He Remembers We are Dust

In November and December of 1978 while serving as a missionary in Kenya, I contracted dysentery.   Although I don’t remember those days in detail, the journal I kept at that time showed many sleepless nights with a lot of pain.  Because of the pain an inability to sleep, I spent many a night in prayer.

“The psalms have been a great comfort to me these days of my illness.  I understand the psalmists cry to the Lord for batikhelp – coming from the depths of his soul.  And I realize for generations humans have been suffering, hoping and crying to God.  Even though each person’s afflictions are their own, yet countless people before have suffered similarly and found help and strength in God.   And we Christians always have hope – both because of the promises of God and because our God has suffered all the pains, sorrows, afflictions and mental anguish of humanity.    Psalm 103 speaks so well to this:   ‘He knows our frame, he remembers we are dust…’      God does not forget the creatures He has made; He remembers the fragility of our nature.  We are dust, tiny particles that easily be blown away.  We are dust, and unto dust we will return, and yet He remembers what we are ….  His Majestic Might is so gentle, so nimble, so humble that He can touch a human – who is but dust – and heal him.   The infinite power of God can in love touch dust and give it life. …  The incarnation is even a greater mystery – Mary is not only touched by the Divine Power, but she contains in her womb this Power.  In Christ, Divinity not only touches dust, but humbles itself and allows itself to be contained by the dust!”

(8 December 1978, Kunjeru, Kenya)

Tradition: Remembering God Not our Righteousness

paul-dunnI have been reading Jame’s Dunn’s monumental (800 pages!) THE THEOLOGY OF PAUL THE APOSTLE as part of my readings for this The Year of St. Paul.  (Just holding the book to read is simultaneously spiritual and physical exercise!).   I have been trying to gain insight into St. Paul’s understanding of the Torah and the relationship of the Law to our salvation as well as to our moral behavior.   We are saved by grace not by works, but how then are we to live – does the Torah or the Ten Commandments have any importance in our daily lives?

Dunn endeavors to get beyond the grace versus works arguments of the Reformation-Counter Reformation debates and to understand Paul within the context of his relationship to Judaism rather than to Protestantism or Catholicism.  It seems to me he does pretty well in getting beyond this Western Christian debate and getting into St. Paul’s text, though he casts the discussion often in terms of the ongoing interpretive debates of the 20th Century among his scriptural scholar colleagues.   He uses these more recent discussions to build his arguments for his interpretation of St. Paul. 

One insight I’ve had while reading the book concerns the nature of the Torah/Law.   In Deuteronomy 6 the great creedal Shema of Israel is offered:   

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

What seems to me to be the main thrust of Deuteronomy 6 is that keeping Torah – God’s commandments, ordinances, teachings , law – is to help the person remember (not forget, 6:12-14) the saving deeds of God in order to remain faithful to God.  The purpose of doing all of the commandments is to remember what God has done  so that we will always be faithful to God no matter what else might currently be happening.  This is the purpose of reciting/repeating the commandments and it is how God will remain close to and in our hearts.

What Dunn sees as the misunderstanding of Israel is that keeping Torah ultimately changed the focus of the Israelites and instead of remembering what God had done to save them, they came to focus on their own deeds and how to keep the Law.  This is what St. Paul means when he contrasts faith to works of the Law.  The Law was given to help the Israelites remember what God had done, instead they focused on what they were doing – how well they were keeping the Law, and thus pursued a righteousness based on their own works of the Law rather than on remembering what God had done – keeping faith in God’s works.   In this sense the Law became a trap for the Israelites instead of their salvation.  They misunderstood the Law and forgot its purpose – to focus their attention and faith on God and God’s deeds and God’s will.  Instead they got caught up in meticulously (rigidly, legalistically, Pharisaically) keeping the details of the Law while forgetting the very thing the Law was to remind them of – what God had done for their salvation.  The Torah was supposed to help maintain the faith of Israel in God, but the Israelites turned it into their way to maintain God’s blessing on them and to keep them separated from the rest of humankind.  Thus the Law became nothing more than a way of the flesh rather than a way of the spirit because it focused on human effort instead of reminding the people of what God had done for them.  Keeping Torah was not supposed to be about following rules but about remembering what God had done in order to keep faith with God. 

