“The Power of the hidden Father comes and in you will be clothed with a body”

The revelation went out from God to the pure one
by means of Gabriel, the learned one, who teaches fine sayings.

The man of fire was sent from God
that he might bring the message from the house of the Father to the glorious one.

From the heavenly legions, the spiritual one went forth,
who had been sent from God with a hidden mystery.

He met with the maiden, greeted her, and revealed the mystery,
as he had been commanded by God in the heavens above.

He bowed to the Virgin, the Mother of the King, and He spoke with her
in the speech of the country such as she was able to receive:

“Peace be with you, full of divine splendour!
Peace to you Mary, Mother of the Sun of Justice!

“Peace be upon you, castle of holy things and full of virtues,
harbour of mysteries and new ship full or riches.

“Blessed of women, peace be with you! Our Lord is with you;
you have conceived and in your virginity you have borne a son.”

Mary listened, and wonder seized her at the words of the Watcher;
the message was in her ears, and great trembling within her mind:

“My Lord, I am a virgin and how is it that you speak to me of conception?
Your tale is new, speak, explain what you are saying.

“Who has sought a harvest from the land without sowing it?;
Who has sought grapes on the vine without cultivating it?

“From a virgin who would expect birth without marital union?
Tell your tale which is babbling and concealed from the intellect.

“How will what you say come to pass, as you say it?
Either explain it to me or it will not be easy for me to consent.”

The Watcher said: “The Holy Spirit will come to you;
descending He dwells and sanctifies you in your virginity.

“He looses from you the curse of Eve and blesses you;
the Power of the hidden Father comes and in you will be clothed with a body.

“You are going to beget a Babe whose kingdom will have no end;
because He is a great King, the Son of the unsearchable God.”

St Jacob of Serug

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What the Cross Meant to Charles Williams

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The Pre-post-modernity of John Behr

Earlier this week I started reading Fr John Behr’s book The Mystery of Christ. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for many years. I’ve wanted to read it, as I have great respect for Fr John as theologian and scholar—his (unfortunately uncompleted) Formation of Christian Theology series is essential reading—but for whatever reason I simply have not gotten around to it. Last weekend, though, it became clear to me that it was time. Let me tell you why.

Several months ago I purchased The God Who Saves by David Congdon. Congdon is an up-and-coming evangelical theologian who espouses a universalist vision of salvation. But then I read the very interesting discussion between Congdon and his reviewers over at the most excellent Syndicate forum and realized that my disagreements with Congdon may be deeper than I thought. Much of what he says in the Syndicate discussion reminds me of the kind of theology that ultimately destroyed the Episcopal Church I loved and in which I served as priest for twenty-five years. Perhaps I’m wrong about Congdon, perhaps I have misunder­stood. In any case I began to wonder whether I really wanted to invest my increasingly dwindling energy in reading and blogging on his book. At this point in my life, I generally restrict my readings to theologians who stand within the catholic tradition. Others can take on the revisionists. But last weekend it occurred to me that it might be interesting to bring Congdon into conversation with the pre-post-modern Orthodoxy of Behr. I don’t know if I can pull this off, but it’s worth a try.

In his Mystery of Christ, Behr advances a two-pronged attack on modern theology: (a) it treats dogmas as finished formulae, which can then be employed by the theologian without regard to “the way in which they were first learned and from the exegetical practice, the manner of using scripture, in and through which they were articulated” (p. 15); (b) it then proceeds, with dogmatic formulae firmly in place, to tell the story of salvation in historical, linear fashion, beginning with creation and the history of Israel and culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, followed by Pentecost and the life of the Church. At this point I’m thinking, yep, that’s me. In fact, that pretty much describes most of my Christian friends, excepting perhaps the creatively post-modern Fr Stephen Freeman. Nobody but us moderns here.

Unfortunately, Behr presents few examples of the theologians whose methodology he wishes to critique, nor does he acknowledge those who have already challenged theology’s captivity to the Enlightenment. I deem this a weakness. I dislike generalizations and am skeptical of metanarratives. If you’re going to talk about modernity, then at least give me a footnote or two. But perhaps I quibble. It’s hard to disagree with Behr’s claim that systematic theology has taken on a dogmatic and philosophical life of its own, though I note that this happened centuries before Descartes and Hume; and it’s hard to disagree with his claim that much of the theology done during the past century has been driven by what really, truly, objectively happened way back in the days of yesteryear. This is certainly true for biblical studies. Behr vigorously contests this historicist commitment. The theology of the Church is first and foremost confession of faith:

