Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sermon: Luke 2:22-40

The text of a sermon given at First Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls this Sunday.  I'm thankful for their warm hospitality.

“After the Feast”

We’ve just come out of the great celebration of our God and Savior’s nativity.  The stockings have been emptied, the packages unwrapped, the tinsel is in various states of decay.  Our bellies may still be smarting from the feasts we’ve had in the last month or so: worry not, January 1 starts our national two week diet, where we foreswear anything rich and vow to visit the gym.  Many of us have spent the last month reflecting on some aspect of the Incarnation, that event – still ongoing – in which God takes human nature to Himself and is born of a Virgin.  And so we celebrate Christmas.  However, once all is said and done, we don’t really know what to do with ourselves until Easter.  Jesus Christ, the old trope goes, came to do three days’ work.  His whole mission, we are told, is to die and rise again.

While there is truth in those sayings, they miss some very important things about the Incarnation that can only be seen if we slow down, read the texts, and pray for their application to our hearts.  With that in mind, we turn to our passage in Luke’s account of the Gospel.  Here we see what, to our eyes, looks like an odd scene: Jesus being presented in the Temple, His Mother going through the purificatory rites outlined in Leviticus 12.  The point that St Luke seems to be making, one he will make again, is that this Jesus has fulfilled the Law of Moses.  Not just some parts, but all.  The reason that the Law was given, as the Lord will say later on, is that it pointed to Him and prepared the world for His arrival: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (24:44).  Christ fulfills the Law, not so that we can ignore it and neglect it, but to bring about the purposes for which is was given – the point, or the end, of the Law, as St Paul calls Christ in the Epistle to the Romans: “For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4).

In fulfilling the Torah of Moses, our Lord also supercedes it: it is the shadow, He is the reality.  There is, then, a bit of irony in the passage: the most pure Lord, holiness Himself, who cannot dwell in uncleanness, is brought to the Temple by His Mother, Mary, in whom He dwelled, for her purification.  The sacrifices here, then, show themselves to be types that are passing away: the blood of pigeons and doves is no longer necessary as the presence of God Himself in her womb, plus the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at the conception, renders her clean.  By bringing the Lord and the sacrifices to the Temple, the old system has been brought to completion and, as the author to the Hebrews tells us, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.  Now what is obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13).

This might, though, lead us astray into thinking that, really, for all practical intents and purposes, the Law can be neglected.  To do so, though, would mean that we miss what the Law was actually about.  Why did God spend so much time in Exodus giving the plans for the Tabernacle and then repeat them, almost word for word, when it was constructed?  Why so much space detailing the sacrifices and holy days and procedures for priests and laity in Leviticus and Deuteronomy?  If He was just going to fulfill it and cast it aside, why have it in our Bibles?  Take a second and consider the word “fulfill.”  What does it mean?  If you have a glass of water, and you “fulfill” it, you do two actions: you bring it to its intended point (to hold liquid) and to its fullness – you fill it full.  For Christ to fulfill the Law and the Prophets does not mean He abolishes them, according to His own teaching in Matthew’s account (5:17); no, it means He invests them with the fullness of their purpose and brings them to completion.  In the case of the Temple, and the sacrifices, and cultic regulations, consider the great OT promise: “I will be their God, and they shall be My people, and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 29:45; Ez. 37:26, 27).  God, St John tells us, has come to dwell among us in Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14); St Paul tells us that “for in [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Deity in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).  We can extend this, though: from whence did Christ receive this Temple that is His Body?  From Mary.  She has become a Temple of the Lord, in which He dwelt.  And who is Christ’s Body?  The Church.  All the OT provisions, and teaching, and regulations about Temple, sacrifice, cultus, priesthood speak of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and because they speak of Him, they speak of us who are joined to Him by faith and baptism.  When you read the OT, certainly you are reading about the history of Israel, but more urgently you are reading about the life in Christ.  You are reading about God’s purposes for the world, to make His whole human creation a clean and spotless dwelling place.  A place free of sin and corruption and death; a place of holiness and righteousness; a place where His glory might shine out to all the world, as St Paul says, “Do all things without complaining and arguing, that you might become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philip. 2:15).

Christ’s mission, which of course will culminate in His death and resurrection, is so much more than we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine: He came to construct the Temple of God, we the stones and He the substance.  How, though, shall we become the holy stones of God’s cosmic Temple, the pure Body of Christ?  How can we, different in ages and vocations, temperaments and abilities, join together with one heart and one mind to be built upon the one foundation of “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20)?  Let us turn to the end of our Gospel reading for today.  It is another one of those curious moments that make us scratch our heads: “And the Child grew and become strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (2:40).  Why, if Jesus is “the fullness of the Deity in bodily form,” does He need the grace of God to be upon Him?  How can He become strong in spirit?  Whatever the Lord does, let us remember, He does for the sake of those He is remaking in His Image.  It is not because His divine nature is limited by the flesh that He grows and so on, but for our sake.  He becomes what we are – including going through all our stages of life – so that we might become what He is, as St Irenaeus of Lyons tells us.  All our earthly existence is taken up by our Savior so that we might, in the midst of our earthly life, take up His heavenly existence.  If you are a child, do not fret that you cannot be holy, cannot know God, until you are an adult.  No, Christ was an infant in perfect communion with His Father, Christ was a child who knew His God intimately, Christ was a teenager able to be filled with wisdom, an adult who did His Father’s will.  He has done this for us, but more He has taken the great limitations of our current existence, sin and death, and has defeated them on the Cross.  What is stopping us from becoming like Him?  You have, as the Epistle reading for today declared, “received adoption as children” and so “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:5-6).  You are a son of God because He is the Son of God: you have died to your sins and to death itself because He has died for our sins and trampled down death by His death.  Now, instead of cowering at the dread judgment of God which will come upon all those who “suppress the Truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) leading to their share in the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), you will instead cry out “Abba! Father!” and, in the words of today’s Psalm, “Praise the Lord!”

We have, like Simeon, seen the Lord’s salvation.  We must go a step further, though; as members of His Body, we have a part, a share, in that salvation.  The world is saved by Christ through us.  Shall we not then say, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (62:1)?  The book of Revelation speaks of this.  The seer, John, is shown a vision by one of the attendant angels who says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the Lamb’s wife.”  “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.”  Note, here, that St John expands our understanding of the OT once again: not only is the Church the fulfillment of the Temple, but she is also the fulfillment of Jerusalem.  When we read that Zion is “the apple of [God’s] eye” in Zechariah 2:8, it is speaking of us.  Read Psalm 48 and “Walk about Zion, and go all around her.  Count her towers; mark well her bulwarks; consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following.  For this is God, our God, forever and ever.”  More than this, though, her destiny, to be filled with glory of God so that she “shines out like the dawn,” leads to “the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it.  Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there).  And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it.  But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev. 22:9-10, 24-27).

The last verse given returns us to the question posed at the beginning: now that the Feast of Christ’s Nativity is over, what shall we do?  We shall seek to be indwelt by Christ, to shine out His glory, and to be purified from all unrighteousness, as St Paul admonishes us, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).  Christ’s coming among us, His birth and His growing through all the stages of human life, is a great gift from our God and Savior, but it is a high calling as well.  All our lives are to have the aroma of Christ, the scent of His sacrifice on the Cross, so that we, becoming conformed unto His death, might share in His resurrection life for the life of the whole world.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Christian Ethics

The point of the Christian life is not to become a better, more moral person.  The end, the telos, is to become Christ: not just to be like Him, but to participate in His Life and His Body.  If we think about this, though, this precludes all moral striving.  No matter how hard we work, we will never be filled with the Holy Spirit and so share in the divine nature.  Hence the necessity of faith, not just as rational (or even moral) assent, but coming under the authority and obedience of the King who offers the grace (Himself) so to do.  To become Christ is the goal: who is Christ?  He is the theandros, the God-Man, one who in His Person as the Word indivisably and unconfusedly unites the divine and the human natures.  How are we in any way to attain to Him?  We are human persons, who through faith in baptism are filled with the Holy Spirit who shares His nature with us.  This is why the Spirit rested on Christ in His baptism; this is why our Lord did nothing without the Spirit in His sojourn; so that we might, as sons of God remade in the pattern of the Son of God, might be joined with the Spirit for our salvation.  To acquire the Spirit, then, is the goal of the Christian life.  To acquire the Spirit is to become Christ; to become Christ is to become divine, glorified, theotic.  Here is where the central importance of the Tabernacle cultus and liturgy, detailed in the middle of the Torah, becomes so key: the Law was never about becoming moral, it was about becoming a Temple: pure, undefiled, holy.  A place for God to dwell.  The whole point of the commandments of God is not to make Him happy, as if our Lord needs that emotion (the One God dwells in blessedness of which happiness is but a pale shadow), no, the point of the commands is to be prepared for God's residence within us.  But, just as the unclean always threatened the sanctity of the holy courts, so sin, death, Satan, and the disordered passions threaten Christ's Holy Temple, His Body, the Church.  This makes the Law not about ascent to God to curry favor, but about guarding sacred ground: ethics, then, is priestly work.

