Reflections on John 12

This is my reflection on John 12:20-33, written for my church community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey:

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

In the narrative of the Gospel of John, today’s reading takes place during the final Passover feast during which Jesus will be betrayed, beaten, crucified. Everything has been moving to this point, from the preaching of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) In a few days, the Lord of glory will be slain. Yet this is not how Jesus frames it in this instance. When these pagan Greek-speakers appear, he does not say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be humiliated.” No, in foretelling his death, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23) St Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt, a fifth-century preacher, writes:

He now desires to pass onward to the very crowning point of His hope, namely to the destruction of death: and this could not otherwise be brought to pass, unless the Life underwent death for the sake of all human beings, that so in Him we all may live. For on this account also He speaks of Himself as glorified in His Death, and in suffering terrible things at the hands of the sinners who dishonour Him. Even though by the angels in heaven He had been glorified from everlasting, yet nevertheless His Cross was the beginning of His being glorified upon earth.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 8

Jesus goes on to make this reference to his death more explicit in the next verse, saying that a grain of wheat must die and fall to the ground in order to bear fruit. We are the fruit of Christ’s death. His precious death and glorious resurrection have reaped a harvest of souls for 2000 years, raising us up with him to the heavenly realm. Yet here, bound up with the promise, our Lord also gives us a hard saying—hard to live, if not to understand: “Whoever loves his or her life loses it, and whoever hates his or her life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Thankfully, the wisdom of the ancients comes to us here as well. St John Chrysostom, an ancient preacher from Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) says:

Sweet is the present life, and full of much pleasure, yet not to all, but to those who are riveted to it. Since, if any one looks to heaven and sees the beauteous things there, that person will soon despise this life, and make no account of it. Just as the beauty of an object is admired while none more beautiful is seen, but when a better appears, the former is despised. If then we would choose to look to that beauty, and observe the splendour of the kingdom there, we should soon free ourselves from our present chains; for a kind of chain it is, this sympathy with present things. 

Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily LXVII

But this still seems too hard, too harsh, too difficult. Another ancient preacher who was alive at the time of Chrysostom and Cyril was St Augustine of Hippo. St Augustine makes a distinction between using the things of this world, even enjoying them, as gateways to God and loving them for their own sake. His teaching means that with a rightly ordered heart one sees the sun rise over the Sleeping Giant, enjoys the sight, and then praises God for His handiwork. The whole of human existence thus becomes a gateway to God—my life in this world that I am called to hate for the sake of Jesus becomes transfigured into the heavenly life with Christ. Transformed in this way, I would more readily lose this worldly life for a life filled with the grandeur of the glory of God.

Our Lord Christ repeats this idea of death to self in a new manner straightaway, but couples it to great promises: “If anyone serves me, he or she must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him or her.” (John 12:26) We must follow Christ, we are told. And where does Christ go from here in the Gospel of John? To the upper room, to the garden, to betrayal, to arrest, to being slandered, to being beaten, to being stripped naked, to being humiliated, to being nailed to a cross and lifted up from the earth.

To death.

But from death to glory.

For us, Jesus says that the Father will honour the one who serves and follows him. He promises that his ignominious death is the place of his glory. And he promises to raise us up too, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) An important point in all of this is grace. It is Jesus himself who is the grain of wheat that bears much fruit. It is Jesus himself who draws us to himself. It is God the Father who honours those who follow and serve Jesus.

The path of discipleship is a narrow path of self-denial. The path of discipleship is the pathway of death, death to self and to the world. Yet it is also the path to glory, and it is made easy by Jesus who draws us to himself. It is made easy by the Father who honours us. Let us not forget the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:30, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The life of the ancient monk Antony, one of the first to take up the monastic life, was a living parable of dying to this world to follow Christ, being drawn by him. He abandoned all of his worldly possessions because in church one day he heard the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:21 where the Lord says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” St Antony did so. At one stage in his retreat from worldly life, he lived in a tomb in the Egyptian countryside where he did nothing but pray and do battle with demons. When he left this tomb, a physical symbol of his death to the world, it was as a participant in the divine life of Jesus. As St Athanasius of Alexandria, his biographer writes:

Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ.

Life of Antony 14

Among the sayings left by Antony, two are particularly important for us today:

“Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God.”

“I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (John 4:18)

Let us die to ourselves in order to be alive to God and love him to the fullest, being caught up into Christ’s life by the abundant grace of the Father.

Coming to you live from Thunder Bay!

