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 finds Matt's words of reflection -- words to contemplate and inspire as we continue to learn together what it means to follow Jesus.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
Then, in the mid 1200s, this wonderful face appeared in the stone on Reims Cathedral in France:
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:
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.
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:
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).
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.
“John the Baptist and the Black Prince: When No Help Comes”
“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.
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.”
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.)