Monthly Archives: April 2020

July 5 – Willem Visser ’t Hooft

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Willem Visser ’t Hooft (1900-1985), reformer of the Church

Visser ’t Hooft — “Wim” to friends and colleagues — was the founding general secretary of the World Council of Churches. More than any other individual, he gave enduring shape to the modern ecumenical movement.

After studying theology, including a doctorate at Leiden, he became secretary for international youth work of the World YMCA (1924–32), then general secretary of the World Student Christian Federation. With the decision (1938) to form a world council of churches, the promising young Dutchman was seen as the obvious person to lead it. War intervened. He found himself at a lonely desk in Geneva, just a few kilometres from occupied France, responsible for an embryonic “WCC in process of formation” and struggling to maintain communications with church leaders divided and isolated by the conflict.

With the end of hostilities, Visser ’t Hooft set about planning the WCC’s inaugural assembly (Amsterdam, 1948). The years that followed involved more than finding staff and setting up an organization. He had to get to know a rapidly growing constituency, come to grips with the dilemmas of churches living under communism, find a path through Cold War tensions, address issues from the emerging so-called Third World and deal with the ecumenical impact of the Second Vatican Council. Above all he had to establish a style of work for the new World Council — an entity for which, as he said, there were no precedents.

After retiring in 1966 he was elected the WCC’s honorary president, which meant continuing involvement in the Council’s decision-making. With a permanent office in the Ecumenical Centre, he kept in contact with staff and visitors until shortly before his death, from emphysema, at the age of 85.

He was a brilliant man, a deft policy-maker and an effective communicator. A workaholic, he exuded energy. He had clear vision, a sharp mind, imagination, statesmanship, outstanding diplomatic skills and fluency in four languages. It is hard to imagine how the WCC, without that rare combination of gifts, would ever have seen daylight.

Wim was loved and admired. But he was not easy to work with. Some found him brusque and authoritarian – “more general than secretary”, went one comment. He did not suffer fools gladly, and into that category most of his colleagues found that, sooner or later, they fell. Mellowing in his later years, though, he always showed a special interest in younger staff — with a special tolerance for their gaffes!

Theologically, Visser ’t Hooft owed much to his friend the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Yet he was no doctrinaire Barthian. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism informed his approach to social ethics and international affairs. He drew insights from a range of theologians, church leaders and, he always stressed, lay people too. For himself, Wim resisted the label theologian, preferring to describe his many writings and addresses as “interpretations across confessional and linguistic frontiers of thoughts which I have picked up from the theological pathfinders”.

He was a first-class example of that rare creature, a truly prophetic church policy-maker and administrator. Robert Bilheimer, a WCC associate general secretary for many years, identified what drove his old boss like some 20th century Amos to challenge the ecclesiastical status quo:

The prophetic quality lay in his capacity to discern and his fearlessness in laying out what he discerned . . . . Even his insistence on tying the ecumenical movement to the churches, frequently questioned, was prophetic. He understood clearly that the churches were the carriers of the Body of Christ; and an ecumenical movement that was not tied to the churches had no relevance to anything. Given that, Visser ’t Hooft could then turn the whole around, bringing “church” to bear on churches in withering analyses. Because he loved the church, he loved the churches.

And because he loved Christ, he loved the church. The gospel was the heart of it all, Christian unity mattered because reconciliation was a gospel imperative, Christ was summoning his scattered people to a renewed obedience, and the pressure of that common calling meant the churches just had to change.

Churchly change, however, comes slowly. In 1974, commenting on the impatience of many, young people especially, Visser ’t Hooft wrote:

Those of us who have worked for a long time for the World Council are painfully aware of how frequently opportunities are missed because of visible or concealed brakes. We need the impatient people who call for boldness, imagination and forward-looking hope in action. But there is an impatience which gives up and an impatience which builds up.

Willem Visser ’t Hooft had impatience aplenty. But his was the kind that produced a master builder for the ecumenical movement.

