Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Lenten Books 4

In my final post on Lenten books, I'll highlight a time-honoured genre of meditations on the last words of Jesus from the cross. The three books I'll single out are Death on a Friday AfternoonMeditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, by Richard John Neuhaus, The Seven Last Words from the Cross by Fleming Rutledge, and Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words by Stanley Hauerwas. Neuhaus, a convert to Roman Catholicism and a longtime conservative cultural critic in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton and others, brings verve and erudition to his journey into the mystery and wonder of the crucifixion of Jesus. Fleming Rutledge, a noted Episcopal priest, used the three hour Good Friday service to develop her series of seven meditations on Jesus' sayings formed out of a position of generous orthodoxy.  Cross-Shattered Christ is a small book packing a significant 'Hauerwasian' punch as the writer grapples with the 'ungraspable' mystery of the heart of the gospel. Each of these books was written in the early years of the 21st century and so the examples from history and events give evidence to this period. And yet each has a staying power which makes them well worth revisiting over the years.

My favourite is Hauerwas's Cross-Shattered Christ. Self-described as a "high-church Mennonite", Hauerwas loves paradoxes and finds in the gospel the most extraordinary paradox of all -  crucifixion brings new life.
The Gospel of John makes explicit what all the Gospels assume - that is, that the cross is not a defeat but the victory of our God. Earlier in the Gospel of John a voice from heaven responded to Jesus's request that the Father's name might be glorified through his obedience, saying "I have glorified it and I will glorify it again." Jesus tells us this voice came for our sake so that we might know that "Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:28-32). That "lifting up" is the cross, the exaltation of the Son by the Father, making possible our salvation.
This is, moreover, as Pilate insisted, the King of the Jews. That kingship is not delayed by crucifixion; rather crucifixion is the way this king rules. Crucifixion is kingdom come. This is the great long-awaited apocalyptic moment. Here the powers of this world are forever subverted. Time is now redeemed through the raising up of Jesus on the cross. A new age has begun. The kingdom is here aborn, a new regime is inaugurated, creating a new way of life for those who worship and follow Jesus.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lenten Books 3

In this series of posts on Lenten books, I want to highlight four books by women which have positively influenced my appreciation of the genre. The first is Gazing on Truth by Kitty Muggeridge, followed by Through Lent with Luke by Margaret Hebblethwaite, Approaching Easter: Meditations for Easter by Joyce Huggett, and The Way of the Cross: The Path to New Life by Joan Chittister. Muggeridge's collection reflects the Catholic direction of faith she and her husband Malcolm took in their latter years of life. Hebblethwaite and Huggett offer practical lessons out of their readings and reflections on particular biblical passages. The volumes by Muggeridge, Hebblethwaite and Huggett seem somewhat dated but still have their value for those with more traditional values and conservative theology. Each of these books has forty meditations, corresponding to the forty days of Lent. The book by Chittister, on the other hand, has fifteen short chapters based on the Stations of the Cross. Each book is intended to convey a sense of 'journey' as the reader is invited to journey with Jesus first to the Cross of Good Friday and then to the Empty Tomb of Easter.

The newest book of the four mentioned here is Joan Chittister's The Way of the Cross. Chittister is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Penn., and a columnist of the National Catholic Reporter. She has written on many spiritual themes and continues to write prophetically about the contemporary church. This book is no different, addressing topics like human suffering, our relationship with divine grace and opportunities for renewal along life's journey. The Way of the Cross includes full-size colour illustrations of the Stations of the Cross originally made by artist Janet McKenzie which give the meditations an extra depth and pathos. Here is a sample of Chittister's reflections taken from her meditation on the First Station where Jesus has been condemned to die in spite of his innocence:

 The first station of the cross requires us to examine our entire philosophy of life. Jesus is condemned to die because he defied the standards of both the state and the religious establishment in which he lived. To both he brought a truth they did not want to hear. He set out to witness to the love and justice of the God of all creation: Jews and non-Jews, women as well as men, underlings as well as the professional types of his time.
Surely we are called to do the same, to speak our truth with clarity, simplicity and conviction. What must rise in us in times like this is a clear commitment to what must be, to the truth that must surely come if the will of God is really to be done on earth and to our role in bringing it.
He cured on the Sabbath, mixed with foreigners, taught theology to women, played with children, questioned every law, chose people over ritual every time, and never made institutional authority a god.
He threatened the establishment with his incessant attempts to build a better world and they set out to destroy him for it.  
The question with which the first station confronts us is a stark one: What is it in life for which we are willing to be condemned? The goal in life is not to avoid condemnation. No one does. Life's great challenge is simply to decide who will condemn us and why. If we were better people, perhaps, we would be condemned more often.
Most of all, when we are condemned for the right reasons, the first station reminds us, we know we will not be there alone. Jesus will be standing beside us, full of pain for our sake, but head up and unyielding.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lenten Books 2

During his incumbency as Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the many gifts Rowan Williams gave to the Christian community worldwide was a series of Holy Week lectures on different spiritual themes and topics. Some of these lectures have been put into print and published as little Lenten books. The books I have on my shelf are: Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, The Lion's World: A Journey into the heart of Narnia, Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent, Meeting God in Paul: Reflections for the Season of Lent, and Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. There is one to come later this year entitled Being Disciples: How to Remain Spiritually Healthy. All of them make wonderful Lenten reading, not difficult to understand but profound and written to engage the reader by offering new perspectives on old topics.

His most recent book, Meeting God in Paul, is devoted to exploring St. Paul's "big idea", that of God's universal welcome. Exploring all of the traditional corpus of Paul's New Testament writings, Williams teases out the implications of God's welcome for the Early Church, for the Empire and for the different social classes. Williams writes that his aim is "that the reader will emerge with a better sense of that 'dangerous newness' - of why Christians believed that the events involving Jesus completely changed the framework within they lived; and then to trace some of the specific ways in which both behaviour and language in the Christian community were being remoulded day by day under the pressure of the way Christians had learned to pray." Williams avers that the same is true for the contemporary church. In prayer, Christians articulate the nature of the faith they confess, and yet frequently one observes that the church is  unaware of the pressure it places on the theological language it employs. The danger is that  much Christian prayer language has withered and died. This book is an attempt to re-introduce the Church to this 'dangerous newness'  of which Paul preaches and in so doing, re-kindle some of the flame which inspired the early church in the contemporary church. This little volume is a unique and beautiful introduction to the thought of the Apostle Paul and as a way into the profound mystery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Written in language that is easily understood, the book is refreshing in the new glimpses it offers to the old story. It comes with questions for group discussion and a Lenten Reading Guide right through Week 6.