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The Feast of the Visitation

St. Athanasius on today’s Marian feast, the Visitation:

[Mary] greets Elizabeth: the Mother of the Master greets [the mother] of the servant; the Mother of the king greets the mother of the soldier; the Mother of God greets the mother of the man; the Virgin greets the married woman. She greets Elizabeth with an outward greeting, and when the two greet each other in a visible manner, the Holy Spirit, who dwelt in Mary’s womb, incites him who is in Elizabeth’s womb, as one who urges on his friend, “Hurry, get up!”

A great and timely Holy Spirit connection. The great Father goes on to praise Mary in so many of the terms we use today: the New Eve, the Ark of the Covenant, Queen of Angels, and Blessed Virgin. I could quote pages. But you really should read the book — Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought by Luigi Gambero.

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Rosy, the Hippo

St. Augustine (via Father John Zuhlsdorf) helps us to prepare for Pentecost.

For Augustine, the search and contemplation of the Trinity conforms us to the image of God by thinking of him and loving him. For Augustine, there are stages of this search and conversion

1) credere Deo … to believe by means of God
2) credere Deum … to believe God
3) credere in Deum … to believe in God
4) credendo in Deum ire … to go on by believing in God

Augustine was deeply, passionately, fiercely interested in love. Often and appropriately he is depicted with a burning heart. For Augustine, belief and love were intertwined. He described love as a gravitational force pulling us to where we by nature belong. Some people think the old man was a terrible pessimist about the human condition, especially as he got older, was worn down by constant theological battles and pastoral burdens and deteriorating health. If he saw the negative side of the human condition, he knew with absolute conviction that love was its solution. This conviction grew as the years passed. The great Augustinian scholar A.-M. La Bonnardiere found that between 387-429, Augustine (+430) quoted Romans 5:5 at least 201 times. Augustine rarely used Romans 5:5 before 411 (the year Rome was sacked by Alaric). Romans 5:5 is found more frequently between 411-421 when he was fighting with Pelagians about grace. Many references continue from 421 until his death while he was engaged in his bitter fight with the bête noir of his old age Julian of Eclanum.

Read the rest.

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Rod and Real

Rod Bennett’s always onto something big, so you should be reading Tremendous Trifles, his blog, every day. And if you haven’t read his book on the early Fathers, Four Witnesses, you should. If you have read it, you should read it again. The book’s remarkable — a novelistic treatment, almost cinematic in the way it unfolds the lives of Clement, Ignatius, Justin, and Irenaeus. Yet it’s always utterly faithful to the historical record. Rod uses the words of the Fathers themselves rather than imagined dialogue. Today Rod posted some moving thoughts on the Fathers’ role in Christian unity. Here’s a snippet that you can take to your prayer:

… the Church Fathers are going to save Christianity one more time in the years to come. Already Evangelical journals like Christianity Today have started directing their readers to the Fathers on a regular basis and IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is finding its way into Protestant parsonages everywhere. Nothing — I repeat nothing — could possibly do more to rebuild the lost unity of Christendom than for all Christians everywhere to start rediscovering (and putting into practice) the towering primitive oneness of early Christian doctrine preserved in the pages of the Fathers!

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The Fabric of Coptic Life

Al Ahram Weekly in Cairo brings us tidings of a new book on ancient Coptic textiles. I haven’t seen the book yet, but I’ve seen enough Coptic textiles to know that it’s going on my Amazon Wish List. New York’s Metropolitan Museum houses quite a collection. Online, Coptic tapestries, vestments, and such regularly turn up in the offerings of antiquities dealers and in the collections of museums. See, for example, the Rietz Coptic Textile Collection at the California Academy of Sciences and the Indiana University Art Museum‘s online tutorial.

Anything so beautiful is bound to turn heads. While the religious images may have inspired some folks to great piety, Bishop Asterius of Amasia (c. 375-405) worried that such tapestries were inspiring more Christians to greater vanity. He spoke of it as a “foolish industry,” this “art of weaving in imitation of painting … an art both futile and useless.”

