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A New Year of Virtue

January 1, 2016

As the church celebrates the circumcision of our Lord and the giving of his holy name, we are reminded of the paradoxes of life amidst a dying world and our duty to renew our strength for the year to come. The men and women of the past believed as king David, that “our help cometh even from the Lord who hath made heaven and earth.” So, on this New Year’s Day, let us remember the life that we receive from the Lord, through prayer, and the virtues that we long to attain in the year to come, which our Lord deigns to give those who call upon his holy name. The following prayer is from an anonymous prayer book printed in London in 1693, to be prayed on New Year’s Day.

O blessed Lord, who, as upon this Day receivest the holy Name of Jesus, and undertookest for me the smart of Circumcision; grant unto me the true Circumcision of the Spirit, that my Heart and all my Members being mortified from all worldly and carnal Lusts, I may ever obey thy blessed Will in all things, to my Life’s end.

And because there is no other Name under Heaven, given unto Men, by which they may receive Health and Salvation, but thine only; dear Jesus, be thou henceforth unto me a Jesus, giving me always thankful Eyes, obedient Knees, and a reverential Heart unto thy sweet and saving Name, that now I may begin a new Year of Vertues, and cancel, by Repentance, all the failings of the old.

From: A New-Year’s Gift Complete In Six Parts Composed of Prayers and Meditations for every Day in the Week with Devotions for the Sacrament, Lent, and Other Occasions, (Printed for Henry Mortlock: London, 1693).

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Christmas: The Day on which Kings and Prophets Longed to Feast

December 24, 2015
nativity

Nativity by Bastiano Mainardi (†1513)

Lancelot Andrewes, English bishop and theologian, preached a sermon on Christmas day in the year 1609 and again in 1610. In both of these sermons Andrewes encourages his audience to be thankful for the “fullness of times” now ushered in by birth of the Messiah. The Feast of the Nativity is not merely a time for celebrating the birth of a king, he says, but also the dawning of the last age of human history, when the eternal God took human form. This celebration calls for thanksgiving and feasting, for participating in the activities of eternity made temporal. It calls for being full because we have been filled. It also calls for worship and for participating in the greatest act of thanksgiving, that is, the Eucharist. Andrewes explains:

After our ioy-fulnesse, or fulnes of ioy, our fulnes of thankes, or thank-fulnes, is to ensue: for, with that fulnesse, we are to celebrate it likewise. Our minds first & then our mouthes, to be filled with blessing, and praise, and thankes to Him that hath made our times, not to fall into those emptie ages of the world; but to fall within this fulnes of time, which so many Kings & Prophets desired to haue liued in, but fell short of; And liued then, when the times were full of shaddowes, and promises, & nothing else.  How instantly they longed, to haue held such a Feast, to haue kept a Christmasse, it is euident, by Dauids Inclina caelos; by Esaies Vtinam disrumpas caelos, Bow the Heauens, and Breake the Heauens: How much (I say) they longed for it: and therefore, that we make not light account of it. To render our thankes then, and to remember to doe it fully, To forget none: To Him that was sent, & to Him, that Sent; Sent his Sonne, in this; the Spirit of his Sonne..

To beginne with Osculamini filium, it is the first duetie enioyned vs this day, to kisse the Babe new borne, that when his Father would send Him, sayd,  Ecce venio [Behold, I am coming], so readily: and when he would make Him, was content with Corpus aptasti mihi, to haue a body made him, meete for him to suffer in: who willingly yeelded to be our Shilo; to this ἀπέστειλεν [he sent] heere; yea to be not onely Christ, but an Apostle for vs (Heb. 3.1.), euen the Apostle of our profession.  And not to Him that was sent and made alone: but to the Father that sent Him, and to the Holy Ghost that made Him, (as by whom He was conceiued.) To the Father, for his mission; The Sonne, for his Redemption; the Holy Ghost, for his Adoption; For by him it is wrought. He that made Him the Sonne of man, doth likewise regenerate vs, to the state of the Sonnes of God. And this for our thankfulnesse.

