04 December 2015

Advent: Shaping our Lives in terms of the Future

So many things have changed in Theology today in light of the scientific discoveries on the nature of the cosmos. We used, for instance, to read Genesis as though it referred only to past events, a state of perfect blessedness that had been lost and which one day would be regained in another realm we called heaven. Similarly our enmeshment in and subjection to death was treated as the result of a "fall" from perfection. Today, more and more we are reading the Scriptures, writing, and preaching with a new focus and perspective --- that of an unfinished universe which one day will reach perfection or fulfillment in God, the day when God will be all in all. At the same time then we human beings are called to a fulfillment which lies before us and it is possible to read Genesis as a powerful myth reminding us of all we are called to --- and all our world is meant for as well. Our identity as imago dei would then be something we are in the process of moving towards, something we are allowing or at least are called to allow God to transfigure us into day by day.

Sin, a Situation of Enmeshment in the Past and that which is resistant to the Future God Wills and Represents

The situation of enmeshment, incompleteness, falseness, distortion, or sin in which we find ourselves is not a fiction which can be dismissed by a non-literalist reading of the Genesis narratives. It is as real as ever, and Genesis narratives, especially when read as myths ** conveying profound truths, explain how it is we each collude with death in all its forms as we lead one another into greater and greater enmeshment in everything we identify as sin. In light of the unfinished developing nature of our universe, I think it is especially important to remember that hamartia (sin) is most fundamentally defined as "falling short". We fall short of being the persons God has created us to be in any number of ways. In attempts to become what we are meant to be, in attempts to become more human, we choose gods of all sorts who themselves fall short of divinity and make us even less complete or true than we were before we embraced them. In acts of forgetfulness and carelessness, fear, insecurity, and woundedness, we choose to embrace the past rather than the future and therefore to be someone other than the one God calls us to be. But too, we are summoned into and embrace the future as we become Advent persons, persons of the Eschaton for whom the words holiness and Saint actually fit. Our God is working constantly to bring us to freedom and fulfillment, truth and authentic humanity; his Word is active in our world and in our own hearts and each one of us is called to incarnate that Word just as fully as possible.

If we now read Genesis in a way different from what we were once used to and comfortable with, so too do we approach the Nativity of Jesus in somewhat different ways as well. Advent reminds us that the Word is at work in our world looking for those who will allow it to bear fruit in their lives. It reminds us that God's plans for us and our world are something we can hardly imagine yet --- and with the Gospel readings from next week, something we may find profoundly disturbing or even offensive. It is part of our past, but even more it is the future by which we are called to measure ourselves.

Authentic humanity has been born into our world and we will celebrate that at Christmas, but at the same time it is waiting to be born in us and in every person we know so that God's plans for the fulfillment of reality may be brought to fruition. The annunciation is an invitation to enter an unimaginable future we should each experience here and now while Mary's fiat is an acceptance of this invitation we too should each offer --- and offer many times over this period of Advent! Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus who will, throughout his life and death, incarnate the Word of God more and more definitively. But Christmas is not only in the past; it lies ahead of us as well.

Embracing the Future: Christ Brought to Full Stature

Ephesians speaks of Christ one day "coming to full stature". We speak of the Christ Event which includes not only Jesus' life and death, but his resurrection and ascension as well. We are participants in this Event because we have been baptized into his death and resurrection. Thus, while part of this Event is in the past it continues in the present as well. WE are the Body of Christ and it is we who are responsible for helping to usher in the Kingdom of God, WE who are called to incarnate the Risen Christ here and now. It is only right that we celebrate Advent as a season in which we begin to look not primarily at the past but instead to the present and future. Even more, as was the case with the Annunciation when Mary began to shape her life in light of the future the angel announced to her: "You shall be overshadowed by the Most High and bear a Son and he shall be called Emmanuel," we too are called to begin to shape our lives less in terms of the past than in terms of the future which Christ's death and resurrection proclaims, the world in which in us Christ comes to full stature.

Advent reminds us it is not enough to be freed of serious sin. Baptism and the Sacraments do that, of course, but that does not make us all we are called to be, all that God dreams and wills for us.  We cannot shape our lives merely in terms of freedom from serious sin or restored innocence. It is not enough to look to the past to what we once were. Instead we are called to truly become a new creation, (an) imago dei, those in whom the Word of God finds its full expression. Christ is the model of this new life , the first fruits of this new creation. He is the incarnation of our absolute future made real here and now in a proleptic way, the One in whom all reality has been redeemed and imbued with true hope and profound promise. Christ variously announces to us who we shall be, "I call you friends." He invites us to be his disciples, his own brothers and sisters, salt and light to the nations, Sons and daughters of God and citizens of the Kingdom; in him was are called to be expressions of the Logos, and commissioned to bear lasting fruit. We too are to be overshadowed by the Most High. Advent asks us to begin shaping our lives according to this vision, not that of who we once were, but of who we are created to become. In our embracing this future lies the hope of our entire world.

Readings of Genesis Sharpened by the New Cosmology

By the way, in light of the new ways Theologians read Genesis, one of the newer shifts in that reading is to understand Adam and Eve and the story of the Garden as a narrative describing the ultimate future of our world as well as some primordial history. That reading has been around for a while but it has been honed considerably in light of our sense of an unfinished, yet-to-be-perfected universe. The future reality described in the myth** will be a place where human beings are completed in their relationships with one another, with God, and with creation itself. As in Jesus' language  to his followers, this future is defined in terms of friendship. If this is correct, then sin is most fundamentally a matter of refusing to embrace this future. That means refusing to commit to God and God's plans for his Creation, refusing to embrace our truest self --- an identity shaped in terms of this reality in which God is all in all. Sin is a matter of refusing to be made new and of remaining bound by the past. And of course, that definition of sin is really not all that different from the one we are so familiar. Our own "falling short" (hamartia) though is a matter of falling short when measured according to our future, not the past.

** It is important to understand that myths are not fictions but rather narratives or stories which convey deep truths that can be adequately described in no other way than through some narrative. While the more superficial details of the stories (myths) may be untrue (there is no such thing as a talking snake!), their deeper truths are just that, profoundly true (talking snakes are a good way to externalize Eve's (and our own) insatiable tendency to theologize, for instance, or to describe the temptations she (and we) struggle(d) with).cf: More on Stories and the Tower of Babel or Myths, Parables, and Narrative Theology