by the Very Rev. William N. McKeachie
‘Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, who turn to thee with penitence, fasting, and prayer. For thou art a merciful God, Full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, and in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, And let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’ ~ from ‘A Commination’, The Book of Common Prayer
Following my baptism at 17 and ordination at 27, for another five decades, it was the Holy Scriptures, the Catholic Creeds, the ‘traditional’ Book of Common Prayer and the other historic ‘Formularies’ of Anglican orthodoxy, that together served as my vocational plumbline in doctrine and worship.
Now that I am thankfully retired from today’s increasingly wrathful ecclesiastical fray, I grieve over what can sometimes look like the widespread, perhaps inexorable, disintegration of ‘classical’ Anglicanism as such.
Alas, unlike the traditional Commination’s prayerful testimony that God, even in his wrath, thinks and acts mercifully, today’s Ecclesia Anglicana seems, on almost all fronts, beset by myriad factions venting their own kind of passive-aggressive wrath towards each other, seemingly bereft of mercy, let alone magnanimity.
Contrary, moreover, to what W.B. Yeats observed about European civilization a hundred years ago (see his poem ‘The Second Coming’), in the case of what’s left of Anglican culture in 2022 it often seems to be the ‘best’ that, in their very conviction, are full of wrathful intensity, while the ‘worst’ blithely disdain their heritage, lacking all doctrinal substance.
At the same time, thankfully, in the face of today’s dispiriting ecclesial entropy in the Anglican West and North, a pithier resource than the Thirty- nine Articles — but particularly reflective of Article XVIII — has increasingly served as a trusty verbal ‘vade mecum’ for me as I sought, in the thick and thin of ministry, to be faithful to the One whom I knew to be my own living, loving, liberating Lord. I discovered this resource — really, just a single sentence! — in a book by that late, great, theologically-minded interpreter of political, ecclesiastical, and scientific history, Sir Herbert Butterfield. It is, in fact, the concluding admonition of his ‘Christianity and History’ (first published in 1949):
Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.
More than 1500 years earlier, none other than St. Patrick is reputed to have been the author of an equally single-minded, single-hearted, albeit more rhetorically expansive, doctrinal affirmation, passed down from generation to generation in Old Gaelic. At the heart of his pæan of praise to the Trinity, known as St. Patrick’s ‘Lorica’ or Breastplate, Christ is extolled as Man’s one and only strength and stay in the face of evil. But, for St. Patrick, salvation in Christ Alone is actually, utterly inseparable from the very God who, by revealed nature and definition, is never ‘alone’ — the Three in One and One in Three.
In the 19th century, St. Patrick’s hymn was translated by the notable Anglo-Irish hymnist Cecil Frances Alexander. A century later, throughout my own half-century in ordained ministry, Mrs. Alexander’s version of St. Patrick’s Breastplate has almost invariably been the processional hymn at Anglican ordinations, as well as being sung every Trinity Sunday, invariably also including this notably Christocentric verse:
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Even so, what, or who, is this ‘Christ’?
‘Christos’ is, of course, the title, or (in another sense) the ‘surname’, or (it might be said) the ‘divine pedigree’ ascribed by Jesus’s disciples to him, their nonpareil teacher. Linguistically, ‘Christos’ is nothing less than a Greek translation of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, the truly ‘Anointed One’ of the One and Only God. In later, Latin terminology, Jesus the Christ is unabashedly declared, according to Western Catholic tradition, to be ‘Deus-Homo’ — the God-Man — God as, with, and for Man.
At the same time, and beyond time, Jesus the Christ is, according to the ecumenical Creeds of early, ‘undivided’ Christianity, affirmed to be one of three ‘persons’ within the undividedly Trinitarian or Tri-Une Godhead. Such an affirmation points to St. Paul’s vision of Christ as finally, ultimately, eternally ‘All, and in All’ (Colossians 3:11). Thus, according to Eastern Orthodox tradition, Christ — by virtue of the unity in him of divinity and humanity — is ‘Pantocrator’, holy and mighty, sovereign over and, mystically, through All.
