I recently wrote three pieces on the New Testament Canticles over at the blog my brother and I share. These are the Benedictus (song of Zacharias at the birth of John the Baptist), Magnificat (song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (song of Simeon upon encountering the Christ Child) — all known by their first word or two in Latin. All sung/recited during the daily office. All in the Gospel of Luke.
The reflections are devotional exercises considering the content of the canticles and their historical context. I hope they are a blessing to you:
I often find myself in situations where I feel a bit awkward, or naive, or as though I had missed something in my own readings as a historian of ancient Christianity. Wisdom tells me to keep quiet; or, hey, write an anonymous blog post so no one will know it was me, right?
For example, I recently heard a scholar state the fact that the problem in the Pelagian Controversy was that wealthy laypeople were doing their own ascetic thing in their homes separate from the authority of the bishops.
I admit to not having reviewed all of the evidence of the Pelagian Controversy, and not having thought much about it for a few years. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a controversy that starts in Rome but has its fiercest opponents in North Africa can’t simply be about power. And if Pelagius and his supporters are seen as threats to the local bishop, why does Pope Innocent I at one point actually exonerate them from heresy?
Regardless of which side you support in this debate, it is also clear that there are substantive theological differences between St Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians, especially Julian of Eclanum. To reduce it to power politics requires a certain kind of extreme cynicism that I cannot accept.
Now, I don’t imagine that the bishops of Late Antiquity were always grand heroes seeking the true good and spiritual health of the world. Nor do I imagine that, when they were seeking the spiritual good of others, their methods were those of which I would approve.
The coercion of Donatists as approved by St Augustine, for example, is a bad idea. Similarly the legal restrictions against heretics, pagans, and Jews, largely supported by the bishops, are not the way a free and just society lives. By the grace of God, Christianity has largely rejected such coercive methods, and need never have used them. But ideology and power make for a dangerous combination.
Nevertheless, to imagine that Augustine vs Donatism (or vs Pelagianism or vs Manichaeism) is simply about him trying to get more power in the hands of North African ‘catholic’ clergy is reductionist to the extreme. It goes hand in hand with the sort of unintellectual anti-clericalism that must be espoused by people who have never actually spent quality time with clergy. I have met both on the same day, sometimes in the same person.
If we want to create a properly nuanced view of the history of Christianity in the Late Roman and Early Medieval worlds, we need to be open to sincerity as well as politicking. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, is notorious as one of those ‘bad people’ who went to war against his fellow bishops to try and keep his own episcopal see in a position of power and prominence. He did. It’s true.
Yet on what grounds did Cyril attack Nestorius? On Christological grounds that, if you read Cyril’s pre-Nestorius writings, you will realise he already believed. And if you read his theology, you’ll realise that his is a brilliant mind to be neglected at our loss. We need not agree with how he went about things, and we may acknowledge that part of the animus against Nestorius was due to shifting balances in geo-ecclesiology — but, based upon his theological writings and biblical commentaries, Cyril was honestly opposed to the theology of Nestorius.
Or take St Caesarius of Arles and his attempts to root out practices in the countryside that he consider ‘pagan’ or ‘superstition’. It is perfectly likely that the local people did not think these practices were incompatible with their Christian faith. They may have seen some things as non-religious and others even as part of Christianity as they understood it. However, we need not move immediately to, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices and religious expressions because he wanted a monopoly on religious power.’ Is not as easy to say, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices because he believed they were spiritually dangerous to his flock‘? I can assure you, when I witnessed a young M.A. student suggest this to senior scholars, he got patronising shakes of the head and blank stares before they moved the discussion elsewhere.
When I mention such ideas, people query my ability to judge sincerity.
What about their ability to judge insincerity?
Why straight to cynicism? Why the reductionism of all theological and pastoral activities in Late Antiquity to ecclesiastical power politics, of bishops trying to consolidate all power in themselves?
Consider the fact that many Christians in Late Antiquity — bishops, monks, educated laypeople — believed that heresy spelled eternal damnation, right alongside paganism and Judaism, and maybe we’ll have a different view of their activities. Again, we can disagree with their measures without having to disagree with their goals and without assuming them to be ‘bad people’ or ‘bastards’ or simply out to gain power.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes theological controversy is actually theological.
