Easter Sunday Paradox

Light rising out of total darkness makes the most stark contrast.

I took this photo at sunrise two days ago. It wasn’t that dark in the environs but my camera pointing at the light source darkens everything else.

 

Rising Light

 

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

–– excerpt from The Valley of Vision

 

On that first Easter Sunday, the ultimate paradox came to pass, for without a willing death, there would not have been a resurrection.

He is risen!

***

 

HAPPY EASTER!

Thanks to the Quarantine Resource List from Alison Chino, I followed the link to her Trinity Aberdeen Pastor’s message from which the above prayer is quoted.

 

 

 

Good Friday Separation

The One who had gone through utter isolation and known our griefs laments with us at this time.

A man of sorrows who had experienced the ultimate separation: In a crisis, his followers deserted him, even his closest denied him; above all, the physical torments on the cross couldn’t match the pain of searing separation from his Father, forsaken.

___________

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

–– Isaiah 53: 2-5

***

This song has been on my mind all week. An apt meditation on this Good Friday as we’re all going through separation like never before. I chose a minimal video with just the words and the music. Take a 3 minute respite in your isolation this Good Friday.

 

***

Reading the Season: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Click for ‘Silence’ movie review and thoughts.

For this year’s Reading the Season, I’ve chosen Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece Silence. Unlike previous years, it’s not as pleasing and exulting a read at Christmas time.  Rather, it’s unsettling and disturbing. It will interfere with your festive mood. It presents an excruciating dilemma that we hope we may never need to confront, and a question that more likely for us to face: Where is God during our suffering?

silence

Why so unpleasant a read at this time? We’re all busy with our festivities. Who would want to think about such a somber question? Director Martin Scorsese thinks it’s seasonal; Dec. 23 is the day his adaptation of Silence will be released in North America. Mind you, before showing here, it will first premiere at the Vatican. What a diversion of Christmas over there.

Thanks to Scorsese, I dug out Endo’s book and reread it. This time around, it’s even more disturbing for me. However, I also see the light seeping through the cracks of a broken human scene. I sure hope Scorsese’s film — twenty-five years brewing in the director’s heart — can lead to some quiet meditation amidst the cacophony bombarding us these days.

Historical Note

First off, very crucial before reading Silence is to establish a frame of reference; this is furnished by the Historical Note at the beginning of the book. Christianity was introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549. It was very well received at that point, despite an expulsion order later in 1587 by the Shogun Hideyoshi and the subsequent crucifixion of twenty-six Japanese Christians and European missionaries. By 1600, there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts living in Japan.

By the time the second expulsion order was issued in 1614, however, the Christian Church in Japan was driven underground. Warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu was resolute in wiping out all traces of Christianity that from 1614 to 1640, an estimated five to six thousand Christians were killed. He later found out martyrdom wasn’t as effective an eradication measure as forced apostasy, especially with leaders of the faith, so torture was widely used towards that end.

crucifixion

In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked to learn that the stalwart leader of the Jesuits mission in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira, had disavowed his faith and become an apostate after being tortured at ‘the pit’ in Nagasaki. No news of him came after that.

Upon this setting Endo begins his story. The historical novel describes the journey of one fervent young priest from Portugal, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, who has had the privilege to be taught and mentored by Father Ferreira years before. Upon hearing Ferreira’s apostasy, and with the reluctant approval of the Jesuit Superior, Rodrigues and fellow priest Father Francisco Garrpe board a ship and sail all the way to Japan to look for their beloved teacher and to investigate the situation. They have been forewarned, the magistrate Inoue is ruthless.

While still on the ship, the priests encounter Kichijiro, a sly, cowardly, and ambiguous figure who later will wade on shore ahead to guide them to some hidden Christians. For a while, the two Fathers have to hide themselves in a hut on a mountain during the day, and minister to the needs of Japanese believers who, despite the danger, come to seek them out for spiritual matters at night.

Later Kichijiro leads them to a nearby island to meet with more hidden believers. To the welcoming relief of the villagers, the fathers secretly conduct mass and baptism despite the risks. The evasive Kichijiro hangs around like a phantom nemesis.

The people suffer greatly under the rule of magistrate Inoue, yes, that Inoue who Rodrigues was forewarned. He extracts from the poor peasants harsh revenues and infuse the utmost fear into those of the Christian faith with his deathly measures. Rodrigues observes that “The persecutions of Christians make their faces expressionless. They cannot register on their faces any sorrow —nor even joy. The long years of secrecy have made the faces of these Christians like masks. This is indeed bitter and sad.”

