Saturday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

The Confessions of Saint Augustine

“Our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee”

We come to the last of four writings from the ancient world.  The man was Aurelius Augustine and his work, The Confessions, was the first of its kind and, along with his City of God, left an indelible mark on how the Church has understood the Christian faith.  In it, the great saint rehearses his pilgrimage from a pagan teacher of rhetoric to the climactic scene of his conversion in a garden where the misery of his inability and unwillingness to give himself to God is finally overcome by God’s overwhelming grace.  The work is “psychological” in the best sense of that word, as Augustine looks back upon his life now as a Christian and shows us how God was working in him all along.  He also recounts his sins and reveals to us how evil and enslaving sin is and how only the grace of God can break the chains.

In the first chapter of the book Saint Augustine puts down a line that has been quoted over and again by Christian writers ever since: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (NPNF, First Series, 1.1).  Before these profound words, Augustine speaks about how “man” seeks to praise God.  This is the proof that God has made man for Himself and that he finds no rest apart from God, because all men seek for God and reach out to Him.  But Augustine also knows from Paul’s writings that man in his natural state runs away from God because of his sinful nature.  He is enslaved to his sin and desires his sin more than God.  For this reason, salvation is a miraculous work of God in which God breaks the chains that a man cannot break and turns a sinner into a saint. 

In reference to the question we pondered yesterday that the pagans turned on the vile and stubborn Christians who endured unspeakable tortures to the denial of their faith in Christ—“What did they get out of their religion, which they preferred to their own lives?”—we might add the insights of Augustine come from the Apostle Paul: Because Christ Jesus saved me when I could not save myself, because he freed me from the bondage of loving a life which I knew was a hell, because he revealed to me that deep-seated truth which I had long denied and even suppressed in favor of living the lie—to wit, that He had made me for Himself, and my wandering heart would ever be restless until it found rest in Him.

As we now turn to the Advent Season, may our hearts find rest in Him as we seek His power to turn from the sins which so easily beset us in preparation for His coming, for He has made us for Himself.  Even so, Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

Eusebius: The Church History

What did they get out of their religion, which they preferred to their own lives?

By about the year A.D. 313, a man named Eusebius of Caesarea was putting the finishing touches on his Church History, a rare jewel as he records so much we would not know concerning the ancient Church were it not for his work.  In Book Five, he goes into vivid detail about the horrible persecutions visited upon the Christians in Gaul (modern-day France) in the cities of Lyons and Vienne.

Christians were falsely accused of the worst crimes; namely, incest (they called one another “brothers” and “sisters” and loved one another dearly), cannibalism (they spoke of a meal in which they ate “the body and the blood”), and atheism (they did not believe in the pagan gods).  They were arrested and “encouraged” to renounce Christ by threats.  Those who would not experienced the most gruesome tortures in the amphitheater for the amusement of the heathen.  They were fed to wild beasts, endured red-hot plates of brass pressed against the most tender parts of the body, roasted in iron chairs, and all the while being whipped, stretched, mauled, beaten, starved, and any other unspeakable torture the demonically-inspired could unleash upon them, for as long as their bodies could hold out.  The crazed mob would not even allow their bodies to be buried, but after six days of exposure and molestation burned what remained and swept the ash into the Rhone River thinking that such treatment would prevent them the resurrection.  Fools.

But Eusebius records something that the pagans quipped after it was all over, more in taunt than anything else.  But the question they asked actually reveals more about their own struggles to come to grips with what they witnessed about these Christians than any jest they could make: “What did they get out of their religion, which they preferred to their own lives?”

And there you have it—a good question, don’t you think?  What do we get out of our religion (or “faith,” if you rather) that we prefer to our own lives?  I turn to Hebrews to read that Christians are people who see the things promised and greet them from afar.  They acknowledge that they are strangers on the earth.  And they make it clear both by their profession and their lives that they are seeking a heavenly homeland, knowing that God, has prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:13-16).  So they bear, believe, hope, and endure all things for the sake of Christ (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Thursday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

“Away with the Atheists!”

Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna martyred in A.D. 150.  Having lived into his eighties, he is reported by later writers to have known the Apostle John as a young man.  The Church at Smyrna recorded his martyrdom and sent a letter to the Church at Philomelium about it.  (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:41-42.)

“Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, ‘Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!’  No one saw who it was who spoke to him, but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice.  And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken.  And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp.  On his confessing that he was, the proconsul sought to persuade him to deny Christ, saying, ‘Have respect to thy old age,’ and other similar things, according to their custom, such as, ‘Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, “Away with the Atheists.”’  [Christians were regarded as atheists by the pagans for not believing in their gods.]  But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hands towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, ‘Away with the Atheists.’  Then the proconsul urging him, saying, ‘Swear and I will set thee at liberty; reproach Christ’; Polycarp declared, ‘Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?’

