At the Hour of Our Death

“I am so sick of the assumptions surrounding a good death,” a philosopher colleague raged to me recently. “They’re so Christian. It’s ridiculous to think that a good death means forgiveness and reconciliation at the deathbed. People should be able to go to the grave shaking their fists. And if this is what they want, then it’s a good death for them.”

A group of us had been sitting around a table at an interdisciplinary bioethics conference talking about whether hospice facilitates dying well, and our colleague’s outburst caught us off guard. Was she right? Is dying well—that is, healing at the end of a life—nothing more than a self-scripted dying plan? Is it wholly subjective? Or might there exist some standard criteria, some shared moral script by which we can experience healing even as we are dying?

These questions are not new, of course. The writer and academic Michael Ignatieff notes that since at least the Enlightenment philosophers have been trying “to imagine the moral logic of a society without confessional unity of shared belief.”[1] With regard to dying well, we Westerners don’t hold common assumptions. We lack a moral vernacular for human finitude. Ignatieff writes:

Most other cultures, including many primitive ones whom we have subjugated to our reason and our technology, enfold their members in an art of dying as in an art of living. But we have left these awesome tasks of culture to private choice. Some of us face our deaths with a rosary, some with a curse, some in company, some alone. Some die bravely, to give courage to the living, while others die with no other audience than their lonely selves.[2]

Dying well seems to have become a matter of personal wish fulfillment.

It is curious that Ignatieff, himself “not a churchy guy,” expresses dismay over confessional disunity.[3] If asked, he would likely disagree with my philosopher colleague. He would disagree not with her bemoaning a good death as necessarily a Christian death but with her suggestion that a good death be individually-crafted and subjective.

Ignatieff finds value in the way that family and community help people understand themselves and care for one another.[4] Such communities cohere because of a shared moral logic that is often religious in nature.

Doctors can make use of virtually unlimited technology to thwart death but are entirely powerless once death sets in. Who among us desires such a position of vulnerability?

But religion is precisely what was demoted by the Enlightenment. As Ignatieff puts it, religion’s great enemy is neither science nor unbelief, “but rather the silent and pervasive plausibility of earthly need as a metaphysics of ordinary life.”[5] Western society has come to act as if all that matters is satisfying the desires of our bodies—in living and in dying.

As a medical doctor, I am aware that my profession has reified corporeal appeasement. The physician attends to the physical, the material. Gone are the days of medice cura te ipsum[6] from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4. No longer healers of the holistic variety, we doctors attend to earthly needs as our metaphysics of ordinary practice. And physicians attend all the more doggedly to the physical the nearer death looms. Doctors can make use of virtually unlimited technology to thwart death but are entirely powerless once death sets in. Who among us desires such a position of vulnerability?

Even if medical practices that support living and dying have evolved to focus on the strictly biologic, history begs us to remember that living and dying were not always this way. For more than five hundred years, an ars moriendi or “art of dying” body of literature dominated the cultural landscape of the West. The central idea of the ars moriendi was that dying well takes work—preparation that could occur over the course of a lifetime.

The story of the ars moriendi starts in the mid-1300s, when the Bubonic Plague struck Western Europe. The plague ravaged with such ferocity that the majority of the population is thought to have succumbed. The death bell tolled with little warning, and death came quickly.

Europe was devastated by the loss, but most bewildering, perhaps, was the death of the priests. The cleric’s collar conferred no special immunity to the Plague, and many church leaders sacrificed themselves on the front lines of caring for the sick. Who, then, was to guide the dying as they exited the land of the living? Who was to administer last rites, to bury the dead? The laity was perplexed and sought ecclesial guidance.

Lovers of church history well know that the fourteenth century’s latter half was not the church’s finest. In what has come to be known as the Western Schism, two—and later three—men simultaneously claimed to be pope. This deep division meant that the church was ill-equipped to respond pastorally to the concerns of the laity.

The threat of death never drifted far from the collective imagination. When the Council of Constance was convened from 1414 to 1418 to repair the schism, it also sought to address pressing pastoral concerns. Chief among them? The preparation for death.

First two woodcuts in a published edition of the Ars Moriendi (c. 1450). Left: “Temptation by lack of faith,” Right: “Encouragement in the faith.” The contrast between the two illustrates “a good death.”

As early as 1415, an ars moriendi handbook began to circulate. No one knows who wrote it, but its contents drew from earlier work by theologian Jean Gerson and the liturgical material of Friar Laurent, Henry Suso, and Dirk van Delft. This art of dying handbook offered concrete instruction to the dying and those who care for them. The manuscripts were quickly circulated, translated, and adapted by other religious and even non-religious groups.

