Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The glory of "material water": Hooker on Incarnation and Baptism

"Inappropriate", says Calvin.  We can detect Calvin's Nestorian tendencies - the desire to keep the divine an appropriate, safe distance from the physical - in his discussion of John 3:5 and the sacrament of Baptism.  Christ could not possibly have been referring to material, physical water.   Rather, he had to have meant Spirit.  Thus Baptism is but a "visible symbol", for material, physical water cannot be a means of receiving the Spirit.

"Material water", insists Hooker in his reflection on John 3:5.  There is something glorious about Hooker's use of this phrase - gloriously physical.  Through "material water", he insists, "as by an instrument" we receive grace, we are incorporated into Christ.

Hooker, of course, prefaces his account of the Church's sacramental life with an extended reflection on the Incarnation.  The Church catholic's confession of the Incarnation is for Hooker the foundation of the sacramental economy:

Since God has deified our nature, though not by turning it into himself, yet by making it his own inseparable habitation, we cannot now conceive how God should without man either exercise divine power or receive the glory of divine praise ... there is no doubt that the deity of Christ has enable that nature which it took of man to do more than man in this world has power to comprehend (LEP V54.3-4).

It is this profound meditation on the Incarnation which leads Hooker to grasp that which eludes Calvin with his Nestorian tendencies - the physical, including "material water", is now inhabited by God, doing "more than man in this world has power to comprehend".


So far as relates to this passage, I cannot bring myself to believe that Christ speaks of baptism; for it would have been inappropriate.

Calvin's commentary on John 3:5

To hide the general consent of antiquity agreeing in the literal interpretation they cunningly affirm that certain have taken those words as meant of material water, when they know that of all the ancients there is not one to be named that ever did otherwise either expound or allege the place then as implying external baptism.  Shall that which has always received this and no other construction be now disguised with a toy of novelty?

Hooker in LEP V 59:3 on John 3:5

... he connects the Water with the Spirit, because under that visible symbol he attests and seals that newness of life which God alone produces in us by his Spirit.

Calvin's commentary on John 3:5

... God will have it embraced not only as a sign or token what we receive, but also as an instrument or means whereby we receive grace, because baptism is a sacrament which God has instituted in his Church to the end that they which receive the same may be incorporated into Christ.

Hooker in LEP V 60:2

Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin, and that our Saviour Christ saith, none can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost: I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous mercy he will grant to this Child that thing which by nature he cannot have; that he may be baptized with Water and the Holy Ghost, and received into Christ's holy Church, and be made a lively member of the same.

Book of Common Prayer (1662), The Ministration of Public Baptism of Infants

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"Not only the outside meaning we see at first": John Mason Neale on Jerome and making strange

In his sermon on St Jerome - part of a series for the black-letter days of the 1662 Kalendar - John Mason Neale notes how the Kalendar celebrates four Doctors of the Western Church: Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome.  He goes on to point to the mystical reading of Scripture - "setting forth its hidden treasures" - evident in each as a necessary guide for our reading of Scripture.  Without them, we are left with "a difficult book indeed" and an interpretation that is merely the "outside meaning which we see at first".

Now, what we may learn, most profitably for ourselves, is this: how much fulness of meaning there is in every word and letter of the Bible. If great saints and learned men like these Doctors could spend year after year in setting forth its hidden treasures, and after all confess that they are unsearchable, shall we not be ashamed to read and to search the Holy Scriptures as we do? It is not as if GOD'S Word had only the outside meaning which we see at first. Take the story of Abraham and Isaac. You may know the things which happened well enough; but till you have learnt that Isaac is a type of CHRIST, you cannot be said to understand anything really of the story. And so it is with other stories; so it is with the history of the Israelites, both in the books of Moses, and in Joshua, and in Judges, and Kings; and till you have some little idea of these, you can no more be said to understand the Bible, than a child with a nut in his hand, which he cannot crack, understands what the fruit is like.

Again; we may well bless GOD for such holy teachers, when we remember how difficult the Bible is ...

Yes: the Bible is a difficult book indeed. It is true, some things are written so clearly that we want no one to explain them to us. When we read that CHRIST JESUS came to seek and to save that which is lost, we need no one to tell us that He is indeed the SAVIOUR of the world. When, at the Last Supper, He took bread and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to His disciples saying, "Take, eat, this is My Body," we know and are certain, and are to believe it in spite of all temptation, that it is His Body. But when we read texts which seem to contradict each other, as when S. Paul tells us that "a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law," and S. James says, "Ye see, then, how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only," how then are we to understand? When we find texts such as these, "He that doubteth is damned if he eat"--or again, "Touch not, taste not, handle not"--or again, whole chapters together in the Prophets or the Epistles,--how then are we to understand? The fault is in ourselves, not in the Bible; but how does that help us?

