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Days Late, Graces Short

I’m very late in posting this, and for that I apologize to you. Throughout Lent, Mark Gordon has been posting an amazing series titled “40 Days, 40 Graces.” He’s doing it to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his reception into the Catholic Church. It’s got much good patristic reflection in addition to stunning insights — daily. Since one of Mark’s confirmation names was Justin, on Day Eleven he posted Justin Martyr as the day’s grace. Do read that entry. But then go back and read them all.

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For Holy Thursday

Whether you hold, with some Syriac Fathers, that Christ instituted the Eucharist on Tuesday — or, with the Western tradition, that He instituted it on Thursday — today, Holy Thursday, is the day the Catholic Church remembers the event liturgically. I’m about to leave with my kids for the Chrism Mass in my diocese. It’s a great sight for children to see every year: all the priests of the local Church gathered around their local bishop at the Lord’s table — just as Ignatius described the Eucharist in Antioch around 105 A.D.

To mark the day, I give you this, adapted from my book The Mass of the Early Christians.

The Mass of the early Christians was a familiar and intimate thing. It was, for the Fathers as for the Apostles, the defining action of Christian life. Through the times of persecution, daily communion was fairly commonplace.

Christians were “at home” with the Mass. And yet their reverence was profound. In the third century, Origen noted that when his hearers “receive the Body of the Lord, you guard it with all care and reverence lest any small part should fall from it, lest any piece of the consecrated gift be lost.” In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem exhorted his people. “Tell me, if anyone gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with utmost care, on guard against losing any? Will you not take greater care not to lose a crumb of what is more precious than gold or jewels?”

That reverence extended to the liturgical vessels as well, which were always made of the finest materials the local Church could afford. Origen’s African contemporary Tertullian described chalices richly decorated with images of Christ. And in the midst of the last persecution, in 303, a Roman court in North Africa recorded that the following items had been confiscated from a church: two golden chalices, six silver chalices, six silver dishes, a silver bowl, seven silver lamps, two torches, seven short bronze lampstands with their lamps, and eleven bronze lamps on chains.

In the following century, St. Jerome would write of the need “to instruct by the authority of Scripture ignorant people in all the churches concerning the reverence with which they must handle holy things and minister at Christ’s altar; and to impress upon them that the sacred chalices, veils and other accessories used in the celebration of the Lord’s passion are not mere lifeless and senseless objects devoid of holiness, but that rather, from their association with the body and blood of the Lord, they are to be venerated with the same awe as the body and the blood themselves.”

This care for liturgical detail followed from the Church’s belief in the Real Presence. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body,” wrote St. Paul, “eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:29). Indeed, St. Ignatius of Antioch (writing in 107 A.D.) said that the distinguishing mark of heretics was their denial of the Real Presence: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” St. Justin Martyr, four decades later, wrote that “the food blessed by the prayer of his word … is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.” Q.E.D.

This presence was abiding, not something that vanished at the conclusion of Mass. St. Justin described deacons taking Communion to the sick and homebound. Tertullian described Christians, in time of persecution, reserving the sacrament at home for daily communion. And Hippolytus, in third-century Rome, urged Christians to tabernacle the sacrament where no mouse could nibble at it. “For it is the body of Christ … and not to be treated lightly.”

The Church held to this understanding from the start, and it is especially evident in her language of prayer. The theological vocabulary developed more gradually, often in response to abuses and heresies When some teetotaling African clergy began celebrating Mass without wine, St. Cyprian urged them to return to the traditional practice. For the heretics were taking away many things, he said: a divinely appointed image of the blood of Christ and a beautiful symbol (in the mixed cup of wine and water) of the union of the people with Christ. A generation earlier, Irenaeus (writing around 180 A.D.) had pointed out that the mixed cup was also a symbol of the union of Christ’s divine and human natures. So liturgical abuses, even if they sprang from good intentions, could have serious doctrinal consequences.

For the Eucharist is a test and measure of Christian faith. Irenaeus’s words still ring true today: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.”

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Strong, Silent Type

What a great day. It’s the feast of St. Joseph — and I beg your prayers today for a Joseph I know, a dear friend, who’s undergoing surgery for liver cancer. Please pray that he will be completely cured and may have many more years of active service of the Lord.

