Wednesday, August 20, 2014

St Bernard, preacher of God's love

Bernard of Clairvaux, as a result of whose ministry flames of real revival were lit right across Europe, is said to have been one of the most powerful preachers ever in the history of the Church. He was passionately in love with the Lord, and proclaimed a message of God’s grace, inspiring hundreds of thousands seek God. 

Bernard was born in 1091 into the minor nobility of Burgundy, France, grew up relatively privileged, and received a very good education. At the age of twenty-two, however, he turned his back on a life of ease to join the newly founded Cistercian Order. He influenced thirty men from the same background to move with him to Cîteaux - an uncle, four brothers and twenty-five others. Only three years later Bernard was asked to found a new monastery at Clairvaux, where he was to remain as abbot until his death in 1153.

From this base, Bernard travelled around Europe, preaching the gospel. History records that many knights responded to his message, commiting their lives to Jesus, renouncing their glory, warfare and immoral behaviour, a considerable number of them joining the Cistercian Order, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and learning to live by the Scriptures.

A colourful personality towering over the twelfth century, Bernard became the most prominent figure of his day, and one of the most influential Christian leaders of all times. 

Over the next thirty years, Bernard founded sixty-eight new Cistercian communities, teaching Scripture and moulding Christ-like character. With these communities and their daughter houses, Bernard ended up being personally responsible for 164 centres across Europe. He threw himself into discipling new believers and training leaders for these monastic houses which became centres of genuine faith and conduits of spiritual regeneration for the surrounding countryside. Bernard’s writings led many to Christ during his lifetime and sparked a series of revivals that would sweep Europe over the next three centuries. But that’s not all. He carried on a huge correspondence in which he even corrected bishops, popes and kings, as he called the powerful in both church and state to genuine faith and servant leadership.

Nor did Bernard shy away from the controversies of his time. He boldly stood up against compromise in the church wherever he found it. He opposed the growing rationalism that he saw in the universities. And he urged the nobility of Europe to unite against the military threat of Islam. 

Mostly, however, Bernard tirelessly preached the gospel to his generation.

Scripture fills Bernard’s preaching and writing. In his written works, there is a quote or allusion to the Word of God in just about every sentence. He was soaked in Scripture! He loved it, and had memorised so many passages - that everything he said radiated God’s Word.

Bernard was an evangelist, pleading with his hearers to make a total commitment to Jesus. He wanted their conversion to be authentic.  He was a strident critic of the “nominal Christianity” predominating among clergy and laity alike. In his tract “On Conversion” he confronted sin head-on and declared that a new conversion is absolutely essential.

Bernard would not allow lukewarm or halfhearted faith in the Cistercian movement. All who joined were to have been soundly converted and following Jesus with zeal. 

For Bernard, conversion is not just a matter of renouncing the world. It is to enter into a deeply personal friendship with Jesus. He proclaimed and lived an evangelical catholicism. At a time when scholastic theologians were debating abstract propositions, Bernard insisted on practical application of the Scriptures in the disciple’s daily life. And though he wrote in beautiful Latin and was a gifted scholar, he brought Scripture down to earth, making it come alive at an individual level for each disciple in such a way as to nourish his or her relationship with God.

The image Bernard consistently uses in portraying our relationship with God is the nuptial symbolism of bride and bridegroom, in fact, resting on the primordial image in Scripture of Christ as the heavenly Bridegroom, with the church as his bride (Eph 5:25-33), being prepared for the great wedding feast (Matt 25:1-13; Rev 19:7-9 and 21:1-27).

In his writings, and especially in his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard personalises this reality and welcomes each believing soul to see itself as Christ’s bride and receive the Lord’s tender touch. [Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, trans. Kilian Walsh, 4 Vol. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1976).] Sometimes referred to as bridal spirituality, this message invites men and women alike to experience the closest possible relationship with the Lord. The goal of Bernard’s whole ministry was to bring hungry souls into true intimacy with Jesus.

“God is love,” (1 John 4:8) is the key verse in all that the Abbot of Clairvaux says. For dogmatic and political reasons, the medieval church often saw Jesus as the vengeful King coming to condemn the ungodly on the Day of Judgment. In Bernard’s teaching Jesus is the Good Shepherd whom the Father sends into the world to save the lost and dying. Jesus is approachable, offering grace to those drowning in their sin.

In his work, “On Loving God,” Bernard asks: How much did God love us? He answers with a tour-de-force of passages from the New Testament:

St John says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). St Paul says, “He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us” (Rom 8:32). The Son, too, said of himself, “No one has greater love than the man who lays down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). [Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, trans. G. R. Evans, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 175.]

Throughout his writing Bernard emphasises God’s love and maintains that salvation is entirely by God’s grace. We could never earn it. In response to God’s love for us, we love him, desire him and seek him with our whole heart. The forgiven soul, says Bernard, “seeks eagerly for his Creator, and when he finds him, holds to him with all his might.” [Ibid., 176.]

* * * * * * * * * *

Anglicans are most aware of St Bernard through the well known translation of two of his hymns: 

Jesu dul­cis memoria 

Jesu! the very thought is sweet!
In that dear Name all heart-joys meet;
But sweeter than the honey far
The glimpses of his presence are.

No word is sung more sweet than this:
No name is heard more full of bliss;
No thought brings sweeter comfort nigh,
Than Jesus, Son of God most high.

Jesu! the hope of souls forlorn!
How good to them for sin that that mourn!
To them that seek thee, O how kind!
But what art thou to them that find?

Jesu, thou sweetness, pure and blest,
Truth’s Fountain, Light of souls distressed,
Surpassing all that heart requires,
Exceeding all that soul desires!

No tongue of mortal can express,
No letters write his blessedness,
Alone who hath thee in his heart
Knows, love of Jesus! what Thou art.