Contributed by David Gill

June 10 – Albrecht Ritschl & Adolf von Harnack

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Albrecht Ritschl & Adolf von Harnack, Christian thinkers

Albrecht Ritschl (1822 – 1889) German Lutheran theologian.
Trained at Bonn and Halle; lectured at Bonn, Göttingen and Tübingen.
Major work: The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (in 3 volumes; 1870-1874)

Ritschl was one of the founders of what came to be called Liberal theology. He also anticipated John Robinson, Bishop Spong and other radical theologians of the 20th century. Ritschl became important in the middle to the late nineteenth century as he turned away from the influences of Schleiermacher and Hegel. Underlying his work is the European Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant and his three volumes of Critical Philosophy. Ritschl thought that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason proved conclusively that we cannot know things in themselves but only how they are to us. This makes impossible the promise of any mystical experience of God and any account of knowledge based upon that, especially Schleiermacher’s idea of “the feeling of absolute dependence”. In the same way Ritschl saw that Kant’s account of experience undercut most of the common accounts of Christianity based upon religious experience where “experience” was understood objectively.

Ritschl’s fame does not lie only in his courage in facing the challenges raised by the Enlightenment or in his acceptance of the unknowability of things in themselves. He turned away from the Critique of Pure Reason to Kant’s writings on Practical Reason or morality, and to his later works on religion, the imagination and political philosophy. From these works Ritschl came to the view that morality was the proper domain for understanding Christianity and for Christian life. We must understand, however, that Ritschl did not understand morality as essentially private. Ethical life, he understood, was realised and accomplished in community. He also came to understand that Luther’s translation of the Greek dike as righteousness was misleading and that the underlying theme of justice required a more social and political understanding of “justification”, and that, in turn, led to reconciliation with God and in our social life. However, Ritschl understood that religion requires a rational account of transcendence. He believed that Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only on the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”, provided a sufficient account of transcendence.

From his exploration of Kant, Ritschl also opened the way to an understanding of the importance of history, though an account of history that did not assume either decline or progress, and an account of history free from Hegel’s metaphysics. For Ritschl the discipline of history should lead Christians to understand the contexts in which Christian doctrine and theology had always taken place and would continue always to take place. Ritschl also understood that history should be the appropriate method for understanding the Bible. Every part of the Bible, its ideas and languages, was the product of specific historical circumstances which must control interpretation.

In these three dimensions Ritschl began Liberal Christian theology. This was a theology in which the Sermon on the Mount came to have a new importance; a theology in which ethics and community opened the way for Christians to share in and respond to a diversity of Christian views; and set the scene for Weimar liberalism and the American Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenenbusch which lasted until the start of World War II and beyond.

Ian Weeks

May 4 – Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo, faithful servant

Monica (c.331-87) was probably born in Tagaste, in the northern part of Africa that is now Algeria, administered from Carthage as part of the Roman Empire. Most of what we know about her comes from the spiritual autobiography of her eldest son, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430). As Peter Brown comments, ‘Few mothers can survive being presented to us exclusively in terms of what they have come to mean to their sons, much less to a son as complicated as Augustine’; but Monica emerges as resolute and absolutely steadfast in prayer. She was perceptive and not above some dignified sarcasm, but despised gossip. Augustine presents her as a peacemaker in the community, and a woman with deep inner resources.

Monica was brought up in a Christian household and through her life kept up devotional traditions of the African Church sometimes dismissed as primitive by more educated contemporaries, such as fasting in preparation for the Sabbath, graveside meals, and the confident interpretation of dreams.

She was married to Patricius, a pagan, apparently hot-tempered and violent, who became a Christian catechumen about 369, a few years before his death when Monica was 40. They had two other children, whose names we know, younger than Augustine: a second son, Navigius, and a daughter Perpetua.

Following contemporary practice, Monica enrolled the child Augustine as a catechumen without having him baptised. She was convinced that a good classical education would eventually bring Augustine to Christian faith, but was anxious enough about his lifestyle to follow him to Italy in 383, first to Rome and then Milan. Like Augustine she was influenced by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and Augustine presents her views in two dialogues written in 386 De Ordine and De Beata Vita. Garry Wills suggests that Augustine came to appreciate his mother later in life, realising not only her piety but now also her theological insight.

