Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Photo of the Week

Savior, like a bird to Thee,
Weary and wounded my soul would flee;
O let me fold my wings and rest
Peacefully, trustingly, on Thy breast.

- from the hymn "Savior, Like a Bird to Thee," by W. Howard Doane, 19th century

Monday, April 29, 2019

Quote of the Week

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

- G. K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Christ is alive, the conqueror of all his foes, and ours.
Christ is alive, and in his hands are the keys of death.
Christ is alive, and in him we are born again
To a living hope and an eternal inheritance.
We praise you, O Christ,
For your resurrection victory.
We acknowledge you as our living Savior and Lord.
We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.

- Frank Colquhoun

Friday, April 26, 2019

Hallelujah, He is Risen!

It seemed fitting to write an Easter hymn this week. So here's my new offering, written to the tune of the well-known hymn "Revive Us Again." 

Hallelujah, He is Risen!

Oh, lift up your voice to proclaim Jesus' praise,
And let us declare now the triumph of grace!

     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

He bore all our sins as he suffered and bled,
But sin could not hold him; he rose from the dead!
     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

The tomb is laid bare, and the stone rolled away;
Our Lord is alive and is reigning today!

     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

Death, where is your sting? Where the grave's victory?
Yes, Christ has consigned them to endless defeat!

     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

With angels and saints, with creation we praise
The all-conq'ring Savior, the Lamb who was slain!

     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Is It OK to Call Easter "Easter"?

Within certain Christian circles, there's an undercurrent of debate as to what we should call the annual celebration of Jesus' resurrection. Should it be "Easter" or "Resurrection Sunday"? Most English-speakers have always called it Easter, and still do. But there are some Christians who make the case that we should only call it "Resurrection Sunday" (or some similar name) because "Easter" is derived from a pagan festival honoring the Germanic fertility goddess Eostre. The historical claim being made there is, as you'll come to see, highly debatable. This post is mostly written for the benefit of people who have always called it "Easter" and are wondering if they can still do so in good conscience. If, however, you're the sort who wants to call it "Resurrection Sunday" just for the sake of clarity and not out of a burdensome sense of anti-pagan legalism, well, that's fine too.

But I'm going to start things off by tipping my hand a bit. I'm more a fan of grace than I am of legalism, so my feeling is that unless you're actually spending the day performing acts of worship for an ancient fertility goddess, you're probably OK. (It's similar to my feelings on Halloween, which you can read about here and here.) Now let's assess the case made against Easter:

Eostre, who has apparently mistimed her jump and is about to crush her tiny worshipers
- First, let's start by assuming the "Eostre" etymology is correct (a notion that we'll debunk a bit later on). Even if that were the case, the use of the name would not be problematic for Christians, especially since it comes out of early-medieval Christianity, which had a fairly robust theology of Christ's triumph over pagan culture. You see, the use of the name has never implied any doctrinal relativism. That is to say, as far back as we can see in the historical record, there has never been a case of Christians calling this holiday "Easter" because they're actually using it to secretly celebrate a pagan goddess instead of celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Rather, the name appears from some Germanic origin (again, we'll discuss the etymology arguments below), and people go on worshiping Jesus on that day. Regardless of what name it is called by, this holiday, in its Christian context, has always and exclusively been a celebration of Christ's resurrection from the dead. In a very similar manner, I can call the day of this writing "Thursday" and still do all my regular Thursday things without ever once worshiping the pagan god Thor. The early medieval church actually liked to take over old pagan stuff and use it for Christian purposes, partly as an expression of the triumph of Christ over the old pagan order. They would intentionally take the foundations of pagan temples and build churches on them. Why? Because Jesus triumphed over the demonic powers behind all false gods when he died on the cross and rose again, so we can build monuments to his victory right on top of every pagan tradition we find. I'm rather a fan of this outlook, far more than of our modern-Christian practice of eschewing anything associated with other religions just because they haven't always been exclusively Christian symbols. As Paul said, "We take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ!" If Easter really did come from Eostre, it's possible that early Germanic Christians kept the name of the holiday so that they could taunt the vanquished goddess by turning her day over to the celebration of Christ's victory over her.

