All over the world people have argued about whose grandmother makes the best such-and-such sweets. In Greece it’s whose Yia-yia makes the best baklava. In Russia it’s whose Babushka whips up the best pastila. In the American South, it might just be whose Meemaw makes the best banana pudding. The trouble with these friendly arguments, of course, is that there can never really be an objective winner. Every dutiful grandson or granddaughter will, if not for sheer loyalty then at least for mere conditioning, always prefer their own grandmother’s culinary concoction. This preference will be built by a number of factors—the memories and sentiments it conjures, the familiarity principle—but the preference will be anything but objective. Continue reading
How can we know things? It’s an important question which isn’t as easy or obvious to answer as you might first think. In fact, it’s such a tough question that there’s an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to answering it called epistemology. But it’s not just a question for the specialists with their thought experiments and fancy terms; it should be a question that we all think about regularly. Why? Because the way we operate in this world, the choices we make, and much of our identity is wrapped up in what we believe, what we know or think we know, and why we think we can or should believe it. Continue reading
Every event in the universe is causally linked to an event before it, right? And every one of those events are linked to prior events. These chains of events all converge and are set in motion by the initial event of the beginning of the cosmos. But what caused that event?
This is the infinite regress problem. The chain of causality in this cosmos of ours begs the question of its ultimate beginning. If our universe is cyclical, expanding in a big bang and then collapsing on itself only to then expand again, what started the cycle in the first place? Continue reading
In the carol “Good King Wenceslas“, we sing that the good king went out to serve a peasant gathering firewood “on the feast of Stephen”. The feast of Stephen is the day after Christmas in the Western calendar [two days after Christmas on the Eastern calendar] and celebrates St. Stephen, the first martyr for Christ. In Acts, chapters 6 and 7, we read that Stephen was chosen to be a special servant of the Church in Jerusalem because he was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. It was in the context of his role as a servant that he was enabled to do miracles among the people, and this drew attention to him both among those open to the Truth of Christ and among those opposed to it. The enemies of the Church soon had Stephen arraigned before a hostile court that threw him out of the city and put to death by stoning. Continue reading
I was listening to the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” today, as recorded by Emmylou Harris. There’s something about the way she sings it that perfectly preserves that sweet simplicity that I feel like it ought to have. There’s a great little story about the writing of the carol. A certain Mr. Philip Brooks, an Episcopal priest from the 19th century who was rector of a church in Philadelphia, wrote the words as a poem after visiting Bethlehem on a trip to the Holy Land. He asked his church organist, a Mr. Lewis Redner, to compose a tune for it. Mr. Redner recounts the story like this: Continue reading
The annual cycle of seasons — of solstices and equinoxes, of agricultural death and rebirth, of the changing raiment of the trees, and of the migrations of animals — is an inescapable feature of existing on the planet Earth. Even at the equator where the Earth’s tilt makes astronomical changes like solar solstices or changing constellations not as noticeable, there are still yearly cycles of rainy and dry seasons brought about by shifting global weather patterns. From the dawn of humanity to the present, it’s safe to say that all human life is profoundly shaped by the repeating time-scale of the Year. Continue reading
The most famous sermon ever preached in Christian history has to be the one given by St. Peter to the multitude on Pentecost, as recorded in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The second most famous sermon, however, must be one given three hundred years later by St. John Chrysostom on Pascha (Easter) morning at the great midnight vigil. But St. John’s sermon has the distinction of enjoying an ongoing career as a living homily still preached every Easter in hundreds, probably thousands, of churches across the world at their midnight vigils. The words of the homily are timeless and universal, and they magnificently describe the truth of Easter: Continue reading
In the first century, only a few years after the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, a certain man who had been living in Palestine began traveling around the Mediterranean preaching about Jesus Christ to the pagan Gentiles. I’m not talking about St. Paul, although he did travel with St. Paul. He also traveled with and assisted St. Andrew on his journeys, and is even numbered among the 70 (72) disciples sent out by Jesus in Luke 10. He knew St. Paul probably through the apostle Barnabas, his brother. And it was while traveling with Paul and Barnabas that the apostle Paul ordained him as a bishop and sent him further West than Paul could then go. This man, a brown skinned, Jewish Cypriot, hailing from Palestine, traveled more than 2,000 miles Westward toward Spain, and then northward into Britannia. Continue reading