Monica saw Augustine baptised in 387, and set out with him to return to Africa later that year. They had travelled as far as Ostia on the Italian mainland when she caught a fever and died.

Recording her final days in Confessions Augustine stressed Monica’s faith and quiet contentment. He also recounted a conversation between them ‘reclining by ourselves at a window which looked out on the inner garden of the house’ that prompted a shared mystical experience of God as ‘the ageless wisdom that outlasts all things else’ (Confessions 9: 25).  From conversation, ‘recalling past events, musing about the truth which you [God] are, and wondering what the eternal life of the saints might be like’ they were caught up so that their ‘hearts were thirsting for the streams that flow from that fountain of life which is in you’ (Confessions  9: 25).  The remarkable experience was almost beyond words for Augustine, and of course not recorded at all by Monica, but it has become a touchstone for showing how community and companionship can lift individuals towards God.

Contributed by Katharine Massam

26 April – Shaken

View or print as a PDF

Easter 3

1 Peter 1:13-25
Psalm 116
Luke 24:13-35

In a sentence
Though the world shakes around us, though even the faith of God’s people might be shaken, God’s call to life remains constant

Ours is surely – for the moment – a shaken world.

At the same time, it is not quite straightforward to say precisely how we are shaken. Much is obvious, and many effects of what we are presently experiencing under the shadow of COVID 19 we will carry a long way into the future. Being shaken will stay with us for a long time.

At the same time, we expect that ‘this too will pass,’ and some degree of normality will return. Some things will be very different among us in the years to come. Yet we might have reason to wonder whether these will be truly revolutionary or merely evolutionary changes.

The present is revolutionary in that we have all suddenly been exposed to some of the deprivations which are usually only suffered by a minority, but we expect this only to be momentary. As a society, however, there is not a strong sense among us that there is really all that much which will change in the long term, despite what suffering and hardship is presently being felt in many homes and hearts. A return to some semblance of normality is our expectation, however long and hard that road might be. This will pass. We – most of us – will return to our feet again, even if with a bit of a limp.

1 Peter addresses a community which is also shaken, in three ways, and quite unlike what is happening around us at the moment.

The first is that they have been shaken out of one sense of self, the world and God, into another sense. This is the shaking of ‘conversion’. The new sense is hinted at in the contrast Peter draws between what desires are now appropriate to them, in contrast to those desires they ‘formerly had in ignorance’ (1.14). We hear of this shaking also in the language of purification (1.18). There is no sense of ‘going back’, of a return to normal. ‘Normal’ has been left behind for something else. Ears have heard what cannot be unheard, eyes have seen what cannot be unseen, and nothing will be the same again.

In this, ‘normal’ is now longer habitual or regular – what we are used to – but a standard, a measure. And the measure is sufficiently different that Peter can make strong the contrasts he does. Again, in the next chapter:

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (2.10).

The ‘new normal’ has not arisen out of normality itself but out of God’s claiming of those to whom Peter writes. The new normal is that God says, ‘You are mine’, and we hear God, and it changes everything.

Conversion shakes us in this way. ‘Normal’ is what we are moving from, not what we are moving back to.

After such a conversion, the second shaking of Peter’s community is that, though they have changed fundamentally in their perception of the world, the world itself has not changed. And so the world becomes unexpectedly a more dangerous place, as we will see when we move further into the letter. Different senses for the measure of the world create great tension when there is nowhere else to go, when we remain bound together with our different perceptions.

We are surely shaken when, finding that God has claimed us as God’s own, this doesn’t seem to make things very much better or easier but even makes things more difficult. The temptation becomes strong, then, to return to the old normal – to ‘the desires that you formerly had in ignorance’ (1.14), as Peter puts it.

And so comes the third shaking which Peter’s community must endure, which is a re-conversion. And it is a third shaking into something yet new again, and not a mere return to what first turned their world upside-down. For the experience of testing and temptation itself has now become part of what they believe.

The better thing we reach for in coming to faith reveals of itself more in our experience of the difference it has from the ‘normal’ we have left behind. This is to say that to come to faith – that first shaking in conversion – is not to have ‘arrived’. The life of faith itself shapes faith. Faith in God is always faith in the world – faith within the world – a world constantly in flux and ever ready to sweep us along in its flow.

In this shifting space it is not what we believe which is constant but God’s address to us. The word of the Lord which – as Peter puts it – ‘endures forever’ (v.24) as the world withers and fall, endures in its continually being put. It is continually spoken because our relationship to God is constantly under challenge in this shaking world.

And so, despite the strong affirmation Peter makes of all which his people have received and are from God (e.g., 1.3f, 8, 22), there remains the need for the imperative: become what you are, live as though this One really were God: ‘discipline yourselves’ (1.13), ‘obey’ (1.14), ‘be holy’ (1.15), ‘live in reverent fear’ (1.17), ‘love one another’ (1.22).

That is, be mine, God says, as I have called you. God’s word is a ‘relational’ word, is always a word which addresses and, in that address, creates again and again in its very being spoken. Only in this do we have any constancy.

What cannot be shaken is that God claims us as God’s own, and calls us to own that claim. This is faith, wherever we are: to see ourselves with God’s own eyes, looking not longingly to yesterday’s normal but hopefully for what God will do tomorrow with what is cracking around us today.

For this God, cracks in the order of things as our foundations are shaken are not to be quickly plastered over but become means of letting in the light.

That light is our faith and hope.

Let us, then, open our eyes.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 26 April 2020

The worship service for Sunday 26 April 2020 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

MtE Update – 1 May 2020

  1. Our second quarter study groups return next week, online for as long as we need to be before going back to face-to-face. The studies will be the first of several as part of an overview of the Old Testament; see here for more information
  2. Rob Gallacher has published a book — ‘THE COLOUR OF PRAYER’ — and it may be that some people from Mark the Evangelist would like to buy a copy. For details and a review, see this dedicated post.                 
  3. If you would still like to be added to the ‘MtE C-19 contacts list’ but haven’t responded yet, find and reply to the email from Craig earlier in the week.
  4. This week’s Synod eNews (May 1)
  5. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster (April 29)
  6. In the Easter season (from now till end of May), our Sunday reflections will look particularly to the lectionary’s selections from the book of 1 Peter. For more information, see the dedicated post.
  7. We will vary the lectionary slightly this week; the lectionary re-orders chapter 2 this week and next, but we’ll take the readings in the order they appear in 1 Peter — so will take next week’s selection this week and this week’s later! So, for commentary on the Gospel and Pslam this week Easter 4A, May 3, see here; for commentary on the 1 Peter text we’ll consider this week see here
  8. A brief account of ministry of the saint commemorated this Sunday can be found here:    May 4 – Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo

April 25 – Mark the Evangelist

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Mark the Evangelist, Witness to Jesus

(Evangelist, martyr, and first ‘Bishop of Alexandria’; Greek: Markos = polite, shining)

Almost all the early traditions assume that St Mark, author of the Gospel that bears his name, is also John Mark of Jerusalem and Mark the cousin of Barnabas — the occasional missionary companion of Barnabas and Paul (and perhaps also of Peter, according to Papias and Eusebius). Hippolytus of Rome’s list of the 70 disciples sent out by Jesus (Lk 10:1) includes these three Marks separately, but other early writers have them as the same person, who was perhaps born in Cyrene (in today’s Libya) before moving to Jerusalem (Acts 12:12).

The Gospel of Mark, thought by most scholars to be the earliest written account of Jesus still surviving, is a vivid, fast-moving account, often told in the present tense — although this is not reflected in our English translations. Mark is said to have compiled it out of the sermons and teaching of Peter, though he may also have been a participant in the Jerusalem events. Some have claimed that he wrote himself into the Gospel story as the young man who fled naked at Jesus’ arrest (Mk 14:51-2). If that is so, he may have performed another disappearing act when he left Barnabas and Paul in the lurch and headed back to Jerusalem instead (Acts 12:25; 13:5, 13), leading to a ‘sharp disagreement’ between the two Apostles when he wanted to join them again on a later journey (Acts 15:36–41).

