05/19/24

EASTER, ASCENSION AND PENTECOST

When St. Peter on Pentecost Day explains to the Jews that Christ is the Messiah, he sums up the salvific events by stating: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this, which you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:32f). In this quotation which is perhaps the earliest testimony of the preaching in the primitive church, Peter paradoxically presents the outpouring of the Spirit as a consequence of the enthronement of Christ, which follows from His death and resurrection. This inner connection between Easter, Ascension and Pentecost is similarly maintained by St. Paul in a hymn which he quotes in his Letter to the Philippians:

Christ became obedient to the point of death
— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(2:8-11)

Explaining the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross in this way, the primitive church not only presents Christ to us as resurrected from the tomb but also as ascended to heaven sitting as the Lord at the right hand of God the Father. Thus, the proclamation of the Kingship of Christ takes us one step further than the Easter story. Exalted by God the Father, Christ is the Lord, enthroned in Glory.

Photo by PtrQs, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Kingship of Christ

In fact, this imagery is taken from Oriental Court ritual. On solemn occasions the Crown Prince enjoys the privileged position of sitting next to the Monarch. The early church was familiar with this kind of language, from royal psalms in The Old Testament:

The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand,
till I make your enemies your foot-stool,
the Lord shall send the rod of your strength out of Zion.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
(Ps. 110, cf. Ps. 2)

As a matter of fact, Jesus had himself quoted from this psalm in order to express his status as the Messiah. Moreover, in times of trouble the early church took comfort from Christ’s power at the right hand of the Father (Heb 1:3ff).

Spiritual struggle

Still, the Lord’s enthronement in glory does not mean that all is now peaceful. During her pilgrimage in time, until Christ’s return in Glory, the Church Militant is attacked by spiritual enemies making war against the saints because they “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 12:17, 14:12). In this way the criterion for persecution is faithfulness. With apocalyptic names taken from the Old Testament these foes of the faith are metaphorically characterised as aggressive animals like the Snake, the Dragon and the Beast (Rev. 2:17; 13:15). Moreover, all the powers who deny or revolt against the Lordship of Christ are summed up in the letters of St. John as Antichrist, the deceiving Liar (2 John. 2:7, cf. John 8:44). Cunningly, the Antichrist tries to lure the believers away from the faith by instituting a false religion while at the same time also using the world of unbelief as an instrument for his rage against the Christians.

The inner secularisation of the churches

In the same manner, St. Paul cautions the Corinthians of “the god of this age (who) has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”. This spiritual blindness can only be healed by proclaiming “Jesus as Lord”, he concludes (2 Cor 4:4f). Furthermore, in his letter to the Thessalonians the Apostle points to the threat coming from inside the church, warning the faithful of “the mystery of lawlessness which is at work in the temple of God”. “The lawless one” will cause a general falling away from Christ the Lord (2 Thess 2:3ff).

Today, the danger of spiritual blindness remains as a real threat to the faith. By reducing the horizon of living in the world to “me, here and now”, the postmodern culture may impress upon us the idea that the purpose of life is simply me and my happiness. This egocentricity is inherently atheistic destroying Christianity from within. There is no God given creation, no common bonds between men, no Gospel to proclaim for mankind’s salvation as the faith has become a private inner disposition. Accordingly, religion serves only a therapeutic purpose – the feeling of personal well-being. As each one of us is our own master in a post-truth society, only private experience can authenticate my faith. “Faith” is practised as a private patchwork of notions and feelings ironically characterised as “google buddhism”.

The liberal dilemma and woke authoritarianism

The problem of authority in a society without social coherence has become a palpable problem in the present secular culture. If social conflicts arise in our multicultural society it is seen as the task of the State to function as umpire balancing the rights and obligations between diverse social groups and alternative interests to ensure that there are no constraints on the individual’s right to self-fulfillment. The liberal dilemma is then how to impose judgements without becoming partisan in favour of the winning part.

However, in the aftermath of postmodernism there is no pattern given in human life, no goal oriented force or unified common standard which can serve as neutral ground. In this vacuum there are no binding common standard for thinking and acting. Equal rights have led to George Orwell’s insight in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others”. In the end normative directions are based on the authoritarian power to impose political correctness. Today woke authoritarianism is taking more and more control of society by means of militant subjectivism. In a post-truth society the definition of truth is: “Act as you are told – or we take you to court.” The misuse of legal power threatens so-called “cognitive minorities”.

Factual claims

In this cultural war the challenge for the Christian understanding of truth is essentially connected with factual claims: “If Christ is not risen”, St. Paul explains to the Corinthians who based their faith on private experiences, “your faith is futile, you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 1 5:17). The Gospel narrative leads into a pattern of doctrine as the Apostle maintains in his Letter to the Romans: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom.10:9f, cf 1 Cor 8:6. ). This confession of the Lordship of Christ takes place in the act of baptism and in power of the Holy Spirit: “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (12:3, cf. 8:6).

