Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

In the Hours Before Dawn

Two Marys arrive at the tomb in the hour before dawn.  They carry spices and other supplies, perhaps unsure that the men who entombed Jesus in the short moments before the start of the Sabbath had time to do a thorough job.  Perhaps they wanted to add their own touch, or needed to be with Jesus one last time.  We don’t know.  We do know that they didn’t come expecting to find anything other than the body of their teacher, their master, and their friend.  Whatever they wanted to do, they wanted to do early, before people were up and about, probably before they would be seen.

The Marys were sensible women.  They knew the way things are in this world.  Yes they’d seen the Teacher perform amazing signs, including the raising of their brother and friend Lazarus.  But now Lazarus had a price on his head, and besides, if the one who called him back from the grave was dead himself, how would he call himself back?  No, he was gone, and it was possible that anyone associated with him was in danger.  That’s why the men were in hiding.  Their hopes and dreams were blasted, and they were in despair.  So, this morning it would be just this last courtesy, this final parting and goodbye.

We may find it difficult to fully empathize with the Marys, because we know how the story turns out.  No immersion in the scripture readings and the liturgies of Holy Week can make us unknow what happens next.  The closest we can come is to recall our own experiences of loss, particularly unexpected traumatic loss.  Remember that, and then multiply it several times over, because even in our own losses, we as persons of faith find hope in the experience that came next for the Marys.

Busy with the work and duties of grieving, they are shocked and alarmed to find the tomb empty.  Who has taken him?  Where is his body?  What are they going to do with it?  And then, beyond all expectation, come the answers.  Angelic figures speak of him as “risen,” and charge the women to inform the men.  Women, to inform the men?  Oh, but women aren’t accepted as valid witnesses – no, but then it wasn’t proper to heal people on the Sabbath either.  So the women become the first evangelists, apostles to the Apostles.  Ponder that bit of scripture if you want to keep women from preaching.  Later, they encounter him in person: not a hallucination, not a dream or vision, not a ghost, but himself.  Himself, but with something different: he appears to dwell in two worlds at once. Locked doors are no obstacle, but he enjoys some grilled fish.  At first he mustn’t be touched, but a week later he invites skeptical Thomas to do just that.
The world is turned inside out, or is it actually set right side up?  Nothing will ever be the same again, and over the next fifty days a bewildering series of encounters makes that point.  “Oh,” say the skeptics, that’s the problem: the story is confusing and even seems to contradict itself in places.”  “Yes,” we may reply, “That’s just the point.  Real events in this world are confusing, and often seem to hold contradictions, but made-up stories are usually quite tidy, and when lots of different witnesses agree on all the details, you can be pretty sure someone handed them a script.”

Our challenge, two millennia later, knowing the whole story, is to retell it in such a way that we convey some of the despair Jesus’ followers felt from Friday through Saturday, some of the confusion that came with Easter morning, and finally the joy of grasping the reality of the resurrection.  God grant us all the gift of glimpsing the fullness of this day that changed history.

Howard MacMullen
© April, 2014

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Praying is ‘All We Can Do’

“All you can do now is pray.”  The doctor's posture, facial expression and tone of voice conveyed the message with perfect clarity: our loved one was going to die.

“I'm sorry I can't help, but I'll pray for you.” The neighbor intended to offer spiritual uplift, but the words told us that prayer was something different from “help.”

“You can pray for a miracle, if you want, but he's so stubborn nothing else will change him.”  The weary family member mentioned prayer as a sort of last resort, but the choice of words expressing only despair.

There are dozens of ways to say it, but we are all subject to a prejudice in our society.  Simply stated, the prejudice is that “real help” consists of “doing” something: disbursing money, serving food, swinging a hammer, removing a gall bladder, giving a ride or providing some other physical assistance.  Prayer is something we do when we can do nothing else or, as a friend once put it, “When all else fails, we pray,” not expecting it to change anything, but because it seems somehow appropriate.

