Ancient Answers


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In the middle of life

 

Saint Gregory Palamas is one of the most revered theologians of the church. He lived about 700 years ago in northern Greece. He explored some profound theological ideas which created quite a bit of controversy – and still do. His main concern was to show how God interacts with us, how God enters our lives, how God communicates with us and makes himself known by us. That was, of course, the great challenge for the two disciples walking to Emmaus: how were they to know that it was Christ who joined them on the road? The initiative came from Jesus himself. And the initiative always comes from God, according to Gregory Palamas.

We live in an age where theological thought is almost non-existent in church circles. Serious theology has been replaced by simple-minded slogans and the marketing of the faith. Even sermons are expected to be short and practical.

If Jesus really was the Son of God and if his death had consequences for all human beings, then it is not something that should be turned into a slogan or a marketing campaign or a 10-minute feel good sermon. The two disciples walking to Emmaus were confused; they couldn’t understand how their friend and teacher could die on the cross. They thought he was the Messiah; he had come to deliver the people from Roman oppression. How could he have died, humiliated on the cross?

Jesus could have taken the easy approach – the marketing approach – and simply revealed himself on the road, to relieve them of their sadness. “Hey guys, it’s me. I rose from the dead. All’s well.” No, he said nothing of the sort. While walking, he opened to them the scriptures. He got into serious exegesis, serious theology. Then he sat to eat with them and broke the bread, blessed it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened. And he disappeared the minute they recognised him! No speech about being risen. He gave them the theology of words; and then he gave them the theology of bread and vision. And that was it. He wanted them to go back to Jerusalem; and there he would again reveal himself to all the gathered disciples. He wanted his community to be together before he would reveal himself in the fulness of his resurrection.

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But notice where the heavy theology took place – on the road, while they walked. Jesus walked everywhere. And while he walked he always taught his disciples. And he is still walking. I’m sure you’ve seen some version of that wonderful modern Christian parable called Footprints…

Walking is movement. And the Christian life must be a life of movement and growth – it must be! Think about the ancient Greeks. There was even a school of philosophy called the peripatetic school. It was Aristotle’s school, and it got its name because Aristotle and his students walked while he lectured. The people of Athens called Aristotle’s school the Peripatos! And before Aristotle, Socrates loved to walk while engaging in his many conversations that were preserved in the Dialogues of Plato. Many of the dialogues of Plato have vivid descriptions of the surroundings where Socrates and his conversation partners walked or met.

Down through the ages, walking has been the muse that inspired many geniuses. Beethoven loved to walk in the nature that surrounded the city of Vienna. And it was in these walks that he was inspired to write his 6th Symphony, the Pastorale, a symphony filled with the sounds of nature. Even great scientists like Einstein were often photographed walking.

Danish postage stamp celebrating the bicentennial of Kierkegaard’s birth

One of my favourite philosophers is Søren Kierkegaard. He lived in Denmark in the first half of the 19th century. He was notorious for walking the streets of Copenhagen and talking to strangers wherever he went. Kierkegaard was very critical about life in Denmark, so people were puzzled that he loved to walk and talk with complete strangers. They imagined that he would rather stay home by himself. But he walked and talked hours on end. Many caricatures drawn by his contemporaries show him walking.

He said he liked to walk because it was healthy:

[Every] day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one can not walk away from it. . . . [By] sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Health and salvation can only be found in motion. . . . If one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.

On many of his walks, he encountered people who ridiculed and criticised him for what he wrote. But this did not stop him from walking, or writing. He wrote against “sissy, effeminate” Christianity. Christians should “insist on getting out into the streets, among men, where there is danger and opposition.” The Christian goal, after all, is to become “a thorn in the eye of the world”. Walking the streets of Copenhagen was important to Kierkegaard because it helped him clarify the Christian faith. He went so far as to say that preaching should not be done inside churches, but out on the street, right in the middle of life.

And that last phrase, dear friends, is the key – in the middle of life. In the middle of life where Dante also met Vergil and the two began their walk through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – the three books that make up Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.

We are always in the middle of life; in the middle of our walk to Emmaus, to the resurrection, to the union with God that Gregory Palamas labored to explain. We are always in the middle; and that’s where Jesus comes and walks with us. No matter how old or how young you are, the middle is the place of growth. Don’t settle for less.