Jesus is the light of the world!

This is a translation of the sermon I would have delivered this Sunday if I didn’t have a cold. (Don’t worry, I tested for COVID, the result was negative.) I would have had a service of light with the kids in my confirmation class. In the Church of Norway it is common to have a service of light during Advent. Instead of the normal readings, we light seven candles and read seven smaller texts. After each text and light, we sing a verse of a hymn, often either Folkefrelsar, til oss kom (a Norwegian translation of the Latin hymn Veni redemptor gentium) or Gjer døri høg, gjer porten vid (a Norwegian translation of the German hymn Macht hoch die Tür). The texts I would use are these (based on this arrangement by Arne Berge):

  1. Numbers 24:16-17a (followed by v.1 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  2. Psalm 72:11-12.17a (followed by v.2 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  3. Isaiah 7:14 (followed by v.3 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  4. Isaiah 9:2.6 (followed by v.4 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  5. Micah 5:1.4a (or, Micah 5:2.5a, followed by v.5 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  6. Zechariah 9:9 (followed by v.6 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)
  7. Luke 1:26-33 (followed by v.7 of Folkefrelsar, til oss kom)

After reading these texts and singing the hymns, I would have preached this sermon (in Norwegian):

Earlier this afternoon, we celebrated a baptism here in Church, when I baptised a child.[*] And after the baptism, we lit a candle for her, a baptismal candle, which the family got to take home. And then I read a short verse from the Bible, John 8:12, where Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” I read this at every baptism. We light the baptismal candles to show that Jesus is the light of the world, but also specifically the light of the one baptised, and for all who are baptised. Jesus is the light of all the world, but also particularly your light and my light. When you use your baptismal candle, you can remind yourself of your baptism and of the fact that Jesus is with us to the end of the world. He is the gift of God, given to us.

This is the central thing when we usually celebrate services of light in churches all over Norway. Yes, we celebrate it partly because it is tradition but most particularly because Jesus is our light. We come together to celebrate the Divine Service where we may praise God, where we may pray to God, and where we may encounter other people. But why light? What is it with light? Because this is a central metaphor in all human culture.

The point is that where darkness threatens us, the light comes to save us. We do not just find this in Christianity but in virtually all religions. In Judaism they celebrate Hanukkah, for example, in memory of God’s aid in Maccabees’ revolt against the Greek tyrant king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He had turned the temple in Jerusalem into a temple for Zeus, but he lost the fight and they rededicated the temple to God. The story goes that even though they only had enough oil for the menorah to burn for one day, it burned for eight days.

We actually find a reference to this festival in John 10:22-23: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” Furthermore, we see in old Greek religion and philosophy a focus on our enlightenment, something the Apostle John uses when he speaks of Jesus in John 1:9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

John showed that Jesus is this true light which enlightens us. For God became a human being in Jesus Christ. And this way, we became sharers of this true light. This is the reason why we celebrate this service of light. As it grows darker, we light several candles in the Church, often in combination with the advent candles, to underscore that God comes into our darkness with hope of salvation from the power of darkness.

Where the powers of evil tries to hold onto us, God comes to show both that He is good but also that these evil powers are no powers at all. In fact, they are nothing. Like darkness, they have no independent power. Light, in fact, is the opposite of darkness. For what is darkness? Does it exist in itself? No, in fact, i doesn’t. For it to become dark, we must remove the light. And if we have light, darkness has to yield immediately. For darkness is just the absence of light. Have you ever tried going to the store to buy a ‘dark bulb’? The darkness which tries to consume us is emptiness, nothingness. It is everything God is not. The absolute darkness is life without God, without friendliness, without love. The central thing we celebrate today is that God is the opposite of darkness. But we need Him to see this. He is the One who must send us the light. And He did so in Jesus Christ. Because of this, we have read seven biblical texts who all point to Christ. Because He is the centre.

