The Agony by George Herbert

I first met this poem in Malcolm Guite’s book Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here), and I encountered it again last week in his lecture ‘Christ and the Poetic Imagination’ at Regent College’s Laing Lectures. A blessed Good Friday to you.

The Agony

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

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Holy Saturday: An Uncomfortable Day in the Church Year

Today is Holy Saturday. I find today one of the most uncomfortable or awkward days in terms of feasts and commemorations of the Church. From Palm Sunday to Good Friday, we know what we’re about. The Triumphal Entry. Christ clearing the Temple. Christ on the Mount of Olives and disputing with opponents in the Temple. There’s nothing mentioned in Scripture for Wednesday — so we do Tenebrae to make up for it. Then comes the Last Supper and the Betrayal. And, of course, Good Friday.

After Good Friday, Easter Sunday — Resurrection, glory. Loosening our throats and tongues to shout, ‘Allelu–‘ you know the rest, ja?

But today?

Today the Disciples (soon to be Apostles, if they only knew!) are in hiding. The women — His Mother, Mary Magdalene, Salome, et aliae — are mourning His death.

On Holy Saturday, God’s body is lying dead in a tomb.

All there is to do is wait.

We aren’t good at that in our culture. I’m not that good at it, myself. I’d like Easter Sunday now, thank you very much.

But I think this awkwardness, this discomfort, this twitching while we wait is good.

It will make tomorrow morning, bleary-eyed but excited at 5:30 AM, that much more exciting.

The tension of today increases the release of tomorrow as we all respond to, ‘Christ is–‘ well, you know.

But not yet. For now, waiting. The Body of Our Lord in the Tomb.

apokath

Saint of the Week: Elder St Porphyrios

This past Tuesday, December 2, was the second time Elder Porphyrios’ (1906-1991) feast was celebrated. It’s rare to have someone so recently canonised appear here, but I felt he was worth commemoration partly because of that fact — and because of his wisdom and holiness of life.

Elder Porphyrios was born Evangelos Bairaktaris in the village of Aghios Ioannis in the province of Karystia on the Greek island of Euboea (mod. Evia). The youngest of four, he left school after the first grade and worked in the town of Chalkida at a shop to make money for the family. He was a hard and obedient worker, and stayed there for a few years before moving to Piraeus on the mainland (it is Athens’ port) and working in a general store run by a relative.

Although he hardly knew how to read at the time, Elder Porphyrios had a copy of the Life of St John the Hut-Dweller which he read as a boy. St John inspired him. St John the Hut-Dweller was late fifth-century Constantinopolitan saint who secretly took up the monastic life at the famed monastery of the Acoimetae (Unsleeping Ones). After living for some years according to a very strict rule, St John was granted permission by his abbot to go life near his parents so as to cleanse his heart of earthly love for them. He then dwelled in a hut beside his family, identity unknown, for three years. He revealed himself to his mother on his deathbed.

Young Evangelos was inspired by St John the Hut-Dweller’s story and wanted nothing more than to become a monk. He tried to run away to Mt Athos, the Holy Mountain, to become a monk on a few occasions. When he was 12, he succeeded at his goal and entered the life of obedience to two very strict and severe elders. At the age of 14, he became a monk under the name Niketas, and at 16 he took his full vows.

During these early years of the monastic life, Elder Porphyrios was given no praise but many tasks. He spent much time alone on the mountain with no one but the birds. He learned the Psalms and the prayers by heart. And at age 19, he received a gift from the Holy Spirit of clear sight. When this gift came, he saw his elders approaching his position even though they were far away and around a corner. He knew what they were doing. Later in his life, Elder Porphyrios was able to use this gift of sight to counsel and care for the souls of the many people who came to him seeking God’s grace.

The simplicity of Elder Porphyrios’ heart is visible in his recognition of the songs of praise sung by the birds to Almighty God, a realisation he had while living on the Holy Mountain:

One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the [Jesus] prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes … (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 31)

Elder Porphyrios’ love of the animal world, and of birds in particular, is illustrated by his taming of two wild parrots later in life. He wished also to tame an eagle, but I don’t know if that happened. One of his parrots would say the Jesus Prayer with him.

Ill health forced Elder Porphyrios to leave Mount Athos, and he returned to Evia where we lived at the Monastery of St Charalambos, Levka. In 1926 he was ordained priest and was given the name Porphyrios. He lived at the Monastery of St Charalambos for twelve years as a spiritual guide and confessor, and then three years at the deserted Monastery of St Nicholas in Ano Vatheia.

1940 saw the Second World War and Elder Porphyrios’ move to Athens. He became the chaplain and confessor at the Polyclinic Hospital where he served for many years, leading the liturgy and hearing confessions and ministering to the staff and patients of the hospital, many of whose previous contact with Christianity had been minimal or merely formal.

From 1955 to 1979, he lived at the Monastery of St Nicholas in Kallisia. He was still chaplain at the Polyclinic, but he was now able to also live out his lifelong dream of being a monastic at the same time. In 1979, he moved to Milesi, a village that overlooks Evia, where he lived at first in a caravan and later in a single-cell built of cinder blocks. However, the goal of founding a monastery was realised, and in 1984 he was able to move into one of the rooms of the complex under construction, and in 1990 the foundation stone of the monastic church was laid.

He returned to the Holy Mountain and died at his hermitage in Kavsokalyvia, where he had become a monk so long ago, December 2 1991.

Stories about Elder St Porphyrios abound. One time, a young man on the verge of suicide received a phone call out of the blue, and it was the saint (neither knew each other) who counselled him not to kill himself. This young man was converted, and later met Elder Porphyrios before becoming a priest himself. One young woman had a vision of Elder Porphyrios while she, too, was contemplating suicide. At both these times, Elder Porphyrios had been at prayer when the Lord made the miracle happen.

Elder Porphyrios was a man who could be deeply moved by the words of Scripture:

One Good Friday we were doing the service. The church was packed with people. I was reading the Gospel, and when I came to the phrase, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, that is, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? I was unable to finish it. I didn’t read the words ‘why have you forsaken me?‘ I was overcome with emotion. My voice broke. In front of me I saw the whole tragic scene. I saw that face. I heard that voice. I saw Christ so vividly. The people in the church waited. I said nothing. I was unable to continue. I left the Gospel on the reading stand and turned back into the sanctuary. I made the sign of the cross and kissed the Holy Table. I brought to my mind another image, a better one. No, not a better one. There was no more beautiful image than that one, but the image of the Resurrection came to my mind. At once I calmed down. Then I returned to the Holy Doors and said:

‘Excuse me, my children, I got carried away.’ –Wounded by Love

Imagine if more ministers were so drawn into Scripture that their hearts were pierced in the formality of Sunday services!

I have run on long enough. There is much to say. I encourage you to learn the life and teachings of this saint — they are even available in the English book Wounded by Love: The Life and Teachings of Elder Porphyrios. 😉

Reflecting back on this week of poems of the Passion

Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)
Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)

This week of mediaeval (plus Ambrose) poetry began with Theodulf of Orleans’ triumphal eighth-century hymn in J M Neale’s wonderful Victorian rendering, ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour.’

But the earthly triumph of Palm Sunday so quickly turns to Good Friday, to ignominy and death.

In Holy Saturday, Christ’s body rests in the tomb, cold and dead.

The scattered disciples are probably in hiding.

We, however, have a different perspective because of tomorrow, when all the promises of God are fulfilled in Our Lord’s Resurrection. Western Christian hymnody and devotional poetry demonstrate this perspective, that the cross — a historical action filled with shame and defeat — is, in fact, the true triumph of God in his upside-down kingdom.

And so, in the light of this knowledge, St Ambrose, in the fourth century, composed a hymn to be sung at the Third Hour of prayer — and not just on Good Friday:

This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.

Christ trampled down death by death on the Cross. He destroyed the power of sin and the devil. God entered into the fullness of human experience in Christ. It is victorious, as Fortunatus demonstrated to us on Tuesday, where the juxtaposition of the ‘standards of the King’ and the ‘mystery of the cross’ remind us of this victory over the forces of evil wrought for us on the tree.

Wednesday brought us the Ruthwell Cross with its inscription, yet another hymn bringing the royal aspect of Christ’s death to the fore of our thoughts.

