September 14 marks an interesting and ancient feast in the Church, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” or “Holy Cross Day.” The day is observed in some fashion by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Red vestments are traditionally worn on Holy Cross Day.

The history behind this is fascinating, as it marks a time when Christianity was becoming ascendant within the Roman Empire. The story displays also something of the shift toward what we might identify as a medieval mindset within the faith. After all, this is a tale of magic, of a questing empress, and the veneration of relics that are thought to provide divine protection.

The empress in question is Helena (also known as Saint Helena in some circles), a woman of obscure birth who became the wife of Constantius, one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; Though he divorced her, their only son was Constantine I, destined to become the supreme ruler in 306. She never remarried, but remained close with her son. She was a devout Christian, and did much to promote Christianity within a Roman Empire that had previously tried to squash it.

The emperor Constantine appointed his mother Helena as “Augusta Imperatrix” and authorized her to go on a quest to the Holy Land to investigate Christian sites. She tore down pagan shrines which had been deliberately placed at Christian sites by an earlier emperor, and she began the building of magnificent churches at the sites of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, she is said to have found the “true cross” upon which Jesus was executed. According to legend the cross of Jesus had been buried in a cistern, along with crosses of the other two prisoners executed with him. She supposedly also recovered the nails and a part of the sign that had hung above his head (a wooden plaque inscribed with Jesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum). The “true Cross” was identified among the three based on observation of its healing powers.

The subsequent tale of the cross could fill a large book. Much of it was carried to Constantinople, and part of it went to Rome, where it is kept to this day at the Basilica Santa Croce. The portion left in Jerusalem was stolen in 614 by the Persian emperor Khosrau II, and returned after his defeat by Byzantine emperor Heraclitus. In the 12th century, when the Crusaders reconquered Jerusalem, it came into the possession of Arnulf Malecorne, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who carried it aloft during battles. It was later captured by Saladin and lost to history.

Tiny fragments of the “true cross” were prized among the faithful; they became popular as amulets for kings and nobles to wear as a sign of faith and for personal protection, and for churches to keep as relics. The proliferation of relics accelerated at sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1124. Bits of the “true cross” can be found across the globe, from Greece’s Mount Athos to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, to Shaftesbury, England to Galveston, Texas. By the 16th century, Protestant reformer John Calvin remarked, “…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”

Saint Ambrose, in his funeral oration for Theodosius, recounted the legend surrounding the discovery of the true cross, and said this of Helena: “she worshiped not the wood, but the King, him who hung upon the cross.”

May we do the same.

For more information:
As of the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a long and interesting article about the True Cross. More details about these stories are also available online at Catholic Education Resource Center, and at New Advent.

In the wake of Harvey’s devastation comes the even more powerful Irma. Our hopes and prayers go out to those affected by this monster of a storm, and those who are yet in its path.

A prayer for protection against storms and floods (Roman Catholic):

Graciously hear us, O Lord, when we call upon You,
and grant unto our supplications a calm atmosphere,
that we, who are justly afflicted for our sins,
may, by Your protecting mercy, experience pardon.
Through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Prayer in time of storm (Anglican):

O MOST glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below: Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is ready now to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds, and the roaring sea; that we, being delivered from this distress, may live to serve thee, and to glorify thy Name all the days of our life. Hear, Lord, and save us, for the infinite merits of our blessed Saviour, thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In consideration of Labor Day, I am reminded of the old hymn “Come Labor On” (Ora Labora). The hymn tune was composed by T. Tertius Noble (1867 – 1953). Below is a recording of the late Gerre Hancock (1934-2012) giving a farewell improvisation on this hymn in 2004, as he was retiring from his post as organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City. The performance was recorded by Dr. Alan van Poznak, and posted to YouTube by a YouTube community member named “contratromba858”. The words to the hymn are below.

Come, labor on.
Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain,
while all around us waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
“Go work today.”

Come, labor on.
The enemy is watching night and day,
to sow the tares, to snatch the seed away;
while we in sleep our duty have forgot,
he slumbered not.

Come, labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here:
by feeblest agents may our God fulfill
his righteous will.

Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share–
to young and old the Gospel gladness bear;
redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.

Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
and a glad sound comes with the setting sun.
“Servants, well done.”

In honor of the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin:

Saint Mary in stained glass, at St Mary’s Church, County Cork, Ireland; by A F Borcher, 2012; used in accordance with Creative Commons 3.0 license.

When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may “break” a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.

Erich Fromm was acutely sensitive to this fact when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others-to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a “biophilic” person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a “necrophilic character type,” whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.

Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.”
― (M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil).

I am not alone in feeling leery about revealing too much about myself. When researching information about 15th century scholar Lorenzo Valla, I ran into the blog by Roger Pearse, at Tertullian.org. He speaks from experience:

About Roger Pearse

This page was written in 1999, when this website was new. It contained my photograph, my email address, and various personal, educational and professional details and so forth.

Little by little, it has grown shorter. The internet is not so small a place as it was in those days. A troll was merely a nuisance, not a brutal thug determined to use the compulsive element in social media to drive a vulnerable teenager to suicide, and to jeer at them afterwards on their memorial Facebook page. A spammer was merely an advertiser, not an internet criminal determined to steal your every shekel, and your identity with it. Privacy was taken for granted. None of this is true today.

My email address was the first to go. That change was forced upon me by the torrent of spam. I created a form — which the spammers soon learned to attack — but this stemmed much of the trouble.

Next to go was my photograph, once I found that the nastier people online sought out personal information in order to use it to inflict pain on their victims. Professional details went next, for the same reason.

Today I have decided to remove the rest. It is a wrench, it is true. But I see no alternative. If I were to join the internet today, I suspect that I would not use my own name at all, but a pen-name. Anything else puts you at risk from the criminal element online.

I myself feel uncomfortable writing online under any name but my own. Occasionally some forum software prevents me from using my own name; but it is a weird feeling. But I think it would be absurd for me to attempt to use a pseudonym at this time of day.

All the same, I cannot sensibly allow personal details to remain on the web when I can prevent this. Nor should you.

Mr. Pearse’s advice is taken to heart. I am sure that over time, the clues I will have offered here and there might allow for someone to guess who I am in “real life”, but I don’t plan to make it easy.

I came across an interesting essay regarding the powerful impact that a single generation has had on Christian life in the U.S. The author of “The Six Commandments of the Boomers” is Reverend Todd Wilken, a blogger, speaker, and pastor within the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

Wilken, himself a member of the “Baby Boom” generation (those with birth dates between 1946 and 1964), begins his piece with a sweeping critique of his cohorts as being generally narcissistic and self absorbed. They are now 28 percent of the U.S. population, and all of our societal institutions and power centers are firmly in their control.

Their influence on the churches of our land has been no less sweeping than it has been on other aspects of life.

Boomers seek to recreate the institution in their own Boomer image. The Boomers have brought this imperative of the individual to bear upon the Church. The Church is here to provide whatever the Boomers want or think they need… The Church has undertaken more innovations in the last generation than in all the previous generations combined, mostly at the insistence of the Boomers.

One area has been music:

And in the Church of the Boomers music is THE issue. Music was the Boomers’ voice. In large part, their music was what defined them as “hip.” Suckled at the breast of what began as tinpan alley and quickly became the music industry, the Boomers can’t wean themselves. Their kind of music is hip and that imperative of hip extends even to the Church. Again, Veith observes:

“Certainly Baby Boomers often do demand their kind of music in church. This is another of their traits —to be demanding and self-absorbed and intolerant of other styles. The World War II generation never demanded worship styles with Big Band music.”

I have been fond of saying that we seem to be stuck in a dichotomy: Boomer theology and traditional music (your average mainline denominational church), versus boomer music and traditional theology (a typical evangelical church). I now realize that I underappreciated even the sinister influence that the “Boomer worldview” has had on theology that is otherwise outwardly orthodox:

In the Church of the Boomers this rebellion against authority manifests itself as a skeptical approach to the Church’s doctrinal standards, pastoral authority, and polity.

However, the bigger problem is that in the Church there is an unquestioned authority: the authority of the Bible. The Church of the Boomers rejects this authority in one of two ways; they either deny the authority of the Bible outright, as in liberal Churches, or they relativize the authority of the Bible, as in much of Protestant Evangelicalism. The first kind of rebellion against Scripture’s authority is obvious. The second is much more subtle, and therefore more dangerous.

