Most of us are having a hard time keeping our spirits up as we deal with government restrictions in light of this pandemic. Whatever we’re going through, I am not sure it is worse than being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, though. And that’s what happened to St Patrick. About his time as a slave, Patrick writes:
After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.
Here is my reflection for the Urban Abbey, Thunder Bay, from yesterday’s lectionary readings.All passages quoted from the ESV.
Today’s reading from Numbers 21:4-9 tells the story of how, when the Israelites were disobedient and grumbling against God and Moses, serpents were sent amongst them as punishment. Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole. Whoever looked up and saw the serpent would live. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes an explicit parallel between the bronze serpent and himself, saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) Sometimes we imagine Jesus “lifted up” as a reference to his reigning in glory with the Father, as mentioned in today’s epistle reading, Ephesians 2:6, where St Paul says that God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
But in John 3, Jesus is speaking of his own death on the cross. We must look to the cross to be saved, just as the Israelites looked to the serpent to be saved. The people of Israel, as the book of Numbers tells us, were dying—in fact, many of them had died by the time Moses made the bronze serpent. They were dying from their own disobedience. But God, in his boundless mercy, also provided them a way out. All they needed to do was trust in him and look to the bronze serpent.
As we read in today’s Ephesians reading, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” (Ephesians 2:1) But God did not leave us in our spiritual death. In his mercy, by his grace, he “made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). We simply need faith; that is to say, all we need to do is trust in God and look to the cross. As we read later in the Ephesians passage, it is faith, not works, that enables us to grasp hold of the famous, wonderful promise of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” No matter how morally upright we are, no matter how many “charitable deeds” we perform, no matter how righteously we spend our money, no matter how much we pray, none of this will be what saves us and places us in a right relationship with God. It entirely by God’s grace that we are saved.
Many today will essentially stop there. We are saved by grace through faith, as Ephesians 2:8 teaches us. By “saved”, we usually mean “justified”—that we are saved from the penalty of sin and that we are enabled to enter into a right relationship with God. This is a truth, and a beautiful truth, and worth meditating on. But I think St Paul has a bigger vision of salvation, and so does St John, let alone Jesus himself. In John 3, Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God and how we enter that kingdom through being born again, being born of the Spirit. We enter that kingdom by looking to Christ on the cross, high and lifted up, like that bronze snake in Exodus. And if we start thinking in terms of the Kingdom of God, we start to consider not simply what we are saved from, but what we are saved for.
God’s grace not only snatches us from the fire or, like the string on a tea bag, from the hot water we get ourselves into. It also brings us back to life and empowers us to do good works—St Paul follows his teaching on being saved by grace through faith by immediately saying, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) We are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and are meant to live accordingly. But we are not left alone to struggle in the quest for holiness; that would be mere moralism. No, we are given God’s grace to help us live this way. The saved life is the life that grows over time into greater holiness, living according to God’s kingdom, all empowered by God’s grace.
With God all things are possible, as Jesus teaches us in Matthew 19:26. By faith we take hold of the promises of God. His grace comes to us wherever we are, washes us in the blood of Jesus, brings us into a relationship with God (which is how Jesus describes eternal life in John 17:3: knowing God the Holy Trinity). The pathway of Christian discipleship is not looking to the cross and then doing as we please. It is not living morally on our own strength. It is looking the cross and keeping it ever before us—lifted up—and trusting in the power of God to work within us so that we can do those good works that God has already prepared for us.
There is, really, one truly appropriate response to this, and it is to praise God! As our Psalm for today says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!” (Psalm 107:1) Allow me to close this reflection with some words from St Patrick, the fifth-century missionary to Ireland whose feast we celebrate this coming Wednesday. St Patrick was relatively uneducated and went from slave to missionary by the grace of God, bringing many of the Irish to faith in Jesus Christ, which was the good work God had prepared for him (as Patrick himself says). In his Confession, we read:
I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall (Psalm 69:15). That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.