The theologian Allen Verhey, in his book The Christian Art of Dying, notes that the early variations of the ars moriendi generally contained six parts:[7]

1. A commendation of death;
2. A warning regarding the temptations the dying will confront (to lose faith; to despair; to become impatient, proud, or greedy) along with advice on how to resist them;
3. A brief catechism affirming faith;
4. Prayers for use by the dying;
5. Counsel to the entire community to attend to preparation for death as a matter of first importance; and
6. Prayers the community could offer on behalf of the dying person.

The ars moriendi commanded reflection on finitude and offered concrete instruction on how to think about one’s own death and the death of another. It was not just a medieval phenomenon. It formed the basis of endless books on pastoral care and continued to serve as a reference for both Catholics and Protestants after the Reformation.

The ars moriendi was not perfect. In fact, Verhey finds it “not an altogether satisfactory alternative” to modern medicalized approaches to dying because its Platonic leanings threatened “a premature alienation of people from their bodies.”[8] The ars moriendi, Verhey maintains, went too far in its commendation of death.

Despite theological shortcomings, the ars moriendi does prove a satisfactory alternative to the Enlightenment-inspired do-it-yourself, death-on-my-own-terms versions of dying described by both my philosopher colleague and Ignatieff. Verhey rightly acknowledges this, applauding the ars moriendi’s “invitation to faith and faithfulness in the face of death.”[9]

One way that the dying and their communities could exercise such “faith and faithfulness” was by cultivating the virtues necessary to overcome the temptations that lead to dying poorly. Early versions of the ars moriendi noted that these virtues included faith, hope, and love, as well as patience, humility, and “letting go.”

Verhey expounds on these at length, but I will highlight only the first three. Faith was the proposed antidote to the temptation to disbelief, hope for despair, and love for the temptation to impatience, because “love is patient,” as 1 Corinthians 13 tells us. Faith, hope, and love are inextricably intertwined. As Verhey writes, “Faith and faithfulness exist as love; faith ‘works’ as love (Galatians 5:6). And love is the mark of the new creation, the good future for which we hope.” They go together.[10]

Why do I make this point? Because, for the Christian, love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:8). As Verhey puts it:

[L]ove is the mark of God’s good future. Or, as John says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). So, even as we lie dying, love is a sign of the resurrection, a testimony that we have a share in the victory of God over death, a witness that we participate already in God’s good future.[11]

This is precisely why deathbed acts of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation are so important. They signify that a person abides in life and not in death. They point to victory and hope and healing.

Of course this is not to say that the only way to die well is the Christian way. In the case of my philosopher colleague, much hinges on what she means by dying and well and even Christian. But the ars moriendi offered one set of practices for addressing what Ignatieff calls “some of our most durable historical needs—for consolation and ultimate explanation.”[12] No one has to choose to die the way of the ars moriendi; we are free to choose to die any way we please.

And choose we will. Some will choose to embrace an art of dying as skeptics or atheists. Others will approach the art as believers. Still others will dismiss the ars moriendi and instead go to the grave shaking their fists at death itself. We are free to choose our good death. But this freedom comes at a cost. Ignatieff says, “We have Augustine’s freedom to choose, and because we do, we cannot have the second freedom, the certainty of having chosen rightly. That certainty, Augustine believed, could only be granted by the gift of Grace.”[13]


Lydia Dugdale, MD, MAR (ethics) is a physician and ethicist at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is editor of the book Dying in the Twenty-First Century (MIT Press, 2015) and author of the forthcoming book The Lost Art of Dying (HarperOne, 2020).

 

[1] Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers (New York: Picador, 2001), 79.

[2] Ignatieff, Needs, 76–7.

[3] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/michael-valpy-on-michael-ignatieff/article1378481/

[4] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/michael-valpy-on-michael-ignatieff/article1378481/

[5] Ignatieff, Needs, 77.

[6] “Physician, heal thyself.”

[7] Allen Verhey, The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 87.

[8] Verhey, Christian Art, 174.

[9] Verhey, Christian Art, 174.

[10] Verhey, Christian Art, 277.

[11] Verhey, Christian Art, 278.

[12] Ignatieff, Needs, 135.

[13] Ignatieff, Needs, 135–6.