The Church as a community of faith

Despite the personal importance this confession has for the individual’s life, the profession of faith does not lead him or her into private relationship with Jesus. On the contrary, the conversion and the confession of faith places the new born in the community of those who believe in Christ as the Lord: “For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:27f). Thus, the Christian faith invites the individual to find his or her identity in relationships, by bonding with others who share the same faith in Christ. Without any basis in a binding narrative, the Gospel is transformed into mystical images and vague notions, justified by their therapeutic or political usefulness. There is no place for the faith of the Church as professed in the Creeds. For most modern Christians it is inconceivable that Christian faith should be the only way of salvation. Christianity thus presented is conceptually bankrupt.

Serving Christ in joy and peace

The purpose of Christian faith is to grow in holiness and to do so in a community. Both goals are fulfilled in the Holy Spirit given to the Church on the Day of Pentecost. This presence of the Spirit comes to us today as an anticipation of the Kingdom of God which is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). The Holy Spirit is the foundation of the Church as a holy temple and at the same time the source of richness and joy among the faithful. The Spirit, the Paraclete, calls us to wholehearted commitment and attentiveness to the Lord. In this way the role of the Spirit is to bring us to accept and comprehend the new reality given to us in the Resurrection of Christ. My fidelity as a member of the Church in these difficult times is to respond to Jesus who “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). For in him we are blessed and empowered to serve in righteousness and peace in the Holy Spirit. So let us live and walk in the Spirit so that we can reap “the fruit of the Spirit” – love, joy and peace and faithfulness (Gal 5:23f).

May Pentecost be a time of joyful renewal to you!
+ Roald Nikolai

12/6/21

TIME OF ADVENT AND THE SIGN OF THE CROSS

Why do we make the sign of the cross? Clearly, it is a way of adding to the verbal prayer by sealing with our fingers. So let us ask what is the inherent symbolism expressed in this act? In order to understand the significance we must take into consideration that the sign of the cross until the Middle Ages was made on the forehead and not over the breast.

With this in mind the Old Testament roots of the custom becomes clear. The prophet Ezekiel is commanded by God to put «a mark on the forehead of those who sigh and groan over the abominations that are committed in Jerusalem» (Ez. 9:4). In this context the mark on the forehead is a sign of repentance and protection.

Yet another, more joyous meaning, is also connected with this custom. Pious Jews would mark themselves on the brow with the last letter of the alphabet as a symbol of God’s glory. The last letter is to symbolise the fullness and perfection of God’s creation. In Old Hebrew the last letter, tav, was written as + and later as T. This symbolism is also expressed in archaic Greek where the letter T is written either as + or as X.

Again we are reminded of this letter symbolism in the Apocalypse when the risen Christ is called «the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the End, the First and the Last» ( 22:13). However, the letter symbolism was not only used to express Christ’s glory. Marking the forehead with the letter T or +, that is the cross, Judeo-Christians in the Early Church at the same time confirmed their faith and witnessed to the world that they lived in the new reality of the Resurrection of Christ. Thus the mark on the forehead would symbolise the cross of Christ as a sign of repentance and also serve as an expression of the joy of salvation.

Now this double meaning is also reflected in the baptismal ritual as St Cyril of Jerusalem explains the meaning of «the anointing of the forehead» to the cathecumens: «Great indeed is the baptism which is offered you. It is the ransom to captives; the remissions of offences; the death of sin; the regeneration of the soul; the garment of light; the holy indelible seal» (Mystagogical Catechises III:16, Protocatechesis 16). In fact, the understanding of baptism as an anointing and a sealing in the Spirit is common usage among the Church Fathers but has already been used by St Paul and also the Apocalypse (2 Cor. 1:21 f; Eph. 1:13 -15; Apoc. 7:4).

St. John Chrysostom encourages the faithful to cross themselves with these words:

“When, then, you make the sign of the cross on the forehead, arm yourself with a saintly boldness, and reinstall your soul in its old liberty; for you are not ignorant that the cross is a prize beyond all price.
Consider what is the price given for your ransom, and you will never more be slave to any man on earth. This reward and ransom is the cross. You should not then, carelessly make the sign on the forehead, but you should impress it on your heart with the love of a fervent faith. Nothing impure will dare to molest you on seeing the weapon, which overcometh all things.”

St. John Chrysostom, 11th century Mosaic, Hosios Loukas Monastery,
Boeotia, Greece [Unkown Author, Public Domain].

A further meaning of the marking is protection and service. After the baptismal sealing we belong to the Lord as his property. We are like sheep branded with the mark of the Good Shepherd, like soldiers bearing the mark of the King. The baptismal seal is a sign of our enlistment in His army. This understanding of the baptismal seal is repeatedly used by the Church Fathers.

The metaphors of ownership and service is especially of help to us in understanding also the time of Advent. The word «advent» stems from military terminology meaning originally «inspection». So, Advent is the time set a part for those bearing the mark of the King. They shall prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord. We do this humbly marking ourselves with a sign of repentance and at the same time knowing that we in Christ are protected with an indissoluble holy seal. In short, we make the sign of the cross because we belong to Christ the King.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, 6th century, Sinai
[carulmare, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

06/4/17

THE SPIRIT AND THE CHURCH

It is not always so easy to come to terms with the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, as Christians. Sometimes our understanding seems to be «lofty», to the point of being vague. In the following little meditation I will try to elucidate the role of the Spirit through three questions: Who is the Spirit? What does the Spirit do? What is the relation between the Spirit and the Church?


