The Ascension of the Lord according to St. Mark’s Gospel

From my forthcoming work on Mark’s Gospel, Loosing the Lion, in which I try to tie the longer ending into Mark’s story:


Mark 16:8 seems a weird way to end a Gospel, and so scribes in the early Church concocted triumphant endings to Mark out of material from the other Gospels and Acts, giving us Mark 16:9-20. Although the longer ending isn’t original, being so radically different in vocabulary, style, tone, and content, it’s canonical. Is there a way to read it in line with Mark’s story?

Yes. For all the doubt, denial, and despair in the story, Mark’s Gospel is ultimately a story of triumph. Jesus triumphs over sin, death, hell, and Devil, from his exorcisms and healings to his crucifixion and resurrection. The final word of Mark isn’t really the women’s failure, but the resurrection. Whatever the women do, God raised Jesus from the dead. And the longer ending reflects that reality, the reality of the resurrection, as well as the final eternal enthronement and exaltation of Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God, in the ascension.

Jesus appears to the eleven (Judas having departed) while they are “at table” (Mark 16:14), suggesting the eucharistic communion of the Church under apostolic authority. Jesus’ rebuke of their lack of faith and hardness of heart tracks with Markan themes. And nevertheless, they themselves now get to return to the substance of Jesus’ original call at Galilee: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).

Belief means baptism, and it’s a matter of salvation (Mark 16:16). For historic Christianity, Catholic or otherwise, faith and sacraments are never opposed. While some Christians separate them, seeing sacraments as exterior works opposed to faith as intellectual assent and an interior attitude, Christian faith is oriented to a living person, the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. The question then becomes, how do we relate to the risen and ascended Jesus Christ in whom we have faith?

Some Christians would answer faith alone, that we relate to Jesus through our hearts, somehow, but the historic and more robust answer is that we relate to Jesus also through our bodies, and that means sacraments. The sacraments mediate the most personal relationship with Jesus possible. Our baptism unites us with him metaphysically, ontologically (see Romans 6:1-4), and we and Christ live in each other (see Galatians 2:20). In the Eucharist, we eat him. That’s about as personal of a relationship as one can get.

Jesus now announces that signs will accompany believers on their evangelistic mission: exorcism, speaking in tongues, handling serpents, and drinking poison without harm (Mark 16:17-18). Exorcism and tongues are found throughout the New Testament, and impotent snakebites are found in Acts 28:3-6 and Luke 10:19. Drinking poison is not. Two items merit discussion.

First, for Mark, faith leads to signs like healing and exorcism; signs do not lead to faith. And yet here in the longer ending they do. On the other hand, we have seen throughout Mark that Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are not always done secretly; often Jesus’ healings generate glorification of God (Mark 2:12) and wonder (Mark 1:27) but also hostility (Mark 3:6). They also generate discipleship, as in the case of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). Perhaps here it’s best to say that the signs accompany believers in their mission because they do in fact believe first; they’re believers. And those who witness their signs will respond in varied ways as they do in the Mark’s Gospel.

Second, the signs aren’t random but indicate Jesus’ continuing liberation of the cosmos from sin, death, hell, and the Devil in the time of the Church. Indeed, Jesus tells his disciples in Mark 16:15 to preach the Gospel to the whole creation. Salvation isn’t merely saved souls flitting to heaven when individuals die; it’s the restoration and transformation of the whole created order, heaven and earth, visible and invisible.*1* When Mark’s Jesus exorcises and heals, he’s not simply providing temporal relief to the afflicted; these mighty signs reveal that Jesus is liberating the cosmos from its bondage to sin, death, hell, and the Devil.

Further, there are allegorical elements at play here. The word for serpent in Mark 16:18a is ophis, the same word used in Genesis 3 LXX for the satanic viper that threw the whole human race into sin (and indeed all of creation, as Adam was fashioned from the very stuff of earth, and Eve from him, Genesis 2:7, 21-22). The Church in its mission triumphs over the satanic serpent.

What’s more, the reference to drinking deadly things in Mark 16:18 may refer not simply to common poison. Not so many decades after the writing of Mark’s Gospel, St. Ignatius of Antioch advises the Trallians to “abstain from herbage of a different kind” than Jesus Christ, namely “heresy” (Trall. 6). For heretics “mix up Jesus Christ with their own poison, speaking things which are unworthy of credit, like those who administer a deadly drug in sweet wine” (Trall. 6). For Catholics, then, salvation is found not in the poison of heresy but in the sweet wine of the Eucharist, in which we drink in the Truth himself.

Above all, the signs that accompany the Church on its mission flow from Jesus, and he could exercise absolute sovereign authority not only because it was given to him but because of his total embrace of the cross. That’s the key: the Church flourishes and succeeds in mission to the extent it suffers the cross and so unites itself to Jesus.

Jesus is now ascended, as the crucified and risen Christ has been “taken up to heaven” and taken his rightful place “at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). The ascended Jesus Christ powers the Church’s mission, for after his ascension the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (Mark 16:20). Amen indeed! Mission is powered by the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus Christ.

Why? Although often neglected, the ascension is a most important component of Christology. It’s not an afterthought or appendix. Rather, it completes the circle of the Son of God’s life, from preëxistence through incarnation to cross and resurrection, returning the Son to the total divine life of God in the Trinity from whence he came, but now with a body.

From his position in heaven at the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ the Son can now be everywhere. The ascension grounds the doctrine of ubiquity. From heaven Jesus Christ can direct and power the Church’s mission, which the flow of Mark 16:19-20 suggests. And from heaven Jesus Christ’s risen, resurrected body can come down upon a million altars, as the Church carries forth its greatest sign, the Eucharist.

*1*See Romans 8:19-23: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

The image is from St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

Early Christians On Abortion

Nick Kristof, a NYT columnist, recently claimed Christian opposition to abortion is a recent development:

He’s mistaken. It may be true to an extent in regard to twentieth-century fundamentalist and evangelical circles–Francis Shaeffer certainly did much to convince his fellow evangelicals of the rightness of the pro-life cause–but Christians were pro-life from the beginning, as were Jews contemporary with Jesus and earliest Christianity.

A good book on the subject is Dennis Di Mauro, A Love For Life: Christianity’s Consistent Protection of the Unborn.