Yesterday I crossed a decade boundary. I left my twenties behind and became a tricenarian. The age number itself –30– is almost a misnomer for the reality: I am beginning my 31st year and have started my 4th decade outside the womb. (Because on your first birthday you’ve actually just finished one year since birth and are starting your second year, your second birthday is the start of your third year, and so on). This either confuses or disturbs many people, so I’ll settle on the normal social custom of simply saying, “I turned 30.” Continue reading
Imagine for a moment that you can fly. You’re able to simply lift yourself off the ground by desiring to do so. Now imagine that you’re also able to leave earth’s atmosphere and move through space like Superman, soaring over continents and oceans, and returning to the planet in Sydney, Australia. You stop in for a quick play at the opera house, grab some fried gator tail, and lift off again heading west over the ocean toward home. You punch through the sound barrier and arrive back at home just after dark, stealthily descending so as not to be seen by any neighbors and keeping your super powers a secret. Continue reading
There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.
O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and Salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Corner-stone, that makest of two one, come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O Rex Gentium is the sixth of the O Antiphons sung with the Magnificat at Vespers in the days preceding Christmas Eve. Addressing Christ by the title “King of the Gentiles”, or “King of the Nations”, this prayer has deep political and anthropological implications. Continue reading
O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Sun of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
The fifth of the O Antiphons sung in the days leading up to Christmas Eve is O Oriens. The Latin oriens can be translated many different ways — sunrise, dawn of the east, morning star, radiant dawn — but I prefer dayspring. There’s a brightness to that word, and a freshness. As with a spring of water, you get the sense of a cool, thirst-quenching refreshment, but you simultaneously have images of fiery rays of golden-white light. It’s a good, evocative, poetic word, and a noble title. Continue reading
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
The fourth of the O Antiphons, O Clavis David, addresses Christ by another title that comes from the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 22, a scene is described in which a new ruler replaces an old, and this is accomplished by the Lord, who says of this new ruler that “… I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isa 22:22-23). Continue reading
O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry.
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
On December 19, five nights before Christmas Eve, the third of the great O Antiphons, Radix Jesse, is traditionally sung at the Magnificat during Vespers in the Western tradition of the Church. This antiphon is slightly more enigmatic than the the first two, but only until you’re familiar with the Scripture quotations from which it is almost entirely composed. Continue reading
O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
“O Adonai” is the second great antiphon attached to the Magnificat (Song of Mary), sung in the monastic evening prayer in the days leading up to Christmas. These short poetic lines have a mindfully expectant tone, addressing Christ by different titles and imploring him to come. Unlike the first antiphon “O Sapientia” which addresses Christ by a cosmic, universal title, O Adonai is a more personal, relational title, related specifically to the house of Israel. I’ll come back to the title itself in a moment, but first I want to point out the context of the title: the Exodus. Continue reading
Halloween is scary — apparently. From every corner of digital Christendom is sounding the quaking alarm that participation in Halloween is tantamount to inviting the devil into your house. Hearsay about pagan origins and evil practices abounds. Even cooler-headed writers skeptical of the dubious beginnings of trick-or-treating and jack-o-lanterns warn that the overall character of Halloween is unprofitable at best and harmful at worst. But there’s a countering voice among Christians (and among people of other religions or none) that Halloween is totally innocent fun, that it’s inconsequential, vacant amusement. I personally think Halloween may be more complex and interesting than either of those positions makes it out to be. Continue reading
I’ve gotten into the accidental habit of critically reflecting on American holidays. That can be an alienating habit, and one in bad taste, when we’re rewarded so handsomely by the economic machine for unreflectively participating as consumers in the one-day sales and holiday discounts. But it turns out I’m not the only one critically reflecting on Columbus Day lately. Continue reading