The implications for modern Orthodox should be pretty obvious as well.  Fasting, rubrics, canons and typicons help us to remember what God has done for us in order to nurture our faith in God.  If we however turn them into our own pursuit of holiness, into that which defines and separates us from the rest of humankind (whom God loves and for whom Christ died), we are turning our faith into the same traditionalist mistake which the Israelites made – and they were not commended or justified by God for it.   We are not saved by keeping Torah or Tradition but by keeping faith in the Holy Trinity who has saved us.    It is Jesus Christ who saves us, and our goal is to maintain faith in Him and thus be united to Him.   All Tradition is important to the extent that is helps us remember God’s saving acts in Jesus Christ and helps maintain our faith in God and trust in His merciful deeds of salvation.  It is not the rigorous keeping of rules and regulations which is important, but maintaining faith in God through Jesus Christ our Lord.   keeping Tradition is important when it is identical with keeping Faith in the Holy Trinity.  Tradition helps us remember what God has done for us; that is why we keep it, not to replace trust in God with trusting in our own rigorist righteousness.

In the Image of God and the Incarnation

beginningsIn this season of the Nativity Fast, I have been offering up theological reflections on Christmas by various authors.   I recently finished reading the just published book by Peter Bouteneff,   BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES.  It is a very important book in that it looks at the role St. Paul playing in shaping a particularly Christian understanding of Genesis 1-3.  It also shows that Genesis 1-3 was not nearly as important in Judaism as it is in Christianity and the book explores the developing Christian thinking on the theological significance of the first three chapters of Genesis.  I want to quote here two comments from the book that are related to Christmas, the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus the Messiah.

Irenaeus‘s understanding of Christ and history resembles his understanding of Scripture: the NT is not simply more Scripture, new material added to the OT, but rather it describes Scripture’s fulfillment and underlying sense.  The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment, the summing up (recapitulation) of the presence of the Word throughout history.” 

“It is only in the incarnation, the coming of the Son in the flesh, that we may properly say that the human person is made in the image of God. …        ‘When the Word of God was made human, He assimilated Himself to humanity and humanity to Himself, so that by means of the human person’s resemblance to the Son, he might become precious to the Father.   For in times past, it was well said that the human person was created after the image of God, but this was not [actually] shown.  For the Word was as yet invisible – the Word after whose image the human person was created… But when the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both: for He both showed forth the image in all truth, becoming Himself what was His image; and he re-established the similitude in a stable manner, rendering humanity completely like the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.’”  (Irenaeus, Against Heresies)” 

Mary as the First Disciple – The Nativity According to St. Luke

Our Wednesday evening Bible Study focused on Luke 2:1-21, the Lukan story of the Nativity of Christ.   As some background information for our study I offered a few comments taken from two booklets of Roman Catholic biblicaladvent scholar Ray Brown,  A COMING CHRIST IN ADVENT  and AN ADULT CHRIST AT CHRISTMAS.  I would recommend both booklets to those interested in learning about the Gospel narratives of the birth of Christ. A couple of ideas that Fr. Brown presents in his booklets:

“This manger is not a sign of poverty but is probably  meant to evoke God’s complaint against Israel in Isaiah 1:3: ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its lord; but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood me.'”

“C.H. Giblin… suggest that Luke’s reference to the lodgings echoes Jeremiah 14:8, addressed to the Lord and Savior of Israel, ‘Why are You like an alien in the land, like a traveler who stays in lodgings?’  For this dictum too is repealed, for the Lord and Savior of Israel no longer stays in lodgings.” 

Fr. Brown saw Mary as one of the most significant characters in St. Luke’s nativity narrative.  Mary does not represent conversion to the Gospel, but one who lives consistently with the Gospel, which is why God selected her to be the mother of His Son.   Her life though makes her a true disciple of Christ.  Mary herself is trying to discover the hidden meaning behind the mysterious events at Christ’s birth (Luke 2:19).   Brown sees “Mary as the first to hear and accept it and then to proclaim it.”   In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56),  Mary not only hears God’s word and accepts it, she interprets it!  She interprets it as good news – she sings about what the meaning of the Gospel is to her, to Israel and to all people.   Fr. Brown suggests that our task at Christmas is to meditate on Mary’s understanding of the Good News and then to ask ourselves,  how do we “interpret what we believe happens at Christmas?”   The Nativity story is not just about what happens in our hearts – warm fuzzies, sentimental memories.   Christmas is not just about how I feel about the holiday – it is about what God has done in and for the entire world. To limit Christmas to one’s own feelings about the season is to miss experiencing God’s own action in and toward the world through Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord.