“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

Watch my latest video, “Maybe there is a literal meaning” on YouTube!

In this video, I try to nuance the concept of the “literal” meaning of Scripture in response to Jonathan Pageau. I bring Augustine’s theory of signs and things as well as Maximus the Confessor on the Bible, closing with my own literal-symbolic reading of the Ascension narrative from Acts 1.

Reflections on John 15:9-17

Here are my reflections on yesterday’s Gospel reading, prepared for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey.

This week, we have another encounter with that word abide – I translated it last week with the simple definition of remain. My old Greek prof from undergrad reviewed my reflection and the passage, and tossed out a few more of these simple translations, saying that this verb also has the sense of persisting and standing fast. Hold tight; don’t let go, that sort of thing. Allow me to break all the rules of defining words and translation practice and bundle all of these together. Here, then, is John 15:9:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;

abide in

persist in

stand fast in

remain in

hold tight to

don’t let go of

my love.

How are we to abide in Jesus’ love? He tells us in John 15:10 – keep his commandments. This doesn’t sound particularly … gushy? gooey? lovey? Indeed, it even sounds harsh to our ears, living in an age of democracy, of questioning everything, of failed authorities at every turn. Show our love to Jesus by keeping his commandments? The dictionary game won’t get us out this time – indeed, injunctions and orders sound almost worse. Let’s look at how Jesus considers our keeping of his commandments — If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

In English (and Greek), that’s a very straightforward future more vivid construction. It’s not saying anything about how much he loves us or about earning his love or whatever, but simply cause and effect. “If x, then y.” – “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” These two things are mutually feeding off each other. Christians are disciples of Jesus the Christ. We are his apprentices; he is our master. He has given us, through the apostles and apostolic writings, commands – “turn the other cheek”; “love your neighbour as yourself”; “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”; “give to everyone who asks”; “pray like this”.

If we consciously choose not to follow his commandments, not to do those things that please him or that we know he knows are best for us, to what extent can we be said to be abiding, persisting, standing fast, remaining in his love? When we are wilfully disobedient to the teachings of our master, are we really holding tight to his love? Or have we let it go?

Here, we can easily start lengthy moralising. I will save us from such (although all of us need to hear some moralising sometimes—and recall that Jesus’ commandments are not burdensome, as we read today in 1 John 5:3). I want to circle back to the love being discussed here, that love we are abiding in. Let’s put both verses 9 and 10 together:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

First of all, in verse 9, Jesus compares his love for us to the love the Father has for him. And then, in verse 10, he inverts it and speaks of his keeping of the Father’s commandments and abiding in the Father’s love. God is love; that was in last week’s reading from 1 John 4:8, in fact. I have spent a significant portion of 2021 teaching the Trinitarian theology of the ancient church—names like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine (you’ve met them in these reflections!). Absolutely foundational for us to understand the Trinity is the fact that God is love. Love requires three elements, according to St Augustine:

  1. The lover.
  2. The beloved.
  3. The love that exists between the two.

If God is love, there has never been a time when he did not exist as Trinity—love requires a beloved. God the Father is eternally begetting the Son outside of time through the fullness of His love, and the love of the Father and the Son together is made perfect as the Holy Spirit in that timeless eternity proceeds from the Father. God, moreover, is perfect, spotless, sinless, stainless. He is unfailing in his love.

Jesus says that he loves us in the same way that God the Father loves him. A perfect, unfailing, spotless, unwavering, steadfast, superabundant, unfathomable love. And consider what he chose to do for us out of this love: he left his eternal throne in glorious perfection and endless beauty with the Father, took on flesh, was hungry, tired, sore, pooped, was spat upon, abandoned, slandered, beaten, stripped naked, hung upon a cross. And then God died. This is how much God the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, love us!

This is Good News!

And the moral exhortation part of this reflection is simply this: Go and do likewise. Keep Jesus’ commandments out of love for him, as a means of abiding in his love. And how do we keep his commandments? Let’s just consider John 15:12-13:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Let us love one another. To the death.

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.

