Dare To Be A Daniel

The book of Daniel and all parts of the Bible relate to world history and you cannot understand world history without the Bible. Similarly, if you attempt to try and figure out FUTURE events in the history of the world without the Bible, you will also fail.

The Bible, in particular, speaks of one nation – Israel, but it also mentions other surrounding nations like Egypt, Arabia, Assyria now Iran, Babylon now Iraq. This area is known as the cradle of civilisation. This is where world history began around the fertile region of the great rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris. And where God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldea’s in Babylon to go to Canaan.

We begin when God’s people, the Israelites, have been taken by force from the Promised Land by the most powerful political force of their day; the Babylonians. The defeat was crushing but on reflection the people should have seen it coming. Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah had warned them that punishment would follow as long as they continued to disobey God.

Even the prophet Habakkuk reminded Israel he told them, ‘look at the nations and watch and be utterly amazed. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.’ The Babylonians are on their way, beware. Israel had been warned to mend their ways.

God had had His fill with Israel’s disobedience and what he said would happen, happened. The city of Jerusalem was besieged; the temple, the palace and walls were destroyed. This pagan king Neb also removed from the temple the sacred articles used for worship and placed them in the temples of the gods of Babylon. He executed the leading citizens and deported tens of thousands.

Nebuchadnezzar was, in effect, making a public statement to the world that God does NOT exist. If God did exist, he would protect His people. He didn’t, so therefore He doesn’t exist. I am the new super power, the new demi-god. And to confirm this, the sacred articles from the temple in Jerusalem were now on display in the temple of his own god, Marduk.

They would stand forever as a symbol of the power of his own gods and the powerlessness, death and defeat of Israel’s god, Yahweh. Yahweh was dead on the battlefield along with thousands of Israelites. Israel had continued to sin despite continuous warnings to stop. Each year the inevitable seemed closer and closer and yet the leaders in Jerusalem and the people seemed to deny it.

They looked back at the temple to the Ark of the Covenant and to the promises given to David, assuring themselves that everything would be alright. Somehow they believed that despite their idolatry God would protect the nation.

But now exiled in Babylon with the glory days of Jerusalem and the familiarity of the Jewish way of life a distant memory, hope was fading fast. To the Babylonians and even to the Israelites it looked as if God had been defeated. And even if God was alive, how could they serve Him in exile? How could they be God’s people in a foreign land when all the props their faith relied on had been removed? Their precious temple was destroyed and left in ruins. As the exiles tramped across the desert lands towards Babylon, they must have had a lot to think about. The last days of Jerusalem would have been indelibly marked on their minds and its destruction. Even the neighbouring nations turned against them. What sort of future as exiles would they face now? What would happen to their precious promised land. Is it all about to end?

We, too, are exiles, are we not. We live in a land in a country as a minority whose Christian ways and values are becoming increasingly alien to the majority. We don’t have invading armies to deal with; our issues concern the mindset, attitude and behaviour of the wider population who have little interest in Almighty God.

Our home is not the island of Ireland nor Canada; it is the eternity destination of the New Jerusalem, the new earth and the new heavens.

The story of Daniel and his three friends showed the Israelites and shows us that the exile didn’t have to be the end it could be the beginning. It could be a new opportunity to show love and obedience to God even in a strange land. It could be the start of a deeper faith which proved God’s faithfulness and recognised His sovereignty even in testing times.

Daniel’s story spans the rule of three kings; he starts off as a young teenager aged about 17 years who is taken captive along with thousands of his fellow citizens, and he later rises to be the king’s top civil servant. Not only could he govern a country but he could interpret dreams as well. He possessed wisdom, knowledge and understanding. He was truly gifted by Yahweh. Daniel is an example of an obedient life which God blessed; however, working in a pagan culture was not without its problems. As an exile and follower of God, he had many issues to deal with.

The clash between obedience to God and obedience to the state was inevitable. As it is with us today. From the day he entered his Babylonian training to the very end of his life, including the lions’ den, he and his friends faced relentless pressure to conform to the state and be subject to it. The state was openly antagonist towards the God of Daniel and his fellow exiles. Yet through it all, Daniel showed that obedience to God was possible despite the threats of a hostile society.
Let’s begin with Daniel and his friends now in exile. If you have been in a different country you will notice that things are very different. Different food, clothes, people are different, different traditions, religion, language and money to name but a few.

If you are a Christian in a different land, a pagan land, it is more noticeable because usually you are not encouraged to practise Christianity. One reason being – there are no Christian churches around. You hear a Mullah cry out from a Minaret. This immediately concerns you. How do you worship God when there are no churches about or allowed? You have to be very careful what you say and how you live out your faith. If we visit another country on holiday, we know we are coming back home again. But for Daniel and his friends there was no visa, they were there for good. All they were familiar with is; no more. It has been destroyed. There is no going back home.

This foreign, pagan king Nebuchadnezzar decided that he would begin a programme of assimilation into Babylonian society through systematic brain washing. He wanted to delete Daniel’s culture, faith and religion and give them each a new identity, a Babylonian one. In much the same way special agent Jason Bourne in The Bourne Supremacy films is given a new identity. For Daniel it was not as brutal as Jason Bourne’s, but it was constant and forceful. Daniel and his three friends accepted the new language. They went along with being taught how to speak Babylonian, they even read Babylonian literature, including myths and legends which would have been very difficult for them considering a Jew would have read and known the Torah.

They were also given new Names which they accepted. They were called after pagan gods. Daniel was given the new name of Belthazzar, to Hananiah – Shadrach; to Mishaal – Meshach; and to Azariah – Abednego. Again, this was all designed to assimilate them into a different culture by gradually removing their Jewish identity and nationality. Interestingly, Daniel and his friends went along with this brain washing but only up to a point. They were wise enough to know what was going on and wise enough to know which battles to fight and which ones to leave alone.

The battle they decided to fight was the one concerning the food. The food would have been offered in thanks to pagan idols before it was consumed. The food would therefore NOT have been kosher according to the Levitical food laws of the Jews and this could well have been the reason for Daniel and his friends’ refusal.

But it’s not conclusive. The real reason was something else. Daniel and his friends knew that once they ate this food, which was really food from the king’s table, they would enter into a relationship thereby binding themselves to the king. In practise you were really signing over your independence and integrity and becoming one of the king’s lackeys, under his control – a puppet.
Daniel and his friends were having none of it. This was the battle they chose to fight and the marker they laid down. And we can see how it worked in their favour with God’s help. In contrast, if you read the last few verses in 2 Kings 25, you will see how Jehoiachin, former king of Judah, was taken into exile. He was released from prison because he submitted to the King of Babylon.

Was it easy for Daniel and his friends to disobey the king’s orders about the king’s table? No, it wasn’t. They knew that at any time this Nebuchadnezzar could turn on them like a wounded bear and have them killed, just for the fun. They had seen him in action and were bound to be afraid of what would happen to them if they did not carry out his instructions. They had faith though and they were prepared to be strong enough to stand up for it; even though it may cost them their lives.

Daniel and his friends understood that there was nothing wrong with being in a pagan court and learning pagan things; but there were great dangers to avoid and traps to side step. He could not let himself be trapped as Joseph had been by Potiphar’s wife. Or get caught as Solomon had in the dealings with foreign women. Daniel and his three Jewish friends had been faithful in little and as young men in their teens, this was to be the beginning of their being faithful in much.

We are to stand up and be counted over small things, before we move towards bigger things. Whether it’s in the church, the staffroom, the office floor, the hospital ward, or board room. God tests us first with the small matters before presenting us with bigger issues. If we don’t honour God with the small things, we certainly won’t do it with the big things! How does this work out in daily life?

The preacher and author, Rick Warren, wrote a book called ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, which has since sold around 40 million copies. He is the current senior pastor of Saddleback Church in California, and he says that he has not received one dollar from the sale of the book. The sale of 40 million books would make you fairly wealthy!

But God had tested him earlier in his life about how he used his money personally and in the church before this book was published. He still drives around in a beat-up station wagon, the marriage rings he and his wife bought were 50 dollars; his watch was 19 dollars from Walmart, and he still lives in the same house. In fact, he reverse tithes. He tithes 90% of his salary and lives off 10%. Impressive.

The test was in the small things first – before the big money would come in. I have found that quite often as a Christian, this standing up in the small things involves money. Recently since our new move to outside Belfast we have been getting the field divided up for the Alpaccas we keep. I went to the local Farm Supply shop and loaded up a field gate, fencing, fence posts, staples and other items. When I got home, I looked at the invoice and could see that I had accidently not been charged for the field gate. What was I to do? Keep the gate and say nothing; Afterall no one was any the wiser.

Nobody was aware what had happened. I tell you that story not to make me look good, but to let you know that these traps often occur when we least expect them and they probe deeply into where we stand with God. But God is watching.

Daniel and his friends had put God before every other consideration and he, in turn, honoured them. We are told that at the end of ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. They ate vegetables and drank water. No royal food and No royal wine. Maybe we should take note of this and eat more vegetables ourselves and drink more water, and cut out the tray bakes and pavlova. The results would benefit ourselves and the NHS considerably. It’s only a suggestion though!

In closing, through this change of food diet, what had Daniel and his friends really achieved?? With God’s help and encouragement, they had won a battle, and a very important one at that. They had won a battle against assimilation; they had won a battle of NOT being absorbed into a pagan culture. They had won a battle of not conforming to the pattern of the world and its values.

The Apostle Paul clearly tells the Romans in Chapter 12: “Do not be conformed to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds; (why), so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

If your mind, attitude and behaviour is in tandem with the drumbeat of the world and its values then how on earth will you be able to discern the will of God? How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land? Daniel and his friends were able to sing it. They allowed the Spirit of God to renew their minds.
Their faith in God shone through. It had not been eradicated. Through God’s mercy and action, the young men had won a significant battle.

But also, God’s reputation had been on the line. In this pagan, pluralist land with all its various gods, these young men represented God and it was He who gave them success. God gave them physical health, and intellectual ability to prevail. They were His mouth, His hands, His feet, His heart, His mind.

For the third time in this chapter, God acted again to preserve His people. They could have been wiped out but they weren’t. The Jews could have been wiped out if it were not for Queen Esther. Pharaoh and Herod tried to wipe the Jews out. Hitler tried his best to do it in the concentration camps; but he didn’t. So did Stalin in the Gulags.

Nebuchadnezzar may have thought God was dead, killed in battle; but he wasn’t. It’s the same with people today. ‘Where is God when I need him?’ they cry. ‘If God was alive, he would not have allowed this or that to happen.’ ‘Why did he not stop that war or that airplane crash?’ Why this, why that?

The conclusion they draw is: He doesn’t exist or He no longer exists. Since people have populated this planet, they have agreed in principle with the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche who said,
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Know this; God is not dead: God is with His people whether they are in Israel, America, Canada, or China and he watches over them. He will make sure they prevail, whether incarcerated, exiled or free. By the way; I did pay for the field gate. May God give us the courage – to “Dare to be a Daniel.”

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Judgement Of Daniel,” by Valentin de Boulogne, ca. 1621-1622.

Destruction And Beauty

Scenes of statues toppling and pictures of defaced public spaces can be disturbing. Sometimes, they can be exhilarating. I recall watching statues of Lenin and Stalin fall during the collapse of the various Communist states. It felt like freedom. I also recall my dismay during my first trip to Greece where nearly every public wall and monument (Church and otherwise) is covered in graffiti.

