“Read Sophocles”: Poetry, Philosophy, Beauty

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.

This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:

Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence,
the gift of eloquence, he and no one else,
and character too . . . such men, I tell you,
spread them open — you will find them empty.
No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.

Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96

As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.

There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.

And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.

What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.

Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.

Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.

To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).

Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.

As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.

Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.

And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.

*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.

The importance of the second century

My latest offering on YouTube complements yesterday’s blog post. Yesterday, I argued for the relevance of second-century Christianity for today. In my YouTube video, I argue for the importance of the second century as its own historical moment, highlighting six areas worth considering, the first three of which are intimately connected:

  • Canon of Scripture
  • Episcopacy
  • Rule of Faith
  • Liturgy
  • Asceticism
  • Theology

Also, these guys:

  • St Ignatius of Antioch
  • St Justin Martyr
  • St Irenaeus of Lyons
  • St Clement of Alexandria
  • Tertullian

Our second-century moment

‘Orans’ figure, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla. 3rd/4th c.

Many people are comparing our current cultural moment to the final decades of Roman rule in the western Empire and the first century or so thereafter (in order to evoke both St Augustine (d. 430) and St Benedict (d. 547) as guides). There are parallels. But some people are also putting forward the argument that we are living in a second-century moment, at least as far as Christianity in the wider culture is concerned.

This has its parallels as well.

First, the government isn’t really persecuting Christians in the West (despite what some of the fear-mongers will tell you). Instead, for the first time since 312, they frankly do not give a care what Christians believe and desire. We have become a non-issue for them. Although there has been a narrative created of the pre-Constantinian world being one of unrelenting persecution, for most of the second century, Christians were not systematically persecuted, and only occasionally. Persecution is a big hassle, so the government needs to have itself a goal before engaging in one.

Second, the religious map of the world around is becoming more and more pluralist. Now, this doesn’t mean we’ve arrived at the pluralist utopia promised back in the ’90s. No, people are not interested in Christianity as one equal option among many. They’ll express such an idea, but if your Christian conviction leads you step out of line on a specific issue dear to the culture’s heart, you’ll find out just how rigid and puritanical everyone still is. That said, the actual religious landscape is increasingly varied due to the unchurching of many white people on the one hand and the arrival of newcomers to the West who bring with them their own religion. When I lived in Toronto, I visited a massive, stone Hindu Mandir besides a little shopfront Buddhist temple. Alongside these are homegrown New Age manifestations and the organisation of humanism into a new religious movement. The religious landscape of the Roman Empire was itself a smorgasbord, as the excavations at Dura Europos show us (3rd-century Syria).

Third, the internal world of Christianity has been seeing (for quite a while) the return of old heresies, of Gnosticism both explicitly and implicitly. Gnosticism here can be defined as an impulse towards salvation through knowledge about facts and things, gnosis, as opposed to knowing God (which is a personal reality); an impulse towards esotericism, towards secret knowledge; an impulse towards dualism; a rejection of the material world as truly good; a deep spirituality that relativises the place of Christ and thus diminishes him — a cosmic Christ consciousness that I participate in is a lesser thing than Christ as God.

And besides these, versions of Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Apollinarianism are appearing. They may not be second-century, but their attempts to drown out the symphony of orthodoxy with their own discordant monotony is the same.

None of these parallels is exact, of course. As a historian, I could start pulling each one apart. But to the extent that they hold, what I think they can do is help us frame our attempts to be and make disciples of the living Lord Jesus in our cultural moment. And they also highlight the second century as a place for us to go in forging an ancient-future Christianity, as an important period for the sources of the ressourcement.

To that end, my friend Brian and I will be giving a series of lectures this fall specifically on the second century and how its resources can help Christians today.

“God is not an old dude”, my latest on YouTube

The other day, my two-and-a-half-year-old son pointed at an image of God creating the world on a CD cover and asked, “Who’s this?”

Seven times.

I dutifully answered, and then later that evening I made this video that explores the question of God having a human form with a jolly ride through some ecclesiastical history around the year 400, from the Anthropomorphite Controversy to the Synod of the Oak and the deposition of St John Chrysostom. Enjoy!

Benedict, Sophrony, and Theosis

Every Sunday morning, I do a little bit of an introduction to the church season. In the vast sea from Trinity to Advent, that is usually a nearby saint’s feast. Last week, July 4, it was St Andrei Rublev (watch my video about his Trinity icon here), and today it was St Sophrony of Essex, who happens to share his feast (in the West, anyway) with St Benedict of Nursia.

