29 March 2006

Ecclesial Dignity

Dn Leonard Klein's statement, which I quoted below, together with the ensuing comments to my post--particularly those which rightly see that the key issue is ecclesiology--have brought to mind this statement from a presentation given in November 2004 by Walter Cardinal Kasper:

Protestant Christians do not wish to be a church in the same way as the Catholic church understands itself as a church; they represent a different type of church and for this reason they are not a church in the Catholic meaning of the word.
In commenting on Kasper's statement, Fr Richard John Neuhaus (a former summer intern at Zion) aptly summarized the difficulty.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy claim to be Church in the same way. It is not a matter of Catholicism denying to Protestant communities an ecclesial dignity that they claim. They expressly do not claim or desire to be Church in the way that Catholicism and Orthodoxy do.

New Blog

My good friend and colleague, Rev Dr Burnell Eckardt Jr, has entered the blogosphere. I'm sure he could use some apt comparison to Gandalf and "Lord of the Ring" to describe his entrace, so I'll let him.

He writes from a decidedly historic confessional liturgical Lutheran perspective, is generally less crabby than yours truly and, if nothing has, has an engaging writing style.

Check out his blog. You might even find his "Memo to the preacher" entertaining.

Now the crabby-side, picking up on yesteday's post: how many adjectives does it really take to describe an authentic Lutheran? (See, even there I had to come up with a new adjective.) And why must one say "perspective"? -- Sigh

28 March 2006

The Frustrations of Self-Determination

The frustrating thing about being a traditional Western Catholic in a Lutheran church body is that I am such because I've determined to be such. And the parish I serve is such, not because of anything I've done, but because--decades ago--they accepted, trusted and appropriated the patient, gentle 36 year formation by one Pastor. In that, they determined to be, self-consciously, an historic liturgical Lutheran parish (or, as Pr Runge would say, a "sacramental Lutheran parish").

Two things make this conscious self-determination frustrating. The first is that this is not as it should be. One should not be traditional, liturgical, sacramental, catholic (or whatever other adjective you wish to use) because one has determined to be such. Rather, that is what the Church is, and so that is what you are to be--by definition, not by decision. This should seem self-evident, and at one time it was more so that it is now. I say "more so" because, as Lutheran history shows, there have always been regions, groups, or synods that have self-consciously determined to "swim against the current" and be what the Church is.

The second frustrating thing is, when "swimming against the current," who's to say that you're actually swimming the right way? In other words, who's to say that one's self-determination is more correct, or right-headed than another's? The LCMS church nearest mine with a layman celebrating all the sacramental rites and playing "pastor" (with the people willingly consenting after being convinced by the heirarchy)--who's to say that's nothing more than their self-determined way of being Lutheran?

To be sure, one can vociferously cite confessional documents, and haul out theology books, and point to historical precedents ad infinitum ad nauseam. However, unmoored from catholic tradition within the increasingly unwraveling bonds of the conundrum called Lutheranism; and , worse yet, with tenuous or no liturgical grounding, self-determination becomes the all important thing.

I've thought these thoughts for some time now, but was reminded of them when I read a statement made recently by Deacon Leonard Klein to George Weigel. Klein was, for 30 years, a very prominent Lutheran pastor who promoted--as best he could--the Western Catholic understanding of Lutheranism within the ELCA. (Even that phrase, "Western Catholic understanding of Lutheranism" seems self-contradicting.) In 2003, with I'm sure no small measure of frustration, he and his family became Roman Catholic. Some time later he was ordained a deacon and, in a few months, Klein will be one of a handful of Latin rite married priests. Because of that, he's a causes celebres of sorts and, so I suppose, Weigel sought him out.

In part, here is what Klein said:
Toward the end of my time as a Lutheran pastor I used to protest that we were all reduced to being gurus. I tried to be authentically Lutheran, but who was to say that I was and the liberal feminist or church-growth ersatz Evangelical down the street wasn’t just as Lutheran as I...By contrast a Catholic priest or lay person can speak of what the Church teaches or permits, and that is freedom.
I think that sums up the frustration fairly well.

Read the entire article by Weigel here.

27 March 2006

Understanding "Not My Will, But Thine Be Done."

Of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the last three do not figure prominently in much of modern Western Catholic theology--most especially Lutheran theology. This lack constitutes one of the barriers between Eastern and Western christology since the former relies heavily on the christological definitions promulgated in the final three councils while the latter appears unfamiliar with the issues and formulations.

The Sixth Ecumenical Council in particular dealt with the question of whether the united divine and human natures in Christ resulted in Him having "two wills." The monothelites argued that Christ had two natures but only one will; that is, He divine nature willed all that He desired and His human nature had no will of its own, and so passively acquiesed. A key point in the debate revolved around the traditional interpretation of Our Lord's Gethsemane prayer, "Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done" (Lk 22.42).

Below is an excerpt from St Cyril of Alexandria on this very question. St Cyril was champion of the Third Ecumenical Council, and his articulation of christology is still that which officially holds sway (thanks to Martin Chemnitz) in the 1580 Book of Concord. His interpretation of this passage, especially as we approach Holy Week, is most instructive.

That the suffering on the Cross was in a sense not willed by Christ the Saviour, yet at the same time was willed for our sake and the good pleasure of God the Father is something you will in consequence understand. For when he was about to ascend to him and addressed his discourses to God, he said clearly in the form of a prayer, 'Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt' (Mt 26.39). That the Word was God, immortal and incorruptible, and by nature Life in itself who could not cower before death, is I think abundantly clear to all. Nevertheless, having come to be in the flesh, he allows himself to experience the things proper to the flesh, and consequently, when death is at the door, to cower before it, that he might appear to be a real human being.

That is why he says, 'If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.' What he means is this: 'If it be possible, Father, that without suffering death I should win life for those who have fallen under its [death's] power, if death could die without my dying, that is to say, with regard to the flesh, let the cup pass from me. But since this cannot take place in any other way, not as I will but as thou wilt.' Do you see how weak human nature is, even in Christ himself, when it relies on its own powers? Through the Word that is united with it, the flesh is brought back to a courage befitting God and is retrained in order to have a more valiant spirit, so as not to rely upon what seems right to its own will, but rather to follow the aim of the divine will and eagerly to run towards whatever the law of the Creator call us.

St Cyril of Alexandria, "Commentary on John," translated by Norman Russell in The Early Church Fathers, p. 112-113

26 March 2006

Where Shall We Buy Bread?

Today we hear that the Lord God again leads a crowd into the wilderness. Like the first time, it is near the time of the Passover. Like the first time, the Lord has done signs and wonders which draw them to trust Him. And so a great multitude follows Him, because they see His signs which He performs on those who are diseased. And like the first time, the Lord gives bread in the wilderness not because a crowd follows Him, not because the disciples clamor for it, but because He has compassion on them. It is mercy, and solely His mercy, that prompts Him to act.

