The Lord’s a Shepherd I don’t want

When I was a little boy, I misunderstood the meaning of Psalm 23, verse one. When we read, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want,” I thought that we were saying that we did not want the Lord to be our Shepherd. Only later did I come to understand that the verse really means, “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” Rather than proclaiming the goodness of the Lord and the sufficiency of his blessings, I thought we were confessing the depravity of our own hearts, our likeliness to wander away from the Shepherd who is caring for us.

“We all, like sheep, have gone astray,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. We are not content with the blessings provided by our Shepherd. He makes us lie down in green pastures, but to us the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence. He leads us beside still waters, but we have more exciting beverages in mind. He leads us on paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, but we want to strike out on our own and blaze a new trail for ourselves.

He teaches us to pray for daily bread, but we desire a larger supply and more variety; like the Israelites of old, we would soon grow tired even of the miracle of manna. He tells us to be content, forbidding us from coveting what he has given to our neighbors, but we covet all the same and try to keep up with their worldliness. He warns us against earthly treasures, vulnerable to rust and moths and thieves. He promises us heavenly treasures that cannot be stolen and will not spoil. When we talk to him, we tell him much more about the earthly treasures we want and say much less to him about the heavenly treasures he wants us to have.

Jesus describes the hired hand who abandons the flock. Undoubtedly, one of the temptations Satan offered the Lord was the opportunity to forsake the flock, to permit us to wander, to stop trying to care for rebellious and wayward sheep. Jesus said no to this temptation as he resisted all the devil’s temptations. He continually explores the wilderness, finding his straying sheep and carrying us back home. He even lays down his life for us, taking upon himself the penalty we deserve so we can belong to him forever.

If Jesus abandoned us in the wilderness, we would be lost forever. Instead, he provides for us in every way we need. He gathers us into his one flock, the Holy Christian Church. He guides us with his Word in the Bible and in the teachings of the Church. He blesses us in the Church, preparing a Table for us and blessing us with his anointing. He has blazed a trail for us across the valley of the shadow of death, assuring us that we are not alone even on that journey. Instead, we will dwell with him in his house forever. Meanwhile, his grace and mercy accompany us every day, for Jesus is our Shepherd, whether we want him or not. J.

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Imitation

The great mathematician and physicist Albert Einstein, during the later years of his career, went on long speaking tours around North America. Usually on college and university campuses, but sometimes for civic groups, Einstein would talk about his theories of Relativity and other scientific advances of recent times, helping students and citizens gain an appreciation of what was being discovered in the academic community. It is said that he generally traveled by car from lecture site to lecture site, with a driver who would see to his needs on the road. The driver (or chauffer) would sit at the front row at each lecture for one reason: as soon as the question-and-answer session ended at the end of the lecture, the driver would whisk Einstein out the side door of the hall, take him to a motel where he could get a good night’s rest and a healthy breakfast, then set out on the road again for the next evening’s lecture.

One summer, after a few weeks of nightly talks, Einstein was exhausted. Getting into the car, he said to the driver, “Billy, I don’t think I can do this one more time. I need a night off; I’m sick of saying the same thing night after night.”

“Dr. Einstein,” the driver answered, “A lot of people say that I look just like you.” The resemblance was slight, but Billy did have longish unruly white hair and large blue eyes, and he was about as tall as Einstein. “I’ve heard your lecture enough times that I know it by heart. Tomorrow night why don’t you let me wear your suit and stand up and give the lecture. You can wear my uniform and sit in the front row and get some rest for a change.”

“I don’t know, Billy,” Einstein said. “You could probably give the lecture from memory, but what about the questions and answers afterward?”

“It’s been the same questions twenty times over,” Billy said, “and I’ve heard you give the same answers twenty times over. I’m sure I can pull it off.”

Einstein was tired of lecturing, so he agreed. Before they reached the next town, they stopped at a service station and exchanged clothes. When they arrived, the driver met the organizers of the lecture as Einstein, and the real Einstein sat in the front row as the driver. When the lecture began, the real Einstein was nervous, but as the talk proceeded he realized that Billy was speaking his lines perfectly. He relaxed and even napped a bit. When they got to the questions and answers, Einstein woke up and was fretful at first, but the first two questions were perfectly familiar, and the driver answered then exactly as Einstein would have answered.

