The Cross of the Womb

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Byzantine icon, “The Visitation”. Mary visits Elizabeth “in haste” at the announcement of the angel

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his devotional work The Threefold Garland, details Mary’s consent and conception of Christ. Mary said a magnificent “Yes” to the voice of the angel (“I am the servant of the Lord”), and so conceived the Messiah in her own womb. Her obedience was miraculous, surely aided by the Spirit. And yet, as Balthasar says, while Mary was obedient to the calling of God, the calling was a mystery. It was shrouded with darkness: who was this son going to be? How will he be the savior of her people?

Balthasar explains:

It may be that Mary felt a slight anxiety at what might be awaiting her… She knows she has been expropriated into God’s whole objective history of salvation, and that at the same time she has been placed on a pedestal, since the center of this salvation history is here living and growing within her own center, eventually to emerge from her. But this does not arouse any panic in her, for by her own consent she has surrendered to the… mystery… (p 36-37)

Mary has surrendered to the mystery of God’s plan of redemption. She knows he has come to save her people Israel, and that she is even an integral part of that. And yet, this is all she knows. She is therefore surrendering herself, giving herself up, “crucifying” her own questions and doubts in order to offer herself as a fitting agent of God’s salvation. As Balthasar says quite eloquently, she allows herself to be “borne along by what [she] contains” (p 37). As much as the Son was carried in her womb, she herself was carried along by the Son in his mission to save. In this way, Mary is already a disciple of the Lord, following him along the way to crucifixion. She is offering herself to be used by the God of Israel.

But, Balthasar continues by explaining that as much as Mary surrendered to a mysterious path, one which entailed her self-offering, Christ’s did as well. And why? Precisely because as much as Mary was carried by her Son and his mission, so He was carried by her! And this being carried entailed a voluntary “yes” to the will of the Father. A voluntary kenosis of the only Son of the Father into the helpless abode of Mary’s womb.

Balthasar explains:

But precisely this attitude of the Mother is nothing other than her integration into the attitude of her Child. Every child must begin by letting itself be borne. And this Child in particular, even when it is big, will never outgrow its childhood: even when he acts as an adult he will always let himself be borne and impelled by the will of the Father as manifested to him by the Spirit. Now he is undergoing his first, physical training as he is carried about bodily. It is training as in a novitiate, when a person is ordered around like a child. This is the first training in what every Christian must always be able to do: let himself willingly “be led where you do not want to go”, as Jesus will say to Peter (p 37-38)

This is a miraculous passage by Balthasar: as much as Mary must surrender and be led by the Father (and the Son), so now the divine Son must surrender, and even before birth, self-offer himself to be brought along and carried about by his Mother.

Balthasar continues:

The child in the womb does not know where it is being borne. Nor will Jesus know where he is being “driven” by the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:12): it may, for instance, be into the wilderness and temptation… Now this child, later on as a man… the Son will let himself be borne about as a thing that one can dispose of — and this is he who bears the sin of the world, and therefore, the world itself.

Only one — the Father in heaven — sees all of this, sees where the triune decision to save has led. In Mary, the Son is already under way; already he begins to be driven about in the world, and no one, not even the Father, can call him back. (p 38-39)

Already in the womb, the Son is being given by the Father. He is being handed over to be handled and controlled by human hands. And in this way, even the womb is a cross: it is a place in which the Son willingly offers himself. As much as Mary surrenders to the will of the Father, the Son surrenders infinitely more to that same will, and allows himself to be borne about. This is the loving kenosis of the Son of the Father!

Christ in the Garden

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Mary Magdelene meets Christ “in the garden” after his resurrection

In the Gospel of John, there is an interesting “garden” theme that runs from the betrayal of Judas all the way through the resurrection. I cannot help but assume that John is attempting a connection between Adam and Christ.

The setting for the whole garden theme begins in John 13. After Christ washed the disciples feet, John says that Jesus signaled Judas as betrayer by dipping the bread and giving it to him to eat. John tells us that “after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him” (13:27) (almost an anti-Eucharist, no?). After this, it is said that Judas/Satan left to betray Jesus.

What is interesting, is that after Jesus finished his instruction of the disciples, it says in John 18:1 that Jesus “went out with his disciples across the brook of Kidron, where there was a garden”. This garden is where Judas, possessed by Satan, came to capture Jesus and his disciples with a Roman army. It is almost certain that Jesus’ disciples would have been captured and killed along with their leader. And yet John tells us that Jesus protected his disciples by telling the soldiers to take only him and to “let these men go” (18:8). This means that Jesus protected his disciples from Satan’s attack in the garden.

One can’t help but see how this scene almost mirrors Satan’s entrance into the garden in Genesis 2. Satan entered the garden to attack Adam and his bride. The only difference here is that Adam failed to protect his bride. He allowed Satan to seduce her into sin. Christ on the other hand stood up to the enemy. He protected his people by giving his own life for theirs. John then portrays Jesus here as the faithful Adam who stood up to the enemy in the garden, protecting his bride with his own life.

