In the last issue of this article, I began sharing with you the “conditions” of the world into which Christ as born. These conditions and crowding meant that contagious disease was rampant. Life expectancy was low, about thirty years for those who survived the high mortality rates of infancy and childhood.
The urban working population could be sustained only by continuing migration from rural areas. Roman agricultural policy virtually compelled migration to cities. Small peasant farms that had provided basic sustenance to the families that had lived on them for centuries were being combined into large estates that now produced grains and other agricultural products for export. Many of the rural class, now without their own land, moved to cities to find work. Most did so out of desperation, not because they desired city life.
When I read this I realize how very much like our modern society the time of Christ was. There are no longer “small” farmers. People have been driven into the urban areas and, at first, entered into manufacturing for a living. Now, however, with the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, we are in economic trouble.
Migration top cities destroyed the extended family and village relationships that marked traditional rural communities. Newcomers to cities, even if they arrived with their family, were severed from the familiarity and common concern of village life. They were, in an important sense, alone and on their own. Moreover, cities were populated by many ethnic and linguistic groups, in contrast to the homogeneity of village life. Ethnic estrangement and conflict were frequent.
Thus life was difficult for most of those who lived in cities. Earning enough money to pay for food and shelter was always an issue. Disease and death were constant threats. Community was no longer something that one was born into, but was either absent or newly formed.
Paul’s purpose as apostle was to create and nurture urban communities of Christ-followers – especially from among Gentiles in particular. That was his commission: to go to Gentiles, not Jews. Preaching to the Jews was Peter’s commission.
And yet when Paul arrived in a newc city, he consistently went to a synagogue to tell people about Jesus. Why? Was he trying to convert Jews, in spite of his commission to go to the Gentiles, a vocation and restriction that he and other early Christian leaders had apparently agreed upon?
Almost certainly, the explanation is that synagogues in major cities were likely to have a number of Gentiles who were strongly attracted to Judaism, but not willing or ready to fully convert.
Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit realized also that Christ’s message was for all. He therefore began to preach not only to Jews but to Gentiles. He saw in Jesus the Jesus message something that pertained to all humanity
A person once poured water into a bowl. He stirred the water and said to his friends, “Look at the water.” It was disturbed and they saw nothing but murky waves. After the water was calm, he said to them again, “Look how still the water is now.” As they looked into the water, they saw their own faces in it as in a mirror. Then he said to them, “It is the same for those who live among men. Disturbances prevent them from seeing their faults. But when a person is still in the presence of God, then he sees his failing.”
Along the same line, Diadochus of Photice says that we have to keep the surface calm so that we can see deep into the soul. He writes: When the sea is calm the eyes of the fisherman can penetrate to the point where he can distinguish different movements in the dept of the water, so that hardly any of the creatures who move through the pathways of the sea escape him, but when the sea is agitated by the wind, she hides in her dark restlessness what she shows in the smile of a clear day.”
“If a man cannot be alone, he doesn’t know who he is,” said Thomas Merton. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the Lord. Be still! Stop your rushing about, all tensed-up, acting as if everything depends on you; acting as if you are God. Stop! “Be still and know that I am God. “In stillness as we practice the Presence, we discover who God is and who we are.
One author said, “Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone – and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone with God.
Here is how one Christian turns loneliness into solitude. Each morning let the first words you say be, “Jesus is with me. I claim His Presence.” In the middle of the morning, stop wherever you are and whatever you are doing, close your eyes for a moment and say, “Jesus is with me. I claim His presence.” At noon repeat it and sometime during the afternoon when your energies are depleted, repeat it again. Finally, the last thing you do before falling asleep, look up at the darkness and say, “Jesus is with me. I claim His presence.”
Learning to practice the Presence of God is extremely important if we are to spiritually grow as children of God. Why not give it a try and see what happens?
From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. For example, when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, while Greeks thought of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the east, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But after the two sides became strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – each side began to follow its own approach in isolation and push the differences to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.
It was obvious that there were different doctrinal approaches in east and west. As pointed out, two points of doctrine where the two sides no longer supplemented one another, but entered into direct conflict, were the claims of Rome as the head of the Church and the Filioque. While these factors were sufficient in themselves to place a serious strain upon the unity of Christendom, two further points of difficulty caused the separation to be damaging to unity.
It was not until the middle of the ninth century that the full extent of the disagreement first came properly into the open, but the two differences themselves date back considerably earlier. We have already had occasion to mention the Papacy when speaking of the different political situations in east and west; and we have seen how the centralized and monarchical structure of the western Church was reinforced by the barbarian invasions. Now so long as the Pope claimed an absolute power only in the west, Byzantium raised no objections. The Byzantines did not mind if the western Church was centralized, so long as the Papacy did not interfere in the east. The Pope, however, believed his immediate power of jurisdiction to extend to the east as well as to the west; and as soon as he tried to enforce this claim within the eastern Patriarchates, trouble was bound to arise. The Greeks assigned to the Pope a primacy of honor, but not the universal supremacy which he regarded as his due. The Pope viewed infallibility as his own prerogative; the Greeks held that in matters of the faith the final decision rested not with the Pope alone, but with a Council representing all the bishops of the Church.
In the last issue of this article I began sharing thought about the birth of Icongraphy. Sometimes the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist were depicted but usually in a rather allusive manner. Certain scenes from the Old and New Testaments were found: Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah and the ark, Abraham and Isaac, the raising of Lazarus, and the adoration of the Magi. The latter was shorthand for the whole of the incarnation and redemption, and counterbalanced the representation of Adam and Eve, standing for the state of sin from which we need deliverance. Most orf the scenes depict the salvation of individuals in response to their faith and prayer, and correspond to the prayers made for the dead: in the past God has saved these individuals, may he now save those who have died. Other images are less easy to interpret. There recurs the conventional image of the mother and child. But it is not clear whether this always represents Mary and the child Jesus.
The iconography of the catacombs arose in a liturgical setting, that of prayer for the dead. The frescoes at Dura also relate to the liturgy, this time of baptism. Behind the font, which is placed beneath an arched canopy, are Adam and Eve, and, much larger, the Good Shepherd and his flock. They symbolize original sin and the redemption wrought by Christ. The surviving frescoes include the Samaritan woman at the well, Christ walking on the water, the raising of Lazarus, and the resurrection of Christ, shown by means of the three women at the tomb. The healing of the paralytic is there, and so is David’s victory over Goliath. These all point to the victory over evil and the new life and health which baptism confers.
There are no instances known from the third century of Christian decoration of the eucharistic hall. But the images found in the catacombs and at Dura make it clear that the iconography which was later to play so important a part in the decoration of Christian churches, especially in the Byzantine tradition, had its roots in the Hellenistic art of the third century, adapted to express fundamental Christian themes.
One other aspect of late classical art was to become a great importance in the Eastern Christian tradition, both in private devotion and in corporate worship, and that was portraiture. It is quite probably that Christians began painting portraits of distinguished and venerated members very early on.
An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared
in a dream to Joseph with the command:
Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.
Stay there until I tell you otherwise.
Herod is searching for the child to destroy him.
The dramatic story of the initial years of Jesus, our Incarnate God, is continued on this weekend after Christmas. From the time of the Maccabees, Egypt had been a customary place of refuge for Jews. An earlier example is Jeroboam’s flight to Egypt. Jesus is presented as re-enacting in his own life the career of Israel; for he is the new Israel!
Israel is the name given to the people of Yahweh – God. It seems that this name was first given to those believers in Yahweh who first left Egypt under Moses. The Holy Family’s departure to Egypt and return sets the stage for Jesus being considered the new Moses who has led humanity on a new Exodus – a departure from captivity to human weakness to the freedom that comes from living like a child of God. It is interesting to note that the departure for and return from Egypt was directed by an angel of God in the form of a dream given to Joseph. Just as the Old Israel had a dream about freedom from captivity, so in Christ the dream is truly fulfilled.
The warning given to Joseph in a dream explains why Jesus, although born in Bethlehem, was reared in Galilee and was known as a Galilean. Luke, which agrees with Matthew both on Bethlehem and Galilee, explains the relation of the two places in a different way: Joseph and Mary were originally residents of Galilee and were only temporary visitors to Bethlehem when Jesus was born. This entire story is heavily influenced by the Old Testament.
The tragic episode of the Innocents is mentioned in no other literature, profane or canonical; this raises serious questions about the historical character of the incident. So the events presented by Matthew possibly represent a symbolic presentation of the royal Messiahship of Jesus and the opposition of secular power to this Messiahship. The opposition finally achieved its purpose in the passion of Christ. This story represents what Christians understood about Christ!