Advent 4, Sarum: Raise up Thy power and come!

Walters Ms. W.34, Carrow Psalter (fol. 178r)

And so comes the final week of Advent. On Thursday, the season will climax and close with the arrival of Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity. Following the Use of Sarum, this Sunday’s collect is:

O Lord, raise up, we pray Thee, Thy power, and come, and with great might succour us; that whereas through our sins we are sore let and hindered, Thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us. Who livest …

This is what the Advent longing is about — the coming of the Lord. There is a straining and a wrestling in it. A struggle. We feel the ache of life without Emmanuel (God-with-us) in Advent. This year, I have found this particularly true not only reflecting upon these Sarum collects with their crying out for God to give us his aid and be ever-present to us in time of need and in the face of sin, but also in my daily readings.

Although I don’t pray Vigils, I started reading the lessons for Vigils from Benedictine Daily Prayer partway through Advent this year. The Old Testament lesson was usually from Isaiah, and usually about the dread day of the Lord’s coming, or a weighty pronouncement about judgement. The New Testament lesson was usually from the epistles, usually more cheery, about Christ’s fulfilment of the Old and future coming in glory.

When you read such Bible passages regularly, combined with the average sorrows of daily life and the great burden of a world torn by strife, the Advent ache for a Saviour becomes much more pronounced. You feel with the liturgist the request for the Lord to succour us with His great might!

But it’s not mere, run-of-the-mill suffering the Sarum points us to. It is about the suffering we inflict on ourselves — through our sins we are sore let and hindered. St John Cassian, joining the Stoic ethical tradition, argues that the only evil inflicted upon you is the evil that you yourself commit. When someone else wrongs you, if you do not sin, no evil has been done to you; that person has done evil to himself.

The phrase ‘through our sins we are sore let and hindered’ is Englishing the Latin, ‘nostra peccata prepediunt’, ‘our sins shackle/bind/entangle/fetter’. I like ‘fetter’, myself.

And is not the bondage of the will, this human shackling to our sins, precisely what Jesus came to unloose? As the angel said to Joseph, ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ (Mt 1:21; NKJV)

To turn from Sarum to Cranmer (who sourced the Litany from ancient texts; below is Canada’s BCP, 1962):

From all evil and mischief, from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath, and from everlasting condemnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all uncleanness in thought, word, and deed; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Deliver us, O Lord.

Do you really believe the Nicene Creed?

Christ the Almighty -- as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)
Christ the Almighty — as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)

I just finished Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. I recommend it highly! In that book, he poses us the question — Do we truly believe that Jesus is who we say He is? If we really did, wouldn’t we act a bit differently?

Putting my own ‘classic Christian’ spin on Willard’s query, who is it that we say Jesus is? We believe

in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came to be;

who, on account of us men and our salvation, came down from heaven and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man; and he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to the heavens and is seated on the right hand of the Father and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end; (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed)

Do you believe in the depths of your soul that Jesus is true God from true God, of one substance with the Father? Do you believe that through him all things were made? Most of us will immediately say, ‘Yes.’

Certainly, we give mental assent to the propositions of the Creeds and of our denominational confessions or the doctrinal statements of ecumenical councils. Yet shouldn’t such shocking, earth-shattering truths affect how we approach life to its deepest level?

Jesus is the creator of the world. How should we, then, approach his teachings? Clearly as the teachings of the greatest moral philosopher who ever lived! And we should take them to heart. We should try to understand what they mean and how we can live by them. We should spend time reading through the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, to have these teachings of His imprinted on our hearts.

Should we not memorise and meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer? Should we not read over and over the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus is not an intellectual, theological proposition — although these can be made about Him.

He is the most wondrous, powerful, beautiful, intelligent person in the universe. He is so loving that he chose to set aside His natural form of godliness and take on our form, that of a slave. And His immediate followers tell us that our attitude, our life, should be modelled on his.

Is it?

Irenaeus and the Cross

Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)
Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)

One of the questions that arose in Cyprus was the place the Cross holds in the theology of St Irenaeus. The concern, and it is a not uncommon concern, is that Irenaeus has a very strong emphasis on the Incarnation and our salvation as a result of the Word having become flesh and having pitched his tent among us. This is a concern that Aulén addresses in Christuss Victor (itself a short book with an incisive chapter on Irenaeus), but I don’t have those notes with me in Firenze.