Everybody hastened to purchase for themselves as well as for their wives and children garments covered with flowers and offering images of infinite variety … When they show themselves in public in this sort of attire, they could be mistaken for painted walls … One sees on these fabrics lions, panthers, bears, bulls, dogs, trees, rocks, hunters, in a word everything that the art of the painter who strives to imitate nature can imitate … Those rich people who still have a veneer of piety take designs from the gospel stories and have their artisans execute them. They have them paint Jesus Christ in the midst of his disciples … They believe they are doing something pleasing to the Lord when they wear these fabrics adorned with holy pictures; but if they want to follow my advice, let them sell such garments in order to honor the living images of God.

No doubt, some Christians, then as now, favor beautiful religious articles for the sake of ostentation. But surely there’s a place for such beauty, when it’s crafted and displayed for the glory of God. With all due respect to Bishop Asterius, I’d say that Jesus Himself indicated this (see Mk 14:4-5).

Thanks to Egypt’s dry climate, these Coptic fabrics have survived to glorify God through a millennium and a half.

Muslim Egypt has not always been kind to Coptic Christians, but it’s nonetheless proud of the Copts’ cultural heritage. Al Ahram directs our attention to a new book, The Coptic Tapestry Albums and the Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet, by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, who is herself a former college weaving instructor.

“The first time I saw a Coptic tapestry portrait with its soul-searching gaze I was completely captivated,” Hoskins writes in her introduction. “I felt I had connected — through craft — with someone from that far distant time and place. The dancers were enchanting, the angels ephemeral, the flowers ever festive, the weaving free-spirited.”

Hoskins’ book focuses on the textiles produced in antiquity. But Al Ahram’s reviewer points out that for Egypt’s Christians the “Coptic period” is not in the past. The people endure. They have kept the faith — and they’ve handed down the art. “Coptic weavers are still producing tapestries and textiles. Like the painting of icons, and the illumination of manuscripts, weaving is part of a living culture that endures to the present day.”

There’s yet another well-illustrated introduction to Coptic textile art at

For a lively and fascinating general introduction to the Copts, read Father Mark Gruber’s journal of his days spent in the Egyptian desert, as both an anthropologist and a monk: Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers. (My review of Father Gruber’s book is right here.) Father Gruber’s more scholarly treatment of the same subject is Sacrifice in the Desert: A Study of an Egyptian Minority Through the Prism of Coptic Monasticism. You’ll find great photos of Father Gruber’s time among the Copts on his personal website.

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The First Urbane Christians

Close upon the heels of its excellent review of the Gospel of Judas, The New Yorker has published a hilarious review of The Da Vinci Code movie. It’s by Anthony Lane, who admits that he has recited the Nicene Creed throughout his adult life. He has an excellent grasp of history, to match his virtuoso command of the language. Lane compares Ron Howard’s rendering of the Council of Nicea to a Beastie Boys concert. Can The New Yorker really be emerging as a useful source of Christian apologetics? (Ssshhh. Don’t let the editors find out.) Hat tip: JPN.

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Memorial Day, from Time Immemorial

This weekend, in the United States, we mark Memorial Day, an observance that honors the dead, especially those who served and died defending the country in wartime.

How did the ancients keep this holiday? Well, they didn’t, of course, since it’s a nineteenth-century innovation of American origin.

But there’s a sense in which the early Christians kept every day as a “Memorial Day.” They called the Eucharist an anamnesis, a “memorial” of Christ’s death — a God-willed remembrance through which Jesus became really present.

And they marked not only Christ’s death, but also the days of the saints who died in Christ, especially the martyrs. Very early, the Church’s calendar began to teem with feast days honoring the dead, and the living Christians gained some notoriety for their treatment of the deceased.

Cremation had long been the norm in most societies of the pagan Roman Empire. Jews, however, followed the custom of burying their dead. Christians did, too, and looked upon “Christian burial” as an expression of their faith in the resurrection of the body. Such an oddity was this practice that, in many locales, it earned Christians a derogatory nickname: “The Diggers.”

Yet the pagans also honored their dead, often with lavish funeral rites. One common component, in Greek and Roman cultures, was the funeral banquet. The empire had many laws regulating the practice of funerary societies, clubs that would guarantee a decent send-off and a festive memorial for their members. Benign local officials sometimes chose to look upon Christian churches as funerary societies, since they seemed to fulfill the same purpose.

Roman families actually hosted severals banquets to honor their recently deceased: one at the gravesite the day of the funeral; the second at the end of nine days of mourning; others on specified religious holidays; and one major banquet on the birthday of the deceased. (See the excellent discussion of these meals in Dennis E. Smith’s From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. It’s a fascinating study, in spite of its very low-church conclusions.)