…The proconsul then said, ‘I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.’  But he answered, ‘Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil’… But again the proconsul said to him, ‘I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the beasts, if thou wilt not repent.’  But Polycarp said, ‘Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a while is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment  reserved for the ungodly.  But why tarriest thou?  Bring forth what thou wilt.’”

Upon praying that he might make an acceptable sacrifice to God, Polycarp declined to be fixed to the stake as he said that God would give him the grace both to stay and endure.  And as he burned alive, it is reported,

“The fire shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled by the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr.  And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace.  Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odor as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”

Wednesday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

The Epistle of Diognetus

“What the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world”

Following up on what I said yesterday about listening to the ancient Christians, here is a beautiful description of how Christians conducted themselves from a letter written in about A.D. 130 from one, Mathetes, to another, Diognetus.  Enjoy.  (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:25-30)

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe.  For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity.  The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.  But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.  They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners.  As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.  Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.  They marry as do all others; they beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring [fetuses].  They have a common table, but not a common bed.  They are in the flesh but do not live after the flesh.  They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.  They love all men, and are persecuted by all.  They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.  They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified.  They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers.  When punished, they rejoice as if quickened unto life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

            To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world.  The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world.  The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.”

Tuesday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

The Creed of Chalcedon

and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Today, we close out the Creed of Chalcedon, and I have enjoyed getting to know it better.  Yes, it’s repetitive, but it has a specific teaching of the faith to drive home, and the Bishops wanted to leave no questions unanswered concerning the teaching that our Lord is one person of both divine and human natures.  The Fathers at Chalcedon were sure that what they declared was none other than catholic doctrine—meaning, what the Church had always taught everywhere from the Apostles down to their own day.

And this final line of the Creed allows me to discuss something which might make evangelicals uncomfortable, and that is the importance of the teaching of the Church down through the ages.  Evangelicals are often blinded by the here and now, shunning the ancient and medieval church as “Roman Catholic” or simply irrelevant for today.  The thinking is that we have nothing to learn from previous ages.  This is arrogance predicated on gross ignorance.  We refuse to listen to the great teachers of the Church—Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, or later on, Anselm or even Aquinas.  Church history doesn’t begin for us until 1517 or later with the Mayflower.  And full disclosure, I love the English Puritans of the seventeenth century.

But I also know that all of that good Puritan theology had its beginning with those early Bishops centuries before.  The Reformers—Luther, Bucer, Calvin,—knew them well and quoted them at length (see Calvin’s Institutes).  Orthodox Christian theology did not begin with the Baptists; we inherited the vast majority of it adding what we discerned from Scripture concerning regeneration, baptism, congregational polity, and religious liberty.  But the basic doctrines of the Trinity and our Lord’s person, even our Lord’s work on the cross (Anselm), we inherited from those before us and owe to them a debt of gratitude.

No one of us thought it up studying the Bible late nights at our kitchen table.  Though the act of faith is a direct gift from God, the content of the faith comes indirect from God passed down through generations of believers pre-dating even our sainted grandmothers.  In other words, history matters; what the Church has taught through the ages matters.  And there is a sameness about her teaching which we call “orthodox” to which we must cling despite contemporary concerns.  If we are to survive the pagan “post-Christian” world in which we live, we must let yesterday inform today, for the future can tell us nothing.  May we humble ourselves to listen.

Monday in the Last Week of Ordinary Time

The Creed of Chalcedon

and the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us

So we are today confronted with the same question we discussed concerning the prophets the day before yesterday: What have subsistences and natures to do with the teaching of Jesus?  And again we answer that just because the precise terminology is not in Scripture does not mean that the terminology is incorrect.  The question is: Does the Creed of Chalcedon rightly reflect the teaching of Scripture?  And I think it does.

So let us examine just a few passages of Scripture.  In John’s Gospel, we are confronted with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”  And just a few verses later, we meet, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:1-3, 14).  What are we to make of these words?  Is not our Lord’s divine nature clearly taught by them?  And his Incarnation?  And how are we to understand the words spoken by the angel when he answered the Virgin’s reasonable request for information concerning how such a girl as she should conceive: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (1:35)?  What nonsense is this if the angel is not speaking of one who is coming down from heaven such that a virginal conception is required by the fact that no other “begetter” is needed?  And what is it that the Holy Spirit is preparing from the Virgin’s womb such that this one is born of woman as any other man if it be not the fashioning of a man-child? 