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Recommended Citation: Dugdale, Lydia (2019): “At the Hour of Our Death” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 12. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

Beatitudes

Editor’s Note: Herménégilde Chiasson’s book-length poem, Beatitudes, has been called a postmodern Sermon on the Mount. It is considered one of his finest works. 49th Shelf, in presenting the work, observed: “For Herménégilde Chiasson, every work of art is both a cry and a prayer. Beatitudes reflects this perspective by connecting everyday events—people losing their keys or their cellphone signals—to the universal.” Composed in the form of a litany, the poem begins in mid-sentence, and ends with a comma. The following excerpt is taken from the beginning of the poem.


those who raise their heads in astonishment at the

raucous cry of birds,

those who await the end of twilight,

those who ceaselessly leaf through catalogues and

order nothing from life,

those who sleep on their side, waiting for the pain

to subside in a single sip of water,

those who believe it is time to bear their misery,

smiling through the procession of painful stupidities and

offering atonement for the fullness of errors that are, in

truth, so forgivable,

those who weep and find no consolation, confusing

love with bitter anger in the loose thread of unravelling

clothes,

those who walk ahead even though the wind blinds

them,

they are, certainly, on their way to heaven;

 

those who lean heavily over countertops, whispering

about their jeopardized affairs,

those who find their keys in the bottom of plastic bags

they were about to throw out,

those who carry their food home in taxicabs,

those who stand up in public meetings where they

believe they have recognized their lives put on display in the

broad light of day,

those who pretend to be outraged by those who sing

out resignation in a borrowed tongue,

those who carry the discomfort of defeat in half-smiles

stained by underlying rage,

those who clown around in hard hats too heavy for

their bird-like heads,

those whose hands lift into the air as if separate from

their bodies, as if sketching into thin air the thoughts they hope

will one day be written in indelible ink,

those who carry their children like slumbering

rivers, living poetry, acts of faith through the soundproof,

overheated corridors of modern buildings,

those who apologize profusely before slipping away

into the subdued obscurity of an unavoidable solitude from

which there is no escape,

they, too, will see heaven;

 

those who sob in public, immodestly displaying their

poverty and their rebellion,

those who walk in anger, with methodical steps, under

drab coats along cold, grey beaches,

those who hold onto the fervent hope that one day

they will find the objects they thought lost and buried

forever in mud-soaked marshes,

those who mutter under their breath, wondering

whether they have said what should have been said and

whether they have been understood as though, once again,

they are using a grimy sponger to wipe clean the constant,

dreary hum that covers their voices,

those who play,

those who laugh,

those who read,

they, too, yes, they are promised heaven;

 


Herménégilde Chiasson is one of Canada’s most accomplished writer-artists. He is the author of more than twenty books of poetry, over thirty plays, and several collections of essays. A multi-disciplinary artist, he has received numerous awards for his work, including the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the Molson Prize, le prix France-Acadie, le Grand prix de la francophonie canadienne, the prestigious Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and the Prix littéraire Antonine-Maillet-Acadie Vie. From 2003 to 2009, he served as Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick.

Jo-Anne Elder has translated many of Chiasson’s works of poetry, including Beatitudes and Conversations and, in collaboration with Fred Cogswell, Climates. She and Fred Cogswell also edited and translated Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie.

Excerpt was originally published in Beatitudes copyright © 2007 by Herménégilde Chiasson, translation copyright © 2007 by Jo-Anne Elder. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions.

Recommended Citation: Chiasson, Herménégilde (2007), trans. Jo-Anne Elder, “Beatitudes”, Reprinted in The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 2, Article 13. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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Wealth, Church, and the Transformation of Early Christian Worship

Material things exist to assist with life; surely they were not given as a provision for wickedness? They constitute a ransom for the soul; surely they were not provided as an occasion for your own destruction?

—Basil the Great, Hom. 7.7[1]

What can we say, in this issue dedicated to poverty, about the use of wealth in the early church and its role in relation to early Christian worship? Reflected in this quote of Basil is a general attitude toward wealth in early Christian writings: that God created the material world, including material things and wealth, for sufficient provision of the needs of all humans through common use, enjoyment, and flourishing in their right relations toward God and one another. Material possessions and wealth in God’s creative intent are not intrinsically evil although through them their possessors may encounter a real and powerful temptation, danger, and a potential for wickedness and destruction.

Since the problem is the state of the human soul (e.g., greed), not wealth itself, wealth in turn can be a potent means of loving God and one’s neighbors through compassionate sharing and generous giving in imitation of God’s philanthropia (compassionate generosity). As such, by using earthly wealth toward the eternal purpose, one lays up heavenly treasures for oneself (Matt. 6.19–20). When patristic authors address or make references to wealth, they have in mind Christians who are already in the journey of Christian faith and yet must persevere to the end. Wealth then presents the faithful with a unique challenge and opportunity to demonstrate their spiritual state and persevere in their journey of salvation by eliminating vices (e.g., greed/avarice) and cultivating virtues (e.g., almsgiving and detachment), and thereby to secure their eternal salvation.