This is why St Silouan the Athonite's dictum that "My brother is my life" is so important: the priests are not doing an individual task, but the collective work of protection and sanctification of the Church.  I cannot do my work as a priestly guardian without reference to my brothers and sisters, nor without their constant aid and intercession so for strength and forgiveness of sins (which, to digress briefly, is why the communion of saints is so vital).  All are saved together, none are saved alone.

It is worth noting that in the cultic regulation there are two categories of defilement: sin and symbols of death.  Sin is, in Levitical terms, the conscious breaking of the Torah, which leads to death (whether as a consequence of the action, i.e. murder or the death penalty, or on the social level, i.e. adultery shredding families apart).  The symbols, though, are those things that are not inherently sinful, but still reference death, especially as inherited through Adam.  An example would be the regulations concerning childbearing (Lev. 12): after a woman gives birth, she must go through a period of ritual purification after the flow of blood dams.  Then she must, if she is to readmitted to the Temple, offer a "sin offering."  Why?  Has she sinned?  No, rather the term is better understood as "purification offering" (cf. Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus): since Eve, childbearing has been a sign of both hope ("your Seed shall crush the serpent's head...") and the consequences of death ("greatly will I increase your pains in childbearing").  A birth symbolizes the curse on Eve, but it is not insurmountable: there will come One who will save all women through being born by a virgin.  This second category, the symbols of death, are fully dealt with by the destruction of death through the Resurrection.  No longer do menstruations or child bearings make women unclean and disallowed from worship of the true God (one has only to reach in faith for the fringes of the Lord's garment to be fully healed!).  Sin, however, remains as a defiling agent; here is why St Paul, for example, speaks of various actions, attitudes, and lifestyles as defiling or polluting the people of God.

To return to the main point, we know that the power of sin is strong enough, compelling enough (why else would our first parents even countenance the serpent?), and pervasive enough that we cannot resist it.  Here is where our brothers and sisters come in, especially those who have had their passions healed and purified ("saints"): they can offer us forgiveness.  Now, some might say, only God can forgive sins!  True!  God is the only One who forgives sins and He deigns to do it through the intercessions, through the rebukes, through the gentle and stern corrections of others.  The root of forgiveness, which is often lost in our overly legal culture, is release: the Church, as the Body of the Christ, undoes the bonds that hold us tight.  And the Lord promises (and warns) that if we forgive the trespasses of our brother and sister, our own trespasses are forgiven as well.  We are set free as we set others free.  This is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of the world.  This is, not morals and ethics, but entering the Cross, actualizing baptism, becoming the body, sharing the One Loaf, salvation.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A True Horror of Death

James Baldwin calls death "our inescapable fact."

It is in the midst of this that I think the modern world has failed...and that monumentally.  We seek to push death to the side, as death -- and the human necessities of caring for the dying and honoring the dead -- is not economically efficient (at the same time, however, death is particularly efficient as it clears out those who have become "obsolete," an insight brought to us with particular tragic clarity by Steve Jobs).  Death shows up our industrial and informational economy for what it is: a mask that, as Paschal said, we place before our faces to stop us seeing the Abyss we are running into.

A good friend and teacher died this week.  In the midst of grading and term endings, of preparing for Christmas, it is hard to find time to mourn.  But, at the same time, in the face of one of the most solemn moments in a human's history, how can grading and shopping be important?  No, there is a necessity to attend to the dead one, not as a "memory" but as an Image-Bearer, a proto-Icon, who now awaits resurrection with her Lord.  Her death, actualized in her physical body this week, was accomplished on the Cross and participated in with her baptism.  Her union with Christ, far from making her body a "shell" or some such, makes it a holy object: something that tangibly will rise on the Last Day, fully sharing in the Glory, the Eternal Life, of God Himself.  Her death becomes a testament, not to death's power, but to its futility: Death, thou shalt die.

In the meantime, though, we see the power of death, futile though it ultimately may be, to drive us to despair.  I was playing with my youngest daughter moments before I learned of my friend's death.  As we sat there, building blocks, I saw her as she truly is: an instantiation of love from my wife and I.  She is the outpouring of shared love.  I'm speaking ontologically, she is the natural hypostatization of our marital love.  This goes beyond symbolic gestures to something iconic: to truly see her is to see the Image of God, who with His Father and Spirit, is love.  Here is why death is such a terror.  Love shares His nature with us: eternal and at peace.  Death breaks asunder that bond and consigns love to the void.  It is the most unnatural of things, for it seeks to break apart that which is our very nature.  If Death can do that, what hope have we?

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life."

Hallelujah.  Here is the love as strong as death, as jealous as the grave.  No, in fact we must go beyond the Song and say here is the love stronger than death, more jealous than the grave, the One who will conquer Death and Hades for us and with us.


My dear friend, Martha, rest in peace until the Day of Resurrection.

Monday, December 08, 2014

"Is Born This Day"

Below is my homily from Chapel PCA's Advent Service, to which I was graciously invited by Pastor John Gardner.  The Incarnation changes everything.


When God the Father fashioned the mud into the likeness of the Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, He honored His creation in its physicality, in its separateness from Himself.  There is a distinction, which can never be confused, between the Uncreated God and created man.  God could, by His grace, unite Himself to that creation and thereby glorify it, which St Paul in the book of Romans says it our ultimate end (5:2, 8:30, etc.).  Man, through Adam and Eve, added a further distinction, though, a tragic one: through sin they broke the communion between God and themselves, introducing death into the world.  They who were to partake of the Glory of God, which is His eternal Life, instead began to sup with death, corrupting not only their minds and souls, but their bodies as well.  The constant refrain of the book of Genesis is “and so he died.”  God is Life, Existence, Being Himself, in whom dwells no death.  He is Holy.  And so God instituted, first through types and symbols, His redemption of His creation by becoming human so that He “might taste death for everyone” and that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:9, 14).  The advent of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, is for us the beginning of holiness, the holiness that is our salvation.

There is a wonderful scene in Luke’s Gospel in which our Lord is traveling to raise a young girl from the dead.  As he passes through the crowds, He feels power go out from Him.  It turns out a woman with an unstoppable blood flow had reached out and touched His garments.  For the crowds, this would have been horrifying: ritual pollution, the effect of both death and sin, would pass from the unclean and make any who were clean desecrated.  Such is what had been revealed in the Law of Moses.  However, in this case, the reverse happened: the blood flow was dammed and Christ remained clean.  The Holy One was cleansing the whole world of sin and death and their corruptive effects by His coming among us.  His taking on of physical human nature, body, mind, will, activity, brought the purgation of our sins and of death itself.  The implications of this were not unknown to the early teachers of the Church:

He therefore passed through every age becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise, He was an elder for elders, that he might be a perfect master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards that age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also and becoming likewise an example to them. Then, at the last, He came unto death itself, that he might be the firstborn of the dead, that in all things he might have the preeminence, “the Prince of Life,” existing before all and going before all (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 22, Section 4).

All stages of life “under the sun” have been remade through Christ’s presence in the flesh.  Through His virginal conception and birth, He has sanctified marriage, motherhood, and virginity.  Through His infancy and childhood, His adolescence and adulthood, He has sanctified those and shown us how to live “soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Tit. 2:11).  He has sanctified water at His baptism, bread and wine in His offering of Himself to us, and all the “trees of the Lord” (Ps. 104:16) have been blessed by His crucifixion.  Most of all, though, He has harrowed and hallowed death by His sinless residence and resurrection from there.  Now He, who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and therefore was not under the dominion of death, has risen with His flesh for our salvation.  We can, St Paul tell us, partake of this holiness, this freedom from death, through faith exercised in baptism: “Or do you not know that as many of us were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).

Christ’s birth, the Uncreated as the created, the divine as the human, is the fulfillment of Zechariah’s great prophecy: “In that day, HOLINESS TO THE LORD shall be engraved on the bells of the horses.  The pots in the Lord’s house shall be like the bowls before the altar.  Yes, every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be HOLINESS TO THE LORD OF HOSTS.  Everyone who sacrifices shall come and take them and cook in them.  In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of Hosts” (14:20-21).  If the Lord makes the pots and pans and horse bells holy, how much more us, who with great expectation celebrate His coming among us to liberate us from death and sin, the cosmic Canaanites?  Praise God for His honoring and blessing of all created reality in the enfleshing nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ!  Amen.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Tale of Arius and St Nick

Here is, as far as I'm able today, the Tale of Arius and St Nick.

I will be reading it for Geneva's "12 Hours of Christmas" today.

Merry Christmas, one and all!


Gather 'round children for a tale rarely told
of how Christmas was 'bout lost
save for one saint who was bold.
It all happened at the council called Nice
where they were debating long and hard
about the substance of Christ.
Was he man or God in the flesh
or some other angelic creature
caught up in human mesh?
The bishops and priests down Egypt way
had stirred up this controversy
and the Emperor wanted a say.
"Who cares," ol' Constantine said,
"innit enough that he was born, suffered,
and been raised from the dead?"
But Alexander and Arius had come to blows
for something greater was at stake here
greater than many would suppose.
For if Christ weren't God, how could he save
us sinful, fragile mortals
e'er bound for the grave?

So a council was called and some 300 drew near
to debate and to explicate
what had become so unclear.
Arius, the bad guy in this story,
stood up to recite his poem,
and deprive the Lord of His glory.
But, lo and behold, who should appear,
but Ol St Nick, episcopally vested
(he had no tiny reindeer).
And, oh it makes me want to clap,
he planted on Arius' blasphemous mouth
not a kiss, but a fine, resounding slap.
"No heresy from you today,"
that angelic bishop
only managed to say.
No sooner had he started to speak
but the King jailed him up,
his regal scruples far too weak.
"No symbols of office for that,
no, no staff and no cloak
and no bishop's hat!"
The small beam of light carried by a punch
seemed extinguished so quickly
with Dino's mind out to lunch.
No bells would ever ring, no stockings hung with care,
Christ was no longer a savior,
as Arius triumphed without St Nicholas there.

But, o Virginia, don't you let yourself cry,
for that night in his cell,
did our saint a wonder espie!
"Merry Christmas," Christ and His Mother did shout,
"here's all your episcopal fine
and from that cell come thee out!"
A miracle the wonder cannot be told
as St Nick walked back to the council
to applause a hundred-fold!
Airy did shirk, and Constantine did shudder
as Nicholas came back
to steer that ship's rudder!
"Ho ho homoousias!  One essence with the Father!
Christ is very God and very man,
Otherwise why bother?"
The Emperor, upon seeing, they do say,
changed his mind and his heart
grew two sizes that day.
So now, from atop his golden throne,
he championed that bishop,
and true orthodoxy alone!

And that, dear children, is the story true
of how one Saint Nicholas of Myra
saved Christmas for me...and for you.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Scriptures and the Traditions of Men

In Mark 7, Jesus is excoriating the Pharisees for their subversion of God's commandments.  He says, "For laying aside the commandments of God, you hold the tradition of men -- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do...All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition...making the Word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down.  And many such things you do" (vv. 8-13).

A couple of days ago, Pete Enns had a nice post about faulty "rhetorical strategies" used in evangelical circles to dismiss or avoid substantive arguments.  If you've read the post, I'm sure you've seen exactly what he is referring to.  I think that the Lord's words here are often mishandled to make them into such a rhetorical strategy: anything that happens in the Church that is not according to *my* reading of Scripture is a "tradition of men" and therefore automatically suspect.  Usually this is followed with an argument meant to show how *my* reading is the "plain sense" or "obvious" reading.  However, here lurk some dragons to which we must attend.

On a superficial level, we have the problems of translation: what is the proper reading of the Scriptures in our language?  Even literal translations can differ significantly from each other: which one represents the true Word of God?  (Is it possible that multiple translations or, even, multiple textual variants could all be inspired, however we understand that word?)

Going one level deeper: which text is the true text, the one that preserves the "original" reading (if, in fact, any such thing ever existed)?  Byzantine, Majority, Textus Receptus, modern eclectic texts?

Going yet further: which canon is the authoritative one?  Protestants suppose it is, basically, the canon as set by Luther and his successors.  But why privilege that one over the ones (yes, plural) that the Church had used since at least the fourth century (as evidenced by St Athanasius' 39th Festal Letter, more on that in a moment): the Catholic or the Orthodox or the Coptic?

Each of these decisions is, properly, a "tradition of men."  Each one comes not from the Scriptures themselves, but the minds and hearts of many people over a long period of time.  Who decided the Christian canon?  While I have read arguments that Sts Paul and Peter determined it in Rome in the first century, no one really gives any historical credence to that theory.  No, the Church, based on her experience of bringing people to Christlikeness (theosis) and her union with Holy Spirit, privileged some books over others.  Athanasius speaks about this (seemingly traditioned) process thusly:

"3. In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance."

He is pastorally listing out those books which are "handed down" (that is, traditioned) and "accredited as Divine" (that is, inspired).  These he will set against the "hidden" or "apocryphal" books.  Care must be taken here, as "apocrypha" means something very different today.

"4. There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament."

Fairly standard definition of the OT canon, at least from our historical vantage point, save for some difference in the order and composition of the Prophets (you thought Malachi was the last book of the OT, didn't you?).  Baruch does make an appearance here, which already raises the question of why he is absent in modern Protestant bibles.  We might argue that St Athanasius isn't the authority on biblical canonicity, but then again, who is?  Who has the authority to set the canonical limits?  If the battle is between the Reformers and Athanasius, I'm going to have to side with the Alexandrian.

"5. Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John."

The NT in all her glory, laid out for us.  But why, if the Scriptures are self-evidently the Scriptures (an assumption behind the problem I'm writing about), do we need to have clarity about which ones are in and which are out?  Because it isn't self-evident.  The Scriptures are the book(s) of the Church, collected, preserved, and handed down from one generation to another.  There is no divine "table of contents" in the front: rather, these books are part of the larger Tradition of the Church.  Hence, the Church (whatever that exactly is), as historical community filled with the Spirit of God, decides which books are truly "theopneustos" or "inspired" (2 Tim. 3:16).  What about all those others books, which we call apocryphal?

"7. But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings."

These books that we now call "apocryphal" Athanasius did not.  They weren't quite Canon -- that is, the were not for the public services of the Liturgy -- but they were to be read, particularly by catechumens.  Preliminary reading, in other words.

The canon of Scripture, which books are in and which are out for the purpose of "doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16 again), was established by the "pillar and ground of the Truth, the Church of the living God" (1 Tim. 3:15) through the wisdom bestowed on Her by the Holy Spirit.

All this to say that the argument that some interpretations are "traditions of men" instead of the "plain reading" of the Scriptures are fraught with complexity, to say the least.  The Scriptures do not exist in a vacuum and should not be treated that way.  There are more part of interpretation, especially the indwelling of the Spirit through holiness of life, that need to be taken into account.  The Lord Jesus Christ can rightly use this argument, as He is the Truth that the Scriptures witness to.

There is no reading, for us, outside of some tradition.  The question for us is, which tradition is the tradition of God?  Certainly, we must be on the lookout for those who would sneak in things that lead us away from Christlikeness (Athanasius makes a point of this in some of the portions I didn't quote; St Paul does as well in Colossians); but, unless we possess the Spirit (or better, the Spirit possesses us) we must be humble as to what the "plain reading" of the Scriptures are and, to take it a step further, what Church practices really are "commandments of God" versus the "tradition of men."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sermon: 2 Cor. 3:7-18

My sermon for Washington Union Alliance Church in New Castle, Pa. I'm always warmly welcomed and encouraged by their fellowship. I ended up doing quite a bit of extemporaneous exposition that is not recorded here. I was also overwhelmed at my own unworthiness to handle God's Word and to think about teaching it to others. As St Cosmas said, "Not only am I not worthy to teach you, but not even worthy to kiss your feet, for each of you is worth more than the entire world."