The mysterious disappearances of ‘Mark’ don’t end there, but continue through history. The Gospel of Mark seems to have been used by both Matthew and Luke as a template for their longer and more popular accounts of Jesus, but then faded from view. The first known commentary on Mark dates from the 6th Century (very late compared with the other Gospels), and early manuscripts of the Gospel are rare — only three papyrus fragments survive. The earliest full copies of Mark end at chapter 16 verse 8, with excited women fleeing the empty tomb “for they were afraid” — and various longer endings were then added in later manuscripts to ‘correct’ what seemed to some to be the ‘disappearance’ of a proper conclusion to Mark’s account.

The body of Mark — and not just the text — also disappears! Strong early traditions suggest that Mark founded the church in Alexandria, Egypt, and was martyred there around 68CE, when he was dragged by the neck around the streets until he died. In 828 CE, Venetian merchants ‘body-snatched’ the remains of St Mark from Alexandria (some say they took Alexander the Great’s remains by mistake!), so they could be installed (eventually) in San Marco Cathedral in Venice. In the 11th Century they disappeared yet again when the Cathedral was rebuilt, and then mysteriously they were rediscovered some years later.

Traditionally, St Mark is Patron Saint of Alexandria, Venice, and barristers, and is seen as the founder of Christianity in Africa (and particularly, the Coptic Church of Egypt).

We might also suggest — given his remarkable history — that St Mark be seen as Patron Saint of ‘the second chance’, the young and impetuous, story-tellers and authors writing their first book, streakers (Mk 14:51-2), and the ANZACs (the Feast Day of St Mark is April 25).

By Dr Keith Dyer

May 1 – Philip and James

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Philip and James, apostles

The Apostle Philip was one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus (Matt 10:1–4; Mark 3:13–19; Luke 6:12–16). He should not be mistaken for the other two biblical figures also called Philip: Philip the Deacon, also known as Philip the Evangelist, a deacon appointed by the apostles to serve in the early church (Acts 8:5–40; 21:8–9); and Philip the Tetrarch, also known as Herod Philip II, a son of Herod the Great, whose wife remarried his half-brother, Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17–19).

The Apostle Philip came from the north east region of Galilee, from a town called Bethsaida, the same town where the other two apostles, Andrew and Peter, lived. He was called by Jesus in the early days of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (John 1: 43–44).

The name Philip was common in the Greco-Roman world, a compound noun consisting of two Greek words, φίλος (philos) and ἵππος (hippos). The name literally meant a friendly horse. Unlike most of the apostles whose family names were Hellenistic proper nouns derived from Semitic roots, Philip was a Greek name. This may indicate a Greek background which might explain why, when some Greeks wanted to meet Jesus, they sought out Philip to be their intermediary (John 12:20–21).

Philip is portrayed in the Gospel of John as a friendly agent, a go-between person. He introduced Nathanael to Jesus (John 1:44–48) and acted as an intermediary between the Greeks and Jesus. Furthermore, in the story of feeding the five thousand, Philip was asked by Jesus where to buy bread for the crowd (John 6:5–7). This could allude to Philip being the person who was in charge of providing food for Jesus and the disciples. In a way it conjures up a picture of Philip, resembling a horse, always on the move to acquire and transport food for the Lord.

Contrary to his fellow townsman, Peter, Philip is rarely mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels or in the rest of the New Testament. Outside the four gospels he is mentioned only once in Acts, in the story of Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:12–14), where he and other followers of Christ were in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer. Subsequent accounts of the apostle’s later life and ministry are absent in the New Testament.

Based on disputed extra biblical sources, Philip might have gone to Phrygia in Asia Minor (the southern region in modern Turkey) to proclaim the gospel, a region that was also twice visited by Paul (Acts 16:6; 18:23). It is believed that Philip died in Hierapolis, an ancient Roman spa city in Phrygia (neighboring the famous Pamukkale in modern Turkey). Regardless of those traditional accounts being authentic or not, from the gospels we get a picture of an apostle who reminds us of the importance and the beauty of being a friendly agent for the Lord, an intermediary for other people, and a faithful servant of Christ.

