Tuesday, September 13, 2022

For Kings and For All That Are in Authority

Strolling about our idyllic small town last Saturday, dragging an Impressionable Child, we could not help but notice a pair of dueling political signs, one for a Republican candidate and another for his Democratic opponent.  Both signs were extremely large, perhaps 5x7 feet, and mounted a yard or two back from the curb.  They faced each other across the street.

One of them -- the blue one -- had been defaced.  Somebody had spray-painted "FJB," a blunt and crude dismissal of America's incumbent president.

Fr. Anon and Impressionable Child clucked our tongues. We wondered just how unhinged a person needed to have been to resort to trespass and vandalism of private property in order to express a political opinion that was implicit in the very large sign fifteen feet away.  We also shook our heads sadly at the vulgarity, which, while a perfectly understandable result of intense passion, is also ... awfully vulgar as signage goes. All in all, we concluded, this particular vandal brought shame rather than honor to his or her cause.

Days later, the Father and Child were driving through the same small town, and found ourselves behind a black SUV decorated with a yet-more-vulgar expression of the same sentiment.  It read "Fuck Joe and the Hoe [sic]," an idea so foreign to our own way of thinking that we took several seconds even to glean its import.  We took several seconds longer to grasp that the verb was spelled out using guns.  Just like this:

Classy, eh?

In the years 2015-206, we recall a great deal of conversation about whether America was home to an outright Fascist movement.  We drew great comfort from an expert on the history of such movements who argued that although many of our compatriots had begun to express crude ethno-nationalist sentiments, with an ideology that actually scorned facts in favor of feelings, and in its worst case extended even to purposeful cruelty toward the marginalized, nonetheless they had not displayed the true hallmark of 30s-style Fascism, a belief in the redemptive power of political violence to purify a nation.  

 This, of course, was prior to the Epiphany Riot of 6 January 2021.  

It is now pretty clear that the old vision of democracy as a respectful dialogue between Americans who disagree about policy but still regard one another as compatriots and even friends -- the relationship often claimed for President Reagan and Speaker O'Neill -- is a thing of the past.  Mob-style threats are now the sort of thing we put on bumper stickers, and political violence is no longer a tool of the extreme fringe.

We could go on about this sad state of affairs, especially to note that the imagery of violence is not distributed equally among parties (the unvandalized yard sign featured a crosshairs, ostensibly because the commander once captained submarines, but still ...).  But it is more pertinent to our vocation to consider the deep challenges presented to such a culture by this coming Sunday's Bible readings.

Like much of the Bible, the passages for Lectionary 25 C of the RCL (also known as Proper 20, or the 25th Sunday in Ordinary) deal with questions of public morality -- what it means (for Israel) to be a God-pleasing people, or (for Christians) to be a God-pleasing people who live as citizens of a pagan polity.  Parenthetically, we may note, the past few years have taught us to see themes like this -- the question of civic righteousness, or more bluntly of the church and politics -- as the driving force of much of the Bible.  Personal morality and spiritual health, while real concerns, seem distinctly secondary.  This perspective, of course, challenges another well-known set of interpretive assumptions.

Anyhoo.  In Sunday's lessons, Amos -- one of the prophets most concerned with the treatment of the poor as a marker of the nation's holiness -- lambastes as usual those who place their commercial goals over their religious commitments, who take advantage of the poor, and who deny them even their traditional right to freely collect the remainders of the harvest. This has many possible applications to life in our second Gilded Age, with its unspeakable accumulation of wealth in the loftiest percentiles. 

The Lord's parable concerning the dishonest servant is more complex, and especially its awkward first  summary -- "make friends by means of dishonest wealth."  But it is possible to find here a hint that Christians cannot stand aloof from public life in order to preserve some notional purity of soul (as might be inferred from the suspiciously tacked-on sounding second summary, about not being able to serve God and Mammon).  Rather, this line of thought might go, we are called to engage -- as Christians, so charitably! -- in the gritty and unpleasant business of actual public business, however that is defined.

But in the context of America's deeply divided polity, it is the Epistle for the day, from 1 Timothy, that seems most challenging.

Much of the New Testament envisions an inevitably hostile relationship between the followers of Jesus and the civil authorities in whose dominions they exist.  This is certainly apparent in the Lord's warning about "those who are persecuted for my sake," and in stories like those of St. Stephen and St. Paul.  It is, at least according to some schools, the entire point of the Revelation.