The relativizing of the Scripture allows the Boomers to affirm Scripture’s authority in theory while denying it in practice. They can say that they are Bible believing, that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, and even authoritative. The problem isn’t in what the Boomers say about the Bible, the problem is in how they use the Bible.

When studying the Bible there is a big difference between asking, “what does it mean?” and asking, “what does it mean to me?” The former seeks objective truth, the latter seeks subjective, relative truth. The former affirms Scripture’s authority, the latter denies it. Bible study in the Church of the Boomers is mostly the latter. If the meaning of the Bible is determined by each individual’s private interpretation, then the issue of the Bible’s objective authority is rendered moot.

Read it all at the link above.

Summer is blazing away here, with temperatures rising perilously close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. On these kinds of days, a certain listlessness sets in. We have terms that reflect this, such as “summer doldrums”. “Doldrums” is borrowed directly from a nautical term describing a windless area in which sailing vessels flounder and languish.

In the stock market, trading volumes drop as investors heed the old adage “Sell in May and go away”. School is out, leaving just a skeleton crew of secretaries and teachers doing inventory; The vast empty parking lots are almost spooky reminders of the activities that will resume again in just a few weeks.

In many churches, a seasonal ebb is also noted. The pews are emptier. The choir is gone for the summer. The A-team of church leaders (the senior pastor / rector / bishop / head priest / etc) are often away on vacation, leaving church business and Sunday services in the hands of their assistants.

However, this is not the whole story. There is another way to view summer. Summer is also a time of refreshment. Beads of condensation slide delightfully down the smooth glassy curves of a piña colada, or of an icy lemonade. Pools and beaches are great places to cool off and splash around. Pigs grunt and artisans sell woven goods at summer fairs. Vacation trips allow us to travel the cities and markets of the world, or to marvel at the natural wonders of rivers, oceans, mountains and canyons.

There you have it: Two ways of looking at a season–one positive and one negative. This brings me to a point about the power of perception. I have in memory a title of a book I read in the 1990s. Unfortunately the title is about all I remember, because it was so awesome: The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore.

For all its otherworldliness and dedication to the things of God, Christianity is much about reenchanting this life with a new perspective.

Enjoy your summer. May it be for you a time of refreshment

While flying to the Midwest recently, I read a charming and thought provoking little book, Neil Gaiman’s 2013 The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The author noted for Coraline here weaves a tale of a man who returns home to a country house to attend a funeral, and remembers the mysterious events that took place when he was a child. He recalls that he visited a neighbor girl named Lettie, whose family are really ancient and otherworldly beings in disguise. With Lettie he visits another dimension, and accidentally brings back a sinister being named Ursula. In the end, he finds he is under attack by powerful scavenger beasts that nearly kill him until Lettie intervenes.

While there are Christian themes, such as sacrifice and redemption, don’t mistake me as saying that this is a Christian story or allegory. It’s pure fantasy. However, a part of the story that leapt out for me is this lovely prose, which I would take to be a picture of Christianity’s heavenly joy:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole.’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

image
(Image credit: Wassily Kandinsky, Ohne Titel, 1923; public domain, obtained from Wikimedia Commons)

In the book White Oleander by Janet Fitch there is a fascinating scene in which the protagonist, young Astrid, is taken to an exhibit at the art gallery by her foster mother Claire, practically the first loving mother figure in this otherwise sad tale. The exhibition is a collection of the work of Kandinski.

We walked arm in arm through the show, pointing out to each other the details that recurred, the abstracted horsemen, the color changing as a form crossed over another form. Mainly, it was the sense of order, vision retained over time, that brought me to my knees.

I imagined Kandinsky’s mind, spread out all over the world, and then gathered together. Everyone having only a piece of the puzzle. Only in a show like this could you see the complete picture, stack the pieces up, hold them up to the light, see how it all fit together. It made me hopeful, like someday my life would make sense too, if I could just hold all the pieces together at the same time.

Christians feel the same way about God–he is the Kandinsky in this metaphor, and the universe is the art gallery.