Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Sermon for a Votive of the Holy Cross

(Delivered to a chapter of priests of the Society of the Holy Cross.)

“They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it.” (Mk 15:23)

Today, as we celebrate this votive of the Holy Cross of our Savior, I want to talk about something that has been on my heart and on my mind lately—the issue of suffering.

First, let’s consider the Myrrh in that verse. Myrrh is an analgesic, a painkiller. And the main way to ingest it in ancient times was mixed with wine, which tasted very bitter, but was very effective in lowering pain. This was one of the very few mercies shown to the Savior at Calvary. But, as we heard, Jesus refused.

Expositors commenting on this verse tend to emphasize that Jesus refused this potion not so much because it would dull his senses, but dull his mental faculties. That is, Jesus would need all his wits about him at this crucial moment with the world hanging on his every word; he could not afford to be inebriated. But is that really the case? I’m not so sure.

Myrrh (which is still used today in a powder for toothaches) is a mild opiod that was replaced when powerful drugs like morphine came along. Some use the essential oil of myrrh to induce “relaxation.” So there might have been a small chance of intoxication.

One commentator argued that Jesus refused it because it wasn’t kosher. But then, Jesus does drink later on, so that argument doesn't make much sense. It seems to me that the most straightforward explanation is perhaps the most likely—Jesus didn’t want any painkiller on the cross. Which is striking when one considers how deeply Jesus suffered (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) that day.

There was also a verse from the epistle back on Trinity Sunday (Romans 8) That resonated with this idea and stuck with me in my mind. Paul explained to the Romans that when we are adopted into the family of God, we are made his children and receive the spirit of sonship. He said, we become “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17)

Of course, the Apostle Paul knew great sufferings in his ministry. He was imprisoned and flogged multiple times in his journeys and finally beheaded for the sake of Christ in Rome. So he talked about suffering. But not just about his sufferings (he was not complaining), but our sufferings, human suffering.

For one of the basic things about the human experience, however blessed, lucky, favored, pampered, and fortunate life may be, at some point, we will all know sufferings. We experience the pain of loss—of loved ones, of friendships, of jobs, ways of life, of physical abilities, and so on. Not all of us will hurt the same way, but at some point all of us will hurt.

I'm told Blaise Pascal claimed that, ultimately, truth and love are the only things that hurt. Which is odd, because truth and love—those are good things. So I want us to consider that suffering might not always be bad. Or, that even bad suffering can become something of a blessing.

This Spring, I was sharing a few words on that topic with a parishioner who had seen and known suffering up close, taking care of his dying father. I’ll never forget what he said about suffering—“I highly recommend it.”

I’m not sure I can explain it, but when he when he said that, I knew what he meant. As strange as it sounds, that makes sense to me. I guess I had been there with my wife going to the brink of death and then slowly regaining some health. It sounds strange because I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to hurt.

And yet I think about those who have suffered together—war buddies, families who have gone through hardships, disaster, losses—and I’m amazed by the closeness, even the “blessings” of their experience. In the First Letter of St Peter, the Apostle says that if you suffer for the sake of righteousness, you will be blessed (1 P 3:14).

Does God want us to suffer? Paul says we are heirs with Christ if we suffer with him. In the Eucharist, we find a man on the cross who has also suffered as we celebrate the memorial of Christ’s saving passion and death. A eucharistic prayer in Rite Two says, . . . “on the night he was handed over to suffering and death . . .” Another one adds, “a death he freely accepted.”

In his letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes a very mysterious statement: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24) Now it is clear from his other writings that the Apostle firmly believes that the atonement of Christ is complete—there’s nothing deficient about it. So that can’t be what he means. What does he mean, then?

St Augustine of Hippo explains that in God’s providence, the mystical Body of Christ (the Church) is to share in Christ’s sufferings. In ministering to them and serving the Lord, Paul is taking up his cross. Paul realized that the sufferings of this life are a means of drawing closer to Christ. Suffering can sometimes drive people apart, or it can bring them together. It’s not so much that God wants his people to suffer. It’s that he wants us to use the sufferings in life (which we often unleash upon ourselves) in a redemptive way, to draw closer in union with Christ.

How does one do this? By offering your sufferings in union with Christ’s sacrifice. At this and every offering of the great Sacrifice of the Altar, let us gather up the fragments of our lives—our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and our fears, our moments of revelry and of pain—and make them a gift of our very selves to God.

For when they are offered through, in, and with the sacrifice of Christ, they become an acceptable and pleasing sacrifice to God the Father. We become pleasing and acceptable to God the Father. Then we will find that “these momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17).

But there is more to it than this—than finding a redemptive value in suffering. We are called to be living icons of the Good Shepherd. We stand at the altar in persona Christi, like him, as both priest and victim. Do we not just offer, but lay ourselves upon the altar with Christ? Do we like St Paul rejoice in our sufferings for the sake of our people? As he talked about (Colossians 1:24), we are in a mysterious way making up what is lacking in the sufferings of his Body.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, (Orat. ii, Apolog.) Archbishop of Constantinople, wrote: “No one can approach the infinite God, our high priest and victim, if he himself is not a living and holy victim, if he does not offer himself in spiritual sacrifice, seeing that this is the sacrifice demanded by him who gave himself up entirely on our behalf. Without it, I would not dare to bear the name or vestment of a priest.”

Christ upon the Cross is the irreplaceable model for priesthood and is at the center of the proclamation of the Gospel. Consider for a moment the example of St Paul in Athens. Athens was a “PBS” kind of town. The Athenians ate up lectures and philosophical speculation with a spoon, the way the rest of us digest pizza and football. They enjoyed listening to visiting lecturers and philosophers in their public forum, the Areopagus.

In Acts 17, we find people saying that Paul is promoting some foreign deities—a god named Jesus and a goddess named Anastasis ("resurrection"). They loved hearing new things, and wanted to know more. Paul agrees and addresses the public at the forum. Noticing a great plethora of religious and devotional artifacts—a statue of a goddess here, an outdoor shrine there, a carved idol below, a temple in the distance.

“Men of Athens,” Paul says, “I’m usually a very perceptive person and it occurs to me that you are a religious people. I notice that you have an altar over there dedicated to 'an Unknown God.' I’m going to tell you about that God whom you worship, but do not know.” And Paul proceeded to describe the existence of a Creator as evidenced in their piety and philosophy and poetry.

Some of the people scoffed at a few of his points, others wanted Paul to come back and speak again. But when it was over, Paul left and did not return to speak. Luke says, “Paul went out from among them.” (17:33) One verse later, Luke tells us, “…he left Athens and went to Corinth.” (18:1) A few people in Athens became believers and joined Paul on his mission. But that was it. There were no massive conversions like the ones that followed Peter’s sermon at the beginning of Acts. It seems that no church was founded there at that time. Paul wrote no letter to the Athenians.

What happened? Paul was elegant and polished. He did it like they taught us in seminary. His argument was fully inculturated in the Stoic philosophy of the Athenians. He spoke with their words and on their level. Yet by all accounts, this sermon stood out as a failure in his missions. Perhaps also telling is the fact that Athens is the only place where Paul’s preaching did not provoke some persecution.

Without realizing it, Paul put himself at a distinct disadvantage among them because he addressed them as another peddler of philosophical ideas. They had the intellectual curiosity of a good audience, but it was the kind of curiosity that is content to remain in the abstract, and is unwilling to venture out into a world where ideas change lives. Perhaps there is a parallel to our own day and place.

Paul was not sharing his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior; he did not proclaim the cross of Christ. He was trying to say that Christianity is not that bizarre after all. “You see, it’s really not that different from what you do here. We just have a name for it—it’s a matter of faith. It’s another interpretation.” And that’s exactly how it was received.

It may have looked like Paul was not just in the world, but of the world. Frankly, I fear that’s how a lot of us look. (I’m pointing no fingers here, and I’m preaching to myself as well.) We need to get weird again. We need to stand out from the crowd. We need to be outcasts again. We need to be hated for his Name’s sake (we will never be loved for his Name’s sake). We don’t just need to change minds, but to change hearts. We need the life-changing message of the cross, and its power over sin in people’s real lives.