I love this feast, and not only because it’s one of the patronal feasts of Italy, but because St. Joseph is such a quiet giant in the New Testament. For those of us who talk too much and write too much, he’s an important corrective. Earlier this month, I recommended Father Joseph Lienhard’s book St. Joseph in Early Christianity: Devotion and Theology: A Study and an Anthology of Patristic Texts, and I can’t help but endorse the book again. It’s been my constant companion through this month. If you want to draw closer to the human father whom Jesus shares with you, order the book on his feast!

St. John Chrysostom reflects on St. Joseph:

[Matthew] introduces Joseph as contributing, by what he underwent, to the proof of the things mentioned; and by his narrative all but says, “If you doubt me, and if you suspect my testimony, believe her husband.” For Joseph, says he, “her husband, was a just man.” By “a just man” he means a man who is virtuous in all things. For both freedom from covetousness is justice, and universal virtue is also justice; and it is mostly in this latter sense that the Scripture uses the word justice; as when it says, “a man who was just and true” (Job 1:1) and again, “they were both just” (Lk 1:6) … that is good and considerate.

Today especially, ite ad Ioseph: “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do” (Gen 41:55). And, again, please remember to ask his intercession for my friend.

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The Saint in Between

Caught between St. Patrick yesterday and St. Joseph tomorrow is the great St. Cyril of Jerusalem, one of my favorite Church Fathers. Cyril’s catechetical and mystagogical sermons are not only great reads, but packed with precious details about the faith and practice of the Church at mid-fourth century. He gives us one of the most complete and vivid descriptions of the sacramental rites.

Cyril was born about 315; died probably 18 March, 386. His famous “Catecheses” were likely delivered around 347. He must have been as great a teacher in person as he is on paper. A pilgrim from Spain witnessed the mystagogical sermons in his church, and she wrote down what she saw for her friends at home: “While the bishop discusses and sets forth each point, the voices of those who applaud are so loud that they can be heard outside the church. And truly the mysteries are so unfolded that there is no one unmoved at the things that he hears to be so explained.”

So you needn’t hold back the applause while you read. Want to know St. Cyril better? Check out this study.

I spent the morning of the feast with the good doctors of Catholic Medical Association of Pittsburgh. It was an odd experience looking out on an audience of so many people who had poked and prodded and scoped my body down through the years. I spoke not about Cyril, but about St. Pantaleon, physician and martyr, and about The Martyr’s Cup.

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Please, Not “Danny Boy”

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m sure you’re already tired of seeing leprechauns and drinking green beer.

Patrick is not usually listed among the Fathers, though he fulfills all the criteria. I’d blame the Brits, except that he was one. Oh, well. The Ancient Christian Writers series has remedied the situation by including him in its august number: The Works of St. Patrick and St. Secundinus.

N.S. Gill has posted some good stuff about our man of the hour, plus links for still more.

But your best destination today is Maria Lectrix, who is celebrating the day by serving up delights of Celtic antiquity. This lady almost makes me wish I was Irish. At least I can pray with the words of his famous “Breastplate.” So can you…

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to guide me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to teach me,
God’s Eye to watch over me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to give me speech,
God’s Hand to guide me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the ship’s deck,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

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It’s Ardor Than I Thought

Hey, check out the new blog on the patristics block. James Siemens, a former Anglican clergyman now RC, has set up shop at East to West: A Respository of Thoughts on Theology and History. He intends to post things relevant to his doctoral dissertation on Theodore of Tarsus, “which means my focus will be ‘pan-mediterranean’ — that is, from Edessa to Canterbury.” James hosts another blog, Fides et Ardor: Thoughts on Faith, Culture, and the World in General. Both blogs are highly recommended.

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Heart of Hearing

Earlier this week I praised The Listening Heart: Vocation And the Crisis of Modern Culture, by the Baptist theologian A.J. Conyers. I’m back today to give you another sampling of the author’s treatment of the Fathers. He’s speaking specifically of the liberality of their thought and contrasting it with modern ideas of tolerance. This is no “lazy air of relativism,” he says, but rather “the openness of theology” which “always points to something deeper.”