St Sophrony (d. 1993) has a special place in my life because he was the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, and Archimandrite Zacharias, his successor there, is the spiritual father of my own mentor, Father Raphael of Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides drinking in wisdom and Greek coffee with Father Raphael, I have also read St Sophrony’s book His Life Is Mine, and I began St Silouan the Athonite a while back.

St Sophrony was a fashionable Russin emigre in early twentieth-century Paris who made fashionable modern art and was fashionably agnostic. He believed that somehow this art would be a source of transcendence — but in the end, he found true freedom in Christ and the Russian Orthodox faith of his homeland, and became and iconographer and monk, founding an oasis in the south of England (as they say, the only way is Essex).

His Life Is Mine is a book chiefly on prayer, about the human desire and encounter with God, Who Is. Who is Primordial Being. Who is Love. Who is Trinity. Who is the one, true hypostasis, persona. Whom we encounter because of the Incarnation and through contemplation, the beginning of which is repentance. In discussing theosis, St Sophrony writes:

The doctrine that man may become godlike … lies at the root of our Christian anthropology. As the image and likeness of the Absolute, man … transcends every other form of natural being. In prayer we glimpse in ourselves divine infinity not yet actualized but foreknown. Perfection of likeness … does not remove the ontological distance between God the Creator and man the created.

Perfection of likeness, of course, shall not be fully achieved here but in the hereafter — if at all. I wonder what St Sophrony would say to St Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis that our likeness to God will mean an infinite growth in perfection, since we are finite but God is infinite. It is important to observe that St Sophrony says that even if we do ever achieve a perfect likeness to God, the ontological gulf still exists.

This ontological gulf, that God is “holy, holy, holy”, that He is wholly Other, that he is being itself, is absolutely vital to keeping eastern Christian teaching on theosis in proper perspective. Some seem to think that theosis means we are perhaps swallowed up in God as in some versions of Hindu mysticism, or that we actually become part of God in a truly essential way, or something else. But the general description of our deification is done in the terms of St Gregory of Nyssa, who himself sparsely uses this terminology, who speaks largely of our union with God.

To whatever extent we become godlike, we never become God Himself, the Trinity Who Creates.

At the heart of this eastern Christian theosis as expressed in the life and teaching of St Sophrony, St Silouan, Archimandrite Zacharias, and Father Raphael is the Jesus Prayer (here’s my introductory post to this prayer). A main feature of the common prayer life of the Monastery of St John the Baptist is communal praying of the Jesus Prayer. I’ve done this at the Orthodox Church in Edinburgh, in fact. It is a different experience from the normal communal liturgical worship and from the solitary use of the Jesus Prayer. But it is good.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

As I said above, today is also the feast of another famous monk, St Benedict of Nursia, whose little rule for beginners designed for establishing a school for the Lord’s service has been one of the most influential volumes in western spiritual history, as it became the norm for Latin monasticism — his spiritual sons and daughters (that is, those who follow his rule) include not only those that are part of the Order of Saint Benedict but also the Cistercians and Trappists and some independent Orthodox monasteries. I’ve written about the Rule of St Benedict and about Benedictines a lot.

At his moment in history, in the mid-500s, St Benedict did not found an order but a monastery. There was no wider organisation than that. This is in keeping with the general tenor of late antique monasticism, that monasteries would form under a charismatic abbot and follow his rule whether written or unwritten. It is the basic form of Orthodox monasticism that they have no monastic orders, and every house or associated federation has its own monastic rule.

But if we’re pondering similarities between St Benedict and St Sophrony, although I’m sure they can be found in a variety of exterior facts related to their common heritage as monks and ascetics, I think the single most importan thing is a radical commitment to prayer. Compared to many other late antique and early medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St Benedict is actually fairly light in its burdens. However, this has been done precisely so that the brothers (or sisters) who live under the rule are capable of pursuing prayer. St Benedict goes into great detail over several chapters of the Rule about how the monastery’s prayer life is to be ordered. He also discusses how their attitude at prayer.

And what is the goal of prayer, of the monastic life? Here again, it is the same for St Benedict as for St Sophrony. To quote a famous line from Chapter 72 of St Benedict’s Rule:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Amen. Let us follow the example of these holy men on the path to everlasting life and theosis.