Paul sensed that he failed at Athens when he went to the next town of Corinth. Looking back, he wrote back to the Corinthian church, “When I came to you, brethren, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Persecution did not break this man—Athens did.

Again, he wrote, “I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the spirit and power so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Our epistle today was the fruit of his experience in Athens.

How often do our words in the pulpit seem hollow and unmoving? How often do our actions and inactions undermine the message we preach? (And remember, pointing no fingers, preaching to myself.) Do you meditate upon the passion and sufferings of our Lord, looking for ways to take up your cross and follow him?

 In the Imitation of Christ (Bk. iv, c. 10) Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Blessed is he who offers himself up as a [burnt offering] to the Lord, as often as he celebrates or communicates.” How often do you do penance on behalf of your people? How do you share in the sufferings of the poor, the sick, and the outcast? What do you do to identify with the sufferings of your people? We have seen how Christ (the model of priesthood) did just that.

As Jesus said in the Gospel today, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.” (Jn 12:25-6)

Let us be on the lookout for such opportunities. Ask God for them. I’m not saying that means you can’t take an aspirin for a headache. But we know that a part of God’s plan is for us to identify with/share with Christ in his sufferings and priests should be at the crossroads of that.

“They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it.” (Mk 15:23)

The first thing we meditated upon in this verse is the painkiller—the myrrh. The second part I want us to consider is the wine. And we'll find out why Jesus refused to drink.

If you remember, there are four cups of wine during the seder meal. Each time the cup is filled, it has a different name. The first cup is called the Kiddush, it is the “Cup of Sanctification.” This is to remember that God called “called us out of Egypt.”

The second cup is called the “Cup of Deliverance,” to remember God’s deliverance through the plagues upon Egypt. And the third cup is called the “Cup of Redemption” or “of Blessing” in which God promises to redeem us with his mighty power.

It was the third cup which Christ gave to his disciples at the Mystical Supper saying, “Take and drink; this is my Blood of the new covenant poured out for you.” St. Paul noted, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16)

And what of that fourth cup of wine in the Passover meal? At that point, the pattern was interrupted when Jesus said, “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on, until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Mt 26:29). The fourth cup was known as the “Cup of Consummation”—the cup in which God takes us as his people.

After sharing the cup of his blood, Jesus left the liturgy unfinished. Or perhaps we should say, the liturgy continued . . . in the Garden, at the cross, and at the tomb. Jesus left the fourth cup on the table because there was another new element in the Seder liturgy; there was a new cup from which to drink; for Jesus, it would be the “Cup of Suffering.”

Isaiah and Jeremiah both foretold that the Messiah would drink from the cup of God’s wrath. The grapes of wrath would be churned in the wine press and the cup of divine wrath would be poured out against sin. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Isaiah prophesied, “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him.” (Is 53:10)

Before they crucified Jesus, they offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it. “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom.” He hung there on the tree for about three hours. If you recall, one of the last things that happened before Jesus died was that he looked down and said, “I thirst.”

John’s gospel says there was a bowl of sour wine nearby. So they put a sponge on the end of a hyssop branch, (the same thing used to put the lamb’s blood on the door-posts) dipped it in the wine and raised it up to his lips. And when he tasted the wine, Jesus said, “It is finished.” And bowed his head and gave up his spirit (Jn 19:30).

It is consummated. The Mass has ended. The liturgy is over. He drank the cup of consummation and took his people into the kingdom of God, for the gate of heaven’s kingdom stands at the cross on Calvary.

So the question I’m putting to you today is . . . Are you willing to drink the cup that is your share in Christ’s sufferings? We cannot be priests (offerers of sacrifice) without being men of sacrifice. We have no right to share in the priesthood of Christ while being unwilling to share in his victimhood.

In his Dialogues (bk. iv, c. 59) Pope St. Gregory wrote: “We who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s Passion should imitate what we are doing. If we look for benefit from the victim which we offer, we must offer ourselves to God as a victim.”

Jesus accepted the cup of suffering and refused the cup of myrrh. Do you sometimes refuse the cup of suffering when it is offered? Do you at times, as it were, accept the cup of myrrh? And does that bring you closer to Christ? Or does it push Christ away?

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials . . .” (James 1:2) As we remember today the life-giving power of the Holy Cross, let us be mindful of the sufferings of the man who was nailed to it—Jesus Christ our great High Priest, and our sacrificial Victim.

“Sweetest wood and sweetest iron, sweetest weight is hung on thee. Thou alone wast counted worthy to bear the King of heaven and the Lord” (Votive Mass of the Holy Cross).

Friday, July 31, 2015

What does it mean to be "pro-life"?

I supposed Planned Parenthood has pulled out all the big guns in doing damage control after the recent undercover videos leaked their practice of selling fetal body parts.

In a recently resurfaced interview with Bill Moyers in 2004, "catholic" Sister Joan Chittister said: "I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is." 

First, she advocates for the pro-choice position without having to label herself as such. This is disingenuous.

Second, there is NO ONE out there who does not want children to be fed, educated, and housed. This is a "straw man" argument and she seemed either totally unaware or dismissive of Christian ministries in these areas.

Third, in effect she equates being "really" pro-life with wanting every child to be a ward of the state. That's not pro-life, that's fascist.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Summer sermon notes: Cardinal Virtues

DISCLAIMER: I want to make one thing clear so there’s no confusion, and that is that we’re not talking about salvation here or “how to be saved.” We’re talking about sanctification, growth in holiness, Christian maturity, but not how to be redeemed, and it’s important to note the distinction because we do not and cannot redeem ourselves. We are redeemed by Jesus Christ. Salvation comes as an act of God—a free gift of God’s grace, received by faith in the sacrament of Holy Baptism and nourished by the Holy Eucharist. It is Christ’s work, not ours. We do not earn it; he merited it for us. We do not impress God by our virtue. Indeed, he loved us in spite of our lack of virtue.

St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople said, “Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and his love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.”

We’ll be talking about what we are redeemed for—the end purpose of humanity, and that is to live a life of virtue—to become more and more Christlike, growing toward a life of eternal heavenly beatitude (happiness) lived in communion with God and in fellowship with his saints.

According to tradition, Adam and Eve were endowed by God with “preternatural gifts.” These were abilities beyond normal human nature—gifts we lost in the Fall. There were four gifts they had automatically:
1) Infused Knowledge (they didn’t have to learn, but just knew what they had to),
2) Immortality (before sin there was no death),
3) Integrity (that is, their appetites were subordinate to their intellect)
4) Original Righteousness (justitia) on account of the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace in their souls.

These four gifts correspond to the four Cardinal Virtues:
1) Prudence (relating to former knowledge and how to make use of it)
2) Fortitude (relating to our former immortality)
3) Temperance (relating to former integrity)
4) Justice (relating to original righteousness)

By our sinful rebellion in the garden, humanity lost those three preternatural gifts as well as the one supernatural gift and “fell” to a natural state. Man’s intellect thus became darkened, he became subject to disease and death, concupiscence or the “lust of the flesh” arose in man, and he exchanged original righteousness for sin.

While virtue alone cannot save us from sin, virtue is an essential part of our life in Christ. What exactly is a virtue? It’s a habit (in this case, a good habit, as opposed to a bad habit or vice). Most virtues are acquired by constant practice and exercise; the theological virtues are infused at baptism.

It is more than just a talent or a natural disposition (though we may have those). It is something we have worked at by exercising our will. And the more we employ a habit, the easier it becomes in the future.

ANALOGY: Think of the virtues as being like muscles in your body. The old adage about muscles in your body applies to the virtues: use it or lose it. The more you nourish it, the better use can be derived from it. The more you work it, the stronger it becomes. The less it is used, the more it atrophies and the harder it is to use it when it is needed. That’s why when you ask God for patience (for example), he sends frustrating things your way. You need to employ the virtues in your daily life or they will never become truly strong.

DEFINITION: Cardinal is from the Latin word for “hinge” and it is used here because the medieval theologians saw how most of the other virtues flowed out of these four. So whether or not you were a virtuous person, “hinged” on how well you lived out these four virtues.

Ancient philosophers like Plato and later Cicero popularized these virtues. The Bible enumerates them in Wisdom 8:7 where Solomon says, “If any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches temperance and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.” And the Bible teaches us about each virtue. St. Ambrose was the first to use the “hinge” expression when he noted: “And we know that there are four cardinal virtues temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude.”