The third question came from a young man who clearly had been thinking about the theories of Relativity for a while. His two-part question called for a response that had not been needed at any of the previous lectures. Billy’s heart was racing, but he kept his outward composure. Peering over the top of his glasses, he frowned at the questioner. “Young man,” he said, “you clearly think you have come up with something new in the field of physics. You are mistaken though. In fact, your question is so elementary that I believe even my chauffer could offer you a response. Billy, come up here and answer this man’s question.”

 

Discipleship is largely a matter of imitation. In the ancient world, disciples lived with their teacher, traveled with their teacher, and learned to imitate their teacher. Eventually they were sent out on teaching tours of their own, sharing with others the same things they had learned from their teacher. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was probably a talk that he gave dozens of times to various crowds in synagogues and outdoors and in people’s houses, until Matthew and Peter and the other disciples could repeat the teachings of Jesus word-for-word.

Now we are the disciples of Jesus, learning how to imitate him, to say the things Jesus would say and to do the things Jesus would do. When we least expect it, Jesus invites us to stand up and take his place, to represent him to a world that needs his message of hope and forgiveness and love. As disciples, it is not enough for us to remember what Jesus said. We are called to say it too. It is not enough to remember what Jesus did. We are called to do it too. We save no one by our obedience, not even ourselves; Jesus has already saved us, and he has already saved the sinners we encounter. But the Church of Christ is his body: his hands, his feet, his voice. Our imitation of Christ forms the basis for everything that many people know about Jesus.

At times, we will be confronted with something unexpected. Jesus will not leave us on our own at those moments. He is always with us, always ready and able to take our place, to fight our enemies, and to win our battles. He rejoices, though, to see us succeed in our imitations of him. He is the genius; we are just the drivers. Yet because we know him, we can speak for him even in this sinful world. J.

Sabbath rest fulfilled

According to the book of Genesis, when God created the world, he did so in six days. By the power of his Word he called into existence everything that exists, aside from God himself. Then, on the seventh day, God rested. Even before sin entered the world, God commanded his people to rest on the seventh day of each week. He created a weekly holiday so people would have a break from their usual work and would have time to celebrate fellowship with God and with each other.

In the Ten Commandments, God reaffirmed this commandment to rest on the seventh day of the week. Through the prophets he repeated the message that his Sabbath Day was to be respected. God never told any of the prophets that he was going to change his mind about that commandment (although he did reveal to Jeremiah that a new covenant was coming). Jesus debated with his opponents about the meaning of the Sabbath Day, saying that it was appropriate to do good and helpful things on that day. But Jesus did not signal that he was going to change God’s weekly holiday.

The vast majority of Christians in the world today worship God on Sunday. Sunday morning is treated as the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus. Christians are free to move their time of rest and worship from Saturday to Sunday, or to Wednesday night, or any other time they please. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Kosher rules no longer apply, because they were related to the animals sacrificed on the altar, and Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which they were a picture. Christians are free to hold a Seder and observe the Passover week if they wish, but most choose instead to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, since Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which Passover is a picture. Christians do not have to make a Sabbath rest every Saturday, because Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which the Sabbath is a picture.

In the week of creation, God rested on the seventh day. In Holy Week once again, God rested on the seventh day. The body of the Son of God rested the rest of death, buried in a borrowed tomb. The soul of the Son of God rested in Paradise, in the hands of his Father. Whenever a Christian dies, that Christian rests the same way—the body buried or otherwise resting on earth, the soul with Jesus in Paradise.

But the rest of Jesus was short. When the Sabbath ended, a new day began, and Jesus no longer rested. The substance of the Sabbath was fulfilled, as the substance of Passover and of animal sacrifices was fulfilled in the death of Jesus. Christians are free, not only from sin and death, but also from the burden of the Law. “Let no one pass judgment on you,” for God has already judged you worthy of eternal life in his Kingdom. J.

Reposted from Holy Saturday 2016

Good Friday

Early in the morning of the Day of Preparation for Passover, the religious authorities met in Jerusalem and affirmed their vote convicting Jesus of blasphemy. They intended to take him outside the gates of Jerusalem and stone him to death, but first they needed Roman permission for an execution. Governor Pontius Pilate was hearing other civil cases that morning, so the authorities brought Jesus to Pilate.

