Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Psaumes de la Reforme

In my Christmas stocking were several nice cds, chief among them was a collection of Psalm settings from the French Reformation, under the title, Psaumes de la Reforme. Almost all of the choral music I listen to from the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods is from Roman Catholic musicians, who were commissioned by the church to set the Mass to music. Even Thomas Tallis, whose career spanned the turbulent Tudor dynasty in England, wrote music for the Protestant court, but was himself a Catholic. So it was nice to listen to music of the Huguenots: French Calvinists who revered the Psalter, and gave lie to the myth that the Reformed were cultural Philistines, with no place for art or music.

The Psalter itself was paraphrased and made "metrical" (i.e., for use with music) by Clement Marot and Calvin's successor in Geneva, the theologian Theodore Beza. The genius who set these psalms to music was Claude Goudimel (1520-1572). He skillfully used Gregorian melodies, court tunes, and the music of the streets to create a musical vehicle for liturgy, meditation, prayer, and especially for praise. The Reformed faith, with its emphasis on God's glory and sovereign grace, was now singable, even by the masses. Our current hymnals and the Scottish Metrical Psalter, owe a great debt to the French poets and musicians who pioneered the music of the Reformation, and who are largely unknown today.

Claude Goudimel's gifts and life were cut short in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, August 24th, 1572, when 70,000 French Protestants were martyred. His legacy, however, lives on in the beauty and solemnity of the Psaumes of the Reforme.

{St Bartholomew's Day Massacre}

Friday, December 23, 2005

My Own Private Fra Angelico

After mentioning my enjoyable foray to the Metropolitan Museum to my congregation last Sunday, and how beautiful Fra Angelico's "Annunciations" were, one of my dear elders, a native of Italy, gave me a Fra Angelico to call my own. Here's a picture of it:

It turns out that there is a hazelnut liqueur named after the blessed Fra. On the label it says that Fra Angelico was a hermit who lived by the Po River in Italy 300 years ago, and when not praying "created unique recipes for liqueurs." The bottle even has a monk's cincture (a rope belt) "which symbolizes freshness."

Now I got a good laugh at all this. Not a drinker myself, I'll perhaps take a sip sometime this weekend, but I found the whole conceit hilarious. Fra Angelico was no hermit, and he lived 600 years ago, and when not praying with his fellow Dominicans, he was painting, not brewing! The cincture around his waist was not a symbol of freshness (!), but of chastity.

Don't you just love marketing people? Can't you just imagine the look on the person's face who came up with this idea, when upon their death God inquires of him (or her), "Just what were you thinking that day? Would you like to meet the real Fra Angelico? Well you can't, because he dwells in glory too bright for your eyes." The marketing person, amazed says, "So all this Christianity stuff is true?" God replies, "Yes. Meet my Son, he will tell you where to go next..."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Why I Can't Escape Myself

I've tried being a theological liberal. I've studied the Emergent Church. I read The Christian Century and books on Open theism. I tried to be different, I really did, but yesterday I did two things which indicate to me that I can't escape being who I am - a fairly conservative (definition pending) Reformed Christian. The first thing I did was purchase Robert Traill's Justification Vindicated. He was a Puritan (1642-1716), and I thought I would read this little book before bed each night. That should tell you something right there - who am I kidding? Liberals don't buy books from the Banner of Truth publishing house (unless they are short of firewood). The second thing I did yesterday was to stand up at a special session of our classis (our Reformed word for presbytery or diocese), and request that a minister who received a call from one of our classis churches repent of his performing marriage ceremonies for gay people, and to promise not to do so in the future. He refused to promise, so our classis refused to allow him to become an installed minister within our bounds. By doing so I reassured old friends, infuriated new friends, and stunned myself by just how "me" I am really am. I cannot escape this "me."

Perhaps it all has to do with the cold. Not the outer temperature, which was a fairly pleasant 40 degrees F., but my inner chill. Stepping outside the warm confines of Reformed orthodoxy, even if for a moment to sniff the outside air, left me feeling exposed, vulnerable, spiritually vacuous, and miserable. I closed the door and prayed the Efche, the Byzantine Jesus prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I prayed it over and over until I no longer felt like a traitor, and no longer felt cold.

We are mysteries unto ourselves, and crave the applause and esteem of the madding crowd, and yet remain content to let God wait until we have decided if we think he truly meant what he said, and whether or not we have the fortitude to attempt obedience. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

{Now my definition of myself as a Reformed conservative: I am catholic (freely plundering the gold of the Egyptians (e.g., art, philosophy), and celebrating the gifts of the larger church), evangelical (the Bible alone is our authority in matters of faith and life), and Reformed (emphasizing God's sovereignty, providence, the solas of the Reformation, etc.). But one man's conservative is another's liberal, so my rejection of young-earth creationism might make me suspect in some quarters!}

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Annunciation

Did anyone ever paint the Annunciation better than Fra Angelico? Did anyone capture the beauty of the Madonna's face, or the wisp of gossamer fabric flowing down to the Christ child? Did anyone fabricate an angel's wing with such delicate, elegant grace? I don't think so.

