St. John of Damascus

One of the significant challenges that Christianity faced in the later centuries of the Early Church was the rise of Islam.  Following Muhammad’s death in 632, his successors built an empire from Medina and Mecca that overshadowed the Middle East and Northern Africa, and the Muslim religion followed on its heels.  Many regions that were predominantly Christian were, by the 8th century, ruled by Muslims, and the new religion was spreading.

The theological and cultural clashes were inevitable, and had an enormous impact on the beliefs and cultures of those around them.  One example of this can be found in Islamic iconoclasm.  Iconoclasm is a word that refers to the rejection (and destruction) of pictures and images.  In the religious context, specifically, Muslims rejected all depictions of people – taking a strict interpretation of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) wherein it reads “you shall not make any idol or graven image.”  In general, Christians had taken a significantly more lenient interpretation, allowing images of anything that God has visually revealed, including humans, and our Lord Jesus himself.  But there were strains of iconoclasm in Christian thought, and the Muslim influence brought that to the fore.

Through much of the 8th century, the Church underwent an “Iconoclast Controversy”.  The Byzantine Emperor, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Patriarch (Pope) of Rome each played major roles in the course of the debate, and eventually settled in 787 with the Seventh Ecumenical Council, ruling in favor of the use of icons in worship.  Not everyone was convinced, naturally, and many of the same arguments replayed in the following century, ultimately coming to the same conclusion.  East and West came out with different beliefs and customs and rules regarding icons and images, however, and latent iconoclasm would reappear from time to time throughout history, most noteably among many of the Protestant Reformers.  For example, to this day, Calvinism is an iconoclast version of the Christian faith, rejecting the use of all images of Jesus, even for educational purposes.  The Anglican tradition was greatly affected by this early in the English Reformation, but iconoclasm did not endure in Anglican thought and practice.

One of the strongest voices on this subject in the 8th century was that of Saint John of Damascus.  Living in Syria and near Jerusalem for most of his life, he was well-versed in Muslim thought and culture, even able to read Arabic in addition to Greek and Latin.  But as a Christian monk and priest, he was also well-educated in the Christian faith.  He wrote treatises against Islam, which are insightful to this day, and he was a major supporter of the use of icons in Christian worship and piety.  His voice was among the ascendant party at the seventh ecumenical council.

Far from being a one-trick pony, however, John also wrote about theology, christology,  wrote some hymns that still survive in the Byzantine liturgy, and penned what is essentially the first systematic theology text in the Eastern Christian tradition.  Thus, when he addressed specific issues like that of icons and iconoclasm, he approached it not only from an exposition of the Decalogue, but also with a mind on the two natures of Christ (divine and human) and the singularity of his person (one Christ).  All this has earned him a place of high memory and importance in the Orthodox Church, and the rare title “Doctor of the Church” in Western Catholicism.

Some consider him the “last of the Church Fathers,” as the divergence between the Eastern and Western traditions grew wider over the following centuries.  The Seventh Ecumenical Council, indeed, would prove to be the last fully agreed upon by both Constantinople (East) and Rome (West), so Saint John’s work and generation truly were the end of an era.  He is commemorated on December 4th.

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The Bible is Self-Reflective

this is part sixteen of the series “The Bible Is

One of the greatest features of the Bible is that it is the literary equivalent of being self-aware.  Taking things a step beyond the reality that the Bible was written with multiple perspectives contributing, it is also important and helpful to observe that the Bible’s various writings interact with one another.  The Prophets quote the Law, the Gospels quote the Old Testament, the Epistles make reference to the Gospels and Acts, and so on.  Sometimes these self-reflective moments in the Bible are simple matter of  cut-and-paste quotations, simply reinforcing the message of the earlier writings.  Sometimes new context and information is added, expanding the reader’s understanding of both texts.  Sometimes a whole new line of interpretation is offered, such as Jesus’ revelation when, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).  The last two books to be considered, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, are excellent examples of the self-reflective nature of the Bible.

The book known as The Wisdom of Solomon, or Wisdom for short, is a late work of Jewish Wisdom written in the name of King Solomon, to whom parts of the book of Proverbs is attributed.  Its opening chapters contain memorable discourses on the virtue of righteousness from God and its apparent foolishness to the wicked, whose twisted way of thinking is vividly depicted and easily applied to the mindset of those who crucified Jesus.  The fruit of righteousness and virtue, and the triumph of God’s people on the day of judgment, is also expounded, leading up to some discourses on the nature of wisdom, much like what is found in the opening chapters of the book of Proverbs.  Also, again, Wisdom is personified as a woman, and most of the second half of this book is an exploration of the events and characters described in the books of Genesis and Exodus from the perspective of God’s Wisdom leading his people.  Noting that the Old Testament Wisdom figure has been interpreted by the Church to be Jesus, this book proves quite an interesting resource for the Christian seeking to see Jesus, particularly in the story of the exodus.

