Easter Lights


Lueurs pascales – Easter Lights

 A poem by Brother Roger of Taizé (with translation)

Toi, le Christ,
tu te charges de ce qui nous charge,
au point que,
débarrassés de ce qui alourdit notre existence,
nous reprenions à tout moment
la marche légère
de l’inquiétude vers la confiance,
de l’ombre vers la clarté de l’eau vive,
de notre volonté propre
vers la vision du Royaume qui vient.
Alors, bien que nous osions
à peine l’espérer,
tu offres à chaque être humain
d’être un reflet de ton visage.
(Le défunt Frère Roger Schutz de la Communauté de Taizé, dans Reff, Sylvie et Stern, André. Soleil de prières. Editions Albin Michel, 1989).
Prières à Taizé
You, dear Christ,
take all our burdens on yourself,
to the point that,
released from all in our lives that weighs us down,
at every moment we may step lightly again
from anxiety to confidence,
from the shadows to bright living water,
from self love
towards the vision of the coming Kingdom.
So, even though we scarcely dare to hope that it may be,
you offer each human being
to be a reflection of your face.[The late Brother Roger  – translation by Ted Witham]

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.

The Parable


THE PARABLE

 

How sad the sower —
the thrower
of seed.
In bonding for ever
in life
is his need.
Yet the task
the Father asks
is to throw
Far from his heart
to death to part,
and perchance not grow.
It’s utter folly
to risk losing love
and throw life away.
Yet the melancholy
Jewish raconteur
enjoins you and me
to lose all,
and in the losing
not to know
if the prize is yours.

Ted Witham

 

 

 

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.

The ghost of Melchizedek


At my ordination as a priest in 1975, one of my Anglo-Catholic friends gave me a card congratulating me that I was ‘a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek’. This is quite a common sentiment among the more catholic of my friends; and, as far as I can judge, for many of them, is no more than a sentimental statement that priesthood is for ever, or ‘indelible’ in the jargon of sacramental theology. And for Anglo-Catholics there is the additional frisson of belonging to an ‘order’.

I know enough Hebrew to know that the Psalmist (in 110:4) was not thinking of a religious order. ‘You are a priest forever according to the word of Melchizedek,’ is the literal translation, and in this case the Hebrew dibrati דִּ֝בְרָתִ֗י (from dabar) more likely means ‘in the manner of’, than any idea of a company or group.

But to be a priest ‘for ever’ binds one psychologically in a fascinating way. From the moment Archbishop Sambell laid his hands on my head, my identity changed. From then on, whatever else I might become, I would be always a priest. That sense of being called to communicate God to people has indeed remained with me for these 36 years.

And so has Melchizedek, that strange priest-king who appears to Abram to offer him bread and wine. (The account appears in Genesis 14:18-24). Melchizedek has been haunting my prayers, not least because I am reading through Hebrews at Morning Prayer and Melchizedek has quite a role there.

When I re-read Genesis, I am struck by how little can definitely be said about this king. His name, made up of two parts, means literally ‘my king-righteousness’. Some of the Rabbis take this to mean ‘Righteousness is my King’, and I would be proud as priest (for ever) and a human being (for ever) to take this a motto.

But other commentators differ: for them, ‘Melchi-‘ refers to the priest’s actual status as a King. He is named as King of Salem. No-one knows where this ‘Salem’ is. Is it Mount Gerizim (the sacred mountain of the Samaritans), or is it what Jerusalem, Jeru-Salem, was known as before David named it? In any case, the word ‘Salem’ is related to ‘shalom’, the peace and prosperity that we will know when God restores Israel.

So for me, a priest after the manner of Melchizedek, the second connection is with ‘peace’. I am to be one who is a catalyst for God’s peace. I am called to bring people together – with each other and with God, to be a channel of God’s peace, as that wonderful Franciscan prayer expresses it.

Righteousness, peace: these accompany the ‘ghost’ of Melchizedek, and I am glad of their company.

Melchizedek offers Abraham ‘bread and wine’. These are the common tools of my priesthood too. The Eucharistic bread and wine, and the hospitality that they symbolise, are the means by which I can live in righteousness and peace. My purpose in life is to invite people to feed on the rich generosity of God Most High.