And, to these two, (to make the measure full) to ioyne, the fulnesse of duetie, euen whatsoeuer duetifull minded persons, may yeeld to a bountifull minded, and a bountifull handed Benefactor. And with this to begin, to consecrate this first day of this fulnesse of time: euen with our seruice to Him at the full; which, is then at the full, when no part is missing: when all our dueties, of preaching, and praying, of Hymnes, of offering, of Sacrament, and all, meet together. No fulnes there is of our Liturgie, or publike solemne seruice, without the Sacrament. Some part; yea, the chief part is wanting, if that be wanting. But our thanks are surely not full, without the Holy Eucharist, which is by interpretation, Thankesgiuing it selfe. Fully we cannot say, Quid retribuam Domino [what shall I return to the Lord]? but we must answere, Calicem salutaris accipiam, we will take the cup of saluation, & with it in our hands giue thanks to Him; render Him our true Eucharist, or real Thanksgiuing indeed. In which cup is the blood, not only of our redemption of the Couenant, that freeth vs from the Law, and maketh the Destroyer passe ouer vs: but of our Adoption of the new Testament also, which intitles vs, and conueyes vnto vs (Testament-wise, or by way of Legacie) the estate we haue in the ioy and blisse of his heauenly kingdome, wherto we are adopted. We are then made partakers of Him, and with Him of both these His benefits. We there are made to drinke of the Spirit,  by which we are sealed, to the day of our redemption, and adoption both. So that, our freeing from vnder the lawe, our inuestiture into our new adopted state, are not fully consummate without it.

And what? Shall this be all? No, when this is done, there is allowance of 12. dayes more, for this fulnesse of time: that, we shrinke not vp our duety then into this day alone, but in the rest also remember, to redeeme some part of the day, to adopt some howre at the least, to be thinke our selues of the duetie, the time calleth to vs for: that so, we haue not Iobs dies vacuos, no daye quite emptie in this fulnesse of time. Hereof assuring our selues, that what we doe in this fulnesse of time, will haue full acceptance at His hands. It is the time of his birth, which is euer a time as accepted, so of accepting, wherein, what is done, will be acceptably taken to the full: fully accepted, and fully rewarded by Him, of whose fulnesse we all receiue: with this condition, of grace for grace, euer one grace for an other.  And so, growing from grace to grace, finally from this fulnes, we shal come to be partakers of another yet behinde, to which we aspire. For all this, is but the fulnesse of time: but that, the fulnesse of eternitie, when time shall be runne out, and his glasse emptie, Et tempus non erit amplius [And time shall not be full anymore];  which is, at His next sending. For yet once more shall God send him, and He come againe.

So, I hope you all find yourselves filled with joy on this Feast of the Nativity, finding yourselves fully accepted in His grace. Look forward to that day when the fullness of time will become the fullness of eternity, and have a very Merry Christmas.

Don’t Retreat. Stay, and Help with the Shouting

December 18, 2015

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of blog posts and articles about the various ‘options’ that we Christians in America have for living in a world that repeatedly shows disdain for our values. If we are followers of Christ, we’ll admit our sin, and perhaps even, we’ll take some advice from an unbeliever. Seneca, writing at the same time as the birth of Christianity, has this advice for us (see here, pp. 227-231)

Athenodoros seems to have surrendered too quickly to the times, to have retreated too quickly. I myself would not deny that sometimes one must retire, but it should be a gradual retreat without surrendering the standards, without surrendering the honour of a soldier; those are more respected by their enemies and safer who come to terms with their arms in their hands.

What does Seneca think we should do then if our arms become useless against the might of the enemy and we have no choice left but to retreat?

If Fortune shall get the upper hand and shall cut off the opportunity of action, let a man not straightway turn his back and flee, throwing away his arms and seeking some hiding-place, as if there were anywhere a place where Fortune could not reach him, but let him devote himself to his duties more sparingly, and, after making choice, let him find something in which he may be useful to the state. Is he not permitted to be a soldier? Let him seek public office. Must he live in a private station? Let him be a pleader. Is he condemned to silence? Let him help his countrymen by his silent support. Is it dangerous even to enter the forum? In private houses, at the public spectacles, at feasts let him show himself a good comrade, a faithful friend, a temperate feaster. Has he lost the duties of a citizen? Let him exercise those of a man.