Never before has Rodrigues felt so deeply about the meaningfulness of his mission:

“… like water flowing into dry earth … For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.”

But such a firm conviction begins to shatter when Rodrigues comes closer and closer to the reality of persecution. No, not just of his own, but those of the Japanese peasants, his flock. Many are faithful to the end. When discovered, they would be tied on trees in the shape of a cross at the seashore, the rising tide slowly consumed their bodies after two or three days.

The ultimate punishment is ‘the pit’. Believers are tied up and suspended upside down above a pit. Blood would flow out of their eyes, ears, nose and the slits on the neck. They would be literally drip dry into a slow death through several days.

fumieA way out of such torture is to trample on the fumie. The fumie is a wooden plaque with a copper plate on which the image of Christ was artfully engraved. A person’s willingness to trample on the fumie is Inoue’s way of testing if one belongs to the outlawed Christian religion. It is also a convenient way to turn a believer into an apostate upon the threat of torture and death. One only needs to put one’s foot on the fumie, trample or even just step on it, then one can be released immediately, a most easy and convenient ‘formality’ to show one’s denunciation of faith. This was what happened to Father Ferriera.

The officials would say: “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction. This is only a formality. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”

To a believer, this may sound like a temptation, or self-deception. Or, is it a necessary choice to survive?

In this historically based novel, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996), a Japanese Catholic, paints a vivid picture of the crisis of faith in the face of extreme suffering, the doubts that often lie hidden even in the most devout. In the midst of persecutions, where is God? Why is He silent?  Endo is not depicting so much about the hubris of foreign missionaries coming with the hope and optimism to preach and convert, but just the opposite, he has exposed the lowest state a believer, let alone a priest, can possibly experience, the utter humiliation of being the one to denounce and betray his God, albeit under duress.

The duress is horrific indeed. The priest sees no glorious martyrdom but is witness to unbearable torture of these peasants. For several nights, the screams and moans of five Christian villagers accompany him in his sleepless nights. Father Rodrigues is thus being dragged into the ultimate dilemma: He only needs to place his foot on the fumie and all five of these suffering peasants will be released right away.

In a court of law, a statement or action made under duress cannot stand as evidence to lay blame, as the subject is under threat and coercion like Father Rodrigues is here. But in the court of the priest’s conscience, it is an ironclad verdict: Apostasy!

As he is struggling with this painful dilemma, trample on it and denounce his faith or five peasants will be suspended in the pit till death, Father Rodrigues seems to encounter an epiphany. Seeing the well-trodden, blacken face of the Christ image on the fumie, the priest hears a voice breaking through the silence:

“‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

Indeed, the allusion to Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crows points to Christ’s forgiveness, the light that sheds through the cracks of human failure. After his denial, Peter later served his Lord with transformed fervency and love. Yes, even the Rock, upon whom the Church was to be built, had once denied Christ.

When I first read Silence a few years ago I could not accept Rodrigues’s action. This time around, I’ve come to see that Endo is not discussing theology here, but depicting an imaginary scenario. In the darkest hour of a believer’s journey—likely Endo’s own as well—when a devout is entrapped in an excruciating dilemma like being suspended in the deep pit of spiritual conflicts, Endo draws our attention to the response of a compassionate Christ.

As to the seeming silence of God, Endo lets us hear these internal dialogues:

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’
‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

At the humble manger some two thousand years ago, God had spoken, with a birth that pierced the darkness of that silent night.

***

Reading the Season of Christmas Past:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

***

Seven Stanzas for a Happy Easter

Rocks

 

“Seven Stanzas At Easter” by John Updike

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

– John Updike (1932-2009)

***

Happy Easter to All!

Staying Awake in the Garden

I came across this image in Biola University’s Lent Project. It is by the Austrian children’s book illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger. Among several awards she had won, Zwerger received the acclaimed Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration—the highest international award given for “lasting contributions to children’s literature”.

Staying Awake in GG

Its title is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, from her book Stories From the Bible. Without condescension, Zwerger’s image speaks with clarity such that a child can easily grasp its essence. Three people dozing off, each against a tree. From a distance, under a massive dark cloud, a tiny, lone figure walking towards the ominous void. The illustration is perhaps one of the rarer perspectives that accompanies this narrative:

“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”    – Matthew 26: 36 – 46

What struck me is how modern the feel; these three guys could be anyone. And they are so casual too, like, barefoot in the park. Considering the horrific mission their Master is facing, their body language speaks avoidance, indifference, and, even betrayal. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak – blame it on the good supper – they’re totally oblivious while their Master in a distance, alone, is fighting the most anguished battle of his life.

