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Big News from the Far East

Light of the East, the newsletter of the Society of St. John Chrysostom, sends us to the following post from the blog Rorate Caeli.

3,000 Assyrians Received into the Catholic Church

The Chaldean Catholic Diocese of St. Peter and Paul has formally received into its fold, those members of the Assyrian Catholic Apostolic Diocese who, under the leadership of Mar Bawai Soro (pictured above), had asked to be reconciled with the Catholic Church last January 17, 2008.

One bishop (Mar Bawai himself), six priests, 30+ deacons and subdeacons and an estimated 3,000 faithful were received into full communion during liturgical celebrations for the Feast of Pentecost. The announcement by the Chaldean Catholic Church can be found here.

Mar Bawai Soro has long advocated the Primacy of the See of Rome. On November 2, 2005, he presented to the Synod of Bishops of the Assyrian Church of the East (of which he was a bishop at that time) a paper entitled “The Position of the Church of the East Theological Tradition on the Questions of Church Unity and Full Communion ” in which, among other things, he stated that

The Church of the East attributes a prominent role to Saint Peter and a significant place for the Church of Rome in her liturgical, canonical and Patristic thoughts. There are more than 50 liturgical, canonical and Patristic citations that explicitly express such a conviction. The question before us therefore is, why there must be a primacy attributed to Saint Peter in the Church? If there is no primacy in the universal church, we shall not be able to legitimize a primacy of all the Catholicos-Patriarchs in the other apostolic churches. If the patriarchs of the apostolic churches have legitimate authority over their own respective bishops it is so because there is a principle of primacy in the universal Church. If the principle of primacy is valid for a local Church (for example, the Assyrian Church of the East), it is so because it is already valid for the universal church. If there is no Peter for the universal church there could not be Peter for the local Church. If all the apostles are equal in authority by virtue of the gift of the Spirit, and if the bishops are the successors of the Apostles, based on what then one of these bishops (i.e., the Catholicos-Patriarchs) has authority over the other bishops?

The Church of the East possesses a theological, liturgical and canonical tradition in which she clearly values the primacy of Peter among the rest of the Apostles and their churches and the relationship Peter has with his successors in the Church of Rome. The official organ of our Church of the East, Mar Abdisho of Soba, the last theologian in our Church before its fall, based himself on such an understanding when he collected his famous Nomocanon in which he clearly states the following: “To the Great Rome [authority] was given because the two pillars are laid [in the grave] there, Peter, I say, the head of the Apostles, and Paul, the teacher of the nations. [Rome] is the first see and the head of the patriarchs.” (Memra 9; Risha 1) Furthermore, Abdisho asserts “…And as the patriarch has authority to do all he wishes in a fitting manner in such things as are beneath his authority, so the patriarch of Rome has authority over all patriarchs, like the blessed Peter over all the community, for he who is in Rome also keeps the office of Peter in all the church. He who transgresses against these things the ecumenical synod places under anathema.” (Memra 9; Risha 8). I would like to ask here the following: who among us would dare to think that he or she is more learned than Abdisho of Soba, or that they are more sincere to the church of our forefather than Mar Abdisho himself? This is true especially since we the members of the Holy Synod have in 2004 affirmed Mar Abdisho’s List of Seven Sacraments as the official list of the Assyrian Church of the East. How much more then we ought to consider examining and receiving Abdisho’s Synodical legislation in his Nomocanon?

Five days later, Mar Bawai was suspended by the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church. The story behind this, as well as the full text of the paper on papal primacy that Mar Bawai had presented to the Synod, can be found here.

Following upon his suspension, Mar Bawai and the clergy and faithful who had remained loyal to him formed the Assyrian Catholic Apostolic Diocese, then proceeded to draw ever closer to the Catholic Church through the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate. How fitting that they finally came home on Pentecost Sunday. Deo Gratias!

The Assyrians split from the Church Catholic as a result of the Nestorian schism in 431 after the Council of Ephesus — though they have distanced themselves from the problematic christology of Nestorius. In fact, in 1994 the patriarch Mar Dinkha signed a common christological declaration with Pope John Paul II; and in 2001 the Vatican and the Assyrians came to agreement on sacramental sharing. I cover these matters in my book The Resilient Church: The Glory, the Shame, & the Hope for Tomorrow.

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The Synagogue in the Byzantine Era

Jim Davila points us to an interesting series on the history of the synagogue. There are problems with his links, and I can find only part III, which covers the heart of the patristic era, the fourth through seventh centuries. Especially interesting is the discussion of the rich Jewish iconography of that period — a subject well treated in this wonderful book.

Jim also leads us to a photo gallery of Derulzafaran Monastery, the Syriac “Saffron Monastery,” including shots of several inscriptions.

