Friday, 20 December 2013

Forest Green

I don't know much about the history of Christmas traditions. Whatever its origin, I'm struck by the paradoxical and strange nature of the Christmas tree. In the depths of winter we bring a green tree into our house and place it at the centre of our celebrations, and the locus of the abundance of the season in the form of our gift giving. Because of the tree Christmas is always united in my mind with green, with verdant beautiful forest green, despite its temporal home in the depths of winter.

The bringing of green things into the home reminds me of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, during which it is traditional to decorate the inside of the home with green plants. This associative connection between the two holidays leads me to contemplate the commonality between the two: both celebrate revelation. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. Christmas celebrates the incarnation of the Torah as a person- Jesus Christ. In both cases the revelation of God's face is associated with green things- the pure force of life, or as Dylan Thomas put it "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower".

The tree in Christmas also celebrates life in the depth of the sleeping death of winter and is an obvious symbol for the resurrection and more broadly redemption in Christ. To my mind green things speak of the life and wisdom of the Father, and of the creation of all things in and through Christ. The evergreen at the heart of our homes speaks of the robust indestructibility of the love of the Father and the Son, its green branches and the tang of pine quickening our senses amidst the quiet, desolate stillness of winter. Life fertile and eternal pulses there.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Obedience to Christ

It seems to me to be extremely difficult to be worthy of Christ's offer and to be truly obedient to Him. It seems to me that the people who think that Christ's grace is absolutely free and no worth is required of us are both right and wrong.

It is absolutely free and no worth is required of us in the same sense that a bucking bronco is absolutely available for free to anyone to ride and no worth is required to get on. To get on, yes, but to stay on?

Christ's offer is absolutely open and His love is available to everyone, yes. But that is just the beginning. It is a relationship that is on offer- one that is gratuitous, yes, and one that is sweet, yes, but also one with a true lover. A true lover loves you for who you really are, not for who you think you are. A true lover see you with absolute clarity, and wants to see you that way. A true lover does not humour your neurosis, your weakness, your self-destructive desires. A true lover is a bracing and yes, consuming fire, whose love will burn away everything not worthy of you.

We want to be faithful to Christ, and that is admirable. But the way that we sometimes choose to be assured of our own faithfulness is actually opposed to a real relationship with Christ. Some Jews tend to seek security in their fidelity to the details of the law, cloaking from themselves and others their failure to dance the true dance with the living God. Some Christians tend to take refuge in doctrinal propriety, believing that if we believe what we've been told the Bible says with perfect fidelity regardless of troublesome promptings of conscience or contradictory information from the world, then we are true to God. Then we have met the great self-sacrificial love of Christ towards us with requisite responsibility and gratitude.

Yet while we build idols with clear boundaries and well defined lines we are all the time obscuring from sight the real shape of Christs desire in us. Until we meet that desire something will always feel off- we will fail to acquire the real health that is offered to us in Jesus. Gratefully he will keep knocking at the door.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Come and See

"They said to him, "Rabbi!" (which means teacher), "Where are you staying?"

"Come and see", Yeshua tells them.

So they came and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him....

.....Phillip finds Natana'el and tells him, "We've found the one that Moshe in the Torah, and also the prophets, wrote about- Yeshua of Nazeret, son of Yosef!"

"Nazeret!", Natana'el answered. "Can anything good come from there?"

Phillip said to him, "Come and see."

-Yochanan 1:38-39; 45-47 (based on Tree of Life Bible translation)

"What is the nature of this dhamma (teaching) of the one you call the Buddha (awakened one)?"

"His dhamma is here-and-now, timeless, inviting all "come and see!", giving guidance, verifiable to everyone for themselves!"

- Pali Canon (my translation)

The latter quote is a summary of the nature of the Buddha's teaching that is chanted by Buddhists all over the world every day as part of "dhammanupassana" or contemplation of the wondrous nature of the teaching. The crux of the quote, in my eyes, is the central invitation "come and see!" It is this very invitation that is so inspiring to children of the secular enlightenment in the West. This is a teaching that apparently needs no faith, that lies completely open to empirical investigation. "Taste and see that the Dhamma is good!" the quote cries.

I was therefore struck when I read in the Gospel of Yochanan (John) that an identical invitation is presented twice in the early 2nd chapter of the book when Yeshua (Jesus) first begins gathering disciples. This invitation, "come and see!" serves the same function as it does in the Pali Canon- to provoke curiousity, to express joyous confidence, and to lay down a challenge.

There are of course diffferences. The disciples of the Buddha are inviting people not to come and see the Buddha, but to come take up the practice of his teachings- to apply a set of techniques- and see the results in and for themselves. Jesus, and after him his disciple Phillip, is inviting others to come and see Jesus himself. The Buddhist invites you to examine a doctrine and a practice, the Christian invites you to come see a person.

Herein, it seems to me, lies one of the difficulties of evangelism: it is not Christian doctrine, nor Christian community, nor the rewards of living Christian disciplines, that make a Christian. Doctrine may be intellectually scintillating- delivered in a beautifully dignified and complex harmony like the writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or witty, biting and brilliant like those of CS Lewis. Community may be warm, genuine and supportive. Christian disciplines may fill days with meaning, joy, purification and warm ripples of heart-health. I think it true that none of these will make a true Christian, however.

These things will appeal and may draw one in for a time, giving a certain superfical sense of conviction and rootedness. What they won't do, in my opinion, is make one loyal to Christ through the tests of time, persecution, dark night, and doubt. Nor will they truly bring you into the heart of the Church.

The only thing that can do that is a direct encounter with the head of the Church and the full content of Christian revelation and religion- Jesus himself. Unlike the Buddha, Jesus lives. He is el chai v' kayam, the living and eternal God.

Jesus is the fulfillment- nay, the embodiment- of the Torah itself, God's instruction through Israel to humanity. He is the revelation of the Torah. Zoat ha Torah- Ish.
This is the Torah- a man (Num 19:4, based on traditional Hasidic midrashic reading of verse).

Monday, 9 December 2013