Reading Scripture with the Communion of Saints

ᐈ Pulpit stock pictures, Royalty Free pulpit pictures | download on  Depositphotos®

There has been some controversy recently about the dangers of “standpoint epistemology.” I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with this exact term until I started seeing it all over the place on social media and other places online. Even though I teach hermeneutics and have read my fair share of philosophical treatments of the topic, my training is in systematic theology and New Testament, not in feminist theory, where the notion of standpoint epistemology shows up most prominently. My expertise is in the history of doctrine and, in particular, how Christians have appealed to Scripture in Christological controversies. So, I’ve got to be honest: my familiarity (and interest level, to be frank) is pretty low when it comes to contemporary feminist philosophy.

But what seems to be bothering folks is simpler than all that. The idea that has been criticized so fiercely of late is the notion that Christians can be helped in understanding the meaning of Scripture by listening to fellow Christians with different cultural perspectives and life experiences. The idea that white Christians might need black Christians or men might need women in order to discern the full meaning of Scripture is taken as a threat to the Bible’s objective meaning and as evidence of nefarious secular ideologies infiltrating the ranks of evangelicalism. The alternative approach is that Christians, regardless of their social or cultural location, when using the right interpretive tools, are perfectly capable of arriving at the text’s objective meaning. In this understanding, hermeneutics is seen as a science, like chemistry or physics, in which cultural perspectives are irrelevant; they give you no advantage or disadvantage in determining the singular, objective meaning of Scripture.

To be sure, there is some validity to these kinds of warnings. If someone is suggesting that differing cultural perspectives determine the meaning of Scripture or that the text of Scripture has no determinate meaning or that any particular culture is incapable of discerning the clear teaching of Scripture, then all orthodox Christians should oppose such a notion. But what I get from the evangelicals I have gleaned from hermeneutically (D. A. Carson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Todd Billings, Jeannine Brown, among others) and what I myself teach is something much different than those things. Instead, what I would suggest is that listening to different Christian perspectives–including those from different social and cultural locations–is a sign of hermeneutical humility. I don’t know whether or how others might use this term, but here’s what I mean by it: the truth of Scripture is inerrant and infallible and determined by the Divine Author who inspired it, but my interpretations are none of those things. The meaning of Scripture is objective, but my reading of it–not just the answers I provide but the questions I even think to ask or the elements that I emphasize–is always shaped by my own subjective perspective. None of us comes to Scripture as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. No, all of us have certain presuppositions and preunderstandings that shape how we read and what we see. That doesn’t mean we are stuck in a rut of our own presuppositions; we can approach the truth of Scripture with greater and greater clarity the more we study, the more we pray, the more we seek wisdom (D. A. Carson compares this increase in interpretive faithfulness to an asymptote in mathematics: a line that gets closer and closer to a curved function without ever touching it). This dynamic between the reader and the text and between its parts and the whole has been called the hermeneutic circle, or perhaps better, the hermeneutical spiral. But this is all old hat. It’s not evidence of some novel, acronymic ideology. Every evangelical textbook on hermeneutics of which I am aware acknowledges the role of presuppositions in the interpretive task.

So, because my perspective is limited, I am helped by listening to the perspectives of others: my pastor, my wife, my friends, my community group, good books and commentaries, the church’s creeds and confessions, the great theologians and exegetes of church history, and so on. As inheritors of Enlightenment philosophy, moderns tend to view interpretation as an individual endeavor. Pietism has often doubled down on this and spiritualized it: “All I need is the Holy Spirit!” But the historic Christian position is that interpretation is a communal practice: we read Scripture most properly in the context of the church and the communion of saints across place and time. The reading and hearing of the Word of God is, after all, one of the ordinary means of grace that we receive principally in the body of Christ. As Christian orthodoxy was being discerned in the early centuries of the church, there was a concern that interpretation and doctrine be ecumenical in the older sense of the word: worldwide, not local or regional, but universal, East and West.

But it’s not just different Christian individuals who can help us; it’s also those with different life experiences. It is not difficult to imagine that a person who has experienced a debilitating disease might read Jesus’ healings in a different light than someone who hasn’t. Or that a woman might read the story of Mary and Martha in a unique light. Or that an enslaved person in the antebellum South might have read the story of the exodus in a different light than his enslaver. Or that a Christian experiencing severe persecution might read the imprecatory psalms in a different light. In his excellent book, The Word of God for the People of God, Reformed theologian Todd Billings tells the story of teaching in Ethiopia and noticing how the Old Testament dietary laws struck his students there in a different way, given their cultural experiences, than they typically do Westerners. Different cultural perspectives and life experiences don’t create new meanings in the text; rather, they help us to see what is really there that we may have missed. Scripture’s meaning is determinate, but it is not flatly singular. Like all good literature, Scripture’s meaning is rich and thick, not meager and thin. Other perspectives aid us in discerning that richness.