However, I have been trying to catch up with Read the Fathers. So here’s some of what’s been read tonight:

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God — all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. (Against the Heresies 5.1.1)

For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such
as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself
grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills1812). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. (5.2.2*)

And in every Epistle the apostle plainly testifies, that through the flesh of our Lord, and through His blood, we havebeen saved. (5.14.3; more anti-docetic than pro-crucifixion, but there it is)

Jeremiah also says to the same purport: “The word of God cleaveth the rock as an axe.” This word, then, what was hidden from us, did the dispensation of the tree make manifest, as I have already remarked. For as we lost it by means of a tree, by means of a tree again was it made manifest to all, showing the height, the length, the breadth, the depth in itself (5.17.4)

For indeed the creation could not have sustained Him [on the cross], if He had sent forth [simply by commission] what was the fruit of ignorance and defect. Now we have repeatedly shown that the incarnate Word of God was suspended upon a tree, and even the very heretics do acknowledge that He was crucified. (5.18.1)

And, from earlier readings in Against the Heresies:

Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.(2.22.4)

The main purpose of Against the Heresies is the refutation of the ‘Gnostic’ and other heterodox groups whom Irenaeus felt were a threat to the spiritual health of the Church. Therefore, he does not spend a lot of time on the Cross (although there is more about it than this; again, these are from the notes I have with me at present). Nonetheless, it is an inescapable fact that the Cross and death and saving blood of Jesus are an important part of Irenaeus’ theology.

As we enter Lent, let us ensure that the Cross is an important part of our own theology and, thus, of our lives.

*Here we see already in the second century the intimate link between Christology and the Eucharist, a link that was tied up in the fifth-century debates surrounding Nestorius, Cyril, and Leo.

Christmas Day 8: The Significance of the Incarnation

Happy New Year!

I’ve been writing these in advance, which means that what I post today is something I’ve known about for days but really only just read around the time of writing. Just to keep it real, right?

And today, as Epiphany draws ever nearer, we need to reflect, as I have had us do a few times already, on what Christmas is all about. And it’s all about the birth of God as a Man-child. The Incarnation of the Creator of all that is, has been, and ever shall be. The Alpha and the Omega. He became one of us, that we may become like Him.

Over at Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a very good post has gone up on this topic: ‘Wright Was Wrong: The Significance of the Incarnation.’ I recommend you read it. And enjoy 2013!

The Third Day of Christmas: A Sermon of Gregory of Nazianzus

For the Third Day of this Twelve-day Feast, I bring to you a sermon attributed to St Gregory of Nazianzus (aka ‘the Theologian’, c. 330-390). The more common Nativity sermon you will find in Orthodox books and floating around the internet is that of St John Chrysostom (347-407). I think this one is also well worth reading, and will mix things up a bit. Merry Christmas!

Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth, be exalted. Sing to the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.

Again, the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people who sat in the darkness of ignorance, let them see the great Light full of knowledge. Old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the truth comes in on them. Melchizedek is concluded. He who was without Mother becomes without Father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the cross it is raised up), and His name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Let John cry, prepare the way of the Lord; I too will cry the power of this Day. He who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk until their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation. (Taken from www.ancient-future.net)

‘his mother, in her maiden bliss’: Christina Rossetti and Ephraim the Syrian

This past Sunday was my church’s carol service, and the choir sang ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter‘, apparently Britain’s favourite Christmas carol this year. In this beautiful hymn-poem by Christina Rossetti, most people are moved, it seems to me, by the final verse: ‘Yet what I can I give him — / Give my heart.’

This time, however, I was moved by the third verse:

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only his mother,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What is moving is not simply the tenderness of the moment but the theology that underpins it, stretching back to the second verse beginning, ‘Our God, heaven cannot hold him.’ Here we have the mystery of the Incarnation — God became an infant. And his maiden mother kissed him as any mother would kiss her child.

Note the juxtaposition in these two lines — ‘But only his mother, / In her maiden bliss.’ Normally, in order to have a child, a lady must no longer be a maiden. But this is no ordinary child, the Beloved. And his was no ordinary conception. (I imagine the birth itself was, save the singing of angels and brilliant star, quite ordinary.)

When I heard these lines, I could not help think of St Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns on the Incarnation. Specifically, these lines come to me:

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

A great wonder, indeed! God, Creator of the Universe, Creator of Mary, became the son of Mary. He was, in Latin christological terms, fully consubstantial with his mother (and thus the human race) and fully consubstantial with the Father (and thus is God). This union of divine and human, inextricable yet unconfused, is what makes Jesus unique, what enables his death and resurrection to save us.

And so we celebrate his birth in Bethlehem and wonder at that moment when ‘his mother, / In her maiden bliss, / Worshipped the Beloved / With a kiss.’

