Ox and ass before him bow

One of the great delights that many people like myself have at Christmastide is using our knowledge of history and the Bible to ruin everyone’s fun. So my biblical studies friends will post a yearly thing about what exactly we can really say about the events of Luke’s Gospel based either solely on the text or with supporting knowledge from ancient history and archaeology.

All those things like numbering your wise men or even that the manger in question was in a stable — that’s all silly fluff, added by ahistorical medieval people who had no appreciation for a dry discussion of the social history of first-century Judaea.

I’m at a point where, while I enjoyed these things for a while, I’m not so into it anymore.

Take the beasts in the title of this post: ox and ass. One year during his run as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in the midst of other matters of interest, mentioned that the beasts alongside the manger are really just legendary. No such mention comes in the Bible. And, indeed, they are an extrapolation by poor, ignorant late antique and medieval Christians who (logically enough) assume that, since mangers are usually found in stables, Jesus was born in a stable.

Not that Lord Williams of Oystermouth put it that way, thankfully.

Anyway, that ox and ass we all have with our Nativity sets, that are in Christmas pageants since the days of St Francis, that appear in Christmas carols (such as ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’) have been around for a while. I’m sure someone out there knows better than I do, but the earliest I’ve met them is carved into a fourth-century sarcophagus now in the Museo nazionale romano at Palazzo Massimo:

Now, even if the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem is not on the site of Jesus’ birth, even if Jesus was not born in a stable or if the Greek word doesn’t mean in, I think there is a fittingness to the ox and ass. And the more I learn about late antique and mediaeval Christianity, the more their world intersects mine, the more I read of their texts, the more I like this ox and ass.

The ox and ass are not just a potentially mistaken (but possibly true) historical detail.

I think they are theological.

The line from ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’ gets it:

Ox and ass before Him bow, for He is in the manger now

You see, when we’re not being pendantic about the historical details in the Bible, today we (especially the heirs of the Reformation) tend to collapse the entire significance of Jesus into his salvific substitutionary sacrifice on Calvary — even when we look upon the little town of Bethlehem.

But there is something powerful and dramatic and startling about Christmas. God demonstrates to us that he is not aloof. He is not a Platonic untouchable unmoved mover. He is not so transcendent that we will never encounter him. His holiness is not so delicate that he cannot mingle with us.

Fulfilling Isaiah 64:1, God has rent the heavens and come down amongst men. And, wonder of wonders, he has arrived not as the White Rider of Revelation, not as the suffering servant of Isaiah 54 (and the later chapters of the Gospels), but as a helpless, tiny infant. He who created Mary (reminds St Ephrem the Syrian) is fed by Mary’s milk.

God is Jesus.

God is the ruler of all creation. His coming to Earth as a human, the creator taking on the form of a creature, has cosmic implications. All of creation groans in expectation of the salvation being wrought through the power of the Incarnation. God has become a baby. The ox and ass in the pictures, the Nativity sets, the church plays, and the hymn — they represent creation. We all too often forget that we are part of the same creation as the beasts. But God is king of the beasts.

And so the beasts bow before him, lying in a manger.

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On Blond Jesus — how a little art history can go a long way

Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre

Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.

A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.

Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.

A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)
A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

But just as there is more to slender, wispy mediaeval saints than their status as pillars, so also is there more to our images of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Jesus is sometimes blond, and why sometimes a fairly slender specimen of the male gender. The answer will silence those of Mark Driscoll’s ilk and hopefully be the starting place of an answer for those who find these Jesuses remote.

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
He can’t help but be pale when carved out of ivory. Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):

Beauty.

Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’

Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.

As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.

This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.

Christ in Glory
Blond Jesus, from Haworth Parish Church (my pic)

People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.

Chinese Jesus, ca. 1879 (thanks, Franciscans!)

And He is Beautiful.

Mosaics at San Marco: Theology in line and colour

I recently returned from a couple of weeks of research in Italy — a week and a bit at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, and two days at the Biblioteca Capitolare, Verona. The Marciana is located quite near the magnificent Basilica of San Marco, pictured at left. I, therefore, had many opportunities to visit San Marco and its mosaics.

The style of art that predominates in San Marco is called Veneto-Byzantine (my other blog on that); it is very similar to Byzantine iconography but also shares traits with Romanesque (no surprise, since both directly descend from Late Antique Roman art).

