Irenaeus on the Incarnation  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Although bishop of Lyons in Gaul, Irenaeus (ca 130-208) was a Greek-speaking native of Asia Minor, a disciple of the venerable martyr Polycarp of Smyrna, who was in turn a follower of John the Evangelist.  So he was steeped in the theology of the Christian East, which was already at this early stage differentiating itself in noticeable ways from the spiritual teachings of the West.  One of these was the Incarnation.  Western theology tends to stress the necessity of Jesus assuming humanity so that he could atone for our sins.  The Christian East, by contrast, emphasizes that the Incarnation is primarily about God uniting in love with his creation.  This is evident in the writings of Irenaeus, even when he is passionately inveighing against Gnosticism and other heresies.  As Olivier Clement puts it in his invaluable The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press 1993), "...Irenaeus developed a vigorous theology emphasizing the reality of the incarnation (and therefore of the flesh), the unity of the two Testaments, and the positive nature of history.  The word and the Holy spirit are the 'two hands of the Father'.  With them he creates, directs, attracts and fulfills humanity.  History appears thus as an immense procession of incarnation...God wishes to deify human beings but without destroying their freedom.  Time enables 'man to grow used to receiving God and God to grow used to dwelling in man'.  Irenaeus does not dramatize the fall" (pp344-345). 

Below are three passages of Irenaeus dealing with the Incarnation, all taken from his main work Against Heresies (pp36-38 in Clement).


The Lord has given us a sign "as deep as Sheol and as high as heaven", such as we should not have dared to hope for.  How could we have expected to see a virgin with child, and to see in this Child a 'God with us' (Isaiah 7:  11-14) who would descend into the depths of the earth to seek for the lost sheep, meaning the creature he had fashioned, and then ascend again to present to his Father this 'man' [humanity] thus regained?

How could the human race go to God if God had not come to us?  How could we free ourselves from our birth into death if we had not been born again according to faith by a new birth generously given by God, thanks to that which came about from the Virgin's womb?

This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became the Son of Man:  so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God.  Indeed we should not be able to share in immortality without a close union with the Immortal.  How could we have united ourselves with immortality if immortality had not become what we are, in such a way that we should be absorbed by it, and thus we should be adopted as Sons of God?

Desert Benedictines  

Posted by Joe Rawls

On this feastday of John the Baptist we salute the monastery of Christ in the Desert.  Christ in the Desert is a Roman Catholic Benedictine foundation, a member of the Subiaco Congregation of the Primitive Observance.  It is located about 70 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  The community attempts to adhere very closely to the Rule of Benedict, following a contemplative way of life with no external ministries.  It does maintain a guest house which is usually quite full, as the monks' simple but intense lifestyle is very attractive to Christians and non-Christians alike.  I myself have been fortunate to visit the place on several occasions.  The monastery is under the patronage of John the Baptist because its founding prior, Fr Aelred Wall, entered New Mexico on this date in 1964. 

The interview with Abbot Phillip will provide some insights into this monastic way of life.

Justin Martyr on Baptism and Eucharist  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Justin, who lived approximately from 100 to 165, was born in Samaria in what is now the town of Nablus.  His parents were Greek-speaking pagans, and he received a good classical education.  He explored various traditions of Hellenistic philosophy, but while living in Ephesus a chance encounter on the beach with an old Christian man led him to embrace Christ as his primary teacher.  Far from rejecting philosophy, he came to see it as providing an intellectual preparation for the truths revealed in the Gospel.  Eventually he relocated to Rome, where he founded a school for his synthesis of philosophy and Christianity.

After engaging in a debate with a pagan philosopher he was denounced to the imperial authorities for practicing an illicit religion and eventually executed; his feast day is observed on June 1.  Ironically, he died under the rule of emperor Marcus Aurelius-- himself no mean philosopher--who felt compelled to enforce the pagan cult as a means of maintaining the empire's social cohesion.

Justin left behind several works, including the First Apology from which the excerpt below is taken.  It contains significant descriptions of second-century Christian worship, written to present an accurate account of these things to often-hostile pagan readers.  The translation used is found in The Christianity Reader, Mary Gerhart and Fabian E Udoh editors (University of Chicago Press 2007), pp 348-351.


As many as are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and ask God with fasting for the remission of their past sin, while we pray and fast with them.  Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are born again in the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were born again, for they then receive washing in water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit...And this washing is called illumination, as those who learn these  things are illuminated in the mind.  And he who is illuminated is washed in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold all the things about Jesus.

...And this food is called among us eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things which we teach are true, and has received the washing that is for the remission of sins and for rebirth, and who so lives as Christ handed down.  For we  do not receive these things as common bread nor common drink; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior having been incarnate by God's logos took both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food eucharistized through the word of prayer that is from Him, from which our blood and flesh are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of Jesus who became incarnate.
...And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.  Then when the reader has finished, the Ruler [bishop] in a discourse instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.  Then we all stand up together and offer prayers, and, as we said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought and wine and water, and the Ruler likewise offers up prayers and thanksgiving to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen; and the distribution and the partaking of the eucharistized elements is to each, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.  And those who prosper, and so wish, contribute what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the Ruler, who takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who, on account of sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among us...But we all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the Universe, and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.