Feathered Serpent

Look, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.  Therefore be  as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves. ~Matthew 10:16

One of the topics in theology that is of ongoing interest to me is the way in which aspects of the Christian faith can be found in other cultures and religions.  The early church theologian Justin Martyr, so named because he was martyred because of his faith, referred to these echoes of truth in other societies as “seeds of the Word”.  While I take the Scriptures and the Word of God, Jesus Christ, to be the only complete revelation of God’s self to us, I also acknowledge that there are aspects of truth in other belief systems.  There are many such examples of Christian beliefs overlapping in other societies.  Take, for instance, the example of ancient Latin America’s belief in a god who shares more than just a little similarity to Jesus Christ.

William Dyrness, in his recent book Insider Jesus, notes that the “precolonial Náhuatl culture” which is “centered in what is now Mexico…describes the original belief in the god Quetzalcóatl, which in the Náhuatl language means ‘feathered serpent.'” 1  In quoting Elsa Tamez, a Costa Rican theologian, the book goes on to elaborate that

The core of this story relates how the God Quetzalcóatl struggles against the lord of death and his reign so that a new humanity might rise into existence; the struggle is taken to such an extent that Quetzalcóatl injures Self in order to give humanity life. 2

This sounds curiously like the biblical message of Jesus who, as God, not only gave up his position in heaven to come to earth so that he might live alongside his creation and to reveal Himself as God-in-flesh, but he also gave up his life onthe cross so that humanity might be baptized in his death and begin to live a new way of life.  While I could easily make this post about the celebration of Easter, I actually wish to connect it to Advent, when we reflect on the time leading up to Israel’s waiting for a Messiah and which culminates in the celebration of Christmas, believing that God’s promise to Israel was fulfilled in Jesus Christ when God incarnated himself in the virgin Mary.

quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl

As I did some casual research on the “feathered serpent” god of Mesoamerica, I came to find that incarnation is central to both Jesus and Quetzalcóatl.  In at least a few different versions of the myths of Quetzalcóatl, he is portrayed as being born of the virgin Chimalman. 3  And if that doesn’t sound familiar, Dryness elaborates on the mythological meaning of the term “feathered serpent” when he states that “‘Feather’ is a symbol for the heavenly realm, and ‘serpent’ is a symbol of the earthly realm, so this ‘feathered serpent’ represents an interesting representation of an incarnational form – ascending and descending.” 4  

So what does all this talk about scales and feathers have to do with Advent and Christmas beyond the obvious similarities between Christ and Quetzalcóatl, interesting though they are?  As I was reflecting on the implications of the similar elements, I was reminded of another biblical passage.  It is quoted in the epigraph of this post and I will repeat it here. First, some context.  Jesus is about to send out the 12 disciples to announce that the kingdom of God has come near.  As he does, he tells them, “As you go, announce this: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, drive out demons. You have received free of charge; give free of charge” (Matthew 10: 7-8).

In essence, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the presence of God has come to walk among his people.  First, he will be revealed to the Israelites, as the disciples are about to do, and then to the Gentiles, or to the rest of the ancient world. Whereas access to God could only come through the priests’ sacrifices to God in the temple, now God and his presence and kingdom power have come to be among the peoples of the world.  This is not just good news, this is great news, but people don’t know it yet. However, people would rather keep living under the old system of sacrifices, rites and rituals then accept this new order where the presence and grace of God is pure gift, “free of charge”.  And they would rather keep others under that system, particularly the Pharisees, the religious elite, and the Roman officials.  Their whole way of life and being “propped up”, so to speak, is dependent on the old religious and political systems as found in the then-current “elements of the world”. 5

