A Rite Of Passage

xir244981_1024x1024[1].jpegby Aidan Kavanagh, OSB

I have always rather liked the gruff robustness of the first rubric for baptism found in a late fourth-century church order which directs that the bishop enter the vestibule of the baptistery and say to the catechumens without commentary or apology only four words: “Take off your clothes.” There is no evidence that the assistants fainted or the catechumens asked what he meant.

Catechesis and much prayer and fasting had led them to understand that the language of their passage this night in Christ from death to life would be the language of the bathhouse and the tomb — not that of the forum and the drawing room.

So they stripped and stood there, probably, faint from fasting, shivering from the cold of early Easter morning and with awe at what was about to transpire. Years of formation were about to be consummated; years of having their motives and lives scrutinised;  years of hearing the word of God read and expounded at worship; years of being dismissed with prayer before the Faithful went on to celebrate the Eucharist; years of  having the doors to the assembly hall closed to them; years of seeing the tomb-like baptistery building only from without; years of hearing the old folks of the community tell hair-raising tales of what being a Christian had cost their own grandparents when the emperors were still pagan; years of running into a reticent and reverent vagueness concerning what was actually done by the Faithful at the breaking of bread and in that closed baptistery …

Tonight all this was about to end as they stood here naked on a cold floor in the gloom
of this eerie room.

Abruptly the bishop demands that they face westward, toward where the sun dies swallowed up in darkness, and denounce the King of shadows and death and things that go bump in the night. Each one of them comes forward to do this loudly under the hooded gaze of the bishop (who is tired from presiding all night at the vigil continuing next door in the church), as deacons shield the nudity of the male catechumens from the women, and deaconesses screen the women in the same manner. This is when each of them finally lets go of the world and of life as they have known it: the umbilical cord is cut, but they have not yet begun to breathe.

Then they must each turn eastwards toward where the sun surges up bathed in a light which just now can be seen stealing into the alabaster windows of the room. They must voice their acceptance of the King of light and life who has trampled down death by his own death. As each one finishes this he or she is fallen upon by a deacon or a deaconess who vigorously rubs olive oil into his or her body, as the bishop perhaps dozes off briefly, leaning on his cane. (He is like an old surgeon waiting for the operation to begin.)

When all the catechumens have been thoroughly oiled, they and the bishop are suddenly startled by the crash of the baptistery doors being thrown open. Brilliant golden light spills out into the shadowy vestibule, and following the bishop (who has now regained his composure) the catechumens and the assistant presbyters, deacons, deaconesses, and sponsors move into the most glorious room most of them have ever seen. It is a high, arbor-like pavilion of green, gold, purple, and white mosaic from marble floor to domed ceiling sparkling like jewels in the light of innumerable oil lamps that fill the room with a heady warmth. The windows are beginning to blaze with the light of Easter dawn. The walls curl with vines and tendrils that thrust up from the floor, and at their tops apostles gaze down robed in snow-white togas, holding crowns. They stand around a golden chair draped with purple upon which rests only an open book. And above all these, in the highest point of the ballooning dome, a naked Jesus (very much in the flesh) stands up to his waist in the Jordan as an unkempt John pours water on him and God’s disembodied hand points the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ head in the form of a white bird.

Suddenly the catechumens realise that they have unconsciously formed themselves into a mirror-image of this lofty icon on the floor directly beneath it. They are standing around a pool let into the middle of the floor, into which gushes water pouring noisily from the mouth of a stone lion crouching atop a pillar at poolside. The bishop stands beside this, his presbyters on each side: a deacon has entered the pool, and the other assistants are trying to maintain a modicum of decorum among the catechumens who forget their nakedness as they crowd close to see. The room is warm, humid, and it glows. It is a golden paradise in a bathhouse in a mausoleum: an oasis, Eden restored: the navel of the world, where death and life meet, copulate, and become undistinguishable from each other. Jonah peers out from a niche, Noah from another, Moses from a third, and the paralytic carrying his stretcher from a fourth. The windows begin to sweat.

The bishop rumbles a massive prayer — something about the Spirit and the waters of life and death — and then pokes the water a few times with his cane. The catechumens recall Moses doing something like that to a rock from which water flowed, and they are mightily impressed. Then a young male catechumen of about ten, the son of pious parents, is led down into the pool by the deacon. The water is warm (it has been heated in a furnace), and the oil on his body spreads out on the surface in iridescent swirls. The deacon positions the child near the cascade from the lion’s mouth. The bishop leans over on his cane, and in a voice that sounds like something out of the Apocalypse, says:

“Euphemius! Do you believe in God the Father, who created all of heaven and earth?”

After a nudge from the deacon beside him, the boy murmurs that he does. And just in time, for the deacon, who has been doing this for fifty years and is the boy’s grandfather, wraps him in his arms, lifts him backwards into the rushing water and forces him under the surface. The old deacon smiles through his beard at the wide brown eyes that look up at him is shock and fear from beneath the water (the boy has purposely not been told what to expect).

Then he raises him up coughing and sputtering. The bishop waits until he can speak again, and leaning over a second time, tapping the boy on the shoulder with his cane, says:

“Euphemius! Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who was conceived of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was crucified, died, and was buried? Who rose on the third day and ascended into heaven, from whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead?”

This time he replies like a shot, “I do,” and then holds his nose…

“Euphemius! Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the master and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who is to be honoured and glorified equally with the Father and the Son, who spoke by the Prophets? And in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church which is the communion of God’s holy ones? And in the life that is coming?”

“I do.”

When he comes up the third time, his vast grandfather gathers him in his arms and carries him up the steps leading out of the pool. There another deacon roughly dries Euphemius with a warm towel, and a senior presbyter, who is almost ninety and is regarded by all as a “confessor” because he was imprisoned for the faith as a young man, tremulously pours perfumed oil from a glass pitcher over the boy’s damp head until it soaks his hair and runs down over his upper body. The fragrance of this enormously expensive oil fills the room as the old man mutters: “God’s servant, Euphemius, is anointed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Euphemius is then wrapped in a new linen tunic; the fragrant chrism seeps into it, and he is given a burning terracotta oil lamp and gold to go stand by the door and keep quiet. Meanwhile, the other baptisms have continued.

When all have been done in this same manner (an old deaconess, a widow, replaced Euphemius’s grandfather when it came the women’s time), the clergy strike up the Easter hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, he has crushed death by his death and bestowed life on those who lay in the tomb.”

To this constantly repeated melody interspersed with the Psalm verse, “Let God arise and smite his enemies,” the whole baptismal party — tired, damp, thrilled, and oily — walk out into the blaze of Easter morning and go next door to the church led by the bishop. There he bangs on the closed doors with his cane: they are flung open, the endless vigil is halted, and the baptismal party enters as all take up the hymn, “Christ is risen…,” which is all but drowned out by the ovations that greet Christ truly risen in his newly-born ones. As they enter, the fragrance of chrism fills the church: it is the Easter-smell, God’s grace olfactorally incarnate. The pious struggle to get near the newly baptised to touch their chrismed hair and rub its fragrance on their own faces. All is chaos until the baptismal party manages to reach the towering ambo that stands in the middle of the pewless hall. The bishop ascends its lower front steps, turns to face the white-clad neophytes grouped at the bottom with their burning lamps and the boisterous faithful now held back by a phalanx of well -built acolytes and doorkeepers. Euphemius’s mother has fainted and been carried outside for some air.

The bishop opens his arms to the neophytes and once again all burst into “Christ is risen,” Christos aneste …. He then affirms and seals their baptism after prayer, for all the Faithful to see, with an authoritative gesture of paternity — laying his hand on each head, signing each oily forehead once again in the form of a cross, while booming out: “The servant of God is sealed with the Holy Spirit.” To which all reply in a thunderous “Amen.” and for the first time the former catechumens receive and give the kiss of peace. Everyone is in tears. While this continues, bread and wine are laid out on the holy table; the bishop then prays at great length over them after things quiet down, and the neophytes lead all to communion with Euphemius out in front.

While his grandfather holds his lamp, Euphemius dines on the precious Body whose true and undoubted member he has become; drinks the precious Blood of him in whom he himself has now died; and just this once drinks from two other special cups — one containing baptismal water, the other containing milk and honey mixed as a gustatory icon of the promised land into which he and his colleagues have finally entered out of the desert through Jordan’s waters. Then his mother (now recovered and somewhat pale, still insisting she had only stumbled) took him home and put him, fragrantly, to bed.

Euphemius had come a long way. He had passed from death unto a life he lives still.

+ + +

Delivered at Holy Cross Abbey, Canon City, Colorado,
Theology Institute, August, 1977
Copyright © 2003 St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. All rights reserved.

Aiden Kavanagh, one of the great liturgical scholars and sacramental theologians of
the twentieth century, delivered this lecture at Holy Cross Abbey, Canon City,
Colorado, Theology Institute, August, 1977. He departed this life in June, 2006.

Sacramental Validity Under Sola Fide and According to the Gospel Promise

The Singular Divine Sacrament

promise[1].jpgIn this post I will examine what makes a sacrament “valid”, under the assumptions of the Lutheran Sola Fide.

Firstly, according to the Lutheran Sola Fide, there is in actual fact only one single sacrament: The preaching of the Gospel promise. This sacramental promise is effective ex opere operato in the sense that the promise is unconditional, and therefore God himself guarantees the fulfilment of the promise, and our response to that promise in the meantime cannot thwart his sovereign will in doing so. However in order for the promise to take effect at the present time and be successfully applied, it needs to be fully trusted by the person to whom the promise is spoken.

But what is the promise? The promise is God himself, the final glorious moment of history, the eschaton. From a Christian perspective, the promise is the resurrected Jesus Christ himself, revealed to the world as a pledge of things to come, and as the gateway through which we may access those good things right now in this present moment. When someone speaks the promise to another, they are bestowing God himself through their speaking, and it depends on the freedom of the listener as to whether or not the divine promise (God himself) will penetrate into their mind, heart and soul.

The Islamic principle of Tahwid and it’s manifestation as the classical theistic principle of divine simplicity apply to the promise just as much as they apply to God, due to this equivalence between the promise and God himself. So in a certain mystical sense, God is the promiser, God is the one to whom the promise is spoken, and God is the promise itself, and these three are all equivalent. Whenever one person proclaims the promise to another person, God is promising God to God. This is in fact a way of framing the Trinitarian relationship: The Father is the one who promises, The son is the promise itself, and the Spirit is the sacramental act of proclaiming the promise. (Notice the similarities to the classical/Nicaean “Father, Word/λογος, divine generation” Trinitarian construal). According to divine simplicity, God speaks his promise corporately to the entire creation, however he personalises this promise for individuals through the preaching and proclamation of the Gospel promise by those individuals.

But what IS the promise?