None of this means that experience determines meaning or that a lack of experience puts up an impenetrable barrier to communication. But it does mean that our perspectives, even after careful study, are still finite and limited (not to mention fallen and biased). Reading widely and listening sympathetically to how Scripture has been read at different times and in different cultures can help to correct our blind spots and enrich our own encounter with Christ in Scripture. Most fundamentally, we read the Bible not as isolated individuals, but as members of the body of Christ. In this body, each member has its own unique gift to bear to the whole; and in the historic and global church, we have an embarrassment of interpretive riches. Different perspectives don’t produce their own discrete treasures; but they do give us distinct vantages on the one multi-faceted diamond that is the truth of Scripture. In short, I don’t believe in standpoint epistemology. “I believe in the communion of saints.”

Racial Reconciliation and the Catholicity of the Church

The Center for Baptist Renewal is a project that a few of us have been working on for the last several years. At the outset, Matt and I wrote a manifesto that sort of guides our work at the center. One of the articles addresses the topic racial reconciliation:

We affirm that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, are created in God’s image and, if they have repented and believed in Christ, are brothers and sisters together in the one body of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Because of this shared imago dei and because of Christ’s saving work among all nations, peoples, and tongues, we believe that one major task of Baptist catholicity is to promote racial unity, especially within the body of Christ.

Over at the CBR blog, we wrote a commentary on each of the manifesto’s articles, including this one. We wrote it three years ago, but it’s as relevant as ever and we stand by every word of it. Concern for racial reconciliation is not a function of “wokeness” (a vague and unhelpful term anyway). For many of us, it’s a function of our fundamental creed: “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The Christian’s ultimate citizenship is not to be found in any earthly city, but in coming the city of God, the church militant and the church triumphant: the multi-ethnic, multi-national body of Christ that spans space and time, earth and heaven.

The Boy Jesus in the Temple: A Brief Tropology

I went for a walk by myself in the cool of the late afternoon today. Meditations ensued. I started tropologizing the story of the boy Jesus returning to his temple.

A 15th-century page from a Book of Hours. Public Domain.

Here’s what I was thinking: We all, like Mary and Joseph, can lose sight of Jesus. We can assume his presence by relying on other caretakers. We can presume that someone else will remain with him. But we will find him again where he was always to be: in his Father’s house, attending to his Father’s business. It’s not mainly the church building that is the new covenant antitype of the old covenant temple. It is Christ himself and the people he is building into a spiritual house: the church. Perhaps you feel like you have lost sight of Jesus. We all do from time to time. But we will find him again in the place he has promised to be: in the preaching of the Word, at the Lord’s Table, and on mission with him, building his Spiritual temple.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Inspired by my blogmate Brandon, I decided to do a 2020 favorites list. I’ve expanded mine a bit beyond books, but that’s where I’ll start.

Favorite Book

The Day Is Now Far Spent by Robert Cardinal Sarah

The Day Is Now Far Spent: Sarah, Cardinal Robert, Diat, Nicolas:  9781621643241: Amazon.com: Books

This book was released in 2019 but I digested it slowly and finished it at the very cusp of the pandemic in 2020. The third in a trilogy of books by Cardinal Sarah, this one punches the hardest. It’s a jeremiad written by an African prelate against the various spiritual crises of the church in the West. I was near the end of the book before I realized that I had misidentified the scriptural reference in the title. I had assumed that Sarah was referring to Romans 13:12, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” which seemed appropriate given the contents of the book. But it’s actually an allusion to Luke 24:29 and the Emmaus disciples’ plea to the Risen Christ: “But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them.” The upshot of Sarah’s wakeup call: even if the church in the West is facing a new twilight, as long as Jesus abides with us, we have hope.