There is an instinct at work surrounding images (both their making and their destruction) – one that is profoundly religious in nature. As such, it has the capacity to save us or to destroy us. But make no mistake – it is filled with power.

Not all Christians care for icons. Some positively despise them. But none of them can deny the power of the image (icon) itself. “Image” is the word used to describe the very act of human creation. We are created according to the “image and likeness” of God. No other statement enshrines the dignity and true worth of human beings in such an inarguable manner. It puts a stamp of ultimacy on our very existence. Not only are we described as having been created in the image of God, but our salvation itself is portrayed as a return to the fullness of that image as we behold the face of Christ.

But we are also “smashers” (iconoclasts). When Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BC, it leveled the city. Some say that they even plowed the ground and sowed it with salt, consigning the space to oblivion. In 70 A.D. Rome destroyed Jerusalem, along with its temple. Today, in order to reach the streets of Jerusalem upon which Jesus walked, you have to dig deep underground – what stands on top represents much later construction.

Such actions seem to have a role of “catharsis” or “cleansing,” in which an enemy is not only defeated but erased. Who hasn’t wanted to do such a thing to the memory of a hurt that haunts? We hear it echoed in St. Paul’s prayer that “God will speedily crush down Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). We not only want Satan to be defeated – we want him erased.

We have to recognize both impulses within us (the love of icons and their smashing) to come to grips with the whole of who we are meant to be. At its deepest level, we do not understand icons until we understand beauty and its crucial role in our existence.

The love of beauty and our desire for it are the most fundamental parts of our being. This is particularly true if we use the word “beauty” in the fullest sense of its meaning. Beauty encompasses being and truth as well. It is God’s word for His creation (usually translated as “good,” the word in Scriptures also means “beautiful”). That which is beautiful and good is reflective (iconic) of the God who created it. All of creation longs for union with this Beauty and groans for it to be made manifest.

In the life of the Church, the making of icons begins early, possibly in its very beginning. Israel already made a careful use of images (some are prescribed for use in the Temple itself). St. Paul, and others following him, elevated a “theology of the image” into a central place in Christology and the doctrine of salvation. There were already hints of this theology in some of the writings of the Second Temple period. The fulfillment of the image of God in Christ allowed the veil to be torn away from that mystery and its clear form to be discerned.

Nevertheless, the drive towards iconoclasm has remained rooted in our hearts. Every sin against another human being is a form of iconoclasm. Violence is probably its most dangerous form, although every sin against another carries an element of violence within it (Matt. 5:21-22). We are experiencing an unprecedented display of public anger and iconoclasm in our cities and news cycles. Of course, the quiet iconoclasm of injustice has far deeper and long-lasting effects. The one does not justify the other. Injustice added to injustice only adds up to injustice. That we might understand it does not change its nature.

The Church’s witness to icons and their veneration is, ultimately, a witness to beauty. It is also a witness to the only path of salvation, both for individuals and the world as a whole. St. Augustine described the work of salvation as the “City of God.” And though we idealize the natural setting of a home in the wilderness, it is the image of a city that the Scriptures use to describe salvation. St. Paul writes: “But our citizenship [“politeumaπολίτευμα] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21).

The word “politeuma,” translated as “citizenship,” is formed from the word, “polis,” or “city.” Citizenship is the “place where we have our “city-ness”). It is the New Jerusalem that we await (Rev. 22:2), a “city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Cities require human relationships and exist well when the beauty and health of those relationships is foremost in its planning and execution. Cities whose inner being exists only for economic profit serve as images of a god, Mammon, and its people begin to resemble slaves.

The building of cities, in this highest sense of the word, is a construction of “city-ness,” an icon of the city that is to come. This is not a call for utopianism, but a recognition that there are holy patterns given to us that make for a greater wholeness in our lives. This is hard work. Iconoclasm and destruction are the work of a moment, driven by passion and the darkest places in our hearts. Anybody can smash. To make something beautiful takes care, love, and attention to detail. It is a work of holy living.

In the great wash of news stories of the past weeks, an image of beauty came across my desk that was encouraging. In Atlanta, scene of many racial tensions through the years, also the site of an egregious racial killing in recent days, there was a march on Juneteenth (a date marking the end of slavery). It was sponsored by One Race, an organization founded by black and white pastors in the Atlanta area back in 2017. They have been doing a slow work of common prayer, common discussions, and common understanding towards the healing of racial sins and the union of the faithful. They profess that only in Christ can such sins be overcome.

On that day, some 15,000 faithful gathered for a peaceful march to lift up Christ and to profess their common faith and love for one another. It was encouraging because it was not simply a passion of the moment, but the fruit of three years of patient work, something that will likely continue for some time to come. When the news cycle easily leads toward despair, it is good to see so many knees that bow to Christ walking together and professing faith in the city whose builder and maker is God.

The opposite of iconoclasm is “iconodulia” (the honoring of icons). At its heart, iconodulia is the love of true beauty. This love is quite the opposite of the drive towards iconoclasm. Iconoclasm need love nothing: the will to destruction is entirely sufficient to provide motivation and energy. In the end, it might yield nothing more than nothing-at-all, an emptiness of fruitless effort that collapses back on itself. It is not life-giving.

Iconodulia requires inward attention as well as outward responsibility. It is slow and requires patience. Some efforts of beauty can be so great that they survive for millennia and more. The beauty of Hagia Sophia (for example) continues not only in that single, striking building, but in the thousands of echoes that have shaped so many Orthodox temples since. It’s power lies in the fact that its beauty reaches beyond itself towards a greater Beauty that only God can build. As such, it is echoed in every element of beauty that we find in nature as well.

Such beauty requires people who live beautiful lives. They need neither wealth nor power, only the living icon of the Logos to be manifest in their being. It is the secret to Christian “civilization” – not an empire maintained by force of arms or economic power. Rather Christian civilization is the politeuma of the heavenly city that is continually reborn in the heart of every Baptism. That city is built in the heart. It is there that we repent and there that we forgive. It is there that we find within us the image of the city that God has already prepared for us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows the crucifixion, with Christ being offered a drink of vinegar on a sponge; in the foreground, the iconoclasts, John Grammaticus and Bishop Anthony of Pamphylia, efface the image of Christ with a sponge. The Chludov Psalter, Byzantine, 9th-century.

To Be Really Creative

The first time I heard the suggestion that human beings should think of themselves as “co-creators” with God was in a liberal, mainline, seminary (Episcopal). This was in the 1970s.

The meaning at the time was something of a mish-mash of culture-notions that was little more than a way of underwriting the myth of cultural progress as a God-given program, as well as a windfall of new-age silliness. We were not only making the world a better place, we were doing so as Co-creators. I must confess that every time I hear anyone speaking about making the world a better place I hear echoes of Cabaret with a pretty blonde Nazi-boy singing, “Tomorrow belongs to me!”

I offer this as a preface to my reflections on current language regarding “co-creation” and “sub-creation” with the far healthier pedigree found in Tolkien and Lewis. Both authors, with some variation, recognized the human participation in myth-making in genres such as fiction and fantasy. But the question remains: to what extent is it right to describe ourselves with such lofty language?

The sobriquet of co-anything with God immediately raises questions concerning “synergy.” Eastern Orthodoxy is supposedly famous for its thoughts on synergy, in that we “co-operate” with God in our salvation. This stands in stark contrast to certain early versions of Protestant theology in which there is literally nothing contributed by human beings to the work of salvation: God’s work is strictly “monergistic,” belonging only to Him. That extremist view (still found in Reform circles) came to be balanced in Protestant practice by the sentiments of free-will Pietism in the mid-19th century.

Orthodoxy traditionally holds to a synergistic approach to salvation, though, I have come to think of this as problematic for those whose minds have been shaped in modern thought (whether consciously, or not). Modernity is steeped in the concept of our own freedom and the imagined power of our choices. We are said to be creating and shaping our own reality – even our own being.

The doctrine of synergy, as I’ve encountered it in contemporary Orthodox conversations, seems to me to overstate the case. It is accurate to say that we “participate” in our salvation through our freedom, that there is a necessary cooperation on some level, but, I think it is wrong to say much more than this. For one, we simply have little or no clue of the truth of our salvation: it is hidden (Col. 3:3).

The content of our salvation is nothing less than the image and likeness of Christ Himself. This is being made known to us, though in a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12). Our participation and synergy consists in our persistent “yes” to the work of God. Our role as sub-creators is not unlike that of the Theotokos. She says, “Yes,” to God, and without her ‘yes,’ there is no incarnation. She contributes her “flesh” to that incarnation and participates in the life that grows in her womb.

This is important, even in the world of fiction and fantasy. Not every work of fiction or fantasy can properly be said to belong to “sub-creation.” Nor is every work of art a work of sub-creation. A work succeeds in these acts of creation inasmuch as it participates in the work of God, and fails inasmuch as it rejects that same work. Tolkien famously thought of his fantasy as an act of “sub-creation.”

He definitely did not see it as “allegory” (in contrast to Lewis’ fantasies). But Tolkien’s sub-creation can be described as such, not because it stands as a complete world, but in that it works with the same truth as the creation in which we live. To be good in Middle Earth would count as goodness in this world as well. Tolkien’s world is not an allegory, but every sub-creation must “rhyme” with God’s creation in order to be worthy of the term.

Tolkien succeeds, I suspect, because he was a Christian down to the deepest level of his soul. He would have been repulsed by an anti-creation fantasy. This is another way of saying that all created things are created “through the Logos,” and that “apart from Him, nothing was made that was made.”

The Logos can be discerned in Tolkien’s work, as He can in much of great literature, many times in an unconscious manner. But, there are works of anti-Logos that fail. When such things, lacking in any true beauty, have influence or popularity, it is almost certain that they do so only as a result of a sort of propaganda rather than any popular love. That which is natural coinheres in the Logos. That which is contrary to nature does not, and eventually collapses in on itself.

This same process can be applied to the human life. There is much about us that is a work of “creation.” In our present culture, we speak of individuals “re-inventing” themselves. But that which we “invent” is not at all the same thing as “co-creating.”

The work of creation that is the true self is a gift. It is discovered and welcomed, but not formed and shaped. The deepest act of creation in the human life is that of repentance and the life of true humility.

We do not create ourselves – for one, we stand at the wrong point in time to do such a thing. The Scripture tells us that our life is “hid with Christ in God” (Co. 3:3). Additionally, we are told that: “…it does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2).

The causality of our life is not found in the past or the present; it lies in the age to come. That which we shall be draws us forward towards our true end. God said to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” The truth of our existence is eschatological and its manifestation in our present life is itself a glimpse into the Kingdom of God.

This is not only true of ourselves, but of creation itself. The “new heaven” and “new earth” are not the eradication of what exists; they are the revelation and fulfillment of creation in the “glorious liberty of the sons of God” (Romans 8:21).

But what of fiction and fantasy? Both Lewis and Tolkien were greatly influenced by the theories of Owen Barfield. They shared a common belief in a transcendent realism – that behind and beneath creation as we see it are realities that form and shape the world.

None of them should be described as Platonists, but all shared the worldview that was common to the perceptions of the early Christian fathers that had much in common the Hellenistic Platonism. Lewis’ Professor Digory declares, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

That greater reality is a manifestation or reflection of the Logos (Christ), “by whom and through whom all things were made.” As this is the case, even fiction and fantasy, at their best, themselves participate in this deeper and greater reality. They serve, in their own way, to reveal what might otherwise be hidden.