The Christian Faith is hard. There seems to be an idea, put forth both by those outside the Faith and those inside, that once you know Jesus, everything is automatically put right, all questions are answered, every struggle finished. We often like to live as if that were true as well; we put on the imagery of the happy Christian couple, the perfect Christian family, the well-adjusted Christian worker. Yet, we know – usually by hard experience – that this isn’t the case. Any respite from the temptations to sin, or freedom from the heartache that seems to define our human experience, is hard won and even harder kept. The Corinthians, our ancient brothers and sisters in Christ, knew this to be the case. We have only to look through the first epistle we have to them from St Paul to see this: factions divided over which Apostolic leader to follow, abuse of one another during Communion, sexual immorality that even the rather loose pagans of their metropolis found abhorrent; how can the Apostle speak here, in today’s passage, about “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”? How can he speak so boldly of glory and us seeing it without needing a veil over our eyes or our hearts?

Paul, as he often does, retells a story from the Old Testament. He doesn’t do this so that he can have a pleasing anecdote on the way to the real point; no, he reads the Old as a way of pointing to Jesus. What God has done in the past is what He has perfected in the incarnate Lord Christ. In his previous letter, Paul draws the symbolism of the Exodus into his congregants’ lives: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:1-5). These things are “examples written down for our instruction, on whom the goal of the ages has come” (v. 11). What instruction, then, can we gain from the narrative Paul brings before the Corinthians here in chapter 3?

Again, we have a story of the Exodus. The people have left Egypt; they have seen God’s mighty wonders and deed: the staff turning into a snake that eats the Pharaoh’s snake-staves; the Plagues; the crossing of the Red Sea; the continuing pillar of cloud and fire. They are now encamped around Mt. Horeb in the Sinai, Moses bringing them the Torah of God that constitutes their national identity and mission in the world, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Yet, when they heard God speak from the fiery cloud, they said, “You, Moses, speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (20:19). When Moses, later, comes back down from the mountain, having renewed the covenant after the golden calf incident, he exhibits a greater miracle: his face shines with the glory of God Himself. “Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him…and when Moses had finished speaking with them [about what God commanded on the mountain], he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (34:30, 33-35).

The people did not want to hear the voice of God, out of fear. Because of sin and the corruption of death, even the Lord said that “you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (33:20). Through Moses, though, the people can see the glory of God, so they again are afraid. After he speaks with the authority of the Lord, he then veils his face. Why? St Paul reveals this to us: “Moses…would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (2 Cor. 3:13). The glory of God, so brightly shining, would fade over time. This was a sign of the covenant Moses mediated. St Paul here calls it “the ministry of death” and “the ministry of condemnation,” both terms hearkening back not only to Mt. Horeb, but also to the Garden of Eden. Adam was given instruction to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest he become separate from the Life of God and die. However, as we know, he did this very thing with his wife and so was condemned: “for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). After that point, any command of God led to some sort of death or another; either the death of one who breaks God’s law, or the death of sin in a person as they strive to keep it. One death led to further condemnation, another led towards life, but could not give it. The law, that ministry of death, could only bring knowledge of the pervasive and powerful nature of sin and death, causing any who tried to keep it, or delight in it as David does in the Psalms, to cry out with the Apostle “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death!” (Rom. 7:24). This covenant, which consigned everything to futility (yet not without hope), was glorious: but a fearsome glory, one that was feared even as refracted through Moses. So Adam and Eve hide, so the Israelites shirk away, so Moses is protected in the cleft of the rock: “no man may see Me and live.”

Yet, the Face of God, which naturally shines out this glory, is the hope of our salvation: we long to see God and be transformed into His image and likeness once again. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His Face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His Face upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26), or “Hide not Your Face from me. Turn not Your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation” (Ps. 27:9), or “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let Your Face shine, that we may be saved!” (Ps. 80:19). As St Paul puts is, “Through Christ we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). As St John puts it, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). The very thing that we are to participate in – the glory of God shining out from His Face – is the very thing we, under death and condemnation, cannot have: “no man may see Me and live.” But the “ministry of death” which has come through Moses is not the whole story, no, it is temporary and its glory has faded away under the veil. Instead, St Paul proclaims that there is a “ministry of righteousness” and a “ministry of the Spirit,” the Spirit who gives Life (2 Cor. 3:6). This ministry has even more glory than that of Moses. Why? “When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”

St Paul has done something very subtle here in the passage: the whole context of 2 Corinthians is a defense of his apostleship. The third chapter has been a defense of his authority, as it has come under attack. The Corinthians have even requested “letters of recommendation” for proof. Paul’s ministry has not been one of glory, like Moses’, but one characterized by scandal, by beatings, by dishonor, by death. How could he represent the Lord of Glory? Paul counters that the Corinthians themselves are his “letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (3:2). Unlike Moses, with the “ministry of death,” Paul and his companions are “very bold” to proclaim the crucified and risen Lord. Paul, taking the role of Moses, proclaims the glory of the Gospel, looking at the Corinthians so that he can say “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This glory, shared between the Apostle and all who have turned to the Lord, will not fade away, but rather will increase “from one degree of glory to another.”

This shining glory, the hope of mankind, which previously we could not see under pain of death, is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the Image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4-6). If we see Jesus, if we know the incarnate One, we have seen the glory of God and are being transformed into the same image: we are becoming more and more like Christ and less and less like Adam as we behold the glory amongst ourselves, shining out of the hearts of the Apostles and all who turn to the Lord. But how is this possible? How can we see the glory of God and live? St Paul tells us that “the Spirit gives life” (3:6), and whenever anyone turns to the Lord, who “is the Spirit” (17) then the veil is lifted and “there is freedom.” God Himself, through the work of the Son and the sending of the Spirit, makes it possible for us to behold His glory and radiate it to one another in love, so that we might be “conformed to the image of the Son” (Rom. 8:29).

What does this mean on the level of our lives? I must confess that I have never had a vision, whether “in the body or out of the body” of the glory of God. It is hard, often times, to read passages like this, as they seem to promise something that I’ve never seen or experienced. It is easy to lose hope, or worse, to just interpret what Paul is speaking of here as pious metaphors for psychological experiences. This is why I started by saying that the Christian Faith is hard. But, Paul does not leave us without hope; rather, he gives explicit instructions for us in our quest for the glory of God. He says in chapter 6, “we are the temple of the living God.” This is vital for our purposes today, for the Temple was the place in which God’s glory most particularly dwelt. If we are to shine with the glory of God, we must be in the place where God’s glory is. However, there is no building in Jerusalem where this glory dwells; rather, it is those who have taken upon themselves Christ’s death in baptism and have been justified by faith. The Church is God’s Temple, where His glory resides. However, as we also know, no unclean thing was ever allowed in the Temple; if uncleanness was brought it, it had to be cleansed with sacrifice. In fact, the Temple was cleansed of any defilement at least once a year on the Day of Atonement. We know that, regardless of what we were before, we “were washed, were sanctified [that is, made holy to God], were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Yet, we also know that we continue to fight against sin, and, to our shame, actually sin. Here is where Paul brings his argument in 2 Corinthians to a head: “Since we have these promises,” the promises to be the Temple of God, to have the glory shine out from our hearts and through our faces to each other, transforming us into the Image of the Face of God, Jesus Christ, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (7:1).

The Christian life is hard; let us never doubt that. Arrayed against us are “principalities and power, thrones and dominions, visible and invisible,” set opposed to us is the Dragon, the Serpent of old, the first murderer, in our own beings we have the “law of sin and death” at work. But, if we are in Christ, if we have come into His Body, if we have shared in His death and tasted His resurrection, if we have been cleansed by the Lord Jesus and the Spirit of God, we are the Temple of God, constructed by Him for the outflow of His glory. Shall we not wage war against sin, against wickedness in high places, so that we might be further cleansed and become conformed to the Image of God? “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete” (2 Cor. 10:3-6).

What are these weapons, if they are not “of the flesh”? “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put of the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:14-19). Our weapons are the Gospel, prayer, forgiveness, longsuffering, love, joy: all the weapons of the Cross, which is the victory over all the world. In hope of this glory, let us cleanse ourselves from unrighteousness and take up the banner of our God, who goes before us, to convert the whole human creation into His Temple, that His love and mercy and peace might overflow the whole earth.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Thrust of Romans

This seems to be the argument of St Paul in Romans:

Jesus Christ has been "declared with power" to be the Son of God "by the resurrection from the dead" (1:4); in other words, His claim -- strikingly prominent in all the Gospels -- to be God's Son has been vindicated.  He has been justified "according to the Spirit of holiness" (cp. 1 Tim 3:16): this decree means that His human nature has been given life and the condemnation against Him has been annulled.

However, due to the sin of Adam, all the world is in bondage to death, twisting their created natures in accordance with "all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (1:18)  Both Jew and Greek labor under this cosmic Pharoah, so that none can be justified (3:9ff.; that is, share in Jesus' resurrection-eternal life) under their own power, even that given by God and commanded in the Torah (3:21-22; including the cultus).  Abraham was acquitted (ch.4; justified) before the time of Christ by His faith in the faithfulness of God the Father through Christ.  This Christ then takes our condemnation of death on the Cross, reconciling/uniting us to the Father (chs. 5-6), then giving us the Spirit (ch.8; God's Life) in the present time so that we can start living resurrection lives now (6:4), in full hope of the future resurrection (8:29; "conformity to the image of the Son") and liberation of the whole created order (8:21).  "In this hope have we been saved" (8:24).  The life/justification/resurrection of Christ is given to us now in the same way it was given to Abraham, that is, by faith in the Christ: this is objectively actualized in the mystical sharing of Christ's passion and death in baptism into the Church (6:3).  Where Christ was "declared with power" to be God's Son in His resurrection (1:4), we are now "pre-declared/pre-destined/justified" (8:29) as sons before our (eventual and guaranteed) resurrection.

This death/condemnation in water raises us up into membership in the Church, where the Torah can finally be fulfilled in mutual love of one another in all things (chs. 12-14).

However, if the goal is resurrection, especially for those who have been "foreknown/known beforehand" (Israel according to the flesh -- 11:2), why is Israel currently "hardened" (11:7): here is the mystery of God's will -- just as Pharaoh was "hardened of heart" to secure Israel's release from Egypt, so Israel is hardened to secure the Gentiles release from Adam's curse; however, unlike Pharaoh, God will use the Gentiles to cause "His people whom He foreknew" (11:2) to want Jesus Christ and so "all Israel will be saved" (11:25-26).  For, in one of the most important and most neglected verses in the book, "God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all" (11:32).  To accomplish this jealousy, though, Christians must become "living sacrifices" (12:1), those who voluntarily die to self while even possessing the justification of Christ's life, so that the will of God, the salvation of the whole world, may be accomplished.  This means that even though the Christian has freedom, they must not abuse it, but rather further enter Christ's suffering and death (chs. 12-14), His ultimate kenosis, "filling up in the flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" (Col. 1:25, slightly modified).

"And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly" (16:20).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Look at the Tongues of Fire in Acts 2

As I was teaching tonight on Acts 2, I noticed something that had eluded me before.  The connections between the descent of the Spirit and Exodus 40/2 Chron. 5 had been dwelled over in class discussion time.  The connection between the Spirit, the dove in Jesus' baptism, and the "hovering/fluttering" in Gen. 1 were expounded upon.  Standard stuff when I teach that text (moral: we are the new Temple in Christ).  However, the tongues of fire really caught my attention; in the other related texts, no fire is mentioned.  However, there is an instance of the Glory-Cloud filling the Tabernacle associated with fire.  It happens in the Levitical unpacking of Exodus 40.

(Brief excursus here: the entire book of Leviticus "happens" in the space of a couple of verses in Exodus 40.  Otherwise, the chronology of the books, read straightforwardly, looks off.  This helps explain why Nadab and Abihu meet the end they meet in Lev. 10, but that is another story for another day.)

In Lev. 9, the priesthood's consecration and orientation is completed: Aaroan and Moses prepare sacrifices and burn them on the altar.  At this point,  Moses and Aaron retreat: "And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of meeting, and came out and blessed the people [the text of this blessing isn't revealed until Num. 6: time in the Torah is wibbly-wobbly]. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people [situating us firmly in Exodus 40, chronologically] and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:23-24).  When the Glory-Cloud/Spirit descends, the heavenly fire comes with it, enflaming the altar with the proper, uncreated fire from God.

While I'll need to do more work to investigate, the connection between what is happening here and the Day of Pentecost seems solid.  The people of God, led by the Apostles, are the new Temple and the new altar upon which "living sacrifices" (Rom. 12) are made, which is our Word-infused (logikos) act of worship.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Small Note on Biblical Interpretation

I recently heard a sermon in which the following argument was made:

1. The Scriptures clearly teach that God "desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:10) and God wills the salvation of only some of humankind, actively damning the rest (all, of course, to the praise of His glory -- no texts were used to argue this position, but I'm sure Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 were in the background).

2. These seem contradictory, for how can God will two incompatible things?

3. The reason they seem in contradiction is because of the fallen nature of human rationality, the "noetic effects of sin."

Here's the problem (or at least one of them) in this syllogism: if the noetic effects of sin are so profound, as the Reformed often argue, then the doctrine of perspicuity, that Scripture is clear and understandable in regards to salvation, is moot.  Under the corruptive effects of sin and death, there is no accessible reality that we can call the "clear teaching of the Bible."  We are fallen and so must necessarily always read the Bible through those lenses.  No amount of historical-critical or redemptive-historical or grammatical-historical interpretation can reveal the "clear" meaning of the Scriptures, as these are rational, and therefore necessarily fallen, methods of inquiry.  Since we are always interpreting texts (we never can access them in any so-called objective manner, as argued so cogently by Reformed philosopher James K. A. Smith in his The Fall of Interpretation), we can never come to the "clear" or "pure" meaning of the texts. (Add to this the problem of the non-existent inspired autographa and you've got a massive interpretive dilemma.)

Maybe, though, I'm overstating things.  It certainly sounds like I'm saying that there is no hope for us to understand (and therefore live by) the Scriptures (I'm not, but explanation will have to wait awhile).  Shouldn't we consider the clarifying work of generations of scholars to function sort of like Zeno's Paradox?  That is, while we will never overcome the noetic effects of sin, our rationality still does function somewhat according to its creational design, so we can get approximately close to the intended meaning?  Maybe, but the history of interpretation will destroy any lasting confidence in such a move: Unitarians, cultists, heretics, and so on cleave to a very similar principle.  It depends on an untenable belief in progress: the more we study the text, the closer we must come.  If that is the case, then there is no need to go back to the exegesis, say, of Calvin, as we have progressed from him.  In order to save ourselves, we cut off the branch on which we reside.

All of this to say that the proposed syllogism collapses. The Bible may have a teaching on the relationship between God's desire for the salvation of all and predestination (I think it does, but it is radically different than the Reformed tradition has led us to believe, about which I hope to write more soon -- it has become a summer book project for me), but it is anything but "clear." The final premise neutralizes the first.

Is there no hope? Indeed, there is, but it requires a radically different approach to the Scriptures.

The author of the Scriptures is, at the ultimate level, the Holy Spirit. "Who spake by the prophets" as the Creed puts it. Or as St Peter describes, "For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pt. 1:21). Modern interpretive methods rely on the human element of the text: the historical context, the literary genre, the cultural background, etc. These are good things, but they partake in the fallenness of the world (an important point brought up by Pete Enns, although I think he goes too far). These methods are essentially apophatic: they tell us what the Scriptures cannot mean, but not what they do mean. It is only as the fallen creational condition of the Scriptures is purified by the Holy Spirit (only thinks here of the role of the Spirit in the conception of the human nature of Jesus) that progress to the meaning and application of the Scriptures can be made. There is no correct interpretation of the Bible apart from the Holy Spirit.

If we are to interpret the Scriptures aright, therefore, we need to acquire (or better, be acquired by) the Spirit of God and Christ. Where does the Spirit reside? The Church. The problems with Sola Scriptura, many of which are already under debate in Reformed circles, always point us back to the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15), of which Christ promised the Spirit would lead us (John 16:13). Of course, this thrusts us into more complicated (and more important) debates as to how we know the true Church. The Fathers, for their part, always argue for the necessity of holiness, that is, living in the Spirit, for proper interpretation and application of the Scriptures: one must engage in the life of the Church, the eternal Life of Jesus Christ, to be a theological authority.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

In the Style of Miyazaki

To be filled with love! ah, that is the dream;
to live without eyes clouded by hate
to see, no, to know friends and enemies
neighbors and strangers as one
knit together in the flesh of the Divine.
There are days, too many, too many,
where this seems an impossible dream
but moments, brief glimpse of resurrection,
when the heart overflows and all are encompassed
in the sweet arms on the Cross.