Accompanying this foundational theology, consistent in early Christian communities, was the practice of generous sharing (koinonia) and sacrificial giving to meet the needs of their own members. By the mid-second century, along with scripture readings, homily, congregational prayer and Eucharist, offerings for the needy were clearly part of the regular Sunday worship in Rome and slightly later in Carthage, as attested by Justin Martyr and Tertullian respectively.[2] Worship and life belonged together. The early Christian communities operated the “common chests” (adopted from Jewish practices that were followed by Jesus and his disciples) from the voluntary offerings and donations of their members, especially the wealthier ones. Out of them the churches served and cared for the poor, widows, orphans, confessors, the sick, elderly slaves, ship-wrecked mariners, and other vulnerable people in their midst.[3] By the turn of the third century, for average Christians, almsgiving became the most effective means of washing away their post-baptismal sins, second only to martyrdom.[4] By the mid-third century, as the church grew as an institution with a developing hierarchy and administration to meet the spiritual and physical needs of growing members, it centralized its charitable ministries under clergy headed by the bishop, and it supported the clergy and the poor from the common chest. Bishop Cornelius’s famous account of the Roman church (c. 250 CE) supporting 154 clergy and 1,500 widows and others in distress suggests a well-organized and broad-based community with substantial resources at its disposal.[5]

One would imagine already formalized liturgies and worship spaces woven together with well-organized care of the poor and vulnerable, with significant ecclesial wealth and social prominence of Christians before the Constantinian “revolution.”

Along with the episcopal centralization of almsgiving (offering) and its distribution, the institutional strength of the church manifested itself in its growing ownership and management of various properties that affected its worship. Throughout the third century, churches in major cities around the Mediterranean world, despite their illegal status, de facto owned cemeteries, altars, and buildings. Space dictates possibilities for worship and liturgy. Christians worshiped at cemeteries[6] and at remodeled house churches with an elongated assembly hall, interior baptistery, and a separate room for catechumens, such as the domus ecclesiae in Dura-Europos, Syria (c. 240 CE). Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (250 CE) mentions an elevated pulpit and separate seating arrangements between clergy/presbyters and laity, and between laymen and laywomen, the latter of which is also attested in a Syriac church manual Didascalia. By the time of the Great Persecution in the early fourth century, it is clear that church buildings resembling the basilical structure of formal elongated halls became well-identified by the general populace and government authorities, as Diocletian’s first edict included the razing of churches.[7] Moreover, churches owned various resources for liturgy such as gold and silver cups, lamps of gold, silver, or bronze, candles, and even libraries of sacred books. There were also resources for charity in storage rooms, such as men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, food, oil, and money.[8] One would imagine already formalized liturgies and worship spaces woven together with well-organized care of the poor and vulnerable, with significant ecclesial wealth and social prominence of Christians before the Constantinian “revolution.”

No longer merely serving the Christian poor with the offerings from the faithful (especially the wealthy), the churches were bound to serve the poor of the empire as a public service in return for public privileges.

The Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 312 CE and his and subsequent pro-Christian imperial policies throughout the fourth century brought about a watershed in every aspect of the church and Christian worship. Constantine’s unprecedented imperial patronage of the church, including financial subsidy, tax exemption, and clerical exemption from compulsory public services,[9] along with “a system of gifts of food to churches, grain allowances to nuns, widows, and others in church services,”[10] was revolutionary in two specific areas pertinent to our topic. First, it exponentially increased the scale of the church’s charity and wealth and the impact that this had on Roman society as a whole. No longer merely serving the Christian poor with the offerings from the faithful (especially the wealthy), the churches were bound to serve the poor of the empire as a public service in return for public privileges,[11] now accountable to the imperial throne.

This change linked Christian identity even more closely to the church’s care of the poor in Roman society, and the bishop consolidated his position as the “lover of the poor” and the “governor of the poor” par excellence.[12] It did not prompt the development of any new theological base for the work that the church had been doing for centuries; but it highlighted the identification of the poor with Christ that was found in Matthew 25:31–45 in particular: in every poor person, Christ is fed, given to drink, and welcomed as a guest. As Ambrose had written: “Minister to a poor person and you have served Christ” (De uiduis. 9.54).

Second, Constantine’s grandiose church building projects throughout the empire, particularly in Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, and the Holy Land, opened a new horizon for contextualizing and re-envisioning worship with a new sense of scale. For example, Christians worshipping at the basilicas of St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, and St. John Lateran in Rome, the octagonal Golden Church in Antioch, and the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople, with its cruciform plan, found their liturgy transformed to fill the massive spaces of their churches, which now included colossal marble columns and capitals and gold-laid roofs.[13] Constantine insisted that the church buildings should “surpass all others in beauty . . . for it is only fitting the most marvelous place in the world should be worthily decorated.”[14] Bishops of metropolitan cities, such as Ambrose of Milan and Pope Sixtus III of Rome, also became great patrons of grand basilicas and advocated decorating churches with biblical wall mosaics of great visual splendor. The combined imperial wealth and ecclesiastical/episcopal wealth created newly constructed sacred spaces which worshippers were led to identify with the heavenly Jerusalem of the Apocalypse, built of gold, pearls, and precious gems. This joint effort of church and state also incorporated aspects of Greco-Roman civic religion into Christian worship, such as sacred images and processions carrying relics, icons, and palladia.[15] Wealthy laypeople, both ascetics and non-ascetics, increasingly chose to give gifts to build and adorn the churches for the ransom of their souls.[16]

