St Ephrem the Syrian blows my mind

On Monday I gave a lecture about St Ephrem the Syrian (c. 300-373) entitled “Orthodoxy in a Syriac Mode.” I had never read a substantial amount of St Ephrem before, although I had certainly read Sebastian Brock’s The Luminous Eye, Robert Murray’s Symbols of Church and Kingdom, and selections from Ephrem’s Hymns on the Nativity and Hymns on Paradise. For this lecture, however, I assigned all 28 Hymns on the Nativity as well as the “Homily on the Lord.”

And reading so much St Ephrem in a short time frame quite frankly blew my mind.

How, you may ask?

I found St Ephrem’s poetry mind-blowing in two ways, primarily. First, the way he heaps up typological associations on top of each other. It can be quite overwhelming. Second, the thundering of juxtapositions found in these hymns as well.

Typology is when a figure or event of the Old Testament is seen as a prefiguring of something in the New. Usually, they are shadows that are fulfilled by Christ, specifically. St Ephrem has many of the expected typologies, such as the Passover Lamb or Isaac, for example.

An example from the Hymns on the Nativity that I had never encountered before is Aaron’s staff being a prefiguring of the Cross — it is a piece of wood that destroys serpents.

St Ephrem’s hymns are filled to bursting with such imagery, and it’s beautiful and challenging. This is the benefit of poetry, though. In a logical, philosophical-theological treatise, you’d have to justify each of these typologies. In the midst of a poem, such justification is unnecessary. It doesn’t matter quite so much whether they are perfectly justifiable; really, what matters is their impact upon our worship of Christ and our exaltation of Him as God.

The juxtapositions, which he also piles up, are a further source of glory in St Ephrem. In particular, I am always struck by the series of antitheses he likes to compose:

The Lofty One became like a little child, yet hidden in Him was
a treasure of Wisdom that suffices for all.
He was lofty but he sucked Mary’s milk,
and from His blessings all creation sucks.
He is the Living Breast of living breath;
by His life the dead were suckled, and they revived.
Without the breath of air no one can live;
without the power of the Son no one can rise.
Upon the living breath of the One Who vivifies all
depend the living beings above and below.
As indeed He sucked Mary’s milk,
He has given suck — life to the universe.
As again He dwelt in His mother’s womb,
in His womb dwells all creation.
Mute He was as a babe, yet He gave
to all creation all His commands.

While His body in the womb was being formed,
His power was constructing all the members.
While the fetus of the Son was being formed in the womb,
He Himself was forming babes in the womb.
Ineffectual as was His body in the womb,
His power in the womb was not correspondingly ineffectual.

Hymns on Nativity 4.148-155, 160-162, trans. Kathleen E. McVey in Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns

It really only gets better from there, to tell the truth.

Sebastian Brock remarks in The Luminous Eye that for people who are weary and wary of modern, western Christianity, St Ephrem is an important figure to point them towards. What I’ve highlighted here is just the tip of the Syriac iceberg. Check him out.

On the Mount of Transfiguration

Today for Morning Prayer (Wednesday after Septuagesima), the Canadian 1959/62 BCP had as the Second Lesson the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. First this:

Manuscript image from the Theological Works of John VI Kantakouzenos. Byzantine, Constantinople, 1370-1375

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.

St Ambrose, the Bible, and Discipleship

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

Yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent, was Bible Sunday — so called because of its collect that is focussed on the Bible. I, myself, read a passage from St John of Damascus (feast day December 4) about the Bible at Evensong. Today is the feast of St Ambrose of Milan (the Fathers are coming on heavily this time of year — St Nick was yesterday), and scanning his works (particularly On the Faith) makes me think of some themes that have been coming together lately, often because of my friend Rick’s provocations(!).

First, then, St Ambrose and the Bible. St Ambrose was what some today might call a devoted Bible teacher and preacher. But when we look at how he fulfilled the episcopal office of preaching, we see that his methods, his hermeneutics, his exegesis, are not what we would expect from a modern “Bible teacher” — St Ambrose was committed to the allegorical or spiritual exposition of the Old Testament.

Without getting into all the various details of St Ambrose’s sermons and commentaries — some of which are almost verbatim translations of his older contemporary St Basil of Caesarea — what I want to stress here about St Ambrose’s commitment to sacred Scripture is the very heart of spiritual exegesis:

The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about Jesus the Christ.

When ancient Christians pull out allegory or typology or any other spiritual meaning, almost invariably their teaching points us in the direction of the Saviour. Martin Luther’s criticism of allegory as making Scripture into a “wax nose” is not entirely fair. In fact, many of the Fathers reproduce the same allegory from the same passages, as do the mediaevals, either independently or because they all read Origen.

