Monday, 31 December 2012

Ironies of the Nativity in Matthew 2 A Carol Service with a difference!

A guest post by my brother, Richard Matcham, who pastors a church in Torquay, based upon a recent carol service. 
2:1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…”
Bethlehem. The ancestral birth place of the great King David, through whose line the promised Messiah would come. So Jesus was born of a royal human line in fulfillment of Scripture and the hope of the word. Born in a place which means “House of Bread” – a clue to His own identity as the Bread of Heaven, the bread which fed the Israelites in their wandering wilderness, and ultimately, his claim to be the Bread of Life. “No one lives by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus is the Word of God that comes from the mouth of God. It is on Him we feed and find true sustenance. And it is through the archetypal King David that the True King comes – Jesus!
2:1 “…in the days of Herod the King…”
In the days of one king, is born another. In the days of a false king, an example of human pomp and arrogance, is born the true King, in humility and weakness. A King born into this world, whose kingdom is not of this world. A heavenly fulfillment of an earthly promise: He shall reign forever, King of Kings and Lord of lords.
2:2 “…wise men came saying, ‘Where is he who is born King of the Jews? We have come to worship him.’”
Wise men sought Jesus. Wise men still do. Wise men seeking a king, the King, but no ordinary King. This is wise men seeking the wisdom of God. And this wisdom is foolishness to men, but still it is wiser than our wisest. So there they kneel; there they bow; wise men with their gifts to the child, when it was the child who made the universe, such is God’s wisdom.
2:3 “…Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes and they told him that the prophet had said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem…”
The scribes and chief priests had searched and known the Scriptures. Jesus would say years later to this group, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that testify about me.” The chief priests had missed the testimony of the Great High Priest among them, one like Moses who would save his people.
2:9 “The star they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over where the child was.”
Jesus said, “I am the root and offspring of David, and the bright morning star.” Jesus is the Light of the world by which all people are called. He is the one who holds the seven stars of God in his right hand. The number 7 for perfection and the right hand for strength. Jesus is the perfect Son of God who saves and delivers. He is the light of the world, for all people.
2:15 “…they remained in Egypt until Herod’s death, to fulfill what the prophet had said, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
Just as Jacob’s family went to Egypt to escape a famine and were protected in Egypt, so Jesus escapes to Egypt and is protected. Just as Moses led the Israelite slaves from Egypt, so Jesus is called out of Egypt. Just as the Gospel of Christ is Good News for the whole world, so Jesus goes to Egypt to embody the hidden purposes of God for the salvation of the world. In Christ there is no longer male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, but all are one in Christ.
2:16 “Herod became furious and sent and killed all the boys two years and under in Bethlehem.” 
At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. The innocent for the guilty. The just for the unjust. He was oppressed and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth. Like a Lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep before his sheerers he did not open his mouth. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace. God and sinners reconciled.
Thus just as Pharaoh had the Israelite children killed, so Herod. Just as Moses led the children of Israel to freedom in the Exodus, so Jesus leads the Second Exodus. Just as God defeated Egyptian gods with displays of power, so Jesus defeats sin, death and the devil with a display of weakness. And God said to Moses, “I will raise up a Prophet like you from among My people.” And later to Isaiah, “You shall call his Name Immanuel, for He shall save his people from their sins.” Herod displays the heart of human sinfulness – murderous hatred for the things of God. Jesus died for Herod, and me and you.

2:23 “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth.”
But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish. He has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.
Can anything good come from Nazareth?
No one is good but God alone!
I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Light of the World. I am the Bread of life. I am the Truth.
So can anything good come from Nazareth? Perhaps in Jesus’ day this was the greatest miracle of them all. No one is Good but God alone. If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father. Yes! Something Good did come from Nazareth. The Good God sent his Son the Good Shepherd to save sinners like Herod, you, me, for something glorious and good.

Arise shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

Gregory of Nyssa, Immanuel Kant, the Aesthetic, and the Infinity of God

Gregory speaks of spiritual progress principally in terms of virtue, but by this he means more than either the prudent restraint of sinful nature or the active pursuit of morality; for goodness has no being outside the plenitude of God's goodness.  Whereas the perfection of things sensible, says Gregory, lies in their limitations, the perfection of virtue is in its very limitlessness: this because it is the presence of the infinite God; and every excellence within the soul is nothing less than a participation in God's fullness - again, not as a fixed property or substance, and not according to the soul's own capacity, but only through its ecstasy.  Still, when Gregory speaks of a "growth" in glory, he really means a transformation of the soul into something other.  "In all the endless ages, the one running to you becomes greater, more exalted, ever growing in proportion to his ascent through the good."  Gregory likens the soul partaking of divine blessings to a vessel endlessly expanding as it receives what flows into it inexhaustibly; participation in the good, he says, makes the participant ever more capacious and receptive of beauty...    