Here’s a selection of pertinent texts from ancient Jews and early Christians:

Jewish Witnesses:

Josephus (flourished AD 75-95)
“The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the foetus; a woman convicted of this is regarded as an infanticide, because the destroys a soul and diminishes the race.” (Against Apion, 2.202)

Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C.—A.D. 41)
“If a man comes to blows with a pregnant woman and strikes her on the belly and she miscarries, then, if the result of the miscarriage is unshaped and undeveloped, he must be fined both for the outrage and for obstructing the artist Nature in her creative work of bringing into life the fairest of living creatures, man. But, if the offspring is already shaped and all the limbs have their proper qualities and places in the system, he must die, for that which answers to this descriptions is a human being, which he has destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light, like a statue lying in a studio requiring nothing more than to be conveyed outside and released from confinement.” (Special Laws III.108-109; cf. Exod 21.22 LXX. Cf. also III.110-119 for extended discussion)

Pseudo-Phocylides (50 B.C.—A.D. 50) says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.”

1 Enoch (2nd-1st Cent. B.C.) says that an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in the womb” (68:18).

Early Christian Witnesses:

“Since this is our character, what man of sound judgment would say that we are murderers? For you cannot eat human flesh until you have killed someone…What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God’s care, and at the same time slay it, once it had come to life. Nor would he refuse to expose infants, on the ground that those who expose them are murderers of children, and at the same time do away with the child he has reared. But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it.” (Plea for the Christians, ca. AD 176-177)

Justin Martyr
“But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or grazing horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery. Indeed, the things which you do openly and with applause, as if the divine light were overturned and extinguished, these you lay to our charge; which, in truth, does no harm to us who shrink from doing any such things, but only to those who do them and bear false witness against us.” (First Apology, 27; AD ~150)

Letter to Diognetus
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly strange method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.” (5; AD second century?)

Letter of Barnabas
“The way of light, then, is as follows. If anyone desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works. The knowledge, therefore, which is given to us for the purpose of walking in this way, is the following…Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.” (19:5; ca. AD 75-100).

Apocalypse of Peter
“And near that place I saw another strait place . . . and there sat women. . . . And over against them many children who were born to them out of due time sat crying. And there came forth from them rays of fire and smote the women in the eyes. And these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion” (25; ca. AD 135)

Didache (i.e., the so-called “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”)
“And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” (Didache 2:2; ca. AD 70-100)

Minucius Felix
“And now I should wish to meet him who says or believes that we are initiated by the slaughter and blood of an infant. Think you that it can be possible for so tender, so little a body to receive those fatal wounds; for any one to shed, pour forth, and drain that new blood of a youngling, and of a man scarcely come into existence? No one can believe this, except one who can dare to do it. And I see that you at one time expose your begotten children to wild beasts and to birds; at another, that you crush them when strangled with a miserable kind of death. There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. And these things assuredly come don from the teaching of your gods. For Saturn did not expose his children, but devoured them.…Among the Persians, a promiscuous association between sons and mothers is allowed. Marriages with sisters are legitimate among the Egyptians and in Athens. Your records and your tragedies, which you both read and hear with pleasure, glory in incest: thus also you worship incestuous gods, who have intercourse with mothers, with daughters, with sisters. With reason, therefore, is incest frequently detected among you, and is continually permitted. Miserable men, you may even, without knowing it, rush into what is unlawful: since you scatter your lusts promiscuously, since you everywhere beget children, since you frequently expose even those who are born at home to the mercy of others, it is inevitable that you must come back to your own children, and stray to your own offspring. Thus you continue the story of incest, even although you have no consciousness of your crime. But we maintain our modesty not in appearance, but in our heart we gladly abide by the bond of a single marriage; in the desire of procreating, we know either one wife, or none at all.” (Octavius, 30-31a; ca. AD 160-250)

Clement of Alexandria
“Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings…Abortion is killing human life that is under God’s care, design and providence.” (Paedagogus 2.10, ca. AD 190-200)

“In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed” (Apology 9:8; ca. AD 200).

“Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs [of the child] within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery… There is also a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: they give it, from its infanticide function, the name of embruosphaktes, ‘the slayer of the infant,’ which of course was alive…They all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive… Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does.” (On the Soul 25, 27; AD 210).

“The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion.” [cf. Exod 21:22–24] (On the Soul, 37; AD 210).

Hippolytus of Rome
“Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!” (Refutation of All Heresies, 9.7 ca. AD 228).

Basil the Great (AD 329-379)
“Although keeping parrots and curlus, pagans do not adopt an orphaned child. Rather they expose children who are born at home. And yet they take up the young of birds. And so they prefer irrational creatures to rational ones…Fathers, forgetting about the children they have exposed, unknowingly have intercourse with a son who has debauched himself or with daughters who are prostitutes.”

“She who has deliberately destroyed a fetus has to pay the penalty of murder. The hairsplitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us….Here it is not only the child to be born that is vindicated, but also the woman herself who made an attempt against her own life, because usually the women die in such attempts. Furthermore, added to this is the destruction of the child, another murder… Moreover, those, too, who give drugs causing abortion are deliberate murderers themselves, as well as those receiving the poison which kills the fetus.”  (Letter 188:2)

Council of Ancyra
“Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees.” (Canon 21; AD 314).

Synod of Elvira (Spain)
“If a woman becomes pregnant by committing adultery, while her husband is absent, and after the act she destroys the child, it is proper to keep her from communion until death, because she has doubled her crime.” (Canon 63; Spain, AD 306)

Ambrose of Milan (AD 339 to 397)
“The poor expose their children, the rich kill the fruit of their own bodies in the womb, lest their property be divided up, and they destroy their own children in the womb with murderous poisons. and before life has been passed on, it is annihilated.”

“I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother. . . . Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when, as often happens, they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder.” (Letters 22:13, AD 396)

John Chrysostom

“Wherefore I beseech you, flee fornication. . . . Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit?—where there are many efforts at abortion?—where there is murder before the birth? For even the harlot you do not let continue a mere harlot, but make her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to prostitution, prostitution to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then do thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with his laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine” (Homilies on Romans 24; AD 391).