I realise that this blog is primarily devoted to things ancient and mediaeval, but one recent development I felt I should share here is my recent move across the province of Ontario from Ottawa to Thunder Bay, the city of my teenage years. It takes about 18-20 hours to drive between these two cities. It has a reputation for being North, although this Alberta boy would like to remind everyone that at 48° 22′ 55.9956” N, Thunder Bay is south of all three prairie provinces and most of British Columbia.

That said, Thunder Bay is north of most of the population of Ontario, and, regardless of northerliness it is remote. The nearest major Canadian city is Winnipeg, about eight hours’ drive away or so.

So what brings me from the nation’s capital back to the Canadian Shield of my youth? Is it Nanabijou, the giant sleeping across the Bay? Is it Mount Mckay rising at the south end of the city? Is it Kakabeka Falls? Is it seeing the now abandoned site of my high school? Is it Persians? Is it the … grain terminals?

It is none of these things, in fact.

Unexpectedly, I am the manager of The Habit Coffee & Bake Shop, run out of/by the Urban Abbey in Port Arthur (my uncles and aunt from Fort William have forgiven me for betraying the family). That said, the view from behind the counter is pretty good:

Now, although I have been enjoying serving coffee and ordering coffee beans and buying large quantities of milk and suchlike things, The Habit is not actually the reason I’m here. It’s the reason I’m getting paid.

In the long run, I am here at Thunder Bay to work at the Urban Abbey on the pastoral staff as Coordinator of Liturgy and Education (to be honest, we’re still working on the job title!) and, in the longer run, to start a theological college, an Urban Abbey school.

There’s a lot to say about the Urban Abbey (and its ancient-Celtic-future ethos), about the vision of having a school for ministry here, about ministry and mission in Thunder Bay, and so on. These reflections will join the cavalcade of ancient, medieval, Byzantine, and Anglican voices and ideas processing through this blog.

Watch this space for more. Excuse me, time to make a coffee…

The Divine Office

A few books for prayer…

Chapters 8 through 20 of the Rule of St Benedict are about the divine office. I am not going to discuss the details of how Benedict arranges the times of day to pray and the Psalms to be sung. It is interesting for those interested in the history of the liturgy of the hours, of course, but I am not sure it fits the purpose of my blog posts about St Benedict’s Rule for today.

Unless you are a Benedictine or other cloistered monk, I am not sure that you can achieve the lofty goals set out here. Besides requiring a certain amount of regulation and order, it also requires time. Now, we are all too busy not to pray. But we may be too busy to pray in this way as (post)modern lay people, many with demanding jobs and family demands. When we take ‘real life’ into account, we begin to see why monks imagine that theirs is the life most devoted to God.

That said, the inspirations for all monastic rounds of prayer are the same, and we non-monastics should take heed. The round of prayer in the monastic world (broadly considered) from Sketis and Tabbenisi to the Great Laura on Athos to the Jura Fathers to St Martin of Tours to Benedict to Columbanus to Mont St-Michel to La Grande Chartreuse to Assisi is founded primarily on two biblical texts:

Pray without ceasing. (1 Thess. 5:16)

Seven times a day have I praised you. (Ps. 119:164)

So, whether you are gaining inspiration from Benedict or Francis, from the Celtic world or the Athonites, ask yourself: How can I transform my life into ceaseless prayer? Can I find seven times to pray every day?

The answer to the second is probably yes, even if most of us have never given it much thought.

The answer to the first is to consider the office as a gateway to ceaseless prayer.

What office to pray? Where do I find the office? What is the divine office?

Well, the divine office or the liturgy of the hours is the round of prayer at fixed times that not only derives from these two injunctions but from the practice of the ancient church and synagogue. Maybe I’ll discuss its biblical foundations another time. Anyway, over the years, different ways and forms of praying the divine office evolved, some for public use in the local church (the ‘cathedral’ office), some for use by monks. There was cross-fertilization between the cathedral and monastic offices; in Byzantium the monastic office pretty much won, whereas in the Latin West it did not, although it influenced the Roman Breviary to a great extent.

I recommend starting with Morning and/or Evening Prayer at first before adding Compline or Midday Prayer, let alone Terce and None.

Here are some resources for you to start praying the office if you wish to.