Are these guys named Peter, James and John? Why, they could be you and me.

***

Reading the Season: Luci Shaw

Every year around this time, I try to stay afloat in the sea of chaos and consumerism.  My method of survival has been to seek a quiet haven where I can dwell upon the meaning of the Season.  I entitled my annual December post on this theme ‘Reading the Season’.

This year, watching the daring flash mob singing of Hallelujah Chorus in a shopping mall food court has jump started my quest for a spiritual respite.  In a time where the legitimate word is Jollity over Jesus, where Christ has been declared politically incorrect at Christmas, and where God is denounced together with Bigfoot and the tooth fairy in ads on buses, I want to mull on some subversive counter-reflections.

This time, I’ve steered my search towards poetry and found this collection edited by Luci Shaw.  It is the 1984 Regent College Publication of  A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation. (Click on link to read excerpts from Google Books.)


Luci Shaw has partnered with Madeleine L’Engle on her literary journey, including being her publisher, co-author, fellow poet and close writer-friend.  For years, I have enjoyed Luci Shaw’s poetry and her other works, and one time, had sat in her workshop learning the art and craft of journal writing.

A Widening Light is a collection of poetry by some of twentieth century prominent Christian writers and scholars, including C. S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, Mark Noll, as well as lesser known but just as inspiring contributors.  My favourite in the collection are those from Madeleine L’Engle and Luci Shaw.

As a meager attempt to stoke the flame of faith and keep the Reason in the Season,  I’d like to share some excerpts from this collection here.

Made flesh
After the bright beam of hot annunciation
Fused heaven with dark earth
His searing sharply-focused light
Went out for a while
Eclipsed in amniotic gloom:
His cool immensity of splendor
His universal grace
Small-folded in a warm dim
Female space—
The Word stern-sentenced to be nine months dumb—
Infinity walled in a womb
Until the next enormity—the Mighty,
After submission to a woman’s pains
Helpless on a barn-bare floor
First-tasting bitter earth.

Now, I in him surrender
To the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
Was closeted in time
He is my open door
To forever.
From his imprisonment my freedoms grow,
Find wings.
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
Slips through death’s mesh,
Time’s bars,
Joins hands with heaven,
Speaks with stars.

Luci Shaw


Some Christmas stars
Blazes the star behind the hill.
Snow stars glint from the wooden sill.
A spider spins her silver still

within Your darkened stable shed:
in asterisks her webs are spread
to ornament your manger bed.

Where does a spider find the skill
to sew a star?  Invisible,
obedient, she works Your will

with her swift silences of thread.
I weave star-poems in my head;
the spider, wordless, spins instead.

Luci Shaw



After annunciation

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d been no room for the child.

Madeleine L’Engle

.

.

The risk of birth

This is no time for a child to be born.
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born.
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle





Click to read my other ‘Reading The Season’ posts:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeliene L’Engle

2012: C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy 

2011: Madeleine L’Engle: Walking on Water

C. S. Lewis: A Grief Observed

Fleming Rutledge: The Bible and The New York Times

Madeleine L’Engle: The Irrational Season

Photos:  All photos in this post except “Water drops on spider web” are taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, All Rights Reserved.

‘Water drops on spider web’ is in the public domain, please refer to Wikimedia Commons for further  details.  CLICK HERE to go there.

The Power of Aloneness

.

Before the resurrection was the death.
Before the death, the long path of suffering.
Before the suffering, the lonely struggle,
Agonizing solitude.

The Garden of Gethsemane,
Epitome of aloneness.
Even the closest would fall asleep
But one kept watch, awake for all.

Sweat dropped like blood
A heart pierced before nails were hammered in.
The soul cried out no, not this cup
But oh, not my will.

Not fear of sinews tearing from the joints
But the searing pain of separation
A Father who would leave totally alone
the tainted Son of Sin.

A prostrating prayer, a yielding spirit
The power of aloneness thus transformed.
As He got up from that rock, He had risen
Ready to accept the kiss of death.

I would never know the nailing pain
nor the bitter taste of that dreadful cup
But let me feel the power of solitary rest
To stay awake and rise and conquer death.

.

