became for us both Lamb and Pontiff,
giving His body for sacrifice, His blood for sprinkling.Blessed is His perfecting!

Refrain: Blessed is Your rising up!

2. The Shepherd of all flew down
in search of Adam, the sheep that had strayed;
on His shoulders He carried him, taking him up:
he was an offering for the Lord of the flock.
Blessed is His descent!

3. He sprinkled dew and life-giving rain
on Mary, the thirsty earth.
Like a seed of wheat He fell again to Sheol
to spring up as a sheaf, as the new Bread.
Blessed is His offering! [...]

16. His birth gives us purification,
His baptism gives us forgiveness,
His death is life to us,
His ascension is our exaltation.
How we should thank Him! [...]

22. Whom have we, Lord, like you -
the Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
the Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
the King who bore disgrace to ensure honor for all!
Blessed is Your honor!

(Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, translated by Sabastian P. Brock and George A. Kiraz [2006], 81-83, 91, 95)

Poems for Lent: Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory of NazianzusI have lately been reading the poems of Gregory of Nazianzus and Ephrem the Syrian, both 4th century theologians. As I was pondering one this morning the thought struck me how fitting it is for Lent. This is from Gregory the Theologian’s “On the Son” (De Filio):

First of all we shall sing the Son… [1]
He didn’t shave off any bit of Godhead, and still he saved me, [60]
stooping as a doctor over my foul-smelling passions.
He was a man, but God. David’s offspring, but Adam’s
Maker. A bearer of flesh, but, even so, beyond all body.
From a mother, but she a virgin. Comprehensible, but immeasurable.
And a manger received him, while a star led [65]
the Magi, who so came bearing gifts, and fell on bended knee.
As a man he entered the arena, but he prevailed, as indomitable,
over the tempter in three bouts. Food was set before him,
but he fed thousands, and changed water into wine.
He got baptized, but he washed sins clean, but he was proclaimed [70]
by the Spirit, in a voice of thunder, to be the Son of the One Uncaused.
As a man he took rest, and as God he put to rest the sea.
His knees were wearied, but he bolstered the strength and knees of the lame.
He prayed, but who was it who heart the petitions of the feeble?
He was the sacrifice, but the high priest: making an offering, but himself God. [75]
He dedicated his blood to God, and cleansed the entire world.
And a cross carried him up, while the bolts nailed fast sin.
But what’s it for me to say these things? He had company with the dead,
but he rose from the dead, and the dead, the bygone, he raised up:
there’s a mortal’s poverty, here the incorporeal’s wealth. [80]
Don’t you dishonor, then, his divinity on account of his human things,
but, for the divine’s sake, hold in renown the earthly form
into which, thoughtful towards you, he formed himself, the
incorruptible Son.
(translated by Peter Gilbert, On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus [2001])

Conversion and Ritual

In a fascinating essay on St. Augustine’s conversion, Thomas Finn argues for the importance of ritual. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion is sometimes told exclusively in terms of his garden experience at Milan in 386AD, and indeed Augustine himself calls that event his conversion (Confessions, 8.12.30). However, taken on its own the garden experience sets a pattern for understanding conversion that centers on an instantaneous decision of faith. Finn, however, argues that Augustine’s Confessions shows a conversion narrative inImage which a decisive moment initiates a long ritual journey. Augustine’s garden experience, on Finn’s reading, was part of a much larger narrative that began in his youth and carried forward into the ancient process of the catechumenate.

The central decision [Augustine] faced was not whether to believe but whether to present himself for initiation, which he decided to do in the summer of 386. Well before that…his mind was made up about the content of Catholic belief. No, the problem was to become, to enter. Although it is not customary to read the Confessions as the account of a ritual or liturgical journey, it is clear that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor limited to the garden in Milan. Rather, it was a process that began with his inscription in the catechumenate as an infant in November 354 and ended when he laid aside his white baptismal garment on the Sunday after Easter, April 25, 387: a thirty-year journey from first-born to new born. To be sure, his journey was not the journey of every ancient convert, but the ritual process that assured Augustine’s conversion, mutatis mutandis, attended the conversion of everyone, at least every documented case, who become a Christian in late antiquity. The case of Augustine establishes with clarity that conversio goes beyond the turned of one’s mind to the turning of one’s self, for which, at least in antiquity, ritual was indespensable. The ritual process was the normal means in the religions of antiquity to form and to reform the self in a community whose ideal was transformation (“Ritual and Conversion: The Case of Augustine,” in John Petruccione (ed), Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patric Halton (1998), p. 161).

This is interesting to me because Augustine’s garden experience is often the paradigm for Protestant evangelicals. Continue reading

What do we mean by “the Christian life”?

We promised some excerpts from our forthcoming book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, so here we go. An obvious question is simply what we mean by the construction “the Christian life.” To what does it refer, what is its range of meaning, and from where does one draw to fill out its content? This is taken from the Introduction:

‘The Christian life’ is theological shorthand for redeemed human existence in communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit. That is, it names the temporal experience of ImageGod’s eternal purposes for fellowship as they are realized in human beings according to God’s grace. To state it yet another way, to address ‘the Christian life’ is to speak about the character of reconciled and renewed human existence. God’s gracious purpose to conform fallen people to the image of Christ takes shape and fulfills itself in time and space; this is the Christian life.

Putting it this way points out the rich doctrinal nexus within which the doctrine of the Christian life is situated. While the primary reference of ‘the Christian life’ is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension.

Lent for Academic Theologians

What are the dangers of academic theology for the theologian? This is something I often think about, so I was keenly interested when I stumbled upon this Lenten meditation from a theologian at Notre Dame. The entire post is worth reading here, but this bit in particular stood out to me.

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate Doctor of Divinitya bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Let me add a few thoughts.  It seems to me that one of the principal dangers for the academic theologian is their  vocational self-understanding (by “academic” I mean a theologian, like myself, whose work is formally and primarily, though not exclusively, carried out in the university). What frames the meaning and fitting practices of their vocation? Continue reading