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Archive for the ‘theology’ Category

Incarnation

Incarnation

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

and we have seen his glory…

Edwin Muir, the Scottish poet, railed against the cold churchmanship he had known, abstract and hard on people:

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book…

He predicted that,

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down…
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

This is always a danger, especially for theologians: to reverse the divine plan and make the personal abstract. Yet incarnation is not abstract, it is down-to-earth religion with a down-to-earth God, born of a woman, pierced by nails and buried behind stone.

 The Newborn Child by Georges de la Tour

The Newborn Child by Georges de la Tour

How can I portray incarnation,
how paint a mystery of God become human,
spirit become matter?
How can I define an action,
an event which defies definition?
How can I describe a process of humiliation,
a road of descent from heaven to hell?
How can I speak of ‘presence, or ‘glory’?
as the Word did not become words, but flesh.
What shall I bring to this mystery?
Not explanation but adoration,
not narrative but sacrament,
as Word becomes flesh again:
Christ in me, the hope of glory.

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David G. Benner Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer
Downers Grove IL, IVP 2010

It was one of those moments of delightful ‘accident’ or serendipity. I was browsing a small bookstall in a retreat centre recently and came across this little book by David G. Benner. It is a book about prayer but it is so much more: it offers practical guidance while also giving psychological insight and glimpses of profound theology.

Benner is a Canadian writer on spirituality with a professional background in clinical psychology and the teaching of spirituality. He argues that prayer is primarily an expression of our relationship with God. It is more than ‘saying prayers’, it is ‘being with the Beloved’, a relationship which spills out into the whole of life and leads to personal transformation. There are many practical suggestions about the ‘how’ of prayer in this book, but the author begins by arguing that prayer is not something we do but something God does in and through us. Prayer is the act of breathing in the love of God and then breathing this same love back out into the world.

The evangelical roots of this author are in evidence as he shows the importance of Scripture in nourishing the life of prayer.  The traditional method of  lectio divina (spiritual reading) is explained and then its four stages are used as a way of exploring the many dimensions of prayer. So lectio (reading) leads to ‘prayer as attending’, meditatio (meditation) leads to ‘prayer as pondering’, oratio (prayer or speaking) leads to ‘prayer as responding’ and contemplatio (contemplation) leads to ‘prayer as being’.

Along the way, Benner explores the importance of silence, honesty and imagination. He explains clearly such forms of prayer as the examen (the prayerful recollection of the day), the Jesus prayer, pondering art, journaling, conversational prayer and centering  prayer.

A key concern is that prayer should be holistic. In part, this means that, whatever our personality or spiritual tradition, we should broaden the repertoire of our praying. But holistic prayer also means that our prayer activity should move beyond our times of prayer to transform the whole of our lives.

Prayer that is reduced to technique or discipline seriously misses the fact that first and foremost, prayer expresses a relationship between us and God… [for] we are his friends, not his servants (John 15.15)… It is to this friend’s presence in our life and our world that we attune our self when we offer prayers of attending. It is with this friend that we offer prayers of pondering, responding and being. (p150)

This is quite simply the best book on prayer that I have read. It’s first reading will excite and encourage and re-reading will offer rich reflections and practical guidance. On a scale of one to five, I give this book six stars!

You can check our David Benner’s blog and some of his other books at http://www.drdavidgbenner.ca/blog/

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I didn’t hear the thud – but then it was too big for the letterbox as well as being a weighty tome. I was delighted to receive my contributor’s copy of the Zondervan Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (edited by Glen Scorgie, Zondervan 2011) which arrived this week.

With over 850 double-column pages it claims to be comprehensive and is certainly extensive. As you would expect with this publisher, the perspective is evangelical. However, the scope is catholic and presents information about a broad range of topics relating to spirituality and offers suggestions for further reading which are not limited to one part of world Christianity.

Contributors who may be known outside North America include Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard and Jim Packer, as well as the Baptists Clark Pinnock, Glen Hinson and Glen Stassen and the Pentecostal Simon Chan.

The first two hundred pages or so contain over thirty essays offering brief introductions to various themes and topics. These include approaches to the study of spirituality, biblical foundations, historical and  confessional traditions such as ‘Byzantium and the East’, together with topics such as mysticism, music and the arts, transformation, grace, ministry and spiritual formation. The dictionary entries cover the remaining six hundred pages.

I also have on my shelf a (contributor’s) copy of the New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2005), edited by Philip Sheldrake – whose contribution to the study of Christian spirituality I have greatly appreciated and from which I have richly benefited. The SCM book, like its predecessor edited by Gordon Wakefield, is a fine resource which offers authoritative introductions to a range of topics. However, I have, at times been frustrated by its silence with regard to some evangelical themes which are a part of the story and experience of Christian spirituality.

The new Zondervan dictionary offers guidance from a different perspective, both in its theological ethos and, more particularly, in the scope of subjects covered. Used together, these two books offer a rich and comprehensive dictionary treatment of Christian spirituality.