AyJay on Liturgy

Alan Jacobs of Baylor and my former colleague at Wheaton on liturgy:

I only attended low-church evangelical congregations for a few years after I became a Christian, but those were tough times for me, and more than once along the way I wondered if I had made a big mistake by trying to follow Jesus — at least, through trying to follow him alongside other people, in church. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them — in fact, I usually thought I was worse. I especially felt I was too emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins, so I tried to be super-happy, but I could never quite get where he thought I needed to be. And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad at what I, through my rebellion, had done to God — but if I couldn’t climb the mountain of happiness I also couldn’t make my way down into the depths of the pit of sadness. Again: emotionally incompetent.

It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them.

Even more important, the tradition was so wonderfully patient with me! It didn’t ask me to comprehend the tragedy of my sinfulness immediately. Instead, it said “Here you go, we’re starting this season called Lent now. You’ll have forty days to meditate on these matters, and we the Church will help you at every step.” And then when Easter came the liturgy said to me, “You can’t celebrate this in an instant — in fact, we’re going to take fifty days to live into the miracle of the Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.”

I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.

Feast of Saint Irenaeus, My Confirmation Saint

Reupping this from a couple years ago, as it’s St. Irenaeus’ day today, and I have a special devotion to him.
Today is the feast of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, whom I chose as my confirmation saint when I was reconciled with the Church and confirmed Easter 2011. The father of Roman Catholic theology and a dedicated opponent of Gnostic hatred of the material order, I found him to be a saint for our times. I can do no better than Pope Benedict, so I reprint here his catechesis on St. Irenaeus from 2007.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In the Catechesis on the prominent figures of the early Church, today we come to the eminent personality of St Irenaeus of Lyons. The biographical information on him comes from his own testimony, handed down to us by Eusebius in his fifth book onChurch History.

Irenaeus was in all probability born in Smyrna (today, Izmir in Turkey) in about 135-140, where in his youth, he attended the school of Bishop Polycarp, a disciple in his turn of the Apostle John. We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but his move must have coincided with the first development of the Christian community in Lyons: here, in 177, we find Irenaeus listed in the college of presbyters. In that very year, he was sent to Rome bearing a letter from the community in Lyons to Pope Eleutherius. His mission to Rome saved Irenaeus from the persecution of Marcus Aurelius which took a toll of at least 48 martyrs, including the 90-year old Bishop Pontinus of Lyons, who died from ill-treatment in prison. Thus, on his return Irenaeus was appointed Bishop of the city. The new Pastor devoted himself without reserve to his episcopal ministry which ended in about 202-203, perhaps with martyrdom.

Irenaeus was first and foremost a man of faith and a Pastor. Like a good Pastor, he had a good sense of proportion, of the riches of doctrine and missionary enthusiasm. As a writer, he pursued a twofold aim: to defend true doctrine from the attacks of heretics, and to explain the truth of the faith clearly. His two extant works — the five books of The Detection and Overthrow of the False Gnosis and Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching (which can also be called the oldest “catechism of Christian doctrine”) — exactly corresponded with these aims. In short, Irenaeus can be defined as the champion in the fight against heresies. The second-century Church was threatened by the so-called Gnosis, a doctrine which affirmed that the faith taught in the Church was merely a symbolism for the simple who were unable to grasp difficult concepts; instead, the initiates, the intellectuals —Gnostics, they were called — claimed to understand what was behind these symbols and thus formed an elitist and intellectualist Christianity. Obviously, this intellectual Christianity became increasingly fragmented, splitting into different currents with ideas that were often bizarre and extravagant, yet attractive to many. One element these different currents had in common was “dualism”: they denied faith in the one God and Father of all, Creator and Saviour of man and of the world. To explain evil in the world, they affirmed the existence, besides the Good God, of a negative principle. This negative principle was supposed to have produced material things, matter.

Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of creation, Irenaeus refuted the Gnostic dualism and pessimism which debased corporeal realities. He decisively claimed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the flesh no less than of the spirit. But his work went far beyond the confutation of heresy: in fact, one can say that he emerges as the first great Church theologian who created systematic theology; he himself speaks of the system of theology, that is, of the internal coherence of all faith. At the heart of his doctrine is the question of the “rule of faith” and its transmission. For Irenaeus, the “rule of faith” coincided in practice with the Apostles’ Creed, which gives us the key for interpreting the Gospel, for interpreting the Creed in light of the Gospel. The Creed, which is a sort of Gospel synthesis, helps us understand what it means and how we should read the Gospel itself.

In fact, the Gospel preached by Irenaeus is the one he was taught by Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and Polycarp’s Gospel dates back to the Apostle John, whose disciple Polycarp was.

The true teaching, therefore, is not that invented by intellectuals which goes beyond the Church’s simple faith. The true Gospel is the one imparted by the Bishops who received it in an uninterrupted line from the Apostles. They taught nothing except this simple faith, which is also the true depth of God’s revelation. Thus, Irenaeus tells us, there is no secret doctrine concealed in the Church’s common Creed. There is no superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly confessed by the Church is the common faith of all. This faith alone is apostolic, it is handed down from the Apostles, that is, from Jesus and from God. In adhering to this faith, publicly transmitted by the Apostles to their successors, Christians must observe what their Bishops say and must give special consideration to the teaching of the Church of Rome, pre-eminent and very ancient. It is because of her antiquity that this Church has the greatest apostolicity; in fact, she originated in Peter and Paul, pillars of the Apostolic College. All Churches must agree with the Church of Rome, recognizing in her the measure of the true Apostolic Tradition, the Church’s one common faith. With these arguments, summed up very briefly here, Irenaeus refuted the claims of these Gnostics, these intellectuals, from the start. First of all, they possessed no truth superior to that of the ordinary faith, because what they said was not of apostolic origin, it was invented by them. Secondly, truth and salvation are not the privilege or monopoly of the few, but are available to all through the preaching of the Successors of the Apostles, especially of the Bishop of Rome. In particular — once again disputing the “secret” character of the Gnostic tradition and noting its multiple and contradictory results — Irenaeus was concerned to describe the genuine concept of the Apostolic Tradition which we can sum up here in three points.

a) Apostolic Tradition is “public”, not private or secret. Irenaeus did not doubt that the content of the faith transmitted by the Church is that received from the Apostles and from Jesus, the Son of God. There is no other teaching than this. Therefore, for anyone who wishes to know true doctrine, it suffices to know “the Tradition passed down by the Apostles and the faith proclaimed to men”: a tradition and faith that “have come down to us through the succession of Bishops” (Adversus Haereses, 3, 3, 3-4). Hence, the succession of Bishops, the personal principle, and Apostolic Tradition, the doctrinal principle, coincide.