54c1321e40688_150124PreachingCAB.jpgThis is all very mystical however. So what does this singular sacrament look like in day to day preaching and evangelism? Well, it is different every time, but essentially always looks something like this:

“I am really with you, I love you, I will never leave you, I will always forgive you, I will save you, I will help you to forever escape the darkness and enter into the light, I will not be saved without you.”

A believer has the power to speak this fundamental sacramental promise with authority and conviction, on behalf of God, to someone who remains wandering in the outer darkness. As already mentioned, the promise is unconditional, guaranteed, and ex opere operato. However in order for the promise to actually bear fruit in the life of the person who hears it, that person must respond in faith. And so we come to the “Requirements for validity” with respect to the sacrament.

In order for the sacrament to be administered with validity, all that is required is

  1. The minister must actively intend to proclaim the divine promise to a sinner.
  2. The sinner must understand the promise and it’s full implications with their mind and intellect.
  3. The recipient must freely trust the promise with their heart and will.

These three points together are the absolute minimum that is required for the sacrament to be valid and efficacious.

Relevant questions may be raised at this point: Who is a valid minister of the sacrament? The minimum answer is “Anyone”. Literally anyone can proclaim the promise to anyone else. However it is “more perfect” (Or sunnah, as Muslims would say) firstly for the minister himself to be a believer in the promise (although this is not strictly necessary), and also for the sacrament to be administered by whoever possesses the highest degree of ordination in any given situation. So for example, in an emergency where a Hindu and Muslim are stuck in a desert and by some miracle both of them come to believe the promise, they have permission and power to speak the promise to each other with divine authority. In another situation, where there are many bishops available, the bishops should perform the sacrament. If there are no bishops, priests will suffice, and so on.

Roughly speaking, the preferential hierarchy which should be followed in the administration of the sacrament is

  1. Pope
  2. Archbishop
  3. Bishop
  4. Priest
  5. Deacon
  6. Subdeacon
  7. One who is confirmed
  8. One who is baptised
  9. One who himself believes the promise
  10. Anyone else

A Gospel Fiqr

keep-calm-and-follow-the-sunnah-2[1].pngIn Islamic terminology, what has been described so far falls under the category of Fard (ie. Obligatory). However there is also the category of Sunnah (ie. Preferred but not essential), which represents conditions which make the sacrament “more perfect”. Sunnah requirements should always be followed if possible. They are not optional, in the sense that you cannot just dispense with them at your whim and pleasure, however they are not strictly necessary, in the sense that during an emergency they may be dispensed with.

This is the point where the traditional seven sacraments come into play, as well as other unique sacramental economies such as the Later Day Saint system of ordinances. Each of these “traditional” sacraments and ordinances are in actual fact merely concrete manifestations of the one single sacrament already described. I will elaborate on how this is the case shortly.

The Sunnah requirements for all of these sacraments and ordinances are described in the various apostolic Christian traditions that are to be found throughout the world: Coptic, Byzantine, Latin, West Syrian, East Syrian, Armenian, Mormon, Lutheran, Anglican etc. And even within these apostolic traditions there are variations in the rulings and laws that are followed, for example in the Byzantine churches there are many major and minor variations in how the sacraments are performed. A broad example would be how Western Christians consider it Sunnah to use unleavened bread during the Eucharist, whereas Eastern Christians consider it Sunnah to use leavened bread. Another example would be how Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Christians consider it to be Sunnah to baptise by merely sprinkling water on the head of the catechumen or baby in the shape of a cross, whereas many other Christians consider it to be Sunnah and essential to baptise by full immersion. The Latter Day Saints, in their interpretation of Christian law, take this particular requirement so seriously that they actually consider a baptism to be invalid if even a single hair remains above the water.

Let’s examine how the singular sacramental promise manifests under the form of the traditional seven sacraments

The Sacraments

Baptism

502016177_univ_lsr_xl[1].jpgBaptism manifests the promise and intends to convey “Spiritual cleanliness”, “Justification”, “Forgiveness”, “Entry into the New Creation (Eschaton)”. The symbolism is that of dying as one goes under the water, and resurrecting as they come out of the water. (Clearly the symbolism gets a bit muddied in the Christian traditions which don’t practice baptism by immersion)

Requirement for validity:

As long as the minister intends to convey the promise (ie, to forgive, clean and justify), it doesn’t actually matter whether you use water or the Trinitarian formula (“I baptise you in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit”). So baptisms which don’t involve water and don’t use the correct formula are in actual fact still valid. However remember the Sunnah requirements. If you want to perform the sacrament in accord with the rules of sacramental perfection, you should follow an apostolic tradition, and use water and the Trinitarian formula. However in a pinch, any liquid or substance that can be sprinkled will do; the exact words used don’t matter, and the only requirements for validity are those that were spelt out earlier in this article for the singular sacrament of promise.

Confession

Confession3-258x258[1].jpgConfession is a sacramental reminder of the promise that was spoken during baptism. It is referred to as the promise of absolution, because in this sacrament the promise is applied specifically to wash away guilt. When we confess our sins and receive the promise of absolution, it is a reminder of the one, single promise that we are loved by God, and he will never abandon us, and generally speaking trusting in this promise leads to an absolution of guilt. After confession, you simply don’t feel guilty any more, you feel free, because you trust the promise that was spoken. Unfortunately many scrupulous Catholics don’t realise that this promise is eternal, and they end up sinning the moment they leave the confessional, forgetting the promise, and thus returning to the state of feeling horrible, soul crushing guilt.

Requirements for validity:

Traditionally, Catholics and Orthodox have understood this sacrament to require a validly ordained priest. However according to the generic rules of validity outlined earlier, this is not strictly necessary, and anyone can validly absolve anyone else in an emergency. However, when striving to follow the Christian tradition perfectly and observe the Sunnah, it is important to leave the administration of this sacrament up to the highest ranked ordained ministers who are present. So if there are priests available, leave this sacrament to them.

As long as the minister intends to speak the promise of absolution and forgiveness, it doesn’t actually matter what formula is used. But if striving to follow Sunnah, it is appropriate to use the Trinitarian formula (“I absolve you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”)

Confirmation

index.jpegConfirmation is the sacrament where election and predestination are promised, via the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Someone who is confirmed has received the promise that God will never abandon them until they successfully arrive in the eschaton.

Requirements for validity:

As with Confession, as long as the minister intends to promise election and predestination, the sacrament is valid; and so long as the one being confirmed trusts the promise, the sacrament is efficacious. There is no specified minimum form and matter. So it doesn’t matter what substance is used (traditionally holy chrism) and it doesn’t matter what sacramental words are spoken, so long as the promise is conveyed and understood correctly. However again, it is more appropriate to use an apostolic verbal formula and holy oil during the administration of this sacrament. In accordance with the apostolic Christian Sunnah.

Again, it does not ultimately matter who performs this sacrament. A Hindu can confirm a Muslim. However it is more appropriate for the highest ranking cleric present to do it. So in the absence of a bishop, leave it to a priest. In the absence of a priest, leave it to a deacon, and so on.

Last rites

index (1).jpegLast rites serves as a reminder of the promise at the most crucial moment of a persons life: right before they are about to die. The process of dying is a final battle, where Satan and all his demons swoop in and do battle with Michael and all his angels. The Devil accuses the person who is dying of all of their sins, and so it is helpful for a person to have the gospel promise fresh in their memory as armour and a weapon against this onslaught of evil and temptation.

Requirements for validity:

So long as the minister intends to remind the dying sinner of the gospel promise, the general rules of validity outlined earlier are all that matter: There must be intent, understanding, and faith. And anyone is a valid minister. But to perform the sacrament perfectly it should be done according to the rubrics of a valid apostolic tradition.

Eucharist

eucharist[1].jpgThe Eucharist manifests the promise for the purpose of giving us a tangible direction of worship, and symbolising our unity with the divine via eating. The particular aspect of the promise that is emphasised is “I am truly with you. And I am uniting myself to you”.

Whenever a consecrated host is eaten by a believer, the heavenly sacrifice and heavenly liturgy are made present. However this sacrifice and liturgy is made more perfectly present by the observation of a rich and symbolic liturgical rite. Such liturgical rites can indeed be invented out of thin air (As Vatican II demonstrated), but respect for tradition is key, and it is preferable to observe a traditional liturgy.

Requirements for validity:

As long as the minister intends to really, truly, tangibly make God present under a manifest/mundane form, this sacrament is valid. Importantly, there is no necessary prescription for form and matter: so it is possible to consecrate literally any object. Rice, wine, bread, whiskey, icecream. Even a rock or a painting could be validly consecrated. However if the consecration is occurring in the context of the mass, the matter should be something edible. Of course there are prudential considerations, such as choosing a substance that doesn’t crumble and won’t be abused. So even though it is possible to consecrate icecream, this is a bad idea as it will lead to Eucharistic desecration as the icecream melts. As before, the exact minister of the sacrament does not matter: it could be a priest or a lay person. Ordination is not necessary. And the words of institution are not necessary either, just so long as the promise and message is accurately conveyed. (There is actually already an apostolic precedent for this view in the Assyrian Church of the East. They do not include the words of institution in their liturgy, and yet it is still recognised as valid by the Catholic magisterium)

These flexible requirements allow a more permanent object to be consecrated for the purpose of extended adoration, such as a crystal or golden statue. At the same time they allow for a wide variety of edible substances to be consecrated, to cater to different allergies and dietary restrictions that recipients of the sacrament may be subject to.

Of course, to follow the requirements of Sunnah, the classical sacramental words of institution should be employed (“This is my body, this is my blood”), and bread and wine should be chosen for the elements. And as per usual, the highest ranking ordained minister should perform the rite. Furthermore, the rubrics of the liturgical rite should be followed as closely as possible, with the correct vestments, hymns, readings and so on chosen. But none of this is necessary, merely preferred.

Marriage

married-by-mom-and-dad-arranged-marriage.jpegMarriage is when two spouses speak the promise to each other as individuals. Firstly the groom acts as God in promising salvation and fidelity to his wife, and then the bride acts as God in doing the same back to her new husband. Mystically speaking, this sacrament is the most perfect manifestation of the fact that “God promises salvation to God”.

Requirements for Validity:

The husband must intend to promise “I love you and will never leave you until you are saved” to his wife, and vice versa. Gay marriage becomes possible, as well as polygamy and polyamory. No special words are mandated, just so long as the promise is accurately conveyed and trusted by both partners.

Of course to perform the sacrament according to the Sunnah of apostolic Christianity, the groom and bride should both use the “I marry you” sacramental formula and follow whatever other rules are specified by the Christian tradition in question. For example, according to most traditional strands of Christianity, marriage is Sunnah when it is between a man and a woman, but not when it is between two people of the same sex.