The word virtue comes from the Latin virtus ("valor") and means a moral excellence. So to be virtuous (in the Latin expression) is to be manly, courageous, honorable in doing right, in not getting carried away by the passions and appetites, but making choices in accordance with reason and goodness.

Pope St. Gregory the Great said, “The only true riches are those that make us rich in virtue.”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

My comments on other people's comments

And I thought I'd post them here so I could remember what I said and find it again.

I posted this comment to one of George Takei's FaceBook post which is based on an opinion piece he wrote for MSNBC, because I believe this is an important and timely issue that has been overshadowed by name-calling. The issue is the origin of human rights and dignity--the state or God. Takei was upset about one item in Justice Thomas' dissent in Obergefell. Takei was criticized as making a racist comment. He's no racist. I can understand his complaint, especially given his history in the Japanese camps of WWII, but I think he is confused.

I wrote: "I can appreciate walking back from the blackface comment, but this is not the central issue. I think you misunderstand Justice Thomas. He was not arguing that the government is not accountable; far from it. He was pointing out that its role is not to give rights, but to recognize and protect unalienable rights, which are endowed by the Creator, not by the state. A person has dignity because he or she is a human being, not because the government gave that person dignity. So it should be held accountable for not respecting that dignity that God instilled. Persons would have no more or less dignity if they lived in Soviet Russia, or Canada, or Nazi Germany, or France, or China, etc. Their human dignity and rights would be recognized and protected to a greater or lesser degree, but they would always be there. As Whitney Houston sang in perhaps her most famous number, 'No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.'"

I'm not the only one with the same reaction--that we are created with dignity, not given dignity by the state. Wesley Smith posted at National Review Online: "Slavery did not strip its victims of their inherent dignity. It was evil precisely because they had inherent dignity. So does each and every LGBT human being."

The other comment I made was on the website of Bud Deiner, who was my pastor at Evergreen Christian Fellowship back in High School. Deiner is a gifted teacher and expositor of the Word and I have great respect for him. He currently serves as a missionary in South Africa.

He recently did a series on Bible verses that relate to homosexuality as a response to the spin from people like Matthew Vines who are distorting the facts. Deiner's insightful analysis of the Sodom and Gomorrah passage from Genesis 19 prompted me to make this observation:

One thing I'd point out as well is the wider context. Looking at the previous chapter (Genesis 18), we see what happened right before the famous judgment against Sodom was carried out. The three angels visit Abraham and Sarah and tell them that Sarah will be fruitful and have a baby by their next visit (vv 10-15) which caused Sarah to laugh. Immediately they turn toward Sodom to go investigate the outcry against the city (vv 16, 20-21).

Given the Hebrew Bible's penchant for parallelism and irony (especially in the J source, if you're into that sort of thing), I think a contrast is being set up between the two--the ways of blessing or of curse. Sarah's laugh is an added touch of the contrast between those who laugh with joy at God's miracles and those who laugh in the face of God's authority. Abraham and Sarah are childless despite many attempts and many years of prayer and heartache. The men of Sodom have fallen for a counterfeit sex that forgoes procreation, which is the intended natural end of the marriage act. 

The contrast is underlined in verses 17-19 when the angel of the Lord (thinking out loud) says, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" He explains that he is making Abraham the patriarch of many nations and they need to be instructed in the ways of righteousness. The context implies that the reference at least includes a holy sexual ethic--the value of real sex versus the counterfeit. God can open the womb for the former, but his design is frustrated in the latter. The former seeks God's blessing, but the latter seeks God's curse. 

The answer is given in the action. The angels inform Abraham that they are going to Sodom to check things out. No word is said by them about punishment, so obviously Abraham has heard the rumors and assumes the worst. He begs and barters for God's mercy for Sodom and figures they are safe since God promises to spare the city on account of ten righteous (so at least nephew Lot and his family should cover it). Of course, the angels simply remove them from the city and that is the end of that.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

This Easter, rise to the occasion

Not too long ago, I heard an interesting ad on the radio. It was for a lighting company that was having a sale. I think they specialize in novelty lighting for parties and concerts. They told the listeners, “This Easter, rise to the occasion and take advantage of our sale on lighting.”

And that line struck me—“This Easter, rise to the occasion.” Was this just a lame Easter joke? A way to “cash in”? What if we were to say that on Easter day, Jesus “rose to the occasion”? If we were to take that seriously, what would it mean?

Jesus’ body was put to death on the cross, and he was buried in a tomb. Jesus Christ is now alive. The question I’m asking today is, Why? Why did Jesus rise from the dead? What occasioned his resurrection? Why did God want to redeem us in this way?

Because frankly, in a lot of people’s thinking, the resurrection is an afterthought. It’s a way of saying that Good Friday wasn’t so bad after all, that this whole cross/atonement thing somehow “worked.” But for those 1st century disciples, the resurrection of Jesus meant something clear and unmistakable.

It is perhaps best summarized by something Jesus says in John’s Revelation (1:17-18): “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”

These are not the words of a religious guru whose corpse lies rotting in a tomb while spiritually he continues to live on in our hearts and memories. These are the words of a Man who is God become flesh, who willingly lays down that mortal life and then takes it up again—changed, transformed, renewed, and immortal. They are the words of a Man who reigns as the divine judge, bringing the last, great day into the present moment, inaugurating God’s heavenly kingdom on earth.

As St Paul wrote in his epistle to the Church of Rome (6:9), “We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death has no power over him.” He is the omnipotent Son of God! 1. Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate manifestation of his divinity.

2. Jesus’ resurrection shows his authority as Lord over time and space when he gives us a foretaste of the Last Day (the “day of resurrection”) here and now in the middle of time by overcoming death and being seated as the Judge of all the living and dead. That’s why he said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega: the beginning and the end” (Rev 21:6).

The third day signifies the day of the general resurrection in the Old Testament. In Hosea 6:2, the prophet says, “After two days, [God] will revive us; On the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” Before being taken as a Messianic prophecy, this was viewed as being applied to God’s people together.

In the Acts of the Apostles [10:42], we heard Peter proclaim this morning, that Jesus “commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” This is why St. Paul calls Jesus the “firstborn among the dead” or the “firstborn among many brethren” who are to follow in his steps through the resurrection at the last day.

3. In his resurrection, Jesus shows us that death is conquered. Death had been robbed of its sting, robbed of its power. It is no longer a dreaded foe, but a gateway to the great beyond. Life is changed by death, but not ended. Our bodies are not just returned at the Last Day, but restored and made new. Death is turned into a mere bump in the road.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews [2:14-15] tells us: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”

On this Easter Day, let us “rise to the occasion” by praising God that (1) our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ manifested his divine power and authority in conquering the grave. Let us praise God that (2) Jesus as Lord and Judge commands time and space, that he has shown himself to be our Alpha and Omega. And let us praise God this Easter Day that (3) our Lord Jesus Christ has vanquished our old enemy called “death” and made him our friend.

Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining. Have mercy, Victor King, ever reigning!

Let us pray.
Father in heaven, by the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, happiness entered the world: Grant that we, by the aide of the Virgin Mary, his Mother, we may share in those joys of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is now alive, and who always reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Did Jesus define the OT canon in Mt 23:35?

The short answer is no. Let me explain why; the explanation is important because the truth is important. This post is written in response to an old high school friend and pastor, Justin Evans, who has a genuine heart for God and a passionate love for the truth. I hope a little bit of Justin rubbed off on me and anyone to whom he has ministered, because he’s a real blessing.

Justin posted a link to an article he recommended by Brian Edwards, called ‘Why 66?’ Overall, it is a fairly good summary of how we arrived at a biblical canon, though not without a few serious flaws (the kind of revisionism that ruined the NIV).

