Philokalic Friday: The Cross in St Mark the Ascetic

I am on the cusp of finishing the first volume of The Philokalia. One of the big concerns that will strike many a Protestant who comes across books such as The Philokalia or The Art of Prayer or the Desert Fathers and Mothers or Dionyius the Areopagite is an apparent lack of crucicentrism. While few of us are not necessarily that excited by Gothic altarpieces, we have a devotion to Jesus that is focussed upon his atoning death and sacrificed that oned us to God.

The first way to assuage any such concerns is to remind the person that anthologies such as The Philokalia or The Art of Prayer do not include everything written by the authors. Maximus the Confessor wrote a great many things not in The Philokalia. The second is to point out that there is a difference of genre here from what is being sought; this is not dogmatic theology, nor even devotion as understood in the later Middle Ages. It is about certain aspects of Christian praxis, namely how to achieve stillness (hesychia) and meet with the risen, ascended Christ here and now.

The third is to check the index of The Philokalia, vol. 1, and see where/how the cross figures in the book.

Keeping in mind the genre of the text, consider St Mark the Ascetic, ‘On the Spiritual Law’:

30. The law of freedom teaches the whole truth. Many read about it in a theoretical way, but few really understand it, and these only in the degree to which they practise the commandments.

31. Do not seek the perfection of this law in human virtues, for it is not found perfect in them. Its perfection is hidden in the Cross of Christ.

St Mark here assumes that his readers know about salvation through the Cross of Christ and what the Cross of Christ means. The law of freedom is found perfect in the cross. We should probably read him in light of his other statements, as in ‘On Those Who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works’ (an anti-Pelagian tract):

2. Wishing to show that to fulfil every commandment is a duty, whereas sonship is a gift given to men through His own Blood, the Lord said: ‘When you have done all that is commanded, say: “We are useless servants: we have only done what was our duty”‘ (Luke 17:10). Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.

4. ‘Christ died on account of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3); and to those who serve Him well He gives freedom. …

20. If ‘Christ died on our account in accordance with the Scriptures’ (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3), and we do not ‘live for ourselves’, but ‘for Him who died and rose’ on our account (2 Cor. 5:15), it is clear that we are debtors to Christ to serve Him till our death. How then can we regard sonship as something which is our due?

21. Christ is Master by virtue of his own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life. For He crates man from nothing, and through His own Blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.

23. We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us.

26. While man can scarcely keep what belongs to him by nature, Christ gives the grace of sonship through the Cross.

In his ‘Letter to Nicolas the Solitary’, St Mark the Ascetic encourages Nicolas in various ways, largely through recollection of God’s grace to him, and writes:

What repayment for all these blessings can you possibly make to Him who has called your soul to eternal life? It is only right, then, that you should live no longer for yourself, but for Christ, who died for your sake and rose again. (p. 153 English)

He encourages Nicolas to keep in mind ‘the great humiliation which the Lord took upon Himself in His ineffable love for us’ (p. 156 English). St Mark goes on to give a beautiful synopsis of the Gospel story from Incarnation to ascension. Consider Christ’s humiliation — and then endure your own suffering.

The point of these texts is to encourage Christians in the path to righteousness, to give them practical advice about prayer and the spiritual life. It is to remind them that none of their good works are anything worth but, rather, the manifold and great mercies of God make them so.

The Cross of Christ stands in ascetic theology as very briefly excerpted above in three ways, then.

  1. Christ has died for us and given us grace. This grace enables us to live holy lives.
  2. Christ has died for us; we should live holy lives out of gratitude.
  3. Christ has suffered and died; we should endure our sufferings with patience.

There is not laying out in full of a theory of the atonement here, but that is not what St Mark is aiming at. He almost assumes such knowledge on the part of the reader from the start.

So, this Good Friday, how will the Cross of Christ impact how you live?

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Charles Williams on the Scandal of the Cross

Modified re-post from a few years ago elsewhere.

Aelfwine's Office of the Holy Cross now upHere’s a little something from my breakfast reading, a reminder from Charles Williams (of Inklings fame, along with JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis) of how comfortable we get with what we believe, a reminder that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks.

The passage is from The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is basically a delightful romp through church history dancing in the beauty and the glory of it all, full of fresh thoughts, well-crafted sentences, and startling observations. He writes:

When St. Paul preached in Athens, the world was thronged with crosses, rooted outside cities, bearing all of them the bodies of slowly dying men. When Augustine preached in Carthage, the world was also thronged with crosses, but now in the very centre of cities, lifted in processions and above altars, decorated and jewelled, and bearing all of them the image of the Identity of dying Man. There can hardly ever have been — it is a platitude — a more astonishing reversion in the history of the world. It is not surprising that Christianity should sometimes be regarded as the darkest of superstitions, when it is considered that a thing of the lowest and most indecent horror should have been lifted, lit, and monstrously adored, and that not merely sensationally but by the vivid and philosophic assent of the great intellects of the Roman world. The worship in jungles and marshes, the intoxication of Oriental mysteries, had not hidden in incense and litany a more shocking idol. The bloody and mutilated Form went up everywhere; Justinian built the Church of Holy Wisdom to it in Byzantium, and the Pope sang Mass before it on the hills where Rome had been founded. The jewelled crosses hid one thing only — they hid the indecency. But original crucifixion was precisely indecent. The images we still retain conceal — perhaps necessarily — the same thing; they preserve pain but they lack obscenity. But the dying agony of the God-Man exhibited both; depth below depth of meaning lies in that phrase — “My Eros is crucified.” (75-76)

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.