Blasphemy is not a crime in Roman law—especially not blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God. The Romans had lots of gods, and many of them had sons. The authorities adjusted their verdict to get the governor’s attention. They said that Jesus claimed to be a king, making him a rebel against Roman rule. After a brief investigation, Pilate realized that Jesus was not guilty of rebellion. Three times he publicly announced that Jesus was innocent. (A few hours earlier, Peter had said three times that he did not know who Jesus was.) Pilate attempted several ways to escape the verdict that the local authorities wanted from him. Finally, in desperation, he offered the authorities and the mob supporting them a choice: to observe the Passover, the governor would release one prisoner. Either he would release Jesus, an innocent man, or he would release Barabbas, a convicted terrorist.

No one had mentioned crucifixion up to this moment, aside from the several times that Jesus had predicted how he would die. Evidently, Barabbas had just been sentenced to this form of execution. Now, the authorities and the mob demanded freedom for Barabbas; when the governor asked what he should do with Jesus, the mob shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Christians know that we are all just like Barabbas. We are guilty of breaking God’s laws. We deserve punishment. The evidence of our wrongdoing is inescapable. Yet we are set free. Jesus takes the punishment we deserve, and we are given our freedom. More than that, we are granted the rewards Jesus deserves for his sinless life.

Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers. They mocked him, thinking it laughable that anyone would even want to be “King of the Jews.” They followed orders, having him carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified outside the gate of Jerusalem between two thieves (possibly partners in crime with Barabbas). Roman soldiers, guarding the place of execution to prevent a rescue, were granted whatever property the condemned men had carried with them. Jesus had only the clothes on his back, but the soldiers gambled to see who would claim that clothing.

Thousands of people were crucified by the Roman government. Some survived the torture up to two days. Many people have suffered other kinds of excruciating pain, and some have endured it for years. Many people have been abandoned by their families and their friends. Physically, nothing is unique or special about the way Jesus died. Yet one thing is different: Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was abandoned by his Father. Always the two Persons had been with each other, loving each other, doing things for each other. Now the Father treated his Son as guilty of all sin. This separation is what sinners deserve—our rebellion against God signals that we do not want to be with him. God’s just judgment against us (“You don’t want to be with me? Fine, then I will abandon you.”) was turned against Jesus. In agony of separation Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus knew the answer to his question. His words are not meant as a philosophical query; they describe the despair Jesus was feeling in his heart. A thousand years before, David had written a Psalm that begins with the words Jesus prayed; Psalm 22 contains vivid descriptions of crucifixion, even the detail of enemies gambling for the victim’s clothing. A possible temporal loop exists here, as Jesus prays the words written a thousand years earlier, words which prophesied his predicament. The beginning, though, is with Jesus. He was forsaken by his Father and endured the cross, and then earlier in time he spoke of his experience to David, who wrote about what Jesus faced.

Judgment Day is coming. Every human who ever lived will stand before the judgment seat of God, and God will express his wrath over every sin that has been committed. The sun will turn to darkness, according to the prophets, and the moon will change to blood. The earth will shake because of the judgment of God. Christians do not need to fear that Day. Jesus has already endured his Father’s wrath in our place. The sun refused to shine for three hours on that Good Friday. The earth did shake. And, if historians are correct that these events took place in Jerusalem on April 3, AD 33, then the prophecy was completed, because the moon that rose at sunset was a “blood moon,” stained by the shadow of the earth.

“It is finished,” Jesus said before he died. He did not merely mean that his life or his suffering was finished. He meant that his mission was finished. The war between God and evil was finished. Evil’s claim on the lives of sinners was finished. The power of death was finished. Jesus had fought and had prevailed; goodness and love and life had won. For those reasons, we call the Friday when Jesus died “Good Friday.” J.

This post was originally published on Good Friday 2016.

 

Why the cross?

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, an eight-day Christian commemoration of the most important week in the history of the world. On a Sunday nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. There he cleared the Temple of merchants and money-changers, then taught in the Temple and debated his opponents. On Thursday night Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples and give his church the gift of the Lord’s Supper. Then he went to a garden to pray. In the garden he was arrested, and from there he was taken to trials before Jewish leaders and Roman leaders. Accused first of blasphemy, then of treason against Rome, he was sentenced to die on a cross. When Jesus had died, he was taken from the cross and buried in another garden. There, on Sunday morning, he rose to complete the work that he had finished on the cross.

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross, beyond his own suffering, bleeding, and dying? The Bible provides several analogies of what Jesus accomplished, explaining it from several points of view. When Christians limit themselves to one analogy and treat it as literally true, they miss the fullness of the gospel message. Moreover, mockers are able to take the analogies literally and extend them beyond the Bible’s intended meaning, twisting the beauty of God’s Word in their mockery.

The most common analogy of the cross is financial. By his suffering and death, Jesus paid the price for sins, rescuing sinners from their debts. The beauty of this analogy is that we understand debt and payment. We understand how our sins place us in debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paying in our place is a beautiful image of his love for us. But to whom did he pay the debt? Did he buy us from the devil, or pay his Father for our sins, or purchase redemption from a power higher even than God? Each of these explanations has problems when the analogy is treated literally and left as the only explanation of the cross.

A second common analogy of the cross is military. On the cross Jesus fought a battle against all the forces of evil. These forces include the devil, the sinful world, sins committed by people, and death itself—the ultimate result of sin. Becoming a victim of these enemies, Jesus also defeated them. His resurrection on Easter morning is a declaration of victory, and the Church continues to share that news of victory with sinners who have been enslaved by their sins and by the power of evil. We were prisoners of war in the Great War between God and evil, but the victory of Jesus rescues us from prison and puts us on the winning team.

Yet another analogy of the cross is healing. Through his time on earth, Jesus healed many people, often with just a word or a touch. He never seemed to be harmed by any of his miracles of healing. But in those physical healings, Jesus was simply treating the symptoms of evil. To fully heal the damage caused by sin and evil, Jesus had to bear that damage in his own body. What he endured on the cross gives him the power to heal every consequence of sin and evil: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, and even death. His own suffering and death provides the remedy that reverses all the damage caused in this world by sin and evil.

Still another analogy of the cross is rescuing what was lost. This is why Jesus is called a Savior and Christians describe themselves as saved. C.S. Lewis adapted this metaphor by describing Jesus as a diver who descends to the bottom of a muddy pond to unearth a treasure. The diver becomes thoroughly dirty digging in the bottom of the pond, but when he ascends to the surface he carries his treasure with him. So Jesus humbled himself, obedient to death, even death on the cross, to claim us as his treasure. Though we were buried in sin and evil, Jesus takes us out of the mud through his own suffering and death. In his resurrection, Jesus lifts us also to new life in a perfect new creation.

A similar analogy of the cross is fixing what was broken—which can also be described as reconciling or uniting. Like a shepherd going into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, Jesus comes into this sin-stained world looking for his lost people. He rescues us from the mouth of the wolves. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death, he finds us and brings us home. We were separated from God by our own rebellion, but Jesus has restored us to the family of God through his expedition into suffering and death.

One more analogy of the cross is adoption. In modern society, the process of adoption is difficult and expensive. In our relationship with God, the process of adoption is even more difficult and expensive. We are not God’s children because he made us. Even if that was once true, it is true no longer. By breaking his commandments, we have forfeited our place in God’s family. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, personally pays to adopt us into his family. He gives himself as the cost of our adoption so we can be children of God and can pray to the Father of the eternal Son as our Father. Baptism is the personal ceremony by which this adoption is made certain, just as in baptism each Christian dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and rises again with Christ.

Finally, an analogy of the cross is cheating justice. We broke the rules. We rebelled against God. We declared our independence from God and said that we wanted to be separate from him. Justice would have God say yes to our rebellion. Justice would have God abandon us to our sinful choices. But God’s love is greater than his justice. He allows the world to be unfair. He allows evil people to prosper, and he allows good people to suffer. By letting evil be unfair, God makes it possible for good to be unfair. Now Jesus can suffer in our place so we can be rewarded in his place. Now his Father can abandon him instead of us so he can claim us for his kingdom.

Each of these analogies is true. All of them are supported by the writings of the apostles and prophets. All of them are enacted in the history of God’s people. When we cling to one analogy and neglect the others, we weaken the message of God’s grace and allow mockers room for their opposition. When we see all these analogies as pictures of the cross from different points of view, we begin to comprehend (albeit dimly) the true glory that Jesus revealed by his sacrifice on the cross. J.

