There’s no shortage of the Fathers (and other ancient material) in Pope Benedict’s new encyclical, Spe Salvi, on hope. Tolle, lege!
A fascinating, relatively new site, Early Church Texts
- gives access to a wide range of resources for those who wish to learn and know about Early Church History;
– has English translations (alongside original Greek and Latin texts) of important texts from the first five centuries of the life of the Church
In Israel, archeologists found the remains of a Byzantine synagogue, with lovely mosaics intact. News reports say that this find could change our reading of the status of Jews in that corner of the Christian empire, during that century.
Archaeologists differ among themselves as to which period the ancient Galilean synagogues belong. The generally accepted view is that they can be attributed to the later Roman period (second to fourth centuries C.E.), a time of cultural and political flowering of the Jews of the Galilee. Recently, some researchers have come to believe that these synagogues were built mainly during the Byzantine period (fifth and sixth centuries C.E.), a time in which Christianity rose to power and, it was thought, the Jews suffered from persecution. Dr. Leibner noted that this difference of scholarly opinion has great significance in perhaps redrawing the historical picture of Jews in those ancient times.
Meanwhile in Rome the diggers are still pondering the cave they found at the beginning of the year, that may or may not be the Lupercale, the cave where Rome’s mythological founders, Romulus and Remus, were nursed by the she-wolf who adopted them. For the early Christians, Rome’s old founders evoked the new city’s new founders. Pope Benedict drew on his predecessor, Leo the Great, as he announced the upcoming Year of St. Paul:
Like Romulus and Remus, the two mythical brothers who are said to have given birth to the City, so Peter and Paul were held to be the founders of the Church of Rome.
Speaking to the City on this topic, St Leo the Great said: “These are your holy Fathers and true shepherds, who gave you claims to be numbered among the heavenly kingdoms, and built you under much better and happier auspices than they, by whose zeal the first foundations of your walls were laid” (Sermon 82, 7).
However humanly different they may have been from each other and despite the tensions that existed in their relationship, Peter and Paul appear as the founders of a new City, the expression of a new and authentic way of being brothers which was made possible by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For this reason, it can be said that the Church of Rome is celebrating her birthday today, since it was these two Apostles who laid her foundations.
As far as we know, Peter and Paul did their suckling in the normal way.
It’s poetry — and not just the parts that are supposed to be poetry. Here’s an unofficial translation from Teresa Benedetta:
Dear brothers and sisters,
According to common thinking today, Christianity is a European religion, which was later exported with European culture to other nations. But the fact is much more complex, because the roots of the Christian religtion are found in the Old Testament, and therefore in jerusalem and the Semitic world. Christianity haa always nourished itself from its roots in the Old Testament.
Even its expansion in the first centuries took place in both directions: to the West – the Greek and Latin world, where it then inspired European culture; and towards the East, to Persia and as far as India, thus contributing to raise a specific culture, in the Semitic languages, with its own identity.
To show this cultural pluriformity of the only Christian faith in the beginning, last Wednesday I spoke of a representative of this other Christianity, Aphraate the wise Persian, almost unknown to us.
In the same line, I wish to speak today of St. Ephrem the Syrian, born in Nisibi around 306 to a Christian family. He was the most important representative of Christianity in the Syriac language, one who succeeded to reconcile uniquely the vocations of thelogian and poet.
He was educated and grew alongside Jacob, Bishop of Nisibi (303-338), and together with him, founded the theological school of their city. Ordained a deacon, he intensely shared the life of the local Christian community until 363, when Nisibi fell to the Persians.
Ephrem then moved to Edessa, where he continued his activity as a peracher. He died in this city in 373, victim of the plague he contracted from caring for those who had been stricken.
It is not known for certain whether he was a monk, but in any case, he remained a deacon all his life and embraced both chastity and poverty. The common and fundamental Christian identity appears in his specificity cultural expression: faith, hope – the hope which allows one to live poor and chaste in this world, placing every expectation only in the Lord – and finally, charity, up to the gift of himself in caring for the victims of the plague.
St, Ephrem has left us a graat theological legacy. His considerable output can be grouped in four categories: works written in ordinary prose (his polemical works and Biblical commentaries); works in poetic prose; homilies in verse; and finally, the hymns, surely Ephrem’s most extensive work.
