18 May 2007

crowned with glory and honor

When I teach our introductory philosophy course on the human person, Psalm 8 is among the texts we consider, connecting it with Genesis 1-3, Psalm 90, and selections from Paul.

I walk the students through the psalm, moving them towards its center, the psalmist's query to the Lord and Creator of the cosmos:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established -
what is a human being that you are mindful of him,
a son of adam that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4)
And that question is an important question.

We all try to make sense of our lives, to invest our experiences and choices with meaning and value. Despite their facile freshman relativism, my students find significance in family and friends, they care about fairness, they get angry about bad politics. Through celebrations, media, holidays, film, music, and so on, they seek to connect their personal stories with larger ones about their communities, nations, and cultures. And we all do the same.

Ultimately we hope for something more than just a mere history, a narrative of birth, life, growth, and inevitable end. We hope for something that transcends that series of unrelated actions which becomes our fate, created by us, combined under our memory's eye and soon sealed by death. What we hope for is an eschatology - a meaning and destiny that is bigger than us, that finds its origin and end beyond the immanency of the merely human.

But is that possible? Even if it is possible, is it credible? Can we believe it? If there is a realm of divine transcendence, a god of some sort, why should we think we occupy his interests or warrant his attention?

Sometimes we consider all we know of the cosmos, of its vast empty expanses and mind-boggling distances, of stars and galaxies and quasars. We consider this and we wonder why a god should care for the humble, often miserable lives we have here, mere specks on the face of an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet orbiting around a small unregarded yellow sun.

We're sometimes tempted to think that this is a thoroughly modern question, arising out of the success of science and technology, our ability to explain natural phenomena, and a growing appreciation of the sheer magnitude of the cosmos. But the psalmist disabuses us of the pretension that somehow this question is more profound or more pressing for modern people than for ancient ones. If anything, the vastness of the heavens was more palpable and immediate in the dark nights of a world before the electric light bulb than in ours.

The psalmist provides a two-fold answer to his question - first, in the words of the psalm itself and, second, in the literary organization of the psalm.

Echoing Genesis 1 and 2, the psalmist proclaims that humanity is created "a little lower than the heavenly beings" and "crowned with glory and honor." We have been granted dominion over all of God's works and all things have been placed under our feet. We are glorious beings granted the privilege to rule the whole created order.

The structure of the psalm itself underscores and heightens this, setting up an analogy between the first and second halves - suggesting that humanity's glory and dominion is a creaturely reflection of and participation in the glory and dominion of God himself. God's rule is manifest in human rule. God's glory is refracted through the glory of human life. In and through humanity, heaven and earth come together and God is present and known among us.

What a wondrous picture of the god-like potential of humanity! Mirandola could not more highly sing the praises of our kind. And no wonder that God should care for us, the beings upon whose shoulders the world's destiny rests, the beings who in all the vast cosmos most closely and clearly reveal God's own character and life.

And yet, the psalmist's answer to his question is simply not credible. If it were true, we could understand why the creator of the world might lavish his attentions upon us. But of all the teachings of Scripture, this picture of human glory is probably the most obviously false, disproved daily by our Internet news feeds and our own experience.

This past week alone brings us news of soldiers killed and injured in Iraq, of journalists kidnapped, of civilians attacked by insurgents, of two dozen dying in a hotel explosion in Pakistan, of ongoing struggle in the Sudan, of division between Fattah and Hamas in Gaza, of more murders here in Philadelphia, of savage rape and brutal death.

We can look around our own neighborhoods and find trash littering the landscape, buildings in decay, graffiti on walls, domestic violence, wayward children, alcoholism and drug abuse destroying lives, used condoms left behind under playground equipment giving evidence of adolescent urges run amok.

We can look into our own hearts and discern there bitterness and hatred, greed and lust, injustice and lies. We impugn the motives of our sisters and brothers. We protect ourselves and lash out in anger. We speak in ways that damage ourselves and others. We destroy relationships through mistrust and disloyalty. We ignore the plight of the poor, fatherless, widowed, and lost. We wreck the natural world around us.

Instead of glory and honor, the reality of human life falls far short of glory and remains shrouded in dishonor. Instead of dominion, we ourselves are dominated by the worst urges of our nature.

Another psalmist writes:
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:9-10)
And that's the reality.

Whatever hope we might have for something more, whatever vision of human dignity we might imagine, this psalm speaks to our actual condition. A life totally estranged from anything resembling the divine. Toil and trouble, ending in a sigh. Or, in more colloquial idiom, life's a bitch and then you die.

So what of Psalm 8 and it's image of human glory? How can these two pictures remain side by side in the same Psalter? Which is these is the true story of the world? How can the same scriptures that so honestly admit the brokenness and degradation of our lives nonetheless tease us with the impossible dream of something better?

In the church's calendar, yesterday was the feast of the Ascension of our Lord and now, as did the first disciples, we find ourselves in that period of waiting between Ascension and Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out upon the church. Often we too quickly move into Pentecost, into the Spirit's ministry, the mission the church, the gifting of God's people, and the spread of the Gospel into all the earth.

But we should pause and reflect upon the significance of the Ascension since it is only as our ascended Lord, seated at the Father's right hand, that Jesus grants his Spirit. It is only as the one who has entered into the fullness of the age to come - of new creation - that Jesus receives the Spirit to share with us, his people. It is only as the one who receives glory and honor and dominion, that Jesus pours out his Spirit of glory upon us.

