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.

St Ambrose, the Bible, and Discipleship

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

Yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent, was Bible Sunday — so called because of its collect that is focussed on the Bible. I, myself, read a passage from St John of Damascus (feast day December 4) about the Bible at Evensong. Today is the feast of St Ambrose of Milan (the Fathers are coming on heavily this time of year — St Nick was yesterday), and scanning his works (particularly On the Faith) makes me think of some themes that have been coming together lately, often because of my friend Rick’s provocations(!).

First, then, St Ambrose and the Bible. St Ambrose was what some today might call a devoted Bible teacher and preacher. But when we look at how he fulfilled the episcopal office of preaching, we see that his methods, his hermeneutics, his exegesis, are not what we would expect from a modern “Bible teacher” — St Ambrose was committed to the allegorical or spiritual exposition of the Old Testament.

Without getting into all the various details of St Ambrose’s sermons and commentaries — some of which are almost verbatim translations of his older contemporary St Basil of Caesarea — what I want to stress here about St Ambrose’s commitment to sacred Scripture is the very heart of spiritual exegesis:

The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about Jesus the Christ.

When ancient Christians pull out allegory or typology or any other spiritual meaning, almost invariably their teaching points us in the direction of the Saviour. Martin Luther’s criticism of allegory as making Scripture into a “wax nose” is not entirely fair. In fact, many of the Fathers reproduce the same allegory from the same passages, as do the mediaevals, either independently or because they all read Origen.

Second, then, St Ambrose and discipleship. When you look at those texts of the saintly bishop of Milan that are about what we might call “discipleship essentials” — On the Faith, On the Mysteries, On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation — we do not find him giving extended treatment to the doctrine of sacred Scripture. He spends a lot of time arguing for the fullness of the Godhood of Jesus the Christ. He discusses the meaning of baptism and the Eucharist. He argues for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

And, although he spends a lot of time arguing from Scripture for the content of the orthodox faith, although his vision of discipleship essentials is derived from Scripture — the Bible is not the object of his faith, it would seem. The Bible, rather, informs the content of his faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, starts at Sacred Scripture.

St Ambrose’s faith lies instead in Jesus the Christ. His invitation to the Emperor Gratian, to the people of Milan, to the Emperor Theodosius is an invitation to holy obedience to and reverent worship of God the Word Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth.

This is important. Healthy Christianity is fundamentally about encountering Jesus Christ, about seeking to live under His Lordship, about meeting the living God in and through Christ the King.

We are called to be and to make disciples of Jesus, not the Bible.

A worthy meditation for this week following Bible Sunday.

Making your own ‘curriculum for Christlikeness’

One of the primary things that Dallas Willard encourages us to do as we decide firmly to live as real disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ is to immerse ourselves in the Gospels. I want to say that straight away before I blog about other things, because that is, I think, primary. The Gospels are our prime source for the ministry and teachings of Jesus; if we want to be his lifelong students and apprentices, we should get to know them intimately. But there’s little to add from one such as myself.

This study of Jesus is part of what Willard calls the ‘curriculum for Christlikeness’; I’m reckoning he’s trying not to scare off low evangelicals by using ‘rule of life’. Anyway, this study of the Scriptures to learn to do whatever Jesus says and teaches is an essential ingredient of our lives, as it has always been for all literate followers of Jesus — and the illiterate when they hear the Word preached by word and depicted by image in stone, fresco, mosaic, and stained glass.

Their successes and failures are a major secondary source for us — what worked for most of them will work for most of us as we seek to become Christlikeness. And Dallas Willard knows it; he calls The Rule of Saint Benedict, The Imitation of Christ, and The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius ‘some of the most profound treatments of discipleship to Jesus’, recommending that if we non-monks:

make necessary adjustments to the content of such works, you will see that they offer, in substance, precisely what we have been discussing in this chapter: a curriculum, a course of training, for life on the rock. And that is why, century after century, they have exercised incredible power over all who open themselves to them as disciples of Jesus. (p. 405)

Willard goes on to note the major traditions of Protestantism and the presence of  similar writings and teachers there as well — sadly as foreign to many Protestants today as the mediaeval monastic texts!

I have many times read calls such as this, or the monastic texts themselves, and said, ‘I should set up such a rule.’ But I don’t know that until know the importance and power of such a rule, such a curriculum, such a deliberate plan for living has impressed itself upon me.

By the grace of God, by changing our life habits, we can be freed from those besetting sins to which we fall prey every time temptation comes. By the grace of God, we can learn how to tame the passions and redirect their energy to virtue, not vice. So I’m going to make my own curriculum, as I’ve said so many times before, and actually follow it this time.