James, John, and two cups

Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going to Jerusalem. (You can read about it in Mark 10:32-45.) Jesus was leading the way, setting the pace, even though he knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Not only did he know; he even told his twelve apostles what would happen: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

James and John didn’t get the message. They came to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No parent would fall into that trap, and Jesus was not about to be tricked. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they responded.

Their eyes were on the glory. They knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Rescuer who would establish the kingdom of God and defeat all his enemies. They wanted to be close to the action. They wanted a share of his kingdom and power and glory. They wanted to freeze out Peter and the other apostles by getting the chief places of honor beside the King himself.

Jesus first asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they affirmed that they could, Jesus told them that they would, but then he added, “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

I used to wonder about the people who would claim those places of glory, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus. In the history of the Church, who has earned such awesome authority? Would Paul the apostle be given such a place? What about Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham? Who deserves to be at the right hand of Jesus or his left hand when he claims his kingdom?

Then I learned when it was that Jesus claimed his kingdom. He is not waiting to claim it when he appears in glory; all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He did not claim the kingdom when he ascended into heaven, or even when he rose from the dead. The kingdom was his when he suffered and died on the cross in the place of sinners. The glory was his when he announced, “It is finished.” Easter and the Ascension and the Glorious Appearing are all results of the cross. Without the cross, we would have no joy in any of these things. Without the cross, we would be excluded from his kingdom, and Jesus does not want us to miss the party.

Who was at his right and his left when Jesus claimed his kingdom and his glory? Two thieves were there, each of them on a cross. At first they both mocked Jesus, but then one came to faith and confessed his faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, Lord,” he prayed. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” From these words, we know when Jesus received his kingdom and his glory.

James and John thought they wanted to be there with Jesus, but Jesus did not want them there. He went to the cross to spare them punishment. He went to the cross to rescue us all from punishment and guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us so we could be the righteousness of God. The innocent one who should not have been punished accepted our punishment so we can be free. The Author of life gave himself into death so we can live forever.

Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink from his cup? Some scholars apply those words to the persecutions they faced as apostles. But the cup Jesus had in mind was the suffering of the cross. It was the cup he pictured as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me… but not my will; your will be done.”

Imagine a cup before the throne of God with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of God’s wrath falls into that cup—a drop of poison you deserve for your sin. Every time you say something you know is untrue, another drop falls. Every time your mind wanders where it does not belong, into lust or envy or hatred, another drop falls. Every time you neglect an opportunity to help a person in need, another drop falls. How many drops have fallen into that cup? Is it overflowing yet with the wrath of God, wrath you have earned by all your sins?

Yet Jesus comes. He takes that cup that bears your name and is filled with your poison, and he drinks it dry. He did not want to drink it, but he accepted the poison to spare your life. He faced justice for you, because he knew you could not bear to face the justice you deserve.

But Jesus did not leave you without a cup. As in a comic movie (The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester), there are two cups, and only one is poisoned. Jesus exchanges cups with you, not to poison you but to preserve you. He has a second cup, a cup that belongs to him. It is the cup of salvation. It is the cup of the New Testament. It is the cup that is overflowing, not with wrath and poison, but with grace and forgiveness and new life.

James and John were rescued from their own pride. They asked for something that was not theirs. Jesus gave them something that was not theirs. He gave them his righteousness, along with his redemption through his own blood. He continues to distribute those blessings today. We will be with him forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory, because of the cross where Jesus rescued and redeemed us. J.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick was not Irish. He did not single-handedly convert all the Irish people to Christianity, nor did he drive snakes out of Ireland. He was not a bishop and probably was not a monk, although he supported the establishment of monasteries in Ireland. His day was not a major celebration in Ireland until recently, when the customs of Irish communities in other parts of the world were carried back to Ireland.

Patrick was British, born and raised in Britain in the years after the Roman Empire had withdrawn its forces from the island to deal with matters closer to home. When he was a boy, Patrick was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to an Irish master, who kept Patrick for six years. After that time Patrick escaped, returned home, and apparently also spent some time living in a monastery in Gaul (now France). He felt a strong call to return to Ireland and serve there as a missionary. Patrick did not set out on his own; he was sent as a missionary of the church and received support for his work. While he was not even the first Christian missionary sent to Ireland, he has become the most famous. The strength of Christianity in Ireland during the following centuries led to the re-evangelism of Britain and Gaul after those lands had been overrun by pagan Germanic tribes.