Some background 
As an Anglican, our bible is larger than the Protestant bible, which has fewer books in the Old Testament. The books we call the Apocrypha were put into a section at the end of the Old Testament in the authorized Anglican translation, known in America as “the King James Version.” (Can’t find the Apocrypha in your KJV? I’ll get to that.)
 These “extra” books (and parts of books) in the Apocrypha are a part of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament in circulation at the time of Jesus. This was the Bible used by the early church (remember, the Old Testament was THE Bible before the New Testament was written) and it was the translation used by the writers of the New Testament books. For example, in Matthew 1:23, the Evangelist quotes from the Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah (“Behold, a virgin shall conceive”) rather than from the Hebrew version of Isaiah (“Behold, a maiden shall conceive”).

After the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious temple in AD 70, Judaism had to redefine itself. Part of that process was a determination of what holy books comprised the canon of scripture. Some accepted only the Torah, some all the Hebrews books, and others all the Greek books of the Septuagint. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah. The Septuagint was especially used and accepted by Jews in Alexandria and throughout the Mediterranean world outside of Palestine.

To make a long story short, the Jews settled on only the Hebrew books. Although some of the books in the Apocrypha were originally written in Hebrew, only the Greek translation survived. The Septuagint was also becoming more and more associated with those heretical Jews known as Christians. A purging of the last remaining Christians in the synagogues accompanied a purging of the “Christian Bible” as well. It is telling that Ethiopian Jews, who were cut off from mainstream Palestinian Judaism, retained the official use of the Septuagint.

Reading the article ‘Why 66?’ 
Of course, with the title ‘Why 66?’, I was not surprised to find the assertion that the Bible has only 66 books (the Hebrew Bible, plus the Christian New Testament). But one thing that really caught my attention when I was reading through ‘Why 66?’ was this line: “Whether or not the Septuagint also contained the Apocrypha is impossible to say for certain, since although the earliest copies of the Septuagint available today do include the Apocrypha—placed at the end—these are dated in the fifth century and therefore cannot be relied upon to tell us what was common half a millennium earlier.”

This statement is absolutely ridiculous. First of all, there is a problem of logic. You can’t make an argument from ignorance. You could equally say, “Whether or not the Septuagint contained Isaiah is impossible to say for certain, since although the earliest copies of the Septuagint available today do include Isaiah, these are dated in the fifth century and therefore cannot be relied upon to tell us what was common half a millennium earlier.” You could plug just about anything into that sentence and it would make the same sense (which is to say, no sense).

Second, Edwards claims in the article, “Nothing else, certainly not the Apocrypha, is given the same [canonical] status” in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). This statement is highly misleading. It leads one to believe that no books of the Apocrypha were found in the caves at Qumran, which is simply not the case. Copies of Tobit, Sirach (aka, Ecclesiasticus), and the Letter of Jeremiah were found in Cave 4, which generally housed biblical texts. There are also thousands of fragments from the DSS still waiting to be examined and identified, so who knows what might still be found.

You also have to remember that these were libraries of biblical and non-biblical material—literally, rooms with scrolls in them. There was no box labeled “Bible only.” Of course, at least two scrolls from the Apocrypha are unlikely to be found there. The sect at Qumran was anti-Hasmonean (the dynasty that the Maccabees had founded), so they probably did not want to keep copies of the chronicles of the Maccabees.
A fragment from the Book of Tobit of the Apocrypha found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The great significance of the DSS is that it advances our oldest copies of the Bible about 1,000 years into the past. Comparing the DSS with the Masoretic Text show a remarkable consistency. Which is to say, the Jewish communities which copied and preserved these sacred books went to great lengths to ensure that they remained faithful and unchanged. Neither the Hebrew nor Greek Bibles were arbitrarily added to or deleted from.

The discovery of Hebrew scrolls from the Apocrypha also showed that these books were not necessarily rejected even in “Hebrew only” Palestine. One scholar noted: “Up until recently it was assumed that ‘apocryphal’ additions found in the books of the LXX represented later augmentations in the Greek to the Hebrew texts. In connection with this, the Masoretic text (MT) established by the rabbis in the medieval period has been accepted as the faithful witness to the Hebrew Bible of the 1st century. Yet, this presupposition is now being challenged in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls” (Michael Barber, Loose Canons: The Development of the Old Testament, Part 1).

So how did these books disappear from Protestant Bibles? 
To keep costs down and thus facilitate the widespread distribution and use of the Bible, the printing costs were underwritten by Bible societies. In the 19th Century, there began to be increasing complaints made by Protestant members of American Bible Society (ABS) that their funds were used for Bibles printed with the Apocrypha. By the turn of the century, the ABS had defunded all publications of Bibles that included the Apocrypha, thus virtually all Bibles in the United States during most of the 20th Century were printed without the Apocrypha. The ABS lifted restrictions on the publication of Bibles with the Apocrypha in 1964, and most modern translations (except the NIV) have been available with the option of the Apocrypha included.

It is important to understand that the church never added any books to the Old Testament, rather the Reformers took them out. All of the Christian councils (which represent not the view of just one person, but the Christian consensus) that list the canonical books of the Old Testament, from the earliest centuries up to the Reformation, include the books of the Apocrypha. But don’t just take my word for it; listen to the experts.

The Anglican priest and patristics scholar J. N. D. Kelly wrote: "It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the [Hebrew Bible] . . . It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocrypha or deuterocanonical books. The reason for this is that the Old Testament which passed in the first instance into the hands of Christians was . . . the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. . . . most of the Scriptural quotations found in the New Testament are based upon it rather than the Hebrew.. . . In the first two centuries . . . the Church seems to have accept all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and to have treated them without question as Scripture. Quotations from Wisdom, for example, occur in 1 Clement and Barnabas. . . Polycarp cites Tobit, and the Didache [cites] Ecclesiasticus. Irenaeus refers to Wisdom, the History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon [i.e., the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel], and Baruch. The use made of the Apocrypha by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian and Clement of Alexandria is too frequent for detailed references to be necessary" (J. N. D. Kelley, Early Christian Doctrines, pp 53-54).

Luther removed these books from the Old Testament in his German Bible. He still printed them in a separate section, with the heading: “Apocrypha: these are books which are not held equal to the sacred scriptures, and yet are useful and good for reading.” But what you may not know is that Luther also wanted to remove books from the New Testament—James (an “epistle of straw” which he wished to “throw into the fire”), 2 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation. On what basis? Only on his own judgment. Like 2 Maccabees, they had verses which presented difficulties for his theology.

His fellow reformers thought Luther had gone too far in wanting to remove books from the New Testament, and he was persuaded not to. But he was able to make one addition to the New Testament instead to bolster his theological claims. He added the word “alone” to his German translation of Romans 3:28—a word that was not in the Greek original. As to why he could make this alteration of sacred scripture, Luther replied in a letter to his critics, “If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola [‘allein’ or ‘alone’], say this to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so . . .’ . . . Here in Romans 3, I knew very well that the word solum [‘allein’ or ‘alone’] is not in the Latin or the Greek text . . . it belongs there if the translation is to be clear and vigorous” (Luther’s Works, Volume 35, Page 182-198). Yet, somehow the word does not occur in other German translations of the same passage. It’s odd that the same person who proclaimed “Sola Scriptura!” wanted to tinker with the Bible so much, at least those parts that didn’t agree with him.

Coming back to Matthew 23:35
Seeing some of the misrepresentations in Edwards’ article ‘Why 66?’ and knowing how we really got down to 66 books, I couldn’t help but comment, “The only way to get to 66 is to start tossing out books. And we don't have the authority to do that.” To which Justin responded, “We don't have any authority period. But a responsibility to acknowledge what Christ has put His stamp of approval on. The 39 and 27 are the only ones that stand up to that scrutiny.”
The “39” are the books of the Protestant Old Testament and the “27” are the books of the New Testament, but what is Justin referring to here as Christ’s “stamp of approval”? In regard to the 27, it is a little less clear. Probably he means the authenticity of the works themselves that resonated with the early church (filled with people who knew Jesus and his apostles personally) and led to their being copied, collected, circulated, and received as divinely inspired writings. This process was well described by Edwards in ‘Why 66?”. In regard to the 39, it is most likely Matthew 23:35 (with a parallel passage in Luke 11:51) which is used as a proof-text to show that Jesus accepted the books of the Hebrew Bible (and by implication no other books in the Septuagint) as divinely inspired and canonical. What I hope to show is that this is not the case.