Easter, Day 6: A Thought from R. A. Torrey

On the sixth day of Easter, we turn to this thought from R. A. Torrey (1856-1928), a thought to be taken in conjunction with the other thoughts floating around on this blog during the Easter Octave (i.e. it is, I contend, incomplete):

Gospel preachers nowadays preach the gospel of the Crucifixion; the Apostles preached the gospel of the Resurrection as well. The Crucifixion loses its meaning without the Resurrection. Without the Resurrection the death of Christ was only the heroic death of a noble martyr; with the Resurrection it is the atoning death of the Son of god. It shows that death to be of sufficient value to cover our sins, for it was the sacrifice of the Son of God. (from Mosaic Holy Bible, p. M 133)

‘The Crucifixion’ by John Stainer

This evening, we went to a performance of John Stainer’s The Crucifixion at St. Cuthbert’s Church, performed by the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. St. Cuthbert’s was an ideal setting for this triumphal oratorio of the greatness of Christ’s Victory over sin and death upon the Cross. The space is light and airy, with beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the half-dome of the apse behind the choir, as well as the beautiful frieze of the Last Supper, the magnificent pulpit, and the copy of a statue by Michelangelo atop the font. Somehow, whoever took this photo made the place look dark:

St. Cuthbert’s is worthy of a post itself. Yet as lovely as that place of worship is, we were there for Stainer’s choral masterpiece tonight.

The Crucifixion (libretto here) begins in the Garden of Gethsemane and takes us to Christ’s last (pre-Resurrection) breath. We move from a brief narration straight into The Agony. Here, the recitative was followed by the choir:

Jesu, Lord Jesu, bowed in bitter anguish, and bearing all the evil we have done, Oh, teach us, teach us how to love thee for thy love; Help us to pray, and watch, and mourn with thee.

This choral verse is minor and potent, carrying the weight of the words of that prayer, the weight of our souls witnessing the anguish Christ suffered on our behalf. And when Christ is led away to be crucified , the singer has a rest, and crucified lengthens syllable by syllable, with the final line, ‘And the soldiers led him away,’ notable for its ritardando.

Then there is a brief interlude while the organist plays music from Nintendo’s Dragon Warrior 4, suited for when Our Hero is in a village.

The Processional to Calvary follows this RPG Village Music, and it is triumphal, with the choir singing the refrain: ‘Fling wide the gates! Fling wide the gates!’ Indeed, Christ is seen as the king here and now. This is his true triumph, not Palm Sunday.

Soon, there is a hymn. Stainer and Sparrow-Simpson (the librettist) wrote hymns. We were encouraged to join the choir for the verses in bold. So we did in all of them, beginning with ‘Cross of Jesus, Cross of sorrow,’ which had a familiar tune that I’m used to accompanying a different hymn; my music memory is faulty, and it may have been the final hymn of the work. The second-last verse of this, one of those sung by choir alone, began with quiet organ (was it acapella??):

From the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,
We adore thee, O most high,’

And then the full blast of the organ’s potency for:

Down to earth’s blaspheming voices
And the shout of ‘Cruficy!’

The oratorio took us from there, ‘The Mystery of the Divine Humiliation,’ to ‘The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation,’ both of which showed us the powerful Christological reality of what went on at Golgotha, to ‘God So Loved the World.’ John 3:16-17 were sung beautifully with a very full dynamic range from the very quiet to the loud, graced by lovely harmony. It was beautiful and regal, working from small to big. A far cry from banners at football games, but more fitting for the glorious truth of the Gospel.

Another powerful moment came during the Recitative immediately following the hymn ‘Holy Jesu, by Thy Passion.’ The tenor sang, ‘Jesus said,’ and then the men of the chorus, sans organ, sang out, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The tenor and baritone proceeded from this moment to sing a duet about the wondrous fact of Christ seeking the forgiveness of his killers.

The solo thief who mocked Christ was given short, choppy rhythm, whereas Christ’s, ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,’ was sung by the entire choir in flowing (legato) loveliness. The music, again, suited the words.

‘There was darkness,’ was preceded by a deep, minor organ prelude.

Once again, we had the men alone for the minor, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

Finally, after Christ ‘gave up the ghost,’ we sang ‘All for Jesus — all for Jesus’, a hymn I know, though I don’t recall having sung this verse before:

All for Jesus — at thine altar
Thou wilt give us sweet content;
There, dear Lord, we shall receive thee
In the solemn Sacrament.