Yet His intention is also to test the disciples. For He Himself knew what He would do. So our merciful Jesus says to Philip, Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat? Do you truly think I will send these people away hungry? Do you honestly believe that I will forsake anyone who follows Me, anyone who longs to hear My word, anyone who looks to Me for any help? Have I been with you so long, Philip, and still you do not know Me? To whom else are they looking? Upon whom else do they rely? The eyes of all wait upon Me, O Philip! And I give them their food in due season. I open My hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. For I am the Bread which comes down from heaven. I am the Bread of Life. And I am the Living Bread. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. So, Philip, Where, O where, shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”

With words like these, Our Lord urges Philip and the others—and even you and me—to believe that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights. And Our Lord also urges us to believe that it lies in our hands not to make our own way, but to trust and obey, to receive and submit to Our Lord precisely because He is compassionate, faithful, and merciful. The more we see that, the more we understand that we are at a loss to give anything—except to give thanks; and to do anything—except to do whatever Our Lord commands.

The following is an excerpt from today's sermon.

25 March 2006

Truly Full of Grace Was She

Having come in, and having come for her, the angel spoke not a promise, not a hope, but a sure and certain proclamation. “The Lord is with you,” he declared; which means, “The Lord is within you. You now bear Him who will bear the sin of the world. So rejoice and be glad. For Grace Himself has filled you, and you are Grace’s mother. And for this reason, blessed are you among women.”

As unheard of as this greeting was in human custom, so fitting was it to the dignity of blessed Mary. And indeed, truly full of grace was she, upon whom it was conferred by divine favor that, first among women, she should offer God the most glorious gift of her virginity. Hence she who strove to imitate the life of an angel was rightfully worthy to enjoy the experience of seeing and speaking with an angel. Truly full of grace was she to whom it was granted to give birth to Jesus Christ, the very one through whom grace and truth came. And so the Lord was truly with her whom He first raised up from earthly to heavenly desires, in an unheard of love of chastity, and afterwards sanctified, by means of His human nature, with all the fullness of His divinity. Truly blessed among women was she who without precedent in the womanly state rejoiced in having the honor of [mother]hood along with the beauty of virginity, inasmuch as it was fitting that a virgin mother bring forth God the Son. (St Bede the Venerable)

Yet for all her faith and faithfulness, for all her piety and strength, even this most holy and blessed and glorious woman trembled at the angelic message and pondered fearfully the meaning of his words. But do not suppose that she trembled because she was unwilling; or because she hesitated. Suppose, instead, that this most blessed virgin trembled because of her humility; because she did not consider herself deserving of such high honor; because she never supposed herself to be worthy of being—and being called—the Mother of God. So she trembles not for lack of faith, but in true faith. She trembles not because she doubts, but because she truly believes what the angel has said. And so she trembles not because she hesitates, but because she has consented.

Yet Grace, who has been poured into her by the Holy Spirit, now pours forth once again from the angelic mouth. “Do not be afraid,” says the Father in the voice of the angel. “Do not be afraid. And do not fear that you are unworthy, or have not the strength, or will falter. Do not be afraid, O blessed Mother of God. For Grace Himself has sought you out, and has deigned to be born of you and so to issue forth from you the redemption, salvation, sanctification and righteousness that He comes to give. So do not be afraid, and do not tremble. For of all creation, of all women ever born of men, you have been found worthy and deserving. You have found favor with God. And for this reason, the Son of the Father shall be born of you. For behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

From today's sermon at Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit

24 March 2006


This is just too good to resist:

The practice of planting a new ... parish is not like the practice of planting a new ethnic parish. For example, planting a German Lutheran parish in a town that has 1,000 Germans of Lutheran persuasion is just a matter of herding them into a gymnasium and serving good German beer and announcing the new parish and parochial school.

23 March 2006

A Fine Summary

Fr Chad, who visits here from time to time, has posted a very fine summary by Chris Jones (also a sometime visitor) of the 1580 Book of Concord position on several key issues; namely, "Real Presence," apostolic succession, the Canon (eucharistic prayer), the consensus of the fathers, etc.

There is much to be commended in Chris' summary. One regrets, however, that his summary is barely recognized among the vast majority of Lutherans in the world, and even by those who style themselves as "confessional." Nevertheless, it is a helpful summary, and I commend it to you.

Adiaphora, Melanchthon & Tradition

I am in the Doctor of Ministry degree program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Last summer, one class was taught by Dr Andrew Purves, a Presbyterian from Scotland who is quite the scholar in Patoral Theology and, with Thomas Oden, one of the few in that discipline defending the "classic tradition."

Dr Purves was surprised (as was the Episcopalian priest in our class) when I and another man reacted vociferously to this statement in Purves' magnum opus: "Philipp Melanchthon, the German reformer, called these secondary doctrines adiaphora..." (Purves, Reconstructing, p. 17) Our claim was that the term adiaphora had nothing to do with a division within doctrine, but rather addressed issues related to church/state relations and liturgical ceremony.

Clearly, other protestants have learned a different definition than we Lutherans. If we should slide into the scholasticism of "primary" and "secondary" doctrines, or "eseential" and "non-essential" doctrines, we would never think of using a term that means "things indifferent" to describe those so-called "secondary" or "non-essential" doctrines. Yet it shows how a word can be picked up, redefined, and then put back into service in a way that is (a) contrary to its original use and (b) unrecognizable to those who first used it (in this case, Melachthon and the other Lutheran confessors).

I was reminded of this friendly academic exchange when I read, in one of the comments on my blog, a statement by a gentleman who quoted this statement from the Tractate: "No one should... burden the church with traditions, nor let anybody's authority count for more than the Word of God."

The context makes it quite clear that Melanchthon's use of ecclesiam traditionibus (ecclesiastical or churchly traditions) refers to regional customs rather than to the Tradition and, in fact, to innovative traditions; and furthermore, that Melanchthon is not opposing Tradition to the Scriptures but rather these innovative regional customs to the faith once delivered. It's Melanchthon's student, Martin Chemnitz, who helps us see these distinctions.

My point then is simply this: Just like this summer with the word adiaphora, so the word "traditions" has been picked up, redefined, and then put back into service by this gentlemen in a way that is (a) contrary to its original use and (b) unrecognizable to those who first used it (once again, Melachthon).

22 March 2006

Diagnosing the Ailment

This post, on the blog of a former WELS layman, offers a diagnosis of several things that ail Protestantism generally, Lutheranism specifically, and the LCMS most specifically. It's not an especially academic diagnosis--nor was it intended to be. But it does give one pause...

21 March 2006

Selfish Forgiveness; Selfish Outing

In today's Gospel at Holy Mass, Our Lord instructed us in forgiveness. The foundation for what He said was quite clear: the Lord God is merciful to you, and so readily forgives you your sins against Him. Also understood was this: to sin against your fellow man (particularly your brother in the faith) is to sin against God. That also Our Lord mercifully deigns to forgive. For He is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy" (Ps 103.8)

Building on this foundation, St Augustine (in the portion of his homily appointed by the breviary) brought to our minds what often fuels our forgiveness; namely, not charity and love for the brother, but rather love for ourselves. In today's parlance that would be the desire to "move on" and "put it behind me" and "be done with it."

In the same way, for selfish ends (i.e., to prove ourselves right and to win the argument), we eagerly approach others to point out their faults and flaws and sins. Regrettably, with blogging, we've honed this selfish skill all the more. We are very quick to point out another's flaws not to his face, but in cyberspace; not for his benefit, but to "out" him; and not with the intent to gain him, but anonymously so that he knows not how to reply or to whom he should apologize.

