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Matt's Messages

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Welcome to Matt's message page!  Matt Kydd is a historian, theologian, poet, singer, songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player who lives with his wife and children in Omemee, Ontario. 

Here you will find Matt's words of reflection -- words to contemplate and inspire as we continue to learn together what it means to follow Jesus.

Matt’s Message for...
The Twelve Days of Christmas

          How do I describe the talent of Mario Lemieux? How can anyone describe the smooth way he moved and the way he baffled defenders with tricks never seen before and never to be repeated? A quick head fake and the defenseman moved the wrong way and Lemieux was past him in an instant. A flick of his wrists and the puck was in the top corner of the net. He was fast without ever looking like he was expending any energy.

          But the real magic was his intelligence. He once fooled Ray Bourque (one of the best defensemen ever!) by putting the puck in among Bourque’s skates and skating along just behind him at the same speed as Bourque. Whichever way Bourque would look, Lemieux would shift the other way. Bourque was completely helpless as Lemieux was doing a move that no-one had ever seen in all of hockey history. Bourque was still trying to figure out what to do when Lemieux fired the puck into the net, scoring one of the strangest and smartest goals you’ll ever see.


          But the cleverest thing Lemieux ever did was when he was playing for Canada’s Olympic Team in 2002. A Canadian player fired a pass toward Lemieux who was in a great position to try a shot on goal. But Lemieux’s stick passed over the puck and it kept sliding right between his legs. It looked like he missed it. Luckily, it kept sliding all the way to another Canadian player who shot the puck into the American net. Years later, I was watching the highlights of the game with some friends. As we watched the replay of that goal a few times, we slowly started to realize: Lemieux missed the puck on purpose! He knew what he was doing! When he swiped at the puck with his stick, the American defenseman AND goalie were both totally faked out. As they moved to block Lemieux’s pretend shot, the puck kept on moving (as Lemieux knew it would!) right to the Canadian left winger who had an open net because the American goalie had been focussed on Lemieux.

          In my opinion, no-one had ever done something so unexpected and so flawlessly executed in hockey before. And most people didn’t even notice it. As my friends and I watched the goal over and over again, we were actually freaking out, shouting, “I can’t believe it! He faked out the whole American team without even touching the puck. How is that even possible!?”

Mario Lemieux Dekes Out Ray Bourque

Mario Lemieux's Magical "Non-Pass"

          By 2009, Lemieux had been retired for a few years and he now owned the Pittsburgh Penguin franchise – the team he had played on for his whole career.

          As owner of the Penguins, Lemieux was a living legend for the team and the city of Pittsburgh. By buying the team, he saved it from being moved away from Pittsburgh. He had been a mentor to the young stars, Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury.

          The owner of a hockey team has to have a hands-off approach to the team. The general manager and coach have to be able to do their jobs without having someone looking over their backs all the time. So Lemieux didn’t interfere much, but just sat up high in the owner’s private box and signed the paychecks.

          In 2009, the Penguins were in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final. They were a very talented, but very young team. During the intermission, just before the third and final period, they were feeling pretty nervous. The game was close and their opponent was the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. Usually, at this point, the coach talks to the team or even just leaves the players to their own thoughts. But the players were shocked and delighted when into the room walked Mario Lemieux himself! His six foot, four inches and his calm, yet commanding presence and his few words of encouragement were exactly what the team needed. He had come all the way down from the owner’s private box to the middle of the dressing room, knowing that the time was right for him to pay a visit.

          So this larger than life, living legend was right there with them. This guy had once scored 85 goals in a season. He had won a Stanley Cup when his back was so bad that someone else had to tie up his skates! He had beaten the Soviets in 1987! He was in the Hockey Hall of Fame while he was still playing! He had done it all and there he was! It was just the right time for him to finally make an appearance.

          Of course, the Penguins went out and won the Stanley Cup – for the first time since Lemieux himself won it for them 15 years earlier.

          And here’s the point I’m trying to make. If Lemieux had phoned down from his private box and talked to the players, would it have had the same effect? If he had sent a text message to the coach to read to the players, would it have had the same effect? Absolutely not. He had to be there in person. The magic of that moment was that when the team thought they were on their own, the Legend suddenly was right there with them.

          He didn’t give them a new game plan or a new technique or a secret for how to score a goal. But suddenly everything was different because he was...right there.

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          And now I’ve finally got to the point of this article!

          I’ve always thought of Lemieux’s visit to the team’s dressing room as a good metaphor for what happened at the first Christmas.

          God didn’t call us on the phone and give us a message. God didn’t write a letter to humanity. God didn’t send an angel to tell us what we needed to know. He came here Himself. The God of Christmas didn’t stay up in His private box watching and awaiting the results. He didn’t stay up on a golden throne in the security and bliss of heaven and utter a commandment.


          I think we’re really getting to the heart of the Church’s belief here. I think this is an idea that a lot of Christians neglect: the humanity of God. I think a lot of people still have a picture of God as being as old man on a throne. He’s “the man upstairs.” And it’s an image of God that many people – understandably – don’t like.

          At Christmas, the nature of God was revealed in a completely new way. God became “God With Us” or “Emmanuel.” Through Christ and then through the Holy Spirit, God became a more earthly, human being: a God who has joined humanity in a physical way.

          This exposes as a lie a very dangerous idea that has appeared quite a bit in Church history: gnosticism. Gnosticism looks at the physical world as evil and the spiritual/intellectual world as good. How in the world could a religion with a God who was born as a human baby turn into a Gnostic belief? It makes no sense, but it has indeed happened quite a bit.

          My point is: you can be a Gnostic without realizing it.

          Do you remember those old redneck jokes: “If you cut your grass and find a car, you might be redneck.”

          Well, there could be a whole bunch of Gnostic jokes like that. “If you dislike life on earth and deny your emotions and judge everyone harshly and take great pride in your might be a Gnostic!”

          “If you’re uncomfortable in your own skin and you do not care about the environment and isolate yourself from nature with might be a Gnostic.”

          Christ’s birth is supposed to root us in our fleshly human existence. Creation is good. Good ol’ humanity has unlimited capabilities...though the past and present prove that we usually choose war and violence instead of peace and love.

          Human life is not just a long wait, looking forward to heaven. The truly spiritual person should be a truly physical person, really enjoying and thanking God for the good things of creation.


          The ancient Christmas celebrations really taught this idea effectively. First there was the long Advent season of spiritual preparation, self-examination, and repentance. Then, starting with the Christ Mass on Christmas Eve, the celebrating began. And it wasn’t like it is today. Nowadays, people are so sick of Christmas that the decorations are down by Boxing Day sometimes. For the ancient Church, there were Twelve Days of Christmas celebrations: twelve days of feasting and playing and relaxing and talking and making music and hunting and feasting and turkey and wine and ale and coffee and story-telling. All these festivities were interspersed with Church services.

          Back in the day, when they partied, they really partied. Old Norse wedding feasts were a month long or longer if it was a harsh winter outside. Christmas is the perfect time for partying since it’s the darkest time of the year. Why worry about getting work done when there’s about three hours of daylight and about three inches of ice on your car? It’s the perfect time to relax and be...HUMAN.

          And as the Twelve Days of Christmas continue, you’ll begin to notice a great change happening: the days start getting longer. At Christmas, the light triumphs over the darkness. It’s a truly cosmic celebration, drawing our attention to both the birth of the Son and the re-birth of the sun. Of course Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th, but it’s the perfect time to celebrate his birth: the light is born and begins to shine more and more on the earth. The light shone in the darkness. Nature itself becomes not just nature, but a symbol of the eternal love that conquers all darkness and evil.

          That’s the beauty of these ancient Church traditions. Christmas, Easter, Rogation (praying for the seeds in May), Michaelmas (the start of Fall), even All Hallows’ Eve connect us to nature. In a modern society that is largely isolated and disconnected from nature, the

Church can actually help us connect to nature as we participate in the liturgical year. I love how our participation in worship can open our eyes to God’s wisdom and love in nature. For Gnostics, nature is meaningless or even evil. Sometimes our industrial society sees nature that way too; it’s just a thing to be controlled and escaped. Is the technological society Gnostic? Interesting thought...

          Anyways, all I’m saying like Mario Lemieux. Don’t just observe life from a safe distance. Don’t just stay up in your private owner’s box in your nice suit with your millions of dollars. Come right down here where the team is tired and sweaty and the opponent is really, really good. You’ll inspire us all just by your presence.

          Be incarnate. Become flesh. Enjoy family and friends. Take some time for yourself. Work for environmental justice. Worship the newborn baby King in an old country church. Watch or play hockey. Have that good nap you’ve been putting off. Enjoy your presents. Enjoy all TWELVE days of Christmas. Enjoy life as an incarnate human being: spirit AND flesh, heavenly AND earthly.

There is a time for repentance. There is a time for celebration. There is a time for earth and a time for heaven. And all these times are brought together in a crying baby, born to a poor middle-eastern Jewish family 2023 years ago. What a strange, unforgettable mystery. It makes me feel honoured to be part of such an interesting universe.

Matt’s Message for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, 29th September:

“The Purple Aster, Jacob’s Ladder, and Ultimate Reality”

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"Michaelmas Daisies among dead weeds,

 Bloom for St. Michael's valiant deeds."

          I’ve never planted a flower garden, but wildflowers I absolutely love. I much prefer flowers that bloom on their own without me doing any work. Around this time of the year, all the wildflowers are gone or fading away. Lilac and Orange Day Lilies, Apple and Crabapple blossoms are a distant memory. The Wild Carrot or Queen Anne’s Lace, that has been standing tall and proud by the roadside since early July, is finally closing and turning brown. Some Chicory remains but not very much. Even the Goldenrod is beginning to lose its bright yellow and turn to brown. Some of them are actually going to seed right now.

          But one wildflower is at its peak: the Purple Aster. I’m sure you’ve noticed it, as they seem to be increasing in number in the past couple of years. You’ve gotta love this guy: the late bloomer! This year, I saw the first one on the last day of August. All summer, he bides his time, waiting. All the wildflowers of summer bloom and put on their colourful show while he just watches and waits. Then when they’re all either gone or fading, he explodes all over the landscape in a brilliant purple. The trees look down and see him and know that it’s time for them to start changing colour. When the Purple Asters are standing tall among the few remaining Goldenrod and blue Chicory and the Sugar Maples overhead are bright yellow and red and cool breezes are blowing and the sun is bright but not too hot, almost every one agrees: fall is actually better than summer.

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          I don’t want to enter into too much controversy in these articles, but the feeling around my house is that, yes, fall is actually a better season than summer. Just putting that out there.


          Fall has an ancient name related to the liturgy of the Church: Michaelmas. This means, the Mass of St. Michael, because the celebration of Michael and All Angels has always happened at the end of September. Apparently the early Church started this practice sometime during the 400s AD. When I was studying history in Scotland, they were all calling the Fall Term, the Michaelmas Term. I didn’t know what they were talking about. Thanks to Wikipedia, I totally get it now!

          I’m writing this on the first day of Fall or the “Autumnal Equinox”. It’s a big day for us in our solar system because we’ve all made it – together as a planet – a quarter of the way around the sun since Midsummer Day, June 20th/21st. At the Equi-nox (or “equal- night”), the day and the night are approximately the same length. The celebration of Michael and the Angels is always just after this important moment in the earth’s year, so the two days have always been associated with each other.

          Michaelmas was the time when the ancient Irish Church would do some prayers and liturgies down by the shore of the sea because it was time to stop fishing for the winter and thank God for the fish that had been caught during the summer weather.

          In Ireland and Britain, they also had a different name for the Purple Aster: the Michaelmas Daisy. Maybe this is still what it’s called over there - I’m not sure – but I’ve never heard it called that before. But it’s a great name. I love it when things connect the Church year to nature. The re-awakening earth is perfect for Easter. The long, cozy, cold nights are perfect for Christmastime. Now that I’ve learned the name of the Michaelmas Daisy, when I see it blooming in the midst of all the dying flowers and leaves, I can be reminded of the angels and the great eternal triumph of good over evil. (See the Book of Revelation Chapter 12, verses 7 to 12 for the story of Michael defeating Satan and the bad angels and kicking them out of heaven.) We see evil winning in so many ways all around us. Food and homes are becoming unaffordable for most people and therefore homelessness and hunger are rising at a shocking rate all across our great nation. Police tell us that violent hate crimes are actually rising in Canada. We do what we can to fight against the evil and try to make a world of peace and respect. But it’s good to see that Michaelmas Daisy, reminding us that in the big picture, good does win. Without that assurance, it’s hard to keep up hope in the midst of the battle.

          This image of Michael defeating the Devil, or “dragon” or “serpent”, has been very important to the Church throughout the centuries. Has it been used as a way to justify violence against non-Christians? Yes, absolutely. So we have to make sure we see it on a symbolic level; a symbol of the struggle against the force of evil itself, not a symbol of doing violence to people we disagree with.

          That dragon is a symbol of the evil that lurks in every human heart; we all have to struggle in the power of the Holy Spirit to choose what is Good. It’s a dragon, not a person. That means that we’re not supposed to be battling specific people, but evil behaviours in some people: such as, oh let’s just say, extremely profitable bread companies that fix prices so struggling people can’t afford groceries.

          In the Old Testament reading for Michael and All Angels, Genesis chapter 8, starting at verse 10, we see the image of Jacob’s Ladder. In this hugely important biblical episode, Jacob lies down at night in the middle of a long journey. He is a long way away from home and from any human towns or homes. He is in the wild, alone, using a stone as a pillow. In the traditions of the Bible and the Church, this is often when people had close encounters with God and Angels. Far away from all human creations, the person is surrounded by nature, which is God’s own creation. All throughout the centuries of the Church – from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Church to the medieval Francis of Assisi to John Wesley’s Evangelical revivals of the 1700s – Christians have often left cities and church buildings behind and sought experiences of God in nature.

          Lying directly on the earth, with nothing but the endless sky above him, Jacob falls asleep and has a dream. In my opinion, this dream is no less than a glimpse into the heart of God’s universe. Jacob sees a ladder, or the word can also be translated as “stairway.” I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures of ancient temples that are made in the shape of stairs going up to one central point. This might be what the Bible intends us to imagine: angels going up and down stairs of a temple that does not simply end at some high place, but goes all the way up into the sky. If you take a minute to imagine that, it’s an amazing image. Or you can picture the traditional image of the ladder with the top end disappearing into the sky. It’s a real connection between heaven and earth or between eternity and time or between God and nature/humanity.

          This amazing painting was done by an artist named Gadi Dadon. I don’t know anything about the painter, but I like this painting because it shows the angels as mysterious beings of light. Too often, I find, angels are depicted as overly-beautiful humans, which may or may not be accurate.

          This connection is what – I think – we’re all seeking. This is what humans have always desired: to live our lives in a way that connects us to something eternal and unchanging and good. In our earthly life, everything’s changing so fast that it’s hard to know what’s what or what it all means. We need a lifeline or a foothold. We need something that roots us in an eternal reality. I should say: maybe not everyone feels this need, but I do.

          The ancient Greek philosophers knew that an eternal, good, unchanging being must logically exist, but they could never figure out how the human could connect to that reality. In this world of aggression and wars (and even World Wars), perfect, unchanging goodness is not to be found. Unlike animals, humans

feel deep restlessness most of the time. We think if we attain a certain amount of wealth or relationship success or power that this restlessness might disappear, but it’s always there in every human: a yearning towards something.

          And as Jacob slept, he was shown that there is a connection to that reality we all desire. Not only that, but he was also shown that there are mysterious beings moving back and forth between our world and the world of unchanging perfection.

          It surprises me that the Bible (Old and New Testaments) is so full of angels, but the Church today talks about them hardly at all. I think one of the reasons they’re not often spoken of is their “mysteriousness.” It’s impossible to pin down who they are or what exactly they do. Sometimes, in the Bible, they appear in terrifying glory while sometimes they are mistaken for normal humans. Sometimes they are named, sometimes they are not. Regardless, these strange beings are major players all throughout the Bible and have a long tradition of appearing to people in the history of the Church as well.

          In some way, they should be important to us. In our Communion service, we say a prayer that is perhaps central to the whole liturgy: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” This is the New Testament version (from Revelation 4:8) of the prayer first heard in the Old Testament in Isaiah chapter 6: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts.” “Hosts” doesn’t mean people having others over for dinner. “Hosts” means “armies”, or specifically “armies of angels.” Thus in this prayer that has always had a central place in the Church’s worship, God is identified specifically as the God who commands angels. As we reach the climax of the Communion prayer, we worship the God who is sending angels into our world.

          It seems like we’re not supposed to imagine just a few angels going back and forth from God to earth. Jacob’s Ladder was an endless ladder with angels going up and down it. It sounds like there were a lot there. When the unnamed angel appears to the shepherds to announce Jesus’s birth, there is a “multitude of the heavenly host” there as well. In 2 Kings 6, we see that there is a huge invisible army of angels appearing as horses and chariots of fire surrounding the prophet Elisha. I think we are meant to picture a universe that is full of these mysterious messengers of God. We are meant to think of angels as continually lifting our world into God, or continually bringing Divinity down into our world. The cosmos of the Bible and of the pre-industrial Church was much more connected to the eternal spiritual reality than today’s world. They knew that the earth was full of His glory. Maybe that’s why they were not destroying nature back in those days.

          But Jacob’s Ladder has a deeper meaning as well. It is an image that foreshadows THE connection of connections. In the Gospel reading for Michael and All Angels, Jesus says to a new follower of his: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Jesus is telling us, “I AM Jacob’s Ladder. I am the Connection. Heaven is opening for you through me. Climb on me. I am the bridge, the ladder. Heaven and earth are no longer separated. The angels are going up and down me. And you can too.”


          The incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity – God becoming human – broke down that wall between our world and Divinity, for good and for ever. By living in Christ and following the path of love and sacrifice, we enter a whole new reality: a Spirit-filled heaven and earth. The whole cosmos became a different place when God put on physical reality. That lifeline, that foothold, it’s now reachable, for all who are reaching out.

          Jesus was a wise and kind Jewish teacher. But he is also more than that. He is Ultimate Reality, lifting our universe into eternity and bringing heaven to earth.

          Jacob saw that connection in a dream, then woke up. We have that reality with us all the time everywhere. That means that we are free to participate in the ups and downs of our adventurous, human lives on earth AND in the secure, consistent lives of the angels who are eternally on fire with Infinite Love.

          Our universe is interesting and meaningful. That connection between heaven and earth isn’t just a dream anymore. Jacob’s Ladder is everywhere. For you, the first rung might be a purple wildflower growing out of the garbage in a ditch by the highway.


          Happy Michaelmas! May you find Jacob’s Ladder...

Matt’s Message for July 22nd:

The Apostle to the Apostles

Mary Magdalene

          Just look at this face for a minute. Before I say anything, what do you think that expression means? The slightly tilted head. The relaxed, half-lidded eyes. The glance off to the side. Is she smiling? Is she just about to smile? Is one eyebrow raised a little? What do you think? Remember: art is about what you think, not about what the art critics tell us to think.

          This painting is in an art book which I’ve mentioned before in an earlier Matt’s Message: Florence – The Paintings and the Frescoes. My daughter, Fiona, and I sometimes look through this book together. When Fiona turned the page and saw this painting, she said, “This one’s GOOD.” It was neat to hear Fiona say that because I also thought there was something powerful about it.

          Who is this woman? Well, she’s one of the most famous women ever, but we don’t really know very much about her. She experienced some sort of extreme psychological trauma and was healed by a young Jewish teacher, whom she then followed around – as a student and friend – for the rest of his life. She was a wealthy woman and she supported the Teacher’s ministry financially. When the teacher was crucified, all of his male students and friends abandoned him – except his best friend, John. But there were a few women who watched him die on the cross, then visited his tomb. This woman was one of those: his most devoted, faithful followers.

          This is a painting of Mary Magdalene. It’s not really her. It was painted around 1500 years after she was alive. But it’s an artist’s impression of what she may have looked like.

          I don’t know anything about the painter. His name is Perugino; that’s all I know. But whenever I’m flipping through my Florence art book, I always stop at this one for a while. And I think about this woman: Mary Magdalene.

          Okay. You’ve thought your own thoughts about the above painting – had your own experience with it – so now I’ll finally give you my own thoughts. And you’re welcome to disagree with me. (Please note: I don’t really know anything about art. I just have a few art books...)

          To me, her expression means one thing: confidence. It’s not arrogance, but a quiet, calm confidence. And when I think about it, I think that it makes sense that Mary should have that expression. It’s the expression of one who was the first to see and speak to the resurrected Christ.

          Her life was changed when Jesus healed her. (In Luke chapter 8, she’s described as one “from whom seven demons went out.”) Her life changed even more when she followed Jesus, listening to his teachings as well as making sure he had food to eat and places to stay. Her life changed again when she had to witness this man being crucified. And then her life changed again, when she met him in a whole new way: risen from death. How could her life ever go back to normal after seeing him freshly risen from death? That meeting with him would have marked her – changed her – forever. I think, when I look closely at the painting, I can see the expression of someone who has seen an indescribable wonder. It’s the face of someone who has just seen a new world appear. It’s the face of someone for whom the world now holds no fear. It’s the face of someone who has quietly, confidently entered into a whole new kind of life.