b) Apostolic Tradition is “one”. Indeed, whereas Gnosticism was divided into multiple sects, Church Tradition is one in its fundamental content, which – as we have seen – Irenaeus calls precisely regula fidei or veritatis: and thus, because it is one, it creates unity through the peoples, through the different cultures, through the different peoples; it is a common content like the truth, despite the diversity of languages and cultures. A very precious saying of St Irenaeus is found in his book Adversus Haereses: “The Church, though dispersed throughout the world… having received [this faith from the Apostles]… as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world” (1, 10, 1-2). Already at that time — we are in the year 200 — it was possible to perceive the Church’s universality, her catholicity and the unifying power of the truth that unites these very different realities, from Germany, to Spain, to Italy, to Egypt, to Libya, in the common truth revealed to us by Christ.

c) Lastly, the Apostolic Tradition, as he says in the Greek language in which he wrote his book, is “pneumatic”, in other words, spiritual, guided by the Holy Spirit: in Greek, the word for “spirit” is“pneuma”. Indeed, it is not a question of a transmission entrusted to the ability of more or less learned people, but to God’s Spirit who guarantees fidelity to the transmission of the faith.

This is the “life” of the Church, what makes the Church ever young and fresh, fruitful with multiple charisms.

For Irenaeus, Church and Spirit were inseparable: “This faith”, we read again in the third book ofAdversus Haereses, “which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also…. For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace” (3, 24, 1). As can be seen, Irenaeus did not stop at defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always enlivened from within by the Holy Spirit, who makes it live anew, causes it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church. Adhering to her teaching, the Church should transmit the faith in such a way that it must be what it appears, that is, “public”, “one”, “pneumatic”, “spiritual”. Starting with each one of these characteristics, a fruitful discernment can be made of the authentic transmission of the faith in the today of the Church. More generally, in Irenaeus’ teaching, the dignity of man, body and soul, is firmly anchored in divine creation, in the image of Christ and in the Spirit’s permanent work of sanctification. This doctrine is like a “high road” in order to discern together with all people of good will the object and boundaries of the dialogue of values, and to give an ever new impetus to the Church’s missionary action, to the force of the truth which is the source of all true values in the world.

(Borrowed from

From a post of mine from 2013 explaining why I took him as my saint. I find him ever more important as the Gnostic empire of desire marches on:

Friday was the feast of St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, and martyr. (I meant to get this up earlier in the day, but meetings and treating a summer cold intervened.) He flourished around the end of the second century: born ca. AD 140, he was made bishop of Lyons in Gaul in 177 upon the martyrdom of St. Pothinus, wrote Against Heresies and the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, and died a martyr under Septimus Severus in 202.

I’m especially excited because I took him as my patron upon my confirmation two years ago at Easter Vigil of 2011. Why?

Because St. Irenaeus is a saint for our own day; as Church and Empire become ever more estranged, we ever more approximate the times in which St. Irenaeus lived. Further, St. Irenaeus was famously a defender of the goodness of creation and the body against the Gnostics, members of various heresies who generally regarding the material world and thus bodies as evil. Some (like Harold Bloom) have suggested our own culture is deeply Gnostic. We reject the idea that the body is a given and a good, seeing it as an obstacle to be manipulated through biotechnology or eradicated, and thus (like various Gnostics of St. Irenaeus’ day) our culture embraces anti-human practices such as contraception and abortion. Finally, St. Irenaeus is also known as the “father of Roman Catholic theology,” fighting for the integrity and identity of the visible Church in his own day, much as many from faithful families in the pews to Pope Francis are doing today. And so, St. Irenaeus, ora pro nobis!

The Virgin, by William Wordsworth

Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied.
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven’s blue coast;
Thy image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween,
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,
As to a visible Power, in which did blend
All that was mixed and reconciled in thee
Of mother’s love with maiden purity,
Of high with low, celestial with terrene!
mary comforts eve

Here ends the lesson

[NB: The homily preached at Brett’s funeral 11-14-2015, Pierce Chapel, Wheaton College. The first reading was from the Book of Wisdom, the Anglican response to which, as it is deuterocanon, involves not “the word of the Lord/thanks be to God” but simply “Here ends the lesson” and silence.]

Here ends the Lesson.

No response is made.

The reading starts in proclamation, and ends in a whimper: a whisper of silence. The Word of the Lord?

Not quite. Yet something more than the word of man? We’re not quite sure; yet there, in the words of men and women, God breathes, too: in the lives that we live out, strutting our hour upon the stage, largely improvising.

And at our end? That same silence.

Has God spoken through us? Used us? We were bought at a price, you know: our lives are not our own.

Were any of our words His: even in the warp and weft of ordinary life? Did anything extraordinary transform it? was the natural made supernatural; did poetry suffuse our prose?

Always, after the life is celebrated, the silence sets in again.

Are our lives, indeed, then, works of art. That to be complete, must be full, fourscore years and ten. Four movements, with maybe a final coda: some good deeds; some wise words; a benevolent demeanor.

As Rahner said, in this life there are no finished symphonies.

But God is in the details of life, as well as the Master Narrative. And wherever that story takes us, from journeyman to master, things take time That’s why we say the devil is in the details. And all haste is of the devil: Omnis festinatio ex parte diaboli est.

That is because it takes time to sweat the details and make the difference between adequacy and excellence; between mediocrity and genius; between avocation, and a career.

God is in the details, and when we are in haste, when time is pressing on or running out, and we run out of steam, or fall by the wayside, the devil can so often step in to finish the race.

This is all about time. And the race for time. Never enough time: to do it right: to finish the race.

But as the cold grey light of the final Day dawns, we offer what we have in hand, in the end. For time and tide waits for no one.

God is in the details. And the God we see in Christ, the One Who is the Way and the Truth and the Life, is also the God who is not the prisoner of his own majesty: rather the God Who wrapped Himself in flesh and blood and set the limits of a human lifespan to demarcate His Time with us: this God knows what we forget: that the Way is trod one step at a time; over and over; until the end of the road; truth is found one question at a time; until that last unanswered question; life is lived, one breath at a time.

Until our last breath.

Brett ran out of time. He had so much to say: so much to hear: so much to write: so much to read. So much more.

So much; and yet so much more.

That was Brett. And he was surely just getting to the prime meridian of life, when the sun is high in the sky. The zenith. Then, a year ago, came that first shadow, that chill in the breeze that once was the first fresh sign of spring: now segues to winter again. No summer; no gold autumnal glow. No Four Last Songs; no final sonnets.

No finished symphonies.

His way was blocked: his truth was silenced: his life was over: at least in this: no more words to sound from that silence.

And more and more in that last year the rhythm of life became the rhythm of keeping life going, more and more: not desperate measures, but a life punctuated by the steady drip drip of measured doses of toxins, regular visits to specialists, clinics, care centers. A life whose through line, whose flow, whose undercurrent, was quiet desperation.

Those of us who were privileged to see that were profoundly shaken. The sunny side of Brett, hail fellow well met, had so overpowered and disarmed those of us whose pale dispositions craved that dose of Vitamin E; that energy; the way that he had of making you feel and know that you were the only other person in the world when you were with him. The way he had, not just of blessing you but – and here’s the thing – of making you feel like you were blessing him. How many times did he utter “you have blessed me”, even when you knew, in the next moment, you couldn’t have done it. Imputation, we call it: the word is spoken, and it is done. God seeks, not just the lovely, the extraordinary, the strong and the brave to love: His love, rather, as Luther knew, is creative: it speaks a thing into being, and it makes to be things that are not. He says “it is good”; and it is.

Imputation. The active side of grace. This was Brett’s raison d’être, the grace side of God that Brett knew and trusted. You say it; and it is. Words can do that; if they are inspired; if they are God’s words. Brett poured himself out, in his words: he poured himself out, on us all: hepoured out his life on me, wasted it misspent it: profligate. But not just me.

And Brett knew that God was breathing His Life into this whole world, he knew it to hear it, and heard it often, where all we heard was noise.

One place we both heard the music was in the poems of George Herbert:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:

Such a Way, as gives us breath:

Such a Truth, as ends all strife:

Such a Life, as killeth death.

Exasperated as he was by those who were not choosing to act in way that met his expectations, his standards, Brett was not a man who joyed in strife. He joyed in Love. And the source of his love was a Joy; joy in his family, his friends, even in those who did not go out of their way to do him good.

Of him, we may say, surely,that God proved him and found him worthy for himself. Come, he is saying, even now, come into My Presence, good and faithful servant: well done!; enter Thou into the joy of thy Lord.

And such as be faithful in love shall abide with him.

Here ends the Lesson.

No response is made.

No finished symphonies.

But an end has been made in words we have already heard: not my words not Brett’s words even but words ready made for this occasion,

Words for the Belovéd [Scott Cairns]

And it seems you’ve only just awakened, but you turn

and there we are, the rest of us, arriving just behind you.

We’ll go the rest of the way together.

Da capo al fine: unfinished, yes: not just because “here the composer laid down his pen for the last time”. But because now, when we take up our fiddles, the song goes on endlessly, in endless variations and permutations, numberless sources of delight. A Harmony of Invention awaits us, as we discover and rediscover–with all the time in the world–the wonders of this world, renewed.

No cryogenic cloud room, life at 50,000 feet, for us, where the air is thin, and nothing lives, or moves, or has its being, save a few wispy stratus clouds.

No: life in this world renewed, and always renewing, full of the joy of living.

Is the pain remembered? Maybe; for a moment; but now there is peace, the eternal peace where, as Augustine says, we shall see rest, and love, and praise.

Praise. Worship. Worship, maybe finally worthy of the name. Worthy of a poet.

Here ends the Lesson.



Gnosticism is the perennial Christian heresy that says matter, and thus bodies, is evil. It’s a form of Platonism on steroids. Plato’s mouthpiece Socrates on several occasions speaks about the body as the prison of the soul, and also as death as the soul’s liberation from the body. Prisons are not nice places, and places from which one needs liberation are not nice places.

But let’s cut the Gnostics some slack. Briefly, at least. They weren’t simply crazy people hellbent on twisting Christian faith. They were dealing with the serious reality of pain and suffering in the world. And in their world in their heyday in the 2d-3d centuries AD there was a lot of serious suffering. You come to believe what Gnostics believe when you come to the point that you can’t reconcile a good God with the horrors evident in creation and the suffering experienced by human persons in their bodies. You want to be pulled out of the nightmare of the matrix, with its devious, satanic architect. You want the red pill.

And so a Gnostic, confronted by a corpse eaten and finally mortified by cancer, decides that the body is the problem, and that it must have been a lesser deity who created creation with its frail bodies. Experience leads them to filter divine Christian revelation through the lenses of Platonic ideology.

The red pill is a hallucinogen, however. The Christian holds to divine revelation, which teaches that God created everything good (Genesis 1), that God made our very bodies from the stuff of earth (Genesis 2), and that sin is a reality that makes bodies liable to death (Genesis 3). Divine revelation teaches that resurrection is the corollary of creation, that we get our bodies back, (2 Maccabees 7), transformed, glorified (1 Corinthians 15).

Gnosticism is salvation on the cheap, God helping us escape from the mess of matter. Christianity is God’s hard work of fixing what is broken, revivifying what is dead.

Do we trust God enough to believe him when through Jesus and the apostles he promises us he will raise the dead?

I believe–help thou mine unbelief.


Funeral for a Friend

Death scatters, so some scattershot thoughts…

The funeral liturgy (Anglican) was lovely. The Latin requiem was most welcome. A Walhout youth played the cello perfectly. Closing hymn was SLANE=Be Thou My Vision. Wonderful. I couldn’t sing any of it, but I let the sound wash over and through me.

Why, I ask myself, does every single Christian tradition, from Pentecostal to Anglican, do better with worship than we Catholics do? It’s just not that hard.

Wake last night: I couldn’t look at the picture boards. Much easier time at the casket, for some reason, once I sucked it up to say goodbye. Probably because that’s ice cold reality, and the boards remind you of what sort of things the guy would still be doing, if…

Brett was dressed in a zippered argyle sweater with a slight collar, which was perfect. Coat and tie was always artificial on him.

Another Wheaton professor of English and thus colleague of Brett’s, Roger Lundin, died late Thursday night. He was on leave this fall. Are you kidding me?

News of Paris hit yesterday during the wake, of course.

Five friends and family members with cancer. Right now the score is 1-3 with one in the balance, at a critical moment.

Noah Toly is an absolute mensch. Others too. But Noah. His parents should write a book on parenting because he turned out more than OK. (Here’s his tribute to Brett from a few days ago.)

Hard to place a lot of people after just five years, and if I couldn’t find your name back in my head, apologies! Good to see former students, like Maggie, doing so well. Colleagues too.

I joked there’s not enough alcohol for such a weekend. I’m pacing myself. I say bold stupid things like that in certain situations for effect.

Nothing sadder, I think, than an untimely widow embracing her husband’s casket graveside to say goodbye for the final time. That’s when I really lost it inside. But I really tried not to cry, because crying is wrong. At least in public. In private it’s just bothersome.

I did just say I say bold stupid things like that in certain situations for effect…

Death is uncomfortable for us because there’s not enough of it. Meaning, we don’t face it routinely like prior generations, perhaps up to 100 or 75 years ago. Florence at the height of the Renaissance, about 6 out of 10 babies died between birth and first birthday. There’s no antibiotics until the 1920s, so infections and fevers were often a death sentence. Nowadays in the modern west thanks to modern sanitation and medicine, most babies live long and prosper, and when we get seriously sick medication and surgery save us. Count all the times in your life when you’ve been seriously sick, and think how many times you might have died were you living several generations ago.

Fr. Martin Johnson, priest at All Souls Anglican Church, where we attended when we were in Wheaton, who officiated today, can really preach. He might be the most peculiar homilist in the Christian world. Hard to explain, but his homilies are meticulously composed formalist exercises, like Joyce’s Ulysses almost but with theological substance. Poetry in theological motion. Incredibly complex, but he always brings it back around. “Here ends the reading.” I have to, I just have to, get a copy of the homily from today.

Brett Foster, accidental midwife: you had to be there, I guess. My 2+ minutes memory of Brett as a man on whom you could count, as proved by that time my wife was in labor and he needed to babysit our doula’s kids through the night in a sketchy hospital parking lot in Oak Park, Ill. I was glad to get through it without losing my cookies, because I thought I was going to. And crying is wrong. I couldn’t look at anyone in the chapel in the eye, but stared into a vague space about 20 feet out from my line of vision. And got through it.

If you’re going to break through an automotive funeral procession in your impatience, remember, your sparkly SUV is far from paid for, and my car is a mere rental. Count yourself lucky.

I hadn’t cried, and I really haven’t cried, yet. A few times before I stop myself. I think that was the issue at the wake and funeral for me. Brett’s friends in Wheaton have been walking through this with him, rather directly, for months, and were there in town when he died last week. They got a lot of crying out of their systems already, I suspect. I hadn’t, and haven’t, so it really hit me when I showed up at the wake just as dark had settled over Wheaton, that Brett was really gone.

Appreciate the little kind gestures from colleagues and administrators et al. I haven’t seen since I left–hugs, pats on the shoulder, etc.

Since Brett was a poet, I’ve been thinking of poetry, and this one by Stephen Crane came to mind today, and makes a fitting closing here:

In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

Brett Foster, RIP

Brett Foster was my best friend at Wheaton College. Brett was roughly my age. Brett died last evening of cancer.

Brett was an accomplished academic of multiple talents: a poet himself, a translator of medieval & Renaissance Italian poetry, and an expert in Shakespeare. Those three points don’t quite cover all that Brett could do. From Italy to England, from the 1300s to the 1600s, he knew it and worked in it.

A graduate of Yale, he was close to a couple legends I esteem: John Hollander and Harold Bloom. I was tickled one evening when the phone rang, and it was the latter on the line. “Harold!” Brett exclaimed. “How are ya!” Brett exclaimed in his slightly raspy, still-Missouri accented voice.

Above all Brett was a prince of a human being, a regular guy who liked drinking beer and watching football, who enjoyed people and brought them joy.

My fondest memory of Brett involves Orvieto, Italy. Brett was there on some monthlong-fellowship, and I was in Rome for the international Society of Biblical Literature meeting. We spent the better part of the day in Orvieto working on academic things at various cafes (as Brett had this habit of working somewhere for an hour or two and then wanting to relocate), always somewhere under the aegis of the glorious cathedral.

Having retreated to his apartment later in the day, we decided around 10:30 that it’d be good to begin preparing dinner. We went to the local grocer (still open) and got the requisite ingredients for whatever we were making, along with a sufficient supply of sagrantino, the local Umbrian wine. A friend of Brett’s was with us too, Chris van den Berg, and he did most of the cooking while we drank and talked. We ate around midnight, and stayed up until about four in the morning, talking about everything friends talk about–work, college politics, family, daydreams, passions. Given the lateness of the hour when we finally retired, about four in the morning, and the quality of the sagrantino, we did not make our planned trip to Siena the next day.

Brett was too humble and normal and Christian to be the “strong poet” Bloom describes, but neither was a he a “weak poet,” composing derivative drivel or doggerel. Bloom’s typology (in my humble opinion, poetry not being my formal field) is too polarized, too binary. Brett was a very good poet, swimming within the best streams of the literary tradition, his poetry informed by his Christian faith.

Here, then, are three of my favorite poems from Brett, so you, dear reader, can get a taste of his work. I like the first the best. The second is perhaps the most poignant and powerful. The third is especially interesting to me, as I’m supposed to be writing a major commentary on Mark’s Gospel…


Poem with a Phrase from George Herbert

Even if the body’s garment has been rent,
it can still become an establishment
for rebuilding spirit, new, tender, and quick.
If there is no market for one’s sickness,
there is at very least an etiquette
for feeling better—felt pain and everything met
in extremity, that is. There exists
the tumor, cyst, or grisly polyp, and Christ
resides, persists amid these hundred hells,
his garment hemmed with pomegranates, golden bells.