For example, in the Zondervan dictionary entries on Horatius Bonar and E M Bounds appear alongside entries for Bernadette of Lourdes, Bernard of Clairvaux, Anthony Bloom and Bonaventure. Zondervan entries which are not included in the SCM book include Conviction, Keswick, Revival, W J Seymour, Oswald Chambers and  Glossolalia.  The Zondervan selection also includes certain theologians who have influenced contemporary spirituality theology including Barth, Bonhoeffer, Gutiérrez, Rahner, Pannenberg, and Sobrino. Interestingly, there are also dedicated Zondervan entries (which are not to be found in the SCM book) on  Gregory of Nyssa, John of Damascus and Søren Kierkegaard. These entries suggest, with many others, a focus on prominent people which could well lead dictionary browsers to discover their respective writings for themselves – a good and accessible move!

Of course, many topics appear in both dictionaries such as, Hesychasm, Monasticism, and Prayer of the Heart. Even when the Zondervan  contributor is cautious or critical, the tone is never other than generous, as in the article on Yoga. There is provocative and fruitful reflection on such topics as Postmodernity, the Name of Jesus, Masculine Spirituality and Prayers for the Dead.

A further distinctive of the Zondervan dictionary is its attempt to encourage  its contributors to include reflections on how the topic in question has practical implications for living a spiritual life today. It’s academic rigour is clear but its pastoral application is also in evidence and this will make it attractive to church ministers and other Christians who want to delve further into aspects of Christian spirituality. The  reasonable price should also help it reach beyond academic circles and thus enrich the wider church and encourage Christian disciples in the life of faith.

The book carries commendations from various well-known writers including Richard Foster, Marva Dawn and Leighton Ford. Here, to close, is one by Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry:

This dictionary, with its global interests and spiritual zeal, has an energy and breadth that lifts it into a new league

Well done Glen Scorgie and the team!

To discover Amazon prices, click on the image below:

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Geometry or Symbolism?

It was a mealtime conversation in Rome while I was staying at the Venerable English College, the Venerabile. I was sat opposite a young priest from Malta who had come to Rome for further theological studies and was particularly interested in art history. He had just written an essay on art and the liturgy, and – well – the conversation flowed from there.

Somehow we got on to the subject of baptistries – it wasn’t me, honest! He commented on how most of the early ones were octagonal. Now we are talking about the fourth century onwards when baptism was still usually administered to adults professing their faith. Often the baptismal tank would be housed in a separate building in the grounds of the church and this building, as well as the tank, is referred to as a ‘baptistry’.

Octagonal Baptistry, Ravenna

Anyway, back to shape. Often these buildings were square or octagonal with a circular dome above. It was a throw-away line from the young priest, muttered with something of the certainty of the young (or maybe the confidence of being a student of the Gregorian University in Rome): ‘Of course, these baptistries were eight-sided to symbolize the ‘eighth day’.’

Now another historical note: the ‘eighth day’ was a concept developed by early Christian writers and it means Sunday. The term focused the meaning of the move for worship on the seventh day to worship on the eighth day. Now I know that a fair number of us have sometimes wished there were eight days in a week, but I know and the early church knew that there are in fact only seven. It’s a kind of paradox or nonsense phrase.

Sunday is the Lord’s Day – the first day of the week – the day of resurrection. But the point is this – it is not just another day like the rest. Nor is it even just the first day of creation – it is the day of new creation when everything in heaven and on earth is changed because God has raised Christ from the dead. God’s future end, his eschaton, has broken into human and cosmic history and all the boundaries have been changed and expectations have been turned upside down.

The young priest didn’t need to make the connection for me. The symbolism was so rich. ‘When anyone is united to Christ there is a new world’ – ‘We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ In baptism we celebrate the life-giving, life-changing work of God who raised Jesus to life on the eighth day – the first day of a new world. And those just baptized clamber out of the water to walk in a new world, a world of the eighth day, living in the light of the resurrection.

All this is rich symbolism, great theology and inspiring sentiments. But… I wondered whether baptisteries were octagonal in order to express the eighth day – or because it was a nice shape which the architect thought would look good – or because an octagon is what you get when you put a dome on top of a square and do something artistic with the interior walls! Was it simply geometry or intentional symbolism? Or did  the symbolism suggest itself once baptisteries had eight sides and someone made an imaginative leap?

This conversation was a month ago but it was brought to mind by another geometry-symbolism bit of mulling this week. Between Venice and Assisi I took a two-day detour via Ravenna, courtesy of the slow train from Bologna to Rimini. Ravenna was, for a time, the capital of the western part of the Roman empire,  when it was being overrun by Goths and others. For a period it was rescued by the eastern part of the empire, based in Constantinople and in the fifth and sixth centuries a number of churches and, yes, baptisteries were built. The town boasts eight, UNESCO World Heritage sites – and on Tuesday I visited six, all within a mile of one another – and each with the most incredible mosaics.

