Archive for March, 2013

… and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won

Posted in Uncategorized on March 27, 2013 by ancienthopes

I have always, even as a child, been drawn to this line from the great hymn “The Churches One Foundation.” Of course, I didn’t know what it meant. As I matured, I interpreted it to mean the mystic sweet connection I had with my favorite saints, such as St. Augustine. This, however, was thought of in terms of getting to know them through their writings. But they are living, not dead! If they live, they live with purpose, and their purpose must be connected to this world. Even now I must confess that I really do not have a very good grasp on this.

I think that we avoid any thoughts on this spiritual ream of saints and angels out of fear. We are not wired to such a mystery because of our western penchant to trust only our senses and reason when it comes to cosmological issues. We are afraid of venturing out beyond them. Surely if we did we would seem unintelligent and naive!

Many are also afraid of what they perceive is an abuse in the medieval church even down to our own days where people only pray to saints and angels and not to God. Granted, this was and is the case in many places. This can only be explained as a pagan impulse to disregard a relationship with the Transcendent God for sub-deities or local spirits that can be manipulated by prayers, amulets, and magic. And so we see that we humans flop from one extreme to another. We either embrace a radical transcendence where there is only this material world and the transcendent God above, or we reject transcendence and deal with the gods and spirits below in radical immanence. Neither cosmology is biblical.

I once met a very sincere woman who said something like, “I do not need to pray to Jesus; I pray to Mary His mother, and since she is His mother, I’m sure she will use her influence on Jesus.” I cringed, and still do! (By the way, this is not official Catholic doctrine; for an official view of the saints and angels, see the Catechism.) The proper way of understanding Mary and her role in the Church is to see that she belongs to the created world of spirits. She is not the fourth member of the Trinity! She does not inhabit eternity! She belongs to the great cloud of witnesses in the created spirit world. We may reasonably conclude that since Jesus, the eternal Logos, received His humanity from Mary (and therefore she has been honored in the Church as “Mother of God”) she holds a special place in heaven. Think of this; the Incarnate Christ who now has a glorified human body that inhabits eternity but also the spirit world we call heaven has a mother! Her “I will” to God in contrast to Eve’s “I will not” makes her our new mother as well. She does not stand as a mediator between us and Jesus. Rather, she is, along with all the other saints and angels, a channel of Christ’s grace to us. The first generation of reformers, by and large, believed this. It is only since the enlightenment that Mary has been demoted to utter insignificance in some circles, along with the spirit world.

But how do we get back? Can the toothpaste ever be put back into the tube? How can we shift our cosmology? Well, it is a life-long task to see reality as it really is. Yet we have to believe that if all we have said is true, that God wants us to see and experience it. Prayer is the only way back. There is an old saying in the Church; lex orandi lex credendi (The way we pray shapes the way we believe). We should pray with a sense of the reality of heaven and the spirit world where our departed brothers and sisters somehow and somewhere inhabit even now before the resurrection. We never fail to ask our brothers and sisters here on earth to pray for us, why not those saints which we knew on earth or those long ago with whom we connect well? We all belong to one great unified reality!

The Cloud of Witnesses Revisited

Posted in Uncategorized on March 18, 2013 by ancienthopes

Years ago I was walking along Broadway Street in NYC. It was a Saturday afternoon, and from where I was I could see a long way down the street, and on the sidewalk was a sea of bobbing shoulders and heads walking towards me and away from me. A funny thought struck me; wouldn’t it be strange if I knew everyone on this street and everyone knew me? Hi Jack, how’s Jill? Sam, how is your father doing? Hi John, did you have a good class today at the Seminary? It would go on and on, greeting and being greeted!

As I thought about this, it struck me that this wasn’t so funny or strange at all on a theological level. In fact, what was really strange, and even terrible, was the fact that all these people would not even so much as lift their faces to others with a greeting, let alone a smile of acknowledgement. We are all made in the image of God; we were made to relate, to know and be known, to appreciate the unique qualities God has infused in each of us. Each of us is a mystery that only God can fathom. To ignore is morally reprehensible. Hell is for strangers.

Lately as I have been thinking about the spiritual realm I took this thought farther. Upon our death to this world and reception into the spiritual realm, we will join that great crowd of witnesses of saints and angels. These are the ones cheering for us. They must be endowed with a comprehensive knowledge of us and our striving towards perfection in this life, cheering us on, interceding for us, and channels of God’s grace to us. When we join their ranks, we too will be endowed with astounding knowledge of everyone in the cloud, and perhaps even on earth. In other words, we will all walking the celestial streets greeting everyone, and everyone greeting us. Being part of the cloud of witnesses, we will also have knowledge of those on earth, for the Church is a union of those above and those below. We indeed will be channels of grace to those on earth in some fashion, for God made us for purpose and accomplishment, not for self-indulgence. We will know and be known, not only with regard to God, but also with regard to each other.

I am convinced that if we are not deeply conscious of the spiritual realm something is wrong with us. Something I know is wrong with me, for I have to work so very hard in my prayers to appreciate the reality of this realm. (I have many a blinder that keeps me from what really is!) Many of us have been handed a cosmology that simply doesn’t allow for this realm, whether from our rationalistic and materialistic culture or from church communities that ignores it almost completely out of fear of Catholicism and old world thought. Perhaps both are in play. Either way, such ignorance is destructive to who we are as spiritual beings. The result is one-dimensional shallowness. Many of us are in poverty and we do not even know it. We were made to be connected. The great work of Christ is to reconnect that which was torn asunder by the Fall. Easter is all about Jesus breaking hells gates, the opening up the spirit realm, the joy of union.

When we walk down the street and observed downcast faces, think about this!