Today is the Feast of the Holy Cross, also called the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Creating Cross. This holy day is truly universal, celebrated across the world in the traditions of both Western and Eastern Christianity, but its roots are deeply historical and come from specific places and events. The first event this feast hearkens back to is the vision of the Cross that Constantine saw in the sky just before winning the battle which would win him the Roman Empire. Until the time of Constantine, Christians were persecuted in the empire because they refused to acknowledge the pantheon of Roman gods and because they acknowledged a true Lord who was above the Caesar. After Constantine’s vision, he attributed his victory to the God of the Christians and decreed the edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity and allowing it to come the forefront culturally. Continue reading
In the reign of the emperor Trajan, at the start of the second century A.D., a man named Ignatius, who was the bishop of the Church in Antioch, was arrested for not sacrificing to the Roman gods. Around the year 108, he was thrown to the lions in the colosseum in Rome, and the account of his martyrdom has been preserved in the Church. The Church also preserved several letters that he wrote in his captivity — letters to the Philadelphian Christians, the Romans, the Trallians, the Magnesians, the Smyrnians, and the Ephesians. In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, St. Ignatius commends the Christians for holding true to the faith which was delivered to them — the faith he was going to die for — and not listening to the heresies of itinerant preachers, and he exhorts them to listen to their bishop, to assemble together frequently, and to celebrate God’s Eucharist, calling it the medicine of immortality and the antidote to death. Continue reading
In the desert monastery called Mar Saba near Jerusalem, a man now known as St. John Damascene (c. 676 – 749) would conclude his day of work and prayer by approaching his bed and praying:
O Master, Lover of mankind, is this bed to be my coffin, or will You enlighten my wretched soul with another day? Behold, the coffin lies before me; behold, death confronts me…
When I was a kid I lived in a neighborhood that was relatively safe to run around in and explore. There was a small creek that ran through the neighborhood, and I used to play on its small muddy banks. I’d take the route from my house that wound through my neighbors’ back yards, through dense foliage, between trees, and behind fences, until I could hear the faint babbling of the water and saw the sun only reaching the ground in a few thin shafts that squeezed through the dancing, leafy canopy above. The somewhat isolated creek had its own character and feel, and its banks and surrounding grounds became a secret garden. I was probably only a few hundred yards from my house, but it was a world away. Continue reading
Today’s the last Monday in May, which means it’s Memorial Day — the day Americans have set aside to specially remember and honor the men and women who have given their lives in the armed service of the nation. A day that remembers this profound sacrifice from our fallen soldiers, especially on a national level, especially in the face of an ever increasingly selfish, petty, and nihilistic culture is important now more than ever. Continue reading
In my last post I hoped to convey the importance and gravity of choosing good and proper songs for church. I suggested using the triple test of “everywhere, always, and by all” (universality, antiquity, and consent) as a guide for choosing songs, relying on the judgment of the Church through the ages instead of following the unbalanced judgment of isolated times and places. This approach guarantees orthodox content and a worthy quality of song to be sung in church, and it gives occasion for those doing the choosing to exercise prudence and humility, relieving them of the temptation to assert their own wisdom and will. Continue reading
Who picks the music in church and how is it picked? This has been my privilege and burden since planting a church five years ago. I began with the understanding that this was a privilege, but quickly learned that it’s also a burden. As our little church slowly grew into its rich, ancient heritage, I began to feel keenly the burden of choosing music to accompany our blossoming Liturgy. This burden was greatly lessened when I discovered the ancient Proper Chants of the Western Church which accompany certain moments and actions in the Liturgy (Procession, Offertory, Communion). These chants, prescribed for every Liturgy and linked with the lectionary readings, have been basically settled since the end of the first millennium A.D. and adhered to pretty universally throughout the West. Continue reading
O Wisdom, that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, that reachest from one end to another, and orderest all things mightily and sweetly: come to teach us the way of prudence!
