Trinity Sunday

sbHoly Trinity in images - stained glass - small

Good morning, all, and happy Sunday! Wishing my Christian friends a holy and blessed Trinity Sunday: the only Feast in the Christian Year which is devoted to a doctrine, thus pointing to the importance of this doctrine – the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, one God in three Persons – to the Faith itself.

Why is it so important? Because it protects two of the key insights of the Christian faith: that God is One – Christianity is not tritheism; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three gods – and yet, at the same time, God is relational – not just with regard to His Creation, but in His very nature. And of course, it explains how, without tritheism, Christ can be God, as the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John (“… and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”) and many of Jesus’ own sayings, recorded in the Gospels, assert.

Indeed, the great battle in the Christian Church has always been the precise identity and nature of Christ Himself. Is He merely a gifted and inspired human teacher and prophet, or is He in fact God? And if so, how is it that He is Divine? Was He created by God, adopted by God, or is He actually Divine in and of Himself? This was a major struggle in the 4th century – between the Arians (disciples of a presbyter named Arius) and the orthodox, catholic Christians, led by St. Athanasius – and it remains a struggle to this day.

Many today, Christians as well as non-Christians, believe Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ – the Messiah, the Anointed One of God – to be the Son of God, if at all, through adoption: that he was a great human religious and moral teacher, perhaps indeed “anointed by God,” but nonetheless human. The problem with this is that, if true – if Christ was only a human teacher, however great – then Christianity is but one human philosophy, one school of thought, among many in the “supermarket of religions.”

Orthodox, catholic Christianity – what some call “the Great Tradition” of Christianity – teaches something more radical, and ultimately far more rewarding: that Jesus the Christ was the Incarnate Word of God: that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” as the Prologue to St. John puts it. That the very Word of God Himself became Man for our sake, walked among us, taught us by word and example, died for us and rose again.

It is this which, to me, gives Christianity its power: not necessarily or primarily its moral teachings – many of which, as others have pointed out, may be found in other religions and philosophies. This is not surprising, if one believes that the human religious impulse comes from God and tends toward God, and that there is such a thing as natural, or general, revelation. But, orthodox Christians believe, Christ is the reality which pre-Christian myths foreshadowed, and toward which pre-Christian philosophies reached. To borrow the Platonic analogy of “the Cave,” they were the shadows on the wall; He is the thing itself.

But as I say, this is a debate which has raged since the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. Is Christ simply a man, however gifted? Or is He God? The solution reached at the Council of Nicaea, 325 AD, under (as Christians believe) the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was to affirm that Christ was indeed homoousios (of one single identical substance, essence, or nature) with God the Father, not (as the Arians would have had it) homoiousios, or “of like substance.” That is to say, Nicaea affirmed the full personal divinity of Christ: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” The first Council of Constantinople (381 AD) further affirmed that the Holy Spirit was the full Third Person of the Trinity; thus, what we nowadays call the “Nicene Creed” should properly be called the “Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.”

The Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD) more fully defined the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ Himself, and the Athanasian Creed (so-called, it was not actually by St. Athanasius; dated c. late 5th/early 6th century AD) provided further explication on both the Doctrines of the Holy Trinity (one Nature in Three Persons) and the Incarnation (two Natures in one Person), while adding some imprecations against those who do not hold the fullness of these doctrines.

Trinity Sunday, the observance of which developed over time, celebrates the Holy Trinity, one of these two most distinctive and important doctrines of the Christian Church. It is important to note that the Holy Trinity, like the Incarnation, is a Holy Mystery: we can say what we can say about it, but ultimately, the details of this sacred reality are known but to God (“now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face,” as St. Paul said).

As one commentator has put it,

“By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle, but rather that the Trinity is a reality above our human comprehension which we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol [see the image in stained glass, above], and faith. It has been said that Mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim.”

Rather a fine metaphor, in my opinion! And it reminds me of the analogy of the Eastern Orthodox mystic St. Symeon the New Theologian, who compared our knowledge of God to a man standing beside a vast ocean at night, holding up a lantern… Here, at any rate, is the traditional (English language) text of the Nicene Creed, as used in the Western Church:

nicene-creed

And here is another graphic image in stained glass, reminding us (in Latin) that the Father is neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit; the Son is neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son: but all are God.

Holy Trinity in Latin

Wishing everyone, once again, a holy and blessed Trinity Sunday!

Gardening as Medicine for Millennials, and the Rest of Us | The Catholic Gentleman

We need to turn to the earth from which we were formed, and which we were commanded to tend. There we can seek reintegration and reconnection; we can seek healing.

Source: Gardening as Medicine for Millennials, and the Rest of Us | The Catholic Gentleman

At risk of oversimplifying, I think there are three things that make this medicine so fit for all of us suffering, in varying ways, from the challenges of contemporary culture. Gardening calls us to work, to wait, and to worship.

Oh, this is good! This is very good. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest!