It is also possible for fiction and fantasy to distort and obscure the Logos, though nothing can truly efface all evidence of His work. If you will, the very existence of language, thought, reason, cogency, etc., that mark every form of human communication is Logos-bearing. The very act of denying Him is itself impossible without Him.

This serves, as well, as a model for thinking about the self. The narrative of our own self is under constant revision. Each day’s part of the story serves to re-write what has gone before.

The beginning is always being revised by the end. The creativity that marks our own participation in creation (including the revelation of the self) is, most properly, a variation or improvisation on a theme that is being sung by the Logos. This means that listening and observing are among our most essential activities. You cannot sing along if you do not hear the music.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “Artists Sketching in the White Mountains,” by Winslow Homer, painted in 1868.

The Great Banquet

The story is told of a young man who lived a long time ago in Southern England. He had heard of a huge white horse which had been mysteriously carved into an unknown hillside centuries ago.

He was so captivated by this rumour that he set off in search of the fabled horse, travelling the full length and breadth of Southern England. But alas, he could not find it. Eventually he returns home disappointed, concluding that the white horse of his dreams didn’t exist, after all.

Then one day as he surveyed his own village after climbing a very tall tree and getting a good vantage point, he was astonished to see the object of his search. The White Horse had been there all the time. In fact, his village lay at the very centre of it, but he’d never been able to recognise it before, concealed as it was among the fields, trees and rivers.

The point of that story is that people particularly young people, set off on quests, like travelling the world, going to exotic places, sampling foreign cultures, do so as they look for answers about life. Sadly, in spite of all their efforts and as time goes by, they can become, increasingly disillusioned, cynical or agnostic. They don’t find the utopia, the White Horse’ they’re searching for.

Perhaps, they need to return home. Maybe if they did, they would be amazed to find that the answers they’re looking for are there already, as close as the bible on the book shelf, or the church on the street corner. They simply haven’t recognised the unique value of these things because they are too common place, too familiar. Familiarity breeds contempt.

To try to break down such a wall of indifference, or even contempt, and to help people discover the importance and the relevance of the Christian message, is not an easy task.
This is especially so when many people think they know that message already. It’s a bit like the measles vaccination given to babies. All too often a dose of religion, especially if given in childhood, simply increases your resistance to the real thing when you encounter it later in life. Sunday School Exams, Unhelpful RE teachers at school, tedious morning assemblies in chapel, and the minister’s boring monologues.

They all come back into your mind like a flood, immediately an evangelist stands up to speak. ‘Oh no, not again’.

It’s like antibodies descending upon some invading virus in your blood stream. Those memories all conspire to ensure your spiritual immunity to everything that preacher might want to say. Even the best sermons fail to penetrate such defences.

If you don’t believe me. Read what Jesus says. As the world’s greatest biblical teacher and evangelist, he experienced the exact same problem. Frequently the people he had the hardest trouble with, were those with strong religious backgrounds, who carried round the biggest copy of the Torah they could get their hands on. And who looked the part.

It’s the Sabbath Day. Jesus has been invited to have a meal at the home of a ‘prominent Pharisee.’ Someone who comes from a strong religious background.
Everybody is wary of each other, at this nibbles and wine function; all trying hard to make a good impression. Vying for position. Jesus of course knows this so he tries to change the atmosphere by offering some controversial advice on how to organise a really good dinner party.

Don’t invite wealthy friends and neighbours, they’re boring he says. Instead invite the homeless youngsters and street kids you see begging on the streets. Invite the poor, the destitute, the crippled and you will be blessed. I’m sure Jesus’ words went down like a lead balloon. This was a real conversation stopper. As Jesus looked round upon the gathering, he would have noticed that there were NO street kids, poor people, or the homeless there.

During the awkward silence there is usually someone around who makes some wise comment to try and keep the conversation within everyone’s comfort zone. There was such a guy at Jesus’ table who adds his own pious comment; ‘blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.’ We can just picture him can’t we. Measured, all the religious trappings, nodding head, full beard.

It was a coded way of saying, ‘oh you don’t have to worry about me Jesus, I’m very religious. I know all about the kingdom’. Now he may have been expecting Jesus reply; Amen brother, well said or a hallelujah’. But he miscalculated. Jesus was far to shrewd to be deceived by his hypocrisy and far too good a teacher to allow it to pass unchallenged.

You see this was a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt. This guy thought he was spiritually ok. He knew about and believed in heaven and was quite sure he was going there.
He naturally assumed Jesus would want to support him. But Jesus doesn’t. Instead Jesus thinks quickly and tells a close to the bone story. And no doubt everyone in the group is all ears.

Jesus starts telling the story which has a strong Old Testament theme about the prophets preaching preparing the way for the coming Kingdom. All good so far, they think. But then Jesus veers off in a slightly different direction. He says; ‘at the time of the banquet he (God) sent his servant (Jesus) to tell those who had been invited, come for everything is now ready.’
The kingdom of God is here. Don’t have to wait any more. It’s arrived. Therefore, time to act and enter. Everything is ready, come on in.

But then read what happens. But they all began to make excuses. Yes excuses. The first one said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see to it. Please excuse me’. Second one said; ‘I have just been to the market and bought oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me’. Another said; ‘I just got married; so, I can’t come either’.

The amazing thing in all of this, is that people could be personally invited by Jesus to share in the kingdom of God and his promise of eternal life in heaven. And yet decline. They say NO thanks. It doesn’t add up. It’s not being arrogant, it’s just plain stupid. It’s like buying an expensive house without even looking at it. Or buying 10 oxen without seeing whether or not any of them were lame. In fact, these excuses that are offered are so flimsy they cannot be even regarded as real excuses.

Jesus is saying that when men and women turn their backs on the kingdom of God and the joy of heaven, they do so for the sake of mere trivialities. Like the pursuit of material gain, personal adventure, or sexual desire.

They choose such things above accepting God’s gracious invitation. Especially now perhaps more than ever, there are far too many counter-attractions bidding for the time, money, and attention of people. They may have been interested in going to the party once, but all sorts of things have invaded their life since then. What flimsy excuse are you the reader holding on to that is preventing you from entering God’s kingdom?

The so-called religious people Jesus is saying will be excluded; because they are basing their faith on their religious pedigree, or their back ground.

Well. then, who is to be included? Those who will be at the great banquet will be the poor, the crippled, the lame, the outcast, the destitute. Those who you least expect will be there, many of whom have no religious back grounds at all. And they haven’t offered any excuses to Jesus.

Having wealth, being busy with various interests even though they are good and wholesome like our family, can be obstacles, and distractions. And we use them as excuses. I’m too busy lord. I’ve to get my family through university; I’ve to move house, go on a holiday, change jobs. Go into a nursing home.

These poor and destitute people who have nothing to distract them or invade their personal lives will be there. But the good news is there is still room for many more. Jesus is saying the kingdom of God will be removed from you Jews, because of your hardness of heart and your feeble excuses and given to others; the invitation will be given to the Gentiles for them to come in.

This group did not like what Jesus was saying. God’s chosen people not allowed into the kingdom of heaven. It’s not that the door to heaven is permanently bolted shut for all Jews for ever and a day; it’s still open, but others will be there, besides the Jew.

Those who were expecting to enter the kingdom because they had received advance invitations through the prophets and the law would miss out. But those who expected to be shut out because they were not good enough, or had never heard of the banquet because they were complete pagans, would be the ones to enjoy it.
Familiarity, this parable emphasizes, does indeed breed contempt, and Jesus responds that contempt is a sin that God does not lightly forgive.

What does the twist in this parable mean for you and me? Some, like Jesus’ dinner guests at the Pharisee’s table come from a good religious back ground.

We have been baptised or dedicated as children by believing parents. Which is a good start. Maybe we have attended Sunday School or Bible class. That’s good too. We have come out to church regularly over the years and have heard all about the Christian faith many times. And as a result, we think we’re Christians. But are we?

That’s the question this parable puts to each one of us. We may know how to say grace before meals, and recite the Lord’s Prayer, but Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God demands more of us than just piety.

In the film, ‘A Few Good Men’ Tom Cruise is the young flash Navy attorney who questions the integrity and honesty of one of the officers Keffer Sutherland who is stationed at a military base.

Sutherland takes offence at the tone of the question. He claims he is a good US Marine, passed with flying colours from Westpoint. Comes from a good military back ground; and that only two books sit on his bed side table. The US Marine Code and the King James Version of the bible. Not just any copy of the bible but the King James Version.

He never said that he actually read either book. But the implication is that these books define who I am. I am a good patriot. We need to be so careful and ensure that ‘Familiarity does Not breed Contempt’, where we switch off, thinking I’m ok. Some may be thinking this invitation to the heavenly banquet is not for me. I have messed up my life. I’m not good enough. I put on a good front but I know inside I’m a waster. Well you are in good company with Jesus.

Heaven is made for people like you. People who know their failings, who know how they have fallen; their sin is before them. But you have to want to do something about your situation. How do we do that. Follow Jesus’ guidance. He tells people young and old to ‘repent and believe’. Repent means to change your sinful ways and believe in Jesus as the Son of God.

Don’t feel you are excluded in any way. This story tells us clearly that there is more room in the kingdom of God for misfits and sinners. The gospel is exclusive in that no one else can save you except Jesus Christ. ‘Salvation is found in no one else under heaven’.

But it’s also inclusive in that Jesus turns no one away. The invitation is for everyone under heaven no matter who you are.

So why delay, ‘come’ he says, ‘everything is ready’.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “L’Invitation au festin” (Invitation to the Feast), by Eugène Burnand, painted imn 1899.

Last Night…

You entered my life last night, and you left it last night. Did we break up? You never could tell me your name. You were for me but nine numbers and two letters – lying in silent dignity. Your once radiant eyes now dimmed, your once glorious tresses now ruffled; only your manicure remained unscathed. Your new perfume, Eau d’Isopropanol, barely disguising your onsetting putrefaction.

You must once have been stunning, now fallen in bloom. If we had only met in another era, would you have looked at me; would I have let out a quiet sigh, as you passed by in front of me, maybe in one of those spring dresses that French women wear so alluringly.

The ring on your finger, the tattoo on your breast (I never knew your name – but here we have no secrets now, no discretion) – tell me that you loved him passionately. It was just a few days ago that you were a woman, a daughter, a wife, a lover, a mother. 

But now, you are condemned to me. I know you never wanted me, yet now you feebly reach for my hand, in this upside-down world.

Behind those tubes (do they come out, or go in?), you let out a shuddering groan, “Hail Mary…please…” A prayer learned long ago, forgotten also long ago… once, in a former life… “I swore she would be my love in this life and for all eternity, the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God…” But where were you, where are you now?

With tender memories, of a time when life was still innocent, my gloved hand gently takes yours, and from behind my visor, from behind my mask, accompanied by the rhythmic beeps of life-support machines vital for the dying, I recite, wearily, the words tattooed onto my brain. How could I refuse you anything?

A spasm, a last attempt to escape destiny, you pull me towards you – you look at me with resigned terror – a weak murmur, a quiet sigh, as your hand slips out of mine. And the machines change their tone to indifferently announce your new status…

I would have liked to have said goodbye, but the door opens at once; underpaid nurses disconnect you, as if in a trance, their eyes bloodshot. Not a tear is shed, not a word said. I never knew your name, but I quickly scribble down your number on the body-bag that now awaits you. Departing without ceremony, you leave, leave forever… but for where?

I barely hear the impassive Flemish matron, in her guttural French, order the cleaners to finish in fifteen minutes, as we conscientiously await your evanescent successor.

