It’s not secret to anyone who has kept up with my blog that I have been on a faith journey for the last several years. Over the last two to three years, that journey has taken a noticeably catholic turn. There are two main reasons for this.
First, the Bible.
I take very seriously the Word of God. Everyone who knows me knows that, not only do I take God’s Word seriously, I love God’s Word. Reading, learning and studying God’s Word has been one of the great joys of my life to date. When I came to faith in Jesus, one of the first prayers I prayed was, “Lord, help me to love Your Word. Help me to hunger and thirst for Your Word. Give me a desire to know You in Your Word.”
Our gracious Father has granted that request. He has given me an ache in my soul that only His Word can fill. He has made me hunger and thirst after His Word. Man cannot live on bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. I live and breathe for God’s Word. I read it and study it and dissect it.
I love and read and study God’s Word because it is His revelation of Himself to us. Of course we have general revelation in God’s creation. And we have others ways by which we may see God. But God has given us His Word written down so that we may know Him and serve Him rightly.
The second main reason for this is my reading and studying of the Church Fathers. Now, before anyone gets all upset, I am not saying that the Fathers are inerrant. I am not saying that they are on par with revealed truth in God’s Word. However, what I am saying is that they speak to us who, in our modern context, think we’ve got this thing figured out and they say to us, usually with one voice, that there are things about the Christian faith that make most Protestants really nervous.
The Fathers tell us what the Church has always believed and how the Church has always practiced her faith. This is enormously helpful for us today. There is a deep desire among many younger Christians today to connect with the historic Church…and I am profoundly grateful for this desire. I applaud it and encourage it for all!
I encourage it even it makes you uncomfortable and perhaps even leads you to conclusions that sound…well, Catholic.
Let me give you an example from my own life and faith journey. As I said, it’s no secret that my journey has led me out of Protestantism and into a distinctly catholic position. But I struggle and question many of the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. But I want to be intellectually and emotionally honest with myself and with you and maybe you need to ask yourself this same question.
Are my problems with the Catholic Church real problems with biblical reality or do I just not want them to be true?
Here’s my example. I have been wrestling with some things. One of them is all this dogma about Mary. For my Protestant friends...it’s okay for you to call her The Blessed Virgin. Scripture calls her blessed so it is quite alright for you too as well. But there are some things about the dogma of the Church that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around.
Like the perpetual virginity of Mary.
The first time I heard this I literally laughed out loud. I was like, “Right. You mean to tell me that Joseph was married to her and never had sex with her? Right.” Seems logical, right? So, here’s where it gets interesting for me. As I said, been studying and wrestling with all this a lot. So, how can it be possible that Mary was perpetually a virgin and surely no one actually believes this, right?
Actually lots of people in the early Church believed it and taught it. I will give just one example: St. John Chrysostom.
“And when he had taken her, “he knew her not, till she had brought forth her first-born Son.” He hath here used the word “till,” not that thou shouldest suspect that afterwards he did know her, but to inform thee that before the birth the Virgin was wholly untouched by man. But why then, it may be said, hath he used the word, “till”? Because it is usual in Scripture often to do this, and to use this expression without reference to limited times. For so with respect to the ark likewise, it is said, “The raven returned not till the earth was dried up.”6 And yet it did not return even after that time. And when discoursing also of God, the Scripture saith, “From age until age Thou art,” not as fixing limits in this case. And again when it is preaching the Gospel beforehand, and saying, “In his days shall righteousness flourish, and abundance of peace, till the moon be taken away,”8 it doth not set a limit to this fair part of creation. So then here likewise, it uses the word “till,” to make certain what was before the birth, but as to what follows, it leaves thee to make the inference. Thus, what it was necessary for thee to learn of Him, this He Himself hath said; that the Virgin was untouched by man until the birth; but that which both was seen to be a consequence of the former statement, and was acknowledged, this in its turn he leaves for thee to perceive; namely, that not even after this, she having so become a mother, and having been counted worthy of a new sort of travail, and a child-bearing so strange, could that righteous man ever have endured to know her. For if he had known her, and had kept her in the place of a wife, how is it that our Lord commits her, as unprotected, and having no one, to His disciple, and commands him to take her to his own home?”