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.”22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.)25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know,27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Another great passage involving St John the Baptist comes in John 3:30, when it is reported to the Forerunner that Jesus’ disciples are baptising more than he; his response: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’
The lives and teachings of God’s holy ones (‘saints’) serve as lessons, especially when the holy ones are prophets or apostles. Here, the last prophet of the Messiah (a prophet who, as St Augustine observes, was able not only to predict the Messiah but point at him with his own finger) provides us with an attitude that we, too, should adopt, not just in this Advent Season but all the time.
It is, admittedly, a difficult attitude to keep. ‘He must increase’ — oh, how we wish to increase! We want to get it our way, at work, at study, in social engagements with friends, in dealing with family, even in determining the meals for the week or entertainment at evening. We wish to increase, to choose exactly which courses we teach, to divest ourselves of administrative duties, to read only the books that are interesting, to get a big paycheque, to gain renown in our own field of work.
But he — He — must increase.
And when we consider His ethical teachings, as in the Sermon on the Mount, He (and thus His increase) is found in the good and progress of others. He is found in sharing the burdens of others. He is not found in getting my way. Indeed, getting my way is likely to get in His way.
And, like St John the Forerunner, we should point the way to the One ‘the strap of whose sandal [we are] not worthy to untie’. As I posted here in an Advent not long ago, ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. Christ is still in the midst of us risen and ascended and reigning, the Second Person of the Trinity.
Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. John the Baptist points the Pharisees to Him.
Whom are we pointing to Him today?
(A worthy question, and I am myself unsure of my own answer. Nonetheless, a question more worthy than culture wars and fighting the war for ‘Christmas’.)
The liturgical church year is not a mechanical operation done merely out of ‘tradition’ or without thought. It is a means of spiritual growth for the community of faith, for that community is, in this time between Christ’s comings, bound in time and living in time with the rhythms of the solar year and the seasons and the history of Christ’s salvific activity at the time of His Incarnation and through His people in history.
It is salutary, therefore, to meditate upon its purpose. Here’s Guerric of Igny for Advent 3:
We are waiting now for the anniversary day of Christ’s birth, which we shall shortly see, God willing. Scripture requires, it seems to me, that our spirit should be so lifted up and transported with joy that it longs to run towards the approaching Christ; and, projecting itself into the future, it chafes at delays as it strains to see what is yet to come. I think myself that the many passages in Scripture exhorting us to hasten towards him refer not only to the second coming but also to the first. How so? Because just as, at his second coming, we shall run towards him with physical energy and joy, so do we hasten to Bethlehem with jubilant heart and spirit. You know that at the resurrection, having put on new bodies, according to the Apostle’s teaching we shall be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air, and so we shall be with the Lord for ever. (1 Thess. 4:16) But even here there is no lack of clouds that will carry our spirits (provided they are not sluggish and earthbound) to higher things, and then we shall be with the Lord for half an hour. Unless I am mistaken, you know from experience what I am talking about, for sometimes when the clouds have thundered, that is when the voices of the prophets and apostles have rung out in the Church, your minds have been swept aloft as though borne on clouds, and on occasion been carried so far beyond that they have been favoured with some glimpse of the glory of the Lord. Then, if I am right, the truth of that word dawned clear for you, the word which God rains down from the cloud he daily appoints to bear us aloft: ‘The sacrifice of praise do me honour: there is the path by which I will show him the salvation of God.’ (Pss. 103:3, 49:23) -P. M. Matarasso, The Cistercian World, pp. 130-31.
