Life After


Life after

I stand heart-still on bush-edge trail.
My height nothing next to bunched boughs
of sage green gums.  The great wedge-tail
eagle soars: all before it stoops, bows.

The eye zooms: the bird has stalled:
gravity forgot; upheld by thermal.
All potential at rest, just the air mauled
by fierce talons; wings held formal.

Then, straight down from pin-head highs
the eagle drops, wings tucked, a grey stone-streak.
The lizard struck and killed, in cold eye’s

wink.  Wings wide as Passion Week.
For all of us in God’s surprise
are taken alive in Christ’s dear beak.

Beholding the depths


Once a week in Morning Prayer I recite the Song attributed to the three young men Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as they walked unharmed in the fiery furnace. They sing, ‘Blessed are you who behold the depths’. I’d never thought about that phrase before last Saturday. I hunted out the Greek, which is as close as we can get to the original. (The Aramaic has been lost). A literal version of the Greek is: ‘Blessed are you who look compassionately on the unfathomable.’

Behind ‘Blessed are you’ is the Aramaic and Hebrew, ‘Berakah ata’. This common opening to prayer is praise for the blessings God brings. Every time the refrain of ‘berakah ata’ rings out, it is a celebration of life, because life is the first blessing God pours out on the universe. Every time we say ‘berakah ata’, we celebrate love, God’s driving force which makes of our universe not a meaningless hell but a place of wonder and joy.

The Three then sing that God is ‘looking with favour’ (epiblepon). God holds steady God’s gaze on all God has made, and surveys it with favour. ‘It is good. It is very good,’ Genesis reminds us. God holds in high regard that which God looks upon.

And in this verse, the Three celebrate God’s compassionate regard for the ‘abyssos’, the unfathomable. Thrown into the flames of the fiery furnace Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, must have believed that they had arrived in the abyss.  The abyss was not only the place of the dead, but paradoxically it was also the bottomless container for the waters under the earth: a place of annihilation. God looks with favour even on the abyss.

God looks with favour, we would say, on black holes. God’s hands, so to speak, hold these most dangerous of phenomena, and God enjoys their power, their blackness and their oddity. God delights in the mathematical underpinnings of the black hole, and in the petite particles, quirky quarks and microscopic molecules which flit in and out of existence in the complex flux of the singularity.

From the macrocosm of dying stars to the abyssos of the inner lives of human beings: God looked with favour on (epiblepon) his handmaid, Mary.  She too knew the encouraging gaze of God on her. God looks compassionately on the depths of our selves. God embraces us – at our heart – with joy. Like the black hole, our lives are a complex of forces, many destructive and many creative, braiding together to create unique individuals. I too am a singularity, as you are. And the good news discovered by the Three in the fiery furnace is this: God is on our side, God looks on us with favour, blessed be God.

When God looks with favour, light, as John points out in his Gospel, pours in and the blackness dissolves. There is blessing even in the darkest of pits, even in the tangles of the human soul, because God gazes with love.

Black hole

A human trinity


It’s Trinity Sunday again. I regard this feast as a tipping point in the church’s year. It’s our last chance until Advent Sunday to celebrate the life of God, God’s coming in Jesus Christ, and God’s ongoing presence in Holy Spirit. From Trinity Sunday on, we turn green and turn our attention to growing in the grace of Holy Spirit.

Trinity Sunday then marks a turn from God to humanity. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate God as Three and God as One.  We know that though God’s Threeness and Oneness may be logically incompatible, they say something important about God.

Trinity Sunday sends us back to the beginning. And for us humans, the beginning is described in Genesis 1 and 2. We humans, we are told, are made in the image of God. If God is Three and God is One, then there is also an aspect of our lives that make us a Trinity too.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
The great African Saint Augustine of Hippo taught that human beings are three in one. We are made, Augustine said, of
memory,
will, and
love.

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures who have a past to remember. Our memories are vital to us. We often hear people say that if their house were burning down, the first thing they would rescue would be their photo albums, because ‘they contain our memories’. Our memories, we say, make us who we are.

We are also the only creatures with a sense of the future, and the knowledge that, through our  wills, we can affect the future. Our will partly determines the experiences we will have from this point on. Our will and our desires are deep parts of ourselves.

