From Before Time

JMJ

When next you approach Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, drawing near to the chalice in faith and love, kneeling at the rail, or coming to the front of line; when you receive from the Priest, Deacon, or Eucharistic Minister the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the God-Man, Jesus, born of Mary and descended from David by adultery, gentiles, and loss…

The next time you come to receive Holy Communion, remember: He’s been waiting right there for you from all eternity.

For in that morsel of what was bread, now all the eternity, all the infinity, all the glory and immensity, all the love that sustains the universe is present, right there. Any part of infinity is infinity. You are coming to Him, yes. But before you stood up, before you walked forward, before you entered the Church, before you were conceived, before your parents met, before your furthest ancestors rose unthinking from muck to see the sky, he was waiting for you and this moment. This dawn. This taste. This infinity on the tongue.

Before all else that was or ever shall be, this moment was in God’s heart and he loved you. You. YOU.

Think of all the things you fear, all the things that you’ve done. Think of all the things you had to let go of to be here today. Think of all the angry thoughts you had sitting in the pew a few moments ago, think of all the pain you’ve caused (be honest). Think of the things you’ve never told anyone except maybe to say a whisper inside confession or a therapist. All of them. Think of betrayed friends, of lies that let you escape, think of pride that kept you aloof, of love that you didn’t share, think of used people and loved things, think of your idols. Think of it ALL.

He called you here anyway. He loved you before all that – even knowing that you would do all that.

He is standing before you know with arms outstretched in love, and a heart as big as all of heaven lit with the glow of a love that has done nothing since all of eternity except wait for you here.

And it will be bliss and communion if you will but let it be so for he wills it for you. This love is yours if you will but have it.

Have this love.

Be this love.

Be.

Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff

JMJ

Avast! Here there be spoilers…

During the last two weeks or so I reread the Chronicles of Narnia. All seven are still as magnificent as they were when I first read them in the Spring of 1980, my Sophmore year in High School. What struck me most during this reading was the way themes weave all the way through the 7 books: of course there is the Christian allegory, but I was reminded that Narnia is flat, that it is a feudal world, that time flows differently. These are all themes that Lewis works with in other texts.

Lewis was fascinated by huge differences in our world view, our cosmology, as compared to the ancients. This fascination comes to a climax in his final and (for me) most profoundly jarring work, The Discarded Image (1964). I describe it as “jarring” because in reading it I realized for the first time that not only are our times and morals different from those of our ancestors but our entire world is different. Lewis, most assuredly not new age in any way, is realizing that our conception of the world makes reality; or at least profoundly affects it for us.

The ancients lived in a radically different cosmology than we do (even different from those of you who are very pious indeed). To our ancestors, even the pagan ones, the world was built for humanity. The place of this realm of existence in the grand scheme of things was central. The three tiers of reality – heavenly, earthly, and below – all interacted. The realms of reality were not all visible. Lewis goes further and points out that the world for these folks was not “flat” but surrounded by spiritual reality welling up and over us.

Through all of Narnia, as well as his brilliant Space Trilogy, you can watch Lewis wrestle with his sense of being trapped in a modern cosmology. Spiritual powers swoop in on earth from all directions – yet it is they that are showing what is straight up and down and we who are crooked. Morality is always the same, yet its teaching is different. The Incarnation is real, yet it manifests in different ways. The issue is not a flat-vrs-round world. The issue is a living vrs dead reality.

For us moderns, Lewis sees that in all our ways, unlike the ancients, we take a wholly secular world and try to work out how religion fits. We push back, we evangelize, we pass laws, ignore things, etc. We make our lives religious and then try to fix the world around us or else move through the world in a religious way. The ancients for millennia lived in a profoundly religious world. Religious practice was an expression of the reality in which they lived rather than a bandage they placed over reality or a badge of honor to be worn.

Lewis’ exploration of the movement of Time struck me hardest during this reading. If you’ve read any of the Narnia books you know that no matter how long someone from this world is in Narnia no time at all passes here. Likewise, if you’re here, you’ve no idea at all how much time is passing in Narnia. The 6th book in the series tells the story of the creation of Narnia and the 7th book tells the story of the Narnian Apocalypse. The entire millennia-long life of that world falls within the human lifespan of two children from book 6, Polly and Digory. Each time the children return to Narnia it is hundreds of years later or only a few moments. Time moves differently in each world Lewis wrote, if it moves at all: in the Wood Between the World, there seems to be no time at all, and in Aslan’s country it seems to move in all directions at once.