I have two YouTube videos involving Bede

I do promise to do some real blogging soon. In the meantime, I have two videos involving St Bede the Venerable. Most recently, on June 22, I made a video about St Alban the Martyr, given that it was his feast day, and I was baptised at a church of St Alban the Martyr, and then married at a different church of St Alban the Martyr. And I think the story of St Alban’s martyrdom is just really fascinating with lots of great stuff in it. Enjoy!

The first went up in late May in commemoration of the feasts of St Bede, St Augustine of Canterbury, and St Aldhelm:

Watch “King Arthur, Symbol, and the Christian Embrace of Narrative Fiction” on YouTube

My latest offering on YouTube is about Arthurian literature and how it represents an embrace of narrative fiction by Christians, with a discussion of symbol and a sacramental worldview that includes a digression about The Lord of the Rings.

“he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

This is the reflection I prepared this past Sunday for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey.

This week’s Old Testament passage is one of the most famous passages in Scripture. Adam and Eve have transgressed the one and only command given to them and eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This has resulted in them becoming aware of their own nakedness. They have hidden from God, with Whom they used to have a “face-to-face” relationship. God now comes looking for them and asks them what they have done. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. And the serpent does not have a leg to stand on. Thus, God curses the serpent. The passage ends there today, but we know how it continues. Adam and Eve likewise are cursed and thrown out of the garden to toil for the rest of their lives, and then, with immortality lost, they will die. To gain the full import of the curse upon the serpent, we need to be aware of the Fall of the man and woman and what it means, for God says to the serpent in verse 15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” This verse is hugely important, so I will meditate on its meaning and significance hereon out.

First, who is the serpent? The serpent, of course, is the Devil, that fallen angel who leads the band of other fallen angels, unrepentant and in rebellion against God. Did he manifest himself literally in human history as a snake, or is this story more symbolic in its portrayal of Satan’s testing of humanity, of him luring our forebears and each of us ourselves into sin? I do not know. But it is certainly the case that every generation of humans finds itself confronting the serpent, whispering his lies about God into our hearts, luring us away from the truest, happiest path in the universe to pursue his path. And so we go, lured away by the Devil, thinking we are doing it “my way”, and abandoning the path for which we were made. The general testimony of the Bible about Satan is that he exists to accuse humans; he and his demons are in enmity with God and with us; he has some sort of claim over the souls of dead humans as a result of sin; he was cast out of heaven by the Archangel Michael; his final downfall at the hands of Christ is assured. Despite the sensationalism of Hollywood and Frank Peretti novels, the main business the Devil and his minions are up to in our own lives is tempting us to sin and distracting us from God.

Second, what is the primary part of the curse on the man and the woman? Earlier in Genesis, God had warned the man and the woman that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would “die die”, often translated in English as “you shall surely die” or “die the death”. In Latin, this manner of Hebrew emphatic speech is given as “die by death,” and Greek doubles it up with an emphatic verb for “die” as well as “by death.” And that this death would occur on that very day. Yet here we see Adam and Eve very much alive on the day they have eaten the fruit. And they live to be expelled from the garden for years before they finally die. Ancient Christians see here in this emphatic double death two deaths. The second death is the bodily death we immediately think of when we think of death. The first death, however, is the departure of God from their souls and lives. God, says St Augustine of Hippo, is the life of the human soul. He is the true Spirit. His departure, then, is the death of the human soul. Adam and Eve, and we ourselves, are no longer intimately united to God. They (we), in fact, fear Him. By the time God comes seeking them, Adam and Eve have already died the first death.

This death of the soul leads to a disjointed human life, self-alienation. We find ourselves living in and crying out from the depths. We wish to do good but cannot. Sometimes even the good we seek to do turns into evil in the very act! As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Thus, not only do humans die physical death, which itself can be a terrible thing and fills most humans with dread (even Our Lord groaned at the death of Lazarus—Lazarus whom He would momentarily raise to life!!), we die a spiritual death of the soul long before that. This state of sorrow as we walk this earthly existence is found at the beginning of today’s Psalm 130:1-3:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?

Third, how is verse 15 fulfilled? In today’s Gospel passage, Mark 3:20-35, we see Jesus accused of casting out demons by the power of the serpent. After scorning this idea, Jesus presents the image of the strong man who breaks into someone’s house. Unless that strong man is bound and the house protected, he’ll come back. Jesus is the One Who will bind the strong man. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is waging war against the powers of darkness. Although the serpent and his minions clearly don’t realise the full truth of Jesus’ identity, there is more demonic activity in the Gospels than in the Old Testament, Acts, or the history of the church. They see something going on in Him, and they fight back. Jesus is the son of Eve prophesied in Genesis 3. He has come to bruise the serpent. So the serpent lashes out—hence all the demons who meet with Jesus. But the serpent undoes himself by his own attack on the Lord’s Anointed. For his own plan, and that of the fallen humans who have lost sight of the one, true, and living God, culminates in the unjust, public, humiliating execution of the Messiah, seeking to crush any hopes of salvation for the human race.

The serpent bites the heel of Eve’s Son.

But He crushes the serpent’s head.

The paradox of how Satan’s own plan undoes itself is encapsulated in a few lines of poetry by the fourth-century poet St Ephrem the Syrian:

The evil one fled from Him for awhile.

In the time of crucifixion he arrived,

and by the hand of the crucifiers he killed Him

so that He fell in the contest with death

to conquer Satan and death.

Hymns on Virginity 12

Christ has not died the first death whereby God departs from the human soul. Christ has not sinned. He does not deserve this second death, the death of the body. The ransom the devil is owed for his human life is taken unjustly. Not only that, Christ Himself is the one, true, and living God. Mortality cannot hold Him. And so, trampling down death by death, He destroys the power of the serpent and the power of death, undoing the curse and enabling humans to live according to the true, good nature in which God had first created them. Us. All we need do is trust in Him and accept the gift that His conquest of the serpent provides us.

Fourth, what are the ramifications of this for the human race? The ramifications of the destruction of the power of the devil are manifold. We can live forever. We can be freed from the corrupting power of sin. We can, therefore, resist the temptations we face from the serpent and his fallen angels. Not only this, but with the death of God on a Cross, humanity will never be the same again. God did not merely take onto Himself the just penalty for our wrongdoings when He was crucified (but that is certainly part of it!), He also brought humanity into divinity in a mysterious manner. What this means is that the regenerated life that accepts the gift of God in Jesus Christ finds itself on a new, better trajectory than the one in Eden before the Fall, intimately united with the life of Christ, its head. God’s plan is ultimately for the good—or rather, the best. We find ourselves invited to participate in the divine life when we accept the saving death of Jesus, when we enroll as His apprentices, and when we die to ourselves and rise again through the waters of baptism. We participate in that divine life at the Holy Communion.

And we will participate in it in the most glorious fashion in the final days, in the new heaven and the new earth, when we behold God face to face in that vision that brings true, ultimate happiness. This is the destiny of all who accept the fulfilment of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Eve’s Son has crushed the head of the serpent, and everything sad is coming untrue. We will live forever in glory. This is the promise of today’s epistle reading, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Fifth, what is our here-and-now response to this good news? Worship and praise of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, to close, a pair of hymns from the Orthodox hymn book, the Octoechos:

TROPARION

By Your Cross, You destroyed death.

To the thief, You opened paradise.

For the Myrrhbearers, You changed weeping into joy.

And You commanded Your Disciples, O Christ God,

To proclaim that You are risen,

Granting the world great mercy.

KONTAKION

The dominion of death can no longer hold men captive,

For Christ descended, shattering, and destroying its powers.

Hades is bound, while the prophets rejoice, and cry out:

The Saviour has come to those in faith.

Enter, you faithful, into the resurrection.

Reflection from Trinity Sunday

Almost a week late, but here’s the reflection I put together for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey, last Sunday.

Once I mentioned to a friend that Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth-century monastic mystic of Egypt, said that contemplation of the Trinity was the goal of Christian contemplation. She said she could never understand the Trinity, how three people can be one. Many people express similar thoughts, expressing hesitation and weakness or awkwardness in the face of talking about this doctrine. On behalf of theological educators everywhere, I would like to apologise for this. Speaking about the Trinity is really easy to do without falling into heresy, actually.

And you’re never going to comprehend how three Persons can also be or share a single Essence.

There are two places old-school theologians liked to begin in talking about the Trinity: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ or the incomprehensibility of God. Let’s begin with the second one today. Very briefly: One of the reasons why we cannot fully understand how three Persons are a single God is that God as God is ultimately incomprehensible. We cannot grasp or understand or comprehend Who God is according to God’s own nature.

God is not a being among beings. God simply is. God is being itself. God is not a thing or an object within the universe. God created all the things and objects—the universe itself. God is utterly, ultimately beyond anything and everything that we know through daily experience. This is actually a Good Thing—it means that God makes God’sselves (God’s self? Theirselves?) known to us when it is needful for us, for God is not limited by the material or even spiritual creation. Thus, the doctrine of transcendence (God is beyond everything) guarantees the lived experience of immanence (God is in everything). In God we live and move and have our being, as St Paul said in Athens.

Rest calmly, then, knowing that your inability to comprehend the Trinity is neither a fault in yourself nor in the doctrine but part of the reality that comes with knowing God. Embrace the mystery, joining with the twelfth-century Cistercian Willliam of St-Thierry:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the other through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united.

trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113

Can we say nothing, then? Are humans so inadequate that we can say nothing true about the one, true, and living God? How can we articulate any doctrine, let alone the Trinity, in light of the glorious beauty of the transcendent God? I assure you—monks and mystics throughout history have felt this. But they have also realised that God has made God’s Self known to us through creation, through acting in human history, and through the writings of sacred Scripture. God is transcendent, not aloof. God has communicated with us through these ways because God loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

Many passages in the New Testament demonstrate to us that Jesus, the God Word incarnate, is fully God. I’ll give just one example: John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And Jesus’ words testify to the fact that there is a Divine Person named the Father—and that Jesus and the Father are one. Not only that, but if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. Finally, in numerous instances throughout St Paul’s letters as well as statements made by Jesus, such as the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there is also a third Person Who is God, the Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, throughout both Old and New Testaments it is clear that there is only one God who does not share His glory with another.

As the ancient church meditated on this, they found ways of expressing this threefold oneness that are faithful to Scripture, developing the language of the Trinity. There are three persons in one God. The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But there are not three Gods, only one God. The Father almighty, the Son almighty, the Holy Spirit almighty; but there are not three almighties, only one almighty.

Anything you can say about God—immortal, invisible, wise—you can say about any of the three Persons of the Trinity. They are united in complete, utter, and perfect love, being as they are a single substance or essence. How? I don’t know. But God is the truest, most perfect love there is. In fact, that is an important element of Trinitarian theology: God is love, and love implies a beloved. Therefore, God exists in all eternity as the Holy Three, filling each other with utterly perfect self-giving love.

God-as-Trinity is love. God-as-Trinity is Creator, as well. Of Their own free will, perfectly united in essence and love, God chose to create this world. And then God created us humans in God’s own Trinitarian image—not a true Trinity, but a likeness of it, similar in many respects. And then that image was damaged and marred by sin, death, and the devil. So the mighty God sent prophets, signs, and wonders, and then, out of the boundless love that is part of God’s very essence as Trinity, God Himself came down.

God Himself came down to save us.

Jesus the Christ is the God Word Who exists eternally in perfect, selfless love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. More than a carpenter. More than a good teacher. More than a prophet. And the sinless, pure, spotless, immortal God Who is love poured out His blood for us, rose again, and ascended.

So that you won’t be misled by what I’m about to say, remember this: God the Holy Trinity is perfect and infinite according to nature and essence. God doesn’t need us.

But God loves us.

Therefore, God invites us into a taste of that Trinitarian life, as we read about in John 14. We are baptised into that Trinitarian life, according to Matthew 28. And we are called to bring others into that life of boundless, endless, self-giving love, to participate, abide in the power, glory, and goodness of God Who Is Trinity. (But none of us can become a member of the Trinity; God does not need us, remember. God loves us and wants us to know Him.)

And in making disciples of Jesus the Christ, we begin also to reconcile ourselves to one another, for Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father are one. We are called to imperfectly mirror that Trinitarian reality as the church, where we live in selfless love for one another, acting together in God’s mission in the world, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were active together in creation.

This Trinity Sunday, let us pray for our unity as a community, for the unity of all Christian people, and, most importantly, fall down (literally or figuratively) in worship before a God Whom we can never fully understand but Who loves us so much He chose to die for us. Worship the Trinity. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Reflections on Ascension Sunday

This is the reflection that I put together for my worshipping community, the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay.