O Jesu! King of wondrous might!
O Victor, glorious from the fight!
Sweetness that may not be expressed,
And altogether loveliest!

(This hymn is also translated as: ”Jesus, the very thought of thee”
and “Jesus, thou joy of  loving hearts”

* * * * * * * * * *

Jesu, Rex admirabilis 

O Jesus, King most wonderful,
Thou Conqueror renowned,
Thou Sweetness most ineffable,
In whom all joys are found!

When once thou visitest the heart,
Then truth begins to shine,
Then earthly vanities depart,
Then kindles love divine.

O Jesus, Light of all below,
Thou Fount of life and fire,
Surpassing all the joys we know,
And all we can desire!

Thy wondrous mercies are untold,
Through each returning day;
Thy love exceeds a thousand fold,
Whatever we can say.

May every heart confess thy Name;
And ever thee adore;
And seeking thee, itself inflame,
To seek thee more and more.

Thee may our tongues forever bless;
Thee may we love alone;
And ever in our lives express
The image of thine own.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

St Maximilian, pray for us.

Maximilian was born in Poland in 1894. At the age of twelve he had a vision of our Lady offering him a white crown and a red crown. The white crown symbolised perseverance in holiness, and the red crown symbolised accepting martyrdom. He was to choose. This devout boy accepted both! (His first name was actually Raymond. He later took the name of Maximilian, an ancient Christian martyr.)

He became a Franciscan priest and as the years went by he developed into a remarkable evangelist, bringing many thousands of young people to the Lord in Poland and then Japan. But the darkness that spread across Europe during the 1930's gave rise to the Second World War, and on 17th February 1941 Maximilian, whose large following was feared by the Nazis, had been arrested. In May of that same year he was transferred to the dreadful Auschwitz concentration camp where he devoted himself completely to caring for the other prisoners. His kindness, love and generosity became well known.

At the end of July one of the prisoners escaped. In a fit of rage the commander ordered that ten prisoners should die in his place. The prisoners were lined up and ten picked out at random. The ninth one chosen, a young Polish soldier, broke down and asked for mercy on the grounds that he was married and had a young family to support. It was then that Maximilian stepped forward and asked if he could take the man's place. After giving the matter some thought, the commander agreed.

The ten condemned men were flung naked onto the concrete floor of an underground bunker and were left there to starve to death. The guards observed them through a peep-hole and could hardly believe what they saw. Frequently the condemned men were gathered around Father Maximilian. Sometimes they were joking, sometimes they were praying, sometimes they were singing hymns and praising the Lord. The assistant janitor, an eyewitness of those terrible days, said that it was as though the cell in which the condemned men were held "had become a church."

Fourteen days went by, and death overtook the prisoners one by one. Father Maximilian was the last to die when a guard put and end to his agony with an injection of phenol.

Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose place Maximilian had taken, survived Auschwitz and the war. Later he said, "At first I felt terrible at the thought of leaving another man to die in my place. But then I realised that he had done this, not so much to save my life, as to be with the other nine in their last terrible agony. His nearness to them in those dreadful last hours was worth more than a lifetime of preaching."

Maximilian might have contented himself with giving those men encouragement and advice. If it had been allowed he might have visited them in their death cell. But his presence with them, sharing their dreadful ordeal meant more than anything else.

Maximilian's death began a healing work in many hearts. After the War he became a popular symbol of the cry for a renewed respect of basic human rights in Germany as well as in Poland. In church circles, people of both nationalities pressed for his recognition as a Saint. This eventually took place in October 1982 in St Peter's Basilica, Rome. The next day, Franciszek Gajowniczek and many other survivors of Auschwitz and similar concentration camps were present at a special service of reconciliation in which Germans and Poles prayed together and exchanged the greeting of peace with each other. Gajownizek died in 1995, a great-grandfather.

Like Jesus whom he served, Maximilian gave his life for others. Like Jesus, his very presence reassured all kinds of people that God was real and that he loved them in spite of all the suffering and pain in the world.

St. Maximilian's cell in Block 11 at Auschwitz

Patricia Treece, in A Man For Others quotes one of the prisoners who witnessed Maximilian offer himself in Franciszek Gajowniczek's place:

"It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware someone among us in this spiritual dark night of the soul was raising the standard of love on high. Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured and bereft of name and social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him. Therefore it is not true, we cried, that humanity is cast down and trampled in the mud, overcome by oppressors, and overwhelmed by hopelessness. Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. More than one individual began to look within himself for this real world, found it, and shared it with his camp companions, strengthening both in this encounter with evil. To say that Father Koble died for one of us or for that person's family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands. And on this, I would say, rests the greatness of that death. That's how we felt about it. And as long as we live, we who were at Auschwitz will bow our heads in memory of it as at that time we bowed our heads before the bunker of death by starvation. That was a shock of optimism, regenerating and giving strength; we were stunned by this act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp night . . ."

". . . For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall walk by your light . . ." (Isaiah 60:1-2)

St Maximilian, pray for all who face martyrdom today. Pray for all who are persecuted. Pray for all who suffer for the honour of the name of Jesus and for loyalty to the Faith once delivered to the Saints. Pray for the rent, torn, divided Church, a Church afflicted by the unbelief, sin, selfishness, careerism, and secularism of her ministers and people, that she may be renewed in the love of Jesus, purified by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, and strengthened by the intercession of Our Lady and the Saints, to proclaim the authentic Gospel in our day, by her words, her deeds and her presence with all who suffer.

The painting of St Maximilian at the Franciscan Church in Krakow.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Read the Summer edition of TOGETHER

This is the second issue of the newspaper “TOGETHER”, published and edited by the Church Union in co-operation with the Additional Curates Society, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and Forward in Faith. 

The Editor of TOGETHER is Fr Christopher Smith SSC, Vicar of St Alban’s Holborn.

