Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Psalms for Sojourners

I've been reading the Psalms of Ascent of late. These are the collection of psalms that were likely sung by pilgrims in the latter half of the first millennium BC as they made there way up to the temple in Jerusalem for the great feasts such as Passover.

That may seem a strange choice given that we are a few days into Advent, associated as it is with the two comings of Christ. But that is exactly the point; These are the psalms which inspire the thirst and hunger for 'Emmanuel to ransom captive Israel'. Psalms 120—134 capture the rootlessness, the alienated identity the Advent seasons reminds us of without apology. These are the poignant prayers of exile, the hymns of those who paradoxically find themselves at home and not at home in the world. These are the words of pilgrims, waiting for God to arrive so that they might sojourn no more.

It seems plausible that this collection was pulled together sometime during the Second Temple period, giving voice to the anguish of exile that was experience long after Judah had 'returned' to their land. Some of these psalms (122, 124, 127, 131, 133) evidently originate from the monarchy, but have now been re-appropriated as prayers for Jerusalem and the restoration of David's throne. Others speaks of the pilgrim's perception of his/her situation: living in far-flung places, offering to their neighbours the peace commanded by Jeremiah but being met by continued hostility (120.5ff.), protected on his/her journey by the creator of the heavens and the earth who guards ones comings and goings (121.8),experiencing God's protection as though he were in Zion itself (125.1). Their oppression must be patiently borne (125.3), because the supposed restoration of 538 BC has proven to illusory and inconclusive (126). Indeed, this has been the pattern of Israel's history — oppression alleviated by God's protection (129.1—4; 124.7). For Israel, faithfulness will be expressed through hope that God would redeem the nation from the result of their sins.

This is the paradigm for those who faithfully answer Jeremiah's call to seek the shalom of the city (or follow the Western tradition and Augustine's reading of Jeremiah 29.7) but find themselves living in two cities (or social spaces): Israel and Babylon; and living under two sets of rules: Babylon and YHWH's. This is the paradigm for those who struggled to comply with their captors request to sing, 'How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?' (137), yet still manage to draw breath to sing that God's 'steadfast love endures for ever' (136). These psalms know what it is to long for the day when righteousness makes its home on earth, for the world to be made new, but to experience tears and affliction, vanity and anxiety, sleepless nights and being the object of gossip, of unfulfilled and unrealized promises and dreams

For those of us today who find ourselves holding a different but not dissimilar perspective to the remnant of Israel by virtue of the stretching of these last days between the now and the not yet, the Psalms of Ascent complete the picture of what it means to hope against hope. They pick up on the uncertainties of this age. They capture the reality of being rejected and yet still seeking the peace of that place. In Christ, the Psalms of Ascent become the songs of those who sojourn now as aliens and strangers. They become the songs for those hungering and thirsting for the the righteous King who came at Christmas in humility but will come again in glory.

These songs exile continue to be the songs for us exiles, because the Son of God made our exile his own. He journeyed into the far country, seeking the good of the city (122.9) but meeting those who hate peace (120.5—6). He made our exile his own, he entered into our mess, so that (to paraphrase Tolkien) whilst we still wander we would no longer be lost. These Psalms of Ascent fire the holy discontent of those who have tasted Christ's first advent and long for his second.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Faith and Work in Basil the Great

It is sometimes assumed that an interest in faith and work is a contemporary concern, driven in part by a prior over-emphasis on full-time ministry in contrast to 'secular' work. Whilst that might frame some of the current discussion around work and faith, such an assumption exhibits a lack of historical awareness regarding the development of Christianity.

The Graeco-Roman cultural crib within which the early church developed had very strong opinions concerning work - particularly work of the manual kind. For example, Aristotle argued that manual labourers were not deserving of citizenship, 'for no man can practice virtue who is living the life of a mechanic or labourer.' Within Xenophon's Oeconomicus, Socrates concurs with Critobolus that manual labour defiles the body, harms the soul, and because of a lack of leisure and the absence of a connection with the land, work rendered one a bad friend and poor defender of the city. Likewise for Plutarch, it is axiomatic that manual labour is incompatible with intellectual aspirations.

Against this backdrop, early Christians developed a special place for manual labour, particularly within the Eastern monastic traditions shaped by Basil of Caesarea. Nowhere is this more evident than in Basil's Hexameron, nine sermons preached c. AD 370 on the first six days of creation. Far from the Hellenistic suspicion towards work, Basil is well aware that there were labourers within his congregation, and he devised an early form of morning and evening prayer to further their growth. According to Basil, the creation can fill those who recognize it as such with wonder and love for their creator; moreover, humans can become participants in God's creative act. For Basil, God is said to be an artisan, who in his wisdom has made a harmonious and beautiful world. He is described as a creator, a maker or poet, an artisan, and even the master craftsman. Meanwhile the Son is revealed to be synergos - co-creator. God is likened to a builder, a carpenter, a metalworker, a weaver, a vine-dresser, and a potter, and creation is said to be his workshop.

While God's workmanship is different from our own - he creates ex nihilo - nonetheless that God laboured entails for Basil a dignity to our work. Rather than being irreconcilable with God, labour is consonant with his dignity and pre-eminence. Work is so much more than a necessary evil. It is a way of representing God's image in the world, exercised through humble dominion over our co-creatures for both their good and ours. This is why manual labour became a core element in the monastic communities influenced by Basil. Influenced by his sister Macrina, Basil's asceticism valued the work of one's own hands (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2.9, 4.11). In contrast to the sophistry of the prevailing Hellenistic culture in which Basil had been educated, work became a means for philosophy, contemplation, and controlling the body.

For Basil, such work could have only one true end: love. Rejecting self-sufficiency as a value, the end of labour was to strengthen the community, providing charity with an opportunity to bear fruit. Basil's Asiatic ascetic communities therefore were both a hive a of silence and production; a place for contemplation and study alongside incredible industry as the community members, who would have previously given away their possessions to the poor, worked for common good of society. Alongside farming, the community would have undertaken carpentry, weaving, leatherwork, metalwork, and medicine. Tools were carefully maintained. Children were educated and taught crafts. Prices were to be kept low. And in trying to balance 1 Thessalonians 5.17 with 2 Thessalonians 3.8-9, Basil counselled that prayer and work were not mutually exclusive:
In this way we fulfil prayer even in the midst of work, giving thanks to him who gave both strength of hand to work and cleverness of mind to acquire the skill and also bestowed the material with which to work, both in the tools we use and in what is requisite for the crafts we practice, whatever they happen to be. And we pray that the works of our hands may be directed to the goal of being well pleasing to God.
Given that the material, the tools, the strength, and the art are gifts from God, to work for Basil is to immerse oneself into the charity of God. Never an end in and of itself, to work with your own hands is to be purposed towards loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself.