Pentecost and the Allegory of the Holy Grail

Enjoy my latest offering on YouTube wherein I talk about the allegorical meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail, referencing Malcolm Guite, Pauline Matarasso’s translation of The Quest for the Holy Grail and its introduction (and thereby Etienne Gilson and Myrrha Lot-Boroodine), St Bernard, and William of St-Thierry. And the Canon of the Mass in the Use According to Sarum. It’s a good time, I promise!

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.

A rubric worth following

This morning, to save battery on my phone and for a bit of variety, I prayed the morning prayers from A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers instead of the Prayer Book Society’s Daily Prayer App. Some of these prayers are worth praying over and over and over again as well as meditating on. What I want to blog about, however, is the final rubric (which really ought to have come first):

If the time at disposal is short, and the need to begin work is pressing, it is preferable to say only a few of the suggested prayers, with attention and zeal, rather than to recite them all in haste and without due concentration.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, p. 11

I think this is a very important instruction. In fact, in Living Prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom goes so far as to say that it is better to pray just one line of the Lord’s Prayer carefully, attentively, and truly mean it than it is to pray the whole thing without much thought.

As any longish-time reader of this blog knows, I am a big advocate of the Book of Common Prayer for both personal and corporate prayer and worship. But sometimes, in the midst of two kids under five, managing a cafe, and the various other pressures of life, I find myself swiftly rushing to reach the end. I often skip the Scripture lessons, to be honest. Sometimes, then, it is a blessing to have something shorter, such as the Canadian 1959/62 BCP’s prayers for use by families, or the book Celebrating Common Prayer, or, when truly pressed, to be Franciscan and pause simply to pray the Lord’s Prayer before life consumes you.

The main thing with praying fixed-hour prayer is to pray the prayers attentively and seek the Lord’s face. If you have the time to do this with the BCP or the Roman Breviary or some other long-ish book of hours — glory to God! If not, do not think yourself a failure in your hour of prayer. Make the most of the time available through attention and devotion.

Of course, there’s another facet to prayer life that’s a topic for another post, and that’s the fact that we have more time available than we think…

Athonites at prayer

The Annunciation

As we journey to the Cross, suddenly, the turning of the calendar and rolling of the year brings us face to face with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel – today is nine months until Christmas. It is the feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate God’s self-giving love, as it was poured out in the conception of Christ and culminated in his saving death and glorious resurrection. From ancient times, Christians have seen the willing obedience of Mary as a grace-filled opposite to the disobedience of Eve and the obedience of Christ as the opposite of the disobedience to Adam. Here’s a hymn by St Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German abbess and mystic, the antiphon “Quia ergo femina”:

Because a woman brought death
a bright Maiden overcame it,
and so the highest blessing
in all of creation
lies in the form of a woman,
since God has become human
in a sweet and blessed Virgin.

-Trans. Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings

Here is a recording of the original Latin:

St Ephrem the Syrian blows my mind

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

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

How, you may ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St John Chrysostom and worship old & new

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Today is the Feast of St John Chrysostom, so when I prayed Morning Prayer (using the Prayer Book Society of Canada’s Daily Prayer App!), the prayer included at the close, taken from his Divine Liturgy, stood out more than usual. This prayer is where Anglicans will have most likely seen his name, if ever:

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests: Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.

I have not delved into the secondary literature on late antique and Byzantine liturgy too deeply, but I do know that this prayer is also in the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great — so either it is deeply traditional and included by both, or it is newer than both and incorporated later. Both are options; I do not have the facilities or research skills to answer the question.

Nonetheless, it is a great prayer, and it reminds us of how powerful a thing it is when we pray together, be it Morning Prayer or Evensong, a prayer before Bible study, family prayers after a meal, or a husband and wife before bed. When two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, He will grant their requests. The next time your church service has a low turnout (as in, this coming Sunday, what with lockdowns and all), praise God for His mighty power that is present!

This prayer, as I noted above, is from the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Eucharistic liturgy used by the Eastern Orthodox Church as its regular liturgy. It is not quite as long as that of St Basil (but it’s still a time commitment, O Protestants who want things short and snappy), but it is beautiful and theologically powerful AND ancient.

When I say this liturgy is ancient, I’m not just repeating what an Orthodox priest once told me (although, in fact, I am). First, of course, the Words of Institution from 1 Corinthians 11, used in/adapted for traditional liturgies, are an actual apostolic liturgy. This passage is not St Paul’s own words; this passage, like a few others in his epistles, is a liturgical quotation. St Paul heard this at church — probably from St Peter and St James, frankly.

Second — setting aside for a moment the question of wording — the very structure of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, like that of the Roman Mass, the Book of Common Prayer, the Divine Liturgy of St James, the Divine Liturgy of Addai and Mari, etc., matches what we find in first- and second-century descriptions such as the Didache and Justin Martyrs.

Third, various traditional parts of this liturgy pre-date St John Chrysostom: the sursum corda — that part of the liturgy that includes “Lift up your hearts” — and the Sanctus — “Holy, holy, holy Lord” — come immediately to mind.

Fourth, in an illuminating article the reference to which I do not have, Robert Taft demonstrates, using data analysis, that at least the anaphora of this Divine Liturgy, beginning with the sursum corda and continuing to at least the epiclesis is actually by St John Chrysostom, being his own reworking of traditional material from the Church of Antioch. Chrysostom died in 407, so this is also ancient.

Fifth, a variety of the prayers found elsewhere in the Divine Liturgy, while not by Chrysostom, can be traced to other ancient figures or ancient moments in history, such as Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century and John of Damascus in the eighth.

What’s the upshot of all this? Well, if you want to encounter ancient Christian worship, here it is. I mean, not entirely. For example, if you go to an Orthodox church, the icon screen and the serving of the elements with a spoon are mediaeval developments. But the vast majority of what goes on here is, in fact, ancient or has ancient precedent.

We are reminded of the power liturgy can have to help transform us by renewing of our minds. An example of how it shapes our theology is when it echoes Chrysostom’s work On the Incomprehensibility of God:

You, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever, forever the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.

Straight from there, we find some of the main themes of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation being bodied forth:

You brought us out of nothing into being, and when we had fallen away, You raised us up again. You left nothing undone until you had led us up to heaven and granted us Your Kingdom, which is to come.

Throughout, the theology of the Eucharist and of salvation by Christ our God, is pressed home in the Divine Liturgy. At this moment in time, I see nothing in the Anaphora that should trouble me. Indeed, most Protestant liturgies I’ve met pale in comparison! This is a spiritual worship.

Also, and here I get controversial — what worship is shaping our congregations? Are we cutting verses to hymns because they’re too long? Swapping theologically rich worship for emotionally satisfying singing? Putting on a feel-good show but neglecting the spiritual act of worship? I encourage you to read this text and meditate on what you do on a Sunday morning, especially if you are clergy or a worship leader. What might change in light of the theological thunder of Chrysostom’s liturgy?

I circle back to the Prayer Book. The one question that has been lurking all day is — where did Cranmer get it? I mean, he must have had a copy of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Print? Manuscript? Where did it come from? How widespread were Byzantine liturgical books in England at the time? Who knows the answers to these questions?

Epiphany: Lectionaries Keep Christ at the Heart of the Feast

Adoration of the Magi, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

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.

Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistery, Ravenna

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.

You are not the Blessed Virgin Mary

Adoration of the Magi from Old St Peter’s, now in Santa Maria in Cosmedin (pic from Wikipedia)

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.

Not his mothers or fathers or whatever.

Worshipping at the feet of Christ and becoming his disciples is the appropriate response to encountering him. And this is what I saw earlier today, as I perused Ancient Collects and Other Prayers Selected from Various Rituals by W. Bright. Forgive the Victorianisms — “man” is inevitably a translation of “homo”, “human being”:

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.

Christ the King

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.

This image is not by me, unlike the others: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo%27s_Pieta_5450_cut_out_black.jpg

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.