The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, or Sirach for short, is also known as Ecclesiasticus, referring to its status as specifically a “church book” as it was not adopted into the formal Jewish canon.  It is similar in style to Wisdom in its favoring of longer discourses over individual sayings, and to Proverbs in its lack of a clearly-defined thematic structure.  This book focuses more on the practical things of living a godly life – the need for God’s Wisdom, how one should act toward parents, authority, the needy, and so forth.  Starting in chapter 38, some noteworthy discourses about health, work, and labor can be found, offering extremely rare insight into a godly approach toward “secular professions”.  Perhaps most famously, chapters 44-50 contain another tour of Old Testament history.  Unlike Wisdom 10-19, however, these chapters focus on how the Wisdom of God led and inspired various people throughout Old Testament history, from Enoch (in Genesis) to Simon (in the books of the Maccabees).  These chapters focus on the positive examples of these heroes, akin to the famous “hall of faith” in the 11th chapter of HebrewsEcclesiasticus ends with the author’s prayer for wisdom.

Together, these books give us not only an extension of the wisdom literature championed by the book of Proverbs, but also reveal the development of Jewish thought and biblical interpretation as the 1st century approached.  We see how the community of faith reflected back upon the Hebrew Scriptures, and (to a large extent) anticipated the sort of interpretation that would be taken up by the Church under the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus.  While there are some ideas here that would prove to be theological dead ends, overwritten by the New Testament’s teaching, the bulk of these books are extremely insightful, and fruitful for the Christian reader today, both in understanding the Old Testament better, and learning how to live a godly life.

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Musical Notes: Harvest Home

One of the great Thanksgiving hymns is Come, ye thankful people, come, or alternatively known by a phrase it uses several times, Harvest Home.  The genius of this hymn’s lyrics is the multiple layers of meaning that are all appropriate for this time of year.

Come, ye thankful people, come,
raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in,
ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide
for our wants to be supplied;
come to God’s own temple, come,
raise the song of harvest home.

The first stanza is almost exclusively focused on the “Thanksgiving Day” layer by calling us to give thanks for God’s providence in the crops that have been harvested by the end of the season.  It is a good and godly reminder that all things come from Him, and that we ought to offer him hearty thanks for all the blessings of this life.  The second stanza adds the second layer of meaning:

All the world is God’s own field,
fruit as praise to God we yield;
wheat and tares together sown
are to joy or sorrow grown;
first the blade and then the ear,
then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we
wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take the harvest home;
from the field shall in that day
all offenses purge away,
giving angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast;
but the fruitful ears to store
in the garner evermore.

Several of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God make use of field imagery, likening the Gospel to seed and his people to crops, especially wheat (or “corn” in the generic sense of the word).  The second and third stanzas weave together the ideas of several of those parables and point us to the spiritual harvest at the end of the age when Jesus returns with his angels to gather his people together and cast out the wicked.  This connects well with the Gospel readings of late Trinitytide season and beginning of Advent, which also deal with the Kingdom of God, the last judgment, and the end of the age.

The hymn ends with a prayer:

Even so, Lord, quickly come,
bring thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin,
there, forever purified,
in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest home.

With the final harvest and judgment in mind, we pray that Jesus would complete his work in us and in the world.  We pray for complete sanctification: freedom from sorrow and sin, and to be God’s “glorious harvest”.  We pray for rest in our eternal heavenly home.

Where Thanksgiving Day is usually a backwards-looks day (giving thanks for blessings we have already received), this hymn unusually gives it a forward-looking dimension.  Amen; come, Lord Jesus!

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St. Clement of Rome

One of the tough questions to ask about the Saints and Church History is who are the “most important” people to know about.  It is perhaps obvious that the “most important” figures in the history of Christianity are those who knew Jesus personally and continued his ministry throughout the known world after his ascension.  These people comprise the bulk of the Major Feast Days in the Prayer Book, averaging 2 or 3 such commemorations each month.