The Holy Spirit

The Apostle Paul explains how the Spirit «searches everything, even the hidden depths of God’s purpose… only God’s Spirit knows all about God» (1 Cor. 2:10f). The Apostle Peter clarifies this further stating that «God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit» (Acts 10:38). However, in the history of salvation, the presence of the Holy Spirit is depicted, not in a personal way, but with the help of symbolic images. When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit came down like a «dove» (Matt. 3:16, John 1:32). At Pentecost the Spirit was present like a «strong wind» and in form of «tongues of fire» (Acts 2:2f).

What does the Spirit for us?

These shifting metaphors help us to understand that the Spirit is not acting on its own. The Spirit remains somewhat «anonymous» as he comes to us pointing to Christ as the Saviour of all men. St. John quotes Jesus saying, «He does not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears» (John 16:13). In this way we can tell who the Spirit is by what he does. The Spirit is the light wherein Jesus is seen as the Son of the Father. The Spirit receives from the Father the authority and power to communicate the Son. Therefore, in the economy of salvation, the Spirit is at the same time God’s Spirit and the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9).

The Spirit and the Church

Serving our salvation, the Spirit comes to us as our Advocate proving the world wrong about sin and reminding us of what Christ taught the apostles (John 14:26, 16:7f). Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness interceding for us with sighs too deep for words (Rom 8:25). Moreover, the Spirit guides the Church in her ministry to the world (Acts 10:19f, 13:2).

As the Spirit works and prays for us, we are at the same time called to put ourselves in the service of the Spirit. St Paul instructs us bluntly: «Let the Spirit direct your lives» (Gal. 5:16). And elsewhere he admonishes us, that we, filled by the Spirit, are to sing to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and offer praise to the Lord (Eph.5:18f). If the «inexpressible groanings» of the Spirit are «too deep for words», he instead inspires us to speak for him. Thus, in her witness and praise the Church shall give voice to the Spirit.

Addressing the Lord

In the final words of the Bible the relationship between the Spirit and the Church is expressed as a dialogue, when the Spirit and the Church jointly address Christ in his glory: «The Spirit and the Bride say, Come» (Rev 22:17). At the end of our time the Spirit speaks words of comfort assuring us: «Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord» (Rev 14:13).

01/1/17

The Christian pilgrim

Reflections for the New Year

At the beginning of a new year that appears full of uncertainties, we may remind ourselves of the biblical metaphor of Christians as a people of pilgrims in the present world. The background for this picture is, of course, found in the Old Testament story of the Exodus when God saved his powerless people from their slavery in Egypt. Upon reaching the promised land, the Israelites recognised their salvation as a gift from above and reminded themselves in the temple of their pilgrim status: “a wandering Aramean was my Father” (Deut 26:5). Likewise, the pilgrim motif is evoked when St. Paul encourages the people of the New Covenant to put their trust in God and “also walk in steps of that faith which our father Abraham had” (Rom 4:12, cf. Gal 3:9).

Madonna di Loreto – Patroness of the Pilgrims
Caravaggio, Church of St. Augustine, Rome

This Christian self-understanding of being a people of pilgrims also appears in the Acts of the Apostles when the believers are called those “of the way” (9:2). However, this choice of words is more than merely the description of a state of mind that arises from a sense of being strangers in an alien world. Being “on the way” positively defines Christians as belonging to a separate community of faith, distinct from the Jews and the Greeks (21:28, 22:4, cf. 1 Cor 10;32). Thus the description connotes their understanding of themselves as the new people of God in the history of salvation. Generation after generation of Christians are walking in the light of Christ on their way towards the Heavenly Jerusalem, to quote the wording in the Book of Revelation (21:10ff).

The obvious challenge during this pilgrimage, St. Paul explains in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, is “that we walk by faith not by sight”. In order not to loose track under the way, writes the Apostle, we must make it our aim to be well-pleasing to the Lord who shall be our judge. All the difficulties on the road notwithstanding, the destination of our journey remains clear: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:5-10).

Whilst the Apostle clearly emphasises the responsibility of each individual, we will notice that St. Paul admonishes in the plural. The pilgrim might be a lonely wanderer needing to make a private spiritual journey in order to grow as a person. Still, the end of this journey is more than a descent into the self. From a Christian perspective, the true spiritual needs of man require regeneration by incorporation into the body of Christ.


For this end, the sacraments of the Church establish a new common life among men. Baptism entails a union of individuals through the love of Christ, as St. Paul instructs the Corinthians: “For by one Spirit we are all baptised into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). Similarly, our participation in the Eucharist makes the unity in Christ visible: “The cup of the blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break is it not the communion of the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16f).

 St. Paul preaching (Mosaic from Ravenna)

Consequently, the social bonds among the faithful are expressed also as a spiritual discipline. The mutual love and support found in the community of faith ensure that the members of the body of Christ do not lose heart in view of the afflictions (2 Cor 4:16ff). However, the pilgrim ethos also brings about a spiritual distance between the wanderers and “those who are outside” the fellowship (1 Cor 5:12). The wisdom of this world may seem attractive and reasonable to non-believers, but true wisdom, the wisdom of God, is only to be found in the Gospel of Christ, St. Paul warns the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:6f, 3:19).