We celebrate a service of light because He is our light. And light is completely central to us. It is not just a central cultural metaphor, it is also central in creation. I the creation story in the Old Testament, God creates light first. For light is a condition for life. Take, for instance, photosynthesis. In nature, light is transformed into energy. All earthly life depends on photosynthesis, a process which make plants and trees grow and which produce the oxygen we need to breathe.

Photosynthesis, however, depends on the sun. And therefore, many say that the sun is the source of earthly life. But the real source is God. He has created everything, even the lights on the sky, as we see in James 1:17: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” This verse is about the face that the light of the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars, are not gods, but that everything emanates from the One true God.

But it also has another layer. For the tru light of heaven is not the sun, the moon, or even UY Scuti, to mention the name of the largest star we know, with a diameter of almost 2,4 billion km [2 378 704 272 km]. No, the true light of heaven is Jesus Christ. He is the light which comes to us from God the Father. He is the real light, the true light, and through him we gain access to God the Father.

He gives us illumination and enlightenment. But then we also need to be turned the right way. I remember a few years ago, going out of my house to get something in the car. And doing so, I stepped right into a puddle because it was so dark. But when I turned to go back in, everything was illumined. I had stood with my back to the porch light and had created a shadow, of myself, so I could not see. There was light, but I didn’t let it help me.

God is the light but in the Bible it also says that we must turn to him. In Norwegian, the word for ‘repentance’ is omvending, ‘turning.’ I had to physically turn around. And when I did, I received the help I needed. And that is by we must turn to God, to let him be our light. God is the One who gives us true friendliness and love. He is the source of love. Today, we celebrate that the true light came into the world to offer us salvation. We celebrate that God became a human being in Jesus, so that we may share in the divine life through Him. But to do so, we must be turned to Him, to Christ, to the light of the world. As it says in one of the Psalms, Psalm 36:9: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

Let us pray:

Eternal God, you created light and sent your Son as a light of the world. We pray: Let us not wander in darkness but live in the light from Jesus Christ, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and rules, one true God, world without end. Amen.

[*] In the actual Church, I would have mentioned the child’s name. But I won’t do so here.

Arians are still with us

Lately, there’s been discussions on Twitter around Baptist theologian Owen Strachan. See this tweet, for example:

Strachan is a defender of what is often called complementarianism, the notion that “men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and religious leadership,” according to Wikipedia. A phrase used, according to the encyclopedia, is ‘ontologically equal, functionally different,’ taken from John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s 1991 book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In 2016, Strachan co-authored a book on this subject, with Gavin Peacock: The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them. In the tweet above, we find a quote from that book. Now, this blogpost is not about male and female complementarianism but about how Strachan (and Peacock) tries to root this in the Trinity in a univocal way, ending up by espousing trinitarian heresy. For an interesting thread, see here:

Regardless of your position on complementarianism, this is not Christian. This is just plain heretical and it turns Christ into a creature. To quote the Athanasian Creed: “This, however, is the catholic faith: that we worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. For the person of the Father is one, that of the Son another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another, but the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one—equal in glory, coequal in majesty.”[1]

But why does Strachan espouse this heresy? What is behind it? I think that the problem behind it is a combination of a modern notion of personhood, tied to voluntarism and a univocal notion of being. Strachan states that God the Son submits to the Father’s will, as God. Now, no serious Christian theologian denies that Christ submits to the Father’s will as a human. Christ said so Himself many times, for example in John 6:37-38: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

As the Athanasian Creed states, Jesus Christ, the God-man, is “equal to the Father with respect to his divinity, less than the Father with respect to his humanity.” But this does not mean that the divine persons have distinct wills, qua divinity. For a defence, see Gregory of Nazianzus’s Fourth Theological Oration, XII, commenting on John 6:38.

But Strachan seems to say that since there are three divine persons, there must be three divine wills. He is claiming that the divine persons are ontologically equal, yes, but functionally different, and is thus denying divine simplicity, the centrepiece of classical Christian theism. And the reason he does so is that he, probably unwittingly, assumes a voluntarist notion of personhood, where what defines you as a person is your will and, most especially, your freedom to choose and to obey or submit. But this inverts the relationship between intellect and will.