In The Last Battle, as the great Dies Irae falls on Narnia, the entire clan of World-Travelling Children, end up in the magical world to watch the climax of the story. The Last King of Narnia, Tirian, together with a retinue of supporting beasts and two children from our world, fights the Last Battle before a thatched stable in the woods. As each of the “good guys” is defeated he is tossed into the stable as an offering to a demon named Tash. However, once inside the stable, it is revealed that there is a whole other world, sunlit and beautiful. Inside are all the Friends of Narnia from this world, waiting to see what will happen.

It is here that time becomes confused for the reader, I think. Each world has its own time. Those inside the stable speak of “long times” passing between events, even though in the battle itself, in the “outside”, things were taking only a couple of hours. We (the readers) are standing within the stable now, in what seems to be Paradise. What is happening in the outside world? We have no idea. When Aslan comes a few moments later to open the stable door and begin the Last Judgement, the world is already deadly silent. There is no mark, outside of the battle that had gone before. How much time has passed? We don’t know. And as the Four Last Things progress, from the resurrection of the dead to the final freezing of Narnia and the closing and locking of the stable door how much time does it take? The narrator says,

This part of the adventure was the only one which seemed rather like a dream at the time and rather hard to remember properly afterwards. Especially, one couldn’t say how long it had taken. Sometimes it seemed to have lasted only a few minutes, but at others it felt as if it might have gone on for years.

Then this happens:

The Dragons and Giant Lizards now had Narnia to themselves. They went to and fro tearing up the trees by the roots and crunching them up as if they were sticks of rhubarb. Minute by minute the forests disappeared. The whole country became bare and you could see all sorts of things about its shape—all the little humps and hollows—which you had never noticed before. The grass died. Soon Tirian found that he was looking at a world of bare rock and earth. You could hardly believe that anything had ever lived there. The monsters themselves grew old and lay down and died. Their flesh shrivelled up and the bones appeared: soon they were only huge skeletons that lay here and there on the dead rock, looking as if they had died thousands of years ago. For a long time everything was still.

At last something white—long, level line of whiteness that gleamed in the light of the standing stars—came moving towards them from the eastern end of the world. A widespread noise broke the silence: first a murmur, then a rumble, then a roar. And now they could see what it was that was coming, and how fast it came. It was a foaming wall of water. The sea was rising. In that treeless world you could see it very well. You could see all the rivers getting wider and the lakes getting larger, and separate lakes joining into one, and valleys turning into new lakes, and hills turning into islands, and then those islands vanishing. And the high moors to their left and the higher mountains to their right crumbled and slipped down with a roar and a splash into the mounting water; and the water came swirling up to the very threshold of the Doorway (but never passed it) so that the foam splashed about Aslan’s forefeet. All now was level water from where they stood to where the water met the sky.

And out there it began to grow light. A streak of dreary and disastrous dawn spread along the horizon, and widened and grew brighter, till in the end they hardly noticed the light of the stars who stood behind them. At last the sun came up. When it did, the Lord Digory and the Lady Polly looked at one another and gave a little nod: those two, in a different world, had once seen a dying sun, and so they knew at once that this sun also was dying. It was three times—twenty times—as big as it ought to be, and very dark red. As its rays fell upon the great Time-giant, he turned red too: and in the reflection of that sun the whole waste of shoreless waters looked like blood.

Then the Moon came up, quite in her wrong position, very close to the sun, and she also looked red. And at the sight of her the sun began shooting out great flames, like whiskers or snakes of crimson fire, towards her. It is as if he were an octopus trying to draw her to himself in his tentacles. And perhaps he did draw her. At any rate she came to him, slowly at first, but then more and more quickly, till at last his long flames licked round her and the two ran together and became one huge ball like a burning coal. Great lumps of fire came dropping out of it into the sea and clouds of steam rose up.

So this happens. But How Long Does it Take? As the Children are standing outside of time it seems to them to happen “minute by minute”. But how long was that in Narnia? How did Narnia’s sun get to Heat Death? Are we be watching Narnia go through the normal, billion-year death of a universe? Did Lewis want us to see that?

The Creation Story in The Magicians Nephew could be much the same way. Lewis had accepted the story of man offered by evolution and in that light, the action of Aslan in Narnia, the calling of some beasts into “reason, memory, and skill” could be seen as the parallel of our own evolution from the lower primates. Are these two books, the Creation and Apocolypse, far more modern than they seem? Rather than childrens stories of a magical lion are they mythological tellings of a “normal” history? Is Lewis writing a perfectly modern story set in a magical, premodern cosmology? Is the allegory far deeper than we’ve come to expect?