It points to truth rather than holding it captive. This habit of thought has deep roots in the Christian tradition and helps to illuminate what is meant by the practice of toleration. It is an openness toward what is true, recognizing that the truth of God is true for all people, and to the extent that other cultures or religions have been illuminated by truth it is none other than the truth of the one God, the God to whom Jesus himself gives full and incarnate witness.

An example of this early practice is found in Justin Martyr (d. 165) who came to the Christian faith by way of Stoicism and Platonism. For him Christian faith is the “touchstone” of truth. He believed that the identification of Christ as logos in Scripture opened the way to understanding even pre-Christian philosophies as bearing a measure of truth. Explains the historian Henry Chadwick, “Christ is for Justin the principle of unity and the criterion by which we may judge the truth, scattered like divided seeds among the different schools of philosophy in so far as they have dealt with religion and morals.”

Clement of Alexandria provides another witness. Like Philo on behalf of Judaism more than a century before, he incorporated the best works of Hellenistic literature and philosophy in his own Christian teaching. The writings of Clement that remain to us contain more than seven hundred quotations from an excess of three hundred pagan sources. At the same time, it was perfectly clear that Scripture was his authority. His arguments would explore the world of Homer or Heraclitus, but then he would resolve the issue beginning with the words “it is written.” Thus his thought was not syncretistic, but synthetic. There was, for him, a “chorus of truth” upon which the Christian might draw. This multiple source did not replace Scripture, but it illuminated its pages. All philosophy, if it was true philosophy, was of divine origin, even though what we receive through philosophy is broken and almost unintelligible. All truth, Clement would argue, is God’s truth. In his Stromata (Miscellanies) he wrote, “They may say that it is mere chance that the Greeks have expressed something of the true philosophy. But that chance is subject to divine providence. . . . Or in the next place it may be said that the Greeks possessed an idea of truth implanted by nature. But we know that the Creator of nature is one only…” While Clement’s Alexandrian tradition had enormous influence on the church, the tendency toward a tolerant habit of thought was not found in Alexandria alone. Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389), whose ministry ranged from Athens to Constantinople, argued for the universality of the knowledge of God, who is “in the world of thought, what the sun is in the world of sense; presenting himself to our minds in proportion as we are cleansed; and loved in proportion as He is presented to our mind: and again, conceived in proportion as we love Him … pouring Himself out upon what is external to Him” …

Modern times … lost the earlier understanding of a higher connection among different ways of thinking and believing. Thus modern people tended to know no way of tolerating alien thought other than to say that all opinions are of equal value since they merely illuminate the mind of the individual doing the thinking. Or, to put it less starkly, they confined certain kinds of thought, religious and moral thought specifically, to the realm of the private. By contrast, Augustine could understand that his earlier Neoplatonist books taught him something about God, even though it was incomplete: “In the same books I also read of the Word, God, that his birth came not from human stock, not from nature’s will or man’s, but from God. But I did not read in them that the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us.” And he continued to comfort Christians who are conscience stricken about intellectual “meat offered to idols,” saying, “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” Toleration, which in this sense, and not the modern sense, means listening rather than speaking too quickly, so that one might rightly evaluate what is said, was seen by St. Augustine as the normal habit of a Christian mind:

“And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver, and garments, Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him! And Victorinus, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men! How much Greeks out of number have borrowed! And prior to all these, that most faithful servant of God, Moses, had done the same thing; for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts vii. 22) … For what was done at the time of the exodus was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now.”

It is not true, of course, that first millennium Christianity was tolerant in any thoroughgoing manner. A famous example of a dissenting voice was Tertullian, who objected to all this philosophizing by asking trenchantly “Quid Athenae Hierosolymis?”—What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? One finds skepticism regarding the role of other philosophies and beliefs in arriving at the truth throughout the history of the Church. But a tolerant habit of mind was, as any can see, an important part of the picture prior to late medieval Christianity when the talent for such thought began to be diminished. It is important for us to see that the diminishing of such a powerful tool as toleration came not with the “dark ages” as popular myth holds, but with the dawn of modernity. And if we should gain it once again, we must recognize the difference between an authentic practice and the poor substitute of a modern doctrine.

