Ambrose’s Advice to Augustine When Visiting Other Churches

A beautiful example of Christian discipleship

When I was in graduate school preparing for my doctoral comprehensive examinations on the history of eucharistic theology, I came across an insightful passage in Augustine’s letter to Januarius (Letter 54, found here). In this letter, Augustine relays to Januarius a situation he had with his mother who was scandalized when visiting a church in a distant city that did not worship the way she was accustomed. You see, Augustine was raised by his mother, Monica, according to the Roman rite, and during her sojourn with her son in Milan she was confronted with the different practices of the Milanese rite. All that to say that when traveling, she and Augustine went to church and she was putt off by the way they worshiped (the exact details are contained in the text below).

Now when I came across this passage I was a bit younger and more strident in my opinions about worship. To be sure, I still have a developed liturgical theology, but as I have aged a bit and grown from experience, I have softened a good deal. One of the things that softened me was Ambrose’s advice to Augustine (Was Monica’s scruple really his own?), and Augustine’s advice in turn to Januarius.

Here is another example how the wise Ambrose’s shepherding helped the young Augustine to mature. I think it’s a beautiful picture of Christian discipleship. Like Augustine, my own opinions in my younger days were such that I could not truly participate in worship with any sort of true and humble spirit of unity for all the scruples my sinful heart was throwing before my eyes. I’ve had to repent of that, and this passage from Augustine helped me to do that. Perhaps it will help you as well.

Be mindful that Augustine uses some strong words at the end of the passage, but we can forgive him as he was confronted by violent schism in his native diocese of Hippo and the surrounding areas near Carthage in Northern Africa.

There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live.

I think you may have heard me relate before, what I will nevertheless now mention. When my mother followed me to Milan, she found the Church there not fasting on Saturday. She began to be troubled, and to hesitate as to what she should do; upon which I, though not taking a personal interest then in such things, applied on her behalf to Ambrose, of most blessed memory, for his advice. He answered that he could not teach me anything but what he himself practised, because if he knew any better rule, he would observe it himself. When I supposed that he intended, on the ground of his authority alone, and without supporting it by any argument, to recommend us to give up fasting on Saturday, he followed me, and said: “When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offence by your conduct, nor to find cause of offence in another’s.” When I reported this to my mother, she accepted it gladly; and for myself, after frequently reconsidering his decision, I have always esteemed it as if I had received it by an oracle from heaven. For often have I perceived, with extreme sorrow, many disquietudes caused to weak brethren by the contentious pertinacity or superstitious vacillation of some who, in matters of this kind, which do not admit of final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture, or by the tradition of the universal Church or by their manifest good influence on manners raise questions, it may be, from some crotchet of their own, or from attachment to the custom followed in one’s own country, or from preference for that which one has seen abroad, supposing that wisdom is increased in proportion to the distance to which men travel from home, and agitate these questions with such keenness, that they think all is wrong except what they do themselves.

SOURCE: Augustine, Letter 54 to Januarius, CCEL (accessed here).

IMAGE: Gozzoli, Ambrose baptizing Augustine with the words of the hymn Te deum (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 15th c.

To Ash or not to Ash

To Ash or Not to Ash - Theopolis

Today is Ash Wednesday, and as many Christians of the Protestant formerly “low church” persuasion are reacquiring some of the good and ancient practices of the church, one question in particular comes to the front: to ash or not to ash? That is, while many of us are finding great spiritual value in keeping Lent, we are also wondering, what about the whole ashes on the forehead thing?

So, why even make ashes an option? Here, briefly, are the reasons. Let me first say that I resonate with the idea of not offering ashes on Wednesday. The practice is not commanded in scripture, and it is not something that I consider to be essential to the life of the church. Therefore, I do not judge those who abstain from the practice any more than I do those who practice it.

That said, I do believe the imposition of ashes to be a good and right thing to do. My reasons are that the symbolism is taught in the scriptures, the practice has a very ancient heritage in the church, and that rituals are important to us as human beings and especially as Christian believers.

>>To read the rest, click over to the Theopolis Institute Blog.

Why We Need Advent, Now More Than Ever

Not feeling the Christmas spirit this year? That’s what Advent is for. Let’s keep the season of Advent to mourn the brokenness of this world and to prepare our hearts properly for the celebration of Christmas.

Advent-Christmas-candle-10

I don’t know about you, but I’m having trouble summoning up the Christmas spirit this year. Thanksgiving is over and now our culture is trying to force us into full on Christmas celebratory mode. Our culture wants us to give into the swelling wave of sickening consumeristic bacchanalia. But, I want to ask a question: is it the time for feasting yet? Is it a time for emptying our pocketbooks on ourselves just yet? Should we push back against our culture just a little, this year of all years?