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
O Sapientia, or O Wisdom, is the first of the seven “Great O Antiphons”, an ancient and venerable collection of prayers in the Western tradition of the Church. These prayers are used at evening prayer for the seven days preceding Christmas Eve, sung as antiphons, or musical refrains, at the beginning and end of the Song of Mary (Lk 1:46-55). Each antiphon addresses Christ by a different title or attribute, and all begin with the Latin interjection “O” (thus the name “O Antiphons”) to express the depth of the desire to see Christ come. These antiphons encapsulate both the cosmic and the human desire for the Incarnation of God, the central event of this world’s story. Continue reading
If you ever have a chance to ride with me in a car somewhere, you should take it. Even if it’s only a short ride down the street, you’d learn so much from me about how every one around us could improve their driving. I may wonder aloud what causes people to drive like absolute morons, but I would most likely simply marvel at them — at that man blocking nine cars from making their protected turn because he decided he didn’t want to be in the left turn lane and is now motioning to the motorist to his right to let him pull back into the other lane; or that woman trying to merge onto a busy interstate driving 30 mph with a phone in her ear and a chihuahua in her lap. Continue reading
I’m writing today on the international day of prayer for Syria, called by Pope Francis and answered by Christian leaders around the world, including Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I. The current news in Syria has focussed on chemical weapons attacks, which cause a particularly heinous kind of suffering for any affected by them. These attacks, though, are only the most recent atrocities in years of increasingly steady fighting – fighting between the government and rebels of varying origins and loyalties. Throughout the fighting, though, thousands upon thousands of unarmed civilians have been caught in the crossfire or intentionally slaughtered. Continue reading
As an American who’s used to seeing dilapidated ‘historic sites’ no older than four hundred years old, I dream of visiting the numerous thousand-plus year old sites of Europe still standing and often functioning in the capacity for which they were built. And so many of Europe’s historic sites are cathedrals, parish churches, and monasteries. A quick image search of historic churches of Europe will yield an amazing amount of breathtaking examples of Celtic/English, Frankish/Norman, Greek, Italian, Kievan/Russian, Kartvelian, and Scandinavian Christian architecture, some dating from the fourth century. At the center of nearly every ancient or medieval town across Europe stands one of these jewels. A note on a compilation of historic European churches by the Huffington Post quipped, “Churches seem to be nearly as abundant in Europe as drugstores are in Manhattan.” A comparison like that once again highlights the obvious difference in the scenery of America and Europe. Continue reading
The older I get, the more I come to appreciate the character of each season of the year and what each has to offer. The beginnings of the seasons in particular, when the last season is only just behind us and the new is only just asserting itself, are full of new beauty. This Spring already is offering up glorious assertions of its presence. You can become captured in one of these assertive moments at unexpected times and almost anywhere, but sometimes I like to put myself in places where people haven’t asserted themselves on nature so much, and thus increase my chances that nature and her season can assert themselves on me. I just returned from a trip where I did some hiking in hopes of just such an encounter with Spring. Continue reading
The Church year is centered around Jesus and the redemptive story of his life, death, and resurrection. The Scriptures read in the Liturgy, the various prayers, and also the songs and hymns that are sung all correspond to the seasons of the year, and the seasons themselves correspond to events or periods in the life of Jesus. The season of Lent takes the Church with Jesus both into the desert where he fasted for forty days and also on his last journey to Jerusalem (and ultimately to the cross and his glorious resurrection). Several themes and lessons of the Lenten season are emphasized in the Liturgy, but two of the most prominent are repentance and spiritual struggle. Continue reading
I have a feeling that many of us, myself included, have a habit of thinking of God as a sort of monolith. (You know monoliths – giant, solid rocks of a single, undivided nature). C.S. Lewis remarked in Letters To Malcolm that in the mind, the stand-in for God is often something like a bright mist, and to this monolithic bright mist I assign monolithic superlatives: God is Great; God is Light; God is Love. The list of superlatives may go on and on, but each superlative is rock-solid, existing forever, like the faces on Mt. Rushmore or the facets on a diamond. This makes defining and relating to the “God” in my mind much easier, as long as the integrity of the superlatives remains intact. Continue reading