But memories can be bitter. Good times of the past can be locked up by our sinful actions. To be truly human, we need more than memories: we need love. Love will lead us to be grateful for our memories. Love will empower us to forgive and be forgiven, so that our memories will shine with goodness.

The future can be uncertain. We can be horrified that our wilful actions can turn out to be destructive. At the same time, we know how little effect our wills have on the future. We can live in fear of what is going to happen. So our will needs to be coloured by love too. Love will give us the grace to will that which is good. Love will give us the confidence to go on in faith rather than in fear.

Love is what makes us truly human. It is the jigsaw piece that fits in between our memory and our will.

In the Creed each week we make the amazing affirmation that in Jesus, God became “truly human.”.Jesus carries in him the memory of all our pasts. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has opened up for us a future that is life and not death, glory and not shame. His love, memory and will, makes him truly human too, and makes us like God, “partakers in God’s nature”.

So let us celebrate the human trinity of memory, will and love. They are a way to God.

Ted Witham

First posted at Dunsborough Anglican Church (St George’s).

The dignity of the jabiru


I saw one of these at the beach this morning. I think this type of stork is called a “jabiru”. She was almost stationary with one spidery leg held in the air ready to be replaced on the ground. She stood among sparse beach shrubs about her height in such a way that you had to search to see her even though she was in plain view. Her right eye was fixed on us humans.

The jabiru’s dignity made her appear larger than her perhaps 50 cms in height. With her left leg poised, she had all the time in the world to be herself, the monarch of her world.

St Francis tells Br. Leo about the incident at Gubbio


My heart in my mouth I set off to meet Wolf.
He filled me with fear. He was Other.
I walked dark into the forest, so deeply looking
That at first I failed to see this Brother.

He appeared to be slinking around a tree.
In shadow, he looked all grey and black.
His eyes though lighted were lifeless,
And I froze, my feet bare on the mountain track.

I stared at the terrible empty eyes.
Brother Wolf still as a stone about to slide.
My eyes entered his and the space between melted.
We became one: my eyes and heart in Wolf’s inside.

He swallowed me whole. Yet I possessed him too.
Confused our hunger for love and humanity.
Crossed our praise of power in life and death.
Gubbio lay below in its simple vulnerability.

We stayed like that for time and a time,
Then slowly, gently in two came apart;
The same, yet different than before.
I burning with hunger and he humbled in heart.

I led him back like a lamb to the village.
Aflame, I rebuked him with voice and with prod.
“Share, show respect, live in harmony.”
The villagers rejoiced. I devoured God.

Ted Witham

Published in Assisi, Volume 2 Issue 2,3, the magazine of St Francis’ College in New York.

Picture by William Schaff.

Earth Hour



Our Bible begins with an extraordinary poem of praise for the Universe which God creates for us. ‘In the beginning, God created…’ For the wonders of each day, Genesis claims, ‘And it was good.’ The lines of this poem sparkle with praise for light and dark, day and night, sun and moon and stars, earth and sea, plants and animals and for humanity.

The resources God provides are there for our use, but within God’s generosity there are limits: things should be used for the purposes God intends. There are some animals and plants which should not be used by human beings: the wild things are there to signal God’s life-giving fecundity. They, like everything else in creation, lead us to praise.

We notice Genesis 1 these days because we notice the world around us for the wrong reasons. Since the beginning of the industrial era, human beings have over-used the provisions God has made for us: water, oil, arable land, have all been gobbled up in a race driven by our greed. We now face a crisis as we number seven billion souls. Can we continue to feed ourselves? Will our industries collapse as the oil begins to run out? These are sobering questions.

On this Saturday night, March 31, we are invited to turn our lights and electrical appliances off for the hour 8:30 – 9:30 p.m. to mark Earth Hour. Cities, towns and households around the world have signed up for Earth Hour. It may be that the electricity we save by switching off is token; the purpose of Earth Hour is to invite us to reflect on our use of the world’s resources.

As Christians, we can turn off lights and television and go outside to revel in the wonder of the Universe in the night sky, to praise God for the generous provision God has made, and to confess our greed in using them.

Our confession will be a true confession as we then reflect on how we can amend our usage of power, oil, water and food and live with a smaller footprint on this wonderful planet.