At a time when Western culture is in danger of imploding and many Christians, as part of the confusion, seem to reduce their faith to a source of merely private uplifting, St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians provides us with the necessary point of reorientation. We are to experience, like all men, the good and the bad aspects of this fallen world. Nevertheless, although it is to our obvious advantage as pilgrims if there were peace and order around us, we must never forget that we are pilgrims underway to our heavenly destination; “if for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Cor 15:19).

Thus, Christians live in “two cities” at the same time, to use St. Augustine’s words (The City of God, XIX:26f). This double identity for lack of a better word, may be “foolishness to the world” but it gives us the wisdom to recognise the things which lead to our salvation. “God is faithful”, the Apostle admonishes the Corinthians, for it is God who establishes us in Christ and “he has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” (2 Cor 1:18, 21f).

– Then we too are wandering Arameans putting our trust in God’s promises.

 

04/30/16

SUNDAY – THE DAY OF THE NEW CREATION

The different names used to describe the day of the resurrection, do not just tell us how the gospel has been received and adapted to the different cultures of Antiquity. The name-giving also reflects a deepened insight into the mystery of Christ by showing us how the primitive church lived the new life of salvation. The message of the empty tomb is connected with occurrences on a certain day, the first day of the week. Furthermore, a meal is the context of the appearances of the Lord to his disciples. Each Gospel introduces the meal in its own way (Mark.16:2,9,14, Luke 24:30,35; John 20:1,19,26).

St. John’s Gospel tells us that the Last Supper took place before the Passover meal and that Jesus died on the day when the Passover lambs were sacrificed. In this way we are told that Jesus’ death brought the ancient Passover sacrifice to fulfillment and his appearance at the meals shows him as the Lord (20:28). In St. Luke’s Gospel, however, the Last Supper is presented as a Christian Passover meal and the effects of the new supper will only be fully realised in the heavenly banquet (22:7f,18).

Resurrection_icon - Blog on Sunday

As to the resurrection story, both St. John and St. Luke seem to reflect St. Mark’s account of the empty tomb. The Lord rose from the dead on “the first day of the week” according to the Jewish calendar (Mark 16:2). On this basis, a worship pattern is established. Because Christ rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath, his followers regularly met on the first day of the week to celebrate together a eucharistic meal (John. 20:26).

In the same manner, St. Paul takes for granted that Christians will meet every first day of the week for a meal he calls “the breaking of the bread” (1 Cor 16:2, Acts 20:7). This expression refers to a gesture connected with a short prayer at the beginning of the Jewish family meal. Also the wording “the first day of the week” is taken from the Jewish calendar. This gives reason to assume that the Jewish-Christian community celebrated the Eucharist after the conclusion of the Sabbath when the new day began on Saturday evening.

At the same time, we find another way of dating the gathering. It has a specific Christian name, when the meal is said to take place on “the Lord’s day” (Apoc 1:10). In Didaché, which is a very old Judeo-Christian manual, the faithful are told to meet on the “Lord’s day, break the bread and celebrate the Eucharist” (14:1) This change of name for the celebration of the Eucharist probably originated in a community familiar with Greek culture. Unlike the Jews, the Greeks reckoned a day went from dawn to dawn and they would celebrate the meal in the morning with the coming of the new day. This liberation from the evening meal would then make it possible to integrate the meal in Roman planetary week calendar. We read in Justin Martyr’s Apologia I about the Christian assembly: “We come together on the day of the sun, for this is the day which God, drawing matter from darkness, created the world” (67). The day of the Sun is, of course, our Sunday.

Despite the new naming, the day of the celebration of the Christian Sunday remains the first day of the week as in the Jewish calendar. Still, the evolution of the terms reflects a deepened understanding of the importance of the empty tomb. The expression “Day of the Lord” is really equivalent to “Christ’s day”. Using this term, different Church Fathers make it clear that, as the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day is much more than the anniversary of the creation of the world. If the Sabbath was the end of the first creation, The Lord’s Day is the beginning of something greater. The resurrection of Christ restored the world by giving us the first-fruits of the new Creation. Thus the world of creation, symbolised by the seven days, is just a preliminary stage in the plan of God. As the day of the new creation, Sunday is the eighth day of the week, an image of the age to come. Thus the “Day of the Lord” prefigures our eternal rest.

03/31/16

BELIEVING THE RESURRECTION

The first public claim that Jesus is raised up from his tomb was made by St. Peter on the Day of Pentecost. The Apostle states before the assembled Jews that God by resurrecting the crucified Jesus has made him “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:24,36). Using a polished doctrinal formula some twenty years later St. Paul declared that through his resurrection from the dead Jesus was proclaimed to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:3f). By founding the truth of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah on an historic event, the next question is how the primitive Church came to this astonishing insight. Of particular importance are the witnesses in the gospels of St. John and St. Luke.

Seeing just the signs

The story as told in the Gospel of St. John emphasises the surprise of the disciples at finding the tomb empty. On the first day of the new week, Mary Magdalene, burdened by sorrow, comes, with other women to the tomb, and finds the stone taken away. She concludes that the gardener had removed the body (20:15) and she hurries to inform Peter and John of the theft.

