Monday, 30 December 2013

God’s sign is his humility

This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:12; cf. 2:16). God’s sign, the sign given to the shepherds and to us, is not an astonishing miracle. God’s sign is his humility. God’s sign is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love. How we would prefer a different sign, an imposing, irresistible sign of God’s power and greatness! But his sign summons us to faith and love, and thus it gives us hope: this is what God is like. He has power, he is Goodness itself. He invites us to become like him.

Yes indeed, we become like God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this sign; if we ourselves learn humility and hence true greatness; if we renounce violence and use only the weapons of truth and love.

Benedict XVI - Homily at the Mass for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord 2009

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Royal and Priestly Christology

Vanhoye argues that the innovative feature of the Letter to the Hebrews is the exploration of the identity of Christ in terms of priesthood. The first part of the letter (1:5-2:18) prepares us for the theme:
In Part One the preacher reminded his audience of Christ's paschal mystery in traditional terms. He first spoke to them about Christ's glorification (1,5-14), then about his passion which brought about that glorification (2,5-16). To express these two phases of the mystery he used some traditional biblical texts used by apostolic catechesis, many of which are linked with Davidic Messianism of the royal kind. When ending (2,17-18), the author shows that the same Christology can also be expressed in priestly categories and that there is no difficulty in passing from a royal to a priestly explanation of the mystery of Christ. In fact, in his glorification, Christ is proclaimed Son of God and in his passion he is shown as brother of mankind. Through his glorifying passion he entered with his human nature of flesh and blood into the heavenly intimacy of his Father and at the same time strengthened his fraternal links with us and made them indissoluble. Having brought these two relations to their perfection, he now finds himself established in a position of perfect mediator between God and us or, in other words, of «merciful and trustworthy high priest for relations with God» (2,17)."
Albert Vanhoye, A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews (transl. Leo Arnold; Miami: Convivium Press, 2011), 114.
Vanhoye then contrasts royal and priestly Christology, too sharply for my taste. He asks, "For Jesus to be able to be proclaimed Messiah-King was it necessary that he should undergo the worst suffering and humiliation? That does not seem evident" (p115). But the path through suffering to glory has been trod by David himself and the Psalter suggests to me that he has thereby laid down a pattern, not least in Psalm 22. Vanhoye, however, does not read Psalm 22 as royal-messianic. Maybe he sees no royal features in Isa 53 either. He also does not grant Davidic kings a mediating role between God and his people but this seems to me very much assumed in the historical narratives. In fact, there really is "no difficulty in passing from a royal to a priestly explanation of the mystery of Christ". The true king was always meant to be priestly.

The Structure of Hebrews according to Vanhoye

The previous post summarised the development of the letter to the Hebrews according to Albert Vanhoye, A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews (transl. Leo Arnold; Miami: Convivium Press, 2011). This post gives his own structural summary, as set out on pages 56-57.

Exordium: God has spoken to us in his Son (1,1-4)
     Announcement of the subject of the First Part: 1,4b

Part One: The »name« of Christ: general Christology (1,5-2,18)
     Christ is Son of God (1,5-14) and brother of mankind (2,5-16)
     This double relationship makes him a mediator between God and mankind, a high priest.
     Announcement of the subject of Part Two: 2,17 

Part Two: Christ is trustworthy and merciful high priest: priestly Christology, general characteristics (3,1-5,10)
     1st section: Christ is trustworthy high priest (3,1-6); appeal for faith (3,7-4,14)
     2nd section: Appeal for confidence (4,15-16), for Christ is compassionate high priest; he has suffered and offered (5,1-10)
     Announcement of the subject of Part Three: 5,9-10

Part Three: Christ is the perfect high priest priestly Christology, specific characteristics (5,11-10,39)
     Preamble: Appeal for attention and generosity (5,11-6,20)
     1st section: Christ is a high priest of a special kind (7,1-28)
     2nd section: Christ offered a sacrifice of a new kind (8,1-9,28)
     3rd section: Christ's offering was fully effective (10,1-18)
     Epilogue: Appeal for union with Christ, our high priest (10,19-39)
     Announcement of the subject of Part Four: 10,36-39

Part Four: Union with Christ high priest through faith and endurance (11,1-12,13)
     1st section: Eulogy of the faith of ancestors (11,1-40)
     Achievements and trials of faith in the Old Testament
     2nd section: Call to imitate Christ in his passion and practising endurance in trials (12,1-13)
     Announcement of the subject of Part Five: 12,13

Part Five: Call for upright conduct in the search for holiness and peace (12,14-13,18)
     Search for holiness (12,14-29) and Christian solidarity (13,1-18)

Final invocation and doxology: Invocation for divine assistance through the mediation of Jesus Christ (13,20-21a), doxology (13,21b)

Dispatch note: (13,19.22-25): Exhortation, news, greetings.