He is a rich and interesting author in many ways, but especially in his theological profile. The specificity of his work is that theology and poetry encounter each other.
In approaching his doctrine, we must insist from the beginning on this: that he cast theology in poetic form. Poetry allowed him to deepen theological reflection through paradoxes and images. So at the same time, his theology becomes liturgy, it becomes music. He was, in fact, a great composer, a musician.
Theology, reflection on the faith, poetry, song, and praise of God all go together; and divine truth appears precisely in the liturgical character of Ephrem’s theology. In his quest for God, in his theology, he followed the way of paradox and symbol. He largely favored contrasting images because they serve to underline the mystery of God.
I cannot now present very much of his work, if only because poetry is not easily translatable, but to give at least an idea of his poetic theology, I would like to cite parts of some hymns. Above all, especially in view of the coming Advent, here are some splendid images from the hymn on the nativity of Christ.
Before the Virgin, Eophrem manifests his wonder in inspired words:
“The Lord came to you
to become a servant.
The Word came to you
to be still in your womb.
Lightning came to you
without making any noise.
The Shepherd came to you –
and becomes the newborn Lamb
with his submissive plaint.
The womb of Mary
has changed the roles:
He who created all things
took possession in poverty.
The Highest came to you (Mary)
but he entered with humility.
Splendor came to you,
but dressed in humble rags.
He who makes all things grow
He who waters everything
Bare and stripped, he came from you,
he who clothes everything in beauty.”
(Hymn “De Nativitate”11, 6-8).
To express the mystery of Christ, Ephrem used a great diversity of expressions and images. In one of his hymns, he effectively links Adam in Paradise with Christ in the Eucharist:
“It was the cherubin’s spade
that closed the path
to the Tree of LIfe.
But for the people,
the Lord of this tree
gave himself as food –
he himself as offering (Eucharistic).
The trees of Eden
were given as food
to the first Adam.
For us, the Gardener in person
has made himself food for our souls.
Indeed we all left Paradise with Adam,
who left it all behind.
Now that the sword has been taken away,
there (on the Cross), we find it again
in the lance that pierced.
To speak of the Eucharist, Ephrem used two images: the ember or burning coal, and the pearl. The ember comes from Isaiah (6.6), in the image of the seraphin who picks up an ember with tongs and simply brushes it across the lips of the prophet in order to purify it. The Christian, on the other hand, takes and swallows the Ember, who is Christ himself.
“In your Bread is hidden the Spirit
which cannot be consumed.
In your wine is the fire
which cannot be drunk.
The Spirit in the bread,
the fire in your wine:
behold the wonder
that we welcome to our lips.
The seraphin could not, with his fingers, touch the ember
which he could only bring close to Isaiah’s mouth.
The fingers did not hold it, nor did the mouth ingest it.
But the Lord has conceded both to us.
Fire descends with ire to destroy sinners
but the fire of grace descends on the bread and stays.
Instead of the fire which destroyed people,
we have easten the fire in the bread
and we have been revived.
(Hymn “De Fide”10,8-10).
Finally, a last example of St. Ephrem’s hymns, where he describes the pearl as a symbol of the richness and beauty of the faith:
“I place the pearl, my brothers,
in the palm of my hand to examine it.
I look at it from one side, then the other –
and it looks the same from every side.
So it is with our search
for the inscrutable Son –
because he is all light.
In its limpidity, I see the Limpid
which does not become opaque.
In its purity, I see the symbol
of the pure Body of our Lord.
And in its indivisibility, I see
the truth which is indivisible.
(Hymn “Sulla Perla” 1, 2-3).
The figure of Ephrem is still fully relevant in the life of the various Christian churches. We discover him, first of all, as a theologian who, starting from Sacred Scripture, reflects poetically on the mystery of the redemption of man by Christ, the Word of God incarnate.
His is a theological reflection with images and symbols taken from nature, from daily life and from the Bible. Ephrem confers a didactic and theological character on poetry and hymns for liturgy, Ephrem used these hymns to spread, on liturgical occasions, the doctrine of the Church. And in those times, they proved to be extremely effective as a catechetical means for the Christian community.
