Sunday, December 25, 2016

“Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”

Christ is born! Christos RaĆŸdajetsja! “Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”[1] This is what he accomplishes today in that cave. He is restoring our likeness to God from which we have fallen.

If you have a new garment of pure white linen cloth and if you wear this garment too often or for all sorts of rough tasks and dirty jobs, it soon becomes stained. Beautiful, pure, white cloth becomes yellowed, stained, and imperfect. A contemporary American in this situation is likely simply to dispose of the garment and buy a new one. We are, in fact, in the commercial season of buying new things. Our culture and our economy is set up this way. It’s been called a throw-away culture and a consumer culture. But this is not the case with traditional cultures. A traditional textile worker would not give up on a garment even if it was stained beyond the power of any bleach, but might then take the stained white garment and dye it vibrant colors – blues and purples, reds and yellows and greens. A plain white garment becomes a coat of many colors. And the end result is a garment more beautiful even than the new unstained garment.

You know, a beautiful Chinese tea bowl breaks as easily as cheap second hand crockery. What to do then? We break a lot of bowls at my house. Probably, we break one every week. I like to tell the children, as I sweep up and throw away yet another broken bowl, that ceramic can last for a thousand years if properly cared for. This is true. But when the bowl is broken, sweeping it up and throwing it away isn't the only option. There is a custom among traditional Japanese craftsmen to take the broken pieces and fuse them back together. Now, some of us may do this with superglue, which can work well enough for a while – though the result is always compromised and inferior to a new and unbroken bowl. The cracks gradually worsen and the piece must eventually be thrown away anyway. The traditional Japanese craftsman, however, does not use superglue, but lacquer mixed with gold – a material more beautiful, precious, and strong then the ceramic the bowl was first made with. This is called kintsugi – golden joinery. And the cracks are made more visible, not less. They're emphasized by this technique, not hidden – but they're changed into things of beauty. And the bowl that was broken and then made whole is better and more beautiful than the bowl that was never broken. 

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material.”[2]

I can tell you as a painter that, almost mysteriously, these reworked paintings often have a greater depth and beauty, at least to my eyes, than a pristine first image. I do love the masterful strokes of the sumi-e painter, who, with just a few rapid movements with an ink brush creates a fresh and startling image. But then the next few stages of a painting often render it overworked or muddy.  It is only after this stage, when all is ruined, when the painter returns again to his easel, that he can restore the image and even go beyond restoration. If he is a great painter, the scars of the overwork and the stains are almost transfigured. They’re not obliterated, but made into things of beauty. They add a texture and depth I’ve found no other way to accomplish. And the painting at the end is even better and more beautiful than it was when it was fresh and new.

St. Athanasius gives us this image of the repainted portrait, in his work On the Incarnation. He explains, “Even so was it with the all-holy Son of God. He, the image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind after himself, and seek out his lost sheep, even as he says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.’ This also explains his saying to the Jews: ‘Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ He was not referring to a man's natural birth from his mother, as they thought, but to the rebirth and recreation of the soul in the image of God.”

It is in and through the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate today, that our rebirth in the image of God is enabled. “Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”

His ways of raising us up are marvelous. Wondrous are his works. He does not simply restore us to our starting point like some video game character that gets an extra life. As our almighty God, he could do that. He can do anything. If Jesus breaks a Chinese tea bowl, he can restore it to unbrokenness. But I think he prefers kintsugi. The power of Christ is greater than the power of Tide bleach. He can restore to whiteness a garment with any stain. But I think he prefers the craft of the dyer and the coat of many colors.

When he rises from the dead, remember, he still bears on his body the marks of his crucifixion. And these marks increase and do not diminish the beauty of his glorified body. By them, we are healed.

And when today he becomes for our salvation a baby, he does not become the same first-created Adam, unaffected by sin and suffering and death, but rather a new Adam. He takes on all the fragility and neediness of a baby. He makes himself utterly vulnerable and dependent upon his mother. As of today, the uncreated God nurses at his mother's breast. And if he does not, he feels the pain of hunger. He feels all the pains of life and will ultimately suffer even death.

Many of us sometimes long to go back to the way things were when we were younger, healthier, happier. We succumb to the bitter-sweetness of nostalgia, perhaps especially at this time of year.

In a similar way, maybe we wish we could go back to Eden. Maybe we get mad at Adam and Eve for spoiling things for us, as if we wouldn’t have spoiled them for ourselves, given the chance. Maybe we feel cheated of the simple life of the garden, where we could walk with the Lord in the cool of the day. But God does not send us back to Eden. He comes to us in Bethlehem. “Bethlehem has opened Eden for us.”[3] He raises up the likeness that had fallen, not by erasing the consequences of our sin – our fragility and mortality – but by entering into them himself. He raises up by coming down. By emptying himself and taking the form of a slave. By becoming a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger where animals come to feed. Our Lord becomes our brother and Mary’s son. And our human nature is recreated in him.

Like the kintsugi – broken ceramic joined together with gold – he joins our broken humanity together with his divinity. He adds something better to us than was there in the first place. He doesn’t just patch us back together again as if with superglue, but makes us a new creation, even better than we were in the first place. He doesn’t just take us back to the way things were, but takes us to a new heaven and a new earth, more glorious even than that first created.  And that heaven is a cave; the cherubic throne a virgin. And the manger has become the place where Christ, the incomprehensible God, lies down.[4]

Jesus Christ is born. He leaves his hiding place in Mary’s womb and enters the cave.  At this moment, for the first time in history, human eyes behold the human face of God. And even animal eyes first see the human face of God.  The eyes of all creation are opened for the first time since they were shut in Eden.