And then on Thursday, I diverged from the passion hymns. I gave us a Eucharistic hymn by St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and liturgist of the feast of Corpus Christi. Whether we believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation enshrined by Innocent III in 1226 or not, I believe that faithful Christians can stand behind Aquinas in ‘Pange, Lingua’ — Christ is present to us in the Eucharist; ‘This is my body’. And so, we turn from his body broken, bleeding, sorrowing, sighing, dying, on the Cross to his body present to us in the bread and the wine:

Fac me cruce inebriari. Et cruore Filii. -Innocent III

Make me drunk with the cross and the blood of the Son.

And then, Good Friday, when at the Third Hour the King of Glory ascended his throne, his sole earthly crown an instrument of torture, came the poem that inspired me to put together this assembly, the Middle English devotional poem, ‘Man and woman, look on me.’ This poem is a graphic reminder that Christ’s blood washes away our sins.

And as we meditated on Christ in our hearts, I provided art to look upon literally. All save the Giotto on Palm Sunday were photos I took in the churches and museums of continental Europe. The devotional life of mediaeval Europe was powerfully, mightily crucicentric. Maybe, sometimes, too much.

Yet on that Cross, the saviour died. God bled out.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

And so we have the ivory carvings, Gothic retables, stone crosses, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations of European devotion. So our physical eyes can behold what our spirits feast upon — the efficacious sacrifice of the Saviour.

If we enter into the blood and the gore and the sorrow and the pain of Good Friday, into the crown of thorns, the nail-pierced limbs, the spear in the side, how much more may we enter into the joy of glorious Easter and the empty tomb, the resurrected Saviour and the conquest of death.

Good Friday: Man and woman, look on me!

IMG_6474
Flemish Gothic Retable, Musée nationale du Moyen Age, Paris

Man and woman, look on me!
How much I suffered for you, see!
Look on my back, laid bare with whips:
Look on my side, from which blood drips.
My feet and hands are nailed upon the Rood;
From pricking thorns my temples run with blood.
From side to side, from head to foot,
Turn and turn by body about,
You there shall find, all over, blood.
Five wounds I suffered for you: see!
So turn your heart, your heart, to me.

-14th century, trans. Brian Stone, Medieval English Verse, p. 38

Good Christology matters for Good Friday

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

In a little under two weeks, it will be Good Friday as we make the final push to the chief feast of the Christian year. Some preachers seem to dread Good Friday — they are uncertain what more could ever be said, or they feel that Protestant Christianity makes too much of the Cross and too little of the Risen Saviour, or they are awkward about how bloody the whole thing is, or they’ve decided to wash their hands of any theory of atonement or … or …

Well.

I can see their preaching predicament.

Good thing I’m not a preacher. 😉

One thing that will undoubtedly pass through the minds of many is that old, wretched ‘Divine Child Abuse’ line, or similar awkward thoughts about God unjustly lashing out against an innocent man to divert his wrath from ‘deserving’ sinners. That sort of thing.

I generally wonder what sort of Christology lies at the heart of their preaching when they question theories of atonement (how Christ’s death-and-resurrection make us one with God) from such angles.

If Nicaea I through Nicaea II have taught us anything about how to do theology that is at once (somewhat) philosophically coherent and biblically faithful, it is that God is Jesus. This is the meaning of all that high-flying ‘Hellenistic’ ‘philosophical’ jargon that gets thrown around in the patristic period and disparaged in the modern

(you know —

homoousios/consubstantial

hypostatic union

dyothelitism —

that sort of thing)

Consubstantial means that Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Word Incarnate of John 1 — the subject of our Faith and the author of our salvation — has the same substance or essence as God the Father, as the Person we tend to think of as ‘God’.

Hypostatic union means that the person (hypostasis) of Jesus is a single unity of both human and divine. Divinity does not swallow up humanity, nor does humanity deprive divinity of its reality. Jesus — who is fully God as articulated by consubstantial — is also fully human, a complete man with body and soul — to the point of (in later theology) somehow, inexplicably (as far as I’m concerned, though I know that Maximus has explanations) having two wills (dyothelitism).

So, what does this have to do with Good Friday?

I think the most powerful impact it has on many of the common objections to traditional atonement theories is that God is absolved from injustice and child abuse. Why? Because God is Jesus.

God chose to become a man and all that means.

God chose to be scourged, bloodied, and die an unjust death he did not deserve.

