Let No One Fear Death (John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily)

John Chrysostom:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived therefor. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

(Link)

Let There Be Darkness (A Meditation on Good Friday)

This was the hour of darkness, Jesus told his disciples only moments before he was arrested by his enemies, who were aided by one of his closest friends.

During his execution, the sun gave out its light and proved the Lord’s point.

It’s as if the world reverted back to the chaotic state in which the Lord God had found it when He first whispered the words, “Let there be light.” There was no life, no abundance, no joy, no amazement at the rising and setting of the sun. That is, until the universe’s most masterful Artist, from whom our own sense of creativity flows, decided He had had enough of a blank canvas. With nothing more than a word and, as Job tells us, the bare hint of His power, He brought forth light.

And in his death, that light was taken away.

Let there be light.

It had been.

Now there was darkness.

Maybe creation was in agony. The King of the world had handed Himself over to usurpers, and in their rebellion, they sought nothing less than to bring Him to an end. Maybe creation was allowed to go dark to physically manifest the true intentions of our hearts. This is what it looks like when humanity forsakes its true purpose and instead tries to sit on a throne for which it was never suited.

Humanity got its way over God.

And when it did, it chose to kill, not give life.

It chose to take, not to give.

It chose injustice over justice, lies over truth, hatred over love.

In that fateful moment, humanity acted honestly.

The hour of darkness, indeed.

Fortunately, its hour came to an end.

Review: ‘Defending Constantine’

Defending Constantine

Defending Constantine is the book I needed to read in college.

Peter Leithart’s biographical apology for one of Christian history’s most despised figures would have come in handy during all those dialogues with friends in which we asserted, with an inverse relationship between our confidence and actual knowledge, that a lot of the problems facing the church today (that is, American evangelicalism) started when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In my mind, you could draw a straight line from Constantine’s accomplishments right to the wolves-in-sheep-clothing of the American Religious Right. Both represented the same reprehensible ideal: taking the Gospel and using it for political gain.

“’Constantinianism refers to a theology and ecclesial practice that took form when the church assumed a dominant position in Roman society. Constantinianism is the wedding of piety to power, the notion that the empire or state, the ruler of civil government rather than the church, is the primary bearer of meaning in history. When the church succumbs to Constantinianism, Christians think they need to link themselves to the ‘real powers’ in the palace or the White House in order to get things done, in order to take some control of history” (176).

Here’s what I’ve come to learn since those days: the more a person blames Constantine for all the troubles that have befallen the Bride, the more likely it is that such a person doesn’t actually know what Constantine did. What Leithart writes about John Howard Yoder’s work on Constantine applies, I think, to a popular audience of Christians today: they’re more concerned with Constantine as a shift in church affairs than Constantine the man and convert.

And this is where Leithart’s book comes in handy. Starting with the persecution of Christians under Diocletian, the author traces Constantine’s rise to emperor and the evolution of his policies toward both the minority Christians of the empire and the overwhelming pagan population. He shows how Constantine at one point tried to create freedom for other religions in the hope of their adherents converting to the one, true God—and how at other points issued edicts against heretical groups and ordered their property seized (although these edicts weren’t always enforced).

In this regard, Leithart doesn’t defend Constantine’s actions toward these groups so much as he tries to set the record straight. He writes of how Constantine held the Jews in contempt, threatened those proselytizers who tried to win over Christians, and augmented the ban on circumcision. The author also notes that in some ways, life for Jewish people didn’t change with the rise of Constantine. Some of their privileges were allowed to stand.

“… apart from his ‘violently prejudicial language,’ and it is both violent and prejudicial, his legislation changed the lives of Jews very little. Jews were permitted to serve on municipal senates, and Constantine extended the same tax exemption to synagogue heads and other Jewish leaders that he offered to Christian priests (CTh 16.8.2, 4), thus enabling ‘a system of Jewish self-government that strengthened Jewish life and identity.’” (132)

Again, it’s important to remember something about this book: this is not an apologetic for everything Constantine did. Leithart, in my opinion, has not tried to soften the blow of what the first Christian Roman emperor did while in office and the effects of those actions, whether for good or ill. Defending Constantine succeeds in its purpose, and that is simply to correct some of the misperceptions and false claims about Constantine today.

Constantine also desired unity among the church and worried about how the disunity in Christian circles would negatively affect their missionary efforts among the pagans. Unity was his goal when he attended the Council of Nicea, and here, I was surprised to learn that Constantine did not go to the council until he was invited, and even then, he was an unbaptized Christian. (I remembered only later that the emperor was baptized soon before he died.)