The sainted bishop of Hippo suggests rather pointedly that this selfish notion of finger-pointing rather than loving correction cheapens forgiveness. Here is what I found most striking from the blessed saint's words (cast in a modern idiom), and upon which I will endeavor to meditate today.

Why should you tell your brother his fault? Is it because he pained you by trespassing against you? God forbid! For if, out of love for yourself, you tell your brother his fault, you have not done a worthy thing. But if you tell him his fault because you love him, then you have done exceedingly well.

Listen carefully to the words of the Gospel and learn whether you ought to tell your brother his fault because you love yourself or because you love him. The Lord says, "If he shall hear you, you have gained your brother." Therefore, demand of yourself that you tell your brother his fault for his benefit, so that you may gain him. If you do this, perhaps you may attain this great reward--gaining him. But if you do otherwise, perhaps he may perish.

20 March 2006

Fear the Loss of Awe

Faithfulness, piety, moral resolve, doctrinal clarity, discernment of persons and situations, indifference to criticism, compassion (especially to the downtrodden)—these are just a few of the qualities denoting a good pastor. And to be resisted, among other things, are pride and ambition, temptations of the flesh, apathy and despondency, and anxiety about personal cares. But more than all these snares is one that subtlety yet perniciously erodes even the most resolute man; namely, the loss of awe.

Akin to, yet quite unlike apathy or accidie (from acedia), loss of awe urges a priest to forget that he is not performing a common ritual when he celebrates Divine Liturgy, administers the sacraments, gives a blessing, proclaims the Word, or even says the prayers. Rather, he stands at the juncture of heaven and earth and, as one of God’s ministers, handles those sacred materials and words that cause angels to sing, devils to quake, saints to become ecstatic, and mortals to mutely prostrate.

And it is not just celebrants who are in danger of becoming inured to holy mysteries that give and sustain our life in God. Priests must also be on guard to watch for the same temptation in their parishioners, especially the most faithful. For they too come near—not as near as we, but near enough and often enough that they may lose sight of the heavenly realities that make for their peace.

Loss of awe is most insidious because we priests (most especially) can quickly be blinded to the reality that occurs when the holy mysteries are celebrated; and we can be so easily tempted to see the common as ordinary, and to become unmoved by the familiar.

St. John Chrysostom hints at the problem of the loss of awe when he tells the story of the venerable old man accustomed to see visions. While the priest ministered at the altar, this man saw angels encircling, bowing their heads. Yet saintly vision-prone men need not be the only evidence. Priests see it in eyes of the dying who contentedly smile when the pastor speaks and gives the familiar mysteries. They hear it from the mouths of infants or those with dementia who call us “Jesus” or “God.” They see it in the shoulders of the penitents or grieved as the Gospel is proclaimed so that the weight is visibly lifted. And they hear it in the respectful tones used even by the most hard-hearted when they approach or are grateful for godly compassion.

Like the jeweler who deals daily in priceless gems, like the bank teller who unthinkingly thumbs through thousands upon thousands of dollars each week, precisely because they stand at the altar nearest the Holy Trinity as He doles out His greatest gifts, celebrants can easily suffer the loss of awe. And when that happens, it is only a short step until ministering becomes another helping profession, and the accent lands on “care” rather than “pastoral.” And then comes pride, greed, lust, ambition and the other soul-destroying temptations; and then faithfulness, piety, resolve, and compassion become rote rather than prayer-filled.

What I am suggesting, then, are three things. First, that the loss of awe is the gate to the temptations that beset and afflict priests of God more fiercely than other men. Second, that the positive qualities that every priest must have, in the end, do him no good if he cannot see the fullness and the heavenly reality of all that he ministers in the Lord’s name. And thirdly, I am suggesting that what informs the work of a pastor is not merely a seriousness or deep-seated respect for the Lord’s work, but a holy and fearsome awe in mediating the Lord’s life-giving mysteries to the faithful.

This awe, I suggest, is what caused St John Chrysostom—and many others before and after him—to proclaim his unworthiness; and what make St Gregory the Theologian run time and again to the hills; and what weighed heavily on St. Gregory the Great; and what caused numerous faithful clergy to risk their lives—even their health—in preparation for and in carrying out their office.

Yet it was also this holy awe—and the desire to stand everlastingly within it—that also gives bishops and priests the fearless calm resolve to come out of their hiding places, not to waver in both truth-speaking and truth-giving, and to leave us such inspirational examples in the texts which their lives write.

A personal reflection based on reading St John Chrysostom's "Six Books on the Priesthood," St Gregory of Nazianzen's "Flight to Pontus," St Gregory the Great's "Pastoral Rule," and the summary of these three by Andrew Purves in "Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition."

16 March 2006

Mercy as Sacrifice

The Church's Lenten Fast has three inter-twined aspects: self-denial, prayer and almsgiving. All three are given so that the Christian might learn to live of life of self-sacrificial love--for God and neighbor.

Today's Gospel reading speaks primarily to the third aspect (almsgiving). It is the "parable" of Lazarus and the rich man. And it is fittingly heard during Lent so that we might remember that sacrifice without mercy is no true sacrifice. The beginning of St Cyril of Alexandria's commentary on this parable is particularly poignant.

It is necessary, I think, in the first place to mention, what was the occasion that led to [Our Lord] speaking of these things; or what Christ intended to illustrate in so excellently sketching and describing the parable set before us. The Savior, therefore, was perfecting us in the art of well-doing, and commanding us to walk uprightly in every good work, and to be in earnest in adorning ourselves with the glories which arise from virtuous conduct. For He would have us to be lovers one of another, and ready to communicate; prompt to give, and merciful, and careful of showing love to the poor, and manfully persisting in the diligent discharge of this duty. And He especially admonished the rich in this world to be careful in so doing; and to guide them into the way which altogether becometh the saints, He said: "Sell your possessions, and give alms; make you purses that grow not old; a treasure that faileth not for ever in heaven." [Lk 12.33]

Now the commandment indeed is beautiful, and good, and salutary; but it did not escape His knowledge, that it is impossible for the majority to practice it. For the mind of man has ever been, so to speak, infirm in the discharge of those duties which are arduous and difficult; and to abandon wealth and possessions and the enjoyment which they give, is not a thing very acceptable to any, inasmuch as the mind is early clothed and entangled, as it were, in indissoluble cords, which bind it to the desire of pleasure.

Being good and loving unto men, therefore, He has provided for them a special kind of help, lest eternal and never ending poverty should follow upon wealth here, and everlasting torment succeed to the pleasures of the present time. "For make for yourselves friends," He says, "of the unrighteous mammon: that when it has failed, they may receive you into eternal tabernacles." This then is the advice of One providing them with something which they can do. For it, He says, ye cannot be persuaded to give up this pleasure-loving wealth, and to sell your possessions, and make distribution to those who are in need, at least be diligent in the practice of inferior virtues.

"Make for yourselves friends of the unrighteous mammon;" that is, do not consider your riches as belonging to yourselves alone; open wide your hand to those who are in need; assist those in poverty and pain; comfort those who have fallen into extreme distress; console with those who are in sorrow, or oppressed with bodily maladies, and the want of necessaries; and comfort also the saints who embrae a voluntary poverty that they may serve God without distraction. Nor shall your so doing be unrewarded. For when your earthly wealth abandons you, as ye reach the end of your life, then shall they make you partakers of their hope, and of the consolation given them by God. For being good and kind to man, He will lovingly and bontifully refresh those who have labored in this world; and more especially such as have wisely and humbly and soberly borne the heavy burden of poverty.