The Scandal of the Incarnation’s Particularity (and the perils of academic theology)

Council of Chalcedon
Council of Chalcedon

The other day, I came across Towards a Feminist Christology by Julie Hopkins on the new books table in the Divinity library here. In an of itself, I don’t suppose feminist theology is any worse than any other particular vision of theology. The problems arise when people, rather critiquing theology or doing theology from a feminist perspective, seek to create a theology that is inherently feminist and that solves feminist problems.

Theology is thinking about God, and therefore transcends all barriers. The job of the theologian is to find the Truth and communicate it. But academic theology can often go astray seeking instead to apply philosophy to Christian issues or sociology to the Almighty or calling Christian philosophy theology or confusing anthropology with theology. Academia may, in fact, be the least hospitable environment for true theology to thrive because of the drive to create new things and publish them on a regular basis.

And so Hopkins challenges, in a mere six pages (I think), the Chalcedonian Definition (my translation here) of Christ’s dual nature, reducing it to, ‘fully god, fully man.’ Her first critique is that this is a decidedly sexist vision of the Incarnate Christ. I suppose it would be, if that were what the Fathers at Chalcedon actually said.

In fact, what the Chalcedonian Definition says in the criticised phrase is, theon aléthós kai anthrópon aléthós — truly God and truly a human being. We can always ask ourselves if ancient authors, when they wrote anthrópos or homo meant ‘human being regardless of gender’ or if they were often thinking of ‘male men’, but the word anthrópos refers to a human being of either gender. And throughout the Chalcedonian Definition itself, all the terms used to refer to Christ’s human nature are derived from anthrópos, not anér, the word for ‘man.’

Leo’s Tomus ad Flavianum is similar, using homo, basically the Latin equivalent of anthrópos.

Thus, the Chalcedonian Definition is not sexist.

I should probably stop there, but Hopkins did not (alas). Citing some other feminist theologians as well as Patristics scholar Frances Young, she maintains that the Fathers compromised the Gospel with Platonic dualism, thus leading to the tortured Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. Whether the Fathers did compromise, to what extent, and why are all debatable issues.

What I can say is this, even without the question of dualism arising or the concern about impassibility, the question of how on earth a man could be God would have been a thorny question, and it would have arisen through the centuries of meditative exposition of the Scriptures anyway — so something like the Chalcedonian Definition would have been formed (although some people are leaning towards the position that, without Leo’s orchestration of Chalcedon, the formulation would have been more conservative Cyrillian [Mono-/Miaphysite] than Leo’s Augustinian vision).

Nonetheless, even dispensing with ideas that proclaim the weakness of the Church’s credal statements from Nicaea to Chalcedon — tainted by pagan philosophy as the appear to be — Hopkins brings up a decidedly modern (postmodern? contemporary? I dunno) concern. How can we discuss the Incarnation of the divine in the feminine?

My response: In short, we cannot.

Annunciation to the BVM, observe the Holy Spirit descending
Annunciation to the BVM

The Incarnation of the Divine Person as Jesus Christ is an unrepeatable historical event with cosmic significance. The actual Incarnation is the taking-on of human flesh by the Almighty. All human flesh is gendered. All human flesh is particular. In order for Christ to save all of us, he had to be one of us. The general significance of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning in glory, comes from the particularity.

Jesus is not embodied humanity in some general way, although some Unitarian website I saw about a year ago thought that’s what Chalcedon teaches. He is a particular human — a man. And he lived and wrought wonders and taught great things, things recorded for us in the Gospels. He died a criminal’s death and rose the Victorious Saviour. He ascended into Heaven.

By living a ‘normal’ human life, Jesus recapitulated the Garden. He reversed the curse through obedience to the Father.

If somehow one were to argue that Incarnation is necessary from General or Natural Revelation (or whatever you call it), one could say that the Divine Being could become Incarnate in a woman. However, those things that make true, Christian theology Christian are the revelation and the tradition that inform us that when the Divine Person became flesh, it was as the Man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet God became man that man might become God, right? (Theosis, as some call it.)

Well, then. Think on this, if you wish to see the Divine in the human plane of the feminine.

After 40 days living His resurrected life amongst the Apostles, the God-Man Jesus returned to Heaven. As a result, his particularity can become general. Whereas before he was only with certain followers at certain places and certain times, now Jesus, God Himself, can be with any followers at any places and any times. With all of us at once. He has promised to be with us in a special way through communion, but I think we can find Him elsewhere.

And when we find Christ, God, Trinity, we can find union with the Divine in a way that is so intimate that the Scriptures — our first point of reference in doing true theology — can only describe it as being like a marriage. We have all become Christ’s bride.

The Divine Persons are not feminine. They transcend gender as a Trinity. However, their transcendence of gender makes them equally available to all. Therefore, we need not worry over the Incarnation of God in the feminine. God came as a man, but can return to any of us at any time, whether male or female.