This is the context, then, when Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 10:16, “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves.  Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves.”  They will face rejection and persecution.  They will be actively and passively opposed.  They will be mocked and scorned. And yet, I believe it to be the case that it is in the example of Jesus himself, who “descended from heaven” to live on earth that the disciples could find the strength and power to be as gentle as doves and as wise as serpents.  It is in the very incarnation and life of Christ, the God-man, that we see heaven and earth, feathers and scales, meet.  Jesus is the ultimate Feathered Serpent.  And this is what the kingdom of heaven is about.  In the incarnation of Christ, all of creation is being renewed.  Hence, the power the disciples receive to heal, cleanse, drive out, and raise the dead.

feathered-serpent

Feathered serpent

It’s not just our souls that God redeems and renews, it’s all things, including body and soul, institutions and powers, calling and culture.  To believe in just a spiritual gospel is what is called gnosticism, and which the early church deemed a heresy.  It is the idea that the physical and tangible aspects of God’s creation, which he called good, is of little significance, or worse, evil.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not so arrogant as to call something that God labeled “good” as being “evil”.  Corrupted, yes.  Sinful, maybe.  But not evil.  So, let us step out again this season and announce the kingdom of heaven.  Let us, in our everyday lives bring about the healing of reconciliation, the the cleansing of society, the driving out of evil, and the raising of that which has died, if not literally then at least figuratively.  Let us be feathered serpents for a world that is groaning and longing for redemption.

_______________________________________________________________

William A. Dyrness, Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 76.

Elsa Tamez, “Reliving Our Histories: Racial and Culturual Revelations of God,” in New Vision for the Americas: Religious Engagement and Social Transformation, ed. David Batstone (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 33-35cited in Dyrness, Insider Jesus, 76.  The idea that God is creating a new humanity is often elaborated on in discussions of ecclesiology, the theology of the church of God.  I won’t pretend that the church doesn’t fail in it’s mission of living out a new humanity.  In fact, I need look no further than the next page of Dyrness’s book to find evidence of the church’s failing than when Spain and the conquistadors arrived.  We all know the story of how the Europeans treated the indigenous Americans, both in North and South America.  However, it is also the case that the relation of church and culture is a complex one, such that what appears to be Christian violence is often a perversion of the gospel by cultural forces in the form of politics and economics.  To read an accessible book about religious violence from cultural and historical perspectives, I suggest Meic Pearse’s The Gods of War.  And to read a somewhat weighty tome on what the new humanity ought to look like, and which the Spirit is always in the process of forming through those who have been baptized in Christ’s death and resurrection, I highly recommend Peter Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World.

“Quetzalcoatl.” Wikipedia.org. Web. Accessed on 10 December 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatl&gt;.  As an aside, the Wikipedia article also mentions the Latter Day Saints belief that Jesus Christ came to visit the ancient American people after his death and resurrection.  I do not adhere to that belief, but rather find it more compelling that myths that seem to foreshadow the events of the New Testament can be perceived as just that: myths.  However, like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I follow their lead in that these myths resonate with people in other societies because, in Christ, we have the “myth made fact”.  In other words, the pre-Christian myths of gods being incarnated and sacrificed find their fulfillment in the historical events of the gospel.  I don’t have time or space to cover the historical case for Christ as contrasted to the myths of other societies, but the concepts of “seeds of the Word” and “myth made fact” should provide some food for thought.

4 Dyrness, Insider Jesus, 171.

5 I’m summarizing aspects of Peter Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World.  However, I am not exactly citing it as I am not directly relying on it for what i am writing.

Advertisements

Brother Owl

Whoo. Whoo.  

Whoo-who-whoooo.  

I can hear the calls and responses of two owls in the dark night beyond.  I look out the window in a vain attempt to see them.  Even after turning the lights off, the owls remain obscured by the darkness of night, hidden among the even darker silhouettes of trees.  I spend some moments listening to their plaintive cries, wondering why their low sounds seem so comforting…

In our culture today, the image of the owl is fashionable.  I walk into stores and see cutesy owl images on everything from handbags to scrubs to wall hangings.  What is so ironic about this is that an image our society celebrates, and sees as symbolic of wisdom, was also representative of, in many ancient cultures, a concept our society fears: death.1  In societies from Native Americans to Egyptians, the owl was a symbol of death.  And for the ancient Israelites, who had a habit of taking concepts from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors and putting theological twists on them, the owl is representative of mourning and destruction and desolation.  Not quite death, but close enough.