That’s a nice chunk. But you really need to see what I left out. Conyers shows how Christian theology’s “openness” led to profound developments in the doctrine of the Trinity. He marvels — and he leads his readers to marvel — as he shows how brilliantly thinkers like Basil the Great assimilated Aristotle’s notion of form. Yet Conyers manages to do this in a way that’s accessible to readers who don’t have a whit of philosophical training. In the pages of this book, we see a master teacher at work, and we have the privilege of learning from him. It’s the kind of joy those long-ago hearers of Justin and Clement must have felt.

A. J. Conyers learned well from his patristic masters, and from the Master he shared with them. Like the greatest of the Fathers, he lived in a large world — God’s world — and he walked that world with the confidence of a Son of God. Now he bids us to join him and to live large.

Even though it’s Lent, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of reading The Listening Heart. It’s a valuable guide in discerning God’s call for the rest of your life — no matter where you are in life — and that’s a lot. But it’s much more than that.

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Take a Letter

Unless you spent yesterday in a cave, you know that Pope Benedict XVI promulgated Sacramentum Caritatis, his apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist. It’s a thoroughgoing treatment of its subject, examining the sacrament in light of theology, spirituality, history, and morals. It’s very practical, too, touching on points of refinement in celebrating the Eucharist, receiving the Eucharist, and observing the fasts and feasts. Like everything Benedict does, it’s steeped in the doctrine of the Fathers. He invokes Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom, as well as the martyrs of Abitina. Consider a small sample:

13. Against this backdrop we can understand the decisive role played by the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic celebration, particularly with regard to transubstantiation. An awareness of this is clearly evident in the Fathers of the Church. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catecheses, states that we “call upon God in his mercy to send his Holy Spirit upon the offerings before us, to transform the bread into the body of Christ and the wine into the blood of Christ. Whatever the Holy Spirit touches is sanctified and completely transformed.” Saint John Chrysostom too notes that the priest invokes the Holy Spirit when he celebrates the sacrifice: like Elijah, the minister calls down the Holy Spirit so that “as grace comes down upon the victim, the souls of all are thereby inflamed.” The spiritual life of the faithful can benefit greatly from a better appreciation of the richness of the anaphora: along with the words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper, it contains the epiclesis, the petition to the Father to send down the gift of the Spirit so that the bread and the wine will become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and that “the community as a whole will become ever more the body of Christ.” The Spirit invoked by the celebrant upon the gifts of bread and wine placed on the altar is the same Spirit who gathers the faithful “into one body” and makes of them a spiritual offering pleasing to the Father.

As if he had read my recent posts and listened to my recent MP3s on the martyrs ;-) … His Holiness sketched the profound relationship between Eucharist and martyrdom.

85. The first and fundamental mission that we receive from the sacred mysteries we celebrate is that of bearing witness by our lives. The wonder we experience at the gift God has made to us in Christ gives new impulse to our lives and commits us to becoming witnesses of his love. We become witnesses when, through our actions, words and way of being, Another makes himself present. Witness could be described as the means by which the truth of God’s love comes to men and women in history, inviting them to accept freely this radical newness. Through witness, God lays himself open, one might say, to the risk of human freedom. Jesus himself is the faithful and true witness (cf. Rev 1:5; 3:14), the one who came to testify to the truth (cf. Jn 18:37). Here I would like to reflect on a notion dear to the early Christians, which also speaks eloquently to us today: namely, witness even to the offering of one’s own life, to the point of martyrdom. Throughout the history of the Church, this has always been seen as the culmination of the new spiritual worship: “Offer your bodies” (Rom 12:1). One thinks, for example, of the account of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of Saint John: the entire drama is described as a liturgy, with the martyr himself becoming Eucharist. We might also recall the eucharistic imagery with which Saint Ignatius of Antioch describes his own imminent martyrdom: he sees himself as “God’s wheat” and desires to become in martyrdom “Christ’s pure bread.” The Christian who offers his life in martyrdom enters into full communion with the Pasch of Jesus Christ and thus becomes Eucharist with him. Today too, the Church does not lack martyrs who offer the supreme witness to God’s love. Even if the test of martyrdom is not asked of us, we know that worship pleasing to God demands that we should be inwardly prepared for it. Such worship culminates in the joyful and convincing testimony of a consistent Christian life, wherever the Lord calls us to be his witnesses…

