Ancient Church Music – Old Roman Chant

Ever heard the claim: “Pope Gregory the Great came up with Gregorian chant?”

For centuries, it has become common wisdom that the venerable pope was the source of what we now know of as Gregorian chant, and the assumption that it was the chant tradition of the Roman Church – apparently the sole one – was a given. Many – scholars and laymen alike – repeat this attribution, often without question. However, certain discoveries in the 19th century (which were not given proper attention until the 20th century!) has shook the foundations of centuries of pious retelling.

Before 1890, no serious enquiry had been made into the direct origins of Roman Chant or its forerunners. It was in that year when a monk from the famous Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, Dom André Mocquereau (1849-1930), as part of his research into the manuscript tradition of Gregorian chant, published an account of three books he discovered in the Vatican Library: two Graduals (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Archivio di San Pietro, MS lat. 5319 and MS F. 22) and an Antiphonary (MS B.79), all dating from somewhere between the 11th and the 13th century.

Now what intrigued Dom Mocquereau about these manuscripts was that although the material in these sources covered the same liturgical feasts as did the Gregorian books (showing that they were related to each other in that they were both Roman chants), it was melodically distinct from both it, as well as with Ambrosian chant. He wrote a letter to his abbot:

“I must tell you of a discovery we made at the Vatican, and that continues to astonish us. Perhaps Dom Pothier will be able to explain what I am going to say? It is a 12th-century Gradual, certainly of the Roman liturgy, with the exception of some slight peculiarities, but in which the chant is not the one used in all manuscripts in all countries. This is a singular exception that intrigues me. For a time, I had thought that the Ambrosian chant had replaced the Gregorian chant; but this is not the case, because in this new chant the universal Gregorian chant is easy to recognize, but with constant variations that give it a very special character. This is surely an Italian manuscript, as proven by the notation. One note that I found, I no longer know where, advances the unsubstantiated notion that it belonged to St. John Lateran. We have yet to see the Archives at that Basilica; are surprises of this kind awaiting us there, perhaps? I have no idea. I would be most interested to know what the Reverend Father Dom Joseph Pothier thinks about all this. I have not yet studied this curious manuscript in detail, because I had hoped to manage to get it to Solesmes.”

Dom Pothier wrote a reply dated the 8th of April:

“… bring us as many details as possible. What do the variations in the chant or the text consist of? … we must have a good analysis of it; it is on that analysis that we will base the research needed to understand the nature of the variations, their origins and their cause … the more numerous and the more accurate the details, the narrower the scope of the guesswork will be. … Traditions thrived in prior times; at St. Peter’s they still use not only ancient hymns, but even a special Psalter that dates from far back.”

Eventually publishing the results of his study of the manuscripts, Dom Mocquereau then concluded that this repertory, which he recognized as distinct from Ambrosian and Gregorian chant, seems to date from a “relatively recent period, when the rules of Gregorian composition were beginning to fall into disuse.” (Paléographie Musicale, Volume II, pp. 4-5, footnote 1). In short, it was a later corruption of Gregorian chant.

Contrary to this view, fellow Benedictine Dom Raphael Andoyer, who after analysing the same sources, expressed the opinion in 1911-12 that they actually represented an earlier stage of musical development than that of Gregorian – a stage he defined as ‘pre-Gregorian’ (ante-grégorien). For Dom Andoyer, these melodies are the ones which Pope Gregory the Great organized and revised (thus he views Gregory’s ‘authorship’ of plainchant, rather than composing it outright, in the strict sense) into what would become known as Gregorian chant.

After this, the subject was abandoned and no new or authoritative conclusions were reached until 1950, when German musicologist Bruno Stäblein published several articles dedicated on the subject, declaring these manuscripts to be prime examples of a chant tradition he called Altrömisch, or Old Roman. From his time on the problem of Old Roman chant became the object of wide-ranging investigation, and even today it claims the close attention of many experts.

We must note here a couple of interesting and inescapable questions, for which an explanation was needed: among the hundreds of medieval manuscripts of Gregorian chant, there is not one which is known to have been used or written at Rome before the mid-13th century, and the very few sources of definite Roman origin which date from before that period contain similar material to that of Gregorian books, but are different from a melodic point of view – and these manuscripts happen to be the ones which Dom Mocquereau discovered (and dismissed as late corruptions)!