I was privileged to spend this morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, which is currently offering a 70 picture exhibition of the works of Fra Angelico (literally, "The Angelic Friar," for he was a Dominican), whose real name was Giovanni da Fiesole (1387-1455). It is a stunning show, and increased my admiration for this modest genius in a black cowl. It was said that he wept whenever he painted a crucifixion, and that each stroke of his brush was preceded by prayer.

Fra Angelico and I go way back. In 1988 I wrote a fairly long paper on the Roman church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where Fra Angelico is buried. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1984 (his feast day is February 18th). Since no one painted the Annunciation like Fra Angelico, I was determined to see the exhibition before Christmas. It wasn't too crowded, and there was a group of cheerful Dominican nuns with black habits! I also was able to help an Israeli couple grasp the meanings of certain Christian things like tabernacles and predellas (prayer kneelers).

Some of the paintings looked as fresh as the day they were painted, while others suffered from being hacked out of churches and altar pieces, but all radiated a golden light that transcended the actual gilding. Examples of works by contemporaries and students only reinforced Angelico's genius, and were (with a few exceptions: Pesellino, Sanguigni, and Strozzi) utterly lacking in that je ne sais quoi which marks a masterpiece. Below is a prime example of the Beato's achievement. My wife and I also managed to see Van Gogh's drawings, which I like better than his paintings, a lovely little exhibit of cameo jewelry (my wife's favorite), and then we stumbled through drawings on loan from the British Museum. But the Angelico's angels and Madonnas are presently filling my mind and feeding my soul.

Fra Angelico's motto: "He who does Christ's work must stay with Christ always." Amen.

{from the Prado Museum, ca.1432}

Some further examples of Fra Angelico's genius:

I think this pensive face of the Virgin is the most beautiful I have ever seen.

St. Dominic, the founder of Giovanni's order.

Newman's Kindly (& Much Needed) Light

It gets dark so early here in the Northeast, as we approach the solstice - dark in the skies, dark thoughts in the mind. I came across Andrew's recent post and clipped these lines for consideration:

"Last night lying in bed I said to P, “Sometimes it seems like there’s so much darkness in the world that there’s no point even to try. I know for a fact that there’s plenty of darkness in me.” But saying the words aloud it occurred to me that acknowledging the darkness is something, is the first step in choosing light."

In a dark ice-storm on Thursday night and Friday morning, I took some medicine for my soul, and read John Henry Newman's poem, "Lead Kindly Light," or as it sometimes appears "(Guidance").

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, I am far from home;
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene: one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


A common refrain heard among folks who do not attend worship, is that the church is full of hypocrites. I find this somewhat amusing in that when it comes to religion, people demand absolute purity of mind and motive. The idea of sitting next to a hypocrite fills them with sense of intolerable repugnance. The supermarket is full of hypocrites, and I am sure Congress has one or two, and for that matter I bet you can find hypocrites just about anywhere. So why is this flaw or sin used as a prophylactic against church attendance?

There are two types of people who refuse to worship in a church with hypocrites. One group is made up of the walking wounded, those who have been spiritually damaged by individuals or a church clique or especially a member of the clergy. Their pain and sense of betrayal finds expression in an outrage over the church's failing as a community of holiness and healing. To such people we must be very compassionate and prayerful, and not dismiss their criticisms out of hand. They must be met with understanding, mercy, and love - confessing that yes the church can be a difficult place.

The second group of people who accuse the church of hypocrisy are those with a guilty conscience, who are searching for an obvious and irrefutable reason for their spiritual apathy or unbelief. My response here is to agree with them - yes, the church is full of hypocrites, and I happen to be one of the worst, since I dare to enter to the pulpit each Sunday and speak God's Holy Word with sinful lips.

The origin of the word hypocrisy is, of course, Greek: hypo + krisis, which is a word that was used in the Greek theater. A hypocrite was one who played a part on the stage, i.e., an actor. Hence in English, a hypocrite is one who pretends to be something one is not. "Hypocrite" and "hypocrisy" appear numerous times in the New Testament. For example, Jesus warns the disciples to "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1). Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy in Galatians 2:11-13, when Peter separated himself from the Gentiles when Jewish Christians arrived in Antioch. It is clearly listed as a sin, and one for which we must be ever mindful when we are in confession mode.