The season of Advent, I believe, is beginning to grow in the popular Christian consciousness in America. More and more resources are being made available for observing Advent – or at least I’m finding more and more – , and I’ve been seeing a rise in individuals and churches using social media to [sometimes not so] gently remind the cultures around them that it’s not Christmas ’till it’s Christmas. Whether from a renewed interest in returning to or rediscovering the ancient and venerable rhythms and way of life for scores of Christians before them, or as an intentional act of resistance in the face of obscene consumerism and “seasonal” marketeering, people have been observing Advent, not Christmas, during Advent. And as you know when you wait for something good, it’s much better than it would have been if you had snatched it before its time came. And so it is with waiting for Christmas. Continue reading
The parable of the prodigal son contains depths of wisdom and profundity which, in all likelihood, I will never attain in this life. Twenty centuries of reflection on this story have greatly profited the Church, and I recommend reading the Saints and Divines for their illumined teaching on it. I would, however, like to offer my own reflection, not as a supplement to anything lacking in the tradition of the parable’s interpretation, but merely as a (rather impromptu) observation of how I see it speaking into a recurring experience in my own life. Continue reading
When I first turned to take account of the sprawling landscape of Christian tradition which lay just behind me but of which I had never known, I had a certain sense of alarm, like discovering suddenly I was standing on the edge of a cliff. The shear size of the landscape spreading out over time and space and encompassing all sorts and conditions of people and places affected my soul, and it changed my whole perspective. And time and time again, I found, as I read about our Christian ancestors, that the center of their life in God and with each other was what I had grown up calling the Lord’s Supper, though it has more often throughout history been called the Eucharist (Thanksgiving). Continue reading
In this series, According To The Whole, a major theme has been the unity of Christians, the theme of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 “that they may all be one.” If you’ve followed it from Part 1, you’ll recall that my jump-off point was a critique of that hazy, undefined trend among Western Christians called non-denominationalism and how it fails to unify anyone. I introduced the term catholic as a second-century (maybe first-century) description of the universally unified Church, which simply means “according to the whole” ( kata (according to) + holos (the whole) ). That term does not exclusively mean “Roman Catholic,” and that’s not how it’s used here. Continue reading
As I was growing up, I was taught that because of my own free will, I was responsible for my sins, and that these sins separated me from God. Though I could never do anything to fix my sins or carry myself back across the chasm I’d put between myself and God, Jesus, through means I could never articulate, has bridged the gap between myself and God and put away all my sins. All I had to do to accept this gift was to ask that Jesus apply it to me; through a sincere, contrite prayer offered to Jesus, I had to ask that he forgive me of my sins and live in me, so as to assure my salvation forever. Continue reading
“Now the proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its Creator—to enact intellectually, volitionally, and emotionally, that relationship which is given in the mere fact of its being a creature. When it does so, it is good and happy. Lest we should think this a hardship, this kind of good begins on a level far above the creatures, for God Himself, as Son, from all eternity renders back to God as Father by filial obedience the being which the Father by paternal love eternally generates in the Son. This is the pattern which man was made to imitate—which Paradisal man did imitate—and wherever the will conferred by the Creator is thus perfectly offered back in delighted and delighting obedience by the creature, there, most undoubtedly, is Heaven …. In the world as we now know it, the problem is how to recover this self-surrender. We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms. Continue reading
In Part 1 of this series I looked at the relatively recent phenomenon of churches who claim no particular creed and hold no allegiance to a particular denomination. They are known as “non-denominational” churches, and their preaching, worship, and even organizational structure are all unbound by any traditional parameters. I noted that even many of the churches within mainline denominations are loosening their external denominational identities in favor of appearing more non-denominational. The great apologetic of the non-denom church is: We’re just christians1. And that’s a powerful apologetic to thousands of Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere who grew up in the sleepy old denominations of their grandparents – denominations that were segregated from the others because of mysterious, ancestral disagreements about faith and practice. Continue reading