In Stäblein’s view, both the ‘Old Roman’, which he takes to be the one edited by Gregory the Great, and the newer ‘Gregorian’ – a later revision which he dated from the reign of Pope Vitalian (657-672) – coexisted and were being used simultaneously in Rome. Basing his argument on the evidence of an Ordo Romanus which ascribes an active interest in the revision of chant to eight Popes – from Damasus (366-384) to Martin (649-653) – and to three abbots of the Roman monastery of St. Peter (Catolenus, Marianus and Virbonus), Stäblein held that the three abbots are to be credited for the reformation of Roman chant.

The transformation, according to him, would have taken place before 680, when John the archicantor of St. Peter’s was sent by Pope Agatho (reign 678-681) to England, ostensibly to teach singing there. This dating, in Stäblein’s opinion, is confirmed by what certain sources relate about the work of Vitalian, during whose pontificate the chant in the Papal liturgy was apparently performed by the group of cantors named Vitaliani after their founder.

By the 11th to the 13th centuries, Stäblein continues, the situation was such that the Old Roman style of plainchant continued to be employed in the monasteries of the Lateran, while the Papal palace used the ‘Gregorian’. The substance of his argument went largely unchanged as time went on, though Stäblein was compelled to make slight adjustments due to the criticism of other scholars (for example, about the mission of the cantors to England).

In brief, he hypothesizes the idea of a transformation at Rome of Old Roman into Gregorian, and the coexistence of the two traditions (respectively, as the chant of the Papal liturgy and the chant of the other Roman churches) until the 13th century.

A similar position was taken up by Joseph Smits van Waesberghe, who believed however that the monastic institutions of Rome used Gregorian chant, while the secular clergy kept using the Old Roman style of plainchant.

His idea was criticized, however, by other scholars due to his excessive dependence on the Liber Pontificalis (which has undergone intense modern scholarly scrutiny) and for making an over-strict and historically unfounded distinction between Roman monks and secular clergymen. His critics also raised an objection used against Stäblein’s thesis: that there is no incontrovertible proof either that a reform of chant took place in 7th-century Rome or that the two repertories existed side-by-side there until the mid-13th century.

Allowing for more or less personal emphases, other scholars (such as Fr. Stephen J.P. Van Dijk O.F.M., and Ewald Stammers) accepted Stäblein’s idea of the coexistence of the two repertories, and also took into account a fact confirmed by liturgical historians, according to whom Rome had witnessed over a long period the coexistence of the Papal liturgy (which was undergoing a continual, yet gradual, process of reform) and the liturgy of the presbytal tituli, i.e. the parish churches served by non-Curial clergy.

In 1954, Michel Huglo published an exhaustive directory (Le chant ‘vieux-romain’: liste des manuscrits et temoins indirects, Sacris Erudiri 6) of Old Roman sources both direct – that is, Graduals and Antiphonaries – and indirect, demonstrating thereby that this chant was the official repertory at Rome towards the mid-8th century, in about 1140, and in the 13th century.

Old Roman was thus to be seen as a local repertory of specifically Roman origin (like the Ambrosian chant of Milan or Beneventan chant) which had nonetheless spread into central Italy and had even left traces in the monastic centers of the Carolingian Empire (Stäblein has shown that it was in use as far away as St. Gall in present-day Switzerland in the 9th century) before Gregorian chant had gained the upper hand.

Although he came to no conclusion regarding the origins of Gregorian chant, Huglo was prepared to state that Old Roman was the only form of chant familiar to the entire Roman clergy of the period; and this was a clear enough indication that the origins of Gregorian should be looked for outside Rome.

Musicologist Helmut Hucke took up the challenge, when developing an alternative line of argument to that of Stäblein. In Hucke’s view, the point of departure of Gregorian is Old Roman, which underwent a transformation in Frankish territory during the Carolingian era.

As everyone who has studied the history of the Roman Rite pretty much knows, the Roman liturgy starting from the Middle Ages is actually a hybrid between the Gallican family of rites and the original liturgy in use at Rome.