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Of the Making of Books …

Just got back from the Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit, where I was a featured author for my beloved publisher Our Sunday Visitor. I was signing copies of Take 5: On the Job Meditations With St. Ignatius, my new devotional, co-authored with Father Kris Stubna. We just got the good news that the book went into its second printing less than two months after it hit the stores! I even met a woman who ordered sixty-four copies on impulse. The cover’s lovely, and that surely helps; but I like to think the book is a good introduction to Ignatian prayer for folks in all lines of work. You can look it up.

OSV was also previewing my upcoming patristic title, Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols. The folks at OSV told me that that book generated quite a bit of buzz at RBTE. In this case, it had to be the cover, because there was nothing else to see (yet). But once they — and you — see the insides, sparks will certainly fly. The book contains hundreds of illustrations by Lea Marie Ravotti — gorgeous reproductions of the artworks of earliest Christianity. I can’t wait to hold that book in my hands. Pre-order now for Christmas gifts!

Several publishers were exhibiting new patristic titles, and of course I walked away with copies. So I’ll be posting reviews in the coming weeks.

This was my third visit to RBTE, my second as a featured author. Last year I signed hundreds of copies of The Resilient Church: The Glory, the Shame, & the Hope for Tomorrow. KVSS Radio recently posted a series of audio interviews on that very book.

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Manning the Station

The Society of St. John Chrysostom promotes ecumenical dialogue of the east-west variety. Most members belong to Orthodox or Catholic churches. I’ve had the honor of speaking twice in the lecture series of the Youngstown-Warren, Ohio Chapter.

Next up in the series is Father Pat Manning, who will speak on “John Henry Cardinal Newman and the Development of Christian Doctrine.” The talk takes place Tuesday, June 10, at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Austintown, Ohio. (For information, call 330-755-5635.)

Father Manning is Vice-Rector at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus. He holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Duquesne University and a bundle of other degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum in Rome, from Boston College, and from the Athenaeum in Cincinnati.

Newman’s Essay On Development Of Christian Doctrine is one of the must-read works of patrology, near the top of even the shortest lists. If you can make it to Austintown, you don’t want to miss this talk.

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Memorial Days

I’ve adapted this from last year’s Memorial Day post…

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.

Two years ago, while researching these customs, 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). Last year I saw that inscription with my own eyes.

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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Dig These

Archeological updates…

• From Yemen: The American archeological mission has started its second season of archaeological excavation in Masnaat Mariya in Ans district of Dhamar governorate. Masnaat Mariya is one of the largest pre-Islamic archaeological site is in Yemen. The name means “Mary’s Fortress,” which much have had great significance to the early Christian community there.

• The Guardian gives us The Dustbin of History, an interesting reflection on the usefulness of the ancient Egyptian garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus (City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish). In the trash heap were half a million papyrus fragments — much of them account ledgers, grocery lists, and small-talk correspondence, but also “a treasure trove of lost classics and non-canonical gospels.”

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Rethinking Patristic Grammar School

Reviewed in Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World, a reconsideration of Christianity’s role in the development of education. Maybe we weren’t as bad as we supposed.

Scholarship has come a long way in thinking about late-antique education since Henri Marrou could state with unflinching certitude that, “Even the most ‘educated’ of [Christians], those who remained most faithful to classical art and classical thought … share the spontaneous reaction of the simple and the ignorant, and condemn the old culture for being an independent ideal hostile to the Christian revelation”, or by Pierre Riché that, “While this kind of learning [the commentaries of grammarians] satisfied curiosity, it did not shape the mind.” The work of Catherine Chin presently under review lays both of these misconceptions firmly to rest by demonstrating how late-antique grammatical artes did, in fact, mold the imaginative aspect of reading practices, allowing educated late-Roman Christians to generate a conceptual space within which they appropriated and reconciled themselves with the use of the secular literary tradition. This book comes as a recent addition (and one for which there is much to celebrate) to a more general field of interest in late-antique education that has been the subject of intensive study from a number of very specific directions. Chin’s contribution, however, brings to bear the resources of critical literary theory and linguistic anthropology in the service of quite a large claim, that “the teaching of language in late antiquity shaped the ability of late ancient readers and writers to have concepts that we call religious” (page 1). The following review will offer an overall assessment of that claim after summarizing its development in the course of the work…

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Do This for Your Summer Vacation

Gosh, one of my books is a finalist for the Catholic Summer Reading program at Aquinas and More. From sixty-four books, the list is down to ten — and there I am with my old friends G.K. Chesterton, Pope Benedict XVI, George Bernanos, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh … You get the idea.

Runners-up include some great titles on the early Church, like We Look for a Kingdom by Carl Sommer.

A&M is also inviting people to join online discussions of their featured books, and there’s a website dedicated to those conversations. Says marketing manager Mike Davis: “The whole point of the program is to get Catholics reading during the summer, the off-season, to be more engaged with their faith during this time. We’re encouraging, once again, the formation of summer reading groups in parishes and we will be providing free downloadable book discussion guides.”