It is the second generation of church leaders, however, where we transition from “biblical history” to regular history.  How the teaching of the Apostles was understood and transmitted through the rest of the 1st century not only gives us key insight into the course of Church History ever since, but also clues for the right interpretation of the New Testament itself – how the Apostles’ best students understood the teaching of the Apostles can be very informative for how we interpret the Apostles’ writings!  This generation of leaders, through the late 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd, is known as “The Apostolic Fathers”, and one of their most prominent members is Saint Clement of Rome.

Clement was a bishop in Rome, serving as the chief overseer there (or diocesan bishop, or Pope, depending upon whom you ask) for about 10 years until his martyrdom with a year of 100AD.  He was reportedly consecrated by the Apostle St. Peter, along with the two bishops who served between Peter’s and Clement’s episcopacy.  It is further theorized that this Clement may be the one mentioned in Philippians 4:3.

About his life, little is known for sure.  But one of his writings, an epistle to the church in Corinth, survives as a monumental resource.  Like St. Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians, Clement’s letter also addresses a division going on in Corinth, exhorting them to unity.  And since Clement can’t appeal to his own role in their past like Paul did, Clement instead reminds them of their call to unity by following (or listening to) their clergymen.  He reminds them of various other doctrines along the way, making his epistle read very much like one of the New Testament epistles.  In fact, the antiquity of this epistle, 1 Clement, is such that it actually was treated as part of the New Testament by a few early Christians and congregations before the full New Testament canon was agreed upon.

Even though it was eventually not included in the canon, 1 Clement is massively useful to this day.  Its many quotes and references to the Old and New Testaments reveal a Christian community already steeped in a variety of texts that we now know as the Bible.  This serves as evidence against those who argue that the New Testament was written later in the name of the Apostles.  This epistle also demonstrates the accessibility of the New Testament writings, serving as evidence against those who argue that the New Testament did not functionally exist until the 3rd or 4th century.

There are other writings traditionally attributed to St. Clement, such as the excellent sermon labeled 2 Clement, but recent scholarship has strongly indicated that they belong to other authors slightly later than Clement’s time.

Even with only one surviving letter to his name, Clement’s contribution to drawing the link between “the church of the New Testament” and “the church of history” is vital.  Catholics and Protestants alike find great value in Clement’s legacy.  Saint Clement died within a year of 100AD, and is commemorated on November 23rd.

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St. Aelfric

One of the challenges of studying history is the varied levels of documentation that survives today.  Major events are better-documented than minor events.  Leaders and famous men and women are better attested than ordinary folk in the annals of history.  The further back in time you look, the more pronounced this difficulty becomes.  For many key historical figures we only have one or two contemporary documents that tell us everything we know about them.  For the Greek and Roman Empires, and the Apostolic Fathers (the first century of Christianity) this is almost universally the case.

Sometimes these limited resources even make it difficult to reconstruct who was whom.  In the New Testament, for example, there are several people named Mary, James/Jacob, Simon/Simeon, and Jude/Judas.  Opinions vary on precisely who each of these key figures are.  We celebrate and remember them all… we just don’t always know for sure if we’ve split one person into two, or combined two into one.

This sort of challenge exists through other phases of Church History also.  An English Saint by the name of Aelfric (pronounced Alf-rich) is celebrated this week.  Traditionally he has been identified as the first abbot of a minster in the village of Eynsham, an abbot at Abingdon, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He lived in the 900’s and early 1000’s, during what is sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon Renaissance – a time of relative peace from Viking invasion, consolidation of the newly-united Anglaland (England), and significant flourishing of Old English writings, along with political and ecclesial reform, traceable to the efforts of King Alfred the Great nearly a century before.

In the 19th century, scholars divided this man into two: Aelfric of Abingdon, an abbot who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was involved in the improvement of clergy discipline and education across England, was a model of peaceful cooperation with the King (even serving as a judge for when some thegns, or nobles, had disputes), and staffed Canterbury Cathedral with monks instead of secular clergy.  Aelfric of Eynsham, meanwhile, was only the (first) abbot of Eynsham, and said to have lived slightly later than the other Aelfric.  This man was also known as the Grammarian because he wrote a Latin grammar book in Old English (the first of its kind in all of Europe!), or as the Homilist because he was a prolific writer of homilies and other religious works.

These writings in particular are what make Aelfric such an important figure in retrospect, if not especially famous in his own day.  A large body of Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature that survives today is credited to his hand.  Not only has he gifted us with remarkable insight into the grammar of form of the Old English language, but his works preserve an unusually wide snapshot of Anglo-Saxon religion and theology.  The English Reformers even appealed to his writings to attack the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation by showing that what Rome claimed as dogmatic was clearly refuted centuries beforehand without controversy.

