Wednesday, 25 November 2009

a prayer

Our Lord and King,

How are we to live as servants in your kingdom? How can your kingdom come and your will be done in and through us, our marriages, our families, our homes, our church, our province? Give us and your church a vision of how you want us to live, of the alternative reality you can create through us. Give us the wisdom and power through your Spirit to hear and obey your voice. Help us recognize the subhuman patterns we engage in and fight against, patterns that conform to the darkness and keep us from reflecting your image, your purpose, your love. May we not collude with those whose stomachs growl for power through oppression, position through accumulation and recognition through vanity. Make us hungry for the bread of your presence, your word. Fill us with your food so we may feed the needy in your name. Let us not be content with our own spiritual comfort, but shape us in the pattern of giving, the pattern of new birth, the pattern of the cross. May death and resurrection be the motion of our lives as we offer our bodies to you. Show us your way, the way of your Son, and give us strength and courage to follow you.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven


Considering Mary at Christmas

This is a paper I wrote for a Barth class at Wycliffe in December 2006. As Christmas approaches, I find my thoughts turned again to Mary and the miracle of Christ's birth.

Considering Mary at Christmas: a Generous Reading of Barth

When considering Karl Barth’s treatment of Mary in Church Dogmatics 1/2, one is likely to think of his excursus against Mariology, which Barth denounces as a “diseased construct of theological thought” (§ 15.2, 139-146). He rejects it as a falsification of Christian truth in that it propagates “the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike (ministerialiter) in its own redemption” (143). For the Roman Catholic Church, the problem of creaturely cooperation is manifested in its doctrine of Mariology, and this heresy explains all the rest. For Barth, Mary must rightly be rejected as having any kind of mediatory or even relatively independent role in salvation. She must not become a subject in the divine redemptive activity. This would be an attack on the miraculous nature of revelation.

Of this, Barth is adamant, and gives the following evangelical response:

There can be no thought of any reciprocity or mutual efficacy even with the most careful precautions. Faith in particular is not an act of reciprocity, but the act of renouncing all reciprocity, the act of acknowledging the one Mediator, beside whom there is no other. Revelation and reconciliation are irreversibly, indivisibly and exclusively God’s work. (146)

The human creature must not be confused with God. This is the thrust of much of Barth’s writing. To be sure, Mariology is a later innovation and perversion, and does not represent either the Scripture or the early Church in their presentation of the mother of God. Barth necessarily puts Mariology in its place, but where does that leave Mary herself?

Though she can seem overshadowed by discussions of the doctrine named after her, a generous reading of Barth may find Mary pointing readers in a worthy direction. In the midst of his polemic, Barth does cast a positive light upon Mary. We may even find he presents in Mary a model of the right and proper response of the human to revelation.

To begin, he reminds us of Mary’s primary place in dogmatics when he states, “Mary is spoken of partly for the sake of Christ’s true humanity, partly for the sake of His true divinity, but not for her own sake” (140). In Luke Barth finds there is “not a single statement that does not point away from Mary to Christ” (140). He agrees with Luther that the greatness of Mary is in her directing interest away from herself to her Lord, evidenced in the Magnificat. What is the object of special consideration concerning her? It is not her worthiness as a cooperator with the divine, but rather in her lowly estate and in “the glory of God which encounters her” (140). There is nothing meritorious in her person. She is simply the one “to whom the miracle of revelation happens” (140). Barth portrays her as standing at the crossroads of the Old and New Testaments representing all of humanity in their reception of the sovereign gift of revelation. This is a significant role, not because of Mary’s action, but God’s.

She is the first to receive Christ, in a space that was created by God and not of her own capacity. This is how any man must receive Christ. Barth goes on to say later in § 15 that man is involved in the form of Mary, but, “only in the form of non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign man, only in the form of man who can merely receive, merely be ready, merely let something be done to and with him” (191). Some might seize upon this in isolation and conclude that Barth really has no place for true human participation in revelation. If Mary is not a cooperator, then she is simply a receptacle to be taken over and used by God, forced upon by the Holy Spirit. Yet we know that Barth considers the human to be an active participant, with a free and truly human agency. Mary’s humanity is not eclipsed by revelation, rather, it becomes active. Our “yes” to God matters, as did Mary’s “be it unto me according to Thy word.” Indeed it was according to the Word himself. Yet her role remains as recipient; her “yes” was a response and not a precursor of God’s activity. We follow Mary ever mindful of the primacy of God’s revelation.