In a striking image, the Rabbis also believed that Melchizedek brought to Abram the letter he (ה֥) which completed Abraham’s name. As a priest after the manner of this Melchizedek, I may also have the opportunity to reveal to people their true name, to complete something about their self-understanding. What an extraordinary privilege! God Most High, help me discern the letter ה֥ when I need to bring it into a person’s life.

In Psalm 110, and on my Anglo-Catholic friend’s card, I was told I was a priest ‘for ever.’ That is a wonderful affirmation. For all of us, the new identities God gives us in baptism, in ordination, in confession and reconciliation are not passing gifts: they are permanent. I rejoice in the ongoing nature of my priesthood. But the text is not as clear-cut as that. ‘For ever’, in Hebrew le-olam (לְעוֹלָ֑ם) can indeed mean ‘eternal’. But is also means ‘for the Eternal one’. I can grasp too greedily at God’s gifts. God is generous and will not revoke his gifts; but it’s not all about me and my status before God. My service as a priest is for God, le-olam, and it is God who benefits first from it.

Melchizedek sits with me in my prayer-room recalling me to the generosity of the Most High. His presence speaks to me of:

• The righteousness and peace that I receive from God and am to channel in the service of God’s people.
• The hospitality I am invited to bring to others; in some people’s lives, maybe even bring the letter that will complete their name; and
• the privilege of serving the Eternal one.

May I be grateful that the Most High calls me to be a priest for ever in the manner of Melchizedek.

Meat and Right for Lent


We Believe

Meat and Right for Lent

John Warner, We Believe: studies in the Nicene Creed, Perth: John Warner, 2011
(available from St John’s Books, Fremantle)
68 pages, A4 paperback

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The Rev’d John Warner believes that “Christians should say what they mean and mean what they say”. The question raised by these substantial Lenten studies is whether most Anglicans do have a spiritual and intellectual grasp on the Nicene Creed, or whether we rattle it off Sunday by Sunday unheeding of its meaning.

One school of thought says that we don’t need to understand all the philosophical ramifications of our central statement of faith. It is expressed in the philosophical categories of the 3rd Century, not in a contemporary framework, so we should recite the Creed believing that we believe the same things about God as Christians did 1,700 years ago. There is a grain of truth in this, but if we rely on it as a reason for not trying to understand the Creed better, then Fr Warner would say we are guilty of hypocrisy – not to mention sloth.

Fr Warner divides the Creed into 30 days collected into 5 sections of various lengths. At the end of each section is a series of discussion starters. The sections are traditional — Belief in: God the Father, God the Son, the saving work of Jesus, God the Holy Spirit, and The Church and the Last Things.

The teaching for each day is both solid and solidly orthodox: meat and right for Lent. The teaching is seasoned with some helpful analogies, metaphors and anecdotes. Fr Warner is aiming to reach thoughtful parishioners, though some readers may need a little encouragement and support to get the most of out the materials.

(On a personal note, I was Associate Priest in Claremont parish when John was Rector. We have worked together in study groups and in Education for Ministry (EfM), so I am accustomed to John’s teaching style.)

The five sets of discussion starters will stimulate worthwhile discussion both on the intellectual understanding of the Creed and on the practical and spiritual implications for life in the Church. I would have preferred more discussion starters and more guidance on how best to use these materials in a group, but restricting the amount of questions will keep group participants focused on the Creed.

There are too few educational materials directing us to know and understand the central teachings of our faith. John Warner’s new studies fill a real need. I hope many parishes will want to use them this Lent.

Rollicking journey to Eternal Life


Eternal Life coverJohn Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven…, Harper One 2009, Hardcover 288 pages. (Under $20 on the internet.)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Bishop Jack Spong takes his readers on a long journey to “Eternal Life“. His vision of eternal life is broad: it includes a plan for the church’s mission in the world, a plea for mysticism, and a vision of human beings transcending the limitations of the individual for a oneness with God and with others. Overall, I like his vision.