Therefore, those committing themselves to ‘hold’ to Christ Alone are truly holding to the One by whom, in whom, and as whom, God — even in his wrath regarding human sin — acts sovereignly, redemptively, and irrevocably in mercy. He is the One by whose death, death itself is destroyed, and even hell is ‘harrowed’, foreshadowing ‘resurrection’ (‘anastasis’). He is the One by whose Pentecostal Spirit, Man is sacramentally ‘divinized’ (‘theosis’). From before the foundation of the world, he is the One by whose predestining intent (or, rather, will) God the Father shows mercy on creation as a whole, such that all of history is ‘recapitulated’ in Christ (‘anakephalaiosis’, Ephesians 1:10)
In such terms, the 18th century Anglican poet and friend of Dr. Johnson, Christopher (‘Kit’) Smart affirmed — even while incarcerated in a debtors’ and lunatics’ asylum — his faith that the finished, sacrificial work of Christ on the Cross fulfilled the sweet providence of God, God’s eternal predestination that every vestige of evil should be wiped clean (see his ‘Jubilate Agno’):
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
Such a vision surely lies at the eternal heart of a Creator God who ‘is’, by biblical definition, Love. That, too, is why the ancient liturgical proclamation known as the Exsultet, celebrating the ‘passover’ by Christ from death to risen life — and celebrating, too, our own new life ‘in’ him, through what the English liturgist Canon Jeremy Haselock calls ‘the Sacrament of Easter’ — dares to refer to Adam’s sin as ‘Felix Culpa’, a ‘blessed fault that merited for us so great and glorious a redemption’.
No wonder the entire sum and substance of the preaching and teaching of St. Augustine, that most salient of all thinkers in the Western theological tradition, Catholic and Protestant alike, was declared by Martin Heidegger to be, not ‘love and do as you will’ — too often subjectively misconstrued — but, rather, the passionate assurance uttered, as between lovers, both by and to God: ‘Amo: Volo ut sis’ (‘I love: I want/will you to be).
A thousand years after Augustine, Dame Julian of Norwich echoed and extrapolated the unconditioned implication of such a wanting, such a willing, such an assurance:
Sin is behovely [besetting], but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well [providential]’.
How so? Because, from all eternity, God in Christ ‘hath taken away the sin of the world’. Because, in history, Christ in the flesh has, once for all, embodied and transfigured each and every particular sin of all the generations of sinful humankind. Because, hid with Christ in God, are found sinners past, present, and to come.
Paradoxical as this assurance is, it is how I myself have come at last to understand what is both the principle of ‘capax dei’ in Western Catholic theological tradition and the principle of ‘theosis’ in Eastern Orthodox tradition.
Thus, together with Professor Butterfield’s dictum, another mnemonic at the heart of my own ‘remembrancing’ of what it means to live and love, to die and rise ‘in Christ’, is the double paradox frequently cited by that most esoteric of C.S. Lewis’s fellow ‘Inklings’, Charles Williams:
This also is thou: neither is this thou.
To ‘hold’ solely to Christ is, as Butterfield’s precept intimates, an assurance at once exclusive and inclusive, a relationship at once unique and universal in its affirmation of faith, hope, and love. How so? Because — as in the witness of both the Bible and the Church, so also in my own experience — it is God who reaches out and ‘comprehends’ us, not we who figure out and ‘prove’ God.
‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ says the unique and universal Christ: ‘no-one comes to the Father but by me’ (John 14:6). How so? By Christ on the Cross taking upon, and into, himself — who is the ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’ of All (Revelation 22:13) — everything incomplete, everything imperfect, everything sinful, everything mortal, and making it whole, holy. ‘Death, thou shalt die’ wrote John Donne, reflecting St. Paul: ‘as dying, and, behold, we live’ (Second Corinthians 9).