Click HERE to download your copy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

St Dominic's prayer

We give thanks to-day for the compassionate and gentle Dominic who with his love of souls, his thirst fro0 God’s truth, and his organizing ability gave to the Church a mission to convert souls and relieve suffering. Here is a prayer of his:

May God the Father who made us bless us.
May God the Son send his healing on us.
May God the Holy Spirit move within us 
and give us eyes to see, 
ears to hear, 
and hands that your work may be done.
May we walk and preach the word of God to all.
May the angels of peace watch over us 
and lead us at last by God’s grace to the kingdom. 

Go to Mariane Dorman’s website HERE for an excellent appreciation and biography of St Dominic.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Fr Michael Harper: "We cannot be beaten into shape"


There are a number of Hebrew words about salvation which also mean “to bring into a spacious environment”, “to be at one’s ease”, “to be free to develop”. 

“Salvation” can be seen then as the new life in Christ, in which we are to be “free to develop” into Christ-like people. 

For this maturing to take place, there needs to be a breaking down of barriers, a breaking up of the soil of our personalities, and a healing of inner wounds and hurts. The soil is softened, the clay becomes malleable through the experience of the tender love of God and the accepting, non-judgmental love of Christians. 

We cannot be beaten into shape.

- Fr Michael Harper (1931-2010), “Christian Maturing”, in The Lord Christ [1980], John Stott, ed., vol. 1 of Obeying Christ in a Changing World, John Stott, gen. ed., 3 vol., London: Fountain, 1977, p. 151

Go HERE for more about Fr Michael Harper.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Middle East violence: a word from the Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East

As we continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and for the safety of all people in that part of the world, we should heed the firm but irenic words of the ancient Church, the Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. The Patriarchate has issued two statements regarding, first, the violence in Iraq, Syria, and Gaza, and second, the place of Christians throughout the region.

The first statement, dated July 23, 2014, reads (official Arabic version; official English version):

At a time when Syria’s wounds have been bleeding for more than three years, amidst the wounds of Iraq, which has experienced conflict since the 1980’s, amidst the unrest that is sweeping countries near and far, and amidst the world’s indifference to Palestine’s wounds, which have not healed in almost seventy years, these days in particular we are witnessing a multiplication of these wounds in the expulsion of Mosul’s Christians and the all-out assault on Gaza amidst a disgraceful international silence.

The cycle of violence sweeping Iraq and Syria, expelling peaceful citizens has not let up, as recent events in Iraq and specifically in Mosul have completed the series of murder, religious prejudice, and terror.

We strongly condemn attacks on any segment of society in this Middle East and we especially condemn the attack on the Christians of Mosul and their being compelled by force of arms to change their religion under the penalty of paying the Jizya or abandoning their homes and having their property confiscated.These fundamentalist movements that are trying to become mini-states through force and terror with outside moral and material support are the greatest threat to people in the Middle East and to coexistence there. We ask the international community and specifically the United Nations and all global powers and organizations to take into proper consideration what is happening in Iraq, Mosul and the entire Middle East.

We call on them to deal with the current situation courageously, with a genuine language of human rights and not a language of interests that uses the principles of human rights and exploits them in the service of narrow aims and interests. We ask the countries that provide outside support to these groups, whether directly or indirectly, to cease immediately from all forms of material, moral, logistical and military support for these extremist groups and so cut off at its root the terrorism that is first of all a threat to the peace and peoples of those countries. We likewise call for an end to resorting to any form of violence as a means by which citizens deal with each other.

Because we in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East constantly affirm that Christians and Muslims are two lungs of a single Middle Eastern body that stands on citizenship and common life, we reject anything that would first of all hurt Islam’s reputation for tolerance, brotherhood and peaceful life, which we have experienced, and secondly disrupts the right of citizens to have a civic presence free from sectarian or racial pressures.

As the world watches what is happening in Mosul, the chain of violence is repeated in the Gaza Strip under various justifications, amidst a frightening international silence. This is happening while the outside world is content to watch a bloodbath that has not spared women, children and the elderly. It is as though the Middle East has become a testing-ground for every sort of weapon and a fertile soil for every sort of plot. It is as though the people of the Middle East are a commodity created to be dough in the hands of the forces of evil, when they are created to be the image of the Lord’s splendor and the focus of the Creator’s good pleasure, with good relationships with their fellow citizens and fellow humans.

We in the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East understand the common fate that binds us to our Christian and Muslim brothers in Palestine. We implore the international community for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the sinful siege on our brothers in Palestine, whose cause remains par excellence the cause of Humanity.

The attachment of the Palestinians to their land and their longing to return to it is a cause for hope for all those suffering in this Middle East and a mark of shame upon the faces of those for whom “human rights” end at the hills of Palestine while at the same time that they traffic in these “rights” in order to intervene in the affairs of other peoples.

We pray that God give peace to the world, that He give strength to all those in distress, that He cause peace to be lasting in the Middle East, so that humanity may enjoy well-being and tranquility.

The second statement, dated July 30, 2014, reads (official Arabic version; official English version):

In the midst of all destruction which is taking place in the Middle East and with the recent events like killings and displacements which affected Christians and others, and in the midst of the conflicts in Syria and the attack on Gaza, we hear some officials of Western governments giving  declarations from time to time or publishing some “studies” to express their unreal empathy with Christians of certain areas and showing their solidarity with them, describing their circumstances in a way that supports the logic of minorities. But the most recent of these declarations is that of the French government regarding its readiness to accept the Iraqi Christians and granting them a political asylum, in addition to the study issued by the American Ministry of Foreign Affairs that describes the presence of the Christians in the Middle East as “a shadow of its former status”.