Aelfric of Abingdon died on the 16th of November, 1005, which has served as his commemoration date ever since.  Aelfric of Eynsham’s death date is unknown, apart from the estimation of the year 1010.  Therefore, whether this is one man or two, we remember “Saint Aelfric” on November 16th.

* * *

On a personal note, Aelfric is a very special person to me.  I studied Anglo-Saxon English in both semesters of my last year of undergraduate studies.  Aelfric (the grammarian) was a major feature of that class, as we learned about 10th century English culture through his Colloquies (grammar book).  Our professor was also a Christian and well-versed in history though he was an English professor, so he brought all the more cultural, linguistic, and religious insights to our study.

I went on to draw from this introductory knowledge and study throughout my years in seminary, dedicating at least two final papers to the writings of the Anglo-Saxon church.  One of Aelfric’s Easter homilies featured heavily in my work, and I went on to re-translate, shorten, and preach it for Easter Day in 2015.

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Look, I even have a tile coaster declaring my undying love for this dude!

He has become, in a sense, my “patron saint” – a mentor from a thousand years ago whose work continues to intrigue and inspire me.  His love of learning and teaching, his use of the local language and respect for tradition, and study of the Scriptures, model many of my own passions for ministry.  He is also, fittingly, the namesake of my liturgical Customary project.

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Lest We Forget (Remembrance Day)

INTRODUCTION

Veterans Day, known in several other countries as Remembrance Day, previously named Armistice Day: as we have heard, this was originally a day set aside to celebrate the end of the War to End All Wars.  As further wars and atrocities have rocked the world since 1918, we’ve broadened this date to commemorate all our veterans.  It is a national holiday; part of the liturgy of the State, if you will.  The Church, therefore, is free to observe it to whatever extent she sees fit.  Normally it merits only the brief attentions of a special prayer and hymn in the Sunday Communion service – we have All Saints’ Day and various other saints days and commemorations to remember those who have gone before us.  But this year is exceptional.  Today is the centenary of the Armistice that ended the Great War, the 100th anniversary of the event that originated this national holiday.  So this time it is not just a special song and an extra prayer; we’re committing this whole worship service to giving due consideration to this day of remembrance.

Perhaps the first thing we should consider, when looking at how to address a given State or political entity, is the nature of the only perfect state: the Kingdom of God.  The Christian’s citizenship is in heaven, Saint Paul wrote, and that kingdom is already coming among us and within us, Jesus taught.  This Kingdom is a mystical unity, a Body, the Bride of Christ.  It demands our highest allegiance, even unto death.  It redefines all earthly relationships, and sets all moral standards, and is founded on the foundational document of the Bible.  Its heroes are those who have stood most prominently for the cause of the Gospel, no matter the danger, no matter the cost.  The Kingdom of God reminds us that God is Lord of the whole world, not just our “religious” life.  Although there is much in earthly kingdoms and states that is analogous to the Kingdom of God, earthly rulers and politics inevitably fail us both in times of prosperity and in trouble.  So we are reminded that we need God to be present as Judge, to save the world from its evils.  We are reminded that we need God to unite us as his nation, across all man-made divisions.  This we will pray and sing at the end of the liturgy this morning.

But for right now, let us back especially at what happened 100 years ago that brought this commemoration into being, and gives us such pause for thought and contemplation.  The Great War, World War 1, is a very strange and difficult war to understand.  It was, in a way, the last gentlemanly war of Europe, and the first modern war of ruthless destruction.  It was like a civil war, with soldiers on both sides being intimately familiar with one another’s homelands: thousands of Germans had left their jobs in England when hostilities began, and found themselves shooting at men and boys from their “home towns,” and a good many English nobles found themselves losing German titles.  But it was also a war of great prejudices, of demonizing the enemy in relentless propaganda.  It was less a war of ideals, like World War 2, and more a war of nationalism-gone-mad.  In many ways it feels like one of the more pointless wars in European history: there was no good reason to start it, and it accomplished nothing of enduring value in the end.  And from the Church’s perspective, it was especially thorny to deal with because both sides appealed to the name of Christ for their respective causes.  Clearly the love of God and the love of Country was not properly synchronized; nationalism had become an idolatry on both sides, and the world would pay dearly for such poor doctrine.

With the Kingdom of God in mind, let us consider the Great War as a marvelous case study in the dynamic between good nationalism and bad nationalism, biblical patriotism and idolatry.