It's a kind of functional atheism, with more than a touch of superstition thrown in for good measure.  It betrays a mindset that prayer is a leftover from a simpler era when, we think, people were more gullible than they are today.  Persons living in this mindset often hold that when the going gets tough, it's best to offer some kind of prayer, just in case there's anything to it.

This is not the attitude we meet in the pages of scripture, however, nor among those who have cultivated a strong prayer life.

I remember being taken aback one day shortly after entering the ministry, when I tried to explain to a member of the church I was serving that I could do very little to provide him concrete physical assistance with a problem he had.  "I can't do much.” I said, feeling embarrassed, "I guess praying for you is about the best I can do.”

A big smile lit up my friend's face, “Prayer is always the best you can do!” he exclaimed.

He was right, of course, and I realized in that incident how insidiously the world's skepticism insinuates itself into our understanding of what constitutes prayer.  We may recall Tennyson's words, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” but when we find ourselves up against long odds or a persistent problem, we often behave as if nothing were ever wrought by prayer.  For some that may be because they look at prayer in functional terms.  If it is something we do, then what is the result?  More plainly, will it work?  Did we get what we wanted?  If not, then why do it?  These are questions that come naturally to us as persons accustomed to finding concrete solutions to problems. 

I buy tools designed to let me accomplish specific tasks.  I don’t pound nails with my screwdriver, and I even have a small assortment of hammers for different nailing jobs.  If a tool works it works, and if it doesn’t I use something else.  If I’m printing a long word processing document I use my old laser printer, and if I’m printing a photograph I use the newer inkjet printer with the high quality color inks.  The right tools to solve whatever the current need might be.  This gets us through our daily tasks, it helps us to be productive and it forms our understanding of how to cope with life.  It’s this last bit that can lead us to misunderstand the purpose and working of prayer.

At heart prayer is entering into mystery.  We come before God and seek a presence.  We ordinarily use words, but sometimes we come in silence.  We bring needs, our own or others’ and while we may bring specific requests we are trusting God to “handle” the needs and requests.

Sometimes the outcome may surprise us.  Soon after the Second Vatican Council I noticed that the Roman Catholic Church no longer referred to “Last Rites,” but was instead referring to the sacrament as “Anointing of the Sick.”  I asked a priest who had served many years as a hospital chaplain what this meant.  I wondered if this was simply a case of substituting a bland euphemism for an unpleasant expression that people found depressing.  Quite the contrary, he explained.  It seems that over the years hospital chaplains had noticed that a significant number of patients who received the “Last Rites” not only didn't die, but actually recovered their health.  The change in terminology came about to reflect a growing realization that prayer sometimes releases a power or energy that is not ours to command, but is nonetheless “real” and “concrete” in every sense of the words. 

In the years since, I’ve become convinced that when we pray for another we stand with them in whatever the need may be.  This is magnified when in our praying we are part of a community that agrees to pray together, and whose members learn to involve the others in the process.  The efficacy of prayer does not depend on concrete “results,” and much of the time we don’t know with certainty what our prayers “do.”  On some occasions, however, we see the outcome with astonishing clarity, and as we make such prayer a part of our normal practice we find that it lets us into a realm quite different from the world of functional thinking that forms the context of our workaday lives. 

Neither of these worlds cancels the other, and each has its place.  Here’s a challenge: notice your own speech habits in this matter, and ask yourself what they tell you about your understanding of prayer and the role it has in serving others.  Then, the next time you have a chance to help another, try prayer along with the rest of your assistance, and see what happens.  Once again, prayer is a communal enterprise.  If you are moved to share some of your understandings I’ll be glad to pass them on if you send them to hmacmullen@gmail.com.

Howard MacMullen
© February 2014

Monday, December 30, 2013

What Child is This?

Now after they [the Wise Men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.
Matthew 2:13-14, NRSV Gospel for the Sunday After Christmas

What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?  Who indeed?  Or what?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells the story of greeting churchgoers at the door one Christmas, and having a well-known historian, famous for his skepticism about Christianity, come up to him all smiles.  “I’ve finally worked out,” he declared, “why people like Christmas.”  Wright asked him to elaborate, and the man continued, “A baby threatens no one,” he said, “so the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all.”