I read that and was like…wait…what?! Chrysostom goes on to talk about his “brethren” and I highly recommend you read it for yourself. By the way, Chrysostom was the man that many consider to be the father of the Orthodox Church and perhaps one of the greatest preachers that has ever lived.
But it wasn’t just the Fathers that believed and taught this. The hero of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, also maintained the same teaching. Luther said, “Christ our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb…This was without the co-operation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that.” (Luther’s Works, Volume 22, 23.) By the way, Calvin and Zwingli also defended the perpetual virginity of Mary.
If you’re like me, you’re like, “Yeah but those dudes could be wrong.” Well, yes they could be. So let’s look at what the Bible has to say. Matthew 1 details Jesus’ birth for us and he says in verses 24 and 25,
“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”
So right away, if you’re like me, you’ll say…See?! “He knew her not until…” implying that he “knew her” after the birth of Jesus. Problem with that is almost every commentator I read on this (including Calvin) says that phrase was put in there to prove that Jesus’ birth was not as a result of sexual relations with Joseph. But you may say, like me, “Yeah but the Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.”
Does it? Here’s the problem with that. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages don’t have separate words for “brother,” “cousin,” or any other near relative. The term “brother” was used for all kinds of relationships (1 Corinthians 15:6, Matt. 23:8, Acts 7:23 to name a few).
Still not buying it?
Okay, another compelling piece…When Jesus is hanging on the cross, where are his siblings? If He had siblings, why weren’t they there? You may say, “Well, because they didn’t believe in Him.” Okay but neither did the High Priest and he was there, as were the Roman soldiers and many others. Don’t you think that if your brother was being executed, you’d show up, especially if you didn’t believe in Him? I mean, this is your opportunity to be able to say, “See, Mom?! I told you He wasn’t the Messiah.”
But aside from that, the interesting part is that Jesus hands over care of His mother to St. John. Now if you’ve done any sort of study on the culture of the day and the Jewish tradition, Jesus, as the oldest son, would have been responsible for the care of His mother (we assume that Joseph was dead by this time). And if He couldn’t fulfill those obligations, one of His siblings (if He had any) would be required to. But He didn’t pass that on to a sibling, He passed that responsibility along to one of the Apostles. Why?
Okay…so here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that I buy all this as of yet. What I am saying is…
What if it’s true? What if the teaching of the Church for the last couple thousand years is true? Does that in any way diminish who Jesus is, what He accomplished? Does it change anything for you, for me?
Pray for me as I seek wisdom and clarity on these things I struggle with. You may say, “What difference does it make?” If you’re Protestant, you already know the answer to that. It matters because, if the Church is right about that…what else are they right about?
Pray for me. Pray for yourself and seek God’s wisdom in His Word, His Church and those who have gone before. We do this for the glory of Christ and of His Church!
Soli Deo Gloria!
 John Chrysostom. (1888). Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew. In P. Schaff (Ed.), G. Prevost & M. B. Riddle (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (Vol. 10, p. 33). New York: Christian Literature Company.
I did a thing last night.
During this journey I’ve been on into the deep liturgical history of the Church, I’ve had all sorts of new discoveries along the way. Some of them I have enjoyed and some of them I’ve balked at. For example, I was really uncomfortable for awhile about the whole idea of bishops. I was raised Baptist and we didn’t take to that sort of thing. I mean, if there’s someone who is outside the control of the deacons, that can’t be a good thing, right?! (That was sarcasm in case you were wondering.)
I have loved the study of liturgical worship. My wife tells me I’m a nerd for getting into this so much and talking about it so much but oh well…then I’m a nerd. But the liturgical history of worship in the Church is rich and I commend the study of it to anyone who loves the Church. In fact, I just finished a book called “On The Apostolic Tradition” by Hippolytus. Whether there was one author or multiple is not the point of what I’m talking about. The liturgy in this writing comes from somewhere around 230-235 AD. Think about that for a second. We know what the liturgy of the Church was (at least the Hippolytean community in Rome) at around 235 AD. That is pretty awesome!
