Restarting The Engine Of Christianity

Christian scholarship is rare in the context of current university disciplines. Strong is the myth that the basic tenets of the Christian faith belong to that “childish” phase of human history when people were credulous and superstitious, lorded over by a cruel, avaricious church that used ignorance and violence as a means of control. The go-to reference for all this imagined savage theocracy is the medieval era. This myth is deep-seated in the Western mind (thanks to the Protestant Black Legend) – and, despite many worthy efforts, it remains well-entrenched. Myths serve many purposes. This one reifies progressivism, which is the religion of modernity.

But there was also a time when unchristian scholarship was unimaginable, because the life of the mind was aligned with eternity. The abandonment of eternity by academia (the greatest tragedy) unmoored learning from its historical mission – which was to provide an eternal purpose to life by way of reason. This was once called the life of the mind. Education has now begun its Wandering in the Desert.

In all this aridity, it is refreshing to find a spring of Christian scholarship yet living, in the form of a learned and profound book. This is Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary and the Art of Prayer. The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. Given that this book is deeply Christian and rigorously scholarly, its reception will be problematic. Some may find in it a heuristic for recouping the feminine in the medieval past, in the person of the Virgin Mary. Others will quibble about this or that source material, or even the exclusion or inclusion of this or that scholar. And, the sad Protestant-Roman Catholic divide will continue to use Mary to mark out difference. Indeed, the Virgin is unimaginable for Protestants once Christmas is over; while for Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, Christianity itself is unimaginable without her. If truth is the goal of scholarship, then scholarship had better first know what truth actually is. Any sort of materialistic construct is incapable of truth, because all it can do is demonstrate cause and effect (fact). This is only the first step, because the fullness of truth also needs purpose. The question, “Why?” needs an answer. Once facts find their purpose, truth is at last obtained.

Fulton Brown offers truth, by successfully tearing away the façade of causes (i.e., feminism) that now distorts so much of education and offering instead eternity. Thus, her book is highly contentious and highly important, and consequently, it will be ignored, dismissed, criticized, found wanting, and even declared to be not scholarly at all. Regardless, the life of the mind runs deeper than the shallow advocacies of professional educators. This is why the majority of academic writing is worthy only for obscure journals that nobody reads. In contrast, Fulton Brown’s book is careful, meticulous, profound, deeply learned – and accessible – and it must be read by all those interested in the history of big ideas.

The book is best described as a meticulously woven tapestry of medieval faith, spiritual discipline, history and natural theology, whereby medieval Christians sought completion (or harmony, as Plato and even Aristotle understood it) – which was the instantiation of divine grace in creation. To cultivate the mind meant leading the soul to salvation.

Fulton Brown demonstrates this process adroitly. Her premise is unique and intriguing – that the Virgin Mary was the dynamic of early and medieval Christianity, in whom meaning itself was determined: “…Mary was the mirror of the Divinity; she was the model of mystical illumination and the vision of God, the Queen of the Angels and the Mother God, as like to her Son as it is possible for a creature to be, enthroned beside him in heaven and absorbed in the contemplation of the Divine.”

Thus, Mary was not some incidental figure thrown in beside the manger and then at the foot of the cross – but that she was the very “logic” of Christianity – for how is the Word (Logos) to be made flesh, if not through the womb? And, therefore, unlike any other human being, Mary also must fulfill the law and the prophets, like her Son. As Rachel Brown brilliantly demonstrates, this summation is not some medieval fantasy, dreamt up by monks, who needed to come up with a “Christianish” figure to replace the supposed “wide-spread cult” of the “Mother Goddess” (this academic fantasy, an invention of Marija Gimbutas, has finally been debunked). Instead, devotion to Mary is as old as Christianity itself – and, like Jesus, Mary’s presence in the Old Testament was widely known, acknowledged and understood, that is, until the Reformation brought on historical amnesia (the blinkers of sola scriptura).

To show the antiquity of Marian devotion, Fulton Brown uses Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology that has uncovered continuity from Judaism to early Christian piety. This, of course, follows Christ’s direction on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 25-27). Therefore, the Virgin is the Ark of the Covenant, the Tree of Life, Zion, the Burning Bush, Jacob’s Ladder, the Temple and the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, the Holy Wisdom, the Object of the Song of Songs, the Chalice, the True Bread of Heaven, the Rod of Jesse, the Gate of Ezekiel, the Lily of the Valley, and so forth. In short, all those descriptions whereby God allows human access to Himself. It was Albertus Magnus who carefully traced the many references to Mary in the Old and New Testaments, in his classic work, the Biblia Mariana.

But how do we know that this is not some invention of Albertus Magnus, or some other monk? How do we know that devotion to Mary has always been at the heart of early Christianity? Very simply, because the first church at Jerusalem venerated the Virgin (per Dom Thierry Maertens, who has studied this subject extensively). This veneration is present in the two credal confessions – that of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD, and then that of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD, in which Mary was recognized as the Theotokos, the “God-Bearer,” or the “Mother of God.” As Rachel Brown observes: “She was the one who made the Lord visible to the world, clothing him with flesh as he passed through the veil, magnifying his glory as he came forth from the womb. Mary was the one who, harmonizing heaven and earth, scripture and human understanding, made it possible to discern God.”

Thus, medieval Christianity was neither a perversion nor a corruption of some “pure,” first-century Christianity (as the Reformers always imagined, without any historical evidence). It is also often assumed that Saint Paul’s epistles say nothing about Mary. But even this is not true, since the epistles do not deny the virgin birth of Jesus; and Paul does write that deeply Marian passage in Galatians 4:4-6, in which the entire mystery of God becoming man is summarized, a process in which Mary is essential.

In effect, the medieval veneration of Mary had an ancient precedent in Marian devotion in Jerusalem. There is no early Church, nor early Christianity, without Mary – because Mary was the “Mother of the Word,” as Fulton Brown aptly observes. Whether medieval men and women were aware of this antiquity is immaterial. For example, the core vocabulary of the English language goes back to the Bronze Age (and perhaps even earlier); and English-speakers are largely ignorant of this antiquity. But such unfamiliarity takes nothing away from the actual history of the English language.

For those who might imagine that medieval Christianity has nothing to do with the first-century Church, an appeal to basic logic would be necessary. First, the faith itself depends upon events which are all based in the first-century. Second, the epistles of Saint Paul go back to within a few decades of Jesus Himself, and they contain various pre-Pauline creeds and hymns that come from within a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, for those trying to prove disjunction as “normal” in history would need to disprove the first-century context in all of the New Testament – which was the very same Scripture that the faithful read in the Middle Ages. Therefore, how could medieval Christians not help being part of first-century confessional reality? Again, it matters not at all whether they knew their faith to be first-century (and earlier).

But to be fair, when the medieval mind imagined the world of Christ, it did so through the lens of Romanitas (Romanity, Romanness). Therefore, it is wrong to think that medieval awareness was unhistorical, or even a-historical. The remarkable thing about Christianity is its unbroken continuity with its origins in the first century. This sets it apart from all other religions (including even Judaism). The medieval world understood this very clearly.

One piece of evidence of this understanding is the use of exempla (historical anecdotes), which divide time into three distinct categories – diachronic time, retrospective time and eternal time. Historical past, including the era of Jesus, was diachronic. Of course, the tradition of using exempla is Classical (ancient) in origin, which medieval philosophy knew. As well, we should not forget the fact that the calendar evidenced how long ago Jesus lived, since it was (and is still) based on His birthday. This means that the medieval world did know that Jesus lived in the first-century, and they did know that the New Testament came from that time period, with the Old Testament being earlier. This means, then, that the medieval world knew that Christianity possessed historical continuity.

The Virgin, therefore, was always crucial to the life of the Church, because she fulfilled the great hope of humanity by bringing the Savior into the world – she is the starting point of mankind’s salvation. Devotion to her is not a denial of Christ (an either/or proposition is simply a confused epistemology) – but it is an affirmation of God’s salvific plan in Jesus. How? By making the mystery of the Incarnation into a Mother-and-Child relationship. When God is born as the Baby Jesus, He must also take on Mary’s flesh. And in doing so, her flesh, her humanity, merges with the Divine, which is Jesus’ dual nature (God and man). What better example of salvation can there? God made flesh so that humanity can become God-like.

