Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Photo of the Week

You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Savior,
the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas,
who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength,
who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, 
and the turmoil of the nations.
- Psalm 65:5-7

Monday, July 29, 2019

Quote of the Week

"In the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theater, the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world. The glory of God shines, indeed, in all creatures, but never more brightly than in the cross, in which there was a wonderful change of things... In short, the whole world was renewed and all things restored to order."

- John Calvin, 16th-century Protestant Reformer

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

O God, immortal, eternal, invisible, 
I remember with gladness and thanksgiving 
All that Thou has been to this world of men: 
Companion of the brave: 
Upholder of the loyal: 
Light of the wanderer: 
Joy of the pilgrim: 
Guide of the pioneer: 
Helper of laboring men: 
Refuge of the broken-hearted: 
Deliverer of the oppressed: 
Succour of the tempted: 
Strength of the victorious: 
Ruler of rulers: 
Friend of the poor: 
Rescuer of the perishing: 
Hope of the dying.
 Give me faith now to believe
That Thou can be all in all to me, 
According to my need, 
If only I renounce all proud self-dependence 
And put my trust in Thee. 

- John Baillie

Friday, July 26, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Behold Our End (St Augustine's Hymn)

This week's song is a simple one. It's not really my creation; I only served as the matchmaker to introduce a marvelous poem to a lovely tune. I've long loved an old poetic saying by Saint Augustine, in which he reflected on the nature of heaven:

All shall be Amen and Alleluia.
We shall rest and we shall see;
We shall see and we shall know;
We shall know and we shall love;
We shall love and we shall praise:
Behold our end which is no end! 

I've often admired the simple power of African-American spirituals, and it occurred to me that the old tune of the familiar "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" was a nearly perfect match for Augustine's old poem. So with just a little bit of rearranging, here's a crossover mashup of Saint Augustine and the emancipated slaves.

Behold Our End (St Augustine's Hymn) 

All shall be the great Amen, alleluia!
Behold our end, which is no end, alleluia!

We shall rest and we shall see, alleluia! (x2)

We shall see and we shall know, alleluia! (x2)

We shall know and we shall love, alleluia! (x2)

We shall love and we shall praise, alleluia! (x2)

All shall be the great Amen, alleluia!
Behold our end, which is no end, alleluia! 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: The City of the Lowly

 Come to your heaven, you heavenly choirs!--
Earth hath the heaven of your desires.
Remove your dwelling to your God:
A stall is now his best abode.

- Robert Southwell, "New Heaven, New War"