Today we recollect the Ascension of Jesus the Christ back to God the Father where They reign united in eternity. This is the seal of everything else the incarnate God achieved for us during His sojourn on earth. God the Word, existing in eternity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, in great and glorious compassion for the human race descended, took on flesh, and pitched His tent among us. He dwelt amongst us feeble, frail humans for about thirty years as one of us (in every way but sin!), and then He was abandoned, tortured, and brutally executed—only to triumph over the powers of sin, the flesh, the devil, and death, trampling down death by death and rising to new life in a glorified body that can walk through walls.

And here is where many Gospel presentations stop. We say: Do you acknowledge the great and glorious message of salvation that comes from putting your trust in this Jesus whom the authorities of this present darkness killed but whom God raised to life? And we repentant sinners answer: Yes. God, be merciful to me!

In Acts 2:24-36, St Peter ends the first proclamation of the whole Gospel by an Apostle thus:

For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ (Ps. 110:1)

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Jesus is not just some guy or even some god who came down and died and rose again to save me from my sins. He has returned to the Father where He reigns and hears our prayers and is with us always to the very end of the age. By ascending, Jesus empowered the apostles to take up His mission to preach salvation to the ends of the Earth. An earthbound teacher would not be able to do that, but a risen, ascended, and reigning Lord could.

Given the importance of the Ascension, I would also like to say that this is a real, historical event, as real as Julius Caesar being stabbed to death on the Ides of March, 44 BC. While this probably should go without saying, I mention it because meditating on the reality that lies behind the words of Scripture can help us see the hand of God at work as well as the hearts of the Apostles. So, based on the narrative in Acts 1, Jesus rose up from the ground with the Apostles watching. Then a cloud hid Him from view, and He disappeared from sight.

I hope that it is a well-known fact that Heaven is not actually “up there” in the sky. We live in a one-storey universe. If “heaven” is the dwelling place of God Almighty, where Jesus now reigns with God the Father, it’s right here and now. In his book Miracles, C S Lewis posits the idea that, whatever the historical reality of what happened to Jesus at the Ascension, the Apostles perceived it as Him rising up from the earth because that’s what their minds can process.

I think He actually did rise up from the Earth, and that when the cloud enveloped Him, He entered the heavenly realm with God the Father (whatever that means!). Without denying the historicity of the event, we can simultaneously affirm its symbolic resonance. Encounters with God in the Bible are often literal mountain-top experiences.

When Moses met God for the first time, He spoke to him out of the burning bush on Mount Horeb, in Sinai. When Moses met with God and was given the Law, it was on a mountain, maybe the same one. When Solomon built a Temple for God to come and manifest His real presence amongst His people, it was on Mount Zion. When Elijah defeated the priests of Baal and God manifested Himself with might and power, it was on Mount Carmel. When Elijah encountered God in the “still, small voice”, it was on a mountain.

And so it goes, up to Jesus.

When Jesus manifested His glory to the disciples in the Transfiguration, it was on Mount Tabor. When He gave the new Law in His most famous sermon, it was on a mountain (it’s not called the Sermon on the Mount for nothing!). Tradition tells us that the Place of a Skull, Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, was a hillish-mountain.

These are just a few examples, but the point is: People meet with God on mountains. And the ascent to God becomes an important symbol and metaphor in Christian spiritual literature, whether we think of St John of Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel, or the Syriac Book of Steps, or the lives of monks and hermits who lived on mountains such as St Antony of Egypt, the monasteries of Mount Athos or, most dramatically, Meteora in Greece. St Gregory of Nyssa gives an allegorical reading of the life of Moses in which Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai to meet with God is seen as our own ascent, as we leave behind the various things of this world, including even sense perceptions, for Moses enters the cloud on the mountain—as the title of a mediaeval mystical book calls it, The Cloud of Unknowing.

God is the Lord of all history; He has engineered these symbols to draw us to Himself. Christianity is the myth that comes true. So when we consider this pattern, it is only fitting that when God, Who inspired Scripture and Who made Himself manifest to the human race in these locations, chose to return to the Heavens, He would rise up from the earth. And then, as Moses entered the cloud on Sinai, so also did Christ enter the cloud before leaving our plane of existence and joining the Father in eternal glory.

Our response to this? Worship, comfort, assurance. Let us take to heart these words from Hebrews 4:14, 16:

Seeing that we have a great high priest that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, one of Edinburgh’s empty churches