Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Substance and Shadow

"So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ." (Colossians)

If the events, festivals, and stories that happened in "BC times" were completed and fulfilled in Jesus, then Paul accurately describes them as shadows cast from the figure of the cross. What I never thought about before is the role of light in this metaphor. If the shadow is in the past, and the substance was at the centerpoint of history (that is, 30 AD), then where is the light coming from? It would have to be from God's future, the fulfillment of all things, the light from judgment, finding things out and setting things right.

The negative view of judgment is so prevalent that I'd never seen it this way before. But if the second Advent is about finding things out and revealing the way things really are, I think it's appropriate to think of it as a light shining through history, with the prophets and festivals beforehand being the shadows it casts through the cross.

This must be balanced with the fact that the Day "will be darkness and not light", but I think it's a helpful extension to the image Paul gives to those in Colossae.

For me, this is the reminder that a Christian's focus should be on Christ: not on models of creation by the father, or questions of history of geneologies, or details of which festivals and how long and budgets and the like, all things that have their place, but the real substance is the life that was lived, ended, and transformed at the turning-point of history.

To continue this line of thought, should the Gospels be read more often than other books? They are the real description of the centerpoint of history. Does the church become unbalanced when it focuses on another part of the Bible: say, Genesis, or Romans, or Revelation? Or does grace keep things balanced even so?


Juliet said...

I am responding to this a little late, but I have been thinking about the question in your last paragraph for a while. In the Catholic church, and in other churches with lectionaries, a passage from the gospels is read at every service, and in the Catholic church the reading from the gospels is treated with particular honor: everyone stands and sings the alleluia and genuflects, and only a priest or deacon may read from the gospels (whereas any layperson may do the other readings--not to get into a debate about whether that's sexist, but anyway). The other readings are intended to relate to the gospel reading in some way, as prophecy or exposition or whatever. So it's not that the gospels are considered to be more inspired (although they may be more "holy" in the way Catholics treat saints and sacraments and other holy things that often makes Protestants squirmy), but the gospel reading is the centerpoint of the liturgy of the word as the story of the gospels is the centerpoint of history.

I like having a lectionary. The disadvantage is that there isn't the opportunity for extended teaching on an entire book of the Bible as there is in Protestant churches that don't have fixed readings (although contrary to popular belief, Catholics do read the Bible and can have Bible studies and stuff). The advantage is that every part of the Bible is read in relation to salvation history in Jesus Christ, and I think that helps Catholics keep from getting sidetracked by a lot of issues that occupy other Christians (evolution, when they focus on Genesis; weird eschatological speculations, when they focus on Revelation; questions about predestination, when they focus on Paul--the latter two have been issues in the Catholic church, but not so much since the Middle Ages). I think it's an interesting perspective, not that everyone should be Catholic or that we necessarily have the best way of reading the Bible, but on the whole I think it works pretty well.

The danger of focusing too much on the gospels is that it can lead to the substance of a lot of modern biblical scholarship: discussing Jesus as a historical figure or enlightened teacher or super nice person without regard to what Jesus really means for Christians, past and present (since a lot of what is implicit in the gospels is only made explicit in other NT texts); the rejection of the Pauline letters or other NT texts outside the gospels as inauthentic accretions to whatever the Jesus Seminar has decided Jesus really was; that sort of thing.

BenMc said...

Thanks Juliet! It's funny, I was asking that question because of my own version of a lectionary -- the (kind of) daily Bible reading order I go through. I'm approaching Revelation and am debating whether I should flip back to Genesis or hit the Gospels again before doing that.

I think once you're familiar with the gospels you see them all the time in Paul's letters in surprising ways, so you can see how they (or a closely related tradition) may have influenced Paul's thinking deeply, without him quoting them all the time!