Apophasis, Energeia, and Agape

When we try to define love we will always fail. It cannot be defined in its essence; rather it can only be known, just as anything worth knowing in this world, by its activities. Love is what love does. This is why St John tells us “God is Love” – not so that we would comprehend the infinite, ineffable essence of the Divine, but so that we would participate, in mundane ways, in the activities of God: love for neighbors, love for enemies, love for the true, the good, and the beautiful. To read the Law as a set of rules meant to bring guilt is to read it “according to the flesh.” The Law is the ground rules of Love: what does it mean to love your neighbor? At the base, it means to not cheat, or defraud, or betray him, to do no meanness to him, to respect his property and his family. But, you might say, this is all negative. Indeed, for the Law is the apophasis of Love: it tells us what Love is not, what activities are the opposite of Love, what activities preclude the germination and harvest of Love. Again here we are in the realm of the Divine: we cannot know what God is in His essence, but we can know what He is not. The real difficulty is not the Law, but Death: we cannot participate in Love while clinging to the corruption of Adam. We must die to that mode of existence, which leads to Death, especially as it has us turned in on ourselves as being the highest good. It is only when we see the highest good in God, and therefore the higher good in His Image, that we can die to self and rise to Love. The Law does put us to death, and hallelujah!, for in this death Death dies: we can now exist as the bearers of Love, finding true self in Him.

The God of Optimism

After Chesterton

Christianity is not optimism. That is the last thing it is, dear friend. If we believe it, then we’ll end up in cynicism, a lack of belief in anything, because the God of the Optimists cannot deliver. He’s vague, even though he is upbeat. His upbeatness requires that he be vague. Better not make specific promises. Real Christianity takes life with a deadly seriousness, knowing that all things in Adam must die. It never shirks from that; it offers a way to prepare and, paradoxically, a way to bring that death from the end of life into the middle and sometimes the beginning of it. When you are baptized, you die. Not as an unpleasant metaphor, but truly. Baptism is more real of a death than your eventual biological cessation. If it only looks like a pious bath, it is because our eyes are not open and we don’t see the world as it is. Christ sees it as it is. He sees the conflict between “all was created good” and sin, death, demons, corruption, and Satan. He does not fall away in horror, either. Any conception of God where He shrinks away from sin, either passively in horror or actively in rage, is not the God of Jesus Christ. It is an idol meant to bolster up our passions and deliver us straight into Hell, for it breaks all communion with God and with man, both neighbor and enemy. Jesus Christ does not falter or lose his temper with sin, he confronts it with unyielding love, a love that voluntarily accepts death to then defeat death. Jesus Christ doesn’t reform death, or make it palatable, he destroys it. There is no optimism in this, for optimism says “she’s in a better place now.” Maybe, maybe not. Jesus says, instead, that she has passed through the crucible, and woe to her if she was not carrying his cross!

Monday, September 08, 2014


For many Christians today was the celebration of the birth of Mary, mother of our Lord, properly called Theotokos by all Christians since before the Third Ecumenical Council (which Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant all accept as doctrinally binding).  For most Protestants, though, Mary remains an unknown.  Certainly, we talk about her at Christmas, and maybe at Annunciation, but rarely else.  When we do talk about her, it amazes me how we couch our terminology about her in continued polemics.  One talk I heard, fairly recently, made sure to say that "she was a dirty, rotten sinner just like the rest of us."  As I've argued before, this language is unnecessary and quite possibly wrong Biblically speaking (can God dwell in unclean places? Not according to the Old Testament!).  Even if she never sinned, she would still need a Savior: death comes to all and only through Christ's trampling down of death by death can it be stopped.  Christ is the only one, by virtue of the fact of His divine nature and Person, who was free from the necessity of death: He, out of the great love which He has for us, voluntarily took on death in His human nature, that we, united to Him by faith and baptism, might partake of His eternal Life.

There is something more about Mary that we need to keep in mind more often.  The goal of the Christian life, a great promise of the New Testament, is to be filled with the Spirit of God, to be built into the glorious Temple, so that the old promise that "I will be their God and they will be My people and I will dwell among them" might be fulfilled.  This, of course, is the conformity of our human nature to the human nature of our Lord.  However, His hypostatic union is different than what happens to us.  He is a divine Person, with a requisite divine nature who elects to unite with a human nature for our salvation: our salvation is to have a divine Person, the Spirit, fill our nature and transform our individuated persons.  We do not become hypostatically united with the Person of the Spirit, but become "partakers of the divine nature" as St Peter says in his second epistle.  So, even though "He became what we are so that we might become what He is" as St Irenaeus puts it, there is a fundamental and unbridgeable difference between us and Christ.  So, what model do we have for what our salvation looks like?

Mary, the mother of our Lord.

The Person of the Son indwelt her, transfiguring her (even causing her to prophesy), in a way analogous to how the Spirt dwells in us, transfiguring us in the process.  The difference, of course, is that the Spirit does not become incarnate.  But Mary is a human person with a human nature in the exact same way as we are, filled with God, becoming a Tabernacle and an analogy to Heaven itself.  There is a beautiful passage in 1 Kings 8 in which Solomon says something to the effect that "The heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house I've built!"  Yet, in Mary the uncircumscribable God took on a full human nature such that St Paul can say, "in Him dwelt all the fullness of the Deity in bodily form" (Col. 2:9).  She is more able, by the grace of God, to contain God than even the highest heaven.  This is our lot as well (Eph. 3:19).  Yet, of course, she does retain a more honored place than any other God-bearing Christian for, as St Luke records for us in her prophetic (and therefore liturgical) speech, "henceforth shall all generations call me blessed" (Luke 1:48).

Glory to God.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sermon: 1 John 2:3-6

I was very warmly received this morning at Conway Alliance Church. May God bless them richly.

Sermon Text: 1 John 2:3-6

“And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. Whoever says, ‘I know Him’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the Truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.”

The Christian faith is all about knowing God. As the Lord Christ prays, “This is eternal Life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3). The great promise of the New Covenant, given by the Prophet Jeremiah, is that “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). The New Testament then shows us that knowing the Lord, knowing God the Father, can only be done through knowing the Son and the Spirit: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9) and “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me” (Jn. 15:26). Eternal Life is found in knowing God, in knowing Father, Son, and Spirit, our sins and iniquities forgiven and forgotten.
But what does it mean to ‘know’ God? A lot rides on this question: eternal Life, in fact. My profession right now is a teacher of Bible and theology. I talk and write a good deal about who God is, according to the Scriptures, according to the great lights of Church history, according to contemporary thinkers. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean I actually know God. Knowing is more than factual information: anyone who has been married, or has children, or known anyone married, or been a child, knows this. The bare presentation of facts can keep us distant, aloof, from what or who we know. We live in a culture that constantly confuses us here: sound-bytes on news stations are not enough to actually figure out what is going on in Syria, in Iraq, in Ferguson, St. Louis, or anywhere else for that matter. We run the risk of interpreting according to our preconceived notions of how politics work, how religions work, how people work, in the process reducing the complexity of life and fellow human persons. Yet, we long to know and to be known. One of the most frightening passages in the Scriptures concerns this very problem: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and cast out demons in Your Name, and do many mighty works in Your Name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23). They knew enough about the Lord Christ and the power of His Name (“for there is no other Name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved” – Acts 4:12) to use it; but mighty works do not equal knowing God.

In that Gospel passage, along with the passage for today from 1 John, we find the key to knowing God. Who knows the Lord? “The one who does the will of My Father in Heaven” and “whoever keeps His word.” It is worth noting, at the outset, that this is not works-righteousness. The texts say that we know we know God by keeping the commandments, not that we earn grace by doing them. These are passages of assurance, not magical manipulation of the divine. Rather, the commandments are given to us, not to hold us down or “kill our fun,” but to be training in our union with Christ. The goal of human existence, from Adam to today, is to be like God: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3). We are to be “partakers of the divine nature” as St Peter says in his second Epistle (1:4), which then leads him to encourage us to “give all diligence, adding to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (5-7). The commandments are our path, our road, to Christ-likeness. As St Paul puts it, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10): even our keeping of the commands, these good works, has been the plan of God all along.