The result is not simply a quick and easy transaction whereby we get into heaven free. The result is that God has taken a human person into himself in some way. God is not distant. He has suffered all that ordinary humans suffer. He has tasted death and returned victorious.

And he did this because he loves us. We, through our rejection of the only true and right way to live, were heading — are heading — for destruction. We had incurred a debt greater than we could pay. God chose the path of love to remove that debt, he chose the hard path, the path that would lead him into the fullest depths of the human experience, thereby transfiguring human life and taking it into himself, and showing us that He knows us and loves and can relate to us.

And so, Good Friday.

While we were yet His enemies, God the Son, the Incarnate Word, died.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Next week, I’ll be posting some medieval poetry and art about this. I hope that you can be drawn into the mystery of Jesus and love Him more as a result…

A controversial Good Friday collect from 1549

In his 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer included a collect for Good Friday that was reprinted up to 1662. I don’t know about the early 20th-century attempts to re-shape the Prayer Book, but in Canada’s 1959/62 edition, this third collect is gone, while the other two are present.

Here is the 1549 spelling, as found here:

MERCYFULL God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothyng that thou hast made, nor wouldest the deathe of a synner, but rather that he should be converted and live; have mercy upon all Jewes, Turkes, Infidels, and heretikes, and take from them all ignoraunce, hardnes of heart, and contempt of thy word: and so fetche them home, blessed Lorde, to thy flocke, that they maye bee saved among the remnant of the true Israelites, and be made one folde under one shepeherde, Jesus Christ our Lord; who lyveth and reigneth, &c.

Since I received a 1662 version of the BCP for Christmas, today was the first time I read this collect. I think it is says something important about Good Friday that we lack in the other two collects.

The first of the two collects is a prayer for the congregation there gathered, focussed on Christ’s Passion, and the second is for the entire Church. The third takes the focus beyond the Church to the world, to those who do not yet know the Gospel. The four groups listed are Jews, Turks, Infidels, and heretics. I can see why this prayer would be controversial in the 1960s and not precisely ‘PC’.

However, let us look at these four groups in turn. First, the Jewish people. We get well over half of our Bible from the Jewish people. Jesus was a Jewish man, as were the Apostles. It is in fulfillment of prophecies made to the Jewish nation that Christ came, died, and rose for us. Therefore, that so many Jewish persons have not embraced Jesus as their Messiah, Saviour, and Redeemer, is something that should concern us. Christ died both for Jew and for Gentile. They are worthy of our prayers.

Second, we have Turks. This is probably a catch-all phrase for Muslims. Here we have the other of what people term ‘Abrahamic faiths’. Here we have a very large portion of the world’s population, whose holy book teaches many things contrary to our faith, yet many things cunningly similar — so close, yet so far away. In the minds of people in 1549, the ‘Turks’ were primarily to be found as the inhabitants of the Holy Land, as well. Should not the salvation of those who live where Our Lord walked and died be a concern for us? Did Christ not die for the Muslim Turk as well? They are worthy of our prayers.

I am not sure about the Infidel. Is this all unfaithful, ie. all un-believers, or a different circumlocution for Muslims? I do not know. But this I do know — Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. They are all worthy of our prayers.

Finally, heretics. The common view until recently is that heretics imperil their souls by their twisted belief. This may be true. Whether or not heretics are all going to Hell, they are certainly mistaken about the character of God and His action in the world, and as persons thus mistaken, they are not able to enjoy the love and fellowship of God as closely as the orthodox. Otherwise orthodoxy is meaningless. If you take offence to that, consider this: If someone thinks I am a Communist or a basketball player or only five-foot three, that person clears does not know me very well at all. That person has not entered very deeply into love and fellowship with me. So also when we think of God and heresy. Christ died for the heretics. They are worthy of our prayers.

Christ died on Good Friday, spilling out his blood for the sins of all of humanity. If we do not pray for the unsaved today, then we have lost the plot. If we pray only four ourselves and our churches, if we pray only for a better understanding of the cross, if we only meditate upon what this violent, glorious event means for us as Christians — we have lost the plot.

The Second Article of Religion states:

The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

Are we bringing this truth to bear to others? Are we praying for the salvation of the whole world this Good Friday? Are are we navel-gazing and ignoring our mission as followers of the Crucified God?