Sounds like a great way to spend a summer. I’m honored to be on the list!

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Danny Does Denis

I’ve long suspected that Pope Benedict XVI harvests material from frequent visits to Danny Garland’s blog. I wonder if he saw Danny’s paper on the authorship of the body of work attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. Danny’s paper is a nice complement to the recent papal address on Pseudo-Dionysius.

Actually, Dionysius (or Denis, or Denys) has lately been a growth industry in the blogosphere. Enter his (pseudo) name in the search block at left, and you’ll find everything from a massive series on D’s thought to a recent archeological find that may have been his home.

I agree with Danny (and the Holy Father) about the late-fifth- or early-sixth-century dating. The later Fathers and scholastics believed they were dealing with a first-century Athenian when they handled Dionysius; and I have friends today who lean the same way. But even putting all language issues aside, the thing that clinches it for me is the absolute absence of references to Dionysius in the Cappadocians. Basil and Gregory studied in Athens, where, if the Dionysian corpus had existed, it would have been revered. Yet, to paraphrase Ray Bradbury, we see it never.

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Panis What Pun Is

As if to help us celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, archeologists in England have excavated two “massive” granaries built beside a fifth-century Christian church. I don’t think the Journal reporter intended the pun, although he labored mightily for our pun-ishment in the title of his article: Romans Were Upper Crust on Daily Bread. (Don’t you just hate it when people pun that way?)

While we’re at it, I should mention that I wrote a book about Corpus Christi, and I managed to do it without punning once. It’s Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With St. Thomas Aquinas.

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Papal Pain Management

Bryn Mawr Classical Review published a review of Kevin Hester’s Eschatology and Pain in St. Gregory the Great: The Christological Synthesis of Gregory’s ‘Morals on the Book of Job’ (Studies in Christian History and Thought).

Gregory the Great stands virtually alone among the early medieval popes in the extent to which we are familiar with not only the events of his pontificate, but also his distinctive personality. As with Augustine of Hippo, scholars have perceived much of the man in the writings, as Gregory’s character, temperament, and concerns are revealed not only in his copious epistles but in his theological works as well. At its heart, Kevin Hester’s Eschatology and Pain in St. Gregory the Great is an attempt to clarify one particular area of the Pope’s personal Christology through a close reading of the Moralia in Iob. Specifically, Hester attempts to show how Gregory’s ideas about redemptive pain and eschatology are “connected, related, and reconciled” through the Pope’s understanding of Christ as iudex (8). Hester’s study strongly reflects the concentrated focus of the doctoral dissertation on which it is based. Readers looking for a more comprehensive introduction to Gregory’s personal theology are advised to consult Carole Straw’s masterful synthesis, whose ideas Hester draws upon in his own work.

I haven’t read this new book, but I do second the recommendation of Carole Straw’s Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection, a book I found illuminating. Hester’s use of Straw makes his own book all the more promising.

Hat tip on the review: Rogue Classicism.

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Pict a Little, Copt a Little

The London Times tells of ancient Scotland’s links to Christian Egypt — and the archeological evidence.

The origins of Scotland are enveloped in the mists of antiquity. The earliest written accounts are to be found in the works of the Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law invaded southern Scotland with the 9th Roman Legion in 81 AD.

At that time Scotland was inhabited by tribes of Celtic origin, notably the Picts, about whom very little is known but who left behind many distinctive stone carvings.

Around the 6th century, the Picts converted to Christianity and some of their carvings show links with the Middle Eastern Coptic church. This image (left), of two hands receiving a loaf of bread from a raven, depicts StAnthony and StPaul the Hermit in the desert. It is found on a monastery wall in Egypt and a Pictish stone at St Vigeans, Dundee.

Originally referred to as Alba or Alban, the name Scotland is said to derive from the Scots, a warlike Celtic race from Northern Ireland who invaded southwestern Scotland in the 3rd and 4th centuries and established the kingdom of Dalriada. The first king to unite Scotland was Kenneth MacAlpin, who seized power in 843 AD and ruled all the country north of the Forth.

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Showing Off Sheba

The Ethiopian Church has been much in the news lately, especially as archeologists dig to expose its most ancient roots. Smithsonian ran a big story not long ago, as did the New York Times. Italy made headlines when it sent a huge ancient obelisk back to Axum. And everybody’s talking about the discovery of the Queen of Sheba’s palace, with its supposed altar for the Ark of the Covenant.

Now, Catholic Near East Welfare Association has published a feature on the Ge’ez Church in its magazine One. If you don’t know CNEWA, you should. The folks there are working for peace, genuine ecumenism, and authentic development in the troubled lands that were once home to the Church Fathers. Donors get a subscription to the magazine, which often includes fascinating snatches of patristics and archeology — snatches that often find their way to this blog! So make a donation today and start your subscription.