The Ups & Downs of Scripture & Liturgy

Many people are familiar with the saying “What goes up must come down.”

Fewer, however, have deeply meditated on the upward & downward motion which pervades the Christian narrative. For example, only after Christ is “lifted up” on the cross is he then is he lowered down into the depths of the earth, into Hades or Sheol, which many interpret as a kind of descent into Hell. And then, three days later, he is up again, risen victorious, for his disciples and (according to 1 Corinthians 15) a great multitude of 500 to see.

Now I am not one of those Episcopalians who seems to think that Eastern religions such as Buddhism are something we Christians should emulate. However, it does seem to me that this “down – up” pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ constitutes two halves of a larger whole, kind of like the pattern of the yin and the yang. The are stiched together, metaphysically, so to speak. You can’t have one without the other. They infuse and saturate each other with meaning.

This down – up pattern has been given the name of “Paschal Mystery” by the Church: what goes down must come up. And what comes up must first have gone down. Without death there is no resurrection life. Without the dark night there can be no sunrise. Without pruning no beautiful rose blossoms.

But as we approach the Feast of the Ascension (in our tradition considered one of the seven principal feasts of the Church) and the Day of Pentecost, it seems to me that there is another “yin-yang” pattern here, as well. Another “up – down” reality which is worthy of contemplation. In the Ascension Christ ascended up into the heavens and vanished from our view / presence. Why did he do this? Why did he go up?

In John 16:7 Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless I go away the Paraclete will not come to you.” Unless he leaves, that is, the Holy Spirit will not be poured down upon all flesh. In a similar vein in John’s resurrection story when Mary Magdalene tries to hold on to her risen Lord, he rebukes her saying, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). It is as if he is saying, “Mary, don’t try to tie me down; I must go up. It is good for you and for the world that I go up. Only if I go up, can something even better come down.”

We who benefit from the entirety of the Christian canon realize that this “something better” is the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured down onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost. This Spirit, St. Paul tells us, is “the Spirit is the Lord” himself (2 Cor 3:17) and the Book of Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit as “The Spirit of the Lord.” That is, when the Spirit descended onto the Church, it was also Christ himself descending onto the Church, coming down and entering our hearts in a fresh, new, powerful way.

Without the downward descent of Good Friday, there can be no victorious burst of Easter resurrection. Without the upward vanishing of Ascension, there can be no downward outpouring of the Spirit of Life.

So here’s a “homework assignment.” The next time you are at church, look for this “up down” imagery in the liturgy. How many times in the Liturgy are things of various kinds elevated and or brought down?

Everything from the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts / we lift them up unto the Lord”) to the manual actions of the Presider at the Table (notice how many times things are elevated or raised) contributes to this pattern in our lives. Look for it. Study it. It is worthy of contemplation.

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Human Rights as a Sub-issue of the Gay Debate

My short summary of Alasdair John Milbank on human rights:

Prior to modernity, “rights” (Latin iura) were seen as the participation of persons in relationships of mutual, free associations in something objective. But with the advent of liberal political thought, rights become absolutely grounded in the subjective self in isolation from others. American political precedent is built upon these modern assumptions. Hence, “gay marriage” is perfectly rational in an American context which is built on the foundations of modern, liberal political thought.

I would add: if one is not prepared to challenge the foundations of American political theory (including the US Constitution), then one should not complain about gay civil “marriage.”

Two caveats here:

1. I do not mean to imply that the meaning of the word “marriage” (which is a sacrament of the Church) can be redefined. Indeed, I wonder why secular people even care about something called “marriage,” if not for financial reasons based in the tax code of the US. Thus, the church ought to disentangle itself from the state when it comes to marriage.

2. None of the above discussion applies to decisions within the Church with respect to issues around “homosexuality.”

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“So you wanna be a Doctor?” (PhD FAQ’s)

What follows is an article I wrote for The Crucifer, the bi-weekly newsletter of Christ Church (Episcopal) in Tyler, Texas.

As many of the good people at Christ Church already know, I (Matt) have been admitted to the PhD program in philosophy at the University of Dallas (a Roman Catholic school about 80 miles down the road), to begin formal study this fall. Since many folks have been asking me about this development, I thought it would be a good idea to address some of these issues in this issue of The Crucifer.

Why in the world would you want to enter a PhD program? In Ephesians 4:11, St. Paul looks at the elders in the church at Ephesus and says, “Some of you are called to be prophets and apostles, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Ever since my college years at the University of Texas at Austin, I have had a burning passion for what I can only call “evangelism.” By this, however, I really don’t mean standing on a street corner and preaching (although I have done this!). I don’t mean handing out tracks to strangers. I don’t mean inviting people to come forward in a worship service or a “revival” to “make a decision” for Christ. Rather, what I am referring to is a deep desire to engage the secular mind. This is why I want to do a PhD, and this is why I want to do it in philosophy (as opposed to, say, theology). Where did the secular world come from? How did it come about that most Americans assume that “religion” is a private matter of one’s own inner emotions and preferences? If people in our culture view themselves primarily as autonomous consumers, is this the best way to live? These are the kinds of questions I hope to discuss and to write about, in a more rigorous and public way than I could without this degree program.

Why the University of Dallas? There are two reasons, primarily. First, UD is one of a handful of universities left in the US which emphasizes the “great books” of the western canon of thought. As a doctoral student in the humanities at UD I will take six core courses with grad students from the politics department and the English department in areas such as Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Virgil, and Augustine and Aquinas. Since I firmly believe in the importance of tradition, this opportunity is very appealing to me. Second, in PhD studies it is definitely true that what matters is not only “what you know, but who you know.” What matters more than anything else is who your advisor / mentor is. Enter Professor Philipp Rosemann, who I met “randomly” at a party in Dallas two summers ago. Rosemann is a well-published medievalist in the same post-structuralist vein as I, and for some reason he took an immediate interest in me, inviting me to converse with him in his office, assigning me books to read and discuss, and offering to support me in my doctoral application and research.

What does this mean for your role at Christ Church? One of the most amazing aspects of this opportunity has to do with my work as Assistant to the Rector at Christ Church here in Tyler. The bottom line is that my doctoral work will not affect my role at Christ Church and in the Epiphany Community. Beginning in the fall, I will commute to Dallas for classes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and my studying will (in the main) be limited to those days. It will be a grueling routine, but I feel confident that it will be well worth it. Father David (along with Bishop Doyle) has been very supportive in this decision, and in fact I think that for our ministry here locally it will have no downside. On the contrary, I think I will find it so rejuvenating that it will fuel and inspire my ministry in all sorts of ways.

How long will this program take you to complete? My anticipation is that I will be taking classes for four years, followed by preparing for comprehensive examinations, followed by writing and defending my dissertation. So I predict that I will be finished with my coursework at the end of the spring semester of 2016, at which point I will have much more flexibility.

 

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