By the way, some forms of this liturgy are still in use today. That should be, on some level, cool for you to know and participate in.
But I digress.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Despite the sarcasm of all my Baptist friends and their “fasting not to be seen” comments, there is a long and rich tradition of the practice of Lent in the Christian Church. The point of Lent wasn’t to appear hyper spiritual. The point of Lent was a time of preparation for the Church. That time of preparation through prayer, fasting and self denial was to prepare us for Holy Week, when we remember the passion of our Lord Jesus. Being raised Baptist, I had never observed Lent. But now I’m no longer Baptist and now I join a huge number of faithful Christians who observe Lent.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, during the worship service, ashes are placed (imposed) on the forehead of the believer by the priest or pastor. At our church, Church of the Redeemer (Nashville), this is done by the priests as we kneel before the cross displayed at the front of the church.
I want to talk about my experience a bit. I am part of what is called the LEM team. LEM stands for Lay Eucharistic Ministers. We are non-clergy volunteers who go through a training period in order to serve the congregation and priests during worship. We do things like carry the cross and candles during the procession and recession. We serve the chalice of wine to the faithful who come to receive the Lord’s Supper. We carry the Gospel Book, we read Scripture and the Creeds. Basically, we are there to serve the people and the priests and deacons during the worship gathering.
Last night I was the crucifer. I carried the crucifix during the procession, Gospel reading and recession. I also served as a chalice bearer. One of the things I love about liturgical worship (and that James KA Smith so eloquently unpacks) is that it engages all our senses. We see, we hear, we smell, we stand and sit and kneel and drink wine and eat bread; we speak aloud, we pray aloud and we pass the peace in handshakes or kisses on the cheek. I love this.
The first thing that happened that helped me to become engaged last night was when I picked up the crucifix to carry it down the aisle. It was heavy; heavier than I had anticipated. The people stood in absolute silence as we processed down the aisle. It was so quiet I could hear my own footfalls as I walked on a carpeted aisle. It was a quiet, meditative and holy moment.
The service was different. Less Scripture reading; the priests were wearing black cassocks, a cello played somber tones. It was deeply moving, quietly intense. But then the moment of the imposition of ashes came. I stood beside the Table. One of the priests picked up a small bowl and stuck his thumb into the black lump of ashes in the bowl. I don’t know why I did but I closed my eyes when his hand reached for my forehead.
I heard his soft and solemn voice say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Even as the words begin to sink in, I felt his thumb tracing a cross on to my forehead. The tactile scraping of the ashes was an immediate sensation. I could feel the grittiness of the ashes and smell them. In that moment I was starkly reminded that, contrary to my own selfish predilections, I am not the center of the universe; there is Another.
There is One who is outside of me that determines my life and my worth and my mortality.
And I was humbled and comforted by this fact. I feel like, even in the Church, we too often think we are the point. We think the world, and even the Church, revolves around us. But it doesn’t. The world, the Church revolves around Another, the One who has come, Jesus the Christ. He is the reason we sing, chant, pray, kneel. It is His body that was broken for us that is present with us in some mysterious way when we come to His table. It is His blood that was shed, beaten and nailed and pierced out of Him, so that you and I, by faith, may be made whole and right before God our Father and Creator. He is with us; in the daily moments and in the holy ones.
He was present with us last night as the ashes scraped across our foreheads and we were reminded of our mortality. In our mortality we are reminded that our desire for immortality, for eternal significance is only found in the broken and resurrected body of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We came to the Table after the ashes were imposed. I served the cup to my brothers and sisters and watched as some wept, some smiled, some laughed for joy, some prayed. But all of us knew that something holy was happening.
Jesus was among us.
And it was beautiful.
Soli Deo Gloria!