A Log of Questions

So I found myself wondering what Lewis was offering us to meditate on in The Last Battle. Where does outside of time come into our Apocalypse? I realized that normally it doesn’t come in at all.

If God is outside of time… when John is caught up into heaven, does he have any idea of how much time is passing on earth? When there is silence in heaven for about a half an hour, what is that in Earthly Time? John seems to see things from before the Creation, and during his own life, and during the last days of Earth. What can be said to happen chronologically in heaven where there is no time?

Did Lewis open a meditation on our final judgment? How much time passes between an individual death and the Apocalypse? Is that a correct question for moving beyond time? Mightn’t your body experience discomposure and composting over the course of history whilst for God it’s but a blip between your death and the Last Judgement? Are we creating unnecessary complications when we project all of human history as a buffer between ourselves and the Heaven or Hell? How does our timestream interact with what goes on around the heavenly throne? Do all of the saints, dancing there, see all of our time as God does?

The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the closest answer we have, for at Mass we stand not on earth. Gathered around the Altar we stand with the heavenly hosts before the Throne. There is only one eternal offering of Christ to the Father from the Cross through eternity and we are there at every Mass. But we don’t “do it again”, it is always only one happening now. The elevation of the Body of Christ in the hands of the priest is the one lifting up from the earth that will draw all men to Christ.

So, is it possible that we confuse things without need: that time is obliterated in death?

In the Vision-Time

JMJ

The Readings for Tuesday in the 4th Week of Lent (B2)

Certe vidisti, fili hominis?
Have you seen this, Son of Man?

הֲרָאִ֣יתָ בֶן־אָדָ֑ם

Son of Man in the Latin and English. In Hebrew it’s Son of Adam, like in Narnia. Yes, Adam means “man” and also “earth creature”, or even “earthling”. But both of those are the meanings of the Name of the First Man. Calling Jesus “Son of Man” is calling him the Son of Adam. That is an important tag here!

In the movie, Contact, Jodie Foster plays a scientist who (she thinks) has been contacted by aliens. All the clues come encoded in, as it were, micro-dot forms: a cold-war era spy trick where a secret message was photographed and compressed, over and over, until it was just a full stop at the end of a sentence. But the right microscope and a knowing eye could discern what was really there. So also Jodie Foster digs into every clue to discover the depth and content, eventually building a huge machine which people imagine will teleport her, somehow, to a distant galaxy. Instead, her travel pod falls to earth in moments. But in those moments, Foster meets with the aliens who – as with all their clues – found a way to compress so much data into the meeting: that one second in space stretched into an eternity as they passed info through her to the other Earthlings.

It’s an amazing plot device that the author, Carl Sagan, stole from CS Lewis and every story about Faerie abductions out there. No matter how long you are in Narnia, no time seems to have passed in this world at all. The Doctor says, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.”

Dreams seem to function this way as well: they say that a dream, in real time, only lasts for a second, a brief moment. But in that moment time changes for the dreamer. You’re on a roller coaster having tea with Elizabeth the First and Donald Duck and then the coaster goes over a waterfall and you’re in Shanghai before the War wondering why the Giants never played baseball here (it’s so lovely in the Spring) but then you remember that the Giants have not yet moved to San Francisco. And you wake up.

A couple of seconds, they say, is all that took, but in Dream Time it stretched out into eternity and all made sense.

So I wonder if it was that was the Prophets. I say that because the Angel’s Comment, “Have you seen this, Son of Adam?” reads like a trigger phrase that will suddenly call the whole vision back to mind.

And what a vision it was! A trickle from the door of the temple of Jerusalem grows as it leads away from the temple until it fills the whole world. If that trickle of water represents the faith and teachings of Israel, imagine the odd arrogance of it being just a story the writer made up. There is a tribe of enslaved persons, captured and living in Babylon (about 600 years before Messiah comes). A priest of that tribe who has, himself, no temple or sacrifice and no country of his own, envisions his faith spreading through all the world; imagines that his faith is intended to flow away from the temple and that it will deepen and expand as it does so, until all the world is filled with its Truth!

God was setting things up and we will see this river again, in the book of the Apocalypse. 

The Jews, in their Exile, spread throughout the world paving the way for the Apostles who bring the news of Messiah. They pre-evangelize every corner of Babylon, then of Persia, of Alexander’s kingdom, of the Successor Kingdoms, and of the Roman Empire. Everywhere they go the Apostles preach to Jews and Gentiles, at first in synagogues planted around the known world by this Diaspora. There are Jews even in Roman Britain. And then there were Christians. (The first Roman Jew from Britain on trial for an “Alien Superstition” was in 57 AD.)