It is a stubborn fact, or at least is presented this way in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that the one born of Mary was not known by the disciples to be the Son of God until after the Passion, his crucifixion and resurrection (the apparent exception, Peter’s confession in Mt 16, in fact proves the point, and the Gospel of John takes this reflection further, as we will see). Thus, to speak of the “Incarnation,” to say that the one born of the Virgin is the Son of God, is an interpretation made only in the light of the Passion. It is a confession about the crucified and exalted Lord, whose birth is then described in terms drawn from the account of his death (the correspondence between the tomb and the womb that delighted early Christians and is celebrated in liturgical texts and iconography); it is not a neutral statement that could be verified by an uninvolved bystander as part of an objective history, an account of things “as they actually happened,” in the manner of nineteenth-century historiography. Although popular imagination is still enthralled by the idea of “what really happened,” it is generally recognized today that there is no such thing as uninterpreted history. Failing to appreciate the confessional nature of theological assertions gives much modern theology a character that can only be described as an odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology. (p. 16)

“An odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology”—I imagine that Protestant critics might well throw this comment right back at Behr and his fellow Orthodox. After all, we have thoroughly assimilated into our liturgies the stories of the Theotokos from the Protoevangelium of James and typically treat them as historical report. But that is by the by.

The assertion of the confessional nature of theology forces us, says Behr, to take seriously the ways the early Church lived out their faith in worship, prayer, and the interpretation of the Scriptures:

It is sometimes said that for antiquity truth is what is, for enlightened modernity it is what was, and for postmodernity it is that which will have been. The historicizing approach of modernity places the truth of Jesus Christ firmly in the past—how he was born and what he did and said—and subject his truth to our criteria of historicity, which are ultimately no more than a matter of what we find plausible (as is evidenced by the “Jesus Seminar”). For antiquity, on the other hand, the truth of Christ is eternal, or better, timeless: the crucified and risen Lord is the one whom scripture has always spoken. Yet, as the disciples come to recognize him, as the subject of scripture and in the breaking of bread, he disappears from their sight (Lk 24.31). The Christ of Christian faith, revealed concretely in and through the apostolic proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord in accordance with scripture, is an eschatological figure, the Coming One. (p. 17)

Christian theology properly begins with the gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and returning in glory.

(cont)

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“Depth below depth of meaning lies in that phrase–‘My Eros is crucified'”

The tiara of the pontiff-Emperor and the tiara of the Roman Bishop arose above the new world. But there were other and more spectacular changes, some of them particular, as in the ritual about the Emperor, some general, as in the alteration of crosses. When St. Paul preached in Athens, the world was thronged with crosses, rooted outside cities, bearing all of them the bodies of slowly dying men. When Augustine preached in Carthage, the world was also thronged with crosses, but now in the very centre of cities, lifted in processions and above altars, decorated and jewelled, and bearing all of them the image of the Identity of dying Man. There can hardly ever have been—it is a platitude—a more astonishing reversion in the history of the world. It is not surprising that Christianity should sometimes be regarded as the darkest of superstitions, when it is considered that a thing of the lowest and most indecent horror should have been lifted, lit, and monstrously adored, and that not merely sensationally but by the vivid and philosophic assent of the great intellects of the Roman world. The worship in jungles and marshes, the intoxication of Oriental mysteries, had not hidden in incense and litany a more shocking idol. The bloody and mutilated Form went up everywhere; Justinian built the Church of Holy Wisdom to it in Byzantium, and the Pope sang Mass before it on the hills where Rome had been founded. The jewelled crosses hid one thing only—they hid the indecency. But original crucifixion was precisely indecent. The images we still retain conceal—perhaps necessarily the same thing; they preserve pain but they lack obscenity. But the dying agony of the God-Man exhibited both; depth below depth of meaning lies in that phrase—“My Eros is crucified.”

Yet if the image was ghastly and horrible, the sacrificers were not so. There were still many altars, as there had been before, but the old republican worship of household gods had disappeared, and the pouring of honourable libations. The East had overcome Rome, as the civic fathers had feared it might when they forbade Cybele to enter the City. But the East itself had changed in doing so. There was offered everywhere “the clean sacrifice.” Men were no longer to die, for Man had died; orgies were no longer mystically to celebrate divine nuptials, for that must be a secret process of arduous will; ecstasy was no longer specially to be desired, for the ordinary daylight was as much He as the extraordinary night. Even the dark night of the soul was, as it were, nothing out of the common. Dullness, as well as drama, was to be borne on the wings of the spirit, and the Church leaned strongly to the idea that dullness was more reliable than drama. It had been, in fact, one of the objections to the Faith that it originally offered itself particularly to slaves and small shopkeepers. Its modern antagonists denounce it still as a bourgeois superstition; and certainly St. Paul and St. Augustine themselves demanded precisely that their converts should become the bourgeoisie of a City. The difficulty has generally been to prevent the bourgeois mind from supposing that it satisfactorily understood all the heavenly experiences which the bourgeois soul endured.