~ ~ ~

          The road to Bethlehem led us first past Herodium, one of Herod’s old mountaintop palaces, and then Tekoa, the home of the prophet Amos. After a brief stop, we made our way up to the town of David. Before we entered the center of town, we paused at a place that once had been well outside the ancient village, but which now had been swallowed up by the ever-spreading streets and buildings of the city. This was the location known as Shepherds’ Fields, one of the possible sites where, by tradition, the shepherds from Luke’s account had received their angelic visitation announcing the birth of Christ.
          Though much of the landscape around the site had been altered by the changes of time, a narrow strip of wild field-lands remained, at the far end of which was a little church commemorating the event. The church was small but lovely, calling to mind the circular chapel on the Mount of Beatitudes and the tiny church of Dominus Flevit in Jerusalem (both of which had been designed by the same architect). A little altar stood in the middle, around which ran a pillared passage with benches and artwork. But the real wonder of the church was in its lighting. Beams of light cascaded from the dome overhead, piercing through hundreds of miniscule openings meant to resemble the stars of the night sky. And around the dome were images of angels, along with the Latin translation of their great doxology: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!”
          Our leader Rob encouraged us to sing some Christmas carols there, as many of his other groups had done in the past, so as we walked along the outer arcade I began to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The rest of our group joined in, and the little church was transformed into an echo chamber of song. Even lovelier still, some other pilgrims there heard the song and started to join in, each in their own language. One of them was singing in Latin, the original version of the old song. When that was done, we chorused through other appropriate carols, like “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
          There’s a lovely fountain just beside the church, showing one of the shepherds who received the annunciation of the Lord’s birth. I’ve always appreciated the story of the shepherds, because it reveals God’s love and intentional, outreaching concern for even the poorest and most overlooked of people. Shepherds in Jesus’ day were often considered rustics, and untrustworthy ones at that, suspected of using land that was not their own to graze their flocks by night. More than that, they were often forced by the necessities of their work and its seasonal schedule to live much of their life in a state of ceremonial uncleanness, meaning that shepherds often were not able to perform their expected acts of worship in the Temple. Though there was still some romance attached to the idea of shepherding in ancient Israel—the legendary King David had been a shepherd, after all—it was the idealized version more than the reality that carried appeal. Shepherds were often shunned and neglected—it was lowly work, even in David’s day; that’s the reason why he, the smallest and youngest of the brothers, had that as his task. And yet it was to these ones—the lowliest ones—that God chose to first announce his glorious Gospel of grace through the coming Christ.
          There was a little cave-chapel just below and behind the church, a remnant of the place where the shepherds themselves were said to have rested while their flocks grazed around them. We paused there for a few minutes of prayer and reflection, and then were on our way again, on into the center of the city. I had expressed some interest in seeing the place where the early church father Jerome had taken up residence and done his massive translation project on the Latin Bible. As it turned out, we were rolling into town within just a few minutes of that site’s closure to tourists, so Norah, Onus, and I made a quick dash over to the Catholic church of St. Catherine, beneath which was the crypt with Jerome’s cell. As it turned out, we were too late, but we did get a nice view of the lovely church that lies alongside the Church of the Nativity.
          Jerome had always intrigued me, ever since I learned a bit of his story: a brilliant, magnificently gifted scholar with an intense passion for following Christ, but a man who also gained a reputation as a caustic, self-absorbed jerk in multiple situations over the course of his life. Yet, despite his manifold evident failings, God used him to transform the study, worship, and devotion of an entire civilization: the work he put into his Bible translation would end up shaping the life of the medieval Western church. In both these cases—the shepherds and Saint Jerome—I was struck by the goodness and grandeur of the love of God, choosing the disregarded ones and the vessels with gaping cracks through which to accomplish his great works. And I, even I, though filled with far more failings than angry, bitter old Jerome, and far lowlier and more unclean than the least of the shepherds—God loved me just as he loved them, and he could use me to accomplish something of usefulness for his Kingdom.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Photo of the Week

Before the hills in order stood, or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God, to endless years the same.
A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.

- Verse 2 of the hymn "O God, Our Help in Ages Past"

Monday, July 22, 2019

Quote of the Week

"The beginning of divine wisdom is the serenity acquired from generosity of soul and forbearance with human infirmities."

- Isaac of Nineveh, 7th-century Christian writer

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Have mercy on me,
A sinner.

- the "Jesus Prayer," held for centuries by eastern Christianity as the standard prayer for daily devotional use

Friday, July 19, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Ascension Hymn

This week's new hymn is the result of a few weeks of work I've been putting into theological research for my Sunday evening sermons: an exploration of what the ascension means for us as Christians. This hymn gives voice to some of the main scriptural themes of Jesus' ascension: the vindication of the suffering Son of Man, the triumphal procession of the conquering king, the atoning ministry of the great High Priest, the continual work of intercession on our behalf, and the active reign of Christ over all things. The tune is a traditional one, associated with the thematically similar hymn "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name."

Ascension Hymn

Lord Jesus triumphed o'er the grave,
Ascended to the sky:
The suffering Son of Man rose up
And now he reigns on high!

The risen King makes his ascent
As conqueror over hell;
And as he claims his crown on high
Triumphal anthems swell.

Our great High Priest has gone into
The heavenly Temple-courts,
And there presents his sacrifice
To cleanse us evermore.

The Son of God, both priest and king,
Is at his Father's side;
And there he intercedes for us,
Whom he has sanctified.

Now Christ is reigning over all,
Our Lord, the great I Am!
Bow down, ye nations, and adore:
His Kingdom never ends!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: My Bethlehem Backstory

And if perchance thou knowest not
Whither to go in quest of Me,
Go not abroad My face to see,
Roaming about from spot to spot,
For thou must seek for Me in thee.

- Teresa of Avila
 ~ ~ ~

          (Note: This post leaves the account of my pilgrimage in April 2018 in order to give some personal—and in some places, rather technical—backstory. It’s not essential to understanding my experiences in Bethlehem, so it’s certainly not required reading, but I felt it necessary, for my own part, to outline the reasons why Bethlehem is so important to me.)

