Saturday, December 17, 2016 Saturday after the Third Sunday of Advent
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
One of the reasons I hold to the Christian faith is that it describes a reality that is material and is in time. As Genesis 1.31 puts it, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
This hasn’t always been the case; there is a strong tendency in Christianity to deprecate the material. Under the influence of Neo-Platonism Christianity had a tendency to privilege the immaterial and eternal, not just with reference to the divine, but in terms of the created order. Origen of Alexandria, the 3rd century biblical commentator and theologian, imagined two creations, one spiritual and immaterial, and then another in which souls received bodies and the material world came into being. Many of the texts found in Nag Hammadi (the so-called “gnostic gospels”) have even more complicated and developed cosmology in which successive emanations are successively lower and removed from the divine. It was said of the pagan Neoplatonist philosopher Pllotinus that “he was ashamed to be in the body” , and this attitude carried over to many who were ascetics. This tendency, combined with a weariness with the assaults of politics, disease, and conflict, his has sometimes led to a disregard for creation.
But the God described in the Bible is one who is very involved in the world, and has a passionate love for it. The opening verses of today’s reading from Matthew firmly sets John the Baptist in history, in a definite time and place. The faith of Christianity is not myth or legend, but faith in a particular individual who lived in a material body in a time of history (people who claim that Jesus never existed are not credible historians). While scholars might argue about exactly what Jesus did and said, there is a consensus that:
- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
- He called disciples.
- He had a controversy at the Temple.
- Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.
- Jesus was a Galilean.
- His activities were confined to Galilee and Judea.
- After his death his disciples continued.
- Some of his disciples were persecuted.
It is also demonstrable that after his death his disciples proclaimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What is beyond historical demonstration is the historicity of such an event; being a unique event contrary to normal experience, such a claim cannot be verified. But it can be believed or not believed, and that is where faith carries on from historical reconstruction.
The Incarnation, which Christmas is all about, is a validation of the very goodness of creation. In joining the immaterial, eternal Word of God with the very material, mortal body of the child of Mary we have a paradoxical affirmation of who and what we are as human beings – mortal, visible, fragile, limited, wondrous creatures. While it might surprise some of my friends, I revel in the materialness of my existence. I do not imagine that something I might call “spirit” or “soul” is somehow more essential than the body. Indeed, in a Wittgensteinian / Rortyian kind of way, I eschew essentializing human nature, and see religious language as a kind of “language game” I will use language like “spirit” and “soul”, but I do not ascribe to that usage references to some metaphysical things. It is a traditional way of talking about humans in the created order, but does not necessarily require us to develop an anthropology that is supernatural and divorced from human science.
Material things are good. The created world is worthy to be redeemed by God. Resurrection is resurrection of the body – transformed, but still a body. Our ultimate destination, beyond words, is described as a city in a new heaven and a new earth, transformed but still material.
The implications from this are vast. I think it means that we are called to live in harmony with creation and its creator, and to enjoy living in our bodies. We are not called to be simply spirits passing through an alien world to something better, but to be full participants in this very earthy existence. In this the model is, as always, Jesus of Nazareth.
On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in all the earth.
Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: O my people, who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my indignation will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. The Lord of hosts will wield a whip against them, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb; his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.
But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; for they said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.’ It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions. But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’