Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Let Us Give Thanks!

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God: It is right to give him thanks and praise!
         - from the Liturgy of Communion

I'll be taking a week off from blogging while I celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. Posts will resume on Monday, Nov. 27. Happy Thanksgiving!

(Painting: "A Sketch of Gratitude Crowned by Peace," by James Thornhill, 1713)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God, watch over me always, in my work, in my words, in the thoughts of my heart.
O God, have pity on me, in this world and in the world to come.
O God, have pity on me, for I have sinned against you like the mortal that I am; but, kind and gentle Master, forgive me…
O God, do not show me the anger that my sins and misdeeds deserve...
O God, your Word was made flesh for me; for me he was crucified, died, was buried, and on the third day rose again. Bind me to you!
O God, do not let me give way to disloyalty. May the Enemy find nothing in me that he can call his own.
O God, sharpen my will. May it be like a sword and cut all sinful thoughts out of my mind.
O God, as you calmed the sea with a word, so drive out the evil passions from my sinful nature. May sin die down and disappear from all my members.
O God, grant that my heart may always be pure and my faith orthodox forever, yes forever. Amen.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: The Garden of Eden and the Nativity

Before we leave the Garden of Eden narratives, we need to attend to a few other parallels between the stories of creation and the unveiling of God’s new creation in Christ Jesus. We’ll do one of the parallels this week (how the Nativity stories allude to creation), and another after Thanksgiving week (the Tree of Life). Unlike the preceding studies, these are parallels inferred from the symbols in the stories, but are not specifically indicated in the textual exegesis of these passages.

Some of the parallels have to do with the stories of Christ’s nativity. First, let’s take a look at the annunciation passage, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary about God’s plan for her. The first part of Gabriel’s announcement (Luke 1:30-33) refers back to the Old Testament prophesies of the Davidic Messiah-king. But when Mary asks Gabriel how these things will come about, he says, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35). The first phrase immediately calls to mind the first scene of creation (Gen. 1:2), when the Holy Spirit comes and hovers over the waters of the newborn world. And the second phrase uses a word that immediately evokes an Old Testament parallel: “overshadow”—this was the same term used for the way the presence of God overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, filling that place with his shekinah glory. So within the space of two sentences, Gabriel has connected his announcement to Mary with the creation of the world, the presence of God in the Temple, and the Davidic kingship: three Old Testament allusions that cover almost the whole scope of the salvation-history of ancient Israel. I referenced some of these parallels when I wrote my poetic rendering of Luke 1:35 in my Evangeliad:

The Holy Spirit will descend on you,
Hov’ring in blessing o'er a world born new!
The Most High's power will o’ershadow thee:
Shekinah glory of His majesty,
As in the Temple, full of glory’s awe;
The one born of you shall be Son of God!

The early church fathers also liked to draw a parallel between Mary and Eve when they considered the annunciation-passage in Luke: they noted that Mary in some sense recapitulates Eve’s role. Here is a woman, standing in the light of God’s creative activity (for Eve, the creation of the world; and for Mary, the New Creation), and faced with a decision: to obey God, or to disobey him. Eve chose to disobey, but Mary submitted to God’s will. I’ve also referenced this parallel in my poetry: take the following extract from my “Incarnation Hymn.”

The Word that knit the universe was knit in Mary’s womb,
The tapestry of ages, upon her humble loom.
She obeyed where Eve had sinned, and with her act of faith,
The Maker took our nature, to save our sinful race.

Even the smallest of details in the nativity story were taken as recapitulations of the Garden of Eden. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was born in a stable (more specifically, Luke tells us that the infant Jesus was placed in a manger, and from that information it is inferred that they were in a stable). Early Christian traditions, available to us in other written documents from the first few centuries AD, help to fill out our familiar picture of the nativity: the presence of animals with them in the stable, and the portrayal of the stable being built into a little cave on the hillside.

One of the interesting things to consider regarding this story is that the Gospel writers often select stories from Jesus’ life that illustrate the ways in which Jesus recapitulated the sacred history of humanity. Matthew’s gospel is the clearest example of this: he chooses to present the stories of Jesus that show him as the recapitulation of Israel’s history. So Matthew presents the holy family’s flight to Egypt and their return, along with Herod’s murder of the male babies in Bethlehem, all of which parallel the exodus account in the Old Testament. He shows Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness (a parallel to Israel’s 40-year wanderings), and Jesus as the new Moses in Matthew 5, teaching the essence of God’s law from the mountain. Even the appearance of the Wise Men, who are Gentiles, fits into this theme: it is a fulfillment of the promise so often made to Israel in the pages of the prophets, that all nations would come to Israel to worship the true God there. And this isn’t just a case of Matthew making stuff up, or forcing Jesus’ life history into his own particular set of boxes: other early Christian documents note stories from Jesus life that also fit this theme of the recapitulation of Israel. In one of them, The Protoevangelium of James, there are two midwives present shortly after the birth of Christ, which, if true, would be another parallel with the exodus story of the Old Testament (see Exodus 1).

