Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.
Ours is an era of fads. It seems we grow very bored very quickly in this choice-filled, leisured culture. Almost as if determined by some ADD-influenced calendar of trendiness, the North American Church of the 21st century surfs from one “must-do” or “revolutionary” project to another. What was essential last year – say, “seeker-services” and other ways to make worship “user friendly” – becomes utterly irrelevant in the new climate of the current focus on “emergent” and “Church 2.0” sensibilities. Out go one set of books, conferences, techniques, web sites, and gurus – in comes another.
This tendency has become more insistent with computers. The speed and fragmentation of our secularizing world only increases with these magic devices. The old irony recurs of how something originally conceived as a tool for unity ends up pushing things in the opposite direction. While we hear much about how the Internet connects people in ways never previously possible, one cannot help but reflect on the strange paradox of the Roman Empire: the creation of a gigantic “meta-culture,” replete with roads, central governance, nice bathing facilities, and all sorts of new information – yet simultaneously the growth of an overwhelming sense of alienation, isolation, and disconnection.
Those of us in the “clergy biz” today are bombarded with all sorts of advertisements, links, and testimonials relating how this technology or that technique will make a “previously-dying church relevant,” rather like those old ads promising how the proverbial 98-pound weakling can become a muscle-bound Adonis through the rigorous use of a set of tensioned springs. All one has to do is, as always, “send away” for what one previously lacked. If that fix doesn’t work, then try something else.
The march of dominant metaphors – each one more vaporous, shimmering, and Chimerical than the last – picks up tempo as well. Anyone familiar with Church history (or who has read Jaroslav Pelikan’s “Jesus through the Centuries”) knows that over the years Christ has been understood in many different ways, often in accord with what that culture or epoch conceives as being the best and highest mark of value or power. Thus, Jesus was early on understood primarily in Jewish terms as Messiah or the Supreme Teacher; then He gradually picked up associations drawn from Greek and Latin culture as Pantocrator or Ruler and Judge of All. This monarchial metaphor was dominant for the Age of Kings, but with the Reformation and the rise of the individual, “science,” and “reason,” (I put these last two in inverted commas because they are so nebulous as categories), things begin to change in the West.
As time went on, we see Christ becoming everything from the great teacher of Morality or Rationality to Christ the upholder of political, economic, and social theories. In North America, the dominant metaphor moved from that of the Church as Body of Christ assembled to proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the Resurrection to Church as Schoolroom of Virtues, then Church as place of “wholesome entertainment,” and then the sadly madrassa-like Church of Shared Ideology and Lifestyle.
Now we are being told that the Church is really much more like a social network site or a computer receiving a download of new software – being “upgraded.” Ah, yes, that’s it: upgraded. At last, we have the solution, and it is being upgraded.
This long rambling introduction is not entirely without point. The Feast of the Annunciation, which for us as Episcopal Anglican Christians is so important that it suspends our Lenten observances, provides a deep well of insight into the way we are to deal with change and new revelations in faith.
When the Angel Gabriel came to Mary, we are told that God was taking the initiative in bringing humanity back to Him. He sought the consent of a young Hebrew woman in doing this. God defied all the expectations to do something both unexpected and essential. This teaches us we can never, never put God in a box. Our 20/20 theological hindsight that wants to say “but, of course, that’s how it had to be” must be laid aside. God in Christ and through Mary was indeed revolutionary in destroying the barriers between Heaven and Earth. It is the fallen human desire to maintain just these barriers – for a host of sad and self-destructive reasons – that makes the notion of God Incarnate in Christ so difficult for human of every age to accept.
But, there is something in this Feast to think about that has a particular message for us of this era today. The story of the Annunciation is not just a story about being “upgraded,” as if God were downloading new software into the world so that it could be cutting-edge. Neither is this a story of the anxious search for the “killer app” that makes God relevant to a fickle humanity. It is the gift of God, poured into the hearts of those who desire it. The collect for the Annunciation, perhaps better known than many prayers because of its long-time association with the Angelus, is not an anxious cry to God – though it certainly may be prayed by a person in great anxiety. Rather, it is a remembrance of the mercy of God, who in that deliciously, masterfully assured and assuring phrase from Galatians: “In the fullness of time” has come to us and reconciled us to Himself. End of story. No gimmicks. No fads, trends or groovy programs necessary or desired.
Yes, we need to respond to that gift in our day, but not in the anxious and often faddish way we do. Each age must apply the Gospel to its own thought-world and context; this is nothing new. What is so tiresome about the chorus of re-interpreters today is that so few of them seem formed in anything deep, transcendent, or even very mature. Those of us who signed on for spiritual authenticity in the Anglican tradition are being told to make do with the pabulum of ever less substantial fare. Instead of a deeper appropriation and practice of truly radical orthodoxy, we get conferences on the latest personality or technique that will somehow "make things better," "more attractive," or (gulp) "relevant." In short, we sell our overwhelmingly beautiful and transformative birthright for a bowl of easily-digestible pottage. Yum.
The constant churning to produce the next “gee-whiz” insight, book, or trend has overwhelmed our ability to cut through the crap and recognize that none of us really knows much about the future and that the vast majority of such attempts appear laughable in retrospect. Jesus calls us to live in the Now of God, not the Then of Romanticism or the Someday of Theory.
From the overall witness of the New Testament, God wants so much less and yet more than what we give: less verbiage, techniques, systems; more prayer, love for God and our fellow human, and acts of humble service. How to get there? By embracing another ecclesiastical "Five Year Plan?" Probably not.
Today is the beginning of the Incarnation Cycle in the Church Calendar. What begins here will be reflected upon further in a succession of feasts from now through February. As we do so, it might be good to examine the manner of our reflections. Do they arise from a solid, deep base of living relationship with the Living God? Or do they spring fitfully from a search for that next gimmick, trend, or quick-fix that allows us to avoid the hard work of discipleship, where we place ourselves in God’s hand and must be satisfied with the kind of peace our God gives: peace which “passes all human understanding,” the peace of the Blessed Virgin. That peace also leaves us utterly vulnerable to God and God’s way of being rather than to the shifting sands of any culture, any era.