There had been, so far, little dispute on the nature of the Eucharistic Food. The Rite, with some variation of ceremony, was the same everywhere—from Delphi to Mona, from Carthage to Antioch. The elements of the Bread and the Wine were presented, the invocation of the God corresponded with His will and obeyed His command; the elements underwent His pre-occupation, and the original actuality of the Death of Messias in some way existed among the faithful. By virtue of that Death they communicated upon Him living. The Death was not repeated, for that could not be. As the Church accommodated herself to time in her dealing with the world so she also receded out of time in her union with her Victim and her Way. He had commanded her to command him, and she did; there, in the here and now of each particular Rite, holy exchange was perfected. She comunicated and she adored.

Charles Williams

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“The Emperor summoned Nicaea; the Fathers got to work”

Christendom had set out to re-generate the world. The unregenerate Roman world was now handed over to it. No extreme difficulties were any longer to be put in its way, except under the noble but ill-fated effort of the Emperor Julian to restore the past. The old pagan rituals were not finally prohibited until the year 392, by Theodosius, and there was still a good deal of rhetorical and sincere opposition. But the no-man’s land of religion, all the casual and fashionable sections of the Empire, became more or less formally Christian. All insincerity became Christian; neither Constantine nor the Church was to blame. Time had been a problem, and the Church had organized to deal with it; now space and numbers had become a similar problem. Christendom had been expanding within the Empire, and the acceleration had already become greater than the morality of Christendom could quite control. The acceleration and the corresponding loss of morality were highly increased.

Unfortunately they were so increased at the very moment when one of the profoundest divisions broke out—one can hardly say (by definition) within the Church, but within the apparent Church. The division had begun before Constantine; it was, in fact, the ostensible cause for the calling of Nicaea. Such divisions in the past had given opportunity for the activity of the worst emotions, even of sincere converts. The emotions of only half-sincere converts were even more damaging, and human destructiveness was loosed on a greater scale than ever before within the suddenly enlarged boundaries of Christendom. The grand Arian controversy had opened.

That this should have been possible at all, three centuries after Christ, shows how slow the Church had been towards exact dogmatic definition; it had been, and always has been, engaged on something else. Christ was the Redeemer, that was certain; and he was also, in some real sense, God; and, at least since the Montanists and Origen, there was a formal Trinity of Godhead. But in what sense was he God? in the same sense as the Father (allowing for the Persons)? or only in a similar sense to the Father? Was he co-eternal and co-equal? The alternative proposition was set forth by the persuasive, virtuous and ingenious deacon of Alexandria, Arius: “There was when He was not.” If the Father was truly Father and Source, and the Son truly Son and Result, there must have been when he had not been. He was ” of God,” and the rest followed. It was as logical and simple as that. …

The Emperor summoned Nicaea; the Fathers got to work. The result is known. The question there asked was capable of translation into all categories, including the category of exchange. Was there, in the most Secret, in the only Adored—was there that which can be described only by such infelicitous mortal words as an equal relation, an equal goodwill, an equal love? was this in its very essence? was the Son co-eternal with the Father? If there had been no creation, would Love have practised love? and would Love have had an adequate object to love? Nicaea answered yes. It confirmed, beyond all creation, in the incomprehensible Alone, the cry of Felicitas: ” Another is in Me.” The Godhead itself was in Co-inherence. The doctrine of Arius had denied the possibility of equal exchange to God—outside creation. It is true that Arius, as well as Athanasius, held the other doctrine of free-will, and that in that sense every soul has it at choice to make exchange with God. But Nicaea went farther. Fourteen hundred years later, the doctrine was epigrammatized by an Anglican doctor when Dr. Hawarden, before the Queen of George II, asked Dr. Clarke: “Can God the Father annihilate God the Son?” That the question is, so to speak, meaningless is precisely the definition of orthodoxy. The Divine Son is not only “of God”; he is “God of God.”