Seeing and believing (John 20)

Cut from the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday on John 20:1-18

Resurrection, from Notre Dame de Paris (my photo)

After the women find the tomb empty, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles. And so Peter and John run together. John never refers to himself by name or in the first person; he is always just “the disciple Jesus loved”. John gets there first, and “bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there…” Peter also “saw the linen wrappings”. John follows Peter now and enters the tomb, “and he saw and believed.”

Here’s a philological moment from Professor Hoskin for you, then.

The Greek uses three different verbs of seeing in this passage. First, βλέπει from βλέπω. When John first arrives and looks in without entering, this is the kind of seeing. It’s your most basic kind of seeing, I guess. See, perceive, that sort of thing.

Second, θεωρεῖ (theorei), from θεωρέω (theoreo). This is the kind of seeing Peter has. This is a deeper kind of seeing, like when you go to the theatre—in fact, the word theatre comes from this verb, as does the word theory, since it can also take on meanings of contemplate and meditate in other contexts.

Third, εἶδεν καὶ ἐπίστευσεν (eiden kai episteusen). This final moment of seeing, εἶδεν (eiden) doesn’t have a present form, which is fulfilled by ὁράω (horao). This time, St John beholds, perceives, observes, really. And then he believes. I guess this means that he believes in the Resurrection, although he immediately tells us that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Which Scripture, you may ask? Psalm 16:10 is one possibility, “For You will not abandon my soul to Hades / Nor allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” Possibly the sign of Jonah that Jesus talks about elsewhere, that just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so must the Son of Man be in the tomb. Neither of these is a straightforward fulfilment of prophecy the way we moderns like it, though, is it? Not like the suffering servant in Isaiah. Nonetheless, God has interwoven hints and clues of his plan to save us throughout history and throughout the very fabric of sacred Scripture.

When St Mary Magdalene sees the two angels, it is again θεωρεῖ (theorei), and again when she sees Jesus. When she tells the disciples that she has seen him in verse 18, she says, “Ἑώρακα (heoraka),” – “I have seen,” from ὁράω (horao). This is the verb which acts as if it were the present of εἶδεν (eiden).

And now we chart beyond the boundaries of what I had prepared before I cut the sermon down to size…

What is the upshot of all this seeing? I am thinking on this. Do the different verbs of seeing carry great weight in our interpretation of the passage? Should John’s first seeing from outside the tomb be “glance”, and then Peter’s seeing be “observe” or something like that? What about when John looks again?

It seems certain to me that there are perhaps three distinct acts going on with the male disciples. John does, indeed, just glance at first. Peter goes right in, so he sees more clearly. John’s second view that is paired with believing is likewise more than a glance.

But I would always go with the kind of seeing Peter and Mary do as being the deeper — θεωρέω (theoreo): watch, observe, contemplate, meditate on, whereas the other verbs of seeing are more neutral.

There is, of course, always the basic possibility that these are simply three Greek words for “to see” chosen for variation because that’s how ancient literary composition worked. And that’s why many English translations do not distinguish between them, either. (St Augustine wouldn’t like that option, though.)

This is my body…

Pandemic regulations have shifted, so we can now have up to 43.5 people in our sanctuary for religious gatherings! Wishing to advertise tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, I rounded up the image below for use on Facebook:

Fresco of the Last Supper, Chiesa San Lorenzo, Milan (16th c., my photo)

I chose the photo because of the Renaissance fresco of the Last Supper from San Lorenzo in Milan (a church I visited because its fabric is Late Antique, even if not its decoration). After putting the details below the pic — Holy Communion, 7:30 — I went to type “This is my body…” in the upper left corner.

And then I realised that this blurry photo I took has more going on than I was thinking about. Because there, in the foreground, is a terracotta pieta, of the dead Christ with His mother. I think she’s cleaning His wounds?

Here’s the wild beauty of the Eucharist, friends. The night He was betrayed to suffering and death, the night before He died, Jesus took bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body.”

And then, the next day, they took His body, limp and dead, off a Roman cross. They tended His wounds. They placed His body in a tomb.

Jesus also said, “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:55)

That body, that flesh, is present to us, really present, in the Holy Communion. It is a mystery to be received in reverence, as He imparts His very self and the fulness of His grace to us.

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.