Where are you now? Is death what it is supposed to be, or it is just more false advertising? I never knew your name, nor you mine. I did not love you, yet you broke my heart…

Here, you are already forgotten, at best a statistic for those who still have care enough to watch the news. But I cannot forget you… a part of me died with you. Wait for me. I shan’t be long.

See you soon, my unknown angel.

With much tenderness,
RMK
Brussels
April 5, 2020

This is a first-hand account by a health professional in Belgium, who witnessed some of the devastation wrought by Covid-19. The original is written in French, of which this is a translation by N.Dass.

The image shows, “The Sleeping Beauty,” by John Collier, painted in 1921.

Only The Mother Of God

The first time I offered prayers to Mary I had a panic attack – literally. I was in college and my best friend had become Roman Catholic. We argued a bit, and he won (mostly). It resulted in my return to Anglicanism, to the “high” side. So, like a good high churchman, I got a rosary and a book, and started my prayers. Then came the panic attack.

Many Protestants are viscerally opposed to Catholicism. It’s in their heart and bones. I had no idea at the time that my bones (and heart) were as firmly orange as they seemed to be (let the Irish explain). My experience showed me otherwise. But, theology wins. I spent the next nine months reading about Marian devotion and early Christian practice. After that long “cooling-off” period, I picked up my rosary and gave it another try. No panic. I’ve never looked back.

Western devotions to Mary have forms that differ from Orthodox practices, and I’m not at all sure that the Western, Catholic understanding is the same (I’ll admit that I don’t know). My Anglican use of the rosary and devotion to Mary, which largely followed Catholic practice, certainly made my conversion to Orthodoxy ever so much easier. Indeed, her presence in the text of an Orthodox service far exceeds anything you’ll ever see in Rome.

The Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God is grounded in its understanding of salvation. As such, the veneration of Mary is an expression of the most foundational doctrine of the faith. This is generally misunderstood by the non-Orthodox for the simple reason that they do not understand salvation itself. Salvation is about a union or communion with God. It is a participation in the very life of God. We were created for this communion, breathed into us in the act of our creation. Through sin, we have broken that communion and become subject to death and disintegration.

Christ, in becoming a human being, united Himself to our human nature. He suffered death and was buried. But in His death, because He is also God, He tramples down death and rises from the tomb. Our human nature is raised with Him. When we are Baptized, the Scriptures say we are Baptized “into His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” In Holy Communion, we eat His very Body and drink His Blood, a true communion and participation in His life.

When this fundamental doctrine is understood, Mary’s role in history and her place in the Church become clear. Christ does not enter her womb as though it were a borrowed space. The Creed says, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary.” Christ’s humanity is not a separate creation, but “bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh.” She is truly His mother.

The Scriptures recognize this in various ways. In particular, when Mary brings the Christ Child to the Temple on the 40th day, the Prophet Simeon prophesies the coming sufferings of Christ and adds, “…and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” This is far more than saying, “It will make you unhappy.” In Christ’s suffering on the Cross, Mary suffers as well. This is because of the peculiar union that was their relationship from the beginning.

Christians describe the life of salvation as “beholding Christ face to face.” Mary would have done this quite literally numerous times a day for nearly three years as she nursed Him. In St. John’s gospel, at the Wedding in Cana, there is a level of communication between mother and Son that transcends words.

At the wedding feast, she comes to her Son and says, “They have no wine.” She does not ask Him anything. His response is frequently misinterpreted. He says, in the Greek: “Tί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί,” (Jn. 2:4). (“What is this to me and you?”) It is a very strange phrase in the Greek, but is a direct quote from the widow of Zarephath when she is speaking to Elijah about the death of her son (1 Kings 17:18). Christ is warning His mother that “it is not my time.” But, if He acts in helping with this wedding and its wine, it will set in motion something that cannot be stopped – His kairos – His time. And when His time comes, she will be like the widow of Zarephath, a widow whose son is dead. All of this is contained in this tiny conversation of but a few words.

Her response is equally terse, “Do whatever He tells you.” This is similar to her first words to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” She is ready for what will take place, including its most fearful consequences.

But all of this can only be rightly understood if we remember the nature of the union between mother and Son. It is also a union that will be our own salvation. Christ has become what we are by nature, that we might become what he is by grace. This is the great “exchange.”

Orthodox prayer gives expression to this communion. St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays within us saying, “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). Those words are the words of the Son (the one says, “Abba”). We do not pray as strangers, but as members of the household, now emboldened to speak with the very voice of the Son of God. It is this same voice that speaks of Mary as “Mother,” and gives her honor. That honor, or veneration, is the expression of love. Just as she loves Him, so she loves us.

In my experience, devotion to the Mother of God comes very slowly for converts to the faith. Five hundred years of Protestant thought have created a Christianity in which Mary has little place other than on Christmas cards and in badly produced movies. English translations of the Scriptures often butcher Marian passages conveying false images.

The Wedding at Cana passage cited above is frequently rendered: “What do I have to do with you, woman?” which is simply inaccurate. It gives the impression of disrespect, as though Mary were being a bother to her Son. What is deeply lacking is the spiritual consciousness rooted in salvation through union with Christ. None of the doctrines expressed in the Great Seven Ecumenical Councils make any sense apart from that awareness. Put simply, it is how both the Scriptures and the early Fathers understand our salvation. Union (communion, participation) is the fundamental grammar of Christian teaching.

When this grammar is properly grasped, it becomes clear that we cannot speak of Christ apart from Mary (nor Mary apart from Christ). By the same token, we cannot speak of Christ apart from the Church, nor the Church apart from Christ. We are told in 1 Cor. 12:21 that the “head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,” and this in the very passage in which we are told that Christ is the “head of the body (the Church).” We cannot speak of one member of the Body apart from all the others, for the life of each is the life of all and the life of all is the life of each.

In our devotional life, this is expressed in the communion of saints, our prayers that gather all together in union with Christ: “Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed lady, Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary, and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”

On the personal level, the experience of the Church has taught us private devotions as well. Within those, we begin to discover the mystical bonds that only such devotions reveal. Years ago, in a reference I have long since forgotten, I read a quote in which St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “There are things about Jesus you cannot know until His mother tells them to you.”

This part of the Orthodox life is difficult to describe. It is a perception of Christ, though with a greater fullness, one that extends into the persons of the saints. In Mary, that person encompasses an intimacy with Christ that is without equal. In my own experience, this intimacy includes the depths of her maternal love, for her Son, and for all creation.

The absence of Marian devotion and awareness has created a Christianity with an absence of the feminine. I do not suggest that Mary is a cipher for an abstract universal, or of a “divine femininity,” but it is simply bizarre to have a Christology that speaks of the “humanity” of Christ that is somehow devoid of a human mother (for all intents and purposes). Orthodox Christology begins its formal expression in the 3rd Ecumenical Council in which the largest and most central question was Mary’s title of “Theotokos” (Birth-Giver of God). Classical Christology began with consideration of Mary.

The most egregious example I have ever encountered of anti-Marian sentiment is a treatment in which she is seen as a mere “container” for Christ. It is an insult to every woman who has ever borne a child.

I offer no speculation as to the damage done to Western culture by a distorted Christology. Secularists would argue that Christology has nothing to do with our cultural constructs: such is the ignorance of our own foundations. Secular modernity is built on the foundation of a distorted version of Christianity. We are children who deny our parents, imagining that we have created ourselves.

Now that is a cause for panic. Holy Mother of God, pray for us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows the play of light on a mural of the Virgin and Christ, inside the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey). Photo credit: Dr. Shafi Ahmad.

A Matter Of Truth

Surveys in business magazines and management books confirm that the personal characteristic employees most value in their employer is Honesty. Above all employees want to be dealt with truthfully. The same is true of employers.

What they most want from their employees is the assurance that they can believe what their employees say and trust what they do.

When single people describe the perfect partner, they dream of meeting and someday marrying; they inevitably say they want an Honest man or woman who can be trusted in every way. They can’t conceive of a marriage based on any other foundation than absolute trustworthiness.

Friends who have walked through life together for many years often name Honesty as one of the keys to the success of their relationship. We made a commitment to never lie to one another they say, and we never have.

In an age and a culture in which lies, fake news, and deceit are common currency of news articles, movies, talk shows and politics; the pursuit of Honesty in personal life and relationships sometimes seems like a lonely and outdated endeavour. You need to put a spin on things. Distort it so that it seems like the truth.

Of course, public displays of dishonesty are not the only sources of our repugnance. Most of us have been betrayed or lied to at some point in our lives in a brazen hurtful way, where recovery has been difficult.

Do you remember the first time you were betrayed or lied to? The first time a confidence was broken or the truth twisted in order to hurt you. I am sure you remember the experience in vivid detail. Did it make you want to withdraw from the human race or scream out in anger? If it’s any consolation God feels that way as well.

The ninth commandment says, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.” In other words, don’t Lie. Don’t distort the truth. Don’t use your words to play around with reality.

God knew from the beginning of time that without a total commitment to truth telling; marriages and families would disintegrate, friendships would disappear, business dealings would fall apart, churches would be split by divisions, governments would not be able to govern. The very fabric of relationships and society would unravel.

Throughout the Bible we are called to the standard of truth telling, but nowhere more graphically than in the book of Proverbs, where a man ‘with a corrupt mouth’ is called a scoundrel and villain. Proverbs 6: 12. And where the suggested antidote to lying is that a perverse tongue will be cut out. Dishonesty is bad stuff, says the writer of these proverbs, and we need to get rid of it; whatever it takes.

One reason the writer of these proverbs spoke so strongly against a corrupt mouth is that he knew how deeply dishonesty disrupts one’s relationship with God. The Lord detests lying lips. That’s pretty strong stuff. To detest something is repulsive. Its abhorrent.

Seldom does the Bible use such strong language than this to describe God’s response to sinful behaviour. God simply detests lying. It like saying; it turns his stomach; it makes him vomit. That’s why he cannot maintain a relationship with a person who lies.

The reason God detests dishonesty so much is due to the second consequence; it destroys other people. Proverbs 15 verse 4: “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life; but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

She promised to be faithful, sobs a devastated husband who has just learned that his wife wasn’t faithful. He said, he would never come home again drunk cries a teenager reeling from the rages of his alcoholic father. He promised me that he would never place another bet, as the wife checks her bank account. I finished the job because the contractor gave me his word that he would pay me, but he didn’t. Now how can I pay my workers? I transferred my savings into the account that would give me 8 per cent interest. The company left no forwarding address.

On and on it goes; people’s spirits crushed by dishonesty and deceit. I suspect that if successive Governments wanted to save billions through austerity measures, they should launch a major offensive outlining what dishonesty and deceit costs the tax payer every year. If people complied by being honest in their financial dealings The national debt would be eradicated in twenty years.

The main reason why Greece is in financial meltdown is because the majority of its tax paying citizens refuse by deceit to submit any income tax returns. In fact, it’s seen as a badge of honour to get away with it. Children are taught to do the exact same thing and follow their parents’ example. And they wonder why they are in the state they are in.

I know of several people and perhaps you do as well who lament that life is not working well for them. They are left with broken dreams, faded hopes and thwarted goals. However, in many cases, if you trace their disappointment back far enough you discover a trail of dishonesty.

It may have started with a slight departure from the truth; but all too often that first dishonest step leads to deeper forms of deceitfulness and from there to downright lies. Along the way, the dishonest person begins to experience the inevitable breakdown of his or her relationships with God and with others; whether in the home, at school, on the building site, in the office, or at church.