The Cloud of Witnesses

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2013 by ancienthopes

Last month something glorious happened for Ravens fans; their team made it to the Super Bowl and won. Oh the joy and excitement! Tickets were precious. Moreover, who knows how many millions of people were watching the game world-wide? The teams were surrounded by viewers intent on the competition unfolding before them.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are surrounded ─ surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:4). These witnesses, according to the immediate context of Hebrews chapter 11, are the saints that have gone before us. We may include the angels as well. This cloud of witnesses inhabits the spiritual realm. They are watching the great “game,” the greatest of competitions even greater than the Super Bowl. They are not only watching, but very much involved with our perfection in progress (Heb. 11:40 with 12:22-24).

The perfection of those in the cloud of witnesses and our earthly struggle for perfection opening up before them, are not separate, but one. The Church, both in heaven and on earth, is one organism, to which we have come, “Mount Zion,” “The city of the Living God,” “the heavenly Jerusalem,” and “an innumerable company of saints, “the general assembly and church of the Firstborn registered in heaven,” “to God the Judge of all, and “to the spirits of just men made perfect,” all before Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant.” All beings in heaven and earth are active participants in the great drama unfolding in space and time. Those of us who pass on to the cloud of witnesses take our place in the ranks, and actively participate in the perfecting of God’s plans in heaven and earth.

But what do the angels and saints do? We have already seen in the last posts that angels bring the graces of God to us as God’s ministers. We may be sure that the “dead” in Christ are not “dead” but very much more alive than we are in our mortal states. True, the Scriptures tell us that the dead are waiting for the resurrection. However, we must understand this in perspective of those of us in the flesh now in space and time. From the perspective of the spiritual realm, the spirits of the “just men made perfect” are “with the Lord” (II Cor. 5:1-8). Whatever their state in the cloud of witnesses, we can be sure that they are “not naked” (i.e. disembodied spirits with no form), but are clothed in spiritual bodies. We can be sure that they, like the angels, have function. God does not create anything without function; function is to be a channel of grace to others.

Therefore, we know that saints and angels surround us, and that they are very active in prayer for us, and in being a means of grace to us. We do not hesitate at all to ask of others in this life for their prayers and spiritual help. Why would we hesitate to ask the saints and angels to pray for us and for ministering God’s grace to us? Is it because we think the saints are dead? Is it because we believe that they are in an impossible remote place with God somewhere? Is it out of fear that to pray to God through the saints and angels that we would diminish our devotion to Christ, who is the sole mediator between God and Men?

This last fear is the show stopper for many Christians. However, they do not comprehend that they are blinded by a truncated cosmology that allows only for a subjective experience of Jesus on the one extreme and a radical transcendence on the other hand, with nothing of the spirit world in between. True, Jesus is the only Mediator between God and humanity, but He also is the great King with a royal court before Him where angels and saints do His bidding. They are then no longer conscious of the great cloud of witnesses; such a realm is not real to them, and is explained away as remnants from a pagan world view. They do not see that their cosmology is framed by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, yet deemed absolutely true by their own real encounter with Christ as Savior and Friend which seems to dovetail wonderfully with a rational rejection of spiritual intermediaries that reason will not accept. It is not the Bible, therefore, that frames their cosmology as much as their own subjective experience and the rationalism of our culture.

Things Below are Joined to Things Above

Posted in Uncategorized on March 4, 2013 by ancienthopes

The spirit realm is a dimension populated by spirits that exist in celestial hierarchy rank upon rank, ranging from those closest to the material world to those closest to the Eternal. Even the damned evil spirits exist in an order, ranging from hell to this material world in hierarchy, as C.S. Lewis so creatively portrays in his Screwtape Letters. We may ask ourselves here some questions. Why did God create angels? Doesn’t it seem that God could keep things going on earth without them?

We can never answer such questions fully in our present state, but we do know that God created angels with function, and from this function we can surmise why God created them in the first place. God created angels as “ministering spirits” (Psa. 104:4), and as such they minister to us on earth as well as perform worship, a heavenly liturgy, to God beyond the spirit realm. What is critical to understand here is that God made angels, as well as every creature on earth, especially humans, with integrity. By “integrity” we mean that everything is made with a function to fulfill and to perform, and that God rules all things through these secondary causes. In other words, nothing is superfluous in God’s economy. He didn’t create men and angels merely to bypass them in His sovereign rule over all things. Instead of ruling around them, He rules through them, even if they work contrary to God’s will.

Pick up a concordance and look up angels. They are everywhere. There are some that we might even consider to be territorial spirits who exert authority and power, either malignantly or beneficially, to individual nations. The original reading of Deuteronomy 32:8 most surely read, “when God separated the sons of Adam, He formed the boarders of the nations, according to the number of the sons of the gods” (i.e. those belonging to the realm of God ─ angels). We see in Daniel that wars upon earth parallel wars in the spirit realm, for the spirit realm mirrors the material realm (Daniel 10).

At His death, Christ descended into Hell, or the “netherworld” in the spirit realm where all the dead passed into before Christ, to preach (I Pet. 3:18-22). “He led captivity captive” (Eph. 4:7ff.) at his resurrection and ascension, thus joining things above with things below. The whole of the spirit world opened up to Christians. It is only recently, since the Enlightenment, that it has closed for so many. Our attitude is, “we do not need angels; all we need is God.” It sounds pious, but it is blatantly non-biblical. Many of us, including myself, have got to find our way back to spiritual realities.

God works His grace and enlightens our hearts through the work of angels. For that matter, He does this through humans as well. Men and angels have integrity; they have critical tasks of grace to perform. Heaven and earth are bound in one huge system. The ramifications of this are truly astounding for those of us benighted by the rationalism of our western culture. Things below are joined to things above!