Gregory the Great on Angels  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Angels in popular culture, especially in New Age circles, have acquired an existence largely independent of established spiritual traditions.  Angels can be prayed to so as to receive spiritual or material benefits, and it is commonly thought that relatives or even household pets become angels after death.  A welcome corrective is provided by Pope Gregory I in one of his sermons (Hom. 34, 8-9:  PL 76, 1250-1251). 


You should be aware that the word "angel" denotes a function rather than a nature.  Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits.  They can only be called angels when they deliver some message.  Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels. 

And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary.  It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.

Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform.  In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of almighty God, those who have no names may easily be known.  But personal names are assigned to some, not because they  could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they come among us.  Thus, Michael means "Who is like God?"; Gabriel is "The Strength of God"; and Raphael is "God's Remedy".

Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by his superior power.  So also our ancient foe desired in his pride to be like God, saying:  I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High.  He will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment.  Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John:  A battle was fought with Michael the archangel.

So too Gabriel, who is called God's strength, was sent to Mary.  He came to announce the One who appeared as a humble man to quell the cosmic powers.  Thus God's strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle.

Raphael means, as I have said, God's remedy, for when he touched Tobit's eyes in order to cure him, he banished the darkness of his blindness.  Thus, since he is to heal, he is rightly called God's remedy.

Lancelot Andrewes on Theosis and Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls in , ,

For today's commemoration of Bishop Andrewes we have a passage from a 1605 Christmas sermon preached before King James I.  It well illustrates Andrewes as a theologian with very deep catholic and patristic roots.  It can be found, along with much other useful information on Andrewes, on the Anglican Eucharistic Theology website, accessible under the "Anglicans" section of the outer sidebar.

For "the Word" He is, and in the word he is received by us.  But that is not the proper of this day, unless there be another joined unto it.  This day Verbum caro factum est, and so must be "apprehended" in both.  But specially in His flesh as this day giveth it, as this day would have us.  Now "the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the body, of the flesh, of Jesus Christ?"  It is, surely, and by it and by nothing more are we made patakers of this blessed union.  A little before He said, because the children were partakers of flesh and blood, He also would take part with them--may we not say the same?  Because he hath so done, taken ours of us, we also ensuing His steps will participate with Him and with His flesh which He hath taken of us.  It is most kindly to take part with Him in that which He took part in with us, and that, to no other end, but that He might make the receiving of it by us a means whereby He might "dwell in us and we in Him".

Begging for Mercy in the Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church.  A convert from Anglicanism, she is in a good position to explain Orthodox spiritual practices to Western Christians.  In The Jesus Prayer:  the ancient desert prayer that tunes the heart to God (Paraclete Press 2009), she gives a wealth of advice on how we may incorporate this prayer into our own spiritual practice.  Pp 80-82 deal with the objections some beginners--or even more experienced folks--might have with the notion of beseeching Jesus for mercy ("Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me").  As the excerpt below demonstrates, it all depends on how we interpret the word "mercy".


People newly introduced to the Jesus Prayer often think:  Why should we continually beg God for mercy?  Can't we be certain that he has already forgiven us?  What, do we have to grovel?

The problem, I think, is that we are imagining a prisoner in court, begging the judge for mercy.  It is up to the judge whether to kill this man or free him, and she is justifiably angry.  His only hope is to squirm and plead, and beg her to be lenient.

Picture instead the man in Jesus' parable (Lk 10:  30-37) who was robbed and beaten on the road to Jericho, then left for dead.  His helplessness was so extreme that he was not even able to ask passersby for mercy, and the priest and scribe passed by on the other side of the road.  Yet, the Samaritan saw him and had compassion, and rescued him from death.

That's the kind of "mercy" the Jesus Prayer asks for.  We are not trying to get off the hook for a crime, but recognizing how the infection of sin has damaged us.  Revealing all the extent of our illness to the heavenly physician, we seek his compassionate healing.

The word in Hebrew is hesed, which has the sense of long-suffering love.  The prophet Hosea married a woman who was a prostitute.  Though she betrayed him many times, he kept seeking her and drawing her back again to himself.  This is hesed love, long-suffering love, a love that is valiant and breaks through the walls of self-love and pride.

In Greek, the word is eleos, and many of the Western liturgical churches still pray in Greek, "Kyrie, eleison," that is, "Lord, have mercy."

A listener in the ancient church would have heard a resonance between eleos and elaion, the word for olive oil.  Your experience with olive oil might be limited to salads, but in the ancient Mediterranean world, olive oil was used in a wide variety of ways, and filled essential roles.  A wick placed in a clay lamp filled with olive oil could burn and illuminate the darkness.  Medicinal herbs were combined with olive oil for healing; the Good Samaritan "bound up [the beaten man's] wounds, pouring on oil and wine" (the latter for the antiseptic quality of alcohol).  Olive oil would also be a medium for fragrant herbs in the making of perfume.  And of course it would be eaten; in a region where there were few sources of fat, olive oil provided essential nutrition.  Sufficient fat in the diet conferred a health glow, and the psalmist thanks God for giving "wine to gladden the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine" (Ps 104:  15).  This poetic echo between eleos and elaion contributed to a richer sense of "mercy" than we perceive in English.

I would guess that the majority of Christians I talk to don't particularly feel a need for mercy.  They might think of repentance as an initial step toward salvation, but that once you have become a follower of Jesus Christ, once you're baptized and going regularly to church, you're set for life.  There's still plenty of work to do, of course--work for the poor, for justice, for the church, for your family--but as far as you go, personally, you're pretty much done.

In the contemporary West, repentance is now considered an introductory activity to life in Christ (if it's considered at all); in the East, repentance lasts for a lifetime.  Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, and we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and to be healed at ever deeper levels.