Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Photo of the Week

Light shines on the righteous
and joy on the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous,
and praise his holy name.

- Psalm 97:11-12

Monday, February 27, 2017

Quote of the Week

"These things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space--the name of the fourth being Time--which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant."

- Marcel Proust, French writer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from his novel In Search of Lost Time (Vol. 1)

(Painting: "Leaving Church in Leiden," by Bartholomeus van Hove, 1846)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday Scripture - Mark 15:39-47

Mark 15:39-47

15:39-47 – In these verses, Mark begins to highlight for us the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God, revealed in power in Christ’s death on the cross. As soon as Jesus dies, we see unexpected witnesses step forward to hail him, mourn him, and honor him. It’s not his inner circle of twelve male disciples who are in the forefront of this first wave of recognizing Jesus’ lordship—no, it’s a pagan Gentile army officer, a group of women, and a member of the body who condemned Jesus to death. First, Mark shows us the centurion, one of the closest observers of Jesus’ death, who is quoted as saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” In their parallel passages, Matthew keeps a similar wording, while Luke tones it down a bit (“Surely this was a righteous man”). Where critics might point to a clear discrepancy in the accounts, and claim this as a point in their argument that the gospels are historically unreliable, there is quite probably a very good explanation for this. First, one needs to recognize that first-century historiography was not quite the same as the practice in our own day, and so it would have been considered “true” to convey the underlying substance of a statement, even if not the exact words. From that point, we could note two possibilities: either (1) the centurion said “Surely this was a righteous man,” but he later came to faith in Christ and was known to the Gospel writers, and so Matthew and Mark have “backdated” his authentic reflections on the death of Christ to that moment on Golgotha, or (2) he said, “Surely this was the Son of God,” but Luke decided to tone the wording down, because a pagan calling someone “the son of god” is not necessarily the same thing as a Jew or Christian saying those same words. In either case, there are possibilities whereby all of the Gospel writers are remaining true to the events and meaning of Calvary. For our purposes, though, the most important thing is to note the irony that it is a Gentile army officer, reviled by the Jews, who is the first to recognize the Messiah of the world. Mark then goes on to note the presence of the women. In first-century cultures, women did not have a strong position in society—they were regarded (unfortunately) as weaker and less intelligent than men, too swayed by their emotional natures, and thus not dependable as witnesses. And yet they are shown here as the most faithful of Christ’s disciples, exhibiting courage that not even Jesus’ inner circle showed, and they stand as the primary witnesses to both Jesus’ death and resurrection. (This is, incidentally, another strong point in favor of considering the Gospel accounts to be historically reliable; if you were making up this story in that culture, you certainly wouldn’t choose to make women your primary witnesses, unless that’s the way it actually happened.) Throughout all ages of the church, it has been the women—often behind the scenes—who have often been the most faithful members of the Body of Christ, standing with their Lord in prayer, suffering, and service; they remain today the strongest part of most local fellowships, and thus there is no place in the Body of Christ for the marginalization of women. After highlighting the women, Mark shifts his focus onto the third surprising witness—Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Council (that is, the Jewish body that condemned Jesus). He is apparently so struck by Jesus’ death that he gets Pilate’s permission to bury Jesus, and places him in a rock-cut tomb. This was extravagant treatment—a rich man’s tomb for a man executed in the manner of the lowest of criminals! Yet Christ had begun to turn the world on its head, and now the least likely of men can become the most faithful of converts. Along the way, Mark also notes the time for us (Preparation Day, before the Sabbath—that will become important later on) and records two historical details that help to refute common conspiracy theories regarding Christ’s resurrection. One such conspiracy theory is that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross—he merely swooned, and then revived later on. This might seem plausible if one is familiar with crucifixions, because the truth is that the victims of crucifixion almost never died as a result of the torture itself. Convicts would have to be killed at the end of the crucifixion, often by breaking their legs so they can’t push themselves up, and they drown in their own fluids. But Mark notes for us that Pilate knew this fact about crucifixions very well, and that he even double-checked to make sure that Jesus was dead—and yes, it turns out, he truly was. (The other Gospels offer other proofs to this effect, such as the soldiers piercing Jesus’ side with a spear, and blood and water coming out—a sure sign of death). The second conspiracy theory is this: that perhaps the poor, grief-stricken women didn’t know where they were going on Sunday morning, and they happened to come upon a tomb they thought was Jesus’, but, lo and behold, it was empty! Well, Mark clearly tells us why this couldn’t have been the case—the women followed Jesus’ body all the way from the cross to the tomb on Friday evening, and they saw where he was laid. It wasn’t a case of them getting lost and picking the wrong tomb; no, Jesus truly was dead, and then he truly was risen from the dead.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

God, always the same, let me know myself, let me know you… God our Father who exhorts us to pray, who makes it possible for us to pray, our entreaty is made to you, for when we pray to you we live better and we are better. Hear me groping in these glooms, and stretch forth your right hand to me. Shed your light on me, call me back from my wanderings. Bring yourself to me so that I may in the same way return to you. Amen. 

- Augustine

Friday, February 24, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 14 (Part 1)

* Please note: This work is the intellectual property of Matthew Burden, protected under US copyright law, and is not to be removed, altered, or reproduced in any way. 