This plan offers more than one remarkable feature. It is closely linked to biblical rhetoric, for it is built in a concentric way. By their length and the number of their sections, four parts are arranged symmetrically around the third part, which is central..." (p57)

""It is clear that the author wanted above all to pass on a substantial lesson in priestly Christology to his listeners. But he passes this teaching on in a pastoral and not professorial way. He takes care first to nourish their faith; he is also careful to call upon them to live generously in accordance with the gift of God received in faith." (p58)

The Letter to the Hebrews according to Vanhoye

Excerpts from Albert Vanhoye, A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews (transl. Leo Arnold; Miami: Convivium Press, 2011):

In Hebrews 1:1-4 the preacher announces "that he will speak about the «name» of Christ, that is to say - because such is the underlying idea in the Semitic mentality - that he will define the personal position of Christ and his relational capacities. To this effect just one title cannot be sufficient. A whole series of explanations, even two series are needed for it, as we shall see." (p25)

The first part of the homily (1:5-2:18) defines the position of Christ first in relation to God (1:5-14), leading to an exhortation, then in relation to humanity (2:5-16), before the actual subject of the homily is announced in 2:17-18. 
once it is realized that the first part of the homily has as its subject the «name» of Christ and that it defines that name with a twofold relationship, Son of God (1,5-14) and brother of mankind (2,5-16), it becomes clear that the author has thereby highlighted the position of Christ as mediator between God and mankind, or in other words, as the «high priest».
In 2,17 the title «high priest» comes then as a conclusion to the first part of the homily and announces the subject which the author wishes to treat. The following chapters depend on this announcement. They expound a priestly Christology and its consequences for Christian living. (both quotations from p29)
Vanhoye observes that two adjectives specify the high priest, "merciful and trustworthy," and argues that the second part of the homily (3:1-5:10) shows in two sections that Christ possesses these two qualities, treated in reverse order. 3:1-6 briefly sets out the trustworthiness of the priesthood of Christ and is followed by an exhortation. 4:15-16 "move on to the other aspect of Christ's priesthood...the capacity of Christ to show compassion, having been put to the test" (p32) which is then developed in 5:1-10.

With its "triple affirmation" of "the outcome of Christ's passion" (p33), the conclusion of the second part in 5:9-10 announces the subject of the third part of the homily (5:11-10:39). After a preamble (5:11-6:20), the first section in 7:1-28 expounds on the third outcome, priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek. At the end of chap. 7 the author comes back to the first outcome, "to make perfect," which is then explored in the second section (8:1-9:28), the central part of the homily. Its last word indicates the theme of the third section (10:1-18), "salvation," which is developed in terms of forgiveness of sins. The third part of the homily concludes with an exhortation (10:19-39).

The themes in 10:36-39 of "endurance" (stressed by its position in the sentence) and "faith" (stressed by repetition) announce the two themes of the fourth part of the homily, again dealt with in reverse order,  faith in 11:1-40, endurance in 12:1-13. The quotation from Prov 4:26-27 in the final verse "moves us on from the theme of Christian the one of Christian activity, which will be that of the following part" (p50).

The theme of the fifth part of the homily (12:14-13:21) remains the same throughout, "conduct to be followed, but a certain distinction can be perceived between the first paragraph and the other two, in accordance with the initial distinction between «peace with all» and «sanctification». Of course, these aspects are developed in reverse order." (p52)

13:22-25 is the dispatch note, "added to the text of the homily when it was sent to one distant community or another" (p54). Apart from these verses only the short sentence in 13:19 suggest an epistolary context. It is noteworthy that the beginning of Hebrews does not. Vanhoye concludes that "the Letter to the Hebrews is a sermon to which an epistolary ending has been added" (p54). Others have suggested that the epistolary ending begins in 13:1 but Vanhoye argues that most of chap. 13 belongs to the homily itself.