Similar advice the wise Paul also gives to those who live in wealth and abundance respecting those in misery: "Your abundance shall be to supply their falling short: in order htat also their abundance may supply your falling short." [2 Cor 8.14] But this is the advice of one who enjoins that simply which Christ spake, "Make to yourselves friends of the unrighteous mammon;" so that the commandment is well worthy of our admiration. (St Cyril of Alexandria, "Homily 111," Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, 451-452)

A Fast Without Laws

I live next door to one of the highest concentrations of peoples from the Middle EastPalestinians, Chalcedonians, Iraqis, and various Arabic peoples. Over the past few decades, for whatever reason, they have gathered and formed their own ethnic ghetto on the eastern side of Dearborn. What Chicago is to Poland, East Dearborn is to the Middle East.

Such a gathering of peoples not only brings delicious cuisine, but also the need to explain unfamiliar customs and religious traditions. The Detroit newspapers do this faithfully, especially when the Muslim holy days approach. (Curiously, we rarely hear of the religious traditions of the numerous Christian Arabs that also inhabit this area.)

Like clockwork, there appear appropriately timed stories about the month of Ramadan--the holiest of times for Muslims. The articles, essays, columns and news accounts invariably describe and depict the observant tradition of prayer and fasting during this time. (To be fair, the same media will also announce the beginning of Lent among Christians and publish human interest stories about "giving up something for Lent.")

What intrigues me, though, is not simply the fascination but more so the admiration of the Muslim fast. In our corner of the world, no small number follow the strict fast of abstaining from all food and drink (except water) during daylight hours. A breakfast may be served before dawn, and a sizeable dinner usually comes after sundown. But in addition to this rigorous regimen, what captivates the conversation of the media and my parishioners is the devotion, the adherence to the traditions of their faith, and the communal participation. More than once I've heard, "Pastor, those people must really believe!"

What captivates me is the fact that the Ramadan fast is more than a religious exercise. It has woven itself into the fabric of ethnic identity and the rhythm of life. If this were not so, only the devout would partake. But during the day, parents and children, employees and employers, the devout and the nominal—nearly anyone who identifies with Islamrefrains from eating.

There used to be a corresponding Christian fasta fast that was as much a given as Christmass decorations, Valentine cards, and Easter bunnies. This Lenten fast was practiced by all without compulsion because it was part of the annual rhythm. Without any civil laws, it affected not only the cuisine, but also the economyas Ramadan does in my backyard.

But now the Lenten fast has been trivialized down to, at best, a way to rekindle New Year's resolutions. Penitence has given way to self-improvement. Reflection on Our Lord's suffering has been turned into a gentle self-administered form of behavior modification.

Hardly any notion is given to the religious significance of the fast. (If this were not so, the fast of choice would not be cutting down on desserts or candies.) And, except among the devout, no connection is made between this fast and Christian charity or increased prayer and devotion. Yet even with those devout, it is considered oppressive or tyrannical to encourage certain fasting days or a certain fasting diet.

One may chalk up the disdain for the Lenten fast to living in a country and an era where the last acceptable form of bigotry is anti-Catholicism. However, I think it goes much deeperinto the very fabric of our being. I propose that the disdain for fasting mirrors a much deeper and more profound disdain for repentance. Not repentance as the world givesa well timed "I'm sorry (you're sorry)" that both gains sympathy and becomes a powerful political weapon. That worldly repentance we hardly disdain and, in fact, admire. But the Christian repentance that consists of true contrition or sorrow coupled with confidence in a mercy in the face of deserved discipline—that's what we disdain. A repentance that affirms and embraces both true fear and true love of God; that humbles itself before God and all men, relying on nothing but the hope that Kyrie eleison will be answered affirmatively.

I will not say that the Moslem fast demonstrates an awareness of Christian repentance. But I am confident that the common non-avoidance of the traditional Lenten fast bespeaks not the spirit of the Ninevites—which is one exhibit of Christian repentance. For after the Ninevites heard the fearful and heart-rending preaching of Jonah, in the midst of their honest contrition, while they confessed not simply with their mouths but holistically in sackcloth with fasting, the people of Nineveh pinned their hopes on the "perhaps" of God's mercy (see Jonah 3.9).

Could a people who consistently vote for God, and who boast of their faith and their keeping the faith, and who identify themselves (at least culturally) as Christians—could they ever entertain such true repentance?

First published at "On Being Liturgical" (1999). Revised 2006.

In Anticipation of Tomorrow

Anticipating the secular side of St Patrick's Day, I present the lyrics from "Parting Glass," the song that plays as the credits roll in "Waking Ned Devine" (one of my favorite Irish movies).

All the money that e'er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I've ever done
Alas, it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit
To memory now, I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Goodnight and joy be to you all!

Fill to me the parting glass
And drink a'health whate'er befalls.
Then gently rise and softly call,
Goodnight and joy be to you all.

Of all the comrades that e'er I had
They're sorry for my goin' away.
And all the sweehearts that e'er I had,
They'd wish me one more day I'd stay.
Since it fell into my lot,
That I should rise and you should not.
I gently rise and softly call,
Goodnight and joy be to you all.

But since it fell into my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I'll gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be to you all!

So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate'er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be to you all!

15 March 2006

Come, Let Us Rejoice

Just as, when a person with a burning thirst is very dry and has been parched for a long time, to happen upon a fountain of cold water is a very happy and most welcome occurence, so too, since we are overwhelmed by sadness and weighed down by the burden of numerous tribulations, the refrain of the prophet's song today rouses us to joy. Come, it says, let us rejoice in the Lord. (Ps 94[95].1a) Come where? Or from where? From yourself, man, into yourself, where not a change of location, but a conversion of your attitudes casts out adversity, puts sadness to flight, dispels dispair, drives away distress, and within the residence of a sincere heart prepares an eternal dwelling of divine gladness.

Then, what has become of: Blessed are those who mourn (Mt 5.4) and Woe to you who laugh? (Lk 6.25) Clearly, blessed are those who mourn in the world, and woe to those who laugh in the world, but blessed are those who rejoice in the Lord, and who gain no happiness from robbery, from deceit, or from the tears of their neighbors. Come, let us rejoice in the Lord. The one who by word, action or deed rejoices not in himself but in his Creator rejoices in the Lord. Come, let us rejoice in the Lord. The one for whom God is always his only and complete happiness rejoices in the Lord. (St Peter Chrysologus, "Sermon 46: On the Ninety-fourth Psalm" in The Fathers of the Church 109.178)

Note: The picture is of the ceiling of the baptistery at the Cathedral in Ravenna where St Peter Chrysologus served as bishop.

12 March 2006

St Gregory the Great

Today is the feast of one of the greatest theologians of the European Church.

St Gregory the Great was a monk, a pope, a liturgioligist, a politician. But above all, he was a pastor. It's very evident in his sermons. But is most evident in his "Pastoral Rule." For nearly 1000 years, this was the standard in pastoral theology and, in fact, was ordered by Charlemagne to be given to every bishop at his ordination. Yet now, it is a tome that is simply ignored by too many seminaries, pastoral theologians and pastors.