We, in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, would like to confirm that the difficult circumstances in the East do not justify anybody’s attempt to misuse them as “Trojan Horse” to empty the East from its Christians, declaring  that what Christians are confronting in the East is similar to what is happening to religious or ethnic minorities in other places of the world. We believe that helping the inhabitants of the East, Christians or Muslims, starts with uprooting terrorism  from its homeland and stop nourishing the movements of extremism and Takfirism (religious prejudice), whose financial resources are very well known as well as  the states and the governments that offer them the ideological, logistic and military support through undeclared international alliances. The best way to help Christians and Muslims in the East is by restoring peace through dialogue and political solution, and through practical rejection of all resources that nourish the reasons of this extremism, refusing the injustice towards Palestinians, adapting an honest Media that shows the active role of the Christians in the life of their homelands away from any statistical division of people.

We say it to all: the only embracing place for Christians and Muslims of this area is their homelands, in which they have been living together for many centuries, building a unique civilization recognized  by a real partnership; a civilization that transferred to the West the human heritage and enriching it. We, the Christians of this land, will not accept to be treated through the logic of minorities which is imposed on us from abroad, and we reconfirm that we were and are still committed to the message of our Gospel, which has arrived to us from our ancestors 2000 years ago. Our forefathers carried and transferred this message to us  enduring numerous afflictions.  And we will keep this seed which we have received here in the East, growing it and being loyal to it. 

Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East

Saturday, August 2, 2014

With the centenary of WWI in mind . . .

Jesus, Son of Mary, fount of life alone,
Here we hail thee present on thine altar throne.
Humbly we adore thee, Lord of endless might,
In the mystic symbols, veiled from earthly sight.

Think, O Lord, in mercy on the souls of those 
Who, in faith gone from us, now in death repose. 
Here ‘mid stress and conflict toils can never cease; 
There, the warfare ended, bid them rest in peace. 

Often they were wounded in the deadly strife,
Heal them, good Physician, with the balm of life.
Every taint of evil, frailty and decay,
Good and gracious Saviour, cleanse and purge away.

Rest eternal grant them, after weary fight:
Shed on them the radiance of thy heavenly light.
Lead them onward, upward, to the holy place,
Where thy Saints made perfect gaze upon thy face.

Edmund S. Palmer wrote this hymn to be sung at a requiem for a member of the UMCA before 1901, and it was included in the Mission’s Swahili Hymn Book. Palmer translated the words from Swahili to English in 1902, when they were first printed privately. They were included in the English Hymnal in 1906.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Some more Mascall - this time on the Catholic Movement

Christ Church, Oxford, where Dr Mascall taught from 1945 until 1962 

One of the “must reads” of our time is Saraband: The Memoirs of E.L. Mascall (published in 1992). Apart from being an extremely enjoyable and entertaining collection of memoirs, it is as valuable a tool in understanding the flow of 20th century Church of England history as any of the “technical” histories available. The reason for this is two-fold. First, Mascall knew personally so many of the key players, and they cross his pages as real people with strengths, weakness and idiosyncrasies. He brings them alive. He writes gently, with great humour, but also at times he takes the micky! Second, Mascall’s work is a very astute commentary from a Catholic perspective of the direction Anglican theology was taking during his lifetime, and I think that we ignore his observations to our peril.    

I share with you today some words Mascall wrote in Saraband (p.78) on the Catholic movement within the Church of England. On all counts they are sobering. (I have broken Mascall’s paragraph into smaller ones.) 

The chief weakness of the Catholic Movement was, I believe, the assumption that all church people had imbibed with their mother’s milk, or at any rate, learnt at their mother’s knee, nine tenths of the Catholic religion without knowing what it was, and that all that was needed to turn them into fully informed Catholics was to add a few admittedly very important extras concerning confession, the real presence, prayers for the dead and the veneration of the saints. It was just not understood that, while there is (or, rather, was) a vast common area of belief that is common to Catholicism and that vaguely delineated attitude that the average Englishman referred to when he described himself as a Protestant, Catholicism is a view of reality and a way of life that form an integrated and coherent whole. 

That the Incarnation of the Eternal Word is not a past episode but a continuing reality, that God has taken our nature so that we might be taken into his, that nature is really transformed by grace and not merely adorned by it - such pervasive and orientating essentials of Catholicism seem to have been simply taken for granted by our scholars. 

The consequence being that, instead of penetrating the Church as a whole, they have been first ignored, then forgotten, and finally treated as irrelevant. 

Today we have arrived at a situation in which, when both the Trinity and the Incarnation are denied by prominent members of the clergy, the accredited guardians of the Faith, while adopting the ornaments of Catholicism and expressing approval of the achievements of the Catholic Movement, cannot be persuaded that the preservation of the basic truths of the Faith is sufficiently important to justify their intervention. Many of the parish clergy are sensitive to the situation; and they feel badly let down not only by the bishops but by the scholars.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Secularisation of Christianity - some quotes from Eric Mascall

Eric Lionel Mascall OGS (1905 -1993), a priest of the Church of England, a theologian, formidible scholar, Thomist philosopher, staunch Anglo-Catholic, and prolific writer, was known for his brilliance at mathematics from an early age, winning a scholarship to Pembroke College Cambridge where he took the Mathematical Tripos. 

In 1931, after three unhappy years as a schoolmaster, Mascall entered Ely Theological College and was ordained two years later. He served in London parishes until his appointment as Sub-Warden of Lincoln Theological College in 1937. He taught at Christ Church Oxford from 1945 until he became Professor of Historical Theology at King’s College London in 1962. 

Upon his retirement in 1973 he became Canon Theologian of Truro Cathedral and continued to live in the clergy house of St Mary’s Bourne Street, London, where he was Honorary Assistant Priest. He spent part of 1976 in Rome as a Visiting Professor at the Gregorian University. He was awarded a DD by Oxford in 1948 and by Cambridge in 1958. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1974. 

Mascall travelled extensively abroad, especially in the USA, Rome, and Romania, for the purpose of meeting and addressing a variety of Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox individuals and groups. 