Christ in Glory, St Vitale, Ravenna

St Vitale is one of the largest buildings and  – yes – it’s octagonal. Here is a photo I took of the image of Christ in glory which faces the congregation from above the altar. It is incredible that it was made in 548 – nearly fifteen hundred years ago. The mosaics in Ravenna are stunning and are claimed to be ‘the best Byzantine mosaics outside Constantinople’ (Istanbul).

The Cosmic Cross, Ravenna

Back to my theme. In two of the church buildings I found domes decorated as starry heavens – blue background with gold stars and a central gold cross. I sat in one chapel and gazed at this beautiful image. As I looked I realized that all the stars were eight-pointed! Now I think I was brought up in the belief that stars had five points – if you know what I mean. Then I thought, well, that’s just four lines imposed on one another – how I would normally draw an asterisk – geometry again.

And then the geometry or the symbolism didn’t matter. For I was seeing not simply the stars but the cross. Here was the cosmic cross – the redemption  of all things through Christ.  Here was a claim about what kind of universe we inhabit – fallen, broken, but redeemed. Whether through geometry or intentional symbolism, here was an eighth-day realization that everything was different because of the cross and resurrection of Christ – all creation was to be seen in the light of the cross.

It is fitting that the heavens should rejoice:

and that the earth should be glad,

and that the whole world, both visible and invisible,

should keep the feast.

For Christ is risen, the everlasting joy.

Now all things are filled with light,

heaven, and earth, and all places under the earth.

All creation celebrates the resurrection of Christ.

Orthodox Easter sentences

Reprinted in Gathering for Worship p384

            © Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius

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Looking up

Annigoni St Joseph and the Christ Child

Yesterday I visited four churches and a library – all on foot in the centre of Florence. Each contained great works of art by any measure of the word. The Medici Chapels contain those iconic tomb statures of Michelangelo – although he never finished the series, what we have are stunning.

The San Lorenzo church next door boasts two – yes two – pulpits by Donatello. It made me wonder whether there were any dialogical sermons in the fifteenth century. I don’t think so… However, any preacher would need a good head for heights as the only way up seems to have been my means of a ladder.

I particularly wanted to visit Santa Maria Novella to see one of the those paintings which were a turning pint of their era – in this case Masaccio’s portrayal of the Trinity. Here it was not so much spiritual death which attracted my attention  as a sense of standing – yes – at a turning point.
There are two remarkable features of this painting – and we have to remember that it was painted about 1428. First is the striking use of linear perspective – that ‘trick’ of drawing lines in such a way as a two-dimensional surface has the appearance of being three-dimensional. Apart from the technical stuff to help the artist, this procedure actually means painting what you see rather than what is there. So we ‘see’ railway tracks converging – so when we draw them like that they appear far more realistic than if we draw two parallel lines on the page.
You paint what you see – not what you know – now there’s a thought for a future reflection! This approach to perspective was a discovery of the early Renaissance and although Masaccio was far from the first to use it, his Trinity is a stunning early example.
But this fresco is also significant because of the realism of the figures and especially the faces. This is a long way from Giotto, father of Renaissance painting, beautiful as his paintings are. Here is a different kind of perspective ‘trick’ from manipulating of lines. Now the shading of forms, where light models shape, gives them a three-dimensional body on a two-dimensional surface. This technical developement, coupled with Masaccio’s humanity, results in human faces full of emotion and character. I have to admit that God the Father seems to be rather lacking in emotion – but that probably reflects the theology of the time! An exploration of scripture leads us to many places where images of emotion – anger, compassion etc – are attributed to God. But whatever the theology of God, we can recognize living, feeling, responding human beings in this fifteenth century masterpiece.
I’ll leave the visit to the library for another day. These two images of Annigoni and Masaccio are taken off the web as neither church would allow photography, even without flash. However, when I passed the baptistery next to the Duomo and found that there wasn’t a queue, I seized the opportunity and went in to see the medieval mosaics which cover the domed ceiling (I couldn’t find a font let alone a baptistery – but that’s another story). The dome is covered with scenes portraying the Last Judgement – and some of pretty scary. But the eye is inevitably drawn to Christ enthroned on the judgement seat. It wasn’t easy to see some of the detail from the ground as the mosaic of Christ must be 40-50 feet up, but when I had taken my photographs and inspected them on the laptop I saw very clearly the scars of the nails on his hands and feet. The one who judges is the one who has laid down his life for the redemption of the world. Whatever our views or expectations of the judgement are we must hold on to this central affirmation and hope – the judge is the one who has washed disciple’s feet, lifted fallen sinners out of the dust and died for our salvation.  Images and phrases tumble after one another – Here is love vast as the ocean – the lamb that was slain sits on the throne – but especially: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy.

Christ enthroned in judgement - the Florence baptistery

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