Christians adapted the ancient rites as their own — or saw no reason to abandon them completely after conversion. Like the former pagans themselves, the pagan customs were thoroughly converted — baptized, as it were, purified and rendered a new creation. One major Christian difference was in giving bodies a decent burial. This is abundantly evident in the recently discovered catacombs in Rome, where hundreds of corpses were found well dressed and placed with reverence.

Christians also kept the custom of funerary banquets. In some places they may have taken the form of an “Agape,” or love-feast, as we find recorded in the New Testament Letter of St. Jude. Another possibility is that the funeral Eucharist was observed as part of a fuller banquet, a practice we find in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 11). In some churches the funeral was certainly marked by a Eucharist at the gravesite. We have a very early record of the graveside practice, from the mid-second century, in the apocryphal Acts of John. These funerary banquets or Masses may also be the meals we find depicted on the walls of the catacombs.

By the fourth century, the gravesite celebrations — sometimes called refrigeria, or “refreshments” — had gained a reputation in some quarters as raucous, drunken affairs. This was especially true of the festivals of popular saints, where the temptation was strong to knock one back for every glass poured out as a libation. When St. Monica moved from North Africa to Italy to be near her son Augustine, the Milanese bishop, St. Ambrose, discouraged her from observing the refrigeria at all — even in a pious way.

The great liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann noted that the earliest recorded graveside Masses were offered on the third day after the Christian’s burial. The third day — what a stunning symbolic fulfillment of our life in Christ — how beautiful, how poignant, how utterly incarnational and sacramental! Jungmann sees this custom as the ancestor of our current practice of votive Masses for the dead. And he notes times and places where various churches traditionally observed the seventh day, the ninth, the thirtieth, and the fortieth as well.

Some people see the gorgeous farewell passage in Augustine’s Confessions as a turning point in ancient attitudes. There, Monica, who had once avidly marked the refrigerium, now asks her son to remember her in the Mass. It is, they say, at this moment in history that popular sentiment had begun to turn from the rowdy festival to the solemn Mass. That’s a nice thought, but it seems contradicted by later practice, as Christians continued to mark festive banquets at gravesites throughout the era of the Fathers.

While putting down these thoughts, I had a “Christmas Carol” moment straight out of Dickens. Googling around, I landed on one of the many lovely sites devoted to the Roman catacombs. There I learned that, in the area called St. Miltiades in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, there is a “Crypt of Refrigerium.” It is very near, the website told me, to the so-called “Cubicle of Aquilina,” which bears the inscription “Aquilina dormit in pace” (Aquilina sleeps in peace). May that inscription one day be true of me, and may it this day be true of my ancestors, whom I remember, as the holiday requires.

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The Latest from Ancient Rome!

There’s a hailstorm of patristic activity in Berkeley, California. Kevin at Biblicalia — who earlier today got our attention by posting the wisdom of Father Georges Florovsky — has just released his fresh translation of the first three chapters of St. Clement of Rome’s First Letter to the Corinthians. If you accept the arguments of John A.T. Robinson, Joseph Ratzinger, and Thomas Herron (out of print, but soon to be republished), you’re looking at a text written before 70 A.D.

Kevin commented here that we should be reading more of the Fathers and maybe less about them. And he’s right, of course — though some of us do need a longer ramp than others, and most of us need a much longer ramp than Kevin! But he’s going to make the reading as easy for us as he can. Never let it be said of Mr. Edgecomb and Biblicalia: “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Mt 23:4). Kevin’s moving ten fingers, for our sake, and at a rapid clip.

UPDATE: Kevin’s on a tear and has posted chapters 4-6 as well. Remember, it was a group of Californians who wrote “Life in the Fast Lane.”

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The Fathers Now

Kevin at Biblicalia gives us this from Father Georges Florovsky:

When I read … the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians … I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with the maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God had done for man. We have, “in a time such as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience.

Read the rest at Biblicalia. Kevin has posted other good material as well: his own reflections on St. Gregory Nazianzen, a passage from Lactantius on demons, and, at long last, an answer to that perennial question: Where did the Desert Fathers go to take a leak?

UPDATE: David Mills at Mere Comments offered some further reflections on Father Florovsky’s statement.