Favorite Movie

A Hidden Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick

A Hidden Life (2019 film) - Wikipedia

This is Terrence Malick’s most linear, plot-driven film since Days of Heaven (1978). But it has all of the stunning cinematography, masterful editing, prayerful voiceovers, and deeply Christian content that we have come to expect from the reclusive filmmaker. A Hidden Life tells the story, inspired by actual events, of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer and devout Christian who became a conscientious objector to the Nazis during World War II and suffered the consequences. It offers a timely reminder that non-conformity for the sake of faith and conscience will be costly. One reviewer described the film like this: “The movie is cinema at its mightiest and holiest. It’s a movie you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses.” So turn off the kitschy, flat-footedly evangelistic movies that pass as Christian film. This is what Christian art looks like on a cinematic canvas.

Favorite Album

Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers

Punisher (album) - Wikipedia

Phoebe Bridgers’ evocative sophomore album (after a couple of collaborative projects) is all the more impressive when you remember that she was only 25 when it was released in June. The title track, “Punisher,” is a reference to a particular kind of overeager fan who smothers a famous artist. But Bridgers isn’t looking condescendingly at her own fans; it’s actually self-referential. The song and the album as a whole are an homage to one of her major influences: the late indie icon, Elliott Smith. Like Smith, Bridgers offers up penetrating and confessional lyrics, inviting her listeners into the darkest corners of her own psyche. My favorite track on the album might be “Chinese Satellite,” which laments the fact that Bridgers wants to believe in something–religion, aliens, anything–but just can’t find her way to faith.

I want to believe
Instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing
You know I hate to be alone
I want to be wrong

It’s an aching reminder of the restlessness and longing all around us, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Some Brief Thoughts on the Image of God

Adam

True concern for God always, inevitably yields true concern for human beings, created in God’s image and likeness. The image of God picks out what is unique about humans among God’s creatures:

  • that we are possessed of reason and volition and moral responsibility
  • that we are capable of conscious, willful relationships with God and with each other
  • that we are commissioned to share God’s rule over the rest of creation
  • that we were designed after the prototype of humanity God eternally willed to assume in Jesus Christ.

God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc. 3:11). Every human you meet, no matter how broken or corrupt or destitute, bears the image of the Infinite and Eternal One.

Every member of the human race is a divine image-bearer. There are no qualifiers. There are no concessive clauses to attach. It’s not, “no matter their race or gender or stage of development,” but, “precisely because of their race or gender or stage of development.” God delights in diversity. What binds us together is not uniformity, but the universal, shared image of God.

There is a corporate solidarity that all humans share in Adam (and that all believers share in the Last Adam). Injustice to one individual or one group is injustice to all. It is even a self-inflicted injustice on the one who commits injustice.  Doing harm to an image-bearer is dehumanizing to all. That’s why God hates sin so fiercely. Sin is so offensive to God, not because he is harmed by it but because we are. God is jealous for our obedience to his moral law, not because he is self-aggrandizing, but precisely because he cares for the flourishing of those he made after his own likeness.

There are no easy solutions to the racial problems that plague our nation. I don’t pretend to have the knowledge or expertise to craft policy or to suggest sweeping solutions. Surely something must change in the culture, training, and tactics of the police. Most certainly, attitudes need to change. Divisions need to be overcome. But whatever the path forward looks like, it has to begin with a far higher view of the dignity of the human person than we are accustomed to, even in the church. “You are gods,” the Scripture teaches us. Let’s start treating each other that way.

Redeeming Eastertide

cropped-st-albans.jpg

The following is a brief reflection I wrote on the season of Eastertide for our church’s newsletter.

The time-shattering event of Easter is too much to take in in only one Sunday. Indeed, there is a sense in which every Sunday is Easter. The reason the earliest church gathered on Sunday, what the apostle John called “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10), was precisely to mark, both outwardly and inwardly, the new creation inaugurated in Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week. But in the historic church calendar, seven Sundays are especially designated as the season of “Eastertide,” from Easter Sunday to the feast of the Ascension forty days later (Thursday, May 21, this year), with one final Sunday as a capstone before Pentecost Sunday the following week. This liturgical rhythm mimics the forty days in which Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection (Acts 1:3), and it provides an extended time for the church to reflect on the mystery revealed in the resurrection of the Son of God.

