Posts Tagged ‘Late Antiquity’

St Irenaeus of Lyons

Had the feast of SS Peter and Paul not been transferred from tomorrow, last Sunday would have been the memoria of St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 135-200)

Irenaeus was confronted by the challenge of Gnosticism – a highly sophisticated form of syncretistic esotericism which had latched onto Christianity and in which guru-like teachers initiated their followers into complex and symbolic belief-systems filled with cosmic mediator-figures and organized around the dualistic idea that salvation consisted in the liberation of the soul from the prison of the body.

Irenaeus opposed the Gnostic emphasis on private revelation to inspired teachers who then passed on their esoteric teaching to the enlightened by developing more explicitly than anyone before him the ideas of (i) the unity of the Church, (ii) the unity of the Faith (determined by the “rule of faith”), (iii) the identity of the Church as the locus of faith and grace and true teaching, and (iv) the apostolicity of the Church (for Irenaeus, the only valid teaching was that which could be traced back to one of the apostolic sees and especially the see of Rome).

Against the Gnostic teaching that the Christian life was about the liberation of the soul from the flesh, Irenaeus proclaimed the salvation of the whole human being – the healing, integration, perfection and (to use Patristic terminology) deification of body and soul, flesh and spirit. God created human beings to be in the image of God, to be filled with divine grace, and, ultimately, to behold the vision of God. Humanity is perfected in the person of Christ, who assumes human nature with all its materiality and fleshliness.

Irenaeus emphasizes (like Cyril of Alexandria) the personal unity of Christ, who is the divine person of the Son/Word who becomes fully human (without detriment to his divinity) – a true God-man, and not a human being existing in moral union with God or (at the other extreme) a divine person masquerading as a human being.

As perfect man, the incarnate Son fulfils in himself mankind’s destiny to be in the image of God, to be grace-filled, and to behold the glory of the Father. He “recapitulates” in himself the whole of mankind, passing through the various phases of birth, infancy, childhood, human suffering, etc, living the perfect human life in each of its successive stages.

He gathers up into his own person the story of Adam, the history of mankind, and the entirety of God’s plan for the redemption and perfection of everything, and becomes both the climax of human history up to that point and also the inauguration of the new creation (this is very much a development of the theology of Ephesians 1:3-10 and Colossians 1:10-20).

The God-man’s perfect obedience to the Father reveals the new covenant, makes atonement for the sins of mankind, undoes the damage caused by Adam’s fall, and creates a new kind of human existence which is characterized by a fully redeemed flesh, a healed will, a capacity for that “grace-fulness” which the Church Fathers call “deification”, and an orientation to behold the vision of God.

Christians share in this redemption through the Eucharist and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus understands Christ’s presence in the Eucharist very literally and realistically. The bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of the God-man, and through them the God-man incorporates us into himself (recapitulatio also denotes the idea of bringing everyone and everything under the headship of Christ as in Eph. 1:10), communicating to us his new kind of human existence, his redeemed flesh and healed will, his grace-fulness – in short, giving us a share in his deified humanity.


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Cyril_AlexandriaWhen Cyril (c. 376-80 – 444) died, one of his theological opponents, Theodoret of Cyrus, remarked that he pitied the demons in hell as they would henceforth have to live with Cyril of Alexandria, and suggested that an enormous stone should be placed over his tomb in case (having made hell too hot to hold him) he returned from the dead.

Looking at Cyril’s career as Bishop of Alexandria, one can see where Theodoret was coming from. Whether he was ruling the see of Alexandria or directing operation at the Council of Ephesus in 431 (the third ecumenical council), Cyril was a man who believed that lavish bribery and hired goons with the fifth century equivalent of baseball bats were legitimate episcopal tactics.

The biggest controversy surrounding Cyril involved the murder of the pagan philosopher Hypatia by a mob of Cyril-supporters. Novelists and movie-makers with a secularist axe to grind have presented this as a case of irrational bigoted Christianity (represented by Cyril) resorting to murder in order to eliminate decent rational secularism (represented by Hypatia). Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that, and most serious historians exonerate Cyril from direct responsibility; even so, while he may not have been a villain in this particular regard, his conduct of Alexandrian politics certainly doesn’t mark him out him as a hero.