Note that under these flexible requirements, it is technically possible for children to validly get married. But obviously there are Sunnah restrictions on this practice, as there are lots of ethical concerns and issues.

Holy orders

ordination[1].jpgHoly Orders is actually very similar to the Eucharist, however instead of an inanimate object being consecrated and transubstantiated, a human person becomes consecrated and transubstantiated, in such a way that they manifest God and divine authority for the benefit of some community.

Requirements for Validity:

The minister performing the ordination must intend to promise to some third party that they possess the divine authority, and the community must trust that promise. This bestowal of authority more perfectly makes present God to a community. The promise in this case is similar to the Eucharistic promise: “This is (or represents) God; trust him!”

Again, it doesn’t matter who ordains who for validity. So an isolated community can validly raise up an ordained leader from amongst themselves in an emergency. However to follow the Sunnah of the apostolic traditions, the person performing the ordination should be in the line of apostolic succession and higher in authority than the person being ordained.

Interestingly, the validity of the ordination depends on the recognition of that authority by a community. If a priest were to travel to a foreign country and try to exercise his priestly authority in a community other than the one in which he was ordained, he may very well be laughed at. Authority demands recognition, or it is no authority at all.

Interestingly, it becomes possible for someone to be ordained directly by God, apart from apostolic succession. Allegedly this happened in the case of Saint Paul and Joseph Smith. And it becomes possible for an isolated community to raise up a bishop (or perhaps even a pope) ex nihilo.

This principle lends validity to religious hierarchies that naturally develop all around the world. Muslims tend to raise up imams and sheiks from amongst their own ranks, and this is a form of sacramental ordination apart from the Christian traditions. It is the same with Hinduism and Buddhism. Wherever strong, religious leadership emerges, there is usually a valid expression of sacramental ordination in play. Mormon Apostles and Prophets are therefore just as validly ordained as Catholic bishops and priests, and there can technically be more than one Pope, as the authority of the Pope depends on the recognition of the people. However at the top of every hierarchy, whether religious or secular, there is only one God. So above the Pope, and above the Ayatollah, and above the Queen, and above the American President, there is God. Democracy is a form of secular ordination that may or may not have a certain sacramental character, as leaders are chosen by the people and raised up from the people.

Jesus was not born God, he “became” God

20091210_thisissue_600-kindle-cover_w[1]The Muslims are right: Jesus was just a man. He wasn’t God. He was just a dude. He had a single nature and that nature was human. In fact, Jesus was peccable, which is to say he was able to sin. Adds a whole new dimension to the temptation in the wilderness story doesn’t it? Our saviour really could have failed, he really could have given in to the temptations!

However, at no point did he actually sin. If we conceive of sins as the bricks in a wall that stands between us and God and separate us from him, then consider what it means for Jesus to not have to contend with such a barrier. At all times, Jesus the man had full and direct access to God. There was no sin that stood in his way. In other words, from the moment of his conception all the way through his life and ministry, and even up to his death; Jesus experienced a profound unity with God and a full theosis.

Now, Jesus was fully man, which means that he inherited a fallen, imperfect human nature just like the rest of us. And this was why he needed to be baptised! Baptism removes the curse of original sin, which Jesus suffered from just like all of us, even if he never commit any actual moral fault.

But Jesus experienced full theosis, which is to say that even though he was merely a man by nature, it would be accurate to call him “fully God” by participation. And this would hold true for the duration of his entire life. So there is a sort of dyophysis at play: Jesus is fully man by nature, and fully God by participation, and there is a strict separation between the two natures. If at any time he had slipped up and sinned, he would have lost his full participation in divinity, as the bricks in the wall between him and God would have begun to stack up.

But no, Jesus was fully united to the divine λογος for his entire life. Never did he slip up. There have been many saints, Christian and otherwise who have also achieved a full unity with the λογος, for example Muhammad and Buddha, but what separates these saints and mystics from Jesus is that they begun their journey behind the wall of sin, and had to dismantle it brick by brick, whereas Jesus experienced theosis for the entire duration of his life.

Now, Jesus died. For the purposes of this discussion the details are not relevant, whether it was by murder or by old age does not matter. The crucial point is that this innocent man died; the only man who had ever lived his entire life without sinning once. But the wages of sin is death, so how could a man who had never sinned be subject to the penalty of death? And so the Justice of God becomes manifest as God raises Jesus from death to new life; a new life from which he will never die again.

But something funny happened as Jesus passed from death to new life. His nature changed. He took on an eschatalogical existence. No longer was he a dyophysis of created nature and divine participation. Instead he takes on the divine simplicity of a miaphysis; he becomes God! My thesis is therefore that the full incarnation did not occur at Christmas, but at Easter. Jesus was not born as God, he became God. Yes there was a sense in which he was fully God for his entire life and ministry, but this was merely by “participation”, not by “nature”. However the game changed after the resurrection. Jesus truly could be referred to as fully God in every respect. In fact, all of the imperfections and limitations of his human nature were swallowed up in the divine nature, like a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless he retained his created attributes.

This is why it is now appropriate to worship Jesus as the one true God. He has attained the divine perfections and exists already at the end of history, in the eschaton. This is why he says “no one comes to the father except through me”. God is eternally hidden, unmanifest, and there is valid no way to worship him, despite his being the only valid object of worship. But Jesus changes all that. He has broken the curtain that separates us from God in half and taken on a tangible form. Now we direct our worship towards this man Jesus, in the Eucharist, in the flesh. He became God, but by being God, he always was God. And so it will be with us. All of us will achieve theosis, and then all of us will achieve resurrection, and finally all of us will become the λογος incarnate. But while we are pilgrims here, on this side of the eschaton, waiting for that glorious resurrection, only Jesus is God, and only him do we worship.

Ecclesiology – Communion and Schism

“What is the church?” It’s a simple question with a by-no-means simple answer. Protestant ecclesiology is fairly simple: “The church is wherever there are two or three believers gathered in the name of Christ” or “The church is all true believers around the world”. In the Protestant account of things, the church is entirely invisible: it is not associated with any particular group or institution. In comparison to this simple and straightforward understanding, Catholic ecclesiology is a fascinating, complex topic.

The One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church

300px-THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEA[1].jpgThe four marks of the church enumerated by the Nicene creed are “One”, “Holy”, “Catholic” and “Apostolic”. This is a helpful starting point. In my understanding, the two most important marks are “One” and “Apostolic”.

To say that the church is “One” is a statement of numerical oneness: there are not two churches; there are not three churches; there is only one church. However to say that the church is “One” is not necessarily a statement of internal unity. I will return to this point later, but for now it suffices to say that not everyone who is in communion with the church fully agrees with and understands everything that the church teaches.

To say that the church is “Apostolic” is to say that the leadership of the church are able to trace a straight line of succession back through history via the laying on of hands all the way down to the Apostles and Jesus himself. A church must be led by a bishop, and this bishop must be able to trace his authority back through previous bishops all the way to the Apostles.

To say that the church is “Catholic” is to say that the church is universal: That is, the church is not tied down to any particular language or culture or ethnicity; everyone is welcome. It also implies that the church is the rightful owner of all truth, wherever it may be stumbled upon. Anything true and beautiful is universal, Catholic truth, even if such truth and beauty is found in non-Christian philosophies or other, totally different religions.

Additional Marks

Now, there are some other “lesser” marks of the church which were not included in the Nicene creed, but are nevertheless considered important in Catholic ecclesiology: In addition to the four marks, the Church is also “Visible”, “Eucharistic” and “Monarchical”.

To say that the church is “Visible” is to say that it is possible to identify the church in a tangible, physical sense. How this plays out in the Catholic understanding is that any given diocese IS the one true church, provided that the bishop who governs that diocese has valid apostolic succession. There is only one single church in the entire world, however that one single church manifests all over the world in the form of the many and various dioceses. Now, there are many dioceses, but there are not many churches, there is only one. In any case, each and every diocese, headed by a bishop who has been validly ordained, represents a concrete manifestation in a particular place of the one true church.

Monstrance-Cut-Out[1].jpgTo say that the Church is “Eucharistic” is merely an implication of the fact that the church is “Visible” and “Apostolic”: A bishop who has valid holy orders has the power and authority to consecrate bread and wine and transubstantiate them into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This Eucharist is God himself coming to us under a visible form. Christians gather around this visible, physically tangible presence of God. The Eucharist is a focal point of church unity; those who share in the lord’s supper together enjoy a profound spiritual communion with God and with each other; they become “one body of Christ, in Christ”. The Eucharist transforms the church from merely being an impersonal organisation and an impassionate institution, into being a lively community of faithful human individuals, united together in a profound love.

The final mark of the church is the mark of Monarchy, and this is the most contentious mark of all, representing a stumbling block to many, both Christian and non-Christian. To say that the church is “Monarchical” is to say that the church has a single, supreme leader. As before mentioned, at the level of a diocese, the supreme leader is the bishop or archbishop. However at the level of the entire, mystical body of Christ spread throughout the world, the supreme leader is the successor of Peter: the Catholic Pope.

Two Kinds of Schism

jIvJLxy[1].jpgI mentioned before that the church being “One” does not imply strict unity. Within the church there are disagreements and dissensions. These disagreements and dissensions wound and damage the unity of the church, without totally destroying that unity. In recent years, the Catholic church has come to call this situation “partial communion”: within the church there has been a split between two parties, however this split does not represent a total destruction of unity between those two parties; they are still united, but imperfectly. This is indeed a schism, but it is a schism within the church: the two parties involved have not actually separated themselves from the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.

There is, however, another sort of schism. This would be a schism of separation. Such a schism would be one in which the two parties involved disagree at such a fundamental level that one of the parties has actually separated itself from communion with the church entirely.

What would lead to these schisms coming about? In the case of the first kind of schism – that of a schism within the church – all that would be required is for the church in full communion with the Pope to declare an ecumenical dogma, and for the remainder of the church to refuse to assent to that dogma. Such a refusal to assent does not necessarily constitute an explicit, dogmatic rejection of the dogma in question, and therefore does not lead to a total cutting off from the one, true church. However such a refusal to assent does represent a division within the church, because there are people within the church who are not “on the same page” as the rest of the church. Such a schism can therefore be referred to as a schism of non-assent, and it represents a situation of “partial communion” between two parties: the communion has not been destroyed, but it has been wounded.

beware-dogma[1]On the other hand, if the party not in full communion with the Pope were to come together and formulate their own dogmatic statements which flatly contradict the dogmas of the church in full communion with the Pope, the communion between the two parties would be entirely severed. This would not merely be an implicit or tentative rejection of Catholic dogma, it would instead represent a final and definitive rejection of the truth. Such a schism would lead to the actual separation of the dissenting party from the one true church. This would no longer be a schism within the church; it would be an actual separation of one church into two churches, one valid and one invalid. I call this a schism of dissent.

