Tag Archives: Jesus

The First Martyrs: Holy Innocents

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Today (December 28) is the day the church commemorates the Holy Innocents. The event remembered is the infanticide carried out by the soldiers of Herod the Great. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all male children under the age of two, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to the newborn king, born in Bethlehem, whose birth he had heard about from the Magi. Unwittingly, he fulfilled biblical prophecy; Jeremiah prophesied, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” The number of infants killed is not known. With Bethlehem being a town of around 1000 inhabitants, the number there could be around twenty. Although not Christians these children have been seen by the church as the first martyrs. 

The account of the massacre is found in Matthew 2:13-18:

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Coventry Carol is a Christmas carol dating from the sixteenth century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play entitled The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. It’s the only carol to have survived from this play. The author is unknown. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella. 

The theme of the Massacre of the innocents has provided many an artist of multiple nationalities with opportunities to compose complicated depictions of massed bodies in violent action. Its popularity decreased in Gothic art but revived in the large works of the Renaissance. The massacre also provided a comparison of ancient brutalities with early modern ones during the period of religious wars that followed the Reformation. Bruegel’s versions show the soldiers carrying banners with the Hapsburg double-headed eagle (often used at the time for ancient Roman soldiers). The 1590 version by Cornelius van Haarlem also seems to reflect the violence of the Dutch Revolt. Guido Reni’s early (1611) Massacre of the Innocents is at Bologna. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens painted the theme more than once. The French painter Nicolas Poussin painted The Massacre of the Innocents (1634) at the height of the Thirty Years’ War. 

The massacre is the opening plot to the 2006 film The Nativity Story (great film). 

The commemoration of the massacre of the Innocents, considered by some Christians as the first martyrs for Christ, first appears as a feast of the western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6); Prudentius mentions the Innocents in the hymn on the Epiphany. Leo in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. This day is also known as Childermas or Children’s Mass. 

Red is the color worn on this feast day which is the traditional color for martyrs. 

Various Catholic countries used to have a traditions of role reversal between children and their adult educators, including boy bishops. In some cultures, such as medieval England and France, it was said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started. In addition, there was a medieval custom of refraining where possible from work on the day of the week on which the feast of Innocents Day had fallen for the whole of the following year until the next Innocents Day. This was presumably the custom observed mainly by the better-off. Phillipe de Commynes, the minister of King Louis XVI of France tells in his memoirs how the king observed this custom and the trepidation he felt when he had to inform his majesty of an emergency on the day. 

 

 

 

Matthew the Apostle

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This past weekend we celebrate the feast of one the apostles and gospel writers, Matthew also known as Levi. He is one of the original twelve disciples. We find his calling in Matthew 9:9: “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”  He was a tax collector from Capernaum who was named among the Twelve (Matt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:15 and Acts 1:13). He is called Levi, son of Alpheus (Mk. 2:14 and Lk. 5:27). He was a 1st century Galilean and he had been a tax collector for the Romans during the reign of Herod Antipas, a profession hated and detested by Jews and Gentiles alike and the basis for his patronage of banker and accountants. His tax office was located in Capernaum. Jews who became rich in such a way were despised and considered outcasts. The Jews would also have considered Matthew and his colleagues as traitors, since collecting taxes entailed cooperation with their Roman occupiers. But as a tax collector, Matthew would have been literate in Aramaic and Greek.

It was in this setting, near what is now Almagor, that Jesus called him. After being called, Matthew invited him home for a feast. Upon seeing this, the scribes and Pharisees were indignant and criticized Jesus for dining with tax collectors and sinners. Dining with someone was serious business in the first century. But upon seeing this, Jesus answered them, “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13; Mk. 2:17). 

Matthew was one of the witnesses of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. After the ascension, he was with the disciples in the Upper Room (Acts 1:10-14) and was there at Pentecost. Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria hold that Matthew preached the gospel to the Jewish communities in Judea before going to other countries. But ancient writers disagree as to what countries those are. Tradition has it that he was martyred in Ethiopia or Persia. 

The precise date of the writing of Matthew’s gospel is unknown. In light of Irenaeus’ assertion (c. A.D. 175) that Matthew composed his gospel while Peter and Paul were still living, it is traditionally dated to the late 50s or early 60s. 

 

Saint Stephen: Deacon & Protomartyr

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Stephen the Deacon was a Greek-speaking Jew and the first Christian martyr. The circumstances of his conversion are unknown, but his death is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. He was an early deacon in the church at Jerusalem who aroused the anger of the Jews by his preaching. Having been accused of blasphemy, he made a long speech at his trial denouncing the Jewish authorities who were pronouncing judgment on him and had him stoned to death. His death was witnessed and approved of by Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) who was holding the cloaks of those who were throwing the stones. Saul would later become the greatest convert to the Christian faith and one of the greatest missionaries in church history.

