When I was in undergrad, there was a friend of some friends who was interested in Christianity, but who believed that God/Christ being ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’ and being perfect would mean that God could not act. Sameness, he argued, implied stasis; God cannot be a dynamic being if He is the same, but, rather, a static one. So God can’t do things, because doing things implies changing.
However, God is perfect, so He is perfectum, which means he is complete and lacks nothing. If we consider this idea in terms of fulfilling your our purpose or (since God is self-sufficient) being eminently what you are by nature or essence (ontologically), then we see that God can act and still be perfect; indeed, perhaps if God did not act, he would be imperfect. If perfection implies being what you are at its fullest, and God is love, then perfection would logically mean that God acts, but that none of his acts are imperfect. He loves perfectly.
From this question, let us ask another. How can we fulfil Jesus’ command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) Or how do we understand Hebrews 10:14, where it is said, ‘by one sacrifice he [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’? What does it mean when we think on heaven/paradise, where there seems to be an expectation that there will no longer be sin? Does this mean we sit around doing nothing?
By no means! In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we will have no room for growth and development. St Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260-1346) says:
It is said that in the life to come the angels and saints ever increase in gifts of grace and never abate their longing for further blessings. No lapse or veering from virtue to vice takes place in that life. –Philokalia, volume 4, p 222
The idea here is one that goes back at least to St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) who discussed in The Life of Moses that since God is infinitely good, then we finite beings will never stop progressing in goodness. It is an interesting idea. Perfection for the finite means progress (true progress) in holiness, in becoming more like God (that is, theosis).
As far as this life is concerned, we must realise that we can always be holier, even if we are less sinful than we used to be. Our finite state of goodness is not simply marred by sin but limited by its own nature. St Athanasius (296-373) expresses the idea that Adam and Eve would have progressed in knowledge and maturity and holiness of a divine sort even if they hadn’t disobeyed in the Garden (see On the Incarnation).
Even the angels progress in grace.
This is what a better understanding of infinity and finitude can do for us. Ever upwards!
Two days ago Advent began. Many ministers will have noted from their pulpits that the English word Advent comes from the Latin aduentus, which means ‘arrival’. Although my minister did not do this, when he said that the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come, I couldn’t help but write down in my notebook:
As soon as I’d written Adventus, I thought about the Emperor in the late Roman world (un-coincidentally, the title of a course I’m teaching this semester) and the Adventus ceremony that surrounded his arrival in a city. This event was known well enough that it is used analogically by St Athanasius in On the Incarnation of the Word (as observed by S. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity), one of this season’s popular Patristic texts:
And like as when a great king has entered into some large city and taken up his abode in one of the houses there, such city is at all events held worthy of high honour, nor does any enemy or bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it; but, on the contrary, it is thought entitled to all care, because of the king’s having taken up his residence in a single house there: so, too, has it been with the Monarch of all. 4. For now that He has come to our realm, and taken up his abode in one body among His peers, henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked, and the corruption of death which before was prevailing against them is done away. For the race of men had gone to ruin, had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to meet the end of death. (Ch. 2, 9)
The imperial Adventus was a big deal, and people knew what to do when the emperor came to town. It was the sort of event that people would remember for years, and use as a peg to mark other events. It was especially important in Rome, the imperial city, the mother of Empire. There, after arriving, he would meet the Senate, give a speech to the crowd, distribute largesse. He would also hear speeches. The speechmaking was a way to negotiate the emperor’s relationship with the City (or a city) and its leading men. He would then spend some time sightseeing, and move into his quarters on the Palatine.