Freya, showing here a good use for cats that for some reason has fallen out of practice
- And if we're going to get nitpicky about it, then the "Resurrection Sunday" folks have to stop using "Sunday" (and really, all names for the days of the week), because it relates to the Greco-Roman practice of honoring the sun, moon, and planets, which were also reverenced as gods. Further, they can't call Good Friday by that name, because it alludes to the Norse goddess Freya. (I guess they could just call it "Good Day," but that could get confusing in places like Australia.) And to make it even worse, if you really wanted to be consistent on this issue, you'd have to stop calling God "God," because that comes from the old pagan Germanic word for deity. So, if you're not going to do "Easter," you at least have to drop the "Sunday" reference too, and just go with "Resurrection Day" or the traditional "Pascha" (the latter option is one I actually like). Or you could make up your own name, perhaps by following the "Christmas" pattern, and call it "Risemas." Anyway, the point here is that the argument against Easter is a little bit too nitpicky on cultural grounds, and not really very compelling on theological grounds. 

- Now, the historical argument: does the name "Easter" actually come from "Eostre"? Possibly, but there's plenty of room for doubt. The first suggestion of this comes from a great historian of the early-medieval church, the Venerable Bede, who throws Eostre out as a possible etymology. However, this association strikes a lot of historians as actually being pretty unlikely (and Bede, by his own admission, was sometimes fond of making guesses to fill in the gaps in his stories). Some make the case that a stronger association can be found in the early Germanic word for "east," which is very similar to "Easter" and "Eostre." Just as we still do today, ancient Christians often celebrated Easter Sunday with early-morning services oriented toward the rising sun (in fact, all churches used to be oriented toward the east simply as a matter of tradition and symbolism). If this latter theory is correct, then Easter got its name simply because it was the day that Christians got up early, faced east, and had a sunrise service. 

Ishtar, tragically frozen in carbonite, Han Solo-style, for the past four thousand years
- Let's disabuse ourselves of a few other ridiculous Easter-myths while we're at it. If you poke around the open cesspool of the Internet for awhile, you might run across the theory that Easter has something to do with the pagan Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. As far as any serious historians know, there's no direct link whatsoever between the two. Such arguments are usually just trying to make the case that the resurrection story itself was foreshadowed by ancient myths that bore some vanishingly vague similarities--i.e., a goddess dies and then somehow comes back--but such myths are clearly myths, none of them even pretending to be read within a real historical context, as the account of Jesus' resurrection is. To associate Easter with the Ishtar myth is a little bit like saying that the Gospels must have been George Lucas' main inspiration in having his devilish villain Darth Maul come back into the Star Wars story (in the cartoon series) even after his apparent death in The Phantom Menace.

Easter bunnies on their way to a nefarious pagan ritual
- What about eggs and bunnies? So, it's actually true that eggs and bunnies were pagan symbols once upon a time. That's also true of the sun, moon, stars, trees, flowers, clouds, wind, water, fire, mountains, valleys, rocks, and basically every species of animal you can think of. (Check out Dr. Boli's satirical list of pagan Easter associations here.) But, again: to my knowledge, no "Easter worshipers" (to use an apparently up-and-coming PC term for Christians) are currently using bunnies and eggs in pagan fertility rituals, so it seems like their pagan significance is a little moot at this point in history.  Eggs, for their part, actually do have a plausible Christian connection to Easter celebrations--since the time of the early church, the egg has been a Christian symbol of both new life and eternity. In fact, an egg is one of the symbolic foods regularly present at Jewish Passover feasts (that is, the feast that corresponds with our Easter), and some scholars have suggested that its presence in the Passover liturgy actually hails back to the influence of early Jewish Christian practice in the first and second centuries AD. Bunnies, as far as I can tell, have no connection to Christian symbolism, other than the fact that God made them. (One could stretch the argument and say that the way bunnies hop in and out of holes in the ground is a reminder of Jesus popping out of the tomb, but we're getting a little ridiculous at that point.) Anyway, to my mind, there's a legitimate Christian association with the egg at Easter, but not the bunny. I don't have anything against bunnies as a cultural symbol at Eastertime (except where they're used as a substitute for the actual meaning of Easter), but I don't have much use for bunny-symbolism in Christian celebrations of the holiday.

- The bottom line is this: Easter is a day for celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can call it whatever you like, as long as that's its meaning. However, if you find yourself amongst a group of Christians who are nervous that Eostre might somehow reclaim the day for herself, then go along with them and call it Resurrection Sunday, or Risemas, or go early-church on them and call it Pascha. As the Apostle Paul taught us, minor disputes like these are not worth endangering the unity of the Body: if you find yourself in that situation, go along with the restrictions practiced by the weaker brother, so as not to offend his sensibilities regarding the faith. But aside from that situation, as long as you're celebrating Jesus' resurrection, then you can call it both "Easter" and "Sunday" (two possible pagan references in one!) to commemorate Jesus' triumph over Eostre, Sol Invictus, and all the powers of false gods everywhere. And you can still do that Easter egg hunt, too.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Photo of the Week

I provide water in the wilderness
And streams in the wasteland,
To give drink to my people, my chosen,
The people I formed for myself
That they may proclaim my praise.

- Isaiah 43:20-21

Monday, April 22, 2019

Quote of the Week

O Christ our hope, our heart's desire,
Redemption's only spring;
Creator of the world art Thou,
Its Savior and its King.

How vast the mercy and the love
Which laid our sins on Thee,
And led Thee to a cruel death
To set Thy people free!

But now the bonds of death are burst,
The ransom has been paid;
And Thou art on Thy Father's throne
In glorious robes arrayed!

O Christ, be Thou our present joy,
Our future great reward;
Our only glory may it be
To glory in the Lord!

All praise to Thee, ascended Lord;
All glory ever be
To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
Through all eternity! 

- 8th-century Latin hymn, translated by John Chandler, 1837

Monday, April 15, 2019

Hiatus for Holy Week

I'm taking a few days off from blogging for Holy Week. Regular posts will resume next Monday, April 22. May the Lord bless you as you celebrate the remembrances of his death and resurrection!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

You, Lord, through your works have revealed the everlasting structure of the world. You, Lord, created the earth. You are faithful throughout all generations, righteous in your judgments, marvelous in strength and majesty, wise in creating and prudent in establishing what exists, good in all that is observed and faithful to those who trust in you, merciful and compassionate; forgive us our sins and our injustices, our transgressions and our shortcomings. Amen.

- Clement of Rome

Friday, April 12, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Look Upon the Cross of Jesus

As we're drawing nearer to Holy Week, I decided to write another hymn of the cross. It's written to a slightly modified version of the tune of an old and lovely hymn with a very similar theme: "Here Is Love Vast as the Ocean," recently re-popularized by Matt Redman (you can find sheet music for it here). This song, "Look Upon the Cross of Jesus," seeks to express the truths found in the major categories of atonement theology. Don't worry, though--it's easily singable and understandable. If you're interested in the theological background of the hymn, then take a look at the explanation at the bottom of the post. And if not, simply enjoy.

Look Upon the Cross of Jesus

Look upon the cross of Jesus,
Where for us our Savior died;
Where our sins met endless mercy
And where we were justified.
Jesus took our sins upon him,
Walked our road of shame and death;
We are saved by his atonement,
For he suffered in our stead.

Look upon the cross of Jesus:
There before our eyes displayed
Hangs the fullness of God's mercy
And the measure of his grace.
Here we see his love for sinners,
Boundless as the mighty sea,
Love that overspills the heavens,
Stretching to infinity.

Look upon the cross of Jesus,
Where our Lord wins victory
Over death and hell and Satan,
Over our captivity.
He has triumphed in his dying,
Burst the chains of sin and shame;
We have liberty unmeasured
In the power of his name!

Look upon the cross of Jesus;
Praise the Savior crucified!
Sing with wonder at the mystery:
Deathless God for us has died!
Praise and glory, now and always,
We will render at his throne;
By his death the Lord of mercy
Bought us as his very own!