Today’s title takes a quotation from Rowan Williams’ book The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ — icons are theology in line and colour.

This is evident throughout San Marco.

Visually, I was impacted powerfully simply by setting foot inside San Marco — the brilliant gold of the place penetrates the soul. I could not help but utter praise to Almighty God under my breath the first two times I entered. The first time I entered I stumbled to a standstill as I beheld the glory of the place. (NB: In what follows, all images can be viewed full-screen if you click on them.)

It is a truly beautiful space. The golden field represents heaven. The iconographical plan of the main domes is Christological. As a visitor coming from the West, you encounter the mosaics in anti-chronological order, but they begin in the East with the rising sun, with the golden apsidal half-dome of Christ Pantokrator, the all-powerful. Above the chancel is the Dome of the Prophets, foretelling Christ with the Lord Himself in the centre. The next dome is the Dome of the Ascension, then the Dome of Pentecost, then the Dome of the Last Judgement. As the sun traces its trajectory, so does the story of Christ.

The Ascension Dome and the Christological vault. Click on the image to see it fullscreen.

In between the domes of Pentecost and Ascension is the Christological vault. On one side stands the Crucifixion, on the other the Resurrection (portrayed in the Byzantine manner as what we would call the Harrowing of Hell), and in the centre the Empty Tomb. Below, the mosaics tell the story of Christ’s final days.

What is the theological significance of the main decorative scheme? The apsidal mosaic reminds us — Christ Pantokrator, Christ Almighty, Christ our God who was crucified for us. Christ who lives and saves us.

There has often been a temptation to deny the fullness of Christ’s divinity, from certain Gnostic groups to Jehovah’s Witnesses. San Marco calls us to worship Christ as fully God. In the atrium, we see this in the depiction of the creation. For whom do we see making the animals? The cross in the halo gives away who this young, beardless man is — it is God the Son, the living Word, Christ, who creates.

Yet He is not merely depicted in glory, but also on earth; we see not only his last moments, as I mentioned above, but also the Garden of Gethsemane, the temptation by the devil, and some of his teaching ministry. The other temptation has been to deny his full humanity, from certain Gnostic groups to those who claim he was an alien — or those whose vision of him as God would swallow up the man he was as well.

The Temptations of Christ

San Marco’s mosaics are a testament to the full humanity and full divinity of Christ. They are a reminder of what the great theologians of history — Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Leo, Aquinas, Palamas — have sought to balance in our minds as we think on our Lord and Saviour. And they do it through a medium accessible to all — the domes of a basilica.

Episcopal (papal and otherwise) retirements as opportunities

The big news of last week was not that I was in Florence, as it turns out. Rather, the big news was that the Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) announced his resignation, effective 28 February. This comes only a few months after the retirement of his fellow academic-turned-bishop Rowan Williams. Both of these are moments of opportunity for the historic Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Will they take these opportunities?

Both men have been alternately loved and hated by those of whom they were to be the spiritual leaders. Both are writers of academic theology that many find deeply powerful and strong, even when they disagree. Both have left behind churches divided by ‘liberal/progressive’ movements in a declining West and a burgeoning ‘conservative/traditional’ movement in the Global South.

Anglicanism in its home countries has lost its way in many respects. Obsessed at times with issues of sexual ethics, not dealing with proper, outright heresy, losing sight of the Gospel many times in many places with declining numbers that different routes of ‘relevant’ are being touted as the solution — whether it is jettisoning the BCP or liturgy altogether or having a U2charist or putting left-wing art on the sides of the churches or reciting ‘alternative creeds’ or turning church buildings into community centres or adding a rock band to the liturgy … and so forth.

Will Welby be able to hold together the vast, spinning network of ideologies that is the Anglican Communion, or will the final ruptures come about in his episcopate? We shall see.

Roman Catholicism has, under B16, has introduced a needed update of the Missal that was sadly unintelligible in many parts, but also engaged in a proactive campaign of Bible accessibility and translation for the masses at the Masses. The New Evangelisation has continued. But there are still the paedophilia scandals, the emptying churches, the awkward 1970s music at ‘modern’ Masses, potential money-laundering scandals in the Vatican — plus a litany of Protestant concerns still unaddressed satisfactorily since the 1500s.

Both communions, that is, have issues. And so new leadership is always a moment of hopefulness and concern.