Thus, to assume, as all Protestants do, that Mary just became a regular housewife once Jesus got born and had other children by Joseph, is to misconstrue, and then cast doubt on, the Incarnation – which must be a unique event, a “process” brought about by a unique human being (Mary). Otherwise, Jesus is just a man, the physical son of Joseph, because Mary’s womb was not special and was not meant for only one purpose (giving birth to God as man). When Mary is touched by God in such an intimate way, can she just simply go back to “normal” when what she has done is not “normal?” It can even be said that the denial of Mary brings in the eventual death of theology (which is the condition of present-day Christianity, which now seeks to exist beyond theology). Without Mary, the only thing left is a fatigued reliance on allegory, which is a polite way of saying, “superstition.”

But Fulton Brown’s book is not only about the Virgin in the Middle Ages; it is also a significant study of a discipline long-forgotten in the modern world – that of prayer. Indeed, prayer is an intensely human expression, being found in all of human history. But what sets apart Christian prayer? Two things. First, it is “paying attention to God;” it is an “engine…for lifting the mind to God.” Second, as Tertullian reminds us, prayer is sacrifice. For the medieval Christian, prayer was intense meditation and sacrificial offering, affected through intense discipline.

This discipline consisted of reading, memorizing, and repeating set prayers, or litanies, and Fulton Brown focuses on one such litany, the Hours of the Virgin (the Little Office of the Virgin Mary). The term, “litany” derives from the Greek litaneia, which means “prayer,” or “supplication” and involves a schedule of biblical passages, hymns and set prayers to be recited throughout the day. Constant attention, constant sacrifice to God, such were the ideal objects of medieval piety. The discipline came in two forms. First, the daily recitation itself of the various passages, hymns, prayers and petitions; second, the memorization of large portions of the Bible, such as, all the Psalms. Thus, a life of the mind forever attached to God, and each hour of the day and parts of the night spent in His service. This rigor has long vanished from daily life – not that every medieval individual undertook this rigor either – but it was the ideal and everyone pursued it to the best of his ability. This ideal has now vanished.

In an effort to bring back this rigor, this discipline, Fulton Brown guides the reader along in practicing a medieval litany. The very idea of spending hours at prayer is now foreign, given the fact that for most Christians an hour every Sunday seems sufficient. And the object of medieval prayer? Mary, who was the “engine” that lifted the mind and the soul to God: “A creature herself, Mary reflected the virtues and beauty of all God’s creatures; and yet, she had carried within her womb ‘he whom the world could not contain.’ This was the mystery evoked at every recitation of the angel’s words: ‘Dominus tecum’ (the Lord is with thee)’… She it was whom God filled with himself.” In effect, Mary was the engine that made Christianity work, for without her, the Incarnation is denied.

It must be said that Fulton Brown uses a vast array of source material in her study. Such marshaling of material is indeed rare today in academia (given the plague of specialization) and deserves praise. She provides her two subjects (Mary and prayer) a thorough context in medieval theology, philosophy, literature, art, music, and history, by way of some 265 original sources, which range from Adamus Scotus to Guibert de Nogent to José Ximénez de Samaniego. All of these sources bolster the thesis of the book – the centrality of Mary to early and medieval Christianity.

More importantly still, Fulton Brown provides a systematic experience of what Christian faith was really like in the Middle Ages. Thus, reading this book is to undertake an intense training, not only in medieval piety – but in the earliest aspect of Christianity, which was rooted in devotion to Mary: “…the one who made the Lord visible to the world, clothing with flesh as he passed though the veil, magnifying his glory as he came froth from the womb. Mary was the one harmonizing heaven and earth, scripture and human understanding, made it possible to discern God.”

Mary and the Art of Prayer is a book that must be on the shelf of every thoughtful Christian who wishes to understand the quality and the nature of his faith – and it must be read by those who wish to understand the importance and urgency of prayer – for piety without good works (prayer) is selfishness.

Fulton Brown concludes her book with an analysis of Maria de Jésus de Agreda’s (or, Sor Maria) Mystica ciudad de Dios (The Mystical City of God), which is a life of the Virgin that was published in 1670. In it, Sor Maria offers this insight: “…for into the heart and mind of our Princess [the Virgin] was emptied and exhausted the ocean of the Divinity, which the sins and the evil dispositions of the creatures has confined, repressed and circumscribed.”

Such “dispositions” are with us still – so much so that the Church today only wants to be “relevant,” because it can no longer make people holy, let alone make them Christian. The Church has abandoned its flock, which now wanders about unshepherded, seeking God in so many false pastures. Perhaps, therefore, Fulton Brown’s book has appeared at the right time, for the world is in sore need of the discipline of prayer, so that it can restart the Engine of Christianity, without which humanity is lost. This Restart will first mean the reestablishment of fidelity to the truth of Christian. Fulton Brown has offered a blueprint. Have we eyes to see?

The photo shows, “Speculum iustitiae” (The Mirror of Justice) by Giovanni Gasparro. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 2007, as a pupil of the painter Giuseppe Modica, with a thesis in art history on the Roman stay of Van Dyck. His first solo exhibition took place in Paris is in 2009, and in 2011, the Archdiocese of L’Aquila commissioned him to do nineteen works of art between altar and altarpiece for the thirteenth century Basilica of San Giuseppe Artigiano, damaged by the earthquake of 2009, which constitute the largest painting cycle of sacred art made in recent years. In 2013 he won the Bioethics Art Competition of UNESCO’s Bioethics and Human Rights Chair with Casti Connubii, a work inspired by Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical. He exhibited at the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and at the National Gallery of Cosenza in comparison with Mattia Preti, the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna, the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, the Alinari Museum of Florence, the Napoleonic Museum of Rome, and the Grand Palais of Paris, among many other venues.

Prayer As Erotic Language

The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role.

For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

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, “A Woman Praying,” by John Phillip, painted ca. 1860s.

A Long Defeat: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien

“Actually I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote of himself, “and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters 255).

History as a long defeat – I can think of nothing that is more anti-modern than this sentiment expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a thought perfectly in line with the fathers and the whole of Classical Christian teaching. And it’s anti-modernism reveals much about the dominant heresy of our time.

We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better. The “long defeat” would only be a description of the road traveled by racism, bigotry, and all that ignorance breeds.

And our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider. The scientific concept of evolution (please do not jump on me for mentioning the subject) only suggests that there is a change in living things and that the change is driven by adaptation and the survival of those adaptations that are generally advantageous. If such a theory is granted, it says nothing about the direction of the process nor about the process as improvement or progress. That “evolve” has come to mean “change for the better” is a purely ideological assumption with no warrant in science.

But the metaphor of improvement remains a dominant theme within our culture. A few years ago a survey of young Americans revealed the utterly shocking conclusion that for the first time in recorded history, the young did not expect to be as well off as their parents. It was a paradigm shift in American progressive thought.

But Tolkien’s sentiment bears deeper examination. For not only does it reject the notion of progress, it embraces a narrative of the “long defeat.” Of course this is not a reference to steady declining standards of living, or the movement from IPhone 5 back to IPhone 4 (perish the thought!). It is rather the narrative of Scripture, first taught by the Apostles themselves, clearly reflecting a Dominical teaching:

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. …Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was. But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra– what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:1-13)

 This is Tolkien’s warrant for the “long defeat.”

 And the thought is not that we wake up one day and people are suddenly boasters, proud, blasphemers, etc. Rather, “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.

 This is not a pessimistic streak within Orthodox Christianity. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That war was not “the war to end all wars.” It has rather been the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). But the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples. The Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to have exceeded the heroes who went before. They could model themselves on Achilles or Aeneas, but they did not expect to match their like. The Jews had no hope other than a “restoration of the Kingdom,” which was generally considered apocalyptic in nature. All of classical culture presumed a long decline.

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.” 

