when I came forth out of Egypt

This extended passage about a prayer from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (“a little book with prayers for the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and other rites reflecting practice in Rome at the end of the second century”) is again from Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (32-36). Although Wilken defends a Catholic conception of Christ’s re-sacrifice that I do not espouse, there is great value in his overarching insight that God’s redemptive acts, recorded in scripture and remembered in the sacraments, are a true and present reality to us.

Although it is a prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, and supplication, it has a distinct narrative structure.

…[This imitates] the psalmists [who] do not simply praise the majesty and goodness and power of God, they identify God by his actions, “his mighty deeds.” To praise God is to narrate what he has done.

…Yet it is apparent from the wording of the prayers that something more is at work here than recalling ancient history. After reciting the history of salvation leading up to the “night on which he was betrayed,” the prayer continues as follows: “And we sinners make remembrance of his life-giving sufferings, his death, and resurrection on the third day from the dead and ascension to the right hand of You, his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming.” The key term here is the Greek word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” which in this context means “recall by making present.”

There are parallels between this sense of remembrance and the way the Exodus out of Egypt is remembered in the Jewish Passover. In the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish law from the early third century, it is reported that Rabbi Gamaliel used to say, …”In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”‘” Those who celebrate Pesach are not spectators, they are participants. “It is I who came forth out of Egypt,” says Rabbi Gamaliel. Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life-giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is re-presented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine. Speaking of the Christian paschal celebration Origen wrote, “The Passover still takes place today” and “Those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.” What was once accomplished in Palestine is now made present in the action of the liturgy, as the prayers indicate: “We offer to You 0 Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins.”” Liturgy is always in the present tense. The past becomes a present presence that opens a new future.

…The repeated celebration of the liturgy worked powerfully on the imagination of early Christian thinkers. It brought them into intimate relation with the mystery of the Christ, not as a historical memory, but as an indisputable and incontrovertible fact of experience. Leo the Great, bishop of Rome in the fifth century, put it this way: “Everything that the Son of God did and taught for the reconciliation of the world, we know not only as an historical account of things now past, but we also experience them in the power of the works that are present.” Before there were treatises on the Trinity, before there were learned commentaries on the Bible, before there were disputes about the teaching on grace, or essays on the moral life, there was awe and adoration before the exalted Son of God alive and present in the church’s offering of the Eucharist. This truth preceded every effort to understand and nourished every attempt to express in words and concepts what Christians believed.

tame as canaries

Jan Luyken etching, Parable of the mustard seed from the Bowyer Bible

When posting about the Bible as “a cornucopia of scenes and images” yesterday, this poem came to mind (much thanks to Christine Perrin for introducing it to my class and me). It recalls the burning bush as well as the tree of life, the great tree of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the prophet Daniel, and the mighty mustard tree full of nesting birds in Christ’s parable (Matthew 13:31–32, Mark 4:30–32 and Luke 13:18–19). It is by contemporary Russian poet Elena Shvarts.

The Book on the Windowsill

Like a lamb in a storm, or two and two crammed in a crate
I sit in these teeming branches, and tremble with fear.

A mighty tree is the word of God,
A laurel with leaves that whisper and rustle;
The prophets hang on it like thorn-apples,
Or fish on an angler’s line (jump hop!).
Confusion, darkness and beauty dwell in its shade,
Branches, fruit, a chorus of angels all singing,
Singing and weaving — what? Purple brocade.
Whales in the foliage spout fountains;
Birds fix predatory eyes on the berries,
Longing to cram their craws to the brim;
But down they go plummeting on scorched wings,
And sit caged in the branches, tame as canaries.
I cannot approach the tree in its thickets;
Yet you’re there in the heart-wood, the smouldering trunk.
The birds bob in the swirling leaves like bathers;
Jonah lies in the Whale at night, in the morning the Whale lies in him.
Down thuds an apple, and splits to show peacocks inside;
Eve wearing harlequin colours, and Adam with gilded feathers —
There’s Abraham, bright as a lemon. The hollows hold luminous spirits,
And on each calyx gazelles and fallow-deer graze.
Judith flies through the air, cracking nuts like a squirrel,
‘Holofernes!’ she cries, and preens her blue fur.
Noah is chanting and caulking a mighty barrel:
‘Lord, hear my cry when the water is high’ runs the song;
And Elijah wraps up the tree in golden ribbons of lightning.

They say you can’t read every word. If you do, you go mad.
It seems to be true: I can feel that my own mind is shaking.
Reason’s as ready to burst as an over-ripe pumpkin,
Just as the smug, stout-walled town of Jericho learnt.
So let me walk in my strange, light sleep, half-waking
And pass through the waterfalls of shades.
O Moses, when you came at last to the Promised Land
Did you ever feel you were something she’d dreamt?

a cornucopia of scenes and images

Another one of “the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life” is the influence of God’s word. However, Wilken stresses that the scriptures provided far more than an intellectual basis for the early church.