Jesus does define or at least mention the canon several times in the gospels. For example, in Matthew 5:17, he said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” That phrase “the law and the prophets” represent two sections of the Old Testament—the Torah and the Nevi’im. We also find this phrase in Mt 7:12; 22:40; Lk 16:16; Acts 13:15; Rm 3:21; as well as in Sirach 1:1; 2 Maccabees 15:9 and 4 Maccabees 18:10. There is also a third section called the Kituvim, or the “Writings” (which is to say, “everything else”). Jesus may be referring to this third section when he said, “Everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus could be using “The Psalms” as title of that third section because the Psalter is the first and largest book in the Kituvim or because there are so many Messianic prophecies in the Psalms. If the books of the Apocrypha are canonical, they fall into the section of “the Writings.”

Matthew 23:35 is a little different. Starting in verse 34, Jesus said, “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” What does this have to do with the canon of the Bible?

The books of the Hebrew Bible are in a different order from the English (which follows the Septuagint, ironically). In the Hebrew, the last book of the Bible is not Malachi (which belongs in that middle section called the Nevi’im) but the Book of Chronicles (which is two books in English Bibles). The argument is that Jesus is using a euphemism for “the Bible” here when he says “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” since Abel was the first person murdered in the first book of the Bible (Genesis) and Zechariah was the last person murdered in the last book of the Bible (Chronicles). Is that the case?

There’s no trouble identifying Abel (see Genesis 4:1-16); it’s Zechariah that is the problem. Those supporting the theory identify him with the Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21, which reads: “Then the Spirit of God took possession of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest; and he stood above the people, and said to them, ‘Thus says God, “Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.”’ But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord.”

But there’s a problem with that. Jesus doesn’t say “Zechariah, son of Jehoiada,” he says, “Zechariah, the son of Barachiah.” Well, who is that? He’s the Zechariah the Prophet, mentioned in the book bearing his name, and who did not meet a violent death as far as we know. That book begins, “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, the prophet . . .” (Zechariah 1:1). Zechariah the son of Jehoiada (c. 800 BC) lived roughly three centuries earlier than Zechariah the son of Barachiah (c. 520 BC).

Sometimes it is answered that Barachiah could have been the grandfather of the earlier Zechariah. Zechariah ben Barachiah would be still be a correct description of him in Jewish culture, but since he was referred to as Zechariah ben Jehoiada in 2 Chronicles, why would Jesus refer to him by a different name than the one people would have been familiar with from the Bible? In fact, another article at Answers in Genesis argues that Jesus cannot be referring to Zechariah ben Jehoiada in Matthew 23:35. On the other hand, Calvin argues in his commentary that Jesus is referring to Zechariah ben Jehoiada, despite the discrepancy in name, theorizing that Barachiah is a kind of honorific title.

There are other possibilities for identifying the Zechariah Jesus mentions. One early Christian writing called the Protoevangelium of James identifies him with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who was a priest in the temple. It records that he was murdered during the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem. Another Zechariah is mentioned by Josephus who was murdered in the temple courts in AD 68 during Titus’ siege of Jerusalem. But this took place after Jesus spoke these words, so that identification doesn’t make sense.

The truth is that we don’t exactly know what Zechariah Jesus is referring to here. But that’s okay because we don’t need to know; it doesn’t affect his meaning. What Jesus is getting at is that “You ungrateful Jews have killed all the holy people that God has given you,” with the implication that Jesus knows he is next on the list. Jesus does not comment on the canon in this passage. In fact, there is no reason that he would include the holy Maccabean martyrs (see Hebrews 11:35 and 2 Maccabees 7) in this list because unlike the others, they were killed by Greeks for being faithful to the Law of Moses, not killed by the Jews out of rebellion toward God.

Why is it important? 
The Bible tells us that “The words of the Lord are pure words” (Psalm 12:6) Not only would we be losing a great treasure if we tossed books out of the Bible, we would also be in rebellion against God. The reason is that we simply don’t have that authority. The role of the Church is to acknowledge the Lord’s word, not to decide (and certainly not to go back on the acknowledgment we already made centuries ago). Despite attempts to remove the Apocrypha, they used to be familiar works even among Protestants. Even Luther still bound them in his German Bible, even if he denounced their status. The truth is that these books are a part of the Septuagint which was the Christian Bible, used by the early Church, the apostles and the writers of the New Testament, and by Christ himself.

While it is true that the New Testament never directly quotes the Apocrypha with the type of explicit formula that Matthew uses (“this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Prophet x who said y), yet the New Testament does in fact quote from the Apocrypha. The language of these books are sprinkled all throughout the New Testament just as are the other books of the Old Testament. The article notes, “The Apocrypha is entirely absent in [New Testament] writing.” Yet, this is utterly false.

In your Bible, you will notice the small print cross-references printed next to the biblical text, citing passages that quote or otherwise relate to one another. The total number of references to the Apocrypha in the margins of the Old and New Testaments of the King James Version as printed in 1611 is 113. Of this number, 102 are in the Old Testament, and 11 in the New. The New Testament passages with references to the Apocrypha in the King James Version are as follows:
Mt 6:7     Ecclesiasticus 7:14
Mt 23:37     2 Esdras 1:30
Mt 27:43     Wisdom 2:15-16
Lk 6:31     Tobit 4:15
Lk 14:13     Tobit 4:7
Jn 10:22     1 Maccabees 4:59
Rom 9:21     Wisdom 15:7
Rom 11:34     Wisdom 9:13
2 Cor 9:7     Ecclesiasticus 35:9
Heb 1:3     Wisdom 7:26
Heb 11:35     2 Maccabees 7:7

Want more? Consider these other cross-references from the gospels alone:
Mt 2:16 - Herod's decree of slaying innocent children was prophesied in Wisdom 11:7 - slaying the holy innocents.
Mt 6:19-20 - Jesus' statement about laying up for yourselves treasure in heaven follows Sirach 29:11 - lay up your treasure.
Mt 7:12 - Jesus' golden rule "do unto others" is the converse of Tobit 4:15 - what you hate, do not do to others.
Mt 7:16,20 - Jesus' statement "you will know them by their fruits" follows Sirach 27:6 - the fruit discloses the cultivation.
Mt 9:36 - the people were "like sheep without a shepherd" is same as Judith 11:19 - sheep without a shepherd.
Mt 11:25 - Jesus' description "Lord of heaven and earth" is the same as Tobit 7:18 - Lord of heaven and earth.
Mt 12:42 - Jesus refers to the Wisdom of Solomon which was the title of a book in the Greek Bible.
Mt 16:18 - Jesus' reference to the "power of death" and "gates of Hades" references Wisdom 16:13.
Mt 22:25; Mk 12:20; Lk 20:29 - Gospel writers refer to the canonicity of Tobit 3:8 and 7:11 regarding the seven brothers.
Mt 24:15 - the "desolating sacrilege" Jesus refers to is also taken from 1 Maccabees 1:54 and 2 Maccabees 8:17.
Mt 24:16 - let those "flee to the mountains" is taken from 1 Maccabees 2:28.
Mt 27:43 - if He is God's Son, let God deliver him from His adversaries follows Wisdom 2:18.
Mk 4:5,16-17 - Jesus' description of seeds falling on rocky ground and having no root follows Sirach 40:15.
Mk 9:48 - description of hell where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched references Judith 16:17.
Lk 1:42 - Elizabeth's declaration of Mary's blessedness above all women follows Uzziah's declaration in Judith 13:18.
Lk 1:52 - Mary's magnificat addressing the mighty falling from their thrones and replaced by lowly follows Sirach 10:14.
Lk 2:29 - Simeon's declaration that he is ready to die after seeing the Child Jesus follows Tobit 11:9.
Lk 13:29 - the Lord's description of men coming from east and west to rejoice in God follows Baruch 4:37.
Lk 21:24 - Jesus' usage of "fall by the edge of the sword" follows Sirach 28:18.
Lk 24:4 and Acts 1:10 - Luke's description of the two men in dazzling apparel reminds us of 2 Maccabees 3:26.
Jn 1:3 - all things were made through Him, the Word, follows Wisdom 9:1.
Jn 3:13 - who has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven references Baruch 3:29.
Jn 4:48; Acts 5:12; 15:12; 2 Cor 12:12 - Jesus', Luke's and Paul's usage of "signs and wonders" follows Wisdom 8:8.
Jn 5:18 - Jesus claiming that God is His Father follows Wisdom 2:16.
Jn 6:35-59 - Jesus' Eucharistic discourse is foreshadowed in Sirach 24:21.
Jn 10:22 - the identification of the feast of the dedication is taken from 1 Maccabees 4:59.
Jn 10:36 – Jesus accepts the inspiration of Maccabees as he analogizes the Hanukkah consecration to his own consecration to the Father in 1 Maccabees 4:36.
Jn 15:6 - branches that don't bear fruit and are cut down follows Wis. 4:5 where branches are broken off.