But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

Tolkien’s long defeat, is, as he noted, of a piece with his Catholic, Christian faith. It is thoroughly Orthodox as well. For the victory that shall be ours, is not a work in progress – it is a work in wonder.

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 Gift of Galadriel,” by the Hildebrandt brothers, painted in 1977.

The Moral of Jephthah

In the darkest chapter of the darkest book of the Old Testament, there is a tale about a barbarous man named Jephthah. Born as the bastard son of a harlot, Jephthah was shunned by his brethren. He and his brothers were of the Gileadite clan, under the Israelite tribe of Manasseh. 

Ostracized by his people, “Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob” in the untamed countryside. Savage and vain men rallied around Jephthah and formed a band under him.

Meanwhile, trouble brewed in the nearby lands of the heathens. The Ammonites were honouring their god, Moloch, through the sacrifice of their own children by hurling them into the fiery pit of his wicked altar. These practices were despised by the children of Israel. After all, God had sent an angel to stop Abraham from sacrificing his only son, Isaac, who later begot Jacob, the father of the Israelites. 

The day came when the Ammonites made war against the people of Israel, releasing chaos across the land. Since in those days there was no king of Israel, the Gileadites sought a שׁוֹפֵט‎‎ šōp̄ḗṭ (judge / deliverer / chief) to save them. The elders of Gilead called upon Jephthah to be their captain. 

And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, “Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father’s house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress?”

And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, “Therefore we turn again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”

 “If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the LORD deliver them before me, shall I be your chief?” asked Jephthah.

The elders of Gilead made a vow to Jephthah before God that if he rescued the people from the heathens, then he would be made chief. Jephthah accepted. 

From out of the wilderness, Jephthah unleashed his savage bands and rallied the Israelites against the children of Ammon. Although the tides turned against the foreign foe, the Ammonites held out in the land of Aroer; where the stage for a decisive battle was set. 

On that day Jephthah vowed unto the LORD God of Israel. He promised that if God granted him victory, then upon his homecoming, he would sacrifice whatever came out from the doors of his house to God and / or as a burnt offering. 

God heard the champion and answered his prayers. And so Jephthah smote the jaws of the wicked and snatched the spoils from their teeth, bestowing the stolen lands back to the people. 

But as the chief approached the gates of his homeland in triumph, his daughter rushed out the double doors to greet her victorious father. And so, the splendid homecoming gave way to misfortune because Jephthah had vowed that he would sacrifice whatever came first from the doors of his house. 

Bound by his word to the LORD God, Jephthah sacrificed his gentle daughter unto the LORD. 

In doing so, Jephthah had become what he had sought to destroy. In his attempt to banish the practices of child sacrifice from the land, he fell prey to the very same practice. Jephthah’s story is the darkest chapter of the Book of Judges because Israel has fallen so low that even in “victory” they have found themselves in defeat. 

Are we not now in the time of Judges? Have we not forsaken Truth to do what “is right in our own eyes?” In the wasteland of popular opinion, we find Moloch’s maxim chiseled in stone, to “seek only the convenience of self-preservation in the present; all else is expendable.” As means of our own survival, we sacrifice the future of our children to the altar of our idols.

As we idolize the present above a righteous future, do not our children pay the price? And what shall we trade for their inheritance? Our inflated wealth for the yoke of debt around their necks? Our plastic conveniences for their polluted seas? The presentism of our lives in exchange for the livelihoods of their future? Is their slavery worth the cost of our freedom?

And who will be our champion–our Jephthah–against the presentism of our generation? Who will judge us? Who will deliver us from the tribes of men who sacrifice their children? 

Beware we do not sacrifice our own children in the attempt to return to the ways of our fathers; or else all will be lost. For this reason, it is the counter-reformation that we must fear most of all. When our defenders speak of “reconstruction,” we must beware the word’s inherent double entendre. On the one hand, they may mean to rebuild the traditions we once had. On the other hand, they may try to construct a new city, with our old ways left in ruins and our children forgotten by the wayside. 

The photo shows, “Jephthah’s Daughter,” by Walter Duncan.

Love And Obedience

Both love and obedience can be clearly understood, when John wrote this letter; but it is another matter entirely whether our society today genuinely wants to hear such absolute commands today.

Any absolutes which formed the bedrock of western society for generations are now going in the same direction as the Dodo. We have built a world based on free choices, not obedience. We have viewed love as attraction, which, when the feeling passes, may be directed elsewhere on a whim.

Anyone who watches the programme Love Island will soon realise that the word love does not actually mean what it is meant to mean. In fact, it means just about the opposite of what it is meant to mean. We rarely hear calls for obedience and love as work. In each case such calls may cost me my freedom. They may limit my spontaneity. They may put boundaries and restrictions around what I can and cannot do.

The groom of a couple in America who recently got married, said to the chaplain after he took the vows; sure, I’ll love my wife; but I don’t want love taking away my freedom’. I wonder if they are still married.

This attitude that flees from obedience and sees love as a passing affection is widespread today and sadly it is corrupting the minds of many young people.

It’s very difficult to get John’s message across that true freedom comes from disciplined obedience. Its like a pilot in training. A pilot is told that there are certain things they cannot do, certain things they cannot drink or smoke, what they must wear. Where they are allowed to walk. How long they are allowed to fly.

 You have to obey these rules because if you don’t you can get killed and you can kill others. It’s obedience to the rules that makes flying possible, that makes you complete your mission. But the word obey generally has negative connotations for many. Some people who have grown up in very conservative churches where obedience and righteousness were pounded home so often feel suffocated by them.

Obey we say; but God loves me; so let me simply enjoy him and live. Quite often to make the church look more grace filled, the church uses the idea of obedience in a negative way; the synagogue versus the church; Jesus versus Moses.

 Paul versus the Jerusalem legalists; grace versus law. When Jesus said; that he had fulfilled scripture, he did not mean that the ten commandments are to be now discarded and ignored. It means that all of the law has now been fulfilled and brought together in Jesus. In other words, Jesus becomes a walking and talking version of what is in the bible. What you read about in the bible; you see lived out in Jesus.

Jesus went on to say; ‘do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfil them.’

But who or what should we Obey. Naturally we will say that we obey the Lord. Which is correct; but how. We obey the teachings of Jesus found today in the bible which should be the basis of our obedience. It is the perfect place to begin. Why do we obey God? We obey God’s law to help us live happier, contented, healthier lives. We also receive God’s blessings as we do so. Obedience to God is linked with blessing.

Is the world a place today where we might be aware of God’s blessing?

 We can read in the OT how this combination of Obedience and Blessing affected the children of Israel. We can read time and time again that when the people obeyed God they were blessed, and when they refused things went against them. It came as no shock to them because God told them through Moses what exactly would happen.

 A point of warning. We need to be careful of those in authority like the Pharisees and certain Christian leaders even today, who claim that their interpretation of scripture or their application of it in the church becomes God’s rule, and absolute conformity is demanded and expected.

There is a delicate balance here with obedience that each of us must find ourselves. On the one hand we dare not compromise the doctrine of God’s grace freely given; and yet there must be a call to what it means to be a follower of Jesus that show’s his grace, has transformed a person’s life. One Absolute command that Jesus calls us to do; is to Love. This is a Christian absolute; a Christian must. It is not negotiable.

However, sometimes we speak of it so often that we have become dulled from hearing afresh its demands on us. Of course, we’re loving we say, we’re Christians aren’t we. We can use the word Love to mean the same as when we say, I love stewed prunes, or, I love burnt toast.

 But we will only understand what love means when we understand that love, light, and life all work together. You cannot take love in isolation from everything else and expect it to flourish.

Christian love is affected by light and darkness. A Christian who is walking in the light which simply means they are obeying God, is going to love his brother or sister Christian. Further on in John chapter 3 we are told that Christian love is a matter of life and death. To live in hatred is to live in spiritual death. If we know God’s love towards us, we in turn should show God’s love towards others. God has commanded us to love. He first revealed his love to us.

The commandment to love one another is not an appendix to our Christian experience or some insignificant after thought. No. It is placed in our hearts from the very beginning of our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said; ‘by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.

Christian love has been described in the following way;

Silence; when your words would hurt.

Patience; when your neighbour is sharp.

Deafness; when the scandal flows.

Thoughtfulness; for another’s woes.

Promptness; when duty calls.

Courage; when misfortune falls.

To love one another is a command from Jesus and something we are to do rather than think about to do. Christian love is not a shallow sentimental emotion that Christian’s try to work.; so that they can get along with one another. It is a matter of the will to choose to love someone, rather than an emotion. It is a matter of determining, of making up your mind that you will allow God’s love to reach others through you; and then of acting toward them in loving ways.

A man was complaining to a missionary about missions in Africa. ‘How can you go to Africa and preach to those people about love when there is so much injustice in your own country’, he demanded. The mission leader replied; ‘we don’t go in and preach to them about love. We go in and love them’.

But a word of warning and some clarification. Do not confuse Christian love with becoming a door mat for others to walk over and use. Christians are to have humility yes; but we should never be naive about those who would hurt us or seek to dominate us.

John distinguishes carefully later on between those who are deceivers who belong to the world and Christians who belong to the family of God. In Second John v 10 he explicitly states that such people are not to be welcomed into our lives.

This teaching requires reflection and discernment since, in the interests of mission, we are called to go into the world. But at the same time, we must be warned that the world holds dangers.

What are these dangers? There are Intellectual dangers, which lure us into patterns of thinking that rob us of the simplicity and reality of Jesus.

 There are Moral dangers, lifestyles and attitudes that deal with everything from corrupt obsessions, to destructive views of sexuality. There are Religious dangers, charlatans, charismatic leaders who can out gun and out fox many a Christian minister. There are Theological dangers, ideas and ways that do not promote Jesus Christ, but rather promote doctrines and practices designed to deceive and manipulate. There are dangers everywhere and even though we should be generously open and loving, we must also be shrewdly discerning and wise.

When Jesus was sending the disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God he said this to them aware of those dangers; ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard against men.’ On this point by way of clarification I would say this. We are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves.  As we do so many think that we should somehow leave our Christian teaching our Christian values, our Christian standards on the doorstep as we enter the house of our neighbour, or when we rub shoulders with them.

  Jesus never forgot for one second who he was and why he came into the world. He did not water down his message or make it easier for people to accept. He maintained his true calling to a fallen world of many people, of many races, and many faiths. He mingled and mixed with all faiths and none yet remained true to who he was.

One of the ways today in which the church especially in the west in North America and Europe has been greatly weakened has been when the church and Christians have allowed other faiths, other trends, other minority groups, and other ideologies to take centre ground as it were. A bit like the cuckoo chick that pushes the other chicks out of the nest.

Loving others does Not mean that Christian values and the Christian faith somehow takes second place or becomes irrelevant. And that because of our love and acceptance of other races and other faiths they, then become dominant. Christians are not meant to be so subservient they abandon their faith thereby giving the impression they are then unloving. You can still love and hold firmly to the faith. Jesus told his disciples and he tells us to, ‘stand firm’.

This requires discernment. Sadly, many Christian churches have keeled over in their pursuit to love the stranger in a wreckless manner, and in doing so have abandoned their love for Christ and his teachings. This attitude does not bode well for what it means to be a Christian.

 Love for Christ, loving him with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, must always come first in the life of a Christian. All other things come after. Jesus himself is the greatest example of this commandment. He says to us follow my example. Jesus illustrated love by the very life that he lived. He never showed hatred or malice. He hated all sin, deceit, malice, and disobedience. But he never hated the people who committed such sins.

He hated the sin, but not the person. I have heard Godly people say that there have been times where God has called them to love the unlovable. A person who really is despicable. They in themselves have been unable to do it until they realise that that person despite their terrible sin is made in the image of God. And that God so loved the world that he went to the cross for them. It’s a sobering thought.

Christ’s love was broad enough to include every person on this planet, because every person is a sinner. In Christ we have a new illustration of the old truth that God is love, and that the life of love is the life of joy and victory.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter,” by George Percy Jacomb-Hood, painted in 1895.

Nahum The Carpenter, The Tenth Epistle

It has been almost three years since the tragic death of Isaac. Ruth and Nahum are still struggling with his death. It has affected them deeply to the point of depression. Ezra and Ezekiel have tried to console and help their parents but nothing they have done has made them feel any less remorseful.

Another contributing factor to their stress and poor health are the daily reports of mass murders of Christians in nearby towns and cities. Both the Jews, who resent the new Christian believers and the Romans who are angry that the Christians continue to state their belief in Jesus and his preaching ahead of the Roman Leaders.

Now a new fear is gripping the city of Jerusalem! There are rumors of a Roman attack on the city in the next few years. The attack will be against the Jews, but the new Christians are worried they may be part of the attack too. Many have already fled to other countries.

Nahum and his boys have discussed the possibility of an attack either by Jews or Romans. Considering their relationship with many Jewish customers and the recent non threatening actions of the Roman soldiers they have agreed to continue living their lives as they have been for seventy years.

Nahum and family are feeling safe, but many of their friends and customers have been slaughtered by Jewish rebels as they try to eliminate the followers of Jesus.
The Jews are also shocked and angry thousands of Jews are converting to this new Christianity every day. Even in time of persecution, Jesus word is bringing in new followers.

It is fifty years since Nahum took over his fathers carpentry and leather shop. The boys believe a celebration should be held in honour of this accomplishment.

The boys have been secretly planning an event that they hope will help bring some closure to the death of Isaac and the hundreds of his followers. They also hope it will bring some happiness back into the lives of their parents.

It is a large event they are planning, a huge amount of work and planning and even some fear of the Roman soldiers and the Jewish rebels. After all, Nahum was one of the mob who joined together and shouted CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM! and some of those people have remained faithful to the Jewish faith but are still customers today.

After three months of talking, checking, enquiring (secretly) and praying about their plan, they have decided to tell their wives on Saturday night of the plan.

Following dinner, Ezra asked the two ladies to join them in the sitting room where the boys presented their plan. The ladies were awe struck and for some time did not reply. After a while, Hannah looked at Elizabeth and said do you think the ladies from the Guild would be willing to help with the food. There were about fifty women in the Guild, she replied, I am sure they would.

With that Hannah said, ok, lets do it! They all agreed they should keep it a secret from Ruth and Nahum, but should discuss it with the larger family before undertaking such a big event. They made a plan for each of them to reach out to various family members and get their approval. They are to meet again in two weeks.

Two weeks later the two couples met and exchanged the results of their respective visits. The visits all went well, and many of the visits resulted in offers to assist. Joshua said he had four large barrels of fine wine he would bring! That was an important aspect that they all smiled about.

The most important and dangerous part of the plan was the fact the event would be open for both the new Jesus people; Christians, and the Jewish community. They would also have to get the approval from Claudius and the Roman soldiers. Was this too dangerous a mix? Only time would tell.

The Christian community around this part of Jerusalem was not being persecuted by either the Jews or the Romans, however, only a few miles away there were horror stories of mass killings, tortures and persecution of the Christians. Would this Event be noticed by these factions who could easily slaughter hundreds of unarmed, innocent people.

Ezra and Ezekiel decided on a plan that would give them some assurance of a safe and danger free event. They would consult with various people to get their reaction to the idea.

When the boys reconvened the next week, they were pleased with the responses they got from their contacts. Ezra has spoken with some of his Jewish friends and leaders while Ezekiel visited Claudius.

They were assured from both fronts that there was no danger if they agreed to two rules. That there be no religious activities, and no political involvement or participation. Both boys agreed this could be attained, although they were very disappointed they could not talk about their new friend Jesus, but realized the danger that could come to them if they aggravated the Romans or the Jews. They decided to ask God for forgiveness and forged ahead with their plans.

Now it was time to get to work, and there was a lot of work for everyone. They decided they would have a meeting during one afternoon when they knew Nahum would be at home. Also, there would be no suspicions about a secret meeting held during the day.

On Thursday, fourteen people arrived at the shop. Ezekiel took the lead and presented the plans. He was supported by Ezra, Elizabeth and Hannah.

