December 9, 2017

invincible struggler

She who hath put on thee, our Christ and God, keepeth her head bowed to thee, along with us. Do thou preserve her as an invincible struggler so as to endure those who bring vain hostility to bear against both her and us; and do thou show forth all as victors unto the end through thine incorruptible crown.

From the baptism service for my infant daughter (part of the “Third Prayer of Ablution” near the end in a service book for the Antiochian jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church).

December 5, 2017

what is there to secure me against my own brain

“If I know nothing of my own garret,” I thought, “what is there to secure me against my own brain? Can I tell what it is even now generating?—what thought it may present me the next moment, the next month, or a year away? What is at the heart of my brain? What is behind my THINK? Am I there at all?—Who, what am I?”

From Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald.

December 3, 2017

nothing surely can more impress upon a man the transitory nature of possession than his succeeding to an ancient property

The house as well as the family was of some antiquity…. It contained a fine library, whose growth began before the invention of printing, and had continued to my own time, greatly influenced, of course, by changes of taste and pursuit. Nothing surely can more impress upon a man the transitory nature of possession than his succeeding to an ancient property.

From Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald.

December 3, 2017

you know nothing about whereness

“You know nothing about whereness. The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.”

“How am I to begin that where everything is so strange?”

“By doing something.”

From Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald.

December 2, 2017

Reflections on Mary and God’s Family this Nativity

Mary is prominent for all Christians during the Nativity season, and she is particularly on my mind this year as my family and I have all just entered the Orthodox church. Raised in a deeply loving and devout Presbyterian home, I have come to believe that the Protestant and Evangelical churches (as well as Roman Catholics in some overlapping ways) have lost and grown to misunderstand a tremendous amount of the goodness and truth regarding Mary that was well known and cherished by the early Christians (who knew and loved Mary as one of their own community). Here is a very basic outline of what I have come to believe about Mary.

John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, and John Wesley all wrote that Mary had no other children after giving birth to Jesus, and they each defended this ancient teaching as a theologically significant tenant of the Christian faith.

Why would Jesus have placed Mary into John’s care as he died if Mary had other sons of her own? This would have been a flagrant violation of the Law of Moses. Nowhere does Scripture (or any early Christian author) suggest that Mary had other children. James, a publicly recognized leader in the earliest church in Jerusalem, was know as one of several brothers of Jesus, raised in the same household. However, nothing in Scripture and none of the widespread early stories about Mary suggest that James cared for Mary as his own mother after Jesus died.

Many of the most revered early Christian writers use three titles for Mary regularly and in passing, as if these three titles were common knowledge and completely uncontroversial among all Christians: mother of God, ever-virgin, and all-pure. Orthodox Christians reject the Roman Catholic idea that Mary herself was conceived in any special way without sin (in fact, the Orthodox believe that it is a sad distortion of Scripture to teach that our fallen condition is in any way passed on through the God-given responsibilities of conceiving, birthing, and raising children). The Orthodox teach that Mary was a completely normal human who became the greatest example of humble obedience to God, pointing everyone only and ever to God. In this, she is all-holy or all-pure, that is a saint who has fully welcomed God into her life and who reveals Jesus Christ to us all.

To understand the title of “ever virgin,” it helps very much to understand one of the most basic descriptions of Mary used by two New Testament authors (who each clearly came to know Mary well during her life with the early church after Jesus Christ ascended into heaven). These two New Testament authors both understood and described Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. They understand Mary to be the most sacred and set-apart vessel of God’s presence with us: the ark covered in gold, overshadowed by the wings of cherubim, kept within the Holy of Holies, so set-apart that it brought death to many who treated it as something that they could touch. One of these New Testament authors was John, with whom Mary lived and traveled according to all the earliest stories and traditions of the church. The other was Luke who, according to the earliest church traditions, interviewed Mary personally as part of his research for his gospel account. (Some of these same traditions also claim that Luke was trained in drawing the human figure as a standard part of his education as a doctor and that he painted the first image of Mary.)

The greatest feast days of the church that celebrate Mary’s life, center on readings from the Old Testament about the Ark of the Covenant. These readings are strange without an understanding of how Luke and John clearly reflected the earliest understanding of the Christian community of Mary herself as the Ark of the New Covenant.

This article by Scott Hahn (a Presbyterian scholar who converted to the Roman Catholic faith) expounds this wonderfully:

There is much more to be said about all the confusion that we have today around the interrelated ideas of purity, virginity, sexuality, and gender. As we moderns hear titles such as “ever virgin,” we subconsciously hear a condemnation of sex as dirty and of women as weak. These sad distortions and misunderstandings are based on long and complex abuses and arguments that grow more and more sinister and disconnected from the truth with each passing year. We need good thinking and writing on these topics to be sure. However, the most basic need and “solution” is not intellectual. Most importantly, we need to learn to love and respect some real and specific people. We need to learn to love and commune with Jesus and his mother Mary as revered and beloved members of their remarkable family. Everything else connects back to these two beautiful people and our relationships with them.