Born that we no more may die

I have been reading some of Albert Vanhoye, A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews (transl. Leo Arnold; Miami: Convivium Press, 2011), in preparation for today's sermon. Here is a crucial passage:
Death, being a consequence of, and punishment for, sin (Gen 3,3.19; Rom 5,12), placed mankind in a fearsome state of separation from God (Ps 88,4; Isa 38,11) and oppressed them under the power of the devil (Wis 2,24). With his death, Christ broke the power of the devil, for he turned an event of terrible separation into a covenant event (9,15); he used his death to introduce his human nature into the heavenly intimacy of God (9,24) and to open up that same way to all mankind (10,19), doing so by accepting in his death the positive action of God who was «making him perfect» by inspiring him with perfect filial docility and full brotherly solidarity. (111-112)
Note: Vanhoye cites the Psalter in the numbering of the old Greek and Latin versions, so his reference to Ps 88:4 should be translated to Ps 89:3 in most English versions but the reference may be to Ps 89:49.
In Christ God became one of us.
In Christ God is with us in our suffering.
In Christ we have been freed from the fear of death.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Bonhoeffer's Creed

I believe that God can and will generate good out of everything, even out of the worst evil. For that, he needs people who allow that everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.

I believe that God will give us in each state of emergency as much power of resistance as we need. But he will not give in advance, so that we do not rely on ourselves but on him alone. Through such faith all anxiety concerning the future should be overcome.

I believe that even our mistakes and failings are not in vain, and that it is not more difficult for God to cope with these as with our assumed good deeds.

I believe that God is not a timeless fate, but that he waits for and responds to honest prayers and responsible action.
"Bonhoeffer wrote this creed shortly before his execution by the Gestapo, which took place twenty-three days before Germany’s surrender. Death, said Bonhoeffer, is the supreme festival on the road to freedom. If he’s wrong, all is lost. If he’s right, it’s just begun."
Philip Yancey, The Question That Never Goes Away: What is God up to in a world of such tragedy and pain? (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), 135-136.

Grief is the place where love and pain converge

The title is a sentence from Philip Yancey, The Question That Never Goes Away: What is God up to in a world of such tragedy and pain? (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013, 111, immediately following a quotation from Bonhoeffer:
 "Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation. It remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Martyred Christian [New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1983], 183)
Later on Yancey observes, "When I was writing the book Where is God When It Hurts? I noticed a detail at the end of Job that had always escaped me. After Job goes through his time of trial, the author notes, God meticulously restored double all that he had lost: 14,000 sheep to replace 7,000; 6,000 camels to replace 3,000; 1,000 oxen and donkeys to replace 500. There is, however, one exception. Job lost seven sons and three daughters, and in the restoration he got seven sons and three daughters - the same number as before, not double. A human being cannot be replaced, like sheep or cattle." (123-124)

The Question That Never Goes Away

Heavenly Father,
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod,
though they had done no wrong:
by the suffering of your Son
and by the innocence of our lives
frustrate all evil designs
and establish your reign of justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Philip Yancey, The Question That Never Goes Away: What is God up to in a world of such tragedy and pain? (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) has the following quotes:

Miroslav Volf: Those who observe suffering are tempted to reject God; those who experience it often cannot give up on God, their solace and their agony...You can protest against the evil of the world only if you believe in a good God. Otherwise the protest doesn’t make sense.(Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace ([Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005], 190-91
Ingmar Bergman: You were born without purpose, you live without meaning, living is its own meaning. When you die, you are extinguished. (The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography [New York: Viking Penguin, 1988], 204)
and having asked for many years "Where is God when it hurts?" now also asks: "Where is no-God when it hurts?"

"Only a suffering God can answer whether this planet is worth the cost. I have a clue to the answer, though, after talking to families who lost a son or daughter. If you ask them - 'These six or seven years you had with your child, were they worth the pain you feel now?' - you will hear a decisive Yes. As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote after the death of a young friend, ''Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.' Perhaps God feels the same way about fallen creation?" (109)