The empty grave

In a state of shock the two Apostles run to the grave. Peter went into the tomb seeing the linen cloths laying in one place and the face cloth neatly folded in a place by itself (20:6f). In the preceding chapter we have been told that the body of Christ according Jewish burial custom had been bound in strips of linen with 100 pounds of spices (19:39f). On this background, Peter apparently finds Mary Magdalene’s explanation impossible. For if stolen, the gardener would not have been able to separate the body from the linen wrappings. The narrative seems to imply that Peter stands there perplexed and irresolute.

Seeing and believing

Peter’s confusion is then contrasted with the reaction of John, the disciple Jesus loved. The narrator tells that he “saw and believed” (20:8). Previously, we have been told that John, standing with the women under the cross, was the last of the disciples to leave Jesus on his way to Golgatha (19:25ff). Now he is presented as the first believer in the new Covenant.

Abruptly, the narrative now turns to the other disciples telling that they were unable to grasp what had happened. The narrator states: “For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:9). The meaning is clearly that this is what John had understood and believed. The empty tomb is the confirmation that the crucified is “both Lord and Christ” – as Peter declared on Pentecost Day.

Subsequently, the narrative relates that the risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciples. These appearances take place in the evening on the same day, the first day of the week, with the exception of Thomas who comes to belief eight days later. His conversion is set as an example for those later disciples “who have not seen and yet have believed” (20:29).

On the way to Emmaus

The resurrection story in the gospel of St. Luke follows the same pattern. We hear of Mary Magdalene and the other women going to the grave on the first day of the week and returning to tell the apostles that stone was rolled away. Peter, running to the tomb, marvels to find the linen cloths lying by themselves (24:12).

Revelation-to-the-wanderers

The story then introduces the two wanderers to Emmaus and their conversation with a stranger whom they finally realise is the risen Lord. This identification takes place in two steps. Firstly, the Lord makes them understand his passion and crucifiction saying to them: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:25-27).

Sharing a meal with him, the two finally understood who the stranger was when “he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’“ (24:30-32).

The narrative then ends with the risen Lord appearing to the Apostles on the same day: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day” (24:45-47).

The Passion opens the Scripture

In this way, both the Gospel of St. John and St. Luke include the Eucharist in the passion and resurrection story. The death on the cross was only the end of the earthly life of Jesus. After the resurrection the living Lord is present in the community meal where he feeds the disciples with the bread of Life (John 6:53ff, 19:34, 21:12f; Luke 24:36-41).

To understand this we must use the cross of Christ as the key which opens up Scripture for us. Christ is “Dominus et rex Scripturae” for in his death and resurrection the glory of God is revealed. With this starting point, a new event, Scripture can be read with coherence correlating Adam and Christ in the economy of salvation. The reign of sin has been replaced by the reign of Grace as St. Paul writes to the Romans: “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many” (Rom 5:15).

02/29/16

THE LOGOS OF BEAUTY

Paul - konversjon

When St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”, he described what has been called “The Logos of Beauty”. At the core of things, beauty cannot be separated from truth and goodness; they all come together, bringing the peace of God (Phil 4:8f). In this way there is an inner order in God’s creation which in human life keeps things together.

Authenticity as the greatest virtue

This experience of a God-given cosmos is very far from the present “feel good culture” around us. Postmodern philosophers tell us that in human life there is no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no common reality that binds us together; no objective cultural standard or rules of behavior. But, if no pattern is given to direct us, man must by himself constitute his own lifeworld. Thus, the highest value that binds us together is the right of the individual to be true to his inner self, and the greatest virtue man can aspire to is authenticity. This message is then vulgarised by the media’s overwhelming presentation of self-gratification as an honorable lifestyle. Sadly, the previous vision of a transcendent dimension giving sense to the human condition has been replaced by the spiritual emptiness of self-realisation.

Morals become politics

The problem is simply that this privatised “feel good culture” is easily blurred with “the culture of narcissism”. The search for self-realisation is but a short step away from the pursuit of self-interest. The potential tension between mine and thine is present also in cultural issues. Living in this pluralistic society, presupposes that everybody is willing to accept and confirm the choices other people make in their private realm. Inversely, intolerance and violation are the ultimate moral sins. It therefore becomes the task of the state to insure that there are no constraints hindering the individual’s right to his or her private moral choices – at least as long they are politically correct.

This is easier said than done. For in the real world there will be unavoidable conflicts not only due to divergent lifestyles, but also deep political disagreements. Moreover, the fundamental division on moral issues threatens to tear society apart. In order to uphold the necessary peace the state must therefore use its disciplinary power to quell protest and dissent.

Feelings corrected by authoritative legislation

Thus, the paradox of living in a postmodern mass democracy can be summed up in the phrase: “The Absolute Individual confronts The Absolute State”. In the end the individual is bound to become the loser in this confrontation. When a government prescribes through legislation what is right and wrong, morals become politics.

Interestingly, the roots of this authoritarian thinking go back to a theological movement of the late Middle Ages, called Nominalism. “Nomen” means name and the nominalists inferred that the words we use when we speak about things and matters are but arbitrary conventions, empty names, which cannot produce a conceptual framework rooted in “reality”. This scepticism finds its primary example in the way we use the word “good”. What we call good is not something given in an universal order of things called “goodness”. It is the speaker himself who uses the word “good” simply to describe objects which fulfill his own desires.