An Abolition of Authority

Remember that one of the marks of the church is that it is monarchical: It has a supreme leader, the successor of Peter, and you must be in at least partial communion with him in order to be said to be a member of the one true church. If you damage your communion with him, it’s not the end of the world, as this is a schism of non-assent and therefore does not exclude you from communion. But what happens if you completely destroy your communion?

I suspect that a community which were to fully and completely destroy its communion with the one true church – in such a way that there is not any communion remaining – would lose it’s authority to perform the sacraments. I suspect that such a community’s Eucharist would become invalid, and their holy orders would be nullified. The reason why is that they have completely cut themselves off from the head of the church. All sacramental power flows from Christ to the Pope to the bishops. To completely cut yourself off from the Pope is to completely cut yourself off from Christ.

The Great Schisms

Now lets apply all these reflections to the actual history of the church.

MA_East_west_schism[1].jpgThe first major schism was with the Church of the East, sometimes known as “The Nestorian church”. Was this schism a schism of non-assent, or was it a schism of dissent? From my reading of history, it seems to me that it was merely a schism of non-assent, because the church of the east never produced a counter dogma, and therefore at the institutional level the Church of the East never definitively denied any Catholic dogmas. And so the Church of the East did not therefore cut itself off entirely from the Pope. In this way, their sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church. This was a schism within the church.

The next big schism was with the group of churches who in the modern era are referred to as the “Oriental Orthodox” churches. From my reading of history, this too was a schism of non-assent. The Oriental Orthodox could not bring themselves to assent to the Christological statements of Chalcedon. Despite the fact that they disagreed with the dogmas, this disagreement was never expressed in final, dogmatic terms of their own. In this way, their sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church. This too was a schism within the church.

img_1215[1]Next was the most famous schism of all: the East-West schism, sometimes referred to as “The Great Schism”. This was between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholics. It’s actually hard to pin down exactly when and how this schism occurred; many dates are given, sometimes as early as 400AD, sometimes as late as 1800AD, the most common date given is 1058 but there is not unanimous agreement on this. The fact that it is so ambiguous when this schism actually occurred is quite a significant hint that this too was not a schism which lead to a total separation of communion. At no point did the east ever produce a counter dogma which contradicted the dogmas of the Western ecumenical councils, so this schism, if it ever actually happened, was also a schism of non-assent. The eastern sacraments remained valid, and their dioceses continued to represent visible manifestations of the one true church.

Things were different with the protestant reformation. During the protestant reformation, both apostolic succession and the Eucharist were abandoned. These are essential aspects of the one true church, and without them, unity is entirely severed. The protestants cannot even be said to be in partial communion. Their communion has been entirely abolished. There is still a sense in which we have communion with them, but it is a virtual communion based on a limited degree of shared belief, rather than the robust communion enjoyed by members of the one true church. Such a virtual communion is also shared with atheists and members of other religions. Everyone is connected to the church to a greater or lesser extent, but it is only those communities which possess the 7 marks of the church which can be said to enjoy a real communion.

ID_episode64_MH_3[1].jpgFurther solidifying the point is that the reformation schism was a schism of dissent: many of the reformation churches produced their own statements of faith, which explicitly and dogmatically bound members of those communities to a rejection of Catholic dogma. The situation is complicated by the fact that reformation churches do not even officially believe in in the concept of dogma, and so it is hard to say whether or not their rejection of Catholic dogmas constitutes a final, irreformable and irreconcilable rejection. It is therefore ambiguous whether or not these churches are in a schism of dissent or merely schism of non-assent. However their rejection of apostolic succession and the Eucharist is sufficient to entirely break down communion. Protestants are not members of the one true church.

Final Words

In conclusion, The Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Church of the East together represent one single church. All of the dioceses of these institutions represent manifestations of the one true church in a particular place and for a particular culture. All of these institutions have valid sacraments, and gather around a valid Eucharist. These institutions are in a state of schism with each other, but this is a schism within the church, and does not represent a real split of one church into many churches. The schism is merely one of non-assent, and therefore does not represent a total break in communion. The communion has been wounded, and this is not an ideal situation, however the communion has not been wounded beyond a point where ecumenical repair is possible.

21414maininfocusimage[1].jpgI want to re-emphasise the importance of being in at least partial communion with the successor of Peter: Without maintaining a level of communion with the successor of Peter, apostolic succession is nullified and the Eucharist is therefore invalidated. The Orthodox churches are all in partial communion with the Pope, and this is enough to ensure that their sacraments are valid, however if they were to finally, definitively and entirely break from communion they would lose this privilege. Exactly this has happened with the protestants, and it makes the task of reunification infinitely harder. Pray for unity!

 

Holy Saturday and the Unquenchable Love of the Latter Day Saints

Hans-Memling-The-Last-Judgment-The-First-Stolen-Painting[1].jpgThought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  • Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
  • Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
  • Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

php_hell_01[1].jpgAs I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.

Cotton+MS+Nero+C+IV+f.24[1].pngNow, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.

Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?

mormon-spirit-prison[1].gifHonestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons, because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the LDS church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons get it right.

Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.

Testimony – Christian to Catholic

(Go to part 1 – “Agnostic to Christian”)

Dawn of a New Day

I woke up the day after my conversion and was full of zeal to read the bible. The Valium that my stepfather had given me the previous night was obviously only a quick fix and not a long term solution to my mania. As I woke up I was incredibly edgy; I was dead set on trying to track down Alex Macdonald again to continue our discussion. My family tried to discourage me and get me to stay at home but I was adamant: I felt like I absolutely had to keep talking to Alex. I had so many questions: I believed in Jesus now, but I didn’t even know what that meant or implied! My head was swimming with religious concepts and ideas: I wanted nothing more than to put them all together and integrate them into my understanding of reality.

I left Mum’s house and began jogging back to Alex’s house, shooting him text messages as I went. My phone was incredibly low on battery and the text messages were not particularly sober. As I jogged, I was praying constantly in the only way that I knew how, and for the most minutely detailed things, for example that my phone would stay turned on for just long enough to send the next message. I behaved quite irrationally, taking shortcuts that I was unfamiliar with and getting lost on the way.

new-testament-psalms-kjv-thomas-nelson-vest-pocket-bound-book-gideons-national-0be10e7503f62a9003c7fb6867e51e4c[1].jpgEventually I arrived at Alex’s house and violently knocked on the door. I could tell someone was home because I could hear movement within the house, but no one answered the door. After some frustrating waiting, I went down the front steps and lay on the grass, reading a Gideon s pocket new testament that I had brought with me.

Hermeneutics was a concept that I had never been introduced to at this point, so as I read the New Testament I was filled with all sorts of wacky and wonderful eisegetical ideas and concepts. I turned back to the story of Jesus in the desert being tempted by the Devil and read it closely. I read the following passage:

Matthew 4:1-4RSV-CE

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

72647261dcde7ac05e8264f247adf541[1]I looked down at my hands: I was holding some bread that I had brought with me from Mum’s house. I looked around Alex’s garden: there were many stones lying alongside the garden path. “Aha!” I thought to myself: “This is exactly what God is trying to tell me!” – I had made some psychotic link between the rocks in the garden, the bread in my hand, and this passage of scripture. Obviously the pattern recognition part of my brain was going into overdrive.

I continued lying on the grass, leafing through the little New Testament, until Alex arrived in the family car. He and his Dad had been driving around looking for me. Obviously Mum had got into a bit of a panic and so had Alex’s family. I was causing a lot of trouble.

Alex agreed to walk with me again, and we spoke about Christian, biblical and religious concepts as we walked around Pennant Hills. This walk was nowhere near as long as our walk the previous night, and Alex was clearly exhausted and out of his depth. I was buzzing and overflowing with all sorts of ideas and I was struggling to slow down enough to articulate them clearly.

In the Emergency Room

Soon enough our walk ended and my stepfather drove over and picked me up. My mania was in full swing again and I was feeling incredibly excited, bubbling and overflowing with amazing ideas. The connections between all sorts of things I’d learned in the past became super obvious and I was lost for words. My stepfather drove me to Hornsby hospital and we sat in the emergency ward, waiting for our turn.

350ml-Thankyou_2015_450W[1].pngI remember being highly aware of the power of empathy at the time. I was convinced that happiness and joy were infectious things, and that if I could only keep smiling and feeling good in myself, I might be able to “heal” some of the people who were in pain in the emergency department waiting room. To this day I believe that I was right, however in retrospect I recognise that I did not have quite the power to make any significant difference to these peoples mental states. I remember at one point my step dad got up to buy some water from a vending machine. It was the brand “Thank you water”. When he showed me the bottle I was very impressed, because thankfulness was a mindset that I could suddenly relate to incredibly well and it seemed like the ideal emotion to experience.

Eventually it was our turn to enter what can only be described as an interview room. I was talking non-stop, and incredibly excited, experiencing a constant state of awe as I pondered all sorts of deep and amazing ideas and concepts at top speed. My step dad just sat and listened to what I was saying. At the time it seemed like he was actually sincerely trying to make sense of what I was saying, and he had an incredibly humble and understanding demeanour.

Some female doctors entered the room and started talking to me, asking me questions. I was somewhat back in “manipulation mode” and was trying to anticipate what they would say and read the motivations and intentions behind their words. It all seemed like a game to me, and I decided that I would just play along.

cOubz.jpgThere was a fear at the back of my head that I had suffered some sort of brain damage, and I managed to convey this to everyone in the room. Eventually they drugged me up with some sort of extreme sedative, took a blood test and sat me in a wheel chair. At this point I recall all the mania dissipating completely, being replaced with an intense sluggishness and my being barely aware of my surroundings. My memory of what follows is incredibly vague. I do however have vague recollections of being jammed into an MRI or CAT scan tube and having my brain x-rayed.

As they wheeled me around in the wheelchair, I could barely keep my head up. I remember raising my head for long enough to say something like “THIS is what drugs do”: I was a classic “not even once” poster boy.

Into the Insane Asylum

I was wheeled to the hospital mental ward, and the following few days were a total blur. They put me in the acute psychosis ward, which was the most serious and highly monitored ward in the hospital. This was the ward where they had a locked and padded room for the really crazy and aggressive sorts (thankfully I never had to go in there).

not-the-messiah-624x260[1].jpgAt this time, all I can remember is a constant, bright light, and the overwhelming sensation that I myself was Jesus Christ. I suspect that I was enjoying some perverted and unsustainable form of theosis. I was so closely united to God that I was unable to distinguish between myself and Jesus. Obviously this all sounded like total crazy talk to the wardens, doctors and my family. To this day, my Mum likes to joke about the ordeal by quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah! He’s just a very naughty boy!”