Here is brief biography of this saint. And here you will find prayers the church prays commemorating this great pastor.

Understanding "Eli, Eli"

The Lord Jesus hangs on the cross, forsaken by His disciples, mocked by His tormenters, stripped of all dignity, treated like a petty thief, knowing His mother has to watch, tempted to believe that He is no longer the beloved Son. You remember the scene. It was noon, but it was the dark night of the soul. Not just His soul, but the soul of man; the soul of all creation. And then, slicing through the air is what we imagine to be a plaintive wail, Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Now He finally knows what that woman felt. [Mt 15.21-28] Now He finally gets it. At least that’s what we’re tempted to think and believe—especially when we fall into that dark place, especially when our mind and heart have become so corrupted that we think, or even say, the unthinkable about our Savior.

Why does Our Lord cry out? Has He fallen into the sin of despair? Does He honestly believe that the Father has forsaken Him; that the devil is on the brink of winning; that there is no hope? Do you honestly believe that Our Lord Jesus has succumbed to the greatest temptation of all—the temptation of believing that the heavenly Father is abusive, unloving, uncaring, unwilling? Perish the thought! Even the pleading, begging woman refuses to believe that!

So why does Our Jesus pray the prayer He does? The same reason He answers the woman the way He does. The same reason He seems so slow in coming to our aid. The same reason He coaxes us to pray, “How long, O Lord; will you forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I have sorrow in my heart daily?”

That’s the woman’s prayer. That’s the prayer of poor Lazarus as he sits at the gate of the rich man. That’s the prayer of every martyr when death is only inches away. That’s the true believer’s prayer. For that prayer is the prayer that requires us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.

(An excerpt from today's sermon on Mt 15.21-28)

11 March 2006

Fenton was a Welshman?

I have this on-going friendly dispute with my father. I really want to believe that we Fentons are Welsh, and he keeps insisting that the Fentons are Irish. (You see, it's really about the name; I'm mostly Pomeranian & Austrian, with a fair portion of Blackfoot Indian--but I digress.)

Well, I guess the dispute is over. We now have clear evidence that John William Fenton is Irish. I only ask that you not tell Toshio Akiyama that I'm alive and well in Detroit. I guess he's looking for me. As for this Jessie Fenton... (will that be the name of our eighth?)

Forty Holy Martyrs

Yesterday's commemoration of the Forty Holy Martyrs should not go unremarked upon, especially by one serving in Detroit. For Detroit has a significant population of Aremenians, and these martyrs are some of the few (if not the only) from that ancient Christian land commemorated by Western Christians. (Above left is a photo of St John's Armenian Apostolic Church, an architectural jewel and one of the most significant Oriental Orthodox parishes in the US.)

The inspiring story of the martyrs is told here and here. Let me simply highlight this part of the story:

After being often remanded to an horrid prison-house, bound in fetters, and their mouths bruised with stones, they were ordered out in the depth of winter, stripped naked, and put upon a frozen pool, to die of cold during the night. The prayer of them all was the same: "O Lord, forty of us have begun to run in the race, grant that all forty may receive the crown, let not one be wanting at the last. Behold, is it not an honourable number in thy sight, who didst bless the fast of forty days, and at the end thy Divine Law came forth to the earth? When also Elias sought thee, thou, O God, didst reveal thyself unto him when he had fasted for forty days." Even so was their petition.

When the keepers were all asleep and the watchman only was awake, he heard them praying and saw a light shining round about them, and Angels coming down from heaven, as the messengers of the King, bearing nine-and-thirty crowns, and distributing them to the soldiers. Then he said within himself: "Are not forty here? Where is the crown of the fortieth?" And as he looked he saw one of them whose courage could not bear the cold, come and leap into a warm bath that stood by; and the Saints were grievously afflicted. Nevertheless God suffered not that their prayer should return unto them void; for the watchman wondered, and called the keepers, and stripped himself of his clothes; and, when with a loud voice he had confessed himself a Christian, he joined the Martyrs.

10 March 2006

Submitting to the Church's Fast

Too many people have been taught to "give up something for Lent." As if the giving up of whatever we choose to give up in some way accomplishes the Lenten Fast. But the Lent Fast is not a “self-chosen” fast. For then we would simply give up silly things (like TV or foods we hate). Or we would turn fasting into a springtime diet (by giving up chocolate or dessert). Or we would make our fast “our own thing.”

The Scriptures teach us, however, that fasting is not to be done individually, but corporately. So Our Lord does not say, “When ye fast…” (“ye” is the older singular form) but rather, “When you fast…” (“you” is the older plural form). Likewise, the Ninevites fasted as a city. And, in the beginning, Adam and Eve together were to fast from the forbidden fruit.

Our fast, then, is done together. It is not mine or yours. It is the Church’s fast in which we participate. This fast requires submission and trust—submitting and trusting the Lord in His holy Church. Because it is the Church’s fast and not our self-chosen fast, from the beginning the Church of both the Old and New Testament has given instruction on how to fast.

The Church’s fast may include refraining from certain foods, such as meat. However, the true fast is to go without food. Traditionally, this has meant eating only one meal each day (two snacks are also permitted) throughout Lent. For together we prepare for Easter; and so together we discipline our bodies by fasting so that we might support each other in the time of temptation, affliction or death.

Yet fasting from food is only a start. For what good is it if we starve our bodies, but our souls persist in sin? So the true fast is not just the giving up of foods, but even more so the giving up sins. So we fast by exercising self-control, by averting our eyes from images that corrupt the soul, by retraining our mouths from gossip and mean-speaking, and by concentrating our minds not on earthly pursuits but on attaining the kingdom of heaven.

In these ways, we sacrifice not just our bellies but all that we have and all that we are. And we sacrifice our time—by attending more and more to prayer during our fasting days. For fasting should always be coupled with prayer. For what good is it to refrain from certain pleasures if we do not seek the will of Our Father in heaven? So whenever we fast, we should also pray.

(NOTE: The above is an excerpt from a pamphlet published on Invocabit 2006 for Zion Church.)

Does God Really Get Angry?

The last post was intended to be a brief introduction to a beautiful quotation. But, alas, I got carried away. Here's the quotation, which was part of the homily at today's Ember Friday Mass.

[The Psalmist says]: "Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, nor reprove me in your rage." (Ps 6.1) And is God swollen with anger, and seething with rage? Far from it, brothers! God is not subjected to passion, nor is he enkindled by anger, nor is he agitated by rage. ...

So the prophet, mindful of human fraility, and aware of his carnal nature, and because he put no trust in hs own merits, fled hastily to be helped by mercy, so that God's judgment in this regard might consist of kindness rather than severity.

"Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger." (Ps 6.1) That is to say: rebuke me, but not in anger; reprove me, but not in rage. Rebuke me as a Father, not as a Judge; reprove me not as Lord, but as a Parent. Rebuke me, not to destroy me, but to reprove me. Reprove me, not to do me in, but to correct me. And why should you do this? "Because I am sick." (Ps 6.2) "Have mercy on me, Lord, because I am sick."

...[T]hat the Lord seethes in anger against him [the sick man], that he flares up in rage is not, not at all the characteristic of a benevolent Creator, but of a very severe Prosecutor. "Heave mercy on me, Lord, since I am sick."


