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.

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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.

Mended Drums

I look forward to Christmas music every Advent.  Although I love traditional Christmas carols, I also find a sense of meaning when listening to more contemporary Christmas music.  I don’t mean those songs that feature Santa or Rudolph, but ones that make you reflect on what Christmas is all about.  This is the case when I listen to Enya’s Christmas album, And Winter Came.  One of her songs, “One Toy Soldier”, is about a toy soldier that is broken.  Although he was made to play for a little boy, his drum is “down by his side” and “his heart is oh, so blue”.  From the toy’s perspective, we hear the cry “Who can mend my broken drum?/Will it be as good as new?/I must play when morning come./If I don’t, what shall I do?”

Maybe you feel like that toy soldier this Christmas.  With the economic uncertainty, maybe you find your sense of purpose is missing.  You may be working a job you don’t like just to make ends meet.  Maybe you’re living with relatives because you can no longer afford to live on your own.  Or maybe you are unable to find a job at all.  Having recently returned to the United States from living overseas, that’s the situation I have found myself in – without a job and feeling that I have no ability to play my drum for which I was created.  Wherever you find yourself vocationally this Advent season, you may feel that your hopes and dreams have been broken.  As a result, your drum is down by your side, your heart is blue, and you’re unable to keep a steady beat.

But Advent reminds me that God himself became incarnate so that we might be reconciled to him.  Since Advent ends with the Christ child in a manger, I often forget to celebrate that Jesus, as an adolescent and young adult, would himself have labored and worked!  He was a carpenter for many years before he began his ministry.  This raises questions in my mind: Did Jesus grow weary of his work, not just physically but mentally and emotionally?  Did he ever wish he could be doing something more meaningful?  Did he ever despair of finding work that would support him and his family?  Because Scripture is silent on these points, I don’t have the answers.  But we are told that after his parents found him in the temple “He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51).  Although he desired to be in his Father’s house, he determined to be faithful in even the most mundane of tasks.

And because Jesus came to express solidarity with you and me, and to remind us that our purpose and calling is larger than our jobs, we can be sure to be faithful in whatever tasks we are doing this season.  Thankfully, the song doesn’t end with a little boy waking up to a broken toy soldier.  We are told that “When morning comes/He plays his drum” because during the night “Someone has come/To mend his drum/Now his heart lights up with pride.”

We, too, have Someone who has come to mend our broken drums of purpose and callings.  We don’t play a rhythm solely of working to make ends meet or to support our family or even to make ourselves significant in the lives of others.  We play a rhythm of glorifying God and being faithful in all things.  So may this Advent season find you playing your drum with pride!

Thin Places

“Strange isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”

~Clarence Odbody, It’s a Wonderful Life

Barbara Kingsolver begins her novel, Flight Behavior, about a young woman, wife, and mother who is climbing up a Tennessee hill on a way to meet a young man in a secret tryst.  Not a promising start for the woman who is the protagonist of the story.  However, on her way to her rendezvous, she encounters something that she didn’t expect to experience and which transforms her life.  She reaches the top of the hill where she has a view of the valley beyond.  What she sees, but doesn’t initially comprehend, is a valley filled with orange butterflies.

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes.  The forest blazed with its own internal flame…The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light.  Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake.  Every bough glowed with an orange blaze…No words came to her that seemed sane.  Trees turned to fire, a burning bush.  Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel, words from Scripture that occupied a certain space in her brain but no longer carried honest weight, if they ever had.  Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures. 1

Even though the novel mentions that Dellarobia and Jesus aren’t “that close”, Dellarobia likens her experience to that of Moses with the burning bush.  It is something wondrous, mysterious, and almost terrifying.  The Celts, both before and after their conversion to Christianity, had a beautiful phrase for such an experience of the numinous: thin places.  They are places where the boundary between heaven and earth dissolves and the two seem to meet.

Often, as in Dellarobia’s case, such experiences can be had with nature.  I’ve had such moments myself from riding through the moonlit alien landscape of Cappadocia to mountaintop experiences in the Alps.  But I’ve also found that thin places can be had in the midst of people.  In high school, my family and I were evacuated from Turkey.  On our way back to the U.S. we had a layover at Rhein Main Air Base,  Germany.  Rhein Main AB was where my family and I were at before we moved to Turkey.  So there I was, surrounded by people I knew from two different countries.  It was a surreal experience that made me consider the way in which our lives intersect.  Moments like that I consider “thin places” because it reminds me that God, in His greatness and providence, can cause our lives to meet with seemingly little regard for the boundaries of space and time.  As we are reminded by the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, “Strange isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” 2

I believe Scripture affirms the idea of thin places.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, seems to have at least two such experiences in her life.  Both occurrences I have in mind are in the Gospel of Luke.  In the first instance, after Jesus has been born and the shepherds find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, “they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18).  Then, we are told that “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told” (v. 20).  In between those two statements we are told that “Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them” (v. 19).  While the shepherds rejoice, Mary sits quietly, meditating on the significance of what has happened.  Her response of quiet reverence and awe, the result of meditating on not just what the shepherds described but also on what the angel Gabriel had told her about her son Jesus, leads me to believe she is in a thin place.