He is venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches. Stephen is derived from the Greek meaning “crown.” Traditionally, he is invested with a martyr’s crown and is often depicted in art with three stones and a martyr’s palm. In the Eastern church, he is often seen as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing deacon’s vestments and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.

Stephen is first mentioned in the book of the Acts as one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to the Hellenistic widows and poorer members if the community (Acts 6:5). Another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, was born Jewish and so it could be assumed that Stephen was also born Jewish. Yet nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for this appointment was that the Greek Jews felt that their widows were being ignored for the Hebraic ones. Since Stephen is a Greek name, it can be assumed he is one of those Hellenistic Jews. Stephen is said to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles. It was among the Hellenistic Jews that he performed his teachings and miracles since it was said that he aroused the opposition of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” and “of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia.” Members of these synagogues challenged his teachings. But inspired by the Spirit, Stephen bested them in the debates. Having been humiliated, they brought about false witnesses who charged him with blasphemy and dragged him before the Sanhedrin, the legal court of the Jewish elders. They accused him of preaching against Moses and the Temple. Stephen did not get angry despite all of the false charges, but was said to have had “the face of an angel.”

Stephen’s speech, which takes up almost all of chapter 7, is the longest in Acts. In it, Stephen presents the history of Israel. The God of glory appeared to Abraham, thus establishing his first main theme that God does not dwell in one particular building (i.e. the Temple). He recounts the story of the patriarchs in some depth and the history of Moses. Despite all that God did for his undeserving people, Israel turned to other gods. This disobedience was Stephen’s second theme.  Stephen was accused of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple and of changing Jewish customs. Stephen appealed to the Jewish scriptures to show that the Mosaic law was not subverted by Jesus but instead were fulfilled. He denounces his listeners as “stiff-necked” people, who just as their ancestors, resisted the Holy Spirit.

The crowd could no longer contain their anger. Stephen, though, looked up and cried out “Look! I see heaven open up and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” To the Sanhedrin, this claim that Jesus was standing on God’s right hand was such intense blasphemy they covered their ears so as not to hear it. They rushed toward Stephen, drove him outside the city to the appointed place and stoned him. Jewish law permitted death by stoning as punishment for blasphemy. The witnesses, whose duty it was to throw the first stones, laid their coats down in order to do this at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul. Stephen, full of compassion, prayed to God to receive his spirit and to forgive his executors. He then fell to his knees and died. Saul approved of his execution.

Acts 8 reports his burial, but the location is unknown. In 415, a priest named Lucian had a dream that supposedly revealed the location of the saint’s remains. The reputed relics of the martyr are said to be preserved in the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem.

In the West, the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated on December 26 and is mentioned in the English Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” It is a public holiday in many nations. In Eastern Christianity, it is celebrated on December 27 and is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity.” In the Oriental Orthodox church (Syrian, Indian) it is on January 8.

Many churches and other places commemorate St. Stephen. There is St. Etienne in Paris and in other places in the French speaking world. In Vienna, there is Stephansdom (Cathedral of St. Stephen) founded in 1147 and the seat of the cardinal archbishop of Vienna. It is the symbol of the city of Vienna and of Austria, has the country’s tallest spire and is the country’s most famous church. In the old city of Jerusalem, the “Lion’s gate” is also known as “St. Stephen’s Gate” after the tradition that his stoning occurred here, though it was most likely at the Damascus Gate. In the great city of London, St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster was first built in the reign of Henry III of England. It was the first site of the debating chamber of the House of Commons. St. Stephen’s Clock Tower was the original name for the tower that housed Big Ben until it was renamed Elizabeth Tower to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

 

Life & Doctrine: Council of Chalcedon (451)

council-of-chalcedonOn May 23, 451, the Eastern emperor, Marcian, summoned an ecumenical council of bishops that he helped would “end disputations and settle the true faith more clearly and for all time.” They met at Chalcedon, just across the Bosporus from Marcian’s imperial capital of Constantinople. About 520 bishops attended, all but four from the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Nicaea had settled the momentous question of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father, but it raised questions regarding the relationships between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. The bishops met for fifteen arduous sessions between October 8 and November 10 and they came up with an answer that answered the question for which it had been called. And that answer has stood the test of time: Jesus was one person consisting of two natures. But before they came up with this time-tested answer, there was plenty of passionate controversy. In general, those theologians who were linked with Alexandria emphasized the deity of Christ; those sided with Antioch emphasized his humanity at the expense of his deity.