GOOD NATIONALISM

Let’s start with the good.  Biblical patriotism is modeled in the Old Testament and taught in the New.  King David, even after he was informed he was to be the next King of Israel, and was anointed by Samuel the Prophet, refused to kill King Saul.  Saul was still the anointed King, and even though David knew and believed God’s promise to him, he refused to take matters into his own hands.  And so he endured several years of bitter struggle as Saul alternately tolerated him and sought to kill him.  In the New Testament, St. Paul wrote that earthly authority – even governors and kings – are to be respected.  Much like how the Prophet Jeremiah instructed the Hebrew exiles to live patiently in Babylon and pray for the welfare of that city and the king who conquered them and destroyed Jerusalem, Paul also taught that the government does not “wield the sword in vain.”  Even when the state is corrupt and immoral and hostile to God’s people, the Christian is to respect these earthly authorities as if from the Lord.  Throughout history, God has worked through wicked rulers to work punishment and chastisement; if we find evil among our leadership today, our first question should not be why the world is so evil, but how we, the Church, have fallen short of our calling in Christ.

Of course, there is the question of extremes.  We do not obey man such that we disobey God.  When a ruler instructs us to sin, we refrain and prepare to receive the consequences, as Daniel the Prophet and his three friends demonstrated, as did countless martyrs of the Early Church.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer too, in the Second World War, concluded that Christian silence under their Fuhrer’s sinful administration was tantamount to complicity, and it was time to take drastic action to end the Nazi menace for the sake of all the innocent sufferers at their hands.  When a Christian opposes a government, it is out of love and obedience for Christ, and with full conviction and due respect.

One example of how this played out, in an unofficial manner, was the Christmas Day Armistice of 1914.  It is a heart-warning tale, easily surrounded with rumor and legend, but nonetheless fascinating and wonderful.  Several months into a slow and bloody war that everyone thought would be a very brief affair and easy victory, soldiers were getting tired of the trench warfare that the Western Front had stalemated into.  The Germans, especially, were keen to celebrate Christmas.  Setting aside the call of Kaiser, they set up their little tannenbaums on the fences over their trenches, hazarding even to light them in the dark of Christmas Eve.  They started singing Christmas carols, and calling to the English soldiers across No Man’s Land in broken English “we no shoot, you no shoot!”  Even the French and Belgian soldiers generally accepted this temporary truce.  It wasn’t perfectly peaceful everywhere, but much of the Western Front enjoyed the exchange of singing, momentos, and foodstuffs.  A spirit of Christian charity prevailed over the politics of the day.  They allowed, even helped each other, to bury their dead – there were bodies in No Man’s Land that had lain there for as long as two months!  The virtuous desire to honor the dead with burial, to respect their brothers in Christ, and to celebrate the birth of our Lord took hold.  It’s kind of a magical tale, shining in what is probably the bleakest war of Western memory.

That respect for the dead also found its way into the artistic and religious psyche of the Western world.  This is when simple prayers like “may they rest in peace” and “may God’s light perpetually shine on them” started to return to Protestant worship.  Famous poems, also, commemorated the fallen, for example:

For the Fallen, by Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. *
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

* These beautiful lines use imagery parallel with the description of the departed in Revelation 7.

And so today, we aim to honor both the departed and the survivors – the veterans – of war.  And we seek to pay that honor both in word and deed.  The Collect both for Memorial Day and Veterans Day remembers “with grateful hearts the men and women of our armed forces, who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy” and prays “that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.”  So it is not single-minded vision of the past that we conjure up today, but also a square look at ourselves in the present day.  They fought for the future, they fought for us… so what are we doing today?  How do we vindicate their efforts, so to speak?  How do we make and maintain a society that is worth fighting for?  This prayer, in particular, reminds us to consider the benefits of freedom, and if and how such is afforded to all.  Biblical patriotism is no mere passive obedience to the state, but also an honest effort to make our world a better place.

BAD NATIONALISM

The Great War also showed us some very terrible things.  Its survivors formed what was termed “the Lost Generation.”  The arts and philosophy were severely impacted by that long and bitter conflict.  A culture that was very forward-looking, confident in the progress of man and the triumph of civilized society had its illusions shattered.  The idea that the world is on an upward course of divinely-inspired triumph gave way to an image of futility.  Theology, too, was affected by this: where many people had believed in an End Times view of increasing glory and virtue until Jesus returned to crown things off, popular vision swung around to a view of increasing wickedness and tribulation until Jesus returns to destroy the wicked and build his new and perfect kingdom.