(See lower sidebar menu for links to all available chapters) 

Chapter 14 (Part 1)
            Lucius waited along the roadway, watching as dusk fell over the city of Smyrna. His overlook was hidden behind a series of boulders about halfway up the first set of foothills, where the road began to leave behind the settled streets of the valley and wind its lonely way into the rougher highlands.
            The brigands had set their trap, and all that was left now was to see if Ariston took the bait. Alexander, the father whom they had entrapped into their scheme as a go-between, had fulfilled his last act, setting rumors loose in the city that some of the brigands had been seen quietly infiltrating the edges of the town. Those rumors would have made it to Ariston’s ears, and, they hoped, would encourage him to risk the long hike out to the brigands’ cave to recover the bit of family treasure he had lost in their earlier encounter. Lucius had persuaded the brigands to release Alexander’s son to him unharmed; the poor father had played his part faithfully, and if the scheme fell through on some unforeseen mistake, Lucius didn’t want the boy’s blood on their hands just for that. So Alexander and his son were gone, having been sent back up the Ephesus road in the late afternoon. Now all that was left was to wait.
            Lucius peered up the road toward the brigands’ hideout. They were all lying in wait there, weapons at ready, for Ariston to make his way up to them. There was no telling, though, at what point during the long night the young nobleman would make his attempt.
            Lucius didn’t have long to wait. As soon as the darkness of night had gathered its full strength over the countryside, Lucius made out the shadowy shape of his nemesis ascending the dusty path. His white toga caught the light of the crescent moon, and gave him the aura of a ghost as he made his slow way upward. Just as he was about to pass the boulders at the overlook, Lucius stepped out to meet him.
            Ariston looked up, startled, a quick burst of fear coursing over his face. But he recovered himself and put on his habitual mocking grin.
            “Ha! A true highwayman, then? Just like they say in town—I always knew you were a murderer at heart, Tiro. Or wait, it’s no longer Tiro, is it? It’s the famed assassin of Roman noblemen, Lucius Caelius Pius, here to add another tally to his scroll!”
            “Mock me if you like, Ariston,” Lucius spoke through clenched teeth. “But your life is in my hands right now.”
            “Is it then?” Ariston chuckled. “The way I hear it, all your muscular friends are sneaking into town right now, only to be arrested by the town’s magistrates. That means it’s just you and me out here.” In a flash of silver light, he pulled out a short sword from beneath his toga. “And I think I could have the better of a weak little runaway like you.”
            Lucius drew a deep breath. Anger and resentment were welling up inside him, but he tried to think of what John might say in that moment.
            “Ariston,” he said softly.
            There was a note of gentleness in his voice that made Ariston take a step backward.
            Lucius held out his hands to show that he was unarmed. “Ariston, I tricked you into coming out here tonight, to stumble into your death at my hands.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “The brigands aren’t in town right now. They’re up in the hideout, waiting for you.”
            Ariston digested this news with a quizzical expression. “Not to question your tactics, my dear friend Lucius, but wouldn’t you have had a better chance of killing me if you had also waited for me up there? I might be able to kill you in a fight, but I can’t kill all of them. Yours would have been a good plan, if you hadn’t popped out of these rocks just now. What’s to keep me from going back down safely?”
            “Nothing,” said Lucius. “I expect you to. Of course, if you still want to go try to recover the money that we managed to steal away from your father’s house, then you’re welcome to go up there and have a go at it.”
            Ariston smiled. “I rather think I might let them keep it at this point.” He lowered his sword and looked at Lucius in the moonlight. “Why are you doing this, then?”
            “It would have been a stroke of justice for me to kill you, Ariston. You had stolen away the only life I had left; for that and for your other crimes, your own life was forfeit. But I can’t be your judge and executioner—that belongs to someone else.”
“And why can’t you be my judge? I’ve certainly merited your revenge, I would think.”
“Yes—but I merited death, too. It would have been just for God to kill me—I had taken a life and lived a lie before his people—but I was shown not the harshness of justice, but mercy. Forgiveness. I’m here tonight, Ariston, to forgive you for what you’ve done, and to extend mercy to you.”
            Ariston smiled cockily and brought up his sword again. “Weak…as I thought. Perhaps I should kill you now, and save you the agony of bumbling so stupidly down any further roads of life. You will not find many pleasant paths to walk, my friend, if you’re so quick to throw away every lucky advantage you’ve gained.”
            Lucius shook his head. “You can strike if you choose to, Ariston. But I can give you something even better than killing me here on this lonely hillside.”
            “Ha! What’s that?”
            “Come with me to the church tomorrow. Find forgiveness. Find freedom. You don’t have to live your life as an enemy to everyone you meet. You can come home.”
            Ariston stood there, holding out his sword, balancing on the edge of indecision. Lucius expected him to laugh.
            But he didn’t laugh. Slowly, he lowered his arm and tucked his sword back beneath his toga.
            Then, brow furrowed, he growled out grumpily toward Lucius: “Just leave me alone. That’ll be enough.”
            And with that, he turned and trudged back down the dusty roadway, to where the hearth-fires and oil-lamps of Smyrna flickered out through a thousand windows.