What, though, are the commandments of Christ? The Gospel passage earlier tells us that they are not “mighty deeds” or “exorcisms” or even “prophecy” (although these things are not therefore automatically excluded from the Christian life: they just aren’t the central concern). If the commandments are to lead us to be like God, then we must ascertain what God is like. The Lord has done this abundantly all over the Scriptures, however the definitive understanding of our God comes through our Lord Jesus Christ. He shows us the character of God in both word and deed: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in Heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45). And “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). To put it simply, following St John, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). The commandment of Christ, that which makes us like God, is to “believe on the Name of Jesus Christ and to love one another: whoever keeps His commandments abides in God, and God in him” (3:23-24). As the greatest commandment has it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30-31). Love is the substance of keeping the commandments: not so that God will love us, but so that we might become what we always were supposed to be.

This much we know. But love is hard. We often don’t know how to love, so how can we keep the commandment? The Scriptures are awash in ways to do just this: they are a precise medical tool-kit to heal our souls and bring them into union with Christ. Many tools are on offer, but I’d like to focus on one that is very close to our experience: work. Many of us work, I’m sure, the standard 40-hour week. Some of us, no doubt, work more. Work controls many of our daylight hours in the weekday and there is always something that needs to be done around the house on the weekends. Can our work bring us into greater Christ-likeness? Can our work enable us to keep the commandment to love God, to love neighbor, to even love our enemies? Let’s see what the Scriptures say.

St Paul in Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” In this passage, the Apostle is revealing something vitally important about our work: it isn’t about us. The former thief works, not as a brutal penance, but so that he might love his neighbor. His disordered existence is being set right by this labor; how much more will this be true for us who may not have been thieves, but often feel enslaved by the need for more and more stuff and status and power? In another place St Paul reminds St Timothy, his co-laborer in the Gospel, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Our work, the labor of our hands, whether it be in homemaking, or plumbing, or financial planning, or teaching, or civic leadership, is an opportunity to care for those among us who lack, both in the household of faith and outside of it.

This leads us to Christ’s interaction with the rich ruler. The young man claims he has kept all the commandments from his youth, to which our Lord responds that he should “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” St Luke tells us, “when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.” The problem here isn’t that he was rich, for Abraham and Job were both rich without condemnation; the problem was that his riches owned him. He was unable to “love his neighbor” as himself for his god would not allow him. St Basil the Great, a wonderful early theologian of the Church, says this about this passage, explicating Christ’s words of sorrow:
It is evident that you are far from fulfilling the commandment, and that you bear false witness within your own soul that you have loved your neighbor as yourself. For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love and have given to everyone the same as to yourself, then how did you come by this abundance of wealth? Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.
As our Lord says elsewhere, if something causes us to sin, it is better to cut it off and cast it away, and so enter into Life, rather than going to Hell with our whole body intact (Mk. 9:42-50): if our wealth, even that legitimately built up through our labor, causes us to pass by our brothers and sisters, it is better to cast it away than to cling on to it and miss the Kingdom of God.

Elsewhere, St Paul encourages us to “love one another…to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:9-12) or as he intensifies his speech in the second letter to that Church: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:10-12). Just as the reward of our labor can help us to love our neighbor in need, so does our work keep us from being a burden on others. Both are forms of loving our neighbors, loving our brothers. There will be times, due to economic circumstances or injury, in which we will need to depend on our brothers and sisters: during those times let us joyfully and cheerfully give to one another, not expecting anything in return. However, the loving generosity of our siblings in the Lord is not an excuse to become a mooch or a free-rider. This would not be showing love to them: rather, to become like Christ, to know Him, to keep His commandments, let us work, and as we work, let us give liberally and generously, encouraging one another in this task of becoming more and more like our Lord together.

We can work in love and for the love of our neighbors, for the necessary care of our families, and for the enjoyment of God’s good creation. But can we go further? Can we work for the love of God? Indeed, we can. It is the next step we must take as we seek to be “transformed by the renewal of our mind” (Rom. 12:2). How, though? We must take a moment to consider what powers are at our disposal during our lives. A human has three faculties: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. When we work, we most often utilize the physical and mental faculties. The spiritual we retain for worship, whether at home or in church. This seems to set our work apart from our ability to love God “with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.” Such doesn’t have to be the case, though. St Paul, again, offers us two remedies for the transformation of our work into an area where we can love God fully. First, he says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). All our existence, from eating and drinking to our labors, can be done to the glory of God: it is a choice of setting these things apart for that glory, offering it to God in each moment as a priest offers his sacrifice. Even our daily work then becomes worship. As St Augustine once said:
Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.
Our daily work then becomes not just a sacrifice, but an act of love for the One who first loved us. Second, the Apostle tells us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). When we work, are we rejoicing in the One who has given us “the power to get wealth, that He may confirm the covenant that he swore to your fathers” (Deut. 8:18)? When we work, are we praying without ceasing? There is such a thing as the heart praying, something deeper than just the mental prayers we often offer up. Have we sought the spiritual disciplines to develop this prayer, this prayer that prays in the Spirit even when our minds and hands are engaged in labor? When we work, are we giving thanks in all circumstances? This one, I think, is very hard. If we are honest, we love to complain about work (and especially about our bosses): the will of God for us is thanksgiving, in all circumstances. St John Chrysostom, one of the most famous preachers of all Church history, ended his life in a bitter exile. He had stood up to the corruption of the queen of the Roman Empire; she sent him to die far away from any influence he might have had. The final words he spoke, before leaving to go to his inevitable death, were “Glory to God for all things.” May God give us the strength to repeat these words in all our circumstances, most of which will not be as weighty and dire as his were.

To know God is to be saved; it is to keep the commandments and have the love of God perfected in us, as the Apostle John told us in his epistle. Our work, that normally mundane part of our lives that we share with all humankind, Christian or non-Christian, is in Christ and through His grace an avenue to know Him more deeply: to love our neighbors through generosity and diligence, to love God through our offering and our thanksgiving. Today is a day of rest, for which we can be thankful; how rest, and the giving of rest to others, can help us to love God is another topic for another day. Tomorrow, though, starts our labors once again, starts us on a path of Christ-likeness for His glory and for the sake of the salvation of the world. Let us go, then, in the strength of the Lord to our given labors, loving Him, loving our neighbors, loving our brothers and sisters, and even loving our enemies; so that through all this love we might become like Him who loved us that while “we were still enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10). Glory to God.


Friday, September 05, 2014

What Do You Care About?

At the very beginning of my teaching career, still a grad student at the time, I taught a book discussion on Steve Garber's The Fabric of Faithfulness, a wonderful journey through the questions of how to live the life of faith in the college years and beyond.  At the end of the first major chapter of my teaching, I'm going through it again with students.  Since it has been some 9 years since my last read, I'm coming at the book from a very different angle.  Instead of being a young hot-shot just beginning to struggle through the book for the sake of others (a task that I failed miserably at then), I am a man thoroughly mired in what Garber calls the "valley of the diapers," the time in which we settle into adult responsibilities.  However, I am struck at how -- maybe it has been the nature of my work -- I still cognitively and methodologically function like a student: I'm still probing the deep issues, still unsettled as to where truth (or Truth) can be found, still longing for the connection between belief and behavior to be natural.

In chapter one, Garber asks the question "What do you care about?"  I fully understand the intent, and back a decade prior I could have given a cogent and definitive answer, but now it stymies me.  I just don't know what it is I care about, aside from a few abstractions.  I wrestle, and have wrestled for long over a decade, with the question "Why do you get out of bed in the morning?"  The motivation to get moving is often linked with what it is we care about most.  I find myself distracted, wandering about the house or the office or the Internet, seeking...for what?  Often I think I'm looking for Kierkegaard's "one thing," while hoping that I'm not just waiting for Godot.  I'm not ready, at this point, to answer "What do you care about?" I can answer, though, "What do you care for?"

This might seem to be a mere semantic quibble.  It isn't; rather it gets to the core of what it means to live faithfully in the "valley."  My heady idealism has been badly chastised by time past: I've lost much, not as much as some, but enough to temper me.  What I care about is too ethereal right now, but I've got responsibilities that shape and inform what, in ten or twenty years, I will care about.  "Sufficient for the day is its own troubles."

I care for my wife, as all husbands worth their salt do.  It is improprietous to go into details of course.

