Mary 4 – Ever Virgin

Posted: January 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The next point, the perpetual virginity of Mary, tends to be controversial among my fellow modern Protestants. I will note that the modern objection is not inherently Protestant in nature. Indeed all the initial reformers, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, held firmly to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As late as the 18th century, John Wesley affirmed the doctrine. No, the objections to this particular doctrine seem more related to our modern sexualized culture than anything historical. There seems to be a sense that living without sex makes you less than a ‘complete’ person. I understand that modern perspective probably better than I do the ancient one. After all, I am also a product of our culture. Nevertheless, I try to avoid imposing my cultural lens onto ancient texts and traditions in an anachronistic manner. It’s clear from the NT texts that living a celibate life was hardly unknown in an ancient Jewish context. John the Baptist lived such a life. Paul also did. (And it appears that he had started down that path in his zeal even before his dramatic conversion.) Notably, Jesus lived a celibate, unmarried life. So there’s nothing inherently odd or out of place in ascribing such devotion to Mary in her context.

Moreover, in the context of their honor-shame culture, it’s a perfectly reasonable response by both Mary and Joseph. We know from the texts and from the tradition of the Church of which those texts are one part that they were both faithful to God. They both sacrificed their own personal honor in order to uphold God’s honor and be obedient to him. And God produced a child with Mary. In both their minds, that would have certainly marked Mary as belonging to God. For Mary to then have sex with Joseph would have been perceived as adulterous and dishonoring God. Joseph would have seen himself as a protector and provider chosen by God for Mary and for God’s son. It’s not that I think they consciously thought through everything and decided to live together celibately. Rather, I find it hard to imagine them, within their context and with their cultural shaping, responding any other way. It’s strange to us, but it fits perfectly in their context.

And as I mentioned, it’s also the universal tradition of the Church until very recently. That’s not to say that you can’t find individuals here and there in the past who thought otherwise. But that means virtually nothing. You can find individuals over the course of history, including priests, bishops, and even patriarchs, who believe almost anything. You don’t find answers by looking at the beliefs of one (or several scattered) individuals, especially when their beliefs left no lasting impression on the Church. No, you look at what’s believed everywhere and in all places. And up until the last few hundred years, this is as much the universal perspective of the Church as almost anything we believe. I’m skeptical that we somehow know better now.

I know there are a handful of Scriptures modern Protestants like to trot out in their objections. I plan to deal with those in a later post. However, I will point out that I tend to find the attitude of Protestants toward Scripture somewhat strange. They tend to point to verses in these discussions as if they had just discovered those verses and the centuries of Christians who preceded them had never read or heard them. And there’s something a little crazy about that attitude. After all, it’s the ancient Church that preserved and eventually canonized what we call the New Testament. They read it, preached on it, and incorporated it the liturgy for century upon century. There’s no verse we can point to that would have been unknown to them. No, Protestants aren’t pointing out anything new in the verses they use in this or other discussions. Rather they are asserting they understand those verses better than the ancient Church did. They are asserting their interpretation over and against that of Christians who preceded them.

Maybe it’s because I practiced Hinduism, studied Lao Tzu, read the life of Prince Siddhartha, and have studied other ancient authors, but I’m a little more humble in my approach. I don’t automatically assume I’ll understand a text better than those who came before me. I don’t believe I’m smarter than those who lived in the ancient past (which does seem to be a modern conceit). I tend to give some deference to those who practiced this faith and lived this life long before my time.

Was Mary perpetually virgin? That’s the teaching of the Church and as I researched and tried to understand her culture, I also found it a reasonable contextual conclusion. I’m familiar with the modern arguments to the contrary and I’m unconvinced by them. Does it matter? Well, I tend to believe it’s better to have an accurate rather than an inaccurate view of reality. Beyond that I can’t really say. I will note that it seems to have had a measurable impact on the honor given to Mary. Among those Protestants who do not believe Mary remained a virgin, she’s almost become an after-thought or a biblical footnote. And that attitude is certainly contrary to Scripture. So if the resulting practice is any indication of the significance of belief, then I find that telling.


Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Posted: August 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat) (also Psalm 149).

As with Joseph, this chapter on Mary adds context to our reading of the story in the Holy Scriptures. McKnight finds in that story another theme. “Our vocation is to be what God made us to be.” Dwell on that for a minute. It’s not to be like Mother Theresa, or Daniel, or anyone else. “You are to be who God meant you to be.” If that’s not a tall order, I don’t know what is, especially for those of us who have almost buried what that might be.

Mary must instantaneously grasp that she will be labeled a na’ap (adulteress). But she also recognizes that God has something special in store. She is to be the mother of Messiah! And she responds immediately with a song of joy. However, in her song, McKnight sees evidence of more about Mary.

Joseph is a tsadiq, a man totally observant of the Torah. But Mary pokes her head out of a different nest, the Anawim (the pious poor). Historians agree on three characteristics of Mary’s people, the Anawim. These people suffer because they are poor, but they express their hope by gathering at the temple in Jerusalem. There they express to God their yearning for justice, for the end of oppression, and for the coming of the Messiah. Each of these characteristics of the Anawim finds expression in the life of Mary and especially in the Magnificat.