These are just a few passages of Scripture which require answers—answers which move far beyond that the biblical writers were speaking in metaphor, for they plainly believed what they spoke; or, that they mean that Jesus was a son of God like any of the rest of us only a bit holier, for it is quite obvious that the biblical writers place Jesus in a completely different category than the rest of humanity—a human being, yes, but more than that, a divine human being—the Son of God.  And I for one cannot see how Chalcedon’s use of “subsistence” to define the unity of the Person (the Son) who is comprised of two natures (divine and human) is in any way contradictory to the passages listed above.  Indeed, I find them wholly fitting and true to the apostolic teaching.  Furthermore, no one has improved on them in seventeen centuries.  I look forward to meeting those men someday, if I am worthy.

The Last Sunday in Ordinary Time

Psalms 2; 72; Luke 1:26-33; Revelation 1:1-20; 19:11-16

Christ the King

In those churches that follow the Church Calendar very closely, this day is called the “Feast of Christ the King.”  It is a feast of very recent origin (1925) and was not followed with regularity until 1970.  I include it because it seems fitting to me that the last Sunday of the Church Year should pay special honor to our Savior who, though he came in humility, shall one day return in majesty as King of kings and Lord of lords.  (I say, “last Sunday of the Church Year,” as next Sunday shall begin the Season of Advent, the beginning of the new Church Year.)

Each one of the passages above deserves consideration on its own terms, but I shall focus on Luke and the “Annunciation.”  It’s a favorite passage of mine because of the profound mystery it unfolds, that our Savior was “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4).  But even though God ordains that Jesus be born to parents of no reputation in a town with a poor reputation (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46), the angel, Gabriel, makes clear that this baby is royalty: “He shall be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

An unbeliever might wonder if the angel had the wrong house, for we see nothing in the gospels that indicates that Jesus fit the description of the angel at all.  And yet he was all the angel said he was.  Indeed, the believer responds that Jesus did fit the description; after all, who else spoke such words that have changed the lives of billions over the centuries turning thieves and murderers into saints?  Who else performed such miraculous signs?  Who else raised the dead?  And most important, who else rose from the dead?  The Jews and Romans were right: he is a king, but of a different kingdom.  And he reigns now from heaven over the hearts of his people.  Oh, he rules the world through his unseen providence and care; but one day, what the believer only sees now by faith, everyone shall see then see by sight.  In Psalm 89:3-4, God says, “I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build up your throne for all generations.’”  This is what the angel announced, this was the prophecy that was fulfilled, this is the One who will one day gather us together into a kingdom which shall have no end, where we shall behold the beauty of the Lord and worship the King in the splendor of holiness (Psalms 27:4; 29:2).

Saturday in the Thirty-Third Week of Ordinary Time

The Creed of Chalcedon

as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him

There is a passage of Scripture in the Gospel of Luke that is very enlightening concerning the Old Testament and what it is meant to convey to us.  In 24:13-35, we are told that on the day of our Lord’s resurrection as two of his disciples were walking along the road to a village called Emmaus, they were joined by a stranger who enquired about their sad faces.  We are told at the beginning of the account that the stranger is the risen Lord but that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” suggesting divine influence.  Astonished that any visitor to Jerusalem would be ignorant of the goings-on there in the last few days, they tell him about Jesus—his crucifixion, burial, missing body, and the dashing of their dreams of his being the Messiah who would redeem Israel.  Thereupon, the passage continues, “And [the stranger] said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter his glory?’  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

You know the rest of the account—how Jesus was finally made known to them in the breaking of bread, the opening of their eyes, and his vanishing out of their sight.  What a Bible study that must have been!  If only Cleopas or his friend had left us an account of it! 

I wish to highlight the words, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  And what does this teach us?  It teaches us that everything in the Old Testament is about Jesus Christ—his coming, his passion, his resurrection, and his glory—from Genesis to Malachi.  Whether it be the promised seed who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15) or the latter’s prophecy concerning the coming of the Baptist (Malachi 3:1ff), it’s all about the Coming One, Jesus Christ.

Some will cry, “Foul!”  What did the Prophets or even the Apostles say about subsistences and natures?  Well, nothing explicitly.  Granted, the Creed of Chalcedon cannot be lifted from the pages of the Bible.  Instead, the Creed represents the earnest reflections of learned and holy men who thought and prayed long and hard over the Scriptures and the tradition which the Church had passed down through its liturgy and teachers in order to meet a dire situation which threatened the very gospel itself.  If the prophets never said anything about subsistences, it was because God’s revelation did not come all at once, for the fullness had to wait for the Coming One.  And if the apostles did not use such language, that is no proof that the propositions of the Creed are not implied in their teachings (cf. Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-22).  The apostles were not confronted with the questions and false teachings with which the bishops at Chalcedon had to contend.  But once formulated, the Creed was recognized as representing both Scripture and Tradition, even if it had to employ language Scripture does not use.  Granted, Monophysites and Nestorians walked away unconvinced, but that is always the way, for there must be divisions among us that we may recognize the true faith (1 Corinthians 11:19). 