For the idol of nationalism had taken hold of the Western world, and skewed their worldview accordingly.  The myth of racial superiority, the arrogance of cultural superiority, the blind love of country that led to the hatred of all others had built a house that could not stand, and God, in his providence, used the Great War to begin to demolish that false belief.  In the later years of the war, when the horrors of trench warfare and gas warfare had set in upon the psyche of millions of soldiers, poems like this emerged:

Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin quote at the end is from the Roman poet Horace: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori translates to “how sweet and fitting it is for one’s country to die.”  The glorification of war “for king and country” was finally being dismantled.  The truth of General Sherman’s words half a century earlier was made all the more clear in the 1910’s: “War is hell.”

WHERE IS GOD IN THE MIDST OF ALL THIS?

A very fair question at this juncture is “Where is God in the midst of all this?”  Indeed, atheism skyrocketed after the Great War, as many churches, crippled in part by poor theology, were unable to cope with the reality of what had happened to “the civilized world.”  Philosophies like Nietzsche’s “death of God” from the previous generation found new ground, and more and more people gave up on religion entirely.  The Lost Generation was “lost” in more ways than one.

One of the quick and easy answers I’ve already mentioned is that God was present in judgment.  A sort of decadence and false belief about equating human progress with divine initiative, and nationalism with divine will, and imperialism with divine imperative, had sickened many Western churches.  Just as the Israelites demolished Canaanite altars, and early missionaries chopped down the pagans’ sacred trees in northern Europe, God was pulling the rug out from Europe’s self-perceived superior civilization.  He was very present in the Great War, especially as Judge.

That isn’t very comforting, of course, and the process of repentance is seldom comfortable.  But there is more than can be said about God’s presence in the midst of that, and indeed any, war.  Jesus is also a “man of sorrows.”  He is present with the suffering and the downtrodden, he identifies with the weak and lowly, he is served in our service of the ill and injured.  And, as some of our Scripture readings today add, Jesus is present also with the dying and the departed.

Wisdom 3 assures us that God holds all souls in life, even though they die.  The righteous, in God’s hands, are free from further torment and suffering; they have received great good; when it is time for the dead to rise at Christ’s return, they will be like the sparks lighting a great fire – welcoming the Light of Christ which will illuminate the world forever.  Further, Revelation 7 describes the martyrs as alive and worshiping in heaven.  In their many languages and nationalities, the dead in Christ are spiritually alive, at peace, and in joy.  “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat… and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  These are, at last, words comfort.

But it is the Gospel reading, from John 11, that really tackles the question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering and loss: “Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.  This is the real kicker – where was Jesus in the trenches of the Great War?  Where was Jesus in the holocaust under the Third Reich 25 years later?  Where was Jesus in the jungles of Vietnam or the deserts of Iraq?  Martha of Bethany sees her hope of her brother’s resurrection at the end of the age, but Jesus brings it into sharper reality: “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  He brings into most certain assured truth what Wisdom 3 only hoped for: that the souls of the righteous are eternally with the Lord, even in the midst of death.  The challenge, then, as Jesus puts it, is “Do you believe this?”  May we, with Martha of Bethany, have the faith to say “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.

FINAL WORD

To wrap up, Let’s begin where we started.  Let us “with grateful hearts [remember] the men and women of our armed forces, who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.”  As we mourn the wickedness, the evils, and the suffering endured by soldier and civilian alike, we also look with hope to Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, in whose hands God’s people will always remain.  We look also to Jesus as our Great Physician, who alone can heal all wounds, if not in this life, but for the life to come.

And finally we look whence Christ and his Kingdom points us: to a unified people under the banner of the love of Jesus.  A Kingdom where no sword will be drawn, but the sword of righteousness; where no tears are shed, but the tears of joy; where male and female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, Western or Eastern, one color or another, is no longer a dividing distinction; where all are one in Christ.  The Roman Empire, even Christianized, could not achieve that.  The Holy Roman Empire could not achieve that, neither could the British Empire, nor will the United State of America or any other kingdom or state.  Let us, in honor of our earthly forebears, pray and work for the betterment of our earthly homes; yet keep our sights set on our heavenly home, where with all the saints we are invited to live and reign with Christ, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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The Bible is Perspective

