Handmaid

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I think I must have noticed this before, but never thought about it. In some translations Luke 1:48 has Our Lady calling herself “handmaid” or “maidservant”, others, however, use the word “servant” because they don’t like the overtones of the gender-related noun. As someone who worked as a chambermaid in university holidays, I get where they are coming from, but oddly, those who in other contexts are most hostile to the use of gender-neutral language, have nothing to say (that I have been able to find) on the matter. As one who has no real beef with such language, I want to comment on it, because, well, I guess I find it offensive – the losing of the female element.

I know that it means when we say the Magnificat at Matins or Evensong, we can all join in, but as a woman I want to make a plea for keeping the older translation because the newer one, well-meaning though it is, actually erases the woman’s voice. I bet it was a man who decided that one!

What do I mean?

The Magnificat comes in the only passage of the Bible where we get no “male gaze”; no men were involved in the dialogue, and the unborn men are only witnesses. I don’t want (here and now) to stray into the delicate and difficult issue of gender in Scripture, but one thing is so obvious that we can miss it. The Bible is written by men and as such largely encapsulates things in terms of the ways men view the world. Nothing wrong in that, men and women often view the world in the same ways, you might say, and I might well nod and agree. But I would add that that’s not the same thing as capturing a purely “female gaze.” Some things are seen differently by the sexes – and nowhere is this more true than pregnancy and child-birth.

I have not had the good fortune to realise my childhood dream of being a mother, and I lost my own at a very early age and have few unmediated memories of her (I find it hard at times to know whether what I think I “remember” was real or simply half-recalling something my father told me), but I have friends and relatives who have been through the experience recently, and as a real and honorary “aunt” I have had the privilege of being part of conversations with them – and it is those female-only spaces which the Visitation recalls to me.

In this context “maidservant” is in no way, to my mind, demeaning. In calling herself this, Mary is expressing one of the virtues that show she is full of Grace and which has made her beloved by all subsequent generations – her humility. In the face of the awesome fact that you are going to be bringing another life into this world, I have noted friends often showing the same humility; it is literally, to be awestruck. How much more was Our Blessed Lady struck with awe, and what better way of expressing her humility than to call herself the handmaid of the Lord? Paul uses the masculine equivalent of the word in Romans 1:1 – δοῦλος there as opposed to δούλης.

Any of us, all of us, are servants of the Living God, but only a woman can be a handmaid in the way Our Lady was, and I want to reclaim that word for women – it is, if you like “servant plus” – and there’s a part of me doesn’t want to share that with men. Is that wrong of me?

I love the intimacy of the female space to which Luke gives us access. I know there are various theories as to the origin of the Magnificat, but there is a large part of me which knows it comes from Luke recording accurately what Our Lady told him. It’s a long time since I read literature at University, but I can spot a female “voice” when I hear it.

The image of the baby “leaping” in the womb moves our hearts, and is just what a woman would note – and the sheer joy, a word repeated several times – overwhelms us. As I say my Rosary I imagine it and am filled with joy myself. There is a very female acceptance of the will of God. Where Zacharias cannot believe that Elizabeth can get pregnant, and where even the wonderful and righteous Joseph (surely one of the most underrated men in history?) is minded to put his pregnant fiancée to one side quietly, Elizabeth knows who is in Mary’s womb, and Mary accepts the will of God with a willingness which can blind us to what she was accepting.

Mary was, after all, a young woman betrothed to Joseph. If we accept, as I and many do, that those called the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus were the progeny of Joseph by a previous marriage, then it is likely that he was much, much older than his betrothed. Twelve and a half was the minimum age at which a girl could be betrothed, and it was not uncommon for a marriage to follow as much as a year later, so she could have been as young as twelve or thirteen at the time of the Annunciation. She would have been aware that becoming pregnant might bring disaster on her. We know that the early enemies of Christianity spread the slander that she had become pregnant by a Roman soldier, and we know from Scripture that Joseph thought it necessary to put her aside before the Angel intervened. But the young Mary, she expressed no doubt, no hesitation, she cooperated with the will of God in a situation where doing so could have exposed her to extreme harm. It is easy to forget how wonderful her trust in God was.