During the 1800s, many Irish people fled their homeland for political and economic reasons. Coming to North America, they faced the same problems most immigrants face. They were viewed suspiciously as “un-American” by their neighbors, in large part because of their Roman Catholic beliefs. As a result, they banded together, helped one another find jobs and dwellings, built churches, and tried to teach their children Irish language and customs. They chose March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day (the anniversary of the missionary’s death in 461), as an opportunity to maintain their cultural identity. Over time, as they became increasingly part of the American fabric, their celebrations drew in community leaders, especially politicians. Saint Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations in Chicago, Boston, New York, and even cities like Little Rock and Hot Springs, are a highlight of this time of year.

What are we celebrating? Some people view the day only as an opportunity to drink beer or whiskey. Others use it to participate in cultural events. Christians can also use this day to think of missionaries and of the mission opportunities we have in the world today. As Patrick willingly returned to the place where he had once been a slave to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so today also Christians share the freedom and forgiveness that belongs to us through Christ. J.

Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.

Ash Wednesday is St. Valentine’s Day

This winter contains several odd conjunctions. January ended with a Super/Blue/Blood moon. February has no full moon, something which happens roughly every seventeen years. March will have a blue moon. And in the middle of February, St. Valentine’s Day will fall on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.

At least two, and possibly three, Christian martyrs named Valentine are remembered on February 14. Popular tradition associates one of them with messages about God’s love, but evidence of such letters does not exist. Probably the romantic aspect of St. Valentine’s Day reflects preChristian celebrations in Europe. Already in midFebruary the new life of spring can be felt or anticipated. Birds gather to migrate north. Early flowers begin to sprout through the snow. Spring training camps open to get ready for the baseball season. No matter what the groundhog said on February 2, by the 14th the world is ready for spring.

From early times, Christians have used the last weeks of winter as a time to prepare for the observance of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter. The season of Lent consists of forty days plus six Sundays—each Sunday being a weekly reminder of the resurrection and so not counted among the forty days of Lent. Traditional churches treat Lent as a time of somber reflection and repentance. Christians remember that Jesus suffered and died on a cross to pay for our sins. Thinking about his sacrifice and our sins during Lent, traditional Christians change even Sunday worship. Praise songs are replaced with Lenten hymns. Flowers on the altar and other decorations are eliminated or reduced. Additional services are added to the schedule, often with a theme that prepares for the coming of Holy Week.

Many Christians choose to fast during Lent. They voluntarily surrender some usual pleasure during the forty days and six Sundays of Lent. Some give up candy. Some give up alcohol. Some give up video games. Fasting is not intended for self-improvement in a worldly sense, although giving up certain foods and beverages might have that effect. Fasting does not force God to provide blessings that he has withheld. Instead, fasting shows dedication to God. It provides evidence that God is more important than worldly pleasures. Fasting teaches self-control. When a Christian can say no to candy or video games for six-and-a-half weeks, that Christian is made stronger, able to say no to temptations to sin. Fasting also teaches compassion. When we go without luxuries, we understand how it feels to live without those luxuries because of poverty rather than choice.

The sinful world can take even the most noble customs of the church and pervert them into something twisted and strange. Plans to fast during Lent lead to a desire to use up the luxury before it is forbidden. What was once a simple matter of eating the last butter and eggs in the kitchen, or having one last piece of candy or one last martini, has become Mardi Gras and Carnival—riotous celebrations of worldliness that have more to do with darkness than with light. Perhaps those people who take part in Mardi Gras are more inclined to repent when they awaken on Ash Wednesday than their sober neighbors. All the same, a day and a season focused on repentance is not intended to encourage greater sin in advance, even if that does offer more reason to repent.

Setting aside the excesses of Mardi Gras, the odd conjunction of February 14 leads to a dilemma. Should one offer candy and other goodies to one’s family and one’s coworkers to honor St. Valentine’s Day, or should one consider the possibility that a person might be starting a fast on that day, choosing not to eat sweets until Easter? The Valentine treats should probably be shared earlier, to avoid the risk of undermining a time of fasting at its very beginning.

And, speaking of odd conjunctions, Easter Sunday this year will be observed on April Fools’ Day. J.

Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? As at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

(Reposted from February 2, 2016)