Reflections on John 15:1-8

Here’s my reflection on this past Sunday’s Gospel reading, put together for my worshipping community, Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay, during this lockdown season of weird church.

The word we use for ‘abide’ in today’s Gospel reading is a very basic word that means ‘remain’ in Greek. We need to stay put in Jesus Christ. If we do not, the Father will remove us, we will not bear fruit, and we will wither like the branches of trees that are bundled together and burned. If, on the other hand, we do abide in Jesus, we will bear fruit, we will be pruned (which sounds painful), and whatever we ask will be done. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing.

Remaining in Jesus is not a once-and-for-all event. Justification certainly can be, especially as it was articulated by Martin Luther in the 1500s. The great act of repentance, of turning away from the vile beasts of the world, the flesh, and the devil, of escaping hellfire, of deciding to follow Jesus—this initial conversion experience often is, whether one is sitting in a garden reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans and overcome, like St Augustine was, or whether one meets Jesus in a bar like bluegrass singer Jim Lauderdale. But the life after that, as Augustine and Jim both know, is a matter of daily faith, daily choosing Christ, and daily remaining in Him, with the result of bearing much fruit. In the immediate context of John 15, abiding in Jesus seems mainly to mean keep his commandments, and, in the verses follow, we see Jesus’ commandment: That we love one another (Jn 15:12). Somehow, keeping this commandment causes (helps?) us to abide in Jesus.

The theme of abiding in Jesus, of participating in Him, was a popular image of salvation for ancient Christians. We are not called to imitate Him, by and large, but to participate in Him. All those things we think about in the life of discipleship that have to do with ethics and morality—these all flow from the fact that we are abiding in and participating in the life of Christ. According to the fourth-century theologian St Gregory of Nyssa, we are called to participate in the divine life—the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning on high of the God Word Jesus whose life now continues in the Church, the Body of Christ, is the central act of the drama of the universe. Not only are our sins washed away through the waters of baptism and by the blood on the cross—which St Gregory and the rest of the ancient church affirm—we are enabled and empowered to be united to God and to know him more and more fully all the time.

St Gregory argues that the pursuit of perfection, the path of sanctification, is itself part of this participation, not just activities we today would call “mystical” or “contemplative”. Sanctification itself, effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a participation in the divine life. And since perfection and holiness are attributes of God, and God is infinite (St Gregory is one of the first to actually argue for the infinity of God), then the path to perfection is itself infinite. This endless journey of perfection is called in Greek epektasis. By participating in the life of Christ through baptism, good works, and Holy Communion, we are joining here and now an adventure with God that will last for eternity.

Whereas contemporary ideas of salvation tend to parse it into helpful categories such as: justification is God setting us free from the penalty of sin; sanctification is God setting us free from the power of sin; glorification is God setting us free from the presence of sin—St Gregory of Nyssa sees it as all of these and more. Salvation is entering into and participating in the life of God most high through the intervention of God in the incarnation. God is present and available to us today because Jesus died on the Cross. We meet with him through righteous acts, through prayer, through the Eucharist, through meditating on the words of Scripture. And we will never cease growing in perfection and getting to know Him more because He Himself is infinite, and our perfection itself is merely a participation in His life.

Christ the Vinedresser, by Lawrence, OP, from from the Dominican sisters’ church in Stone, Staffordshire.

“the Catholic faith is not what I thought”

In Book V of his Confessions, St Augustine describes a period when his trust in the Manichaean religion was ebbing, and his skepticism was growing. He was not yet willing, however, to return to the catholic faith his mother had entrusted him to, the faith he had left at university. He writes,

When my mind attempted to return to the Catholic faith, it was rebuffed because the Catholic faith is not what I thought.

Confessions V.x (20)

Eventually, he would go to Milan and encounter Ambrose. Through Ambrose’s preaching, he slowly learned better what the Catholic faith really was, and then leave Manichaeism, and then, after some time amongst the Platonists, eventually fully convert to catholic, orthodox Christianity and get baptised.

