irenaeus_lyons

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.
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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 CatholicCulture.org)

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!

mary eve headshots

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
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Gnosticism

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.”

Foster-Brett-title

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”

john as eagle

The Gospel of John

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

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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.

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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)

papal audience st peters square

Why I Stay

Elizabeth Scalia has challenged every Catholic with some sort of internet access to write a brief piece explaining why he or she stays Catholic, instead of leaving, in the wake of a recent Pew report that suggests Catholics continue to leave the Church in steady droves. So sure, I’ll bite and freewrite from the gut, no revisions, as I’m under the gun on too many projects.

I suppose the short answer is: Because I just got here.

I was reconciled with the Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. “Reconciled with” more than “received into.” Quick version: I was baptized Catholic but raised Lutheran from about six years old, for reasons which need not detain us now. I had an intense conversion experience as a young teen involving a fairly dramatic healing. I kept going to my Lutheran parish but started hanging out in baptist and Assemblies of God youth groups. Halfway through college I returned to the tradition of the magisterial Reformation (Luther, Calvin), finding there a theology and spirituality more substantive than what was on offer elsewhere.

In college I also had a good Catholic friend who planted seeds, as it were, that finally sprouted several years ago. He made sure none of us were under any illusions regarding what the Catholic Church did and didn’t teach. My Protestant friends and I were the most well catechized Protestants on the planet.

Fast forward: I get married in 1997, a year out of college. I go to Princeton for my M.Div. and Duke for my Ph.D. in New Testament. I take a job at a wonderful evangelical school. And finally having a real job, my wife and I get serious about starting a family. And so after about ten years of marriage, we finally get around to asking what marriage is for on a deep level.

And we run square into Catholic teaching on marriage, sex, and family, particularly JPII’s reflections on human love (what’s popularly known as the “Theology of the Body”) in its authentic, strong version, as JPII actually taught it. We decide on Scriptural, historical, and philosophical grounds the Catholic Church is right on these matters.

Once you decide contraception is evil, and also decide that that conviction really matters, there’s only a few places to go. Either you wind up Catholic, or you join some fundamentalist sect.

Other factors too: As a new professor in an evangelical context teaching precious young souls for whom Christ died, I found the theological dissonance among my colleagues and me unbearable. Students would ask me their deepest intellectual and personal questions (I’m getting married, should we use contraception? I think I’m gay, what do I do? I have an opportunity with ROTC to learn to slit throats–is that OK? I’m pregnant, do I baptize my baby? I’ve never been baptized, do I take communion at the all-school service? etc.) and I could give them good answers, but no answers that were ultimately authoritative, with their truth grounded in anything other than my own wits. I could give a good answer, but my colleague next to me could give another and my colleague on the other side a third. In spite of our common commitment to Scriptural authority, almost everything seemed up for grabs. With Newman, I decided that authoritative interpretation required an authoritative interpreter.

And then kids came. Our first was born in 2008, our second on the way and would be born late summer 2010. How do we raise them?

More reasons: The beauty of the Mass, especially in the extraordinary form, the deep sacramentality of Catholic prayer, eucharistic adoration, the cultural resistance the Church is able to offer to the latest deleterious fads and fashions, the Church’s commitment to beauty, goodness, truth, to reason and nature, to God and the human race.

We got to a point where everything other option seemed derivative, flat, sepia-toned, in comparison, in spite of the faith and goodness often found elsewhere. (New flash: Baptized Protestants and evangelicals are Christians.) With Walker Percy, we found ourselves saying, “What else is there?” So we plunged, believing that the Catholic Church was “the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.”

I think most Catholics who leave the Catholic Church never really believe that claim, deep down. For many, religion is a consumer affair, and when they tire of or get offended by the Catholic brand, they switch or quit. Others (thinking of my friend Rod Dreher) did believe that claim deeply but have horrifying experiences and existential crises. A few believe it deeply but come to believe otherwise deeply for whatever reason.

But for us, that’s the claim we believe. And so when we run into headaches, when something in the Catholic world horrifies or annoys us, local or far afield, we’re not shocked. The Church on earth is composed of fallen humans clergy and lay whose fallenness and finitude remains even after baptism.

Knowing history helps: I just completed Sigrid Undset’s biography of St. Catherine of Siena. Whatever is happening today in the twenty-first century, we don’t have a papacy in Avignon, we don’t have multiple claimants to the throne of Peter, we don’t have cardinals leading armies and crushing cities.

I often think of Chesteron’s Five Deaths of the Faith in The Everlasting Man. I often wonder if he were around today if he’d speak of the last few decades as the Sixth Death of the Faith, given the precipitous drop in mass attendance and vocations as well as the fundamental infidelity surveys betray. Then there’s the situation in the Rheinland…ach. But we figure if the Church survived the prior five, she’ll survive anything: Five times “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.”

Some of us do better, some worse, but the Church remains. Our job in spite of whatever nonsense and sin and silliness we encounter is to endure in joy, to pray and to love, in Jesus, in the Catholic Faith. Our attitude is that of Frank Sheed:

We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope (John Paul II), but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the church, although I might well wish that they would leave.

Richardton St Mary's Assumption Abbey

A long weekend at Assumption Abbey

One of the treasures of western North Dakota is Assumption Abbey in Richardton. It’s about an hour west of Bismarck (the way I drive, at least), making it easily accessible.

I find myself spending a decent amount of time there, at least recently. Kari and I took our kids there for their open house some weeks back; I teach Bible there every now and then for deacon aspirants and candidates; and I go on retreat there.