Second, then, St Ambrose and discipleship. When you look at those texts of the saintly bishop of Milan that are about what we might call “discipleship essentials” — On the Faith, On the Mysteries, On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation — we do not find him giving extended treatment to the doctrine of sacred Scripture. He spends a lot of time arguing for the fullness of the Godhood of Jesus the Christ. He discusses the meaning of baptism and the Eucharist. He argues for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

And, although he spends a lot of time arguing from Scripture for the content of the orthodox faith, although his vision of discipleship essentials is derived from Scripture — the Bible is not the object of his faith, it would seem. The Bible, rather, informs the content of his faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, starts at Sacred Scripture.

St Ambrose’s faith lies instead in Jesus the Christ. His invitation to the Emperor Gratian, to the people of Milan, to the Emperor Theodosius is an invitation to holy obedience to and reverent worship of God the Word Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth.

This is important. Healthy Christianity is fundamentally about encountering Jesus Christ, about seeking to live under His Lordship, about meeting the living God in and through Christ the King.

We are called to be and to make disciples of Jesus, not the Bible.

A worthy meditation for this week following Bible Sunday.

Judgement and Consequences for the Western Church

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

One of my favourite moments in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the appearance in the entry for 1066 that the French are God’s judgement on the English for their sins. Obviously, the reference is to William the Bastard and the Norman conquest, but I still chuckle at the idea of all the French being God’s judgement on all the English for their sins.

Many Christians today are unlikely to see such events of secular politics in terms of spiritual failures. Those who are sophisticated enough will hopefully reject such thinking because we think along the lines of St Augustine’s City of God, where he delineates the reality that good things and bad things happen to pagans and Christians alike.

Nevertheless, my thoughts have meandered down that way tonight, provoked by starting into the chapter about Eusebius in Frances M. Young’s From Nicaea to Chalcedon (2nd ed.). As soon as Young hit Eusebius’s own living through the Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313, I recalled his account of the martyrs of Palestine and what he attributed this persecution to.

Eusebius believed that the final, and worst, persecution by the Roman government of the Christians was the result of the Christians becoming prosperous, worldly, soft — so God delivered them up to the Romans. As with so much in Eusebius, this is partly a matter of pointing to his own day, in effect: Just because things are nice with Constantine doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. Remember Diocletian. Do not become worldly or sinful.

What’s interesting is that the causal link between God using the persecution as discipline/punishment/judgement of the Church was that the problems God pinpointed were specifically those of the church.

Whether or not we can follow Eusebius in this is not the point. In my smarter moments, I follow Augustine. But sometimes I wonder. Either way, Eusebius’ focus is different from those Christians today who see God’s judgement upon the world in secular affairs.

These Christians say that COVID-19 or natural disasters or the 2008 recession or anything going wrong is the result of God’s judgement on the West for turning its back on Him, that it is the result of gay marriage or abortion or transgenderism or Hollywood or not supporting Israel or something being done largely by those outside the Church.

Consider a different scenario, instead. Rather than blaming the world out there for its problems, consider the world in the church. Let’s consider the hemorrhaging faith of Canadians. Let’s consider the not-completely-unreal possibility of soft totalitarianism. Let’s consider what a friend of mine calls “pseudo-nationalist racist populism.” These things are all sources of danger for people who choose to stand publicly for the historic Christian faith, dangers coming from both the right and the left.

And my thesis is simply this: If they are not the judgement of God on us for our own faithlessness, our own worldliness, our own sin — they are the perfectly natural historical consequence.

It may not be persecution. It may not be guided by providence as discipline.

But it may still be our own damn fault. (Literally.)

Justification by Faith Alone

Image courtesy of Mae

Every Sunday morning, I get up at the beginning of church and say a little something about where we are in the church year, highlighting an upcoming saint’s day. So far, I’ve done St Matthew the Apostle (my namesake!), St Michael the Archangel (my brother’s namesake!), St Francis of Assisi (whose feast was actually a Sunday!), St Luke the Evangelist (whose feast was also a Sunday but was used to promote the idea that Every Sunday is Easter instead), and Reformation Day.

Reformation Day is All Hallows Even, and it is the commemoration of Martin Luther pinning the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Rather than discuss the 95 Theses themselves — they are mostly about papal indulgences and ecclesiastical abuses — I talked about the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying that although there are many sorrowful things to have arisen in the tradition of the Reformation — and people like me who enjoy things pre-modern tend to focus on them — justification by faith alone is the main business of the affair, and it is worth holding on to.