Can the church for and of the poor and the church of such gilded splendor be reconciled? Eusebius made clear that it was Constantine’s love for Christ and his church that drove Constantine’s costly projects. In words of Dominic Janes, “Adornment of churches was accepted as morally good, as one form of Christian gift; just as another was giving doles to the poor.”[17] In the newly contextualized (imperial) Christianity, these two forms of giving were both appropriate and valuable means to demonstrate the givers’ love for God and their neighbors and to lay up heavenly treasures for their salvation. Furthermore, while church leaders regularly denounced jewels and ornaments worn and displayed by rich Christians as a form of self-glory, even ascetic bishops had no qualms about precious metals and exquisite decorations of the church, which they interpreted as revealing the inherent beauty and worth of Christian liturgy and space.

Finally, a deeper theological justification lies in the physicality of faith. Given God’s creative intent, material things such as gold, silver, and icons can be used to communicate spiritual realities. According to John Chrysostom, the Old Testament Temple with its gold and jewels was a “type” for spiritual realities of the new covenant in Christ; its true significance was in the spiritual realities that each of the beautiful and radiant objects represented.[18] The beautiful objects and actions of liturgy in a beautiful church serve as a type or representation of glorious spiritual realities as they lead the believers to “see one thing and believe another.”[19] In this the realities of salvation have indeed become concrete to the eye of faith.[20]


Helen RheeRev. Dr. Helen Rhee is Professor of History of Christianity at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in history and earned a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister of Free Methodist Church Santa Barbara. Her books include Early Christian Literature: Christ and Culture in the Second and Third Centuries, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation, and Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity. Her latest book project is Pain, Illness, and Healthcare in Early Christianity in conversation with Greco-Roman medicine in Late Antiquity.

[1] My translation.

[2] Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 14; 67.6; Tertullian, Apol. 39.5.

[3] Cf. Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 14; 67.6;Tertullian, Apol. 39.5; Cyprian, Ep. 2.2.2.

[4] Unlike martyrdom, however, almsgiving was repeatable.

[5] Eusebius, HE 6.43.2.

[6] E.g., Cyprian, Ep. 80.1.4; Acts Cyprian 1.7;

[7] H. Rhee, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 153; see Eusebius HE 8.1.5; 8.2.4; Lactantius, Mort. 12.

[8] Cf. P.Oxy. XXXIII, 2673, in Rhee, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich, 154.

[9] Constantine’s imperial patronage of the church did not exceed what was expected of the imperial patronage of the Roman state religion.

[10] R. MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100–400) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 49.

[11] Cf. Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002), 31.

[12] Rhee, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich, 181; also Brown, Poverty and Leadership, 32, 45.

[13] Cf. Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.36.

[14] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.31.

[15] J. Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 150

[16] On this topic, see P. Brown, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[17] D. Janes, God and Gold in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 105.

[18] John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, 3.4.

[19] A. E. Siecienski, “Gilding the Lily: A Patristic Defense of Liturgical Splendor,” in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (ed. S. R. Holman; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 218.

[20] Cf. Ibid.

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Recommended Citation: Rhee, Helen (2018) “Wealth, Church, and the Transformation of Early Christian Worship,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 10. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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Can We Still See Calvary from Bethlehem?

It may come as a surprise to some that thoughts on Calvary would form the endnote to a collection of reflections on Jesus’s birth, but it shouldn’t. The two are inextricably linked. The story of God’s incarnation in human form in Jesus is at the very heart of Christian teaching, and Jesus’s birth and death are the two moments in which that Incarnation is most poignantly expressed.

Both in iconography and Christian folklore, it was in medieval Europe that the conventions of depiction and description of the nativity and crucifixion of Jesus became stylized and standardized. Medieval writers and artists illustrated both the birth and death of Christ with great vividness. Every detail that could be found in the gospels was teased out and harmonized into a single expanded script by devotional writers. Gaps and missing details in the story were filled by pious imagination, each writer adding his own gloss to the versions of earlier authors. By the time of Ludolph of Saxony (ca. 1295–1378), there was a treasury of lore and information about these events; his Vita Christi (1374) filled four volumes of text in its nineteenth-century printed form, much of it focused on Jesus’s passion and death.