  • The Witness Cloud! This is an endeavour started by my Anglican priest brother and I. Our dad and some friends are part of it. We have our own recommended prayers, derived largely from the Book of Common Prayer, but you can use a different text if you like. The point of the Witness Cloud is for us to know that we are all united in prayer with Christ our Lord. We recommend at least Morning and Evening Prayer.
  • As far as particular texts go, I always recommend Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.
  • A shorter office was devised by the Anglican Society of Saint Francis, called Celebrating Common Prayer.
  • You can also use the Church of England’s Daily Prayer site, available as an app for your phone. It has both BCP and modern options.
  • If you are a bit more gung-ho, you can try Benedictine Daily Prayer — it seems daunting when you behold the size of the book, but it’s pretty doable if you are looking for a handy way to pray all seven.
  • Verging back into more Protestant territory, my friends at Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey — a community that prayers the hours every day — have their own set. These are more modern than the other recommendations.
  • Some people also like the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer. I used it for a while but grew desirous of the regularity of the BCP.
  • Many people recommend Phyllis Tickle’s books. Although I dig her last name, I’ve never looked into them.

Prayerfully choose what can nurture your own prayer life. The purpose of the daily office, if you ask me, is to create space within the day to meet with Jesus, to encounter the word, and to start to transform our whole lives into prayer, cultivating prayerfulness and silence. I have found it beneficial in my life, as have many others.

Faith and the arts

Pinturicchio fresco in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Rome (my photo)

At the start of this new year, my friend Talita from high school put on her debut concert as a singer-songwriter, livestreamed over Facebook (Thunder Bay, Ontario, is far from Durham, England) from the Urban Abbey. It was the story of her journey as a musician, and a good number of friends from high school as well as her dad and sisters made appearances on the platform, performing alongside her, including Ryan Marchand who is actually a rock star.

It was a wonderful event, and there was a strong element of Talita’s faith in the midst of the theme of her emergence as an artist. Many of the beautiful songs, including her own compositions, were songs of the Christian faith, reflecting the beautiful truths of our beautiful God. It was great to watch this event. And I am so glad that the Urban Abbey provides a space for artists — performers and others — to ply their trade.

But few churches and Christian communities really do. It’s probably seen by some as a hipster sort of move. Historically, however, churches have not needed to sponsor the arts so consciously as this — it was natural. Notker ‘the Stammerer’ was not Sankt Gall’s Artist in Residence (and certainly not a hipster), but he wrote them beautiful poetry. The mosaicists of Palermo were simply plying their trade. The anonymous liturgists of the Gelasian Sacramentary did not need to make special pleading in the church.

But today, spaces like the Urban Abbey can be rarely found.

In Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, one piece of wisdom Chris R. Armstrong imparts is for evangelicals to get into art more — that the Incarnation makes Christian art important. God Himself became His creation. All creatures matter. Not only this — and this is not from Armstrong but is Tolkien language also expressed by Sayers in The Mind of the Maker — but we are made in the image of God, and one of the foundational properties of theism is that Our God is Creator. We then, are sub-creators in some way.

Turning back to Armstrong, evangelicals have not always made good art. Think of the King of the Hill line about how Christian rock doesn’t make Christianity better but rock’n’roll worse. Armstrong mentions Richard Wilkinson’s study of English literature 1860-1960 that found the only orthodox Protestants producing high literary art worth mentioning in that century were C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, both sacramental Anglicans. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s worth thinking about.

How can we make great art and beauty a natural part of evangelical faith?

The Gospel — the evangel of evangelical — is the most beautiful true thing in the world. The God who dies. The myth that is real. The cosmic-rending reality of Incarnation. The piercing of the Virgin’s Mary’s soul. There is high drama here. It is worthy of great art, and great art has been made about Christianity forever.

People of faith have always made art, often of a very high degree of skill and beauty. Just think on the Parthenon and temples of the Acropolis, the Pantheon of Rome, the tales told of the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, or consider the Dome of the Rock, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the calligraphy on the exteriors of so many mosques. Think of the Homeric Hymns, the Poetic Edda, the Rg Veda. Greek tragedy and comedy began as part of a religious festival.

Christianity, in its worship of the Triune God, has given us the beautiful prose of the Book of Common Prayer, the verse of Gregory of Nazianzus and Prudentius and Ambrose, the glories of Byzantine and Renaissance liturgy, the fine intricacies of ars anglicana embroidery, the hymns of Charles Wesley, of Romanos the Melodist, of Ephrem the Syrian, of Isaac Watts, of Notker the Stammerer, of J. M. Neale, as well as the architecture of liturgy — Hagia Sophia, St Peter’s, Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral, the mosaics of Santa Prassede, of Palermo, of Hagia Sophia, of San Marco in Venice.

Beyond the formal worship event, Christianity has given us so much (and so much more than the following): The Dream of the Rood, Dante (!!), The Quest for the Holy Grail, Fra Angelico,  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Requiem, William Byrd, countless mosaics and frescoes throughout the Mediterranean world, the Christian Latin epics of Late Antiquity, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and so many more without delving into Protestantism.