One of the blessings of the saints’ feasts is how they turn our hearts to the faithfulness of God. Today we commemorate St Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 604. Gregory’s great desire in life was to be a monk; to still alone in stillness and contemplate the greatness of God. Instead, he was called from the monastic life to be bishop of Rome. The fruit of St Gregory’s contemplation is visible in his written works, from Bible commentaries to a life of St Benedict. But it is perhaps most visible in . . . ourselves. In 597, St Gregory sent the abbot of his Roman monastery with twelve companions to convert the pagan, barbarian English people. This was the beginning of the conversion of the English people, thanks to the grace of God in the life of a man who would rather have been faithful in some other way.
I, a descendant of those English barbarians, had the opportunity to encounter what may have been St Gregory’s shepherd’s crook (art historians say it isn’t). In thankfulness to God for this man’s faithfulness, I kissed it alongside the monks who live in his old monastery today.
God will be faithful to our own spiritual lives, as he was to Gregory, even if our only challenge is making it to Easter without chocolate.
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.
This Monday I lectured about St Basil the Great (330-379), and the discussion portion of the evening was reserved for his treatise On the Holy Spirit. One of the facts that I brought up in St Basil’s response to Eunomius of Cyzicus was the fact that, contrary to Eunomius’ thought, Basil teaches that we cannot actually know anyone perfectly according to their essence. Our knowledge of other persons is derived from their activities — what they say, what they do, how they react to what we say, etc., etc. We can learn about the essence of another person from his or her activities, but the activities are what we experience directly.
Eunomius, on the other, was understood by his opponents to say that we can know God according to His essence — and a proper understanding of accurate doctrine, the sound use of words, was part of this. God, according to essence, for the Eunomian, is unoriginated, for example. Knowing this helps bring us closer to the actual essence of God.
The word used by St Basil for “activities” is energeiai. As I drafted my notes, my mind was drawn inevitably to St Gregory Palamas (1296-1357/59), almost a millennium later. I’ve blogged about the essence/energies distinction in Palamite theology before. Twice, in fact. Being a lumper rather than a splitter, I thought it was worth bringing this Byzantine moment into the lecture itself, to show my students the ongoing trajectories of these things, but also bringing up the difference between Palamas and St Thomas Aquinas on this point — and noting that we Protestants have no official position here.
In mentioning Palamas and his use of this distinction, I mentioned the hescyhastic controversy and the encounter monks of Mount Athos had had with what they deemed the uncreated light, the energy of God.
I’d like to note here that St Gregory Palamas, in fact, uses St Basil, On the Holy Spirit as a source:
The divine supraessentiality is never named in the plural. But the divine and uncreated grace and energy of God is indivisibly divided, like the sun’s rays that warm, illumine, quicken and bring increase as they cast their radiance upon what they enlighten, and shine on the eyes of whoever beholds them. In the manner, then, of this faint likeness, the divine energy of God is called not only one but also multiple by the theologians. Thus St Basil the Great declares: ‘What are the energies of the Spirit? Their greatness cannot be told and they are numberless. How can we comprehend what precedes the ages? What were God’s energies before the creation of noetic reality?’
St Gregory Palamas, Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts, ch. 68, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, The Philokalia, Vol. 4, p. 377, citing St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, ch. 19.49
The point being made at this particular moment in Palamas is that the energy, the activity, of God is single and fully united yet still able to achieve multiple effects. This particular Palamite treatise, apologetics for the hesychasts, is, in fact, replete with references to the Cappadocians and Chrysostom.
The central argument of Topics of Natural and Theological Science is that the light the hesychasts have encountered is the uncreated light of God, the energy of God, the activity of God, existing with God before creation, and not a created grace sent from God as a blessing (which is what the more Thomist-Aristotelian Barlaam would argue, it seems).
How do we encounter God in that uncreated light? The approach comes up in the name for these monks — hesychasts, those who pursue hesychia, defined by the translators of the Philokalia thus:
a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him.
The Philokalia, vol. 4, p. 435.
What one of my students wanted to know was the relation of hesychia and meeting God in that place of stillness to the wider Christian life. The short version of my answer was that meeting God in stillness, in your prayer closet (cf. Mt 6:6) always results in greater love for other humans, but that the life with other humans is part of the life with God. (As my answers tend to do, it ranged widely: The Cloud of Unknowing, Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, St Basil the Great, St Silouan the Athonite, St John of the Cross.)