One of the most significant books written by Mascall is THE SECULARISATION OF CHRISTIANITY: AN ANALYSIS AND CRITIQUE (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966). It is a systematic and methodological study of the arguments used by J.A.T. Robinson in Honest to God, and Paul van Buren in The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. Here are some passages from Mascall’s book, which, although out of print, is not difficult to find second-hand. I hope that at least some of my readers will be inspired by these passages to try and find a copy for themselves.

There are, of course, interesting questions that can be asked about the nature of the transformation which our Lord’s body underwent in his resurrection, and if we know anything about physics and biology we are quite likely to ask them. But, since we are concerned with an occurrence which is [by hypothesis] unique in certain relevant aspects, we are most unlikely to be able to give confident answers to them. [Paul M.] van Buren’s remarks about biology and the twentieth century are nothing more than rhetoric or, at best, are simply empirical statements about his own psychology. The first century knew as well as the twentieth that dead bodies do not naturally come to life again, and no amount of twentieth-century knowledge about natural processes can tell us what may happen by supernatural means. (p. 79-80)

* * * * * * * * * *

It has been a frequent trait in Christian theologians down the ages to commit themselves whole-heartedly to the fashionable philosophies of their day, while passing severe judgments on their predecessors for adopting precisely the same attitude. (p. 103)

* * * * * * * * * *

Even the most traditional theologian will be anxious to point out that the classical images which have been used, with more or less success, to depict different aspects of Redemption—the winning of a battle, the liberation of captives, the payment of a fine or a debt, the curing of a disease, and so on—are not to be interpreted literally, any more than, when we say that the eternal Word “came down from Heaven,” we are describing a process of spatial translation. For here we are dealing with processes and events which, by the nature of the case, cannot be precisely described in everyday language . . . The matter is quite different with such a statement as that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary; for, whatever aspects of the Incarnation outstrip the descriptive power of ordinary language, this at least is plainly statable in it. It means that Jesus was conceived in his mother’s womb without previous sexual intercourse on her part with any male human being, and this is a straightforward statement which is either true or false. To say that the birth... of Jesus Christ cannot simply be thought of as a biological event and to add that this is what the Virgin Birth means is a plain misuse of language; and no amount of talk about the appealing character of the “Christmas myth” can validly gloss this over. (p. 157)

* * * * * * * * * *

If we are prepared to admit, even as a possibility, that Jesus was divine, or even that without being divine he was unique, then we must, as a matter of logic, discard any attempt to discredit the Gospel accounts on the ground that they record abnormal occurrences [i.e. miracles]. (p. 211-212).

* * * * * * * * * *

I do not wish to imply that God the Son could not, absolutely speaking, have become incarnate by a non-virginal conception, any more than I should wish to deny that God might, absolutely speaking, have redeemed mankind without becoming incarnate at all; it is always unwise to place limits to the power of God. What we can see is that both an incarnation and a virginal conception were thoroughly appropriate to the needs and circumstances of the case and were more “natural,” in the sense of more appropriate, than the alternatives . . . In practice, denial of the virginal conception or inability to see its relevance almost always goes with an inadequate understanding of the Incarnation and of the Christian religion in general. (p. 270-271)

* * * * * * * * * *

The critical scholar is not committed, within the area of his research, to accepting the Church’s presuppositions about Jesus, but he should not be committed to accepting naturalistic presuppositions either. If he does accept the latter, then the results of his research will in all probability contradict the beliefs of the Church, but this is because he has begged the question from the start. In examining, for instance, the evidence for the virginal conception [of Jesus], if he begins with the presupposition that such an event is impossible he will end with the same conclusion; if he begins with the presupposition that it is possible he may end with the conclusion that the evidence for it is good or that it is bad or that it is inconclusive. This is as far as scholarship can take him. The Christian will accept the virginal conception as part of the Church’s faith. In the rare cases where faith appears to be contradicted by scholarship whose conclusions have not been prescribed from the start, [the critical scholar] may be cast down but will not be destroyed. For he will know how temporary and mutable the conclusions of scholarship essentially are, and he will also be conscious that he himself may not have perfectly comprehended the Church’s faith. (p. 276)

* * * * * * * * * *

Enough has . . . been said to show that the impoverished secularised versions of Christianity which are being urged upon us for our acceptance today rest not upon the rigid application of the methods of scientific scholarship nor upon a serious intuitive appreciation of the Gospels as a whole in their natural context, but upon a radical distaste for the supernatural.  (p. 282)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

J.B. Phillips on Who Jesus is

In my youth I became familiar with the J.B. Phillips New Testament, and some of its striking translations (more properly, paraphrases) are permanently and helpfully lodged in my mind. I shared one of them on this blog a couple of weeks ago . . . 

“With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” (Romans 12:1-2)

J.B. Phillips (1906-1982) was a priest in the Church of England, remembered for his skill in communicating the Gospel message in fresh and memorable ways. During World War II he used his time in the bomb shelters during the London Blitz to begin a translation of the New Testament into modern English, starting with the Epistle to the Colossians. The results appealed to the young people of his day. After the war he continued to work the rest into colloquial English. Phillips also translated parts of the Old Testament. In 1963 he released translations of Isaiah 1-39, Hosea, Amos, and Micah. This was titled Four Prophets: Amos, Hosea, First Isaiah, Micah: A Modern Translation from the Hebrew. After that, he did not translate the Old Testament any further. He often spoke of the revelation he received as he translated the New Testament, describing it as “extraordinarily alive” unlike any experience he had with non-scriptural ancient texts. He referred to the scriptures speaking to his life in an “uncanny way.” His other triumph - by the all-sufficient grace of God - was that he remained faithful to his vocation and ministry while at the same time enduring crushing bouts of real depression.

