Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Sermons from the Fathers

For those who have the traditions of singing carols, reading the birth narratives of Christ, and generally celebrate when the Light came into he world, enlightening all men, might I suggest reading a Christmas sermon or two?  Maybe one that has stood the test of time?

Here is a list of Christmas sermons I enjoy, from the Fathers.  It is only a beginning.  If you have other recommendations, please leave a comment!

That's all for now!  I'll keep adding as I find and enjoy more!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Problem of Theological Authority

This is a subject that, I suspect, I will return to again and again.  From whence derives theological authority?

If we say the Scriptures:
--which ones?  Who determines the canon, that is, which books are to be read amongst catechumens (learners not yet baptized), which are to be read in the liturgy/mass/service, which are for the mature, which are not allowed?  Alas, our early copies of the Scriptures come without a table of contents!
--which text families?  Who determines whether we use the Byzantine text type, the Textus Receptus, the modern eclectic critical texts?  Should we privilege earlier manuscript traditions, on the assumption that earlier = less adulterated?  Should we privilege the ones that the Church herself has held close, even if the manuscript evidence is later?  Which textual variants (most insignificant, some of utmost importance) should we go with when translating?  What text critical philosophy and translation philosophy shall we adopt?
--which Old Testament?  Masoretic? Septuagint? Vulgate? Peshitta?  Samaritan?  An eclectic combination of all the above?  I've heard, although I don't recall where, one Orthodox argue that the text used is whatever Chrysostom quotes in his sermons.  I'm unaware if a full text has been compiled from his writings -- that would be quite a helpful project to undertake!
--whose interpretation?  Once the dust of canon and texts has settled, the Book still needs interpretation.  Shall it be the individual conscience?  The schoolmen, whether higher critical or not?  Shall it be the Church's?  If so, which Church: Reformed through the Confessions, Roman Catholic through the Magisterium, Orthodoxy through the Fathers/the Councils/theoria?  Shall the interpretation be according to the "Allegory of the Theologians" outlined by Origen, Cassian, and others?  Shall it be according to a redemptive-historical method? A historical-critical method? A canonical method?  A combination of some/all/none of the above?

It is important to note that I am not making any choices here; rather, I am trying to uncover all the issues involved in theological authority.  As you can see, even when thinking just about the Scriptures, the questions to answer are legion.

If we say the Church:
--which Church?  Each version/branch/division/sect/denomination has a different basis of authority, even though they all claim the same divinely-given status.  God is not the god of confusion, but of logos, of order, rationality, of the peace that arises out such a stable (and therefore freedom giving) cosmos.  So, not all the churches can have the same claim to divine authority: this does not automatically mean that they are deriving authority from a demonic source, but they are deriving from some "lesser good(s)" in creation.  It is imperative that this question be answered honestly and frankly, without regards for the possible consequences: the truth must be followed.  Christ has one Church, made up of many members -- but they are united.  The question that then arises is: what is the basis of that unity?  Is it doctrinal?  Is it hierarchical?  Is it Eucharistic?  Is it a combination of some/all/none of the above?
--which definition of "Apostolic Tradition"?
--what do we do with the checkered history of the Church?  How can an entity that drowns Anabaptists, holds a Thirty Years War, has Crusades and Inquisitions, etc. have any moral and spiritual authority?  How could an entity that doesn't go to war for the truth have any moral or spiritual authority?

If we say the individual conscience:
--what about the role of sin (the so-called noetic effects of sin)?  How much has reason, when searching into the things of the holy God, been hampered/distorted/perverted due to the corruption of human nature?
--whose individual conscience?  The history of American evangelicalism and revivalism is full of folks being "led by the Spirit" to say and do and start problematic, often heretical, things.