One of the most documented Adventus ceremonies was that of Constantius II (son of Constantine, r. 337-361) in 357. Here’s a meaty passage from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus:
1. While these events were so being arranged in the Orient and in Gaul as circumstances demanded, Constantius, as if the temple of Janus had been closed and all his enemies overthrown, was eager to visit Rome and, after the death of Magnentius to celebrate without a title a triumph over Roman blood. …
4. So soon, then, to pass over what was dispursed in preparation, <on 28th April> in the second Prefecture of Orfitus he passed through Ocriculi, elated with his great honours and escorted by formidable troops; he was conducted as if in battle array and everyone’s eyes were riveted upon him with fixed gaze. 5. And when he was nearing the city, as he beheld with calm countenance the dutiful attendance of the senate and the august likenesses of their patrician ancestry, he thought, not like Cineas, the famous envoy of Pyrrhus, that a throng of kings was assembled together, but that the sanctuary of the whole world was present before him. 6. And when he turned from them to the populace, he was amazed to see in what crowds men of every type had flocked from all quarters to Rome. And as if he were planning to overawe the Euphrates or the Rhine with a show of arms, while the standards preceded him on each side, he himself sat alone upon a golden chariot in the resplendent blaze of shimmering precious stones, whose mingled glitter seemed to form a sort of shifting light. 7. And behind the manifold others that preceded him he was surrounded by dragons, woven out of purple thread and bound to the golden and jewelled tops of spears, with wide mouths open to the breeze and hence hissing as if roused by anger, and leaving their tails winding in the wind. 8. And there marched on either side twin lines of infantrymen with shields and crests gleaming with glittering rays, clad in shining mail; and scattered among them were the full-armoured cavalry (whom they call clibanarii), all masked, furnished with protecting breastplates and girt with iron belts, so that you might have supposed them statues polished by the hand of Praxiteles, not men. Thin circles of iron plates, fitted to the curves of their bodies, completely covered their limbs; so that whichever way they had to move their limbs, their garment fitted, so skilfully were the joinings made.
5. Accordingly, being saluted as Augustus with favouring shouts, while hills and shores thundered out the roar, he never stirred, but showed himself as calm and imperturbable as he was commonly seen in his provinces. 10. For he both stooped low when passing through lofty gates, and as if his neck were in a vice, he kept the gaze of his eyes straight ahead, and turned his face neither to right nor to left, but, like a figurine of a man, neither did he nod when the wheel jolted nor was he ever seen to spit, or to wipe or rub his face or nose, or move his hands about. 11. And although this was affectation on his part, yet these and various other features of his more intimate life were tokens of no slight endurance, granted to him alone, as was given to be understood. 12. Furthermore, that during the entire period of his reign he neither took up anyone to sit beside him in his chariot, nor admitted any private person to be his colleague in the insignia of the consulship, as other anointed princes did, and many like habits which in his pride of lofty conceit he observed as though they were most just laws, I pass by, remembering that I set them down when they occurred.
6. So then he entered Rome, the home of empire and of all virtues (imperii uirtutumque omnium larem), and when he had come to the Rostra, the most renowned forum of ancient dominion, he stood amazed; and on every side on which his eyes rested he was dazzled by the array of marvellous sights. He addressed the nobles in the senate-house and the populace from the tribunal, and being welcomed to the palace with manifold attentions, he enjoyed a longed-for pleasure; and on several occasions, when holding equestrian games, he took delight in the sallies of the commons, who were neither presumptuous nor heedless of their old-time freedom, while he himself also respectfully observed the due mean. 14. For he did not (as in the case of other cities) permit the contests to be terminated at his own discretion but left them (as the custom is) to various chances. Then, as he surveyed the sections of the city and its suburbs, lying within the summits of the seven hills, along their slopes, or on level ground, he thought that whatever first met his gaze towered above all the rest: the sanctuaries of Tarpeian Jove so far surpassing as things divine excel those of earth; the baths built up to the measure of provinces; the huge bulk of the amphitheatre, strengthened by its framework of Tiburtine stone, to whose top human eyesight barely ascends; the Pantheon like a rounded city-district, vaulted over in lofty beauty; and the exalted peaks which rise with platforms which can be climbed, bearing the likenesses of former emperors; the temple of the City, the Forum of Peace, the theatre of Pompey, the Odeum, the Stadium and amongst these the other glories of the eternal city.