But hypocrisy is not a valid excuse for separation from the church, for the church is the body of Christ, and outside of it there is no salvation. It will be of no benefit at all for those who point out this egregious sin to God on judgment day, for before every one who charges "hypocrite!", a mirror will be placed to receive the accusation. Yes, the church is full of hypocrites, liars, murderers, and other miscreants, who deserve nothing but everlasting darkness. Come and join us and be united in love with One who washes those past deeds with the cleanser of His saving blood. For there is one in the midst of the church who is not a hypocrite, liar, or fraud - Jesus Christ. If you come looking for Him in the church, you will find Him, and then all those around Him will appear radiantly different.

Monday, December 12, 2005


I love the word perichoresis. I admit it has the appearance of a bit of theological jargon, and that most Christians have no idea what it means, so you risk sounding pompous if you use it in a sentence. I sometimes wonder if people think it refers to a skin condition - "Do you have persistent perichoresis? Try Gold Bond Medicated Powder." It is, however, a beautiful word describing the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and it's been in my mind a lot since reading Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology v.2, where he uses it more than any theologian I've come across, and in Kyriacos Markides' The Mountain of Silence, which examines the spirituality of the monks of Mt. Athos and Orthodox theology. Perichoresis is a prominent aspect of Orthodox faith and life.

So what's so important about perichoresis? First, it has something to do with the Trinity, which is crucial in these days of shallow, evangelical "me and Jesus" Christianity. The standard definition of perichoresis comes from St John of Damascus, who was the theological fountainhead of Eastern Orthodox theology:

"The subsistences [i.e., the three Persons] dwell and are established firmly in one another. For they are inseparable and cannot part from one another, but keep to their separate courses within one another, without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. And there is one and the same motion: for there is one impulse and one motion of the three subsistences, which is not to be observed in any created nature" (The Orthodox Faith, 1.14).

The word "perichoresis" was first used, I believe, by St Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian Fathers (along with St. Gregory of Nyssa and St Basil the Great - all great favorites of mine). It is a composite Greek word: peri + choreio, which means move or dance around. In other words, the Holy Trinity is a divine movement, which is called in Byzantine theology, "The Great Dance." Each person of the Holy Trinity exists in a state mutual indwelling with the other two. The One God is therefore a Holy Community of three persons marked by interpenetration, communion, and interdependence. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit move and flow and draw life from one another in a bond of perfect love.

In our time when theology is often ignored or rejected as overly-intellectual, it is imperative that we speak a defiant "NO!" to the diluting forces at work in the church. The divine perichoresis is not some esoteric concept, but is a force of great beauty and life for the church. The contemplation of the glory of the Holy Trinity is restorative, and sadly lacking especially in evangelical circles. St Gregory Nazianzus says it best:

“No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One. . . When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

The Church is a community defined by this same perichoresis. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are drawn up into the divine life, in which we move and flow and derive life, love, and spiritual power. In the words of the Apostle Paul, in the Triune Lord "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). The Church is only the Church when it is united in love with the Trinity, sharing in its perichoresis. C.S. Lewis perceptively noted that the "whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us" (The Weight of Glory, 153). I find this notion both thrilling and a source of profound peace.

"Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?...Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me" (John 14:10a, 11).

{illustration: "The Old Testament Trinity," by Andrei Rublev, ca. 1410}

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Politics of Jesus

There are plenty of t-shirts, buttons, and bumper-stickers which claim to know the politics of Jesus. Over the last few decades, the Republican Party has had Jesus pretty much to themselves, as Democrats ran from religion like the plague. But things are changing. Recent books from Jim Wallis, former President Jimmy Carter, and other left of center Christians are urging the left to get with Jesus in order to get in touch with its constituency. But is Jesus a liberal or a conservative? Is it even appropriate to ask?

Take this sign above. I like the fact that it says Jesus is a liberal and not was a liberal - that's an interesting theological statement. But the tiny print says "BeatBush." Does Jesus want Bush impeached? Romans 13 and the doctrine of God's sovereignty would seem to indicate that it was God's will that George Bush be elected president. For a liberal, this is a sign of God's displeasure, but for a conservative it is a sign of God's blessing.

From a biblical perspective, Jesus was definitely a liberal. He believed in life after death, the resurrection, a spiritual understanding of the Sabbath, and other "radical" ideas one can read in the Sermon on the Mount. He cared for the poor, ate and spoke with untouchables, and infuriated the religious leaders with his condemnations of their privileged positions and perks. But then he would say, "Render unto Caesar...." He disappointed the masses by not calling for a political revolution to oust the Romans. He seems even conservative when it comes to the social order. There is no talk of equal rights, the evils of slavery, the position of women in society. Jesus regularly uses the word porneia to describe sinful sexual relations. This is a very conservative word which refers to all sexual relations outside of the marriage of a man and a woman.