A version of this article now appears on Catholic Exchange

[1] Troparion of the Prefestive Days of the Nativity
[2] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
[3] Ikos of the Nativity
[4] Irmos of Ode 9 of the Canon of the Nativity

Sunday, December 11, 2016

There is no excuse.

Maybe some of us can sympathize with the excuse makers in the parable of the great banquet – perhaps especially in this season of office parties to which we may not always want to go (Luke 14:16-24). Though most of us can't believably say to our boss, "I just bought five yoke of oxen and I have to go examine them. Please excuse me," but we might come up with other excuses (Luke 14:19). The classic is to feign illness. Or, you can tell one group that you already made plans with another group and then tell that group that you can’t make it because you’ve got plans with the first group. This is called lying your way out of it. But Paul tells us to stop lying to each other (Col 3:9). It can be a relief to get out of social obligations. The comedian John Mulaney says, "It is so much easier not to do things than to do them, that you would do anything is totally remarkable. Percentage wise, it is 100% easier not to do things than to do them – and so much fun not to do them, especially when you were supposed to do them.”

At one time or another, we’ve probably all experienced the relief of getting out of some odious social obligation, so we all tend to be rather sympathetic toward those excuses for not coming.

Even Scripture – the Old Testament, that is – appears to have some sympathy for these excuses. Deuteronomy lists three acceptable excuses: having built a house but not yet dedicated it (20:5); having planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit (20:6); and having betrothed a wife but not yet married her (20:7). Now, interestingly, these are considered good excuses for not going into battle against the enemies of Israel, but they parallel surprisingly well with those excuses offered in today’s parable by the invited guests who do not want to come to the great banquet.

One has bought a field but not yet seen it; another has bought oxen but not yet examined them; and a third is newly married and so cannot come (Luke 14:18-20). Moses would have accepted these as excuses for not going into battle, let alone the simple matter of not going to a banquet.

But the man in the parable, who represents our Lord, was angry. He does not accept their excuses.

This is not the only time that Jesus takes a harder line than Moses. He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17). I'm reminded of what Jesus said when asked about divorce. "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt 19:8). Moses introduces a leniency toward human weaknesses that Jesus does not seem interested in preserving.  Rather, he goes to the root – to how it was in the beginning. He is radical. He would not have us too comfortable or self-assured of our place at his table.

The guests invited to the great banquet took too lightly their host's invitation. They were too comfortable. They thought it too small a thing. They failed to appreciate to what a great extent their host was going to please them out of love for them. They failed to notice that this was no ordinary dinner, but communion with their Lord. Their ingratitude barred them from giving proper thanks, that is, from Eucharist.

Their ingratitude is clear because it was at the second invitation that they refused to come. The engagement did not catch them unawares. If they were not going to come because of importuning circumstances, they really ought to have made that known when they were first invited. It’s as if they RSVP’d that they’d be coming, but then all changed their minds at the last minute after everything was prepared. They were too casual with their host’s hospitality. They were complacent and self-assured. They were ungrateful.

We may be like these invited guests.

In one sense, of course, those Jews who rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ are like the invited guests. They had been invited as God’s chosen people, but rejected Jesus when the Father sent him to them. And the Gentiles who accepted the gospel are like the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind from the streets and the lanes of the city and the people from the highways and the hedges brought in to fill the house with guests.

But in another sense – more applicable to us personally – we are the invited guests. We are invited to the great banquet by this gospel we have heard and accepted. We received and accepted this first invitation in our baptism. The banquet, of course, is our salvation in Christ, the kingdom of heaven, the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist.

We have received our first invitation and we're waiting for everything to be made ready for us to go into the great banquet. We have been baptized into Christ and we await his second coming. By our baptism and our faith, we have accepted the Lord's first invitation.

When he comes for us again to make us come into the feast, let us not refuse him. He doesn't want to hear our excuses. We are to be ready at a moment's notice for the announcement that all is ready and for the invitation to come into the feast. We are to receive this good news with joy, not excuses.

Who among us is always ready to meet the Lord?

It is meaningful that the invited guests are replaced by the poor. This tells us, I think, something about the kind of person able to be ready at a moment's notice to enter into the great banquet. Such a person is poor. The poor do not have land or oxen or vineyards or houses. They also have no excuses. They are free of these distractions. They know it would be good to go into the banquet and eat and they have no reason not to. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). Really none of us have any reason not to. Some of us just think we do. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:3).

What reasons do we have to resist the call of the Lord? What excuses do we make for avoiding the Divine Liturgy, which really is the great and heavenly banquet to which we are invited? Even if we have land and houses to attend to, we have no excuse. And if indeed maintaining our material properties keeps us from communion with the Lord, we should shed them. Or if anything keeps us from the Lord, we should cut it off. “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt 5:30).

Let us all examine our lives for whatever distractions exist between us and God and let us seek to remove these distractions. This time of fasting in preparation for the coming of the Lord at his holy nativity is a time of reducing these unnecessary distractions that cloud and distort our vision of God. “When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.”[1] God isn’t some odious boss that we should want to avoid. He’s our loving father calling us to a great feast and to communion with himself. Let us stop making excuses. Let us answer his invitation with joy and go into the feast.

[1] Truman Capote. A Christmas Memory. 1956. 

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