History of Christianity video 2: Late Ancient Christianty, 300-600

Here’s my second History of Christianity video, covering the years 300-600. I had hoped to create a handout this week. As yet, no such luck. Maybe later today if other things go well…

In this week’s instalment of the history of Christianity, we look at the years 300-600. Sticking to our themes of spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity, we look at three topics:

  1. Christianisation of the Roman Empire
  2. Monasticism from Egypt to St Benedict
  3. Christianity outside the Roman Empire

If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):

Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Bk 1, chh. 26-32

Athanasius, Life of St Antony

St Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, Prologue

Agathangelos, History, Book 3

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, pp. 152-159, 174-183, and 192-212.

Further Ancient Sources

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975.

John Cassian, The Conferences. The quotation is from Conference 10, ch. 7

Further Modern Sources

Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford, 2011.

Henry Chadwick and G. R. Evans, Atlas of the Christian Church. Oxford, 1987.

J Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity. 2009. -Available if you have a Scribd subscription.

Christ’s church … militant?

Christ in Glory, Ethiopic Gospel ms, British Library Or. MS 481, f.110v. 17th century

The title of this post is one of the many resonant phrasings from the Book of Common Prayer, ‘Christ’s church militant here on earth.’ I have to admit, though, looking first to myself, we are not very militant in the West. I have recently blogged about my attempts to set up regular prayer. It is slowly emerging, but I’m still no soldier. I need to figure out reading and study of Scripture, let alone working out other disciplines.

Somehow, sitting around at my computer with a beer and a bowl full of creamy dill potato chips doesn’t feel very militant.

Others have noticed what I have previously referred to as “spiritual flabbiness” here in the West. Apparently, one reason why immigrant Christians start their own churches in Canada is that they think we are too soft and that we will be a bad influence on their children. They’re probably right!

What inspires these thoughts today is a little something I found on an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church website (from Mountain of Medicine Saviour of the World, an English-language Ethiopian Orthodox mission parish in Toronto — I want to visit):

Orthodoxy in general helps the believer to realize that the Church is a Militant Church, which means every believer is a soldier in Christ; then one must realize that the Christian life consist of Order, Discipline and Sacrifice. These are traits that a soldier must possess in order to be successful in warfare.

The world is an undisciplined place so the Church of God must be the opposite. Just read the scriptures and see that Heavenly Worship is very orderly; it involves a Heavenly Hierarchy if you will, Cherubim, Seraphim, Archangel, Angels, Principalities, and Powers. The Worship is Liturgical Rev. 4:8 “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, The Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come” the living creatures chant this day and night without ceasing.

Order, Discipline and Sacrifice.

Now, even soldiers get time off, so don’t get me wrong. And our rich ascetic tradition in Christianity knows this — a bow that is always strung will break. But I think most of us — self included! — leave our bows unstrung most of the time.

The Ethiopians are not unusual in seeing us as soldiers, of course. The word pagan that refers to those ancient persons who are neither Christian nor Jewish, as it turns out, seems most likely to refer to non-combatants, to civilians. The ancient Christians saw themselves as fighting, as milites (the Latin word for soldiers). Everyone else was a civilian, not fighting the fight.

The martyrs were considers soldiers of Christ, and after them the monks.

In our Protestant hymn books, we used to sing “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war.”

Of course, Anglicans are too enlightened for this sort of thing, anymore.

But the Ethiopians know it. Maybe we flabby westerners should spend some time with our Ethiopian brothers and sisters to get back some of the fire, discipline, and strength of our own forebears, men and women who went to the stake for the Gospel, were imprisoned, were beheaded, and crucified, who travelled far and wide by primitive means of travel to share the Gospel of Christ with others, who endured sickness and death just to be faithful to Christ, their King.

Saint of the Week: Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

From an Ethiopian prayerbook
From an Ethiopian prayerbook

Abba Giyorgis (d. 1426) was an Ethiopian monk who was chaplain to Emperor Dawit I (r. 1380-1412).  According to “The Miracle of Saint Uriel the Archangel,” the English translation of which takes up pp. 9-13 of this document,* he was descended from the son of King Solomon whom Solomon sent to live among the Ethiopians.  Like many great men, Abba Giyorgis was born to parents who at first seemed infertile, but through constant prayer and supplication, their infertility was cured.

The second miracle, besides his birth, was when Abba Giyorgis was taught by the Archangel Uriel the alphabet.  He had spent 7 years at Hayq, “the Paradise of the East,” unable to learn his letters.  The Archangel, who had previously granted his parents the gift of this son, granted to Giyorgis the ability to read and write.

Immediately, as “The Miracle of Saint Uriel” relates, he began writing.  Abba Giyorgis Saglawi wrote a lot.  According to the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, he wrote

the “Arganona Wedase” (“Hymns of Praise”), the “Wedase Masqal” (“Praises of the Cross”), the “Matshafa Sebhat” (“Book of Thanks”), also called the “Matshafa Berhan” (“Book of Light”), the “Matshafa Mestir” (“Book of Mysteries”), which is a compilation of doctrines, completed two years before his death, and the “Matshafa Saatat” (“Book of Hymns”).

He also became abbot of the monastery of Dabro Damo as well as chaplain to Emperor Dawit, as mentioned above.  Like many men of active mind, he got himself into controversy and, thence, into prison.  He got out of prison as a result of a new emperor, Tewodros, who was one of his former pupils.

I became aware of Abba Giyorgis because of his role in the daily office of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.**  The last book in the list of his writings, the “Matshafa Saatat” is the book of the daily office.  Sa’atat is the Ethiopian hours or horologion.

The Sa’atat of Abba Giyorgis is the most common version of the daily office in use in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  To quote Taft on Giyorgis’ sa’atat:

This . . . sa’atat, apparently the only one still in common use, comprises nocturns and an eleventh and twelfth hour.  Nocturns and vespers or the eleventh hour are little more than a series of four Scripture lessons, with a responsorial pslam before the last, always a gospel, at nocturns.  This lection unit is enclosed in a framework of opening prayers and concluding intercessions, hymns, orations, canticles, etc.  The twelfth hour is a devotional office in praise of Mary.

Thus the Ethiopians can lay claim to having transformed the hours into a Liturgy of the Word centered on Scripture lections a century before Luther. (269, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West)

I hope this brief telling about Abba Giyorgis has been enlightening.  For me, it is a reminder of the international character of Christianity, that is not just Catholics, Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox, but that there are Egyptians, Ethiopians, Iraqis, Indians, Iranians, and others who are part of the historic line of the Christian faith founded upon the teachings of the Apostles.

And the traditions of the Church, such as the praying of the daily office, are part of that historic, international tradition.

*If you know Amharic, the English translation is, of course, unnecessary.

**In Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (Liturgical Press, 1986), p. 269.