Tongue is the Pen

Isaiah 43

I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth, with heart
astir. It’s not oath-taking that I’m concerned
with here, for what that’s worth— instead just a cry
from the very blood, a good, sound imprecation
to give the sickness and the shivering meaning.
Former things have not been forgotten,
but they have forgotten me. The dear, the sweet,
the blessed past, writes Bassani. Tongue is the pen.
Donning some blanket of decorousness
is not the prophet’s profession, not ever.
Not that I’ve tasted the prophet’s honey or fire:
I’m just a shocked, confounded fellow
who’s standing here, pumping the bellows
of his mellifluous sorrow. Yet sorrow’s the thing
for all prophets. Make a way in the wilderness,
streaming your home-studio-made recordings
from a personal wasteland. These are my thoughts.
I can’t manage the serious beard. My sackcloth
is the flannel shirt I’m wearing. But the short-circuited
months have whitened my hair, and it’s not
for nothing that Jeffrey calls me, with affectionate
mockery, the silver fox. It’s a prerequisite, finally—
being a marginal prophet, but a severe attention
to envisioned tomorrows must be present, too,
must be perceived as possible, audible, or followable.
There’s a hypothetically bright future for everything,
each wounded creature that is bitten, or bites.
And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.


Prayer Before Reading St Mark’s Gospel

Please attack my colonialist ego,
o lion-face, o ancient evangelist.
The carcinogenic self, gleeful
but cruel in its unhealthy glow,
needs every means of resistance,
nor do I expect your treatment to be
remotely easygoing, if any freedom
is to be won from tumor, polyp, cyst.
Don’t let my withheld forgiveness
be among the glittering cargo
of my sickly little boat, battered, kissed
by fortune’s surges. Let me bestow
instead regard to every fellow narcissist,
to thief and punk, humbug and arsonist.

Bonus: video of Brett reading “The Breaking”

The Gospel of John

I had written something introducing the Gospel of John on a now-defunct website. Here it is.


Preaching John

The Gospel of John is the capstone of the fourfold Gospel canon. Different in character and content from the prior three synoptic Gospels, it supplements and complements them, presenting (in accord with its traditional iconography) an “eagle-eye” view of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word, the God who strides upon the earth, bringing divine revelation into a hostile world. In preaching John it may be useful to note its position as the final Gospel, making plain the significance of Jesus in a spiritual or theological way. St. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-211) said, “As for John, the last [evangelist], upon seeing that in the Gospels they [i.e., the synoptic evangelists] had told of the corporeal matters, supported by his disciples and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he wrote a spiritual Gospel.” (Quis dives salvabitur 42,1). Similarly, in commenting on John’s placing of Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple,” Origen (ca. 184-254) claims that “John does not always tell the truth literally, but he always tells the truth spiritually” (Commentary on John 10.4.6). St. Augustine similarly said:

These three evangelists, however, were for the most part engaged with those things which Christ did through the vehicle of the flesh of man, and after the temporal fashion. But John, on the other hand, had in view that true divinity of the Lord in which He is the Father’s equal, and directed his efforts above all to the setting forth of the divine nature in his Gospel in such a way as he believed to be adequate to men’s needs and notions…[John] is like one who has drunk in the secret of His divinity more richly and somehow more familiarly than others, as if he drew it from the very bosom of his Lord on which it was his wont to recline when He sat at meat. (De cons. ev. 1.4[7])

Much could be said about the multifold theological themes and literary dynamics of the Johannine Gospel; good commentaries will deal with the standard background issues and themes like light, darkness, life, the world, glory, and so on. (Perhaps the best crash course or refresher on John is the late Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the Gospel of John, intended to be a revised opening chapter to his magisterial commentary on John in the Anchor Yale commentary series, but now published as a separate book.) I wish to focus on John’s overarching story, in which God invades a hostile world in the Incarnation to establish the divine presence in the world in the Church and its sacraments.

I. The World

Astute observers have noted that the Gospel of John is dark indeed, for the “World” (kosmos) is hostile to Jesus Christ and his disciples because it is hostile to God, being under the dominion of Satan. The world does not recognize Jesus (John 1:9); it is sinful (1:29); it stands in need of salvation (3:16); the people of the world prefer darkness to light because their deeds are evil (3:19); it stands under judgment because it stands under satan’s power (12:31); it rejects the Spirit (14:17). Indeed, the world hates both Jesus and his disciples (15:18-19). All is ultimately well, however, for Jesus reminds his disciples, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

What significance might this have for preaching? Jesus Christ and his Church do not hate the World, even if the world hates them. Rather, Jesus (and his Church) loves the world, for God loves the world (cf. John 3:16). But John’s dark description of the enmity that the world has towards us is a stark challenge to much Christian thinking and practice today; sent out as sheep among wolves, we’re often innocent as doves but not wise as serpents (cf. Matt 10:16). True, much good is found in our world, and all its goodness, beauty, and truth is ultimately the Lord’s. Nevertheless, those who know their history (and who pay attention to contemporary events) know that the Church often finds itself in a pitched battle with the world, conquering hate with love, overcoming evil with good, fighting a spiritual battle with implements suited to that task (cf. Eph. 6).

II. Incarnation

In John’s perspective, the World is enemy-occupied territory. God himself thus invades the world in a vulnerable offensive of love in the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in Jesus Christ, in which God becomes meat (in-carnem). John 1, of course, presents the most profound reflection on the Incarnation. We are told in John 1:1-3 that the Word (logos), the second person of the Trinity, was with God, was God, and was an agent of creation. I would emphasize here two items:

(A) The rationality of God: In contemporary culture, many people assume that there exists a broad, ugly ditch between faith and reason, so that religion must be irrational. But this is not the case, and the preacher does well to challenge this point. (Indeed, effective preaching often involves challenging basic assumptions imbibed from the culture with Christian truths.) Logos is the rational principle of creation; it may be translated simply “reason.” Thus, John 1:1 may be paraphrased, “In the beginning was reason, and reason was with God, and God was reason.”

(1) From here the preacher may delve into the relationship between faith and reason, which often overlap (e.g., one can ask, Is “Thou shalt not kill” a truth of faith and revelation or a truth of reason?).

(2) He or she may also discuss the intelligibility of the created order.

(3) Another avenue concerns the Imago Dei, the image of God in humans, especially appropriate as John 1 alludes to Gen 1:1 (“In the beginning God created…”; In the beginning was the Word…”). In Christian history the Imago has been understood in three chief ways:

(a) Rationality: Since God is rational, so are humans, and this rationality separates us from animals (for instance, in St. Augustine’s Letter 120, he writes, “God forbid Christians should denigrate reason, which separates us from animals”). Here the preacher might reflect on humanity’s lofty position in the created order, especially in light of contemporary worldviews and technological processes that challenge that position.