In Isaiah 4:23, we read, “I will turn her into a place for owls and into swampland; I will sweep her with the broom of destruction,” declares the LORD Almighty.”  And the author of Psalm 102:3 compares himself to, “a desert owl of the wilderness…an owl of the waste places”.  This bleak usage of the owl in Scripture caused me to ponder even more strongly my sense of having a kindred spirit in the owl.

I found a possible connection in the music of the singer/songwriter Josh Garrels.  In his song, “White Owl”, he sings the following lyrics:

When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road

Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to take the greatest flight

Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight 2

When I read or listen to the above lyrics, I am reminded of one of the more interesting symbolism of owls.  According to one website, “In some middle and far eastern cultures, the owl is a sacred guardian of the afterlife, ruler of the night, a seer and keeper of souls transitioning from one plane of existence to another.”3  When I think of that in connection with the lyrics above, I am reminded of Jesus Christ.  Today is Holy Saturday, the day in between the days when we celebrate the death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It is a time when we meditate on the bleak in-between time of his crucifixion and his victory over death as he rose to life.

Scripture has the following to say about that time: “But all who knew Him, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things…It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.  The women who had come with Him from Galilee followed along and observed the tomb and how His body was placed.  They they returned and prepared spices and perfumes.  And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:49, 54-56).  When I read this passage, I wondered why it was included in Scripture.  It seems so mundane.  But I am struck by the description of the women.  In the face of death, in this time of mourning and hopelessness, all they can really do is observe and then rest.

When it comes to death, you and I are like the women who followed the passage and burial of Christ’s body to the tomb: mere observers.  Mere followers of the Way.  We need one who will make the path straight and safe, who will guide us along the Way from life to Life.  While Josh Garrels might be singing about followers of Christ as being like owls who navigate the darkness of this world, it is Jesus Christ himself, the Great White Owl, who went before us and makes the way possible.  He, the Great White Owl, bridged the divide between us and God the Father in his death and resurrection, and is the ultimate guardian and keeper of souls as we transition from this world into the new heaven and earth.

…I reflect on the above things as I prepare to go to bed.  Lying down, I can still hear the cries of the owls in the night.  I can almost imagine that, as the keepers of the night that they are, they are watching over me.  And as I surrender myself into the care of Another, and as sleep begins to pull at my consciousness, I thank God for the death and resurrection of Brother Owl.

_________________________________________________________________

1 While it is the case that many ancient cultures viewed the owl as a symbol of mystery, wisdom, secrets, mysticism – in short, gnosis – there are just as many, if not more, that perceive it as representing death.  African, Egyptian, Celtic, many Native American, and Hindu cultures all saw the owl as relating to death in some way.  See, for example, “Symbolism and Mythology.” Wikipedia.org. Web. 25 March 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owl&gt; and “Animal Symbolism: Meaning of the Owl.” Whats-Your-Sign.com. Web. n.d. <http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-owl.html&gt;.  I hope to write a follow-up post at some future date on the other meaning of owls: wisdom.

2 “Love &War & The Sea In Between.” Josh Garrels. Web. n.d. <https://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/track/white-owl&gt;

3 “Owl Symbolism.” Macramé Owl. Web. 5 Mar. 2016. <http://macrameowl.com/owl_symbolism.html&gt;

Ghost Stories

Jesus Walking on Water

“Take Courage” by Cindy McKenna

But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from view / And we’ll live a long life

Mumford & Sons, “Ghosts That We Knew”

Throughout the month of February, I’ve been looking at the image of Jesus walking on water.  I have a wall calendar at my desk, and the picture for February is an artist’s rendering of what Jesus walking on water must have seemed like.  I love the way it is portrayed, with bits of yellow used to portray sparkles surrounding Jesus and his path toward the boat.  The sky above is gray and the water a murky greenish-blue.