Rules of conduct

Rejecting the idea that reason can operate on the basis of a universal human nature, the nominalist approach to knowledge advises us to discern moral meaning from our feelings and sympathies. However, this subjective approach does not necessarily imply that moral conduct is a solitary enterprise. For the will of the individual can find the basic moral direction in life by being obedient to the revealed will of God. In this way, the meaning of “good” becomes authoritatively clarified in terms of God’s commandments. My moral obligation is to internalise the rules of conduct which God enjoins upon me – and all others.

Today in our fragmented multicultural societies this rule based, volitive approach to human conduct, serves by and large as the ethical model behind the idea of human rights. The important difference is that the will of the State has now taken the moral authority previously enjoyed by God.

Discursive conventions

If we accept – with nominalists then and now – that there is no natural order of things, it follows that nature is emptied of meaning; reality is equated with what can be seen, weighed and heard. All the rest is just secondary. For example, modern art illustrates this rejection of natural order. The impressionist painters told us that what might seem beautiful is simply spots of sunlight on our eyes. Similarly, cubism rejects humanism by reducing forms given in real life to meaningless abstractions. Moving one step further, action painting and lyrical abstraction intentionally distorts form, to show that there are no universal standard or order. Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder.

If man’s experience of life cannot transcend his private feelings and personal taste, he is alone in the world. Without a common reality there is only me and mine and my search for private spirituality. In the bewildering images my senses give me, words like “mankind”, “man” and “woman” are just empty images and part of the discursive conventions I use to constitute my own “world”. This self-centeredness leaves no room for the rich concreteness of human life.

Creation and salvation

This whole way of thinking is more than just a theoretical issue for Christian faith. The fundamental challenge in modern individualism is that this fractured understanding of life entails the implosion of the Gospel. The Christian narrative cannot be reduced to emotional responses to God as a heavenly “Law-maker”. God shows himself as God in his creation as the psalmist sings: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all earth” (Ps 8:1: see also Rom 1:20). There is a cosmos given in the experience of beauty telling us that we are at home in the world and that the world is already ordered for beings like us (Roger Scruton, Beauty, 2010). Sin, destruction and suffering cannot hide God’s love for His world, His “cosmos”, to quote the Greek text in St John 3:16.

In his fight against gnosticism St. Irenaeus made an observation of lasting value noting that the gnostics in their search for moral perfection ignored the art and the sciences and interest in sports (Adv. Haer. II, 32. 2). He clearly warns that if we ignore the reality of the material world as God’s creation, then faith itself becomes homeless.

Beauty and meaning

This is not to say that the experience of the world is given to us as naked facts. The advice St. Paul gave to the Philippians was to “think about these things, in order to know what is true, just, good, commendable and worth of praise” (4:8). That the character of the person who makes such a discernment will influence his judgments, do not necessarily make them private assessments. Moreover, that the Apostle places the understanding in the context of living in the Christian community, does not reduce the claim to objectivity. No thinking takes place in a vacuum. There is no standing ground, no place for inquiry, apart from that which is provided from some particular tradition (Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which rationality?, 1998).

– The peculiar aspect with the Apostle’s instruction is that he ends his admonition by the promise that by practicing these insights we will be blessed with the peace of God (4:9). There is a cosmos after all!

01/15/16

APOCALYPTIC REFLECTIONS FOR THE NEW YEAR

It is sometimes said that, at different epochs, particular parts of the New Testament is experienced as relevant for the times. In any case, this has been the fate of the Apocalypse of St John. Thus in the twelfth century Joachim of Fiore made the Book of the Revelation no less than the center of Christian understanding of time. A century later, St. Bridget of Sweden, in her private devotions, is said to have read daily from the Apocalypse. On the other hand, at the time of the Reformation, Luther declared St. Paul’s statement of justification by faith in Romans 1:17 as the doctrinal center of Scripture, while at the same he discarded the Apocalypse from the New Testament canon stating: “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book”.

The Holy War

In these turbulent times of ours, we may ask if not the time has come now to read again the Book of Revelation. Of particular interest in our cultural situation are chapters twelve and thirteen in the section called “The Holy War” (11:19 – 15:4).

St. Mikael og dragen

Using very dramatic metaphors chapter twelve depicts firstly a war in heaven between the Woman and the Dragon and then the following ramifications on earth.” The Woman” is a symbol of the Church militant representing at the same time Mary in her dual roles as the Mother of Christ and as the Mother of the Christian community (See John. 19:26f). In her troubles the Archangel Michael, champion of the Angelic powers, protects the woman against the Dragon, also named in the text as the Serpent. This is the Devil, cast out of heaven by the power of Christ. The Satanic powers continue their attack on earth persecuting the Woman and her offspring, that is, those “who keep the commandments of God and bear the testimony to Jesus” (12:17). The last expression means that even ordinary Christians are inescapably dragged into the spiritual battle between Christ and his enemies.

 

The Masquerading Devil

Chapter thirteen then takes us one step further showing how the Devil is using his power also within the world of unbelief. With imagery taken form the Book of Daniel, we are told that the Dragon hides himself behind two “Beasts”, one from the sea and one from the earth.