Now for the explanation of the atonement theology behind the verses: You see, theologians love to fight about whether Jesus' death on the cross gives us salvation by means of substitutionary atonement (taking our place and bearing our sins), or by moral governance/example (teaching us saving truth by displaying the full nature of God's love and justice), or by triumphing in victory over the powers of sin, death, and Satan ("Christus Victor"). These are representative samples of the broadest categories; elements have featured prominently in many different streams of Christian tradition (the tradition of which I'm a part usually puts its emphasis on the first). Depending on which theologians you read, there may be many more possibilities enumerated. But I've never thought that this argument was reducible to a zero-sum game; rather, I've always thought that the mystery of Christ's atonement for us was rather like the beauty of a mosaic or a stained glass window, and that each piece gave us a further view of his glory and love (you can read an in-depth essay I wrote on this subject here). This hymn, then, explores the truths of these theories of the atonement: verse 1 is the substitutionary model; verse 2 is the moral example model; verse 3 is the Christus Victor model; and the final verse is simply a response of praise.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Photo of the Week

There is a mine for silver, and a place where gold is refined...
No bird of prey knows that hidden path; no falcon's eye has seen it...
Where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell?
God understands the way to it, for only He knows where it dwells.

- Job 28:1, 7, 12, 23

Monday, April 08, 2019

Quote of the Week

God has created me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me
Which He has not committed to another.
I have this mission - 
I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next...
Therefore I will trust Him.
Whatever, wherever I am...
If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;
In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;
In sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him...
He does nothing in vain.
He knows what He is about.

- John Henry Cardinal Newman, 19th-cent. Roman Catholic cleric and writer

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Grant, O Father, that Thy lovingkindness in causing my own lines to fall in pleasant places may not make me less sensitive to the needs of others less privileged, but rather more incline me to lay their burdens upon my own heart. And if any adversity should befall myself, then let me not brood upon my own sorrows, as if I alone in the world were suffering, but rather let me busy myself in the compassionate service of all who need my help. Thus let the power of my Lord Christ be strong within me and his peace invade my spirit. Amen.

- John Baillie

Friday, April 05, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Pierced for Our Transgressions

This week I've written a hymn for the season of Christ's Passion, using the messianic prophecy of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 53. Verse 1 of my song corresponds roughly to Is. 53:3-4, verse 2 to Is. 53:6-7, verse 3 to Is. 53:8-12, and the repeated chorus to Is. 53:5. I've set it to the tune of an old Civil War ballad, "When This Cruel War is Over," which struck me as having the right tenor of hopeful lament to fit with the Isaiah passage. You can find sheet music for the original tune here, and the background accompaniment here

This hymn might find particular use in a Good Friday service--it can sometimes be challenging to find a hymn that focuses exclusively on the sacrifice of Christ, without direct reference to the happy outcomes of the resurrection and the joy of being born again through his sacrifice. While normally it's appropriate to hold the cross and empty tomb together in our hymns, a Good Friday service usually attempts to enter into the desolations of the cross alone. Isaiah 53 is a good passage for that purpose: it maintains the balance of focusing, lament-style, on the sufferings of Christ, while at the same time offering just the slightest hints of the hope to come.

Pierced for Our Transgressions (Is. 53)

Jesus Christ, the faithful Servant,
Died upon the cross;
Man of sorrows, he knew fully
Suffering and loss.
Surely he took up our weakness,
All our sorrows bore;
Much despised, stricken, rejected:
Bruised and dying Lord.

     Pierced for our transgressions,
     Crushed for what we've done,
     Our own punishment was on him,
     Jesus Christ, the blameless one.

We like sheep astray have wandered,
Each to our own way;
God has placed upon his shoulders
All our sin and shame.
Though he was oppressed and beaten,
He made no outcry;
Like a silent lamb at slaughter,
He went out to die.


Stricken by our own transgressions,
He gave up his life;
He was buried with the wicked,
Cut off from the light.
Yet he'll see that light returning,
Though his life's poured out;
He has borne the sin of many,
Leading captives out.


Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Photo of the Week

Be my rock, my refuge tower,
Show Thy unresisted power,
Working now Thy wonted will...
Still my rock, my refuge still.

- from Psalm 71 of The Sidney Psalms, by Mary Sidney (16th cent.)

Monday, April 01, 2019

Quote of the Week

"It is not the case that the church has sacraments; rather, the church itself quite simply is the sacrament of the presence of Jesus Christ, and everything the church does becomes a means of his grace."

- paraphrase of Alexander Schmemann, 20th-century Orthodox theologian