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March in January

I think the Fathers would recognize America’s moral landscape for what it is. Our world is not so different from the world where they lived — the world they converted and healed.

But who belongs to our world? For the last generation, Americans have tried to place certain classes of humans beyond the protection of the law, outside the definition of personhood. It began with the fetus, the preborn child. Court decisions placed arbitrary limits — at the first trimester, or second, or birth. But does anyone take these seriously? What is it about a day of development — or a week — that changes the baby so radically as to make her a different sort of being? Which is the event that confers personhood?

Again, different ethicists propose different answers: self-consciousness, the ability to feel pain, sensitivity to light and sound, and so on. But these, too, fail. After all, we don’t (yet) kill older children who are blind or deaf. The most honest pro-choice thinkers put the matter baldly: what confers personhood is the will of the mother.

The Church Fathers were familiar with this line of thinking. In pagan Rome, a child did not achieve personhood until recognized by the head of the family, the father. When the mother had given birth, a midwife placed the child on the floor and summoned the father. He examined the child with his criteria of selection in mind.

Was the child his? If the man suspected his wife of adultery — ancient Rome’s favorite pastime — he might reject the child without so much as a glance.

If the child were an “odious daughter” (a common Roman phrase for female offspring), he would likely turn on his heel and leave the room.

If the child were “defective” in any way, he would do the same. As the philosopher Seneca said: “What is good must be set apart from what is good-for-nothing.”

Life or death? It all depended upon the will of a man. Human life began when the child was accepted into society. A man did not “have a child.” He “took a child.” The father “raised up” the child by picking it up from the floor.

Those non-persons who were left on the floor — while their mothers watched from a birthing chair — would be drowned immediately, or exposed to scavenging animals at the town dump.

Against these customs, the Church consistently taught that life begins at conception and should continue till natural death. In such matters, Christianity contradicted pagan mores on almost every point. What were virtuous acts to the Romans and Greeks — contraception, abortion, infanticide, suicide, euthanasia — were abominations to the Christians.

The papyrus trail is especially extensive for abortion, which is condemned by the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter; by Justin, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian. And that partial list takes us only to the middle of the third century.

The earliest extrabiblical document, the Didache, begins with these words: “Two Ways there are, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the Two Ways.” The Fathers converted their world from one Way to the other, and they were judged righteous.

Our last generations have perverted our world from one Way to another, and we too will be judged. But we can still do something, as our earliest Christian ancestors did, and we must.

If you’re living in the United States and you can make a day trip to Washington, D.C., please consider making the March for Life next Monday, January 22.

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Today is the feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers, the Western Church’s great champion of orthodoxy during the Arian crisis. He is sometimes called the “Athanasius of the West.” Famous for his treatise On the Trinity, Hilary also wrote an account of the various synods and councils of his time. Like St. Ambrose, he learned a practical lesson from the Arians: that doctrine travels rapidly when it’s hitched to good music. So Hilary wrote hymns. His Pentecost hymn, Rejoice! The Year Upon Its Way survives, in translation, in many modern hymnals. If you get to Mass today (or even if you don’t), ponder Hilary’s relection on the Eucharist:

The words we use to speak of divine things must be used in no mere human and worldly sense. Nor must the perversity of a strange and impious interpretation be extorted from the soundness of heavenly words by any violent and headstrong preaching. Let us read what is written. Let us understand what we read, and let us fulfill the demands of a perfect faith.

How should we speak of the reality of Christ’s nature within us? Unless we have been taught by Him, our words are foolish and impious. For He Himself says, “My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (Jn 6:55-56).

As to the reality of the flesh and blood there is no room left for doubt. For the Lord Himself declares, and so does our faith, that it is truly flesh and truly blood. And when these are eaten and drunk, they bring about that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Is this not true? Yet those who affirm that Jesus Christ is not truly God are welcome to find it false. He Himself, therefore, is in us through the flesh and we in Him, while together with Him our own selves are in God.

Hilary’s name in Latin is Hilarius, and it means joyful. It is the root of the English “hilarious” and “hilarity.” So be of good cheer on this, his feast.

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Don’t Touch That Radio Dial!

This Sunday, January 14, from 9 to 11 p.m. I’ll be on KDKA Radio to discuss the new, expanded edition of my book The Fathers of the Church. That’s 1020 on your AM dial if you’re near Pittsburgh. I’ll be speaking with the renowned Father Ronald Lengwin, who has been hosting his call-in show, Amplify, since 1975. Give us a ring if you’re listening. If I can get my hands on an electronic file, I’ll try to post it afterward.