"And you, O Lord, how long?" Be converted, O Lord!" (Ps 6.3-4) [Is this] the way the human being speaks to God, the guilty to the Judge, the condemned to the Prosecutor? "Be converted, O Lord!" The human being sins, and God is the one to be converted? Yes, indeed, my brothers, because according to the prophet, "He himself bears our sins, and suffers for us." (Is 53.4) And blessed John says, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." (Jn 1.29) He accepted sin, in order to take away sin, not to possess it. "Be converted, O Lord!" From what? From God into man, from the Lord into a slave, from a Judge into a Father, so that the conversion may show that you are kind, you whose power makes you threatening and frightening.

"Be convered, O Lord, and free my soul" from the depths of hell; "save me on account of your mercy." (Ps 6.5) Not on account of my merit, since distress impairs me, groaning consumes me, tears overwhelm me, anger disturbs me, and the enemy assaults me. But to clarify this, let the very prayer of the prophet be chanted: "Save me on account of your mercy." (St Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 45 [On the Sixth Psalm], The Father of the Church, vol 109.173-176)

Who's Reconciled to Whom?

It seems that much of Western soteriology, since at least the time of Anselm, hinges on the notion that our sin so angers God that, in His rage, He lashes out against us in punishment. Undoubtedly, it is this notion that pushed Luther to stress the Gospel over against the Law.

However, the notion that God gets angry is theologically difficult for several reasons. First, it suggests that God has a conflict within Himself--anger vs. love. Second, it suggests that, like us, God cannot control His temper. Third, it suggests that God is only primarily love--not essentially love. Finally, it sets up a dualism within God--a dualism that becomes manifest in the Holy Trinity when (according to this notion) the Father takes out His anger in unrelenting fury, wrath and rage on His beloved Son.

To be sure, we speak as if God is angry. Just as we speak as if He has abandoned us, forgotten us, or turned a deaf ear to us. But when we speak this way, we must acknowledge that we are speaking anthropomorphically; in other words, we're thinking that God acts as we do, or we're speaking in terms of how it seems or looks or feels to us. If our biological father gets angry and lashes out at us when we do something wrong, (so we think) then so must our heavenly Father.

This notion, however, not only drags God down to our level, ascribing to Him our uglier characteristics. Worse yet, it creates in our minds and hearts a notion that the Father's mercy is fickle or fleeting--or, at least, dependent upon some act that pleases Him or appeases His wrath. But doesn't this talk about appeasing God's wrath ultimately make us higher than God? For then God is manipulated by our pleasing or appeasing acts. Or we can, in some way, control God's "moods."

A common answer is to say that we cannot appease God because we are wicked and (as we think the Psalmist is saying about us), "God is angry with the wicked every day." (Ps 7.11) Hence, only the Son of God appeases His angry Father. Put colloquially, "God, in His fierce anger, must destroy you; but He is conflicted, and so instead destroys His Son who miraculously survives and rises to live another day and, having done so, pleases His Father and calms His rage so that it's now safe to stand before Him."

But now we're back to a Trinitarian dualism; and to dragging God down to our level of economics by which owners are appeased by successfully negotiated mediation. But that's not the kind of Mediator Our Lord Jesus is. He doesn't mediate by standing between a furious father and his pathetic creation; or by taking the blows of an angry (abusive?) God that were occasioned by the ruination and corruption of His creation by totally depraved men. This suggests that the problem really is with God; and that the Father needs to be reconciled to us. (Read AC III carefully.)

The truth is that the problem lies within us--the corruption of flesh which is manifest in sin and results in death. But the death it results in is not so much the grave (although that is a vivid picture of this death); rather, it is the death of our relationship (or communion) with our heavenly Father. To restore this communion with the Father, the Son doesn't reconcile the Father to us, but us to the Father. And His reconciliation is not solely or even chiefly by the event of His death and resurrection, but by His Passion coupled with the sending of the Holy Spirit. (For what good is Our Lord's death and resurrection if He doesn't breathe out His Spirit on the Church; that is, if the benefits are not delivered into us and planted home within us?)

This picture of God not only releases us from the problems described above when we believe that God is consumed with anger over against His creation. It is also biblical. For this is the biblical witness: the Father is merciful and compassionate; and from that mercy gives His Son into the world not to pay for what we've done or to appease God's wrath, but to reconcile and restore us true life in the Father; and this reconciliation is begun for us and achieved by the Son releasing His Spirit upon all mankind in His Church so that, in Him, we might be united to the Son who then gives us full access to the Father.

Now can such a picture be reconciled with the notion that the Son of God came into the world to appease the Father's wrath and reconcile the Father to us? And can anyone who holds to this biblical understanding really maintain that "God hates you because God hates sin and you are sin"? Those who do have, most regrettably, slidden into heresy.

06 March 2006

Book Tag

This tag comes my way thanks to Ben Johnson who gives these ground rules: What ten books would you want with you if you were shipwrecked on a desert island?

Here's my 10.

1. Bible (Douay-Rheims; better, in many ways, than the KJV with all the books in their LXX places)
2. Anglican Breviary (actually, Monastic Diurnal preferred, but the AB includes Matins)
3. English Missal (also known as Knott Missal; most complete for my use)
4. Liber Usualis (offices are not said, but sung)
5. The Lutheran Hymnal (no joy without singing the sturdy hymns of my youth)
6. Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke by St Cyril (lacking in the breviary)
7. NPNF II.IV (select works & letters of St Athanasius; who can tire of him?)
8. Philokalia vol 2 (St Maximos takes quite a while)
9. Brothers Karamazov (maybe I'll finally finish it)
10. The Destinty of Man by Nicolas Berdyaev (maybe I'll finally start it)

Honorable Mention

NPNF II.VII (not so much for St Cyril of Jerusalem, as for St Gregory Nazianzen)
English Ritual (not sure what I'd do with it since I'm deserted, but it completes the set)

As you can see, I'll spend my days praying; and then stretching the mind. I'll have the time finally to do it. And whatever other reading material I'll need, I'll find on my PDA which, of course, will be on my person (so I can retrieve what I want--at least, as long as the battery holds out).

Now if I can just make sure I shipwreck where pirates have stowed an unlimited supply of Cuban cigars and 16 yr old Lagavulin...

Passing on the favor to:
Chris Jones
Holy Hauntings
Fr. Marco (you see, I can be trans-continental)
and Pr Petersen (returning the favor)

Mercy Begets Mercy

At today's Mass, the Gospel reading was the Last Judgment scene where Our Lord interrogates both the blessed and the cursed. The questions revolve around the works of mercy they have (blessed) or have not (cursed) done. The grounding for these works of mercy is the Lord's mercy toward us. In fact, it is His mercy that produces in us mercy toward others. Therefore, for the homily, I chose a selection from St Peter Chrysologus where he ties together Ps 111.2 and Ps 145.9.

