Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Power of Advent

I have a number of Advent CDs in my collection, including one from the incomparable choir of Kings College, Cambridge, but the performance that I find most revelatory is one that I picked up two years ago when I was teaching in Toronto. Recorded live at the Anglican Cathedral of St. James in downtown Toronto, it presents the Advent season in the most powerful way that I have yet heard. The choir doesn’t have the seraphic quality of Kings (what choir does?) but it is very good, and the overall design of the service, the selection of hymns, and the superior audibility of the readings and hymn texts makes it my favorite. (Many have asked how to get this CD. Not easy! It was published by St. James Cathedral and is available only from them. Try emailing or calling Wendy Pappas the receptionist in the Cathedral office 416-364-7865 extension 221, Monday-Friday 9:00 to 5:00. They are not prepared for a big wave of publicity about this!)

Never before in any setting have I heard the lesson from Isaiah 6 read publicly as in this Canadian Advent liturgy. Ordinarily—at ordinations, for example—the reading ends with “Here am I; send me.” When I first listened to this CD I was electrified to realize that the reader was not going to stop, but was continuing with the next verses:

…and [the seraph] said, “Go, and say to this people: “Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed… (Isaiah 6:9-10).

I held my breath. How would the reading end? What will the congregation make of this strange, and seemingly hopeless, oracle? Does it tell us that God has willed people not to be healed and restored through faith?

The reader continued with the response of Isaiah, “Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’” and stopped.

This is exactly where we are in Advent. Here we are stuck with North Korea, “the land of lousy options.” Here are the poor Haitians, their whole country sick unto death and half the foreign aid piled up in warehouses for lack of a distribution system. Here is Iraq, with the residents who returned to the country two years ago now leaving again in desperation. Here is our own country mired in the most uncivil, negative, and adversarial public mood that anyone can remember. Here are the shrimpers of our Gulf Coast, almost completely forgotten since the BP spill was plugged up, yet—according to an NPR interview today—suffering in a heartbreaking fashion.

“How long, O Lord?” Is it ever going to get any better? Advent tells us the bleak truth: there is no human capacity able to rescue this planet from itself. If we read on in Isaiah 6, the situation gets even worse; and yet the prophecy ends “the holy seed is its stump” (Isaiah 6:13). This mysterious utterance has been picked up in the liturgy and hymnody of the church as a reference to Christ, “the stump [or rod] of Jesse” from which will come the “righteous branch”—the Messiah. The words of familiar Advent hymns pick up this imagery:

O come thou rod of Jesse’s stem…(from “O come, O come Emmanuel”)

O righteous branch, O Jesse’s rod,
Thou Son of Man and Son of God! (from “How bright appears the morning star”)

Imagery from nature often fails us when reading the Bible, however; anyone who lives near woods is familiar with the green shoots that appear out of dead stumps. It’s a “natural” phenomenon occurring regularly. The meaning of such images in Scripture is different. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones is the classic example: the dead community is “clean cut off” from any hope of life until the Spirit of God breathes upon them. The commission of the prophet in Isaiah 6 is a specific illustration of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:8—“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” The commission gives Isaiah his message of divine intervention at the moment of most hopelessness, the moment where human, “natural” capacity fails and has nothing more to offer.

In the Canadian cathedral service, after the reading of Isaiah 6, the hymns, anthems, and readings unfold the plan and purpose of God to raise the dead, create faith where there is no faith, bring the exiles home, and save us from ourselves in spite of ourselves. None of this would be half so commanding and revelatory if it were not for that “How long, O Lord?” It is precisely at the moment of God’s apparently unending absence that the announcement comes—Emmanu-el, God is with us.

It is typical of Advent liturgies to weave together biblical and liturgical references to the first and second comings of Christ so that it is almost impossible and—more important—unnecessary to tell where one begins and the other ends. They blend into one another just as the angel Gabriel’s gentle yet apocalyptic salute to the Virgin Mary blends into and complements the thunderous announcement of John the Baptist. All of this is interleaved in the Advent service at the Toronto cathedral in the most thoroughgoing way that I have heard. There is almost no tip of the hat to the crowd-pleasing themes of the Nativity. It is all about the adult Christ, the One who comes.

A choral responsory by Palestrina has in recent years become a standard for Advent services. This has been a great blessing both musically and theologically:

I look from afar, and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth….

Advent is only secondarily about the baby Jesus. It is primarily about the rending of the heavens (Isaiah again) and the coming of the Lord in power and glory to take the creation back for himself. Until he comes, then, we are the people who put on the armor of light “now in this present time” and by our works point to the One who is to come.

So even if we can't go to Haiti, we can support those who do; and we can help to civilize our public discourse; and we can offer our gifts and encouragement to (for instance) the Diocese of Louisiana as it struggles not only with the aftermath of Katrina but now also with the BP disaster. This is the way that Advent people show that God has not forgotten those who suffer.