So why is a bribing, bullying bishop venerated today (June 27th) as a saint? The issue at stake at the Council of Ephesus was the teaching of Nestorius, who contended that (in effect) Christ was a human person who enjoyed a unique and intimate moral union with the person of the Word (i.e. the Son). Nestorius also insisted that Mary was christotokos (Christ-bearer; mother of Christ), rather than theotokos (God-bearer; Mother of God), thus further emphasizing that Christ was Son of God by adoption rather than by person and nature.

Cyril was adamant that the divine and human in Christ couldn’t be divided or compartmentalized, and that Christ was none other than the Word of God enfleshed; that he was not a divine person united with a human person, but a divine person (the Word, the Son) who had fully assumed the totality of human fleshliness so as to be able to communicate divine life and grace to human beings – most especially in the Eucharist, where the divine power of the enfleshed Word flows into us in an electric outpouring of awesome grace and energy.

To this end, Cyril fought successfully for the victory of the Marian title theotokos over the Nestorian christotokos – the point being that referring to Mary as theotokos automatically guarantees an orthodox understanding of the fundamental truth that Christ is the enfleshed Son/Word of God, and not just the foremost of the adopted sons of God.

Cyril’s teaching on christology (i.e. on the relation of the divine and human in Christ) is so fundamental to orthodox Catholic theology that the Church has always been prepared to overlook the bribery and the baseball bats (so to speak), so great is our debt of gratitude to one of the pre-eminent architects of the Catholic faith, whose profound reflection on Scripture (about which he wrote voluminously) led him to penetrate the depths of the mystery of the incarnation in a way which has shaped all subsequent orthodox Catholic theology.

He is also an important reminder that God chooses for his servants and instruments some remarkably flawed human beings.

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St Ephrem the Syrian

EphremJune 9th was the feast of St Ephrem (or Ephraem) the Syrian, who was born around 306 in Nisibis (in modern Turkey by the Syrian border). The Roman presence in Nisibis (since 298) had resulted in the birth of a Syriac-speaking Christian community in which Ephrem was raised. He worked as a teacher on behalf of Jacob, the first bishop of Nisibis, and was ordained deacon, devoting much of his time to the composing of hymns and the writing of biblical commentaries.

On the death in 337 of the Emperor Constantine who had actively promoted the christianisation of the Empire, the Persian armies under Shapur II seized the opportunity to besiege Nisibis, but their elephants found themselves bogged down in the wet ground with the result that they were repelled – an event which Ephrem celebrated in a hymn replete with biblical imagery in which he discerned the hand of God bringing salvation to Nisibis as he had to Noah’s ark through the prayers of Bishop Jacob (seen as an antitype of Noah).

Finally, however, Nisibis fell to the Persians, and the Christian population was sent into exile, settling finally in Edessa in 363. Edessa stood at the epicentre of the Syriac-speaking world, and was a melting-pot of religions, philosophies and cultures – not to mention a whole range of heterodox versions of Christianity.

Orthodox Nicene Christianity (i.e. Christianity faithful to the Trinitarian theology of the Council of Nicea in 325) was just one kind of Christianity among many in Edessa, and Ephrem dedicated himself to writing a substantial corpus of hymns in defence of the faith of Nicea, teaching all-women choirs to perform his compositions to popular Syriac folk-tunes in the public square.

As many as 400 of his hymns still exist, and he my have written hundreds of others. His lyric hymns (sung by the all-female choirs and accompanied by a lyre) were written primarily for pedagogical purposes, and are full of biblical imagery, as well as symbolism derived from a variety of other sources.

Ephrem’s “Hymns Against Heresies” paid close attention to doctrinal detail, which should have been unpromising material for religious poetry, but Ephrem was gifted with the ability to invest even the most technical discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity or of the incarnation with metaphor and artistry.

He also wrote verse homilies (in other words, he preached in poetry rather than in prose), and a series of commentaries on scripture. He died in 373 while ministering to the plague-stricken people of Edessa, but his hymns live on (especially within Syrian Christianity), and he is known as “the lyre of the Holy Spirit”.