It is an academic commonplace that some of the lattermost documents, of which I take 1 Timothy to be an example, suggest a deliberate effort to accommodate Christian communities to the reality of life in an un-Christian world.  The notorious household codes (e.g., Eph. 5:22-6:9) seem to mute, if not emasculate, the countercultural message of the older tradition.  A movement that once taught followers to leave -- even "hate" -- their parents, now encourages filial piety of a perfectly conventional sort.  A movement that once declared "there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female," now seems surprisingly invested in head coverings, hair styles, and obedience according to pagan social norms.  And a movement that once envisioned confrontation with Empire as an apocalyptic battle now encourages its followers to avoid persecution by performing the social rituals of "good citizenship."

This often seems despicable on its face -- ersatz "Paul" selling out his echt eponym! -- but it is more than that.  After fifteen centuries of hegemony in the West, Christianity and culture have so thoroughly influenced each other that their values can be distinguished only by an act of historical study.  That is our context, and it is much like the one sought by the author of 1 Timothy.  This writer wants Christians to be good, socially-acceptable Romans.  Doing so may well have seemed a matter of life and death, individually and for their movement.

So, long story short, we are urged to "pray for kings and all in authority."  And these prayers are to be "supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings."  Through most of the last half-millennium, this was unexceptionable; Anglicans have contentedly prayed until recently for "our most gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth," and have now effortlessly exchanged that formula for her less popular but equally royal son.

But for Americans living in the era of "FJB" graffiti, this may well seem to be impossible, or impossibly distasteful.  In our own recent experience, we have had one assisting minister ask permission to omit the name of the then-sitting president from the weekly intercessions, on the grounds that he simply could not utter the name in prayer.  From there, it is a short albeit significant jump to crude and threatening denunciations of "Joe and the Ho[e]." 

It is is such a context -- in which one's own deepest values seem sharply at odds with those of the civil realm and its leadership -- that the instruction of 1 Timothy 2:1ff seems most powerful.  You don't like your leaders? You think their pagan values threaten you and those you love? You may be right!  And guess what?  Too freaking bad, says the pseudonymous author.  They are still your leaders, and if God does not bless them then you and the people around you are in even worse trouble.  As Lutherans might say, it is often difficult to discern God at work in the Kingdom of the Left Hand -- but it is still God's Hand.

In our time of profound political anger and unrest, this message is worth considering seriously, not least while standing in the pulpit.  Hatred for our leaders -- including some of the very bad leaders who have held office in recent years -- is still hatred, which is a questionable emotion at best.  And it is still hatred for our leaders, meaning the people who -- whether we believe they are capable of doing so or not -- have been called to govern the nation of which we are citizens.  While we are not called to pray for the imposition any particular policy (and thank heaven we are not!), that is separable from our call to pray even for those who promote it, if they hold legitimate civil authority.

We may well pray that God change their hearts; that God improve their moral character; that God reveal to them a new path in life leading to a period of monastic silence and seclusion.  What Christians must not do is cease to pray for our leaders, with love and hope, and in pursuit of a national life marked by "quietness, peace, godliness and dignity." To abandon this practice, especially at a time when carrying it our may be emotionally challenging, is to abandon hope for better times, and to assist in driving the sword more deeply into the heart of our divided nation.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

"An Awful Thing"

 "The priesthood is an awful thing."

So reads the translator's description of a chapter in John Chrysostom's Treatise On the Priesthood (3:4), as found in the venerable NPNF collection, volume 9.  It's a funny remark -- many of us, over the years, have found our vocation to be awful indeed, in the colloquial sense, and yet we soldier on. But that's not the point.

Obviously, the word "awful" has changed its sense a bit, as latterly has even "awesome."  Chrysostom is trying to say that priesthood inspires awe, particularly in the priests themselves. He is certainly correct, and the way that he says it is worth considering. Here is the passage, lightly edited for clarity:

[T]he priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded human beings still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. This is why the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers. [...]

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then believe that you are still among human beings, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, carried at once to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? 

Oh! what a marvel! what love of God to the human race! The One who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp him. And this we all do through the eyes of faith!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Donne on Luther on Baptism

Racking our brains for something new (but not very new, if you take our point) to say about the Baptism of Our Lord last Sunday, we skimmed over a few dusty texts in the Egg's Central Archive, a grand name for such a cramped, poorly-lit newspaper morgue.

Doing so, we stumbled over this nice passage from a sermon by the Dean:
[Christian] Baptisme is to us Ianua Ecclesiae as S. Augustine calls it, The Doore of the Church, at that we enter, and Investitura Christianismi, the investing of Christianity as S. Bernard cals it, there we put on Christ Jesus, (and as he whom wee may be bold to match with these two floods of spirituall eloquence for his eloquence, that is Luther, expresses it) Puerpera regni Coelorum, the Church in Baptisme is as a woman delivered of child, and her child is the Kingdome of heaven, and that kingdome she delivers into his armes who is truly baptized. (John Donne, Sermon 41, Preached at S. Dunstan's, Trinity-Sunday 1624).
The first are splendid, if familiar images:  the Door of the Church, the Putting-On of Christianity. But that third image, from Luther, is less familiar: a woman giving birth to the Kingdom of Heaven.

We ourselves spend a fair amount of time with Uncle Marty, but the phrase rang no bells. So we Googled it, and discovered a couple of interesting things.

First, the phrase in question is quoted in several 17th-century Lutheran sources. To take them in reverse order:

  • The estimable Johann Gerhard uses it, without attribution, in a commentary on 1 Peter, published at Jena in 1660. (As does Richard Baxter in his 1653 Plain Proof).
  • It appears in a loci communes, or commonplace-book, taken from Luther's Latin writings in 1651. The citation there is to Tome 3, p. 157a. Presumably, this refers to the Jena edition, but we do not know for certain. (For those unfamiliar with commonplace-books, they were essentially indexed collections of other people's works, based in part on the older gradus ad classsicum -- essentially, a quick reference guide to some compendious body of work.)
  • Christian Dauderstadt quotes it, in the section regarding the Ascension, in his multi-volume neo-Scholastic treatise on Church festivals, published at Jena in 1646.
  • It appears in another 1617 commonplace published at Wittenberg and gathered by pastor and economist Christian Gilbert de Spaignart, and given the glorious title Stars of Lutheran Piety [Softly shining in the works of blessed Father Luther]. There it is given a different citation, which is 8.3.f.557.a  


These are all trivial in themselves, but they do raise an interesting question about Donne's sermon preparation. His sermons are rich with references not only to the Scriptures but to the Fathers and, to a somewhat lesser degree, to medieval and Reformation-era writers, up to and including regular appearances by so unlikely a writer as Bellamine. But did he know them all with equal intimacy?

Donne's references to Bernard, in particular, are so frequent that one must assume a deep acquaintance. But Luther's name appears only a handful of times in the sermons, often in proximity to the catchword "paradox." It is quite possible that, rather than keeping a stack of Luther's works on hand, Donne consulted de Spaignart or some other commonplace book.

The second thing that a quick search teaches us about this phrase, and the reason it is likely not as well-known as it might be, is that its source is not one of Luther's major works.

The only source that we can find for the phrase in question is from a brief sermon (or "coniuncula") on John 3 preached on Trinity Sunday. It was published in volume 7 of the Wittenberg edition, in 1557.  It is reprinted in Heinrich Schmidt's 1873 edition, volume 7, pp. 413ff.  The phrase occurs in a longer sentence, which changes its grammar from the epigrammatic form in which it is otherwise cited:
Igitur statuendam est, hic aquam esse intelligendam veram aquam, et ut distingueretur ab aliis aquis veris sine verbo, additur: Et Spiritu, ut sciamus, baptismum esse puerperam regni coelorum, ubi aqua, non ut aqua sola, sed Spiritu coniuncto et cooperante, eduntur filii regni coelorum. 
Very roughly: Let us be clear, that this water is to be understood as true water, and so that it will be distinguished from other waters without the Word, is added: And the Spirit (John 3:5), that we may know baptism to be a mother giving birth to the kingdom of Heaven, wherever water, not water alone, but rather joined to and working with the Spirit, the children of the kingdom of heaven are brought forth.
The relative obscurity of the phrase may have a great deal to do with its source. The coniunculae (a rare word, and one not in our trusty little Latin dictionary) are sermons transcribed by Luther's friends. This limits their reliability, as they can be no more accurate than the notes or memories of the transcriptor. So a phrase like this must be treated with caution, as it may not be precisely what Luther said.

On the other hand, consider the customary sources of the "quotable Luther." Unless we are mistaken, the great majority of popular quotations from Luther come from three sources:  (1) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, an early essay on the sacraments which seems to be the most-assigned-in-class of Luther's works; (2) the Table-Talk, which like the coniunculae are transcriptions from memory, often by people who had been drinking; or (3) one's imagination, like the spurious remark about the apple-tree.  A sermon transcript is at least as solid a source as any of the Table-Talk.

In any case:  baptism is a mother giving birth to the Kingdom of Heaven. It's a lovely thought, and one we are a bit surprised has not been more widely taken up by the present era of female-positivity in matters of ecclesiastical imagery. Perhaps it will be, once the masses read this blog post and take heed.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

John Donne on the Prodigal Son

Through a happy coincidence, this coming Sunday falls on 31 October, the commemoration of John Donne. Although the rubrics are quite clear that a Sunday in Lent has precedence over the remembrance of a saint, some preachers may be inspired to say a word or two about the late Dean.

Of course, our attention will fall, naturally, on the Gospel lesson, the tale of the Prodigal Son. But in doing so, there is no reason on earth that we might not cite one of Donn'e own reflections upon the same text. And Father A. is here to help.

In Sermon LXXXVII, undated but preached at a christening, Donne deals principally with Galatians 3:27, and the idea that is baptism we "put on" or "are clothed with" Christ. It is in this context that he draws our attention to  Luke 15:22, in which the gracious father calls for a long robe -- "the best one" -- to clothe his son:
When the prodigal child returned to his father, his father clothed him entirely, and all at once. He put a robe upon him, to cover all his defects -- which robe, when God puts upon us, in clothing us with Christ, that robe is not only dignitas quam perdidit Adamas Augustine says, but it is amictus sapientiaeas Ambrose enlarges it. It does not only make us as well, as we were in Adam, but it enables us better, to preserve that state; it does not only cover us, that is, make us excusable, for our past, and present sins, but it indues us with grace, and wisdom to keep that robe still, and never to return to our former foulnesses, and deformities. (Alford ed., punctuation altered).
The quotations are from (1) Augustine's Quaestionum Evangeliorum Libri Duo, 2:33, "the first robe is the dignity which was lost by Adam," and (2) Ambrose's De Cain et Abel, 1:6:24, "the putting on [a garment] of wisdom and piety."

Please note, preaching companions, that Donne himself is not by any means a type of the Prodigal Son.  Although it took him quite a while to discern his vocation, he was a lifelong and extraordinarily devout Christian.  From a family of passionate (and sometimes martyred) Roman Catholics, he wrestled mightily with the question of conformity to the established church. But even as a law student and aspiring courtier, he spent his leisure time composing theological tractates both speculative (Biathanatos) and polemical (Ignatius His Conclave).

In other words, we beg you not to be deceived by Donne's own self-bifurcation, and to be overly sharp in distinguishing "Jack Donne" from "Dean Donne." They were the same man, with the same life-long interests.

Friday, December 21, 2018

This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

If you listen to some of the idle pre-holiday chatter, this winter as in any of the previous few, you will hear quite a bit of grousing about our folkloric images.  Jesus, as most of us know by now, was born in neither a cave nor an outdoor stable. He was almost certainly born in the main room of a private home, because the bedroom -- reserved for guests -- was already taken. Needless to say, it was not winter, at least so far as we have any reason to believe. The Magi were not kings, nor necessarily three in number, nor even necessarily men. Saint Nicholas was Turkish, not elfin.  Neither Black Peter nor Krampus has anything much to do with Christianity. And yes, of course the date was chosen to align with a pagan winter festival.

Old news to most readers. And all legit. But still.

We are living in an era when the same people argue that Santa Claus should not be a white man, and that Black Peter must become one. And this passes itself off as talking about Christmas.

It gets tiresome trying to focus on the appearance of God in human form -- the finite proving beyond question that it is capable of the infinite -- when one must also listen to prattle about things that are not That.

So maybe I won't this year. Let's keep Christmas simple:  just the Incarnation, and nothing else.