Wright was dumbfounded, and for good cause: the baby in the Christmas story poses such a threat to the local king that he sets out to destroy him, and therein we learn something about the rich meaning at the heart of Christmas.  Some scholars deal with the inconvenient detail of Herod’s rage by simply concluding that the whole story is made up.  There’s no record of it anywhere else, they reason, and surely there would be if it had happened.  Herod, however, is famous for extreme paranoia, and for executing anyone he perceived as a threat, including his wife and other members of his family.  The slaughter of a few babies down the road in the little town of Bethlehem would not have been newsworthy in Jerusalem, where even the leading citizens had long since learned to measure their words carefully.

Dorothy L. Sayers notes that the one thing friends and enemies alike never said about Jesus is that he threatened no one.

But a baby, threatening a king?  How could that be?  Well, it depends upon who he is, and sometimes there is in the paranoid mind a flash perception of truth that sane folks miss entirely.  Herod had messianic aspirations of his own, and here were these strange visitors from afar, inquiring about where the new prince could be found.  If there’s a new prince, Herod in his fear and anger must deal with him in the way that Herod knows how.  Find him, kill him, and to be sure you get him, kill any who might actually be the prince in hiding.

What child is this?

The angel chorus on the night of his birth announces his arrival to shepherds, people who are about as far from the royal palace as you can get.  Seekers of wisdom, probably from Persia, come to offer homage to the cosmic ruler whose birth as King of the Jews they discern in their reading of the stars.  A pious old man at the Temple, waits patiently for many years, and finds the object of his waiting in an eight-day-old boy brought to be dedicated by his parents.  An old woman, a familiar figure at the Temple, known as a prophet, blesses the child and consoles his mother.
What child is this?

Missing from the list of characters who surround his birth are the local dignitaries: the Town Fathers, the Leading Merchants, and the Clergy.  We don’t even learn the name of the priest who presided at his dedication.  Those who wield the kind of power the World understands are notably absent.

What child is this?

The picture we see is of a helpless child, born far from privilege and power, barely noticeable to most, and yet to those who do notice, a source of great joy and hope, or in the case of Herod, great terror.  How can he be that?  The answer: it can be if he is more than a mere child.

The Christian proclamation is that this child, in all his infant vulnerability, is what J.B. Phillips called “God Focused.”  How could the Creator of all that is enter into the creation?  By becoming one of the creatures.  And how could the Creator do that?  By submitting to the very processes already present by which the creatures enter the world.  And why would the Creator do that?  To set straight the world by rescuing humanity from its habitual course of destruction, which threatens to ruin all that the Creator had done.  And so, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “For us, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

What child is this? 

Not a visiting spirit, as the Gnostics believed, but the incarnation of God.  The word incarnation, as used here means God became a flesh and blood human, fully human, while also fully divine.  Such a child would indeed cause angel choirs to herald his arrival; would cause lowly shepherds to rejoice; would start foreign sages on a quest for the One who embodies Truth; would set a demented king on a rampage, and such a child would cause an old man and an old woman to offer prayers and blessings and thanksgiving that they had lived to see God’s deliverance for the world.

This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary!

Howard MacMullen
© December 3013

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Visited Planet

In 1957 J.B. Phillips, writer and Bible translator, wrote a short story entitled “The Visited Planet.”  Phillips imagined a tour of the universe by two angels, one as old as creation, and the other newly formed amidst the host of heaven.  The older angel showed off wonder upon wonder, the birthing fields of stars, nebulae thousands of light years across, distances and depths beyond imagining.  At length, as the attention of the young angel began to flag, they entered a back lot of the Milky Way, the galaxy that includes our sun.

As the two of them drew close to our star, and its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis.  It looked dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel whose mind was filled with the size and glory of all he had seen previously.

“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel.  “What’s special about that one?”

