Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Martyrs of 64

Another day, another feast. Yet the subject matter of these two days is monumental and worth pausing over. Yesterday, we commemorated the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. Today, of all the Christians who were martyred with them in the first great persecution of the Church.

In his gardens across the Tiber by the Vatican hill, near where Peter had probably lived when he first came to Rome 22 years before, Nero held the circus games which could no longer be held in the two great amphitheatres, damaged in the fire. During those games in the fall of 64, many of the Christians whom Nero's police had arrested were thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Others were dressed in clothing soaked in pitch and sulfur and lit as human torches along the Appian Way, as Nero raced by in his chariot.

- Warren Carroll, The Founding of Christendom, p424

New tortures have been invented for the madmen who have brought good news. That sad and weary society seems almost to find a new energy in establishing its first religious persecution. Nobody yet knows very clearly why that level world has thus lost its balance about the people in its midst, but they stand unnaturally still while the arena and the world seem to revolve around them. And there shone on them in that dark hour a light that has never been darkened; a white fire clinging to that group like an unearthly phosphorescence, blazing its track through the twilights of history and confounding every effort to confound it with the mists of mythology and theory; that shaft of light or lightning by which the world itself has struck and isolated and crowned it; by which its own enemies have made it more illustrious and its own critics have made it more inexplicable; the halo of hatred around the Church of God.

- G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p197

This feast is, perhaps, the first largescale revelation of Christianity in its purest essence. Following Christ means that you end up going where Christ went, to the cross, the gallows, the guillotine, the arena. The natural end of the Christian path is love pouring out its lifeblood. This is the triumph of the Cross. This is the imitation of Christ. This is Christianity in its natural state. All other expressions merely point towards it. And, ultimately, this is how the world is redeemed, by the Body following its Head, by diabolical hatred expending all its energy to extinguish divine love, and divine love sacrificing itself for the love of its killers and becoming all the stronger thereby. This is how Christianity wins the world, not by war or persuasion or social programs or being nice to people. The dark days of 64AD set the step of the Church's march through history which was first established on Calvary. Islam may win lands and peoples to itself through war and conquest. Christianity will win them by the blood of men and women who give up their lives freely for love of their Lord.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Sts Peter and Paul

What fairer light is this than time itself doth own,
The golden day with beams more radiant brightening?
The princes of God's church this feast-day doth enthrone,
To sinners heavenwardbound their burden lightening.

One taught mankind its creed, one guards the heavenly gate.
Founders of Rome, they bind the world in loyalty;
One by the sword achieved, one by the cross his fate;
With laurelled brows they hold eternal royalty.

Rejoice, O Rome, this day, thy walls they once did sign
WIth princely blood, who now their glory share with thee.
What city's vesture glows with crimson deep as thine?
What beauty else has earth that may compare with thee?

Almighty, ever-living God, you give us the great joy of devoting this day to the honour of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Grant that your Church may follow their teaching to the full, because these are the men who first taught us to worship you in Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Unveiling the Ark?

Extraordinary the random stuff one can find on the Internet!

I stumbled across this news report from a few days ago, announcing the imminent announcement of the unveiling of the Ark of the Covenant which, according to the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has been preserved in a church in Axum, Ethiopia (Weird to have a report of an announcement of an announcement. Perhaps they could also have announced that the Archbishop was going to announce that he would announce the announcement of the unveiling? Then again, of course, we know from St Thomas that one cannot have an infinite regression of announcements, don't we). Researching further, it turns out the Archbishop was misquoted, and the Ark will not be unveiled, but he still claims its authentic.

It turns out that there is a tradition dating back several centuries that the Ark was in Ethiopia (not 642BC, as the above article claims, which is over 50 years before the Babylonian Exile) but of course this contradicts the clear witness of Scripture. 2 Macc 2:4-8 states that Jeremiah took the Ark with the Tabernacle and the altar of incense and hid them in a cave on Mt Nebo before the Siege of Jerusalem in 587, and he told those who searched for the cave but could not find it that the Ark would only be found once more when "God gathers His people together again and shows His mercy" and that then the Shekinah glory of the Lord would appear (which sounds to me like the Parousia).

One wonders how the Ethiopians get around that passage.

Lessons from Apollos

I was reading this morning in Acts, and was meditating on a passage in ch18, which I thought I might share.