          I would even say there’s power in that face. It’s the glance of someone who is not impressed by the great people and things of this world. Her power and peace is derived from her relationship with a man who annihilated death. What could you not do if you knew someone who had defeated death itself?

          I think it is the face of someone who knows a secret. She certainly has some kind of knowledge. It’s this knowledge that gives her power and serenity. Serenity! That’s it! That’s the face of someone who has reached serenity after terrible trauma and joyful realization.

          Imagine how you would feel if you had met the risen Christ face to face. Maybe you have met him, just not face to face. Maybe you’ve met him heart to heart. I wonder if your meeting with him gives you that same confidence? Do you have a confidence that could help you overcome all odds? Do you just know – deep in your heart – that the most important thing has already happened: the door to new, true, real, eternal life has been opened? I think that’s how Mary in the above painting feels. She just knows these things now, so there’s peace, confidence, and even courage in her face now.

          Mary Magdalene’s star is rising. In 2016, Pope Francis changed her “memorial” day to a “feast” day, which means she’s now celebrated on par with the Apostles themselves. When the Pope did this, he referred to her as “the Apostle to the Apostles.” This makes sense because she told them about the risen Christ before they told anyone about him.

          Dan Brown’s 2003 book The Da Vinci Code portrayed Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife and an image of the Divine Feminine. We don’t have to believe any of Brown’s speculative theology (based on the evidence of gospels that were written centuries after the four original, “synoptic” gospels). But he does have a point and countless readers around the world recognized it: it’s time for Mary Magdalene and other women to be celebrated as just important (or more important!) than Jesus’s male followers. Jesus often clashed with the men around him: Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and his own disciples. But every single time he interacts with a woman, it’s positive! Did you ever notice that before?

          When you learn about the historical context, it’s absolutely shocking to see a man of Jesus’s time having deep conversations with women, really listening to them, and even letting them change his mind sometimes. So I think it’s great that Mary Magdalene is getting the recognition she deserves. Jesus broke a lot of social conventions, really shattering many traditions; talking theology with women in public was just not done! Thanks to Jesus’s attention to women, there are a number of strong female voices throughout the gospels. Do you think the Roman Emperors of the time, like Julius Caesar, were taking time to encourage women to speak their opinions? No. They were not. That was a Jesus thing and the church should reflect Jesus’s respect for female experiences and voices.

          So on July 22nd this year, let’s take some time to remember and celebrate this awesome woman, the one who brought the Good News to the Apostles.

Gordon Lightfoot and J.R.R. Tolkein:

Being a “Sub-Creator”

I’m sorry I haven’t written a Matt’s Message for so long. I just couldn’t think of anything to say. And let’s be honest: there is A LOT of stuff on the internet that doesn’t really have to be there. Maybe...HALF of it? I’m just kidding, but I didn’t want to write something just for the sake of putting something out there. But recently something happened that gave me something to say.

          Gordon Lightfoot died just a few days ago. There’s no need to rank Canada’s songwriters. Every songwriter is so different, how can you compare them? But I think, in this case, it might be helpful to say that Lightfoot was possibly the greatest songwriter and lyricist our country has ever known.

          I remember the moment I discovered him. It was 2003. I was 24 years old, living in a basement apartment in downtown Toronto. I thought to myself, “I’m a songwriter and I haven’t yet really listened seriously to Gordon Lightfoot. Why not?” So I bought a CD of his Greatest Hits and sat down in my basement to listen to it.

(To understand this article, maybe you should look up The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and listen to it.)

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When I first gave a careful, deep listen to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” it was an experience I will never ever ever forget! It was like the waves of Lake Superior were crashing over me. I was chilled by the cold shivers that were rushing through me, as Lightfoot sang of the huge lake freighter that sank during a November gale on Superior. I literally could not believe what I was hearing. I jumped up and stood in the middle of my room and said out loud, “How can a song be so good? How can a song be this good?” This was a local, small town Ontario guy and he was telling the stories of my land. I honestly thought, “Am I dreaming or does this man really exist?”

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          I’ve always both loved and hated “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I’ve loved it for obvious reasons: it takes me away in time and space like no other song and makes me feel the absolute power of Canada’s nature and makes me understand humanity’s precarious position at the mercy of the earth’s forces. But I hate it because I know that even if I lived a million years, I could never write a song that would be one-tenth as good as that one. It’s like Lightfoot established a whole new, higher order of songwriting with that song, and no-one else has joined him on that height. I really feel like God opened up a door in the secrets of the universe and allowed Lightfoot to look in, as Lightfoot was writing that song. The words and music combine so perfectly that they really transport the careful listener to that place and time and you feel the terror of a human facing death at the hands of the power of nature. But you are also strangely uplifted by that power. Tragedy is strangely attractive sometimes.

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In the 1970’s, the huge, modern ships of the Great Lakes were not supposed to sink. Everyone felt like the era of shipwrecks was long, long in the past. The Edmund Fitzgerald really was the pride of the Great Lakes, setting records for how much cargo it could haul between the great cities. It drew crowds as it would pass through the locks. It wasn’t just big, but it was a beautiful design. People loved it.

222 meters long and capable of carrying 26,000 tons of cargo, it was broken into two pieces by Lake Superior in just a few minutes of violent destruction and went to the bottom with all of its crew on the night of November 11th, 1975. Another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, was traveling not far from the Edmund Fitzgerald in the same direction. They were both trying to reach the shelter of Whitefish Bay.

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A sudden snow squall leapt up and the Captain of Arthur M. Anderson lost sight of the Edmund Fitzgerald. A few minutes later, when the snow squall died down, the Edmund Fitzgerald had disappeared.

          Lightfoot’s song was released in the following year. No mere verbal re-telling or historical description can bring back other times and places the way a song can. You can learn all about the shipwreck: all the stats and the timeline and the people. It’s really good to do this. But to really bring the event back into our experience, you need an act of creative imagination. A rational, scientific understanding of the event isn’t enough. There needed to be a poet or songwriter who could somehow feel the events happening and then make us feel them, through music and words.


          There were no survivors of the shipwreck. But I say there was actually one survivor: Gordon Lightfoot. It really seems like he was on that ship in the middle of that storm! He even knew what the cook was saying to the men as the waves were getting bigger and bigger:


          “When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck saying, Fellas it’s too rough to feed ya. At 7pm, it grew dark, it was then he said, Fellas it’s been good to know ya.”


          This line really touches us because it seems true. I think that’s exactly how they would have been interacting, not dramatically crying out, but stoically making understatements or even dark jokes, trying to keep each other's' spirits up. Somehow Lightfoot was able to see and feel what was happening on that ship. We lack that power, but when we hear his description, we immediately understand and think, “Yes, that’s exactly how it would’ve been...”


          There is really something powerful and mysterious going on when a songwriter of Lightfoot’s supreme ability re-tells such a fascinating event. This is similar to how ancient bards and poets would work; they would re-tell true (or mythological – which is a different kind of “true”) events, but not just in everyday speech like a modern historian, or like someone telling a story about what happened to them the other day. The ancient bards would make their stories rhyme, which gives the stories a hypnotic, enchanting effect.

          Read these words out loud; you might feel a strange, pleasant, tragic power inside you:

They might have split up or they might have cap-sized,

They may have broke deep and took water,

But all that remains is the faces and the names

Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

          Did you experience some kind of rush or shiver? Maybe it needs to be accompanied by the music. But what I’m saying is: rhyming, rhythmic words have a power of their own and when they’re combined with strange and true events, the effect is powerful.

          Many words that rhyme are often connected in a strange way. Think of the rhymes: “womb” and “tomb” or “breath” and “death.”

          And what Lightfoot does is almost scandalously powerful: rhyming “water” with “daughter” in this song makes us think of the little girls in houses that will no longer have dads while at the same time making us think of the huge elemental power that broke apart not just a ship, but 29 families. You almost want to say: “How dare you rhyme those two words?” But that rhyme literally brings the tragedy home: from the second largest lake on the earth to the homes that will never be the same again. See what I mean? This is not just a guy writing a song. Something truly mysterious and special happened when this man wrote this song.

(Note - I just looked up “world’s largest lakes” to see where Superior ranked and saw that 7 of the earth’s largest 13 lakes are in Canada. I love this country! Our familiar old Lake Ontario is the 13th largest lake on the globe.)

          I could write pages and pages about this song. I could write about how an old friend of mine (who scuba-dives down among the Great Lakes shipwrecks) and I played and sang the song just a few feet away from the waves of Lake Huron many summers ago. Singing the words “Lake Huron rolls...” as you look out over the endless waves of that lake is a great feeling. I could write about how I sang the song for a pub full of people in Scotland. They were loud and drunk and they weren’t listening to me, but I brought Lightfoot to Scotland.

          I could write endlessly about the song, but I do actually have a point that I’m heading towards.

          As I think of Lightfoot’s supreme ability as an artist, I’m remembering an idea of J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

          He says that God is the Creator and we are “sub-creators.” By “sub-creator”, I don’t mean making sandwiches at Subway or Mr. Sub – though it’s not totally unrelated to any creative activity.

          Even though we are not God, or gods, Tolkein says that we are supposed to imitate God in his role as Creator. God created the universe out of nothing. We also – sort of – create things out of nothing. We don’t create matter, but we bring things into being. There are many forms of sub-creation (making subs is just one of them), but for Tolkein, there is no higher calling than the ability to tell stories. As we tell stories about events that may be historical or

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mythological (or perhaps the line between these two things is not so solid!), we are creating little worlds for people to inhabit. The story-teller creates a fascinating place for people to wander around in, allowing them to leave behind their “real” world for a while.

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          And isn’t this exactly how we experience a song like The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald? We leave behind our lives and even our bodies for 6 or 7 minutes and are taken to a different time and place. When the song is over, we are different because of the journey we have made. We are wiser and more experienced. The story-teller is a creator of little worlds, imitating the Great Creator. And the more little worlds there are, the more interesting this large world becomes.


          Another amazing word Tolkein uses is: effoliation, ie, leaves coming out on trees. Our world without stories and songs is like a tree with no leaves. A world full of stories and songs is a tree full of leaves, singing and dancing in the wind, and providing shade and visual beauty and even the air we breathe.

          Gordon Lightfoot created so many beautiful new leaves on our Canadian Tree that it’s as big and leafy and lively as any tree in the world.