It’s easy to place the blame on other people or on forces beyond one’s control when the real cause of trouble is one’s own careless or malicious mishandling of truth. Have you told any lies lately? Any harmless ones. We’ll do lunch sometime. I’ll pay you back next month. Can I have a minute of your time. My door is always open. Will phone you tomorrow.

Do you ever exaggerate the truth? Tell a story and put an extra spin on it. Describe a personal achievement in inflated terms? Do you ever minimize the truth? Confess to a sin less serious than the one you committed? Do you ever twist the truth to make someone look bad? The list is endless.

Have you ever described another person’s words or actions without explaining their context and thereby made that person appear stupid or cruel? Have you ever got yourself into a jam and then told a whopper to get yourself out of it? The wife was driving the car, so she gets the penalty points.

Do you remember the last time you lied? Most of us feel a little queasiness in our stomachs or a little heat on the back of our necks. But the worst thing is that we don’t know what to do with our eyes.

We have only two choices; to look the person we’re lying to straight in the eye or to look at the floor.

Lying is a messy business. It’s always going to be a messy business because we’re created in the image of a truth telling God.

At the core of God’s character is an essence of purity that renders him incapable of dishonesty. Wherever Jesus went, he often spoke to the crowds saying; I tell you the truth. I tell you the truth. As he did so he was holding himself up for public examination and scrutiny. Check it out and see if there is anything incorrect, I am telling you. That was the undercurrent of his message.

Could anyone point the finger at Jesus. No not one. The closest any of our politicians come to this; is when they are being interviewed and an awkward question is thrown at them, they say; let me be clear about this. But it’s not quite the same thing. Or if a politician is asked, “do you condemn IRA or IS violence?” ‘Do you condemn anti-Semitism?” Some will say blandly, “I condemn all violence.” But they still have not answered the question. They are not telling the truth.

Because of the piece of that purity which God has placed in our own core, it will always feel unnatural for the majority of people to lie. There are of course professional liars; spin doctors and the like; but God has given up on them. They are destined for destruction according to scripture.

There will always be warning bells and whistles going off in our minds and that sick feeling in our stomachs, because we were not created to lie. The only reasonable response for any of us is to stop lying; completely. No more half-truths, no more exaggeration, no more verbal twisting of reality.

No more only telling part of the story. For those of us ready and willing to make a firm commitment to honesty the book of Proverbs offers some refreshing practical hints for our journey from deceitfulness to truth telling. What do we do about it?

The Bible says; If you want to sin less with your words, then talk less. Proverbs 10.19” “When words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.” I wish I could meet the man who wrote that and have a chat with him.

If you have a propensity to talk a lot, the facts state you will lie more. Generally speaking, if you talk less, the less you will lie. The less you talk the less you will exaggerate. The less you talk the less you say things you will regret. The less you talk the fewer promises you make, that you can’t keep.
Proverbs says, “the heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.”

The wisdom of Proverbs also tells us something important; that we don’t have to participate in every conversation. You don’t have to chip in. You don’t have to express every thought that you hear or comes to mind. But we do have to pause and carefully consider our words before we speak.

When we are writing a letter on the computer there is a spell check. If you spell a word incorrectly it will be underlined in red. Your attention is drawn to it to correct it. Well Proverbs says that we have to have a lie check feature, a little switch that is flipped on just before we open our mouths.

When our ideas and words are forming in our brains, it will ask us two things; are our forthcoming words necessary; and are they true. If they’re not we should not spend more than a minute thinking about them.

There is so much we could say in this area of truth telling. One more thing. There is a potential downside to all this. Truth telling is not always easy especially in the age of obsessive PC correctness. People are sacked in jobs for telling the truth; whistle blowers. Others are shunned or passed over for promotion. ‘We don’t rock the boat in this company’.

We are called to avoid unnecessary words, or to keep silent rather than utter untruths. But at the same time when a given situation demands that a word of truth be spoken, we are commanded to speak it without holding back, even if it costs us dearly.

When it comes to saying the hard truths that certain people, need to hear, we find ourselves hesitating. At least I do. Such as the proverbial round peg in a square hole comes to mind. Someone who is doing a job they are basically useless at and at the same time they are keeping back the best person for it.

Why do we stay silent and hold back from telling the truth? And how you say it; how you go about it. It’s not easy. You can be seen as always being critical, always on the lookout for mistakes or self-righteous.

The person with the pushy attitude, who succeeds wherever they go in getting everyone’s backs up without even trying. Better to say nothing in case he is offended. We are afraid to speak the truth. What is wrong with me? A close relation who hasn’t a clue about money matters and who is utterly unreliable and reckless. Just leave it. Someone else might say something. What’s the matter with me? There are a million and one scenarios.

Or, you have become acquainted with someone. A decent, kind, hard working person who always sees the good in people. You have numerous conversations with them about all manner of things. But to date you have not had the courage to tell them the most important truth in life; that God loves them and he has opened the gates of heaven to them because of what Jesus did on a cross on their behalf. He died for their sin.

This person told me they do not attend church; yet you have not shared one word with them about the basic truths of the Gospel. What’s the matter with you? Why have you not said anything to them of God’s love and forgiveness.

Well, you know what’s the matter. You shrink back from telling the truth because it might cost you something. It might create discomfort in the relationship. You might be misunderstood or rejected. Heaven forbid that that person would say, stay out of my life, its none of your business. Get lost. Would that really be the end of the world? There is a balance here between peace keeping and truth telling. But most of us, most of the time choose the former.

I silence words of truth because they might create ripples on the pond of my life and I would much prefer to have the seas of tranquillity lapping around me. I want smooth waters; not rough seas. We need to remind ourselves of Proverbs 3 verse 3: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them round your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.”

The writer of Proverbs says cling to the truth and reveal the truth in your marriage, family and friendships.

Have you ever been thankful that at some point in your life someone dared to speak the truth to you and it helped alter the course of your life? I know I have.

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? Do you really know what it means to follow Jesus? Please think carefully about those two questions.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Capture of Christ,” by Guercino, painted in 1621.

The Christian Life: A Three-Dimensional View

But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6: 11-12).

Paul wrote these words to Timothy, his disciple/student, his spiritual son. He repeatedly calls Timothy “son.” Timothy faithfully accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys, but at a certain point when Timothy was 30 or in his mid-thirties, he was appointed to supervise the church at Ephesus. The first letter was about the time he assumed those responsibilities. Timothy was not an Apostle, but he clearly was given a lot of authority by Paul, as well as these two letters of advice and encouragement in the Lord. Many of the directions given to Timothy apply to the clergy and laity of today as well, although some might be seen as Timothy-specific.

He describes to Timothy how he can be “salt and light” (Matthew 5: 13-16), and lead his church to be salt and light. Like Timothy, the Holy Spirit of God calls us and supports us as we strive to be salt and light as we follow Jesus Christ. The above passage is a three-dimensional depiction of how we as faithful Christians can be, and should be

Dimension One: The Bible is filled with virtues. In addition to this list of six virtues in 1 Timothy, there is another list of nine virtues in Galatians 5:22: Love, faith, and gentleness are found in both lists. However, in addition, the Galatians list has joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, and self-control.

Righteousness is the first virtue on the list. Righteousness is inevitably linked with holiness, and holiness is linked with God. If one is an atheist and deems themselves as a “good person” that is not the same, and no atheist would refer to himself or herself that way, as a holy person. The Lord said, “Be ye holy even as I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16, Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8) We may be starting to see that there is a vocabulary that the non-Christians do not ever use, and increasingly are omitted from the vocabulary and thoughts of Christians: Righteousness, holy, evil, sin, abomination. These words come under the heading of religious exaggerations or hyperbole.

Today’s mantra in our unbelieving society is that it is sufficient to be a “good person.” Yet, we know that we must strive for righteousness. However, the idea of being right with God and thus “right” in a bigger sense is considered up-tight by many. We are apt to be told that that is just our interpretation, or the Bible was written by people who were limited in their perspective by the time and place when and where they lived or it may have been believed by many and for many years, but that does not make it “right” in any ultimate sense.

Righteousness and holiness are repudiated by so many because they entail accepting the words “sin” and “evil.” I once referred to “our sick and sinful society” in a column in our union newsletter, and one of my colleagues, a woman with a Ph.D. in microbiology and a sociable and pleasant lady, came to my office to complain about my using the word “sinful.” “There’s no such thing as sin,” she said. I asked her, “What would you say about people who have intimate relations with animals,” and she replied “different strokes for different folks.” Then I asked her if sin could be applied to the kidnapping and murder of a four year old child, and she replied, “It’s a crime, but not a sin.” Are you, dear reader, stunned? Well, there are millions of people, even in churches who, tragically, think the same way.

Dimension Two: Paul tells Timothy and us to “Fight the good fight of faith.” Very often faith is portrayed – even by the Danish Christian existentialist Soren Kirkegaard as simply belief, a purely subjective attitude or belief in an eternal, changeless, perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God. By, referring to fighting the good fight, Paul not only sees faith in an active mode, but also emphasizes that it is public and associated with confession. It is not private and subjective.

Faith is our public testimony and manifestation of our faith, and of those virtues or the virtues in Galatians 5:22 that are the expressions of our faith. Confession here is not going into a confessional booth, but of exhibiting Christian virtues in a lost and fallen world! Then Paul really shakes up our 20th and 21st century sensibilities by pointing to Christ before Pilate as the pinnacle example or manifestation of fighting the good fight of faith.

In Matthew, Jesus is asked if He is King of the Jews and answers, “It is as you say.” (Matthew 27:11) He is listed with the same reply in Mark 15: 2 and Luke 23: 3, but in John, Jesus replies, “Are you speaking for yourself or did others tell you about me?”(John 18:33-34) A few verses later in the Gospel according to John, Pilate asks Jesus “Are you a king then?” And Jesus answers, “You say rightly…I came into this world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

Jesus’ good confession was not His many words, but his firmness in silence or in few words in the face of great personal danger, in a public place where this firmness and/or silence could be witnessed by others, and by His clear attestation of Himself as the Jewish Messiah (who was prophesied to be the universal Messiah of both Jews and Gentiles).

So. we are to fight the good fight of faith not by much speaking, but by holding firm whether to public ridicule or public threats or public slander or public opprobrium… matter-of-factly, without fanfare. Even if our firmness or our faith is perceived as irrelevant by others. When I was teaching in a public high school, one of my co-teachers called across to me in the teachers’ lounge. “Mr. Ludwig,” he called out. “Is God a he or a she?” I answered “God is a he, but not in the sense that you or I are ‘he’s’. He knows everything about us, things we would be ashamed to repeat in this room, but He still loves us, and his forgiveness is there for us if we would turn to Him and receive Him and the forgiveness He offers.”

Dimension Three: Paul tells us and Timothy to lay hold of eternal life. It cannot be seen or heard. We can’t take a weekend flight into the invisible heavenly realm. We have had reports of near death or death experiences related by people who died and were resuscitated. However this Scripture says that the heavenly realm has not been seen, nor can a person see it. So please greet such reports with a dose of healthy skepticism.

The King of kings bestows immortality with God himself. He dwells in unapproachable light. We cannot see Him, but we can hear him. God’s Ten Words were heard at Mt. Sinai (Mt. Horeb). But hearing Him was overwhelming for the Israelites and they cried out for relief from “hearing” (Deuteronomy 4:9-13; 4: 32-36; 5: 1-4; Exodus 20:19). With the hearing of God’s voice so painful, and being in His presence so impossible, how then can we lay hold of eternal life? On Earth He has given us His Word that we might hear Him without immediate terror; yet, we are to go forth in response to His Word in “fear and trembling.”

Further, the Word was made flesh in the person of Christ Jesus, second person of the Holy Trinity. Judgment awaits those who are not living in and through His Word. Here is where we understand that we must take up our Cross daily, deny ourselves, and follow Him to the very end. Only covered by the Blood of the Lamb can we hope to stand in God’s full presence.

Biblical morality was never intended to be a pathway to God, but a response of God’s people to His love and faithfulness. We appropriate Christ by faith, not by our good deeds. That is why application of and obedience to a list of virtues can never save our souls. Yet, when we are saved and lay hold of eternal life by faith, we then are called upon to walk on a path of righteousness or holiness by implementing the virtues found in the Bible.

Jeffrey Ludwig is presently a lecturer in philosophy in New York City and has taught ethics, introduction to philosophy, American philosophy, and philosophy of education. He also spent many years teaching history, economics, literature, and writing. For ten years he served as pastor of Bible Christian Church; and his theological focus is on the five solae. He has published three books, the most recent, The Liberty Manifesto, being a series of essays about the importance of reasserting liberty as a social, political, economic, and theological value. His other two books are The Catastrophic Decline of America’s Public High Schools: New York City, A Case Study and Memoir of a Jewish American Christian.

The image shows, “The Disciples in Emmaus,” by Abraham Bloemaert, painted in 1622.

The Coronavirus And Providence

The theme of my conversation is, the new scenarios in Italy and in Europe during and after the Coronavirus crisis. I will not speak about this theme from a medical or scientific point of view, as I do not have this competence. I will instead consider the argument from three other points of view: The point of view of a scholar of the political and social sciences; the point of view of a historian; and the point of view of a philosopher of history.

As A Scholar Of The Social Sciences

Political and social sciences study human behavior in its social, political and geopolitical context. From this point of view, I am not inquiring into the origins of the Coronavirus and its nature, but rather the social consequences that are happening and will happen.

An epidemic is the diffusion on the national or world scale (in this case it is called a pandemic) of an infective illness that afflicts a large number of individuals of a determined population in a very brief span of time. The Coronavirus, which has been renamed Covid-19, is an infective illness that began to spread through the world from China. Italy is the Western nation that is now apparently the most afflicted by it.

Why is Italy under quarantine today? Because, as the most attentive observers have understood from the very beginning, the problem of the Coronavirus is not its fatality rate but the rapidity with which the contagion spreads among the population. Everyone agrees that the illness in itself is not terribly lethal. A sick person who contracts the Coronavirus and is assisted by specialized health care personnel in well-equipped health care facilities can heal.

But if, because of the rapid spread of the contagion, which can potentially strike millions of people simultaneously, the number of sick people rapidly increases, there will not be enough health care facilities and personnel – the sick will die because they are deprived of the necessary care. In order to cure grave cases, it is necessary to have the support of intensive care in order to ventilate the lungs. If this support is lacking, the patients die. If the number of those who are sick increases, health care structures are not capable of offering intensive care to everyone and an ever greater number of patients will succumb to the disease.

Epidemiological projections are inexorable and they justify the precautions being taken. “If uncontrolled, the Coronavirus could strike the entire Italian population, but let’s say that in the end only 30% become infected, that would be about 20 million people. Let’s say that out of these – reducing the rate – 10% go into crisis, meaning that without intensive care they will succumb to the disease. This would mean that 2 million people die directly, plus all of those who will die indirectly as a result of the collapse of the health care system and the social and economic order.”

The collapse of the health care system, in turn, would have other consequences. The first is the collapse of the nation’s production system.
Economic crises usually arise from the lack of either supply or demand. But if consumers must remain at home and stores are closed, and those selling goods cannot get their products to market because of logistical breakdown, then the supply chain collapses.

The central banks would not be capable of saving such a situation: “The crisis after the Coronavirus does not have a monetary solution” writes Maurizio Ricci in La Repubblica on February 28. Stefano Feltri in turn observes: “The typical Keynesian recipes – creating jobs and artificial demand with public money – are not practical when the workers do not leave their homes, trucks do not circulate, stadiums are closed and people do not schedule vacations or work trips because they are sick at home or afraid of the contagion. Aside from avoiding liquidity crises for businesses by suspending tax payments and interest payments to banks, the political system is powerless. A government decree is not enough to reorganize the supply chain.”

The expression “perfect storm” was coined several years ago by the economist Nouriel Roubini to indicate a mix of financial conditions that are such that it leads to a collapse of the market. “There will be a global recession due to Coronavirus”, Roubini declares, adding: “This crisis will spill over and result in a disaster.”

Roubini’s forecasts have been confirmed by the drop in the price of oil after the failure of OPEC to agree with Saudi Arabia, which has decided to increase its production and cut prices in defiance of Russia; and Roubini will likely be further vindicated as events unfold.

The weak point of globalization is interconnection, the talisman word of our time, from the economy to religion. Pope Francis’ Querida Amazonia is a hymn to interconnection. But today the global system is fragile precisely because it is so interconnected. And the system of distribution of products is one of the chains of this economic interconnection. It is not a problem of the markets but of real economy. Not only finance but also industry, commerce, and agriculture, that is to say, the pillars of the economy of a nation, can all collapse, if the system of production and distribution enters into a crisis.

But there is another point that becomes evident – there is not only the collapse of the health system; there is not only a possible crack in the economy; but there can also be a collapse of the state and public authority – in a word, social anarchy. The riots in Italian prisons indicate a trend in this direction.

Epidemics have psychological consequences because of the panic that they can provoke. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, social psychology was born as a science. One of its first exponents was Gustave Le Bon, the author of a famous book, entitled, Psychologie des foules (Psychology of Crowds, 1895).

Analyzing collective behavior, Le Bon explains how in a crowd the individual undergoes a psychological change by which feelings and passions are transmitted from one individual to another, “by contagion,” like that which happens with infectious diseases.

The modern theory of contagion, which was inspired by Le Bon, explains how, protected by the anonymity of a crowd, the calmest individual can become aggressive, acting at the suggestion of others or in imitation of them. Panic is one of those feelings that is spread by social contagion, as happened during the French Revolution in the period that was called the “Great Fear.”

If a health crisis is compounded by an economic crisis, an uncontrolled wave of panic can trigger the violent impulses of the crowd. The state is then replaced by tribes and gangs, especially in the outskirts of large urban centers. Social war has been theorized by the São Paulo Forum, a conference of Latin American ultra-leftist organizations, and is practiced in Latin America, from Bolivia to Chile, from Venezuela to Ecuador, and may soon expand to Europe.

Someone might observe that this process corresponds to the project of the globalist lobbies, the “masters of chaos,” as Professor Renato Cristin defines them in his excellent book. But if this is true, it is also true that what emerges defeated from this crisis is the utopia of globalization, presented as the great road, destined to lead to the unification of the human race.

Globalization actually destroys space and pulverizes distances: today the key to escaping the epidemic is social distance, the isolation of the individual. The quarantine is diametrically opposed to the “open society” hoped for by George Soros. The conception of man as a relationship, typical of a certain school of philosophical personalism, dissipates.

Pope Francis, after the failure of Querida Amazonia, focused heavily on the conference dedicated to the “global compact,” scheduled at the Vatican for this coming May 14. This conference however has been rescheduled and has become more distant, not only in time but in its ideological presuppositions.

The Coronavirus brings us back to reality. It is not the end of borders that was announced after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead, it is the end of the world without borders, the end of the “global village.” It is not the triumph of the new world order: it is the triumph of the new world disorder. The political and social scenario is that of a society that is disintegrating and decomposing. Is it all organized? It’s possible. But history is not a deterministic succession of events.

The master of history is God, not the masters of chaos. The killer of globalization is a global virus called the Coronavirus.

As An Historian

At this point, the historian will step in to replace the political observer, seeking to see things from the perspective of a greater chronological distance. Epidemics have accompanied the history of humanity from the very beginning, and all the way to the twentieth century. And they are always intertwined with two other scourges: Wars and economic crises.

The last great epidemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918, was closely connected to the First World War and the Great Depression that began in 1929, also known as “the Great Crash,” an economic and financial crisis that convulsed the economic world at the end of the Twenties, with grave repercussions which extended well into the 1930s. These events were followed by the Second World War.

Laura Spinnay is an English scientific journalist who has written a book called Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. Her book informs us that between 1918 and 1920 the virus which infected approximately 500 million people, including even inhabitants of remote islands of the Pacific Ocean and of the glacial Arctic Sea, causing the deaths of 50-100 million individuals, ten times more than the First World War.

World War I contributed to the flu’s virulence, helping the virus spread throughout the globe. Spinnay writes: “It is difficult to imagine a mechanism of contagion more effective than the mobilization of enormous quantities of troops in the height of the autumn wave, who then reached the four corners of the planet where they were greeted by festive crowds.

In essence, what the Spanish flu taught us is that another influenza pandemic is inevitable, but whether it will cause ten million or one hundred million victims depends only on what the world will be like in which it spreads.”

In the interconnected world of globalization, the ease with which contagion can spread is certainly greater than it was a century ago. Who can deny it?

But the historian’s perspective goes even further back in time. The twentieth century was the most terrible century of history. But there was another terrible century, “The Calamitous Fourteenth Century,” as Barbara Tuchman calls it in her book A Distant Mirror.

I would like to focus on this historical period that marked the end of the Medieval era and the beginning of the Modern era. I do so by basing myself on historical works that are not Catholic but serious and objective in their research.

The Rogations are processions convoked by the Church in order to implore the help of Heaven against calamities. The Rogations contain the prayer “A fame, peste et bello libera nos, Domine:” – from famine, plague, and war, deliver us, O Lord.

As the historian Roberto Lopez writes, the liturgical invocation present in the Rogation ceremonies “unfolded with all of its drama over the course of the fourteenth century… Between the tenth and twelfth centuries,” Lopez continues, “none of the great scourges that mow down humanity seem to have raged in any great measure; neither pestilence, of which there is no mention during this period, nor famine, nor war, which had a greatly reduced number of victims. Moreover, the expanse of agriculture was widened by a slow softening of the climate. We have proof of this in the retreat of the glaciers in the mountains and of the icebergs in the northern seas, in the extension of wine growing into regions like England where today it is no longer practical, and in the abundance of water in regions of the Sahara that were later reconquered by the desert.”

The picture of the fourteenth century was much, much different, as natural catastrophes combined with serious religious and political upheavals.

The fourteenth century was a century of deep religious crisis – it opened in 1303 with the famous “slap” of Anagni against Boniface VIII, one of the greatest humiliations of the papacy in history. Then, it saw the transference of the papacy for seventy years to the city of Avignon in France (1308-1378). And it ended with forty years of the Western Schism from 1378 to 1417, in which Catholic Europe was divided between two and then three popes. A century later, in 1517, the Protestant Revolution lacerated the unity of the Christian faith.

If the thirteenth century was a period of peace in Europe, the fourteenth century was an era of permanent war. We need only think of the “Hundred Years’ War” between France and England (1339-1452) and of the assault of the Turks against the Byzantine Empire with the conquest of Adrianople (1362).

In this century Europe experienced an economic crisis due to climatic changes caused, not by man, but by glaciation. The climate of the Middle Ages had been mild and gentle, like that era’s customs. But the fourteenth century experienced an abrupt harshening of climatic conditions.