As Thomas Aquinas shows, will is a rational appetite that follows the intellect.[2] And if we combine this with the Thomistic notion that ‘action follows being’ (Lt. agere sequitur esse),[3] we can see where the error comes from.

If will is what defines personhood, we would say that there was, in some sense, three divine wills. But there is one. And the reason is that will derives from being. And there is but one divine being. That is what the Athanasian Creed teaches, and what Christian theology has taught for almost two millennia. By assuming that God’s being is univocal to ours, and by assuming the primacy of will, Strachan, Peacock, and others end up espousing trinitarian heresy and they ultimately end up denying the divinity of both God the Son and the Holy Spirit, just to espouse their understanding of complementarianism. As a tweeter Kathryn of Caerbannog puts it:

Notes:

[1] I use the English translation found in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000), 19, 23-25. For a critical edition of the Latin and German, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed. Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 51-60.

[2] See David M. Gallagher, “Thomas Aquinas on the Will as Rational Appetite” (Journal of the History of Philosophy 29:4, 1991), 559-584.

[3] Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2017), 174-176; Rudi A. te Velde, Aquinas on God: The ‘Divine Science’ of the Summa Theologiae (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 69.

Christian Platonism

In my PhD project, which is (hopefully) coming to a close, I propose that liturgical theology, in order to provide a coherent account of liturgical participation (as well as Christian life and Christian practices in general), should embrace a theurgic approach, where human acts are consummated by the divine.[1] In this post, I want to explore some other aspects of a Christian Platonic outlook, engaging Paul Tyson’s book Returning to Reality.[2]

Tyson, pointing particularly to the work of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien,[3] makes the point that in Christian Platonism, we seek to focus on that which transcends our everyday experience and phenomena, leading to a life through Christ, in the Spirit (cf. Romans 8; Colossians 3:1-17). This, however, does not mean that we ignore the world. In Platonism, particularly theurgic Neoplatonism, we reach the transcendent realities through temporal things. For Iamblichus, the central actor in this tradition, this means that the world is ‘populated’ with symbols and tokens, which are used in theurgic rituals:

What ritual, after all, and what cult celebrated according to hieratic laws, is there which is accomplished by the utilisation of passion, or which produces some satisfaction of passions? Was not this cult established by law at the beginning intellectually, according to the ordinances of the gods? It imitates the order of the gods, both the intelligible and that in the heavens. It possesses eternal measures of what truly exists and wondrous tokens, such as have been sent down hither by the creator and father of all, by means of which unutterable truths are expressed through secret symbols, beings beyond form brought under the control of form, things superior to all image reproduced through images, and all things brought to completion through one single divine cause, which itself so far transcends passions that reason is not even capable of grasping it.[4]

The created world, then, has certain things in it that function as symbols through which we can contemplate the transcendent. Tyson notes that for Lewis, who in many ways was a Platonist, “the world of immediate experience is not “seen through” and then discarded, but rather that world as we experience it is the necessary medium through which we hear the music of heaven.”[5] Created reality is, in other words, in all its physicality, sacramental and mediatory. It does not point to itself but neither does it point away from itself. Rather, created, physical reality, the visible world, is that along or through which we can see transcendent realities.

The centre of a Platonist Christian attitude to the visible world, then, is not one of rejection. No, it embraces the visible world, as revelatory, but also understands that it is inferior to the invisible realities it points to. As I argue more in my PhD thesis, in the fifth chapter, we do not, and cannot, have a ‘direct’ contact with God, because He is no just one being amongst others but subsistent Being itself, which we cannot grasp directly.[6] Therefore, we can only relate to God in a mediated manner, through the world, which points us to its creator (Job 12:7-8; Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20), and most particularly through the means of grace given us through Christ, as we read in Confessio Augustana. The confession notes that the priestly ministry, centring on “teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments,” was founded so that we might receive the faith which justifies: “For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel.”[7] Through the word and the sacraments, through visible, sensible, things, we are granted salvation and union with the divine. This prioritises the invisible but not by rejecting the visible. Rather, the visible is that through which we reach that which is invisible and eternal. And that is the heart of a Christian Platonism.