One person who is fully God and fully man (possessed of a human and a divine nature) sent by the Father to save sinners—this is the essence of the Creed of Chalcedon.  I cannot improve upon it—and I doubt others can either.

Friday in the Thirty-Third Week of Ordinary Time

The Creed of Chalcedon

but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word,

the Lord Jesus Christ

Well, the Creed of Chalcedon started out, “We…teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in Manhood.”  It now ends boldly and with an explanation point confessing “one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  In other words, we have come full circle with the same proclamation with which we began, everything in between serving as explanation of how the two natures of this one Son relate to one another in that one Person.  And understand, this was no exercise in idle speculation of armchair theologians; what they put to paper was the very faith believed and confessed by the Church for the sake of the salvation of souls.  Their task was a matter of life and death.

The logicians among us will argue that this statement is nothing more than a circular argument, the conclusion following the thesis from the beginning.  The Fathers at Chalcedon would respond that they were not arguing, they were not debating, they were not trying to convince anyone of anything.  They were confessing and proclaiming what they knew the one holy universal and apostolic Church believed and taught in all places from the beginning.  They were not arguing philosophy though they did not mind borrowing words from philosophy if such terminology assisted in clarifying thought.  They were not offering fresh ideas for new vistas which the Church might travel.  The Church Fathers to a man looked with suspicion on the new, the novel, the fresh idea—indeed, they loathed it.  They had a word for whatever departed from what had been received from the beginning; it was called, “heresy,” which in Greek means, “choice.”  The heretic “chooses” that which he desires to believe and goes his own way.  He despises what has been received down through the generations from proper authority and becomes his own authority—a church of one or more than one if he can convince others to go with him.  Then he is also a “schismatic.”

But I digress.  What those early Bishops put together in this brief but dense statement of the faith was only what they knew to coincide with divine revelation which they as the leaders of the Church were obligated to protect.  If only pastors today would see themselves not as innovators (something these men would have looked upon with shock and abhorrence) but as men with a sacred calling to proclaim what has always been the message of salvation and guard it with their very lives (1 Timothy 6:20).

Thursday in the Thirty-Third Week of Ordinary Time

The Creed of Chalcedon

not parted or divided into two persons

We have said much about this already.  The bishops at Chalcedon wanted to counter any suggestion that the human and divine natures could be divided or separated—a view held by the fifth-century heretic, Nestorius.  Such a view generally devalues the divine nature and relegates Christ to a godly man as opposed to the God-man of Holy Scripture.  We won’t dwell on this as I have discussed this in previous devotions.

What I will discuss (since I have to discuss something) is a rather technical but important matter worked out in later medieval theology and the Reformed of the seventeenth century.  The matter concerned in what way the Son of God, who was begotten by his Father as a Person from all eternity, could become incarnated from the Virgin without doubling his personhood.  What we know from Scripture is that the Father sent His Son to be born of woman (Galatians 4:4) and that the Holy Spirit superintended the process of conceiving and sanctifying the human nature so prepared for the Son (Luke 1:35).  So what this means is this: The Son of God and Second Person of the Godhead did NOT assume a human being or person; he assumed a human nature.  Again, the personhood of the Incarnate Son abides in the Son of God.  But the Son of God took upon himself in that Incarnation a human nature thereby adding a human nature to his (already) divine nature.  This human nature was and is inseparable from that divine nature as it is now of that singular subsistence and person of the one Son.  Christ is and ever remains the God-man (Muller, 152).  So once again we see how the mystery of the Incarnation is the cornerstone of Christianity along with its logical corollary, the doctrine of the holy Trinity (though in being the Trinity precedes the Incarnation).  No other religion has anything like this.  No creative genius invented this.  This is divine revelation.  But once one hears it, it makes perfect sense—at least to the believer.

One must be born again; that is certain.  But Christianity is more than experience; it is a faith and a life.  There are things to believe, to testify to, and to live out.  The Incarnation and Trinity classically understood will always hold the center and foundation of the faith.  Any deviation there from results in the founding of a new religion other than Christianity, and many have attempted just that thinking the old doctrines moribund, stale, irrelevant, etc.  Or they think that the old doctrines need to be restated in new ways to new generations.  How ‘bout new generations try applying their minds to old ways of thinking.  Now that would be something!