95. At the beginning of the fourth century, Christian worship was still forbidden by the imperial authorities. Some Christians in North Africa, who felt bound to celebrate the Lord’s Day, defied the prohibition. They were martyred after declaring that it was not possible for them to live without the Eucharist, the food of the Lord: sine dominico non possumus. May these martyrs of Abitinae, in union with all those saints and beati who made the Eucharist the centre of their lives, intercede for us and teach us to be faithful to our encounter with the risen Christ. We too cannot live without partaking of the sacrament of our salvation; we too desire to be iuxta dominicam viventes, to reflect in our lives what we celebrate on the Lord’s Day. That day is the day of our definitive deliverance. Is it surprising, then, that we should wish to live every day in that newness of life which Christ has brought us in the mystery of the Eucharist?

I have often made these points, citing Robin Darling Young’s brilliant study, In Procession Before the World: Martyrdom As Public Liturgy in Early Christianity. Of course, the Pope (as Cardinal Ratzinger) also explored this thesis in his book Pilgrim Fellowship Of Faith, in a section titled “Martyrdom as a Way in Which the Christian Can Become a Eucharist.”

The pope spends a good deal of ink imploring the Church to take up the ancient practice of mystagogical catechesis (see number 64). This is something my friend Scott Hahn and I have pledged our days to reviving. (See especially our book Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians. Mystagogy is not just a phase of RCIA. It’s a way of life. I love this description from the French Historian Henri Marrou: “The catechumen system developed gradually as new converts came in … it involved a long probationary period lasting three years during which a carefully graded course of instruction was given … Religious training did not end with baptism, of course; in a sense it went on through the whole of life, getting deeper and deeper all the time — witness the importance of readings and preaching in the Church’s liturgy.”

Witness this document — please! It deserves our closest, prayerful reading in the coming weeks. Make it your lead-up to Holy Thursday.

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Going on Vocation

A beautiful book just landed on my desk: The Listening Heart: Vocation And the Crisis of Modern Culture, by the Baptist theologian A.J. Conyers. He’s pondering our culture’s loss of the sense of a providential plan — of each person’s “calling” from God. Conyers was by all acounts a great man. His counsel on discernment in this book is rich. Of course, he makes frequent recourse to the writings of the Fathers.

In these works — and I am thinking particularly of Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine — the idea of vocation, of being “called” is a rich and powerful idea. Really, one should say that it goes beyond the “idea.” It is something evocative of an experience of being drawn, pulled, tugged, newly fashioned, almost if not completely killed, for the sake of that which calls you on. It has to do with the whole person, body and soul, transported in a way that is at once profoundly disordering and profoundly ordering. It is the word that means, at once, death and life, the loss of freedom and the discovery of freedom in a new way, setting one at once against the community to which you are born, and yet done so for the sake of that community. The Church Fathers recognized that such a sense of “calling” was the very essence of the Church. For to be called to follow Christ was to be called to die on a cross: the fellowship of the Church was the communion of those who had, in a profound sense, accepted the sentence of death in order to transcend it in a new life.

That’s the story not only of Origen and Athanasius and Augustine. It’s the story of my life and yours — the story of God’s plan for us and our response. Thank God for this book. It articulates a process so universal, yet universally obscure. The Listening Heart is a rarity: both beautiful and practical. It’s a book that belongs in the hands of everyone, because everyone has a calling from God, but especially in the hands of thoughtful young people who wish (or should wish) to discern that calling.

Later this week, I’ll post Conyers’ thoughts on the patristic roots of the virtue of tolerance. I wish I had discovered this author years ago. He died of cancer at age 58 in 2004, just days after finishing the manuscript of The Listening Heart.

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To Coin A Phrase

My neighbor Zee Ann Poerio is in the news again. Zee teaches at a nearby Catholic elementary school, where she’s founded a Latin club and pioneered teaching methods using ancient coins. My kids and I saw her Latin club present a pageant at local Barnes & Noble. It was a knockout. The students sang in Latin, staged skits based on the ancient myths, and at the end of it all raffled off real ancient coins. Zee is one of the directors of Ancient Coins for Education. We use old coins in homeschooling our kids, too. They love it. We used this kit.