In addition to his translation work, Phillips wrote a number of books in which he shared the impact of the Gospel on his own life. Here are some passages about Jesus, who he is, and the difference he can make if we surrender to his love.

We may with complete detachment study and form a judgment upon a religion, but we cannot maintain our detachment if the subject of our inquiry proves to be God Himself. This is, of course, why many otherwise honest intellectual people will construct a neat by-pass around the claim of Jesus to be God. Being people of insight and imagination, they know perfectly well that once to accept such a claim as fact would mean a readjustment of their own purposes and values and affections which they may have no wish to make. To call Jesus the greatest Figure in History or the finest Moral Teacher the world has ever seen commits no one to anything. But once to allow the startled mind to accept as fact that this man is really focused-God may commit anyone to anything! There is every excuse for blundering in the dark, but in the light there is no cover from reality. It is because we strongly sense this, and not merely because we feel that the evidence is ancient and scanty, that we shrink from committing ourselves to such a far-reaching belief as that Jesus Christ was really God.
- Your God is Too Small [1953], Simon and Schuster, 2004, p. 83  

It is, of course, impossible to exaggerate the importance of the historicity of what is commonly known as the Resurrection. If, after all His claims and promises, Christ had died and merely lived on as a fragrant memory, He would only be revered as an extremely good but profoundly mistaken man. His claims to be God, His claims to be Himself the very principle of life, would be mere self-delusion. His authoritative pronouncements on the nature of God and Man and Life would be at once suspect. Why should He be right about the lesser things if He was proved to be completely wrong in the greater?
-Your God is Too Small [1953], Simon and Schuster, 2004, p. 110  

I have heard professing Christians of our own day speak as though the historicity of the Gospels does not matter—all that matters is the contemporary Spirit of Christ. I contend that the historicity does matter, and I do not see why we, who live nearly two thousand years later, should call into question an Event for which there were many eye-witnesses still living at the time when most of the New Testament was written. It was no “cunningly devised fable” but an historic irruption of God into human history which gave birth to a young church so sturdy that the pagan world could not stifle or destroy it.
- Ring of Truth, London: Hodder & Stoughton; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967, p. 40-41

Much of today’s Christianity is almost completely earthbound, and the words of Jesus about what follows this life are scarcely studied at all. This, I believe, is partly due to man’s enormous technical successes, which make him feel master of the human situation. But it is also partly due to our scholars and experts. By the time they have finished with their dissection of the New Testament and with their explaining away as “myth” all that they find disquieting or unacceptable to the modern mind, the Christian way of life is little more than humanism with a slight tinge of religion.
- Ring of Truth, London: Hodder & Stoughton; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967, p. 102

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Eucharist and Jesus the Bridegroom

I have just read Dr Brant Pitre's book, JESUS THE BRIDEGROOM. Written for the non specialist, it is really a 200 page Bible study on nuptiality, demonstrating that the bride-bridegroom imagery of Scripture is the fundamental undergirding symbol or icon of the Christian revelation, and not just one set of optional (and disposable!) metaphors that might have helped people in less enlightened ages than ours. I recommend JESUS THE BRIDEGROOM to all who might not grasp the violence done to the very basics of the God-given iconography at the heart of the Christian faith by the purported ordination of women priests and bishops. As John Saward said in his 1977 paper "Christ and His Bride", "He who images the heavenly bridegroom must be male."

I share with you today a section from JESUS THE BRIDEGROOM on the nuptiality of the Eucharist (hoping that it inspires you to buy the book!)


For many Christians the Lord's Supper is primarily a “memorial” of the Last Supper and the events of the night on which Jesus was betrayed. As Jesus says: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). For others, it is a banquet of “thanksgiving” (Greek eucharistia) offered to God in gratitude for the gift of salvation, in union with Jesus, who “gave thanks” (Greek eucharistesas) over the bread and wine before he died (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23). For still others, the Eucharist is primarily a sacrifice, in which the bloody sacrifice of the cross is made present through the unbloody offering of bread and wine, as described by the apostle Paul: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

However, when we look at the mystery of the Eucharist through the lens of Jesus’ passion and death as the Bridegroom Messiah, another meaning comes to light. If Jesus is the Bridegroom and the Church is his bride, the Lord’s Supper is not just a memorial, or a banquet of “thanksgiving,” or a sacrifice; it is also a wedding banquet in which Jesus gives himself entirely to his bride in a new and everlasting marriage covenant.


One doesn’t have to look very hard or long to find abundant evidence in ancient Christianity for the understanding of the Eucharist as the wedding banquet of Christ and the Church.

As we’ve already seen, there are hints of just such an understanding in the book of Revelation’s description of a heavenly “wedding banquet” to which the disciples of Jesus are invited:

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” - for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

As we have seen earlier, on one hand, the wedding supper described here is a representation of the heavenly kingdom of God and the end of time. On the other hand, it is also an allusion to the wedding banquet of the Eucharist, to which Christians on earth (known as the “saints”) are invited. As theologian Roch Kereszty writes: 

The eucharistic connotation of the wedding feast . . . is hard to miss. Already in the 50s in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul uses the phrase deipnon kuriakon [Greek for “supper of the Lord”] to designate the Eucharist.” 

In other words, the book of Revelation is deliberately describing the heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God in terms that are evocative of the Lord s Supper, to which Christians are invited and for which they should prepare themselves. This supper is both a participation in heavenly glory and an anticipation of the eternal marriage that will be fulfilled at the end of time.