I missed getting this post out time for Advent 2 — called ‘Bible Sunday’ in some circles because the Book of Common Prayer’s collect (at the bottom of this post) is a masterpiece about Scripture. Here’s a bit of St Ambrose for you:
The Divine Scripture is a sea, containing in it deep meanings, and an abyss of prophetic mysteries; and into this sea enter many rivers. There are Sweet and transparent streams, cool fountains too there are, springing up into life eternal, and pleasant words as an honey-comb. Agreeable sentences too there are, refreshing the minds of the hearers, if I may say so, with spiritual drink, and soothing them with the sweetness of their moral precepts. Various then are the streams of the sacred Scriptures. There is in them a first draught for you, a second, and a last. (Letter 2.3: To Constantius, A Newly Appointed Bishop)
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Two days ago Advent began. Many ministers will have noted from their pulpits that the English word Advent comes from the Latin aduentus, which means ‘arrival’. Although my minister did not do this, when he said that the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come, I couldn’t help but write down in my notebook:
As soon as I’d written Adventus, I thought about the Emperor in the late Roman world (un-coincidentally, the title of a course I’m teaching this semester) and the Adventus ceremony that surrounded his arrival in a city. This event was known well enough that it is used analogically by St Athanasius in On the Incarnation of the Word (as observed by S. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity), one of this season’s popular Patristic texts:
And like as when a great king has entered into some large city and taken up his abode in one of the houses there, such city is at all events held worthy of high honour, nor does any enemy or bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it; but, on the contrary, it is thought entitled to all care, because of the king’s having taken up his residence in a single house there: so, too, has it been with the Monarch of all. 4. For now that He has come to our realm, and taken up his abode in one body among His peers, henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked, and the corruption of death which before was prevailing against them is done away. For the race of men had gone to ruin, had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to meet the end of death. (Ch. 2, 9)
The imperial Adventus was a big deal, and people knew what to do when the emperor came to town. It was the sort of event that people would remember for years, and use as a peg to mark other events. It was especially important in Rome, the imperial city, the mother of Empire. There, after arriving, he would meet the Senate, give a speech to the crowd, distribute largesse. He would also hear speeches. The speechmaking was a way to negotiate the emperor’s relationship with the City (or a city) and its leading men. He would then spend some time sightseeing, and move into his quarters on the Palatine.
One of the most documented Adventus ceremonies was that of Constantius II (son of Constantine, r. 337-361) in 357. Here’s a meaty passage from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus:
1. While these events were so being arranged in the Orient and in Gaul as circumstances demanded, Constantius, as if the temple of Janus had been closed and all his enemies overthrown, was eager to visit Rome and, after the death of Magnentius to celebrate without a title a triumph over Roman blood. …
4. So soon, then, to pass over what was dispursed in preparation, <on 28th April> in the second Prefecture of Orfitus he passed through Ocriculi, elated with his great honours and escorted by formidable troops; he was conducted as if in battle array and everyone’s eyes were riveted upon him with fixed gaze. 5. And when he was nearing the city, as he beheld with calm countenance the dutiful attendance of the senate and the august likenesses of their patrician ancestry, he thought, not like Cineas, the famous envoy of Pyrrhus, that a throng of kings was assembled together, but that the sanctuary of the whole world was present before him. 6. And when he turned from them to the populace, he was amazed to see in what crowds men of every type had flocked from all quarters to Rome. And as if he were planning to overawe the Euphrates or the Rhine with a show of arms, while the standards preceded him on each side, he himself sat alone upon a golden chariot in the resplendent blaze of shimmering precious stones, whose mingled glitter seemed to form a sort of shifting light. 7. And behind the manifold others that preceded him he was surrounded by dragons, woven out of purple thread and bound to the golden and jewelled tops of spears, with wide mouths open to the breeze and hence hissing as if roused by anger, and leaving their tails winding in the wind. 8. And there marched on either side twin lines of infantrymen with shields and crests gleaming with glittering rays, clad in shining mail; and scattered among them were the full-armoured cavalry (whom they call clibanarii), all masked, furnished with protecting breastplates and girt with iron belts, so that you might have supposed them statues polished by the hand of Praxiteles, not men. Thin circles of iron plates, fitted to the curves of their bodies, completely covered their limbs; so that whichever way they had to move their limbs, their garment fitted, so skilfully were the joinings made.
5. Accordingly, being saluted as Augustus with favouring shouts, while hills and shores thundered out the roar, he never stirred, but showed himself as calm and imperturbable as he was commonly seen in his provinces. 10. For he both stooped low when passing through lofty gates, and as if his neck were in a vice, he kept the gaze of his eyes straight ahead, and turned his face neither to right nor to left, but, like a figurine of a man, neither did he nod when the wheel jolted nor was he ever seen to spit, or to wipe or rub his face or nose, or move his hands about. 11. And although this was affectation on his part, yet these and various other features of his more intimate life were tokens of no slight endurance, granted to him alone, as was given to be understood. 12. Furthermore, that during the entire period of his reign he neither took up anyone to sit beside him in his chariot, nor admitted any private person to be his colleague in the insignia of the consulship, as other anointed princes did, and many like habits which in his pride of lofty conceit he observed as though they were most just laws, I pass by, remembering that I set them down when they occurred.