From a modern perspective, Jesus doesn't seem to perfectly fit into the either of the two major party platforms. So I would say that the above sign is deceptive and wrong. I would also say that the Republican Party is not a church, and that it exercises selective deafness toward many of Jesus' social and spiritual teachings. Perhaps all of this explains why I have such a difficult time voting. Neither party, to me, seems to reflect the values I have imbibed from the New Testament. Politicians use Jesus to sell themselves and their positions, but this is always a dangerous tactic. For we are warned from very ancient times, not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Proverbial Wisdom

Having completed our study of Ruth, tomorrow our Sunday morning Bible study is about to launch into Proverbs, at the request of a parishioner no less! Wisdom literature presents certain challenges for the study leader, but preparing for this class was a joy, proving the old maxim that the teacher learns as much as the student.

What did I learn? A proverb or wise saying, is called in Hebrew a māsāl, משל, which has its root meaning in offering direction or a rule. The godly person's life is marked by obedience, prudence, increasing knowledge, and most importantly, by godliness. The key to Proverbs is that only a spiritual person will desire wisdom, and only a Spirit-filled person will comprehend God's wisdom and take delight in it. "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). Only someone who is graced with a reverent awe of God will begin to grow in wisdom and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). All too often people have separated this relationship between sanctification and wisdom, resulting in a Christian moralism of no salvific value. Indeed, trying to live according to Proverbs without the Holy Spirit is an exercise in extreme frustration. It is why so many leave the church without ever really experiencing the new life.

In the course of my preparation I ran into two interesting quotes from the Church Fathers. The first is from St Hippolytus (d. 236):

"Proverbs, therefore, are words of exhortation serviceable for the whole path of life; for to those who seek their way to God, these serve as guides and signs to revive them when wearied by the length of the road. These, moreover, are the proverbs of “Solomon,” that is to say, the “peacemaker,” who in truth, is Christ the Savior…One who knows the wisdom of God receives from him also instruction and learns by it the mysteries of the Word; and they who know the true heavenly wisdom will easily understand the words of these mysteries. Wherefore he says, 'To understand the difficulties of words,” for things spoken in strange language by the Holy Spirit become intelligible to those who have their hearts right with God.'"
- ANF, 5:172

Hippolytus offers a typically Patristic connection between what was written by Solomon and with the Word, who is Christ. In this age when the Bible is subject to hermeneutics of suspicion, it's refreshing to be reminded of the true authorship of Proverbs, and how they find their fullness and perfection only in Christ.

A second, more cryptic quote comes from Evagrius of Pontus (345-399), whose own book of proverbs, Ad Monachos I have on my "wish list."

"A proverb is a saying that, under the guise of physical things, signifies intelligible things.”
- Scholia on Proverbs 1.1.

I take Evagrius to mean that like a parable, a proverb holds a spiritual nugget within, and rewards the believer with the wisdom of God, which is the mind of Christ. Alas for poor Solomon, whose wisdom failed him when he pursued the idols of his many wives!

{illustration: "King Solomon," by Barry Moser}

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Advent Thickets

At the end of my last post I wrote, "Something to ponder as we make our way through the thickets of Advent." I had in mind the idea that during this period of the church year, the lectionary texts get kind of gnarly. Images of judgment, heaven, hell, the Second Coming of Christ, the separation of sheep and goats, the end of the world, etc., abound in what has become a sanitized, or should I say "Santatized" month of the year. This discord between the church's agenda of preparation for the coming of the Lord, and the world's sensual pursuit of "decking the halls," offers a prophetic moment for Christians. "Stop looking backwards," we can say, "and start looking toward the future, to the second Advent! The one with the clouds of glory, the lake of fire, the melting of the universe's primal elements (2 Peter 3:12)." Yes, those thickets.

Advent used to be longer. In the early church, Advent began 40 days before Christmas, on St. Martin's day, November 11, and was a time of fasting and sacrifice, similar to Lent. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were fast days. In the 14th century, the Roman liturgy reduced it to four weeks, with an emphasis on penance and preparation, and it has remained so ever since. Advent should be a startling time of the year, but instead we just exhaust ourselves, and end up with rhino-viruses and sugar-coated Christianity. This Sunday the epistle lesson is from Second Peter chapter 3, and the imagery is astonishing. The Day of the Lord will result in the earth and heavens being burned up, the atmosphere kindled, and the celestial bodies extinguished. The very elements of matter which make up the universe (στοιχεια): earth, air, and water, will "melt with fervent heat" (v.13). The impact of this preview of the end of days is profound: "Therefore, since all these things will be destroyed, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness" (v.11). We are inspired to look forward to "a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (v.13). Such is the better hope of the gospel, compared with all worldly trinkets which are passing away.

Some may question the church's choice of Advent texts, but the early Christians knew better, living as they did in such precarious times. For they looked up amidst their flaming stakes and thickets of kindling, past the smoke of their own burning, to behold a kingdom immune from the assaults of time and evil. So how hard is it for us to follow their gaze, from our ceiled houses and couches of ease?

{illustration: "Armageddon," Zurich Bible, 1536}