This is the tension of the Christian spiritual life. To make our eastern hesychastic vision almost up-to-date, St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) spent time as an almost-hermit in his monastery where he could pray as much as and whenever he wanted. He later spent time as steward of the monastery, where he had to adapt his prayer life to meet the schedule and demands of this role, a large part of which was organising and overseeing the lay brothers who worked for the monastery. He found greater satisfaction in the latter role, despite the reduced times for prayer. As St Basil says, how can we fulfil the command to love our neighbour if we spend all our time alone?
God is encountered in silence alone. God is encountered in community.
In closing, one of the driving forces behind the theologians covered in my Nicaea course is the true encounter with God that the Christian has, whether as a member of the mystical body of the Incarnate Christ as St Athansius’ shows in On the Incarnation and the Life of St Antony, or as a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit as St Basil shows in On the Holy Spirit. The Christian life, then, is an encounter with the Triune God, and this is what they were trying to put into words.
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.
This post is not really related to yesterday’s post, in case you were wondering. I think it’s worth reminding people of this fact, especially at this time of year — perhaps particularly with every church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary about to have a sermon on the Annunciation this coming Sunday.
You — male, female, childless, parent of many,
whoever you may be —
are not the BVM.
I write this because many of us this year have no doubt already sung, “cast out our sin and enter in / be born in us today,” from the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It’s not a bad metaphor, as far as things go. I’ve never really questioned it until this year, to be honest. But I am not certain that it is part of the Great Tradition (or at least, not for very long), and I have not seen it in Scripture.
The closest we may come in the Great Tradition is the Cistercian image of Christ having three or four comings, one of which is when he comes to us here, today, in our hearts. Be that as it may, the Christ who comes now, even if that same carol is correct in the lovely words:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given when God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No hear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
— even if, I say, that carol is correct, the dear Christ who enters in so silently is not the babe of Bethlehem anymore. He may not yet come as the Rider on the White Horse, exacting the justice of the LORD against His foes. But He still comes, and our response is not that of the BVM (not really, maybe kind of) but of the Magi who worship the Child, of St Thomas who encounters the risen Christ and proclaims
My Lord and my God!
The degree to which our response to the coming of Christ into our hearts today is like that of the BVM is as follows, “Let it me unto me according to thy will.” A humble acceptance that we are God’s douloi, slaves, and as such seek to do His will. Acknowledging that St Mary the Virgin is Theotokos, the God-bearer, means that the Child of Bethlehem is God. Therefore, when he enters in, we find ourselves his disciples.
Almighty and everlasting God, Who hast willed that on the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son should depend the beginning and the completion of all religion ; grant us, we beseech Thee, to be reckoned as a portion of Him, on whom is built the whole salvation of mankind ; through Jesus Christ our Lord. — Leonine Sacramentary (aka Sacramentary of Verona, 7th century)
O God, Who art pleased to save, by the Nativity of Thy Christ, the race of man, which was mortally wounded in its chief; grant, we beseech Thee, that we may not cleave to the author of our perdition, but be transferred to the fellowship of our Redeemer ; through Je- sus Christ our Lord. — Leonine Sacramentary
Grant, O Lord, we beseech Thee, to Thy people an inviolable firmness of faith ; that as they confess Thine Only-begotten Son, the everlasting partaker of Thy glory, to have been born in our very flesh, of the Virgin Mary, they may be delivered from present adversities, and admitted into joys that shall abide; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. — Gregorian Sacramentary (8th/9th century)
Merciful and most loving God, by Whose will and bounty Jesus Christ our Lord humbled Himself for this — that He might exalt the whole race of man, and descended to the depths for the purpose of lifting up the lowly ; and was born, God-Man, by the Virgin, for this cause — that He might restore in man the lost celestial image; grant that Thy people may cleave unto Thee, that as Thou hast redeemed them by Thy bounty, they may ever please Thee by devoted service. — Gallican Sacramentary (I am not sure which sacramentary Bright refers to here)
I think this has suddenly struck me as important because taking on the metaphor of Christ being born in our hearts both infantilises the King Who reigns on high and also … cheapens? … the historical reality and unrepeatability of the Incarnation, of the virginal conception. There is one and only Theotokos because the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the God Word Incarnate, took on flesh and pitched His tent amongst one time.
