In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.
This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:
Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon (451)
Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) and the Third Council of Constantinople (680/1)
John of Damascus (d. 749) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787)
Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.
The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.
Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.
The other day, my two-and-a-half-year-old son pointed at an image of God creating the world on a CD cover and asked, “Who’s this?”
I dutifully answered, and then later that evening I made this video that explores the question of God having a human form with a jolly ride through some ecclesiastical history around the year 400, from the Anthropomorphite Controversy to the Synod of the Oak and the deposition of St John Chrysostom. Enjoy!
Pandemic regulations have shifted, so we can now have up to 43.5 people in our sanctuary for religious gatherings! Wishing to advertise tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, I rounded up the image below for use on Facebook:
I chose the photo because of the Renaissance fresco of the Last Supper from San Lorenzo in Milan (a church I visited because its fabric is Late Antique, even if not its decoration). After putting the details below the pic — Holy Communion, 7:30 — I went to type “This is my body…” in the upper left corner.
And then I realised that this blurry photo I took has more going on than I was thinking about. Because there, in the foreground, is a terracotta pieta, of the dead Christ with His mother. I think she’s cleaning His wounds?
Here’s the wild beauty of the Eucharist, friends. The night He was betrayed to suffering and death, the night before He died, Jesus took bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body.”
And then, the next day, they took His body, limp and dead, off a Roman cross. They tended His wounds. They placed His body in a tomb.
Jesus also said, “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:55)
That body, that flesh, is present to us, really present, in the Holy Communion. It is a mystery to be received in reverence, as He imparts His very self and the fulness of His grace to us.
This is a meditation on 1 Corinthians 1:18-19 I put together for my church this past Sunday, following the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary.
In today’s readings, St Paul says that “Christ crucified,” is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18-19) Think on that—Christ crucified, suffering, sighing, bleeding, dying, is the power of God and the wisdom of God. If we imagine one of those early Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion (see left!), there we see blood pouring out of Christ, running down his limbs and his cross, his own self hanging limp and weak and powerless. This, the power of God? Indeed, a stumbling block and foolishness!
Christians throughout the ages, however, have found that Christ on the cross with the blood he shed is powerful. Some of the great women of faith show us this (it is Women’s History Month, after all!). Around 1100, St Hildegard of Bingen wrote:
he shed his beautiful blood and tasted in his body the darkness of death. By this means he overcame the devil, led forth his elect from hell in which they had been thrown down and confined, and brought them back, through his mercy and the touch of his redemption
Scivias Part 2, Vision 1.13
In the fourteenth century Julian of Norwich, as she lay sick almost to the point of death, had a vision of Christ on the Cross:
There were times when I wanted to look away from the cross, but I dared not. For I knew that while I gazed on the cross I was safe and sound, and I was not going to imperil my soul. Apart from the cross there was no assurance against the horror of fiends.
Revelations of Divine Love 19
The fourteenth-century Italian mystic St Catherine of Siena wrote, in the voice God the Father in her Dialogue:
But such is the freedom of your humanity, and so strong have you been made by the power of this glorious blood, that neither the devil nor any other creature can force you to the least sin unless you want it. You were freed from slavery so that you might be in control of your own powers and reach the end you were created for.
The great proclamation of the Apostles is the lived experience of Christians in the ages: Christ’s death is our gain, and here he shows us God’s power, to save us from sin, the flesh, the devil. When the ancient Christians beheld this mystery, that the immortal dies, that God himself loved us so much that he became one of us in order to die—here is where they saw the true glory of Christ as the eternal God, begotten of the Father before all ages. It is the Cross that is the seal and proof of the divinity of Jesus the Messiah, and it is here that all Christian theology finds its beginning.
The God we worship is not an aloof, distant, unreachable deity. He took on our flesh. He died because he loves us. And he comes to us daily, whether mystically at prayer or in our brothers and sisters. This is the message of the Cross. God loves us; he does not want us be slaves to our sins, our own selves, our own deaths. So he died to save us, taking upon himself all the sin of the world, and then, because he was both the immortal God and a sinless, perfect human, trampling down death by death and rising again. The Cross is the anchor in the storms of life this Lent. Grab it. Hold on. The God who loved us enough to die will get us through.