“That,” replied the senior solemnly, “is the Visited Planet.”

“Visited?” said the little one.  “You don’t mean visited by...”

“Indeed I do.  That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and perhaps not overclean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory.”  And at these words he bowed his head reverently.

“But how?” queried the younger one.  “Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendors of His Creation, and millions more that I ‘m sure I haven’t seen yet, went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball?  Why should He do a thing like that?”

“It isn’t for us,” said his senior a little stiffly, “to question His ‘whys,’ except that I must point out to you that He is not impressed by size and numbers as you seem to be.  But that He really went I know, and all of us in Heaven who know anything know that.  As to why He became one of them...how else do you suppose He could visit them?”

The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”

“I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice.  For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them.  He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.

The little angel looked blank.  Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.”

Humans too, share the skepticism of the younger angel.  No matter what might have happened to our planet, some reason, we are but a speck of cosmic dust, easily expendable by human standards.  How can we imagine ourselves so valued by the Creator of all worlds as to be visited at such a cost?

It is in such reasoning that we demonstrate why we needed God’s visit.  “Not that we loved God, but that God loved us,” as St. John has it.

The human, and particularly the American perspective, that rates the importance of things by size and candlepower is confounded by the understanding of God, who knows the worth of quarks and protons, as well as that of suns and galaxies.  Why were the humans of planet earth worth the sacrifice of the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who was from before time itself?  We can only wonder, at least until the day when we see face-to-face.

For the present we open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to the proclamation that the Visit did indeed occur.  The ancient dreams and visions of gods walking about on earth, of dying and rising divinities, of sin cancelled in a great offering of love; all these hopes and dreams found a moment of fulfillment, and those with eyes to see and ears to hear rejoice and ponder it in their hearts.  May you find the fullness of the season and the blessings of our incarnate God.

Howard MacMullen
© December 2013
“The Visited Planet” was scheduled to be posted on Christmas Eve.  However, an ice storm earlier in the week shut off our electric power for 60 hours, and postponed the planned posting.
 “The Visited Planet” by J.B. Phillips in New Testament Christianity; 1957; MacMillan Publishing Co.; N.Y.
Excerpt used by permission.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Response to John

From the beginning, Richard and I hoped that To Speak Now of God would be more than merely a platform for two voices, now one.  We envisioned the possibility of inviting kindred spirits to share the space, and it is now my pleasure to introduce you once again to Lisa Palson Priest.  Lisa and I Collaborated for 17 years to produce The Seasons, a small quarterly devotional booklet.  Reading the recent post on John the Baptizer, Lisa was moved to share a personal response.  H.H.M.

I must confess I am one of those people who can hardly wait to get through Thanksgiving so that I can decorate the Christmas tree the day after. I bring out all the Christmas music that I only allow myself to listen to for six weeks out of the year. I play Christmas carols throughout the season, celebrating Christ’s birth from the last Friday in November until the 6th of January each year. It is a joyous, frantic, exuberant season and frankly, John’s appearance early in Advent strikes a discordant note. His call for repentance feels more appropriate for Lent.

To be honest, I often forget that John exists: his story is an awkward insertion into the joyous season. The ‘voice of one crying in the wilderness’ makes sense, fulfilling as it does Isaiah’s prophecy of old.  It is comforting to remember that the prophets foretold Christ’s birth.  I love to listen to the soaring majesty of Handel’s “Messiah.”  But as I race to complete my Christmas preparations, soul-searching and repentance are frequently low on my list of priorities.

Where does John fit into the scene at the crèche? Does he stand with the shepherds who spent much of their time in the fields? His rough skins and their rough clothing, their shared preference for wilderness and open space give them something in common. But the shepherds lived in hope of a messiah to come. John preached a messiah who was imminent, one whose sandals he would not even dare to touch. He knew the day was at hand, that Emmanuel was already come, and about to reveal himself to a waiting world.  I can imagine that John, unlike the shepherds, would have met three kings or even angels with aplomb. His belief was so powerful, he did not fear to confront the sins of Herod Antipas, even at the risk of losing his life.  John was a man of action, one who chose the rigors of a wilderness ministry over the relative security of village life or the cosmopolitan richness of Jerusalem. And the people came to him, hungry for transformation, leaving – at least for a day – the safety of their old lives behind. 