***

Poem by Arti of Ripple Effects
On the Eve of Good Friday, 2010.

Photos taken by Arti in Israel, 2007.
Top: Via Dolorosa, Bottom: A Garden in Jerusalem

All Rights Reserved.

Season’s Musings

At this time of the year I always have a struggle, a fight against numbness.  The hustle and bustle of the Season leaves me striving to grasp something authentic and meaningful.  I have a hard time staying afloat the flood of packaged cheeriness, muzak in jingles or bells, ephemeral Santa’s and reindeer.   With the word “Hallelujah” almost becoming a laughable cliché, an ordinary expression for scenarios from finally finding the right gift for the family pet to paying up the Visa bill,  soon it would take a history lesson to clarify the origin of this festival called Christmas.

Intentionally or not, the Reason of the Season has been masked so not to offend, the birth of Christ replaced by themes acceptable to most cultures, like gift-giving, family reunion, ornaments, decorations, and good will towards all.  ‘Season’s Greetings’ has become the politically correct sign of the time.

On that winter night in Bethlehem, the shepherds bore no gifts. Indeed, their very presence and worship could well be the gift they offered.  Yes, the several wise men brought along gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Christ child only, not to share among all.  For these gifts symbolized the very reason for His Advent, the infinite King debased, the lowly birth was just the beginning of a short and misconstrued life that ultimately ended in a horrific death.

The Advent, the few weeks before Christmas, is the best time for me to ponder again such a paradox.  If there is any joy or cheeriness, it comes from the initial degradation and ultimate agony of One.  It is from that vicarious suffering with humanity and the offering of substitutional death that Christmas derives its meaning for me.

A few weeks ago during a Sunday message, the name Joni Eareckson re-emerged in my mind.  I was a young teenager when I first read her tragic story.  At 17, she dove into shallow water and broke her neck, and remained a quadriplegic ever since.  I cannot imagine myself paralyzed from the neck down, having had to be lifted from bed to wheelchair for 37 years.

But what she has done sitting in that wheelchair has surpassed many able bodies. Her international ministry to people with disabilities is still thriving after 30 years.  The paintings which she has labored over inch by inch with a paintbrush between her teeth have become a testimony of perseverance, every stroke an ode to life.  Through her writing and broadcasting, Joni has become a voice and inspiration for the disabled and their families, all because she knows her suffering had been vicariously borne by the One who came just to share that pain, and redefine the meaning of life.

The hymn (Phillip Bliss, 1875) that had uplifted Joni in her most despondent hours painted not a cheery figure but a suffering Christ who came with no jingles or bells, and utterly devoid of packaging:  “Man of sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came…”

If you have a few minutes in this busy Christmas season, pause and take a look at this short clip.  Of all interviewers, I found Joni talking to Larry King, dated June, 2009.

Stream of Easter Consciousness

stained-glass-2a2So students are sent back to school this week, just in time for Easter.  Nobody wants to have a holiday right on Easter week, especially the public school board.  That’s how you survive,  by being politically correct.  And the last two weeks’ holiday is called Spring Break of course.   Easter has almost become a banned word, like Christmas.  Who wants to be rude and offend others, we’re Canadians after all.

I know,  it’s not totally a taboo yet.  It’s a much tamer word, Easter, than Christmas, just because it doesn’t have the six-lettered word in it.  You can curse with that name, but no, God forbid you should say it in a proper context.   I can see you sneer, what’s a proper context, you ask.  You’re right of course, no word or context is more proper than others, we’re egalitarians after all.  As for Easter, as long as it’s synonymous with eggs and bunnies, pastels and flowers then it’ll never die.  Who needs resurrections?

All Fridays are good.  They even have a whole restaurant chain commemorating the day.  What’s it called… yes,  T.G.I. Friday’s.  Who says we’re not religious, we thank God for happy hours.  We’re much more open-minded now,  more civilized, equal and fair, don’t want to pick one day to be better than the others.  But definitely we won’t forget Ramadan, or the Chinese New Year.

There’s probably no God,  so stop worrying and enjoy your life, the sign on the bus says.  So we’re safe?   Whew!  No God means we can now be happy, worry free, all life, no death, …  Umm just let me figure this one out.  Give me a minute, I’m just not as smart as them.

Jesus wept.  He wept at the graveside of Lazarus, brother of his dear friends Martha and Mary.  He wept at the fragility of life.  He wept at the searing pain of separation.  He wept at the hopeless and uncomprehending expression on Mary’s face, even after he said to her I am the resurrection and the life.