For the churches descended from the Reformation have their own rich heritage in the arts. St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, the prose of the 1611 KJV Bible, Sir John Davies, Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis (who was also Roman Catholic — he lived in interesting times), J. S. Bach, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Guite, and undoubtedly so many others who escape me just now.

Let us drink deep from the beauty of the beautiful God, and we shall produce beauty ourselves.

Ancient and Early Mediaeval Prayer – 1: An Invitation

La Sainte Chappelle, Paris
La Sainte Chappelle, Paris

A couple I know is involved in an exciting new church plant in Thunder Bay called ‘Urban Abbey‘, associated with the Anglican Mission in Canada but on friendly terms with local Baptists (from whom they gained their building) and such. One aspect of their mission that excites me is the Tower of Prayer. As I have been given to understand, this space will be open for anyone, any time to come in and pray. Not only that, but they will pray at the six hours of prayer throughout the day:

Prime at 6am: Greet the Day in Jesus’ name

Terce at 9am: Psalm Reading

Sext at noon: Pray for our World

None at 3pm: Pray for the Church locally – in Thunder Bay

Vespers at 6pm: Pray for Thunder Bay

Compline at 9pm: Prepare to Sleep in the arms of God.

For those uninitiated into the world of liturgical prayer, they have a one-page document, ‘Preparing for and Participating in Liturgy.’ Finally, they have available ‘A Week of Complines‘ to download.

This liturgical aspect of a missional church interests and excites me for more than the obvious reasons. I think that prayer must be at the centre of our lives as individuals as well as churches. If we want to see transformation occur in our own hearts as well as in the communities around us, we need to encounter the living God. The witness of Scripture and Christian history tells us that this happens when we set aside time for prayer and worship.

Indeed, Baptist preacher John Piper even notes that worship is our true end; mission exists because worship does not.

This is our chief activity.

I would have been really excited to hear about this venture and mission on behalf of Christ’s church — and in my old stompin’ grounds (well, almost — Port Arthur isn’t quite the same as Fort William) — regardless of anything else. I’m doubly pleased that a friend from high school and her husband (who is fast becoming a friend) are involved in this disciple-making movement of prayer in the broken heart of Thunder Bay.

And I’m humbled that I have been approached to assist with the liturgical angle of this moment of Our Lord’s mission on earth.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The request mentions that they are interested in using ancient/classical forms of prayer (the obvious reason why Urban Abbey interests me), and says:

Anyways, I was interested if you would ever be interested in sharing/creating some liturgies ( I know you don’t just “create” them, but I hope you get what I mean) that you feel would be meaningful/important.

Of course, I directed Scot to this blog, specifically to the liturgies you can see off to your right under ‘Classic Christian Texts.’

I’ve been mulling over this for the past couple of weeks — probably too much, but that’s just the way I am.

It’s true that one doesn’t just ‘create’ liturgies.

For example, I once led a study of a portion of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses that dealt with perfection — since Divine perfection is endless, then our own perfection will be endless too. This is the selection in Richard Foster’s book Devotional Classics. For prayers at the start of that evening, I took some of the prayers from the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great and modified them a little, making portions antiphonal and giving the selection a beginning and an end — these were prayers for perfection. Obviously, they were out of context. But it was a way to truly pray (one does not pray ancient prayers for novelty) but also to connect with the world of the Cappadocians more thoroughly than a merely intellectual study would or could.

The creation of ‘occasional’ liturgies such as that is a matter of looking at the needs of that community and that moment, and then looking at the resources — the rich and beautiful resources — available to us in the centuries of prayers that Christians have offered up to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I do not think I would ever truly create a Eucharistic liturgy, although once I put together something based upon research into first-century worship and St Hippolytus, but that was basically just the Anaphora/Canon of the Mass. I don’t know if it’s something I would use again, though. (Yes, we had a real priest in Apostolic Succession consecrate the elements that night.)

As a Latinist, I have an advantage over a great many other people in this regard. While some of our earliest Greek liturgical texts, such as St Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, have been Englished, most early Latin liturgical texts remain untranslated. I can thus more easily tap into the wellspring of ancient and early mediaeval prayer than those unschooled in the Latin tongue.

I think I will prayerfully read through these ancient and early mediaeval prayers and prepare some texts for my friends. They are the same sources that Thomas Cranmer used in the 1500s as well as some new ones that have come to light. They express beautiful truths that all Christians can stand behind. So I will see if we can make them live again today in Urban Abbey’s Tower of Prayer in Thunder Bay.

In my next post I’ll go into some actual thoughts on Christian prayer in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.