What is more, the Ascension is not about Jesus receiving glory and honor and dominion as God. As the eternal, divine Son, Jesus always already enjoyed the fullness of the Spirit's life, the unending and limitless glory and honor and dominion of God himself.

No, the Ascension of Jesus shows us that Psalm 8 is not merely wishful thinking, a passing daydream from which the gritty realities of life may at any moment shake us. The Ascension is about the fact that humanity is enthroned at the right hand of God the Father, crowned with glory and honor, and granted dominion over all the works God's hand has made.

In Jesus and his Ascension we see clearly that Psalm 8 is not a false and misleading description of the human condition. Nor is it merely wishful thinking or a wistful longing for what humanity might have been. Rather, Psalm 8 is eschatology, pointing to the end for which humanity was made, upon which the fate of cosmos depends, and which can only be received as a gift of God's grace.

And now that gift has already been given in the person of Jesus Christ, securing for us the certain hope of our own redemption and destiny. This is well-expressed in the words of a great Ascension hymn:
He has raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand:
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own.
("See the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph," Christopher Wordsworth)
Or in the words of Cyril of Alexandria:
Christ has not ascended in order to make his own appearance before God the Father. He was, is, and ever will be in the Father and in the sight of him from whom he receives his being, for he is his Father's unfailing joy. But now the Word, who had never before been clothed in human nature, has ascended as human to show himself in a strange and unfamiliar fashion. And he has done this on our account and in our name, so that being like us, though with his power as the Son, and hearing the command, "Sit at my right hand," as a member of our race, he might transmit to all of us the glory of being children of God. (from On John's Gospel)
In Jesus Christ, God's rule is manifest in the rule of a human being. God's glory is refracted through the glory of a human life. In and through Jesus' humanity, heaven and earth come together and God is present and known among us.

For every one of us who looks upon Jesus Christ through the eyes of faith, we behold our own identity and destiny in him. As Paul urges his hearers on several occasions in his letters, when we set our minds on what is above - on the glorious humanity of Jesus Christ - it re-orients our identity, re-centers our priorities, and re-directs our world. But how is this the case?

Here is where we return to Psalm 90 and its description of fallen, broken humanity. Yes, indeed, Jesus has been raised up to God's right hand. As human, he has been crowned with glory and honor and dominion. In Jesus, our own nature becomes the place in which heaven and earth come together.

And yet, Jesus only receives the gift of exaltation as one who has lived among us in our Psalm 90 world, estranged from God. He knows our toil and trouble. He has entered fully into the darkness and degradation of our lives. He knows what it means for days to pass quickly and end in the sighs of death.

Jesus identifies with us in our condition, stands in solidarity with our humaity. Jesus waits in breadlines. Jesus is spat upon as beggar. Jesus sinks into the darkness of mental illness. He was gassed in Auschwitz, slaughtered in Armenia, raped in Rwanda. Jesus lives in the humid, mosquito-infested desperation of an impoverished trailer park. Jesus is present within the prescription drug-addiction of middle-class suburban banality. Jesus knows the heartache of parents who worry for their children. Jesus identified with and took upon himself every form of human suffering in the suffering of his cross.

The Christian faith is not triumphalism. Unlike Roman emperors, after his death Jesus is not proclaimed "ascended Lord" as a tool of imperial oppression, military threat, or political control. There is honor and glory and dominion in Jesus' Ascension, but it is the honor, glory, and dominion of a crucified Lord. It is the honor, glory, and dominion of one who became in every way like us, except sin. It is the honor, glory, and dominion of a suffering servant. It is the honor, glory, and dominion of cruciform love.

The Ascension transforms the meaning of Psalm 90, because the Ascension transforms the meaning of suffering. Thus, it is in beholding the ascended Jesus as the crucified king, the suffering servant, and the truly human Lord, that we find our identities re-oriented, our priorities re-centered, and our world re-directed. The Ascension calls us to suffer with Christ, knowing that in this cruciform love, the honor, glory, and dominion of our humanity is revealed in the present age.

The world lives by the rule of other lords - of force, wealth, power, pleasure, self. In submitting to these lords we produce inglorious lives of dishonor, dominated by false loyalties, broken by toil and trouble, ending not with a bang but a whimper.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, "there is a deep suffering, unquantifiable and hence impossible to compare, which comes from living as one who believes that the crucified Messiah is the world's true Lord," in the midst of a world that lives by the rule of these other false lords (N.T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays - Year A 66). But the message of the Ascension is not one of escape from present suffering.

Rather, it teaches us that in the midst of present suffering - and intrinsically qualified by it - we begin now to learn how to live the truly human lives for which we were created. The glory of God is made known in our compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. The honor and dignity of humanity is manifest in forgiveness and harmony. Human dominion in the world is seen in the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts, to which we were called in one body, and with overflowing gratitude.

In this Ascensiontide, therefore, let us pause and reflect upon the true humanity sitting at the right hand of the Father in the person of our crucified Lord. Let us also remember that we too are seated with Jesus and share in his rule. This reality is not an assurance we will one day escape this world, nor merely that we remain with Jesus even when we die, though that is certainly and wonderfully true.

Rather, the Ascension shows us that the end for which we were created is already fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It anticipates already the future fulfillment of that end in our own humanity. The Ascension is a promise that, through us, the entire cosmos will be renewed and heaven and earth will be brought back together.

Moreover, the Ascension demonstrates the possibility now, in the present, that in and through our lives - yes, even in our toil and trouble, our suffering and death - the honor, glory, and dominion for which we were created can come alive and heaven and earth can draw together once more.