Even when he was there, Constantine did not impose his will upon the bishops in attendance. He plead for peace, apparently to the point that people started complaining that Constantine’s overtures were shutting down debate (169). And while the emperor exercised influence at the council—Leithart writes that Constantine’s interpretation of homoousios helped persuade bishops to vote for the creed—he did not impose his will upon the church. The church continued to hold councils over Christological debates, and it did so without Constantine. (One would also wonder of the point of the councils, if this question had already been answered, forcefully, by the emperor.)

Even if this had been Constantine’s goal, the people in attendance wouldn’t have made it easy for him:

“Doubtless … he entered the Arian dispute disabused of any naïve expectation that the bishops were going to be easy to work with. They would not be. Arius was a strong personality, and persistent; Eusebius of Caesarea was a widely respected scholar and writer, a force to be reckoned with; Athanasius, who attended the council as a diaconal assistant to Alexander, would prove to be the strongest of all, willing to rebuke an emperor to his face” (168).

After Nicea, bishops continued to insist on their independence from Constantine and his successors, even if they were glad for imperial support. Hilary of Portiers, for instance, criticized Constantine’s son, Constantius, after he stopped persecuting the church and instead tried to flatter it. For Constantius’ attempts to make nice with the church, Hilary went so far as to call him an antichrist (186).

The book lists several of Constantine’s achievements and policies, which served to baptize the Roman Empire. Constantine tried to fight corruption in the judicial system by allowing litigants to appeal their cases to the bishops, who worked for free and thus wouldn’t be tempted to give “just” verdicts to the highest bidders (216). He shut down the gladiatorial games. He prohibited crucifixion but not all forms of torture (201–202). He extended the benefits that married couples enjoyed, such as retaining property rights, to celibates (205). Constantine increased the penalty for unjustified divorce, although men could continue to divorce their wives for infidelity while wives could not divorce their husbands for sleeping with prostitutes (206). He ordered tax assessments to prevent the lower class from being taken advantage of by those in power (209). Constantine didn’t outright prohibit the practice of exposing an unwanted child to be killed, but he try to undermine the practice in other ways. For instance, he gave people who found the exposed children the right to decide if the child would be free or a slave. This, the emperor reasoned, might help curb child-killing:

“For some Romans exposing their children and, by all odds, killing them would be preferable to selling them to slavery. … If parents know that their children could end up as permanent slaves, they might think twice about setting them out” (220–221).

In the remaining chapters of the book, Leithard confronts the works of people like John Howard Yoder, who have insisted that before Constantine, the church maintained a pacifist stance (though the term itself may be anachronistic). Leithart shows that there was not one Christian opinion on whether believers could serve in the military; instead, the church picked up on an already existing tradition after Constantine. In another instance, Leithard disproves that the “Constantinian shift” stifled the church’s evangelistic mission.

Along the way, Leithart countered some of the misconceptions I’d had about Constantine. I’d always imagined that so-called “Christian” emperor acted out of political gain, not from genuine spiritual passion. But Leithart points out that Constantine didn’t gain much from alienating the vast majority of pagans under his rule, so the idea that he could gain political capital from embracing a minority religion—a fast growing one, to be sure, but a minority one nonetheless—just doesn’t make much sense.

If anything, Defending Constantine adds complexity to a discussion that is often engaged with too much simplicity, and that is the role of the Christian church in the affairs of the state. What, exactly, is our stance to be? The cooperative good citizen? The strong prophetic voice? Is it always wrong for the church to have political power, and is that power something that can even be avoided? You might think the answer to the first half of that question is no, but keep in mind that every time Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was talking about a political position as well as a spiritual one. Perhaps our spiritual and political stances cannot be so easily separated, and if they can’t, then we need more responsible ways of talking about them both.

The book raises another complex question: what is the government’s role when the church doesn’t act as the church should, to the detriment of others? The apostle Paul wrote that the government is the servant of God, who gave it a sword to enforce justice. Does it have the right to encourage or tell church leaders what to do, or should the government mind its own business? I used to think that any intervention into the church by Constantine was automatically bad, but statements like this have at least given me pause:

“… if we want to judge Constantine fairly, we have to recognize that the Queen often had issues. A queen’s bodyguard ought to keep his hands off the queen, but what does he do when she turns harpy and starts scratching the face of her lady-in-waiting?” (188)

Not only does this book raise good questions, but it knocks down caricatures that had embedded themselves as historical facts in the minds of Christians. Constantine’s rise to power and his conversion to Christianity did not so change the church that its bishops became obsessed with political power and nothing else, a sorry state of affairs that didn’t cease to be until the Protestant Reformation or the Anabaptists or, well, you can insert your own heroic tradition here. Like most things in history, the relationship between the new Christian emperor and the church was complicated, messy, and at times, contradictory. (Leithart notes that Constantine could be swayed too easily by contrasting figures, Arius and Athanasius among them.) That doesn’t mean that some of his policies weren’t reprehensible—there’s simply no excusing his belligerence toward the Jews or the murder of his wife and son—but it does mean that the window we’re looking through it’s clear. It’s stained glass.

