Friday, December 24, 2010

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Gaude! Gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel!

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Strictly speaking, we finished up the O-Antiphons yesterday with the climactic O Emmanuel Antiphon. Still, I felt that I would be remiss if I didn't include some king of concluding remarks on this series.

Here is the complete cycle, if you want to review it in its completed form:

O Wisdom
O Adonai
O Radix Jesse
O Clavis David
O Oriens
O Rex Gentium
O Emmanuel

I don't really know what I expected when I started on this series. I think that I liked the idea of the O Antiphons rather more than I understood them. My exposure to them until this year has been in the form of the hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and the odd mention of them in my spiritual reading including the amusing vignette by Kathleen Norris, in Cloister Walk (I think!), depicting her encounter with the O-Antiphons in the hills above LA after a busy few days of book-signings.

What this series has helped me to see is how much these Antiphons hang together and how they really are seven short lessons on just who it is that we're waiting for this and every Advent. Although it may seem perplexing that they tell about this Jesus through images and Old Testament typology, this cross connections make for a richer explanation of Jesus' place in our lives. No wonder they've been so cherished over the centuries.

So, what is Jesus, according to the O- Antiphons? He is God and Man. It is His birth that we celebrate on Saturday and it is the miracle of God becoming Man which makes this otherwise insignificant birth of a carpenter's son so important.

Yet, Jesus has always been here, working in the world that He, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, created. This Jesus, the carpenter's son, was a craftsman, long before he became human. He knows the world in a way that we cannot, because he made it.

Jesus has great power, but that is not afraid not to use it when it comes to finding the best way to save us. That is astonishing in this violent world, where the best answer for dealing with other people is coercion and, if necessary, violence. Jesus' apparent weakness, as a baby and, at the end of His life, on the Cross, masks his power, but it proves to be a subtle subversion of the very evil which threatens to destroy us.

Jesus is our Savior. That is, Jesus' whole goal in coming down to Earth as a human was to save us all, not only from our own self-destructiveness (as a species and as individuals), but the ultimate enemy of humanity, death. Indeed, He intends, not only to negate the greatest negation of our being (death), but to restore us to a connection to God, the Three-in-One, and with the Creation itself. We are called to return to our true home, God's home, and I pray that we find our way there in whatever way we can.

In this holiday season, I want to wish you, your family and all your loved ones a blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

Christus natus est!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

O Antiphons- O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
expectatio gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people:
Come and set us free, Lord our God.

Welcome to the last of the O-Antiphons and, of course, the first verse of the hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The Catholic resources web page which I'm using for the texts and bible passages for this series is rather tart about this connection, commenting "since it [the hymn] is so popular, and some people might not even realize that it was Advent unless they heard this hymn" That is true, of course, although I have to admit that, before this series, I hadn't realized the change in order and, yes, I really don't feel like it is Advent until I've heard the hymn. Mind you, I've always been a sucker for melancholic chant or plain-son tunes, even before I was Christian, so I couldn't probably escape liking O Come, O Come Emmanuel. One of the unanticipated results of this series is that I have been forced to look beyond the hymn and at the O Antiphons which inspired it and whose order so neatly builds on each other that I have to wonder now why should we mess with the order?

This Antiphon introduces us to the figure of Emmunuel, who, like practically every image in the O Antiphons, begins with a prophecy of Isaiah. The context here is interesting because we see Isaiah forcing a prophecy on a notably reluctant King Ahaz of Judaea. Ahaz doesn't have a very good reputation in the biblical record. He rejected the worship of the God of Israel and Judaea, he sought the gods of other nations and was exceptionally unlucky in war, being defeated soundly by several of his neighbours (2 Kings 16; 2 Chronicles 28). Yet, Isaiah's prophecy is here quite hopeful, if not for Ahaz, then, at least, for his soon to be born son:

"‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’

On the basic historical level, this prophecy really is a prediction that Ahaz will have a successor whose enemies would soon be eliminated and who would live in a welcome, if unusual period of peace. On a basic level, this prediction would seem to refer to Hezekiah, Ahaz' much more faithful son, who escaped an Assyrian attempt to capture his capital (2 Kings 19, 2 Chronicles 32)and who was granted fifteen years longer life after a serious illness. Certainly, Hezekiah's reign was luckier than his fathers, but, when one really looks at this prediction, it is hard not to notice that the prophecy doesn't predict luck, but the suppression of Judaea's enemies and a revival in Judaea's power in much the same way as Isaiah's rather more spectacular predictions of God's peace returning to Israel that we have already discussed in connection to other Antiphons. Thus, it isn't surprising that latter readers of this prophecy began to wonder if this Emmanuel that Isaiah refers to had really come as Ahaz' son, Hezekiah, or whether we should still be awaiting him.
Given this question about the true coming of Emmanuel, we shouldn't be very surprised that, when the Biblical writers were thinking about the coming of another miraculous child, that they turned to this birth. Indeed, the Gospel of Matthew quotes this passage directly as being fulfilled in the birth of Christ: "Look,the virgin shall conceive and bear a son/ and they shall name him Emmanuel" (Matthew 1,23). There is, of course, a change in the description of Emmanuel-Jesus' mother which opens a pretty large can of theological worms; a can which I don't have the space, time or inclination to empty fully. There are excellent scientific, historical and linguistic reasons to doubt this wording, it is true, but, if we look at what Matthew thought, we find that he depicts the conception of Jesus as miraculous. Otherwise, we can't really explain why Joseph was so surprised and hurt by Mary's pregnancy that he assumed adultery and was about to divorce her quietly, when the angel of the Lord tells him where the conception really came from: the Holy Spirit (Matthew, 1, 18-24). If we don't presume a virgin birth, Jesus' birth doesn't make much sense nor does it make clear the divine hand in the conception. Yet, this debate over virgin birth isn't really the point of either the Gospel story or the Antiphon.

The real theme of this Antiphon is, as with all the other Antiphons, salvation. That is, Emmanuel- God is with us-is called upon to come and set us free. The hymn is even more descriptive, asking Emmanuel to save us from "lonely exile here". This connects with a theme of not being quite at home in the world we find ourselves in- a feeling that many people share whether they are religious or not. I see it everywhere from my students to friends and acquaintances and, yes, myself. I recall very clearly that sense, in my teenaged years and most of my twenties, of not quite being at home in my own skin or out among people and this is despite having a loving family and good friends in my life. There are many, many people who have even greater reason for feeling disconnected and cut off from those around them in this life. Nor have we worked out better ways to truly connect with each other in this Information Age. Our society, for all of its social networking sites and instant communication, remains a very disconnected one where one is constantly talking, but hardly ever making a connection. On some basic level, that sense of exile in the world not only has remained, but it has intensified as we hunker down in front of our computers and seek our connection in this ethereal world of computers, e-mail, blogging and Facebook. When we look up, we are often moved to ask "Where is the real connection? Where is home?"

What is different in my life these days, when I'm paying true attention to what is important in my life, is that, while I may recognize those feelings of exile, my faith in God gives me real hope that this exile will not continue forever and that I am, we are on the way back to our true home. This is, ultimately, what my faith is about: the belief that there is more to this world than the fragmented surface that we see everyday, that the brokenness that we find in our lives and in the world around us will be healed and we will become what God meant us to be. This is, I think, what we mean by a faith journey, a return to the God who created us, who is redeeming us and, ultimately, who will bring us back to a home we have barely heard about, but which we've been anticipating all our lives. The exciting (and sometimes terrifying) thing about this faith journey is that we are not making this journey alone. It is Jesus who guides us because He went this way before us. It is Jesus who helps us because He loves us. It is Jesus who refreshes us because He feeds us. Jesus is, in this sense, truly the Emmanuel- the God with us. And, in another sense, he is also the true Yeshua (Jesus)- the God (who) saves.

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio,
privatus Dei Filio.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O Antiphons- O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,quem de limo formasti.

O King of all the nations,
the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man:
Come and save the creature
you fashioned from the dust.

Welcome back to the O-Antiphons! Today, we are looking at Jesus as the King of the Nations. The theme of kingship is not necessarily a very popular one these days. Ever since the American and French revolutions, we in the West have developed as much of a case of regiphobia as the ancient Romans had in the days of Roman Republic. So, we tend to like to keep our royalty on a leash (as in the British Commonwealth tradition) or to get rid them altogether as an unfortunate relic of a more oppressive time. So, in this democratic age, all this imagery around the kingship of Jesus is all rather embarrassing or, worse, a dangerous invitation to religious authoritarianism and triumphalism. This is why, if any verse of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel gets left off, this one, the King of the Nations, is the first to go. That is sad because this verse adds much to the mix represented by the O-Antiphons

If we have to understand what we have to lose in cutting out this Antiphon, we have to ask ourselves who is this King of the Nations? This title first appears, oddly enough, in the Old Testament in the prophets. From that, one would expect that this king would be a king of Israel whose power would extend over the nations around it. To say that this would have been just short of delusional at the time of the prophets to believe in any king of Israel becoming so powerful would be an understatement. Furthermore, it would ignore that the prophets tend to alternate between cursing Israel, Judaea and her kings for unfaithfulness and promising a kind of Golden Age for the faithful remnant which would return to the devastated Promised Land. It is out of this second prophetic theme that the figure of the King of the Nations comes. Thus, for example, we have Isaiah's vision of the future house of God to which all the nations would come(Isaiah, 2,2-4):

"In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.

3 Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.
’For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Here we find a different sort of king. In the first place, this is no human king. It is God himself, acting directly in the life of both Israel and the nations. I don't know if we realize how significant this is. All the other kingdoms around Israel adopted a concept of kingship which saw the ruler as semi- or totally divine. One only has to look at the arrogance of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, to see how far that would go (Daniel 3- 4). Yet, in the Old Testament, there is a certain ambivalence to human kings, partly because of their greed for power and wealth and partly because, in Israel's very special case, they displaced the kingship which God exercised through his judges during the early days of Israel in the Promised Land. Indeed, in First Samuel 8, when all Israel demanded a king, Samuel warns them that they'll be sorry, but, ultimately, God instructed him to give in. So, what we see in this passage and passages like it is not the raising up of a ultra-powerful human king, but, in a sense, a restoration of God himself as the real king of both Israel and all the peoples. This image of the King of the Nations speaks about our God, not about a mere human king.

Still, we are left with the question of what kind of reign is this kingship of God? Again, we need to return, first and foremost, to what the prophets say. In Isaiah 4 (quoted above) and, again, in Isaiah 11 (quoted in the Branch of Jesse Antiphon a few days ago), we find not a kingdom of war or oppression, but one of justice and peace. In Isaiah 4, we find the nations seeking out God on the mountain of the Lord (Zion). We find him arbitrating disputes so that war is no longer necessary and weapons are returned to peaceful uses. In Isaiah 11, we find evil driven out, justice restored and even nature returning to a peace that it hasn't seen since before Adam's fall. Both of these passages promise the return of the peaceable kingdom which God had created for us and which we rejected when we chose to seek equality with or even superiority to Him. In this kingdom, we will return to unity with God the Creator, with Creation and ourselves. What human king, or president or prime minister can manage that?

One might ask at this point: how does this kingship get transferred from God to Jesus? Of course, one simple theological answer is that Jesus is one of the persons of the triune God and that all the persons of the Trinity participate in the activities of the other two persons (simple?). If we are to look at this historically, we have to first look at the Daniel 7, 13-14, when Daniel is finishing his apocalyptic vision of the Four Beasts. Setting aside the much-vexed question of who those beasts are, we need to pay attention to the final words of the vision:

As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.

14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

Here we see the imagery of the kingship of the nations, reserved by Isaiah and earlier prophets to God Himself, transferred to "one like a human being". Naturally, this passage has become a central one when both Jews and Christians discuss the coming of the Messiah. Equally naturally, Jews and Christians disagree vehemently (both between themselves and among their own coreligionists) on who this human being was/is/will be. I have no intention to relive those debates here (thank God!), but rather to note that this passage is key to the messianic expectation which, for Christians, finds its fulfillment in that very different Messiah, Jesus Christ. Yet, even if someone is inclined to doubt this identification, there is no way to doubt that the idea that even the nations which oppressed the Jews would come to worship the one God, the God of Israel, was seen as an important element identifying the messianic times. The joining of the Jew and the Gentile inaugurated this kingdom of peace predicted by the prophets.

So, it is natural, when the first apostles began to identify Jesus as the Messiah that this sense of kingship would come to the fore. Indeed, it is this kingship or, at least, a basic confusion about the messianic kingship which led to suspicions about the political implications of Jesus' messianic claims. There is not doubt that many Jews in the days of Jesus fully expected a conquering Messiah who would drive the Romans out using military force. It is, also, without a doubt, a reason why the Jewish religious/political authorities and the Romans felt it necessary to eliminate such a potential rabble-rouser. Jesus persistently denied his kingship in this violent sense, without ever really denying his kingship in a much more mysterious sense. This makes Pilate's mocking affirmation of Jesus' kingship, first to the crowds, then on the sign on the cross, very ironic because, in the crucifixion, we see the ruin of any idea that Jesus was a Messiah in the popular sense, but we see an affirmation of Jesus' kingship nonetheless.

So, where do we find Jesus' kingship today? Paul, in Ephesians, give us a clear hint. In this letter, Paul is trying to emphasize the unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. In doing so, he offers a vision of the Church which is strikingly similar to the visions of the Hebrew prophets:

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19S o then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. (Ephesians, 2, 11-21)

According to Paul, it is here, in the Church, which sees an anticipation of that peaceable kingdom found in the prophets and which we will find in the vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation (Revelation, 21-22). Of course, this vision is incomplete, even within the Church. Quite early on, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head to destroy Paul's vision of unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. And, of course, we have found many, many opportunities and issues about which to quarrel, to denounce and even to kill each other over. Church history makes for rather grim reading and, certainly, offers more than ample evidence of our failures even if it shows glimmers of successes. Still, this King that we follow offers us the hope for a peaceable kingdom which unites Jew and Gentiles as Daniel promised and Jesus exemplified in his disregard for the division between Jew and Gentile even in his own life. It is that hope that we Christians, when we ourselves remember it, offer the world as the Church.

Ultimately, after all this biblical exegesis and theology, we have to come back to what is the point of this kingdom? And, here, we return to the same point as the previous O Antiphons. What all these titles of Jesus tell us is that Jesus' power is not for His own sake or for building up His own or even the Church's power against those who don't belong. Rather, as this antiphon emphasizes, it is to save "the creature you fashioned from the dust" from a distinctly dangerous and deadly world. Through these O Antiphons, we learn some essential things about this God of ours: He is powerful, He is wise, He is merciful and, above all, He wants to save us from ourselves and from the evil that we have brought into the world. For those of us who long for peace, for justice and for rescue from our sins, these Antiphons point us to the King of the Nations, to Jesus Christ.

Veni, Veni, Rex Gentium,
Veni, Redemptor omnium,
ut salvas tuos famulos peccati sibi conscios.

O Come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;

bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven's peace


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

O Antiphons- O Oriens

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

In this installment, our theme is light which may strike some of my readers as worth a yawn, but little more. Surely, at this time of year, this is a hardly a controversial one. Almost every religious (and many non-religious ones, while we're at it) tradition does something with light this time of year. So, we get various festivals of light in Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Hinduism as well as our own Western tendency to fix lights to anything which will support them. Given that these festivals of light occur at the time of year when the days are the shortest, we should be hardly shocked by their occurrence. Light symbolizes to us safety and hope, while darkness symbolizes danger and despair. The coming of the dawn, any dawn, offers us possibilities for life, so extending that dawn into the night is a natural kind of thing to do this time of year.

That said, what makes this antiphon's stress on light different than these festivals of light? Perhaps it is that Jesus identified Himself as the light of the world and promises that "those who follow me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8,12). This declaration is as much code for the resurrection as it is in guidance for today. Still, we have to remember that Jesus' audience didn't believe him and, in fact, challenged him to provide witnesses to corroborate his statement. Nor is this assertion any more accepted today as in Jesus' day. We are living in a post-Christian age and it is difficult not to see that those who identify with Christianity is significantly less than it was even a generation or two ago. So, all this begs the question: how do we know that Jesus is the light of the world.

Ultimately, we have to begin with the demand of the Pharisees for witnesses. When we do that and begin to look for corroboration of Jesus' claims, we find witnesses, beginning with the prophets, suffering in long exile and waiting for the dawn of God's return to His people. Isaiah declared to the exiles in Babylon that, as the coming righteous king (identified by Christians as Jesus- see tomorrow's entry for why) comes "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness- on them light has shined (Isaiah, 9,2). Later, Isaiah describes in similar terms what the results of a return to justice as worship, a theme dear to Jesus' preaching, would be: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly" Or consider Malachi, who declares that, on the day of the Lord, "for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness hsall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall...: (Malachi 4,2).

Nor are the witnesses limited to the long-dead prophets. Even in Jesus' own day, there were two significant witnesses to Jesus' light to the world. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, declared on the birth of his son that the days which his son would prepare the way for "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who site in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1,78-79). No wonder John is described by the Gospel of John as "a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world;" (John 1,6-9) In each of these cases, the coming of the light dispels a long period of darkness, despair and exile. In each of these cases, there is a long wait by those who follow God, followed by the joy of the returning dawn, the returning light which is symbolic of the joyful return of God into the life of Israel.

Jesus, by declaring Himself the light of the world is saying to the faithful Jews of his era that the wait is over, dawn is breaking and the light of God is here. It is a bold claim and one can sympathizes with the Pharisees, who want to see some proof of it. We do feel safer when we're sure that other people see something, but, really, with light, either you see it or you don't. Many people in Jesus' day saw the light of God in Jesus; many did not. Nothing much has changed there. Yet, the irony is that the Pharisees demand for witnesses had already been satisfied through the prophets, through Zechariah and, especially, by John, their contemporaries, both conveniently dead. They simply failed to understand what they were trying to say.

Yet, we are not to stop there. Jesus was not, as it were, just another flash in the pan- a brief, glorious eruption of hope, ending in the inevitable returning darkness of despair. Jesus' life on this earth was brief, but, through his death and resurrection, its consequences echo through the centuries and have started us on another long period of waiting for the light. Like many themes in these antiphons, Isaiah anticipates this second return of the light, when he describes the effect of gathering of the remnant of Israel:

"The sun shall no longer be your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down
or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light
and your days of mourning shall be ended."

Here, the restoration of Israel will have fundamental natural effects on the world. We have already seen this kind of redemption of nature in our O Antiphons and, while taking this absolutely literally has its risks, we should be alert to the boldness of what Isaiah is saying here. He is not merely talking about the restoration of a nation, but rather a restoration of the entire world through the restoration of Israel. In this sense, he anticipates a theme in the very Christian book, Revelation which depicts the final battle against evil, sin and death as a cosmic battle with cosmic consequences which culminate in the restoration of God's creation. Thus, in the closing of Revelation, Jesus declares himself the Morning Star- the bright star (well, yes, planet- Venus) which anticipates the coming of the day (Revelation 22,16). This establishes the relationship between the two incarnations of Christ; the first serving as the Morning Star for the final coming of the light in the second.

And what will be the result of that Coming? We will see the establishment of the new City of God, the New Jerusalem, to which all faithful people will return to live with God. Yet, it is striking that this vision of the New Jerusalem includes light imagery which is already familiar from the passage in Isaiah which we quoted in the previous paragraph:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. (Revelation 21,22-26)

Here, again, we see the cosmic effect that the victory of God will have. This vision of the New Jerusalem serves as the climax and purpose for the cosmic struggle depicted in Revelation. The final result of this struggle is to see the return of God to fellowship with humanity and his creation. The most clear physical evidence of this return is the Glory of God which will outshine even the mightiest lights of the natural world, descending upon this new city. This is the same Glory of God which so terrified the Israelites near Mt. Sinai and the same Glory which so astonished the disciples in the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. This light is the light which, finally and forever, dispel the darkness and gloom of those who live in the darkness of death. Jesus, ultimately, is the first breaking of dawn of that ever-lasting day of God.

Veni, Veni O Oriens, solare nos adveniens,
noctis depelle nebulas, dirasque mortis tenebras.

(6) O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death's dark shadow put to flight

Monday, December 20, 2010

O Antiphons- O Clavis David

Welcome back to the O-Antiphons! Today, we're talking about the key of David.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;

claudis, et nemo aperuit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel,
controlling at your will the gate of heaven:
Come, break down the prison walls of death
for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death;
and lead your captive people into freedom.

We have a curious mix in this antiphon. We start with another connection to the house of David and the royal house of Israel. The first mention of the key of David appears in Isaiah's curious intervention into court politics in the days of the reforming king, Hezekiah (c715-686 BC).. Isaiah prophesies the downfall of Shebna, the erstwhile steward of the king and future appointment of Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, as steward. In this passage, Isaiah declares that God would grant the key to the house of David to Eliakim and that "what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open (Isaiah 22,22). There is some debate about what this key of David is (is it an actual key or not?), but it equally clear that, symbolically, the key is an emblem of the power delegated to the steward by a king of the house of David. That is, with this key, the steward controls entry into the palace and, thus, the heart of David's kingdom.

This is, of course, what makes this image rather puzzling. If we are right about the key of David in Isaiah being a token of the temporal power of the steward in the kingdom of Judaea, how is it that it appears here as part of the O Antiphons? What does the duties of a court official at the time of Hezekiah, almost seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, have to do with who Jesus is?

The appearance of keys, in Matthew 16, 19 seems to point to an answer, even if these keys are not specifically associated with the key of David. In this passage, Peter is given keys which symbolize something which looks suspiciously like a spiritual version of Eliakim, the steward's job. Peter, by being granted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, is given a fairly unique position among the apostles in that his decisions for the Church, have binding force in this world and the next. Whether or not we want to say that this power was passed on to the successors of Peter (a debate I'm profoundly uninterested in engaging in), what is striking in this passage is that the possession of these keys puts Peter into the position of steward in the earliest Church in that he, like Eliakim, enjoys a position of trust which controls the access to the King. Peter never completely loses either in the biblical record even if he does some pretty bone-headed or outright cowardly things, especially in the events surrounding Jesus' death. Eve in our popular imagination, Peter is pictured as the first person we see after we die and reach the 'Pearly Gates'? And, guess who has the key to those gates?

Still, we're not there yet, are we? Peter, for all his faith and zeal, is not God nor did he ever pretend to be. Peter could be wrong even after Jesus' resurrection placed him at the head of the early community of believers. Indeed, immediately after being raised up to being the rock on which the Church would be built (Matthew, 17,18), Peter shows how little he understands Jesus' mission by trying to rebuke Jesus when He said that he would have to suffer, die and be raised on the third day in order to complete his mission (Matthew, 17, 21-22). Jesus, then, compares him to Satan, calls him a stumbling block and tells him that he is setting his mind on human standards, not divine ones (Matthew, 17, 23). I think what we are meant to take away from these two exchanges is something essential about the nature of a steward. Ultimately, while the steward has considerable power in the house of the king, he is not the king. Ours is not the final authority in this world, so we have no right to make judgements here and now about our fellow humans or to close the door to God's grace. The steward's job is to serve to the king, not himself or what he wants to see.

However, the crucial evocation of this image of the key of David occurs in Revelation 3.7 in the address to the church in Philadelphia, where John writes:

7 These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:

8 ‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Here the key is directly linked to Jesus, who promises the embattled church of Philadelphia that their enemies will acknowledge their status as loved by God. Again, I think what is implied here is that the key of David opens the door to the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God and that, ultimately, when that kingdom comes (as it is predicted in Revelation itself), the entry to the kingdom, ultimately, is controlled by Jesus himself. Here we see Jesus' advocacy for the weak, but faithful church of Philadelphia which goes a long way to suggest Jesus' own bias towards the marginalized, but passionately faithful. This is in contrast to our own Western church which is rather uncomfortably similar to the Church of Laodicea, rich, but lukewarm (Revelation 3,14-22). Like the Laodiceans, wee try to use our power and influence as indicators of how holy we are, ignoring what the Gospel calls us to do- help the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the marginalized.

Ultimately, I think that it is this image of the key of David found in Revelation that this antiphon echoes. The door which this key opens us is the one that opens the door to life, the Kingdom of God. In many ways, the defining element of the kingdom of this world is that its end is that of death, not life. Of course, we can fool ourselves into ignoring that reality for a time through any number of delusions or fantasies. We can pursue science to seek an elusive goal of human-made (and, thus, human controlled) immortality. We can entertain ourselves in any number of different ways to ignore our mortality. We can use every form of pleasure to mask our anxiety about the future. But, eventually, we all die. As grim as it is, we already know our future.

Yet, as Christians, we know that this power that death has over us is not forever nor is it the most powerful force in our lives. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, broke the power that death has over us and, even if death still holds sway over the world today, we know that Jesus will be back to overthrow that power completely and that we will participate in it through his power to resurrect us. In this sense, the Key of David is not really the key to the palace granted Eliakim, son of Helkiah, nor is it really the keys granted to Peter, but rather they are the keys forged by Jesus in his death and battle with sin and death. The Key of David is the resurrection and the doors it opens is to the return of the Kingdom of God.

Veni, Clavis Davidica, regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum, et claude vias inferum.

O Come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav'nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

O Antiphons- O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse,
qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos,
jam noli tardare.

O Flower of Jesse’s stem,
you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you.
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

From our emphasis on God's might in the last entry, we move to considering what kind of kingdom we anticipate Jesus, as the Messiah, will inaugurate. This movement, I think, is a crucial one because it is entirely possible to have the concept of a mighty God, but one which primarily engages in indiscriminate smiting; a harsh judgemental God who punishes more than saves, who curses more than blesses. I certainly know people who struggle with that concept of a God and it is difficult to have faith in a divine being who is fundamentally a tyrant. How are you supposed to have faith in someone who is, fundamentally, cruel and arbitrary? You can't.
Yet, I also know that this isn't the God I worship. The Christian God, contrary to the views of some Christians, is one of grace and love. Indeed, Jesus' own life, as we discussed in the last entry, confounds that image, both in the hiddeness of Jesus' power and in his willingness to lead the way through a completely undeserved death to a salvation that no one could have anticipated. That salvation begins now, but leads directly to the vision of God's peaceable kingdom to which this antiphon alludes today.

The crucial biblical passage for this vision is Isaiah 11, 1-10. It is worth quoting the passage at length:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;

4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

The passage goes on to describe the return of the the remnant of Israel from all the places to which it was scattered and the turning of its enemies to peace and to worship of Israel's God. However, for Christians, as a graft onto the house of Israel, this passage is a first hint of the kingdom that is to come. Here e find an invocation of the Holy Spirit, an affirmation of the return of justice to the world, a return of creation to its primitive peace with the Creator and the turning of the nations, the non-Jews, to the God of Israel. All this will be brought about by a Messiah, symbolized by the branch of Jesse, by Jesus as a descendant of David, will set the world to rights, bring justice and, more importantly, peace to the world. This peace is so profound that even Nature responds to it and stops being red of tooth and claw.

Ultimately, it is this vision of the peaceable kingdom, the great Shalom, which is the object of the invocation of God's might which we talked about yesterday. God's might isn't employed arbitrarily to put us in our place or to make our lives less enjoyable. God's might is designed to bring out this peaceable kingdom through the undermining of the apparent power of evil in the world. The result is this kingdom in which all creation, all humanity is, finally, united in acknowledging the God who created them. No longer will humanity be at war with each other. More importantly, no longer will humanity be at war God or, for that matter, with His creation. Jesus, as the Messiah, the branch of Jesse, promises this kingdom and works even now, through us, to achieve it. This is nothing less than our reconciliation and peace with God and, through that reconciliation, our salvation from our own delusions of power. We all know where those delusions lead: relationships broken by our need to exert our power, the wars which we fight to exert the power we don't have, the rape of creation of which we are supposed to be stewards, to the manifold sorrows and suffering of a broken world and, ultimately, to death. Our individual and communal delusions are destroying us and only a return to God will save us

Jesus, that root of Jesse, offers us that salvation. He seeks to return humanity and creation itself back to the state of peace which it enjoyed before humanity deluded itself into thinking it knew better than God. Jesus, through becoming human, confronts those delusions and shows us how to break the power they have over us. Jesus promises a world in which peace returns and we are returned to the role that God intended for us- a role which we will find, ultimately, more free than the world we created for ourselves. We see this even now in those grace-filled moments in which the kingdom seen by Isaiah comes, albeit briefly, into sight. When we work for justice, when we confront injustice, when we seek to reconcile with our enemies, when we avoid the easy, violent fix, Jesus, the root of Jesse, is working within and through us. This is how we proceed on the road to the kingdom alluded to in this antiphon; a road which leads not to destruction, but to life.

Veni, O Iesse virgula,
ex hostis tuos ungula,de spectu
tuos tartari educ et antro barathri.

O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse's stem,
from ev'ry foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict'ry o'er the grave.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

O-Antiphons- O Adonai

Welcome to the second installment of the O-Antiphons series. Yesterday, we talked about Wisdom, the Logos and creation, today we'll talk about might. burning bushes and salvation.

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel,
qui Moyse in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,
who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:
Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

In this antiphon, we find ourselves returning to one of God's great saving acts in history- Moses and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. We begin with the burning bush on Mt. Horeb(Exodus 3) and the commission of Moses as the leader who would lead Israel from bondage in Egypt into freedom. We move quickly onto Mt. Sinai, where the law was handed down amid the cloud and the fire of God's presence in the centre of it all. Both of these events are affirmations of God's power in their own right, but they also book-end among the most spectacular examples of God's might in the defence of Israel in the whole Old Testament. From the plagues in Egypt, to the destruction of the Pharaoh's army amid the parting of the Red Sea and the coming of the manna from heaven, we find God using the natural world to overcome Israel's oppressors and to save the people with whom He had made a covenant with in the days of Abraham. Here we find the power implicit in the action of creation being wielded and made manifest in the world of humanity.

This kind of thing, of course, makes Christians uncomfortable, partly because we see God taking sides in history as just code for the 'holy wars' which plague the history of the people called by the Prince of Peace and partly because we find God's power so overwhelming. Like the ancient Israelites, we fear even putting our hand on the mountain in case we die from such direct contact with God's might (Exodus 19,12). Besides, doesn't the smoke and fire on Mt. Sinai produce the Law and aren't we Christians all about grace, not law? How can this evocation of the Exodus story matter to Christians, who, in this post-Holocaust world, have turned their back of triumphalism and coercion in the name of religion?

Yet, what the Exodus story meant to the Jews was that it was a story of salvation par excellence. Completely unexpectedly, God took an oppressed and powerless people and raised them up in order to make them a priestly people, to whom all the other nations would come to worship the one and true God. Here is God's saving intervention in history- one of several which, in the Christian view, would culminate in the God becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as God saved the people of Israel, Jesus Christ, through his life, death and resurrection, will save all humanity from the sin and death that was a natural outcome of its rebellion against its own Creator.

Of course, in the New Testament, that power is oddly hidden. After all, didn't the all-powerful God become a helpless babe in arms? Wasn't He executed like a common criminal without barely any resistance whatsoever? As we read more deeply into the Christian story, we find that this apparent weakness will prove to be the power which breaks the power of sin and the death in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus' resurrection will prove to be the beginning of the end for death and for evil because it proved that God, even in the weakness of the incarnated Jesus, can't be bound by death, but, rather, bursts forth into life with all the intensity which lies behind the creation of the world. Jesus not only gives us an example of how to resist sin and evil in the world, but He gives us the power to do it and the hope to defeat death in our bodily resurrection. And that is the power of God's weakness. What does his strength look like?

If we take Revelation seriously, we'll find that out one of these days. The promise of the Second Coming is, of course, a fraught issue as Christians debate the merits of pre- or post-millenialism, the Rapture and the value of biblical prophecy. I really don't want to get into those debates, but what Jesus taught us is that He will return to set the world right once and for all. Then, God's power will be on display and nothing will stand against it. We justly worry about what all this means and we also justly worry about those who try to anticipate that time or try to hurry it along. Very few things are as deadly as violence backed by religious delusion. We are right to be on our guard.

Yet, if we believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, good and loving, should we, also, not trust that this God's power will be used not only effectively, but justly? Is not God's might, by definition, just? Is not the Wisdom of God the most important guarantor of the just use of God's might? How can we fail to trust God's power, when we believe God to be good? And if God is good, can He fail to use his power to drive out evil from the world he created and restore goodness and life?

So, we look for the ultimate act of salvation- the restoration of God's universe and the return of humanity to its place in it. We can count on Jesus to have the wisdom to know what to do, but He must have the power and might to do it. As Christians, we trust that power and might will be used for good because of the God we serve. The vision of what that kingdom would look like is the subject of the next antiphon.

Veni, Veni, Adonai,
qui populo in Sinai legem dedisti
vertice in maiestate gloriae.

O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai's height
in ancient times didst give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.


Friday, December 17, 2010

O Antiphons-O Wisdom

Welcome to the first installment of the O Antiphons series. As a rule, I'm going to quote either the Evening Prayer or the Alleluia verse version (depending on what I think about the version and its translation). I'll finish up the entry with the Latin and English of the O Come, O Come Emmanuel version. The source for my text is the page on the O-Antiphons.

Sapientia Altissimi,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

In this first O-Antiphon, we begin at the beginning, creation. And, at the very beginning, according to Proverbs 8, 22-31 and, in a different sense, John 1,1-5, we find Wisdom. In Proverbs, we find Wisdom spoken as the first born of the Creation, begotten before the beginnings of the universe, when there was nothing yet made- earth, seas, heavens. We find Wisdom participating in Creation 'like a master worker' (Proverbs 8, 30) and rejoicing with God in the sheer delight of creating and in what was created (Proverbs 8,30-31). Wisdom, the divine Wisdom was there from the beginning, involved in creation and involved with God. But, it almost sounds like Wisdom is a separate being from God in Proverbs, why do we think that Wisdom is title of Jesus as the Messiah?

The connection comes with the justly famous opening to John's Gospel which echoes Proverb's vision of Creation, only changing the terminology from Wisdom to the Logos, the Word. Logos is a rather more encompassing term than merely intelligible speech. It is closer to an organizing intelligence just like Proverb's Wisdom. As John says, the Word was with God and was God( John 1,1-2). The Word was there in the beginning and all things, all life, all light came into being through the Word (John 3-5). Just like Wisdom, the Word was not only a witness to creation, but a co-participant in creation. Indeed, John goes just a little farther than Proverbs and, not only identifies the Word as God, but declares that the Word became human in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Messiah. So, the Creator becomes part of His Creation as part of a dramatic effort to redeem it from its present state where humanity's weaknesses and their consequences reign supreme.

Now, that is mind-blowing. One day, over two thousand years ago, the Wisdom of God, that 'master-worker' in creation, who created all things we know and see, entered into His creation as a helpless and vulnerable baby in a provincial backwater in the Roman Empire to a mere carpenter and his wife. The divine becomes mundane, in the true sense of the word. But why?

That reason, I think, is addressed by the request in this antiphon- to teach us in the path of knowledge. Well, prudentia, is the what the Latin says which is a richer word than the rather flat translation of 'knowledge' we have here. What the divine wisdom teaches us isn't some kind of database of useful information nor is it mere trivia. It is what Proverbs means by Wisdom: a sense of one's real place in the universe. We are the created, we are not God. Any suggestion that we control our destiny, that we are in charge of our life is, at best, delusional when we are faced with the Creator God. As God asked Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38,1). Wisdom, true wisdom, tells us that we are not the defining intelligence in this world, God is because God created the heavens and earth. And Wisdom, the Logos, was right there in and with God.

An essential beginning step to faith is the startling realization that we are not, in fact, God. We have to begin with realizing that, whatever else is true, that we are not the centre of the universe, nor are we masters of it. That is a humbling, but necessary realization for us to make in these early days of the 21st century. All around us, voices tell us that we, each one of us, are the most important beings in the world. Wisdom, true wisdom, whispers to us that we are not gods, but, rather, we should look to the true God, the Creator of this exciting and beautiful universe. Only after we've realized this, can we find the path of wisdom which shows us how we can contribute to the world around us and, more importantly, to the redeemed world to come.

Veni, O Sapientia,
quae hic disponis omnia,
Veni, viam prudentiae
ut doceas et gloriae.

O Come, Thou Wisdom,
from on high,and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.


Monday, December 13, 2010

'O-Antiphon' Series- Coming December 17th

The last few days I've been thinking about the leadup to Christmas and how, amid the busyness of getting ready for the season, I can also keep in the Advent mode of reflection and contemplation. Then, it came to me: what about a series on the 'O-Antiphons' in the last week before Christmas. If anything would remind me of the expectation of Christ's coming, the 'O-Antiphons' should.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, the O-Antiphons are seven short verses sung before the Magnificat either in Evening Prayer or during Eucharist between December 17th and December 23rd. Each of the 'O-Antiphons' invokes the coming of the Messiah, beginning with a biblical title and ending with a petition. They are most popularly known in the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", even if the first verse really is the last in the series. This is the form in which I first encountered them and which I continue to cherish them. Yet, they are a staple of the monastic Advent experience (as mentioned by, among others, Kathleen Norris in her book, Cloister Walk) and they call us to a very different kind of preparation for the Christmas season.

So, what I propose to do is to post each antiphon on their appropriate day and to make a brief comment or two on them. My intention is not to be too tiresomely academic, but, rather, look for the spiritual meaning of each of the antiphons. So, I hope you'll join me for the O-Antiphon series starting on Friday.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent: Sit down, Shut Up and Wait

Happy New Year! Happy Advent!

So, we're back to the top of the Christian calendar, Advent- that time of waiting before we again celebrate the coming of God as one of us. So, we wait as people waited over two thousand years ago, but, as our priest pointed out this week, we wait with three Advents in mind. We remember the waiting of the first Advent, the one that ended with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem- the long-expected Messiah. We, also, wait now for the Advent of Jesus into our lives now in the world we live in and the people we live with. We, also, wait for the Advent to come- the coming of Jesus who will come to set this messed up world right.

That's a lot of waiting and, in our highly technological society, that can be quite difficult As a recent article on gratitude I read pointed out, we don't manage waiting well. If our bus or train or plane is late even a few minutes, we become angry at the inconvenience. Why, if our computer takes more than a few seconds to process some massive program, we want to hurl the whole thing, monitor and all, out the window in our rage at the inconvenience of it all!! We rarely do, but, instead, we snarl at whoever has the misfortune of asking what is wrong? That we forget the wonders that our technologies have given us is only a very small part of the problem. The problem really is with time.

So, what is the problem? We often say that there isn't enough time in the day. That is, of course, a lie we tell ourselves. There is enough time, if we could just decide how best to spend it. There are some many things competing for our attention these days- shopping, family obligations, professional obligations, socializing and much, much more. The competitive demands on our time are increasing with the pace of life and, ironically, labour saving devices such as e-mail or computers or the ever-ubitquitious Blackberries don't actually save time, they suck out more time. The price for a little slice of our time keeps going up, but we are so distracted that the value of it is plummeting. Our life is just one big inflationary spiral.

So, Advent. Advent talks about another time in which time spent waiting is time well-spent because it is time waiting what are the most important transformations in human history: the coming of God as man to show us what reality is actually like and how we should live in it, the coming of God into our lives to give us the power and the grace to act on it here and now in this imperfect, in-between time and the promise of another coming of God to permanently return us and this world to the way we were intended to be. What could be more important? What could be more worth our time than to sit down, shut up and wait.


Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Miscellany of Thoughts

It has, of course, been a long time since I've written for pretty much the usual reasons. Busyness and fatigue. All of which raise real questions about the long-term viability of this blog, but I did want to write some more, if only to get Glenn Beck off my first page. Yes, I know, I gave him a place in the title, but, even if I had a point, it gets irksome and I sure as heck don't want that to be a last entry.

So, what I decided to put on offer was a just an assortment of my jumbled thoughts this week. I have plans for a book review and maybe a couple other posts over the next few weeks, but I haven't really formulated in my head what I wanted to say. So, instead, this is what we get.

So, first, thoughts about John Cassian. Through much of October, I spent much of my transit time reading through the Conferences of John Cassian, as ably translated by Boniface Ramsey. This is, of course, St. Benedict's fault, who recommends John Cassian's Institutes (I read these in the summer) and the Conferences as supplementary reading in his Rule. In both works, Cassian tries to take what he learned among the Desert Fathers in Egypt and apply them to his cenobitic monastery in the south of France. Ultimately, what is attractive in this work is the essential grace of John Cassian and of the Desert Fathers; a grace which is rather surprising to many because of the reputation of ascetics in general, who are seen as rather grumpy or insane or both. What comes out in these writings is more humility and just sheer good sense about the spiritual life and the struggles implicit in a serious spiritual discipline. Yes, there are sections which caused me to grind my teeth (the conference on the Abba Theonis, who abandoned his wife, got very much on my nerves- this would make a good post, so I will try to follow up on this), but there is more to learn from John Cassian than to dismiss. And Ramsey's translations are clear and readable which isn't always true of translations of the the Fathers.

Second, another useful find- the DVD Be Still, which was quite literally dropped into my mailbox by a friend (it took a week or so to get confirmation which one, but there was little doubt- thanks, Judy, if you read this). I found this a very useful video, especially because, when it came, I was up to my eyeballs in work, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the cast of commentators- Dr. Henry Cloud, Richard Foster, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, Dallas Willard-; all luminaries of the evangelical scene these days. This fits in with the increased interest of many Evangelicals in contemplative prayer and it offers a really useful set of discussions around silence and reflective prayer. Normally, I really hate books and videos which talk about prayer, for reasons that I've ranted on before. Yet, this one was prayerful and practical. And it inspired me to get back to this, at least, in my early morning prayer. And that has made all the difference in this very busy and stressful few weeks. In fact, I think a refresher may be in order this week as reports cards are due.....

Third, a quote from Stanley Hauerwas' Peaceable Kingdom, which I'm re-reading slowly over breakfast (bracing, I can tell you at 6:15 in the morning):
Our initiation into a story as well as the ability to sustain ourselves in that story depends on others who have gone before and those who continue to travel with us. "What I am, therefore, is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition" [from Alaisdair MacIntyre). Given this, the crucial question becomes whether the tradition is more or less truthful. At least one of the conditions of a truthful tradition is its own recognition that it is not final, that it needs to grow and change if it is to adequately shape our futures in a faithful manner" (p.45)

I quote this because, in many ways, this explains my attitude to tradition and to history in a much more concise and clear way than I've every managed to say it. Much of my project as a historians has been to contribute to what I believe to be a truthful and living tradition, that of a broadly orthodox Christianity (in itself, also worth a blog entry to explain- not that I haven't tried already). Whatever else I decide to do with my life, I maintain an interest in explaining and interpreting this tradition, so this passage reminded me of what set me off in this direction over ten years ago.

My last thought is related to this topic. I've been reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity. The First Three Thousand Years. In a bit of a fluke, I found Christianity in one of the college libraries at U of T which was a surprise, given that it hasn't been out much more than six months. I had read MacCulloch's Reformation, which was an excellent book and I read my blogging friend, Jim's glowing review of MacCulloch's new book. I'm about a third of the way in and I'm less glowing. To be fair, of course, this shouldn't be surprising because the sections on the ancient world and Christianity are hardly MacCulloch's area of speciality and they are mine, so some discontent on my part is likely in this part. Still, I found it off putting and significant that the Greek background comes before the Judaic because, like many church historians, priority is frequently given to Greek philosophy and thought over the Judaic inheritance (to some degree rightly, the early and patristic church was notorious for this as well). Similarly, the confident and, occasionally, smug sense of superiority of modern biblical exegetical techniques gets on my nerves and I did grind my teeth a couple of times on the issue of 'censorship' in early Christianity (again, a complex enough topic which deserves more discussion). In many ways, these flaws are the flaws which one would expect in such a broad survey. MacCulloch makes no bones about being depending on the secondary literature for periods about which he is less familiar and that is fair enough. So, really, my problem with the tone of some of these sections is less a problem with MacCulloch than with modern scholarship on the topic. And, the sheer breadth of this history and the quality of the writing still make this a good book. Don't mind me, if I grind my teeth occasionally.

So, those are my thoughts this week. Hopefully, I'll make better sense next week.


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Glenn Beck and Civic Religion

Normally, I wouldn't give Glenn Beck the time of day in a blog entry. I wouldn't because he really is the television equivalent of a shock-jock and I'm not really interested in ill-informed polemic. However, I was reading an article from Christianity Today talking about Beck's Washington D.C. rally and come across a discussion of Beck's 'Black Robe Regiment' This 'regiment' consists of 240 clergymen of various strips, mostly evangelicals, who support Beck's call to defend liberty in America. The article goes on to quote a Sojourner's blogger, Valerie Elverton Dixon, who identified this venture as an exercise of civil religion which she saw as a form of idolatry. Strong language that, but, perhaps, accurate. I, too, worry about civil religion because of what we've seen in history.

Of course, civil religion meant, to Christians, the traditional pagan rites which so permeated Greek and Roman society. These rites sought to appease gods who were generally not well-disposed to humans, so had to be made happy by regular sacrifices. If one didn't appease these gods, the result was, potentially, disaster to the city and to its citizens. This perceived risk was a large part of why Christianity was so threatening to the Romans and Greeks. Christianity took away people who should be, before anything else, keeping the gods happy and the city safe. So, should any disaster of whatever magnitude happen, it was natural to blame Christians because they weren't doing their duty by their ancestral gods; thus, explaining the hostility of the gods who brought about the disaster in the first place. The world was simply too dangerous to fool around which such things as new religions which suppress the worship of gods who had, at least, tolerated the existence of human communities for centuries.

Add to this, the practice of Emperor worship which began in the East shortly before the birth of Christ and expanded in the centuries following. Here was a much more blatant connection of the state and religion, so the stakes for not sacrificing reflected very badly on one's loyalty to the Roman state.

Of course, there were skeptics in the Greek and Roman period; individuals who didn't really believe in the traditional cults or even Emperor worship. Sometimes these critics might even question the existence of said gods, but, with only a few exceptions, very few of them refused to pay the standard attention to the civil cults. A large part of this was prudence, but, also, loyalty to one's community seemed to dictate participating in the communities religious festivals and rites as a form of loyalty to the city/state. One might seek to explain the mythological stories behind these cults using allegorical and other interpretive methods, but one still participated, if only to foster communal feelings.

These approaches to civil religion, of course, are easy to dismiss as mere superstition or hypocrisy. Yet, Christianity's record as a civil religion is not necessarily free from problems. In my last entry, I referred to the legacy of Constantinianism which, in many ways, represents the conversion of Christianity into a civil religion. This is particularly striking under Constantine, who openly supported Christianity, but still issued coinage which had blatantly pagan symbols on it and who put off his baptism (and, thus, membership in the Church) until the last minute in order to avoid post-baptismal sin. It remains influential for centuries as it became, first, politically, then socially expedient to claim Christian status in the Empire. The depth of these 'conversions' can be questioned, but their ubiquity cannot.

Now, don't get me wrong. The Constantinian impulse was, in the first place, a reaction to a unique theological conundrum at the time of Constantine; namely, how does the Church deal with a Emperor who was sympathetic to its aims. Understandably, after the persecutions of the late 3rd century and the 'Great Persecution' in the early 4th century, Christians were disinclined to reject the overtures coming from Constantine. So, it became necessarily to try to define a Christianity which could serve both as Gospel and as a civil religion.

The problem with this impulse is that it tends to lead to a flattening out of our hope that Christ will return to set the Creation to rights and put an end to death) and the identification of those hopes with the fortunes of the state. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Eusebius of Caesarea, the first and, arguably most influential theorist of Constantinianism saw Constantine's reign as a kind of foretaste of Christ's reign on Earth. Given how hard pressed the Church was during the 'Great Persecution', I think we can all sympathize with the sheer relief experienced by the Christians of the Roman Emperor when Constantine came along and, not only declared toleration for Christians, but even began to favour them. Yet, in their relief, one wonders if Eusebius et al realised that they were created divided loyalties by identifying Constantine too closely with Christ and the fulfillment of the hopes of the Gospel.

And, so, one wonders about this latest exercise in civil religion. Does the 'Black Robe Regiment' necessarily understand that what is at stake is their identification as the Church as distinguished from their loyalty to the American state? Does their loyalty as Americans trump their Christian hope? I trust not, but the blurriness of the picture created by this 'regiment' should cause us all to worry. Whose Second Coming are we waiting for? Christ's or America's?


Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Constantinian Blues:Or Did you hear the one about the Greek, the Syrian and the Texan?

One of the benefits of reading several books at the same time ( a habit, I know, that I was fretting over last week) is that it has a way of generating ideas for writing. I am, it seems, a bit of a lateral thinker, so it makes sense that it just doesn't work for me to read only one thing at the same time. That, certainly, explains how I operated in university. I like to make connections between ideas or books or disciplines that don't seem to have much to do with each other at first glance. Sometimes, mind you, they still .

So, what do you Ephrem the Syrian's Hymns Against Julian meets Stanley Hauerwas' autobiography, Hannah's Child? That's right, a reflection on Constantianism. So, what is Constantinianism? According to Hauerwas (among others), it is a mode of thought about the state and the church which isn't working, if it ever really worked. Constantinianism is the alliance between the state and the church which has characterized the Christian religion for just over nineteen hundred years. It began with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which established toleration for Christianity and continued in Constantine's lifetime until two important developments happened. Christianity achieved a favoured status among religions in the Empire, enjoying tax benefits and imperial money and patronage in abundance. Second, the church and the state had taken the opening steps towards a symbiotic union which would see the state and the church working together to build a Christian society. While those who favour the Constantinian alliance rightly point out that the union did cause the state to be come more Christian and humane in many respects, it is equally true that the church's influence on morals was tenuous at best and it frequently had to underwrite actions which were not in accord to what Jesus taught us in the Bible. In fact, much of the criticism of the church in history is based on these compromises and on the ways that religion underwrote such atrocities as the persecution of heretics, the Crusades and onwards to include the Holocaust.

So, how does Ephrem the Syrian's Hymns Against Julian fit into this? These hymns were written in the summer of 363 AD, while the Emperor Julian was engaged in a particularly strenuous and, arguably, misguided campaign against the Persians which would, ultimately, lead to his death during the retreat of his army. Ultimately, the new Emperor, Jovian, had to surrender the fortress city of Nisibis (the hometown of Ephrem which had held off the Persians in three sieges between the 340s and the 350s) in order to convince the Persians to let him and his battered army return to Roman territory. These hymns begin with forbodding at the coming of the apostate emperor and end in a mingled joy at the death of Julian and mourning at the loss of Nisibis.

So, how does Constantinianism fit into these hymns?

First, the figure of Julian himself is an interesting demonstration of the spiritual impact of this Constantinian alliance between the Church and imperial politics. . Julian was the cousin of the previous emperor, Constantius II, who ruled in the East after his father's, Constantine I, death in 337 AD. In the early months of Constantius' rule, Julian's father, uncle and cousins were massacred in what looks like a dynastic feud. Julian and his older brother, Gallus, were the only survivors from this family, largely because they were considered too young to be threats. They were virtually imprisoned on an imperial estate under the care of an Arian bishop. The two boys were given good classical educations and learned how to dissemble their thoughts, but, certainly, Julian never forgot his captivity at the hands of a Christian bishop.

The incongruity of this scenario, I think, comes out in the telling. A Christian emperor either ordered or, as other sources suggest, permitted a mass murder of his relatives as a way of securing his succession to power. One doesn't have to be a Hauerwasian pacifist to see the accommodation that the Church would have to do to countenance that. Yet, there is no evidence that the Church protested this action or called Constantius or the perpetrators to account. Indeed, the fact that the two surviving royal princes were handed over to a bishop (albeit a heretical one) suggests that, far from criticizing the action, the Church tacitly condoned it and was complicit after the fact in it. Only a desire to keep the state-Church accommodation could explain this set of actions and it is perhaps unsurprising that Julian saw the distinction between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his powerful followers. So, the question needs to be asked: did this early experience with the 'Christian' power circles around Constantius play a role in inoculating Julian from Christian faith? Was this persecutor the result of internal contradictions within Constantinianism itself? If so, Julian's life presents an early warning about the dangers of the Constantinian accommodation between Church and State; namely that the Church finds it difficult to be the Church because of its obligations to its more powerful partner, the state.

The second point of Constantinian tension in these hymns is the story it tells. One of the interesting things about Constantinianism is that it presents a coherent story; a coherent historical narrative. In itself, this is a good thing. As Hauerwas would say, we tend to be defined by the stories we tell about ourselves So, what is the story that Constantinianism tells us? In particular, what is the story that Ephrem tells us, within the context of the broader Constantinian narrative?

While this story portrays the Church as recovering from the initial shock that the withdrawal of imperial favour and the shifting of that favour to paganism (and anyone else that wasn't officially Christian- heretics, Jews) so that it was the only real opposition to Julian (Hymn 1) , it, also, shows the effect on the membership of the Church that this alliance had. In Hymn 2, we find an admission that many Christians fell away from the Church and, I think, we have to ask why. Is it because the tax and legal concessions drew people to the Church to enjoy those exemptions, so when they were lost, it wasn't worthwhile? Is it because, while it wasn't a requirement for high political office, being a Christian was certainly an asset in the ambitious aspiring young man, so when imperial favour shifted elsewhere, many followed? Is it the magnificence paid for by imperial generosity which convinced one that this was the religion to follow, but, once it was lost, Christianity wasn't worth it? That is, were social and economic reasons more important that faith in Christ? Not for all. Ephrem speaks of penitents and those who follow the pagans (Hymn 2) and the bitter-sweet paradox that the angels (literally, in Syriac, the Watchers) rejoiced for the faith of the former and lamented the apostasy of the latter (Hymn 1). Yet, it is hard to escape the conclusion that fifty years of Constantinianism seems to have produced an incomplete reformation of the faith and courage of the Christian people of the Roman Empire.

To some extent, this criticism is a little unfair. The same flight of the faint-hearts and insincere happened with each of the persecutions Christianity experienced in the Roman period. That this happened is just indicative of the rhythms of enervating prosperity and invigorating tribulation which is a constant tension in church history. Yet, if we consider the job of the Church to teach how to be a Christian, one might ask about the kind of mass failures represented by Julian's short reign. Given that the Church is not a huddle of the pure and holy, but a mixed church of sinners, saints and everyone in between, isn't apostasy a reflection that we haven't taught the Christian virtues in such a way that they are more compelling than the political advantages of being a Christian? Was this an early warning that the Constantinian church may not have been as effective at making Christians than the numbers would have suggested?

The problem of Nisibis represents a third issue- the relationship of the Prince of Peace to the fortunes of Roman-Persian border wars (or, really, any wars). Ephrem is pretty clear about what he thinks about this. Nisibis successfully resisted the Persians over three sieges because of Christ's defence; the last of which was a miraculous flood which drove off a major Persian assault just as it was on the brink of success (Hymn 2). However, under Julian, a idol was established in the city and, as a result, after the deluded Julian died, the city was tamely handed over to the Persian king (Hymn 2 and 3). This incident of idolatry caused the city to be forsaken and handed over to the Persians; a fact recognized by the Persian king when he destroyed the idolatrous altar when he took over the city, but preserved the church of Nisibis (Hymn 2). It also seemed to be a factor when he timed his take-over of Nisibis for when Julian's funeral cortege passed by Nisibis. God forsook Nisibis because Nisibis forsook Him.

Again, we can see the Constantinian narrative in this story, can't we? As long as there was a faithful emperor or, in this case, a faithful city, all would be well for the Christian Roman Empire. This, of course, reflect Old Testament history as well, so Ephrem comes by the narrative honestly. It explains how such a 'God-favoured' city should be surrendered which was the real motive behind the last two Hymns Against Julian. It was a bargaining chip, albeit an unusually strategically important and sentimental one. We find ourselves with the paradox of the Constantinian state abandoning a city so clearly favoured by God that He intervened dramatically to save it which raises the question: does God's favour trump imperial diplomacy? If it doesn't, what happened to remove God's favour then? Here, it was the sin of idolatry.

Again, we see the state and the church working closely together, both in encouraging resistance to the Persians and, also, in reconciling the people of Nisibis to the forced surrender of their town. The resistance to the Persians was easier because they weren't Christians. Indeed, at times, they were persecutors of Christians. Yet, again, what does the Prince of Peace have to do with war or, more specifically, with the border wars of the Romans and Persians? If Hauerwas (and Yoder) is right that pacifism is the only politics which makes sense for Christians, how do we respond to the use of the Christianity to underwrite the state's, any state's wars? How do we react to Ephrem's explanation of the surrender of Ephrem? Was this, really, a truthful narrative?

In many ways, this Hauerwasian reading of Ephrem is a deeply unfair one. It is always easier to critique the stories of another place and time, not only because of our distance to the issues, but also because the objects of our critiques are conveniently dead and, so, can't talk back. Yet, the point of this exercise is to say that we have to be careful about the stories that we, the Church, tell ourselves. Ephrem wasn't a fool or a politician. He was an individual believer trying to make sense of his times and his life as a Christian the best way he knew. What this reflection on his Constantinian assumptions is meant to do isn't to belittle him, but rather call us to ask the same questions about our own stories. Are they true? Are we blind to our own culture's sins? Those are the really relevant questions.


Monday, August 23, 2010


I'm back from vacation and starting to settle into preparations for the coming school year, so I thought I'd get back to writing again. That isn't necessarily easy because I've really been feeling like I don't have much to say these days, despite the rather frantic pace of my reading. I'm doing my usual summer bonanza of reading, so I'm currently reading five books, plus trying to read some Greek New Testament and working through my patristics reader. That is, in the spaces between taking care of my son and, well, sleeping. I sometimes suspect that reading is an escape from praying for me, so I'm really trying to cut it back. Not with much success, of course.

I think what is most on my mind, however, is what I've been learning over the last year or so about the Desert Fathers- the ascetics active in Egypt especially, but also Syria and Palestine. A combination of books have commended them: Rowan William's Where God Happens (which I read in a book study at church a couple of years ago), Kathleen Norris' Acedia and Christopher Hall's long-awaiting Worshipping with the Church Fathers. On the face of it, these men and women seem far removed from the life of anyone in the modern urban world which I inhabit. After all, did they not flee their own cities? How are they relevant in the here and now?

Good questions, but I admit that, reading them, I wonder sometimes about us. There have been times over the last few months when I've been walking in the very upscale stretch of Bloor Street (Toronto) or in Yorkdale Mall, when I've wonder what it is that we're doing to ourselves and each other. The site of so much abundance and, paradoxically, so much poverty perplexes me sometimes. The abundance is, of course, easy to see in both the stores, the shoppers and the advertising, ever eager to spur us on to more consumption. The poverty is more subtle, but, nonetheless, real. The very fact that advertising works suggests that poverty because, as one of the author's I've read in the last few months has noted, advertising isn't really about getting things, but desiring things. Incessant and unfulfilled desire seems an excellent description of poverty to me; at least, poverty of the spiritual variety. Our malls and shopping areas are, really, temples to consumption as well as our equivalents to marketplaces. While I have no problem with marketplaces (they are enormously practical things to have in a city), I do have a problem with temples to consumption for the obvious reasons.

I also wonder about me. That is, one of the things that I've really taken to heart is a desert story in which an elder shows up at a meeting of monks who were deliberating the punishment of a wayward brother. The elder puts on a backpack of sand on his back and holds out a basket with a little sand in it in front of him. When asked what this was all about, the elder said that he is chasing his brother's sins, while his sins (in the backpack) are chasing him. The monks take the elders point, break up the meeting and don't judge the wayward brother.

That image keeps coming into my mind because it is an excellent reminder about our self-righteousness. It is easier to see the sins of others and not our own sins. It is easier to judge someone else, than to look to themselves for their own shortcomings. This is what G.K. Chesterton meant, I think, when he answered a invitation to write an essay on what was wrong with the world with a terse and eloquent "I am". And, so am I.

Of course, the Christian life doesn't just stop there. What the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) were good at was striping away one's own self-delusions which prevent us from seeing God. This made them subtle psychologists (explaining their popularity in our psychologized and individualistic society), but, also, admirable spiritual guides, even in their imperfections. They saw human failings not as something to justify flagellation, self-inflicted or otherwise, but as something to be expected and, more importantly, to be overcome with God's help. While some desert monks performed strange and, occasionally, repellent ascetic practices, the wisdom of the Desert Fathers was firmly against these demonstrations partly because they were a demonstration of pride and competition in some, partly because they weakened the body and soul of many. There was enough challenge to fast, to pray, to work and to live in solitude day in and day out.

Now, I don't perform these ascetic practices in my life because my life isn't built that way. I am a husband and a father, a teacher and a churchman, so there are a lot of busyness that I'm involved in which makes the desert life impossible. Yet, I had a reminder today about the similarities in the vowed life of a monk and my own vowed life as a husband and father. A colleague of mine had asked for a French translation for 'mid-life crisis' and she, eventually, came up with demon apres midi- the noon-day demon. I laughed, of course, not only because my colleague is hardly fond of religion, but, also, because of the aptness of the phrase. The noon-day demon was used among the desert monastics as a description of acedia- that restless funk that one gets into when one is engaged in routine things and the day begins to stretch on for an eternity. So much of our modern mythology around the 'mid-life' crisis resembles the noon-day demon run amok that it is entirely appropriate that the French use this synonym to acedia to describe it. How many times have we heard someone justify some rash move (an affair, a new sports car, taking up a dangerous sport) as being a way to feel alive again? Acedia, right?

That leads me back to my opening comments, wondering if my reading frenzy is really about avoiding the prayer and the monotony of the occasional glimpses of solitude that I get from day to day. It is difficult to know how far this is my passion for learning or my tendency to want to keep busy and in control. The Desert Fathers are teaching me to suspect what I'm doing and stop worrying about what others are up to. That is a hard enough lesson for me right now.