Acting on mandate from the Dragon and using a strategy of deceitful manipulation, the first Beast successfully perverts people so that all who live on the earth will worship him. This leads to a period of persecution for the Christians who must bear the consequences of their faith.

False Religion

The second part of the chapter then presents for us the beast from the earth. Looking like a gentle lamb but with the seductive voice of the dragon, this second beast serves the first beast by making a beguiling image of it. Those who do who not worship the deceitful monster may be killed or loose their social position. The control which the second beast exercises over the entire society results in that “all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name”. The key to understand the Beast’s name is probably best deciphered in the light of his oppressive activities (13:16ff).

Evil, Anti-Christ and the Fallen Church

In this way the Apocalypse describes with “animal” metaphors the Enemy of God as a hierarchical order. “The Snake” is symbolising Evil per se and “the Beast from the sea” is the Anti-Christ, a monstrous lamb which is destruction and not the source of life. Thirdly, “the Beast from the earth” animates a blasphemous cult in honour of the first beast. This deceptive force is later in the text called “the false prophet” or “the Harlot” (16:13; 17:1ff).

We find a similar hierarchy of destructive powers in the Second letter to the Thessalonians. Here St. Paul warns of a false Messiah who will be revealed during a coming apostasy. This “Son of perdition”, who is accompanied by “The lawless one” works for Satan with power, signs, lying wonders and every kind of deception (2 Thess 2:9f). As instruments of Satan, the Son of perdition and the Lawless one are traditionally identified as Anti-Christ and the fallen church.

A Cunning Devil

Thus, in the same manner as the Apocalypse, St. Paul and St. Peter both warn that the Devil and his angels explore us individually, looking for our weaknesses (Eph 6:10ff; 1 Pet 5:8ff).

It is disturbing for our spiritual comfort that the Devil is described in the Bible as a power with “intelligence” and “will” fighting Christ and his saints (Math 4: 1ff). “Evil”, stated Pope Paul VI in a sermon on temptation, “is not only deficiency, but something active and efficient, a living, spiritual being, perverted and perverting, mysterious and to be feared”.

Consequently, as Christians we are not allowed to think that we spiritually live in a neutral world. St. Paul gives a very challenging description of our predicament when he named the Devil “The God of this Age”. In every age, The Zeitgeist is blinding “the light of the Gospel of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4). We ignore this strife at our own peril.

Times of Trouble

Despite the mythological language used in the Apocalypse and the references to events at that time, the description which is given in Chapter thirteen of the loss of freedom to think and act, seems strangely relevant to the our experience of living in a society becoming more and more corrupted by the ideology of political correctness. Moreover, the brainwashing power of the modern media deceitfully buries serious moral issues “beneath the avalanche of morbid kitsch and populistic trivia”, to borrow the words of Michael Burleigh’s cultural criticism.

The Triumph in Heaven
Lammet på Sion

A further issue is the question of what message is proclaimed from the pulpits. The litmus test is whether the preaching encourages the faithful to “keep the commandments of God and and the faith of Jesus”. Sooner or later, this rule of faith takes us into the spiritual battle with the Devil while at the same time also calls upon angelic powers to bless and protect us.

The message of Book of Revelation for all times is that Christians should not give in even if the situation around them may seem hopeless. The life of a Christian is never easy. In this world we must exercise patience and faith but our endurance is not in vain, for our deeds will follow us to the triumph in heaven (14:1ff, 12f).

 
The Collect for St. Michael’s Day

Holy Michael the Archangel,
defend us in the day of battle.
Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him,
we humbly pray, and do thou, 
O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan
and all the evil spirits, who
wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Amen.

08/31/15

CHRISTIANITY AND EUROPEAN CULTURE

What is the Christian patrimony of Europe? The European civilisation has been called “eccentric” meaning that it is composed from sources outside itself, a fusion mainly of the patrimony from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Today, when the relations between Christendom and society are being reset, it is of particular interest to reflect on how a Christian perspective of life gradually imposed itself on pagan society over against a diversity of competitors.

Social and Religious Identity

The gods of the Greeks and the Romans were the divinities of the polis. The Hebrews, on the other hand, understood Yahweh not only as God of Israel; he governed all mankind. This universalism was extended after the exile when the Jews had learned to practice the Law outside the Promised Land. As a radical next step, the Hebrew Church baptised gentiles into the chosen people. Thus, a new category of the faithful was created called “the Christians” (Acts 1:26). Culturally, the Christians could remain Roman, Greek or Ethiopian. This distinction between the social and the religious identity meant that practice of the faith was not the reflection of the given society, but dependent on the ethos of the Church. This separation was formulated by Christ himself when he said we should render to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21).

The Two Cities

St. Augustine in his great work on the Two Cities – The City of God and the City of Babylon – makes a differentiation between the secular and the divine which paved the way for the medieval understanding of a Christian civilisation in the Middle Ages. Underlining on the one saint-augustin
hand the eschatological nature of the Church as a pilgrim people, at the same time, he emphasised that on their way to the Heavenly Jerusalem the Christians still live in this world. Even if faith assures us the exodus from Babylon, he writes, our pilgrim status, for the time being, makes us neighbours and as long as we are mingled together, we can make use of the peace of Babylon. This, all the more, as in this world, good and bad men suffer alike (XIX:26, I:8). Augustine likewise admonishes the Christian exiles; quoting the prophet Jeremiah’s advise to the Jews in Babylon, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).