It’s been a long year. Not a lot of drama, but a grind. For me, part of that’s been family, with the addition of little Max; instead of zone or man to man, my wife and I have been playing penalty kill 3-2 while I’ve tried to keep up a schedule involving teaching, administration, writing, and some speaking. Often I’ve been too busy or too tired to go fishing. To. Go. Fishing. That tells you something, because fishing is one of the things–perhaps the main thing–that keeps me grounded. Lately sometimes I feel like I should declare, “I will fish no more forever.”

The other thing, of course, that keeps me grounded, that refreshes me, is the regular rhythm of prayer that Catholics (and in similar ways, other liturgical Christians) practice–Mass, rosary, the liturgy of the hours, adoration, family devotions. But in the grind that was this academic year, I practiced those things all too often with too little consistency, too little depth.

So it’s time to retreat to Richardton. The first part of this weekend I’ll teach the letters of Paul to deacon candidates, and the second part of the weekend into next week our Theology department will have its now-annual retreat. For us, theology isn’t merely intellectual, but a matter of encountering the Triune God in prayer and liturgy; as St. Bonaventure said, Et non sufficit ad habendam sapientiam scholastica sine monastica; quia non audienda solum, sed observando fit homo sapiens–loosely, It does not suffice to have academic learning without monastic wisdom, for it is not only hearing, but doing, that makes a human being. (Note in the Latin the link between sapientiam scholastica sine monastica and homo sapiens which I’ve managed to occlude in the translation.)

And I need it. It’s time to recollect, to gather myself, to catch my spiritual breath, in the beauty that is Assumption Abbey.

(The picture is the main church at the Abbey, St. Mary’s, which functions also as Richardson’s community parish.)

Grunewald-Crucifixion-detail-1

The Four Watches of This Night

“But about that day or the hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Keep awake, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, watch—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.” (Mark 13:32-37)

Observe: “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…” — not 24 hours, but about 12, through the watches of the night. Jesus’ last night is about to run right through that sequence:

(1) Jesus betrayed at the Last Supper at evening: “When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’” (Mark 14:17-18)

(2) Jesus finds the disciples “sleeping” in Gethsemane, having failed to keep “watch” (cf. Mark 13:36-37, end of the above), presumably at midnight, when “the hour” (cf Mark 13:32!) comes:

“He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?'” (Mark 14:37)

He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’” (Mark 14:41-42)

(3) Peter denies Jesus at cockcrow: “And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.” (Mark 14:72)

(4) Jesus handed over to Pilate at dawn: “As soon as it was dawn, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” (Mark 15:1)

Mark’s literary-theological point: In the “Parable of the Doorkeeper” above (Mark 13:32-27), Jesus tells the disciples several times over to “watch” and not be found sleeping precisely because they do not know “the hour,” which could come at evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn. They fail to watch, Jesus finds them sleeping, and they miss “the hour” that very night, when Jesus is arrested.

Mark is saying be prepared at all times for “the hour,” for it will come suddenly; indeed, it came for Jesus the very night he gave the teaching. So sudden it already happened.

This very night.

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Joyeux Noël

A holiday film not for the whole family: Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005/2006, French & German & English with subtitles), a great film about the WWI Christmas truce.

German film really picked it up over the past 15 years, I think; still artistic but also (how else to put it?) watchable, and indeed entertaining, whether we’re talking about The Edukators or Sophie Scholl: The Final Days or Good Bye Lenin!  Seems to be to case with European and international film more generally; Joyeux Noël is French-produced but features German actors Diane Kruger (who’s been popular in the US as well, of course), Benno Fürmann, and Daniel Brühl, and is a strong film.

Two reasons to watch it, in lieu of a formal review:

(1) The Stille Nacht/Adeste Fidelis sequence (grainy YouTube here). Haunting. That’s part of the broader theme of…

(2) …the religious concerns of the film, primarily the implicit lament of the loss of Christian Europe thanks to the rise of nationalism. In the midst of the truce, the film envisions the Scottish priest celebrating Mass for all the soldiers of the three nationalities (Scots, French, German) there present (which unfortunately I can’t find on YouTube). He begins, Dominus vobiscum, and all respond, et cum spiritu tuo.

It’s in Latin, of course. My own reaction (whatever the film’s intent) was that this signified a lost time when Europe was united in a common faith, a common rite, a common language. Catholic faith and the Catholic Mass make for unity and peace, whereas the rejection of that faith and Mass with the rise of nationalism in the late middle ages and early modern period leads to bloodshed. The blood of our tribes may be thicker than the waters of baptism, but it sure seems to spill easier…

By contrast, later in the show a different chaplain preaches to fresh Scottish recruits, encouraging them to kill and kill some more for God and Country–every last German, young or old. The scene ends with The Lord be with you / and also with you, and a Trinitarian blessing. In English. In the vernacular. To be honest, I’m not sure if this second chaplain is Catholic, or Church of England, or Presbyterian, or what, given the visuals of the scene.

I haven’t been able to find commentary on this, but it seems to me the film invites the viewer to consider a contrast between a Europe united in faith, rite, and language, and a Europe divided by nations, confessions, and languages.

We can’t go back, and nostalgia is a soft form of the deadly sin of sloth. But we lament, and repent, and learn. And remember this holiday season that Christ, the everlasting man in whom all men and women of whatever nation find themselves, who is indeed the ruler of all nations, is the One who gives peace, and not as the world gives, not any temporary truce or armistice, but Peace.

(streaming here at Amazon)