If we desire to be “great in soul” (a.k.a., magnanimous), Seneca explains, then a complete retreat is never an option:

The very reason for our magnanimity in not shutting ourselves up within the walls of one city, in going forth into intercourse with the whole earth, and in claiming the world as our country, was that we might have a wider field for our virtue […] If Fortune has removed you from the foremost position in the state, you should, nevertheless, stand your ground and help with the shouting, and if someone stops your throat, you should, nevertheless, stand your ground and help in silence. The service of a good citizen is never useless; by being heard and seen, by his expression, by his gesture, by his silent stubborness, and by his very walk he helps. As there are certain salutary things that without our tasting and touching them benefit us by their mere odour, so virtue sheds her advantage even from a distance, and in hiding.

One is reminded of St. Paul’s “you are the aroma of Christ.” If we have any concern for God’s Kingdom, any humility, then let’s be humbled by Seneca’s wisdom. Don’t retreat too quickly, and if retreat is necessary, do not be silent without being seen, without stubborn resistance. The whole world is our country, for Christ has given it to the meek.

When to Stop Interpreting the Lord’s Supper

December 17, 2015

A number of years ago the Lutheran historian, Paul Rorem caused a stir among certain Eastern Orthodox theologians over his interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Rorem was accused, by Fr. Andrew Golitzin and others, of reading Dionysius like a Protestant, chiefly with regard to Holy Synaxis (a.k.a., the Eucharist). The crux of the debate had to do with Rorem’s emphasis on “interpretation,” which he said is of primary concern for Dionysius. To truly participate in synaxis one must rightly interpret the sacred symbols and “get behind the material show,” as Rorem via Dionysius says. Rorem referred to this act of peering beyond the veil as an “interpretation,” which implies that a right reading of the rite is all that is required of those who wish to commune with Christ. Of course, the problem with calling this a “Protestant” reading of Dionysius is that not all Protestants think interpretation is necessary for rightly communing with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Sure, some interpretation, some ability to distinguish between the sign and the thing behind the sign is necessary. Yet, interpretation is not the goal of the Lord’s Supper, nor should it be what one does while communing. If you know how to distinguish the sign from the thing, then you already have the power of “discerning the body” that should naturally direct you to the thing itself. An interpreter of Spanish, for example, has a habit of hearing Spanish, and so, his mind hears Spanish accurately without the use of a dictionary or mental deliberation. So, Christ calls us to participate in the whole event of his Supper with mind and body, not with the mind alone. The majority of Reformed theologians (at least of the first few centuries after the Reformation) believe that sanctifying grace is a quality (or qualities) that is infused (literally “poured in”) into the soul (mind and heart) by the Holy Spirit. By consequence, the activity of belief in the Supper itself (or in Christ within the Supper) is the mechanism of Christ-likeness (Christiformia) in the soul. The activity of faith in the Supper brings about a greater qualitative similarity to Jesus in the believer’s soul.  If there is any sacrifice involved, it is the sacrifice of ourselves, the sacrifice of our trust in ourselves and our ability to figure things out for ourselves (including the Supper!) as we surrender to the mind of Christ.

How does an increase in Christ-likeness (via infused qualities) happen in the event of Holy Communion? Most Reformed theologians agree that faith is not only an infused quality, but also a virtue. So, it will help to look at another virtue and ask, how does virtue itself increase? Let’s look at courage, for example. The courageous man becomes more courageous the more he takes on the likeness of perfect Courage, that is, the likeness of God’s own Courage (archetypal Courage). The courageous man takes on this likeness by performing courageously in battle or by choosing what is right in a moment of temptation rather than what is more immediately beneficial to him. How, then, should he interpret or develop an understanding of his courage? How will he know if he truly modeled archetypal Courage in his action? Should he stop to meditate on it while he is acting? Of course not. How could he be courageous if he’s distracted by his own act of self-reflection? Imagine a soldier fighting the enemy in close combat. If he pauses to reflect on the nature of his own courage he will most likely lose concentration on the enemy and lose the fight.