Nicaea then was a double climax. The spectacle of magnificence was accompanied by an intellectual ostentation of dogma. “The great and sacred Synod” exhibited itself in the two worlds. Christ was throned in heaven and in Constantinople. Yet at times, as the jewels seem only jewels, so the words seem only words. “Father,” “Son,” “Holy Spirit,” “Person,” “essence and nature,” “like and unlike”—what has such a pattern of definition to do with a Being that must exist always in its own incomprehensibility? It is not surprising that the human mind should revolt against the jewels and words. It is, of course, a revolt of immature sensibility, an ignorant, a young-romantic revolt, but it is natural. “The great and sacred Synod” looms sublimely anti-pathetic. From such revolts there have sprung the equally immature and romantic devotions to the simple Jesus, the spiritual genius, the broad-minded international Jewish working-man, the falling-sparrow and grass-of-the-field Jesus. They will not serve. The Christian idea from the beginning had believed that his Nature reconciled earth and heaven, and all things met in him, God and Man. A Confucian Wordsworth does not help there. Jewels and words are but images, but then so are grass and sparrows. And jewels and words are no less and no more necessary than cotton and silence.

Charles Williams

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Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (II)

The Second Movement

A single theme, three stanzas, each containing four couplets, mildly irregular meter. The irregular meter must be intentional. A poet as accomplished as T. S. Eliot could easily have conformed the lyrics to the traditional form. Perhaps his choice tells us something about his chosen theme—death. The rhyme scheme conveys predictability (aabbccdd), but the rhythmical deviations disrupt our expectations. Death is certain, yet it always surprises and disturbs.

The lyrics examine death under a different aspect—the dissolution of life into the foundational constituents of the cosmos. The Presocratic philosophers analyzed reality in terms of the elements of air, earth, water, and fire. The interplay of these elements constitute the world and explain multiplicity and change. “Fire lives in the death of earth, air in the death of fire, water in the death of air, and earth in the death of water,” states Heraclitus. Heck if I know what this means, but note the constant of death. Eliot was undoubtedly acquainted with this text (see “Heraclitean Elements“). Commentators on The Four Quartets observe that each poem is devoted to one of the four elements. Helen Gardner sketches it out this way:

The ‘thematic material’ of the poem is not an idea or a myth, but partly certain common symbols. The basic symbols are the four elements, taken as the material of mortal life, and another way of describing Four Quarters and a less misleading one, would be to say that ‘Burnt Norton’ is a poem about air, on which whispers are borne, intangible itself, but the medium of communication; ‘East Coker’ is a poem about earth, the dust of which we are made and into which we shall return; it tells of ‘dung and death’, and the sickness of the flesh; ‘The Dry Salvages’ is a poem about water, which some Greek thinkers thought was the primitive material out of which the world arose, and which man has always thought of as surrounding and embracing the land, limiting the land and encroaching on it, itself illimitable; ‘Little Gidding’ is a poem about fire, the purest of the elements, by which some have thought the world would end, fire which consumes and purifies. We could say that the whole poem is about the four elements whose mysterious union makes life, pointing out that in each of the separate poems all four are present; and perhaps adding that some have thought that there is a fifth element, unnamed but latent in all things: the quintessence, the true principle of life, and that this unnamed principle is the subject of the whole poem. (The Art of T. S. Eliot, pp. 44-45)

In the Second Movement of “Little Gidding,” the poet explicitly comments upon the four elements.

Ash on an old man’s sleeve / Is all the ash the burnt roses leave. / Dust in the air suspended / Marks the place where a story ended. / Dust inbreathed was a house— / The walls, the wainscot and the mouse. / The death of hope and despair, / This is the death of air.

I’m sure this stanza is open to different readings, but knowing that Eliot served as an air raid warden in London during the Blitz encourages me to envision the poet walking through his assigned district after a bombing raid. The air is filled with the ash and dust of destroyed buildings. He looks around and sees the wreckage of English culture. We are what we build. The structures we construct not only protect us from the elements but embody our wisdom and dreams. “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” remarked Winston Churchill. Who are we, what will become of us, when we have no homes in which to dwell?

In “Burnt Norton” we visited an Edenic rose garden. Now all that is left of the roses are the ashes that have settled on an old man’s sleeve. In “East Coker” the poet spoke of the rising and falling of houses and of the need for the wind to “shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots”; but now he finds himself breathing in “the death of hope and despair.” Kenneth Tanner suggests that this first stanza bespeaks the emotional death of the human being—“cognitive impotence, emotional dissonance, volitional habitude, and intuitive paralysis” (Redeeming Time, p. 151).

There are flood and drouth / Over the eyes and in the mouth, / Dead water and dead sand / Contending for the upper hand. / The parched eviscerate soil / Gapes at the vanity of toil, / Laughs without mirth. / This is the death of earth.

The poet gazes further and sees twin calamities, both rendering the world uninhabitable. In “Dry Salvages” Eliot recalled the flooding power of the Mississippi River, the brown god, a “reminder / Of what men choose to forget.” But here, perhaps, he is thinking of the primaeval flood in which God unleashed the forces of chaos—“on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Gen 7:11)—destroying wicked humanity and all its works. But even more terrifying, though, is the threat of a world deprived completely of water and thus unable to sustain life in any form, “dead water and dead sand,” a desert planet—physical death.