15. But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a construction unique under the heavens, as we believe, and admirable even in the unanimous opinion of the Gods, he stood fast in amazement, turning his attention to the gigantic complex about him, beggaring description and never again to be attempted by mortal men. Therefore abandoning all hope of attempting anything like it, he said that he would and could copy Trajan’s steed alone, which stands in the middle of the vestibule carrying the emperor himself. 16. To this prince Hormisdas, who was standing near him, and whose departure from Persia I have described above, replied with native wit: ‘First, Sire,’ said he, ‘command a similar stable to be built, if you can; let the steed which you propose to create range as widely as this which we see.’ When Hormisdas was asked directly what he thought of Rome, he said that he took comfort in this fact alone, that he had learned that even there men were mortal. 17. So then, when the emperor had viewed many objects with awe and amazement, he complained of Fame as either incapable or spiteful, because while always exaggerating everything, in describing what there is in Rome, she becomes shabby. And after long deliberation what he should do there, he determined to add to the adornments of the city by erecting in the Circus Maximus an obelisk, the provenance and figure of which I shall describe in the proper place. (Res Gestae 16.10, tr. J.C. Rolfe, lightly adapted by G. Kelly)
This blog has now run on too long! So I won’t give you my commentary on the above. However, here’s an image of the gem-encrusted Emperor Constantius II in his glory:
And another image of him in the Missorium of Kerch:
It is, of course, a contrast to the Nativity of Christ. ‘Once in royal David’s city / stood a lowly cattle shed / where a mother laid her baby / in a manger for his bed’; and, further, ‘with the poor and weak and lowly / lived on earth our Saviour holy’. However, he did have the chorus of the heavenly army, as Constantius had his earthly army in glittering array.
However, as my minister said on Sunday, the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come. In Advent we look not only back to that first Adventus but also ahead to the second:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. 12 His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. 13 And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
16 And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; 18 That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great.
19 And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. 20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. 21 And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:11-21 KJV)
Not the happiest image Christianity has to offer — but what it does remind us is that justice will be served. And, as Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace, Revelation’s Rider on the White Horse means that we do not need to execute judgement here, for judgement will be rendered in the fulfillment of all things, by the returning King. Just a few Late Antique thoughts as we begin this Advent(us) season.
This Sunday, December 1, will be the start of a new church year. If you go to a church with liturgical taste, deep, rich, purple hangings and stoles and chasubles and candles will appear. If not, they’ll be royal blue, unless your church doesn’t do the liturgical year at all. In which case, it will simply be another Sunday.
Advent is the start of the church year! This past Sunday was Christ the King Sunday. This coming Sunday, we will go back to the beginning of it all and remember what it must have been like to await the promised Messiah as we ourselves look forward to his coming again. Here are some ideas for helping get into the spirit of things.
Make an Advent/winter playlist. I’ve done this to help stave off the swiftly encroaching Christmas songs. Put on as many Advent hymns as you can find — ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus’, and so forth — and add a few winter songs as well (this is part of helping form a barrier between yourself and Christmas, helping with the idea of expectation) — ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and so forth.
Make an Advent wreath. My wife and I have an Advent wreath, with three purple candles and one pink candle, a white one in the centre. Each night we light the candles, work through a little liturgy I’ve prepared, do a reading from somewhere in the Great Tradition alongside the Scriptures, and sing a hymn. This is our favourite Advent tradition, one neither of us grew up with but which helps add to the joy and splendour of this season, especially as the Scottish nights are so very long and so very dark.
Find some sort of devotional tied to the church year. This year I’ll be working through the Ancient Christian Devotionalfor Year A (the liturgical year by the Revised Common Lectionary), by Cindy Crosby and published by IVP. Each week includes a couple of ancient (or Early Mediaeval; the Gelasian Sacramentary features largely) prayers as well as readings from the Fathers on the lectionary readings for Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle.
Alternatively, there’s the Mosaic Holy Bible. I own this and think it is fantastic. It follows the church year but not the Revised Common Lectionary. Each week has a piece of art from throughout Christian history and geography as well as prayers, poems, short readings, and longer readings from Christians throughout time and space, ranging from the Fathers to John Paul II, from Europe to South America. It is great way for people who are interested in the big sweep of the Christian faith to enter the tradition via the evangelical route.
Read an Advent or Incarnation-themed book. I have read St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation twice for Advent, now. I know of people who really enjoy reading St Augustine of Hippo’s Advent sermons. Doing this is a great preparation for Christmas because it helps get you into the depth of the theological moment that is the Word of God taking on flesh and pitching his tent among us.