How can we feast while a great American city burns? While a family mourns the reality that no one will be held accountable for the death of their son? While brothers and sisters cry out against what they see as systematic oppression, and folks across the racial and socio-economic divide struggle to listen? How can we feast while Ebola ravages the people of West Africa and threatens to move in on other parts of our world and while now the bubonic plague is becoming a threat to the people of Madagascar? How can we celebrate when campus rape culture has been exposed to be a system where victims are not always protected and the reputations of venerated institutions are instead? How can we go into full on Christmas mode when tanks continue to line up in Ukraine and heads continue to roll in Syria and Iraq? How can we feast when millions upon millions of poor immigrants and refugees in our own country struggle to meet the basic necessities of life? How can we be so tone deaf as a culture? Before we feast and celebrate, would it be appropriate to stop and pray and fast for the many sad things we see around us?

The great history and tradition of the Church may have an answer for us. You see, traditionally there was a preparatory season of prayer and fasting that preceded Christmas. Christmas is not just a day, but a season of the Church year and a time of celebration in the life of the Church. And while we are seemingly always ready to remind others to keep the Christ in Christmas, let us also remember that this feast of Christmas must also be kept in its proper season and its proper proportion. As long as there has been a feast of Christmas, there has also been a preparatory time that preceded the great feast, a period that the Church has called Advent.

Traditionally, the Christmas celebration season followed Christmas Day, while the season that preceded Christmas Day was set aside for preparatory prayer, meditation, and fasting. So while we are keeping the Christ in Christmas, let us also remember to keep a holy Advent to prepare for his coming.

What is Advent? In short, Advent is a season for us to cry out against the brokenness, the injustice, the sin, the disease, the hurt, the oppression, and the fallenness of this world. Advent is a time for us all to hit pause for a moment and as a church, as a human race, to pray and cry out to God to come and fix our broken world. Ultimately God, the All-Powerful Creator and Sustainer of all things, is the only one who can fix our world in a lasting way. But we must not forget that God, while he can intervene supernaturally, almost always uses people to meet his ends in this world. So while we are praying and fasting, let us also be doing. James says, let us not be hearers of the word only, but also doers. Pure religion he says is to serve widows and orphans – to love the poor and the foreigner; the oppressed and downtrodden – to welcome, to host, to listen, and to serve. In short, to love my neighbor as myself. Who is my neighbor, you ask? Friends, who is not your neighbor?

So Advent is a time to pray, a time to fast, a time to listen, and a time to do. If it seems that feasting may be inappropriate this year, or any year, let us first prepare our hearts for the feast. We will feast – we will eat and drink and celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God into our flesh – but before we do that let us first press pause for a moment. Let us first pray and mourn awhile. It will be good for our souls and it will be good for our world.


Here are some resources for praying, listening, and doing:


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The Importance of Reading Scripture in Worship

Al Mohler comments on a Mark Gali article in Christianity Today remarking on modern Christians’ lack of appetite for hearing passages of Scripture read in church.

This is why we keep the traditional set of scripture readings in our services at Christ Our King. I often tell our people that my opinion as an expositor and preacher may be informed by education, wisdom, and experience, but my sermons are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. We need to read and hear Scripture so that we can make space in our worship for the Lord to work in changing our hearts and lives.

One way to look at it is that the reading of Scripture should be the main event. The sermon is simply explaining and applying what we have just read from God’s holy and inspired Word. All too often, it is the sermon and not the Scriptures (or communion!) that is the main event. This is a modern aberration in the history of Christian worship. Christian worship has always made the reading of Scripture the primary event, as it should be. In the standard worship service of most of the 2,000 years of Christian worship, passages of God’s Word were read from the Old Testament, The New Testament, and the Gospels. These lessons, as they are called, are often thematic to the time of the church year. At other times they relate to each other as one main text is being moved through sequentially (the Gospels, for instance).

In the historical worship service, the reading of scripture is highlighted and glorified by being interspersed with the singing of Psalms, Scripture Songs, and Hymns. In this kind of service, it is God’s Word that is magnified and honored, not the opinions and self-importance of one person. Is it any wonder that as the practice of reading scripture has lessened in our churches that the cult of personality has increased with celebrity pastors and mega-churches? What would happen if we read more scripture, sang more scripture, celebrated communion more often and had a shorter sermon? GASP!

Are we afraid to let God’s word to take precedence in our worship? Isn’t it a bit conceited and even idolatrous to think that my sermon could ever do a better job of edifying and strengthening the flock than the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God?

Knox on Baptism

We utterly condemn the vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else than naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by Baptism we are engrafted into Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted, and also that in the Supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food for our souls.

-John Knox, The Scots Confession, 1560

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scots_Confession

An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.

“Easter” is not a bad word

It is once again the time of year that folks begin to ramp up for Easter. Easter bunnies, Easter egg hunts, and other various trappings are beginning to be ubiquitous. Now, I will be the first to recognize that the secular (and especially corporate) focus on fluffy bunnies, eggs, and the like is an attempt to sterilize the explicit Christian content of Easter, specifically that of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Yet, I would also argue that Christians who wish to push back against that sterilized (if not secularized) view should not abandon these traditional symbols of Easter, but should fully embrace them and refill them with their Christian meaning.

The same can be said of Christmas. The traditional symbols of Christmas- St. Nick, trees, gifts, feasts- may have been sterilized, secularized, commercialized, and paganized, but that does not change the fact that St. Nick is a real Christian saint, that the Wise Men really offered gifts to the baby Jesus, and that trees and feasts also have their origin in biblical theology. No more should we as Christians abandon these symbols of Christmas than we should abandon the traditional symbols of Easter.