Eternal Life is a rollicking ride of the sort we have come to expect from Bishop Spong.

Jack Spong believes that religion has prevented us from seeing the grand vision by keeping us in unhealthy dependence, waiting on a father who knows best, and who in fact often manipulates us into even more dependency.

This paternalistic dynamic played out in the news as I was reading Eternal Life. It was sad to see the wonderful and feisty Sisters of St Joseph waiting on a Papa in Rome to declare that Mary McKillop was sufficiently saintly. The Sisters already consider McKillop a saint, and it appears demeaning for them to be forced to wait while a far-off authority decides whether post mortem miracles are valid or not.

Eternal Life is in part an engaging memoir. Spong traces his journey from an evangelical home in North Carolina through his teenage years in a more “catholic” Anglican parish. At each step of the way from deacon to priest, to pastoral work in parishes and to diocesan Bishop, Spong’s intellectual curiosity deepens. He is no longer content with the church’s easy answers. He liberates himself energetically from the literalist view of the Bible he inherited. More importantly, he discards the triple-decker universe of the Bible, and along with it, the concept of the transcendent God. For Spong, God is not beyond us; God is within us.

Bishop Spong describes the church’s journey as it moves from childhood to maturity and invites others to join this journey. I sense some impatience on his part with those who haven’t travelled his particular road, or who are perhaps embarked on a different journey. In interviews he often says that his intended audience are those who have left the church unable any longer to swallow the literalism and infantilism they have experienced in the church.

He criticises priests like me who understand his journey, but in order to avoid offence, sometimes cloak our language in ambiguity. I do understand the Spong dilemma, but I am trained as a pastor and educator: I try to communicate by taking people with me.

Spong is an iconoclast. He tears down superstition and pre-modern thought and clears the way for a Christianity with intellectual integrity in the modern world. Like all iconoclasts, the Bishop skirts the edge of orthodoxy. However, if a Panel of Triers in a diocese somewhere tried him for heresy, I have no doubt that he could show that all his theology accords with scripture and can “be proved thereby” and thus satisfy the canonical claims of the Anglican Articles of Religion. Iconoclast he may be, but not apostate.

I agree with Bishop Spong that the church stands on tiptoe at the edge of great changes. We need iconoclasts like him to undo our tight grip on inadequate concepts of the past, but we also need gracious guides who will inspire us and lead us confidently into that future. Spong is the first, but not, crucially, the latter.

Bishop Spong convinces me that all scripture is poetry, but fails to read scripture with the depth and sympathy that would make it sing anew.

He is keen to remind us that God is not “up there”, and demonstrates that we should instead look within to find God. This, as he says, is Mysticism 101. But he does not account for our need to reach outwards to find God. Even if the proper direction is not up, most of us feel impelled to look outwards to our fellow humans and the wondrous creation, and to listen there for God speaking to us.

He is enthusiastic to show us that faith and science are compatible, but ignores science’s scepticism for its own methodology and conclusions. Even the brashest scientists admit that science doesn’t have all the answers. Blind belief in science will not serve faith well.

Maybe all these expect too much of Bishop Spong. We should accept that his ministry is more to tear down our conceptual idols than to build up our spiritual future. We should read Spong and clear our minds, and we should also listen to our hearts and shape our own mature vision of God and God’s future. Of that, the Bishop would approve.

Really Living After Death


One toxic idea that has seeped into Christianity is the belief that individuals survive death. This cane-toad of an idea has been introduced into the Christian faith either in its Greek form of the immortality of the soul, or in its post-Enlightenment guise of individual personalities somehow living on after death.

These ideas poison by setting our hopes too low. They arise from a careless reading of scripture and impoverished imagining of God’s cosmos. I am certain that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has a great deal more life than pallid ideas of “me going to heaven”.

To reduce life after death to individual survival fails to do justice to the concept. Atheists like Richard Dawkins mock Christians for believing that I should survive death in some way and their objections have traction. Given our present time-bound experience of life, we have to ask:
• What would we do after death?
• How would we endure the boredom?
• What would it mean, if anything, to meet our loved ones after death?

There must be more to it than simple survival.