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about this particular passage of Scripture.  God has been bringing it to my attention on and off for about the past couple months.  As I was meditating on this passage about two months ago, I was struck by the following description: “Around three in the morning He came toward them walking on the sea and wanted to pass by them.  When they saw Him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified” (Mark 6: 48-49).  Two parts of this passage stand out for me.  First, Jesus intended to walk by them.  Second, the disciples initially were afraid of Him, thinking He was a ghost.  There is another passage of Scripture that I am reminded of when it says that He “wanted to pass by them”, but before I go there I think it important to attend to His being mistaken for a ghost.

Our society is obsessed with ghosts and thoughts of the paranormal.  From popular TV shows Walking Dead and Ghost Hunters to paranormal books like Stephen King and Dean Koontz to vampire romances, the presence of the genre in our society is ubiquitous.  I will try to refrain from passing judgment on whether this societal obsession is good or bad or even the (in)accuracy of the ideas presented.  It is a potentially hopeful sign that our society is thinking so much about spirituality, death, and good and evil.  However, I think so much emphasis on the realm of the paranormal has contributed to the view that supernatural occurrences need always be profound, dramatic or extraordinary.  This keeps us from seeing the work of God and of other spiritual realities in our everyday experiences.

It may seem unusual, then, that I would want to focus on Jesus walking on water, one of the most unusual miracles in all of Scripture.  And indeed, it is perhaps one of the more extraordinary passages of Scripture, perhaps even one of the more unbelievable.  I do not wish to argue against this interpretation, as I do believe in it’s literal portrayal.  In fact, the interpretation I am about to provide even presupposes the literal view.  But I can’t help but reflect on the fact that Jesus, appearing as a ghost, isn’t somewhat symbolic of how we tend to view His presence in our lives.

The Irish group, Mumford & Sons, has a song which is partially quoted in the above epigraph.  The song, “Ghosts That We Knew”, starts out about pain and suffering, about despair so strong as to suggest suicide.  Unlike the ghosts in popular culture, we all have our “ghosts” in this life that haunt us.  You know what your ghosts are.  And we might do worse than to pray the following lyrics from the song: “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light / Cause oh they gave me such a fright”.  For those who need something a little more Scriptural, such a prayer as “Lord, I believe…help me in my unbelief” might ring closer to home.  As we do so, we might just begin to realize that the very things that haunt us are, in fact, Christ’s presence in our life.  What the disciples thought was a ghost that frightened them was the very presence of God.  And what we see as haunting us might very well be Christ’s presence in disguise.

Yet, we read that Jesus “wanted to pass by them”.  In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus has overcome death and been resurrected, He appears to two of the disciples (v. 13), although, like on the boat, they do not yet recognize Him.  After He speaks with them and helps them to interpret the Scriptures (what, for them, would have been our current Old Testament as the books of the New Testament were not yet written) and how they all point to His fulfillment of them in His birth, life, death and resurrection, “He gave the impression that He was going father” (v. 28).  Here, the disciples have reached the village to which they were traveling to and yet Jesus leads them to believe that He wants to “pass by them”.  Yet, like their experience on the boat, their response convinces Him to stay.  Or perhaps He planned to stay all along and is merely testing their faith when He does not seem to be present.  Either way, He chooses to remain.

During the season of Lent, which began in February, we celebrate the events leading up to, and including, the passion of Christ on the cross and His death and resurrection.  He came so that the ghosts which haunt us might no longer have power over us, but be redeemed by His resurrected presence.  I’m convinced that as we pray such prayers as those above, responding as the disciples did to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, Christ will have mercy and reveal Himself to us in the midst of our ghost stories.  We will begin to know the truth that the very things that frighten us are Jesus’ presence in disguise and we will rest in the knowledge that the “ghosts” that haunt us “will flicker from view / And we’ll live a long life”.