This is part 15 of 16 in the series, “the Bible Is…

One of the greatest blessings about the Bible’s contents is that it provides us with multiple accounts and perspectives on a large portion of the major events, stories, and people within.  There are four Gospel books, each telling the story of Jesus in a different way.  Echoes of several events recorded in the book of Acts can be found throughout the New Testament Epistles.  And in the Old Testament there are a number of books that overlap with one another in their historical coverage.  Sometimes this can be seen as a problem, for there are a number of instances that don’t seem to match.  The exact sequence of events at the last supper, at Paul’s life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and the lifespans and reigns of several Israelite kings are difficult to reconstruct with the conflicting information found in different accounts throughout the Bible.  Many, if not most, of these issues can be harmonized with more careful study of the text, and an attentive eye to the writing style and emphasis of the particular authors.  But even as some of these challenges remain, it is a source of blessing for us.  It keeps us honest about the human element in the authorship of the Sacred Scriptures; it reminds us that the Bible exists to communicate Christ, and not to quibble over minor and inconsequential details like how long a particular Old Testament king lived in Jerusalem.

Many of the books that offer alternative perspectives to each other have already been addressed.  At this point we shall examine some of the latest Old Testament writings: the books of Chronicles, the books of Ezra, of Esther, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, and the Maccabees.

The books 1 & 2 Chronicles are really one single book divided in half, and primarily overlap with 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings.  The main difference is that Chronicles was clearly written after the Jewish exile in Babylon, and keeps a periodic eye on that eventual state of affairs.  It was traditionally assumed to have been written by Ezra, though we have little evidence one way or the other.  Unlike the books of Samuel and Kings, Chronicles does not dwell very long on the failings of the kings of Israel and Judah.  Chronicles is more single-minded in its focus, omitting most of the stories of the prophets, and emphasizing the good done by various kings, especially concerning the ordering of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Some might say this book is like a work of propaganda: highlighting the good and ignoring the bad.  But its purpose was to teach those who had returned from exile the importance of remaining faithful to God’s covenant, of rebuilding the Temple, and to emulate the faith and good deeds of their forebears.

The books of Ezra are complicated to count and identify.  In the Hebrew Old Testament there are two, entitled in English by their main characters: Ezra and Nehemiah.  In the Greek Old Testament there are up to four books bearing Ezra’s name; in addition to the Hebrew two, there is a prologue book stuck in before Ezra, and an epilogue book taking place after Nehemiah.  The former book is accounted as part of the biblical canon only in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  In the Latin Bible, both the additional Ezra books are placed as an appendix to the Old Testament just like how Anglican Bibles place the ecclesiastical books (the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon) as an appendix to the Old Testament.  In the English system, the extra Ezra books are called 1 & 2 Esdras (Ezra’s name in Latin).

1 Esdras is a short book which repeats the end of 2 Chronicles and parts of Ezra and Nehemiah, and adds one story about a group of Jewish exiles in Persia before they return to Jerusalem.  The majority of the book is nearly word-for-word copies from other books; only about two chapters contain original material, and is a fascinating philosophical exploration of what is “the strongest” thing in the world.  The winner of the debate is Zerubbabel (a major character in the book of Ezra) who successfully argued that truth is the greatest force in the world.

The book of Ezra covers a couple decades of Jewish history, telling of two waves of Jewish immigrants returning home to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  Ezra himself is in the second generation that returns, and he is instrumental in finishing what the first re-settlers started.  A number of setbacks and threats have to be overcome, and the leaders have their work cut out for them.  The central importance of faithfulness to God’s covenant (both his faithfulness and ours) and of worship is the heart of this book.  Nehemiah continues the story, following the character of Nehemiah who is sent from Persia with another round of money and resources primarily to rebuild Jerusalem’s city walls.  He, too, with Ezra and others, faces a great deal of threat and opposition, and much can be gleaned about the importance of steadfast faith and obedience to God in the face of the fear of man.

The book of 2 Esdras is vastly different.  It details some very lengthy visions attributed to Ezra, later in his life.  Much of it is apocalyptic, even referencing some of the prophecies of Daniel and noting their advancement in the past few decades.  Many scholars today assert that parts of this book are so new that they were actually written by Christians.  Whatever the case, the weaving together of Old Testament apocalyptic prophetic writing with some very Christ-centered imagery makes it a unique offering among the Ecclesiastical Books.  Both this book and 1 Esdras, however, suffer from a number of hiccups in their historical accuracy and chronology, betraying the immense likelihood that neither were written by same Ezra, but more likely just in his name.  The additional perspectives they offer are fascinating and insightful, but not of the same surety as the Hebrew Old Testament books.