I don’t know how long I spent in the acute ward. I have many memories of being in there, but I remember that I was not myself: I had lost track of my identity and was feeling generally blissful and protected within some sort of divine embrace. I recall feeling edgy: there was a scary guy in the ward called Warwick who wore Satanistic T-Shirts and had long punk rock hair. I didn’t trust him and he gave off evil vibes. I recall one time he was talking theories about the bible. He wrote up the letters that spell “bible” on the whiteboard and wrote next to each letter: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. This guy was weird. There was one point where I swear I saw him smuggling drugs into the ward with the assistance of one of his visitors. I reported him, and I don’t recall what happened next but I feared for my life.

maxresdefault[3].jpgEventually I was moved out of the acute ward into the “low maintenance” ward. I was held here for three weeks, but the three weeks felt like an eternity. Being in this part of the mental hospital was an extremely unique experience and felt like quite an ordeal. Everyone in this ward is trying as hard as they can to seem sane so that they can be discharged back to the real world, however this feels like an impossible task. The maxim “you become the company you keep” is incredibly profound and totally true. So of course, when you are surrounded by crazy and unstable people, you yourself soak up some of the craziness and instability. This makes actually getting out of the hospital almost impossible: you are trying to regain your sanity enough that the doctors feel safe discharging you, and yet you are constantly being dragged down by the other insane people in the Asylum. Just as you think you are doing alright, a totally bonkers lady from the ward next door gets introduced and brings you back down to where you started.

Eventually it got to the point where the doctors felt comfortable letting me out of the hospital for a few hours during the day. I immediately used the opportunity to collect some stuff to entertain myself while I was stuck in the hospital. I picked up my juggling balls and I collected my full bible. I spent the remainder of my time in hospital trying to learn how to juggle five balls at once and reading through the bible.

I read all of Genesis, all of Revelation, half of Exodus, and all of Matthew. Genesis was easy to read and made lots of sense. Revelation was incredibly difficult and made absolutely no sense.

bookmark.jpgThere were a surprising amount of Christians in the mental hospital. We banded together and hung out with each other. I remember sitting outside in the sun, on a stretch chair, with an older Christian called Matthew and a younger lady sitting next to me. Matthew encouraged me to keep reading the bible and assured me that the Christian life is the good life. The younger lady was happy to see that I was reading the bible and gifted me a Christian bookmark which I still have to this day. I vaguely remember someone coming up to us and trying to attack the faith, but we just laughed it off and continued to enjoy the sunshine.

During my time in hospital I was incredibly resistant to taking the drugs that they were using to keep the situation under control. Nevertheless I consistently took them (they threatened to force me to swallow if I didn’t comply, and I figured I’d rather not go through that embarrassing ordeal). I recall at one point sending a text to Alex Macdonald telling him how I don’t trust the doctors and don’t want to take the drugs. He responded saying that I should probably trust the doctors advice and assuring me that he and his family were praying for me. Who was I to argue with Alex Macdonald? I took the drugs.

A Quiet Six Months

Eventually, I managed to escape the hospital. They decided I had regained enough of my sanity to discharge me and I became an outpatient. I returned to UTS housing right as the next semester was starting and attempted to get back into the flow of life.

My zeal for reading the bible and other religious enterprises slowly receded and died away. I just tried to focus on my coursework. Unfortunately this semester was the semester during which my cohort was supposed to do “SDP” – a massive, double credit points software development project. I ended up in a team full of other scholarship students like myself, including my good friends Alex Eagles and Ryan Lansdowne. Unfortunately during this semester I was not quite “back to normal”; I was oversleeping due to the super sedating effects of the mood stabilisers and anti-psychotics that I had to take, and this was interfering with my coursework. By the end of semester I had contributed absolutely nothing to my SDP team, and was barely staying afloat in my other subjects. Amazingly, Alex Eagles stood up for me against the rest of the team, who wanted to fail me. Even though I really hadn’t contributed anything he still valued our friendship enough to defend me. In the end I failed SDP and just barely passed my other subjects that semester.

VicPark500[1].jpgDuring that semester, I had regular, weekly checkups with the EIPS team at Camperdown. They would write me prescriptions for the drugs that I was taking and just generally see how I’m doing. Getting from Ultimo to Camperdown involved a nice long walk up Broadway and through the University of Sydney. As I would go on this walk, it was a good time to philosophise and ponder the mysteries of the universe. Obviously one of the biggest things on my mind was my mania and psychosis: How was I supposed to interpret it? How should I integrate what happened into my understanding of life? I identified as a Christian now, but I really had absolutely no idea what that even meant: I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or what I was supposed to believe.

One day, while I was strolling through USyd and following this usual train of thought, two random people walked up to me and nervously asked if I wanted to join their bible study. I was amazed: I had literally at that very moment been thinking about how I want to learn more and understand Christianity, and then these two fellas rock up instantly and offer to answer my questions. I was so happy: this was almost like an answer to prayer. The older guy gave me a business card and we exchanged phone numbers. I was incredibly happy and excited.

Cult days

I quickly shot a message to Alex Macdonald, who I hadn’t spoken to regularly since mental hospital six months before. I excitedly told him about what had happened: I was walking through USyd, wondering about the bible and Christianity, and then these two guys came up to me and offered to read the bible with me! “How great is that!”

Alex Macdonald’s response surprised me: Rather than saying “That’s awesome man, let me know how it goes”, he immediately asked the question “Which church are they from?” I was about to be introduced to denominationalism and the existence of Christian cults. Up to this point, Christianity seemed like a monolithic religion to me. I knew of words like “Anglican”, “Lutheran”, “Presbyterian” and “Catholic”, but I didn’t discern any difference between them: they all seemed synonymous to “Christian” for me.

600x600bb[1].jpgI checked the business card that the older guy had given me. “Sydney Church of Christ” I responded. Alex Macdonald immediately shot back a message saying “Watch out man, I’ve heard about those guys, they’re a borderline cult. Be careful.” I was a little taken aback, but I thought that I was onto too much of a good thing to simply ignore what had happened. The offer to join a bible study did seem like an answer to prayer, didn’t it? Besides, I had already made an appointment with the two guys. I figured I would attend the study and see what happens, and if it ever got too weird I would eject myself and not look back.

The study came and went, and then we organised another session, and another, and another. It was all very exciting. I was totally open to whatever they were saying and I really enjoyed it as they took me on a tour of the bible and gave me the Jesus 101. I asked questions, they answered, and I felt really excited as for the first time I was actually growing in faith. I was getting a typically protestant theological grounding, mixed with some of the Church of Christ denomination theological distinctives: Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Baptismal Regeneration, the necessity of evangelism, the place of good works, and so on.

I went to some of their church events and met some of the other people in their church. At the time I didn’t notice anything weird, but in retrospect I should have realised that pretty much the entire congregation of the church consisted of university students. Everyone seemed incredibly happy and friendly, but there was a subtle undercurrent of falseness to it all, like they were really trying to be full of love, but it wasn’t coming to them naturally. Some of the guys who I spoke to seemed thoroughly indoctrinated and inebriated with Christian ideas: they were incredibly happy that they were going to be going to heaven.

It was at this church that I first had an introduction to the textual history of the bible. There was a talk about the history of scripture that was incredibly comprehensive. They spoke about the Vulgate, the Septuagint, some of the early heresies such as Gnosticism which drove the church to codify the canon of scripture and so on. I was utterly fascinated by this stuff and full of questions.

Soldier-Jesus[1].gifThis entire time, I had kept in mind Alex Macdonald’s warning that this church was a borderline cult. It wasn’t long before I started to see why. I remember the first few services of theirs that I went to. The music was all incredibly numbing and repetitive. The lyrics were banal. There was lots of clapping and “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” – It all seemed a bit crazy to me. This was the first time I got cult vibes. The second time was during one of their sermons: The preacher was talking about the Greek word “okefelou”, commonly translated as “follow me”. This preacher claimed that “follow me” is not really a strong enough translation, and that the Greek word carries connotations of terrorism. He finished his sermon by saying “Christ wants you to be a terrorist! Be a terrorist for Christ!” I know he was trying to make an evangelical point, but his choice of words was kinda weird.

Things started to get even more weird. They started quoting scriptures which talk about “Hating your family” in order to try and convince me to cease communications with my non-Christian friends and family. I had always spoken highly of Alex Macdonald to them, but as it turns out they didn’t consider him to be a Christian. This shocked and appalled me: How could Alex Macdonald possibly not be a Christian? He’s the most Christian guy I know; He’s the entire reason I was there talking to these Church of Christ guys in the first place!

They were classic “Sola Scriptura” Christians, who rejected all the ancient creeds and only believed in the bible. As such, they felt the need to “prove everything from scripture”. One of the claims they were making was that their denomination was the one true church and all people who are part of other denominations are not really Christian at all. I was dubious but open minded, and humoured them as they attempted to prove this from the bible. They were completely unable to do so. They would quote obscure, ambiguous prophecies, make strange appeals to emotion, and totally misinterpret the letters of Paul. I really don’t know how you can pull “The Church of Christ is the one true church” out of Galatians 2:10, but believe me; they tried.

dsc_1085[1].jpgI was about ready to leave at this point. However they had convinced me of one thing: believers baptism. I was now a new believer, and even though I had already been baptised as a Catholic, these guys had successfully convinced me that my prior baptism was invalid and I needed to do it again. I was torn: These guys were seeming more and more cult-like by the day, and yet I really wanted to get re-baptised as a statement of my new-found “living and active” faith in Christ. It was a very stressful time, as I was tossing up between getting baptised, and leaving their community for good.

Escaping The Cult

Eventually the pot boiled over, and I decided it was time to eject myself from this weird cult. It was actually quite hard to do this, even though I was not deeply integrated into the group, because they had been so nice, loving and friendly towards me. I felt like I was betraying them to a degree. For a couple of years afterwards, I used to second guess my decision to leave, thinking “What if they were right? What if they really were the one true church?” But of course, it later became clear that I had made the right decision.

17201170_10212531452940163_5236575150923387689_n[1].jpgIt was around about this time – mid 2013 – that Alex Macdonald reached out, sending me a slick evangelical video and asking me what I thought of it. I responded saying “Yeah man, there’s nothing in that video which I don’t believe. I have no idea what it all means though”. Alex responded saying “Really? That’s awesome man. Hey how about we meet up and chat about it?” I was super keen.