And this is a small sampling of cross-references. For a more exhaustive list with the rest of the New Testament and early Church fathers, see this page.

Okay, so the New Testament quotes passages from the Apocrypha? Still not convinced of it’s divine inspiration? After all, lots of non-biblical references are made in the Bible. Well, what if the Apocrypha actually quoted the New Testament?

St. Augustine of Hippo formulated in the well known axiom: “In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed.” One of the most powerful and convincing testimonies to the spiritual reliability of the Bible is the Old Testament witness about Christ—a testimony given before the events even happened. Jesus told others about how the Old Testament spoke prophetically of himself. He said, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). This includes the Old Testament books in the Apocrypha. There are what I like to call “Four Gospels of the Old Testament.” They are the Gospels according to Moses, to David, to Solomon, and to Isaiah. The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha, composed about 100 BC, tells vivid details about the crucifixion of Jesus many years before it even happened in the second chapter.

Wisdom 2:12“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man . . . 16We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. 17Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; 18for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. 19Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. 20Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” 21Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, 22and they did not know the secret purposes of God.”

One of the most powerful and convincing testimonies to the spiritual reliability of the Bible is the Old Testament witness about Christ—a testimony given before the events occured. "All scripture is inspired by God [not just the parts that the Reformers agreed with] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Only the Word of God speaks prophetically about the Word made flesh. 

As a great man once said, “Confirm everything, never take your pastor's word for anything. Rather, be noble-minded, search the Scriptures for yourself.” The truth will make you free. As I stated earlier, the only way to get to 66 books in the Bible is to start tossing out books. And we don't have the authority to do that.

For some excellent further reading:
Defending the Deutero-canonicals
Who Decides? Unraveling the Mystery of the Old Testament Canon 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Praying "in Christ"

I came across a delightful passage this afternoon from a book called Liturgy for the Layman by Luwig Winterswyl that I just had to share:

"The Christian who prays through Christ to God the Father is not just calling upon Christ but is, as it were, placing himself beside Christ who as Man is our brother. Furthermore, when he prays, he enters Christ, he prays from within Christ of whom he is a member by baptism. Prayer through Christ is true Christian prayer and through Christ this prayer is sure to reach the Father. For Christ our Mediator lives and reigns with the Father, one God for ever and ever. And therefore prayer through Christ leads the Christian straight to the Heart of God, to the Holy Trinity in which the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit are united from all eternity in the fullness of divine life and love."

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Christmas without Anglicans?

One of the things I like most about the Christmas season are the carols. It only occurred to me recently that so many of them came to us from Anglicans. That reminded me that even our popular image of jolly old St. Nick was shaped by a professor of biblical studies at (of all places) an Episcopal seminary.

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of classics at Columbia and then lay Professor of Hebrew and the Bible at the General Theological Seminary in New York, which was built on land he donated. The poem, which has been called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, as well as the tradition that he brings toys to children.

And what about the carols? The text of the popular Christmas carol “O little town of Bethlehem” was written by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest who was the long-time Rector of Trinity Church Trinity in Boston, and later the Bishop of Massachusetts. He was inspired by visiting the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church and his organist, Lewis Redner, added the music. Redner’s tune, simply titled “St. Louis,” is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States.

John Mason Neale was an Anglican priest, scholar, and hymn-writer. He translated many ancient hymns, such as the Christmas classic “Of the Father’s love begotten.” He was also responsible for much of the translation of the Advent hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” based on the “Great O Antiphons” for the week preceding Christmas. Neale’s most enduring and widely known legacy is probably his own original Christmas contributions, most notably “Good Christian men, rejoice” and his Boxing Day carol, “Good King Wenceslas.”

The Anglican priest Charles Wesley, penned the classic “Hark! The herald angels sing.” The original words were reworked by his friend and fellow priest George Whitfield into the verses familiar to us today. The “Father of English Hymnody” Isaac Watts, a nonconformist minister in the Church of England, wrote the famous carol “Joy to the world!” The Anglican bishop Christopher Wordsworth penned the famous carol, “Sing, O sing, this blessed morn.”

Christina Rossetti was an English poet and a devout Anglo-Catholic. Two of her poems, “In the bleak midwinter” and “Love came down at Christmas,” became popular Christmas carols. Cecil Alexander, wife of a priest and then bishop in the Church of England, wrote the hymn “Once in royal David’s city.” Nahum Tate, who was the son of a priest and became England’s poet laureate, wrote the hymn “While shepherds watched their flock by night.”

At the age of twenty-nine, English writer and Anglican layman William Chatterton Dix was struck with a sudden near-fatal illness and confined to bedrest for several months, which resulted in a deep depression. Yet out of his traumatic experience, he wrote the lovely carol “What Child is this?” What would Christmas be like without Anglicans?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The pagan origins of the Christmas tree?

Probably the most recognizable Advent tradition is putting a tree in your home and decorating it for Christmas. The trees came to Britain after Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, introduced them in 1841. It is often assumed that this is a pagan custom that was appropriated by Christians in Germany, but that is not quite the case. The Christmas tree began in Germany, but it started with a saint (an Anglican, in fact).

It was the 8th Century Benedictine monk St. Boniface from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex who first took the Gospel to the pagan Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. There, they worshipped Odin and Thor—fierce and ancient Norse gods. One of the savage aspects of Germanic Norse religious culture was human sacrifice.

Boniface knew that Christianity had subdued the wilder, more violent aspects of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture in England and believed the same could happen in Germany. So Boniface let spread word among the tribes that when the next sacrifice was planned, he would personally prevent it. He gathered his monks at an ancient oak tree, a place of sacred blood-letting.

The pagans bound a young girl to the oak tree in preparation, but before the fatal blow could be struck, Boniface grabbed the axe out of the executioner’s hands. He swung at the girl’s chains, breaking her free, and then turned his axe on the sacred oak. The pagans knelt in silence, expecting their gods to avenge this blasphemy.

Boniface broke the silence, calling them to look at the base of the oak. There, springing out of the ground from between the roots was a tender young fir tree. Boniface explained that their other gods had fallen with the oak but that Boniface’s God had given them this little tree which remains green and full of life even in the depths of winter. The fir tree’s evergreen leaves pointed upwards to heaven, reminding them that the Christian Triune God’s love for them was everlasting.

At the first Christmas after this event, Boniface brought a fir tree indoors into the church as a symbol of Christ’s everlasting love. It has been used as a Christmas reminder of God’s love ever since.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer of Saints: Mary Magdalene

When we were expecting a child, my wife and I came up with a list of 20 names—some from the dictionary of saints, and others from our heads. We finally settled on Madeline, which is the Anglicized form of the French version of “Magdalene” (though we kept the French spelling). Her feast day is this coming this Tuesday, July 22nd, so I thought we'd talk about her in this summer of saints.

She has always been a popular saint, with many churches and institutions named after her. C.S. Lewis taught at Magdalene College in Oxford (though if you’re in Oxford, you’ll have to ask for “Maudlin College.” It took me about a day and a half to figure that one out.) Contrary to what you may have heard, she was not Jesus’ girlfriend (or wife), and it's very unlikely that was she a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene is introduced in the gospel story in Luke 8:1-3. Jesus “went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out . . . and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” 

She was a rich woman from the town of Magdala, near the Sea of Galilee. She was known as the Magdalene because of her very common first name and she is noted to have funded Jesus’ ministry and travels in Galilee.

In the Middle Ages, she was often misidentified with the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, the context indicating a repentant prostitute. She was also confused with Mary of Bethany, which seems even more odd. Why would one person be described as from both Magdala and Bethany.