Here is a salient portion from that homily:

The prophet runs totally to [the Lord's] mercy, because he did not have any confidence in his own righteousness. "Have mercy on me, God," he says, "according to your great mercy." (Ps 51.1) And why it is great? "Because your mercy," he says, "is great towards me, and you have plucked my soul from the depths of the underworld." (Ps 86.13) And if God restores through mercy what had utterly perished through judgment, what, oh man, were you imagining would stand, would stand firm for you without mercy? (Sermon 42, "A Second [Sermon] on Fasting" in The Fathers of the Church, 109.171-172)

05 March 2006

Enter the Feast with Clean Bodies and Souls

In the Western Divine Office, according to the pre-Vatican II breviary reordered by Pope Pius X, at Matins there are 3 groups of 3 Psalms. On Sundays and major feasts, a lesson is read after each group of 3 Psalms. These lessons come from the Scriptures and the early fathers. The third lesson is always a commentary on the Gospel at the day's Mass. Today's first lesson was an expansion of the epistle at the Mass. The second lesson was a commentary by St Leo the Great. The entire sermon is worthy of your attention, but I would simply like to highlight the portion that struck me.

There is never any day or time which is not rich with divine gifts ; and always God's mercy is made available to us by his grace. Yet that is a reason why at the time of this great fast the hearts of all men should be moved to more earnest pursuit of things spiritual, and stirred up to complete trust in God. For now is drawing near the anniversary of the Day of our Redemption, which doth summon us to perform every duty of devotion, to the end that we may be able to celebrate, with clean bodies and souls, those mysteries which exceed all others, to wit, those of the Lord's Passion.

Mysteries so great demand a perseverance in devotion, and an abiding reverence, that so what we attain to be on the Feast of Easter, we may ever afterwards in God's sight continue to be. But few have the strength to do this, for the flesh in its weakness rebelleth against such hardness, and the business of this life doth distract us with many cares, whereby the hearts even of the godly are often smudged with the grime of this world. To the end that our souls may be restored to us in purity, there hath been provided for us, by a most wholesome custom in the following of Christ's example, the discipline of these forty days, wherein by godly works we may redeem the time which we have mis-spent, and by holy fasting may cleanse us of our faults. (Source)

We Are Wild Beasts

An excerpt from today's sermon:

To turn our heads and our hearts away from this false love; to expose the devil and his lies so that we see the true ugliness beneath the glossy veneer; and to release us from the inhuman love for death and the addiction of deep-seated self-hatred and loathing of all men—that is ultimately why Our Lord goes out into the wilderness. It’s not the devil He’s trying to impress. It’s the beasts.

Yes, the beasts. For St. Mark tells us that when Jesus was in the wilderness He was with the wild beasts. Now who are those beasts? They are not the demons. Rather, they are us. For when we give into our desires, when we greedily and hungrily feed our appetites, when we live only for ourselves and care for no man, when our whole life is consumed with consuming, when we are hurtful in word or deed, when we cannot exercise even the smallest amount of self-control—are we not then living like beasts in the wilderness? In fact, isn’t that the story of our life, ever since the Lord God sent Adam out of the garden? Hasn’t mankind lived the rest of his days in the wilderness, becoming more and more beastly with each successive generation?

The Father sees that this is our condition and it breaks His heart. And so in love, and out of the deepest canyons of His mercy, the Father by His Spirit sends His Son into the world. And today you’ve heard that the Spirit has now sent the Son of Man into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil so that He might win over and win back the wild beasts—that is, us and all mankind.
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04 March 2006

Scripture & Tradition II

No doubt, there are many readers to this blog who have heard of the Vicentian rule: Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus ("that which is [held/believed] everywhere, always, by all"). It is named after St Vincent of Lerins who coined the phrase. It's really a take-off on St. Peter's rule; namely, "that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation" (2 Pt 1.20). Very simply, this means that your opinion of what the Bible means must be sacrificed in favor of the Church's consensus.

Such a rule is quite helpful, especially in the face of those who have nearly (or truly have) equalized sola Scriptura and nuda Scriptura. The first means that nothing of the Faith can contradict the Holy Scriptures, and that all teachings or doctrines must, in some way, be witnessed or attested to in the Scriptures. The latter phrase may be said (if a bit snidely) to be the "Bible, Bible, only Bible" rule.

I thought it might be helpful to produce the immediate context in which St Vincent of Lerins advances his rule; and why he comes to it. At least, I found this review of his writing to be most fascinating.

I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense "Catholic" which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors. (Source)

Hearing, Yet Hearing?

In the Gospel at today's Mass, the disciples are caught alone in a boat during a storm. Our Lord sees them "straining at rowing," comes to them, acts as if He would walk right past them, and then comes to their aid after they have cried out to Him. Clearly He is testing their faith. And equally as clear, this Gospel beautifully contrasts how we (like the disciples) often cower in fear when temptation strikes during our Lenten fast; and how we should instead imitate Our Lord's example when He endured temptation during His Lenten fast (which we will hear about in tomorrow's Gospel).

However, the homily I read from St Bede the Venerable speaks not of us (individually) but of the Church. He says that the Church is the boat caught in the storm. And during these storms, says the saint, "Right well is it written that the ship was in the midst of the sea, and the Lord alone on the land. For sometimes the Church is not only sore pressed by the Gentiles, but also in such wise broken up that, if it were possible, it would seem for a time as though her Redeemer had abandoned her."

As I read (and heard) this venerable man, I considered what St Bede meant by "the Church" and "broken up." Surely he would not have thought as we think today. For our (Protestant) understanding of "the Church" is governed by the hermeneutic that the Church is primarily, if not exclusively, invisible. In other words, we hear the words "the Church" and we think not of a particular communion; i.e., an organic body which is concretely manifested by eucharistic fellowship between bishops or (if you must) congregations. Rather, we think of an amorphous, vague "thing" whose "communion" is not in eucharistic sharing but the shared belief of scattered believers (who may be found in various communions, often times despite their particular communion's prayed confession). In other words, we spiritualize "the Church" or, worse yet, noeticize it. For this reason, we think the "broken up"-ness of "the Church" has to do with the various denominations--all of which are imperfect because none have a pure confession (except, perhaps "us" who live within an heterodox or heretical communion).

Yet this is not St Bede's understanding of "the Church." In his day, the Church is a concrete organism. You can point to the eucharistic fellowship by pointing to the inter-communion between the bishops or churches. The "broken up"-ness, then, is not one which has to do with varities of confessions, or greater or lesser degrees of heresy/heterodoxy, among those who are not in communion with each other. Rather, for St Bede, the "broken up"-ness has to do with the weakness or pride of men (primarily the clergy) within the real communion who still actually confess the same Faith. In other words, the "broken up"-ness is not that some blatantly reject the Faith while calling themselves "true Christians," or change the Faith with self-chosen liturgies (editting out the things that don't seem to fit their thinking). Rather, the "broken up"-ness is that the Faith they hold is being weakly held; or that rigorism compels some to break communion for a while.

The point I'm making is twofold. First, because of our context (and our interpretive tradition), we hear both the Scriptures and the fathers vastly differently than their original, intended sense. And second, for the same reason, our understanding of the "broken up"-ness of "the Church" would be completely foreign to someone like St Bede the Venerable.

03 March 2006

St Jerome on Today's Gospel

Fasting without mercy is no fast. So says Our Lord in the Lesson at today's Mass. The Gospel continues the theme with Our Lord's mandate to love our enemies, and to give alms.

St Jerome's comment on the portion, "Love your enemies," I find to be quite striking. With a knife, he cuts away that part of us which would have us believe that we've done well not to hate our enemies. He also then directs us to true love--concluding with Our Lord's love for us in His prayer.

