Monday, February 8, 2010

The Triumph of the New Life

So yesterday, I came across a quote that really struck me as cool, and it got me thinking.

Christ overcame the world by casting out the ruler of the world: "Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out" (John 12:31); "He disarmed the principalities and powers" (Colossians 2:15). This shows us that the devil is also to be overcome by us: "Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your maidens?" (Job 41:5), which understood literally means that after the passion of Christ, the little boys and young handmaids of Christ will make him [the devil] their plaything. (Super evangelium S. Joannis lectura, section 2176; trans. Fabian Larcher)

That's from Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century theologian/priest/monk/professor/saint (and a whole lot more besides); it's specifically from a series of lectures he did on the Gospel of John, and I stumbled across it because I'm hoping to refer to those lectures in an upcoming paper on the doctrine of the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit in Thomas Aquinas' Trinitarian theology. But that topic is obviously not what this post is about. Instead, it's about the idea that Jesus has defeated the powers of evil, and that we share in his triumph.

We're probably all familiar with the idea that Jesus has in some sense won a huge victory. After all, like Paul said in one of the passages Thomas Aquinas already cited, "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Colossians 2:15). Thomas' specific comments on that passage in his commentary on Colossians are pretty verbose and most consist of quoting other Bible passages, but the basic idea is that Christ whupped the demonic powers somethin' fierce on Calvary that day and freed us and our forebears in the faith from the bondage of Satan, death, and sin. There's a strong tradition of viewing the atonement at least partially as Christus Victor, Christ the Victor, so that the atonement is Christ decisively beating the forces of evil by his death on the cross. (I'm not saying, like Gustaf Aulen did in his 'classic' study of the idea, that this way of seeing things exhausts the atonement; there are certainly elements of penal substitution or satisfaction involved, or something along those lines. Just to make sure I'm clear, you know.)

And we often think of ourselves as in some sense victorious. After all, Paul says, "Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:57), and who hasn't heard Eugene Bartlett's 20th-century hymn "Victory in Jesus"?

O victory in Jesus,
My Savior, forever.
He sought me and bought me
With his redeeming blood;
He loved me 'ere I knew him,
And all my love is due him;
He plunged me to victory
Beneath the cleansing flood.

But how often do we really think about the idea of sharing Christ's victory in any concrete way? I mean, yeah, we often think of it in abstract ways, like freedom from death--though even that's kinda tough to wrap your head around. That's what I love about the passage I quoted from Thomas Aquinas. I've never before thought of the idea of Christ's victory--and ours with him--as being so complete as to basically declaw, de-fang, and domesticate even the demons. Mostly, I just really love the triumphant imagery of Satan being so thoroughly defeated in the end that even little kids could basically put him on a leash and take him for a walk. In today's Christian circles, we're sometimes so worried about staving off Satan's attacks, real or perceived, that we come to fear him. And we should be wary, we should be vigilant. Don't mistake my words as an excuse to lose focus. Satan ain't no tame beast--yet. (Even though Thomas Aquinas' statement could be understood that way, I must admit.) But when I think of Satan's power being that restricted in the age to come, when I think of our victory being that total, I can't help but laugh for joy and shout praise to the Lord who fought the battle that won the victory and to the Father who passed it on to us, the faithful.

Don't let your guard down. Don't think that the forces of evil are obliterated and that we're already in paradise. There are still plenty of dangers out there for us. But don't make the opposite mistake of thinking that "Satan is alive and well on planet earth", to borrow the title of a horrible end-times book; he may be kicking, but after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Satan is definitely not doing "well". And while there remain threats out there, if we're faithful, we have nothing to fear.

Human Weakness and Arts and Crafts

The other night, as I was resting in bed waiting to fall asleep, I was praying for God to pardon my habitual weakness of spirit and my tendency to stray. I know for a fact the actions I in fact enact (say that ten times fast!) frequently fall short of the divine majesty and what my Lord deserves from me. With all the good he's done for me, he's worth far more than I give in return. And then a thought occurred to me, a little scenario if you will.

Imagine a celebrated artist. His works fill an entire gallery. Think of the greatest pieces you've ever beheld--by Picasso, da Vinci, Michelangelo, van Gogh, Monet, whomever inspires you most--and this artist's work surpasses them with a beauty unparalleled. He plans, he says, to soon unveil his crowning achievement.

Imagine, too, that this artist is a kind man who has recently taken responsibility for an entire orphanage full of young children with severe disabilities. Imagine that he comes to each child, smiles, and encourages them to try their hand at arts and crafts.

And then I imagine the children coming back to him over the next few weeks, offering their pieces. Their craftsmanship is, by any strictly artistic standard, quite poor. Imagine hundreds of little arts-and-crafts 'disasters'. Disfigured popsicle-stick... shapes... dripping with glue and smeared with globs of paint. Torn pages from a coloring book, and the children ignored the lines completely. Each child proudly hands their work to this brilliant artist, saying, "I made this for you." And he smiles--no, grins, beams--as he takes each with thanks.

Imagine, then, that the time finally comes to unveil his greatest work yet. And as the curtain at last falls away, all the observers can see that this grand sculpture is composed of the children's art projects, all fitted together in a way that only a true master could achieve. And while their individual contributions, taken alone, might be meagre efforts unworthy of the prestige of the gallery, the entire ensemble crafted by the artist's care is no less than the greatest masterpiece in art history. And he turns to the children, all of whom beam with delight, and celebrates with them their joint artistic triumph.

That's the thought that crossed my mind a few nights ago as I contemplated the matter, and it made me realize something. First of all, while God deserves my best, and while my best will undoubtedly fall short of his glorious name, he's asked for my contribution, knowing fully well my limitations. The life I give over to him isn't a burden on him, some unwanted gift; it's exactly what he asked for, and God looks at the heart moreso than the results. We may not live perfect, unmarred lives, and while we do need to turn from sin and back to God on a regular basis, there's no need to live in shame because of how feeble our offering is. God asked for it; he wants it, and who am I to refuse?

The second beautiful truth that warmed my heart when I considered it is that our imperfect contributions are nevertheless the building blocks of the new world that God is building. We as craftsmen and craftswomen may not know where exactly our little baked brick will fit into the palace that God's constructing for us, but when all is said and done, I believe that we'll be able to look on the whole thing as an unparalleled beauty that confers the beauty of the whole on the parts themselves. In other words, I think that when we see history in retrospect, even our own personal life stories, we'll be able to say, "Oh that's what all that was about," and we'll rejoice in how God has chosen to forge our little pieces into a whole that's greater than just the sum of the parts. Where will my life fit? I don't know. But I do know that if I faithfully turn over my life to God, he will use it for his glory, and it'll be part of something amazing. And it will be the grounds for an eternal celebration of love.

Now to get back to the crafts project of my life.