The same phenomenon can be observed in the visual art of the period: Passion cycles were a tremendously popular and very important form of religious art from Giotto onward. Laid out like a storyboard, medieval altarpiece panels and devotional paintings telling the Passion story shaped forms of piety, such as the Stations of the Cross, that still have power and have influenced the devotion of centuries of Christians. Nativity pictures, too, especially pictures of the adoration of the Holy Child by the shepherds and Magi, helped cement in the Christian imagination a sense of Jesus as God in human form.

These immensely popular images proliferated—so much so that they are a commonplace in museums and libraries and churches today. Each of us can probably bring one or more of them easily to mind. Pictures of the Nativity enabled the artists to use their imaginations: the settings vary from simple stables to grottos to the ruins of ancient buildings. The number of people and animals varies too. But the constant is Mary, after the Christ child the most central figure: serene, contemplative, quietly joyful. Joseph is often on the sidelines.

In contrast to the expressive variety of the Nativity pictures, the conventional depiction of the Crucifixion is fairly simple: the cross squarely in the center, dividing the scene; Jesus’s arms stretched out, head tilted to his right, knees slightly bent, hair and loincloth either hanging limply or stirred by the breeze. Both in painting and in sculpture, John and Mary have first place at the foot of the cross. Here too, artists worked in smooth grooves of devotional and pious custom: the grief-stricken Mary’s red and blue dress is repeated in countless versions; John’s curly hair and mournful gaze have been depicted hundreds of times in hundreds of ways.

What brings these two images, Nativity and Crucifixion, together? The sense that to some degree they make the same point: God’s redemptive love shown in humility and self-giving. Ludolph of Saxony made this explicit by seeing in the Nativity the real starting point of the Passion story. This isn’t universal, to be sure; for most others, it was Jesus’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane that starts the Passion story; for others, the judgment before Pilate. Some even go back as to include the Last Supper and Jesus’s long farewell speech. But Ludolph, and those influenced by him, take the longer view, and look all the way back to the beginning, and claim the Nativity itself as the start of the Passion story.

In a world such as ours, which separates so strongly and defensively the joy of living from the fear of dying, to claim that Jesus was one who—quintessentially—was born in order to die, can seem shocking and morbid to moderns. Surely no one could see in the infant in the manger a child-sacrifice as of old? Surely God had brought us out of that terrible mindset and into a new paradigm of life and death and life to come? But the child of Bethlehem, the center of the story and the picture, framed and encompassed by the wood of the manger, was from his birth the very Son whose life would both end and be fulfilled on a wooden cross on Calvary—from the grotto to the windswept hill in a single short lifetime.

And there it is. Mary, giving birth in pain, in the discomfort and uncertainly of a stable, far from home and her kinfolk, represents the unlikely fact that God’s work of salvation would be completed through humble people in humble places. The grieving Mary at the cross, about to lose her son, and still, by our standards, relatively young—most likely not past fifty—is every mother who outlives a child. Her grief on Calvary, like her joy at Bethlehem, is part of an ancient human story that touches every woman who bears or loses a child, indeed every parent.

Some medieval writers, including Ludolph, make it very explicit: the Passion of Christ begins with his human birth, in pain and blood; or in his circumcision in the flesh, where a drop of blood shed becomes a foreshadowing and the first of the wounds to come. We modern folk can take this into our own context and discover its parallels now—seeing in this story an unexpected, maybe even unwanted, birth in an inconvenient place; a flight as refugees from their homeland to an inhospitable neighboring country; and the challenges of being different in a traditional society. All of these disadvantaged the infant Jesus and his small family, just as millions suffer today.

Martin Luther, though not inclined to draw the line from the manger to the cross as directly as Ludolph, nonetheless used the Nativity story just over a century later to emphasize the completeness of Jesus’s coming in the flesh. No theologian but Luther has ever used in such a colorful way Jesus’s soiled diapers as a sign of God’s complete self-giving in the Incarnation—an earthy touch we can still appreciate. Luther drank deeply at the well of late-medieval Passion piety, and described both the Nativity and the Passion with vivid detail in his sermons for the seasons of Christmas and Lent in word pictures that still have the capacity to surprise and engage the reader’s emotions.

Can we still see Calvary from Bethlehem? Keeping the end of the story in mind can enrich our appreciation of the whole life of Jesus as a witness to divine solidarity with humankind in the Incarnation. Jesus’s humanity comes into especially high relief in these two life events in which he is not even a fully active participant: in entering life he is helpless; in leaving it he is often passive. Exegesis and homiletics have moved us away from the wonder of Jesus’s birth and death and more deeply into Jesus’s words and teachings, but there is something fundamental and elemental about an Incarnation that gathers the whole Jesus event—both birth and death—into one supreme expression of divine and human love.