          We left Gethsemane by mid-morning and boarded the bus that would take us south, back down into the West Bank and to the nearby town of Bethlehem. These final few days we had in the Jerusalem area were subject to many itinerary changes by Onus and Norah, as they shifted various events and site visits around in our schedule, but our excursion to Bethlehem was never in question. It was an essential stop on any Christian pilgrimage, as it had been since the days of the old saint Jerome. And necessarily so—the story of Christmas is so intimately interwoven with our faith as to make it difficult to imagine the Gospel without Christmas.
          I did, once, imagine it so. And my faith nearly fell apart. During a season of doubt, in which I doggedly researched the foundations of Christian belief by devouring the best sources on both sides of the argument, I was forced to come up against a difficult question about Scripture, and to look at it with the eyes of a historian rather than with the eyes of faith. Here’s the conundrum: of the four canonical Gospels, only two, Matthew and Luke, tell us anything about the events surrounding Christ’s birth—Mark and John simply begin at the outset of Jesus’ ministry. The events of Matthew and Luke can easily be harmonized into a single account, as Christians have done for centuries, for there are no substantive contradictions between the two. However, there is the odd reality that they each tell an entirely different set of stories about the fundamental question: how Jesus of Nazareth happened to be born, not in Nazareth, but in Bethlehem.
          If one reads the two stories independently of one another, it is hard to shake the impression that both authors are coming up with strangely different answers to that question. In Matthew, it appears that Joseph and Mary might actually have been from Bethlehem: there is no mention of a journey from Nazareth at all, simply a birth in Bethlehem followed by the flight to Egypt, after which Nazareth comes into the story on their return journey, apparently for the first time. In Luke, however, the betrothed couple is actually from Nazareth, and has to make a special trip to Bethlehem to register for a census before later returning home. To a skeptical eye, it appears that Matthew and Luke, both of whom needed to prove Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as a matter of clear biblical prophecy about the Messiah, each arrived at independent and rather different solutions to the problem.
          Some have tried to brush this problem aside by positing that Matthew simply wasn’t interested in the details of their earlier connection with Nazareth; and that Luke, with more of a historian’s sense for such things, included both the prologue to Jesus’ birth and the authentic reason for their trip to Bethlehem. Even that, however, is a tough argument on which to stick your landing, because most scholars will respond by saying that Luke’s premise—a census of the Roman Empire—does not really add up with the other historical evidence. No other source in the entire ancient world mentions this census, and it is absurd on the face of it to have a census in which each person has to relocate to the hometown of their ancestor from a millennium beforehand. There are, of course, other explanations that are offered against these ripostes, but I merely list the outline of the argument here in order to explain what a thorny interpretive issue it is.
          I can remember very clearly when the skeptical historicist perspective on the birth narratives finally hit me hard. It was, ironically, during Advent, with our home and church all decked out for Christmas. Nagging doubts about my faith had been plaguing me for months, if not years. And all of the sudden, as I thought about the stories Matthew and Luke were telling, it hit me hard that this story that I had loved, this story that had framed my world, was likely untrue. Matthew and Luke had simply made it up, and unfortunately for them, made up two very different stories, to explain away the uncomfortable fact that the expected Messiah from Bethlehem had strangely come from Nazareth in Galilee instead. And if the story of Christmas were untrue, what reason did I have for believing the interwoven accounts about the virgin birth? And if not the virgin birth, then how could I believe in the incarnation of the Son of God? And if not the incarnation, then Jesus of Nazareth was just another man, and my faith was senseless, and the world I had known my whole life was desperately hollow. I collapsed to the floor and wept.
          I spent two years thinking of myself as an agnostic Christian—culturally, aesthetically, and morally bound to this religion that I still loved—but very much a skeptic about its doctrine. I had not found an argument that prompted me to close the case one way or the other, and there were many compelling strands of reason tugging me in both directions simultaneously, which simply kept me caught in the middle. Yet in my heart, I was feeling more and more like a stranger to my faith and to my own religious community, which had once been the very center of my identity.
          And then a miracle happened—if you can believe it, a Christmas miracle. God gave me back my faith. It’s difficult for me to explain it any better than that. Rational arguments—enormously compelling ones—would follow, buttressing my new understanding of the faith, but it all began with what happened to me that Advent morning, nearly two years to the day since I had fallen down and wept at the crumbling fa├žade of the Christmas story.