I care for my children; much of my time is spent, I wouldn't call it worrying, but in a state of concern for them.  As a parent, I want them to find healthy, stable adult lives; more than that, though, I want them to be virtuous: courageous, strong, compassionate.  All around them, though, swirl the callings and temptations of the corruption in the world.  They may not, by being virtuous, have healthy, stable lives.  Being virtuous is not a road to a life of ease, but an extreme askesis, more so than even being a stylite or hermit in some respects.  I love that they are playful and love to laugh, but I hope they do not use humor as I do, as a defense against the revelation of my own incompleteness, incompetence, and ignorance.

I care for my work.  God knows this is true.  I don't take time off.  This goes deeper than just working a lot of hours (both academics and small business owners are gluttons here); much of my "leisure time" is spent trying to probe deeper, to read farther, to integrate the life of hesychastic prayer with rigorous rational questioning.  My kids, I'm sure, suffer from this: their dad is always somewhere else, trying to make sense of some quandary which he's hoping will finally put his mind to rest.  The bitter irony is that in searching for Sabbath, I often bypass it altogether.

I care for a couple of properties, both of which need large amounts of attention and labor.  Things fall apart and I must fix them.

I care for my city, especially the quest for her renewal.  This is truly hard work; the clash of my ego against other like minded folks can be brutal and intense.  Not until I know this place, and these people, as sacrament will this finally abate.

The list could go on.  "About" is a wonderful word of ideas, whereas "for" grounds me in the place I'm at, with the work at hand.  That's where I'm needed now, even as I reminisce and long for the days when "about" was the key preposition.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Gleanings: Facebook Musings

If I don't remember to post these things here, they are liable to fall down the Zuckerberg Memory Hole.


It seems to me, at this particular moment, that social media is both perfect and tragic for our cultural and spiritual moment. We are Kafka's cockroach, alienated from any forms of life, even from the self, and certainly from God (a more bitter tragedy is that so many who vaunt themselves as close to God are the most estranged). The connection that social media offers, whether the ability to connect with family on Facebook or with a multitude of bros on Tinder, is alluring and often helpful. We long to be united, to be in communion with one another, the world at large, and the divine. So we post funny memes, relate tragic news, opine on all manner of subjects, yet...yet we go away still burdened with the loneliness, anxiety, and self-interestedness that we started with. Social media, and if we are honest most real social interactions (from friendships to marriages), do this.

Could it be that these longings cannot be satisfied, that we cannot find healing, because they are infinite? You cannot tell someone you love them once and expect it to stick forever, right? Rather it is a lifetime, as close to an infinity as we get, that proves the singular statement. But what a burden we who need love bear, then, when others need that same, infinite love! And so we settle, no matter how damaging it may truly be, for a measure of loneliness, of posturing and aggrandizement, of anxiety, since we find out very quickly in life that we cannot possibly meet the demands of love.

It is, then, the overcoming of this ugly ditch between us and infinite Love that is the true work of human existence, individual and corporate. The Source, the inexhaustible Well, has been primordially lost, and remains unattainable to mankind in their bondage. If the Well, though, were to open Itself up to us, giving freely, would we reject it? Would we, like the denizens of Plato's cave, reject the call of those freed for the comfort of our discomfort?


Forgiveness does not preclude or cancel out justice. St Paul's argument in the book of Romans, in some measure, is the revelation of the "righteousness" or "justice" (same word in Greek) that is revealed in the crucifixion of the Messiah, where our forgiveness is found. To forgive, in the deepest sense of the term, is to release (aphiami): we have been held in bondage by the one the Scriptures call the evil one, the devil, the serpent, the dragon, or the satan (yes, there is always a definite article). The Cross releases us, forgive us, from our sins by which we were held in slavery to death and unrighteousness. Since the serpent had no legitimate claim on us (he gained power by deceit and fraud), God's justice is our forgiveness.

Of course, this goes further and deeper. But this is why my last post was "forgive everyone for everything." Let's not hold each other in bondage, but release others as we have been released, just as we pray in the prayer given to us by our Lord: "forgive us our debts/trespasses, as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us." Forgiveness is the Kingdom come into our midst now; it is also the great promise of the Kingdom come in its fullness.


The tragedy of Beauty in our world, one which was totally avoidable, is that we don't see it except in small snatches of time. Mere moments when what we long for, what we truly and ontologically need, is an ever deepening experience and union with the Beautiful, what I previously termed 'epektasis', following the Nyssan.

The worse tragedy, though, is that we normalize the banal, as if beauty was an intrusion, analogous to how Deists understood miracles. Short and abnormal; fleeting, ephemeral, hevel hevlim as Qohelet says. We expect what we've mistakenly termed 'reality' and are shocked when beauty bursts through.

But, and relish that disjunction for a moment, if the cosmos really is made by the Word, a multitude of logoi that lead to, and share in, the Logos, then beauty is the norm. Our normal, whether we are discussing aesthetics or psychology or ethics or engineering, is Christ. But not Christ separate from the cosmos' experience of Him. There is no Christ behind the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected One. While He was born, lived, suffered, died, and was raised in our historical plane, He was also 'the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world.' How this is so is a proper mystery: we cannot know it rationally, but we can know it cardically. I've made up that word; the classical word is noetic, but we too often confuse the nous with the intellect, when rather it should be understood as the heart, the kardia, the faculty of union with God, the Inner Temple of the Spirit, which needs so much purification to be a proper abode.

It is with the heart that we truly see Beauty. But our hearts are blind, darkened by sin, and focused on pain and pleasure and the world in its pejorative sense. The cleansing and healing of the heart, so that Christ might dwell within, is the substance of salvation. This presents us with another mystery: this purification is the work of Christ, but also requires our own effort, yet it is all by grace; no man (or woman for that matter) could revivify the heart without the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit makes it His abode, yet we -- even those with faith in Christ, or worse, especially those -- defile that Tabernacle with what does not satisfy: the Holy One dwells in holiness. This is the 'narrow gate' of the Lord.


If God is beauty, not just the most beautiful thing (as if He was a thing to be objectified), but beauty Himself, wouldn't all human life be properly oriented towards desiring, knowing, and uniting with that Beauty? Not to be lost or swallowed up, but rather to become beautiful, to become an icon, streaming myrrh and light, radiant light!

When we read that God has fashioned (made is such a droll word) us -- humans, all humans, no exceptions -- in His image and after His likeness, we glimpse our own ontic state: we are, primordially and essentially, His beauty in the world -- not His essence, but His activity, His energy, separate from Him by being created, but forever joined to Him, and invited into deeper epektatic and ecstatic union.

So why is it, and this is the question of man's fall into sin -- into that brutalist nothingness of which we spoke before -- that we seek to erase the image in others, at the same time defacing it in ourselves? The world will never truly need a philosophical atheism when it has the practice of continually killing God through this virulent iconoclasm (it is only a short step from destroying wood and paint to eradicating human lives).

And so we stand at the crux of a conundrum: we are made for Beauty, yet we murder it at all times and places. The conundrum is resolved -- not in a rational way, but only in the actual entering of mystical experience -- in the Cross. Here God (you will see why reason cannot grasp this now) willingly, willingly!, submits Himself to be brutalized, to be effaced, distorted, perverted, erased, to end the tyranny of the Great Ugliness. Since death, which is nothing in itself, cannot possibly stand in the presence of life, the conundrum become a paradox: this ugliest of moments, in which is concentrated all the evil, and sin, and corruption of the world and her history, reveals the incomprehensible Beauty behind and shot through all things. The Cross is apokalypsis, the unveiling of what is true, and good, and beautiful. To face the Cross, in its strange and unnerving ugliness and beauty, is to finally see the other: it was Christ all along.

Salvation is finding Christ is us, by partaking of this apocalypse, dying and raising.


We will extinguish all the beauty in the world, for comfort, for ease, for some tremulous grasp on security; worse, yet, we will hunt and hound the beautiful down to be merely right. Beauty is an expansive, encompassing thing, it (He?) yearns for inclusion and embrace; the Great Ugliness is nothing that can be perceived with the eyes or other senses, for it has no independent existence. It is hard here to grasp, for how can we reasonably talk about that which does not exist (yet is no fiction: it threatens the whole world). The Ugly, far from being analyzed in the halls of academe or the corridors of museums, is the sometimes slow, other times stark and irretrievable, reversion into the nothingness from which we have come. Existence desires existence, but emptiness is never full.