And by the way, that quotation from Isaiah's commission that's almost always omitted is used in the New Testament more than any other passage from the Old Testament. Meaning? Even in times when faith fails and people have turned against God, the divine purpose is at work. Our God is the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

George W. Bush and waterboarding

When I read that Bush 43, in his new book, cheerfully affirms his decision to torture Khalid Sheik Mohammed, I thought of a letter that I wrote to the Wall Street Journal in 2004. I never got a response to either one of my submissions. I therefore publish the letter here:

June 18, 2004

Introductory note to the editor:

I e-mailed a version of the letter appended below to you last week and have been very disappointed that it was not printed. I sent it to The Wall Street Journal instead of the Times because the Journal is much more friendly to overtly Christian themes and therefore, I thought, more likely to accept my letter for publication. I also believe that you have more readers whom I am trying to reach. And finally, to your great credit the Journal has taken the lead in publishing some of the background material about Attorney General Ashcroft’s role in the matter at hand. I have rewritten the letter and am now sending it again, hoping that you will give it a second chance.

If you Google me you will see that I am a person not without credibility.

Fleming Rutledge



Where are the voices of American Christians in the current debate about torture? President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft have made the profession of Christian faith a conspicuous identifying mark of this administration’s public persona, thus reinforcing the perception of the world, especially the Muslim world, that we are a self-identified Christian nation. Yet, as the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to global attention, the voice of the church has been strangely muted. During the debate about the character of Islam following 9/11, a number of commentators observed that Christianity, being based upon the life and teachings of Christ, possesses crystal-clear internal correctives which would always rise to the top to counteract distortions of the faith. Such intrinsic correctives, it was sometimes argued, were missing in Islam, or at least lacked equivalent clarity.

So where is the outcry from the pulpits and congregations now that America is debating the permissibility of torture? It is time for the entire Christian Church unequivocally to repudiate the use of such means, not only because of the Geneva Conventions, and not only because torture is against everything that America stands for, but especially because the Christian ethic is an ethic of means. The Christian is known not only by the end or goal that he seeks, but especially by the means he uses to strive toward the end. The attainment of the end must be left to God. It is the means by which the end is sought that distinguishes the Christian community and links it to the Son of God. If the submission of Jesus to crucifixion means anything at all, it means the total identification of the Son of God with malefactors. If his commandments are not to be sentimentalized out of all connection to his life’s offering, Christians must hold to their original rigor, which requires merciful treatment even of the perceived enemy. This is a call to American Christians everywhere to stand up and make their voices heard on this matter which is central to our faith.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Should a mosque be a cathedral? or vice versa?

My parents spent almost a month touring Spain in the 1950s. Their glowing reports made a tremendous impression on me and my sister. I particularly remember their rapturous appreciation of the architecture of Muslim Spain--Al Andalus. They thought the Alhambra was one of the most wonderful things they had ever seen.

Reports come today of the Roman Catholic Church's push to have the Mezquita de Cordoba off-limits to praying Muslims and to remove the word "mosque" from the signs identifying this great building (a UNESCO world-heritage site) as a "mosque-cathedral." The Church argues that the magnificent example of Moorish architecture, begun by the caliphs as a mosque in the eighth century, has been a cathedral ever since the Christian reconquest of Spain in the 13th. Complicating the matter is the fact that Pope Benedict XVI comes to Spain this weekend, on his quest to strengthen Catholicism in Europe. The New York Times article can be found here:

The struggle between Muslims and Christians for this soul of this world-famous monument escalated on Good Friday this year when a group of Muslims came into the "cathedral" and began to pray loudly, resisting all efforts to eject them. Some Muslims are now seeking a space set aside for them in the building, much to the dismay of the Catholic authorities.

I had the great privilege of seeing Hagia Sophia in Constantinople some years ago. I consider it to be the greatest building in the world. However, this Christian church, built in the sixth century, was converted into a mosque after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. It remained a mosque until 1935 when it was secularized as a museum. Many of the additions and changes made by the Ottomans remain, and many of the Christian features, especially the gorgeous mosaics, were lost. I found this distressing.

In Rome this spring, I saw the Pantheon, by common consent one of the greatest buildings in the world and certainly one of the earliest on that list. I thought it was much defaced by the altar, crucifix, and other Christian objects placed inside. It is true that the building was saved, intact, only because it was made into a church--all the other Roman buildings in central Rome are in ruins--but it would be much better if the temple "to all the gods" were allowed to be itself.

All this is by way of saying that the former mosque in Cordoba ought not to be a battleground between Muslims and Catholics. It would be too much to ask the Church to give up its cathedral, but how much better than the current hostile standoff it would be if the Church (and Christians in general) respected the building's origins. It does not look anything like a Christian church by any stretch of the imagination.

Christianity does not survive and grow and win hearts by being militant. The failure to learn this has undone our efforts from the first centuries until now, when many congregations breaking away from the Episcopal Church have a stance of militant self-righteousness (and the same is often true, it must be said, for the loyalists). This is not the way of the Cross.

It is a difficult path to find. If we simply give in to all-inclusiveness, as the Washington National Cathedral (for instance) seems to be doing, the distinctive character of Christianity will be lost. Doctrine does matter. What makes the difference is the spirit in which doctrine is upheld, and above all the manner in which Christians conduct themselves in a world hostile to the Cross of Christ. It goes without saying (or does it?) that the Cross is not a symbol, least of all a symbol to be carried into literal battle. As a sign of victory over the powers of sin and death, the Cross is a reality about the way in which God gave himself up to evil in order to save the world through love.