We see something else too in her song of joy. We see traces of what the Kingdom of God will be like. Her lowliness will exalt her, and she who was last will be first. Those who are proud and wealthy, they who are first in their own estimation and that of the world will be humbled and will be last. We see here, for the first, but not the last time, how dangerous for the soul wealth and the pride it can engender can be.

The Visitation is a precious moment of female intimacy where we glimpse something so often missing from a book compiled by men. Please don’t see this as a criticism of men, I wouldn’t expect them to be familiar with female spaces any more than I am with male ones. But I do reclaim that “handmaiden” translation. If, as many believe, there is something special in men because of Jesus which means only they can serve the Lord as priests and bishops, then there is, equally, something special in women, as only they can serve the Lord through pregnancy.

Saturday Thoughts

I enjoyed Jess’ post yesterday and the comments following. Everyone had something interesting and insightful to say. I suppose not everything that was said can be reconciled – people were not in agreement – but here are my own thoughts.

I’m always interested in what NEO has to say on business as he has a wealth of experience to draw upon (Scoop’s comments about the different types of work he has done are also interesting). I suspect that NEO doesn’t comment in this vein more often because it would be a busman’s holiday for him – and I don’t blame him. For my part, after a long day of drafting defences, trying to negotiate settlements, updating the client, and compiling trial bundles, I’d rather not do anything too reminiscent of that.

As part of the various mailing lists from Knowledge Management, I receive daily bulletins about developments in litigation and the financial services sector. I am also signed up to lists on private client / private wealth and other topics that sometimes play into work as a banking litigator.

These days I tend to skim the bulletins as my energy flags and chargeable and administrative work beckons. Jess’ point about working from home being just as tiring (or more) than working in the office is apt. Some of that, however, may be non-related reasons, such as working on a particularly demanding project.

I don’t miss the commute, though. Losing around 2 hours or so each day, stuck on the crowded bus, was not fun; so eliminating that part of the day has been a blessing. I’m not in a hurry to go back to the office as such, but I wish that otherwise we could get back to normal socialising. One of the hardest things about all of this is not being able to hold my niece or hug my sister or brother-in-law. My niece is too young to properly understand what is going on, but I imagine she picks up on things in that mysterious way young children do.

Things are not easy and we all feel ground down by this year. Many of us started out with a feeling of optimism, that the government would be able to start making reforms, fresh from the December election with a clear, ostensibly solid majority in the Commons. Weary of the Rump Parliament, we had hopes that the Prime Minister would bring a fresh energy and zeal to our troubled land.

That may yet happen. While this year has mostly been wasted from a legislative perspective, I do believe that God has been quietly working behind the scenes. If we are to have any hope of transformation, it must come from both the top and the bottom. We must have laws that are fit for purpose, but we must have a society of conscience that will treat people well, whether or not the law compels them to do so.

Maranatha.

Space and time

One thing that the current situation has given some of us is time and space we lacked. Conscious as I am of those who have less of either, I haven’t wanted to blog on it. It’s all too easy to sit in a comfortable home with space, and to have time to think, and forget those who have neither and yet without whom we’d be worse off. We get pretty regular deliveries, partly because of my book-buying habit, but also other things because it’s easier than going to supermarkets, and I am struck by the quiet heroism of those who drive the white vans than keep me supplied. We used to do a good deal of clapping for NHS workers, but I sometimes feel I’d like to applaud the van drivers and the shop assistants who, literally, keep us supplied with our daily wants.

None of us has any idea when or how this will end. But if at the end of it we simply have the old normal back, I am not sure that would be progress. I’m no economist, but I can’t see how it can be right for those working in Amazon warehouses to be on low wages when Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest man. Even before the crisis it was clear that something had gone wrong with our economic and social system, and I hope we might be able to do somethings better after this – but the forces to resist it are strong ones.

AATW does not major on the climate change crisis, and even for those who, like me, think there is a crisis, some of the activities of the soi-disant “Extinction Rebellion” seem counter-productive; but that should not blind us to what is going on. We were given stewardship over the earth by God, not ownership. Pope Francis has written eloquently on this in Laudato Si, and if you take the trouble to read it, it’s pretty sensible stuff. We can’t just continue to “take” and give nothing back.

One effect of the crisis has been fewer cars on the road and fewer journeys. My other half has been working mostly from home for the last six months with no reduction on productivity, indeed quite the opposite. I know others in the same place, and life-work balance has, for some, improved. We don’t live to work, we work to live, but too often the economic system treats us as instruments not individuals. This is our modern version of what Jesus told the Pharisees about the Sabbath – and if we can claw back time and space it would be a good thing.

There are complex reasons why in the West we have a decline in births, and abortion and contraception are only two of them. We don’t have a culture of life, and one reason for that it that couples so often need two incomes to manage that having children, even for those open to it, can become a problem. How on earth did we get to this point? What is wrong with us? Again, complex answers, but it seems to me to boil down to our society forgetting why we are here. Secular society has no satisfactory answer to that fundamental question. Christianity does.

More time in prayer, more time with God, creating the silence so he can fill it, and above all, being open to his will. If we can use this crisis to do those sort of things, then other things will change too – us most of all.

Converts and Newman

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It is some time since Newman appeared in this place, which is, by itself, sufficient excuse to write about him; but there are other reasons.

Newman was the most famous of the English converts to Catholicism in the nineteenth century; one might extend that to say of modern times. At the time of his canonisation well-deserved tributes were paid, and I found attending the ceremony an immensely moving experience. But in all of that there is a point which was not made. It is quite clear that the Catholic Church had not the slightest idea of what to do with its new convert, and from the point of view of utilising what God had made available to it, the hierarchy frankly fluffed it. In one way that is hardly surprising, their Anglican counterparts had not found a way to accommodate Newman’s talents either. Before, however, dismissing this thought, I want to extend it for a while.

One of the most talented of  my colleagues made an observation which merits wider distribution, although as I am writing without consulting him, I shall keep his name to one side. English converts, he said, fall into two categories: Manning or Newman. The Mannings adapt to their new environment, and some even thrive; the Newmans endure prolonged periods of practical sterility and isolation, remaining in their new Church only because of the conviction which took them there – that this is the Church founded by Christ. In many ways this is the deepest witness to the hope that is in them. When asked how one can remain in a Church so marred with scandal, and where so many of the leaders can seem at times to demonstrate the spinal fortitude of a jellyfish, answering that “because this IS THE CHURCH” is a powerful testimony.

This should not be taken as any criticism of Manning; there is no zero-sum game. Conversion is a profoundly personal experience, and it is unwise to assume that one’s previous spiritual formation will somehow cease to be relevant. In this sense, someone who comes to Catholicism straight from a non-Christian background may find life simpler.

Newman had never entered an English Catholic Church before his conversion, and knew very few Catholics. His Catholicism was intellectual and spiritual. In his day conversions were even rarer than now, and a Community which had so recently been in political internal exile and persecuted intermittently for three hundred years, was but poorly equipped to be a welcoming one to incomers with no knowledge of it or its ways. The handful of aristocratic Recusant families who had kept the flame alive so long were beginning to die out, and were, in any case, geographically and socially isolated from the new, Irish, influx which brought so many more Catholics to the mainland. Newman fitted in with neither group. It is so often underplayed in the story of his life that he spent so many years working in Birmingham with that most underprivileged immigrant group, as indeed did Manning in London.