          When a songwriter dies, it’s different from a normal death. He’s gone, but (thanks to modern recording techniques) we can still hear his voice and experience his emotions and thoughts when-ever we listen to his music.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,

In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang 29 times,

For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

          Now the singer of those mournful lines has also passed away. His funeral was at St. Paul’s United Church, Orillia, where he grew up as a choirboy. He is to be buried beside his parents in the nearby Presbyterian/Anglican Cemetery of St. Andrew and St. James, also in Orillia. Let the bell chime one last time, for the thirtieth man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

          Thank you, Gordon Lightfoot. Rest in Peace.


Message for Ash Wednesday

"GO! You can't stay here! Hit the road! GO!"

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            What a winter! Ice, slush, freezing rain, frozen mud, ice, cold rain, fog...minus 20 one day, then plus 5 the next. It’s been so up-and-down, forming so much ice on the ground, that it’s been hard just walking around. I work with a volunteer firefighter. He said that on those days when it freezes after a thaw, they have non-stop calls from people falling and injuring themselves on the ice. This has been a winter of freezing rain and cold rain and in-between temperatures.

            A lot of us – myself included – love the season of winter: snow-shoeing, snowmobiling, ice-fishing, pond-hockey, skiing, snow-boarding, hikes through winter wonderlands, fresh, cold air to breathe in, and cold, bright, starry nights. But this winter has had very little of all that good stuff. I’ve been out on the Omemee pond for some skating and snowshoeing, but not very much. For my job, I’m outside 100% of the time, and I can’t remember a winter when it’s been harder to stay warm. In minus 20 or even minus 30, you can bundle up and cover your face and work outside while staying pretty comfortable if you know how to do it. But when it’s zero and it’s a cold, cold rain all day (with lots of mud and ice to walk on and get your forklift stuck in), it’s very hard to enjoy the winter.


            And as we approach Ash Wednesday, which is the day on the Church calendar that begins our journey through Lent towards the celebration of Easter, we’re only halfway through February. There could be lots of ice and frozen mud and freezing rain in store for us over the next couple of months – sorry to say!

            But Ash Wednesday brings help and hope. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a journey. On Ash Wednesday, we may be in the middle of a freezing rain “weather event”, we may be buried under two feet of hard, frozen snow, but Ash Wednesday tells us that...we are going somewhere different from where we are. We are on a journey. Where we are now is not where we will always be. We are moving forward. We are hitting the road. If we choose to.

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            Physically, we are beginning our journey towards the spring and – in the symbolic, liturgical life of the Church – we are spiritually re-beginning our journey towards Christ and Easter and eternal life. It’s funny how it’s a journey that has to be re-started every year, but I think this is a very wise idea.

            In one sense, we have arrived already: we live in the eternal light of the love of Christ. But in another sense, we haven’t really gotten anywhere yet: we are sinful, imperfect, sometimes ridiculous, and we have a long, long way to go. This is the great Christian concept of “already/not yet.” We are already there, but we are also not yet there. For people who like to think exactly and precisely and scientifically, this kind of thing can be very annoying. But there simply is and always will be much that is deeply mysterious about human life, so I love this old idea that we have arrived and we still have a long, long way to go. There’s a long road ahead.

            And what is it that speeds us on our way? It is one of the most important Christian ideas: repentance. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent which is all about Repentance. On Ash Wednesday, we kneel down and the priest puts ashes on our foreheads for two reasons: to remind us of 1) our mortality and 2) our sinfulness, ie, our need to change our ways to become better people. Lent is when we reflect on our own lives and come to understand how we have to change and grow. But it’s also a good time to reflect on the history of the Church and how the Church must change and grow.

            I have no idea how you personally have to grow (but I’m sure it should happen in some way...), but I know that the Church has a lot of growing to do. Central to Jesus’s message was his teaching that religious people shouldn’t think of themselves as special or inherently exalted over other people. This is an attitude which (to put it mildly) the Church has struggled with over the centuries and still does today. Many Christians see our Christian identity as a huge, walled castle, in which we can be 100% safe and from which we can fire our arrows at the world. But Christ’s idea of the Church is a group of devoted people moving through the world in the power of His Spirit. Jesus’s most consistent enemies were the Pharisees who wanted the world divided into US and THEM. Jesus flipped the religious world on its head by spending his time with THEM and abandoning US. He resolutely went with the outsiders and firmly turned away from the religious insiders.

           What does this mean for us in our personal lives? That’s something I really don’t know. Maybe that’s the personal growth we need: figuring out what outsiders we’ve ignored and what insiders we have sought to please too much. These Matt’s Messages are not sermons meant to bring you all the way to your destination, but merely reflections to offer some images and ideas to inspire you along the road.

            All I know is that it is a perfect time to start a journey. It’s a perfect time to move forward. We have to go. Now. There’s no standing still. Sometimes we wish we could live life like a king or queen in our own big, walled castle, safe from everything and everyone. That’s the North American-dream vision of how life should be: secure, powerful, isolated, better than others.

            But the Christian life is quite different and can be summed up in one image: the Pilgrim. We are on the road through the world. We find lodgings where-ever we can, along the way, having faith that God will take care of us tomorrow. We can’t be certain what the future holds. We may not even be sure where our next meal will come from. The Pilgrim always moves forward. “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has no-where to lay his head.” (Luke 9:25) Jesus stayed in no place for very long, but was always moving onward, journeying through the world.

            For us the journey is repentance: personal and communal. Repentance is the only way to move on from where we are. Our sin is holding us back, dragging us down, persuading us to stay where we are forever. If we are to grow and become free, we have to take up the pilgrim’s staff and cloak and sandals, and hit the road. We will have to change in some way. We will have to come to new realizations and leave old ways behind.

            A winter of freezing rain, slush, frozen mud, and big, cold puddles is a perfect time to re-start our journey, to look forward in hope to a different time, to seek new heights of understanding, and to turn away from old destructive habits.

            There’s nothing more positive and life-affirming than repentance: it urges us away from smug, self-satisfaction. Lent is the season to repent, to change direction, to start a new journey, to give something up, to take a risk, to surprise people who have known you a long time, and to pray more.


We have already arrived at our destination.

But we still have a long, long way to go.

Ash Wednesday is when we start to go.

You can’t stay here! Hit the road!

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Traditionally, the Anglican Church remembers and celebrates the conversion of St. Paul on January the 25th. Here are some thoughts about that event which is so crucial to the formation of the Church. The story is told in the Bible in the book of Acts, chapter 9, verses 1 to 9.

            There’s an awesome series of lectures available online through Yale University. The program is called Open Yale Courses. Videos of a lot of their classes can be viewed by anyone for free. These are some of the best teachers in the world, lecturing on everything from economics to ancient literature. When you think about it, it’s a pretty good deal. You can either go to Yale for tens of thousands of dollars, or you can stay in your own home and watch the lectures for free. That’s an easy decision for me.

            Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta is my favourite Yale lecturer.

            He is an expert on my favourite medieval poet, Dante Alighieri, who wrote The Divine Comedy back in the 1300s in Italy. Mazzotta has a very warm, personable style of teaching and his passion about the subject is always evident in his graceful hand gestures and lively facial expressions. How a teacher moves and speaks is almost as important as what he or she says. Mazzotta is a master teacher.

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            The lectures are great, but the question and answer time (at the end of the class) is sometimes even more interesting. In one class, he made the statement that love is different and more powerful than friendship. During the question time, a student asked Mazzotta to develop that thought because it was a pretty bold statement. The professor said that friendship can be a kind of love (there are different kinds of love), but what we’re talking about is something different and more radical and powerful: the experience of “falling in love” or “losing your heart” to someone or “falling head over heels in love.” The language of falling is used because you are losing control. This kind of love has a power quite different from friendship.

            The Bible is the real authority on falling in love because it has the world’s greatest love song: The Song of Songs. In this book from the Old Testament, a young man and a young woman have basically gone crazy with love and desire. It’s so explicit that ancient Jewish scholars had a rule that no-one could read it till they were 30. They didn’t want teenagers sneaking off with a Bible and reading it in secret. What an interesting problem to have. Theologians have always tried to make the Song of Songs less interesting and exciting by saying it’s an allegory about the love between God and the soul. It certainly is that too, but anyone can tell that it’s primarily about two young people who are madly in love.

            For these two people, love has changed their world, turned their world upside down. And that’s what Professor Mazzotta says love does for us; it changes us. Having a friend is awesome. Friendship is one of the greatest joys of life. I’m extremely grateful for the friends I’ve had and the friends I have.

            But love or “falling in love” or “being in love” is different. “Being in love” has a different power, a power that changes you and changes your entire world. There can be something violent (Mazzotta uses that word) about love; it knocks you down, causes pain, and can even make you sick. Well, maybe love can’t actually make you sick, but the word lovesick seems to suggest that it can. Falling in love can make you forget about your old friends completely. It can cause you to do dangerous, unexpected, ridiculous things.

            After the Song of Songs, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is probably the second best love story. Or maybe the best – we can argue the point. It’s become such a cliché: the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. But the story is actually revolutionary. Romeo and Juliet were from different families – the Capulets and Monagues – who had been fighting for generations, destabilizing life in the city of Verona. When they fell in love, it was the ultimate taboo; a Capulet cannot love a Montague. It was an unthinkable disaster, upsetting the way things were. But in fact, the way things were needed to be upset. Their love changed the city. They both (spoiler alert!) die in the end, but after their deaths, the Capulets and Montagues realized they could not continue their feud. They decided to live in peace. The love of the two young people caused great political transformation in Verona. It was too late for Romeo and Juliet, but the world was changed for the better.


            As Mazzotta would say, that’s the power of love: violence, transformation, agony, desperation, adventure, change. Friendship is great, but it’s not usually those things.

            You’ve probably never heard of St. Paul’s conversion spoken of in this way. It’s probably the last thing he’d like me to say about him: to say he was swept off his feet and fell madly in love. But when Paul – the one who had been pursuing and persecuting Christians – was suddenly blinded by the light, having a violent, earth-shaking vision of Christ, the only way to really make sense of it is to say: he fell madly and desperately in love with the tortured and crucified and resurrected Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

            This painting by Caravaggio (1601) perfectly captures the desperation, the confusion, the disorientation that Paul must have been feeling, having a vision of the man whose followers he was harassing. The proud, efficient, smart man has been brought low and is now totally out of control. Now his future is completely uncertain. Now he faces embarrassment and repentance. Now he has to start all over again. This new love has changed everything. Lying on his back with his arms stretched upwards, that pose says it all.


We may as well say: Paul lost his heart that day and never got it back. For the rest of his life, he was on fire with passion and desire and he acted like a crazy person. Like Romeo and Juliet, his love would eventually be the death of him, when his head was cut off in Rome. Love made him forget everything he was doing before and made him a new person. Everything that meant the world to him before, meant less than nothing to him when love came to him.

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            To say he became a friend of God simply doesn’t do justice to the depth of his new feelings. This was not a friendship. This was deep, eternal love. It was a heart thing, not just an intellectual decision to adopt a different religion.