Speaking of patristics: you may be aware that KDKA was the world’s first commercial radio station.

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Amassing Artistic Analysis

The key to understanding Christian art is understanding the liturgy that’s at the heart of Christian life. That’s the thesis behind a new, three-volume work of art history by Father Timothy Verdon. An American, a Yale graduate, and a faculty member at Stanford, Father Verdon is a priest of the Diocese of Florence, Italy, where he heads up the office for catechesis through art. He attended the last synod of bishops at the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI. Sandro Magister discusses Father Verdon’s trilogy and why we need it.

In three large volumes, two millennia of Christian art are recounted for the first time in their original context: the liturgy …

Italy, where Rome and the papacy are located, is the most extraordinary treasure chest of Christian art that exists in the world. But it is as if the key to unlock its marvelous treasures had been lost.

And these three volumes are intended to offer precisely the key to rediscover, comprehend, and live Christian art in its authentic light.

A solely aesthetic analysis of Christian art is misleading. Christian art is not made for the museums, but for the liturgy. An altar screen can be understood only if it is viewed together with the Eucharist celebrated on that same altar.

For example, why is it that in so many ancient churches, the altar is flanked on the one side by the archangel Gabriel making his annunciation, and on the other side by Mary who is responding to this, with the divine dove up above in the center?

The reply is simple: every time the Mass is celebrated, what the figures show in images is carried out on the altar at the center. The Son of God is announced again, and becomes truly present among men “by the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Thanks to the celebration of the Eucharist, the three images take on life in a way that is unimaginable for those who look at them apart from the sacramental rite.

Magister doesn’t hint at Father Verdon’s insights about paleochristian art — in the catacombs and the oldest churches. But the first volume does deal with the patristic era, and even peeks into the medieval. Unfortunately, the trilogy is only available in Italian.

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Art and Substance

Robin M. Jensen’s early works — Understanding Early Christian Art and Face to Face: Portaits of the Divine in Early Christianity — have established her as an articulate and judicious scholar of paleo-Christian art. No one has done a better job of explaining the first three centuries of Christian images within their peculiar cultural context: the persecutions, the doctrinal disputes, and the great intellectual ferment.

Jensen is professor of Christian art and worship at Vanderbilt Divinity School, but she delivered the lectures that make up her most recent book as part of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s “Liturgical Studies Series.” The Substance Of Things Seen: Art, Faith, And The Christian Community is, in part, a concise summary of her work so far; in part, an apologia for icons, addressed to American Protestants in aniconic and even iconoclastic traditions; and in part a passionate esthetic manifesto for the future of Christian arts.

The book begins with a memoir, as Jensen recounts her own upbringing in a church that had “very little tolerance for visual art in the worship space of our spare, Protestant sanctuary.” She proceeds to a summary history of “Visual Art and Spiritual Formation in Christian Tradition,” which she aptly relates to the sacramental worldview of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. She tells the story of Christianity’s recurring struggles with iconoclasm, restating the eighth-century Father St. John Damascene’s arguments in favor of images. Her chapter on the relationship between art and Scripture in the ancient Church — titled “Visual Exegesis: Sacred Text and Narrative Art in Early Christianity” — is stunning.

Her conclusions, however, will perplex many readers, and not just those who come from traditions that venerate images. While dismissing sentimental art, she calls for a religious esthetic open to works as overtly transgressive as the dung madonna, Terrence McNally’s homoerotic play “Corpus Christi,” and Andres Serrano’s infamous work that featured a sacred image steeped in human waste. About the last she says: “The photograph, which shows a plastic crucifix plunged into the artist’s blood and urine, speaks deeply to me about Christ’s bodily incarnation and the sanctification of human life, especially the life of those who suffer … Serrano’s crucifix is submerged in what it means to be human.” And later: “When they shock us, they are forced to think harder about what we really believe. Have we been hanging on to old images that are no longer relevant?”

One needn’t accept her conclusions to appreciate the outstanding ecumenical (and apologetic) value of her opening chapters.

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Sightseeing in the Ancient World

Adrian “Cool Papa” Murdoch turns us on to an exhibit in Istanbul that gives “mind-blowing reconstructions” of the sights of ancient Byzantium. Adrian is author of several excellent histories, including The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World and The Last Roman: Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West, both of which I read and enjoyed during my Christmas travels. I promise a full review in the months ahead.