The Lord hath said unto us: Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you. Many there be who measure God's commandments by their own weakness, and not by the strength of his Saints; and so deem him to have commanded things impossible. Of such are they who think that the best they can do is not to hate their enemies; and that to command us to love them, is to command more than man's nature can bear. It behoveth them to know that Christ did not command to do what is impossible, but what is perfect. On this wise it was that David did, in respect to Saul and Absalom. And likewise, the Martyr Stephen prayed for his enemies, even while they were stoning him. And even so Paul could wish that himself, and not his persecutors, were accursed from Christ. On such wise Jesus both taught and did, when he said: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Source)

02 March 2006

St Peter Chrysologus Again

Each day of Lent has its own set of propers. Today's Gospel was the episode from St Matthew's Gospel of the centurion beseeching Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant. Here is a portion from a sermon on this text by St Peter Chrysologus.

[The centurion in effect says]: "I call him mine [i.e., my servant], because he is lying down; if he were yours, Lord, he would not be lying down. The prophet attests to this when he says, 'Come, now bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand in the house of the Lord. (Ps 133[134].1) You who 'stand' [do] not 'lie down.' Your servants stand, the servants of human beings lie down. May my servant-boy who is lying down rise in order to be yours. He is mine because he is paralyzed; may he now be healed so as to be yours. He is mine because he is badly afflicted; so that he be yours, may be now be in no pain.

"Lord, it is not fitting for your servants to be subjected to evils. The pain of your servants is an injury to you. The force of evils should not take hold of your servants. Your servants, althought they suffer evils, do not suffer for punishment, but undergo them for crowns; for them adversities are not causes of distress, but causes of victory. Servants of human beings are the ones who suffer evils unwillingly, because their masters are unable to help them in their desperation. But you, O Lord, whom the powers serve, whom cures obey, to whom healing remedies submit, how will you regard him as your servant while you see that he is the slave of such diseases?

"Your goodness is known among the wicked, even the godless acknowledge your kindness, and outsiders proclaim your mercy: am I to say that he is yours, even though your benevolence does not seek him out as he lies ill? He lies at home and is badly afflicted. (Mt 8.5) And so, the magnitude of the affliction does not allow me to bring him and present him to you, lest the infirmity of the servant, if made public, cause him both pain and shame."

The centurion moved the Judge by making so great and heartfelt an appeal, and he was so effective that the Lord of heaven himself willed to go to his servant. I shall come, said Christ, and cure him. Brothers, the centurion did not coerce the Author of compassion to show compassion, nor did he compel Christ to go to that for which Christ had come; but rather the centurion is taught in this way to perceive and understand why Christ came to the servant in a servant, why God came to man in a man. Assuredly he came to raise the prostrate, to set back on their feet those who had been knocked down, to free those in shackles (see Ps 145[146].7-8), and, since he himself is the most kind bearer of his own creation, to carry those whom no one as yet was able to bring and present. (The source is the same as yesterday's citation, only pp. 71-72)

01 March 2006

"Oddest Thing" Tag

My good friend, Pr David Petersen, has tagged me wanting to know the oddest thing in my office. Now does this mean my officium to dispense the sacred mysteries, or the place where I read, write, smoke, etc.? I'll assume the latter.

If "oddest" means "strange item most commented upon," then it would have to be a grey metal old-fashioned key holder that holds up to 100 keys. It's plastered to the gorgeous inch-thick knotty pine panelling, and so sticks out like a sore thumb. It's a left over from my predecessor (and perhaps his predecessor) and is filled with keys for the "Zion campus." Most, I'm sure, no longer work--although one never knows...

I tag the guys at Beggers All.

St Peter Chrysologus on Fasting

On his blog, my friend, Fr William Weedon, likes to include a "Patristic Quote for the Day." He's received some FLieger Abwehr Kanone because his citations seem to favor Eastern rather than Western fathers (as if the two are in competition).

To lend him an assist, I post this quote from one of my favorite fathers (East or West)--St. Peter Chrysologus.

It is fever that the blessed Apostle laments is seething within human wounds, when he says, "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh." (Rom 7.18) If nothing good, then certainly evil. What evil? Truly a certain frailty creeps within the flesh, seethes in the veins, enters the bones, is hidden in the marrow, boils within the blood, and thus bursts forth into a frenzy of vice. Frailty is the fever of nature, the mother of weakness, the source of passions. Frailty is that which places us under the law of compulsion; and where there is compulsion there is no free will, there is a condition of captivity, and one's judgment is irresolute and impotent.

It is on account of frailty that the human goes not where his will beckons, but where the compulsion leads. Listen to the Apostle as he says, "I do not do what I will." (Rom 7.15) Frailty, while it deals with the things necessary for the human being, causes him to reach for what is unnecessary; while it provides food, it leads to gluttony; it offers sleep in order to hand over laziness; it increases one's concerns for the belly, in order to remove any concern for health [salus; i.e., salvation]; it gives everything to the flesh, in order to leave nothing for the soul; it makes the body the showplace of the passions; it causes the human being to be the death of himself and the life of the vices.

Therefore, if a person feels that he is sick in this fashion, let him submit himself to the heavenly Physician, let him feel safe in acceding to his directives, let him be temperate when it comes to food, let him keep some for later, so that in this way he may be able to overcome the weakness of frailty, flee from frailty, and transform the fever of the passions and the frenzy of vice.

Abstinence is the first medicine the human being must take, but for a complete cure the expenditure of mercy is required. (Sermon 41 "On Fasting" in The Fathers of the Church, vol 109.164-165)

Original Fasting

Consider this: When Our Father commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He was commanding them to fast. For fasting is not simply the disciplining of our flesh, but also submission to Our Lord's command. True obedience is true trust.

Yet Adam and Eve did not obey. Which means, they did not trust the Lord and submit to His Word. And that was shown in their refusal to fast. And by refusing to fast, they lost the Garden and all that He made for them.

So our first parents lost their way when they indulged their appetite and gratified their flesh. Had they only fasted from that tree as Our Lord commanded, they would not have run from Him in fear. Had they only fasted from that forbidden fruit, they would not have stood naked and ashamed before God and the world. Had they only fasted from the devilish enticement to live as they please, they would never have lived to die.

Perhaps this is why Jesus doesn't suggest we fast. He doesn't say, "Should you fast" or "If, perchance, you happen to fast" or "If you wish to fast." Instead, He says, "When you fast." And so Our Lord bids, commands and directs us to fast.

But which fast should we follow. Again, consider Adam and Eve. If their self-chosen diet led to our downfall, then it stands to reason that our self-chosen fasts will not lead us closer but further from the kingdom. And if that's the case, then perhaps this Lent we should not simply "give something up"--something that we've deemed worthy of sacrificing. Perhaps, instead, we should submit to the church's fast.

Now the church has many fasting traditions--even during Lent. And just as your doctor knows which prescription is best for you, an attentive caring priest or pastor or spiritual father should be able to prescribe a fast that is well-suited to your spiritual condition.

So here's the point--no self-chosen fasts this Lent. Rather, submit yourself to whatever fast you are given.

For you see, in the end, fasting really is simply a matter of submission and trust. And it is given by the Lord through His Church not as punishment or repayment, but so that you don't lose out the golden fruit of the Tree of Life.