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St. Boniface Baptising and Martyrdom in 754, illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda, 11th Cent.

St. Boniface Baptising and Martyrdom in 754, illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda, 11th Cent.

June 5th is the feast of St Boniface, Apostle of the Germans.

Winfrid (or Wynfrith) was born into a noble family in Crediton in the English county of Devon in the 670s. From an early age he was inspired by the ideals of the missionary monks whom he encountered – men who exercised a type of monasticism which in many ways anticipated the charism of the mediaeval friars.

Having received a comprehensive monastic and intellectual formation of the kind suited to one who had been earmarked by his superiors as an ecclesiastical high-flyer, Wynfrith elected to forego the career which was opening up before him and to pursue instead his dream of evangelizing the Old Saxons in Germany (heathen peoples with whom, as an Anglo-Saxon, he felt a deep affinity).

Commissioned by Pope Gregory II to preach the Gospel the pagan people of Germany east of the Rhine, what Wynfrith discovered on his arrival was not so much a pagan country per se as a country where Christians had relapsed either into heathenism or else, more frequently, into a syncretistic religion which combined Christian and pagan elements.

Boniface (as he was now known – a Latinization of the Anglo-Saxon Wynfrith) was tireless in his travels, preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, building churches, and establishing Benedictine monasteries which were to become the centers of an ongoing process of evangelization. He also worked to re-integrate into the Roman Church groups of Christians who had, for whatever reason, fallen out of contact with the Catholic hierarchy.

His gift for the dramatic was an undoubted asset in his work of converting the heathen. In Lower Hessia, for example, he proved the powerlessness of the Germanic gods by felling the oak-tree sacred to Thor and using the wood to build a chapel. Thor’s failure to punish him with the anticipated thunderbolt persuaded the pagans of the region that the Christian God was the true God, and they abandoned their former paganism in droves. The echoes of Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal were surely deliberate.

After a lifetime devoted to converting the heathen, restoring the lapsed, and doing everything he could to establish lasting foundations – hierarchical, monastic, intellectual, and pastoral – to the Catholic Church in Germany, Boniface was finally offered the opportunity to fulfil one of his earliest and most cherished dreams by traveling north to evangelize the Frisians.

However, the heathens of Frisia turned on Boniface and murdered him (together with the missionaries who accompanied him) on June 5t, 754/5. Immediately venerated as a martyr, the apostle of Germany was entombed in the Abbey of Fulda (which he had helped to found), though, very appropriately, relics were distributed throughout the German lands.

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St Justin Martyr

Justin_MartyrToday is the feast of St Justin Martyr.

A Palestinian from Nablus, Justin was originally a pagan who went round all the various philosophical schools of the day (Stoics, Peripatetics, Pythagoreans and Platonists) before becoming completely disillusioned with the unsatisfactory nature of their account of the world and its meaning.

In around 132 he encountered a Christian sage and became convinced that Christianity was the true philosophy (he seems to have found the argument that everything in the New Testament was prophesied in the Old particularly persuasive).

Having converted to Christianity, he assumed the traditional cloak of the professional philosopher, and became a distinguished teacher of what he regarded as the one true philosophy – the truth revealed by God through the scriptures and in the person of his incarnate Son.

Justin developed his understanding of the New Testament as a fulfilment of the Old, showing how the Old Testament prefigures the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Jesus, and arguing that those who believe in Jesus and follow his law are the true chosen people of God.

Justin also contended that all philosophical systems point (however imperfectly) to the true philosophy. The Church is the community of those who are devoted to the Logos (in Greek, Word, Reason, Logic) of God – i.e. the second person of the Trinity.

The divine Logos has put a logos – a word, a reason, a germinative seed of truth – into all human hearts, and, in the person of Jesus Christ, he has incarnated himself in history as the one who is the way, the truth and the life.

In baptism and in the Eucharist (Justin articulates the truth of the real presence in unambiguous terms), we (who contain within our hearts this logos of truth) are integrated with the incarnate Logos, and share with him in offering the “spiritual sacrifice” of the Mass.