The second instance occurs later when Jesus, Joseph, and Mary travel in a group to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.  As Joseph and Mary, along with the rest of the traveling party, head back to Nazareth they realize that Jesus (who is 12 at this time) is not accompanying everyone else.  When Joseph and Mary go back to Jerusalem they search everywhere until they find him in the temple.  When Mary quite understandably asks, “Son, why have You treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for You”(Luke 2:48), His response in the following verse is “Why were you searching for Me?…Didn’t you know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”

After that, there is a similar pattern as before: “Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them.  His mother kept all these things in her heart.  And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people” (vv. 51-52).  We see again that Mary “kept these things in her heart”.  We are told in verse 51 that Joseph and Mary did not understand Jesus’ response of needing to be in His Father’s house.  Perhaps, without fully realizing, she catches some glimpse of who Jesus is and what He is to become and accomplish.

Sadly, there is a common denominator between Mary, Dellarobia, and ourselves.  Even as we experience such thin places, moments which ought to be transforming, so often they are not.  We see later in the life of Jesus where Mary and Jesus’ brothers attempt to curtail His ministry and claim He is “out of His mind” (Mark 3:21). 3  Dellarobia, despite her experience and the opportunities she has as a result, continues to deny God’s presence in her life and fails to really change in the ways that matter by the end of the book.  And as for us, so often we also revert to our previous ways.  I may marvel at God’s ability to link my life with someone else’s after several years and thousands of miles, but often I trample over the importance of relationships in my bulldozing quest to accomplish, consume, or experience more.

If this is often the case, the question then becomes why do thin places fail to transform?  Is it any wonder that after being asked for miracles Jesus refused to give signs (see Matthew 12:38-41)?  I suspect that Jesus, and Paul after Him, gives the answer indirectly in His encounter with the woman at the well.  After a roundabout theological discussion with a Samaritan woman, she refers to Him as a prophet (clearly she doesn’t understand fully either) and states, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, yet you [Jews] say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20).  Jesus replies, “Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jersalem…But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21,23 emphasis mine)

The above passage on spirit and truth has always puzzled me until I came across the following passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “Therefore the person who speaks in [another] language should pray that he can interpret.  For if I pray in [another] language, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.  What then?  I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with my understanding.” (I Corinthians 14:13-15a)  So, from Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well and from Paul’s letter I infer that it is possible to worship God (in a sense that includes thin place moments) with both an openness of one’s spirit and with a clear understanding of the truth of what such worship is about.  It is also possible to worship God in only one of those stances but not both, thus failing to engage in genuine and transforming worship.

I suspect that many encounters of thin places are engaged in with one’s heart and spirit, but not with one’s head and understanding.  We become so caught up in the beauty and numinousness of the moment that we fail to dialogue with God about what He is trying to say to us in that moment.  Sometimes, God may simply be blessing us and we should receive that moment with gratitude, treasuring it in our hearts.  At other moments, God may be seeking to expand our understanding of Him or to gain a new perspective on the world. Still other times, the Holy Spirit may be gently seeking to move us toward some response.  In my case, He may have been calling me to renew an old relationship or to interact with others more freely and willingly, something which is difficult for me to do given my strong tendency toward introversion.

Only by communicating with God in that moment and afterwards, can we discover His Word for us in the present.  Even after we ask Him for clarification, He may not respond immediately, but we can be certain that He will.  How do I know this?  After Jesus informs the Samaritan woman at the well that a new time is coming and has, on some level, already occurred, the woman (still not knowing who He is…remember, she earlier called Him a prophet) states, “‘I know that Messiah is coming’…’When He comes, He will explain everything to us'” (John 4:25).  To this Jesus responds, “‘I am [He]’…’the One speaking to you'” (John 4:26).

As I close this post, I’d like to point out that we are in the period of Advent once again where we are reminded of, and celebrate, the ultimate thin place moment: the very incarnation and life of Christ on earth.  The boundary between heaven and earth can’t be eroded any more than it is in Him, the One who is fully God and fully man.  This confirms my belief that the one whose very life incarnates thin place moments will always communicate to us in such moments, for Jesus Christ is the very Word of God made flesh.  So the next time you find yourself in a thin place, rejoice in spirit and in truth, and know that the One who explains everything is, at that very moment, speaking to you.

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1 Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2013), EPUB e-book, 17.

2 I am grateful to Robert Tracy McKenzie for providing me with this insight.  Since I have not actually seen the movie, I believe it to be divine providence that enabled me to come across this quote in his book, The First Thanksgiving, as I was putting the finishing touches on this post.

3 Technically, this verse only refers to His “family”, but given that verse 31 mentions “His mother and His brothers” it is reasonable to assume that Mary is party to, or at least condones, the family’s attempts to “restrain Him” (v. 21).