Finally, we find a less guarded picture of Mary a few pages prior to Barth’s defensive polemic. It is in this picture that we are joined by a few other characters with whom Barth was wont to associate generously. It is the picture of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Barth is well known to have considered his vocation as one similar to the Baptist of Grunewald’s central panel, ever pointing a finger toward the Crucified Christ. Here Barth describes another panel of the Altarpiece (125). It is the picture of the incarnation, and it is here Barth ponders Mary’s role. The angels are welcoming the child Jesus with a musical chorus, and perhaps in Barth’s mind they are playing Mozart. Mary is pictured twice. She is the mother who holds the child and indirectly beholds the light of the Father in the infant’s face. She also appears as the recipient of grace, representing all who come before and after her, leading the Church in adoration of Christ. In the end, Barth leaves Mary standing with John the Baptist, and this is where the Church must stand as well. We stand facing a mystery, a mystery which has come and dwelt with us by divine freedom and grace. We are not cooperators, neither are we spectators. There are things we can and must do in light of the glory in the face of Christ which has encountered us. With the Baptist, we point to the mystery, and with Mary too, we point to this glory with praise on our lips.

As Christmas approaches, it is fitting even for Protestants to ponder this picture of Mary. In her we are reminded of the greatest miracle of Christmas – not the virgin birth, but what it signifies, that in Christ God became man and is still willing to enter into our humanity. It is this mystery we proclaim with Mary at Christmas. Through her, Barth reminds us that we are first of all recipients, but that our response matters. Hers was the first “yes” to Christ, and we echo her acceptance. Hers was the first hymn of praise to the Word become Flesh, and we join in adoration. Hers was the first pointing away from empty humanity to the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ. Barth invites us to stand with her, with the Baptist, and with the heavenly orchestra, giving our only fitting response as those blessed of God:

“For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.”


Sunday, 22 November 2009

Jonah 4

Jonah, why so angry?
You of all people should know God's mercy extends farther than you could imagine, into the depths of the sea, to the roots of the mountains and the dark of a fish's belly.
God's deliverance gobbled you whole, yet you despise the salvation offered through your own message.
You give us hope. You give us a warning.


Friday, 13 November 2009

St. Patrick's Breastplate

St. Patrick's Breastplate
“The deer's cry”

For my shield this day
A mighty power:
The Holy Trinity!
Affirming threeness,
Confessing oneness,
In the making of all
Through love . . .

For my shield this day I call:
Christ's power in his coming
and in his baptising,
Christ's power in his dying
On the cross, his arising
from the tomb, his ascending;
Christ's power in his coming
for judgment and ending.

For my shield this day I call:
strong power of the seraphim,
with angels obeying,
and archangels attending,
in the glorious company
of the holy and risen ones,
in the the prayers of the fathers,
in visions prophetic
and commands apostolic,
in the annals of witness,
in virginal innocence,
to the deeds of steadfast men.

For my shield this day I call:
Heaven's might,
Moon's whiteness,
Fire's glory,
Lightning's swiftness,
Wind's wildness,
Ocean's depth,
Earth's solidity,
Rock's immobility.

This day I call to me:
God's strength to direct me,
God's power to sustain me.
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's vision to light me,
God's ear to my hearing,
God's word to my speaking,
God's hand to uphold me,
God's pathway before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's legions to save me:
from snares of the demons,
from evil enticements,
from failings of nature,
from one man or many
that seek to destroy me,
anear or afar.

Around me I gather:
these forces to save
my soul and my body
from dark powers that assail me:
against false prophesyings,
against pagan devisings,
against heretical lying
and false gods all around me.
Against spells cast by women,
by blacksmiths, by Druids,
against knowledge unlawful
that injures the body,
that injures the spirit.

Be Christ this day my strong protector:
against poison and burning
against drowning and wounding,
through reward wide and plenty . . .
Christ beside me, Christ before me;
Christ behind me, Christ within me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to right of me, Christ to left of me;
Christ in my lying, my sitting, my rising;
Christ in the heart of all who know me,
Christ on tongue of all who meet me,
Christ in eye of all who see me,
Christ in ear of of all who hear me.

For my shield this day I call:
a mighty power:
the Holy Trinity!
affirming threeness,
confessing oneness
in the making of all – through love . . .

For to the Lord belongs salvation,
and to the Lord belongs salvation
and to Christ belongs salvation.

May your salvation, Lord, be
with us always,
Domini est salus, Domini est salus,
Christ est salus,
Salus tua, Domine, sit semper nobiscum.

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