Christians can usually quite readily explain the meaning of Christ’s atoning death, but we often struggle to articulate the saving significance of his resurrection. We may understand its apologetic importance as the linchpin historical event holding the Christian faith together, but we don’t always grasp its theological importance: what saving benefits accrue to believers on the basis of the resurrection? Eastertide is an excellent opportunity for meditation on precisely this question. As a guide to your meditation, consider this helpful distillation from the nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck:

According to Scripture, therefore, the significance of the physical resurrection of Christ is inexhaustibly rich. Briefly summarized, that resurrection is (1) proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge (Acts 2:36; 3:13–15; 5:31; 10:42; etc.); (2) a seal of his eternal divine sonship (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3): (3) a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished!” of the Son (Acts 2:23–24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:4, 10; etc.); (4) the inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4; Phil. 2:9; etc); (5) the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification (Acts 5:31; Rum. 4:25): (6) the fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31), spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:4f.), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:12); (7) the principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; etc); (8) the foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor 15:12ff.). –Reformed Dogmatics, 3:442.

You might consider using the remainder of this Eastertide to reflect on these themes and Scriptures, either individually or as families.

A New Commandment

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_029-58b5a7d53df78cdcd88c3506

John 13:1-17

Human cultures have always crafted symbols of power. In the past, we might think of crowns, regalia, or royal scepters. Today, power is often vested in official titles, political influence, financial portfolios, material possessions, technological gadgets, or social media followers. But in the kingdom of Christ, we find a very different symbol that represents a very different kind of ethical accounting: a towel and a water basin.

On the night that he was to be betrayed, the King of kings did not demand that he be served with the adoration that he most assuredly deserves. Instead, he took off his outer garments, girded himself with a towel, and washed his followers’ filthy feet in a basin of water. Here, we see on dramatic display the ethics of the kingdom. The first will be last and the last first (Matt 20:16). The one who would be first must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35).

Peter is at first resistant. He seems to recognize the absurdity of this upside-down ritual: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” It’s not the first time that Peter (as a kind of stand-in for all of us) didn’t understand the radical reversal of the kingdom of Christ. He couldn’t understand how the Christ, the son of the living God, could undergo the disgrace of the cross (Matt 16:21-23). And here at the end, Peter still hasn’t fully arrived; he hasn’t become fully converted to the power dynamics of the kingdom. But Jesus assures him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” To be a Christian is to have the humility to receive. It is to recognize our filthiness and to submit to the Savior’s cleansing condescension. A refusal to receive has the appearance of humility. Shouldn’t we, after all, be washing Jesus’ feet? But in reality it amounts to a thinly veiled mask of pride. We imagine that the Christian life is what we do for Jesus, when all along it was the Son of Man who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

This day in Holy Week is referred to as Maundy Thursday. Its name is taken from the phrase mandatum novum (“a new commandment”) from the Latin version of John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The good news of the kingdom is first a gift and then a calling. We come to Jesus for cleansing: not just the once for all cleansing of our body in conversion (solemnized in our baptism) but the repeated washing of our feet through the ongoing, ordinary means of grace: the Word of God, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper. And then we are commissioned to imitate Christ’s humble service: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

The symbolism of the towel and water basin stands in stark contrast to the symbols on display in the halls of worldly power. But now more than ever, the world desperately needs the counter-cultural message of the gospel. It needs Christians willing to risk absurdity, to risk the loss of political and social capital, to surrender life and limb and likability to serve the needs of others. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

This post originally appeared in a Holy Week devotional produced by the faculty of Anderson University.

Love in the Pandemic

WalkerPercy_TheThanatosSyndrome

During the lockdown, I’ve been reading Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome, his 1987 novel, set in Louisiana, about a psychiatrist who slowly discovers a mysterious, chemically-induced syndrome that gives people superior intellect but appears to be driving them mad. This diatribe from the part-paranoid, part-prophetic Father Smith seemed appropriate to share during this time:

You are a member of the first generation of doctors in the history of medicine to turn their backs on the oath of Hippocrates and kill millions of old useless people, unborn children, born malformed children, for the good of mankind—and to do so without a single murmur from one of you. Not a single letter of protest in the august New England Journal of Medicine…

If you are a lover of Mankind in the abstract like Walt Whitman, who wished the best for Mankind, you will probably do no harm and might even write good poetry and give pleasure, right?…

If you are a theorist of Mankind like Rousseau or Skinner, who believes he understands man’s brain and in the solitariness of his study or laboratory writes books on the subject, you are also probably harmless and might even contribute to human knowledge, right?…

But if you put the two together, a lover of Mankind and a theorist of Mankind, what you’ve got now is Robespierre or Stalin or Hitler and the Terror, and millions dead for the good of Mankind. Right?

This pandemic has been an illuminating unveiling of people’s operational ethic–on the left and the right and everywhere in between. Christians everywhere should take care that we don’t lose even more credibility on the paramount issue of the dignity of all human life, from womb to tomb. And not just in the abstract, but in the concrete particulars of our lives and relationships.