Ephrem’s reflections on the theme of God the Creator are important: Nothing in the world is isolated, and the world, alongside Sacred Scripture, is the Bible of God, but using his freedom in the wrong
way, man overturns the order of the cosmos.
The role of women was very relevant to Ephrem. The way in which he spoke about women was always inspired by sensitivity and respect: Jesus dwelling in the womb of Mary had raised the dignity of all women. For Ephrem, just as there is no Redemption without Jesus, there could be no Incarnation without Mary.
The divine and human dimensions of the mystery of our Redemption are found in the texts of Ephrem: poetically and with fundamentally Scriptural images, he anticipated the theological background and in some way, the language itself, of the great Christologic definitions made by the Councils of the fifth century.
Ephrem, honored by Christian tradition with the title ‘Scepter of the Holy Spirit’, remained a deacon of the church all his life. It was a decisive and emblematic choice: he was a deacon, therefore, a servant, both in the liturgical ministry as, more radically, he was a servant of the love of Christ, which he sung in unparalleled way, and in his charity towards his brothers, whom he introduced with rare mastery to a knowledge of divine revelation.
Here’s the Vatican’s official summary of the audience on Ephrem:
In this week’s catechesis we turn to Saint Ephrem, the greatest of the Syriac Fathers and the most renowned poet of the patristic age. Saint Ephrem’s theology, deeply grounded in the Scriptures and profoundly orthodox in content, was expressed in poetic language marked by striking paradoxes and vivid imagery. Through his mastery of poetic symbolism, Ephrem sought to communicate, especially in his Hymns, the mystery of the trinitarian God, the incarnation of the eternal Son born of the Virgin Mary, and the spiritual treasures contained in the Eucharist. His poetry and hymns not only enriched the liturgy; they also proved an important means of catechesis for the Christian community in the fourth century. Particularly significant is Ephrem’s teaching on our redemption by Christ: his poetic descriptions of the interplay of the divine and human aspects of this great mystery foreshadowed the theology and, to some extent, even the language of the great christological definitions of the Councils of the next century. In his life-long service to the Church as a deacon, Saint Ephrem was an example of fidelity to the liturgy, meditation on the mystery of Christ and charitable service to his brothers and sisters.
Here’s CNS’s coverage of the event:
Western Christians can learn much from Eastern Christians, says pope
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Christianity is not and never has been a uniquely European phenomenon, and Christians of the West can learn much from the cultural expressions of Eastern Christians, especially those of the early church, Pope Benedict XVI said.
“Today it is a common opinion that Christianity is a European religion that exported European culture to other countries, but the reality is much more complicated and complex,” he said Nov. 28 at his weekly general audience.
“It is not only that the roots of the Christian religion are found in Jerusalem, in the Old Testament, in the Semitic world and Christianity is constantly nourished by these Old Testament roots,” he said, “but the expansion of Christianity in the first centuries” went simultaneously West and East.
In Europe, but also throughout the Middle East and over to India, “Christianity with a different culture was formed,” he said. Christians in the East lived the faith “with their own expressions and cultural identities,” demonstrating “the cultural plurality of the one faith from the beginning.”
With fewer than 8,000 people present, the weekly gathering was held inside the Vatican audience hall, offering greater protection from the cold and wind for the pope, whose voice was hoarse.
The pope’s main audience talk focused on the life, teaching and poetry of St. Ephraem the Syrian, a fourth-century deacon.
“He remained a deacon throughout his life and embraced virginity and poverty,” the pope said.
Pope Benedict, whose new encyclical on the virtue of hope was to be released at the Vatican Nov. 30, said St. Ephraem was a model of the Christian virtues: “faith, hope — this hope that allows us to live poor and as virgins in this world, placing all one’s hope in the Lord — and, finally, charity to the point of self-giving in the care of victims of the plague,” which he contracted and which caused his death.
In his hymns and poetry, St. Ephraem offered theological reflections using images “taken from nature, daily life and the Bible.”
His use of song, especially liturgical song, the pope said, was an effective means of religious education because “precisely by singing, celebrating, praising God, we see not only the beauty, but the truth of the faith and we encounter the truth in person, Christ.”