Luke, however, is not quite as interested in showing Jesus as merely the recapitulation of Israel; he wants to get the point across that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. So he often chooses stories that display Jesus’ interaction with Gentiles, and he, unlike Matthew, traces Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam. There might be some significance, then, to the nativity stories that Luke chooses to recount, two episodes of which include the presence of animals. Jesus is born in a stable, with animals present, and the first announcement of his birth is made to the shepherds, also with animals present. It may very well be that Luke is using this particular story to illustrate what he makes explicit in the genealogy one chapter later: that Jesus is the fulfillment of Adam’s experience, and ultimately, of all humanity. Just as Adam came into the world in close proximity to, and relationship with, members of the animal kingdom, so too does Christ. Jesus is the new Adam, sent to reconcile humanity with God, to undo the effects of the Fall, and to restore humanity to its original purpose as the image of God and the priest of all creation.

If one wanted to stretch the implications further, one could even take a few of the extra-biblical details of the nativity story and read hints of recapitulation into them. If the stable Jesus was born in was actually a cave, as the early Christian document The Protoevangelium of James claims, this could be taken as a sign that God intended Christ to recapitulate the earliest experiences of the human race—dwelling in nature rather than in manmade shelters. Once again, this is more of a stretch, but it could be another indication of what Luke was getting at (and what Paul says outright in his letters): that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of humanity itself, recapitulating Adam’s experience, and constituting in himself a new humanity that will be liberated from sin.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

How Should Christians Use Their Wealth?

John Calvin once wrote, “Let this be our principle: that the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us.” The question which follows, and which brings us to our main question, is: What are the ends for which God gave us material wealth? My answer is tripartite (and is demonstrated through just a very small selection of the vast biblical evidence for all three themes): [1] for the meeting of our needs (Gen. 1:28-30; 9:3-4; Ps. 104:14-15; 136:25; Mt. 14:15-21), [2] for the blessing of others (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; Lk. 12:33; 14:33), and [3] for the grateful celebration of his goodness (Lev. 23; Mt. 26:6-13). The Christian tradition highlights three virtues that match these ends: simplicity, generosity, and moderation.

The vast majority of that tradition, drawing from OT principles, affirms that the ownership and use of private property for meeting one’s own needs is entirely appropriate, since this is one of the reasons that God gave us material things (Gen. 1:28; Ex. 20:15). However, in meeting those needs, we are called to simplicity rather than “luxury” (a negative term in classic Christian thought).

The second end for material goods is to bless others. In the Bible and elsewhere, this is usually put into practical terms of giving help to the poor and assistance to the ministry of the Kingdom of God (Deut. 15:11; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8-9). Christian tradition is unanimous in saying that this giving ought to be generous, not merely in amount, but, more importantly, in the spirit of our giving (2 Cor. 9:7). In fact, the Christian tradition affirms a view of “stewardship”—that the things we own are not properly our own; they belong to God and are on loan to us. Some go further, and, like Basil, claim that some of the things we are given are only given to us in order to be given to others, thus: “Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.”

The third, sometimes overlooked, purpose of material wealth is to enable us to celebrate God’s goodness. In the old medieval tension between feasting and fasting, this is the feasting side of things. We must remember Christ’s rebuke of Judas, in which he affirmed a lavish outpouring of material wealth in celebration of his own presence rather than having it given to the poor (Jn. 12:1-8, cf. Mt. 26:6-13). This joyful celebration of God’s goodness is the counterweight to the renunciation which simplicity and generosity urge. It is possible, ironically enough, for renunciation to become a self-oriented pursuit, and feasting to the glory of God reminds us not to fall into that trap. But, as always, we must remember that even this must be done within the bounds of moderation, because we must maintain enough resources to give generously to the poor.

Is it possible to move from these three general principles and to generate some specific rules? Gilbert Meilaender suggests that this would be a mistake, and I agree: “For such a life of moderation and austerity there are, however, no universal rules….Room must be left for freedom of the Christian life—and, perhaps still more, freedom of the God who calls Christians to different ways of life. Beneficence to others in need is a duty for Christians, but the ways in which that beneficence may be enacted are many.” John Wesley attempted to frame a rule from these principles, but it came out general enough to be a principle itself: “Make as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can.” Nevertheless, in the absence of rules, we can still commend an overall perspective of “stewardship” as described above, and an overall attitude of trust in God. Let us rejoice in the Lord our God, and use what he has given to his glory in our own lives and in the lives of our neighbors.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Evangeliad (3:10-12)

Section 3:10-12 (corresponding to Matthew 2:10-12)

The wise men rejoiced with unspeakable joy
At seeing the home of the prophesied boy;
They entered inside and looked on his face,
The one who was coming to love and to save.

They saw the boy there with Mary, inside,
Fell down on their faces, worshiped, and cried.
Then they brought gifts, precious gifts from the east
To lavish splendor on the king of the least.

True king was he, of the lowly and great,
And so they accorded him presents of state:
Bright royal gold, worshipful frankincense,
And myrrh for the mourning of sin’s recompense.

After their visit, while they were sleeping,
A dream made change in the plans they were keeping:
Warned about Herod, they spurned his command,
And by alternate roads went back to their land.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Photo of the Week

My soul, praise the Lord!
O God, Thou art great:
In fathomless works
Thyself Thou dost hide.

- from v.1 of the hymn "My Soul, Praise the Lord," by William Kethe and Robert Seymour Bridges

Monday, November 13, 2017

Quote of the Week

"My wish is that you who believe would place yourself with all your love under Christ, and that you pave no other way in order to reach and attain the truth than has already been paved by him... This way is, in the first place, humility; in the second place, humility; in the third place, humility... As often as you ask me about the Christian religion's norms of conduct, I choose to give no other answer than: humility."

- Augustine, influential North African church father in the 4th and 5th centuries AD

(Painting: "Saint Augustine," by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1650)