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Monday, September 29, 2014

Your word is a lamp unto my feet

If there is any encouragement in Christ,

any solace in love,

any participation in the Spirit,

any compassion and mercy,

complete my joy by being of the same mind,
with the same love,

united in heart, thinking one thing.

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;

rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,

each looking out not for his own interests,

but also for those of others.


Have in you the same attitude

that is also in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave...


Hearing these words in the second reading yesterday made me think about how often they have had an influence on me, and how they form a kind of breadcrumb path through my life from my high school seminary days to the present. There’s a kind of joke among us that the answer to any question in theology is, “It’s the paschal mystery, stupid!” And the only thing that makes it funny is discovering how, as I get older, it’s true, and how it renders a lot of pop psychology and goofy self-help rhetoric of secular theology moot and useless. Still, these are dangerous words, and there is great folly in them until one remembers that they are part of divine revelation, words of faith, and that they mark a path through other theologies and competing wisdom. Paul's words to the Philippians begin, for me, at least, to make sense of the world, and of everything else I know. I expect, for instance, that the pattern of God, life at the heart of what appears to be death, will be found stamped on any discoveries made about energy and matter at the Large Hadron Collider. If the paschal mystery is true, it is true of the quanta as it is in human history.

The place I find myself in my meditation on God and Christ and what that means in my life is right here in Paul’s kenosis hymn in Philippians, and in a sense it has been from about 1969 or ’70. It’s in this place where agape and kenosis meet, where being and doing are the same thing, that I find myself. Christ the Icon, one of my later CDs, is anchored between this thought and another great Pauline insight, that Christ is the icon of the invisible God, the visible reality revealing the invisible, his humanity a created and finite touchstone to the uncreated and infinite. Taken together with the inspired and breath-catching insight we find in Romans and First Corinthians about the community of believers as the mystical body of Christ, that is, the icon or visible representation of the invisible reality of the “glorified” Christ, these passages are the matrix of everything I’ve learned and tried to live, preach, and understand in my life.

It’s not that I know anything at all that everyone else doesn’t know, it’s just that these scriptures have helped me make sense of my life, and have a particular reality for me right now. I’ve come to appreciate the mystery of God as agape, and how that mystery is the same as the mystery of the kenosis of Christ. It is how creation and “redemption” (I don’t really like that word, but you’ll know what I mean, at least) are the same; how the emptying of God in creation and in Christ Jesus are the same. It is how John speaks of the incarnation of the Logos, the washing of the feet of the Twelve at the Last Supper, and the death and resurrection of Jesus with the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the church as all the same movement of God, outward, in self-emptying love, always, from before the first moment of time until beyond the last one.

All of this helps me understand why it’s so hard for me to do the loving thing when it’s so clear that nothing else will make me happy. It helps me invite people into the work and prayer of Christ and not use shame or other kinds of coercion to get them to do what I want. It helps anchor me in my liturgical work, and not get too discouraged when things don’t move the way I want, or quickly enough, because it’s clear to me that my own vision is clouded and everything that moves moves by interdependence and discernment. It helps me learn not to be so competitive, that winning and being right are way overrated, because, let’s face it, if, as Philippians says, “Christ Jesus...did not regard equality with God something to be grasped,” then being right must be pretty low on the cosmic totem pole. Love trumps correctness, kenosis trumps “power.” It helps me see how it is possible to go against the self-help wisdom of the age and agree with St. Paul that it’s all right to “regard others as more important than yourselves,” because that’s the way God is, and therefore it’s the only way to the fullness of life. No self-help book will ever tell you to do what Scripture tells you to do, because only the self-revelation of God lets us see so explicitly that all people have one Abba, all are given part of the family of God through the spirit of Christ, and therefore every other person is equal to me in God’s eyes. By being servant, acting as servant, to others, I am doing the very thing that God did when the Big Bang banged, and when Christ leapt from the divine milieu and “danced for the fishermen.” Ultimately, it helps me to stay focused on the empire of God, and not be fooled by the crazy violence of this world. It seems to me now that violence for violence will never, ever, lead to anything but hell, not because God made it that way, but because it’s the natural consequence of not choosing God, who is life. It also begins to explain divine non-intervention in human affairs except through the peaceful incarnation of Christ and the subversive movement of the divine counterculture represented by the parables: Christ, the thief in the night, coming into Satan’s house to rob him of what he has stolen, to take back God’s own.

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to write about all that, about my reaction to hearing the kenosis hymn at the liturgy again yesterday. At first, I thought I was going to write a history of my ideas around the five or six moments that have really moved my thought and prayer along since the 1960s. But it seems to have just taken me to try again, as I have so many times already, to draw a map of the spiritual landscape in which I find myself wandering. The land is frightening but familiar; there are signs I’ve been here before and others pointing me in new directions. But there’s no doubt to me that this place is home, proof that the empire of God is very near, as near as the world behind me that I have to turn around to see. Or in Paul Simon’s captivating metaphor, like “a love you discover accidentally /... gently as a pickpocket brushes your thigh.”