This Victorian choral masterpiece was certainly the highlight of my day! I hope it is a precursor to a wondrous week, filled with the good blessings given by the Crucified.

The “Cult” of the Cross?

Fresco of Crucifixion at Kolossi Castle, Cyprus

I have previously posted here about the Cult of the Cross (here, here, and here).  What do we mean by cult?

We do not mean a fringe religious group or behaviour or brainwashing or heterodox community of persons.  That is an entirely different definition of cult although both come from the Latin word cultus.

For our purposes, we will consider the cult to be the devotional aspects of something, including feasts, liturgies, meditations, art, poetry, relics, legends, and other spiritual practices.  When we discuss the “Cult of the Saints”, for example, we do not mean simply the lives of the Saints or the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that there is a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us and worshipping at the foot of the Sapphire Throne in the Heavens.  The Cult of the Saints includes hagiography, prayers about and to saints, relics, art, liturgies, feasts, and so on and so forth.

The Cult of the Cross, especially, does not include what we call “theology.”  This is not because theology has nothing to say about the Cross; indeed, a large portion of the reasoned discussion of God’s Revelation to us and action in History is devoted to the Cross.  Furthermore, there is a lot interplay between the Theology of the Cross and the Cult of the Cross.  When each is operating as it should, they have blessed and beneficial interactions.  And the devotional masters, many of whom have contributed to the Cult of the Cross, are not divorced from the theologians’ task.  Many of them have been theologians.  The great liturgists, pray-ers, preachers, and ascetics of the Patristic world were also its great theologians.*

However, the Theology of the Cross is the application of the human mind with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the salvific action of God the Son on the Cross at Golgotha.  Normally, it expressly does not take the actual, True Cross and make it the focus of the discourse.  The Cult of the Cross does, the focus always being a symbolic focus, always pointing to the God-Man upon the Cross.

Often the Cult of the Cross actually manifests itself as the Cult of the Crucifixion or the Cult of the Crucified.  Here Theology and Cult will more frequently intersect.

If you think I’m way off base in terms of what cult is, let me know.

*This fact should give us pause when we consider modern academic theology.

John Donne: Good Friday

Tom Wright declares, in The Prison Letters (fr. his series Paul for Everyone):

As you look at the incarnate son of God dying on the cross the most powerful thought you should think is: this is the true meaning of who God is.  He is the God of self-giving love. (103)

In Holy Week at the Small Group we looked at some of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and Easter Week we perused George Herbert.  Donne’s poetry is available via Luminarium, and the sonnets we read were numbers X, “Death Be Not Proud,” XI, “Spit in My Face, You Jews, and Pierce My Side,” XIII “What If This Present Were the World’s Last Night,” and XIV, “Batter My Heart, Three-person’d God.”  Herbert’s were “Good Friday,” “Sepulchre,” “Easter,” and “Easter-Wings,” all available at Luminarium save “Good Friday” somehow.

Today let us consider John Donne’s, “Spit in My Face, You Jews.”  All of the above-mentioned poems are worth reading several times.  Indeed, we read them all aloud twice each.  Here is John Donne’s eleventh Holy Sonnet.  Read it to yourself a few times, especially aloud, even in company.

Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn’d, and sinne’, and only He,
Who could do no iniquity, hath died.
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety.
They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
O let me then His strange love still admire ;
Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment ;
And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,
But to supplant, and with gainful intent ;
God clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

Part of the appeal of this poem is its provocative first line.  I think it’s supposed to make you think that Donne is being racist.  Only he’s not.  I don’t know if he was in real life, but this poem is not racist.  Read it again if you thought it was.  That first line is calling the Jewish people of the first-century to spit in Donne’s face.  Why?  Because these people killed the sinless one, “who could do no iniquity.”  And Donne?  Oh, Donne’s a sinner.  Read his un-holy sonnets.  Donne is the one who deserve buffetting, scoffing, scourging, and crucifying, not Jesus.  He is calling on the Jews to turn their attentions to himself instead of to Christ.

This fact is central to the mystery of Good Friday, the glory of the Cross — we sinners who deserve death are spared, while the livegiver who has done no wrong dies on our behalf.  Jesus on the Cross is showing us the upside Kingdom of God’s mercy — not simply pardoning as an earthly king, but bearing our punishment.  And yet we surpass the impiety of the first-century Jews.  We, by our sins, crucify Jesus daily.  What impiety!  What sin!  Should we not feel sorrow and seek to amend our ways?

Finally, we see that God, YHWH, who is impassible, who cannot suffer, has “clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh” — in order to “be weak enough to suffer woe.”  Christ, who is himself perfect God, tasted all there is to taste of humanity, including suffering, including woe, including death.  All of these things are now taken up into God through the Incarnation and Crucifixion.  Our pain is known to the Almighty, and he shall not remain silent forever.

If you’ve been following my posts on the Cult of the Cross (here and here), I would argue that poetry such as this is part of the early seventeenth century’s Protestant “Cult” of the Cross — devotional poetry reflecting upon the Cross and upon Christ and how Christ might be made real to me, and I might change my ways.