The book of Esther is a story of romping good fun.  Told in comedic hyperbole, with exaggerated numbers and gratuitous melodrama, it is clear that this book is not a straight-laced historical document.  It exists to teach and celebrate and entertain.  It is the story of a Jewish woman named Esther who wins a beauty contest to be married to the Persian King.  Her uncle, Mordechai, becomes a friend of the King but an enemy of a royal advisor who seeks to exterminate the Jewish throughout the world.  The cunning plots to prevent this disaster play out through the course of the book.  The unique perspective of this book is looking at exiles who did not return to Jerusalem, and telling their story in an unusually fancy way.  There is also the challenge that the Hebrew and Greek versions of this book are notably different, and ancient manuscript study has not clearly confirmed which version is the more original.

The book of Baruch, with appended Epistle of Jeremiah, is an offering of further perspective to the ministry and book of Jeremiah.  The prophet Baruch is mentioned throughout the book of Jeremiah as his scribe and assistant.  For the most part this book serves as an answer to some of Jeremiah’s instructions to those who were going to Babylon in exile.  Chapters 1 and 2 in particular match up with Jeremiah 29, suggesting that some of the exiles were indeed beginning to live in faith and penitence, respecting their new masters in their temporary exile home.  The Epistle of Jeremiah, sometimes treated as chapter 6 of Baruch, is a further treatise against idolatry.

The story of Tobias and Tobit is of a family of faithful Israelite exiles trying live according to the Old Covenant Law and struggling to get by.  It is a morality tale, through and through, extolling the virtues of faithfulness, burying the dead, and honoring life and marriage.  Tobit introduces us to another angel who helps heal a blind man and drive away a demon, something that later Jewish literature would go on to do much more extensively.  Some accuse this book of promoting “witchcraft,” but the strange methods taught by the angel to heal and to exorcise are no stranger than any of the other odd things done by the Prophets and by Jesus himself in the course of their ministries.

The book of Judith centers around the titular heroine who saves her city, and thereby Jerusalem itself, from invaders.  Her character and story can be seen as a combination of Hagar’s cunning, Deborah’s wisdom, Esther’s right-woman-in-the-right-place, Proverbs 31’s “wife of noble character”, and Jael (who killed an enemy general with a tent peg).  Judith is the very paragon of Jewish virtue and uses her beauty, cunning, wisdom, and faithfulness to deliver Israel from disaster.  Historically, this story is impossible to justify: it is riddled with anachronistic references to the Temple, the return from exile, and the Babylonian Empire; it is as if the latter half of Old Testament history has been jumbled together to set the scene and all the Old Testament heroines have been jumbled together to create the character of Judith.  Despite this, or even because of this, it is a valuable book.  It faithfully and creatively absorbs many lessons and features of the Hebrew Old Testament and presents a whole new story with which teach morality and faithfulness, not unlike the parables of Jesus himself.

Then there are the books of the Maccabees.  In the Roman Old Testament and English Ecclesiastical Books there are two of these books.  The Eastern Orthodox have a third in their canon, and there is also a fourth offered as an appendix to the Greek Old Testament.  1 & 2 Maccabees tell the story of the people of Judea in the 2nd century B.C. under Greek rule.  Although the Jews today do not account these books as canonical, these are the writings from which they derive the holidays of Hanukkah.  1 Maccabees has a longer historical coverage, taking the reader through the Maccabean family and the succession of brothers who led the Jews in successful revolt against the Greeks and made treaties with other Mediterranean powers such as the Roman Republic.  2 Maccabees is more narrow in its coverage, spending more time with Judas Maccabeus, the theological implications of their revolt, and the sufferings of various Jewish martyrs at the hands of Greeks and Hellenized Jews.  These books set the scene, more than any other, for the situation in Judea and Palestine in the Gospel books.  And again, the historical focus of the first book lined up with the theological focus of the second book make them analogous to Kings and Chronicles.

Lastly, it should be clarified that the books of 1 & 2 Esdras, Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah, Tobit, Judith, and the Maccabees, and the Greek version of Esther are not found in modern Protestant Bibles.  They are among the Ecclesiastical Books (or Apocrypha or Deuterocanon), originally printed in Protestant Bibles between the Old and New Testaments, but omitted starting in the 1700’s to save money on mass printing.  These books are accorded a secondary canonical status, used to teach “example of life and instruction of manners” and not “to establish any doctrine.”  That is why most of them are included in this penultimate section, offering additional perspectives within the Bible’s many writings.

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