New reality of reconciliation

candleLanguage carries layers of meaning and shapes our imaginations. ‘Ash Wednesday’ in Australia calls to mind the bushfire season. We are attuned to the attendant media images of potential destruction.

The force of fire, wind and heat was used by the First Peoples to cultivate the land, opening seedpods and prompting new growth. For the Aboriginal peoples, the power of fire was creative rather than destructive, generating spaces that attracted new life.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Ash Wednesday falls at the end of winter leading into spring. The Old English name for spring itself was lenct, echoing the lengthening of days, giving us the name of the church’s season of Lent.

The 40 days of Lent lead towards the transformation of Easter and the new life of the resurrection. These days are set aside for re-orientation – literally for turning again towards the light of the sun. It is also a season of reconciliation.

‘Reconciliation’ has become a political and cultural term, calling for a new relationship between First and Second Peoples. It is worth remembering that at its core, reconciliation is a deeply theological term.

In his 2002 book Theopolitical Imagination: discovering liturgy as a political act in an age of global consumerism, William Cavanaugh shows that politics is primarily a “practice of the imagination”. He points to the commitment to ideas that is involved for ordinary citizens in the political processes of holding an election, or going to war.

Cavanaugh warns that the prevailing stories supporting political realities often distort the Christian narrative. He is interested in unmasking the false mythology (the quasi-theology) of contemporary politics to free the church to engage on theological ground.

This call to reclaim the Christian theological imagination goes further than finding a voice for ‘public theology’. Rather than providing a pious commentary on the ways of the world, believers are called to enact an alternative, to become “communities of solidarity and resistance”.

Language and ritual are two related elements that forge the new imagination required for these communities.

The early Christian community was careful about language. In relation to the concepts of ‘public’ and ‘private’ for example, and the widely accepted dichotomy between them, Scripture shows a re-negotiation.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses both the language of the home and of the public place to describe believers, telling them they are both citizens (sympolitai) with the saints and simultaneously members of the household (oikeioi) of God. The early community did not describe itself in terms of a guild or association or a group with particular interests, but as the whole people. They went beyond understandings of empire or nation-state. Instead, they chose the term ekklesia meaning the assembly, the entire gathering of people. In this assembly those normally excluded from citizenship and consigned to the household (women, children, slaves) had full membership through baptism, powerfully reinforced through the life of the community, including the Eucharist.

How do we, as Christians today, do the hard political work to disrupt the existing narratives of power and enable conversations in this new theologically charged language? Cavanaugh is not alone in pointing straight to the Eucharist as the ongoing resource that enables a different imagination of space and time, shifting believers towards a distinct new reality.

Going further than the shared meals that constitute the bonds of family and community, the ritual of prayer that is the Eucharist constitutes the church into the reality of the body of Christ, a mutual community of “solidarity and resistance”, in which boundaries collapse, including the boundaries of time and space.

This brings us again to Lent, to the season of reconciliation.

In the prayer of every Eucharist, believers are (in James Alison’s helpful phrase) ‘tilted towards’ a reality where reconciliation already exists, where there are no boundaries between earth and heaven. Eucharist draws us into what the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas famously calls a ‘memory of the future’ where love already defines reality.

Often in the unashamedly bloody iconography of European tradition, the Cross stands for ‘God’s punishment’ of human sinfulness borne by Jesus in our place. The language of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘atonement’ can seem to confirm this. The self-giving love of the Cross gets lost in popular understanding. As theologians in every generation made clear, however, the emphasis throughout should have been on radical Grace: on the forgiveness that breaks out of the cycle of revenge. This is the theological imperative that transforms human imagination and gives us a new story to tell.

The reconciliation of Easter’s Resurrection is linked absolutely to our understanding of Christmas and the Incarnation. If Jesus is the Christ, truly as much God as God is, and also as fully human as we are, then the Cross and Resurrection are not God’s punishment.

Rather the eyes of faith see that, in Jesus, God as God’s-self steps freely into the deepest experience of humiliation. On the Cross, God-with-us chooses to suffer the full brunt of desolation and powerlessness without divine magic. This is not to model the value of suffering as an end in itself, but to “change the game”. Freely suffering the worst that humanity can inflict, Jesus broke the cycle of retribution and defined a new reality.

Outside physical time, participation in the cosmic narrative of the Eucharist binds believers to that alternative way of being. In this reality, injustice cannot be ignored, precisely because the hope for transformation is secure and guaranteed in the forgiveness of the crucified and risen Christ.

This perspective informed Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s campaign against apartheid in South Africa as well as his work as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995-1998).

“If our worship is authentic and relevant,” he challenges in a 1985 article, “it prepares us for combat with the forces of evil, the principalities and powers. It prepares us to be involved where God’s children are hurt, where they spend most of their lives … Jesus refused to remain on the mountain top of the transfiguration. He came down into the valley of human need and misunderstanding.”

As the lectionary readings take us from the mountain top to the valley of Jesus’ ministry and on to the Cross and Resurrection, we are learning a language of sacrament where all threats are nothing, and love defines no boundaries.

Dr Katharine Massam
Co-ordinator of Studies – Church History
Pilgrim Theological College

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