The Pacifist Temptation | William Doino Jr. | First Things

“Those who follow the Just War tradition—including many in the military and diplomatic corps—place a premium on clear-eyed negotiations, and see war only as a last resort.”

Source: The Pacifist Temptation | William Doino Jr. | First Things

Pacifism is a recurrent temptation in the Christian tradition; indeed, some radical Protestant denominations – including the Amish, the Quakers, and the Brethren / Mennonites – are especially known for their philosophical pacifism: it is almost a trademark. And there are many others in more “mainstream” churches who pursue peace very seriously.

These frequently compassionate and well-meaning people take the designation of Christ as “the Prince of Peace” further than, perhaps, the evidence will bear: the quote from Isaiah about “of the increase of his Kingdom and of peace there shall be no end” refers to the coming Kingdom, when Christ will reign in triumph – not the age of the Church Militant in which we find ourselves.

Such a view also fails to take into account sayings of Jesus such as “I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” and events such as that captured in a popular internet meme: “What would Jesus do? Turning over tables and whipping people with knotted cords is not out of the question!” In direct and marked contrast,

“Those who follow the Just War tradition—including many in the military and diplomatic corps—place a premium on clear-eyed negotiations, and see war only as a last resort. But they also realize that the existence and maintenance of ‘hard power’ is often crucial in preventing war and bringing about peaceful resolutions; for once you take military force off the table you risk dramatically increasing the possibility for violence. Even a cursory study of history reveals that unilateral disarmament only emboldens warmongers.

“But the Pax Christi statement asserts: ‘Recent academic research, in fact, has confirmed that nonviolent resistance strategies are twice as effective as violent ones.’ There are no footnotes, however, to any academic research showing how pacifists will defeat ISIS or could have brought down the Third Reich if only they’d been given the chance…

“It is one thing to honor individual Christians who cannot in good conscience take up arms and are willing to suffer for their beliefs. It is quite another to encourage movements which call on democratic societies to conform to pacifist demands—in the face of tyrants and mass-murderers—and are blind to the incalculable suffering pacifist policies would lead to.

“The pacifist temptation has long been rejected by the Catholic Church, for abundantly sound reasons, drawn from Christian teachings on mercy, compassion, the common good, and authentic peace. In a world where Christians are being savagely tortured, crucified and decapitated, the Church should not succumb to that temptation now.”

Easter and Paganism, by John Morgan – Our Celtic Traditions

An excellent post by my friend John Morgan, on the subject of Easter, its origins, calculations, etc.

One still gets those who say that it is borrowed from Paganism, and while it seems reasonably certain that the English / Germanic name for this holiday was adopted via a month-name (“Ēastermōnaþ” and variations on the linguistic theme) from Eostre (reconstructed OHG *Ostara), a purported goddess who – interestingly enough – is attested only in the works of St. Bede the Venerable, the Anglo-Saxon Christian proto-historian (!), and while there has clearly been some borrowing / adoption / adaption of existing European folk traditions as Christianity moved out of its original Mediterranean context and into Western and Northern Europe, associating Easter with goddesses like Ishtar and Astarte is… well, let’s just be gentle, and say it’s a stretch. 🙂

Historically, as John points out, the dating of Easter is based on the dating of the Jewish feast of Passover; the only parallel with European Paganism is that both had Spring feasts in the vicinity of the Vernal Equinox, and/or the Full Moon nearest to it. There is nothing surprising about such parallels, and it doesn’t imply a connection, other than a basic human one.

Similarly, for the early Christian evangelists of Anglo-Saxon England to find parallels between a month dedicated to the dawn, rising sun, increasing light, etc., and Jesus, who was known as the Day-Star, compared to the Dayspring (dawn), hailed as the Sun of Righteousness, and called by the Gospel-writer St. John the “light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” is hardly surprising!

Theologically, of course, there are considerable differences between the Christian message and the Pagan myths which preceded it. Christians – myself included – would point out that these were prefigurings, foreshadowings, of the “true myth” (C.S. Lewis) which is Christianity; the “dying god” of Paganism being a shadow of the form (to put it in Platonic terms) which was embodied and given geographical and historical, and of course human, context in Jesus of Nazareth: the Incarnate Word of God. For more on this, see my reflections on “Christianity in an Age of Unbelief,” posted earlier.

At any rate, click the link, read the post. Most excellent!

The Feast of the Resurrection: The Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

The Catechetical Sermon of St. John Chrysostom is read during Matins of Pascha:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of of his Lord…

Source: The Paschal Sermon – Orthodox Church in America

The Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop, Metropolitan, and Patriarch of Constantinople (434–446) and one of the great Fathers of the Church, is traditionally read on the Feast of the Resurrection (Pascha, or Easter) in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches. It is often read in Anglican and other churches of the liturgical / sacramental tradition.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Wishing everyone a very Happy Easter, and a holy, blessed, and joyful Eastertide.