To take the text again. If we wanted to make a chair or a table, and a man led us into a field, and showed us a fine oak, and gave it to us, but offered us no tools, nor any workmen, how should we be the better? There, it is true, is wood enough; but how are we to get at it? But let us have carpenters, and then indeed we shall be obliged to him.

This oak is the Bible. To make it useful to us, we must have the teachers whom GOD has given to us, who are compared to the carpenters. There are few more crafty temptations of the devil than that by which he would persuade people that they can explain Scripture for themselves.

It is a wonderful example of how the 19th century catholic Anglican renewal retrieved a sense of reserve, a making strange of the mysteries of Faith.  In an Enlightened, Whig, Protestant culture which assumed it knew the plain sense of Scripture, such reserve significantly contributed to the ability of the catholic renewal to entice and capture the cultural imagination.

The post-Christian contemporary societies of the North Atlantic world retain that Whiggish, Enlightened, liberal Protestant assumption that the Bible is easily understood and grasped - and that it has been so and politely placed in a cabinet marked 'harmless cultural heritage'.  To open the cabinet, catholic Anglicans need to re-engage with the mystical reading of those great Doctors celebrated by John Mason Neale, bringing forth "hidden treasures" from a text assumed to be understood and comprehended.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Michaelmas and a cosmos drenched in light

Whether the angels exist in any great number?

(Summa Theologica I.50.3)

This question considered by Aquinas in the Summa is not quite 'how many angels can fit on the head of a pin', but is perhaps the next best - or worst - thing.  We might condemn it as typical of a rationalistic Scholasticism.

Or is it?

Thomas' consideration of the question and his answer is no mere abstract philosophical exercise.  Rather, he uses it to point us to a cosmos drenched in glory and light.  We mortals dwell in a creation in which angels "incomparably exceed material substances as to multitude":

Hence it must be said that the angels, even inasmuch as they are immaterial substances, exist in exceeding great number, far beyond all material multitude. This is what Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. xiv): "There are many blessed armies of the heavenly intelligences, surpassing the weak and limited reckoning of our material numbers." The reason whereof is this, because, since it is the perfection of the universe that God chiefly intends in the creation of things, the more perfect some things are, in so much greater an excess are they created by God. Now, as in bodies such excess is observed in regard to their magnitude, so in things incorporeal is it observed in regard to their multitude. We see, in fact, that incorruptible bodies, exceed corruptible bodies almost incomparably in magnitude; for the entire sphere of things active and passive is something very small in comparison with the heavenly bodies. Hence it is reasonable to conclude that the immaterial substances as it were incomparably exceed material substances as to multitude.

When in the Holy Eucharist we say that we adore the Triune God "with Angels and Archangels", our angelic companions are no small number.  They are not even a conceivable number.  They are innumerable.  Why?  Because "it is the perfection of the universe that God chiefly intends in the creation of things".  The numberless angelic hosts which populate the cosmos are a means by which we mortals experience the beauty and grace of the Holy Trinity.  Bearers of the glory and light of the Divine Trinity, this angelic host - number beyond numbers - mean that "heaven and earth are full of thy glory".

(The painting is Turner's Sun Setting over a Lake, c.1840.)

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Augustine on the medicine of Incarnation and Sacrament

Augustine's Tractate 2, on John 1:6-14, has a beautiful introduction to the sacramental themes of the Fourth Gospel and their relationship to the Incarnation - "medicines are derived from the earth alone".

There had dashed into man's eye, as it were, dust, earth; it had wounded the eye, and it could not see the light: that wounded eye is anointed; by earth it was wounded, and earth is applied to it for healing. For all eye-salves and medicines are derived from the earth alone. By dust you were blinded, and by dust you are healed: flesh, then, had wounded you, flesh heals you. The soul had become carnal by consenting to the affections of the flesh; thus had the eye of the heart been blinded. The Word was made flesh: that Physician made for you an eye-salve.

Friday, 26 September 2014

"As for other ends so for this specially": Andrewes on Incarnation and Sacrament

Following on from yesterday's post on the sacramental imagination of Lancelot Andrewes, an extract from another Christmas sermon, this from 1614. Here Andrewes points to Baptism and Eucharist as the means whereby we encounter and participate in the redemption that is Incarnation.  In the great exchange, the Word becomes flesh so that we - through the sacraments - might participate in the divine nature.

Note the reference to the Incarnation as oriented to the Eucharist -  "that Body that was conceived and born, as for the other ends so for this specially ... for the Holy Eucharist".

This indeed was the chief end of His being with us; to give us a capacity, a power to be made the sons of God, by being born again of water and of the Spirit ... the same original that Himself took in the womb of the Virgin to us-ward, the same has He placed for us in the fountain of Baptism to God-ward. Well therefore call the womb of the Church ... the Virgin's womb, with a power given it of conceiving and bearing children to God. So His being conceived and born the Son of man does conceive and bring forth our being born, our being the sons of God. His participation of our human, our participation of His Divine nature ...