How many people — even those entrusted to the church by their parents, raised in our Sunday schools and youth groups — leave in high school and university, and sometimes might feel a tug to return to the faith of their youth? But they don’t return to the faith. And sometimes, when you look at deconversion and deconstruction stories of their faith, you realise that the Christian faith they rejected is not actually true, sound orthodoxy, but a misconception and false projection.

This is why good Christian education is a component of discipleship to Jesus — simply so that we can understand our Lord and His world better, and thus more easily submit ourselves to His Lordship, His teaching, and His worship.

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

Palm Sunday reflection

This is a reflection I put together for my church, Urban Abbey, in Thunder Bay for this past Sunday.

Since ancient times, Palm Sunday has had two Gospel readings—a short reading for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and then a long reading of a passion narrative, recounting Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution at the hands of sinners. The English word passion comes from the Latin passio, the word for suffering. This suffering and death, recounted to us in Mark 14:1-15:47 in today’s Gospel, is something that I have meditated on in these reflections the past few Sundays, pointing to Jesus, high and lifted up, glorious and dead, saving us, drawing us to the Father with whom he now reigns in glory.

A surface reading of this passage in Mark shows us a beaten man, dying unjustly under the thumb of an imperial power. Yet when we unite this with the events of Palm Sunday, something starts to peek out, as the crowd calls, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13, quoting Psalm 118:25, 26) and our Lord’s fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zechariah 9:9). On Palm Sunday we glimpse Jesus as the King of Israel, the Messiah, the anointed one of the God of Israel.

Philippians 2:5-11 brings out the deep meaning of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This passage is thought to actually be an early Christian hymn incorporated by St Paul from the church’s worship into his letter. Here we read that although Jesus was “in the form of God” he chose to “take on the form of a slave”. Most modern English Bibles have “servant” here—the ESV unhelpfully gives us the antiquated word “bondservant” in the notes as an option for “servant”. The Greek is doulos. It means slave. It’s worth thinking on this mystery.

Jesus is fully God—completely and utterly God, as much God as the Father is God. Anything we can say about God we can say about the Christ: immortal, invisible, wise, almighty, eternal, omniscient, just, loving, merciful, compassionate, infinite. He is also fully man—that is the upshot of Philippians 2:7, that he has the “form of a slave” and was made “in the likeness of human beings.” God in His very Self knows precisely what it means to be the lowest of the low—there is no one in ancient society lower than the slave. A Roman slave was the legal property of another human being. It was part of the regular process of Roman law to simply torture slaves if they were witnesses at trials—not even if they were defendants. If a master was killed by a slave, the entire household of slaves was liable for the murder and put to death; they should have known better or done better to protect him. This is how far God chose to come down to be with us.

God knows everything about being human—he is not aloof.

For us to consider to how deep the love of God the Word for us is, the next verse brings us to the cross—”he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) First, Christ our God took on the form of a slave, the lowest of human society. And then he did not merely suffer, he died. And he did not merely die, he died the death reserved for the lowest of the worst criminals. Romans crucified those they considered the scum of the earth, such as Spartacus and 6000 of his fellow slave rebels, the thieves and murderers on either side of Jesus, or 2000 Jews who rebelled against the Romans around the time when Jesus was born. It is a terrible way to die, as many Good Friday sermons enjoy describing for us.

Just as a reminder, here are of some of the divine attributes ancient Christians and Jews believed in and passed along to us—God is immortal. God cannot suffer. God is eternal. God is infinite. As Charles Wesley put it: “’Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!”

What is the result in the divine plan of his action in human history, his taking on our flesh and dying as one of us? “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11) Because of the basic nature and order of the universe, humans and the rest of the creation are meant for loving and worshipping God; as has been said, our main purpose in life is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” In falling away from the worship of God, we have fallen from our truest life, and therefore we have gone away from our truest joy and happiness and source of contentment.

Part of our salvation is for God’s glory because, when we give glory to God, we are living our best life now. This is what the Paradise we lost was and what the Paradise we shall regain is going to be. Following Jesus means going through suffering to glory. The grand narrative of the Bible is not simply creation to fall to redemption, but also from redemption to glory, to the new heaven and the new earth of the book of Revelation.