That weekend I met up with Alex and we drove around Pennant Hills in his car, discussing life and the big questions. He parked at Pennant Hills oval so that he could focus more on the chatting and less on the driving. It was raining so we didn’t get out of the car. Eventually, after he asked a whole bunch of questions and we had spoken for a while, he whipped out a book of common prayer and flicked to the apostles creed. We went through clause by clause, and I told him that I affirm all of it, even though I don’t fully comprehend it. He slammed the book shut excitedly as he realised that I really was a Christian, and said “You have no idea how long I’ve been praying for this day to arrive”. It was an incredibly happy moment for both of us.

church060[1].jpgAfter leaving the cult, I was stuck for a church to attend, so I started going to Alex Macdonald’s church at West Pennant Hills, St Matthews. I was familiar with this church, as I had visited the youth group on and off throughout highschool, and I knew many of the people in the congregation already. I ended up experiencing my first Easter Vigil at this church, and it was incredibly exciting.

I still wanted to get baptised, so I spoke to the church leadership and inquired about it. However when they heard that I had been baptised as a child they backed away and refused to baptise me. They were familiar with the theological tradition which states that there is only one baptism, and they realised that it would be inappropriate to baptise me again.

Macquarie_Group_logo[1].jpgDuring this first half of 2013, I was working an internship at Macquarie Bank. It was an incredibly lonely experience. All of my co-workers were middle aged women who were getting married and having kids. I had no one who I could talk to or relate to. Every now and then I would walk down to Darling Harbour and have lunch with Alex Eagles, who was interning at American Express. Sometimes I would have lunch with Paul Nichols, the older brother of a friend of mine from St Matthews. In general I just sat alone at lunch time and read my bible. I was not comfortable being open with my Christianity at this point and generally kept it to myself, hiding my bible so people couldn’t see it, and waffling when people asked me what I got up to on the weekend.

NTE 2013

NTE13-DL-Flyer-front[1].jpgIn December 2013 Alex Macdonald sent me a message saying “Hey, sign up for this thing, it’ll be great”. He linked me to some conference called NTE – “National Training Event”. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but my operating principle at this stage of life was “If Alex Macdonald says to do something, trust him and do it”. So I deposited my $400 bucks and signed up. Not knowing what it was I was getting into.

Later that month, we drove to Canberra and I had a rude shock as I realised where I had found myself: A massive conference with what felt like every single Christian university student in all of Australia in a single place. The vibe was incredibly exciting. There were amazing songs and sermons, all very inspiring. There were workshops and small groups. I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be 5 days of amazing, edifying fun.

In the small groups, my mind was utterly blown when my leader informed me that I was already a new creation. I thought that that was something which was going to happen when Jesus came back, but apparently I am already in heaven right now. This was mind-boggling.

NTE_crowd_0[1].jpgAlso in the small groups, we learned about “Exegesis” and the Historical-Critical method of biblical hermeneutics. I felt like I had just discovered the holy grail: this was what I had been searching for. For the past year and a half I had been trying to learn how to read the bible correctly, and this was supposed to be the answer. The conference leadership were utterly convinced that Historical-Critical exegesis is the key to understanding what God is saying through the pages of holy writ. Later on in my Christian journey I came to reassess this perspective, however at the time it was like the most amazing gift of all time.

I attended a workshop focused on Islam and was half horrified, half impressed with what I heard. The speaker was making every effort to insult, smear, attack and tear apart Islam and the Qu’ran. He was using dirty, underhand tactics. I was shocked. When Atheists did this sort of stuff to us Christians, we would get outraged. Stuff like taking a verse out of context and setting up straw man arguments. I thought that it was incredibly hypocritical. Nevertheless the seminar was informative, and I approached the speaker afterwards to ask if he could help me buy a copy of the critical edition Qu’ran which he had displayed during his talk. Due largely to this talk, I was later driven to visit a Mosque to learn from the source about Islam and Muslims. I was convinced that these people could not all be bloodthirsty bandits, rapists and terrorists. I wanted to talk to them directly.

12107858_10153293505873131_4755215337540405378_n[1]One of the other key events that happened during NTE was that I was finally introduced to Credo – the campus evangelical club for my University, UTS. I remember a plump, extremely excited Indian girl called Maree coming up to me and saying hi. She was the evangelical extraordinaire on campus. During free time, she led me over to the UTS corner of the conference site and introduced me to all of the other Christians from UTS.

It was here that I finally got to meet one of my good friends, Poya Heidarishahi. At the time he was just emerging from a rough spot, much like myself, and had finally found some loving and accepting community in Credo. He was mega extroverted, talkative and sociable, but he was unfortunately lacking self confidence. We became friends instantly.

Credo Days and the Move to St Barnabas

It was early 2014. Alex Macdonald had informed me that he was planning to move churches, due to some theological disagreements with the leadership of St Matthews. However he was delaying his departure because he was so integrated into the St Matt’s community. For one thing, I was getting a lift to Church with him every Sunday, and he would drive me to Epping station after the service so that I could trek home to UTS Housing.

At some point – probably due to this announcement from Alex that he was going to change church – I decided to find a church closer to home too. There was a good Evangelical church just down the road on Broadway called St Barnabas. I got in contact with them and asked if they could hook me up with a bible study. I started attending this church rather than St Matthews, and eventually Alex Macdonald made the move to Trinity Chapel at Macquarie University, where he has been serving ever since.

I also became more involved in Credo at UTS, getting involved in campus bible studies, and serving in the FOCUS ministry, which focuses on evangelising international and exchange students (who in practice all turned out to be from Asian countries. But we did get the odd European or middle eastern visitor).

FB-92[1].jpgAround about Easter time, I went on the Credo conference, ETC – “Easter Time Convention”. This was another spiritual high, as I felt like I was hanging out in a temporary monastery, surrounded by other excited, faithful Christians. The “You become the company you keep” principle was in effect here too, as all of us were getting high on God’s word and smashed on God’s love (and drunk on God’s blood). It was at ETC that I met Jaison Jacob. Jaison is a super devout Evangelical Calvinist, familiar with the bible and the Westminster Confession. We instantly clicked and became friends, based on our mutual admiration for theology and deep concepts.

206631_1959400226354_3519722_n[1].jpgIt was round about this time that I started to think about getting married. The Evangelical culture has an unhealthy obsession with marriage that I had begun to soak up. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, but I was enjoying lots of success flirting with girls and had established many relationships that could easily have escalated to something more serious. I even had my eye on a certain girl from FOCUS, Clara, who I had a mind to pursue more seriously. I thought to myself “I’ll probably be married within the next two years”. I remember sharing this prediction with many of my friends, some of whom were amused while others were sceptical. I remember when I told my Catholic friend from High School, Dennis McCarthy that I thought I would be married within two years, he looked at me with a bemused smile and said “That’s a very bold prediction Herlihy!”

Theological Concerns Begin to Mount

SolaScriptura[1].jpgIt was around this time, when I was more familiar with core Christian ideas and concepts, that I began to be able to formulate some actual doctrinal questions. These questions began to seem more and more serious as time went by. I had many questions surrounding the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:

  • Why should I base my entire life on the bible when I have no guarantee that God is actually speaking through it?
  • What about the problem of interpretation? Christians insist that the bible is “clear” but no one seems to be able to agree on what it actually says or means.
  • What about the canon? Why should I trust these 66 books? Why not the Catholic bible, which has more books in it? Or the Orthodox bible – which has more books still? Or the Ethiopian bible – which seemingly has hundreds of books in it?
  • What about other religions and religious texts? Muslims make the same claims for the Qu’ran that Christians make for the Bible; it seems entirely arbitrary to believe the Christians and reject the Muslims.

I also became convinced that some sort of doctrine of purgatory was essential in order to make sense of the Christian faith. Why should it be that sanctification is a long, arduous life-long process while we are alive, but then when you die God just clicks his fingers and completes the process instantaneously? It didn’t make sense to me. I figured that if Sanctification is a process now, during life; it’s probably a process after we die too. Some sort of purification is necessary to bring us to perfection before we enter Heaven. I remember having passionate debates with Jaison about this. He would seemingly blindly quote the bible as if that settles the matter, but I was completely unimpressed with this line of argument. Purgatory simply seemed to make so much sense and Jaison’s attempts to dissuade my convictions were weak and ineffective.

still-looking-imputed-righteousness[1].jpgAnother point of contention that began to creep up on me was the reformed doctrine of “double imputation”. It honestly sounded like a fat steaming pile of nonsense. These guys were expecting me to believe that God simply ignores my sins, and when he looks at me he sees Jesus instead, and when God looks at Jesus he sees me and my sins. This smelt entirely fishy. It is what Catholics refer to as a “legal fiction”: I’m still a totally depraved sinner, but God just pretends that I’m not. I was completely unsatisfied with this sort of theology. It seemed clear to me that I have to be inherently righteous in order for God to accept me. “Being clothed in Jesus’ righteousness” was not going to do the trick if beneath the cloak, I’m still dirty to the core.

There were also still lingering concerns from my cult days: I believed that there was indeed a “One True Church”, but I didn’t know where to look to find it. I surveyed the protestant scene that I had found myself in and was unable to detect the sort of doctrinal consistency that you would expect from a “One True Church”.

Ironically, one of the things that the cult had drilled into me during my bible studies with them, was all of the passages which talk about being on the look out for false teachers. I was incredibly paranoid and would not trust anyone. The question was always lingering at the back of my mind “What if this guy is a false teacher?” I was willing to trust anyone, but only provisionally. In the end I had no clear reason to believe that they were not a false teacher. My Christian walk was wracked with severe doubt and uncertainty due to this.

evil-popes[1].jpgI remember around about this time having big unanswered questions. I remember going to Google and searching there. As I did so, one of the hits was the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio – “Faith and Reason”. I read it and soaked it up. It just made so much sense and resonated with me to the core. And yet the whole time I was freaking out thinking “God help me, this is written by a Catholic, and Catholics are evil.” – I had been indoctrinated by my Christian community into believing that Catholicism was an evil religion of works righteousness and that Catholics are not to be trusted. Oh how wrong I was.

To China!

I was able to put all of these theological concerns at the back of my mind for a time and just enjoy my life in the Evangelical community. I enjoyed serving in FOCUS, attending the campus bible studies, going to church, meeting new people, socialising and visiting other peoples churches. I was church hopping, and hadn’t really committed myself to any particular church. I didn’t attend the Sunday service consistently (Evangelicals do not have any convincing theological reason as to why it is necessary to go to church on Sunday).

china-2[1]During these months I was experiencing hypomania, and life felt amazing. I was flirting with all the girls, I was enjoying success at the gym and actually had some decent muscles for the first time in my life, I was having fun socialising and swimming. I was an attractive guy by any account. I caught the eye of Helen Yim, the Credo staffworker who oversaw the FOCUS ministry. She invited me to come on a mission trip to China during the mid year break. I was still operating under a “If a Christian asks me to do something: do it” attitude, so I agreed to come. It was during the preparation for this trip, and the weekly mission team meetings that I met my fiancée-to-be; Mindy Leng (name changed for anonymity)

Mindy had signed up for the mission as her ticket to get back to Hong Kong after the conclusion of her degree. She was to be the team interpreter, as she understood Mandarin, Cantonese and English. However during her time in Sydney she had basically just hung out with other Cantonese people and so her English was not quite up to scratch. When I first met her I put on all the charm and tried to be friendly, but she just laughed at me and ignored me. I later found out that she could not understand what I was saying because I talk so fast, and she didn’t want to be seen in that position because it would throw questions upon her competency as an interpreter. I also later found out that she had a bit of a racist streak and was not interested in white guys, and she was nonetheless unimpressed with me because it had come out during one of our meetings that I had been at uni for 7 years. “Why has this guy been studying so long?” she thought, and dismissed me as either lazy or stupid and entirely unworthy of being her friend or boyfriend.