It all started in 754, when the first King of the Franks, Pepin the Short decreed the adoption of the Papal liturgy in his kingdom. It was the time when the Roman liturgy, which until then, apart from the Anglo-Saxon mission Church, had possessed and laid claim to recognition only for Rome and its environs, advanced in a short time to becoming the liturgy of a great empire.

Of course, as soon as the Roman way of worship was introduced in Frankish territory, its started to absorb local elements. It is often related that Charlemagne, Pepin’s son, once asked Pope Hadrian I to provide an authentic Roman sacramentary for use throughout the empire, which the latter sent to the court at Aachen around in the year 785-786.

The intention was to preserve it as the authentic “standard” of the text attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great and to disseminate it throughout all of Charlemagne’s domain through copies, thereby unifying the whole empire under one liturgy – that of Rome. However, the sacramentary the Pope sent soon proved to be ill-suited to the Emperor’s plan: it only contained the liturgy for certain feasts, which would make it ill-adapted to the daily liturgical needs of a parish!

When complaints reached the ear of the Pope, his excuse was saying that he merely picked from the Lateran library what seemed to him to be the best sacramentary he had! Recognizing the obvious unsuitability of the book, the court liturgists decided to correct the text (especially its rather mediocre Latin) and then to augment it with a supplement – derived from the local traditions – so that it could serve for the daily liturgy. The result of this work is the Hadrianum, aka the Hadrian Sacramentary.

Eventually, this hybrid Roman-Frankish liturgy started creeping its way into the Eternal City itself, eventually supplanting its own parent altogether. Church life in Rome was stagnant during the saeculum obscurum of the first half of the 10th century; there was a liturgical vacuum, which the Gallo-Roman liturgy refilled.

This took place both through the direct intervention of the Holy Roman Empire and by the settlement of the Cluniacs in monasteries of Rome or its neighborhood.

Hucke’s idea was that Old Roman chant would have shared the same fate as that of the Roman liturgy, to which it is tagged: it would have encountered the Gallic repertories and would have been transformed into what would be known into later ages as ‘Gregorian’ not only by an inevitable process of ‘contamination’ but above all by being deliberately adapted for aesthetic reasons.

Whatever the value of the latter motive, it should not be forgotten that musical notation did not exist yet, and the repertory would have been handed on by memory.

Hucke’s idea received support from writers such as Willi Apel and Robert J. Snow, while Walther Lipphardt, although claiming that Gregorian chant was the Frankish version of a Roman original, maintained that the melodic material exported from Rome was accepted in Frankish domains without any modification; thus Gregorian would be nothing more than the Roman chant of the 9th century.

Apart from this detail, these are the broad lines of the second hypothesis: the birth of Gregorian in what is now France as a result of the impact of Roman chant on the local Gallican traditions.

Part of the reason why Gregorian chant succeeded in gaining the upper hand, it seems, was facilitated by two factors: the invention of a process of writing the melody, which represents a turn in musical history, and its being attributed to one of the most famous characters in Christendom – Pope St. Gregory the Great.

There are now various alternative theories as to how Gregorian chant got its name, aside from the standard interpretation that it was named after Gregory the Great, and not without their own critics.

One proposes that the name actually refers to a different Gregory (one popular candidate here is the 8th-century pope Gregory II) – a theory that already existed even before Old Roman chant was actually discovered – while another says that the name was actually the result of (Carolingian?) propaganda by appealing to higher authority to give vindication for the abandonment of local chant traditions in favor of the (Frankish-) Roman style of chanting.

After all, who could go wrong with Gregory’s music?

Patrick lives in Japan. He supports the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite according to the Missal of Bl. Pope John XXIII.

The photo shows an early medieval illuminated manuscript, ca. 12th-century.

Ways Of The World

A group of first year medical students had just completed a tour of a hospital, and the nurse who had directed them was asking for questions. Immediately a hand went up. How is it that people who work here are always washing their hands a student asked?

The nurse gave a wise answer; ‘they are always washing their hands for two reasons; first, they love health, and second, they hate germs’.

It’s more than in hospital standards where ; love and hate go hand in hand. A husband who loves his wife is certainly going to have a hatred for what would harm her and vice versa.

In this letter of John’s, he has reminded us to exercise Love, the right kind of love. Now it warns us that there is a wrong kind of love, a love that God hates. This is love for what the bible calls ‘the world’.

We need to know first of all what does God mean by the world? Well it does NOT mean the world of nature and the beauty and wonder within it. All we have to do is Look at the beauty of; Niagara Falls, the animal and insect life in a tropical rain forest, the Grand Canyon, the beach at Benone, the Great Barrier Reef, Mount Everest, the list is endless. God created the world of nature that we can marvel at and enjoy; our God given task is to appreciate, care for, and be good stewards of it.

The world named here as our enemy is not the natural world, but an invisible Spiritual System opposed to God and Christ. It originates of course from Satan and is driven by him. It is the very opposite of what God stands for. This system is a set of ideas, of attitudes, of activities, of purposes brought about through people, developing into a common rule or system or systems. Many wars, ethnic cleansing, persecutions, are examples but there are many more that never involve weapons.

Jesus called Satan, ‘the prince of this world’ meaning that he has a certain amount of control and influence over it which he undoubtedly has.

The devil has a highly skilled organisation of evil spirits working with him and influencing the affairs of this world which bring about certain outcomes. There are countless multitudes whether they realise it or not are energised by Satan to do his bidding and carry out his work.

But a more sinister reason why Christians are NOT to love the world is because of what the world does to us. For this world has an impact on us.

Being worldly is not so much a matter of activity, as of attitude. It is more than possible for a Christian to stay away from questionable amusements and dubious places and still love the world; because worldliness is a matter of the heart.

This is important; worldliness not only affects your response to the love of God; it also affects your response to the will of God. John clearly tells us in verse 17; ‘the world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.’

Doing the will of God should be a joy for those living in the love of God. Jesus said; if you love me, you will keep my commandments. But when a Christian loses their enjoyment of the Father’s love, they find it hard to obey the Father’s will. Put very simply, anything in a Christian’s life that causes them to lose their enjoyment of the father’s love or their desire to do the father’s will, is worldly and must be avoided.

Responding to God’s love which means your personal devotional life; and doing God’s will which means your daily conduct; these are two tests of worldliness.

Many things in this life are clearly wrong and God’s word clearly identifies them as sins.

 It is wrong to kill someone, it is wrong to lie and to steal. But there are other areas of Christian conduct that are not so clear and about which even the best Christian’s disagree on. In such cases the believer must apply the test to their own lives and be honest in their self-examination, remembering that even a good thing may rob a believer of their enjoyment of God’s love and their desire to do God’s will.

John points out that the world system uses three devices to trap Christian’s. There is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. These same things trapped Eve in the garden of Eden. ‘And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food (which is the lust of the flesh), and that it was pleasing to the eye (which is the lust of the eyes), and also desirable for gaining wisdom (which is the pride of life), she took some and ate it.

The lust of the flesh includes anything that appeals to man’s fallen nature. The flesh does not mean the body as many think. Rather it refers to the base fallen nature of man that makes him blind to spiritual truth.

A Christian that is someone who trusts fully in God, has both the old nature the flesh; and the new nature the Spirit, in their lives. They both co-exist. And what a battle these two natures can wage. Let’s look at how this conflict works out.

God has given men and women certain desires and these desires are good. Hunger, thirst, tiredness, sex, are not at all bad in themselves. There is nothing wrong about eating, drinking, sleeping, or having children. But when the flesh nature controls them, they become sinful lusts.

Hunger is not wrong, but gluttony is sinful. Thirst is not wrong, but drunkenness is a sin. Sleep is a gift from God, but laziness is shameful. Sex is God’s gift when used rightly, but when used wrongly in perverted ways, it becomes immorality.

We can see where the cross overs occur and how the world operates. It appeals to normal appetites, and at the same time tempts us to satisfy them in forbidden ways.

In today’s world we are surrounded by all kinds of allurements that appeal to our lower nature. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane said to his disciples as he returned and found them sleeping; ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’. Here again we see the clash of the two natures. The Apostle Paul tells us we are to put ‘no confidence in the flesh’.

The second device that the world uses to trap Christian’s is the ‘lust of the eyes.’ Our eyes have an appetite too. ‘Feast your eyes on this’ we say. The lust of the flesh appeals to our base appetites of the old nature, whereas the lust of the eye operates in a more refined way.

In view here are pleasures that gratify the sight and the mind, sophisticated and intellectual pleasures. The Greeks and Romans lived for entertainment and activities that excited the eyes. Times have not changed very much in 3000 years.Our biggest threat today to corrupt us in what we see, comes in the form of a screen.

There are many examples in the bible of the disastrous consequences when people saw something and lusted after it. Like Achan a soldier and a member of Joshua’s army when he saw the silver and gold, and after being told by God not to take it, he took it. Which had devasting consequences.

 King David from the roof of the palace Saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing who was already married to another man. His eyes incited his lust and he had to have her and she became pregnant to him. Once again with disastrous consequences.

Of course the eyes like the other senses are a gateway into the mind. The lust of the eyes therefore, can include intellectual pursuits that are contrary to God’s word. There is pressure to make Christian’s think the way the world thinks and God warns us against the ‘counsel of the ungodly.’

This of course does Not mean that Christians ignore education and secular learning; it does means however, that they are careful not to let intellectualism crowd God into the background. A classic example of this is Darwin’s theory of Evolution which essentially contradicts creation, neutralises God and destroys the dignity and worth of human beings. Yet is widely taught throughout the education system. 

The third device is the ‘boastful pride of life.’ The original Greek word for pride was used to describe; ‘a scoundrel who was trying to impress people with his importance’. Pride means to elevate a person’s self-esteem or self-importance.

Pride originated first of all in the devil. We are told in the book of Proverbs; that ‘before his downfall a man’s heart is proud, and ‘haughty eyes and a proud heart the lamp of the wicked, are sin.’ People since the beginning of time have always tried to outdo others in their spending and their getting. The boastful pride of life motivates much of what many people do. Wasteful consumerism is an epidemic with millions getting themselves into unnecessary debt; for what. To discard something perhaps of great value after a matter of days or weeks. All done largely to impress others for them to notice how affluent or successful they are.

Because of the pride of life, it is amazing what stupid things people do just to make an impression; even sacrificing honesty and integrity in return for notoriety and a feeling of importance.  The world appeals to us through the lust of the flesh that is anything that makes us blind to spiritual truth; the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. It is important to note that no Christian becomes worldly all of a sudden. Worldliness creeps up on a Christian; it is a gradual process. And the Christian landscape is littered with causalities.

We can read where Abraham’s nephew Lot embraced the various forms of worldliness in Sodom and Gomorrah which led to his downfall.

So how do we live in the world without being consumed by it? This is a huge challenge for us all in every generation. It’s not easy and mistakes will be made. Sometimes lines will be blurred as in the case of Lot.

But John guides us by reminding us that we are little children. Those who love Jesus and trust in him become part of his family. And the very fact that we share in his nature ought to discourage us from becoming overly friendly with the world. James in his letter writes this; ‘don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God. Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.’ It’s very clear.

But something else is true; we begin as little children; but we must not stay as little children. Only as a Christian grows spiritually does he or she overcome the world. As young men and young women who develop into fathers and mother’s and grandmother’s and grandfather’s we are to mature with the word of God. Surely no Christian who has experienced the joys and wonders of friendship with God, and of service for God, will want to live on the substitute pleasures this world offers.

The word of God is the only weapon that will defeat the advances of Satan. We need to be people to get back to reading and applying the word of God to our lives. It is the growing, maturing Christians to whom the world does not appeal because they realise that the things of this world are only toys. A Christian should never be ‘over friendly’ with the world because of what the world is and we should always remember this. The world is and continues to be a Satanic System that hates and opposes Christ. That’s why they crucified him. The world seeks to attract and snare us to live on sinful substitutes that will never satisfy.

Slowly and surely and perhaps sooner than we think, ‘this world in its present form is passing away; but the man or woman, boy or girl, who does God’s will abides forever’.

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, “What is Truth,” by Nikolai Ge, painted in 1890.

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.

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.

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.