To link these two stories together is also to lift up Mary’s role as witness and participant, and as a symbol of love and loss. It was not lost on the devotional tradition that Mary was, from the moment of the Annunciation, a powerful and essential part of Jesus’s story. When the Nativity and Crucifixion are lifted up as a pair, Mary’s role becomes even more important: she is the only person besides Jesus who was present at both. Her life thus frames her son’s, in joy and in grief. Mary is not only Jesus’s human parent, but also the first witness to God’s remarkable work in the world through his miraculous birth.

From the grotto to the hill, from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross, from swaddling cloths to a seamless garment, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem: Jesus and Mary move through Jesus’s life with the inexorability and gravity of a liturgical procession. And we move with them, from Christmas to Easter, every year.


guy_erwin_2014R. Guy Erwin is Bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He oversees 120 congregations in five counties in the western half of Southern California, including the City of Los Angeles. For over twenty years before his election as bishop in 2013, he was a professor of church history and historical theology. Educated at Harvard College and the Yale Graduate School, he completed his PhD at Yale in 1999. By then he had taught several years in Yale College and the Yale Divinity School. His last academic appointment was as Belgum Professor of Lutheran Confessional Theology at California Lutheran University. He held that chair from 2000 to 2013. Erwin is a frequent speaker on topics related to Martin Luther, the Reformation, and Lutheran history generally.

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This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Erwin, R. Guy. (2016) “Can We Still See Calvary From Bethlehem?” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu

PDF: can-we-still-see-calvary-from-bethlehem_erwin

Water and the Spirit

Many years ago, when I was a young boy, I visited a hydroelectric plant beneath a large concrete dam. Outside, the roaring flow of water was impressive; inside, the whine and hum of generators intense. It was amazing, actually, that water flooding a maze of pipes and turbines could release electrical power to so many places, supplying myriad households with energy. I remember thinking, “This is miraculous.”

Then and there the idea of water becoming something immaterial was etched in my grade-school brain. Yes, there were other transformations of water I knew about: snow, ice, rain, vapor, steam; but the thought of a flow of water generating invisible power . . . that was something else.

Much later, when biblical images of water fired my imagination, I began to ponder how water-transformed-into-seemingly-invisible-energy provides analogies with ways Christians talk about the work of the Holy Spirit. In some churches people speak about how the Spirit is “flowing through them.” This was especially so in evangelical Wednesday night prayer services for which I often played piano to accompany the singing. Uncle Frank, as everyone called the preacher, would always intone some formula in his “Spirit-led” prayer like “Lord, let the Spirit come into our hearts and flood our lives!” We would sing, “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise,” or sometimes,
“. . . when peace like a river . . .” Images of flowing rivers and floods of blessing shaped that singing community, coursing through our emotionally charged prayers. Some nights were “electric”; the whole assembly came alive.

Yet that was only one aspect of the root metaphor connecting water with Holy Spirit talk. I also recall singing Psalm 42 on a church retreat and hearing, as if for the first time, a more gentle connection. “As the deer longs for living water, so my soul longs for you, O God.” Thirst for God emerged as a plea for the life-giving quality of divine presence. This, too, concerns power: the power to live and embrace life, even when our hearts are cast down and disquieted. In this instance, the flow of the Spirit is more subtle and complex than can be pictured as some inner electricity or episodic sensation. The Spirit has also to do with the transformation of time and memory (as in Psalm 42/43).

When theological questions about Baptism and the Church became a focal point for me in seminary, I moved into further explorations of water by discovering a primary ritual place for the linkage between water and the Spirit. In the baptismal act (which can appear so mechanical at times!) our liturgies claim the release of divine power generated “by water and the Spirit.” The Word and prayer of the Church come to the sign of water, making real and powerful the promises of God. What kind of power is this? As once was said, “The waters of Baptism have loosed the foundations of empire.” Yes, baptismal waters can shake an empire, but they begin as a generating current in the community of faith itself. It gradually dawned on me that the renewal of the baptismal covenant—especially at the Easter Vigil—is a surging source of prophetic self-critique. It creates a current of reform and renewal.

When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer placed rites of Baptism at the beginning of the prayer book, it signaled a major shift in pneumatology. Christian Initiation signals the primacy of water and Spirit: the enSpirited release of an unfailing source of life-giving power that we call “grace.” The sacramentality of water is both Spirit-dependent and Spirit-mediating. All these images deepen over time: the outpouring of divine energies seeks release in and through the humble, yet astounding, polyvalence of water.