Holy Saturday – The Harrowing of Hell

The second reading from the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday is taken from an ancient homily on Christ’s descent into hell.  It begins: “Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.  The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.”

Source: The Harrowing of Hell – Crisis Magazine

Today is Holy Saturday, a day which has long seemed to me rather forlorn and desolate. We reflect on the post-crucifixion Christ, who we tend to picture lying dead in the grave on this day. And this is indeed so, at least as concerns His mortal remains. But since I learned the story of the Harrowing of Hell, this day has seemed a good deal less desolate – rather, fraught with action and promise! For it is on this day, the tradition tells us, that the Harrowing of Hell took place.

The body of Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Word of God, may have been lying in the tomb, but in His Eternal, Divine Nature, he was bursting through the gates of Hell, overthrowing the kingdom of sin and death, and leading captivity itself captive! This is only hinted at in the words of the Apostles Creed – “He descended into Hell” – but how did He descend? Not as a sinner, doomed to perdition, but as the Sinless One, the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, “through Whom all things were made,” as the Nicene Creed states (echoing the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel).

Theologically, this is also known as the “Christus Victor” (“Christ the Victor”) theory of the Atonement, in which Christ is not a mere passive actor, dying – however heroically and compassionately – to “substitute” for our own deaths, as the penalty of sin, but an active agent, achieving the victory over sin and death by entering and overthrowing the kingdom of sin and death itself.

We may never know, in this world (“now I see in a mirror, dimly…”) which of these is a more accurate expression of the reality, or if, as is often the case, both contain elements of truth! But it seems to me that Christus Victor – expressed on this day in the Harrowing of Hell – is more true to the nature of Christ, and of God, as we see it in the Scriptures. At the very least, I think we need to set this alongside the substitutionary theory of the Atonement, and realize that there is much more going on here than Christ dying for our sins as a passive victim.

There are debates, of course, as to the specific “part” of Hell (also known as Sheol, from the Judaic tradition, or Hades, from the Hellenistic) into which Christ descended, and the precise effect of His sojourn there: the linked article expresses the Roman Catholic view. But I prefer to view this account in its broadest possible sense: that no part of Creation (“all that is, visible and invisible” – meaning both material and spiritual – as the Nicene Creed also states) are untouched by the presence and promise of Christ, including those parts most corrupted by sin and death: indeed, Hell itself.

As the ancient Christian homily mentioned in the link puts it,

Out of love for you and for your descendants [Christ says,] I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise.  I order you, O sleeper, to awake.  I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell.  Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.  Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image.  Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

Of course, we still have to appropriate that great gift for ourselves! God does not force it on us. If someone gives you a gift, and you leave it on the table, unopened, you’re not going to benefit from that gift, no matter how generous it may be. God can save whomsoever he wishes; his sovereignty is not in doubt. But this is the means by which he has chosen to do so – with Christ, and through Christ, potentially all may come within the reach of God’s saving embrace. At least, we may devoutly hope so! One still has to accept the salvation which is offered, as mentioned above. Yet it is through the voluntary self-sacrifice of God in Christ that salvation is possible at all.

So as we commemorate this solemn day, and contemplate Christ’s self-sacrificial willingness to die for our sakes, let us not grieve over-much. Let us not give in to the feelings of desolation and abandonment that this day can so easily invoke. Let us instead recall that, as in much of salvation history, there is more going on than meets the eye! Thanks be to God for that.

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (St. Paul: I Corinthians 15:55)

Throne, Altar, Liberty: Christianity in the Age of Unbelief

A sympathetic review of God in the Dock, a compilation of essays by the late great author and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis.

Source: Throne, Altar, Liberty: Christianity in the Age of Unbelief

This is a blog post which is a review (well, more of a recommendation, but with commentary) of a blog post which is a review of a book. Such things may become problematic! At what point do they become circular, and self-referential? At what point, in contrast, do they stray too far from the thing itself? All I can say in response is, read this post, if you so desire, but then read Gerry T. Neal’s excellent essay – and then, above all, read C.S. Lewis’s God in the Dock! Don’t take our word for it, see for yourself.

Like most (if not all) other writings by “Jack” Lewis, it is well worth the time and effort required. Time, because although the individual essays are fairly short, in the main, the collection itself is fairly lengthy. Effort, because although Lewis is a superbly gifted and engaging writer – at times provocative, at times witty and entertaining, and often both at once – he engages deep subjects, worthy of deep thought, and gives it to them.

As is common with deep thoughts, well-expressed, they often evoke feelings of “But of course! Now, why didn’t I think of that?” And although I purchased and read God in the Dock way back in 1998, and have referred to it many times since, Mr. Neal’s essay has provided me with some fresh perspectives on Lewis’s work – and a few “ah-ha!” moments, as well. Continue reading “Throne, Altar, Liberty: Christianity in the Age of Unbelief”