Therefore, death holds no fright for me. For me, what is frightfull is not death as such but all too many ‘things done and left undone’ in life, beginning with me. By relying egoistically on my fallible and fickle self, I have only too frequently fallen short, or missed the mark, or gone astray, both in my own aspirations and in my responsibilities to others, not least, alas, those nearest and dearest.
But such is ‘la condition humaine’, the fateful implication of which is the bad news underlying the good news — ‘gospel’ — according to St. Paul (see his Epistle to the Romans, chapter 7). Or, as Pogo, that praeternatural theologian of the Okefenokee Swamp, put it: ‘We have seen the enemy, and he is us’. But, St. Paul — the ‘chief of sinners’ (I Timothy 1:15) — continues, ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1).
In Christ — incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended — humankind has hope, and a future, a destiny already transcendently transformed, ‘in saecula saeculorum’.
Life after death, through and in Christ, at least as much as before death, is anticipated by Christians not as something vague, diffuse, insubstantial, ‘in spirit’ only; rather, passing through the grave and gate of death, I shall remain the same me, you shall remain same you, albeit taking the form of what St. Paul discerns to be a new kind of body, ‘spirit-body’, in which the consequences of sin are redeemed.
Such was surely the blessed assurance experienced by the disciples in their amazed encounters with the Risen Christ, whom they could still engage in conversation, whom they could still share a meal with, whom they could still even touch, yet who himself was in no way limited to any particular place at any particular moment in space-time: even so, he said, ‘I go to prepare ‘a place’ (John 14:2, ‘topon’), the holy and eternal place, ‘for you’.
God’s son, Christ was and Is forever Jesus, Mary’s son. In Christ, we are born ‘again’ (John 3:7, ‘anothen’, from above) and become forever God’s sons and daughters.
Following his resurrection, this same Jesus was observed to ascend into a realm not less real, not less substantial, not less vivid than this world, but, on the contrary, more so; and as he ascended, he bore, in that very ‘spirit-body’ of his, the recognizable marks of his Crucifixion. The God-Man — who from the Cross had prayed ‘Father, forgive them for (‘gar’, because) they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34) — took the marks of Man’s egoism, ignorance, and hostility into the realm of healing and holiness, of joy and delight, where ‘there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain’ (Revelation 21:4). In the words of Charles Wesley’s vision of that ecstatic realm, that eternal reality (where his hymn is sung, of course, to the tune ‘Helmsley’!):
Those dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshipers.
With what rapture, with what rapture,
Gaze we on those glorious scars
By the same token, W.H. Auden — among the most doctrinally discerning of 20th century Anglican poets — rendered the meaning and message of John 14:6, in all its counterintuitive, transformative significance, at once strange yet intimately familiar:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
It was Jesus himself who was remembered by his disciples as saying (John 14:9) ‘he who hath seen me hath seen the Father’ — the God and Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Ancient of Days — but as saying also (John 20:29) ‘blessed are they that have not seen, yet have believed’. Doubly blessed assurance!
Although I have not, of course, seen Jesus in the flesh with my own eyes, I have seen him in faith, thanks to the witness of those who did indeed see him with their own eyes, and recounted the experience in their own words, ‘God’s Word written’. Thanks, moreover, to the Pentecostal inspiration and influence of that Word on two thousand years of not just Christian, or even generally religious history, but of that Word’s influence on the culture of the world at large, I and billions of others have also, derivatively, ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ Jesus through the words, music, pictures, and other expressions of faith on the part of innumerable saints, sinners all.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, the most holy, glorious, and undivided Trinity, be with us all, evermore. Amen.
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Fr William McKeachie is the retired Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul in Charleston, South Carolina. William and I became friends an eternity ago when we served as parish priests in the Diocese of Maryland. Fr. McKeachie regards being numbered among the six co-authors of the Baltimore Declaration as his vocational high water mark. He and his beautiful wife Lisa are the parents of four adult children.