Indeed, following in the footsteps of the book of Revelation, Saint Augustine writes that every celebration of the Eucharist is a renewal of the wedding of Christ and the Church:

Every Celebration [of the Eucharist] is a celebration of Marriage; the Church’s nuptials are celebrated.The Kings Son is about to marry a wife, and the Kings Son [is] himself a King; and the guests frequenting the marriage are themselves the Bride . . . For all the Church is Christ’s Bride, of which the beginning and first-fruits is the Flesh of Christ, because there was the Bride joined to the Bridegroom in the flesh. (Augustine, Homilies on 1 John 2:12-17)

In other words, in the Eucharistic “marriage celebration” (Latin nuptiarum celebratio) Jesus the Bridegroom is united to the Church, not just in spirit, but in body as well. For while Jesus, as the divine Son of God, is spiritually present everywhere, in the Eucharist he is present bodily: it is the wedding banquet at which the Bridegroom Messiah is united to his bride in both body and spirit.


In a striking illustration of this mysterious union, Saint Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, describes the Lord’s Supper as the fulfillment of the “kiss” shared by the bridegroom and the bride in the Song of Songs. In one of his sermons to newly baptized Christians, Ambrose declares:

You have come to the altar, the Lord Jesus calls you, for the text speaks of you or of the Church, and he says to you: “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth”’[Song of Songs 1:1]. This word can be applied equally to Christ or to you. Do you wish to apply it to Christ? You see that you are pure from all sin, since your faults have been blotted out. This is why He judges you to be worthy of heavenly sacraments and invites you to the heavenly banquet: “May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth” [Song of Songs 1:1]. You wish to apply the same to yourself? Seeing yourself pure from all sins and worthy to come to the altar of Christ . . . You see the wonderful sacrament and you say: “May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth,” that is, may Christ give me a kiss. (Ambrose, On the Sacraments, 5:5—7)

What a grand vision of the Lord’s Supper! This is especially so when we recall the ancient Jewish interpretation of the Song of Songs as an allegory of the love of God for Israel as expressed through worship in the Temple. In the words of Jean Danielou, for the Church Fathers, the Eucharist was nothing less than “the kiss given by Christ to the soul, the expression of the union of love.” In this way, the Eucharist fulfills the longing of bridal Israel for union with her God.

There is, however, a dark side to the mystery of the eucharistic kiss. Saint John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop f Constantinople, uses the very same image to warn against receiving the Lord s Supper in a state of unrepented grave sin. In Eucharistic liturgy composed by Chrysostom, the Christian faithful pray these striking words:

O Son of God, bring me into communion today with your mystical supper. I shall not tell your enemies the secret, nor kiss you with Judas’ kiss. But like the good thief I cry, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (CCC 1386)

For the early Church Fathers, knowingly receiving the Eucharist in a state of grave sin is like recapitulating the “kiss” of betrayal given by Judas to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:47-48). Here again, sin is not just about breaking rules; it is the betrayal of a relationship.


The idea of the Eucharist as a wedding banquet is not something confined to the writings of ancient mystics or a few Church fathers. It too is part of the official teaching of the Catholic Church today.

Once again, Pope John Paul II brings this aspect to the fore when he teaches that in the Eucharist Jesus gives his bride the wedding gift of himself:

[With the Eucharist,! we find ourselves at the very heart of the Paschal Mystery, which completely reveals the spousal love of God. Christ is the Bridegroom because “he has given himself”: his body has been “given,” his blood has been “poured out” (cf. Luke 22:19-20). In this way “he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). The “sincere gift” contained in the Sacrifice of the Cross gives definitive prominence to the spousal meaning of God’s love . . . The Eucharist is the Sacrament of our Redemption. It is the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride. (John Paul II, Apostolic Letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women [Mulieris Dignitatem], no. 26)

How many people today think of the Eucharist in this way, as “the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride”? Yet if love is defined as the gift of oneself to another person, then the Eucharist is the highest possible expression of Jesus’ spousal love for the Church. In the Eucharist Jesus not only tells the Church he loves her; he shows his love by really and truly giving himself to her, in both body and spirit, as the divine Bridegroom. Note well that this kind of self-gift is only really possible if the Eucharist is not just a symbol of Jesus - like a wedding ring, for example - but Jesus himself: his actual body, blood, soul, and divinity.

Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI describes the Eucharist as the premier expression of the sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross when he writes:

The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation [self- sacrifice]. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos [“Word”], we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God’s presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing in his body and blood . . . We can thus understand how agape [Greek for “sacrificial love”] also became a term for the Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us. (Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter, God Is Love [Deus Caritas Est], nos. 13-14) 

For over four hundred years, one of the main debates between Protestants and Catholics has been over whether the Eucharist is a supper that calls to mind the Last Supper of Jesus or a sacrifice that makes present the self-offering of Jesus on Calvary. As Pope Benedict shows, the understanding of the Eucharist as a wedding banquet combines both of these notions into one: 

The Eucharist is both a wedding supper and a wedding sacrifice. It is the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), whose sacrificial love for the Church is expressed by the gift of his body and blood in the Upper Room and on Calvary. In other words, the Eucharist is a “nuptial sacrament” of both the Last Supper and the cross (Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacrament of Charity [Sacramentum Caritatis], no. 27).

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dr Pusey on the Psalms - Dr George Westhaver (from the Church Observer)

If there is something that really annoys me, something that leaves me feeling cheated at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, it is the growing practice of truncating the Psalmody of the Office. I have discovered this even at Sung Evensong in some of our great cathedrals, at the very time when many Christians of less liturgical traditions are rediscovering the power of the Psalter, as well as its Christological sense. The archive of this blog already contains a wonderful piece by Thomas Merton on the use of the Psalms in our daily prayer. Today I share with you an important article on Dr Pusey and the Psalms, written by Dr George Westhaver, Principal of Pusey House. It was published in the Easter edition of the Church Observer, the Church Union magazine.   

EVEN if his role as a leader of the Oxford movement was more than a decade away, the year 1828 was a momentous one for the young Edward Bouverie Pusey. In that year, at the age of only 28, Pusey became the Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford. Also in 1828, and after ten years of delay and frustration due to the scruples of two sets of parents, Pusey was finally able to marry Maria Baker. In the same year he was ordained both deacon and priest and became a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral.