6. So then he entered Rome, the home of empire and of all virtues (imperii uirtutumque omnium larem), and when he had come to the Rostra, the most renowned forum of ancient dominion, he stood amazed; and on every side on which his eyes rested he was dazzled by the array of marvellous sights. He addressed the nobles in the senate-house and the populace from the tribunal, and being welcomed to the palace with manifold attentions, he enjoyed a longed-for pleasure; and on several occasions, when holding equestrian games, he took delight in the sallies of the commons, who were neither presumptuous nor heedless of their old-time freedom, while he himself also respectfully observed the due mean. 14. For he did not (as in the case of other cities) permit the contests to be terminated at his own discretion but left them (as the custom is) to various chances. Then, as he surveyed the sections of the city and its suburbs, lying within the summits of the seven hills, along their slopes, or on level ground, he thought that whatever first met his gaze towered above all the rest: the sanctuaries of Tarpeian Jove so far surpassing as things divine excel those of earth; the baths built up to the measure of provinces; the huge bulk of the amphitheatre, strengthened by its framework of Tiburtine stone, to whose top human eyesight barely ascends; the Pantheon like a rounded city-district, vaulted over in lofty beauty; and the exalted peaks which rise with platforms which can be climbed, bearing the likenesses of former emperors; the temple of the City, the Forum of Peace, the theatre of Pompey, the Odeum, the Stadium and amongst these the other glories of the eternal city.
15. But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a construction unique under the heavens, as we believe, and admirable even in the unanimous opinion of the Gods, he stood fast in amazement, turning his attention to the gigantic complex about him, beggaring description and never again to be attempted by mortal men. Therefore abandoning all hope of attempting anything like it, he said that he would and could copy Trajan’s steed alone, which stands in the middle of the vestibule carrying the emperor himself. 16. To this prince Hormisdas, who was standing near him, and whose departure from Persia I have described above, replied with native wit: ‘First, Sire,’ said he, ‘command a similar stable to be built, if you can; let the steed which you propose to create range as widely as this which we see.’ When Hormisdas was asked directly what he thought of Rome, he said that he took comfort in this fact alone, that he had learned that even there men were mortal. 17. So then, when the emperor had viewed many objects with awe and amazement, he complained of Fame as either incapable or spiteful, because while always exaggerating everything, in describing what there is in Rome, she becomes shabby. And after long deliberation what he should do there, he determined to add to the adornments of the city by erecting in the Circus Maximus an obelisk, the provenance and figure of which I shall describe in the proper place. (Res Gestae 16.10, tr. J.C. Rolfe, lightly adapted by G. Kelly)
This blog has now run on too long! So I won’t give you my commentary on the above. However, here’s an image of the gem-encrusted Emperor Constantius II in his glory:
And another image of him in the Missorium of Kerch:
It is, of course, a contrast to the Nativity of Christ. ‘Once in royal David’s city / stood a lowly cattle shed / where a mother laid her baby / in a manger for his bed’; and, further, ‘with the poor and weak and lowly / lived on earth our Saviour holy’. However, he did have the chorus of the heavenly army, as Constantius had his earthly army in glittering array.
However, as my minister said on Sunday, the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come. In Advent we look not only back to that first Adventus but also ahead to the second:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. 12 His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. 13 And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
16 And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; 18 That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great.
19 And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. 20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. 21 And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:11-21 KJV)
Not the happiest image Christianity has to offer — but what it does remind us is that justice will be served. And, as Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace, Revelation’s Rider on the White Horse means that we do not need to execute judgement here, for judgement will be rendered in the fulfillment of all things, by the returning King. Just a few Late Antique thoughts as we begin this Advent(us) season.
This coming Sunday, November 27th, is the First Sunday in Advent. Advent, in the western liturgical calendar, is the start of the liturgical year. That makes it the liturgical New Year! I have to confess that I’ve never heard of anyone making a liturgical New Year’s resolution. Nonetheless, perhaps Advent is just the time to start, anyway.
After all, it’s the lead up to Christmas, ‘another year over / a new one’s just begun’, as John Lennon says. In December we often look back not so much over the past year but over past Decembers and past Christmases; hopefully with fondness, sometimes with sorrow. As we survey the history of ourselves, the history of our spiritual lives, hopefully we can seek out ways to draw nearer to our Lord Jesus — and the Daily Office as we promote here is just one way.
For the more liturgically- or traditionally-minded, Advent…