Paul tells us that we are “in Christ”. According to St John being in Christ is having “life more abundant.” (John 10:10) Life in Christ is attaining “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)

As individuals, we are cherished in Christ, and because Christ is eternal, then we too are eternal. But these New Testament ideas of more abundant life measuring up to the life of Christ show that we are the best that we can be not as atomised individuals but when we reach out to others and transcend our ego, our selfish nature.

Maturity in Christ means being more than just oneself. The next step in the development of human beings towards maturity is to stop being an inward-looking “I” and start becoming a functioning “we”. After death we lose our precious “self” and are caught up in the greater reality of humanity.

In Christ and Time, 20th-century Lutheran scholar Oscar Cullmann traces St Paul’s thinking on what impact Christ’s death and resurrection has on our own. He sees Paul begin with “primitive” ideas in I Thessalonians of being “caught up in the air… to meet the Lord” (v. 22) and developing into the more sophisticated “resurrection body” in I Corinthians 15.

Note what Paul actually writes: “we will be caught up”. The plural is used. “All will be made alive in Christ” (I Cor.15:22). We usually read these passages with post-Enlightenment eyes and so fail to see the significance of the plural.

To me, it indicates that our real life in Christ now is corporate: as his Body, We have glimpses of the love and unity that Jesus experiences with the Father (John 16, especially v.20). This oneness with each other and with God is the principal promise of the New Testament.

We can imagine different scenarios in which this promise will be fulfilled, all of them with far greater potential than individuals living for ever one way or another. Whatever we imagine resurrection to mean, however, it will be better than our imagination. Paul, paraphrasing Isaiah 64:4, assures us that “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived … God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)

Vine and branches: one life

Suffering unto death?


The comment was only half in jest, and it caught me by surprise. “You sound disappointed that you weren’t diagnosed with bone cancer or blood cancer.” My answer was the sanctioned one: “I am disappointed that they haven’t found something that they can treat. I don’t really care what its name is.”

The truth is, there is a little part of me that felt disappointed when the scans and blood tests returned negative. Of course, that’s partly explained not as a death wish, but as frustration with my symptoms, which have been powerful enough on some days for me to think that death would be easier to bear than the pain.

But my friend made me wonder. During those days of waiting for results I did rehearse my reactions to the possible diagnosis of a fatal illness. The prospect that I would not have more years with Rae filled me with pain. The thought that, though I might live to see Clare’s wedding, I might not see the children she will have with James and watch them as babies, toddlers, children, adolescents and growing to adulthood, seared my heart. The idea that I would not be around long enough to see Brendan settled and happy troubled me deeply.

No, I am not disappointed. I want the chance of more life. But I hope I am also strong enough to face my mortality, and to wonder what that now means to me as a Christian. These last weeks have reaffirmed for me the stark fact that I will die, if not soon, then in the coming decade or two. And whatever I believe, I cannot escape the reality of nature: death is the end. We live, we die. Anything that might be beyond our life span would be a sheer miraculous gift of the Most High. Resurrection is by definition surprise.

It is many years since I believed (if ever I really did) in my continuing existence after death as an individual. I hope I have not given false comfort to people over the years that they will somehow be reunited beyond the ashes or the grave with their loved ones in some happy valley. This false but widespread belief is both arrogant and petty: Arrogant to believe that human beings are so important in the scheme of the Cosmos, and petty to think so poorly of God’s imagination.

By definition, “eternal” cannot be after anything. The word itself tells us that the grace of God operates not after our death, but beyond our life – out of time. As far as we can know now, eternal life is about the intensity with which we live in this too short space between birth and death. Eternal life is about our gratitude now. Eternal life is about intentionally taking time to be simply in the Presence of all that is.

Looking forward to some second-rate paradise after death will in fact take away from the joy and brilliance of living in the now.

Instead, we should be journeying within to discover the broad and marvel-filled country of our souls. Instead of yearning for a union with those whom we love in the past, we could be yearning for a greater quality of loving those we are given to love now.

I am not afraid of the darkness to come. The problem is that sometimes I am afraid of the brightness of the light here and now.

Planetary nebula NGC 2818