John is an awkward figure to stumble upon in the busy Advent season, especially when I have just overspent on presents. Or when I am planning a festive outfit for a holiday party. He stands by in his animal skins, hovering on the edge of my consciousness, a shard of dripping honeycomb in hand. His unacknowledged presence is an accusation and discomfort amid the usual glitz and gaiety of the season.

It is easier not to look at him. In the same way that I try not to look at a homeless woman begging on a street corner in Boston.  I can try to ignore him, ignore her, ignore the material excesses of the season. But each evening as I settle down before the glowing, encrusted Christmas tree, enjoying the sparkle of lights on ornaments hung so thickly that they nearly obscure the branches, my eyes wander to the china crèche beside it. I think of the young and frightened parents, the dusty manger, the baby consecrated to sacrifice before he was even born, the tiny king of all creation born amidst the breath of and sound of shuffling barnyard creatures. Here John’s life and prophecies make sense. Here is the glory and the terror of the Christmas message. 

Scripture tells us that when Mary approached her cousin Elizabeth with the news of her pregnancy, the baby who would be called John leapt with the joy of recognition within her womb. In the same way, John recognized his messiah when he approached him at the river three decades later.

In truth, I will probably continue to decorate for Christmas as soon after Thanksgiving as is reasonably possible, and will never stop enjoying Christmas carols throughout the secular Christmas season. But I will also do my best to turn away from the easy excess of the season, and use the weeks before Christmas to make space in my heart so that it, too, will leap with the joy of recognition on Christmas Day.