          I knelt down on the floor to retrieve a book from a low shelf, and by a vague impulse of idle curiosity, I grabbed a book of Orthodox theology there and flipped it open. I can’t even remember today what it was that I read, but I remember the result: all of the sudden an enormous, overwhelming consciousness of the presence of God swept over me like a tidal wave. Something indescribable, something numinous had blown through my soul with all the warmth and wildness of a tropical hurricane, and I knew—I knew!—the reality of God as I had never known it before. It felt as if I had been a blind man, and my vision was restored to me for the very first time. And I mean that quite literally: I could see the world in a very different way than I had ever seen it before. It wasn’t a seeing with my physical eyes, but with a perception of the soul I had never been granted before. I looked at my surroundings, and I knew in the innermost depths of my being that they were alive with the presence of God. The holy, omnipresent radiance of God’s glory was shining through and in and around everything. This sensation lasted for several minutes. I walked around, just looking at the everyday, commonplace objects of my life, and seeing them as I had never seen them before. I recall very clearly looking at some Christmas figurines of Joseph and Mary, and knew that I would not be surprised at all if they began moving. The world around me was alive with the holiness of God’s presence, very much as in the old poem: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”
          Over the next few days, I devoured every theology book I could find. And in the process, God re-wove the Christmas story into my heart and mind. I discovered the consistency and beauty surrounding the ancient Christian traditions about Joseph and Mary’s backgrounds (as described, for instance, in the Protoevangelium of James), and while not all of those details have the ring of absolute historical truth, there was nonetheless something about them that made me reconsider the old argument against Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts. In particular, I had a dramatic experience of coming to encounter Mary’s role in a whole new way (but that’s a story for another time), and it is from the roots of that experience that my pilgrimage moment in Nazareth struck me so powerfully.
          The fact that Matthew and Luke didn’t really match up very well with each other had ceased to bother me, largely because I knew now, from unshakable experience, the absolute truth of the incarnation. So it was easier to swallow the rational work-arounds available to me: perhaps there was indeed some kind of limited census, as Luke records, since he is so reliable with other historical details; perhaps Joseph’s situation was unique in some way that necessitated him having to register in Bethlehem (if, for example, his family owned property there); perhaps even the two evangelists were aware in some passing way of one another’s Gospel prologues, and opted to complement rather than re-tread each other’s narratives.
          It wasn’t actually until the months around my pilgrimage that I happened upon a wonderful, historically-based, rationally-satisfying answer to why Jesus of Nazareth happened to be born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth. As I was reading about the archaeological background of our pilgrimage sites in Israel, I came across the work of the influential Catholic archaeologist Bargil Pixner, who offered a compelling argument that, on top of all the other incidental reasons, Joseph and Mary probably went to Bethlehem intentionally, because they understood their own position in the salvation-history of Israel (at least in some small way), and they knew that this event was supposed to happen there. So to Bethlehem they went, to fulfill the prophecies. Pixner argues forcefully from other historical sources that the clan in the line of the Davidic kings was very well aware of their history and their prophesied role with the Messiah, and that Nazareth and Bethlehem were both towns in which they had been known to settle. Even without this historical evidence, Pixner’s claim makes sense at a fundamental level: Mary herself would have known enough from Gabriel’s revelation to understand the basics of her unborn son’s identity, and the prophecy about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem was well-known. So it makes absolute sense that even if there had not been a census, Joseph and Mary of Nazareth would have made the trip to Bethlehem in order to see the prophecy fulfilled. Matthew records only the bits and pieces of this account that are necessary for the theological portrait he is painting; Luke, rather more historically-minded, retains more of the details.
          So, in this vastly roundabout way, I had come back to my belief in the Christmas story, and now it was far more personal and precious to me than it had ever been before. Whereas I had once felt a stranger to my own faith, now it felt like home again. So as our bus rolled up the roads to that ancient old town in the hills, it felt like a homecoming, for the story of Christmas had become the story of my soul.