St. Ephraem’s reflections on God the creator, he said, are very important.
The saint taught that “nothing in creation is isolated. The world, alongside the Scriptures, is God’s Bible. By using his freedom in an erroneous way, man upsets the order of the cosmos,” the pope said.
Following naturally from Aphrahat, the Pope turned to St. Ephrem in his general audience today. I haven’t found any English yet.
I just got word that Dion’s musical tribute to St. Jerome, The Thunderer, is available for download on Amazon. As you probably already know, Dion (known for many hit singles, including The Wanderer) is the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame’s resident expert on patristics.
You can catch his most recent performance on the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland.
Once again, a study of early Christianity has won the award for best doctoral dissertation of the pontifical academies. This one’s on the Catacombs of Pamphilus on Rome’s old Salarian Way. Pope Benedict XVI presented the award.
I was going to post something on Smithsonian magazine’s cover story, Keepers of the Lost Ark?, but Jim Davila beat me to it. Smithsonian’s teaser says: “Christians in Ethiopia have long claimed to have the ark of the covenant. Our reporter investigated.” Those of a certain age will detect just a trace of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” in the article’s approach to Christianity. But it’s fairly respectful.
… through the centuries, Ethiopian Christians have claimed that the ark rests in a chapel in the small town of Aksum, in their country’s northern highlands. It arrived nearly 3,000 years ago, they say, and has been guarded by a succession of virgin monks who, once anointed, are forbidden to set foot outside the chapel grounds until they die….
“The ark came here from Aksum for safekeeping from enemies well before Jesus was born because our people followed the Jewish religion then,” he said. “But when King Ezana ruled in Aksum 1,600 years ago, he took the ark back to Aksum.” Ezana’s kingdom extended across the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula; he converted to Christianity around a.d. 330 and became hugely influential in spreading the faith.
And if you want to read more about the ancient roots of Ethiopian Christianity, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art and this site, too. The Ethiopian Church’s origins are recounted in the histories of Rufinus and Socrates.
My neighbor Dr. Sarah Wear has us visiting the Neoplatonists again. She’s produced a new book that we all need to read: Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition: Despoiling the Hellenes. Here’s the publisher’s teaser:
‘Dionysius the Areopagite’ is arguably one of the most mysterious and intriguing figures to emerge from the late antique world. Writing probably around 500 C.E., and possibly connected with the circle of Severus of Antioch, Dionysius manipulates a Platonic metaphysics to describe a hierarchical universe: as with the Hellenic Platonists, he arranges the celestial and material cosmos into a series of triadic strata. These strata emanate from one unified being and contain beings that range from superior to inferior, depending on their proximity to God. Not only do all things in the hierarchy participate in God, but also all things are inter-connected, so that the lower hierarchies fully participate in the higher ones. This metaphysics lends itself to a sacramental system similar to that of the Hellenic ritual, theurgy. Theurgy allows humans to reach the divine by examining the divine as it exists in creation. Although Dionysius’ metaphysics and religion are similar to that of Iamblichus and Proclus in many ways, Pseudo-Dionysius differs fundamentally in his use of an ecclesiastical cosmos, rather than that of the Platonic Timaean cosmos of the Hellenes. This book discusses the Christian Platonist’s adaptation of Hellenic metaphysics, language, and religious ritual. While Dionysius clearly works within the Hellenic tradition, he innovates to integrate Hellenic and Christian thought.
Buy it now! The last one to Amazon is a Paleo-Platonist.
My friend Ken Ogorek has written an innovative catechism. Actually, it’s a retrieval. Ken has reached back to the Fathers’ method of teaching by following the lectionary — the cycle of Old and New Testament readings that are used in the liturgy. It’s titled The Gospel Truth: A Lectionary-Based Catechism for Adults, and it’s a great resource for clergy and catechists. There are more than 400 pages of ready material for homilies and lesson plans that are biblical, doctrinal, and relevant. The Gospel Truth comes with a foreword by Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington and hearty recommendations from Ronda Chervin and Bishop Richard Malone of Portland, Maine.