A thought from St Teresa of Avila in the 1500s to close:
it is good to reflect for a while and think of the pains He suffered, and of why He suffered them, and of who it was that suffered them, and of the love with which He suffered them.
Today for Morning Prayer (Wednesday after Septuagesima), the Canadian 1959/62 BCP had as the Second Lesson the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. First this:
Since I’m in the midst of teaching a course on the Nicene Controversy, I look at the Transfiguration and all the things I’ve been reading in St Athanasius, St Ephrem, St Basil, and their modern interpreters comes flooding into my heart. Indeed, this icon even reflects the Nicene Creed:
God from God, light from light, very God from very God.
As Edith M. Humphrey puts it,
It is in the shining face of Jesus, and in the glory seen most profoundly on the cross, that we catch a vision of the likeness of God.
Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 91
And St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian):
He was bright as the lightning on the mountain and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.
Oration 3.19, “On the Son”, quoted in Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 98
As at all times, the appropriate response to Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration is to worship.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. Normally we say, “This is when the Wise Men visited Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” And we’re not wrong in that.
But why is it called Epiphany?
Simply put — it is the revelation of YHWH to the Gentiles, represented by the Wise Men. It is the proclamation of the glorious God to the nations, found in the person of Jesus, the God Word Incarnate.
I’ve been mulling over lectionaries and Bible readings lately. One friend was encouraging people not to do a typical “Read the Bible in a year” plan but to use the daily lectionary from the Revised Common Lectionary because it puts the Scriptures together in Christological, Christocentric perspective. I have a built-in skepticism about the Revised Common Lectionary, so I started evaluating other options, looking for something pre-modern. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with my friend Andrew (a mediaeval manuscript guy who is a theologically conservative Anglo-Catholic pondering Eastern Orthodoxy [you can see why we get along]), I learned from him that the Canadian BCP 1962 lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer is basically medieval.
Anyway, although this exchange also resulted in him sending me a 343-page Mass lectionary based on BCP-Sarum, I am going with BCP 1962, in large part because of the wonderful new Common Prayer Canada app from the Prayer Book Society! And its Scripture readings are doing just what my other, non-Anglican friend was lauding RCL for doing: Christological, Christocentric Scriptures.
Epiphany has been really exciting as a result — Psalms and Prophets proclaiming the recognition of YHWH by the nations, his revelation unto them, and Israel to be a light to lighten the Gentiles. You read this, and then you read …
not the three Wise Men.
This morning, the Second Lesson at Morning Prayer was the Baptism of Christ from Luke 3. And how does this end? “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.” The revelation of Christ as God the Son!
The Eastern Churches use a different Greek word for today: Theophany. Today is the Holy Theophany of our Lord Jesus, and it explicitly includes the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.
Some closing thoughts, then. First: Psalm 87 sees a day when Philistia and Tyre, Babylon and Ethiopia, will worship YHWH. Isaiah sees in multiple places the nations coming to worship the Lord, coming to his holy mountain. The nations, the gentes (hence gentiles), will see the glory of the Lord and recognise him. The wise men who met the child Jesus and bowed and worshipped him were the firstfruits of this crop. We are of the nations as well. What was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures is being fulfilled here and now as the glory of the Lord is made known to the ends of the earth because of the ongoing life of Christ, himself the Lord, in his mystical body, the church.
Second: Babylon is gone. The ancient kingdom of Israel is gone. The Persian Empire is gone. The Roman Empire is gone. Some day, the Dominion of Canada, the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will all pass away. “Earth’s proud empires pass away,” as the hymn puts it.
But the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Heavens, revealed and made manifest in Christ at his holy Theophany — this kingdom will never fade. Let us hold to this hope and this citizenship above all.
Today is the feast of Christ the King. As the title of the Kanye West album says, Jesus is King. Today, the final Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the reign of Christ in a feast instituted only in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. To celebrate this feast, I thought I’d share some snapshots of mine from Rome! 😉
Each of these images has important theological significance, and each of them is important for us thinking of Jesus as King. If Jesus is King, most of us imagine him enthroned as in my first image, a mediaeval mosaic from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. As they would have sung at Santa Maria Maggiore in Lent in the era of that mosaic, Praise to you O Christ, King of Eternal Glory!
