Sunday, January 31, 2016

More grounds for hope in historical unpredictability

Today I read two sweeping narratives (one by Justo González, the other by Bishop John H. R. Moorman) of church history. I had to write a brief response as part of a class on Medieval and Reformation church history, which I thought I'd post here. Alfred the Great figured prominently in both narratives. The theme of my response resonates heavily with a theme I've thought about quite a bit over the last year--call it hope in historical unpredictability.

And there was death on the Emperor
And night upon the Pope;
And Alfred, hiding in deep grass,
Hardened his heart with hope. 
-G.K. Chesterton, 'The Ballad of the White Horse'
As I read through the tumultuous history of the Church from the 5th to the 12th centuries, I was struck by the ups and downs and radical reversals throughout the period. So many unexpected challenges arose, oftentimes just when things seemed to be settling down into a beautiful Christian ideal—the Vikings sweeping through Britain, wealth corrupting the Cluniacs, Islam overwhelming the core of ancient Christianity.

Of course that's discouraging from a Christian perspective. Yet I found myself oddly encouraged by what seemed like the sheer contingency of Christian history, the sense that everything so easily could have been radically different. For me, this historical grounding offers a great sense of hope and confidence.

So many today speak as though the Church were entering a period of unprecedented decline. That's true in the sense that every historical development is unique and unrepeatable. But the Church has weathered greater crises than what we now face, and those who speak of the past as though it were a wonderful period of consistent and universal Christian faith are misguided and misguiding.

As I see it, there are two common responses when faced with the messy complexity of the Church's history. One is to reject the messiness of reality in favor of a comforting fantasy—that the Church has been a solid, stable, monolithic, and unchanging presence from Jesus to Pope Francis. The other is the more postmodern choice: since the Church is historically contingent, the current state of things must be totally arbitrary. Both are lazy options, and both work from an unexamined premise—namely, that a Church reflecting the messiness of historical life cannot also be the true body of Christ.

The reality that things could be different should not drive us to delusion or despair but instead should spur us to gratitude and determination—gratitude for the goodness of our liturgy and common prayer as precious, fragile, and by no means inevitable gifts; determination to preserve the best and mend the worst in each of our churches.

Of course, victory is in the sovereign hands of God, who will accomplish his purposes, and who is ultimately responsible for the survival and health of our Church. As T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets, "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Epiphany II

Fr. Glenn's sermon this past Sunday was beautiful. Here's the conclusion.
We know Jesus’ parable about the sower going forth to sow the Word of God, and we know that when the seed fell upon good ground, an open heart, it brought forth more fruit than anybody including his disciples could have ever imagined. But we also know — most importantly of all — that for the seed that is sown to burst into life, it must first die and be buried. And we know that because Jesus said so in the very week he would give his life up for the life of the whole world, and the Apostle John recorded it for us in the 12th chapter of his Gospel: 
“And there were certain Greeks (note these are Gentile converts) among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus. Philip cometh and telleth Andrew: and again Andrew and Philip tell Jesus. And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” -John 12:20-25 
In less than 48 hours from that moment, Jesus was nailed to the Cross. Jesus is the Seed of Abraham, and Jesus’ glory is his death, and his garden tomb is the ground from which he rose, and his rising has brought forth the fruit of everlasting life just as we will sing on Easter Sunday morning: 
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.Christ is risen from the dead,and become the first fruits of them that slept.For since by man came death,by man came also the resurrection of the dead.For as in Adam all die,even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
Read the whole thing here.