Fast forward to the crucifixion scene, John tells us that the “place where [Jesus] was crucified was a garden” (19:41). John wants us to know then that Jesus gave his life for his people in a garden. On the one hand, this could be a mere historical fact; and yet the detail is random. I believe the detail is theological: Jesus gave his life on a tree in a garden for his people, while Adam on the other hand saved his life in a garden at a tree, and gave his bride to the tempter. John is contrasting the selfishness of the one, and the selflessness of the other.

One last detail is during the resurrection scene. We are told that Mary Magdelene, having discovered Jesus’ body missing from the tomb, was weeping. John tells us that while she was weeping, Jesus came up to her and asked: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (20:13). Mary answered, “supposing Him to be the gardner, [and] she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him'” (20:14). Notice two important details: first, Jesus called Mary “woman”; second, John tells us that Mary supposed him to be the gardner. Adam named his wife “woman”, or Eve. And he was tasked as the gardner! John is clearly referencing the creation account. Christ’s resurrection restores Eden. Jesus in himself becomes a second Adam.

So then it becomes fairly clear that throughout the entire betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection narratives, John is making a connection between Jesus and Adam. Jesus steps in to protect and give his life for his bride in a garden. Adam allows Satan to tempt and seduce his bride, and dies in a garden. Jesus is, as Paul says, the Last Adam.

Worship as Participation in Christ

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Jesus the Great High Priest Icon

James B Torrance, in his Introduction to Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, defines worship as the “gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father” (p 20).

Torrance explains that humanity was created originally to be priests:

[P]riests of creation and to express on behalf of all creatures the praises of God, so that through human lips the heavens might declare the glory of God…But nature fails in its realization because of our human failure. Instead of singing songs of joy, the whole creation groans in universal travail (pp 13-14)

Humanity was called to offer themselves as a sacrifice and all of creation to the Father in true worship (Rom 12:1-2), uniting heaven and earth as a universal temple, world-wide temple. However, original sin derailed this vocation and so spiraled humanity into separation from the life of the Father and therefore into death. But, asks Torrance, “does God then abandon his purposes for humanity and for all creatures?” (p 14). The answer to that is no:

The good news is that God comes to us in Jesus to stand in for us and bring to fulfillment his purposes of worship and communion. Jesus comes to be the priest of creation to do for us, men and women, what we failed to do, to offer to the Father the worship and the praise we failed to offer, to glorify God by a life of perfect love and obedience, to be the one true servant of the Lord. In him and through him we are renewed by the Spirit in the image of God and int he worship of God in a life of shared communion. (p 14)

The gospel is that God the Son comes into our broken situation, taking upon himself our nature, and offering to the Father what he had always wanted — true priestly worship — thereby uniting heaven and earth. Christ’s self-offering therefore realized mankind’s vocation. And the resurrection was both the proof and the effect of Christ’s self-offering: human nature was raised to participate in the life and communion of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

Because Christ realized man’s priestly vocation, uniting heaven and earth in his self-offering, Torrance explains that all true worship now becomes a participation in Christ’s worship and self-offering. Mankind realizes their priestly vocation through union with Christ in the power of the Spirit:

Whatever else worship is, it is our liturgical amen to the worship of Christ.

This is the “wonderful exchange” by which Christ takes what is ours (our broken lives and unworthy prayers), sanctifies them, offers them without spot or wrinkle to the Father, and gives them back to us, that we might “feed” upon him in thanksgiving. He takes our prayer and makes them his prayers, and he makes his prayers our prayer, and we know our prayers are heard “for Jesus’ sake”. This is life in the Spirit, worship understood in terms of sola gratia. This is the Trinitarian nature of all true worship and communion.

Christian worship is, therefore, our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession. (p 15)

The takeaway here is that all true worship is not our activity for God; it is rather a participation in Christ’s self-gift to and worship of the Father on mankind’s behalf by the Holy Spirit. Our worship is taken up into Christ’s worship. Torrance finishes his Introduction by saying this:

[Christians] need to recover [the] New Testament understanding of worship which recognizes that the real agent in all true worship is Jesus Christ. He is our great high priest and ascended Lord, the one true worshipper who unites us to himself by the Spirit in an act of memory and in a life of communion, as he lifts us up by word and sacrament into the very triune life of God. (p 17)

In Torrance’s first chapter, he distinguishes between this participatory view of worship (through the Son in the Spirit) and a unitarian view, which I plan to cover in another post.

Kingdom Greatness – Matthew 16:21-28 (sermon)

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Here is a lesson I gave to a group of students on what it means to be great in Christ’s kingdom from Matthew 16:21-28. This is the famous passage where, right after giving Peter the “keys of the kingdom”, Jesus rebukes Peter and calls him Satan! Fascinating passage!