Greek philosophers believed that a “spiritual sacrifice” was the only kind worthy of God. The Greek word for “spiritual” used by Justin in this context is logiki in other words, Justin’s “spiritual sacrifice” is no non-fleshly sacrifice but a sacrifice in which the incarnate Logos (crucified, risen, glorified, truly present on the altar) is offered.

(Our modern English translation of the Mass speaks of a “spiritual sacrifice”, but the Latin oblatio rationabilis captures Justin’s understanding far better, inasmuch as rationabilis captures the authentic meaning of logiki in a way that “spiritual” does not – though even the Latin misses the Logos logikos echo.)

Justin was martyred around 165. His belief in the truth of the “spiritual sacrifice” – the sacrifice of the Logos – made it impossible for him to comply with the insistence that he should offer sacrifice to pagan deities.

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St Sigismund: Fresco by Piero della Francesca

St Sigismund: Fresco by Piero della Francesca

Sigismund succeeded his father Gundobad as king of the Burgundians in 516. At the time, Burgundy was perhaps the most powerful of all the kingdoms of Gaul – not least because of its strong links with the Byzantine court – and both the Franks and the Ostrogoths were keen to limit Burgundian power.

Sigismund soon established his reputation as a statesman and lawmaker by issuing (in 517) a legal compendium, the Lex Gundobada (more properly known as the Liber Constitutionum). He was equally enthusiastic about reforming the Church, and, in the same year, he convened a council of Burgundiam bishops as Epaon with a view to establishing ecclesiastical discipline and dismantling the infrastructure of the Arian Church in Burgundy.

Gundobad had been an Arian, though he seems to have contemplated conversion to Catholicism, and Sigismund converted by 515 – thanks in large part to his association with the Catholic bishop of Vienne, Avitus (a poet and man of letters who remained a beacon of classical civilization in a barbarian world), with whom he maintained a correspondence.

Shortly after his conversion, Sigismund founded the monastery of St Maurice at Agaune, where he instituted the practice of the laus perennis, according to which (as happened in other royal monasteries in the Germanic world) groups of monks would chant the psalms in relays in an unceasing round of praise (the sixth century equivalent of perpetual adoration).

Herma of Saint Sigismund in Płock

Herma of Saint Sigismund in Płock

In spite of such positive beginnings, Sigismund’s relationship with his bishops deteriorated. Much more seriously, in 522 his second wife persuaded him that Sigistrix, his son by a previous marriage, was plotting against him with the intention of killing him and taking control not only of Burgundy but also of Italy.

In a fit of uncontrolled rage, Sigismund had Sigistrix strangled. Once his anger had subsided, he was appalled at the enormity of his crime, and retired to St Maurice to do penance, devoting himself to the poor in whose service he distributed part of his wealth.

Whatever he undertook by way of reparation, however, seemed wholly inadequate in view of the horrific nature of the murder of his own son, and Sigismund came to believe that only by suffering some equivalent calamity could he atone for his sin.

Such a calamity duly occurred when Burgundy was attacked by Chlodomer, the King of Orleans, together with his brothers Childebert and Chlothar (the three brothers were the sons of the Frankish King Clovis whose father had been murdered by Sigismund’s father Gundobad).

Sigismund escaped, disguising himself as a monk and hiding in a cell at Agaune, but was captured and taken to Orleans as a prisoner where he was executed (524), his body being thrown down a well.

St Sigismund. Konstanz, Dreifaltigkeitskirche, fresco on the wall of the nave. Dated between 1417 and 1437.

St Sigismund. Konstanz, Dreifaltigkeitskirche, fresco on the wall of the nave. Dated between 1417 and 1437.

His bones having been recovered, a shrine developed at Agaune, and he was soon recognized as a martyr, though strictly speaking he did not die for his faith, as the motives for his assassination had to do with politics and blood-feuds rather than with Arian persecution of Catholics.

In fact, he is best remembered not primarily as a martyr (for all that he endured death in a spirit of faith and courage) but as one of the great penitents – as a man whose profound repentance, culiminating in a death which at some level he seems to have sought (at least in prayer) by way of atonement for his gravest of crimes, was rightly perceived not only by his contemporaries but also by subsequent generations as a paradigm of a particular kind of Christian sanctity.