(‘the brother of Jesus’, ‘the Just’, ‘Adelphotheos’
— brother of God, and first ‘Bishop of Jerusalem’)
(Greek: Iakobos, a variant of the Hebrew name Ya’akov, Jacob = supplanter, heel)
There are 42 mentions of the name James (Iakobos) in the New Testament — referring to as many as 7 different people — and a further 27 uses of Jacob (Iakob), referring to the Hebrew patriarch. It is sometimes difficult, therefore, to sort out which James is meant: one of the two disciples with that name; the ‘brother of the Lord’ and leader of the church in Jerusalem; or the author of the ‘letter’ of James — apart from other minor characters carrying the same name.

There are many suggestions about how the identities of the Jameses might overlap or be clarified, but the most commonly accepted position is that James the Just, ‘the brother of the Lord’ (Acts; Gal 1:19; 2:2,9), is the one who became the leader of the Jerusalem church and the most likely source of the Epistle of James. The other main James — the Apostle, brother of John and son of Zebedee — was the first and only member of the Twelve martyred in the New Testament record (Acts 12:1–2, around 44CE), but James the Just himself suffered the same fate later on in 62CE.

Indeed, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us more about the death of James the Just than he does about the death of Jesus, and attributes the dismissal of the High Priest Ananus the Younger to his blatant opportunism in having James clubbed and stoned while the Romans were absent (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, chapter 19).

We can see from the references in Acts (12:17; 15:13ff; 21:18) that in his own time, James had an authority and reputation in Jerusalem that exceeded that of Peter and Paul. James was the one who settled divisive issues in Jerusalem, and to whom Peter and Paul returned to maintain their good standing with the earliest Jesus-followers. The reputation of James (also known in the tradition as ‘camel knees’ due to the time he spent on his knees praying in the Temple), extends well beyond the Biblical canon. The Gospel of Thomas (logion 12) reads:

The disciples said to Jesus. “We know that you will depart from us. Who will be our leader?” Jesus said to them, “Wherever you have come, you will go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”

Again, this provides further evidence from outside the Bible of the considerable reputation of James of Jerusalem.

The ‘Letter’ of James itself shows signs of some very early material and may well be a re-working of the sermons of the first Bishop of Jerusalem. It is a treatise on putting into practice the teachings of Jesus — on God’s bias to the poor, and on faith as action, not just belief (“Faith without works is dead!” James 2:26, a statement in some tension with Paul’s writings).

Traditionally, James the Just has been the patron saint of the dying, of milliners, hatmakers, fullers and pharmacists. Given the distinctive emphases of the James traditions in Acts and the Epistle of James, we might suggest that he also be seen today as the patron saint of the poor, of community development (and ‘practical christianity’), of Jewish-Christian dialogue, of knee and hip replacements, and of any teachers who struggle with their sharp tongues (James 3:1–12)!

By Dr Keith Dyer

May 8 – Julian of Norwich

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Julian of Norwich, person of prayer

(born 1342, died shortly after 1416)

If people knew how useful diseases are for the soul’s discipline, wrote one medieval mystic, they would purchase them in the marketplace. That was certainly the view of the English mystic, theologian and author of the Revelations of Divine Love, St. Julian of Norwich.

While still a young lay woman, Julian asked God for three gifts: a profound experience of the passion of Christ, a physical illness, and the three ‘wounds’ of contrition, compassion, and earnest longing for God.  She was granted them, but the first and the third came to her through physical illness.  In her book, she records that when she was thirty, ‘God sent me a physical illness in which I lay for three days and three nights.  On the fourth night I took all the rites of holy church and did not think that I would live until morning.’  Propped up in bed, losing both feeling and sight, Julian saw the crucifix set before her as surrounded by a ‘universal light’; and in an access of compassion for the dying Jesus had a vision of the ‘red blood trickling down from under the garland, just as I thought it would have done when the garland of thorns was thrust on His blessed head.’ In turn, she understood that ‘both God and man together suffered for me’ and ‘that it was he who showed it to me, without intermediary’. Simultaneously with this ‘bodily sight’ she experienced ‘a spiritual vision of His matchless love’, alone creating and sustaining the whole world.