            Alice Munro, the great Canadian short fiction writer, makes one of her characters say: “Love removes the world.” This literally happened to Paul when his vision of Christ blinded him. And after his vision and his conversion, Paul was not really in the world very much anymore. He was certainly alive on the earth, but I’d say part of him stayed up there in heaven with Christ. The rest of his life was a simple story of trying to reunite the earthly part of him with that part of him that was eternally in the Spirit in heaven with Christ. That idea may be theologically wrong, but it’s just a thought.

            As with all analogies or comparisons, the idea of Paul falling in love can only be taken so far and then it breaks down. There’s a huge difference between falling in love with another human and falling in love with God. Love of God should cause us to worship God. We worship God, but we should never worship any human. If you make a god of someone you love, you will be devastated when you are forced to realize that the human is imperfect. The human you love may even start to dislike you and want you to go away. If you’ve made that person your foundation, your only hope, and your everything, then you’ll have no-where to turn when that person turns out to be a mere human or even a bad human.

            Worship should only be given to God because God can’t change or be taken away. Love of God is a love that is eternal, unchanging, and transformational. On this divine love, you truly can build your entire life, never having to fear that this love will leave your side or stop returning your own love.

            Clearly, when Paul met Christ in his vision on the road to Damascus, he experienced exactly the kind of love Professor Mazzotta was talking about: the love that breaks our old heart and requires a new heart to be born in us.

Paul forgot about his old friends.
He forgot about his old ideas.
He forgot about the whole world for a while.
All he saw and all he heard was that light and that voice.

From that place, he had to be led by the hand.
He didn’t suddenly understand everything.
He suddenly knew nothing.

“Sometimes I see your face
And the stars seem to lose their place.”

-Sting, “Why Should I Cry For You?”

Epiphany Message

“When the Christ Child Started Squirming Around”

            There is a room in Florence, Italy that is possibly one of the most wonderful rooms in the world. It’s in an art gallery called the Uffizi, one of the oldest galleries in Europe. It is Room Two. “Room Two, Uffizi” is famous throughout the world. Well, famous to lovers of medieval art. I love how it’s such a low number. I have no idea what’s in Room One in the Uffizi. I’ve never heard of “Room One, Uffizi.” Maybe it’s a bathroom or a broom closet. But Room Two is a very big deal: a room of wonders that gives us a glimpse into the heart of art and humanity and divinity.

            I really like hanging around here in the Kawarthas and I’m not a big fan of travelling, so I’ve never been to Uffizi, Room Two. Let’s be honest: it’s unlikely that I’ll ever go there. And anyways, I have a 700 page, fully illustrated (with smooth, glossy pages) book called Florence: The Paintings and Frescoes, 1250-1743, which I got for $12 in the bargain section at Chapters. Opening this book is probably better than going to Florence. I can take as much time as I want with each painting. There are no crowds jostling me. And most importantly, I can read about each painting and painter for as long as I want, so I get the historical context and art theory that helps me enjoy it all. I can even go to my bookshelf and get out Vasari’s Lives of the Painters and read a full chapter-long biography of one of the painters, then go back to looking at the paintings. They’d never let me do that if I was actually in an art gallery! I’d get kicked out for sure. Plus, I can drink coffee and eat popcorn while I view the art in my own home.

            Now, I realise that religious art isn’t for everyone. Some people say that it can actually distract the Christian from God. And it’s fine to feel that way. Maybe for some people it does. For myself, though, when I’m meditating on a painting of a scene from Christ’s life, I find that it draws me into the situation. The talents and techniques of the artist tell me things about the scene that I may never have thought of before. One of the ways I pray is by flipping to a painting in one of my art books and staring intently at it for a long time. Then I’ll close my eyes and allow myself to “hear” what God might be telling me about the biblical event I’m studying.

            Anyways, Room Two demonstrates a fascinating progression or evolution in how the baby Jesus was portrayed by Christian artists. (If you don’t normally find medieval art fascinating, hopefully you will after this “Matt’s Message.”)

            In Christian art, there have always been two scenes from Christ’s life that have been depicted the most: Christ on the cross, and Christ as a baby in Mary’s lap. These two scenes suitably balance the anguish and joy of Christ’ earthly life. Since it’s almost Epiphany, when we celebrate the magi worshipping Christ, I’m writing about Christ in Mary’s lap, or the Virgin and Child, or the Maestà. (Room Two of the Uffizi is sometimes called the Sala delle Tre Maestà, which is, I guess, the Room of the Three Maestàs.)

            In Room Two are three of the most beautiful, most important Virgin and Child paintings on earth, painted respectively by Cimabue, Duccio, and Giotto. These paintings show how peoples’ view of Christ was changing in the 14th century.

            Through the centuries of the early church, Mary and Jesus were portrayed as iconic, unrealistic, two-dimensional, weightless figures, usually staring directly at the person looking at the painting. This style was not meant to be a realistic, warm, comforting picture of a mom and her baby. This was St. Mary, the Virgin Mother, holding in her lap the King of the Universe, the Eternal Word of God, the Saviour of humankind. Christ was often painted not as a baby at all, but as a small adult, standing in Mary’s lap. He often looks wise (even all-knowing, perhaps) and is bestowing a blessing on the viewer. Mary usually looks like a stern, powerful queen.

            Now, unlike many modern art critics, I’m not judging this style negatively at all. No, no, no, far from it! This abstract, unrealistic art was meant to transport the viewer into sacred space, into a direct experience with Christ and his mother. And it did what it was supposed to. To us, these ancient paintings appear unnatural and strange, but if you get used to them, you can have powerful religious experiences while contemplating them. And that was the point. The ancient artists weren’t trying to paint a nice realistic picture of a couple of people; they were trying to bring the Christian into an experience of God through Christ. For centuries, this style satisfied the Church and brought worshippers into powerful contact with their God.

            But in the high Middle Ages (late 1200s and early 1300s), something new was happening. The 2-dimensional, iconic representations were giving way to a more realistic, natural style. And the angels and saints were starting to glow with joy and...humanity! For instance, here’s an angel from the 1000s or 1100s, ie, the earlier, iconic Romanesque period:

            I love this angel: very peaceful and otherworldly. The elongated pointer finger probably symbolises great power and effective blessings. But it’s not realistic or really happy.

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            Then, in the mid 1200s, this wonderful face appeared in the stone on Reims Cathedral in France:

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            People always say the Renaissance is when art became more realistic and joyful but that idea can’t be more wrong. It was the Gothic, or High Medieval, period when human achievement and exuberance began to exist side by side with religious devotion. It was the age of the Gothic Cathedrals and the first Universities and the first tales of King Arthur and Lancelot and Guinevere. The “Smiling Angel” expresses this joy and confidence perfectly. In fact, this face is so famous it’s sometimes just called “The Smile of Reims.” If Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon was a “giant leap for mankind,” so was the carving of this face by some anonymous journeyman sculptor. (Personally, I think this angel’s face is way more important than yet another technological conquest of nature by Western Man, but that’s just me...) In Gothic art, Christians were beginning to reach new heights of spirituality and human ability. The saints and angels were appearing as real, approachable humans.

            But it was a little later, in Italy, that this new confidence and realism really took off. The place was Florence and the man was Giotto. In a way no-one had before, Giotto started painting people as fully human, 3-dimensional, distinct individuals. Figures had always appeared to be floating on air, which gave them the celestial quality that the artists were going for. Not Giotto’s people. Giotto’s people are heavy. Gloriously heavy. His style is a powerful affirmation of the human body itself. People gesture expressively and dramatically. Perhaps Giotto’s art is even giving us the great message that we can be fully human and spiritual.

            Here’s an earlier Virgin and Child icon:

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            Again, I’m not saying anything negative about this older style. The gold background, the serene expression of Mary, the way her hands are supporting her baby, all these things are powerful, skillful artistic expression.

            But in Room Two of the Uffizi in Florence, a whole new age of Christian art can be observed. First there is Cimabue’s Virgin and Child. Cimabue was Giotto’s supporter and teacher. Then there is Duccio’s Virgin and Child, the largest of the three. In Duccio’s painting, the angels are particularly inviting and approachable, leading us into the heavenly realm in contemplation. Then there is Giotto’s Virgin and Child:

            Here we have a very human-looking mother, and a nice, healthy, chubby baby. It’s still a very celestial scene: gold background, angels with halos, distant, thoughtful expression on the baby’s face. But it looks like a real mother and child. It’s very natural and human. And there’s one amazing little detail that attests to Giotto’s genius for realism: the pillow Mary is sitting on is actually curling up at the ends, showing that she is a real person with a real body and real weight. She is really not floating.

            And Mary’s expression is very distinctive. She is a unique individual. There’s just the hint of a smile on her lips. It’s like a Mona Lisa smile before the actual Mona Lisa. Even her eyes betray just a trace of pride and happiness. It’s like she’s saying, “I’m not going to shout about it, but my child is the saviour of the world.” I personally see a relaxed confidence in her face and her slightly reclining pose.

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            But despite all this new naturalism, it’s still very iconic, which is what the people wanted. Mary is looking at us as if we’re in the room with her and her child. And she’s seated on a golden throne which the poor Mary of Nazareth certainly never sat on during her earthly life. It’s a fascinating mixture of realistic and abstract art. Remember that name: Giotto. He was the best!

            But there’s more going on here than just a new artistic movement; the French Gothic sculptors and the Italian painters of the early 1300s were effectively expressing an idea that is central to the whole Christian faith: incarnation. When Christ became incarnate, he became fully human while remaining fully divine. This means it’s not enough to portray Christ as a more-than-human, spiritual, heavenly being. We have to understand and treasure his humanity. That’s exactly what Giotto was doing.

            And to take it a step further, this means we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be more-than-human, spiritual, heavenly beings. We have to understand and treasure our own humanity. The incarnation is a shocking affirmation of the reality and potential of the human person. Just as Christ is divine and human, we are spiritual and earthly. Maybe we’d love to be angelic, but we’re not. We make mistakes and we sin and the mistakes are interesting and the sin can be forgiven. We grow. We change. We fail. We laugh. We cry. We’re human. And the Spirit fills our minds and bodies, helping us to do great things from time to time, while allowing us to go down wrong roads as well. We rise and fall, win and lose, and our life is the journey of a unique, interesting, clumsy human.