Pastors, listen up: One priest bought a thousand copies (at bulk discount) so that he could give The Gospel Truth to each and every household in his parish. It’s a great way to do adult education. You get all the families going in the same direction, steered by the liturgy. You won’t find the book on Amazon, only at Ken’s place.
David Scott sends us a thought for Sunday, from Augustine’s Letter 98. 9.
As the Paschal season draws near we say without a thought: “Tomorrow is the Lord’s Passion” and yet many years have passed since the Lord underwent his Passion, which took place once for all (Heb 9:26). This Sunday, too, we can rightly say: “The Lord is risen today” although many years have passed since Christ was raised. So why is it that no one comes to blame us for this “today” as though it were a lie?
Is it not because we say “today” because this day stands for the return, in the course of time, of the day on which the event we are commemorating took place? We are right to say “today”: today, indeed, the event that took place so long ago is fulfilled by our celebration of the mystery. In himself Christ was sacrificed once for all; nevertheless, he is sacrificed today in the mystery we celebrate, not only at every paschal feast but every day, for all people. This is not to lie, then, but to affirm: “Christ is sacrificed today.” For if the sacraments we are fulfilling did not have a genuine likeness to the reality of which they are the sign, they would not be sacraments. But it is precisely this likeness that allows us to call them by the same name as the reality of which they are the sign. And so the sacrament of the body of Christ we celebrate is, in some way, the body of Christ; the mystery of the blood of Christ that we fulfil is the blood of Christ. The sacramental mystery of faith is the reality in which we believe.
Zenit interviewed Archbishop Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston on the eve of his getting the cardinal’s hat. Archbishop DiNardo showed us the kind of thinking we should hope to find in a cardinal who holds graduate degrees in the study of the Fathers.
Q: As a patristic scholar, you have a deep appreciation for the Church’s sacred Tradition. Benedict XVI has in his pontificate underlined the importance of not rupturing with the Church’s past, and to provide continuity with its rich liturgical and theological traditions. In what ways can bishops implement the Holy Father’s program in their dioceses?
Archbishop DiNardo: When I arrived in the archdiocese, I really didn’t find a lot of instances of discontinuity or rupture. There are always complaints with the way Mass is celebrated in some places, but my predecessor bishops were great moderating forces. Thus, the diocese avoided some of the problems found elsewhere associated with a rupture from the past.
With regard to the liturgy, I think we can take a cue from the liturgical piety of the Church Fathers. In the Fathers, you see an emphasis not only on the words said at Mass, but also the importance of the gestures of the liturgy. In other words, say the black, do the red.
I also always emphasize unity in faith, meaning unity in the Creed. The Creed allows the Church to unite around a common set of beliefs. And knowing the Creed and what it means helps root the faithful in the great Tradition of the Church.
As I tell my seminarians, it is not enough to have the right sentiments about God; you actually have to know something. You have to know what the Church teaches and what theologians such as St. Augustine or St. Thomas said about particular doctrines…
It’s Black Friday, and you have no idea what to buy for the patristics nerds on your shopping list. Here are some suggestions — all new books — most of which I’ve reviewed on this blog or in Touchstone magazine this year.
A Patristic Greek Reader, by Rodney A. Whitacre
Fathers Of The Church: A Comprehensive Introduction, by Hubertus Drobner
The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions, by Fabrizio Bisconti et al.
The Treasures of Coptic Art, by Gawdat Gabra
Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It, by Robert Taft, S.J.
Deification and Grace, by Daniel A. Keating
Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger, by Gary Michuta
Son Of Skip James, by Dion (with his musical tribute to St. Jerome, “The Thunderer”)
The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, by Stephen J. Shoemaker
And don’t forget the NEW, expanded editions of these titles:
The Mass of the Early Christians, by Mike Aquilina
Today is the feast of St. Clement of Rome, whose Letter to the Corinthians is among the oldest Christian writings we have, outside the Bible. His letter is stunning, and it held a semi-canonical status in some ancient churches. It was bound in with other New Testament books, and it was even read in the liturgy. Clement was widely loved and revered for his sacrifice. In his honor, read Pope Benedict’s address on Clement’s life and work; it was the first in his series on the Fathers.