Sunday, April 28, 2013

What Is Real?

Have you ever noticed that books for young readers tend to ask deep questions about meaning, being, purpose, life, and reality? Story is a wonder-full way to explore and answer life's greatest questions. This is yet another reason I recommend reading children's books often. 
"What is real?" This question is posed again and again throughout Madeleine L'Engle's book A Wind in the Door. It is a question we ask through all of life, as well. "What is real?" Is it what we see, touch, taste, hear, smell -- in short, our experiences? Or are the 'realest' things unseen, like love, hope, friendship, God, and truth?

You can't take a handful of friendship with you anywhere. You cannot cut open the heart of love and  vivisect it. And even if you travelled across all of time and space, you could not get to God's country. Though His country exists, it isn't somewhere you can reach like that. He has to bring you there Himself. I have a hunch that God's country is far more real than we can imagine while we are in our own country, like Lewis describes in The Great Divorce.

What is real, then? The seen? The unseen?

We live in a world where the seen, the tangible, are considered the substance of reality. But we know from Scripture that the 'realest' things are those that are not seen. "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

I have been thinking about this in relation to the Lord's Supper recently. What transpires in the bread and the wine administered at the altar rail? I will not delve into the various views on communion here, I will simply state that I believe that the bread and the wine are icons of the truth that I am feeding on the spiritual Body and Blood of Jesus. 

So, an image is something that helps us catch a glimpse of reality.  A poet, a storyteller, could not work without images. Nevertheless, an image is only an image, a reflection not unlike the reflections of the shadows of reality in Plato's cave.

If an image is not easy to define, an icon is even more difficult. We usually think of icons as corrupt images which ought to be broken. But it is only an icon misused [...] which needs breaking. A true icon is not a reflection; it is like a metaphor, a different, unlike look at something, and carries within it something of that at which it looks.
 ...An icon, if it 'works,' is more than itself; it bears a fragment of reality.

~ Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet (pp 17-18)
My friend, Stephen, asked why many evangelicals act as if receiving the Lord's Supper as a spiritual reality is somehow less potent than the  bread and wine being the actual body and blood of Christ. He insisted, "Isn't it much more than that?" Well, what is real? Certainly actual flesh and blood are real. Yet if an icon bears a fragment of reality, and if our unseen 'spiritual man' is being fed by that reality, then receiving the spiritual body and blood of Jesus is indeed potent, weighty, and life changing. It is, in fact, more real than tangible flesh and blood.

We must understand that it is a serious thing to receive the Eucharist. We must examine ourselves to see that we are in the faith, not eating and drinking condemnation on ourselves in the blesséd bread and wine. We must allow the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, to reshape us into real men.
~ johanna

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Icon Tree

"...Indeed the only way in which I can make real to myself what theology teaches about the heinousness of sin is to remember that every sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us - an energy which, if not thus distorted, would have blossomed into one of those holy acts whereof 'God did it' and 'I did it' are both true descriptions. 

We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument. We caricature the self-portrait He would paint. Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege."
~ C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer

Fog renders the foothills out my window nearly invisible this morning. In much the same way, sin renders the good thing from which it derives existence unrecognisable, incomprehensible. There is so much good in the things God made, because He made them, and He is goodness itself. Yet when we take a good thing and turn it on its head, it becomes vile, wretched, utterly broken. Lewis chooses well when he says that sin is sacrilege. Sacrilege is defined as a "crime of stealing what is consecrated to God." Indeed, that is what every sin is; stealing God's glory, or God's good thing and using it to satisfy our cravings, to harm others, or turning it into an idol.

God is greater than our sin, more imaginative and redemptive than our corruption of His good things. All we can think to do is twist something good into cruel, sick, selfish means to our own ends. God, however, creatively, completely, redeems brokenness. He turns the Fall upside down in the most ludicrous and paradoxical ways.  The God of the universe, Creator of all things, becomes part of the creation,  dwells inside the universe. He Who could not sin, became sin itself in order to make us the very righteousness of God. When the first Adam failed to obey, the Second Adam fulfilled the Law in spirit and in truth. When we could not atone for our sin, the blood of the perfect Lamb was shed in our stead. Who is this King of glory?

This King of glory rode into Jerusalem one day to the shouts and praises of His people. They shouted words to the effect of, 'Save us, O King!' that day. Less than a week later they screamed, 'Crucify Him, crucify Him! His blood be on us and our children!' And what was condemnation for this demand, was turned right side up. Rather than guilt and culpability remaining on those who appealed for Jesus' blood, that same blood was upon them, to cover all their sin. Rather than covering their hands in blood, Jesus offered to sprinkle them entirely to remove their condemnation.

Often Christians will say this all took place on the cross. After all, that is where the blood was shed. But many innocent men have been killed (though no other sinless men have been executed), how does the bloodshed of an innocent man save anyone? Partly it is because Jesus was sinless and took the penalty we all deserve and He did not. The wages of sin, the payment for sin, is death. So Jesus died on the cross, that image we see throughout the ages in churches, on necklaces, on wall art, and more. So He paid a debt that we owed and could not pay. So what?

This is where many Christians miss the mark. Too often we stop at the cross, we end the story on Good Friday, and Jesus is still in the tomb. What I love about Eastertide is that it is the co-mingling of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day. The fact is that the tomb is empty, and the One Who formerly occupied it had the authority to defeat death.  In fact, He had the authority to declare to those chained in darkness that He had won. 

The cross is no icon of hope at all if the empty tomb is not set beside it. The cross does not tell the whole story -- not without remembering that the cross is empty and the tomb is empty because Jesus is alive.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!"
 ~ Luke 24:5b-6a

Let me encourage you not to turn the very cross of Christ into an idol. We do this when we do not tell the whole story, when we forget the risen Christ. 

Let the cross instead be an icon to us. An icon is a real object that reminds us of a historical or spiritual truth. Let the wine be drunk physically to remind us of the blood shed to save our bodies and souls. Let us bow to the cross because it reminds us that Jesus is our King, and we must revere and honour Him. Let us delight to be where the Composer has placed us in the melody of His symphony. Let us look at the scarred tree, the paintings of the scarred hands and feet, and be reminded that He was pierced  and wounded for our lust, anger, pride, and over desire. Let that empty icon tree remind us to seek the living Jesus.

Blesséd, blesséd, blesséd be He!

~ Johanna