Fleming Rutledge said more than ten years ago:  “I am deeply convicted, more so each year, of the profound sinfulness of the human race.  Yet because of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ — because of that and nothing else, because of that and nothing less — I am also convicted of the truth of what the Bible tells us about God’s plan of salvation.  The rainbow bridge does not lead to Valhalla, where the gods quarrel so much that they destroy themselves.  The rainbow bridge leads to the Cross and to the empty tomb on Easter Day.”

Utterly politically incorrect!  Who uses the word sin anymore?  Who’s Fleming Rutledge, anyway.  Never heard of him.  No?  It’s a she?  No wonder.

Now these words echo loud and clear too, written by T. S. Eliot in… what, 1934?  Aren’t they a bit archaic now?  Or, maybe they’re really prophetic:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

We should go on living, be happy and worry-free, the sign on the bus says.

So we go on living…

and Jesus still weeps.

stained-glass-41

*****

Original photos and text copyright by Ripple Effects, https://rippleeffects.wordpress.com, April 2009.  All Rights Reserved.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

J. S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring has never ceased to stir my heart.  Of all the renditions, none can grab me so movingly as Josh Groban in his captivating performance with the mesmerizing Lili Hayden on the violin.

Bach wrote the Cantata that contains this excerpt in 1723.  Its lyrics articulate for us what is unspoken in the depth of our souls, releasing our yearnings for a transcendent Creator, magnificent yet compassionate, afar yet ever so near.

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring
Holy wisdom, love most bright

Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light

Word of God, our flesh that fashioned
With the fire of life impassioned
Striving still to truth unknown
Soaring, dying round Thy throne

Through the way where hope is guiding
Hark, what peaceful music rings
Where the flock, in Thee confiding
Drink of joy from deathless springs
Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown

*****

Reading the Season: Fleming Rutledge

Two things I always do whenever I go to Vancouver:  Check out the indie movies and visit the Regent College Bookstore on the UBC campus.  I admit before that gloomy December day when I entered the Regent Bookstore,  I had not heard of the name Fleming Rutledge.  Thanks to Regent’s gigantic book sale, I came out with, among others, two of Rutledge’s titles:  The Bible and The New York Times and The Battle for Middle-earth, a commentary on Tolkein’s writing.  For the purpose of basking in the Christmas Season in a more meaningful way, I delved right into The Bible and The New York Times.

The theologian Karl Barth has a famous axiom that says sermons should be written with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  This book is evidence that Fleming Rutledge has taken this motto to heart in her over twenty years of preaching and teaching ministry.  The book is a compilation of her sermons delivered in the 80’s and 90’s from the pulpit of Manhattan’s Grace (Episcopal) Church where she has served for 14 years, as well as from her visits to other churches in Eastern U.S.  As for her writing, Annie Dillard has commented that, “this is beautiful, powerful, literary writing.”

The 34 sermons are arranged according to the liturgical calendar, all eloquent reflections on the meaning of the occasion, from Thanksgiving to Advent, Christmas to Lent.  I’ve heard numerous sermons in my life, countless I dare say, but I admit this is the first time that I read through a compilation of sermons and thoroughly enjoy them all like a page-turner.  They throw light on events of our world, from politics to popular culture, addressing them as springboard to a spiritual perspective albeit not without practical wisdom; her commentaries on the human condition are incisive and spot-on.  I’ve come out heartily admiring Rutledge’s intellectual prowess and literary repertoire, but above all, her boldness in proclaiming what may not be politically correct in this day.

rembrandts-annunciation-of-the-angel-gabriel-to-mary

The four Advent Sundays are preparatory for the main event of Christmas.  Rutledge reminds us that without recognizing the darkness we are in, there is no need for the Light.  Oblivious to unresolvable conflicts and the depravity of our human condition, we would not be desperate enough to search for truth and redemption.  Without being shattered by tragedies and wounded by sorrow and grief, we would not be genuinely seeking solace and healing.  And, not until we see the absurdity of our human world, we would not humbly seek meaning in the transcendent.

In one of her Advent sermons, actually exactly today, the last Sunday of Advent, Rutledge relates the spiritual experience of John Updike one time when he was alone in a hotel room in Finland.   He was besieged by a sense of awareness that pulled him to confront what he called a “deeper, less comfortable self.”   She quotes Updike’s own words:

“The precariousness of being alive and human was no longer hidden from me by familiar surroundings and the rhythm of habit.  I was fifty-five, ignorant, dying, and filling this bit of Finland with the smell of my stale sweat and insomniac fury.”