More information about Earth Hour is at http://www.wwf.org.au/earthhour/

Reposted from Dunsborough Anglican Parish web-site http://www.dunsboroughchurch.com/)

Moshe at the Bush


***
Moshe squints as the feet
of the swirling mob raise ghosts of dust
in the desert heat.
He draws his kaffiyeh across his face.
The sheep continue to bleat,
and in the midst of their badinage
the horizon is shifting shape –
a shimmering blue mirage.

Moshe’s shaded eyes see the paradox.
The inside of everything is moving
in the dead still of the outside paddocks.
In the shifting shapes of ghosts, a bush burning:
its thermal motion outside, but within no turning –
just the Steady State. His Presence proving.

Sandals gone, veil on, Moshe hails the Shekinah:
for in the image of the shape-shifting Presence,
He is capable, even gifted, as you are,
of looking inward and outward. So Moshe assents
to being what he will be:
swirling ghost yet made of star.

***
Published in indigo:journal of west australian writing Spring 2009
***

Life After


Life after

I stand heart-still on bush-edge trail.
My height nothing next to bunched boughs
of sage green gums. The great wedge-tail
eagle soars: all before it stoops, bows.

The eye zooms: the bird has stalled:
gravity forgot; upheld by thermal.
All potential at rest, just the air mauled
by fierce talons; wings held formal.

Then, straight down from pin-head highs
the eagle drops, wings tucked, a grey stone-streak.
The lizard struck and killed, in cold eye’s
wink. Wings wide as Passion Week.
For all of us in God’s surprise
are taken alive in Christ’s dear beak.

Ted Witham 2010

Ratzinger and the Reason to be Christ-centred


1974 Theological College – (Trinity College, Melbourne)

A fellow theological student and I were arguing ferociously. I was 25, and presented the Left’s view of Aboriginal rights in the sharply political terms I had learned from the Campaign for Racial Equality.

‘Come back and talk to me when you can argue as a Christian,’ my friend told me.
~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~

I remember clearly the challenge he put to me that day, although I know he looks back on that statement with embarrassment at the priggishness of his former self.

Unless Christ is central, goes the argument, it’s not Christian. And unless Christ is central to your thoughts about any subject, then they are sub-Christian. All these decades later, I am still challenged by this position, and even more so by my reading of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Theology of History in Bonaventure.

I have wanted for some time to read this exploration of Bonaventure, and I am enjoying the experience. Ratzinger is learned and lucid, a teacher whose range is so wide that he includes the reader by providing enough backstory. For example, he shows how Bonaventure differed from Thomas Aquinas in his treatment of Aristotle, because Bonaventure wanted to preserve the primacy of Christ in his philosophy. Ratzinger delights by showing not only where they disagreed but the courtesy with which Bonaventure attacks the arguments and never the person of Thomas.

And the central challenge Bonaventure throws to us is to argue for a radically Christian view of history, in which Christ is the central point, and in this age of the Holy Spirit, we are returning to the Father. As Ratzinger diagrams it: Father > egressus > Christus > regressus > Father. (To read Ratzinger, your Latin needs to be reasonably tuned.)

In our age, we have become so used to secular versions of history and time, notably the past-centred view of conservatives; the apocalyptic view of ruptured time promoted by the Green movement and the various views of time implicit in scientists’ narratives around cosmic and biological origins.

Bonaventure’s challenge to us is to see history in God’s terms. The victory of Jesus on the cross and his sending of the Spirit change the direction of history – not just salvation history, but political history, human history and the history of creation. Bonaventure is a medieval scholar; he does play with different schema of sevens (seven days of Creation, seven days of Redemption, seven aeons of the new Creation), threes (Creation, Redemption, New Creation), and twos (Old and New), but these elaborate and fascinating frameworks all point back to the centre-point who is Christ.

We are rightly enthusiastic for inter-faith dialogue and the ways other faiths can deepen our own. But how do I deal with Bonaventure’s insistence that the final word is Christ’s? We fear ecological destruction, but does the confidence of our return to Christ sharpen our concern or bolster our hopes for the future? We worry about the imbalance of the world between a wealthy West, a rising China and poverty and violence. Do Bonaventure’s certainties reduce those worries?

Sometimes the Pope’s present pronouncements seem to come from another world. Maybe they do. His love for Bonaventure and the place of the Franciscans in history indicate that Ratzinger’s views have been heavily shaped by the ‘other world’ – that of medieval theology.

I am glad to be challenged again to argue as a Christian, and to place Christ at the centre in all my thinking.