The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham is, in one sense, an answer to the wider problem illustrated by Newman, that is the difficulty the Church and converts sometimes have integrating with each other. Those converting de novo, often integrate more swiftly, those from another religious tradition can find the process more difficult, as can the Church which receives them.

On the one hand there are those in the Church who see the converts as unwelcome reinforcements for conservative causes (as they see them) or tradition (as others see them) such as an all-male priesthood and distrust them for that reason. On the other hand, for the convert, there is the inevitable culture shock.

One of the first things to strike me was the banality of the Missal. It made the Alternative Service book I had been used to as an Anglican seem well-written. Then there was the absence of the altar rail and the queue for the Eucharist, which was received in the hand rather than, at my Anglican church, kneeling at the altar rail and on the tongue. There was also the sense of coming into a close-knot community which, like many such, was not necessarily welcoming to outsiders from a very different tradition.

That is where the Ordinariate, had it been available when I converted, would have been useful and where its presence is for many of us, essential. The Catholic tradition in England did not end with the Reformation, and non-one familiar with the Caroline Divines, would assume that it revived only with the Oxford Movement. It is good to see that tradition continue within the Catholic Church.

Day is done.

I’m retired so I don’t have to be concerned about road accidents in the morning and don’t have to dash a quick iron over a blouse. The children are full grown adults by anyone’s measure and off and busy in their lives. But I still have a routine, things that need to be done. I am the CEO of this household only because ‘someone I know’ has completely abdicated and likes to be out and about. Each day has something that needs to be done, finished, sent out, brought in, reconciled, opened; decisions need to be made and research done. Then there’s paying some – not a great deal – of attention to the news outside this house, in what we laughingly refer to as the ‘real world’. It’s a full day.

After dinner and kitchen clean up, I settle down at my desktop. Now is my time. I like games; I’m not ashamed to say so. But a lot of the games I play require memory along with hand/eye coordination which I’m grateful for because, you know, brains are like muscles – use it or lose it. But then I’m in my quiet room in the quiet house. After awhile the quiet begins to make me think of other, better things I could be doing; what am I putting off that I could do right now. I’m tired, I rise early so by late evening, early night, I don’t feel like getting things done. What to do?

I found a way to multitask. While I play my games, I listen to Alexander Scourby reading the Bible. He does all sixty-six books and he’s quite an accomplished voice actor. He doesn’t change how his voice sounds; rather, he brings the required emphasis to each passage by speeding up his reading, or slowing it down; he makes his voice harsh if needed and soft when that is called for. It’s really quite an effective practice.

As he reads, I notice that I nod my head when Jesus says those things I like, give sarcastic remarks to the disciples when they say stupid things (“can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” “Yeah! Sure!” to which I am apt to mutter, ‘give me a break!’ I whisper the Beatitudes right along with Him. Church flashes through my mind as He institutes Holy Communion and I say the words with Him. I chuckle to myself at the verses that state He was in a crowd of people who wanted to grab but – He manages, in a very Jesus sort of way, to not be there and is found elsewhere, away from that particular angry crowd. I always get my ‘Lord’s prayers’ messed up, the Matthew from the Luke – you’d think, after all this time, I’d know but it’s that memory thing.

While my hands are busy, I’m walking the roads with Him, cursing that darned fig tree or listening to Him invite Himself to Zacchaeus’s house for lunch. I mentally point to the woman with the issue of blood when Jesus asks who touched Him – yes, I know; that makes me a snitch but this is Jesus we’re talking about and I tell Him everything. I take comfort when he heals the lunatic who cuts himself because I have a daughter who does that, too. I shake my head in disgust when those folks with the hogs would rather have their hogs than Jesus in their midst.

It’s a long road. He and I have walked it many times before. Sometimes a tumbler moves into place and I get a revelation about a passage I wasn’t clear about. Sometimes I get corrected in my misunderstanding of an event. He’s always showing me something I missed on a previous walk. Each journey is two thousand years old – and only five minutes ago. We sail the lake, I watch as He walks on water and mentally shake my finger at Peter who got distracted by the wind and waves and starts to sink.

When it’s time to go to bed, I shut down Alexander Scourby (found on YouTube – all the books), shut down the puzzle of the day, and wander off to bed. I’m so relaxed, so relieved from the concerns of the day; I tuck myself in, turn on my side, say the correct Lord’s prayer and I’m off to meet Him in my dreams. Day is done.

The Mirror of Darkness

I thought this post might be worth reblogging as Audre is new and Jess and Scoop and C are with us again.

All Along the Watchtower

In one sense, as Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” History provides us with ample evidence of what humanity is. The picture is both appalling and sublime: by divine inspiration, we are capable of acts of love and charity; by our own depravity and satanic inducement, we can commit the very worst acts of atrocity.

Scripture acts as a mirror: if we let God speak to us, rather than hide in the shadows, we see ourselves as we really are. In that moment of truth, if we do not rebel, we will confess our sins and ask God to forgive and transform us. The Christian and the Christian Church are on a journey of transformation, of being conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. This means having His mind and behaviour, and, in the end, being given a heavenly body like His.

The end times…

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The Treasury of the Tanakh

This post is about reasons why it is important to devote time to reading the Tanakh (Old Testament).

  1. Getting the full message

Years ago I was presented with a study bible, which is the main bible I read. I am very fortunate in that it not only contains guidance for understanding passages, but also has critical apparatus (textual variants) and intertextuality references. There was a phase when in my daily reading I would read not only the passage or chapter I had set myself, but would read any verses that were related as indicated in the margin.

The Old Testament is the foundation of the New Testament. It is frequently quoted directly and alluded to. However, if we were to rely only on the New Testament, we would not have the full picture. The New Testament authors and speakers usually assumed their audience was familiar with the underlying passage and expected them to contemplate the implications of the instant teaching for the rest of the passage. This might mean going to the local synagogue to read the scroll (or have it read) or recalling the rest of the passage from memory.

Let us consider the following example. In Luke 4 we see Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (this also happens to be one of my favourite passages in Scripture, and I like the artistic presentation of it in Franco Zefirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”). Jesus reveals that He is the Messiah by reading from Isaiah 61:1 to beginning of verse 2.

If we go to the Isaiah passage we see that Jesus stopped part-way through a sentence. This tells us several things.

  • The time of wrath mentioned in the rest of Isaiah 61:2 and following had not yet come.
  • Jesus is the one who will execute God’s wrath on the Day of the LORD and He is the one who will rebuild Zion.
  • The fulfilment of Isaiah in the first advent involved real, concrete actions: miraculous healing and provision. So too, will the eschatological wrath of God and deliverance of Zion involve real, concrete acts by Jesus the Messiah.

There are also questions arising from the New Testament that cannot (conclusively) be answered from the New Testament alone. The question of who or what the “restrainer” is in 2 Thessalonians 2 is one of these questions. Paul’s writings and the Book of Revelation provide important data, but eventually the reader has to consult the Book of Daniel, and possibly other Old Testament books.

2. The beauty of the Old Testament

The Old Testament contains some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring passages ever written. These in turn have inspired writers in subsequent cultures and periods. We would not have Milton’s Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes if the Old Testament had not been written.

For my part, like countless others, I love the rendering of these passages in the KJV. Consider the following.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

-Isaiah 53:3-6, KJV

I need not tell regular readers here what the import of this passage is – but I will say that it produces just as much awe as any passage in Revelation about the Day of the LORD – for we are sinners and that God should give His only Son to die for us is wondrous. Consider this passage therefore complementarily – for it too reveals what we truly are.

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

-Isaiah 64:6, KJV

3. The Old Testament is a candle in the dark night of the soul

The Old Testament does not shy away from the human condition – far from it. As Philip Yancey and various other authors have pointed out, it depicts us in all our moods and conditions. It shows God’s people railing at Him, crying out for an answer to the problem of evil.

St Peter tells us to cast all our cares on Christ, because Christ cares for us. This is one of the most beautiful verses of the New Testament – but it builds on people, such as the Psalmists, doing just that in the Old Testament. This crying out to God has sustained the Israelites in their sufferings through the generations, and is rendered powerfully in song in the animated film, The Prince of Egypt, which is an artistic depiction of the events of the Exodus. In the song, “Deliver us!”, we see an artistic echo of these verses from Exodus:

And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey…

-Exodus 3:7-8, KJV

In the early days of my conversion, when I read the bible in the course of a year, Ecclesiastes had little impact upon me. But when I started experiencing and coming to terms with depression, it spoke powerfully, and continues to do so. The Old Testament is a valuable resource for the dark moments in our lives.

4. It exposes us to the past

I have always been interested in history and archaeology. This is one of the reasons I studied Classics at university, went into teaching (for a season), continue to read academic material, and contribute here at AATW and on social media.

I am not the most conservative author here, but, unlike many others, in history I am so conservative as to consider that modernity begins with the classical period of Greece, particularly the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. Although for much of history the rate of change has generally been very slow, especially compared with recent years, and although the cultures we see in the New Testament are, in many respects, far removed from our own, the New Testament has an immediacy about it that comes from its proximity to us on various basic levels.

The same is not necessarily true of the Old Testament, which reveals Bronze Age culture to us (and then goes into the Iron Age). This is a very different world and we have to work hard with ancient complementary sources to really understand it. This Bronze Age world is weird and exotic to our modern eyes.

5. Preserving the integrity of the Gospel

Lastly in this list of reasons, I should like to mention the danger posed to the integrity of the Gospel by various attacks on the Old Testament. This is essentially a slippery slope argument. The more we chip away at the historicity of the Old Testament, the more we undermine the New – because the one is based upon the other. Ultimately, if the whole edifice collapses, we are doomed – if Christ was not raised, neither will we be.

This does not mean that we should read the Old Testament crudely (I read Genesis in a manner compatible with evolution, the Big Bang, etc). It does mean, however, that we must be prepared to defend the historical core of the Old Testament and believe that God does and will act in history. This has implications for our eschatology also, which I often describe as “future history” (for I find the shock of this oxymoron to be useful as an aid for getting my point across and provoking my readers to reflection).

St John Chrysostom’s Commentary on 2 Thess. 2:6-9

One may naturally enquire, what is that which withholds, and after that would know, why Paul expresses it so obscurely. What then is it that withholds, that is, hinders him from being revealed? Some indeed say, the grace of the Spirit, but others the Roman empire, to whom I most of all accede. Wherefore? Because if he meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly, that even now the grace of the Spirit, that is the gifts, withhold him. And otherwise he ought now to have come, if he was about to come when the gifts ceased; for they have long since ceased. But because he said this of the Roman empire, he naturally glanced at it, and speaks covertly and darkly. For he did not wish to bring upon himself superfluous enmities, and useless dangers. For if he had said that after a little while the Roman empire would be dissolved, they would immediately have even overwhelmed him, as a pestilent person, and all the faithful, as living and warring to this end. And he did not say that it will be quickly, although he is always saying it— but what? that he may be revealed in his own season, he says,For the mystery of lawlessness does already work.” He speaks here of Nero, as if he were the type of Antichrist. For he too wished to be thought a god. And he has well said, the mystery; that is, it works not openly, as the other, nor without shame. For if there was found a man before that time, he means, who was not much behind Antichrist in wickedness, what wonder, if there shall now be one? But he did not also wish to point him out plainly: and this not from cowardice, but instructing us not to bring upon ourselves unnecessary enmities, when there is nothing to call for it. So indeed he also says here. Only there is one that restrains now, until he be taken out of the way, that is, when the Roman empire is taken out of the way, then he shall come. And naturally. For as long as the fear of this empire lasts, no one will willingly exalt himself, but when that is dissolved, he will attack the anarchy, and endeavor to seize upon the government both of man and of God. For as the kingdoms before this were destroyed, for example, that of the Medes by the Babylonians, that of the Babylonians by the Persians, that of the Persians by the Macedonians, that of the Macedonians by the Romans: so will this also be by the Antichrist, and he by Christ, and it will no longer withhold. And these things Daniel delivered to us with great clearness…

These are St John Chrysostom’s thoughts on 2 Thess. 2:6-9. St John Chrysostom lived from c. AD 347 to 407. In his lifetime, the Roman Empire still existed in both the West (Rome/Ravenna) and the East (Constantinople). This passage clearly shows that he believed the Man of Sin is the Antichrist and that the Antichrist is a future figure (i.e. St John Chrysostom was not a preterist).

Earlier in this commentary on 2 Thess., St John Chrysostom indicates that the Antichrist will sit in the temple in Jerusalem (presupposing that it will be rebuilt), although he considers that the Antichrist taking his seat in the temple of God also means the church in some fashion.

His interpretation of the restrainer/restraining force is a common one – viz. the Roman Empire. It does not seem to be confirmed by history, however. Although St Paul does not say expressly that the Antichrist will appear almost immediately after the removal of the restrainer, most would naturally read the passage this way. The Antichrist did not appear swiftly after the fall of either the Western (AD 476) or Eastern (AD 1453) Roman Empire. We know this because the Antichrist is destroyed when Christ returns – Christ did not return soon after the fall of the Roman Empire.

In St John Chrysostom’s words, St Paul writes “obscurely”. The identity of the restrainer has proved a vexing problem for commentators and exegetes over the years.

“Believe It and You Have It”

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If you were to ask Martin Luther, the most famous question in American Evangelicalism, “Are you born again?” He would say, “Of course I am a born-again Christian, I am baptized.” As do many of us to this day. We are Christians, we have always been (as far as we can remember). What is this tosh about born again?

What this is all about is why Lutherans (and I suspect in some ways it applies to all of the older churches), at least those who use the phrase, “One Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church” as we do. we tend to be not wholly Protestant.

That is why there is no revivalism in Lutheranism, or indeed in the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, where we teach baptismal regeneration and practice infant baptism. Let’s look at some differences, shall we?

For Luther, justification isn’t tied to any single event but happens as often as we repent and return to the power of baptism. Justification by faith alone happens in the Catholic context of the Catholic sacrament of penance. Sorry, it’s not a once in a lifetime deal. This doesn’t eliminate choice (one can always refuse to believe).

Luther’s beliefs parallel the Catholic belief in sacramental efficacy, which places salvific power in external things. Without this, we must rely on faith as well, in other words, the fact that I believe.

Luther often says, “Believe it and you have it”, in many variations. This is not because faith earns it or achieves anything, it is simply because God keeps his word.

This is certainly not because of the perception of the mind, this is purely rigorously objective truth, God does not lie. Our certainty is based upon that, not on our faith. In Why Luther Is Not Quite Protestant,¹ Phillip Cary writes.

Whoever believes and is baptized is saved” (Mark 16:16) Luther teaches that the baptismal formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” is the word of Christ.  Luther is emphatic on this point: the words spoken in the act of baptizing are Christ’s own, so it is Christ who really performs the baptism.  Most importantly for the logic of faith, the first-person pronoun in the baptismal formula refers to Christ, so that it is Christ himself who says to me, “I baptize you….”  Ministers are merely the mouthpiece for this word of Christ, just as when they say, “This is my body, given for you.”

Making that decision for Christ or a conversion experience actually detracts from, the point about faith alone. We are justified by believing what Christ says is true. In short, God does not lie.

In brief, it is all based on the truthfulness of God, and we (and Luther did as well) like Paul’s saying in Romans 3:4 “Let God be true and every man a liar.”

And that every man includes us. We can put no faith in our own words, not even in our confession of faith. That is one reason for infant baptism, it’s pretty shaky ground to baptize on the basis of a believer’s confession of faith because we never really know what we believe. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone means that Christians can’t rely on faith. Faith itself doesn’t rely on itself but only Christ’s promise,

This is the well known Lutheran pro me. The emphasis is not on our experience but on what God said. It’s quite unreflective.

More to come in this series, as I get it sorted myself.

¹Pro Ecclesia 14/4 ((Fall 2005)

Righteous Anger? Herbert’s The Collar

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Portrait of George Herbert

 

I struck the board, and cried, “No more; 

I will abroad! 

What? shall I ever sigh and pine? 

My lines and life are free, free as the road, 

Loose as the wind, as large as store. 

Shall I be still in suit? 

Have I no harvest but a thorn 

To let me blood, and not restore 

What I have lost with cordial fruit? 

So begins George Herbert’s poem, The Collar. Herbert loved playing with words, it’s one reason I love his poetry. At first sight the subject seems to refer to the limiting effects of a collar, most obviously, his clerical collar, but of course the word is, in its sound, similar to the word “choler”, or “anger”, as well as to the word “caller”.

According to the theories of early modern medicine, “choler” was the humour which made one angry, hence our word “choleric”, and this poem has that in abundance.

He begins with anger expressing itself in physical form. The “board” he strikes may be taken to be a table, but it could equally be the altar, and given the subject of the poem, that may be the preferred reading. Herbert’s patience is at and end, he’s leaving. The constant search for something he cannot have is, he declares, at an end. He’s telling God that that’s it! He wants to be “free as the road.” We might note in passing the echo of the “rood” or Christ’s cross, whose sacrifices the poet is now rejecting. He wants a secular life and its happiness.

“Shall I still be in suit?” he asks querulously. This is almost a tantrum. He feels he has no control, that he is always the petitioner; he wants freedom. All he feels he has is a thorn, and we hear the echo, again, of Christ’s crucifixion when he was crowned with thorns.

   Sure there was wine 

Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn 

Before my tears did drown it. 

Is the year only lost to me? 

Have I no bays to crown it, 

No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted? 

All wasted? 

Not so, my heart; but there is fruit, 

And thou hast hands. 

Of all Herbert’s poems, this is the one closest to modern free verse. He eschews his usual style, and the poem sprawls across the page, as ill-disciplined as the poet’s temper. He looks back with anger at what was, and longs for something better. Then it occurs to him that there is still time to do so.

 

Recover all thy sigh-blown age 

On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute 

Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage, 

Thy rope of sands, 

Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee 

Good cable, to enforce and draw, 

And be thy law, 

While thou didst wink and wouldst not see. 

Away! take heed; 

I will abroad.

He can reject the academic life and the discipline of theology and of God. The constraints on him are, after all, self-imposed, and he can, if he so pleases, loosen them and leave.

And so, as the poem itself rages on with the poet’s wrath, another voice, a still small one is heard off-scene.

Call in thy death’s-head there; tie up thy fears; 

He that forbears 

To suit and serve his need 

Deserves his load.” 

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild 

At every word, 

Methought I heard one calling, Child! 

And I replied My Lord.

And in response to the “caller” Herbert’s “choler” subsides. Yes, it is his choice to follow Christ, and despite his anger and his hurt, he will do so. However much his human will rebels against God, the poet knows he cannot live without him, and when God calls the poet, like Samuel, may wonder “Is it I, Lord?” But he knows that, like Samuel, he will follow.

In many ways this is one of the most personal of Herbert’s poems, and for me, and I know others, one of the most reassuring. If a man like Herbert could so rail against God, then is it suprising that the rest of us have done so from time to time and wondered whether we could carry on living a Godly life in the face of temptation,  not least the temptations of our own wilfulness. But for me, as for the poet, when I hear “the caller” I, too, reply “My Lord.”