But before he was enthroned in glory, Our King was enthroned in death. The ruler of the upside down kingdom slain by the principalities and powers of this present age — thus my second image, an eighth-century (I think) fresco from Santa Maria Antiqua. As a note to art history, pre-Gothic — so, before 1100ish — crucifixion images have Jesus standing in triumph, not hanging in death. For this was our King’s greatest triumph.
But the Orthodox would also call us to remember Our King’s first throne, in this 12th-c image from the church of Santa Pudenziana. Jesus is King, enthroned on His Mother’s lap, a reminder of the theological reality that He was and is fully human with a human mother, just as we have.
This brings me to our final image, of Christ in his mother’s lap one last time. Michelangelo’s Pieta from St Peter’s Basilica. Behold your king.
My own prayer for Christ the King Sunday:
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the King of Eternal Glory. We thank you that we have come through another year as your church. We come to you today at the close of the church year, celebrating your kingship. Help us to remember that at all points in the church calendar — as we recall your birth as a helpless infant, your glory on the mount of Transfiguration, your saving death and resurrection, your glorious ascension, the sending of your Spirit, and your ongoing life in the lives of your saints — help us to remember that at all times you are King. May you come and be King in our hearts, in our families, in our city, in our province, in our nation. You are the one, true King, and citizenship in Heaven is worth more than any earthly citizenship. Rule in our hearts here and now that we may be attentive and worship you, our King and God, in Spirit and in Truth. In your mighty name, we pray, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I realise that this blog is primarily devoted to things ancient and mediaeval, but one recent development I felt I should share here is my recent move across the province of Ontario from Ottawa to Thunder Bay, the city of my teenage years. It takes about 18-20 hours to drive between these two cities. It has a reputation for being North, although this Alberta boy would like to remind everyone that at 48° 22′ 55.9956” N, Thunder Bay is south of all three prairie provinces and most of British Columbia.
That said, Thunder Bay is north of most of the population of Ontario, and, regardless of northerliness it is remote. The nearest major Canadian city is Winnipeg, about eight hours’ drive away or so.
So what brings me from the nation’s capital back to the Canadian Shield of my youth? Is it Nanabijou, the giant sleeping across the Bay? Is it Mount Mckay rising at the south end of the city? Is it Kakabeka Falls? Is it seeing the now abandoned site of my high school? Is it Persians? Is it the … grain terminals?
It is none of these things, in fact.
Unexpectedly, I am the manager of The Habit Coffee & Bake Shop, run out of/by the Urban Abbey in Port Arthur (my uncles and aunt from Fort William have forgiven me for betraying the family). That said, the view from behind the counter is pretty good:
Now, although I have been enjoying serving coffee and ordering coffee beans and buying large quantities of milk and suchlike things, The Habit is not actually the reason I’m here. It’s the reason I’m getting paid.
In the long run, I am here at Thunder Bay to work at the Urban Abbey on the pastoral staff as Coordinator of Liturgy and Education (to be honest, we’re still working on the job title!) and, in the longer run, to start a theological college, an Urban Abbey school.
There’s a lot to say about the Urban Abbey (and its ancient-Celtic-future ethos), about the vision of having a school for ministry here, about ministry and mission in Thunder Bay, and so on. These reflections will join the cavalcade of ancient, medieval, Byzantine, and Anglican voices and ideas processing through this blog.
Watch this space for more. Excuse me, time to make a coffee…
These Anthems shall be sung or said instead of Venite at Morning Prayer, and may be used at the Holy Communion except when the latter Service is combined with Morning Prayer.
CHRIST our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast; Not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; / but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 1 Corinthians 5. 7.
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; / death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, / but alive unto God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6. 9.
Christ is risen from the dead, / and become the first-fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, / by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, / even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 1 Corinthians 15. 20.
GLORY be to the Father, and to the Son, / and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, / world without end. Amen.