The real Magdalene was exorcised and healed by the Savior, changing her life forever. She remained a devoted follower and close to him through the end, being one of those few at the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb. Both John and Mark’s gospels say that she was the first to see the risen Lord.

Some of the earliest traditions and commentaries seem to suggest that instead of being possessed by seven demons (possession is predicated upon a surrendering of the will), she was obsessed—or harassed—by seven demons. The Eastern fathers insist that she was a holy and devout person even before her deliverance and conversion.

Just imagine that for a moment, being harassed by demons. Seven malevolent spirits have made it their life’s work to ruin yours—to take away your happiness, your health, your well-being, your peace of mind, your sanity, your self-determination. She was under the constant attack of darkness until she was set free by the light of the world.

Aside from this brief introduction of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8, all the other references to her in the gospels come at the end of Jesus’ ministry. When the world turned dark for Jesus, she was there for him. She, with his mother and with John, stayed with Christ through his trail when all the others among the Twelve ran away and deserted him.

When he was being whipped, she was there. When he was mocked as a king with a robe and a crown of thorns, she was there. When he was carrying his cross, she was there. When his hands and feet and side were pierced and bled, she was there. When he breathed his last, she was there. When they laid him in the stone tomb, she was there. She wept as he bled and her heart broke with his.

To be like Mary Magdalene is to be there for Jesus has he has been there for us. In the Eastern Church, she is given the title of Holy Myrrh-Bearer because she came to the tomb carrying spices for Jesus’ burial. She was there to support her Lord’s work with a final gift, but when she arrived, found much more than she expected.

The door was already rolled away and Jesus was not there. Fearing it was one last act of sacrilege, she went and told the apostles. Peter and John came running to inspect the tomb. And it was not yet clear exactly what had happened. When they left, Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, weeping.

Then two angels ask her why she is weeping. She says because “someone took away the body my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she turns around and bumps into what she thinks is the gardener who asks her the same question. She gives the same answer. The joyfulness of the moment simply will not allow her tears to persist. Both angels and the risen Lord intervene to cheer her up.

When Jesus calls her by name, she looks up and recognizes him. Jesus tells us her that this is not the time to embrace, but to go tell others. Apostle literally means “one who is sent.” In this sense, she has been called “Equal to the Apostles” or as St Augustine put it, “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

Usually this title is identified with those twelve patriarchs of a renewed Israel,but sometimes we see it used in this informal sense. Paul and Barnabas were the “Apostles to the Gentiles.” Cyril and Methodius were the “Apostles to the Slavs.” Patrick was the “Apostle to the Irish.” James Lloyd Breck was the “Apostle to the Wilderness.”

This is the only case I know of where someone is called an apostle because they are sent to bear witness to the risen Lord not to the outside world, but to the church herself. Jesus said, “Go tell my brethren . . .”

To be like Mary Magdalene is encourage fellow believers with the truth of the gospel: Jesus is risen from the dead; he is now alive, and he is there for you. In this summer of saints, we give thanks for St. Mary Magdalene, the holy Myrrh-bearer and "Apostle to the Apostles."

Summer of Saints: John Damascene

Perhaps like me, you have watched with growing alarm the Jihadist trail of conquest of the new group called ISIS—the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. It has left a path of destruction from the Syrian civil war to the outskirts of Baghdad in the effort to built a new Caliphate.

They are regarded as especially brutal and callous—murdering without hesitation. They are being very successful at killing the few Christians left in the area and demolishing churches, but those are not their only targets.

Earlier this month in the Iraqi province of Nineveh, the militants blew up mosques and then took sledgehammers in hand to personally demolish the tombs of the biblical prophets Seth and Jonah—which were commonly revered by Jews, Christians, and most Muslims.

But these ISIS Mohammedan warriors ascribe to the puritanical Wahhabist movement, which is iconoclastic and thus vehemently opposed to the veneration of tombs like these or anything that would be an artistic depiction of God, prophets, saints, or any other holy thing.

What you may not know is that this is not the first time that religious zealots have destroyed holy shrines with hammers in this part of the world, and that back then, Christians were doing this. In 725 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III touched off the iconoclastic period when he ordered the destruction of images throughout the Roman empire, beginning with an icon of Christ, to which miraculous powers had been attributed.

Into this controversy came a powerful mother and an old monk name John. He was born in the year 676 in Damascus, Syria, the capital of the Moslem Umayyad Empire which stretched from Spain to India.

John succeeded his father at the court of the Caliph, but was not satisfied and left after three years to become a monk and priest at St Saba's in Jerusalem. He labored long and hard there in the patient work of theology and liturgy, becoming one of the greatest hymnists of the East as well as the last of the early Church Fathers and first of the medieval scholastics.

John’s writings defended the faith against Moslems, and other Christian heretics. He was called John of golden streams because of his eloquence. He was a man of deep learning and simple piety, who wrote and spoke in a way that people could understand.

Iconoclasm fell in and out of favor with the emperors for a hundred years (and with it, periods of legal image-breaking and persecution) until a female regent named Theodora (her name means “lover of God”) would finally end it for good. The Second Council of Nicaea was confirmed and the images restored in 842—an event still celebrated to this day throughout the Eastern Church on the First Sunday in Lent as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” And with Nicaea II, the orthodox, catholic expression of Christianity became “the Church of the Seven Councils.”

John of Damascus was highly praised at this ecumenical council He had picked up on German of Constantinople’s original defense of images back when iconoclasm first broke out, and articulated it well.

German and John explained how the so-called “worship” given to the images was different in kind from the worship of God, but also derived from it. Following their theological defense, the council defined that the images were to be restored and rightly honored.

The Second Council of Nicaea stated: “For the more frequently one contemplates these images, the more gladly he will be led to remember their prototypes, and the more will he be drawn to it and inclined to give it . . . a respectful veneration (proskynesis), but not however, the veritable worship (latria) which, according to our faith, belongs to God alone. But as is done for the image of the revered and life-giving cross and the holy gospels and other sacred objects, let an oblation of incense and lights be made to give honor to these images according to the pious custom of the ancients, for the honor given to an image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerates an image venerates in it the person represented.” 

If John were writing after the invention of photography, he would have said, "Look, if one can take a picture of Christ, one can paint a picture of Christ.” The fact that the divine Word did indeed become flesh is very important. For St John Damascene, matter truly matters.

In his First Apology for Images, he wrote: “In former times, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake; who willed to make his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God. . . . God’s body is God because it is joined to his person by a union which shall never pass away. . . . I salute all the rest of mater with reverence, because God has filled it with his grace and power. . . . Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable; nothing God has made is despicable.” 

Speaking of Jesus, St Paul wrote, “He is the ikon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). What was seen on the outside it what was on the inside—God in the flesh. Jesus didn’t just come to save your soul, he came to save your body—because that’s the real you, the whole you: body and soul.

We must remember also that matter truly matters. The church is not only concerned with the spiritual and the hereafter, but also with the physical in the here-and-now.

People matter, families matter, peace and violence matters, justice matters, safety matters, hunger matters, life and death matters, creation matters. All that God has made, he has also acted to redeem. In this summer of saints, we give thanks for St. John of Damascus.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Summer of Saints: Becket and More

When I was growing up, we attended the First Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA. My father worked in the sound booth at the back of the balcony in church. So I’d often get to go up with him for the service.

On the back wall, above the sound booth are two large flags—American and Christian. And there is something unique about that American flag in that church. It’s the current configuration of the stars and stripes, but it is not red, white, and blue. It’s red, white and purple.

The flag looks like it’s made of silk, so maybe that has something to do with the reason for the odd color. And I’m not sure, but I think the blue field on the Xn flag is purple too. Seeing those stars on that blueish purple field left an impression on me. Since the only red, white, and purple American flag I’ve ever seen is in a church, it reminds me that America should look different from a Christian perspective. As a people with dual citizenship—in our country and in God’s kingdom—we can transcend the merely secular point of view.

With that in mind, I wanted to talk about two English saints today. That might seem like a strange choice so close to our own Independence Day. But these are two martyrs who became martyrs because they stood up for the liberties of God’s people against the tyranny of the crown—Sir Thomas More and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.