It is an adage, given to us by St. Paul, that the Holy Spirit is the One who interprets the deep things of God.  St. John reminds us that "no one has seen God at any time...the only begotten Son/God [one of those few important textual variants] has declared [exegeted/interpreted] Him."  In other words, theological authority must derive from the Triune God: Father, Son, Spirit.  But, the question of how we connect to the Spirit is wide open: is it through careful interpretation of the Scriptures (which sends us back to our list of questions above)?  is it through charismatic experience?  Is it through hesychastic prayer?

And so, I'm at the point that I always return to, and have returned to for many years: who has the Spirit?  Which community is the bearer of God's Life?  How would we know?  St. Paul, to his plenipotentiary St. Timothy, writes: "the Church of God...is the pillar and ground/foundation of the Truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).  The Church is the Body of the Resurrected Messiah: she is possessed by the Spirit, is the Body of the Son, and offers worship, on behalf of all, to the Father.  The most prime task, then, is to determine who the Church is.  This leads, of course, to another whole set of questions -- but what more important subject is there in the entire world?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Holiness of Mary

I've heard plenty of sermons, read plenty of books, and participated in plenty of discussions that include, in one form or another, the statement that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a sinner just like us.  I've even heard the phrase "dirty, rotten sinner" used.  However, there is something amiss here.

If Jesus is God (something that I no longer question; my opinion changed when I met Him), then we must consider the dwelling places of God in the Old Testament as we seek to understand Mary.  This also has ramifications for our own existence, as we are dwellings of the Holy Spirit: the symbols of the Tabernacle and the Temple apply to us -- in other words, Leviticus becomes an eminently practical book in the Christian life.

What was the character of God's dwelling places?  Holiness.  Absolute purity on pain of death or exile, whichever comes first.

So, if Mary's womb is the Holy of Holies, where the Word resides, what does that make the rest of her?  The Temple of the Lord.

Will God change His mind about holiness as He takes up residence here?  As He takes human nature from her?  As His human existence becomes the new Temple that shall be destroyed, yet three days later raised up?

Now, this doesn't mean that the latterly developed "Immaculate Conception of Mary" is necessary, from a Biblical/symbolic standpoint.  One would think that after the promulgation of the Protoevangelium of James around the year AD 145, that doctrine would make an appearance: but no dice.  It is, rather, a logical extension of St. Augustine's (errant?) views on the passing of guilt in the human race.

It does entail, though, a level of participation in God's holiness (as He is the only source and possessor of holiness -- it isn't a created 'moral' quality) that seems somewhat unprecedented Biblically (on the human level: the buildings of Temple and Tabernacle had already partook of the incarnational grace): this really isn't bothersome, though, as Mary is no ordinary human, even though she is just like us ontologically.  She is fully human, not a demi-god(dess).  But, she is the "birth-giver to God" (a more precise translation of Theotokos than "mother of God"), a status, role, and honor that no other human being will ever have.

Two possibilities arise from this: either Mary never sinned and was cleansed from ritual impurity by the direct action of God or she sinned but was forgiven.  I'm not sure it really matters: however, we often like to point out the moral failings of Biblical characters, so that we can relate.  Why, though, should that be our default position?  Holiness, righteousness, etc. are about participation with God through His grace, not about moral strength/willpower.  There certainly is an element of struggle (ascesis), but that should spur us on to imitation, not depress us: Mary is human like us, her faithfulness to God is what we should emulate; not whether or not she sinned.

At any rate, there does seem to be an underlying theological principle that the Mother is the symbol of the Bride: in other words, if we want to know what the Church is to be, we need to look to Mary.  The Church is to be a spotless virgin; Mary was a spotless virgin.  The Church is to obey her Lord, for she is His agent of Life in the world; Mary, in her act of obedience ("let it be according to your word"), brings the Life into the world.  The list could go on.  The most telling moment, though, is what Mary says after asking her Son to help at Cana: she turns to those in charge of the festivities and says, "Do whatever He tells you."  Whatever role Mary has (and, for those who follow the Regulative Principle of Worship, "all generations shall henceforth call me blessed"), she should be listened to here: she always will point us towards obedience, for the Life of the world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The First Rule of the Humanities

It isn't what someone, say, Homer, writes; it is how he is interpreted and applied in later generations.


