Like Mary, We Should Trust and Obey

Since writing this essay in which I observe that the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) is a bit self-centered, some folks have accused me of taking the question out of context. Question 2 (What rule teaches us this? A: The scripture) and Question 3 (What do the scriptures principally teach? A: What we are to believe about God and what duty we have toward God) address this specific issue. The three questions must be taken as a whole, and when understood as a whole, there is nothing self-centered about the first question.

But this line of argument misses my point. While it is certainly true that the WSC does get around to duty and obedience, all those things that are required of God are subsidiary to the primary question, “How do I enjoy God?” The context is my pleasure. My point is that the questions are turned around.

At this point I could quote the fathers, the various kontakia of the Orthodox Church, and Orthodox theology in general, but instead I’ll turn to a favorite Protestant hymn, which gets this relationship right: Trust and Obey, by John Sammis.

When we walk with the Lord / in the light of his word, / what a glory he sheds on our way. / While we do his good will, / he abides with us still, / and with all who will trust and obey. Refrain: Trust and obey, for there’s no other way / to be happy in Jesus, / but to trust and obey.

The third verse possibly expresses it best of all:

But we never can prove / the delights of his love / until all on the altar we lay; / for the favor he shows, / for the joy he bestows, / are for them who will trust and obey.

I would argue that this hymn says the same thing as the WSC, except it gets it in the correct order. “What is the chief end of man?” The Orthodox answer to that question is that we were created in the image of God, which made it possible for us to be conformed to and transformed into God’s likeness. We are clay and the chief end of this clay is not to be “happy clay” but to be shaped and molded to look like God so that God can be happy. That necessarily begins with obedience and, if God so pleases, will result in our eternal joy.

Our enjoyment of God is the effect, not the goal.

We Will Never Forget

Today, Sep 14, is the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, or as it is called in the Roman Catholic Church, the Triumph of the Cross. It could be dubbed the “We Will Never Forget” feast of the Christian Church. The origins of the feast go back to the time of persecution of Christians, and especially to Emperor Hadrian.

The pagan Roman emperors tried to completely eradicate from human memory the holy places where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and was resurrected for mankind. The Emperor Hadrian (117-138) gave orders to cover over the ground of Golgotha and the Sepulcher of the Lord, and to build a temple of the pagan goddess Venus and a statue of Jupiter. Pagans gathered at this place and offered sacrifice to idols there.

But this attempted eradication of history was temporary and by 326 the area had been returned to the church, excavated, and the holy things recovered. This is what is remembered today on this Feast Day.

The Elevation of the Holy Cross takes on a rather different meaning for me in my current context. Presbyterianism was historically extremely iconoclastic and that iconoclasm is still strong in certain parts of the Presbyterian Church, including some of the faculty here at Chamberlain-Hunt. There is a faint drum beat of sorts reminding us always that statues, symbols, pictures, and actions in a Christian context are bad. Some of the Roman Catholic kids are quietly told that it is not necessary to cross one’s self after prayer (ie, you ought not do it). In chapel services we are reminded that the Bible is a book that reveals God (I will note that the person of Christ is not mentioned in this context) and therefore words and thoughts are what are important not pictures and actions.

At the same time pictures and actions are deeply revered on the military side of the academy. Every cadet wears their rank. Each platoon has its own flag and wears the platoon symbol on their shirts. Covers (ie, hats) are never to be worn inside and never to be off outside, except for prayer. And my list of reverential military and national actions and symbols could go on and on.

In short, there is a certain schizophrenia on this topic among some of the faculty. Christianity is viewed through a narrowly rationalistic lens while everyday life is understood to encompass the whole being, mind, soul, and body.

This was certainly true on Saturday, 9/11. A moving ceremony was held in front of the main entrance of Chamberlain-Hunt. Everybody, faculty and cadet, were outfitted in their finest. Right at the time of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center the flag was raised and then lowered to half mast, and a moment of silence was observed.

I was facing most of the cadets and several of them had tears in their eyes. I suspect that because of the carefully orchestrated ceremony, the reverential honor we gave to the American flag and the remembrance of that day, these cadets will indeed never forget.

Three days later – 9/14 – the church around the world, in similar fashion remembers the evil of the terrible persecution of the church, the attempt to force Christians to forget all that is holy to the church – the passion, the cross, the burial, the resurrection – and in defiance of Satan and his battalions of servants, remembers the Triumph of the Cross.

As today’s antiphon for Phil. 2:6-11 proclaims: “We must glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It seems that the process of remembering such a glorious thing would be greatly enhanced if we took as much care to address the body, will, and soul, as well as the mind when we recall that “though in the form of God … Jesus Christ emptied himself … obediently accepting death, even death on a cross … so that now we know Jesus Christ is Lord!”

Or, as we might say, in the wake of 9/11/01, “In spite of Emperor Hadrian and his evil designs, you, Christian, must never forget.”

Happy Birthday

Today is the celebration of the birth of Mary, the Theotokos. No doubt it’s my context here at a conservative Presbyterian high school, but I am particularly aware of how easy it is to slight Mary by focusing only on Christ.

Of course, in truth, we don’t focus only on Christ; we too often manage to focus on ourselves in the context of Christ.  “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” (That’s the answer to the first question in the Shorter Catechism.) I have been particularly reminded in the last few weeks how self-centered that opening question is: Christ is all in all, and as a result we talk about is how that blesses me, about how I get to enjoy God rather than focusing on how I might bless God or serve God.

Let me point out that the first question is true — I am not in the least bit disagreeing with the first question of the Shorter Catechism. But when the Magnificat says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me,” I must remember that the first person singular in this sentence is not me, nor the Church, but rather Mary herself.

We (the Church as well as individual Christians) will be blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for us, but our blessing is subsidiary. We are blessed because we were grafted on to the Shoot by the Holy Spirit. This blessing first pointed the other direction, to the one whose womb was the very throne of God. Mary is blessed because she is the root from which the Shoot sprung forth.

I was reminded of this double trajectory of blessing when I read the second morning antiphon for Sept 8, in honor of Mary’s birth:

When the most holy Virgin was born, the whole world was made radiant; blessed is the branch and blessed is the stem which bore such holy fruit.

Blessed indeed! For holy indeed is the Holy Fruit.

Happy Birthday, Mary. Indeed we will proclaim you, God’s lowly servant, blessed forever.

The Mandate for Caring for the Needy

Helga, who runs a soup kitchen for orphan children, has just told Sr Carlotta that after a particularly violent day she nearly “left the children to God” and retired, but had changed her mind.

Sr. Carlotta, responds:

That’s good. You can’t just leave them to God when God has left them to us.”

From Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card.