More’s memory has (of course) been celebrated by Roman Catholics in England since Reformation times. He was officially canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and he has been recognized on the Church of England’s calendar since 1980. His Anglican feast day is actually today, July 6th.

Opposition to Lutheran ideas spreading through Europe was one of the things that More shared with King Henry VIII. Some have even suggested that More helped Henry write his book denouncing Luther that won him the papal title Defender of the Faith. But then it was religious opinions that drove them apart.

Henry became convinced that he was cursed and that his marriage to his sister-in-law Catherine of Aragon was invalid. The King sought a judgment of annulment from the pope, who just happened to be a prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V. So the pope kept putting off a response to the king’s request.

A papal legate had heard the case in England, but been recalled before giving judgment. The king asked why he even had to appeal the matter to a foreign bishop at all. There were plenty of bishops in England who could decide the matter. This led to a series of parliamentary bills which renounced all papal jurisdiction in England and let the annulment be granted locally.

As chancellor, More was the only one of the King’s advisers to oppose both the quest for an annulment and the King’s new title Supreme Head of the Church of England. He hoped to resign and retire quietly, but his hand was forced. As a former high official he had to take the Oath of Supremacy which included the title that More felt not only trampled upon the rights of the church to govern its own affairs, but also intruded upon the law of Christ.

His refusal along with only one bishop (John Fisher of Rochester) was considered treason. Both were beheaded in 1535 for standing up for the church’s rights. More’s last words were, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Another Thomas (Becket) had lost his life in the king’s service for similar reasons. 400 years earlier, Thomas Becket and King Henry II became close friends. Becket was a nobleman and a politician who was also a deacon. Seeing his administrative skills, the king appointed him chancellor. And because he had proved so capable and such a loyal friend, King Henry secured Becket’s election as Archbishop of Canterbury.

The King thought the move would help consolidate his power over church and state. But God began to work on Thomas’s heart after his consecration. His pastoral responsibilities changed him. Becket loved his flock. Instead of being the king’s puppet, he became his bitter rival as Becket vigorously defended the rights of the church.

The feud became so contentious that Becket lived in exile in France for 6 years. He returned to England through a fragile truce which didn’t last long. After grumbling about Thomas, some knights did the king a favor and went to the cathedral to rid him of the troublesome archbishop. Before he was beheaded, Becket said, “Willingly I die for the name of Jesus, and in the defense of the Church.” The king did public penance after the slaughter.

The event helped solidify the Charter of Liberties, and later the Magna Carta, whose first clause is “the Church of England shall be free,” and which enshrined those rights of the church (that two Thomas’ died defending) into England’s developing constitution.

Both Thomases were basically politicians, both chancellors of England, both devoted public servants, both loyal to a King Henry as a personal friend, both had the experience of a growing faith and devotion to God which became stronger and stronger as pressure on them grew, and both, in the end, decided to follow their consciences by being obedient to God rather than to men.

As I’ve said before, it will become more and more difficult in the coming years to be a faithful Christian in our changing culture that is leaving its heritage. Some may even argue that an American that sees red, white, purple on the flag and had pledged to follow God first might love his country less.

I believe that the love of God helps a Christian love his country more, not less. We are people who recognize that all of us are created equal—in the same image of the same God, who gave us the rights we enjoy. Like Thomas Becket and Thomas More, we will not stand idly by and let mere men try to take away what God has given. We are America’s good servants, but God’s first.

I believe that this nation is the greatest on earth. I think America might be the greatest country that ever has been. And if God will give us saints like Becket and More, then God will have truly blessed America.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Summer of Saints: Peter and Paul

Today we begin our sermon series: “A Summer of Saints." It’s a good day to do so, not just because it’s the second Sunday of the summer, but more importantly, because it is also the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul—two apostles who replaced Romulus and Remus as the founders of Christian Rome and its empire. Ordinarily, when a feast falls on a Sunday (even a major feast) it is postponed, but during the green seasons, these feast days may take precedence.

The importance of the pivotal figures cannot be overstated. Pope St. Clement I called them “the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church.” St Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that each of them had special apostolic vocations.

As the leader of the Twelve, Peter was also the leader of the church after Pentecost. Under the Holy Spirit’s direction, Peter welcomed the first Gentiles into the Church. Yet, in a strange turn of events, it was Paul who was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles while Peter remained the apostle to the Jews, bringing both together in one Church of Christ—Peter laboring from the inside (as it were) and Paul from the outside.

St. Augustine of Hippo said, “Peter alone deserved to represent the entire Church. And because of that role which he alone had, he merited to hear the words: “To you I shall give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” . . . [because Peter] represented the unity and universality of the Church.”

Paul clearly recognized that leadership and that authority vested in Peter, yet at the same time, as a brother in Christ and a brother apostle, Paul did not hesitate to hold Peter openly accountable—even rebuking him at Antioch for his mistreatment of Gentiles.

These two men began as unlikely heroes. In Mt 16:18, Simon became one of those few people in scripture God whom renamed. Instead of Simon, Jesus called him “Peter” (or “Rock”). It must have seemed like a strange choice, for he was anything but. Simon was not steady and immovable. He was impulsive, hot-headed, unreliable. But Pope St. Leo the Great said Peter was made firm by the strength of Jesus. For God, our future is more important than our past. God did not name him for the simple fisherman he was, but for the great fisher of men God called him to become. (Interestingly, in Rev 2:17, it says we are all given new names one day.)

Paul (who was once called Saul) was not given a new name. Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Greek name—a common habit at the time. But Saul, a well-trained rabbi and “Hebrew of Hebrews” as he said, was a persecutor of the church, who by God’s grace became Paul—the apostle to the Gentile world, planting churches far and wide after his roadside encounter with the risen Lord.

Peter and Paul, unlikely heroes who somehow came to labor together for Christ also both ended up in Rome, dying in his Name under Nero’s persecution. And we must point out that both men went willingly to their deaths. Circumstances provided a way out, but neither of them took it, preferring instead to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.

Peter’s leadership in the Church took him first to Antioch (where we were first called Christians) and then later in about the 50s to the imperial capital of Rome. The Emperor Nero unleashed a vicious persecution in 64, blaming Christians for the great fire of Rome. At this point, Christians were rounded up and thrown in prison. Some were thrown to the lions in the games, some crucified. And some were burned alive as human torches to light the imperial gardens at night. Those who could, decided to flee the city. Among them was Peter.

But departing by the Appian Way, Peter saw a familiar face on the road. It was of a man who is not fleeing, but walking toward the very heart of Rome. Echoing Jn 13:36, Peter asked him, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (or “Where are you going, Lord?”). Jesus responded that he was “going to Rome to be crucified again.”

Jesus had once appeared to Peter after the resurrection, urging him to be a pastor. “Do you love me? If you do, then feed my lambs, tend my sheep.” Peter had once said he would follow Jesus to death, but then denied him three times (see John 13:37-38).

When Jesus restored him, he told Peter that one day, men would tie him up and take him where he did not want to go—alluding to Peter’s death. Peter decided there on the road he would follow Jesus, even back to Rome. Peter was one chosen to be crucified, but because Peter said he was not worthy to die like Christ, they crucified him upside-down and buried him there on Vatican hill.

In Acts 21, Paul was at the center of a temple riot and arrested on false accusations. Because of his Roman citizenship, he exercised his rights of appeal. Years later, the Jewish complaint about the incident had died down and the Romans wanted to be rid of him, but at his own insistence Paul continued to be shuffled around in the judicial system.

At one point, Agrippa remarked to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32). Paul himself said he feels guided by the hand of Providence, but does not know the ultimate reason why until an angel tells him that Paul is under divine protection on his journey to Caesar.

If he stayed the course, Paul could be guaranteed an audience for the gospel. With that opportunity, he could either glorify God by Caesar's conversion or by Paul's own martyrdom. Historically, God would grant both. Paul fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith. He glorified God by a martyr’s death in Rome, with a merciful beheading according to his rights as a citizen and was buried there outside the walls.

Just about 250 years later, the Roman Emperor was led to his own conversion by an event similar to those which changed the lives of Peter and Paul on the road—a vision in the heavens and a message from the Savior of men.