10568733_10152630262094813_870665020_n.jpgHowever, during the China trip Mindy and I grew closer and closer together. Due to my hypomania, I was attracted to almost everyone and almost everyone was attracted to me. All the Chinese girls were all over me during the trip and I was loving it. Mindy fell under the spell of my charm and our hormones kicked in. At the conclusion of the trip I wrote her a love letter and then disappeared back to Australia. Mindy tracked down my email address and wrote back to me. The long distance relationship had begun.

I decided to take the plunge and actually commit to this relationship, even though it was long distance. I asked Mindy if she would be my girlfriend, and after a bit of wrangling she pretty much agreed, but on the condition that we get married within two years. I was knocked out of my seat at this, because I had been telling all my friends that I was going to get married within two years: this seemed to be a perfectly happy coincidence!

Driven Back to Catholicism

1426731_10151981780870091_339659697_n[1]Helen Yim had become a bit of a “spiritual mum” to me in this time. When I told her that I was starting up a relationship with Mindy, she rebuked me, saying “Alex! You gotta commit to a church first! You can’t just keep bouncing around different congregations every week! You have to settle down!”

I thought to myself “Ok, sure. So I’ve gotta find the right church.” And finally all those theological considerations which had been gnawing at me came to the surface and confronted me. It was time to deal with this: I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I began to voraciously read articles online. I wanted to work out which church was the true church; which church has the true teachers; which church was founded by Jesus; which church had the inspired tradition. During these investigations I ended up learning more and more about Catholicism. The Catholic religion didn’t seem so evil after all once you actually gave it a fair go. It was consistent, coherent, tight and appealing.

It was also at this time that I had a date with another BIT scholar, the beautiful Sarah Markowskei. During our conversation it came up that she was Catholic. I was intrigued and begun to ask her questions about her faith. She had great answers for everything! Catholicism started to make even more sense. I thought it was amazing how when you actually talk to a real Catholic, things seem so much more clear and reasonable than when you just soak up anti-catholic propaganda from the Evangelicals.

3c2a2c263fdf36662624c6db2d5fe454[1].jpgDuring my internet adventures, I stumbled across the Wikipedia article for “Apostolic Succession” and it immediately resonated with me. Finally: here was a solution to the problems I was wrestling with. How do you identify the true church? Look for the church which can trace a straight line from it’s leadership back to the Apostles and Jesus. There were only a couple of churches out there which could do this. The only two that I was aware of at the time were the Catholic church and the Orthodox church, and (I thought to myself) potentially the Anglican church.

I encountered the concept of the magisterium. This also resonated with me deeply, as it was an answer to pretty much all of my questions about why I should trust the bible and the biblical canon. Jesus founded a church, he did not write a book. The church which he founded is led by a Pope and bishops, all of whom can trace themselves back to Christ and the apostles via apostolic succession. This church has authority; In fact, it has the divine authority of Christ himself, and therefore must be submitted to. This church had identified certain books as inspired, and this is why I can trust the bible and the Catholic biblical canon. Meanwhile the Protestant canon seemed to me to remain completely baseless and unfounded.

I remember talking to Jaison about my concerns regularly, and he vehemently and irrationally attacked the Catholic position and attempted to dissuade me from going down that path. The more he attacked Catholicism, the more convinced I became of the Catholic position.

One day, while I was on a train with Jaison heading to his sub-continental bible study, I suddenly realised that I was Catholic. Jaison was mid-sentence and I remember cutting him off going “Dude, I’m a Catholic”. I remember he just stopped talking and had a concerned look on his face, as I moved away slightly and stood near the window in the train door.

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u2[1].jpgAt the time, I still didn’t know whether I should become Orthodox or Catholic. They both seemed like viable options and I found Orthodox theology (as I understood it) to be incredibly beautiful. However I decided to return to Catholicism out of convenience. It was pretty easy for me considering I had already been baptised and confirmed when I was a child. All I had to do was go to confession and then I would be allowed to start taking communion again. I did exactly this, and thus cemented my return to the nominal faith of my late primary school years.

I approached the altar and received communion for the first time in 10 years. I had finally swum the Tiber; I had finally returned home; I was finally a Catholic.

(Go to “Testimony: Catholic to Universalist”)

 

O Death, Where is Your Sting? O Hell, Where is Your Victory?

The-Harrowing-of-Hell-by-jimforest-1[1].pngIf 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 enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured 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 no wise be deprived.
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 honour, 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 worked 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 honours the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye 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, honour the day.

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is fully laden; feast sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy the feast of faith; receive 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 shone 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, cried: “Hell 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.

St. John Chrysostom

The Glorious Gospel

What is the Gospel?

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What is the Gospel? This is a tougher question than most people seem to realise. As Christians we are called to “Proclaim the Gospel”. It is our core mission to the world. And yet the definition of what exactly it is that we are supposed to be proclaiming is quite elusive.

It is helpful to look at the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”. It is an old-English word which means “Good news”. So what is the good news? Traditionally, the good news has been summarised as “Jesus is risen!”. So far all Christians are in agreement. However why exactly is that “Good news”? What difference does it make to my life? It is in answering this derivative question that most, if not all denominations and expressions of Christianity go astray.

The good news as it pertains to me and my life, takes the form of an unconditional promise. This promise has two aspects: present and future. In the present, the promise says “You are righteous and you are saved, right here and now, and there’s nothing you have to do to make it so.” In the future, the promise says “You will not suffer everlasting damnation and you are going to go to heaven, and ultimately there’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening“.

Once this promise has been spoken, the listener will have one of two responses: Faith/Trust/Belief in the promise, or Apathy/Disbelief/Outrage. If they have the positive response of Faith, this faith will inevitably lead to joy, and this joy is itself a direct subjective experience of salvation in the here and now: This joy is an experience of heaven on earth.

It is important to note that the promise is unconditional. This means that even if the listener does not believe in it, they are still saved because God keeps his promises. An important aspect of the fact that this is an unconditional promise is that it depends entirely on God: We do not have to do anything to “earn” it, and there is nothing we can do to mess it up. God keeps his promises and he will have the victory, even if we resist him.

This then, is the “Good news” of the Gospel as it pertains to my life. It is an unconditional promise from God which says “You are saved right now and there’s nothing you have to do to earn it, and you will be saved in the future, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do which will prevent it from happening.”

The Promise of Love

Forever-and-ever-alice-and-jasper-fanfics-13158494-240-320[1].jpgSomeone could have this wonderful promise spoken to them and be completely baffled as to the details. “Why am I saved right now?” they might ask. “Why will I certainly go to heaven?” At this point it helps to elaborate on aspects of the actual Christian narrative.

The reason that we are all saved right now, is because Jesus loved the world so much, that he paid for the sins of all humanity by willingly dying on the cross and descending to Hell and suffering all of it’s torments. Jesus took the full punishment for our sins, so that we don’t have to. He took a bullet for us. He didn’t just pay for the sins of a couple of people, he paid for the sins of the entire world. In Christ all sins have already been punished. Now no punishment remains. Furthermore all humanity has been “justified”, which is to say every single human being is united to the resurrected Christ, and has had the perfect righteousness of Christ poured into their souls, such that they transition from being sinners to being intrinsically holy and righteous. In this way, the whole world has been saved from condemnation and damnation, and furthermore the whole world is united to Christ and lives in him. Because Jesus defeated death by his resurrection, every individual without exception has also defeated death through Christ, and therefore every individual without exception is “saved”: Not only do we not need to fear Hell thanks to Christ’s atoning sacrifice of love, we can also joyfully experience becoming new creations thanks to Christ resurrection!

Note that this story is universal and entirely by Grace: you don’t have to do anything, whether it be “believing” or “loving” or “works” or “obedience”. You don’t have to do anything. The story applies to everyone: Muslims, Atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Hitler, Walt Disney, Muhammad, Me, You, My family, Your family etc etc. The entire world has been objectively saved by Christ’s death, descent to Hell and resurrection. This is why an evangelist can simply tell the story to an unbeliever with no “ifs, ands or buts”. All that needs to be done is to say to someone “You are saved!” and then pray that the Holy Spirit will cause that person to respond to the promise with faith. But again, the promise does not depend on that person having faith: even if they disbelieve the promise, they are still objectively saved by Christ. The only difference is that they have no “experience” of this salvation and therefore they could be said to be still “walking in darkness”: Objectively they are saved, but Subjectively they are still experiencing the old state of affairs: damnation and alienation from God. This is why we must evangelise. We need people to become aware of the promise that God speaks to them so that it may become activated and alive in their experience of life.

Moving on to the future aspect of the promise. The reason that we will all eventually get to Heaven, is that the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit serves as a “Guarantee of our inheritance”, which is to say “a promise that we will arrive in Heaven”. Someone who has the Holy Spirit therefore is predestined to heaven. Of course, God gives us freedom to resist him. We are able to resist him such that we get stuck in a state of afterlife purification indefinitely. However the promise of the Holy Spirit is that this simply is not going to happen: If you have the Holy Spirit, you WILL walk the path of salvation all the way to the end. God guarantees it. This is the doctrine of predestination. Predestination does not mean that all of our actions have been predetermined by God, predestination simply means that God promises never to give up on us. He will never leave us or abandon us. He will stick by us in the form of the Holy Spirit until we arrive at the fullness of salvation.

Again, this story is universal. Whoever has the Holy Spirit has received this promise of predestination. Arguably we all have the Holy Spirit, and so we are all predestined! And again, this narrative is entirely by Grace: God guarantees us a positive outcome and even though we may resist him, ultimately we will not rebel against him forever. Again, when evangelising all that needs to be done is to speak this promise: “You will not be damned forever. You are going to get to Heaven”. This aspect of the promise generates a strong Hope and assurance. When times are tough, and someone is drowning in sin which they feel unable to defeat, they can throw themselves upon this promise from God and say “No matter how bad things get, they are going to get better; No matter how much I fall into sin, eventually God will deliver me”. This promise therefore serves as a guard against despair in the life of the Christian.