Don’t Waste Your Lockdown

Virus

Source: Nature.com

Almost twenty years ago, pastor John Piper delivered a sermon that “swept over a generation.” Indeed, it was my generation. I matriculated at Auburn University the autumn after Piper preached his famous “seashells” message at Passion’s One Day conference in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 20, 2000. My classmates who had attended the conference were still buzzing about that one sermon. Piper’s message to the 40,000 college students gathered that day was simple but explosive: Don’t waste your life. Don’t buy the American dream of a nice career and a nice retirement, collecting seashells. Instead, give your life away for one thing: boasting only the cross of Jesus Christ that all the nations might glorify him. “Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.”

It ended up being an earth-shattering—and career-changing, vocation-defining—message for many of us. Such a pithy but profound imperative: don’t waste your life. None of us older Millennials and younger Gen-Xers could have predicted the challenges that would attend the next 20 years of our lives: 9/11, the global war on terrorism, and the Great Recession, not to mention our own personal tragedies and professional challenges as we emerged into adulthood and eventually to midlife. But the singularity of the focus that we fostered, not only through Piper’s sermons and writings but also through the world of serious-minded, warm-hearted theology that it opened up to us (Piper, Packer, Stott, and Sproul eventually led us to Edwards, Owen, Calvin, and Augustine), helped to sustain our faith through these challenges.

And now we face a new challenge in coronavirus. And we face it shoulder-to-shoulder with every generation, remembering especially the elderly who are most at risk. We are tempted to be anxious. How could we not be? There is no time-stamp on this virus. We don’t know what the next day or week or month or year will bring. How long will we be in social isolation? Will more places begin enforcing the lockdown? How many more will get sick? How many more will die? Will the healthcare system hold up under the strain? Will the world descend into another Great Depression? How long can we stay cooped up? What strains will the lockdown place on our mental and spiritual health?

It is this last question that I want to address in this post (and to invite others in to offer their own reflections). My counsel for us during this time deliberately echoes Piper’s sermon: don’t waste your lockdown.

The very same big vision of God that has sustained us through the last twenty years can be our fortress during this time as well. A time of crisis can serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to God’s mysterious and horrible (Latin, horribilis, “making one shudder or tremble”) but wise and benevolent sovereign control over everything, “whatsoever comes to pass” (Westminster Confession). “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). None of these passages mean that we will be spared calamity or even death: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). But we know that nothing in all creation—not even a virus or a financial collapse— “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

So what can we do to leverage our lockdown for maximal spiritual benefit? Here are some things to consider.

  1. Reset your personal and family devotional life. The virus is forcing us all into a kind of monastic lifestyle. Use it well. Try reading the daily and weekly Scripture lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary. Pray the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer. Commemorate the saints. Regardless of your plan: read Scripture, pray, be silent.
  2. Read good books. Don’t feel guilty about watching movies or starting a new show on Netflix, but don’t miss the opportunity to read either. Try reading theology, poetry, and fiction every day.
  3. Learn to love again. For many families, one or both parents will have to adjust to being home with the kids all day long. After just a week at home, I have a renewed respect for my wife, who stays home with our children all the time! Work through the inevitable tensions and conflicts of cloistered life at home. Make the adjustment as quickly as possible and be gracious to each other.
  4. Find a proper balance between work and rest, structure and flexibility. Some will be tempted to be lazy and unproductive during an extended time without structure. Others will be tempted to force a rigid schedule on themselves and their families. Try to strike the right balance.
  5. Stay connected and engaged with your local church. It is perhaps not an accident that during this Lenten season, we are all being forced into a kind of “fast” or abstinence from the benefits of corporate worship. Many churches are finding industrious ways to stay connected through recorded or streaming services or through teleconferencing. But even if you just pick up the phone to call or text your fellow church members, you can continue to fulfill your covenantal commitments to the local body of Christ. This time away should make us long to renew our bonds of embodied, corporate worship through Word and Sacrament.
  6. Serve your neighbors. Find an appropriate circle of influence, based on the recommended guidelines (even if it’s one neighboring family) and find ways to love and serve them.
  7. Be selective in what news you read and how much. If you are like me, you may be tempted to stay glued to the news through Twitter, news websites, cable news, etc. But not all information is equally reliable, responsible, and quite frankly good for your mental health. So be selective both in content and in time spent scouring the news.
  8. Get outside. Go for a walk. Sit on the porch or patio. Lie in the grass. Listen to the birds. Slowing our frenetic pace and our daily commutes may just open our eyes to the glory around us, to the “love smiling through all things.”
  9. Develop healthy habits. Related to the last point, use this time to refocus on healthy habits. Eat well, sleep well, and do some kind of physical activity every day. The gyms are likely closed. So try a bodyweight routine or just a walk through the neighborhood. Think about your health in comprehensive terms: “a sound mind in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid.”
  10. Give yourself grace. In all likelihood, you will waste this lockdown to one degree or another. So, focus on moving in the right direction, not merely arriving at the right destination. Focus on process, not goals.