            The ancient, 2-dimensional figures were wonderful, but we don’t want to be like that. We are 3-dimensional humans with our own facial expressions and personalities. The Christian faith is not supposed to suppress our humanity, but to nurture and encourage it. Some ancient spiritual traditions (like Platonism and Gnosticism) believe that the person has to escape or transcend their bodies to become a mature, spiritual being. The body is a cage for us to break free from, they say. But the Church has always tried to be firmly rooted in the incarnation which tells us that our bodies are part of who we are, not just an annoyance or a burden. Often the Church has strayed too far in the spiritual direction, telling people to be more spiritual than physical, but art, music, scrap-booking, food, liturgy, and sports are all great things that help us to be fully human, ie, incarnational beings: spiritual and physical.

            On the Feast of Epiphany, we celebrate the Magi, astronomers from the east, coming to worship the Christ Child. Here is a Giotto painting of the scene:

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            When the Magi finally arrived after their long journey and knelt before Jesus, they found a real human child, not a God just appearing to be human. It’s hugely important that we never neglect Christ’s humanity because that can lead us to neglect our own humanity. If we focus only on His divinity, we can force ourselves to be too pure and spiritual and perfect. We can end up hating our imperfections, or denying we have them. We have to accept ourselves as fallen, imperfect, but redeemed. We’re always striving to grow and learn and be more Christ-like. The Bible gives us firm guidelines and we have to live in community with our family and our society. But we’re not supposed to just disappear into our religion. We have minds and emotions and plans. And then those plans change. We have to allow our humanity to happen. Enjoy our personhood. Express our personality. Admit when we’ve sinned and ask for forgiveness.

            We are often told that, as Christians, we have to be good examples. That’s absolutely true. But we are not icons. We can’t be simple cardboard cut-outs. We all have our own distinct bodies and minds and souls. It’s an amazing fact that – out of about 7 or 8 billion of us – no two humans are exactly alike. How does God even do that?! Out of all the humans who have lived on this earth, there have been no exact repeats. That’s incredible. Somehow, we are all unique, so we should never be silenced or trapped by our own – or others’ – expectations. What’s important is to be real, authentic humans, inhabiting our bodies, feeling our emotions, and really living our lives on this earth.

            One last thing about Room Two of the Uffizi. Although the three famous Virgin and Child paintings are more natural and realistic than previous styles, the Christ Child is still quite still and contemplative and...iconic. But there’s one more painting in the room: Giotto’s Virgin and Child with Saints (the Badia Polyptych).

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            In this painting, Christ is positively squirming. One hand is either grabbing Mary’s dress or pushing her away, while the other hand is clutching her fingers. It’s like he’s trying to get away from her while holding onto her at the same time. She’s leaning away from him, but also supporting him with her left hand.

            Here we finally have a real baby. All those who have taken care of babies know that they can be very hard to hold onto. Giotto isn’t hiding this fact. Sometimes babies want to be held; sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they want both of those things at the same time. And we’re like that too. We want God to hold and protect and guide us, but also want our freedom and individualism. We’re confused. We get upset. We’re human. We squirm and push and pull. And that’s okay. We’re not icons. We’re not 2-dimensional. No-one had a more distinct, surprising, powerful personality than Christ himself. Giotto wants to let the Christ Child be human. (This was taken even farther in another Virgin and Child down the hall in the Uffizi where the baby Jesus actually appears to be sucking his thumb.)

            This Epiphany as we journey with the Magi and kneel before the Christ Child, let’s remember His – and our – humanity. Let’s not expect anyone to be perfect – least of all ourselves. Perfection isn’t human. Growing, learning, changing, squirming...that’s human.

Advent Message

“John the Baptist and the Black Prince: When No Help Comes”

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“The Black Prince at Crécy” by Julian Russell Story (1888)

           The “Hundred Years’ War” was fought between France and England in the late Middle Ages. In the early years of the war, England’s King Edward the Third and his son, the Prince of Wales (usually called “The Black Prince”), won a number of spectacular victories in France. After these battles, England controlled huge parts of France. England held this territory for decades until finally a strange, mystical teenage girl named Joan of Arc was able to inspire the French to begin to win their country back.

           Among the early English victories was the great battle of Crécy, in the north of France. Edward III and the Black Prince were both at this battle and the hardest fighting fell to the Prince and the knights who were around him. Now, King Edward was no stranger to brutal fighting; he loved being close to the action. But in this battle, he was off in a safe place, observing the ebb and flow of the struggle and giving orders from a high hill.

           The Prince and his men were fighting well, but the French were outnumbering them. Eventually, as it got worse and worse, the English knights decided to send a messenger to the King to ask for the King’s personal forces to ride to their rescue. The messenger rode up to the King, dismounted, bowed deeply, and said, “If the attack grows any heavier, it may be more than your son can handle.”

            Everyone expected the king to jump into action immediately, but he thought for a minute before answering. Then he said, “Is my son wounded?”

            “No, thank God,” said the messenger, who was trying not to get a little impatient, “But he is very hard pressed and needs your help badly.”

            King Edward looked at the messenger and said, “Go back and tell them not to send for me again today, as long as my son is alive. Give them my command to let the boy win his spurs, for if God has so ordained it, I wish the day to be his and the honour to go to him.”

            Now, I am in no way advocating this method of parenting. Personally, I would be riding towards the Black Prince before the messenger was done giving his message. But that’s just me. Anyways, this is not an article for Today’s Parent. I’m using this story as a way to understand the man who steps on to center stage for two Sundays in Advent: John the Baptist.

            Of all the mysteries surrounding this mysterious man of the desert, we see the strangest mystery in the Gospel reading for the third Sunday of Advent. In this reading, John appears to lose his faith in Jesus. While John is in prison, he sends some messengers to Jesus to ask him the startling question: “"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

            Did you hear that? If this doesn’t shock and disturb you, then you’re not reading the story closely. Remember: before anyone believed in Jesus, John believed. Before Jesus had any followers, John bowed before him. Before anyone knew who Jesus was, John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Before there were any Christians, there was John the Baptist, a solitary voice in the desert crying out: SOMETHING BIG IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN! He started everything. It’s very hard to see how Jesus’s ministry could have started without John. John was the first witness. People came out into the wilderness to follow John. John pointed them away from himself towards the young man from Nazareth.

           Because of John, Jesus was not completely alone in the world. Someone understood him. John was a man with a huge amount of credibility who could introduce Jesus to the world. John is the hinge connecting the Old and New Testaments. John is admired so much by the Orthodox Church, that their artists often depict him with wings! They see him as more of an angel than a human. And they’re not very far from the truth. He stood alone in the human race in seeing and meeting God, the word made flesh. Without him…well…it’s impossible to imagine things without him.

            And yet here we are, in Matthew chapter 11, and this angelic human has suddenly forgotten everything. Here he is asking, “Um, it is you? After all? Or is there someone else?”

            This is one of those places in the Bible where people usually choose not to think seriously about what’s happening because it’s not easy to understand. People say, “Well, John wasn’t really doubting Jesus, he was just asking a rhetorical question, giving Jesus a chance to affirm himself.” But it’s okay to allow the Bible to confuse us sometimes. We don’t have to just rush to the easy answers. Especially when dealing with young people, we can’t just parrot the old simple, water-tight responses. If we just repeat what we were taught, without thinking about it, this often just shuts down any further questioning or interest.

            So why does this almost angelic human seem to lose faith in the one he introduced to the world? Well, luckily for us, there’s a Russian Orthodox theologian who offers a courageous and creative answer to this difficult question.

            Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) was a priest who was exiled from Communist Russia in 1922 – at the age of 51 – for being a prominent Christian intellectual. He spent the remainder of his life in Paris, teaching and writing at a seminary that he helped establish. Bulgakov (emphasis on the second syllable) was a creative thinker who was always pushing the envelope. The Orthodox Church doesn’t support some of his ideas, but for the most part he is seen as one of the most important and influential Christian thinkers of the 20th Century. As the years pass, more and more theologians are studying and analyzing his ideas. This might be the first you’ve heard of him, but in 100 years, he’ll probably be very well known. While in Paris, Bulgakov wrote “The Friend of the Bridegroom”, which is a full book-long study of John the Baptist. He devotes an entire long chapter to these few verses, where John asks Jesus if he is indeed the one.

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            So, remember: the question is, “Why did John the Baptist – the first believer in Jesus – suddenly doubt who Jesus was?” Bulgakov answers the question in an unexpected, but brilliant way.

            Surprisingly Bulgakov turns us away from John to remind us of an episode in Jesus’s life. The night before Jesus’s crucifixion, he was praying alone in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus asked God if there was any other way that his mission could be accomplished, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want” (Matthew chapter 26, verse 39).


            When you think about it, this is another shocking moment, similar to the disbelief John showed when he asked Jesus if they should expect someone else. This is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Word of God, through whom all things were made. And yet here he is apparently backing down now that his final battle approaches? John the Baptist began questioning everything when he was in prison. Now Jesus is asking to be let off more easily, now that his arrest and captivity is drawing near. Christ is trembling in fear, all alone at night, as his enemies are coming close. He affirms his faith and obedience, but only after asking for another way out.

            I think Christians would perhaps rather not think too deeply about these two events. Why do they bother us? Because they bring us face to face with the humanity of the greatest human: John. And they even bring us face to face with the humanity of the God/human: Jesus Christ. And maybe these episodes even bring us face to face with our own humanity: those moments of fear and doubt when we are only human and any divine help or inspiration is gone.

            Bulgakov says that God does indeed abandon us sometimes. Through most of our lives, God is right there with us. Whether we notice it or not, we are guided, supported, inspired, and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. But sometimes we are not. Sometimes it feels like the ground disappears beneath us. Sometimes it feels like we suddenly don’t know ourselves. Sometimes all certainty seems to vanish like smoke. These are simple facts of being human. John was only human. And amazingly even the Son of God was human.

            Bulgakov says that there are times for all of us when God lets us walk alone through the darkness. He takes his hand out of our hand and we walk on our own, unable to see, lost in the valley of the shadow. I’ve been there. You’ve possibly been there too. This has been called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” All support and comfort is taken away. We find no help in our faith. God himself seems absent.

            Now, we shouldn’t take this too far; God is omnipresent (he’s everywhere) and omnipotent (he’s all-powerful). He can’t not be somewhere. He can’t be uninvolved in any space or time. So God is never completely absent from us. BUT… I think Bulgakov is right to say that there are times when God’s support and inspiration is withdrawn from us. We see this clearly in the Old Testament book of Job. All of Job’s blessings are taken away and God actually allows Satan to afflict Job, almost (but not quite!) to the point of death. Job sits on a pile of ashes and rages against God’s apparent injustice for many interesting chapters.

            We thought the great John the Baptist would be spared moments like this. Maybe John thought so too. But Bulgakov suggests that, when John decided to send messengers from his prison cell to ask Jesus who he really was, John was experiencing his own Garden of Gethsemane. All throughout John’s life, the Holy Spirit had been radically present and active – even starting when John lept in his mother’s womb, sensing that Jesus’ mother Mary was near. No human lived in God’s power and presence like John. But there came a time when that power and presence were withdrawn. When he was in prison, not long before his decapitation, John felt weak and confused and anxious. Just imagine what it was like for John, alone in that prison cell, suddenly wondering if he’d been wrong about everything!