Rutledge notes that at the time:

Updike is in the prime of his life, at the peak of his powers and the pinnacle of his fame.  Yet even a celebrity has to be alone with himself at three o’clock in the morning, even as you and I.

If we approach Christmas in such a state of  “deeper, less comfortable selves”, then we might come closer to appreciate the magnitude of its significance and meaning.

Annie Dillard has commented that Rutledge “writes as a person who knows she is dying, speaking to other dying people, determined not to enrage by triviality.”  The world situation today is grave, our hope lies not within but beyond ourselves.  For this reason the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Emmanuel, God with us …

This is the meaning of the Virgin Birth:  God has moved.  God has moved, not we to him in our impotence, but he to us.

This is not the Season to be merely festive and jolly.  Christmas is the celebration of the Grand Entrance into humanity, thus reason for deep rejoicing.

“All hopes and fears of all the years,

Are met in Thee tonight.”

 

rembrandts-adoration-of-the-shepherds

 

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Art images:  Rembrandt’s Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary and Adoration of the Shepherds

Click on these other ‘seasonal reads’:

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw

Reading The Season:  Madeleine L’Engle

Reading The Season:  C. S. Lewis

 

 

Reading the Season: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

c-s-lewis2To embrace the Christmas season in a more meaningful way, I’ve been trying to stay close to the heart of the matter by reading.

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis is one of my selections. Now, of all the wonderful books by the Oxford scholar, why would I choose this title for the Season?

From my reading of Joan Didion’s The year of Magical Thinking, I learned that during her mourning for the loss of her husband, she had read C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. That sparked my curiosity. After finishing Didion, I turned right away to explore Lewis’s book about his own experience of loss.

After 58 years of bachelorhood, Lewis found the love of his life in Helen Joy Gresham, an American author who had come all the way to England in search of a genuine and credible faith. Their love story is poignantly portrayed in the movie Shadowlands (1993). In Helen Joy Gresham (‘H’ in the book),  Lewis found his equal in wit, intellect, and a faith that had endured testing and evolved from atheism to agnosticism and ultimately reaching irrevocable belief. Lewis entered into marriage with Joy at her hospital bed as she was fighting bone cancer. She did have a period of remission afterwards, during which the two enjoyed some traveling together. Regretfully, only four years into their marriage, Joy succumbed to her illness.

shadowlands

A Grief Observed is a courageous and honest disclosure of a very private pain. But what’s so different about this personal loss is that this prominent Christian apologist, acclaimed academic and writer, was willing to lay bare his questioning mind and disquiet heart to his readers. As his step-son Douglas Gresham wrote in the Introduction, the book is “a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane”. By crying out in anguish and exposing his torments, he shared his personal journey of painfully seeking the meaning of death, marriage, faith, and the nature of God. Lewis was brave enough to question “Where is God?” during his most desperate moments, when his heart was torn apart by searing pain and his intellect failed him with any rational answers.

Gradually he came out of despair realizing that the loudness of his screams might have drowned out the still, small voice speaking to him.

The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it:  you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs…

After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give.

After the fog of doubt has dispersed and the dust of despair has settled, Lewis saw the dawning of a gentle glimmer. He realized that he had been mourning a faint image or memory of his beloved, but not beholding the reality of her. The fickleness of his senses offered only fading fragments of her image. However, it is in praise that he could enjoy her the best.

I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. This become clearer and clearer.  It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow–getting into my morning bath is usually one of them–that H. rushes upon my mind in her full reality, her otherness.

Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift.

Further, as with God, he knew he should grasp the reality, not just the image.  He should treasure God Himself, not just the idea of Him:

I need Christ, not something that resembles Him.  I want H., not something that is like her.

Upon this revelation, Lewis powerfully points out that the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is how God reveals Himself to us in His full reality.  Our ideas of God are shattered by Christ Himself.

The Incarnation… leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.  And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.

As Christmas draws near, I ponder once again the humbling of the Creator God, born a babe to grow up to experience the full spectrum of being human, showing us by His life and death the reality of God, an iconoclastic act only He can perform.

Lewis has drawn me to the heart of the matter, the crux of the Season:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

— John 1:14

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Click on thse other ‘seasonal reads’:

2012 Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy

Reading The Season: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw

Reading The Season: Fleming Rutledge

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle