Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On the Morning of Christ's Nativity

I'm a couple of days late with this, but I offer to you with my prayers that Christmas is all that it is meant to be for you and "yours."

On the Morning Of Christ's Nativity
by John Milton

On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
This is the month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.
Say Heav'nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heav'n, by the Sun's team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?
See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Nativity: A Christmas Poem

by John Donne

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

An Advent Poem

Advent Sunday

Awake--again the Gospel-trump is blown --
From year to year it swells with louder tone,
From year to year the signs of wrath
Are gathering round the Judge's path,
Strange words fulfilled, and mighty works achieved,
And truth in all the world both hated and believed.

Awake! why linger in the gorgeous town,
Sworn liegemen of the Cross and thorny crown?
Up from your beds of sloth for shame,
Speed to the eastern mount like flame,
Nor wonder, should ye find your King in tears,
E'en with the loud Hosanna ringing in His ears.

Alas! no need to rouse them: long ago
They are gone forth to swell Messiah's show:
With glittering robes and garlands sweet
They strew the ground beneath His feet:
All but your hearts are there--O doomed to prove
The arrows winged in Heaven for Faith that will not love!

Meanwhile He passes through th' adoring crowd,
Calm as the march of some majestic cloud,
That o'er wild scenes of ocean-war
Holds its still course in Heaven afar:
E'en so, heart-searching Lord, as years roll on,
Thou keepest silent watch from Thy triumphal throne:

E'en so, the world is thronging round to gaze
On the dread vision of the latter days,
Constrained to own Thee, but in heart
Prepared to take Barabbas' part:
"Hosanna" now, to-morrow "Crucify,"
The changeful burden still of their rude lawless cry.

Yet in that throng of selfish hearts untrue
Thy sad eye rests upon Thy faithful few,
Children and childlike souls are there,
Blind Bartimeus' humble prayer,
And Lazarus wakened from his four days' sleep,
Enduring life again, that Passover to keep.

And fast beside the olive-bordered way
Stands the blessed home where Jesus deigned to stay,
The peaceful home, to Zeal sincere
And heavenly Contemplation dear,
Where Martha loved to wait with reverence meet,
And wiser Mary lingered at Thy sacred feet.

Still through decaying ages as they glide,
Thou lov'st Thy chosen remnant to divide;
Sprinkled along the waste of years
Full many a soft green isle appears:
Pause where we may upon the desert road,
Some shelter is in sight, some sacred safe abode.

When withering blasts of error swept the sky,
And Love's last flower seemed fain to droop and die,
How sweet, how lone the ray benign
On sheltered nooks of Palestine!
Then to his early home did Love repair,
And cheered his sickening heart with his own native air.

Years roll away: again the tide of crime
Has swept Thy footsteps from the favoured clime
Where shall the holy Cross find rest?
On a crowned monarch's mailed breast:
Like some bright angel o'er the darkling scene,
Through court and camp he holds his heavenward course serene.

A fouler vision yet; an age of light,
Light without love, glares on the aching sight:
Oh, who can tell how calm and sweet,
Meek Walton, shows thy green retreat,
When wearied with the tale thy times disclose,
The eye first finds thee out in thy secure repose?

Thus bad and good their several warnings give
Of His approach, whom none may see and live:
Faith's ear, with awful still delight,
Counts them like minute-bells at night.
Keeping the heart awake till dawn of morn,
While to her funeral pile this aged world is borne.

But what are Heaven's alarms to hearts that cower
In wilful slumber, deepening every hour,
That draw their curtains closer round,
The nearer swells the trumpet's sound?
Lord, ere our trembling lamps sink down and die,
Touch us with chastening hand, and make us feel Thee nigh.

-- John Keble (1792-1866)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Advent, Justification by Grace, Life of Faith

Yesterday's Gospel reading promised the coming of the Lord with "winnowing fork" in his hand. To my eye, Jesus did not repudiate that picture -- although he complicated it some. And that raises my perennial Advent question: When the Lord returns, what will he be looking for, what will he expect, what will he do?

Lutherans of a classic stripe seem content with their answer: If you simply allow Jesus to love you, it doesn't matter what you've done, who you are, why you have lived the way you have. As long as you don't put up a big "no" to him, he will usher you into his Father's kingdom.

I, of course, as a Lutheran, don't have total problem with that formulation. But I'm waiting for those "classic-stripe" Lutherans to deal with the Baptizer, the Sermon on the Mount, and all the rest.

I have recently discovered Paul Althaus' classic (I think) little monograph (in the old "Facets" seiers published by Fortress Press), Divine Command. I have happily learned that my view of the on-going validity of the Ten Commandments and of the commands of Jesus toward love of neighbor, justice in the marketplace, and the like has bona fide Lutheran bona fides.

I intend to set out some thoughts on Althaus' thesis in the near future, so for today, I'll simply make a comment and offer a quote. Lutheran talk about "justifiation by grace through faith" refers to "achieving salvation" -- i.e., it addresses what needs to be done to overcome the rift between being human and being acceptable to God. The Lutheran answer, consonant with the whole of Holy Scripture and most of the Great Tradition, is "nothing; God has taken the initiative to love us even in our most profound unlovablility."

Lutherans, unfortunately (and of course, not ALL Lutherans), stop there. All that matters, apparently, is day by day reassuring myself of my personal salvation by repeating the mantra, "I am saved by God's gracious loving act." The question which ought to occupy preachers, teachers, parents, and us is never addressed -- viz., "So what?" or "What are we to do with this?" or "Where do we go from here?" Those are questions of "sanctification" or "growth in grace" or "theosis" (I suppose). And the stereotypical Lutheran response is "Well, it pretty much doesn't matter, because your works don't matter."

That is an inappropriate response to questions of how to live if those questions do not rise out of questions about earning/meriting/keeping God's love, as Althaus makes clear (and as I shall try to explain later) and as this citation from St. Symeon the Theologian (thanks to Pontificator for the reference) also makes clear:

If we desire the kingdom of Heaven we must have great care and diligence and willingness in practising the commandments of God. In order to be saved, it is not sufficient to believe in the true God and to be Orthodox Christians. We must also fight “the good fight”, live “worth of the vocation we are called”, tht is to say perform Christian acts since we are baptised Christians and we are honoured with the name of Christ.

Let us not think that we shall be saved by faith alone. Faith without works do not benefit in anything. Of course the Lord said “he that believes and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned”, but He also said this “not every one that says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. If one would be saved by faith alone then everybody will easily secure salvation. Because “the devils also believe and tremble. As the body with out the soul is motionless and lifeless so faith without works is dead. Let us hear St. James the brother of God, who very lucidly stresses “what does it profit, my brethren, though a man says he has faith, and has no works?

Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, depart in peace, be warmed and filled; not withstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit? Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone”. After these it is obvious that we must have works together with faith.

For this reason whoever believes in God and his providence shares out his money to the poor, hoping that he will receive “a hundredfold wage” and will inherit everlasting life. Whoever believes, struggles to be humble, repents for his sins, he is meek and peaceful, hates injustice and loves justice, because he remembers the verse from the Psalms “he who loves injustice hates his own soul”.

He who believes endures without grumbling every temptation in order to be crowned with the crown of the incorruptible glory. He is prudent and does not molest himself. He, who truly believes, is not lazy and negligent of prayer, does not condemn anybody and does not follow the “broad road”, but the “narrow and sorrowful road”. He does not love the world, neither parents, nor brothers and sisters nor wife and children, more than the Lord. Those who believe love the Lord and hate evil acts. They do not bear a grudge against his brother and do not return evil for evil. They do good to those who treat them badly, they bless those who curse them and they bear patiently those that persecute them.

Those who believe do not practise hypocrisy, flattering or person favouritism, because in all their activities they are straight, honest and sincere. They have no pride and are not magnanimous for the sake of praises and flattering that others give them. They detest the world of sin, following the exhortation of Apostle Paul “no man that war entangles himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who has chosen him to be a soldier. And if a man also strives for mysteries, yet he is not crowned, except he strives lawfully”.

Those who believe never lie, they are not greedy, they do not have Holy Communion without having confession, they do not condemn others. In brief, they follow carefully and steadfastly the way of the commandments of Christ and they have faith in Him, not in words but “in deeds and truth”. Do you now see how, those who believe live? So how can we consider somebody as faithful if he is poor in works?

If we truly believe, let us fight sin and abandon every evil that we have been doing so far. Let us struggle with willingness in order to be ready to stand before the Lord on the fearful day of Judgement. Let us wake up from the sleep of negligence. Let us correct our thoughts and let us drive away the evil thoughts. Let us try to fulfil the commandments of God, in order to be crowned by Him and to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

-- St Symeon the New Theologian

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

To continue a theme ...

To continue a theme:

The Theotokos has been revealed on the earth in truth,
Proclaimed of old by the words of the prophets,
Foretold by the wise patriarchs
and the company of the righteous.
She will exchange glad tidings with the honor of women:
Sarah, Rebecca, and glorious Hanna,
And Miriam, the sister of Moses.
All the ends of the earth shall rejoice with them,
Together with all of creation.
For God shall come to be born in the flesh,
Granting the world great mercy.

-- from the Orthodox liturgy, in Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mary in Advent

I missed the Immaculate Conception, a feast of which I confess little knowledge and with which I confess little sympathy. But given the incredibly beautiful literature that has flowered around that observation, I wonder yet again why Mary has fallen into that great well of unfamiliarity and disregard among even us Catholic-Evangelical proTESTants. In my stream of the tradition -- viz., middlle-of-the-road Lutheranism -- we have the model of our namesake to guide us: Luther was, by all accounts, devoted to the Virgin -- not of course, in the manner of many of his contemporaries, but sincerely reverential nonetheless. So, it seems to me, one need not be content with the Vatican's declarations of the origins and disposition of Our Lady to pay homage to her -- and homage we do indeed owe. Why, the sheer numbers of this and that for which she serves as metaphor (and more) would press that responisibility on us, let alone her literal place in the drama of salvation.

Today, I offer this from my favorite Christian poet, the deacon Ephrem of Syria (fourth century). Not only does he get so much right and beautiful, but he testifies to the earliness of the devotion paid to Mary, thereby demonstrating that while various Mary-cults may be a more recent development in Church history -- see Jaroslav Pelikan's book, Mary Through the Centuries -- the propriety of honoring her and even praying to her is not.

“O Immaculate and wholly-pure Virgin Mary”

O Immaculate and wholly-pure Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Queen of the world, hope of those who are in despair; thou art the joy of the Saints; thou art the peacemaker between sinners and God; thou art the advocate of the abandoned, the secure haven of those who are on the sea of the world; thou art the consolation of the world, the ransom of slaves, the comfortress of the afflicted, the salvation of the universe. O great Queen, we take refuge in thy protection: ‘We have no confidence but in thee, O most faithful Virgin.’ After God thou art all our hope. We bear the name of thy servants; allow not the enemy to drag us to Hell. I salute thee, O great Mediatress of peace between men and God, Mother of Jesus our Lord, who is the love of all men and of God, to whom be honor and benediction with the Father and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

St Ephrem the Syrian

It is part of Advent's "retting up" to honor His Mother as an aspect of awaiting The Lord's return. (Read the prayer carefully, and you may discover some of the sources of discomfort that force me to re-examine much that I take for granted about the Virgin, too.)