The same is true of our participation in the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. We shouldn’t attempt to rationally distinguish between sign and thing signified while we eat the bread. We shouldn’t look at our own heart or introspectively examine ourselves as to whether we truly believe or not. How could you have faith in Christ’s promise at that moment if all you can think about is yourself? What should we do then? Don’t neglect self-examination. The unexamined life is not worth living after all. Just don’t examine yourself when you’re supposed to be doing something. When the consecrated bread is in your hands stop thinking about faith and just be faithful. Just believe that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is a faithful action. So, stop thinking about what you think about it and just eat. The King is here. It’s time for celebration. It’s time to be caught up in the beauty of holiness. It’s not time for deliberation. It’s not time for talking. There is a time for that. But, around the Lord’s table we are in God’s holy temple. Let all the Earth be silent.

When we do that our faith increases and we become more like Christ. We have performed faithfully and the faith that conquers the world has conquered us and given us new life. God has extended his Son to us as our greatest gift, and we have taken hold of him in an act of self-sacrificial dependance on all that he is and all that he promises to do within us. In that moment it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. However, doesn’t this emphasis on the faithful act take away from the “means of grace”? Faith is not about acting courageously, right? That would imply that the sacraments are not gifts but activities that we must perform. The answer is in faith itself. Faith is an activity of remaining passive, but this does not meant that it is an act of indifference. It’s a passive act, if that makes sense. It is an act of taking hold of the gift that is given and holding it deep within ourselves. This takes some courage, the courage to leave yourself behind, as Martin Luther says. Yet, this is holy courage, because it sets us apart from the world. In fact, it takes us out of the world altogether and places us within Christ. As we repeatedly participate in his table we increasingly take on his Courage (exemplar Courage) to leave everything behind and cling to the Father.

Remember, sanctifying grace is an act of cooperation between you and God within you. The courageous activity of faith is never merely ours. It is ours because it is Christ within us. Yet, Christ is within us according to his likeness, not substantially (i.e., union with Christ is not spiritual transubstantiation). He is within us according to our God-given ability to reflect him, which is primarily displayed in faith, though faith is only an effect of his union with us (it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of union with Christ). The Giver is giving himself to us and acting within us. We are called to receive him but our reception does not make the gift. Our reception does, however, facilitate the gift giving by preparing our soul for it. It’s like hospitality. The more that we receive him, the more we prepare a place for him, and the better we become at welcoming him the way that a King should be welcomed. The King comes into our home the more we extend the invitation and open the door for him, though it is really his house to begin with. In so doing we become more and more like the King himself, who invites all of us to his wedding banquet. This doesn’t happen through mere interpretation. We already know how to interpret. We know what is behind the veil. The Supper is not for interpretation but for interpreters who can habitually receive the language of the body and blood of Christ by hearing with the ears of faith. Our souls do not develop Christ-likeness by actively interpreting the Supper as we participate in the event. Rather, we become more like Christ within the event (through Christ acting within us), and the event, the wedding banquet, is the thing itself, slightly veiled, yet beaming as brightly as the sun behind a cloud to those who have been given eyes to see.

The Scribe is a ‘gatherer of old things’

December 16, 2015

According to Francis Rous, Westminster Divine, the learned scribe must, as Jesus says, bring both old and new things out of his storehouse. Since the question of renaissance is one of my favorite themes, I couldn’t pass up another blog post on Rous. Of course, the perennial question for theologians is, what old things are there to gather, and from whose storehouse do we draw our influence? Rous answers that the learned Scribe must constantly be searching nature for old things like an archeologist or a treasure hunter searching, digging, and hoping to uncover something old. The old becomes new in the moment of recovery and restoration. If he happens upon other diggers who have worked to uncover the artifacts of the past, he should use their knowledge and even use their instruments of recovery. Let the Gibeonites draw water into the Temple.