Let us pray for Justin Welby when he takes on his new role. And let us pray for the conclave when they meet to elect a new Bishop of Rome at the end of this month — whether you think the Pope is the Anti-Christ or not, the Church of Rome needs your prayers!

May both communions rediscover, far and wide, the dangerous and glorious Gospel of God’s dramatic rescue of the human race through His incarnate Son, Jesus. And may they worship him righteously. And may they, fuelled by His worship, bring that dangerous and glorious Gospel to a lost and dying world that greatly needs it!

May God grant wisdom to the new bishops, then. And may the New Evangelization focus primarily on Gospel and Jesus and only secondarily  missals and liturgies and culture wars.

Highlights from Oxford Patristics: The Beards

So it’s been a week since I got back from the Oxford Patristics Conference. This is the first of a few posts of highlights:

The Beards. Now, the photo of +Kallistos is outdated, but +Rowan and Andrew Louth look like that in real life. There were also various Orthodox monks and priests present, all of them with outstanding beards. I wonder what would have happened if +Kallistos’ and +Rowan’s beards collided. Could the space-time continuum have handled it?

Met. Kallistos of Diokleia and Great Britain

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Andrew Louth

Andrew Louth is the most wizardly of these three. What made him stand out amongst the conference-goers was the fact that, since he was off-duty, he wasn’t in a voluminous black robe. Still in black, though. Not that Patrists need beards, of course, as evidenced by the number of high-quality papers given by female scholars, such as Sarah Coakley and Dame Averil Cameron.

Still, it doesn’t hurt.

As for the Orthodox, the beards are part of a programme of self-abasement. As a growing symbol of one’s vows either as priest or as monk, many Orthodox priests and monks — especially Greek and Cypriot — do not trim their beards or hair. This is also part of the desire to avoid vanity — a physical reminder of humility, that one is nothing, following the same line of thought as Tertullian’s advice back in the 2nd-3rd century.

Out of these three bearded wonders, I only heard +Kallistos. He spoke on St. Maximus. But more on that later ….

Last Night: Creeds (my notes)

Last night was the second meeting of the small group.  We discussed the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.  Some good thoughts were shared and expressed, which I hope to give you along the way this week.  But to keep things short, I’ll just start with my notes in this post and move on to the fruit of the night later.

As I worked through my notes, we discussed various questions pertaining to church history and Arianism and why Arius was a heretic — that sort of thing.  Things that came up along the way were baptism, the Donation of Constantine, the Resurrection of the Dead, Mozilla being a charity, etc.   Being here in person is clearly the preferable way to encounter this stuff.

The Nicene Creed

The origins of the Nicene Creed lie in the early fourth century.  An Alexandrian priest named Arius said, responding to his bishop Alexander who saw Jesus as having being begotten of the Father before all ages, “En pote hote ouk en.”  “There was when he was not.”  This became the slogan of his party who were termed “Arians.”  (Since he was only a priest, some of the Arian bishops didn’t like this, but when you’re a heretic, you don’t choose your label.)

Arianism is not traditional Christology, whatever certain Archbishops of Canterbury might tell you.*  In Arianism, Jesus, the Word, was considered to be other than the Father and lesser than the Father for a few reasons, including the verse in Proverbs in which Divine Wisdom says that it was created by Father first.  Many ancient theologians interpreted “Divine Wisdom” to be the same as “the Word” of John 1.  Therefore, by Arius’ reckoning, Jesus was a created being, as in Colossians he is called, “the firstborn of all creation.”  Besides this, Arianism tried to follow a certain amount of Aristotelian logic.  Jesus is called the Son or the Word, whereas the Father is called the Father or God.  A difference in name, as with apple and tree, necessitates a difference in essence or nature.  Therefore, Jesus’ essence is not the same as that of God the Father.  They do not share a “substance” but are two entirely different beings.  Jesus the Word, because he is always following the Father’s will, is allowed to be called “divine” and “God”.

One of the major problems with Arianism is the fact that every Sunday, they, along with everyone else, would worship Jesus.  If Jesus is not God, you cannot worship him.  As well, Arianism runs counter to the plain sense of John 1.  If “the Word was God,” the Word wasn’t other than God.  The Word wasn’t a lesser being.  The Word was God.  This is what it means.  Nicene orthodoxy takes that verse at its face value and uses it to interpret Proverbs, not the other way around.  The Proverbs verses aren’t necessarily about Jesus in a prophetic sense anyway.  Wisdom may simply be a type of the Word.  Typology is important to keep in mind.