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St Sabas the Goth


St Sabas (Sava) was a Goth (in the traditional sense of that word) living in in Buzău river valley in the Wallachia region of what is now Rumania. The Arian bishop Wulfilas had preached Christianity among the Goths, and St Sabas was brought up a Christian.

The Scourging of St Sabas

The Scourging of St Sabas

In 370 the Gothic King Athanaric (probably under the influence of pagan priests) set about persecuting the Christian population and insisting that they should eat meat offered to idols. Pagans and Christians lived together in Wallachia, and were frequently connected by ties of kinship and friendship, and many pagans sought to protect their Christian friends and relations by offering them ordinary meat instead of meat offered to idols (thereby respecting Christian consciences), and then pretending to the authorities that the Christians had been obedient to the King’s edict.

The whole question of eating meat offered to idols is, of course, one that recurs in St Paul’s epistles, in which Paul takes the line that it is completely harmless for Christians to eat meat offered to idols, and that eating such meat in no way implies participation in idolatry, but that Gentiles Christians should be careful not to offend the sensibilities of converts from Judaism who might be scandalized if food of this kind were served up.

In Late Antiquity the situation was a little different – especially during times of persecution. In such circumstances, to eat food offered to idols could very well appear as complicity in the cult of the idol in question, and, in the context of a royal edict to participate in pagan religion by consuming sacrificial meat, was clearly incompatible with strict Christian observance.

 The majority of Gothic Christians in Wallachia seem to have regarded the compromise afforded by their pagan friends as acceptable, and it is difficult to blame them for viewing the matter in this practical fashion. Sabas, however, was a man blessed with the zeal and clarity of vision of the true “confessor”, and believed that it was the duty of the Christian to profess the true faith openly and unreservedly without resorting to technicalities to escape the vocation to martyrdom.

The persecution grew more intense, Sabas was finally arrested along with a priest called Sapsal. They were dragged naked into the street, and St Sabas was compelled to walk attached to the back of a cart – still naked – over thorns and briars as the soldiers beat him with switches and staves. When they reached the city next morning, Sabas was found to be without injury, and announced to his oppressors “Look at my body, and see whether there are any traces of the thorns or of your blows”.

Undeterred, the soldiers proceeded to stretch Sabas on the axles of a cart and to spend the entire day beating him (which must have been exhausting even for the soldiers, let alone for the courageous Sabas). A pious woman set him free during the night and took him into her home to help with the housework, but the soldiers were not finished with him, and, when day came, they located Sabas and suspended him from the lintel of the house, taunting him with food offered to idols and pledging to release both Sabas and the priest Sapsal if only they would consent to eat it.

The Martyrdom of St Sabas

The Martyrdom of St Sabas

Sapsal’s response to the soldiers was unequivocal: “We would prefer that Atharid [the commander] crucify us, than to eat meat defiled by devils”. Sabas asked who had sent the food, and, being told it had been furnished by “Master Atharid”, replied with characteristic boldness: “There is only one Master, God, who is in Heaven”. Duly enraged, one of the servants stuck his spear into Sabas’s chest, but, impervious as ever to torture and violence, Sabas pronounced that “your blow felt as if you had struck me with soft wool”.

Reluctant to give up, Atharid now decided that drowning might be the best policy, and had Sabas led to the River Mussova (Buzău) for that purpose. The servants who were entrusted with this task felt that Sabas was innocent and resolved to set him free, but Sabas, filled with that disconcerting desire for martyrdom which we find in the great martyrs of Late Antiquity from St Ignatius of Antioch onward, insisted “do as you are commanded! For I see angels coming with glory to receive my soul!”

Left with very little choice (seeing that Sabas was as insistent on being martyred as Atharid was on martyring him), the servants attached a large beam of wood to Sabas’s neck (they must have realized by now that it was going to take quite a lot to kill him), and cast him into the river.

St Sabas was martyred on April 12, 372, at the age of thirty-eight, and his relics were brought to Cappadocia where they were revered by St Basil the Great. His memorial is celebrated in the Catholic Church on April 12th


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