Let us now go back to Philippians 2:5. I quote my own translation, “Therefore, let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” From here, St Paul describes the mind that was in Christ Jesus. Ethics and theology are intimately united in the Bible. The ethics that flow from the theology that I have just described, the way of living that we disciples (or better, apprentices) are called to follow by our master and teacher, is given in Philippians 2:6-11. We are called not to grasp for power and authority but to pour out our whole selves in love for others. We are called to humble ourselves and deny ourselves daily. To take up our cross and follow Him—Jesus the Messiah, God the Son, Saviour, Lord, Prophet, Priest, King. His mind is a mind filled with loving humility, with humble love.

Humility, of course, is a strong biblical virtue, and through the centuries, disciples of Jesus have had much to say on the subject. Since we at the Urban Abbey follow a version of the Rule of the seventh-century Irish abbot St Columbanus, I thought I would commend some of his words to you this Palm Sunday:

if … we first hasten by the exercise of true humility to heal the poisons of pride and envy and vain glory, through the teaching of our Saviour Who says for our example, “Learn of Me for I am meek and lowly of heart’’ (Matt. 11. 29), and so on, then let us all, made perfect with no further blemish, with hatred rooted out, as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, love one another’ (cf. John 13. 35) with our whole heart. (Letter II.4)

The only pathway to humility, as with all virtue, is grace. St Columbanus reminds us of God’s grace in his third sermon, where he urges those pursuing eternal life to

call on God’s grace to help [your] striving; for it is impossible for anyone to acquire by his own efforts alone what he lost in Adam. (Sermon III.2)

In closing, here is the prayer of the day (called a “collect”) for Palm Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer, bringing together many of these themes:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.

Reflections on John 12

This is my reflection on John 12:20-33, written for my church community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey:

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

In the narrative of the Gospel of John, today’s reading takes place during the final Passover feast during which Jesus will be betrayed, beaten, crucified. Everything has been moving to this point, from the preaching of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) In a few days, the Lord of glory will be slain. Yet this is not how Jesus frames it in this instance. When these pagan Greek-speakers appear, he does not say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be humiliated.” No, in foretelling his death, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23) St Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt, a fifth-century preacher, writes:

He now desires to pass onward to the very crowning point of His hope, namely to the destruction of death: and this could not otherwise be brought to pass, unless the Life underwent death for the sake of all human beings, that so in Him we all may live. For on this account also He speaks of Himself as glorified in His Death, and in suffering terrible things at the hands of the sinners who dishonour Him. Even though by the angels in heaven He had been glorified from everlasting, yet nevertheless His Cross was the beginning of His being glorified upon earth.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 8

Jesus goes on to make this reference to his death more explicit in the next verse, saying that a grain of wheat must die and fall to the ground in order to bear fruit. We are the fruit of Christ’s death. His precious death and glorious resurrection have reaped a harvest of souls for 2000 years, raising us up with him to the heavenly realm. Yet here, bound up with the promise, our Lord also gives us a hard saying—hard to live, if not to understand: “Whoever loves his or her life loses it, and whoever hates his or her life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Thankfully, the wisdom of the ancients comes to us here as well. St John Chrysostom, an ancient preacher from Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) says:

Sweet is the present life, and full of much pleasure, yet not to all, but to those who are riveted to it. Since, if any one looks to heaven and sees the beauteous things there, that person will soon despise this life, and make no account of it. Just as the beauty of an object is admired while none more beautiful is seen, but when a better appears, the former is despised. If then we would choose to look to that beauty, and observe the splendour of the kingdom there, we should soon free ourselves from our present chains; for a kind of chain it is, this sympathy with present things. 

Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily LXVII

But this still seems too hard, too harsh, too difficult. Another ancient preacher who was alive at the time of Chrysostom and Cyril was St Augustine of Hippo. St Augustine makes a distinction between using the things of this world, even enjoying them, as gateways to God and loving them for their own sake. His teaching means that with a rightly ordered heart one sees the sun rise over the Sleeping Giant, enjoys the sight, and then praises God for His handiwork. The whole of human existence thus becomes a gateway to God—my life in this world that I am called to hate for the sake of Jesus becomes transfigured into the heavenly life with Christ. Transformed in this way, I would more readily lose this worldly life for a life filled with the grandeur of the glory of God.

Our Lord Christ repeats this idea of death to self in a new manner straightaway, but couples it to great promises: “If anyone serves me, he or she must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him or her.” (John 12:26) We must follow Christ, we are told. And where does Christ go from here in the Gospel of John? To the upper room, to the garden, to betrayal, to arrest, to being slandered, to being beaten, to being stripped naked, to being humiliated, to being nailed to a cross and lifted up from the earth.

To death.

But from death to glory.

For us, Jesus says that the Father will honour the one who serves and follows him. He promises that his ignominious death is the place of his glory. And he promises to raise us up too, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) An important point in all of this is grace. It is Jesus himself who is the grain of wheat that bears much fruit. It is Jesus himself who draws us to himself. It is God the Father who honours those who follow and serve Jesus.

The path of discipleship is a narrow path of self-denial. The path of discipleship is the pathway of death, death to self and to the world. Yet it is also the path to glory, and it is made easy by Jesus who draws us to himself. It is made easy by the Father who honours us. Let us not forget the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:30, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The life of the ancient monk Antony, one of the first to take up the monastic life, was a living parable of dying to this world to follow Christ, being drawn by him. He abandoned all of his worldly possessions because in church one day he heard the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:21 where the Lord says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” St Antony did so. At one stage in his retreat from worldly life, he lived in a tomb in the Egyptian countryside where he did nothing but pray and do battle with demons. When he left this tomb, a physical symbol of his death to the world, it was as a participant in the divine life of Jesus. As St Athanasius of Alexandria, his biographer writes:

Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ.

Life of Antony 14

Among the sayings left by Antony, two are particularly important for us today:

“Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God.”

“I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (John 4:18)

Let us die to ourselves in order to be alive to God and love him to the fullest, being caught up into Christ’s life by the abundant grace of the Father.

Praying and praising in all circumstances

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.

Confessio 16

Perhaps what we’re missing is more prayer?

Reflections for Lent 4

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.

A quick thought for St Gregory the Great

The top of St Gregory’s crozier

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.

The Power of the Cross

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.

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

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.

Dialogue 14

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.

The Life of St Teresa, ch. 13

Let’s do that now for a moment.

Coming soon: My course on St Augustine!

As you know, I have been teaching a course for Davenant Hall (the teaching wing of Davenant Institute) called The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy — and I love it! This teaching is all online, and we have a hefty cohort of auditors. You can also enroll as a for-credit student with Davenant, however; just in case any of you were looking for an intellectually rigorous but structurally flexible path to theological education.

Well, this course is ending soon; a week from today will be my final lecture.

But this is not the end! On April 12, I start teaching another course: Augustine: The Major Works. This ten-week course will cover the major — that is, big and influential — works of St Augustine: Confessions, On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana), On the Trinity, and City of God as well as two shorter works on predestination because of how prominent the predestinarian debate is in Augustine’s legacy.

But what you’ll find in the rest of these works is the fact that Augustine is interested in far more than predestination, and he has some important things to say — some original to himself, some expressed by him very well, some simply ancient orthodoxy. Reading St Augustine is basically a theological education in itself, exposing you to Trinitarian theology, Christology, the question of salvation, ethics at large, specific ethical questions, the Eucharist, the creation of the world, the redemption of the world, exegetical method, semiotics, mysticism, prayer, memory, the will, the idea of eternity, angelology and demonology, just war theory, theology of history, and so forth.

Besides, St Augustine is the biggest, most influential theologian of the ancient Latin church. He is the father of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, with a diverse legacy visible in Martin Luther and the Book of Common Prayer on the one hand and St Teresa of Avila and Robert Bellarmine on the other.