Atonement Theory and Sacrifice

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Peter Leithart, in his recently released theological magnum opus, Delivered from the Elements of the World, says at the beginning of his book that any theology of the cross must make sense or be connected to the Levitical cultic sacrifices (among other things of course. Leithart mentions 5 criteria for a proper theology of atonement: evangelical, Levitical, Pauline, inevitable or necessary, and fruitful).

Leithart says this about Levitical atonement theology: “a successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events” (p 20).

The connection of the cross to sacrifice is of course apparent in NT letters such as Hebrews and the gospel narratives. But how exactly does the death of Christ “work” as a sacrifice? Peter Leithart takes up much of this book to bring to clarity the sacrificial death of Christ. First, he explains the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices:

[The] sacrificial system was designed to bring Israel near so that divine Husband and human Bride could feast together at the house of Yahweh. Yahweh accommodated himself to the post-Edenic, fleshly situation of Israel. Israelites themselves did not approach Yahweh but drew near through animal mediators, animals whose flesh was destroyed so that they could be transfigured and ascend, as the worshipper could not, in Yahweh’s presence. Israelite priests ate in the holy place but only under controlled conditions; Israelites could eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord, but only at a distance from his fiery presence. Israelites could not go past the cherubic swords and live. Israelites could not become fire to join themselves to Yahweh’s fire. But they could send animals past the cherubic swords, and Yahweh accepted the animals in place of the worshipers and Yahweh’s fire “consumed” the flesh of animals so that their flesh was turned to smoke and fire, “divinized” into union with Yahweh (p 138)

To make this explanation simple: the sacrifices were a sacramental means to accomplishing union with God. Israel offered these sacrifices, because they themselves were unable to ascend to God; they killed and burned the offerings as an act of repentance and vicarious self-giving, hoping the smoke could ascend to God and be accepted in their stead. This sacramental union was finalized when the priests ate the sacrifice “in the presence of the Lord”, which symbolized table fellowship with Yahweh.

Peter Leithart’s explanation of OT sacrificial theology represents a Thomistic sentiment. Sacrifices were seen by Aquinas as vicarious offerings of the self through the animal offerings for the purpose of creating union of God and man. The point of the sacrifices were “giving up” part of yourself to God; something valuable, something representative. This is why Israel offered animals, because they were comparable to income during those times. Even more, they gave the first born without spot and blemish. This was the most valuable animal. To give an animal like that was to give up part of your own income and wealth, and thus it was seen as a vicarious act of self-giving.

Moving on the cross, Leithart points out that the cross is seen by NT writers as fulfilling and finalizing OT sacrifices because while the OT sacrifices were vicarious, Christ’s was personal and actual. He didn’t offer to God a goat or bull, hoping that God would accept those in their place; rather, Christ offered himself in totality to God. Leithart says this:

[Christ] fulfilled the sacrificial system because he did what all sacrifices signified…  Jesus did this in fact when he offered himself, passing through death into union with God like an animal sacrifice. (p 159)

So he fulfilled what all other sacrifices wished to fulfill: the offering of the total self to God. In fact, this is the point of the resurrection: it was simply smoke that rose to God; rather, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and rose him up and seated him at his right hand. Sacramental union has been definitively accomplished in the person of Jesus.

But Leithar acknowledges: Jesus ” was not the first martyr to give his life to the God of Israel” (p 159). So what made his sacrifice different from all the other martyrs of the faith of Israel? Leithart answers:

The answer is, his identity and life. Jesus was the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense: he was Israel’s King, Israel embodied in a single person, and so his death, like the death of every king of Israel, was on behalf of his people. When he passed through death toward transfiguration, Israel went with him. More, Jesus was Israel’s king and Israel High King in one person, both David’s Son and David’s Lord. He poured out his blood, the life of his flesh, as Yahweh incarnate, and so his passage through death was Yahweh’s own passion, God’s own passage through human. Besides, Jesus’ entire life made his martyrdom unique. Heroic as they were, no other martyrs had lived a life of complete obedience to Torah. None had fully realized all that Torah required. Like every sacrificial animal, Jesus offered himself “without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14) (pp 159-160)

Jesus’ sacrifice was unique because Jesus was representative of Israel; and, borrowing from Saint Anselm, Jesus was man and God, which made his death utterly and infinitely more valuable than any other death of a human being. But even more than that, Jesus’ sacrifice was pure and without blemish. Because Jesus obeyed the Torah in full, he offered himself a pure oblation, innocent one, perfectly loving and just. God took delight in that and raised him up, and consequently, all Israel in him.

Aquinas said in his Summa Theologia that the value in Christ’s self-offering was not so much his suffering (although this doesn’t discount the need for vicarious suffering), but rather in the infinite perfect love with which he suffered. The entire point of the sacrifices was the give the self to God entirely: this is just what Christ did in the cross by dying in perfect love. And that infinite love was sufficient for the remission of all the world’s sin!