            But here is the final take-away from this reflection. When God leaves us alone in the dark, he is not toying with us. He’s not like a cat playing with a half-dead mouse. He’s not punishing us or teaching us a lesson. What he is doing is this: he is giving us the opportunity to become our true selves through struggle and crisis. Bulgakov says, “Whether in life or death, man must approach the Garden of Gethsemane, and gain in it his own self.” We become transformed into the full person we are meant to be only through weakness and struggle and crisis. Christ’s victory (which is our victory) could not be given to him. He had to fight for it and bring it out of real darkness and despair. John’s life could not be a simple unbroken progression of wisdom and inspiration and strength. He had to experience true struggle and real weakness so that his witness was meaningful. God took his Spirit away from John so that John had to fall back on the very human actions of doubting, seeking proof, and searching for comfort. Alone in his prison cell, John the Baptist found Jesus in a much deeper way than when he was preaching to the crowds that were gathering around him. Now it was the result of struggle and solitude.

            Perhaps you could say that there are two ways for humans to succeed: 1) God can help us. Or 2) we can act under our own powers – which God gave us. Either way, the success originates with God, but option number 2 involves more human participation and struggle and transformation. I guess usually it’s a spectrum: sometimes God gives us 100% power, sometimes he gives us 50%, sometimes he gives us 0% power. When we are at 0% power, things get interesting. And painful. We have to dig deep into parts of ourselves we never knew existed. We have to learn new tricks. We have to think about things in new ways. We have to come face to face with who we are as humans, getting to know our weakness and fear, maybe even confronting death itself. But it can be at these dark, confusing moments, in the middle of a long adventure, when we’re not sure if we’re on the right road, this is when we meet ourselves. All the walls we’ve built come down. All our delusions of grandeur disappear. We see ourselves for the first time and realize that we’re not the person we thought we were. The creator of the universe is showing us ourselves.

            However, the fact is, sometimes we fail in these moments. We may turn to evil. We may become violent towards ourselves or others or the world. It is a condition of being human that we do have the freedom to choose self-destructive habits and to hurt others and the world around us. I’ve heard people say it would be better if we didn’t have the freedom to choose evil. I admit, I like thinking of a world in which no people hurt each other, a world of peace and complete harmony. But that peace and harmony wouldn’t be worth anything if they didn’t rise out of human freedom. God created free beings who could choose good and evil. Even the angels are free to choose good and evil. We shouldn’t wish away our freedom. In those times of 0% divine power and only human power, we can find out who we truly are. We may not like what we find.


            And so, finally, we return to our story about the Black Prince at the Battle of Crécy. After King Edward refused to help his son, “the knight (the messenger) went back to his commanders, and gave them the King’s message. It heartened them greatly and they privately regretted having sent him. They fought better than ever and must have performed great feats of arms for they remained in possession of the ground with honour.”

            Look again at that painting by Julian Russell Story at the top of this article. Put yourself in the place of the Black Prince. You asked for help. It didn’t come. But somehow you’re still standing. And now you’re a different person. Imagine if the King had ridden in with a huge force and driven off your enemies. Now that the crisis is over, maybe you’re glad you were left to your own devices. You’re covered in dirt and blood and you feel half-dead yourself. But slowly, a smile creeps over your face. You’ve defeated the French on their own territory.

            Enjoy the moment, my Prince. You will die of sickness before becoming King. You will be “always a prince and never a king.” In a few years, a young girl named Joan will start the process of kicking your people out of France forever. You have won this battle, but you will lose this war. So enjoy the moment. On this day, you stood on your own two feet. In the following centuries, tourists will walk by your tomb in Canterbury Cathedral and look at your metal sculpture. If they learn your story, they will think, “One day in France, this young man was abandoned, left on his own, but he remained in possession of the ground with honour.”

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            God isn’t going to ride in and save us all the time. Even John the Baptist – even Christ himself – was temporarily abandoned. We will sometimes walk alone. It will feel like hell. We will change. We will be transformed. We will discover ourselves on the battlefields and in the prisons and we will wish it could all happen differently.

   The Reign of Christ

            I live in Omemee and I’m proud of the fact that three of the greatest and most famous Canadians grew up and/or lived here: Neil Young, Scott Young, and Lady Flora Eaton. Neil Young needs no introduction; he’s my favourite songwriter and a world famous singer/songwriter/guitarist. Scott Young, Neil’s dad, was a great journalist, sportswriter, and novelist. Lady Eaton isn’t quite as famous now as she was, but she married into the Eaton family and became one of the wealthiest, most powerful people in Canada for much of the 20th century. And she started off as just one of the girls in the Macrae family of King St, Omemee.

            It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. I mean, Millbrook has Serena Ryder – who’s pretty awesome. She’s always been a great singer and now she’s becoming a leader in the mental health movement. But that’s just one person. It’s hard to believe that one little Kawartha town – Omemee – produced three of Canada’s greatest people.

            But I’m about to blow your mind by saying that there is actually a fourth famous Omemeean. His name is Charles Norris Cochrane. Cochrane is not very well-known right now, but he was an internationally respected Professor of History at the University of Toronto. His most important book, Christianity and Classical Culture, was read and admired by great thinkers around the world for decades after it was published in 1945. And this world-renowned author and academic was a third-generation Omemee boy who grew up just down the street from the house where the Young family would live and not far at all from Lady Eaton’s home. Cochrane’s father and grandfather were doctors in Omemee.

            As I said: as great as Cochrane was, he is no longer a household name. I only learned about Cochrane because my dad had somehow heard about him. Then I only got my hands on his book because my friend Jeremy found an old used copy and loaned it to me. (The spine broke while I was reading it cuz it was so old and had obviously never been read; sorry, Jeremy!)

            As I read Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture in 2019, I was so gripped and fascinated by it that I took 59 pages of notes on it as I read! I knew I’d have to give the book back to Jeremy so I wanted to get all the big ideas down in my University of Omemee Notes. (There’s a University of Omemee, but that’s a whole other story.) I couldn’t believe that the wise man who was teaching the world such huge ideas grew up just around the corner from where I was reading his book.

            I’m going to briefly tell you a bit about the fascinating main idea of Cochrane’s book as a message for the Feast of the Reign of Christ.

            Cochrane asks the million dollar question: Did Christ really change the world? What (if any) was the difference between the Roman Pagan world and the subsequent Christian world? Considering the world around us, lots of people often think: “What was the point of Christ’s coming? The world has just as much suffering as ever and the Church itself has caused a lot of it. How did the world change for the better after Christ?” Cochrane was the perfect man to answer this question because he was equally knowledgeable about the Classical Greek/Roman world and the early Church. Cochrane appreciated Rome and the Church, so he was able to compare and contrast them sympathetically and offer a big new idea. He was neither a polemical Christian tossing blanket condemnations at the pagan world (there are people like that!), nor a close-minded secular scholar condemning everything about the Church (there are people like that too!). In my opinion, Cochrane gives both historical eras a fair treatment, which is evidence of a great thinker.

            To answer this big question, Cochrane contrasted the ideal (or perfect) person in ancient Rome to the ideal person in the Christian world. What kind of person did the ancient Romans think a person should be? What kind of person did the early Christians think a person should be? Who was admired and looked up to in these two different historical eras? You can tell a lot about a person (or about a historical age) by learning about their heroes.

            Well, no surprise here, but the Romans looked up to the Emperor as the perfect person. Starting with Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, the Emperor was admired so much that the Senate declared him to be a god. The ideal person was right there for every Roman to see: the Emperor himself. And if you didn’t agree that he was a god and didn’t want to worship him, you could be in big, big trouble. I mean, you could be fed alive to lions: not a good way to die, I’d say, when you really think about it.

            So what was so important about this divine Emperor? First of all, he was male. The female had no part in this idea of the ideal human being. Rome was totally patriarchal and women were unquestionably second-class citizens who couldn’t inherit property or be in any kind of leadership position.

            What else was so “perfect” about him? Well, it can all be summed up in one word: POWER. The Emperor was a man and he was the world’s most powerful man. He was power personified. He ruled the known world. He had the world’s biggest and best armies at his command. He could literally do whatever he wanted. Emperors would have their own family members killed whenever they wanted. Wouldn’t that solve those awkward Christmas dinners? Seriously, Constantine the Great even had his own wife and son executed. And Constantine was the first Christian Emperor! – but that’s a whole other story. There was a Senate, but really the Emperor could do whatever he wanted. He was above morality and above the law. He was a god and everyone wanted to be like him.

            Cochrane puts forward this idea: this Roman tendency to worship power and authority helped Rome rule the known world, but it also led to an empty, depraved – even boring – form of life in which nothing was appreciated except conquest and power. There was no flair or genius or deep creativity in the Roman world. Possibly the greatest writer and speaker in Rome was Cicero, but he never really expressed any very original ideas. C.S. Lewis calls him “the great bore” and I heartily agree. Cicero spoke in favour of the middle class, middle-of-the-road, play-it-safe, bourgeois, possessions-first life. So, yeah, he would’ve been right at home in 21st century North America.

            Now Cochrane was always fair to Rome, so I will be too. The Roman Emperors actually did a lot of good for the world. It’s been said that the second century AD was one of the best eras in world history. The Roman Empire brought the rule of law to the world. People led safe and stable lives in the Empire. There were some great technological advances, but – at the end of the day – there was no real originality or genius. Rome’s writers and sculptors never added anything to the Greek accomplishments. Virgil was a great poet, but he was simply celebrating Rome’s ability to dominate and colonize. In fact, it could be argued that the Roman Empire somehow lasted for 8 or 9 centuries while producing fewer great thinkers than Omemee has, in one century. Even given a million years, the Roman Empire would never have produced a Lady Eaton – a powerful, ambitious, innovative woman. And given a billion years, the Romans would never have produced a Neil Young – a passionate, funny, irreverent, wise old man in ripped jeans and a plaid shirt.


            Seriously: why is that? Why was Rome so limited, even as it dominated the world? Cochrane says that their ideal person – their powerful, controlling, wealthy male idea – simply couldn’t lead to any human greatness or beauty or originality.

            So, now, what were these early Christians like? Were they different at all? Well, in a word, they were crazy. The Romans certainly thought so. The first Christians blew this Roman ideal person out of the water. Instead of trying to be like the all-powerful Emperor, the Christians were all very different.