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 196

Gregory of Nyssa

While I would be very wary of linking up the thought of Gregory of Nyssa with that of Kant, there seems to me to be a distinct connection between the former's thought on the infinity of God and the infinity of the aesthetic in the latter.  Indeed, had Kant sought to locate God within the domain of the aesthetic rather than within the domain of pure and practical reason there is every reason to suppose that the Kantian God would have appeared less as a monstrously sublime ethical demon and more like the Christian God.  That said, the point I want to make here in relation to David Bentley Hart's piece above is that thought through Kant's aesthetic theory God could be likened to a perfect work of art.  That is, within Kant's aesthetic theory you can say that a bad work of art is one that gives itself wholly over to the viewer without any effort on their part.  A good work of art will cast a multitude of meanings over a wide area, some reasonable, some less so.  The (Kantian) imagination delights in bringing together as many meanings as possible in "working out" what a work of art means - the more the better.  This bringing-together capacity isn't endless, though, and if any possible meaning(s) become untenable for the imagination to synthesize, the work either fails as art or passes into the sublime.  Whatever else it may be, at this point it isn't beautiful.  The best work of art, for Kant, would be one which both casts a multitude of meanings, but also one in which those possible meanings themselves are open to an infinite regress of depth.  That is, to use a cliched example, the smile of the Mona Lisa opens itself out to a multitude of interpretations, but always it is the smile itself that captivates and fascinates.  One is drawn into the depths of that smile, not just in terms of what it means, but in terms of the infinite play of the fact of a smile that can never be fully known.  That the same smile can both cast a variety of plausible meanings and at the same time remain forever elusive lies at the heart of the aesthetic appeal of the Mona Lisa.  To actually know why she is smiling would reduce the work to the level of kitsch.

God as infinite love is more or less the same.  The description of Gregory's thought above likens the soul's ascent to God as ever-widening to receive the infinite plenitude of God.  This plenitude is not an infinite variety of possible meanings or aspects of God, but a constantly deepening infinity of the knowledge that God is love ('all the way down' to quote Rowan Williams) in which the soul expands it's capacity to know that love.  Like the most perfect work of art, there is nothing behind God that hasn't been revealed which will surprise us in the sense of an infinite progression of new things to discover.  What salvation means (one meaning, at least) is that our capacity to understand the love of God will increase exponentially in an endless ecstasy of understanding - we will never get to the bottom of what God's love means, even though there will never be anything new or deeper to discover about God.  

With this in mind, I wonder if a reappraisal of Kant's aesthetic thought in the light of Gregory's ought to be looked into, not to reclaim Kant for theology, but at least to correct a very destructive tendency within both Kantian and Enlightenment thought regarding God, immortality and freedom.  By locating God within the infinity of reason rather than the infinity of the aesthetic, Kant more or less led both God and art to their doom within philosophy: God becomes a moral monster, while art is torn from any relation to truth and goodness.   

Monday, 24 December 2012

More on the Pot of Nard

Mark 14: 3-10

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. 
Jesus in revolutionary mood
This story has intrigued me since I first read it years ago.  A couple of things: firstly, her action with the nard was outrageously extravagant to the point of being offensive.  A tiny amount would have produced a very nice effect at more than half the cost.  Secondly, Jesus seems to become suddenly blase about the poor.  His words are suggestive of an ideological stance that willy-nilly accepts the socio-political and economic constructs that support mass poverty.  Thirdly, why should this story, above all stories, be one that is remembered in connection with the spread of the gospel?  That is, there is very little to be found in the story of forgiveness, or of helping one's neighbour, or speaking in tongues, etc.  Fourthly, the comments of those present (whom John informs us were led by Judas Iscariot) actually make good common sense.  Jesus didn't need a years wages worth of perfume poured on his head, and the money raised could have helped a lot of people.   

I think that the reason why this story is so closely associated by Jesus with the spread of the gospel is that it exposes us very strikingly to the way in which the gospel is offensive to both common sense and conventional morality.  Mary's act of generosity flies in the face of even the most generous human action through being so excessively wasteful; it's the gift that gives over and above any conception of need.  As perfume it is wholly a non-essential luxury product, and as a consumer product it is worth a fortune.  Lavishing such a non-essential, expensive good even on Jesus exposes the cramped meanness at the heart of much that passes for generosity in human terms.  I'm not just referring to a few quid in the collection plate, or tithing, or whatever.  Mary's act must have come from the Holy Spirit himself, poured out in her heart.  It was a supernatural, superabundant act of which she would have been incapable, no matter how much she loved Jesus from her natural self.  That is precisely why it is a GOSPEL act; it does not represent how much she loved him, or how generous she was, etc; but rather it represents Mary being caught up in the love of the Father for the Son through the Holy Spirit.  The gospel is the invitation to become a participant in this extravagant movement of love.  A little sprinkling of oil would never do.  Not least, more evidence that Mary was acting under the Holy Spirit's guidance is that her action was likewise prophetic of Christ's impending death and burial.  That her action should be prophetic of the cross, Christocentric, and offensive to good manners/sense to boot means that what she did was done from within the very heartbeat of the gospel.

Incidentally, while the last verse makes Judas specifically look bad, it also casts judgement on the kind of human-inspired generosity that purely human love and understanding veer towards.