Mary is poor. At Jesus’ temple dedication his parents present two birds rather than a lamb. That is the offering prescribed in Torah for those too poor to afford a lamb. (Actually, if you dig into the history of first century Judaism, you’ll find that that’s not the only possible explanation. History, especially ancient history — where the data tends to be sparse, is often like that.) Mary is not hopeless though. Read the Magnificat and see the lines expressing a yearning for liberation from injustice.

Mary’s Song is actually announcing a social revolution. The King at the time is Herod the Great, and he is a power-tossing and death-dealing tyrant. Mary is announcing that he will be dealt his own due and have his power tossed to the winds. In his place, Mary declares, God will establish her very own son. Unlike Herod, he will rule with mercy and justice.

And then these very powerful words.

If spiritual formation is about learning to love God with our ‘all,’ then one dimension of loving God is surrendering the ‘all’ of our past to God. We dare not make light of our past — whether it was wondrous or abusive, reckless or righteous. All we can do, like Mary, is offer to the Lord who we are and what we’ve been. He accepts us — past and all.

Perhaps those words are less powerful for those who have a past that appears easy for God to accept. I don’t know. At the end of the day, I have only my own experience against which to judge. And I know more people with … difficult pasts than I do with wondrous ones.

Mary’s vocation, whether the ‘siblings‘ of Jesus were cousins, children of Joseph from an earlier marriage, children to whom Mary actually later gave birth (the latest developing and least likely idea — it’s an idea that’s actually only about two hundred years old), or some combination,  is clear. Mary assumes responsibility for these children, at least two girls and four boys besides Jesus. And since many scholars think Joseph died when Jesus was fairly young, that responsibility becomes even more significant.

McKnight points out that the names of the boys tell a story as well. Their names are the names of the patriarch Israel’s sons. Yakov, Yosef, Yehudah, and Shimeon. With Yeshua, they become five Jewish boys whose names tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery.

Mary’s vocation was also to teach the children. It should have been obvious, but I didn’t see the connection between the Magnificat and Jesus’ teachings until this book pointed it out. Duh. We often miss what’s right in front of our face. First, Mary blesses the holy name of God and asks him to fill the hungry. (Sound familiar?) Then, Mary is poor and from the Anawim. Jesus blesses and opens the banquet doors to the poor. Mary is a widow. Jesus frequently shows mercy to widows. (And his brother James speaks about taking care of widows and orphans in no uncertain terms at all.) Mary’s prayer emphasizes God’s mercy and compassion. What is Jesus known for? Mary’s own concern for Israel’s redemption is seen in Jesus’ wrenching prayer for Jerusalem. “These similarities are not accidents.

We modern Protestants tend to ignore Mary too much, I think.


St. Maximos the Confessor

Posted: April 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on St. Maximos the Confessor

If you study Church history, you can’t help but encounter St. Maximos the Confessor. He stood faithfully against the monothelite heresy, even when it meant standing against both the Patriarch and the Emperor. This heresy held that even though Christ had both a human and a divine nature, he had only a divine will. Such a man could not have strayed from the divine will, thus could not have been truly tempted. A Christ like that could never relate to us as one of us, nor we to him. St. Maximos held faithfully to the teaching that in Christ’s fully human nature, he also had a human will. Despite all temptation and suffering, Jesus kept his human will faithfully aligned with the divine will.

St. Maximos not only faithfully held to the faith, he confessed it widely and effectively in person and in writing. He was so effective that in his last exile, his tongue was removed to keep him from speaking and his hand was cut off to keep him from writing. His faithful assistant continued writing and St. Maximos’ works continued to be widely circulated and read. In 680, eighteen years after his death, he was vindicated in the 6th ecumenical council, which affirmed the two wills of Christ.

Once he was accused of esteeming himself the only Orthodox and the only one who would be saved and of believing all others were heretics would be condemned. His response has stayed in my mind.

When all the people in Babylon were worshiping the golden idol, the Three Holy Youths did not condemn anyone to perdition. They did not concern themselves with what others were doing, but took care only for themselves, so as not to fall away from true piety. In precisely the same way, Daniel also, when cast into the den, did not condemn any of those who, in fulfilling the law of Darius, did not want to pray to God; but he bore in mind his duty, and desired rather to die than to sin and be tormented by his conscience for transgressing God’s Law. God forbid that I, too, should condemn anyone, or say that I alone am being saved. However, I would sooner agree to die than, having apostatized in any way from the right faith, endure the torments of my conscience.

Though I have but a fraction of the great saint’s faith, I understand and share his response above. My scribblings here and elsewhere, such as they are, represent my effort to understand and express my faith in Christ. I do not intend to condemn anyone. I do not have that right and do not desire that responsibility.

St. Maximos has long held a special place in my heart and I’ve decided to blog through some of his works preserved in the philokalia. I’ll start tomorrow with his Four Hundred Texts on Love.