            Here are some of the ways in which the early Church was changing what it meant to be human:

1)  In the midst of ordered, controlled, dignified Rome, the early saints were (Cochrane says) “a heterogeneous mob of archcriminals and renegades.” Have you ever heard church-goers described as renegades? In the Roman world, not worshiping the Emperor made you a criminal. Not taking part in Roman religion made you a renegade, an outcast from society. The early Christians accepted that that’s where they had to be. They found themselves on the margins of society.

2)  While Rome was obsessed with the idea of Roman citizenship – proclaiming that a non-Roman was definitely a second class human – the early Christians welcomed all nationalities and cultures and languages. There were no second class humans in the Church. No-one would ever be forced to un-learn their own language and adopt the culture of the dominant people. That would be the opposite of the Church’s belief.

3)  The ideal Christian could be male or female. In the early Christian world, women were allowed to inherit property and they often became leaders in the communities.

4)  While Rome had absolutely no problem at all forcing people to worship the Emperor, St. Athanasius (a 4th century theologian) said clearly, “Coercion can have no role in encouraging people to be Christian.” That was a clear criteria for the Christians: NO COERCION. Any Christian who would attempt to bully or threaten or frighten other people into becoming Christian was modeling him or herself not after Christ, but Christ’s enemy.

5)  While Rome was obsessed with the idea of personal possessions and power, the early Christians actually shared all their things, taking care of each other so no-one would starve.

6)  Finally, there was a new freedom to be different. There was less emphasis on modeling oneself after any one person, such as the Emperor. The key word Cochrane uses is heterogenous. No-one was trying to be like anyone else. They could all be completely different and still be living out their faith in Jesus, the young Galilean Rabbi. A scholar who was very influenced by Cochrane, George Grant, often spoke of the modern world’s tendency to become homogeneous. In our world, more and more communities look the same, more and more houses look the same, and everything has to be standardized so it all fits together like clockwork and we are mere cogs. The first Christians completely rebelled against that tendency. You never knew what they were going to do. You never knew what they were going to be like. In fact, Cochrane argues, the whole idea of the distinct, God-created individual was being born.

            The key words for this final point are: person and personality. Rome knew very little about personality. All they knew was success, domination, control, capability, honour, and dignity.


            Even Rome’s two widespread ideas were not that interesting. Stoicism preached that you should not express your emotions, just bury your feelings deep down and control yourself completely so that you never show any weakness or...personality. It’s a completely unrealistic, impossible idea of the human person, but it has gained back a lot of ground in those of us who are of British descent. For us, emotion is a bad word. Rome’s other big idea, Epicureanism, preached that you should simply spend your life seeking pleasure – which is of course also a big part of our world today. Now Epicureanism could certainly lead to some personalities, but they would be destructive and completely self-centered.

            In the Christian era, personalities began to abound. I mean, they really did. They stopped caring about their Roman, Ciceronian, middle-of-the-road, safe, successful lives and started desperately pursuing a deeper, more meaningful life. Many men and women retreated into the wilderness so that they could get away from society completely. They lived simply in nature, praying, gardening, and talking about life and Christ. These were the Desert Fathers and Mothers. No Romans would ever have done this. This would have seemed like insanity and irresponsibility to the old Roman citizens.

            St Simeon Stylites (my personal favourite) climbed up to the top of a pillar and stayed there praying for years and years. People would gather around the bottom of the pillar and pray with him and ask his advice.

            Then when the Church reached Ireland, people really went nuts. The Irish would go out to hills alone all night and commune with stars and angels. They would set out on the sea in round boats with no oars, allowing God to take them where-ever he wanted to.

            But most Christians didn’t quit their jobs and become cave-dwellers. They simply began watching out for the people who were suffering in their communities. They started meeting together for a strange new ritual called “Eucharist” in which all people became family. They began communing directly with the Spirit of God in a way no Roman ever would have dreamed of. Life became more interesting and people became more interesting.

            The Christians didn’t care at all about expanding the glory and power of Rome. They just wanted to expand the glory of the love of God and to be who they thought God wanted them to be. It was up to each individual to decide what God was calling them to. Rome saw this as very, very strange. Agree with them or disagree with them, these people were personalities in a way no Roman ever was.

            And the strangest of them all was a 4th and 5th century Christian Bishop named Augustine. He really broke the mold in a way that re-shaped forever what the human could or should be like. He did something no human being had ever done before. He wrote an autobiography. He called it the Confessions because in it he was confessing his sins, his confusion, his strange life journey, and his faith in a God who was interested in his journey. No Roman would ever ever ever talk about his sins or confusion. But things had changed in the centuries since Christ’s death and resurrection. When a Roman wrote something about themselves, it was just about how awesome and powerful they were – Julius Caesar did exactly that in his book on the Gallic Wars. In the book he says again and again: “Here’s how I defeated and dominated these people. Here’s how I defeated and dominated these other people. I’m pretty amazing, eh?” I personally learned Latin by studying this book and I can tell you how boring it really was.

            Augustine was completely different. There was no longer any perfect ideal person because each person was his or her own standard. Or you could say, the divine Son of God, Jesus Christ was now the standard, but we aren’t commanded to be exactly like him. We don’t have to be a single, Jewish Rabbi who gets executed while still young. We’re commanded to be true to His principles of wisdom, love, hope, and faith in Him. Comparing yourself to others – even Christ Himself – is vanity because no two people should look or be the same. Augustine struggled for decades with lust, desire for fame, and hatred of the physical world till he finally found peace and became a Bishop and writer. 1500 years have passed, and there’s never been anyone exactly like him, just as there’ll never be anyone like you or me. We are all distinct individuals who find our identity not in the amount of money or power we have, but in our God-given personhood.

            After the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, there was a new ideal. The Emperor started to fade away – thank goodness! Now there was a new King. The Reign of Christ (which we celebrate today) would be totally different – totally different – from the reign of Caesar. This new king gives up power. This new king doesn’t use his advantage over others. This new king spends as much time talking with women as men. This new king wanders off by himself into the hills to talk to an invisible God. This new king gathered hard-working fishermen around him and it seems like half his stories are about farming. This new king reached beyond traditional racial and language differences to Samaritans, Romans, and Syrophoenicians.

            But most of all, he didn’t want to control and limit the human person. He wanted to set us free in the Spirit so that we might have life and “have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10). So it’s no wonder that the church has always had so many interesting characters. Since Augustine, people have been interested in their own unique lives, not trying to fit into any one mold.

            Now here’s the bad news: our society has gone back completely to the worship of personal power, wealth, and domination. Cochrane implies this, though he doesn’t flesh it out very much. Through much of the Church’s history, it has worshiped power and success as much as ancient Rome, and nowadays we Christians offer very little opposition to the idea that the only worthwhile person is a successful, wealthy, powerful person. Throughout much of Christian history – and especially in Canada in the 20th century – the Church has often done the opposite of what Christ commanded; just like the Roman Emperors, we have used coercion and abuse and psychological domination to try to make people like us. I’m talking here about the Canadian Residential Schools. The Residential Schools were the exact opposite of everything Christ was trying to accomplish on earth, and it was modern Canadian Anglicans that were doing it. In that whole project - which spans most of Canadian history – we were using power, coercion, and societal wealth in order to mold indigenous children into an “ideal” Christian person, completely disrespecting their culture and their God-given personhood.

            The Residential Schools weren’t just a mistake by an otherwise nice Church; they demonstrate that the modern Canadian Church has largely lost its way and has abandoned its founding principle of respect for the God-created human person. These evil and horrific schools could not have been opened and kept open for over a century unless Canadian Christians had gone back completely to worshiping the ideal human person as a powerful, wealthy man who could control women, children, and most of the cultures and peoples of the world. Christians were (and are?) spear-heading this worship of the dominant male human who can do whatever he wants to anyone, especially forcing others to be like him. The old idea of the ideal male Roman citizen has just been replaced by the white, British-North American male who has been trying (for three centuries now) to create the whole world (the earth and everything in it) in his own image. As if he himself is God.

            But here on the feast of the Reign of Christ, we can try to regain the big idea of Christ’s kingship. When he came to rule, he didn’t come as a Stoic, nondescript person. He was fully and completely human. Jesus had personality: anger, sadness, creativity, fear. He had culture and language, ie, he was a Jew and he loved and treasured his Jewish heritage. He wasn’t just wearing a human costume; he was fully human and he still is. The early Christians saw this amazing affirmation of the human experience and they started being their own personalities and started respecting all cultures and languages in a way ancient Rome certainly never did.

            And as we interact with other Christians within our churches, we have to realize that we are a community of personalities. We will argue and disagree, but we can never treat the other person as less of a human, trying to force the other person into our own image. We can disagree and argue about doctrine and morality, but we should never curse the other person or condemn them to hell. We say the Creed and read Scriptures together, but we are all very, very, very different people. There’s no longer one ideal type of person. Christ destroyed that idea by becoming flesh, breaking down the barrier between humanity and divinity. Now, we become God-like, not by conforming to one ideal powerful male image, but by finding our unique identity in Him.


            For myself, reading Cochrane’s book was a real blessing. It made me more confident in my unique, unrepeatable identity. The example of the powerful, efficient, domineering Roman Emperor is not only undesirable, but actually unattainable for me. I would have been an unwelcome barbarian back in Roman times, dressed in fur skins and living somewhere north of Hadrian’s Wall in the Scottish Highlands. They would never have let me into Rome to be a full citizen. And that’s fine, because I have a different ideal now. I don’t have to feel insecure. I don’t have to feel like I’m a subhuman simply because I resemble no big strong Roman Emperor.

            So as we celebrate the Reign of Christ, let’s also remember the fourth great Canadian from Omemee: Chares Norris Cochrane and his book Christianity and Classical Culture. I’d recommend you read it, but it’ll be tough to find. And even tougher to get through – it took me about 5 months! Cochrane’s majestic thesis is simply that, in the Church, there isn’t just one ideal form of person. We follow a new ideal person who sets us free in our own way as we strive to love and have faith in different ways. And a person’s worth and personhood is no longer based on their success or power or wealth or how much they measure up to the Roman Emperor. Under the reign of the God who gloried in his own Jewish, 1st Century, Palestinian humanity, it is clear that all human persons have a distinct and fascinating personality that must be expressed. Culture, language, personality: these things are not detrimental to Christian life. Control and domination and coercion and abuse are detrimental to Christian life. If the Church is true to its Founder’s life and message, those power-moves must no longer be options.

            Since we Canadians live in a country that practiced the control and domination and coercion and abuse of indigenous children for so long, we have to look at ourselves deeply and closely. We have to ask ourselves why that was possible. We have to ask ourselves how we have to change.

(Correction – I described Stoicism as a Roman idea, but in fact, the Greeks started it long before Rome. This just goes to prove my point about Rome not being great at creative thinking.)

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