The rains and floods of the spring of 1315 led to a general famine that assailed all of Europe, above all the northern regions, causing the death of millions of people. The famine spread everywhere. The elderly voluntarily refused food, in the hope of enabling the young to survive, and historians of the time write of many cases of cannibalism.

One of the principal consequences of the famines was agricultural de-structuring. In this period there were great movement of agricultural depopulation, characterized by flight from the land and the abandonment of villages; the forest invaded fields and vineyards. As a result of the abandonment of the fields, there was a strong reduction of soil productivity and a depletion of livestock.

If bad weather causes famine, the subsequent weakening of the body of entire populations causes disease. The historians Ruggiero Romano and Alberto Tenenti show how in the fourteenth century the recurring cycle of famines and epidemics intensified. The last great plague had erupted between 747 and 750; almost six hundred years later it reappeared, striking four times in the space of a decade.

The plague came from the Orient and arrived in Constantinople in the autumn of 1347. Over the next three years it infected all of Europe, all the way to Scandinavia and Poland. It was the Black Plague, of which Boccaccio speaks in the Decameron. Italy lost about half of its inhabitants. Agnolo di Tura, the chronicler of Siena, lamented that no one could be found to bury the dead, and that he had to bury his five sons with his own hands. Giovanni Villani, the chronicler of Florence, was struck by the plague in such a sudden way that his chronicle ends abruptly in the middle of a sentence.

The European population that had surpassed 70 million inhabitants at the beginning of the 1300s was reduced by a century of wars, epidemics, and famines to 40 million; it shrank by more than one third. The famines, plague, and wars of the fourteenth century were interpreted by the Christian people as signs of God’s chastisement.

Saint Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) admonished: Tria sunt flagella quibus dominus castigat. There are three scourges with which God chastises: War, plague, and famine. Saint Bernardine belongs to a number of saints, like Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden, Vincent Ferrer, Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, who warned how throughout history natural disasters have always accompanied the infidelities and apostasy of nations.

It happened at the end of the Christian Middle Ages, and it seems to be happening today. Saints like Bernardine of Siena did not attribute these events to the work of evil agents but to the sins of men, which are even more grave if they are collective sins and still more grave if tolerated or promoted by the rulers of the peoples and by those who govern the Church.

As A Philosopher Of History

These considerations introduce us to the third point in which I will consider the events not as a sociologist or historian but as a philosopher of history.

Theology and the philosophy of history are fields of intellectual speculation that apply the principles of theology and philosophy to historical events.

The theologian of history is like an eagle that judges human affairs from the heights. Some of the great theologians of history were Saint Augustine (354-430), Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), who was called the eagle of Meaux, from the name of the diocese where he was bishop, Count Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), the marquis Juan Donoso Cortés (1809-1853), the abbot of Solesmes Dom Guéranger (1805-1875), professor Plinio Correa de Oliveira (1908-1995), and may others. There is a Biblical expression that says: Judicia Dei abyssus multa (Ps 35:7): the judgments of God are a great abyss. The theologian of history submits himself to these judgments and seeks to understand the reason for them.

Saint Gregory the Great, as he invites us to investigate the reasons for divine action, affirms: “Whoever does not discover the reason for which God does things in the very works themselves, will find in his own meanness and baseness sufficient cause to explain why his investigations are in vain.”

Philosophy and modern theology, under the influence above all of Hegel, have replaced the judgments of God with the judgments of history. The principle, according to which the Church judges history, is reversed. It is not the Church that judges history, but history that judges the Church, because the Church, according to the Nouvelle théologie, does not transcend history but is immanent, internal to itself.

When Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said in his final interview that “The Church is 200 years behind” with respect to history, he assumed history as the criterion of judgment for the Church. When Pope Francis, in his Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2019, made these words of Cardinal Martini his own, he is judging the Church in the name of history, overturning what should be the criterion of Catholic judgment.

History in reality is a creature of God, like nature, like all that exists, because nothing of what exists can exist apart from God. All that happens in history is foreseen, regulated and ordered by God for all eternity.

Thus, for the philosopher of history every discussion can only begin with God and finish with God. God does not only exist; God is concerned for His creatures, and He rewards or chastises rational creatures according to the merits or faults of each. The Catechism of Saint Pius X teaches: “God rewards the good and chastises the wicked because He is infinite justice….”

Justice, theologians explain, is one of the infinite perfections of God. The infinite mercy of God presupposed his infinite justice.

Among Catholics, the concept of justice, like the concept of divine justice, is often removed. And yet the doctrine of the Church teaches the existence of a particular judgment that follows the death of every person, with the immediate reward or punishment of the soul, and of a universal judgment in which all angels and all human beings will be judged for their thoughts, words, actions, and omissions.

The theology of history tells us that God rewards and punishes not only men but also collectivities and social groups: Families, nations, civilizations. But while men have their reward or chastisement, sometimes on earth but always in heaven, nations, which do not have an eternal life, are punished or rewarded only on earth.

God is righteous and rewarding and gives to each what is his due: He not only chastises individual persons, but He also sends tribulations to families, cities, and nations for the sins which they commit. Earthquakes, famines, epidemics, wars, and revolutions have always been considered divine chastisements. As Father Pedro de Ribadaneira (1527-1611) writes: “wars and plagues, droughts and famines, fires and all other disastrous calamities are chastisement for the sins of entire populations.”

On March 5, the bishop of an important diocese, whom I will not name, declared: “One thing is certain: this virus was not sent by God to punish sinful humanity. It is an effect of nature, treating us as a stepmother. But God faces this phenomenon with us and probably will make us understand, in the end, that humanity is one single village.”

The Italian bishop does not renounce the myth of the “single village,” nor the religion of nature, of the Pachamama and Greta Thunberg, even if for him the “Great Mother” can become “stepmother.” But the bishop above all forcefully rejects the idea that the Coronavirus epidemic or any other collective disaster can be a punishment for humanity. The virus, the bishop believes, is only the effect of nature.

But who is it that has created, ordered, and guided nature? God is the author of nature with its forces and its laws, and He has the power to arrange the mechanism of the forces and laws of nature in such a way as to produce a phenomenon according to the needs of His justice or His mercy. God, who is the first cause above all of all that exists, always makes use of secondary causes in order to affect His plans. Whoever has a supernatural spirit does not stop at the superficial level of things, but seeks to understand the hidden design of God that is at work beneath the apparently blind force of nature.

The great sin of our time is the loss of faith by the men of the Church: Not of this or that man of the Church but of the men of the Church in their collective whole, with few exceptions, thanks to whom the Church does not lose her invisibility. This sin produces blindness of the mind and hardening of the heart: Indifference to the violation of the divine order of the universe.

It is an indifference that hides hatred towards God. How is it manifested? Not directly. These men of the Church are too cowardly to directly challenge God; they prefer to express their hatred towards those who dare to speak of God. Whoever dares to speak of the chastisement of God gets stoned: A torrent of hatred flows against him.

These men of the Church, while verbally professing to believe in God, actually live immersed in practical atheism. They despoil God of all His attributes, reducing Him to pure “being” – that is, to nothing. Everything that happens is, for them, the fruit of nature, emancipated from its author, and only science, not the Church, is capable of deciphering nature’s laws.

Yet not only sound theology but the sensus fidei itself teaches that all physical and material evils that do not come from the will of man depend on the will of God. Saint Alphonsus Liguori writes: “Everything that happens here against our will, know that it does not occur except by the will of God, as Saint Augustine says.”

On July 19 the Church’s liturgy recalls Saint Lupus (or Saint Loup), bishop of Troyes (383-478). He was the brother of Saint Vincent of Lerins and the brother-in-law of Saint Hilary of Arles, belonging to a family of ancient senatorial nobility, but above all of great sanctity.

During his lengthy episcopate (52 years), Gaul was invaded by the Huns. Attila, at the head of an army of 400.000 men, crossed the Rhine, devastating everything he found in his path. When he arrived before the city of Troyes, Bishop Lupus, in his pontifical vestments and following his clergy in procession, came to meet Attila and asked him, “Who are you that you threaten this city?” And the response came: “Don’t you know who I am? I am Attila, king of the Huns, called the scourge of God.” To which Lupus replied: “Well, then, be the welcome scourge of God, because we merit divine scourges because of our sins. But if it is possible, let your blows fall only on my person and not on the entire city.”

The Huns entered the city of Troyes, but by divine will they were blinded and crossed it without being aware of it and without doing evil to anyone.

The bishops today not only are not speaking about divine scourges, but they are not even inviting the faithful to pray that God will liberate them from the epidemic. There is a coherence in this. Whoever prays, in fact, asks God to intervene in his life, and thus in the things of the world, in order to be protected from evil and to obtain spiritual and material goods. But why should God listen to our prayers, if He is disinterested in the universe created by Him?

If, on the contrary, God can, by means of miracles, change the laws of nature, avoiding the sufferings and death of an individual man, or great loss of life throughout an entire city, He can also decree the punishment of a city or a people, because their collective sins call down collective chastisements.

Saint Charles Borromeo said, “Because of our sins, God permitted the fire of the plague to attack every part of Milan.” And Saint Thomas Aquinas explains: “When it is all the people who sin, vengeance must be made on all the people, just as the Egyptians who persecuted the children of Israel were submerged in the Red Sea, and as the inhabitants of Sodom were struck down en masse, or a significant number of people must be struck, such as happened in the chastisement inflicted for the adoration of the golden calf.”

On the eve of the second session of the First Vatican Council, on January 6, 1870, Saint John Bosco had a vision in which it was revealed to him that “war, plague, and famine are the scourges with which the pride and malice of men will be struck down.” This is how the Lord expressed himself: “You, O priests, why do you not run to weep between the vestibule and the altar, begging for the end of the scourges? Why do you not take up the shield of faith and go over the roofs, in the houses, in the streets, in the piazzas, in every inaccessible place, to carry the seed of my word. Do you not know that this is the terrible two-edged sword that strikes down my enemies and that breaks the wrath of God and men?”

The priests are silent, the bishops are silent, the Pope is silent.

We are approaching Holy Week and Easter. And yet for the first time in many centuries in Italy, the churches are closed, Masses are suspended, and even Saint Peter’s Basilica is closed. The Holy Week and Easter liturgies urbe et orbi will not be drawing pilgrims from all over the world.

God, also punishes by “subtraction,” as Saint Bernardine of Siena says; and today it seems like He has removed the churches, the Mother of all churches from the supreme Pastor, while the Catholic people are groping confused in the dark, deprived of the light of truth that should illuminate the world from Saint Peter’s Basilica. How can we not see in what the Coronavirus is producing a symbolic consequence of the self-destruction of the Church?

Judicia Dei abyssus multa. We ought to be certain that what is happening does not prefigure the success of the sons of darkness, but rather their defeat, because, as Father Carlo Ambrogio Cattaneo, S.J., (1645-1705) explains, the number of sins, whether of a man or of a people, is numbered. Venit dies iniquitate praefinita, says the prophet Ezekiel (21:2), God is merciful but there is a final sin that God does not tolerate and that provokes His chastisement.

Furthermore, according to a principle of the theology of Christian history, the center of history is not the enemies of the Church but the saints. Omnia sustineo propter electos (2 Tim 2:10) says Saint Paul. History revolves around the elect of God. And history depends on the impenetrable designs of Divine Providence.

Throughout history there are those who oppose the law of God, whether men, groups, or organized societies, both public and secret, who work to destroy all that has been ordained by God. They are able to obtain apparent successes, but they will always ultimately be defeated.

The scenario we have before us is apocalyptic, but Pius XII recalls that in the Book of Revelation (6:2) Saint John says, “did not behold only the ruins caused by sin, war, famine, and death; he also saw in the first place the victory of Christ. And, indeed, the path of the Church throughout the centuries is a via crucis, but it is also always a march of triumph. The Church of Christ, the man of faith and Christian love, are always those who bring light, redemption and peace to a humanity without hope. Iesus Christus heri et hodie, ipse et in saecula (Hebrews 13:8). Christ is your guide, from victory to victory. Follow him.”

At Fatima, the Blessed Mother has revealed to us the scenario of our time, and she assured us of her triumph. With the humility of those who are aware that they can do nothing by their own strength, but also with the confidence of those who know that everything is possible with the help of God, we do not retreat, and we entrust ourselves to Mary, at the tragic hour of the events foretold by the message of Fatima.

This article is a transcription of a video made by Professor de Mattei.

The image shows “The Plague of the Philistines at Ashdod,” by Pieter van Halen, painted in 1661.

What Lies Ahead?

The year that King Uzziah died was in 740BC thus ending a period of national prosperity for the nation of Judah. He had been one of Judah’s finest kings and greatest leaders since he was crowned king at the tender age of 16. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. God was with him right up until the last few years of his life when pride led to his downfall.

However, he had defeated Judah’s enemies over the years, built Jerusalem up into a fine city and the people enjoyed great success and prosperity. The full account of his reign is told in 2 Chronicles and he reigned in Jerusalem for 52 years which is a long time. Isaiah opens with the words; “In the year King Uzziah died.”

He did so because that marked the closing or the end of a significant period not only in Isaiah’s life but in the life of the nation. Isaiah had grown up over the years under various kings like Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. But it was in the year King Uzziah died that marks a watershed in the life of the nation. The people no doubt will fondly remember their good king Uzziah.

There comes a time in all of our lives when someone who seems to have been there for a long time dies. It may be a husband or a wife, a parent, a close friend, a grandparent, a work colleague, a good neighbour. They die. And as we look back, we remember the year they died.

A flood of thoughts come back as we bookmark in our minds the year when they died. We bookmark in our minds the anniversary of their death and contemplate their passing. For some of us it’s something we cannot ever get over; we somehow cannot deal with life in the same way we could when they were alive. The year when Uzziah died. The year when Winston Churchill died, the year when Princess Diana died. The year when Elvis died.

For the people of Judah, it was a huge and sad loss, losing Uzziah. It was a loss too for Isaiah as he contemplated his passing and was now left wondering what will happen next. Although Uzziah had quelled many an uprising against Judah’s enemies and defeated the armies of Syria, the Philistines, and Assyrians; he knew like a pack of jackals they would be back to attack once again.

Would the new king be strong enough; would Judah’s armies fight the same way they did for Uzziah? The Northern Kingdom of Israel would fall into the hands of Assyria; would Judah be next?

The peace and prosperity that Judah had known for many years would it now all come to an end? The future looked bleak and uncertain. But then Isaiah sees the Lord and that changed his total understanding of things. ‘Sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings.’

Isaiah’s thoughts of Uzziah are put on hold as his mind is filled with the presence and radiance of God upon the throne. A great king may have left his throne on earth, but the greatest king was still seated on the throne of heaven. The one who presides over all earthly kings and rulers; who places them in power and removes them. For Isaiah the outlook was bleak but; the up look was glorious.

You or me will probably never see in this life what Isaiah saw because it transformed him as a person. You see our own lives may seem to be shattered or falling apart. The future uncertain, fear and apprehension grips us like a hard frost; but know this God is still on the throne and reigning as the king of kings. Our light and momentary troubles will pass away. But there is a higher throne than the earthly one Isaiah has looked to, more exalted and never ending.

Quite often we are transfixed by ourselves, by our own problems, by our own circumstances and sometimes it has to be said we prefer to remain there. But it’s not a good place to stay. Self-pity causes us more problems than its worth. The prophet Habakkuk felt this way when God told him that he would use Babylon as the rod of correction for his people. Habakkuk was understandably gripped with fear on hearing this looking to save his own skin and the skin of his people.

Dare we imagine, that when we glimpse Almighty God our attention will be drawn away from ourselves, to him seated on the throne over all the earth. It’s a difficult thing. Isaiah’s vision of God as one whose robe fills the temple speaks of God’s presence in Zion, another name for Jerusalem.

God will be at work in and through Zion throughout all of human history; but if only the train of God’s robe fills the temple, then He is bigger than the temple, beyond it, and not contained by it. He is bigger than the church. And bigger than the universe He created. Mind boggling really.

In our tradition, we are not generally good at imagining, and contemplating. But it is good to think beyond the hard facts and allow our minds to create vivid pictures of God in his glory. Can you imagine yourself if this was a picture on a canvas, where would you be in the picture.? If you were an artist where would you even start to paint such a picture.

The Lord’s realm of course is not just Jerusalem it is the whole earth v3.
But Jerusalem and Israel he has not abandoned and he will work through them which he is doing even today. Isaiah gives us a glimpse of heaven. Other creatures will be there like the Seraph’s who have wings like angels. They are living flames of pure praise and sinless. They are fantastic heavenly creatures yet beside God they are insignificant. God is as high above an archangel, as an elephant is above an ant.

These are holy creatures but even they have to cover their faces and their feet from the perfect and pure presence of a Holy God. The seraphim hover in constant motion like a humming bird in their beauty ready to do God’s will. How many of them will there be in heaven; six or seven. John in his vision in Revelation says he saw; ‘ten thousand times ten thousand’ and more encircling the throne.

These are creatures who serve and worship in the presence of God in heaven who are not even able to gaze upon the beauty of God such is his holiness and radiance.

It’s beyond words. If seraphs are not allowed to gaze at the beauty and wonder of God what about ourselves? And this is the conviction of Isaiah’s heart. Here we have a great prophet of Israel, a holy man, a champion of God. He saw himself with the eyes of God and what did he say. Did he say; “Oh, look at me Lord, and how important I am, and look at the great things I have been saying about you. Afterall I am your prophet.”

He said; ‘Woe to me, I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.’ What a devastating confession to make.

Here was Isaiah the prophet who reads from the holy scriptures in the temple. His lips and mouth are his greatest asset, his words are sent on wings to bring healing and repentance to the people; and here he is confessing before God that he is a man of unclean lips. What hope is there for the rest of us?

In the West the vast majority of people no longer know the difference between right and wrong. Moral absolutes no longer exist. Truth has been replaced by feelings and opinions. All that matters for the majority is to worship the god of personal happiness and freedom to do whatever they like. Cultural Marxism aided and abetted by academics and the media hold court as judge, jury and executioner.

But Isaiah’s eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts. When we look away from ourselves and glimpse Almighty God things change. What happens is that God’s spirit convicts us of our sins. We realise that our good deeds amount to dirty rags in his sight. Our sins rise up in front of us and we are deeply ashamed.

We have nowhere to go except fall at the feet of the risen Saviour Jesus Christ and beg his forgiveness and cleansing. No one else can do anything for us except Jesus. Unclean lips are caused by an unclean heart. Isaiah cried out to be cleansed inwardly and God met his need. His lips were touched, his guilt taken away and his sin atoned for. Such is God’s salvation for each person. Before we can minister to others, we must permit God to minister to us.

What troubles Isaiah the most is not Assyria or the Philistines, or a pending war, of Judah losing her prosperity or independence. What troubles Isaiah the most is himself. He is the problem and he is part of a people who have a problem, as all have unclean lips and unclean hearts.

Malcom Muggeridge, one of the twentieth century’s greatest journalists and satirists, wrote: “the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality, but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”

Isaiah cries; “Woe to me; I am ruined.” Even for someone like Isaiah who had great faith’ his faith at times was lukewarm and dull with little understanding of the grandeur of God. He despaired of himself. Now for the first time Isaiah sees himself as he really is, because he sees God. And when that happens something new occurs; pride is swept away and humility gushes in.

This is the way to Salvation. Friends until we move away from ourselves, our little idols and our little empires we are ruined; we are lost. Sheep wandering without a shepherd. If you try to compare your good deeds with someone else you will always win. That’s why we do it; it’s a win-win-win situation for us. But when you do that you deceive yourself. Instead compare yourself always to Jesus. When you do that you will discover it’s a lose-lose-lose situation. But it’s also a reality check. And its where and how we receive his grace.

A seraph peels away from the throne and heads for Isaiah holding a burning coal that he took from the alter with tongs, but not because it is hot; after all a seraph is a ‘burning one’. He took this coal with tongs because it is a holy thing. This holy thing touches Isaiah’s dirty mouth, and it does not hurt him, instead it heals him. This burning coal symbolizes the finished work of Christ on the cross. He went to the place of sacrifice called Calvary. His dying love for you and me is the only power that can awaken people in a moral stupor. And awaken us he does.

He touches us with his presence and through the Holy Spirit he says again, “I have made atonement for you; your guilt is taken away. You are released from your sins that bound you.” The price we pay for this liberation is a traumatic self-discovery. A new you emerges. The remedy for our lives of deadness is the touch of God himself as his truth breaks into our lives.

People in Isaiah’s day had heard the message in the synagogue over and over again; but they remained unmoved and unconvinced. You see every time we hear the word of God being preached on a Sunday morning something happens.

You come away from the service; and either what you have heard moves you closer to God or moves you a little further away from God. Either way you are never just the same as you entered. The gospel is designed for a purpose to move a person closer to God or further away from God.
Now if you think you can hold the middle ground you delude yourself.

If you think you can keep Christ at a safe distance and yet within view, you are facing God’s judgement. Tragically God was finished with Isaiah’s generation, he had promised them his blessings, he provided for them. He pleaded with them; he performed miracles for them, all to no avail. They weren’t interested and God leaves them to it.

I wonder if God has left us in Europe, Australia and North America to get on with it considering the vast majority have left him and his church.
Oh, he will always be there as Sovereign God, but not in the way he once was. His Spirit has departed.

Israel’s prophetic leader Samuel tells us twice later on after Isaiah that, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” This resulted in national disaster for Israel at the time. God’s Spirit can depart from any generation and he does not have to give us the reasons why. But the evidence why, is observable. Yes, a revival can take place and we pray for that, but so can the departing of God’s glory; his Shekinah glory.

When we hear such a message from Isaiah, we need to beware that we do not fall into the same trap as the Israelites did. Isaiah’s message is one we need to heed.

Beware of being too wrapped up in yourself.
Beware of a heart that is never satisfied.
Beware of a mind that looks for excuses not to believe.
Beware of an impulse that always finds a reason to delay a response.

Beware of thinking how the sermon applies to someone else.
Beware of thinking that you are not good enough.
Beware of thinking that you are good enough.
Beware of thinking what can I get, rather than what can I give.

Muggeridge writes when in his seventies; “When I look back on my life as I sometimes do what strikes me most forcibly about it is that what seemed at the time most significant and seductive, seems now most futile and absurd. For instance, success in all its various guises, being known and being praised, ostensible pleasures like acquiring money or seducing women or travelling to and fro over the earth like Satan. Exploring and experiencing whatever Vanity Fair has to offer. In retrospect all these exercises in self-gratification seem pure fantasy, a licking of the earth.”

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “God the Son,” by Viktor Vasnetsov, painted, ca. 1885-1896.