Because of the incarnation and life of Jesus Christ, God’s family is and always will be a real human family, with many ancestors of God, stretching all the way back to Noah and Adam. (In this sense, Eve and Adam are forbearers of God, just as Mary is the mother of God.) This family is a royal family, the product and fulfillment of David’s dynasty. And this kingdom is established forever with Jesus as the King and with Mary as the Queen Mother (Gebhirah and Malketha in Hebrew, a very prominent and powerful position in the courts of all Biblical kings). The book on this topic by Scott Hahn expounds this wonderfully (Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God). I recommend it highly as a starting place.

As Scott Hahn reflects on John’s relationship to Mary (from the lecture linked above), he points to the fact that we all receive Mary as our mother as we are united to Christ:

“[John] recognizes that he himself as the beloved disciple is merely a symbol of all of Christ’s disciples who are equally beloved. But he also recognized [this], I’ll bet, as he took Mary to his own home that very hour (it says in John 19). I mean, can you imagine living with Mary after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, after the ascension? She is now your mother. She is living in your home. What do you think you would do?”

Wherever you are in life and worship during this year, may your Nativity Season be blessed richly by Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary. May he and his mother both be at home in your home.

October 29, 2017

the giant laughter of Christian men that roars through a thousand tales

Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,
Like thunder in the spring,
Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,
And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,
And the startled birds went up in streams,
For the laughter of the King.

And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down,
In a wild solemnity,
On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf,
On one man laughing at himself
Under the greenwood tree–

The giant laughter of Christian men
That roars through a thousand tales,
Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass,
And Jack’s away with his master’s lass,
And the miser is banged with all his brass,
The farmer with all his flails;

Tales that tumble and tales that trick,
Yet end not all in scorning–
Of kings and clowns in a merry plight,
And the clock gone wrong and the world gone right,
That the mummers sing upon Christmas night
And Christmas Day in the morning.

“Now here is a good warrant,”
Cried Alfred, “by my sword;
For he that is struck for an ill servant
Should be a kind lord.

“He that has been a servant
Knows more than priests and kings,
But he that has been an ill servant,
He knows all earthly things.

“Pride flings frail palaces at the sky,
As a man flings up sand,
But the firm feet of humility
Take hold of heavy land.

“Pride juggles with her toppling towers,
They strike the sun and cease,
But the firm feet of humility
They grip the ground like trees.”

From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by
G.K. Chesterton.

October 28, 2017

but the men that drink the blood of God go singing to their shame

Their gods were sadder than the sea,
Gods of a wandering will,
Who cried for blood like beasts at night,
Sadly, from hill to hill.

“…The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.”

“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.”

“…But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.”

From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by
G.K. Chesterton.

October 28, 2017

the thing I bear is a lesser thing

“…Come not to me, King Alfred, Save always for the ale:
Why should my harmless hinds be slain
Because the chiefs cry once again,
As in all fights, that we shall gain,
And in all fights we fail?”

“Your scalds still thunder and prophesy
That crown that never comes;
Friend, I will watch the certain things,
Swine, and slow moons like silver rings,
And the ripening of the plums.”

And Alfred answered, drinking,
And gravely, without blame,
“Nor bear I boast of scald or king,
The thing I bear is a lesser thing,
But comes in a better name.”

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,
More than the doors of doom,
I call the muster of Wessex men
From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,
To break and be broken, God knows when,
But I have seen for whom.”

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God
Like a little word come I;
For I go gathering Christian men
From sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in a battle, God knows when,
By God, but I know why.”

“And this is the word of Mary,
The word of the world’s desire
‘No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.’”

Then silence sank. And slowly
Arose the sea-land lord,
Like some vast beast for mystery,
He filled the room and porch and sky,
And from a cobwebbed nail on high
Unhooked his heavy sword.

From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by
G.K. Chesterton.

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October 26, 2017

the end of the world was long ago

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.

From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by
G.K. Chesterton.

October 15, 2017

it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us lovable

From Patrick Henry Reardon’s book Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption (Volume 1 of 3: The Incarnate Word).

It is difficult, it is bewildering, and it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us lovable. It is among the most astounding truths in Holy Scripture. What could God possibly find lovable in us?

Indeed, even some Christians are so bewildered by this idea that they resort to subtleties to parse away its paradox. They may explain, for example, that God, being love, had to do so, even though He finds nothing intrinsically lovable in us. It is taken for granted, in some Christian circles, that God could not possibly find human beings desirable. It is assumed as obvious that there is nothing in us that would attract Him. It is impossible for God to love us for our own sake, we are told, but He does so because of His loving nature. He is forced to love us, as it were, because love is His definition.

Let me suggest that theories like this are difficult to reconcile with what God has told us about Himself—and us. In Holy Scripture He describes Himself as a Bridegroom rejoicing over a bride, who is the apple of His eye. He speaks of Himself as a Father who celebrates the return of a faithless son, in whom He recognizes His own image. Surely, these are the teachings that justify that beautiful adjective by which Holy Church addresses God: philanthropos.

When the Church calls God the “lover of mankind,” She affirms an important truth about the human race: God finds man attractive.

…Even the souls in hell are the object of His relentless affection, because they are formed in His image, the same image He saw on the day His hands gave them shape.

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