That flesh that was conceived and this day born, that body that was this day fitted to Him. And if we be not with Him thus, if this His flesh be not with us, if we partake it not, which way soever else we be with Him, we come short of the 'with us' of this day. 'With us' otherwise it may be, but not that way which is proper to this feast ...

This, as it is most proper, so it is the most straight and near that can be, the surest being withall that can be ... This then I commend to you, even the being with Him in the Sacrament of His Body, that Body that was conceived and born, as for the other ends so for this specially, to be with you; and this day, as for other intents, so even for this, for the Holy Eucharist.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

"All the Bethlehem we have now left": Andrewes and the sacramental imagination

Of all the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, the best known is probably that of Christmas Day 1620, made famous by its poetic echo in Eliot's Journey of the Magi.

Andrewes' sermon, however, does not end with the adoration of the Magi.  Its end is the Sacrament of the Eucharist. 

As there was a star over Bethlehem, so there is a star on the ciborium bearing the Lord's Body.  The Magi journeyed to Bethlehem, for us the Church is the House of Bread.  As the Magi gazed upon and adored the Bread come down from heaven, so we too adore and receive this Bread of Life in the Eucharist.

Andrewes' sermon, then, is a startling expression of the sacramental imagination.  In a particularly evocative and profound phrase, he says of the Eucharist, it is "all the Bethlehem we have now left".  To say Incarnation, then, is to say Eucharist.  To share in the Eucharist is for us to encounter the Incarnation, as did the Magi.

This rich sacramental imagination - evident in so many of his sermons on the Incarnation - is perhaps Andrewes' greatest gift to Anglicanism.  After the trauma of the Reformation era, Andrewes gave profound expression to a patristic sacramental imagination, made possible in the ecclesia Anglicana by the Book of Common Prayer and Hooker's Lawes.

With Andrewes, we behold the Eucharist, our Bethlehem. Word made flesh for us and our salvation in Incarnation, in Eucharist.

In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engraven, to shew us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there.

And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, Come.  And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, Come. And let them who are disposed, Come. And let whosoever will, take of the Bread of Life, which came down from Heaven this day into Bethlehem, the house of bread. Of which Bread the Church is this day the house, the true Bethlehem, and all the Bethlehem we have now left to come to for the Bread of life, of that His life which we hope for in Heaven. And this our nearest coming that here we can come, till we shall by another venite come, unto Him in His Heavenly Kingdom, to which He grant we may come, That this day came to us in earth that we thereby might come to Him and remain with Him for ever, Jesus Christ the Righteous

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

"A strange heaven": Our Lady of Walsingham

Whose womb was a strange heaven, for there 
              God clothed Himself, and grew ...

(From John Donne, A Litany.)

Donne's phrase "a strange heaven" comes to mind on this feast of Our Lady of Walsingham.  In his Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, Rowan Williams refers to Walsingham - where the reflections contained in the book were first given as addresses to a Canterbury diocesan pilgrimage - as "a place that still attracts and confronts people":

Here is somewhere that looks as if it belongs within the world we are at home in, but in fact it leads directly into strangeness.

"That looks as if it belongs within the world we are at home in."  A reconstructed house, seeking to replicate how an 11th century Norman noblewoman imagined a home in 1st century Palestine.  Water from a well.  The light of candles and the scent of oil.  Words that at times vaguely sound familiar.  An image of a Mother and a Child.

"It leads directly into strangeness."  A Holy House, because a Palestinian peasant girl encountered an angelic messenger who brought strange words, "the Lord is with you".  Water with healing properties, from a site drenched in centuries of prayer.  Candles flickering as witness to ongoing prayer, oil anointing to restore and make whole.  Words of mystery over bread and wine - body and blood - and addressed to that Mother - full of grace, pray for us.  Mother, Virgin.  Child, God in flesh.

A strange heaven.

What is said of Mary's womb by Donne orients us in our hearts and imaginations to what it means to confess the Mystery of the Incarnation.  Manger, Cross and Tomb - a strange heaven.  Bread and wine - a strange heaven.  The baptised, the spouse, the stranger, the poor, the enemy - a strange heaven.  And thus, Walsingham too - a strange heaven.  

Place and memory, ruins and bricks become a profound witness to Incarnation precisely because Incarnation is about making us, our lives, our stories, the material, this created order, "a strange heaven" - where the Word is encountered and received, where God is touched and touches, where the Spirit indwells and sanctifies.

And it starts in that belly, that womb, where "God clothed Himself, and grew".  This is the witness of Walsingham, that the encounter begins there, in that strange heaven. 

Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us.