Notes:

[1] Besides my thesis, when that comes out, I recommend reading a few books and articles: Crystal Addey, Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); R. M. van den Berg, Proclus’ Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2001); Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, 2nd ed. with foreword by John Milbank and Aaron Riches (Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014); Charles M. Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite: “No Longer I” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Peter T. Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies: Iamblichus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Religion and Magic in Late Antiquity” (Ancient World 32:2, 2001), 25-38; Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler, Theurgy in Late Antiquity: The Invention of a Ritual Tradition (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013); Algis Uždavinys, Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity, with foreword by John F. Finamore (Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014); Sarah Klitenic Wear and John Dillon, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition: Despoiling the Hellenes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007). The book by Charles Stang is an excellent account of Pseudo-Dionysius’s theology, and Neoplatonic philosophy, and it is open access!

[2] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for our Times (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2015). Also see Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney, eds., Christian Platonism: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[3] Tyson, Returning to Reality, 23-40.

[4] Iamblichus, De mysteriis, Greek and English, intro. and trans. Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), I, 21, cf. I, 1-2; III, 31; VI, 7; IX, 4.

[5] Tyson, Returning to Reality, 25.

[6] See Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 43-53

[7] For English, see The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds., Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000). For Latin and German, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed., Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014). I use the English translation of the Latin, if not otherwise noted.

Exult, let them exult!

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

With these words, which open the Exsultet, the Proclamation of Easter, according to the text in the Roman Catholic Church, I want to proclaim the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ! For a sung version, see here:

In Christ, we find forgiveness, life, happiness, joy! And, as St. Paul reminds us, in 2 Timothy 1:8-10, we should not be ashamed of this:

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

That is the Paschal Gospel, as formulated by St. Paul. But what does he mean when he says that Christ has “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”?

For us the word ‘Gospel’ has become a Christian one, something only understood by those on the inside. But for the recipients of the letters of St. Paul, this was very real and very common. The word, which basically means ‘good news,’ was used by kings, princes, and emperors to mark important occasions and particularly their accession to the throne.[1] After the ‘chaos’ that followed the death of his predecessor, the new ruler would come and promise to introduce peace and stability. That, at least, was the rhetoric used. Life, however, remained the same for most people. And by the same, I mean equally bad. We have probably all heard the saying of Tacitus, describing the conquest of the Roman empire and the so-called pax Romana, ‘the Roman peace’: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” But with Christ we see something different, something new. Like others before and after Him, He claimed to be Christ, the Messiah, the representative of Israel, but unlike those before and after Him, He did not claim to be a political figure, just another man to free us from physical captivity; from Romans, corrupt Jewish rulers, etc. To use a descriptor someone used of Neo from the Matrix series, he was not a Messiah with a machine gun. In the Passion narrative this Good Friday (John 18:1-19:42), Christ, being interrogated by Pontius Pilate, said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” He claimed to be the Lord of lords, the King of kings, even God Himself. But His claim was very different from those of other pretenders before and after Him. But this claim did not make Him less of a threat, probably more. For the kingship of Christ relativises the rule of all earthy kings, princes, and emperors. So threatening was this that Herod the Great ordered the death of all male children in Bethlehem up to the age of two just so he might get rid of Christ.[2] And later his grandson, Herod Agrippa, had James killed and Peter imprisoned.[3] He attacked Christians because they proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because they dared to say “Jesus is Lord.” By using this word, ‘Gospel,’ St. Paul, and all Christians, are saying that Jesus Christ is the true Lord and King, not Herod, Caesar, Augustus, Napoleon, Elizabeth, nor Harold. And He is not only the king of Israel, of Rome, France, the United Kingdom, or Norway. No, He is the Lord and King over the entire creation, over the entire universe (or multiverse if that exists). He is the King of kings, the Lord of lords. The Paschal Gospel is this; that this King of kings and the Lord of lords accepted death on our behalf to save us and that he rose again for our justification. The crucified and risen saviour is Lord and King.