Christian thinkers were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something. The desire to understand is as much part of believing as is the drive to act on what one believes. …Christian thought arose in response to the facts of revelation, how its idiom was set by the language and imagery of the Bible, and how the life and worship of the Christian community gave Christian thinking a social dimension that was absent from ancient philosophy. (p. 3)

And from his introduction:

The intellectual effort of the early church was at the service of a much loftier goal than giving conceptual form to Christian belief. Its mission was to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives. Christian thinkers appealed to a much deeper level of human experience than had the religious institutions of society or the doctrines of the philosophers. In this endeavor the Bible was a central factor. It narrated a history that reached back into antiquity even to the beginning of the world, it was filled with stories of unforgettable men and women (not all admirable) who were actual historical persons rather than mythical figures, and it poured forth a thesaurus of words that created a new religious vocabulary and a cornucopia of scenes and images that stirred literary and artistic imagination as well as theological thought. God, the self, human community, the beginning and ending of things became interwoven with biblical history, biblical language, and biblical imagery. (pp. xiv-xv)

Fresco of Adam and Eve in the catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter (Rome, A.D. 300-350).

quiet confidence in those who have gone before

My wife and I got a Kindle for Christmas form her family and often find ourselves reaching for it at the same time. One book that I particularly enjoyed reading recently was Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. I’ve cited it once already and will post several more passages as I go back through the long page of highlights that I generated. Here’s a short one from midway that touches upon many of the others.

One of the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life is a kind of quiet confidence in the faithfulness and integrity of those who have gone before. (p. 175)

Early Protestants (from the first generation of Reformers through the America Puritans of the colonial period at least) had a wide-spread, intimate and appreciative knowledge of the church fathers. This basic conservative (and biblical) instinct is something that we easily loose sight of in a fast-paced and entertainment-driven age. We survive and mature by receiving from our fathers (with thankful hearts) all that we can bear. Protestants need not feel threatened by this.

More worthwhile still might be to ask whether or not this really is among “the most distinctive features of Christian intellectual life.” What other contenders are there, and do they conflict? Wilken raises several others himself in the course of his own efforts to conjure the thought life of early Christians.

we might all try minding our own business

These two reminders from C.S. Lewis about minding our own business have something profound to do with the office of prophethood and the spreading of truth. This fact that bold proclamation, intimate communication and strict attention to privacy are all mutually dependent is somewhat counterintuitive but true.

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

(The Horse and His Boy, chapter 11)

My children are listening to these stories repeatedly (and in indiscriminate order) this summer, so I also overheard this passage again earlier this week:

“But do you really mean, sir,” said Peter, “that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner – like that?”

“Nothing is more probable,” said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”

“But what are we to do?” said Susan. She felt that the conversation was beginning to get off the point.

“My dear young lady,” said the Professor, suddenly looking up with a very sharp expression at both of them, “there is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying.”

“What’s that?” said Susan.

“We might all try minding our own business,” said he. And that was the end of that conversation.

After this things were a good deal better for Lucy. Peter saw to it that Edmund stopped jeering at her, and neither she nor anyone else felt inclined to talk about the wardrobe at all. It had become a rather alarming subject. And so for a time it looked as if all the adventures were coming to an end; but that was not to be.

(The Lion the Whitch and the Wardrobe, chapter 5)

taking ideas especially seriously

From “The Temple,” a lecture by Roderick T. Long at the Auburn Philosophical Society’s roundtable on “The Idea of the University” (12 April 2002):

The mind’s grasp of itself is valuable, not so much for what it makes possible – though what it makes possible is nothing less than the fruits of civilization itself – as for what it is: the status of freedom rather than bondage. But a free mind must also be a disciplined mind; the notion that intellectual discipline is an obstacle to intellectual freedom and creativity is on a par with the suggestion that my physical motions are freer and more creative than a gymnast’s, because they are less disciplined.

It is sometimes debated whether the university’s function should be to transmit the inherited wisdom of tradition, or to question that heritage and open ourselves to dissenting points of view. This way of stating the question is a confusion. The call to challenge inherited wisdom and open ourselves to dissenting points of view is itself one of the chief bits of wisdom we have inherited from our tradition; our heritage is an indispensable education in dissent. Hence if we wish to challenge our heritage, we must begin by learning from it, and if we wish to learn from it, we must end by challenging it. Confronting tradition is not a monologue, either from the past addressed to us or from us addressed to the past, but a conversation.

Our life with one another in the university also takes the form of a conversation. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, however, the goal of academic conversation is not mutual tolerance and respect. Tolerance and respect are presuppositions of the conversational process, not its goal. The goal is nothing less than power. But the power in question is that of intellectual self-command – a power that is enhanced, not diminished, through engagement with the like power of others. To describe the university as a sacred temple is not to say that it should be a place of solemn demeanour, hushed tones, and reverential deference. Within the bounds of civility, university life should be characterized by free-wheeling and vigorous exchange, raucous and impassioned dissent, and even, when appropriate, withering scorn. Such boisterous behaviour is the natural expression, not of taking ideas lightly, but of taking them especially seriously.