The Ecstatic Life of God is poured into the world. Gather we then about living waters of font or baptismal pool. “Shall we gather at the river . . . ” was sung at those prayer meetings and in cathedrals and meeting houses, inviting us to the bath and to the New Creation itself. Here we discover that a central work of the Spirit is to place us in company with saints and angels. We are gathered by what the Eastern traditions have referred to as the “uncreated energies of God.”

In a fit of whimsy it occurs to me that Baptism has to do with divine hydro-pneumatics. This is not to be confused with our having a mechanism that guarantees the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Spirit is, rather, sheer gift like a flowing stream, a sudden storm—an unbidden life force. Could it be, after all is said and done, that the Divine Ecstasy is nothing less than the delight God takes in animating human existence and the whole created order by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit? If so, then the whole of baptismal life might be called, in a fit of theological whimsy, a hydro-pneumatic ecstasy.

Herein the personal, the social, and the cosmic work of God the Holy Spirit are bound together. We sing “For All the Saints” by the font and fire of the Paschal candle. And when we get to that final stanza—“from earth’s wide bounds . . . streams in the countless host . . . singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: Alleluia!”—it is electric!

 


Don SaliersDon E. Saliers is Cannon Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Liturgy at Emory University.  He has served as president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Society for Christian Spirituality. Among his many publications are Worship As Theology and A Song to Sing; with his daughter Emily Saliers he coauthored A Life to Live.  An active musician, he is organist/choirmaster at Emory’s Cannon Chapel, and teaches in the summer sessions at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music, as well as leading seminars and retreats.

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This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Saliers, Don E. (2015) “Water and the Spirit,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 15. Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Water and the Spirit

Resurrection

Jon Sobrino, SJ, is one of the leading voices of liberation theology in Latin America. He has written numerous books, including Jesus the Liberator (1991), The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (1994), Christ the Liberator (1999), and No Salvation Outside the Poor (2008). He holds a doctorate in theology from Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt and has been awarded numerous honorary degrees.

Born in Spain, Fr. Sobrino has lived in El Salvador for most of his adult life, teaching theology at the Central American University, which he helped to found (Universidad Centroamericana). Passionate concern for the poor has been integral to his lifelong theological project. His writings reflect upon “the God of the poor and of the victims,” the God of Jesus of Nazareth.

Fr. Sobrino experienced firsthand the ravages of the bloody civil war that engulfed El Salvador from 1980 to 1992 and claimed the lives of some 75,000 Salvadorans. In 1989, members of the elite Atlacatl unit of the Salvadoran army burst into the Jesuit residence of the Universidad Centroamericana, and shot dead six Jesuit priests on the faculty, because of their “subversive” work on behalf of the poor. They also killed a housekeeper and her teenage daughter, as they had been ordered to “leave no witnesses.” Fr. Sobrino was the only survivor, as he happened to be in Thailand at the time, giving a talk.

This massacre was an act of such wanton brutality that it caused the light of international attention to shine on the conflict and hasten its resolution. The martyrs of El Salvador died in solidarity with many others who perished in that conflict. Their death drew attention to those whose lives have been destroyed through poverty, hunger, lack of basic human rights, violence, and war—lives deprived of hope and freedom.

It is perhaps inevitable for Christians to associate innocent suffering with the Cross. Yet the Cross is not the end of the story. In the midst of a world of injustice and death, what does it mean to believe in the Resurrection? In his writings Fr. Sobrino has said, “I am writing from a place of victims and I am trying to reflect from their situation on these texts [of Scripture] that speak about a crucified man who was raised.” We asked him to speak with us about resurrection.

Production Credits

Rita Ferrone, producer
Gene Palumbo, director

Sachin Ramabhadran, editor

Our sincere thanks to the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” in El Salvador, where this interview was filmed, and the audiovisual department staff who filmed it.

 


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Sobrino, Jon. (2015) “Resurrection,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 11. Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Resurrection

[It may be Lord our voice is suited now]

It may be Lord our voice is suited now

only for irony, onslaught, and the minor hierarchies of rage.

 

It may be that only the crudest, cruelest transformations touch us,

gauzewalkers in the hallways of a burn ward.

 

I remember a blind man miraculous for the sounds of his mouth,

every bird rehearsed and released for the children to cheer.

 

Where is he now, in what icy facility or sunlit square,

blackout shades and a brambled mouth, singing extinctions?

 


Christian Wiman is the author, editor, or translator of nine books, including My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013). His new book of poems, Once in the West, was released in the fall of 2014. His spare, precise poems often explore themes of spiritual faith and doubt. For ten years, he served as editor of Poetry magazine; in 2013 he joined the faculty of Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.

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This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Wiman, Christian (2014) “[It may be Lord our voice is suited now],” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 19.
Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu/

View article as a PDF: It May Be Lord Our Voice is Suited Now