Nothing you do can make you right with God. You just have to trust Him. That’s what faith is. That’s what brings us into right relationship with God.

Now, I have to admit straight out of the gate that I am about to utter a hunch that would require a deeper knowledge of Luther and the magisterial Reformation as well as of Late Mediaeval theology in order to become a thesis, but my hunch is that much of Luther’s teaching on sola fide is not actually counter to the mediaeval, catholic tradition in and of itself, although cranky old man Luther would probably have disagreed after a few pints. My hunch is that Luther’s sola fide represents a legitimate flowering of pre-existing trajectories with Latin catholic thought that, because of other things he said and did, was rejected at Trent (or was it — when Trent’s not being anti-Protestant, the Council Fathers say some beautiful things).

Certainly the whole tradition, East and West, ancient and medieval and modern, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox, has its lucid moment of what sounds a lot like justification by faith alone. I’m still trying to sort this out, but I’ll close with a quotation from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, an anthology of daily readings from the Fathers by Thomas Spidlik. This quotation emerged last Saturday just after I had finished meditating on what to say about Reformation Day:

Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith. He must shake the hoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord. He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.

Don’t hesitate to declare yourselves sinners. Thereby you will put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error. And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with its Creator.

Don’t say: ‘I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offences innumerable times. Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them?’ Listen rather to the Psalmist: ‘How great is your love, O Lord.’ (Ps. 31:19)

You sins piled one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love. Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.

There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.’ (Ps 32.5) Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: ‘Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.’

St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 1.2ff.

Seeking the incomprehensible life

I posted this quote to a group I’m part of on Facebook. It’s a group started by a friend who works for a mission organisation; his job is to help encourage, ignite, and equip disciple-making movements around the world. The group is largely focussed on how poorly we seem to be doing at this in the white Anglophone world. Part of the problem, my friend has postulated, is that we keep focussing on having “new wineskins”, but we’ve lost sight of the wine (Jesus the Christ) and keep offering Kool-Aid in new packaging.

Anyway, my contribution was the following passage from Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite:

Strange and incomprehensible to the world is the Christian life. Everything is paradoxical, everything contrary to the ways of the world, and there is no explaining it in words. The only way to understand is by doing the will of God — by observing Christ’s commandments. The way He Himself indicated. (p. 45)

I wrote that this passage “makes me wonder if we Protestants have spent too much time making ourselves comprehensible to the world and too little time pondering Our Lord’s commands.”

My friend who started the group pointed out that observing Christ’s commands from the Sermon on the Mount means moving our focus not only from murder to anger but as far as actively seeking reconciliation. I’m pretty sure that’s radically countercultural. I’m pretty sure most people tear into their enemies with anger or just avoid them. (I’m an avoider.)

Archimandrite Sophrony shows an example of this incomprehensible life in the all-consuming love for others that came upon St Silouan as a result of grace. St Silouan would weep for those who would end up in hell, and pray even for them. He once met a hermit who happily spoke of how the atheists would suffer in hell. St Silouan expressed his grief at this — how is this love for others, to rejoice at their suffering? (I’m sure David Bentley Hart would have some things to say about this, but I’m not one for debating about universal salvation.)

This feeling of sorrow for those who are outside of Christ, this all-encompassing love for others — this is what characterised St Silouan in his outward life. This was the result of his tireless pursuit of prayer, of God, of Christ our God.

In The Cloud of Unknowing, the author says that the increase of love for others is a result of contemplative prayer. The closer we are to Christ, the more we love other humans.

As the Internet increasingly polarises us, we must find ways to live out the radical commandments of love that Jesus gives us. Meditating on the Sermon on the Mount, as my friend suggests, is a place to start. Praying, praying, praying, as St Silouan did, is another.

History of Christianity 5: 1700-Today

Today I posted the final video in the History of Christianity on YouTube, taking us from 1700-2020, from “Christendom” to Global Faith, focussing on Methodists, Russians, and Nazis.

 

Bibliography

The World As 100 Christians

Methodists
John Wesley, “The Means of Grace.”
—. “The Duty of Constant Communion.”
—. “When You Fast.”
—. Complete Works of John Wesley.
John and Charles Wesley, Hymns on the Lord’s Supper.

Russians
Anthony Bloom. Beginning to Pray. London, 1970.
Isaac the Syrian (or Isaac of Nineveh). Mystic Treatises. Trans. A. J. Wensinck. Wiesbaden, 1969.
Andrew Louth. Modern Orthodox Thinkers from the Philokalia to the Present. London: SPCK, 2015.
Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth. The Philokalia. Vols 1-4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware. Faber & Faber.
The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. Trans. Helen Bacovcin. New York: Image, 1978.
NB: I confess that my source for the missionaries was OrthodoxWiki!

