Makarios

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Makarios (the first on the left) stood in the midst of the gathering. He was one of the notables in the theological disputes. He and Eustathios of Antiokheia had been comparing the baptismal formulae of their cities, trying to come up with a statement to which the overseers could agree and put a stop to Arios’ destructive preaching.

However, this was a day to deal with other business. They were all in ready agreement with the condemnation of Origen’s self-mutilating solution to the problem of lust; such men as who purposefully made themselves eunuchs were by no means allowed to become or remain shepherds of Jesus’ flock. Nonetheless, those who were made so by a physician, due to illness, or by the cruelty of barbarians, ought surely to be admitted into holy orders if they so desire? There was assent all around to this.

Makarios stood up. “At the urging of various dear friends,” he began, “the following was brought to the revered Konstantinos, and thence, I, too, had private audience with his greatness. As many know, the dignity of the city I oversee, Aelia Capitolina, has much suffered in the past centuries. Thirty years after our Lord’s ascent on high, Titus and his men sacked and spoliated the city. And forty years further, the soldiers of Roma, when the people rebelled once more, destroyed it, until not one stone was left upon another, save one retaining wall, which once held the glorious Temple. But I am here, brothers, to say to you that the dignity of Mount Zion, of the city of Jerusalem, is to be restored!” He noted his arch-overseer, Eusebios of Kaisereia, sigh.

“Is it not shameful, dear friends,” he continued, “that the city within which our Lord and Saviour, the Anointed Jesus, walked is devoid of any prestige and dignity at all? This was the city in former days, in times of old, where God Himself chose to dwell. Glorious things of you are spoken, Zion city of our God! calls out the psalmist. He made it His holy habitation, where the prophets proclaimed His word to the people. In this city, the words of the Holy Scriptures were put down for generations to come. He was worshipped in Jerusalem, sacrificed to, praised in song and dance.

“From the days of King David, Jerusalem was the chief city of God’s chosen people, of the descendants of Father Abraham, the people to whom His divine Light was given, to whom He disclosed His revelation. And from the line of King David himself, overseers, came our Lord. He visited Jerusalem, walked in Jerusalem, preached in Jerusalem, died in Jerusalem. In a garden near Jerusalem, Jesus, the High King of Heaven come down, was betrayed by the kiss of a friend. In a cold sepulchre, they laid the body, the lifeless corpse of the One who was life itself.

“Yet by that death, as we all know, He trampled upon death, and slew it with the lightning flash of His Godhead!” Makarios paused, knowing he had used the much-disputed word. “And in Jerusalem, He rose from the dead. Fifty days later, our Lord the Spirit descended in Jerusalem. The apostles were sent forth from Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Stephanos, whose blood is beautiful and calls out to the Lord for justice, was the first witness to die for the cause of the Good News. In Jerusalem, as well, Jacobos was beheaded. In Jerusalem, the very first gathering of overseers, of the apostles themselves, was assembled to deal with a divisive issue. And thus, in Jerusalem, as now here in Nikaia, the true Faith was upheld and the unity of the Assembly was maintained.

“Yet — oh sorrow — this city, the place where God Himself walked, where His incarnate foot trod upon the soil, rock, and grass, where His Blood was poured out for us men and for our salvation, is not honoured, but is only a minor city. The great sites of our faith, brothers, have been sorely neglected. Yet I tell you we know where the upper room of our Lord’s last supper is. We know where his holy sepulchre is. For generations, His disciples have walked the way from Gabbatha to Golgotha, sowing tears for their sins which led their Lord there. And we have suffered in Jerusalem as in all cities. And we have died, and our blood has run in the streets of Aelia Capitolina as did His.

“Let us, therefore, reclaim this place where the glory of Lord was shown forth so perfectly unto us! Let us restore the dignity where the fullness of His revelation was made known! Let us, in honour of that His precious death and glorious resurrection, give this city of Aelia Capitolina, that is, Jerusalem, a dignity and honour becoming so important a place to our abiding faith.”

Makarios stood silent. There was perhaps, by the dripping of the water clock, a pause of three seconds. And then Eustathios stood and noted his approval of the plan. Nikolaos of Myra also seemed pleased. He saw a fellow in a hat resembling a beehive nodding his agreement. And was that Metrophanes of Byzantion applauding in the corner? No, Makarios must have been seeing things. Most important of all, Konstantinos sat smiling, resplendent.

“But,” he noted, “we must remember the dignity and honour and history of Kaisareia, the city under whose administration Aelia falls. This council has noted how to uphold respect for those assembled, and Kaisareia is the administrative centre of the province. Whatever this holy gathering decides regarding Aelia, we must not forget the dignity of Eusebios and his city.”

Makarios then sat down. Not that he felt Eusebios had that much dignity, with his tendencies towards Arios’ teachings. He just knew that being irenic rather than polemic was the course of prudence, especially when one is taking dignity from someone else.

Little did innocent Makarios realise what the results of his impassioned speech and audience with the revered Konstantinos would be — pilgrims and basilicas, gold and glory, monks and holy places; a visit from Lady Helena, resulting in the discovery of the Cross itself! His head would have swum at Nikaia had he even thought of it. But he did not; he thought only of the importance of Aelia and its role in the history of salvation.

* * *

Canon VII of the Council of Nicaea, the result of Makarios’ action, viewable on the CCEL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.vi.viii.html

The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Macarius”: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09482a.htm

Eusebius of Caesarea. Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, translators and commentators. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. pp. 132, 282.