Yet, while I have asserted that the traditional symbols for Easter, including the word “Easter” itself, are Christian in origin, I have not yet substantiated that claim. What is my claim exactly? Well you may have heard that the word “Easter” is of German pagan origin. As a result we Christians sometimes get a little uneasy about using that word. In this post I set out to argue that the word “Easter” is not of pagan origins, and that the word “Easter” itself is actually a Christian metonym for the word “resurrection.”

What is a metonym exactly?  A metonym is a word-symbol that represents another more abstract word that can be used in place of that word. For example, a scepter is something that a king or queen might hold as a symbol of their authority. Yet the word “scepter” itself can be used as a metonym for the word “authority.” In other words “holding the scepter,” can mean “possessing authority.” This is like when Jacob prophesies that the scepter will not pass from the hand of Judah in Genesis 49. There, the word “scepter” is a metonym for kingship or rule. Another way to think of it is that a metonym is a metaphorical or symbolical kind of synonym.

So the word “Easter” is a metonym for “resurrection.” Now, where do I get that? Well, from none other than the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), widely considered to be the definitive record of the English language. Now, as far as lexicographical philosophies go, the OED is descriptive and not prescriptive. In other words, what  the OED sets out to do, in an academically rigorous fashion, is to describe the various usages of a word throughout the history of the English language. This is opposed to prescriptive lexicography, which is the notion that a dictionary should impose its view of language on others. As opposed to stating how a word should be used, rather, descriptive lexicography presents how words have been used already.

Now where I find the OED supremely helpful is in its record of word origins and etymologies. If we look to the entry for “Easter,” what we find in the etymological section is that the word is not of pagan German origin, but of Greek origin. What we find is that far back into our linguistic heritage (that would be the Indo-European family of languages) the word “east” has been a metonym for the rising of the Sun or the coming of the dawn. Thus the Old Dutch ōster, the Old Saxon ōstarthe Middle Low German ōsteren, or the Northumbrian Eostre, never found their origins in any pagan festival, but in the fact that the Sun rises in the East (der Osten is German for “the East”). Thus East(er) means dawn, or the rising of the Sun. This word “Easter” became associated metonymically with the vernal equinox in Germanic lands, and subsequently after their acceptance of Christ, the same word became metonymically associated with the Christian festival of the resurrection of our Lord.

Now the fact that Jesus rose from the dead at or near the vernal equinox is no coincidence. The vernal equinox has always been associated as the creation of the world (in the Hebrew conception), and Jesus is considered to have both been conceived and to have died at or near the vernal equinox, coinciding with the creation of the world and the Hebrew deliverance from Egypt (this is why the Introit for Easter Sunday is the Song of Moses from Exodus 15). Thus a new world comes into being through the resurrection of Christ at the same time of year that the world itself is growing in light (in the Northern Hemisphere) and at the exact point when that light begins to over take the darkness (which by the way is why Easter can never be before the vernal equinox, before the point of the year when light overtakes darkness).

Now, reader, you may also note that only German and English speakers call Easter “Easter,” while the rest of the world calls the festival “Pascha,” which is Greek for “the Passover.” Well let us ponder this for a moment. Germans and English live in much more Northern latitudes than do Greeks or Latins. Do you think that perhaps in the German mind, where the darkness of winter is so much more pronounced than in more southerly latitudes, the coming of the spring might so much more be associated with the resurrection of our Lord? In the most Northern parts of Europe, darkness nearly overtakes the day completely in the depths of winter. Easter then is the day when light finally has defeated the dark. For Greeks and Latins this astronomical reality is not so much of a big deal because they never experienced the disparity between light and dark during winter to the degree that the Germans did.

So, where did this misconception about Easter being pagan come from? The fact of the matter is that there is only one source in existence that claims that the word has such an origin. Now that this source is quite venerable (literally, in fact) explains the stubbornness of this myth. Sadly, it comes from one of my heroes of the faith, the Venerable Bede, the Northumbrian Saint, who while otherwise a very respectable scholar and theologian mentions in one place while talking about the origin of their word for the month April that the word Eostre comes from the celebration of a pagan godess. While Bede is quite the authority on most matters, there is no other source to collaborate this claim, and the OED states that this etymological claim is “less likely” (which is academic speak for not holding much water), and that some scholars think that Bede may have made the whole thing up (for what reason we cannot guess).

If we think about this logically we may suppose that there may have been a pagan feast for the coming of spring, and if so why wouldn’t there have been? Wouldn’t you celebrate the ending of the long dark winter if you lived in Northern Europe? Yet, the word Easter is not pagan in origin, but an ancient way of referring to the rising of the Sun and the coming of spring.

Besides, feasting is biblical in origin, so it is ever as much likely that the pagans started having a springtime feast in response to the Christian festival of the resurrection of our Lord.

So, don’t be afraid of the word Easter. Gladly and loudly go about wishing everyone a “Happy Easter!” this Sunday without reservation. Because Easter is not a bad word.