It is the introduction of Apollos. He is an Alexandrian -from that city which would become in later years the very centre of Christian philosophy, although - alas! - those days are far behind it now. But even then Alexandria was a centre of learning. I read recently that it had a Jewish population of almost 1/3 at the time. And, of course, it was also the birthplace of the Septuagint. This is where Apollos comes from, and it shows. He is "an eloquent man", trained in the art of rhetoric, an art which he employs not for his own gain but in the synagogue. He was described in the translation I was using as being "mighty in the Scriptures"- a beautiful turn of phrase, one I liked so much I checked it in the Greek- and it turned out to be an exact translation: "δυνατὸς ὢν ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς" (I should point out that I know this, not because I know Koine Greek, but because I have a very user-friendly lexicon!). A man mighty in the Scriptures- how delighted one would be to have that said about one at one's funeral!

Apollos was a man not sent out by the Twelve, but doing his own thing preaching Jesus as the Christ in the synagogue of Ephesus (and presumably he had done likewise elsewhere). Nor did he have the Holy Spirit as he had only received the baptism of John. Thus, he was not actually a member of the Church, not even in an imperfect communion with the Body- he was all the way outside. But still preaching Jesus as the Christ.

Priscilla and Aquila (that extraordinary husband-and-wife team) heard him at the synagogue. Rather than rebuking him or denouncing him, they took him aside and "expounded to him the way of God more accurately". Presumably, somewhere in the midst of this, he was baptised as well. Thereupon , he was received into the arms of the Church and, a short time after, when he wished to move on to preach elsewhere, the Church in Ephesus wrote to the Church in Achaia (or churches- Achaia is a big place) to receive him.

There are several things that we can take away from this account.

One is that "me and my Bible" is not enough. Apollos knew his Bible. He knew about Jesus. He knew that the Scriptures bore witness to Jesus. But Priscilla and Aquila saw a lack of which he himself was not aware and acted to remedy that lack. Knowledge of the Scriptures is a priceless treasure- of that there can be no doubt (and it grows ever more valuable as it becomes rarer). But the action of Christ in history is through a living organism, and cells that try and make it on their own apart from the Body, though they may initially do extraordinary things (like a skink's tale which shows extraordinary energy after it has been cut off) will eventually wither and die. Practically, that means knowledge of the Scriptures must be married to the sacraments established by Christ (in this instance one notes in particular baptism, by which one becomes a member of the Body in the first place) and unity with the Apostles and those whom they have appointed (in this instance not only the presbyters of Ephesus, who are not named, but in particular Priscilla and Aquila, associates of Paul who himself was appointed and sent by the Twelve). A sidenote: unity with the Apostles and a spiritual life sustained by the sacraments also needs to be married to knowledge of the Scriptures, otherwise it stands in danger of legalism.

Another point to note is that, as Our Lord said, "He who is not against us is for us."(Mark 9:40, Luke 9:50) I know a number of Catholics who will decry and reject anyone who is not in full communion with the Church and regard anything they say as tainted. Some will preach a particular interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, forgetting that the Church condemned Fr. Feeney for those same ideas. Naturally, it should grieve us that so few Christians take John 17 seriously. It is, among other things, tragically ironic that some of the most evangelistically-minded Christians don't seem to have noticed that Christ Himself sees the visible unity of all Christians as an absolute prerequisite for the effective evangelisation of the world (John 17:21). Nevertheless, it is certainly true that there are many in our day who will not accept anything from the Catholic Church, not even Jesus. We may be thankful, therefore, that there exist groups and people from whom they will accept Him. Indeed, the Church declares authoritatively- by Ecumenical Council, no less! - that the Spirit can and does work in and through such ministries. Therefore, for us who are united with the Apostles and who do enjoy a full sacramental life in Christ, it behoves us to imitate Priscilla and Aquila. To not stand up and denounce and decry, but to rejoice that Jesus Christ is being preached wherever He is preached and, if the opportunity ever presents itself, to "expound...the way of God more accurately".

Friday, 26 June 2009

Edification in Action

One of the things Evangelicalism does well (or at least the Evangelicalism I came from and with which I am familiar viz. Anglican Diocese of Sydney-style Evangelicalism) is, for want of a better word, pastoral-ness. And I don't mean pastors doing pastoral things- I'm talking about the laypeople. Laypeople looking out for each other and building each other up in the Lord. This is something we Catholics are behind on, or at least that is my experience of it. In this particular culture at this particular time (Australia, early 21st century), we are far more likely to be in our own autonomous little bubble, and to go to Mass like that too. Of course the irony is that the act of Communion in Christ's sacrifice, which Evangelicals don't have, binds us closer together than anything else can, objectively, but most of the time you wouldn't realise it by our actions. It doesn't have to be like this, and hasn't always been, but at the moment it is.

Examples of how it can be otherwise are refreshing, challenging and instructive. Here is one example that my sister-in-law pointed me to. A friend of hers has been doing a blog series on ways in which married Christians can behave respectfully and helpfully towards their single counterparts, entitled "What Not to Say to Your Single Friends". It is insightful and edifying. Take a look.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Threat of Mercy

I have had an ongoing request for a little while now to make available on this blog some lectures I have given at various times at Sydney University, particularly the most recent one. I have been unable to do so until now since these are too long to put in a post and I wasn't quite sure how else to put them on here. However, with the help of my brother (whose blog is here, by the way- fraternal plug), I have found a way to do this. Those who wish to read my most recent lecture, therefore, may follow the link below.

The Threat of Mercy: Reflections on Jonah

Friday, 19 June 2009

Sexual Authenticity

Just today I finished reading this book by Melinda Selmys.

As someone with more than one openly gay colleague, the book caught my eye when I saw it advertised in the latest catalogue of my local Catholic bookshop. On a whim, when I was there a couple of days later picking up another volume, I bought it. I am very glad I did.

Melinda Selmys is one of those rare people who does not begin an apologetic with her guard up. I have noticed this about converts of almost any sort (even in myself) - there is a reflex to go on the defensive. Perhaps because at one point there was war within oneself, speaking of the issues again revives that quasi-military mode of the mind. There are truths to be defended, errors to be refuted, cases to be proved. In the midst of this, it is tragically easy to forget that there are persons involved (all the more so because, when one first fought these battles it was solely within oneself, so there were no other people to worry about, only ideas battling bravely against one another), so love can get lost amid the truth. This is a great temptation in any work of apologetics, especially for converts of whatever sort.

Melinda Selmys' work is refreshingly free of such things. She brings the benefits of experience and personal insight to the issues she talks about, but also understanding liberated from opprobrium and platitudes. For this reason, what she says, though she says it gently, is that much more persuasive. And there are some fascinating insights in this book.

Several things stood out for me, which I will enumerate.

1. Selmys strikes a tricky but refreshing balance on the issue of identity. On the one hand, she calls into question the stark Us and Them felt by both gays and straights. She suggests that in fact, although certain individuals may be temperamentally disposed towards compulsive same-sex acts, homosexuality per se is possible for anybody- thus the division of humanity into 'gay' and 'straight' is misleading. This is discomfiting for both parties- gays because their firm self-identification as such is not as airtight as might have been wished; Christians because the ick factor many feel so strongly is no guarantee that they are immune to this particular temptation. On the other hand, Selmys strongly affirms that the identity issue is not a smokescreen- that identity is necessarily bound up in the way we relate to those around us, especially those to whom we have bound ourselves (whether those ties be romantic, familial, or whatever) and that to call into question the basis for those relationships and the choices that led to them is no light matter.

2. Selmys, from her own experience, suggests that trying to make gays straight i.e. trying to get individuals with same-sex attraction to be attracted to the opposite sex, is in the end kind of pointless, even if it works. She cites her own experience where her encounter with God and conversion to Christianity came first, and it was only later that she found herself ready to marry and have children.

3. Selmys gives a basic outline of the history of thinking about sex in the Church, ending with a basic (but quite decent) outline of the Theology of the Body. She looks honestly at the general suspicion with which sex has been viewed by Christians without trying to justify or make excuses for that view (I was particularly interested to read her take on certain saints whom I was obliged to study for my Honours thesis eg. several canonised couples who took vows of continence within marriage, or virgin martyrs who refused to get married). She regards the Theology of the Body as a vital intellectual and theological project by the Church which is long-overdue.To suggest that the Church had, for a long time, dropped the ball on this issue (because it genuinely saw other things as being far more important) but had recently begun to take it seriously was a welcome thought. Most folk I know, depending on which side of the fence they're on, would claim either that the Church never dropped the ball in the first place and that TOTB was the outworking of something which had been brewing for centuries, or that the Church just generally misunderstands sex and will never understand it until it abolishes celibacy/institutes priestesses/allows contraception/allows premarital sex/allows homosexuality/insert pet dissent here. Melinda Selmys introduces some welcome balance and perspective.

4. I was deeply challenged, in light of my own vices (and I shall say no more than that), by this idea: Selmys, who is also a poetic type, mentioned several times throughout the book the extent to which fantasy supported and dominated her relationship with her lesbian lover. Later, she writes beautifully of the glory of sub-creation, as Tolkien called it; of the ability of an artist or poet or writer to bring into being creatures, characters, with the innner consistency of reality, who seem to take on a life of their own, who have their own personalities, their own quirks, their own lovable idiosyncrasies. But there is a danger in this. "An artist creates characters, nourishes them within her own mind, allows them a little breath of her own free will, and transcribes them in a flesh of words or paint. She does not marry them. She does not raise them to her own level, and try to form a union of soul and mind with them...[t]he risk, whether with imaginary or physical promiscuity, is a fragmentation of personality...if you wed yourself to a host of your own creations, to the lesser fragments of your own psyche that populate your sexual fantasies, you lose the centre and core of your being. It becomes like a pulverised mirror, returning a more and more shattered image until, at last, it is dust and reflects nothing at all."

5. I was particularly gratified and decidedly moved at one particular point of her testimony. Selmys speaks at one point of coming to accept that Someone was directing things behind the scenes of her life and of the desire to know this Someone so as to thank Them. So she began to pray, to seek after this Person. All the while, she was secretly hoping that the Someone would be female, that she might after all get a goddess to worship. Sure enough, after some time she felt a distinctly female presence responding to her prayers. For a moment, she thought she might get her desire. But a moment of confusion. For some reason, Selmys felt the proper form of address for this entity ought to be 'Virgin' and 'Mother'. And, bizarrely, this feminine personality seemed to be nudging her, pointing her toward something else, beyond itself. With a shock, the realisation came- this was no goddess. This was Mary. And if Mary, the something else she was nudging her towards must be Jesus Christ.

This testimony moves me particularly, not least because of my decidedly rocky, on-again off-again relationship with the Mother of my Lord. It delights me also, for two reasons. (i) It gives the lie to all that Protestant nonsense about Mary as a goddess. Even someone who has imbibed the various ideas of New-Agey feminism, when they finally get to meet her, can tell the difference in an instant. (ii) The Blessed Mother's life is and remains wholly referred. Intellectually, I know perfectly well that Mary herself, everything she has ever done and everything the Church has ever said about her is ultimately about Jesus. But still, the suspicion lingers in the blood that it is not so. It is delightful to have the contrary confirmed, especially by someone who didn't know a thing about it either way and who would have liked very much for it to be otherwise.

In conclusion, this is among the best books on Christian sexual ethics I have read and is certainly the best book on homosexuality I have come across. I highly recommend it.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Historical Blindness = Unintentional Humour

There was an interview with Roger Alton, editor of The Independent, in the Catholic Herald this week. It was a serious and very interesting interview. Roger Alton is not a Christian, but he has some worthwhile things to say. Some way into the interview there is this anecdote:

A lot of religion has been maligned if you look at some of the murderous bits. I was talking to the Archbishop of Canterbury [Dr Rowan Williams] the other day - a lovely man - saying I do love Anglicanism because it's relatively harmless and hasn't gone around killing people, and he said: 'Well, I don't know about that.'

When I read that, I couldn't stop laughing for at least two minutes!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Defending the Papal States- Good Idea or Not?

There is this week in the Catholic Herald a review of what looks like a very interesting book. I am half-tempted to procure myself a copy, and add it to the masses of other books that I really ought to read. It is called The Pope's Legion and is about the international army that was assembled to defend the Papal States during the unification of Italy in the 1860's.

It looks like a rousing read but I must confess to mixed feelings about their cause. Of course, I understand why the Papal States existed (the same reason Vatican State exists today) and I strongly sympathise with King Pepin in donating this land to the Pope in the eighth century so whoever the political leaders happened to be at any one time would not be able to try to control the Pope or influence papal elections. It was a strictly pious act and a noble and selfless one (it was his own land that Pepin donated, after all, albeit newly won). But the Pope being a political leader as well as a pastor always seems to me to have led to far more trouble than it was worth, and to have exposed the Pope to a set of temptations to which he should never have been exposed. Witness, for example, the Pope declaring war on Charles V during the Reformation. Madness!

So I, for one, am deeply thankful to God that the Papal States are no more, and that, though the Pope is still politically independent, the miniscule Vatican State can hardly tempt the Pope with political ambitions like the vast tracts of land that made up the Papal States once could. That is a chapter (or set of chapters) in the Church's history I am glad to have seen close. Now the Pope can actually do his job as universal pastor and Steward of the Kingdom instead of playing political games.

So I am not entirely sympathetic with the subjects of the book or, at any rate, I'm not sure I agree with them that it was a cause worth fighting and dying for. That may or may not be affected by my ignorance of many of the circumstances surrounding the fight. Though I have a passing acquaintance with it from high school history lessons, I have never done any in-depth study of the period of Italian unification or of what sort of man Garibaldi was, or Victor Emmanuel. If I knew more about it and them, maybe I would decide to throw in my lot with the Zouaves. But from where I sit now, especially seeing the consequences of it all well after the fact, I must confess scepticism. And at the very least, even if the unification of Italy was not in the final analysis a good thing (and in my present state of incomplete knowledge I happen to think it was), the Treaty of the Lateran in 1929 certainly was for the best.

All of which is to say I look forward to buying and reading this book when I get the chance.