What makes the truth about life after Constantine messy is that amongst those targeted and hounded and tortured and excommunicated by the official organs of church and government are some orthodox Christians, people whose theology most of those who subscribe to the Great Apostasy/Trail of Blood theory as well as those of us (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Magisterial Reformation) who still see our spiritual roots in the Patristic and even Mediaeval era agree with.
Some of them are even saints.
The reason why these people make it messy is that they don’t fit the triumphalist reading that says everything was peachy keen with imperial favour, but they also don’t really fit the idea that the wicked Catholic Church was persecuting true believers, since the latter body often canonised these folks as saints.
St John Chrysostom (347-407), one of the most beloved Greek Fathers amongst evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, died in exile, hounded day and night by imperial soldiers after a kangaroo court (the Synod of the Oak) found him guilty of heresy. His preaching and exegesis of scripture are solid and worth a read. His theology is impeccable. Yet he found himself exiled for heresy and only had his sanctity formally acknowledged by a very vigorous post-exilic and post-mortem PR campaign.
St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) always comes to mind in this regard as well. In the seventh century, as part of imperial attempts to reconcile Mono/Miaphysite groups (i.e. Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic) to the Orthodox Catholic Church, a heterodox idea developed called monothelitism, saying that, regardless of the two natures, Jesus had one will that governed the whole thing. Maximus pointed out that this negates the fullness and perfection of Jesus’ humanity. The emperor told him to shut up. He did not, so his tongue was cut out, and he was sent into exile. Not a poster-boy for either side, really. Messy.
St John of Damascus (676-749; saint of the week here) was not persecuted by the Church, although he was formally excommunicated at one of the iconoclastic church councils. The only reason he was not personally persecuted was, well, because he lived in Damascus, already a part of the Caliphate. However, had he lived within the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, he would have been the object of government persecution for his iconodule beliefs.
… and this post just crashed and burned.
Right before your eyes.
This is the part where audience participation comes in! Who else is there??
Who else who is revered now as orthodox was targeted either by the government or church in his’er lifetime? Obviously we are not not not trying to rehabilitate heretics. I thought of adding St Thomas Becket, but his case is very different from the other three above. St Jeanne d’Arc is also an interesting case, but also different (fun post I should write: St Joan Is Why I’m not Roman Catholic).
I think you get the point, though. The kindly eye of the government can turn sour quite quickly when the secular authorities decide that your brand of orthodoxy or outspokenness are not what they are looking for.
One of the things that sometimes drives me crazy is when an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic writer says, ‘Protestants believe x, but we believe y,’ — I find myself believing y, not x. (This was a frequent occurrance in Clark Carlton book The Faith: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church.) Or when non-evangelicals say, ‘Evangelicals think x,’ but I certainly don’t think x, despite being raised in the evangelical wing of Anglicanism and having strong ties with IVCF/IFES and the Wee Frees in Scotland.
On those grounds, I should probably, then, delete my post on why I’m not Orthodox. But the discussion in the comments was too good, so I really don’t want to. But if you’ve read that one, take note that the position discussed there is not official Orthodoxy — maybe not even majority Orthodoxy. What follows, however, I have no doubt closely adheres to official Orthodoxy.
Because if you want to get to know official Orthodoxy, I know of no better guide than Kallistos Ware, who presents the teachings of his church in a clear, readable, accessible and often affordable way. In the midst of the conversations arising from that post, I was looking for Ware’s book on the Jesus Prayer (which I found), when a book came up in the university library catalogue, How Are We Saved? The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition.
It’s a nice, little book, and if you can get your hands on a copy, I recommend it.
Kallistos begins by talking about being asked by strangers on public transit, ‘Are you saved?’ His polite answer that probably leaves the inquirers nonplussed is, ‘I trust that by God’s mercy and grace I am being saved.’
My friend’s dad is a priest who wears a black shirt with dog collar when on duty — even when involved in music ministry at, say, Alliance churches. He has been asked by low evangelical ministers, ‘Are you saved?’ His answer is less diplomatic than Kallistos:
‘Damned if I’m not.’
Which should be enough to shame a brother or sister who’s trying to evangelise someone who’s visiting and involved in ministry because of that person’s dressed.