But what does this mean for us here and now? To understand how fantastic the resurrection is, not only for Christ but for us, we also need to understand the seriousness of our own sin. Sin is more than just bad behaviour. Sin is to choose sides, against God. As humans we have a central purpose: to give thanks and praise to God for who He is and for what he has done for us and to love and serve our neighbour. But we have not lived up to this. I know I haven’t. What we need to hear now is that there is a deep connection between the Eucharistic celebration of Maundy Thursday, the darkness and despair of Good Friday, and the light of Easter Sunday, represented in many churches by the easter candle. What the disciples thought was the end was lifted up as a sacrifice to God.

In 2003, while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, pope (em.) Benedict wrote masterfully about how Christ, through the institution of the Eucharist, offered Himself to God and thereby transformed what was about to happen. He does not say that the offering was to appease an angry God out for his pound of flesh but that Christ offered what we could not and would not. Through a life of obedience and love He gave Himself fully to God, in thanksgiving, in praise, in adoration. He gave the perfect sacrifice: a life of love, service, and praise.

Through the prayers and actions of the Last Supper, particularly through the institution of the Eucharist, Christ ‘interpreted’ His death and gave it meaning. “This is my body” not meaninglessly thrown away but “given for you”! To quote Ratzinger, “in these words [Christ] undergoes a spiritual death, or, to put it more accurately, in these words Jesus transforms death into the spiritual act of affirmation, into the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration, which is offered to God, then from God is made available to men.”[4] What was the biggest sin of history, the murder of God Himself, became “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). We need both the Upper Room and the Cross, as Ratzinger reminds us:[5]

Both are essentially interdependent: the words at the Last Supper without the death would be, so to speak, an issue of unsecured currency; and again, the death without these words would be a mere execution without any discernible point to it. Yet the two together constitute this new event, in which the senselessness of death is given meaning; in which what is irrational is transformed and made rational and articulate; in which the destruction of love, which is what death means in itself, becomes in fact the means of verifying and establishing it, of its enduring constancy.

Christ gave Himself for us. A mortal sin became a loving act of adoration. And this act was perfect and complete. This act was strong enough to atone for all of our sins. The sacrifice of Christ is not about an angry God that needs appeasement but about how Christ lives the perfect life of love, on our behalf. And this way he abolished the sin of Adam. Where Adam was disobedient, Christ was obedient. He “became obedient to the point of death,” writes St. Paul, “even death on a cross.” And God answered Him by raising Him from death to life: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”[6]

We can also have a share in this if we are joined to Christ. We need, as St. Paul says, to be ‘in Christ.’ For, he says, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[7] Through Christ we may be renewed and restored. Through Him we are enabled to stand before God in thanks and praise. We have died with Christ in Baptism, we have had our sins washed away and we have been risen from baptism to new life.[8]

This is the night that Christ offered humanity back to God and gave us new life. In the words of the Exsultet:

This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.

Our thanksgiving and praise will never be enough to express the magnitude of this act but we will still continue, hoping that death is not the end and that if we remain ‘in Christ’ we will one day rise up to a new heaven and a new earth.

Christ is risen! He is Risen Indeed!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Notes:

[1] Read this interview with N.T. Wright and watch this video where Wright elaborates on the word ‘Gospel.’

[2] Matthew 2:1-18.

[3] Cf. Acts 12.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence (Collected Works, vol. XI. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2014), 251-252.

[5] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, 252.

[6] Philippians 2:8-9 (cf. Romans 5).

[7] Romans 8:1, cf. 3:24; 6:11; 6:23; 8:1; 12:5; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:17-20; 3:26-28; Ephesians 1:3; 2:6-7, etc.

[8] Cf. Romans 6:1-11.