Waugh, Evelyn. Helena. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2005. An excellent novel about the life of Helena, Constantine’s mother. The chapter “The Innocence of Bishop Macarius” was the inspiration for this telling of the tale.

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What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.

Christian Fiction

Ever since Joseph and Aseneth was a runaway second-century bestseller, Christians have been writing fiction.  Some of it has been among the world’s great literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, and many more.

My recent discussion of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young and its lack of certain heresies (read it here) has set me thinking about Christian novels worth recommending.  While The Shack was entertaining and thought-provoking, it won’t be in the following list.  The books I’m going to recommend have the following benefits: not only are they good novels but they express deep truths about the universe, God, humanity, and people who aren’t professing Christians could enjoy and read them as well.  Here are five, in alphabetical order by title:

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead.  This is a novelisation of the adventures of St. Aidan, an Irish monk who, in the Early Middle Ages sets off from Kells to Byzantium with a complaint about the behaviour of Western clerics on the Continent.  There are Vikings, Muslims, Byzantines, loss of faith and its recovery.  Aidan is very . . . real.  And the Vikings are fantastic (“Heya!”).

The Cosmic Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.  Many people find The Chronicles of Narnia their favourites; others applaud Till We Have Faces as a work of genius.  I’m not sure what my favourite work of Lewis’ fiction is.  The Cosmic Trilogy, however, is well worth a read.  These books centre on the adventures of Ransom, who in the first (Out of the Silent Planet) travels to Mars (Malacandra), the second (Perelandra) to Venus (Perelandra), and in the final volume (That Hideous Strength), the battle takes itself to Earth.  The stories are excellent, the characters compelling, and a whole gamut of “issues” is run throughout this trilogy.

Godric by Frederick Buechner.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Godric, an Anglo-Saxon hermit in the Middle Ages.  This well-written novel tells Godric’s life, including Godric’s struggles and doubts, his own humility and questioning of his vocation.  It is beautiful and wonderful.

Helena by Evelyn Waugh.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.  I believe that this book captures the spirit of the Late Antique world, especially in terms of philosophy and religion.  Waugh is not trying to make a historical reconstruction but simply telling the legend of St. Helena’s life.  I believe this is a masterpiece; it was Waugh’s favourite of his works.  Loyola Classics has a snazzy edition out.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  This, along with its companion novels, is among my favourite books.  It is a type of science fantasy, if such a genre exists.  It is about four children who set out across the universe to fight the Dark and to find their missing father; the Dark is taking over planets, extinguishing stars.  Their greatest weapon in the fight against the Dark?  Love.

Christian fiction I want to read:

All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams

Brenden by Frederick Buechner

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead (I’ve only read Taliesin)

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The Psychomachia by Prudentius

What Christian novels do you recommend?

Why read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

From AD 381 to some point in the Renaissance or Enlightenment, the Western world was ostensibly Christian.  And as the pagans were converted, the only non-Christians left were Jews.  The Jewish holy book forms the bulk of the Christian holy book, and the Christian holy book was the foundational text for Western culture.  Knowing the Bible, then, means knowing your own culture better and being better equipped to understand the thought-patterns of those who come before you.  And their allusions.  And what exactly is going on in their art.  And, understanding your heritage and culture, you can begin to fulfil the Delphic Oracle’s command: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ· KNOW THYSELF.  We shall begin with literature.

The PG Wodehouse post demonstrates the first unspiritual reason to read the Bible: the biblically illiterate simply will not enjoy literature as much.  Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” means less to those who don’t know the Bible.  CS Lewis’ The Last Battle loses much meaning without the book of Revelation.  There is other literature directly inspired or based upon the Bible: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, to name a few.  Knowing the Biblical story and how it unfolds adds a deeper layer of meaning as you read literature that plays off it.  The intensity of Many Waters was deep for me, as I knew how the story worked out in the Bible — so how would the twists of this plot dovetail with the Bible?  And I saw characters whom I knew from Genesis characterised and enfleshed by L’Engle.  My familiarity with Genesis increased my enjoyment of the novel.

Other literature is explicitly Christian, even if not directly inspired by the Bible, and an understanding of the Bible will help understand it.  This is the case with Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and Godric by Frederick Buechner.  Some literature by Christians is not explicitly Christian; nonetheless, an understanding of the Bible still helps you understand the literature.  We see this in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Father Brown stories by GK Chesterton (although these are at times quite explicitly Christian).

How do you expect to delve into the depths of the riches of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Edmund Spenser, TS Eliot, Prudentius, et al., if you have not investigated the Book that is the foundation of their hearts, minds, souls — yea, their very lives!  Take “Prayer (I)” by Herbert (chosen at random from a selection of Herbert’s poems).  Ideas/allusions that, from my vantage point, clearly originate from Scripture: “Gods breath in man returning to his birth,” “Christ-side-piercing spear,” “The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,” “Exalted Manna”.  Four in three stanzas, and one could argue for a biblical theology surrounding the rest of the poem.  If you seek to woo a poet, get to know his or her holy book and worldview.

Not that this use of the Bible is restricted only to Christian writers.  The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, an atheist, displays a notable intimacy with the Bible, including controversy surrounding interpretations of some of Jesus’ sayings.  The very deaths that propel the plot are fixed around the book of Revelation as a core, and many biblical ideas flow in and out of the conversations had by the monks through the course of the book.  His novel Foucault’s Pendulum also shows a knowledge of the Bible.

Now I must sleep.  My message is: Cure your biblical illiteracy!  Read the Bible!  It can only do you good.