Yesterday, on the fourth day of Christmas, we watched Elf. I like Elf. My wife likes Elf. She particularly likes watching me watch Elf. Last night, a corollary to my thesis ‘Santa Claus is Jesus’ emerged. In the film Elf, Santa’s sleigh is, by nature, powered by ‘Christmas Spirit’. But since no one believes in Santa anymore, there is not enough Christmas Spirit to power the sleigh, so it has a jet engine installed underneath.
Now, I’m not going to argue as to how much or little Christmas Spirit we have today. But I do think it’s interesting to equate Christmas Spirit with belief in Santa Claus. This is not exactly the idea of Christmas Spirit we get from other sources.
As a button my mother-in-law wears says, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’. But we’re not going to start with the Nativity, for the novelty of ‘belief in Santa Claus’ = ‘Christmas Spirit’ is not merely relative to Christianity.
For example, in the great classic A Muppet Family Christmas, Christmas Spirit has something to do with togetherness and gift-giving, which comes out when Robin explains Christmas to the Fraggles. In A Christmas Carol (best viewed not with Muppets but with Alistair Sim in Scrooge), it is self-sacrifice, self-giving, service to others, and great-heartedness that represent the Christmas Spirit. In most Christmas episodes of TV shows, Christmas Spirit is either self-giving or forgiveness combined with togetherness.
And I think that perhaps this is the Christmas Spirit, especially given that Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.
At Christmas, we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. We recall the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God the Father Who flung the stars in the sky. He ’emptied himself of all but love’ (Charles Wesley) (this might not be true, but it’s poetic); he, who had the very form of God, took on the form of a slave (Philippians 2). ”Tis mystery all, th’immortal dies’ (also Charles Wesley).
He left his Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace (Charles Wesley), and Lo! he abhors not the virgin’s womb (O Come All Ye Faith). And why does He set all this aside? Why does love come down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine? (Christina Rossetti)
Self-sacrifice, self-giving, service to others, great-heartedness, forgiveness, combined with togetherness. God desired not that His good creation (humanity) would continue in the path to death and destruction, so He came himself (St Athanasius, paraphrased), for God desires not the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 18:23). God became human so that humans might become god (St Athanasius again) — that is to say, togetherness.
So our response to this? Well, he gave everything to be with us. So, what shall we give Him? Give him our hearts, first of all (Christina Rossetti, paraphrased). Second, give to others. Self-giving, self-sacrifice, service to others, and great-heartedness. Forgiveness. Togetherness.
This is Christmas Spirit, not belief in Santa Claus.
This Advent, my mind has been drawn to the doctrine of creation and the place of the Incarnation in the great drama of the cosmos. I am not entirely sure why this is so. Certainly last week I noted Oliver O’Donovan’s statement in On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity that much Reformation theology was weak on the doctrine of creation, and this has had an effect upon the sciences and theology, etc. He wonders what different roads we may have taken if the doctrine of creation had been one of the parts of St Thomas Aquinas we had kept.
Anyway, if we think theologically about Christmas, I imagine our thinking is typically something along these lines: Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity; He took on the form of a slave for our salvation; He became a baby so that He could die for us as a Man.
Yet today at church, the sermon closed with some beautiful words of Madeleine L’Engle, pointing towards the pre-Incarnate reality of the Second Person of the Trinity, bringing home the force of what it means that God became man as Jesus. If we do that, we need to realise that something as well as salvation from sin, death, damnation, devil, is going on.
The eternal life of God is an extra-temporal reality. God is. God is reality. Or maybe not — maybe God is beyond reality. God has no being because being relies entirely on God. A robust doctrine of God should make the dramatic event of the Incarnation that much more potent.
And a robust doctrine of God makes for a robust doctrine of creation — God made everything very good. As the Fathers, including St Augustine, were ever keen to note, all of creation is good by nature. It was created good, even if now it is fallen and tending towards entropy. Creation was made because God willed it. Creation was made to glorify God.
God entered into that creation. The timeless creator joined the creation in time.
Not simply to save us and make us what Adam was, but to make us what Adam was meant to be.
To make us god.
This is the emphasis of St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, as well as of Robert Grosseteste’s work (which is to say, it is not the sole preserve of the Eastern Church). It is a consideration of salvation history primarily as Creation – Incarnation – Paradise, whereas we tend to think in terms of Fall – Crucifixion – Redemption. Both are true, but the former we usually neglect.
We usually think of the biblical drama as an arc from Genesis 3 with the Fall to Revelation 21 with the lake of fire.
This Christmastide, let’s meditate on the restored creation, on that arc from Genesis 1 with creation to Revelation 22 with the crystal river and lamb upon the throne.
In chapter 66, St Benedict describes the monastery:
If possible, the monastery should be arranged in such a way that everything necessary — in other words, water, the mill, the garden and the various crafts practised — should be inside the monastery, so that the monks do not need to go wandering outside, for that is not at all good for their souls. (trans. White, p. 107)
Monasteries are not meant to be tourist attractions or places that are easily left. From its beginnings, monasticism was a retreat from the world, even if in practice the grace of God kept the monks from having outside contact. The Life of Antony from St Athanasius was a story of him moving to progressively more remote and inaccessible places, ending at ‘the inner mountain’. In Gregory’s Dialogue 2, we read of Benedict fleeing to become a hermit because of the dissolute life he saw at Rome.
The cloister is part of this withdrawal. It is an architectural feature that is inherently inward-looking. I suspect it is descended from the peristyle of the ancient Roman domus, but its function is not simply to provide shade from the head or dry from the rain but to connect together as many of the buildings and rooms of the monastic complex as possible — oratory/chapel, dormitory, chapter house, refectory, library, infirmary.
Nevertheless, Benedictine monasteries, self-sufficient though they are, cannot be totally cut off from the world. They interacted with the world in several ways. First, they provided hospitality to visitors. Second, they provided care and assistance to the poor. Third, they sold the produce of the monastery to provide for themselves. Fourth, in practice (that is, not according to the ideal in the Rule), many Benedictine monasteries became places of community worship.
The purpose of the monastery, nevertheless, is to provide a haven from the distractions and care of the world, a place to seek hesychia and to find God’s grace that will calm the human heart to teach it how to pray, providing time and space for meditation on Scripture.
To this end, monks who journey (ch. 67) must say nothing of what they saw outside. This is like idle chatter and idle curiosity. It is not the business of monks.
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.