Autonomy of the Secular Domain

The Augustinian understanding of a balanced interplay of the spiritual and the profane laid a similar platform for the relationship between ecclesial and secular domains of life. Over the centuries the church did not claim jurisdiction of secular society. Despite theocratic aspirations of “pious” kings and “political” popes, the refusal of an unwarranted synthesis of Church and State was maintained at least in West European culture. It is of particular importance that the Church respected the secular autonomy of the academic and the legal domains. The independence of religion to the political, meant that the gradual transition to a Christian culture was the political consequence of a cultural diffusion not brought about by political means. Christianity imposed itself by gradually conquering the mind-set of civil society. The moral influence exercised by the Church on society followed from the shared commitment of secular and ecclesial leaders to the values of natural law as ordained by God in his creation (Rom. 2:14f).

The Christian Origin of European Culture

What then are the main biblical notions which Christianity fused into European civilization?

First and foremost the notion that God, our Creator, can be addressed as a person to whom the individual stands responsible for his or her life. This responsibility presupposes that man enjoys moral freedom. Therefore we must ask forgiveness from those we have wronged. To this idea of justice it follows that we must strive to be a better person. The distinction of a before over against a now presupposes that time is not an endless cycle of predetermined repetitions but open to repentance and change. In short, living in God’s creation mankind is invited to enter the history of salvation.

It was this idea of a transcendental reality as the purpose of human life that the philosophers of the Enlightenment rejected. “Man needs no foreign help” to find happiness, say the philosophers, reason can on its own provide progress by integrating the natural and the moral in a higher harmony. The task was therefore to liberate society from the grip of Christianity. The success has been self-destructive. When “God is dead”, as Nietzsche told us, man dies too. European society can not survive if it consciously continues to ignore its own inheritance.

07/26/15

THE CHURCH OF THE FUTURE

The collapse of faith in Western society is clear. No less palpable is the cultural collapse around us. The fragmentation of society has imprisoned the individual in “the culture of narcissism“. For the Christian an additional problem is that the moral disorientation is correlated with the destruction of the Christian patrimony.

Christianity and Culture
Ts-eliot_original

Concerned about the future of the European civilisation after the second world war, T. S. Eliot argued that it is the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is and he concluded: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes”. The impact of Christianity on the moral order in Europe follows from its universalism. Historically, the faith was upheld without repudiating the normative aspect of classical culture. Thus, the heritage from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome were fused into the secular world in such a way that different courses could become the basis for further developments. – Today we see this cultural synthesis imploding under the radical subjectivism of postmodern society.

Three Roman Catholic Voices

After the war Christian thinkers from different denominations foresaw the displacement of Christianity by an aggressive secular humanism. Of particular interest are perhaps the Roman Catholic voices as one might think that this mighty church would have faced the future with no little self-confidence.

However, already in 1950 Romano Guardini, a dominant Catholic intellectual in his time, wrote an analysis of the emerging European culture under the title The End of the Modern World, concluding that with the other traditions also the Christian patrimony will be lost. Strikingly, Guardini did not meet this loss by positing the return to a premodern alternative, but with a new way of living the faith. Homeless in this confusion, the Christians must distance themselves from the cultural chaos and seek together in what he called an eschatological togetherness, based on mutual love.

Professor Ratzinger in Regensburg

Moreover, in 1970 Joseph Ratzinger, then an unknown professor, published a booklet called Glaube und Zukunft, (2/2007). The future pope predicted that a coming crisis of faith will hit like a storm and tear down the church as we know it. The survival process will be painful and the small communities of those who come out of the difficulties, will have to restart from the beginning. Thus, a simple and more spiritual church will make bigger demands on the individual members.

With a similar sense of a cultural shift, Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book from 1981 pointedly titled After Virtue, warned that we are not aware of our predicament. New dark ages are already upon us and in order to survive, he called for the construction of new forms of local communities within which the tradition can be sustained after the example of what St. Benedict did fifteen centuries ago.

Living the Faith in a Post Christian World

Today, we are living to see the fears come true. In fact, we are the last Christian generation having been brought up in a culture oriented towards humanistic and Christian values. The destructive effects of this moral chaos will necessarily differ according to time and place. Sure is, however, that we are now at a turning point. The radical secularisation entails that church life in the future will not be a prolongation of the past. From the crisis the church of tomorrow will emerge without privileges as small communities of engaged believers, served by tentmakers in the power of faith. In this perspective it is worth to notice that in former core Christian areas like Germany and France, pastoral theologians across the denominational divide are discussing a church model for the future based on the house church. Without the buildings of times more privileged, the altar might again be the living room table.

The Challenge

The crisis of faith in Western world has left all denominations bewildered, even paralysed. For struggling Old Catholics and Anglo-Catholics the challenge is to find a way forward in a common faith and tradition. Hopefully, the Union of Scranton will serve as one of the vehicles which could begin to stem the tide of a post Christian culture.