One of the most important, but often overlooked, aspects of engaging in theology is to know when to speak and when to be silent.

Most heresies, it seems, stem from a desire to comprehend God, rather than worship Him within our creaturely limitations.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Face of God (Brief Advent Sermon)

This is a bit premature, as I won't be presenting this until tomorrow night, but here it is anyway.  Otherwise, I'm prone to forget to post it.  The inspiration behind it, if I may use that term, is St. Gregory the Theologian's Oration 38, of which and to whom I am not worthy to hold a candle.  May God be gracious to you during this Advent season.
The Face of God

“No one has seen God at any time…” (John 1:18)

“No one may see My face and live…” (Ex. 33:20)

“And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the might men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the Face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:15-16)

“Woe to me, for I am undone!  Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Is. 6:5)

And yet…

“The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His Face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.  The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Num. 6:24-26)

“If My people, who are called by My Name, will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chron. 7:14)

“When you said, ‘Seek My Face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your Face, Lord, I will seek.’ Do not hide Your Face from me…” (Ps. 27:8-9a)

There is a dual movement in Scripture, both wonderful and paradoxical: we are made to be face-to-Face with God, yet it is this very Face that strikes in us terror, that undoes us, and is invisible to us.  It is not without purpose that St. Paul says, “The blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable Light, whom no man has seen nor can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power.  Amen!” (1 Tim. 6:15-16) Here we seem to be without hope: for how can we see, or seek, or have shine upon us that which seems so far away?

Let us return to the first quote of the night, that from St. John’s Gospel, “No one has seen God at any time…” and finish it: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”  Our desire, our true end, as human beings is to be in the Presence of God; yet this is impossible for us.  However, Jesus Christ, in His Incarnation, the Word and Image and Son of God become flesh “for us and for our salvation” as the Creed puts it, declares the Father.  He is the Image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the visible One of the invisible One, taking human existence to its highest level so that He will tell His disciples, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9)

But there is even more.

Why did God forbid the making of images in the Old Testament?  (Ex. 20:4-6) His Image had not yet been revealed (Deut. 4:15).  Certainly, Adam and Eve were made “in the Image and Likeness of God,” (Gen. 1:26) but through sin instead passed on their own image to their children: “And Adam live on hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Gen. 5:3).  The image of man in Adam could never suffice, since it was a tainted image, one that bore the marks of rebellion and sin and corruption.  All such images could be nothing more than idols, leading us to “exchange the truth of God for the lie, and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25). Christ, who as Son of God is the Image of the Invisible Father, has restored in humankind that Image by taking on our flesh, our full human nature, and redeeming it.  Now, as St. Paul says, we can not only look at the glory of God, but be transformed by it: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18)  Christ’s coming in the flesh, as the God-Man, not only reveals God the Father, but also fulfills God’s good purposes to make us look like Him as well: “For who He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the Image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29).  When we, being transformed and conformed, are seen by those outside, they are to see the Image who is Christ, we are little images, no longer of Adam, but of Christ, who is the Image of God the Father.  For “as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Cor. 15:49).

This season of Advent, we who are unworthy are being invited to see the Face of God in Jesus Christ, the Face that was hidden because of sin and corruption and death.  Let us make haste to join ourselves in union to Christ, to share in His sufferings, to partake of His death, and to be raised from the dead with Him, so that His Face might shine upon us, and we might, reflecting the Light of the World, be a city on a hill, letting our light, the Unapproachable Light of God’s Glory in the Face of Jesus Christ, so shine that those outside might see our good works and glorify, not us, but our Father who is in Heaven (Matt. 5:16).  This Christmas, O Lord, may the words of your prophet be fulfilled in us: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your Name give glory, because of Your mercy, because of Your Truth” (Ps. 115:1).  Amen.