Julian recovered from her apparently mortal illness, spending the rest of her life reflecting on these  visions, which she gradually recognised as ‘full of deep secrets’ and ‘inner significance’.  For many years an anchoress (an enclosed hermit) at what is now St. Julian’s church in Norwich, she wrote a short and a longer account of her visions and interpretations.  Her theology centred around two principles: the all-embracing and all-powerful love of God, and the perfectly physical nature of the incarnate Christ. The first allows us to see that though sin and evil exist in the fallen world, they have no ultimate reality, having been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection—‘Ah wretched sin!…You are nothing.  For I saw that God is everything; I did not see you’. The second enables the complete identification of humans, irrevocably identified in physical bodies, with Christ—‘our saviour is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.’ Her evocation of God as the Mother who endlessly generates and re-creates us through Her/His own suffering, nourishes us spiritually, and disciplines us for our own training, remains her distinctive contribution to Christian spirituality.

We tend to think of diseases as always and only bad; to be cured if possible and resented if not. Julian and her contemporaries, often beset by illnesses they were powerless to cure, nevertheless succeeded in bringing good out of evil through their identification with both the suffering, and the salvation, of Christ.

Contributed by Phillippa Maddern

May 2 – Athanasius

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Athanasius, Christian thinker

Athanasius of Alexandria was not only one of the great church figures and theologians of the fourth century but also a major symbol for a central teaching of the church even if the historical basis for that significance may be disputed. He was born c. 296CE and died in 371. He was a native son of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world. Founded by the Greeks, it was the major seat of administration in the province of Egypt, a significant commercial centre for trade between the Empire and Asia and Africa, the granary for Rome, the spiritual home of many of the great ancient schools of philosophy, and identified with figures like Philo, Clement and Origen.

Not a convert like Justin or Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius served the church in Alexandria as deacon, presbyter and bishop. While his formal education was restricted he very early caught the attention of Alexander the bishop of the city and, ordained as deacon, served as secretary to him. This took him to the centre of things and perhaps gave him his first taste and enjoyment of power and influence which so shaped his career. He accompanied Alexander to Nicaea in 325 but can hardly have been a major player there as later mythology suggests. When Alexander died in 328 Athanasius, against great opposition from various sources – most particularly the schismatic Melitians – was elected bishop and began to make his own mark on the international stage.

While it is suggested that from the very first as bishop his career was marked most significantly by an assumed leadership of the anti-Arian or pro-homoousian party, this is not, as will be suggested below, perhaps the case. While it is the case that from the start of his episcopate more and more anti-Nicene figures – it is more correct to name them thus than as anti-Arian (for Arius’ role in the post-Nicene period is at best marginal and mainly symbolic) – were being elected or restored to various sees, the clashes between them and the ruthless bishop of Alexandria were as much personal and political as theological. Indeed it could be argued that it was only after the Council of Sirmium in 351, where the Creed of Nicaea from 325 was specifically denounced in the First Sirmian Creed, that Athanasius began vigorously to defend both the homoousian and the authority of Nicaea, in his De Decretis of 352-3. Previously he had said little of real significance on the matter in his published writings.

Athanasius experienced five periods of formal deposition and exile during his episcopal career: from 335-337, to Trier in Gaul, for the alleged maltreatment of his opponents and alleged embezzlement of the corn supplies; from 339-346, spent in Rome; from 356-362 with the desert monks, his indefatigable supporters; from 362-364 again with the monks; and then from 365-6.

His extant writings are many and their consistent theme, in the words of one Athanasian scholar, ‘thoroughly soteriological’: the Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione (c.335/6) on the person and work of Christ; his three volume Contra Arianos (339-343? or possibly later); his Festal Letters; the celebrated life of Antony (356); the Apologia ad Constantium (356) in which he lays out clearly his theological confession; and the Letters to [Bp.] Serapion (357-9) where he begins a defence of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit when this was challenged even by vigorous defenders of the homoousian of Nicaea.

His life was one of constant struggle and strife, as much political and personal as theological. Not for nothing has he been called Athanasius contra mundum.

by  Rev Dr David Mackay-Rankin

« Older Entries