The historical particularity of the Incarnation of God the Son affects our response to Him, just as it affected that of the BVM.
Enter into the school of the Lord as His disciples. Take up citizenship in His kingdom. Whoever you are, wherever you find Him, whether at the bottom of a whisky glass or a Billy Graham Crusade or at Mass or in a monastery or in the Outer Hebrides or hiding from your children under the tablecloth — you are not His Mother. That is a job that was uniquely given in real, live human history.
Our job today in real, live human history? Worship and bow down.
A week ago it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). Two days later, I gave a lecture about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, so St Mary the Virgin, Theotokos, Genetrix Dei was inevitably on my mind, St Cyril having been instrumental in enshrining Theotokos as a title for the Mother of Our Lord.
One of the people I follow on Facebook is Roman Catholic musician John Michael Talbot. He unsurprisingly posted some images from his residence at Little Portion Hermitage commemorating the feast. Because he has a fan base from both Roman Catholics and Protestants, he had to post a request for people to stop anti-Catholic trolling his post. One person went so far as to say that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “grieves the Father’s heart” in response to John Michael’s request for people to stop slamming the Church of Rome on a page maintained by Roman Catholics (frankly, a polite request easily abided by).
Now, I am not Roman Catholic, so I do not believe in the Immaculate Conception of the BVM. Don’t worry. My current approach to differences between myself and the Church of Rome has moved from, “And this is why I’m not a Papist!” to, “Hm. Why do Roman Catholics believe this?” I am far from, “I’m agnostic on points where the 39 Articles disagree with Rome.”
So — the Immaculata. Why?
When Marian dogmas are being done right, they all have one goal: To glorify Jesus the Christ, the God Word, God the Son incarnate. It seems to many of us that they detract from His dignity, and maybe sometimes in practice they can, but that is not the formal, official intention of the Roman Church (an important point to keep in mind).
The easiest place to begin, if you ask me, is Theotokos, Genetrix Dei, Mother of God. The Greek is literally “God-bearer”. This is a title that was in common use by the year 428, and the Bishop of Constantinople, an unsympathetic fellow called Nestorius, decided that Christians shouldn’t use this title anymore, urging them instead to say Christotokos, Mother of Christ, instead.
St Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (in terms of politicking, likewise unsympathetic, but a better theologian — and abler politician) took umbrage with this and argued that the fullness of the union between divine and human that is Jesus the Christ means that we cannot separate Christ from God like that. Thus, the child born in Bethlehem and carried in the virgin’s womb was completely and utterly God. The son of Mary was also God the Son.
The title Christotokos diminishes the reality and fullness of the Incarnation.
To get back to the Immaculate Conception of the BVM, then. How does this teaching exalt Christ? Well, first it would help to know what it actually is, right? The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM is the teaching that at the point of conception, Christ cleansed her of original sin. It is not not not not NOT a virginal conception. She was conceived in the usual manner by Joachim and Anna.
I may be wrong, but I believe that part of the issue is the question of Original Sin. If Jesus Christ was like us in everything except without sin, and if original sin is transmitted from parent to child, then would Christ not also have original sin? Except usually the argument is that original sin is transmitted through the father’s seed — hence the virginal conception of Jesus.
I actually don’t know where to go from here. I don’t think it grieves the Father’s heart, but I have never grasped the logic of why it was thought necessary to have this dogma. I see Eadmer’s perspective: Potuit, decuit, fecit — it could have been, it was fitting, it happened. But here I find myself inclining towards St Bernard (as so often — and himself one with his own devotion to the BVM) that this tends towards making Christ’s redemption on the Cross unnecessary.
That said, any exaltation of Mary is done by showing the greatness of the grace of God, highlighting the greatness of Jesus her Son. So maybe that is enough?
This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary will have the Annunciation to the BVM as the Gospel reading. Think upon the BVM, what it means to call her Theotokos, God-bearer, and then bow down and worship her Son. It’s what she’d want you to do.
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 somethingbeing 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.)
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.