Note that at no point in the discussion have any conditions been stated. The promise is well and truly unconditional! We do not have to do anything in order to be saved right now and have our place in heaven secured: God has done it all and God will do it all. Salvation is completely and entirely by Grace… and yet in that act of Grace we remain completely and entirely free. This leads to a more sobering aspect of the Gospel promise.

The Promise of Justice

E047_Purgatory[1].jpgOne aspect of the Gospel promise is that Justice will be done. Everything good we do will be rewarded, and everything bad we do will be punished. Hitler will be made to experience all the misery that he caused during his time on earth. Fathers who beat their children will have the situation reversed and they will experience the fear and terror that they have caused their children directly. Rapists will have their souls crushed proportionally to the harm they caused their victims. Murderers will experience the pain that they bestowed on others.

To some people, this aspect of the promise is comforting. Someone whose mother was raped and murdered by rampaging Muslim Jihadis will inevitably be crying out to heaven for justice. God promises that this justice will be done: those Jihadis will be made to pay. To most people, this aspect of the promise is incredibly sobering: Just because Jesus paid for all my sins, does not mean that I can just indulge in sin with no consequence. There will be punishment for every moral mistake that we make. This punishment will be terrifying, infinite, and experienced as everlasting. This punishment is Hell.

How does this “Justice” aspect of the promise mesh with the “Grace” aspect of the promise? For one thing, heavenly rewards do not decay. Every good thing we do will be rewarded in heaven and those rewards will last forever. On the other hand, our sins can be burned away and we can be left spotless as if we had never sinned at all. This is what happens in Hell. The horrible punishment of Hell will lead to wilful repentance, and this repentance will lead to the sins being purified and burned away. Eventually, once we have repented of all of our sins, the punishment will cease (even if it subjectively feels like it lasts forever).

The second, future aspect of the Gospel promise applies here. Another way of wording it is “Even if you go to Hell, you still have the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is a promise that God will rescue you from damnation. You will not be stuck in Hell forever. Eventually God will get you out”

This promise could be exploited for laziness and laxness, in which case the scary side of the promise needs to be emphasised: “If you do not repent, you will go to Hell, and you don’t want to go to Hell because it is the worst possible experience you can have and what’s more, it feels like it is everlasting!”

Note that this promise is not unconditional: It depends on our free response. If we do good, we are rewarded. If we do bad, we are punished.

Where people get the Gospel wrong

worksalvation[1].pngPretty much everyone who gets the gospel wrong, does so because they either restrict the universality of the message in some way, or they change the promise from an unconditional one to a conditional one.

Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox

Catholics commonly screw up the message by saying that God “offers” us salvation. Modern Catholics will wax poetic about God’s grace, how God loves everyone and wants to save everyone and how we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, but then at the last second they will turn around and say “But God gives us free will, and we need to use our free will to accept God’s offer of salvation, otherwise we will be damned”. What a terrible Gospel! No longer does God promise me salvation; instead he merely offers me salvation. In the final analysis whether or not I am saved depends entirely on me and my efforts to accept salvation. This leads to perpetual spiritual angst, despair, depression as I am constantly asking myself “Have I accepted God’s offer?”. And God help you if you commit mortal sins! “Oh God, I’ve screwed up. I just had sex with my girlfriend again. I’m going to Hell if I don’t get to confession ASAP”. All of a sudden you have a terrible fear of death because if you were to die in the state of sin this would send you off to Hell forever and ever.

Calvinists

Calvinists get the Gospel wrong by altering both the unconditionality and the universality of the message. Calvinists claim that faith is a condition for salvation: if you do not have faith, you are not saved and will go to Hell. This leads to spiritual angst of another kind, as people are constantly asking themselves “do I have true faith?” What’s more, Calvinists restrict God’s love only to a select few people. God does not desire the salvation of everyone, he only desires the salvation of a couple of people who he chose for no particular reason before creation. He desires that everyone else suffer everlasting, brutal, horrible torture in Hell. In this way Calvinists are worshipping a purely evil God. Calvinism cannot even rightly be called Christianity. Calvinism is Satanism and all Calvinists are Satanists. All Calvinists without exception will be brutally punished in Hell and the Saints in Heaven will rejoice and praise God for his glorious and righteous justice as they enjoy the spectacle. Lucky for these horrible Calvinists the one true God does not deal in “everlasting” punishments, and so even disgusting, depraved individuals such as Calvinists will eventually repent of their heresies and blasphemies and achieve salvation.

Evangelicals

Evangelicals in general mess up the Gospel by adding conditions to it, which in turn serve to limit it’s universality. They say that you must “accept Christ” if you want to be saved. They say that you must “have faith”. You must “believe in God” or “trust in Jesus”. Decision theology is popular in this camp: you need to actively make a choice for God in order to be saved. If you do not do these things, then you are damned forever. Again, the same sort of spiritual angst comes into play as with the Calvinists. “How do I know that I have true faith?”, “How do I know I have chosen God?”

Of course certain Evangelicals are not troubled by such questions in the slightest. They have fully convinced themselves that they have enough faith and have chosen God adequately. They believe that they have fulfilled the conditions for salvation. These people are Pharisees. Every single one of them without exception is depending on their own efforts in order to be saved. As such they are puffed up with pride and superiority. They look at their unbelieving neighbours and think to themselves “Gee, I’m glad I’m not that guy. Thank God that I’m saved!”

If the Evangelical in question has a Christian family, he is less likely to care about the salvation and damnation of others. As far as he cares, everyone he knows and cares about is going to heaven. Too bad about those other poor souls who are going to be damned forever. “I’ll just be happy that God chose me and my friends and family. Too bad about those other suckers who didn’t believe in God before they died!”

However if the Evangelical in question is a convert from a non-Christian family, this Gospel is absolutely soul crushing: “Ok, God saved me, but what about my brothers and sisters? What about my mother and father? What about all my unbelieving friends”. The only answer that this gospel gives is that “their salvation depends on YOU”. All of a sudden, the weight of the salvation of this person’s entire family falls squarely onto that person. The person will feel like it’s up to him to save his family. If they are damned, it is his fault. If they die before showing any signs of faith, this person will feel utterly crushed and defeated. No longer is the Gospel good news to this person. Now the gospel becomes a terrible message of complete destruction and eternal torment for the people who that person loves most. A lot of people have a crisis of faith at this time. They are simply unable to continue singing songs of praise and worship to a God who would allow this to happen. Some people abandon the faith. Some people suffer intense mental anguish and go through intellectual contortions until they “accept that God is sovereign” and then they continue to bow down and worship him despite the overwhelming evidence that he is a total uncaring monster.

The Promise of Grace

chinese-717356_640[1].jpgThe Gospel as it was outlined at the beginning of this post is the only true Gospel. It is a completely unconditional promise which is universal in scope. This promise can be spoken to anyone with conviction. An evangelist can walk up to anyone and say “You are saved and you will go to Heaven!”. If the hearer of this promise responds with interest, the evangelist can continue to tell the story of Jesus. As the story is told, the faith of the listener may grow, and blossom into an experience of salvation right here and now. That person will transition from walking in darkness to walking in light, as they place their trust in the promise and absorb the salvation which it promises. And the amazing thing about this promise is that it still applies; it still will come to pass, even if the listener rejects it or has doubts. For this is the nature of an unconditional promise: it does not depend on the response of the listener. God will bring it about. This is the essence of Grace.

Now, God implicitly speaks this promise to everyone without exception. Even those people who lived before Christ. No one is excluded from his salvific love and salvific will. However it is helpful to have God’s promises spoken to us personally as individuals. This is why we have the sacraments.

Baptism

Baptism is the sacrament in which God says to the sinner “You are righteous and all your sins are forgiven, even those which you haven’t yet commit”. This provides an extremely tangible promise for a Christian to place their trust in. Whenever they sin, or feel despair at the state of their soul, they can think back to their baptism and remember the promise of God that was spoken to them personally at that time.

Confirmation

Confirmation is the sacrament in which we receive the Holy Spirit. As such, it is a sacrament in which God makes the promise of future salvation. In Confirmation, God says “I will never leave you. I will never abandon you. I am going to get you to Heaven”. In this way, whenever a Christian is finding themselves in a stage of life where they are bogged down in sin and utterly failing to repent, they can think back to their confirmation and have hope, thinking to themselves “God is going to get me through this. This is not going to last forever”. As such this sacrament is a great guard against despair.

Confession

Confession is a sacrament which repeats the promise that was spoken during baptism. As such it is not strictly necessary, although it is mandated by church law in the case of mortal sin. In confession, the promise of baptism is repeated: “You are forgiven, you are righteous”. This is helpful because as time goes by, our baptism becomes less vivid in our memories, and the promise that was spoken to us fades into the past. In this way it becomes helpful to sacramentally renew the promise so that it is fresh in our minds. This is also appropriate for the reason that as time goes by and the promise of baptism fades in our memory, the promise is less active in our mind, and so when we commit mortal sins we experience subjective guilt. This guilt is unwarranted seeing as we have already been objectively forgiven of all of our sins, past, present and future. In this way having confession available helps us to remove any unwarranted guilt, by speaking the promise of Baptism to us afresh and giving us a word to place our trust in which is closer to the present time. Someone who has a strong faith obviously does not need to go to confession, however it is always helpful to hear God’s promise spoken, and so it is wise to go to confession whenever someone commits a mortal sin.

Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name

6506502553_006c1eb79b_b-700x450[1]The true and glorious Gospel, is that God loves everyone, he has saved everyone, and he will save everyone. No one will be excluded from his love and salvific will. The future will be wonderful, truly something to look forward to.

This is a promise that can be spoken to anyone with utter conviction. It is unconditional and doesn’t depend on us in any way. People who hear it and believe it will have a strong experience of salvation right now. This is what evangelism is about: Objectively we are all saved and we are all going to heaven. However subjectively not everyone realises this. God uses us to preach his promise of salvation and so bring people by faith from the darkness into the light. Part of the promise is that eventually everyone will move from darkness to light. We participate in the fulfilment of that promise by our preaching and evangelism, however it does not depend on us in any way. God will fulfil his promise to save someone regardless of whether they hear us preaching. It’s just that they might spend a longer time wandering in the darkness.

Of course, we do not know with infallible certainty that this promise will come to pass. This is why we must pray continuously for the salvation of ourselves and all other people. We must have faith and hope. But surely we will overflow with faith and hope when we consider who it is we are placing our faith and hope in: Jesus Christ; God made man, who loved us so much that we was willing to die and suffer Hell in our place, who was resurrected from death to life and ascended into Heaven; who sent the Holy Spirit as a promise that we would be saved. When you fully appreciate this, it’s not that hard to love him back, is it?

(Go to “Understanding Indulgences”)