To have Arius running around saying all that stuff would not do.  A council was called in Antioch which condemned him.  This wasn’t quite enough — Arius kept at it, so a general council, a council of the whole inhabited world was called.  The word for this is “ecumenical”; thus you will hear church historians and the Eastern Orthodox talking about the “ecumenical councils,” of which there were eight.  This council met in Nicaea, which is in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) near the Bosporus, opening on June 19, 325.  The Emperor Constantine convened the council, believing that it was important for the security and fabric of his newly united Empire that the Church also be united.  Bishops came from all over the East, from Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Libya, Greece, Armenia, Cyprus.  From the West, Orosius of Cordoba, Spain, came as did delegates from Silvester, Bishop of Rome.

The bishops met for several days, arguing about the doctrines professed by Arius and believing that a document should be produced to which bishops would have to subscribe if they were to avoid excommunication and anathematisation.  They also discussed various other matters, from how to consecrate bishops to ordaining castrated men.  The creed to which all had to subscribe was based upon the baptismal formula of Caesaria with a few alterations and was as we have it, with the following differences.  It ends with, “And the Holy Spirit,” then launches into:

And those that say ‘There was when he was not,’ and, ‘Before he was begotten he was not,’ and that, ‘He came into being from what-is-not,’ or those that allege, that the Son of God is ‘Of another substance or essence’ or ‘created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable,’ these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

The specifically anti-Arian statements are bundled together:

Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father;

Since the Arians called Jesus “God” without believing him to actually be God, the most important statements are the first and last.  Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” as opposed to the Arian assertion that he was created within time.  And he is “of one substance with the Father,” as opposed to the Arian idea that Jesus is a different, lesser being than God the Father.  The Greek word is, “homoousios”, the Latin, “consubstantialis.”  (I object to the modern translation that says, “of one being with the Father,” because it obscures the theological debates of the creed’s origin and does not make it very clear in what way Jesus and the Father are one, whereas “of one substance” is a proper translation of the theological idea that Jesus and the Father share an essence; furthermore, “of one being” allows for the ancient heresy of Sabellianism.)

The bits about the Holy Spirit come from at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 to combat people who say that the Holy Spirit isn’t God but is something like an angel or who say that he isn’t his own person.  From that point forward, the creed was only ever affirmed at Church Councils and no ecumenical council has meddled with it.

At a synod in Spain, to battle a heresy which I believe was called Priscillianism, they added one little Latin word to the creed, filioque.  Thus, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  Charlemagne liked the Spanish usage and sought to unify the liturgy of the whole Frankish Empire, so they used filioque although the Pope was not in favour.  He believed in dual procession of the Holy Spirit; but you don’t mess with the creed without asking.  Eventually, later popes got on board with this idea, and it is in the Nicene Creed as said in the Church of Rome to this day.

The Eastern Orthodox don’t like this (see T. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 1st ed., pp. 218-223).  In part, they don’t like it because no ecumenical council agreed to it.  In part, they don’t like it because most of them don’t believe in a dual procession of the Holy Spirit.  In part, they don’t like it because it was done in the West (OK, that last one may be harsh, but I’m always amazed at the strongly eastern flavour of so-called “ecumenical” councils, esp. the last one which dealt with a specifically eastern issue, and at which no western bishops were present).

The Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is the baptismal formula of the Church of Rome.  The legend, however, is that the 12 Apostles were all sitting around one day and thinking, “What do we believe?  What should the new disciples agree to at baptism?”  Each of them contributed a different bit and, hey, presto! The Apostles’ Creed!  This creed is the basis for the Anglican baptismal rites; modern ones work it into a series of questions, whereas the BCP (1962)** has the parents or one to be baptised recite it in full.  You can see its basis in the baptismal rite found in the 3rd-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus as well.

When we see these two creeds side by side, we see why I prefer the Nicene.  It is fuller, more complete.  Part of this fullness comes from its origins in the Arian controversy, but not all, such as the statement that God is the creator of the visible and the invisible.

*See Robert W. Jenson, “With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity.  He doesn’t deal with Williams but he does deal with Arius.  The whole essay is available on google books.

**1662 the priest recites it and they agree to believe it.