Having then so absolute, both a Patterne and a Teacher, let us boldly frame the character of our heavenly Scribe, to the shape both of this chiefe Doctor, and of his Doctrine. Accordingly wee will commend to our Scribe things both new and old (but the old first, because they are first) and after him who is Truth, will lay downe this true position; That toward the making of a learned Scribe, there is a great advantage to be gained by the gathering of old things into his treasurie. The Scribe that wil be learned, may be a gatherer of old things; and so let him be. Let him gather into his treasurie the things of Nature, yea gather a stock of them, and lay them up for his use, when he comes to the new. Let him know in a competent measure what is to be found abroad in the old Creation; yea, let him learne what is copied out of it by art and industrie, to serve him in the things of Regeneration: and if in this search he meet with the learning of the Aegyptians, he may carrie their jewels into his treasurie. Let an Heathen Logician or Philosopher, be his Gibeonite to cleave wood, and to draw water for his service in the Sanctuarie. Let the one divide, define, and order; and the other draw secrets from the depths of Nature, to serve the Lords servants in the Tabernacle. Let the precept and patternes of vertues, gathered from their doctrines and stories, serve for spurs and incentives to grace, to goe beyond the effects of Nature; and for exprobrations when shee doth it not. And let the languages both of the Unbeleever, and Mis-beleever, serve for keyes to open to new men, those mysteries which the old men see not, neither doe open to themselves, though the keies be in their hands (The Heavenly Academie, 4-6).

The true scribe is spurred on in search of Truth in every possible vessel because every vessel contains some of it. In this way he imitates the heavenly Scribe, who is his exemplar, and is able to become “all things to all men” as was St. Paul’s custom. So, let the scribe constantly confront what is new with the fresh eyes of ancient wisdom.

Praise for Knowledge

December 16, 2015

In his The Heavenly Academie (1638), the Westminster Divine, Francis Rous urges his readers to acknowledge their knowledge of God to be a gift of grace, and thereby to give God praise for his gift. This act of praise is a participation in the motion of God’s own gift giving, that is, the heavenly motion of procession and return.

IT is the just saying of an Ancient, Prodere grata commemoratione decet scientiae patrem; It is comely to acknowledge with thankfulnesse, the Father of our knowledge. If this be justly due from man unto man, how much more due is it from man unto God? For though man be called the father of those that are taught by him, yet God is the Father of those fathers; even a Teacher of those teachers: and therefore by our Saviours judgement deserves only the name of Father, in perfection and eminence. Those then that have God to be a Father of knowledge to them, should returne to this Father the praise and glorie of this knowledge. The heavenly gifts of God, when they move kindly and naturally, doe move like the Heavens, in a circular motion; returning to that place and point from which they began first to move; from God unto God. They come from him as graces, and returne to him in the shape of glorie.

What Hath Wine to do with Theology?

December 15, 2015
Barrel

The Wine Barrel at Heidelberg Palace, built in 1591

There is a good reason why Jesus’ first miracle involved wine and a wedding. The King had arrived. The bridegroom had come to rescue his bride. It was not a time for mourning, for separation, but for union and celebration. The holy day (holiday) permits rest of both mind and body. Perhaps the wine was meant to give the bride a sense of her release. For the Roman philosopher Seneca, this is why Bacchus invented wine. He comments that the mind needs a time of rest so that it does not lose its vigor and become dull and languid. States should establish holidays so that the bond that work places on the mind may be slackened. For the sake of mental peace, Seneca explains, one should go for a walk outside or go for a brief journey, and when possible, have a drink of wine.

Sometimes [the mind] will get new vigour from … a change of place and festive company and generous drinking. At times we ought to reach the point even of intoxication, not drowning ourselves in drink, yet succumbing to it; for it washes away troubles, and stirs the mind from its very depths and heals its sorrow just as it does certain ills of the body; and the inventor of wine is not called the Releaser (Bacchus) on account of the license it gives to the tongue, but because it frees the mind from bondage to cares and emancipates it and gives it new life and makes it bolder in all that it attempts. But, as in freedom, so in wine there is a wholesome moderation […] Yet we ought not to do this often, for fear that the mind may contract an evil habit, nevertheless there are times when it must be drawn into rejoicing and freedom, and gloomy sobriety must be banished for a while. For whether we believe with the Greek poet that ‘sometimes it is a pleasure also to rave,’ or with Plato that ‘the sane mind knocks in vain at the door of poetry,’ or with Aristotle that ‘no great genius has ever exited without some touch of madness’ – be that as it may, the lofty utterance that rises above the attempts of others is impossible unless the mind is excited. When it has … soared far aloft fired by a sacred instinct, then alone it sings a song too lofty for mortal lips (On the Tranquility of Mind, XVII8-9).