Lisa Palson Priest
© December 2013

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Fruits of Repentance

The second and third Sundays of Advent focus a spotlight on someone who at first seems to intrude on our societal preparations for Christmas: John the Baptizer.
Every few years someone in whatever church I happen to be serving will react to the words from the third chapter of Matthew: "’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'…Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.’”
“It’s just not very Christmassy!” one individual huffed, “Christmas is about love, and family and caring for each other.”  “All that business about sin and repentance is so negative.” another opined, “We want something uplifting, something that warms our hearts.”  “After all, Christmas really is for the children.”
The objections appear to be based on the assumption that all we need to prepare for Christmas is a little more time, good weather, carols, a sunny outlook and maybe some nice cookies with a well-mixed eggnog.  Perhaps they have a point if the goal is simply to get from finishing up the Thanksgiving dishes to the stockings on Christmas morning.  By that light, Christmas is to provide a warm moment of family cheer in the midst of winter’s cold.
Missing, however, is any grasp of why we celebrate Christ Mass, the words we contract to produce Christmas.  Christ Mass celebrates a moment when the barely imaginable happened: the moment in our world’s time when our Creator entered our time and space to begin setting right the mess a misguided humanity had made of the world.  The wisdom of our spiritual forebears concluded that such a celebration required a time of discipline and preparation to get ready.  As the carol has it, “Let every heart prepare him room.”  And to whom might we turn for a no-nonsense call to such preparation, but John the Baptizer.
John is rough and he doesn’t care if he steps on toes.  He calls out self-deceit and bad behavior (the latter will finally cost him his life).  He knows the ways we deceive ourselves, and how that has consequences beyond anything we might intend.  He is aware of how our notions of right and wrong bear an uncanny resemblance to the things we want to do ourselves, and how our criticisms of others are too often based in our personal likes and dislikes.  Beyond all that John tells us that unless we can let go of such things, and turn away from them (that’s the meaning of “repent”) we will be utterly unable to properly welcome the King, no matter that the King arrives as a baby.  John is the King’s Herald, sounding a note of warning, yes, but also a note of hope and excitement that the long-awaited royal arrival is imminent.
Jesus, it’s worth noting, began his public ministry with a virtually identical call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  But does anyone really listen?  Has this call to confront the darkness in our hearts and minds changed anything?  If it has there ought to be some signs of such change.  There ought to be visible fruit as evidence that such repentance happens. 
I was turning all this over in my mind last week, when it suddenly came to me that we were all witness to the results, the fruit, of such inner change.  The death of Nelson Mandela stimulated memories of a time when change came about in a way virtually no one who was familiar with the sorry history of the twentieth century predicted.
During most of the last century South Africa grew into one of the most oppressive societies in world history.  By the 1960s the policy of racial separation known as apartheid was firmly in place, with the minority white regime exercising absolute domination over the majority black population, as well as sizeable Asian and mixed racial minorities.  It was for standing in opposition to apartheid that Mandela went to jail in 1963.  In the years that followed the grip of apartheid strengthened, and conditions in the black townships grew worse.  Observers of the conditions generally assumed that if change ever came it would be violent, with the black majority taking revenge against their oppressors.  Nonetheless international pressure on the South African government increased, with economic, cultural and athletic boycotts cutting the country off from the rest of the world.  Part of this pressure included calls for the release of Nelson Mandela.
He was released in 1990, during a time of escalating civil strife.  At the moment of his release the world held its breath.  Had he called for revolution, the worst fears of many might well have been realized.  Instead, Mandela joined negotiations with President  F.W. deKlerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections in 1994, in which he led the African National Congress to victory and became South Africa's first black President.  His administration focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation, the latter with the close assistance of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  What happened during Mandela’s imprisonment to enable him to emerge as both a hard-nosed politician determined to tear down the structure of apartheid, and an advocate of national unity and reconciliation, who would share a Nobel Peace Prize with former President de Klerk?
The answer is that within the prisons on Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison there grew a process of discussion and mutual support among the prisoners.  Self-examination, and internal renewal was a part of these gatherings.  Mandela, who came to faith as a youth in the Methodist Church, attended church services.  Unsure at the time of imprisonment about whether violence might be necessary to abolish apartheid, he came to envision another way.  As reported by Michael Trimmer on the British website Christian Today, he learned to speak Afrikaans in the hope that he could reach out to the guards and convert them to his cause, and at the moment of his release, Mandela once again remembered the importance of internal renewal ahead of external change. "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."
In 1998 he addressed the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe, saying in part:
You have to have been in an apartheid prison in South Africa to appreciate the further importance of the church.  They tried to isolate us completely from the outside. Our relatives could see us only once every six months. The link was religious organizations, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and members of the Jewish faith. They were the faithful who inspired us.  The W.C.C.'s support exemplified in the most concrete way the contribution that religion made to our liberation.
What does John the Baptizer have to do with the life and witness of Nelson Mandela?  In his life we see the fruits of what happens when someone heeds John’s call, and prepares for the work to which God is calling.  John’s call to personal examination, reflection and repentance, voiced earlier by the prophets of Israel, and later in the ministry of Jesus, is a call to take seriously the wrong in the world, our own complicity in it, and the good news that in the coming of the King, God makes a way to lay it all behind, to be transformed ourselves and, if we allow it, to be part of the renewal of the world itself.
So listen to the King’s Herald.  Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God, and be reminded that the baby we shall meet in Bethlehem, weak and helpless as he is, is also the Alpha and Omega – the manner of his coming is itself a testimony to our need for preparation.
Howard MacMullen
© December 2013
For more on the faith of Nelson Mandela, visit:

Saturday, November 30, 2013

C.S. Lewis: Another 50-Year Anniversary

On Friday, November 22, our nation paused to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  It was fitting and appropriate to do so.  For those of us who remember that day, and the days that followed, the memories help us understand a traumatic moment in our lives and the life of our country.

Lost in the tragedy, the clamor and the fear of that day in 1963 was another death that would have been headline news had the circumstances been different.  At approximately the same hour that Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Clive Staples Lewis died of a lingering illness at his home in Headington, a suburb of Oxford, England.  He was just six days shy of his 65th birthday.