I enjoyed this book. My only reservation about is that I had trouble keeping track of who everyone was in the earlier chapters. I found my footing when Leithart discussed things with which I was more familiar, but if you’re completely new to church history, then you might want to keep Wikipedia or a trusted history source nearby for when you reach a topic that you hadn’t heard of until you got to that passage.

That said, this is a strong book and worth the time of anyone who’s willing to learn.

Book Details

  • Full title: Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom
  • Publisher: IVP Academic
  • Released 2010
  • Paperback
  • 327 pages (not counting the preface, acknowledgments, index, or bibliography)

 

 

 

Maybe Answers in Genesis Should Take a Cue from the Catholic Church

To complement all the excitement surrounding the selection of Pope Francis, here’s a helpful article from io9 reminding us that the Catholic Church does accept the theory of evolution:

Back in 1950, Pope Pius XII laid out his papal encyclical, “Humani Generis,” in which the Church’s official position on natural selection was laid out. The statement said that there’s no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and evolution. The theory, as articulated by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species, has withstood scientific scrutiny since its publication in 1859 — and the Church does not dispute this.

Somebody should get Answers in Genesis a copy of the Catechism. 

Your Father Cherishes Affection Toward You

The mother draws the children to herself; and we seek our mother the Church. Whatever is feeble and tender, as needing help on account of its feebleness, is kindly looked on, and is sweet and pleasant, anger changing into help in the case of such: for thus horses’ colts, and the little calves of cows, and the lion’s whelp, and the stag’s fawn, and the child of man, are looked upon with pleasure by their fathers and mothers. Thus also the Father of the universe cherishes affection towards those who have fled to Him; and having begotten them again by His Spirit to the adoption of children, knows them as gentle, and loves those alone, and aids and fights for them; and therefore He bestows on them the name of child

.

Clement of Alexandria

If Heaven Exists, Then Maybe You Can Give Yourself a Break

One of the trends that’s taken hold of the evangelical world has been to downplay talking about heaven, hell, and the afterlife because such discussions tend to leave people day-dreaming about their future home of eternal bliss instead of doing their part to dismantle the “hells” here on earth.

I don’t necessarily agree with this view, but it is there.

I want to talk about heaven for just a bit (and no, critics, it’s not because I hate poor people).

I’ve been thinking this weekend about the prospect of eternal life, which Jesus promised us can begin now but will reach its full potential in the world to come. This is the life in which our identity is rooted in knowing God, who has been revealed in His Son and whose love has been revealed through His life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection. This is the life Christ has promised for everyone who gives their loyalty to them, however weak it may be.

That life can be enjoyed now, even with our imperfections. In the world to come, when Jesus has saved the world from evil and healed within us what was broken, we will experience this life in ways we never thought possible. (Even our best imaginations can only go so far.)

And that’s when it hit me: the promise of heaven has been given to us to get us to give ourselves a break every now and then.

By that, I don’t mean that we should be complacent or blind to the evil in the world. Loving God means loving people around us, and we can’t very well love someone when we allow them to be the victims of evil at both an individual or a systematic level. I also don’t mean that we should be blind from acknowledging the ways in which we participate in evil.

We need to give ourselves a break from thinking that our best days are behind us and that our mistakes have robbed us of the joy we could have had.

We need to stop beating ourselves up for our mistakes.

That includes the relationship you didn’t save.

That includes the risk you didn’t take.

That includes the guy or girl to whom you didn’t commit yourself.

That includes anything that makes you afraid that your one wrong turn means you’ll never be able to take a right one.

Look into the future. Christ has promised life for all who want it.

That means, among many other glorious things, that our best days are yet to come.

That means that you don’t have to worry that you’re never going to have the happiness you want but are afraid you missed because of a poor choice.

That means you are eventually going to become the person you were always supposed to be.

You don’t have to beat yourself up over your past choices. Your mistakes won’t define you and the consequences of your actions won’t forever haunt you.

Heaven is going to be full of people who needed second, third, and even three-thousand chances.

Not by people who made it on their own, but by the people who trusted Jesus and realized that they couldn’t.