One of the things that was so striking about Piper’s call not to waste your life was just how sober-minded it was. For many of us in college at the time, it was like a punch in the gut, a wakeup call. This was no kitschy, sentimental youth group rally. It was a blood-earnest, prophetic plea to think and act in light of eternity, life and death, heaven and hell. This virus affords us another opportunity for sober thinking. The point of these reflections on how to leverage the lockdown for maximal spiritual benefit is not to belittle the crisis by turning it into just another opportunity for self-help and self-improvement. People are dying. It’s not just about us. The point is to order our lives as if they will end. Because they will. If not during this pandemic, then soon enough. Sooner than we realize. So, don’t waste your lockdown. Don’t waste it.

Comfort on the Far Side of Sorrow

innocents chora

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Today marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the commemoration of the children killed by the rage of King Herod as he was seeking the Christ-child (Matt. 2:16-18). It is always jarring to read about the death of the Holy Innocents right there in the gospel’s infancy narrative and to celebrate their feast three short days after Christmas. But Christ was born into a world of acute suffering (what is worse than the loss of a child?) precisely in order to bring relief to those who are mourning. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

Without this dark backdrop, we might be tempted to believe the sanitized, sentimentalized picture of the Nativity that a culture with a thin (and thinning) veneer of Christianity offers up to us: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But Jesus wept. And Rachel wept for her children and refused to be comforted through half-measures. Comfort only comes on the far side of sorrow. No one is exempt from this. Not even innocent children. Not even the Holy Family.

The death of the Holy Innocents paints in striking colors the sharp contrast between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by Christ. The one is marked by self-preserving power. The other by self-sacrificial weakness. The one is ensconced in the halls of worldly power. The other is on the run, on the pilgrim trail to Egypt and back again through the wilderness and only then to the Promised Land.

The Old Testament text that St Matthew cites as a kind of prophetic advance of this bloody scene is Jeremiah 31:15:

Thus says the LORD:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”

Ramah was the site of a shrine to the matriarch Rachel. The Israelites in Babylonian captivity saw in Rachel’s weeping for her children a fitting picture of their own sorrow in  exile. But the Lord doesn’t leave them comfortless. His response to their weeping is a promise: “they shall come back from the land of the enemy” (Jer. 31:16). And just a few short verses later, we learn the source of this great comfort in the Mount Everest of all Old Testament promises: the promise of a New Covenant.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31-34).

The only time the gospels use this precise phrase, “new covenant,” is set in another bloody context: at the Last Supper, when Jesus, facing his impeding passion and death, passes the cup to his disciples and declares, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Comfort for the weeping doesn’t come cheap in some hackneyed platitude that “this too shall pass.” No, comfort is purchased at the price of blood.

Another Herod would eventually catch up to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus willingly gave himself over to him (John 10:18). Herod laughed on that day and Jesus mourned (Luke 23:11). But the rulers of this world did not know that the one whom they mocked was the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). They didn’t see the great reversal of the last day that would be proleptically brought into this present age on the third day, the eighth day, the first day of a new creation. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25).

Comfort is coming for those who weep, even for those who weep over lost children. Or lost fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, spouses and friends. Or lost jobs or lost dreams or lost innocence. In Christ, all that is lost will be found, all that is taken will be restored. That’s the lesson the Holy Innocents leave to us, these “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves” (Augustine). We all, like Rachel, will find ourselves in moments where we “refuse to be comforted.” But comfort doesn’t depend upon us. We, like the Holy Innocents, find ourselves in the crosshairs of a cosmic battle of kingdoms. But the decisive victory has already been won. Comfort comes not in the form of cheap sentimentality. The New Covenant promises–forgiveness, internal transformation, the knowledge of God, union with God–come sealed in blood, and the Holy Innocents foreshadow this.