The Event would be a celebration of fifty years of Nahum The Carpenter. There would be an open invitation to anyone and everyone. There would be food, wine, children’s games, music, horse and wagon valet service, and Ruth and Nahum would be comfortably seated where all the guests could stop by and say hello.

This brief synopsis begged many questions! Who would do the cooking? Abraham had volunteered to cook a large steer on an open pit; Elizabeth and Hannah had spoken to two local Ladies Guilds and over forty ladies would look after the remaining food. Market Man had offered to bring large baskets of fresh fruit, and of course Joshua was bringing the wine.

Who was looking after the children: Hannah and Sara had reached out to three teacher friends and they agreed to assist along with several teenagers from the local schools. What about the horses and wagons. Here, Ezra was so proud of his “horse friends”, many had volunteered to meet the wagons and after unloading the passengers would drive the wagons to near by fields where there would be shade, water and hay for the animals. There were enough volunteers that they could take turns and still enjoy some of the festivities too.

What about the music? This proved to be another proud moment for the two boys. First of all Ezekiel had played in a band with some of his friends. They enjoyed sacred music as well as some of the present day modern music. They would play in an area where people could listen, dance and sing as they chose. Then, the big surprise came from Sara and Hannah. They had met a young girl, Demetra, while at medical school in Athens. As well as training in the medical field she was also an aspiring entertainer. She followed the music of Sappho and her brother accompanied her on the Lyre. Both Hannah and Sara had attended several of her concerts while training in Athens. Although her music was primarily Greek, her beautiful voice and amazing poetry of Sappho made for wonderful musical entertainment.

When contacted by Sara she agreed to come if she and her brother could be given some travel expense money and a place to stay. Hannah explained that the Medical Centre had saved enough to assist with travel expenses and Elizabeth had offered the new home that had been Miriamne and Yohanan’s apartment as a place to stay.

The participants were all nodding their approval as the couple explained their plans. Two final questions were asked: how many people did they expect, and who was going to pay for all this? Again, the boys explained they had done some research and came up a number of 300 guests! since much of the labour was being donated, most of the costs would be assisting in paying for the food.

The boys had prepared a budget for the purchase of the foods and to reimburse the ladies for the purchase of vegetables etc. This would not be an issue.

On Monday Ezra and Ezekiel retraced their steps of a few weeks ago and revisited the leaders to advise them the Event was a go. Now it is time to get to work.

The photo shows, “The Marriage at Cana,” by Tintpretto, painted in 1561.

Saint Mary Magdalene

There is, alas, an immense amount of nonsense written about St. Mary Magdalene, some of it of quite venerable vintage. For example, one strand of western Christian tradition identifies her with the sinful woman whose story is told in Luke 7:36-50 and therefore asserts that in her pre-conversion days Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or (in the quaint vocabulary of our immediate ancestors) “a fallen woman”.

Thus “Magdalene asylums” or “Magdalene laundries” were (as the oracular Wikipedia tells us) “institutions from the 18th to the late 20th centuries ostensibly to house ‘fallen women’, a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity or work in prostitution”.

This interpretation is exegetically impossible, since the Lukan text upon which it is based goes on to describe Mary Magdalene in the next breath in 8:1-3 in terms which clearly introduce a new figure. This proves that Luke did not have Mary in mind when speaking about the sinful woman in the preceding story.

Contemporary interpretations of Mary Magdalene are even more bizarre, including the one which makes her Christ’s wife. One suggestion along this line asserts that the wedding in Cana at which Christ was present was His own wedding to Mary Magdalene.

The stupidity of this view is revealed in the very text in which the wedding is described: “On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to marriage, with His disciples” (John 2:1-2).

If Jesus was in fact the groom it was odd that John would say, “Jesus also was invited”. In that case He would not be “invited” since He was the one giving the wedding and issuing the invitations. The suggestion would be comic if it were not blasphemous. Given the amount of verbiage pouring from the pens of those who oppose Christianity, I suppose Mary Magdalene should take such things as a back-handed compliment.

What can we know about the historical Mary Magdalene? I suggest at least three things.

First of all, she was one out of whom Christ had cast seven demons (Luke 8:2). Demon possession in those days manifested itself in obvious and violent ways (compare Mark 8:14f). If alcoholism makes one’s life unmanageable (in the words of AA’s Twelve Steps) then one can imagine that having seven demons would make one’s life quite unmanageable, and this alone would account for the absence of a “Mr. Magdalene” or a husband for Mary of Magdala. Who would want to be married to a lunatic?

Yet when she came to Christ He cast out all seven of her demons and restored her to sanity and to peace. It was in gratitude for this that she did not return to her life or resume her search for husband, family, and respectability, but followed Him around the countryside, supporting Him as best she could out of her own resources, which seem to have abundant.

In this Mary Magdalene reveals the primacy of hope. One must never despair and lose hope, however far one has fallen into sin and insanity. The Enemy is always at hand to whisper into our ears that all is lost, that our sins, addictions, past history, and brokenness all mean that we are beyond fixing and utterly without hope.

It is a lie, and Mary Magdalene’s life proves it. If Christ could heal and restore Mary Magdalene with her seven demons, He can heal and restore anyone. Mary Magdalene might well be considered the patron saint of the hopeless.

Perhaps she has something to say to prostitutes after all, as well as to the drug and alcohol addicted, the porn addicted, and any who feel despair dogging their every step. Her story tells us not to despair! No matter how broken one’s life is, Christ can put you back together again, provided you give Him all the pieces.

Secondly, Mary Magdalene was a myrrh-bearer. That is, she was one of the women who looked on from afar and watched as their beloved Lord died in pain (Mark 15:40-41) and made plans to anoint His corpse after it had been laid in the tomb.

It was, frankly, a mad plan. She and some friends bought or brought the spices with the intention of anointing Him, hastening to the tomb before dawn on the assumption that a few Jewish women could persuade hardened Roman soldiers to open a tomb which had been closed and sealed by Imperial authority and roll the sizable stone away from its mouth so that they could perform their women’s work of anointing a body which had already been properly buried (John 19:39-40).

What were the odds of success? They would be lucky if they escaped with a mere cuff on the cheek from the surly and cynical soldiers. Yet they refused to be deterred. They said to each other as they hastened through the breaking dawn, “Who will roll the stone for us from the door of the tomb? (Mark 16:3), showing that they were hardly able to face the unreasonableness of their plan. But such was their love for Jesus that they refused to acknowledge the unlikelihood of success, but pressed on through the morning light.

In this Mary Magdalene reveals the true foundation of Christian life. Our life in Christ is not based upon the cerebral acknowledgement of propositions and doctrines. We do not simply give intellectual assent to a Creed.

Before all that we love a Person, and love Him more than life itself. Many things are built upon this foundation (including assent to a Creed), but the foundation itself is one of love. St. Peter—dear impulsive Peter—got this: “Without having seen Him, you love Him” (1 Peter 1:8). There are many good things and necessary tasks in the Christian life, but none are more important than personal love and devotion to Jesus. Social justice (whatever that means) is very fine.

The poor we always have with us, and whenever we will, we can do them good (Mark 14:7). But more important is our love for Jesus—a love which transcends reasonableness, and which defies anything which stands in the way between us and our Lord.

Finally, Mary Magdalene was isapostolos, “equal to the apostles”. A few people were honoured with this title in the Church’s history, people responsible for the conversions of nations and multitudes. Nina of Georgia was so honoured, as was Constantine the Great, to whom the Church showed its gratitude with a generous bestowal of liturgical honour.

But Mary Magdalene? Which nations or multitudes did she ever convert? (Stories of her speaking with the Emperor with an egg in her hand and of travelling into France are more devotional adornment than reliable history.) In fact she was honoured with this title because she obeyed when Christ sent her to the apostles, the “sent ones” (apostolos means “sent”).

And note: the apostles did not believe her (Mark 16:11). Did she therefore fail in her mission? No: for she was not commanded to persuade them, but simply to tell them, and in that she obeyed and succeeded. She was given this one simple task, and this she carried out in perfect faithfulness. She went as one sent to the sent ones, and was isapostolos, the first one sent out with the Good News of the Resurrection.

In this she encourages us also in our little lives and small obediences. We may never achieve great status in the Church as did the apostles, or do great exploits which assure us of a place in history books or on icon-screens. Christ may not command us to convert nations, or walk in the ecclesiastical lime-light.

The tasks He gives us are comparatively tiny and seemingly insignificant. We may only be commanded to go bring a word to others who then go on to achieve great things and win high status. But if we humbly obey and carry out His will, this will assure our reward as well. Christ does not measure as the world measures.

Success and fame are not the issue or the prize—obedience to Christ is. Mary Magdalene was isapostolos because she fulfilled the little task Christ gave her, and we will win our rewards for similar obedience.

In this day of confusion over gender roles, Mary Magdalene may well point the way home, revealing what true strength looks like, acting as a counter-weight to the image of the angry, strident feminist often appearing in the news. St. Mary is thus the true feminist, the authentic woman of strength.

She shows that true strength comes from repenting before Christ, from loving Him with one’s whole heart and soul, and from obeying whatever tasks He sets us. Mary Magdalene is pre-eminently a saint for our times, and we have never needed such a feminist more than we do today.

Fr. Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Mary Magdalene Reading,” by Cosimo de Piero, painted ca. 1500-1510.

Good And Evil

We live in a world of mental habits. Whatever we formulate, create and conceptualize, we do so according to intellectual conventions that we live by and through which we give meaning to the physical reality around us – and within us. If we stop to examine how we think, the habits, or perhaps attitudes become readily discernible.

For example, we perceive nature as being governed by laws, and through science we seek to define these laws. We recognize the body as a living machine, which requires the right kind of fuel, the proper method of operation, to keep it from breaking down.

And we have come full circle and now see the earth as a living organism that must not be used for our own benefit, but cared for, nurtured: Humanity is now slowly becoming the warden of the earth, the caretaker, the gardener – slowly we are breaking from the earlier master-slave relationship, where humankind’s sole purpose was to exploit and use, and dump what was useless in the form of garbage.

In a slow fashion, humanity is losing its hubris, its pride of ownership of nature. Rather, we now see that it is nature that owns us.

All of these formulations (and they are that, since, for example, the earth or the universe hardly cares what we think) are states of mind, mental attitudes that allow us to create the kind of world we want to live in.

Here, it is important to distinguish between the earth and the world: The earth is our physical planet, over which we have little control, and the world is what we have made of the plant (countries, markets, business, wealth, and poverty).

Thus, we humans are creatures of habit. We cling to concepts and mental habits that define us as nations, tribes, clans, or individuals. How many wars have been fought purely for the sake of identity? Take away our tribalism, our virulent embrace of difference, and we suddenly become merely human beings – no better, no worse than the next man or woman. Identity too is a mental habit.

Aristotle defined human beings as political animals, and certainly whenever we veer into dealing with the world, we do so by way of a political response (war, trade, services, movement of people).

However, to paraphrase Plato (Aristotle’s teacher), we can also define human beings as moral animals. We are addicted to morality – so much so that all of our non-political actions are governed by morality.

Indeed, we cannot define nature as inherently moral, since it consistently shows us signs of aggressive survival. Nature functions on a model of reciprocity: A perpetual, perhaps eternal, chain of interdependence.

Morality on the other hand does not require reciprocity, for it operates on the ideal of perfection: An unending desire to participate in beneficence. And to justify this moral habit, we imbue it with great religious overtones and label it as “divine law.” Thus, our world is governed by two types of law – political and moral.

We can define the political as the behavior between nation states. And the moral we can construe as the behavior between one human being and another. In short, how we treat each other, as individuals, is the realm of morality, and how one country treats another is the ambit of the political.

For our discussion, we now need to abandon the political and focus entirely on morality. Leaving aside the question of whether morality is biological (“in our very bones”), or our own creation, we now must proceed to examine what it is that allows morality to exist. In other words, how does it acquire identity? What is moral?

Whenever we seek to define morality, we fall into a peculiar habit of thought. We begin to think along dualistic lines, or polarities, if you will; we begin to think by way of opposites.

Thus, we place one opposite against another, and arrive at concepts such as the sacred and the profane, innocence and guilt, purity and impurity, honesty and dishonesty, order and chaos, meaning and meaninglessness, reality and illusion, reality and illusion, light and dark, truth and falsehood.

As we can readily see, these dualities conform to a pattern of positive and negative (another duality), and they are stacked in such a way that we are forced to make a moral choice – we “naturally” choose concepts that are positive. Why?

Given our mental habit, we have come to believe that such opposites are in conflict with each other, and we are duty-bound morally to take sides in this conflict. By choosing the positive, we are making a moral choice. And this choice has a very long history in human consciousness, and it is this history that we will go on to explore.

We make a choice because we understand that these polarities cannot exist peacefully, side-by-side; they are not coefficient or coeval; they are embodiment of extremes, and one extreme cannot bleed into another. So much of our moral rebellion stems from precisely this denial of coexistence. We seek to assert that opposites do bleed together, and magnetically, opposites attract. Moral rebellion is based on not choosing sides, on insisting that one category is just as valid as its opposite, and there is no conflict between the two.

However, the positive-negative model pervades even this rebellion. How? By suggesting that the extreme can be pacified, that the two opposites can take on the characteristics of the other – by dragging the positive into the negative, or the negative into the positive. Despite the rebellion, we are still thinking within the confines of duality. It is a habit very hard to break. Try as we might.

The photo shows, “Landscape with a Rainbow,” By Joseph Wright of Derby, painted 1794.

Traditionalism, Or More Insanity

This book is an academic study of an obscure movement, Traditionalism. The name has a specific meaning; it does not mean traditional forms of belief, that is, generically, conservatism. Rather, “Traditionalism” is a type of Gnosticism, holding that a core of hidden knowledge, contained within all true religion, is the cure for what ails the modern world.

I certainly think that the modern world needs curing, though I don’t think that Traditionalism is what the doctor ordered. Still, the pull of Gnosticism across time and space must mean something. But what? Mark Sedgwick’s book helps us begin to answer that question.

I read Against the Modern World as part of my ongoing analysis of the lesser-known branches of modern right-wing thought. I was dimly aware of one Traditionalist thinker, the Italian self-described “superfascist” Julius Evola, about whom there was a burp of interest in 2016 when Steve Bannon mentioned his name as someone with whom he was familiar.

George Hawley’s excellent Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism spent some time on Evola and other Traditionalists, expanding my minimal knowledge; it noted an overlap between Traditionalism and the French New Right, wellspring of people like Guillaume Faye and his Archeofuturism.

No Traditionalist is a household name; I therefore read this book hoping to gain more insight. I learned facts I did not know, but as far as insight, I was disappointed—although, to be fair, given that I expected no new wisdom, I can’t really complain.

Sedgwick’s writing isn’t great; he’s an academic, not a popularizer. But he seems to know an awful lot about his subject. Though British, for a long time he has worked in Denmark as a professor of Arab and Islamic Studies, so he is very familiar with the different threads of Islam, essential since the majority of Traditionalists have a close relationship to Islam (more specifically, Sufism).

In fact, his enemies say that Sedgwick long ago converted to Islam, which as far as I know he has neither denied nor confirmed. If that’s true, it does not appear to affect his writing in any way, so for these purposes it’s irrelevant.

Most of his book revolves, in one way or another, around Rene Guénon (1866–1951), the French founder of Traditionalism. Guénon espoused and spread what he viewed as the “Perennial Philosophy,” or “Perennialism,” the idea that there is some “primal truth” that precedes, and is contained in, many (but not all) of the world’s major religions.

The term arose with the Renaissance priest Marsilio Ficino, who tried to reconcile Plato and Christianity, and as whose heir Guénon viewed himself. This idea of reconciling Greek philosophy and Christianity wasn’t new with Ficino, of course—although Sedgwick doesn’t mention it, Christian Neoplatonists, such as Saint Augustine, worked along the same lines, and the tradition of an underlying truth had continued up until and after Ficino, both within Christianity, and, to a greater degree, among movements like Hermeticism. But it had died out in the early modern world, as modernism and materialism came to dominate the West.

What brought Traditionalism back was the perceived defects of the modern world; hence the title of this book. Sedgwick doesn’t do a great job of describing what defects Traditionalists saw (and see); they seem to revolve around spiritual anomie and excessive materialism, which are viewed as inevitably leading to collapse and barbarism.

The modern age is often thought of as the Hindu kali yuga, the fourth and final stage of human degeneration before the cycle begins anew. Such preoccupation with decline and collapse is a very twentieth-century preoccupation, and part of the larger culture beyond Traditionalism—Oswald Spengler being the most obvious example. The Traditionalists, however, put a specifically religious gloss on both the projected collapse and its solution.

My key initial objection, or concern, is that we are never told with any precision, by Sedgwick or anyone else, what the claimed tenets of the universalist “Perennial Religion” are. I don’t think that’s Sedgwick’s fault, but rather the Traditionalists’.

There is much talk of “ancient wisdom,” but nobody seems to think it particularly important to actually identify or specify that wisdom. The only belief that seems evident is in a transcendent deity of some type, source of all wisdom and perfection. The other characteristics of this deity seem opaque, and it is not because they are deliberately hidden in the Gnostic manner—Traditionalists wrote many books.

There is talk of “the sacred unity of reality,” whatever that means. As a side dish, there is muttering about the “Absolute which is indescribable,” which may be accurate, but is not very clarifying. What it all seems to boil down to is generic mysticism; a claimed path to approach, and to understand, the divine and ineffable without, and outside of, detailed rational thought.

Now, mysticism has a long and respectable pedigree in most of the world’s religions, tied to and found as an extension of core doctrines. In contrast, though, most or all Traditionalist mysticism seems to be solipsistic navel-gazing, unmoored from religion. It pays lip service to religious belief, but really thinks religious doctrine is fiction. To Traditionalists, that is probably a feature, not a bug, but it feels a lot like more sophisticated Oprah, pushing The Secret, talking about how the “Universe” wants each of us to have a new car.

One way to understand Traditionalist mysticism, from what I can tease out, is as an accelerated, shortcut, hobbled version of Orthodox theosis, union with the divine energies of God (but not with the divine essence). However, Orthodox doctrine, and thought outside doctrine, is extremely specific about the characteristics of the divine, what God requires, and in what manner it is necessary to approach God. (I imagine the same is true of other religious mysticisms, such as Sufism or those found in Hinduism).

Blathering about “ancient wisdom” and “unity,” beyond feeling like it was derived from a fortune cookie, seems calculated to impress other humans, not set one on an actual path to mystical experience. Probably that’s why, it seems, a lot of Traditionalists end up partaking of various rituals, many newly manufactured, to unlock the key to the divine presence.

Whether to prevent being sullied by the uninitiated, or to prevent being ridiculed, these are rarely publicized (hence the “secret intellectual history” of the book’s subtitle). That’s not new, either, though—the reason we know little about the original Christian Gnostics, other than that some of their thought was suppressed, is that, like all such movements throughout history, they were obsessively secretive about their “hidden knowledge,” a necessary element of their attraction.

At first glance, Traditionalism is thus just another in a long line of quasi-religions that have a strong shyster element. The most obvious precursor is late nineteenth-century Theosophy, progeny of the earlier Spiritualism and mishmash of fraudulence and silliness, associated with the conwoman Helena Blavatsky (died 1891), which lasted some decades as an undercurrent in American intellectual circles.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau had ties to it; later on, Henry Wallace, sometime Vice President to Franklin Roosevelt, lost his chance to become President, and impose Communism on America, by being exposed as a Theosophist. Sedgwick spends a good deal of time parsing various other related movements, such as Martinism (tied to Freemasonry). None of this is surprising—as Chesterton did not say, but should have, when men cease believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

Or, as Sedgwick names it, citing Bryan Wilson, we get a “cultic milieu,” where, like the Island of Misfit Toys, fringe beliefs collect to support each other in their fringiness.

Today we get New Age beliefs and various other clownish schools of “thought,” which, to be fair, are even more degenerate in their stupidity and lack of intellectual sophistication than Theosophy and its relatives. (Admittedly, these modern beliefs aren’t Gnostic, which makes them somewhat different in structure and approach. Maybe that’s confirmation of Traditionalist beliefs about modern degeneration—today, we can’t even manage a decent Gnosticism.)

The core of all Gnosticism has always been to promise initiation into some hidden, esoteric knowledge. Thus, it is no surprise that most Traditionalists end up connected to, and many formally received into, Sufism. Christianity has always treated Gnosticism as a heresy and held that truth is available openly to all.

Sufism, on the other hand, offers both orthodoxy and a distinction between exoteric and esoteric belief. All (or nearly all) Sufis are devout Sunni Muslims (despite occasional tension with those finding mysticism unpalatable), but they add a layer of esoteric belief. This maintains the precise certainty for believers, something that Islam offers most of all among the major religions, while also offering the feeling of secret knowledge, and thus superiority and being on the inside track, all at the same time, a neat trick.

A few of the Traditionalists profiled in this book tried to combine Perennialism with Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but the inherent tensions in that project seem to always pull them either toward orthodox belief or its opposite, formal universalism.

A few others, Evola being the most prominent, combined Traditionalism with a total rejection of monotheistic religion, focusing on what to them were real, earlier pagan gods.

Most Traditionalists seem to find much of value in Hinduism—easy to do in Hinduism, with its many threads and voluminous, opaque writings, which they pick and choose from as their starting point, but I suspect that actual, devout Hindus would not agree with Traditionalist thinking, and anyway all the Traditionalists seem to abandon everything but a few cherry-picked elements of Hinduism, moving on to focus on other religious traditions—from which they also cherry pick, since universalism is rejected by all such traditions.

Back to the history. Probably the reason Guénon got as much traction as he did was because in the early twentieth century mysticism was in the air, and more mainline figures, such as the prominent Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain, initially sponsored his writing to some degree.

As with almost all Traditionalists, Guénon soon thought himself into being fundamentally opposed to actual Christian doctrine, as being both too exclusive in its claims and being a religion of enervation and femininity (shades of Nietzsche), so he went his own way.

A circle formed around Guénon and a new journal in which he was involved, The Veil of Isis, from the name of which you can tell which way they headed, toward secrecy and supposed Eastern wisdom. World War I helped Guénon’s project, in that it made the idea that modernity was fundamentally broken hard to argue. Still unsatisfied, Guénon ended up a Sufi, moving to Egypt and going native.

Sedgwick’s covers two basic periods, before and after Guénon’s death, in 1951, since his death caused divergence into several vaguely connected movements, and turned an already nebulous philosophy into a mishmash. In fact, at least according to Sedgwick, most of the influence of Traditionalism in the past several decades has been through what he calls “soft Traditionalism,” not always easy to identify.

Basically this consists of academics in various fields (all in the humanities), who dislike modernity and hold to the universalist beliefs popularized by Guénon, such that elements of Traditionalism appear in their works, but they are by no means necessarily devotees. Such soft Traditionalism extends to men like E. F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful, and even to Prince Charles, who to external appearances is mostly just soft in the head (though if he is pulled toward Traditionalism, this, more likely than actual devotion to Islam, explains his frequent positive comments about Islam).

In Russia, though, Traditionalism has lately had some apparent real political impact, through the “Eurasian” program of Alexander Dugin, alleged to influence Vladimir Putin and the Russian government (and having a great deal in common with Faye’s Archeofuturism).

Sedgwick talks about so many people, all obscure, that they are hard to keep straight. Thus, for the most part, I think this book is most valuable as a reference work, although to understand the overall framework you really have to read the whole book.

A few people stand out, or maybe they just stand out to me because these are the ones I’ve heard of. Isabelle Eberhardt, Swiss woman of dubious mental stability, who converted young to Islam, moved to French Algeria (cooperating with the French colonizers but also assisting the locals, and conducting a tangled relationship with Hubert Lyautey, the French officer and Legionnaire in charge), and died before she reached thirty.

The Italian Julius Evola, pagan occultist, worshipper of what he called the Absolute Individual, kept at arms’ length by both Mussolini and the Nazis, because he thought they did not go far enough in maintaining hierarchy, and that they were too materialist by believing in racial, as opposed to spiritual, superiority.

After the war he abandoned politics for his vision of “riding the tiger,” i.e., surviving modernity by ignoring it until it collapses (similar in some ways to Ernst Jünger’s concept of the Forest Rebel, or his related concept of the anarch).

Frithjof Schuon, whom I know of because he lived nearby while I was at school at Indiana University; what I did not know was his adoption of the usual cult leader practice of sleeping with his disciples’ wives, a practice to which he gave the elevated name of “vertical marriage.”

He only died in 1998, after a scandal involving naked carousing with underage girls; apparently even the Bloomington police have limits. Since then, only Dugin has any relevance today, so apparently, at least as against Traditionalism, the modern world is in the ascendant, despite more than a hundred years of effort.

What all the many people Sedgwick profiles had in common was subscribing to the Perennial Philosophy. Again, though, I can’t figure out what that means. I doubt if Eberhardt and Evola had much in common, other than a declared belief in some kind of transcendent unity of all things. What that implied for life meant very, very different things for them, and for most of the Traditionalists.

It seems to me that something that has no predictive value, that ex ante cannot describe the acts or thoughts at any relatively narrow level of generality of any person, is not a useful categorization.

I’m all for attacks on the modern world. This is a difficult argument to make today, because Steven Pinker isn’t wrong, that in a great number of important ways, we are better off than we used to be.

The ways in which we are not better off are harder to quantify, and counterintuitive—for example, excessive personal autonomy is bad, but it feels so good. Yes, there are external indicia of the problems, most notably the failure of all modern societies to reproduce themselves.

But Traditionalism is not a cure for modernity. It makes historical claims that are easily falsifiable. Its theology, to the extent it has any, smacks of pandering to the self-absorbed.

What is needed is a much more grounded philosophy and political program. I am working on it, you will be glad to hear. In the meantime, this book is an interesting exploration of a dead end.

Charles Haywood is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The photo shows, “The Punishment of Loki,” by James Doyle Penrose, a work on paper, published ca. 1912.

What Is The Church?

Every Sunday the Creed is said in Church in which Christians say the words, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. It many ways it is an odd thing to say. In the Creed we confess things that are matters of faith, things contestable, maybe even controversial.

Thus we confess that God the Father almighty made the heaven and the earth, including all things visible (such as animals and men) and invisible (such as angels). This is not beyond dispute and many people manage to dispute it, believing either that the universe always existed or that it began without any help from God.

It is similar with our confession of Jesus Christ as light from light, true God from true God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, and raised from the dead three days after He died. This is a matter of faith, and so it finds its way into the Creed. But the Church? Surely the existence of the Church is hardly a matter of faith. We do not need faith to believe in the church—we can see churches all around us. Why is the Church in the Creed?

In fact, we often do not know the meaning of the words we are saying when we confess that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Sometimes we mean by these words something not much more than “we believe in the existence of an institution which is very good and worthy of respect”. This is not quite what the Creed is getting at.

Let us look first at the term “church”—in Greek ekklesia. The word “church” is used in lots of ways. Most often the term refers to the building in which the Christians meet for worship.

If I say, “I’ll meet you at the church at noon” I am obviously referring to the building used for Sunday services. Sometimes, in an earlier day, the term meant simply “the clergy”, so that if a young answered the question about what career he had chosen by saying, “I am going into the church”, he meant he was seeking ordination as a priest. More often by “the church” people mean “the Christians”, wherever they might meet for services.

Often too by the term “the church” people mean an institution, as the Smithsonian is an institution or as the British Crown is an institution. I suspect that most people when they say the Creed mean something rather like this. When they confess belief in the Church, they mean to express loyalty to a venerable institution.

The institution came into existence in the time of Jesus, and now has branches or spiritual franchises in many places, including the little congregation down the street.

In fact the church is not an institution, however many outward similarities to an institution it may possess. The term ekklesia (the Greek version of the Hebrew qahal) meant a gathering, an assembly. People assembled or gathered—that is, they left their homes to congregate in a particular place for a particular reason, and the result of all that individual assembling was an assembly.

After they had gathered, they constituted a gathering. The assembly could be called for a number of purposes, either secular or religious. One could assemble to select a king, as Israel assembled to select King Saul (1 Samuel 10). One could assemble to prepare for war, as Israel did to wage war on the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20). One could assemble for a religious convocation as Israel did when they repented before God at Mizpah (I Samuel 7).

One could assemble to debate a civic problem, as the silver-smiths of Ephesus did when they met to protest against the work of St. Paul (Acts 19). This last example is particularly instructive: those who assembled were pagans, and men motivated mostly by financial concern, despite their loudly-professed civic devotion to Artemis of the Ephesians.

Their assembly almost turned into a riot until the town clerk quieted the crowd and told them to go home. Then, as Luke reports, “When he said this, he dismissed the ekklesia”—i.e. the crowd which had gathered together. These men, pagans motivated by secular concerns at a town hall meeting, were an ekklesia—an assembly.

That is the word used in the New Testament to describe Christian liturgical experience. Individual Christians left their respective homes on Sunday to assemble and gather in a particular pre-arranged place. Having assembled, they were an assembly. Having gathered, they were a gathering.

But not just any assembly or gathering—they were an assembly to which Christ pledged His presence. Whenever they assembled together to remember Him at the Eucharist, He promised that He would be in their midst, even if the assembly were so small that only two or three were there (Matthew 18:20).

(The Greek of this last is interesting: Christ promises to be among them even if only two or three assemble—in Greek sunago/ συναγω–the same word used in the word “synagogue”, which was the word James used to describe the Christian assembly in James 2:2).

Christian assembly/ ekklesia is what happens after the Christians assemble. It is not so much an institution as an event. For at that assembly Christ manifests His presence as He promised He would. One can therefore refer to the ekklesia or church in the plural because Christians assembled in many assemblies throughout the world.

One can also refer to the ekklesia or church in the singular, because wherever one went throughout the world one found the same Christ in every single assembly. The assembly in Thessalonica was the same as the assembly in Corinth because Christ was equally present in both. Christ’s presence made the different assemblies into one Assembly—one Church.

From this, three things follow.

First, one cannot consider oneself a part of the assembly unless one actually assembles, because that is what the word “assembly” means. Membership in the Ekklesia of God is not like membership in the Public Library. I am a member of the library in that I still have my library card, and it does not expire. I may not have set foot in the library for years, but the card still works. It is otherwise with the Church.

If you didn’t assemble on Sunday, we were not a part of the assembly, and if you haven’t attended the Eucharist for years, you are no longer a part of the Church. It is easily remedied—to be a part of the assembly, just go next Sunday and assemble. (If it really has been years since you partook of the Eucharist, going to confession is also recommended.) The name “Christian” is the term for one who assembles regularly, and one forfeits the right to use the name if you never assemble.

Secondly, one should assemble on Sunday with the expectation of meeting Christ there. That is the whole reason for assembling. Valuable as sermons are, and uplifting as the choir sounds, one mostly assembles to meet the Lord and to be fed with His Body and Blood.

We go in our brokenness to be healed, and in our filthiness to be washed clean. We assemble because the only one who can heal and cleanse is there and He has promised to do both for us if we come in penitence and faith.

Finally, if we plan on assembling on Sunday we must live in anticipation of this event on the six days previous.

The priest will call us to the Chalice by saying the words, “The holy things for the holy!”—or, in another possible translation, “The sanctified things for the saints!” The usual New Testament term for a believer is the word “saint” [Greek agios], which is what we are. A saint is not a sinless person, but a person who belongs to God and who is striving to please Him, whatever his or her rate of success.

It is as saints that we assemble, which is why the priest uses that term. As members of the Ekklesia and the Household of God we must strive to become what we are.

Fr. Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Domine, quo vadis?” by Annibale Carracci, painted in 1602.