One controversial view that did injustice to Christ’s true humanity was developed by Appolinarius (c.310-c.390), rhetoric teacher and bishop of Laodicea. He developed this view when he was around age 60. Before this point, he was a good friend of Athanasius and a notable champion of orthodoxy. In order to avoid the undue separation of the human and divine natures of Christ, Apollinarius taught that Christ had a true body and soul but that his spirit was replaced by the logos. This logos as the divine element actively dominated the passive element, the body and soul, in the person of Christ. He stressed the deity of Christ but minimized his humanity. This view was officially condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

In contrast to this was the view developed by Nestorius (c.381-c.452), a scholarly monk who became patriarch of Constantinople in 428. He disliked the term theotokos (God-bearer) as a name for Mary, the mother of Jesus, because it seemed to exalt her unduly. He offered the term Christotokos, as an alternative, arguing that Mary was only the mother of his human side. By doing this, he made Christ out to be a man, in whom, in Siamese twin fashion, the divine and human natures were combined in a mechanical union rather than in an organic union of natures. Christ was in essence only a perfect man who was morally linked to deity. He was a God-bearer rather than the God-man. The leaders at the Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned this doctrine. Yet the followers of Nestorius continued their work in the eastern half of the empire and carried their version of the gospel to Persia, India and even China in 635.

Enter into the fray, Pope Leo I also known as “the Great” due to his talent, seriousness, and dedication and because of his lasting importance in the history of Christian thought. His driving goal in doctrine as well as church order was to secure stability in an age of fragmentation. Leo’s response to this controversy, known as his Tome, took a straightforward response: Jesus was a single person with two natures. Leo walked a tightrope that many had fallen off of. Each form of Christ as God and man “carries on its proper activities in communication with the other.” With these words, Leo kept together distinctiveness of natures along with unity of person. This later became a cornerstone of the definition at Chalcedon.

After intense debate, the emperor Marcian himself read aloud the definition formulated on October 25, 451:

Following the holy fathers, we confess with one voice that the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, and that he has a rational soul and a body. He is of one substance with the Father as God, he is also of one substance with us as man. He is like us in all things except sin. He has begotten of his Father before the ages as God, but in these last days and for our salvation he was born of Mary the virgin, the theotokos, as man. This one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten is made known in two natures which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The distinction of the nature in no way taken away by their union, but rather the distinctive properties of each nature are preserved. Both natures unite into one person and one hypostasis, that is substance. They are not separated or divided into two persons, but they form one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets of old have spoken concerning him and as the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us and as the creeds of the fathers has delivered to us.

Chalcedon had important theological consequences. Of first importance was the way the balanced statement of Chalcedon articulated fundamental Christian doctrine. It reflected the teachings of the New Testament with commendable caution. In a way, it constructed a fence within which further reflection upon the person could continue. Whatever else might be said, it was always necessary to affirm Christ as one person with two natures. Getting questions right about the personhood of Jesus Christ was important because Christ and what he did were of immeasurable significance. Chalcedon preserved room for further thought on the person of Christ while it gave reassurance for the great work of salvation this Son of God  performed.

Second, Chalcedon marked the successful translation of the Christian faith out of its Jewish context (where words and concepts were shaped mainly by the Old Testament) into the Hellenistic (Greek) context (where words and concepts were shaped mainly by Greek thought and Roman might). For the Greek world, what occurred at the Council of Chalcedon could not be more important. Chalcedon showed that the heart of the gospel message could be preserved even in new conceptual language. The terms ousia, hypostatis, substantia, and persona are not found in scripture and the biblical world has very little connection to the conceptual worlds in which these terms arose. “Yet Chalcedon showed that the message of God becoming incarnate to effect the salvation of his people was a message that could be heard distinctly, adequately, and powerfully in precisely these extrascriptural terms and within that non-Judaic intellectual milieu.” (Noll)

Lastly, Chalcedon was not Pentecost. But because it faithfully synthesized scriptural history, the people of the Greek world could now hear the “wonders of God” in their own tongue. Because Chalcedon’s work faithfully translated scriptural teaching, Greeks would now express those wonders of the Lord God in its own conceptual terms. This synthesis and translation would need to happen again and again.

The Definition of Chalcedon retains its momentous importance not just because it is such a skillful and well-balanced statement. It also faithfully represents the reality about which it speaks. We Christians can live in the world and for the glory of God we serve and worship, because the fact of one “person” can coexist with the fact of two “natures” because it really happened, as the apostle John attests, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)