I like Kallistos’ answer. It holds onto the same faith in God’s grace as the standard Protestant response, but admits the frailty of the human who responds to the question.
The book has a new little section every two pages, with a main point bolded along the way. So here are the bolded points for your reading pleasure:
While the Lord’s victory is certainly an accomplished fact, my personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete.
I am on a journey, and that journey has not yet reached its conclusion.
Sin is failure to achieve the purpose for which one is created.
Sin is failure to be one’s own real self.
Beyond our individual acts of sin, we are each aware of being involved in a profound and all-embracing state of sinfulness.
For a writer such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373), the fall is not an isolated event but a gradual and progressive development.
Because of the fall we often feel ourselves trapped in a situation in which all our choices lead to evil, in which we end up doing what we know to be wrong even though we genuinely desire to do what is right.
By virtue of the fall, on the moral level we each have an inherited inclination towards what is sinful; we are born into a world in which it is easy for us to do evil and hard for us to do good.
According to Gregory of Nyssa … Adam’s transgression is something for which we must each of us ask forgiveness.
The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbour, for without active love they cannot be made perfect. … In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.
Without being personally guilty of Adam’s sinful act, we are involved in it and even in some measure responsible for it, by virtue of the fact that we all belong to a single human family.
While Orthodox agree that we all suffer by virtue of the fall from a weakening of the will, we would not say with Luther or Calvin that our nature had undergone a radical depravity or total corruption.
In our fallen state the human will is sick but it is not dead; and, although more difficult, it is still possible for humans to choose the good.
Believing as it does that even in their sinful and fallen state human beings still possess the power of free choice, the Orthodox Church sees salvation in terms of synergeia or ‘cooperation’ between divine grace and human freedom. [Ware also notes: What God does is incomparably more important than what we humans do; yet our voluntary participation in God’s saving action is altogether indispensable.]
Even though we affirms that ‘Human free will is an essentiall condition’, in no way does this signify that salvation can be ‘earned’ or ‘deserved.’
We should consider that the work of our salvation is totally and entirely an act of divine grace, and yet in that act of divine grace we humans remain totally and entirely free.
At every point our human cooperation is itself the work of the Holy Spirit.
We are saved by faith, and not by works; but faith signifies an act of receptiveness on our part, our willingness to accept what God is doing, and so our salvation comes to pass only with our voluntary consent.
Salvation is Christ the Savior.
We are saved through the total work of Christ, not just by one particular event in his life.
Salvation according to [the Irenaean] model is realized above all through indwelling — ‘Christ in us’ rather than ‘Christ for us’, although obviously both formulae possess validity.
He takes into Himself what is ours and in exchange He gives us what is His own, so that we become by grace what God is by nature, being made sons in the Son.
Only if Christ is truly human as we are, can we humans share in what he has done for us as God.
To be saved is to share with all the fullness of human nature in the power, joy and glory of God.
Orthodoxy links sanctification and justification together, just as St. Paul does in 1 Cor. 6:11
The determining element in our humanity is the fact that we are created in the image of God, and that means in the image of the Holy Trinity.
There is more, but this was getting long. Those are the ones that address the issues that I talked about in that other post. If only more people who bear the name Orthodox actively believed and represented that view! I agree with almost everything Ware says in the book, although I think imputation and satisfaction are not incompatible with the more common Orthodox trends of thought, along with the judiciary aspects; which is good, since I read about some of it in the Bible.
Anyway, worth a read. In his irenic manner, although he tackles St Augustine on several occasions, he even gives us an Augustine quote to demonstrate the Orthodox position on one occasion. Kallistos Ware is the most likely of Orthodox writers to convert me (if the grace of the Spirit so chooses).
Drifting about the internet today (like a leaf on the wind), I stumbled upon a page called ‘Early Church Fathers Collection‘. The Internet is making available to many people for free the writings of the Fathers in a variety of places. This particular place looks to me to have been put together by someone who is Coptic Orthodox. It includes (amongst others) pages called:
These pages are clear evidence to me that this was compiled by someone of the Coptic Orthodox persuasion. They and the others look interesting, especially the second one. Thankfully, it has the original Greek with Patrologia Graeca references as well as the Arabic translations.
