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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent & Emmanuel: Salvation Happens In The Now

One of the things I used to really struggle with about my childhood church was an understanding that placed God's redemption mainly in the future and then only for the best.

We view time as linear. But does God? What does it mean for a being who exists outside of time (indeed, even "before" it) to experience it? I can only conclude that a God who has no beginning and no end must see time as something circular.

We certainly don't. For us time is a line or perhaps even more accurately, an hourglass. I'm 26 years old. I have 26 years in my past. If I'm lucky, I'll have another 60 plus years to come. Those are big bubbles in my hourglass: a large bubble holding the past and a (hopefully) larger bubble holding the future. And what is my present in that hourglass? It's a space with the smallest of dimensions, the slimmest of openings, a small trickle of lived moments.

The Nativity & Crucifixion - birth and death
This moment right now as I type this is the only moment I have. Right now reading this is the only moment you actually possess and move and live. So why does God's presence come only in the future and then for only a few?

It doesn't. My advent reflection last week illustrates that the miracle of the Incarnation means seeing God in all things and at all times. It's the revelation that God is present with creation and therefore always has been and always will be.

Is God's saving work here and now or in the future with the Second Coming and Christ's return? It's not an either/or; it's a both/and!

As Richard Rohr says, God's saving work and redemption is in the future but you first have to see it here, in the present. He notes that if you can see it here, now, then you can see it there and later. This seems to be part of the mystery of the Eucharist - acknowledge God here before you and then you can see God everywhere. Know it now and you'll understand it then. Recognize the alpha and you will know the omega. See the Incarnation in this lowly child in a manger and you'll see the work of the cross. You'll know that God encompasses all time ("who was and is and is to come").

The Incarnation and the coming of Christ into the world means that the saving work is accomplished now and in our present. When we read the gospels, we see that Christ is redeeming, healing, and saving long before his death and resurrection. The sick, the disenfranchised, the sinful, all are saved by Christ in the present moment in which they encounter him (and the criterion doesn't seem to be membership in the right group but merely an openness to God's saving work).

Christ's very being is Emmanuel - God with us - which is "good news" and salvation. Even when we feel we can only hope for salvation in some distant future ("Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom"), Christ assures us that his saving work is happening now: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 24: 42-3) 

Remember the hourglass? It's wrong. Our lives are not gigantic bubbles containing large pasts and futures but  rather infinitesimally small presents. The present is actually the largest part. By far! If we believe God views time as circular because s/he exists outside of it, then God's experience of time, of us, would be pure presence. Our experience of God is purely in the present too.

This is why Christ says that the Kingdom of God is at hand, i.e. "It's here!" This is why we pray, "thy kingdom come." Imagine if we prayed, "thy kingdom come in the future but not right now." We'd be no better than St. Augustine when he prayed, "Lord grant me chastity and continence but not yet!"

Why does all of this matter? Because it makes the Incarnation more beautiful than we imagined. Because The Kingdom of God isn't an idyllic future that only comes later while we have to trudge through the mud in this world. There is mud. There is sickness and addiction and poverty and war and all our selfish egos. But thank God salvation is for the here and now in addition to the later. Redemption and healing and grace all fit in that supposedly-small hourglass space constituting the present.

The coming of Christ shows us the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus' birth gives us hope for a just world now in addition to a just world later. Redemption happens in the present moment through the Son. Advent is the time that this first becomes obvious.

Related Posts:
Advent & Emmanuel: Seeing God Was Here All Along
When Christian Doctrine Fails Us

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent & Emmanuel - Seeing God Was Here All Along

It's the start of Advent and we are expectant. Advent is a time for preparation, for getting ready for the coming of the Savior of the World in the person of Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel - "God with us."

God with us. There is perhaps no more profound name than that. For millennia religions promised a connection with the divine, that humanity could somehow touch the heavens and experience unity with the gods and that we could do this through ritual purity. Human perfection seemed to be the key. Jump through the right hoops and appease heaven and you'll get your reward.

Much of Christian history seems to have fallen into this mental trap even though our messianic narrative doesn't support it. Most Christians could write a thesis on their lived experience of guilt but only a small few could write as much about their experience of grace. How many of us think religion is about following rules and pleasing God? How many of us have immense guilt because we think religion is about private perfection?

The Annunciation
It's not. The goal of religion is union with the Divine, not to keep you from making any mistakes. The promise of Advent and Christmas and the Incarnation is Emmanuel - God is with us. We are united with God!

There's something funny, something off about our world and ourselves, and we know it. We seem to do it wrong, we stumble, we fail. When so much of creation seems to be harmonious and balanced, we appear disastrously out of step.

But - still - God is with us, constantly reconciling us to himself, redeeming the dissonance.

In my favorite book, Tolkien's The Silmarillion, there is a creation story for that fictitious world. The supreme, God-like being - Eru - begins to sing things into existence. He sings a theme that all the Ainur (angelic beings) add onto, like individual instruments in an orchestra. Soon it's a beautiful and full sound that is singing and weaving everything into being.

But then Melkor (a satanic and human stand in) desires to sing his own theme. He sings a theme of his own design that doesn't complement the original theme of Eru but rather is dissonant with it. Then Eru does something amazing: he inexplicably weaves Melkor's dissonant theme into his own. This happens several times, each time the 'fallen' theme seems much too dissonant and each time Eru reconciles it to himself. Defying all logic, all prediction, Eru reconciles the two themes so that they do indeed fit, and the result is the music is more beautiful than before.

Emmanuel, God with us, is the same reconciliation. It's the same process. Christ enters the world and weaves our hopelessly blundered musical tunes into God's own song, the song. What's even more amazing and beautiful is that with the Incarnation we can see God everywhere and at all times, as Richard Neuhaus says. With the coming of Advent we can finally realize that Emmanuel was here all along, that the Word was here since the beginning and that nothing has happened outside of it. Advent isn't the realization that a hero has arisen. Like Clark Kent changing into Superman before our very eyes, Advent is the realization that the hero has been here all along, we just didn't see it.

The start of the liturgical year means beginning anew our remembrance of the never-ending story, the constant musical theme. We reorient ourselves to having a heart and mind and spirit that doesn't just hope for but sees union with God. Contrition for sin and our brokenness is necessary. But we don't remember so that we'll be perfect from now on. God doesn't want us to focus on our own musical theme, God wants us to see the ways in which our music is part of hers. Preparing for Christmas is about wholeness and union despite ourselves. We can leave the desire for personal perfection at the door. After all, God already has.