Jack, as friends and family knew him, was born into a middle class family in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Losing his mother to cancer when he was ten, his adolescence was spent in a succession of boarding schools.  He entered Oxford University midway through World War I, then volunteered for service as an infantry lieutenant in France, where was seriously wounded, and decorated for valor.  After the war he returned to Oxford, and upon graduation stayed on as a tutor and lecturer in English literature. 

An atheist as a young man, Lewis experienced a spiritual awakening in his late twenties and embraced Christianity around 1930 or ’31.  He rapidly gained an audience for lectures and essays defending the Christian Faith.  During World War II the B.B.C. asked Lewis to deliver a series of radio talks, explaining basic Christian belief.  It was said that during the war, most Britons instantly recognized his voice, along with that of Winston Churchill.  The wartime talks were later published as Mere Christianity, which is still in print today, as are most of his other books.

Though most of his life was spent in the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford and Cambridge, he made it his business to write for ordinary Christian lay readers, a choice that made him suspect in the halls of academe.  It is as a popularizer that he had his greatest influence on me.  In my undergraduate years, and in my time in theological seminary I had the gift of some extraordinary professors who taught me how to engage Christian theology, and I will always be grateful to them.  Reading Lewis, however, taught me how to take the insights of the best Christian minds and translate them into the language of the people I meet every day, and for that I am deeply thankful. 

In Lewis I met for the first time a writer who asked the hard questions in the way ordinary men and women ask them, presented the evidence that might invalidate Christianity, and then drove on to show why, in the end, the Christian answers made sense.  So too, his whole-hearted and joyful embrace of imagination awoke in me a long-dormant love of myth and storytelling as ways of seeing beyond the world of appearances to the underlying truths.

It is in this last area that I believe the legacy of C.S. Lewis can touch us most deeply at the start of Advent.  The season of Advent celebrates the nearly unimaginable: that the God of this and all universes cares for us humans.  Not just cares for us, but loves us.  Not just loves us, but loves us enough to come among us, to set straight the ways in which we have run off the rails.  In Christ God doesn’t just come among us, but actually enters the world as one of us, and as one of us offers up his life to lift the burdens of sin and brokenness that we cannot lift ourselves.  Rising from death, he sets in motion the re-creation of the world, longed for by prophets through the ages, and though there are struggles aplenty on the way, the ultimate outcome is in his hands.  As the psalmist sings (Ps. 139): “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.  It is high.  I cannot attain it.”

Indeed it takes a great deal of imagining, and not a little thinking, to grasp these dimensions of Advent and Christmas.  I think that may be why we’re apt to pay little attention to Advent, and reduce Christmas itself to Currier and Ives sentimentality.  Sleighs, and stockings, happy children and roast turkeys we can comprehend; the Source of all that is entering our world to die, so that we might be raised higher than the angels, strains our imaginations, or so we think.  But that’s exactly where a middle-aged English professor takes a long pull on his pipe, looks over the top of his glasses, says, “Come now, is it really all that hard?” and by telling the story of an imaginary land, “where it is always winter and never Christmas” brings alive that which our minds struggle to comprehend.

I mark the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death, first in hopes a drawing a few more readers into his circle, and then to urge us all to embrace the fullness of the Advent season.  May we release our imaginations, ask the hard questions, and persevere to the deeper answers that can set our minds and hearts free from the winter that is itself a physical metaphor of a fallen world’s grip on the human spirit.  May freed mind and loosed imaginations give our hearts room to embrace anew the coming of Christ, with all that can mean for the transformation of our lives and the world.

Joy to the world, the Lord is Come!

Howard MacMullen
© November 2013
Related to this post, I highly recommend
Rowan Williams’ recent book, The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia

Lewis once referred to certain kinds of books as "mouthwash for the imagination." This is what he attempted to provide in the Narnia stories, argues Williams: an unfamiliar world in which we could rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity--"which is almost everything," says Williams--and rediscover what it might mean to meet the holy.