(b) Relationality: As the persons of the Trinity relate to one another, so to do man and woman in marriage related to one another, and indeed the whole human family.

(c) Stewardship: Man and woman have loving dominion over the earth.

(B) That the Word, the logos, the second person of the Trinity is an agent of creation (“All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made,” John 1:3), has profound implications. Many people think of the Father as the Creator, the Son as the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the Sustainer or Sanctifier of creation. But this understanding is fundamentally modalist and thus heretical, and attempts to avoid the masculine Name of the Holy Trinity usually run into this heresy. All three persons of the Trinity are involved in all operations of creation, redemption, and sanctification.  Why is modalism a problem? It imperils revelation. For if we only know God in his modes – as one actor wearing three different masks in a play – we don’t know God himself, but just the masks.

Indeed, the Incarnation is the chief instance of divine revelation, for God has made himself fully known in Jesus Christ: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Now many people have what amounts to an Islamic view of God and Jesus; God remains a monad, a unity (not a trinity) in the heavens, while Jesus is his human prophet. (The legacy of Schleiermacher looms large still today.) And thus often in pastoral practice one encounters people who have a hard time with God and his love for them but feel close to Jesus. But this ought to be gently corrected, as a right understanding of God is requisite for spiritual health: When one sees Jesus, one sees God, and if someone wants to know what God is like, one ought to look at Jesus. The revelation of God in Jesus thus makes possible real relationship, for it is simply easier for a human to relate to another human than to an impersonal divinity (say, like the Deist God, or Plato’s One) or even a personal divinity unmediated by the humanity of the Incarnation.

But the Jesus to which Christians relate is not only the literary figure of the Gospels, a mere character in a story played out long ago. Indeed, John tells us that “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (1:14), and dwells with us still. Literally, that verse says that he “pitched his tent” among us – his tabernacle, an allusion to the tabernacle that accompanied the Israelites in their sojourns, the tabernacle which sheltered the Ark in which the very Presence of God resided. Jesus is thus a new tabernacle, a new temple (as the tabernacle was the forerunner of the two temples, Solomon’s temple and the second temple). Indeed, the narrator makes clear that Jesus’ body is the new temple (“But he spoke of the temple of his body,” 2:21), and as such is the sacrament of God’s presence with us. Where might his body and thus God’s presence be found today?

III. Sacrament

John is a sacramental Gospel, for the Incarnation is the sacrament par excellence. And while the Eucharistic import of John 6 is long contested among interpreters, a subtle triple typology found therein suggests a rather high view of Holy Communion, along the lines of what St. Ignatius of Antioch had in mind when he called the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality” (Eph. 20:2). (Of course, preachers may follow their own informed judgment and traditions on this point.)

In John 6, we have the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle which both looks backward to the feeding of the Israelites with manna in the wilderness and also forward to the Eucharist. Challenging Jesus for a sign, Jesus’ interlocutors remind him that Moses gave their fathers “bread from heaven,” manna in the wilderness (John 6:31). Jesus tells them that it is his Father who gives the true bread from heaven, Jesus himself, the bread of life (6:32-35). After some grumbling, Jesus reiterates his words:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (6:48-51)

After a dispute arises concerning just how one might eat Jesus’ flesh, Jesus states:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever. (6:53-58)

What, then, are the parallels? (1) In the Old Testament, God gives miraculous manna to the people through Moses, and the people eventually die. (2) In the feeding of the five thousand, the Father gives miraculous bread and fish to the people through Jesus (who gave thanks, 6:11, thus involving his Father), and the people eventually die. In each case the food provided sustains the people in their biological life, but it is powerless to provide eternal life; in each case the people ultimately die. But (3) in the case of the Eucharist, the Father has sent the Son, Jesus, in the Incarnation, and then in the Eucharist, a token of the Incarnation, gives the people the bread of life, and the people will live forever.

This is good news: Not just that God sent his Son in the Incarnation to invade a hostile world two millennia ago, but that God is present in the body and blood of his Son who gives his Eucharistic flesh for the life of that world in the present moment. The Eucharist feeds those living in a world where most are starved both of transcendence and immanence, and good preaching will bring congregants to a profound experience of this reality.

IV. Church

John also presents a robust, if subtle, picture of the Church. Just as the Father sent the Son into the world in the Incarnation, Jesus the Son sends forth the disciples into the world, sent forth to spread the divine presence not only in the Church’s Eucharistic celebrations but also through the ministry of reconciliation.

John 13 presents a crucial hermeneutical test case for an issue significant for all the Gospels and Acts: Are the disciples representative of all Christians, serving as examples good and bad for Christian discipleship? Or are the disciples different in kind from other Christians? Put another way, is what is addressed to Jesus’ disciples always addressed also to us?

The answer depends on one’s ecclesiology; the “lower” one’s ecclesiology, the more the disciples are understood as representative of all Christians, the “higher” one’s ecclesiology, the more the disciples are regarded as apostles, bishops and priests and different from us in kind.

Now obviously many things said to the disciples are intended to be heeded by all Christians. On the other hand, certain things are not meant for all Christians; the prime example that comes to mind is Jesus’ giving Peter the keys in Matthew 16. However one interprets the passage, something special and particular is going on with Peter.

These decisions affect how preachers interpret John 13, the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. On one hand, what Jesus teaches the disciples by this example seems incumbent upon all Christians:

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (15:12-15)

On the other hand, the footwashing scene in John 13 traditionally bears on the institution of the priesthood, as the ordination rite for priests under the old covenant involved washing (Ex 29:1-8; Lev 8:1ff). (This is why in the optional Holy Thursday service in many Catholic parishes involves the washing of the feet of males alone, as the rubrics for the service technically specify viri selecti – “chosen males.”)

A second crucial passage concerns the ministry of reconciliation. The risen Jesus appears among the disciples and says:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (20:19-23)

Here we have the traditional institution of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession). Protestants, of course, will understand the passage to concern the ministerial declaration of the forgiveness of sins.

However one understands these passages, whether in a more Catholic or more Protestant way, they teach that the Church is sent into the world by Jesus as God sent Jesus into the world, that the Church is to be God’s alternative community of love in the world, ever more the City of God within the City of Man, marked by humble service and the spirit of reconciliation.


Two more pieces on John:

Holy Thursday, Footwashing, and the Institution of the Priesthood

Look up!” (deals with John’s allegory in a brief, reflective way)