The river grows and deepens. Have you seen this Son of Adam? In an instant it can be clear. Do not forget this, and, if you do, you only need to remember, Have you seen this Son of Adam?

This week was next week last week.

JMJ

The Readings for Ash Wednesday (B2)
Station at Santa Sabina

Ecce nunc tempus acceptabile, ecce nunc dies salutis.
Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

What is your life worth today?
What if I told you it is worth an infinity of love and light.
That all the death you have ever eaten and all the light you have ever snuffed out.
Is ready to be turned to Life and Light by he who is Life and Light himself.

All the doors you’ve ever slammed shut.
All the escape hatches you’ve sealed.
All the bridges you’ve burnt.
To lock yourself away.
To hide yourself.
To close yourself off.
Can be blown open, repaired, and repurposed.

All the hate you’ve received.
All the lies you’ve been told.
All the pain that has been inflicted on you.
Can be healed and given to you as Strength for the Journey.

There is nothing that cannot be done today, not because it is Ash Wednesday, but because it is Today.

Today is the only day of all eternity on which any of these are possible.

Today. Tomorrow is the stuff of pride – even “I will see you tomorrow” is hella prideful. Yesterday is not a day on which action is possible. Today.

So NOW is the day of salvation. Paul said that at at time when a letter might take weeks or months to get to where it was going. When is now? It is always now.

Sorry for all the Timey Wimey stuff. But it is now Ash Wednesday again, as it has been in the Liturgical West since the 8th Century, at least, back before the Schism. It’s a way to make holy the passage of time between now and Easter. 

What is salvation? Today is the day, but what is it? In short it is the Human Being, restoring the Icon of God (which we all bear) and doing the work of God, which is Love, yes, but a very special kind of Love. In customer service (where I’ve been for 25 years, give or take) we use a special sort of skill called Unconditional Positive Regard.  It’s defined as “Unconditional positive regard, a concept developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does.” This way you can deal with customers, assuming their best intentions, and always leading them to the best choices made in their relationship with your company. Some agents do this better than others, to be honest, but most of us do it, also, as a means of self defense: I can interact with you on a professional level without having to emotionally get involved.

It is to be noted that this is not love. It is also to be noted that this is, basically, the attitude of most of our culture. This is why crying on the subway is, basically, a breaking of the rules. Nearly all of us want to help someone who is hurting… or in danger… but we can’t let anyone else see our involvement. We play the Unconditional Positive Regard card and we benignly pass by. We do this for homeless families on the street. We do this for elderly folks who need a seat on the subway (when no kids will get up). We do this when people are rude to one another. We just smile and decide not to judge and benignly pass by.

Love would leap to the defense of the injured.
Love would sacrifice itself for the good of the other (even if the good wasn’t willed by the other).
Love would rather die than see someone else do so.

Love is not Unconditional Positive Regard and this is life, not a call center phone call. Life and death hang in the balance when most of us wake up. And for many of us, by the end of the day, death has won and there is no tomorrow ever. 

Love then, is the benchmark. God is love, but specifically, God is this this self-emptying love as the Father pours out everything on the Son and the Son pours it back to the Father and on us in the person of the Holy Spirit. God empties himself and models for us the same resources. Love dares for us to pour ourselves out in a constant stream of giving!

This constant loving, self giving, pour out of all our self for the good of another: this is love and this is salvation.

Imagine if every Christian could work in one act of love a day from to Lent’s end in Holy Week. Imagine that, trickling out across the culture, across the world. Today. Now. Here.

Now is the day of salvation.

There is a custom among the Byzantines that the vespers on the night before Lent begins, all the congregation gathers round the church and begs forgiveness each of the other. And each, prostrating, says, “Forgive me, a sinner.” and the other says the same, and they embrace saying, “God forgives, and I forgive.” This custom is, it seems to me, worthy of all men to be received: that we should start Lent asking forgiveness. We don’t just skip over someone who is a good friend and “I know I’ve done nothing to hurt them…” for all sins hurt all of us. Every sin I commit draws the venom of evil just a bit deeper into our common life. So even the sins I commit and take to confession so that the only folks who know are me and the priest… they hurt us all. 

So forgive me. All of it. I know bunches. And some of you know me well enough to be affected by it. I beg your prayers.