Nazis
Barmen Declaration
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. 1937. English trans from 1959 by R H Fuller and Irmgard Booth.
MacLeod, Dayspring. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel. 2018.
ten Boom, Corrie with John and Elizabeth Sherrill. The Hiding Place. 1971.

Steve Foster!
Michael Hoskin, The Benefit of Steel: The Life and Times of Dr. Steve Foster.

History of Christianity 4: Reform and the Disciplines (1500-1700)

Here’s this week’s video for the History of Christianity. Here’s the Reformation Handout.

Recommended Reading – If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings:

Three Protestants

Hooker, Richard. 1585. A Learned Discourse of Justification. https://ccel.org/ccel/hooker/just/

Luther, Martin, “On Faith and Coming to Christ,” a sermon from 1528 https://ccel.org/ccel/luther/sermons/sermons.vii.html

Taylor, Jeremy. 1550. The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, chapter 1: https://ccel.org/ccel/taylor/holy_living/holy_living.iii.html

A Carmelite

John of the Cross. 1575. “The Dark Night of the Soul” (the poem). https://ccel.org/ccel/john_cross/dark_night/dark_night.vi.html

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Book of Common Prayer. 1549: http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1549/BCP_1549.htm

—. 1662: http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/index.html

Calvin, John. 1550. The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. Available on Scribd with subscription.

—. Institutes of the Christian Religion. https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes/

de Brébeuf, Jean. 1642. “The Huron Carol,” on YouTube in Wendat, French, and English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6IG6F6E5Ac. The popular English lyrics are not reflective of the Wendat, which the Wendat themselves still sing on Christmas Eve. Here’s a translation of the Wendat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huron_Carol#English_Translation_of_the_Wendat

Dositheus of Jerusalem. 1672. Confession. http://www.crivoice.org/creeddositheus.html

Hooker, Richard. 1589-1600. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hooker-the-works-of-richard-hooker-vol-1 However, see the modernised version of W. Bradford Littlejohn from the Davenant Institute: https://davenantinstitute.org/product/laws-4-volume-set/

John of the Cross. The Dark Night of the Soul. https://ccel.org/ccel/john_cross/dark_night/dark_night?queryID=3647298&resultID=730

Lucaris, Cyril. 1629. Orthodox Confession. http://www.crivoice.org/creedcyril.html

Luther, Martin. 1517. 95 Theses in Latin and English: https://ccel.org/ccel/luther/theses/theses?queryID=3645877&resultID=1818

—. 1520. The Freedom of a Christian. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1911

—. Commentary on Romans. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/luther/romans/

—. Commentary on Galatians. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/luther/galatians/

Teresa of Avila. 1565. The Life of St Teresa (her autobiography). http://www.carmelitemonks.org/Vocation/teresa_life.pdf

—. 1577. The Interior Castle. https://ccel.org/ccel/teresa/castle2/

 

Modern Studies

Endo, Shusaku. 1966. Silence. (This is a novel, not a study.)

Hoskin, Matthew J. J. “Becoming Holy with Richard Hooker,” Ad Fontes, web exclusive: https://davenantinstitute.org/becoming-holy-with-richard-hooker

Littlejohn, W. Bradford. 2015. Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work. Eugene, OR. Available on Scribd with a subscription.

Peters, Greg. The Story of Monasticism. Baker Publishing, 2015. Available on Scribd with subscription.

Ryrie, Alec. Protestants: The Faith the Made the Modern World. New York, 2017.

History of Christianity video 2: Late Ancient Christianty, 300-600

Here’s my second History of Christianity video, covering the years 300-600. I had hoped to create a handout this week. As yet, no such luck. Maybe later today if other things go well…

In this week’s instalment of the history of Christianity, we look at the years 300-600. Sticking to our themes of spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity, we look at three topics:

  1. Christianisation of the Roman Empire
  2. Monasticism from Egypt to St Benedict
  3. Christianity outside the Roman Empire

If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):

Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Bk 1, chh. 26-32

Athanasius, Life of St Antony

St Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, Prologue

Agathangelos, History, Book 3

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, pp. 152-159, 174-183, and 192-212.

Further Ancient Sources

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975.

John Cassian, The Conferences. The quotation is from Conference 10, ch. 7

Further Modern Sources

Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford, 2011.

Henry Chadwick and G. R. Evans, Atlas of the Christian Church. Oxford, 1987.

J Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity. 2009. -Available if you have a Scribd subscription.