The combination of these events is particularly fitting. For Pusey the prayers which described his marriage to Maria Baker as symbolic of the mystical union of Christ and the Church were not pious utterances to be left behind on the wedding day, but expressive of the basic reality which shaped his life and guided his work both in the University and in the Church. The union of the human and divine in Christ, the communion of the body of Christ with her Head, and the gift of the real and ineffable presence of the same risen and ascended Lord in the apparently weak symbols of bread and wine were for Pusey different aspects of one and the same mystery.

In the Incarnation, in the Church, and in the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, “Christ dwelleth in us and we in Him; whereby He is one with us, and we with Him”. Pusey struggled to adequately express this fundamental idea: “This is the comfort of the penitent, the joy of the faithful, the Paradise of the holy, the Heaven of those whose conversation is in Heaven ... spiritual peace, kindled hope, assured faith, burning thankfulness, that our Lord Jesus Christ, not in figure, but in reality, although a spiritual reality, does give Himself to us, does come to be in us.”

The prominence which Pusey gave in his sermons to the Incarnation, the Church, and the Sacraments also shaped his understanding of the Bible. For Pusey, the importance of the Bible extended beyond the information it conveyed, beyond even its role, in the bosom of the Church, as a teacher of saving doctrine.

Pusey also taught that the Bible has a kind of sacramental power by which it can serve as an instrument of communion, a means of participation in the divine life. In other words, the Bible does not just teach about the Incarnation, but rather, these “earthly words ... are full of the Word” and so communicate life to the members of his Body, the Church.

In particular, Pusey emphasised the importance of reading and praying the Psalms. He argued that both the New Testament and the writings of the early centuries of the Church encourage us to see the person and the work of Christ as the primary subject matter of the psalms.

For Pusey, finding Christ in the psalms means seeing how the whole of the Old Testament, the struggles and trials of the people of Israel, their hopes and failures, were prophetic both of what Christ accomplished and taught by his Incarnation, and of his manner of presence in his body through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

If the Holy Spirit illumined David and Moses and the authors of the psalms, if the psalms have any place in the Bible, then the Spirit which inspires them testifies of Christ. This testimony is never incidental or secondary, it is the most important thing. This approach builds on the words of the Risen Christ to his disciples on the first Easter day when he told them that his teaching and work was prophesied in the psalms as well as in the law and the prophets (Luke 24.44).

However much modern approaches have changed the way people understand the Bible and the psalms, the prominence of the psalms in Christian worships, and especially the selection of psalms for particular days of the Christian Calendar, arises from this traditional approach which Pusey represents.

At the same time, Pusey’s emphasis on the psalms as prophetic of Christ does not mean that one denies the significance of the context in which they were written. Rather, the more we know about the authors of the psalms and the historical events which they describe, the more we will understand the particular way in which they reveal or speak of Christ and the Christian life also. While sometimes the psalms seem to be without any form or comeliness that we should see Christ in them (Isaiah 53.2), by the light of the Resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit we recognize their profound beauty and truth.

Hearing Christ in the psalms is a form of recognising the risen body of our Lord which is changed and made both more real and spiritual by the resurrection, but it is not destroyed. It is also because of this transfiguration of meaning that the Christian can read the curses of the psalms as expressions of the Christians struggle against sin, as words which reveal the character of love and the voice of Christ.

Pusey’s interpretation of Psalm 40 exemplifies this approach: “I waited patiently for the Lord: and he inclined unto me, and heard my calling. He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and day: and set my feet upon a rock, and ordered my goings. (Ps 40.1-2)” He finds in this psalm the prayer of the Son who waited patiently on the Father and who was raised on the third day from the pit of hell.

Pusey also finds here a description of the risen life of the Christian, how the Father “out of the mire and prison house of sin, raised us in Christ, and in Him, our Rock, gave us power to stand firmly, and in Him directed our steps toward himself”. The psalm which speaks of the Head also speaks of the Body: “Since then”, argues Pusey, “He has taken our nature, and joined it to Himself it is nothing strange but rather in harmony therewith, that the words wherein He speaks, should so include us, as at times to belong to us rather than to Himself.”

In this Pusey draws on a principle which he found in St Augustine and in his fusion of Christ’s description of marriage with St Paul’s interpretation of the union of man and woman as symbolizing the bond between Christ and the Church:“If therefore He Himself hath said, they are no more twain, but one flesh, what wonder if, as they are but one flesh, they should have but one tongue, and the same as being but one flesh, the Head and the Body”.

Pusey also emphasizes that the Psalms served as the prayers of Christ during the time of his earthly ministry: ‘“Thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption” (Ps. 16.11). While Old Testament prophecy reveals what the Incarnate Son would accomplish and the Gospels describe his acts or communicate his teaching, “the Psalms (to speak reverently) shadow forth to us a reality beyond all thought, the thoughts with which He communed with his Father”’.

The psalms which both speak of the Head and serve as his prayers have a kind of “sacramental force as being used in Him, and being his words in us, addressed to the Father as the words of the Son”. Sharing in Son’s communication with the Father by praying the Psalms is a sacramental reading by which the members of the Body grow in holiness and, Pusey adds, are “fitted to receive the mind of the Spirit”.

Pusey is well known for teaching that the Incarnation, the union of Christ and his Church and the communion of the life of Christ through the sacraments were different aspects of the same reality. He also described the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms, as possessing a “mysterious virtue”, a power analogous to the “holy mysteries”, to the sacraments, to serve as a means of communion as well as a form of revelation.

One might challenge the ardour of his language and the precise form of his argument. At the same time, we can learn from him the great privilege of praying the psalms in Christian worship and expect to find there not only the prayers of our own hearts, but also to hear and encounter the risen and ascended Lord.