In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis tells the story of Digory and Polly, who by the power of magic rings transport themselves to a dead world under a dying red sun. The city is in ruins. The river is dried up. There are no signs of life, not even the sounds of birds or insects. “A dead, cold, empty silence” fills the air. “You couldn’t imagine anything growing in it.” They later learn that the name of the city is Charn. Two sisters once fought a long and bloody civil war for the crown. The loser of this war, Jadis, refused to surrender and instead cast a terrible spell, the Deplorable Word.  By it all life on the planet was extinguished, spell-caster excepted. Jadis later blamed her sister for forcing her to invoke the Deplorable Word: “Her greed has destroyed the whole world!”

Water and fire succeed / The town, the pasture and the weed. / Water and fire deride / The sacrifice that we denied. / Water and fire shall rot / The marred foundations we forgot, / Of sanctuary and choir. / This is the death of water and fire.

In the First Movement we knelt down in prayer in the chapel of Little Gidding, hoping to enter into the silence that is God. But now the poet foresees eschatological judgment upon Western civilization’s abandonment of the divine sacrifice that created it, judgment upon our refusal to embrace the ascetical sacrifice and detachment necessary for union with the Eternal. We have brought upon ourselves our spiritual death. Seventy-five years later, Eliot’s prophecy appears to be right on schedule. Perhaps apocalyptic prophesies are always on schedule.

But why are water and fire here coupled? Why not devote a stanza to each? I have wrestled with this question for a week. None of my commentaries proved helpful. But once Noah’s flood came to mind, a passage from the Second Epistle of Peter soon followed:

They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. (2 Peter 3:4-7)

As water was an instrument of divine judgment in the prehistory of mankind, so fire will be an instrument of judgment at the end of history. Yet this judgment by fire may also hint of eschatological rebirth. Recall these lines from “East Coker”:

If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

As the waters of baptism effect death and resurrection, so the fire of grace may purge, purify, and make new. “I baptize you with water,” declared St John the Baptist; “but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).

(cont)

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“Who would not wish to follow Christ to supreme happiness, perfect peace, and lasting security?”

“If anyone wished to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and come after me.”

Our Lord’s command seems hard and heavy, that anyone who wants to follow him must renounce himself. But no command is hard and heavy when it comes from one who helps to carry it out. That other saying of his is true: “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” Whatever is hard in his commands is made easy by love.

We know what great things love can accomplish, even though it is often base and sensual. We know what hardships people have endured, what intolerable indignities they have borne to attain the object of their love. 

What we love indicates the sort of people we are, and therefore making a decision about this should be our one concern in choosing a way of life.
 Why be surprised if people who set their hearts on Christ and want to follow him renounce themselves out of love? If we lose ourselves through self-love we must surely find ourselves through self-renunciation.

 Who would not wish to follow Christ to supreme happiness, perfect peace, and lasting security? We shall do well to follow him there, but we need to know the way.

The Lord Jesus had not yet risen from the dead when he gave this invitation. His passion was still before him; he had still to endure the cross, to face outrages, reproaches, scourging; to be pierced by thorns, wounded, insulted, taunted, and put to death.

The road seems rough, you draw back, you do not want to follow Christ. Follow him just the same.

The road we made for ourselves is rough, but Christ has leveled it by passing over it himself. 

Who does not desire to be exalted?

Everyone enjoys a high position. But self-abasement is the step that leads to it. Why take strides that are too big for you—do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with this step and you will find yourself climbing.

 The two disciples who said: “Lord, command that one of us shall sit at your right hand in your kingdom and the other at your left” had no wish to think about this step of self-abasement. They wanted to reach the top without noticing the step that led there. 

The Lord showed them the step, however, by his reply: “Can you drink the cup that I am to drink?” You who aim at the highest exaltation, can you drink the cup of humiliation?

He did not simply give the general command: “Let him renounce himself and follow me” but added: “Let him take up his cross and follow me.” What does it mean to take up one’s cross? 

It means bearing whatever is unpleasant—that is following me. Once you begin to follow me by conforming your life to my commandments, you will find many to contradict you, forbid you, or dissuade you, and some of these will be people calling themselves followers of Christ.

 Therefore if you meet with threats, flattery, or opposition, let this be your cross; pick it up and carry it—do not collapse under it.

These words of our Lord are like an exhortation to endure martyrdom.

 If you are persecuted you ought, surely, to make light of any suffering for the sake of Christ.

St Augustine of Hippo

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