Just in case you are interested in these, the first I list is in English; the third, as it says, is in Arabic; the fourth is in English; the fifth (Sayings of the Desert Fathers) is English; the sixth, also English; the seventh is English; and the eighth is in English.
I am pleased to see more Christians from various traditions getting into the Fathers and making them accessible!
This is a pleasant development. Sometimes I wonder if, besides immersing ourselves in Scripture, rediscovering the Fathers is not the way forward for the fractured Church of Christ.
One of the things I like about the church I currently attend is its tradition of Psalm-singing. A cappella Psalm-singing. I have long been appreciative of the use of Psalms in worship. Worshipping regularly with Anglicans for over 27 years, the Psalms have always had a place in the weekly liturgy, whether Morning/Evening Prayer or Eucharist, whether BCP or BAS. The Psalms were there. Being recited alternately between a leader and the congregation.
This tradition of Psalm-praying is good. Is, indeed, very good. But what the Free Church of Scotland gives us is, I believe, a different sort of engagement with the Psalms. On a retreat with some fellow Anglicans once, the theme was the Psalms. We were reminded that the Psalms are God’s Prayerbook. This is a very Anglican way of putting it. In fact, however, the Psalms are God’s hymn book.
The singing of Psalms is not unique to the Wee Frees and related Presbyterians. The Eastern Orthodox sing them. Anglo-Catholic choirs sing them to Renaissance settings. Some Anglicans sing or chant them together as a group (though most do not). St. Athanasius, in his ‘Letter to Marcellinus’ appended to the end of the SVS translation of On the Incarnation (until Fr. Behr’s supplants it, at least) recommends singing Psalms. So does the Anglican William Law in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
Indeed, Law says that you should sing or chant them as part of your personal devotions every day. If no one can hear, it doesn’t matter. If someone can, good. Remind them of their own duty to pray. (That’s the sort of advice Law likes to give.)
Singing or chanting is not quite the same experience as simply speaking. Athanasius envisages the reader entering into the voice and persona of the Psalmist through singing the Psalms. In so doing, we take up these prayers as our own. The Psalms are not simply occasional poetry for a single person to pour out his heart to God. They are songs to be sung by us all, connecting the individual with the community, the living with the dead, humans with angels, Christians with Jews.
The Psalms are worth getting to know.
So I find it a most excellent thing to sing two or three Psalms a cappella each Sunday morning or evening (depends on the week). I like to belt songs out, so the fact that usually they are set to old hymn tunes works in my favour. Rather than passively receiving the words of Scripture or the prayers, I am putting myself into them, worshipping God in spirit indeed.
And when Colin R is behind me and a little to one side, I can sing the bass part (still no good at finding harmonies solo — one reason it was good to sit with Philip S at Little T!). The harmonies of a hundred or more voices lifted up in song with no organ, no piano, no guitar, nothing. It is a beautiful thing. When the church is packed to bursting at the joint services with Edinburgh’s other Free Churches — oh, the power and might of those voices lifted up in harmony with one accord! The beauty of it. This is a church against which the gates of Hades cannot prevail, indeed!
Because there is power in God’s word written. Power in faithful hearts joined together in worship. Power in the beauty of God’s presence whenever we come before Him.
Power in the simple beauty of human voices singing harmony.
This is a beauty I appreciate in Gregorian Chant or the wonderful concert of Byzantine Christmas Hymns I attended in December. There is a different beauty in Renaissance polyphony, in the Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio or in Mozart’s Requiem. I do not wish to play down that beauty. I enjoy it immensely and find the wonder and beauty of a well-rehearsed choir or organ as at St. Mary’s Cathedral or Old St. Paul’s can bring me well-nigh to ecstasy or that Buddhist ideal of being in the moment. When I first listened to Striggio’s forty-part Renaissance glory, I almost cried.
But this beauty of around 100 Wee Free voices on a Sunday is wonderful in its own right. The beauty of simplicity in an old-fashioned but moderately unadorned sanctuary as we join together in song, aided by nothing but what God has given us. Our naked voices approach the Almighty as our souls ought — no hiding, no vain pretense, no embellishment. Just the beauty of the wonderful gift already given.
So sing a Psalm this Sunday! (Even sing one right now!)