Monday, November 12, 2007

Saint Martin's Day

11 November this year landed on the Lord’s Day, so the Church celebrated the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost (the twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity, for those who prefer to count them in that way). Lost, therefore, to most people was the fact that it also happens to be Saint Martin’s Day. When something like this happens, St. Martin’s feast should get a commemoration by means of the second collect. Even where this may have happened, though, I suspect that for most people the day went by without thinking much of St. Martin. Therefore I thought I’d share a word on that great saint.

It is unfortunate when people say that Martin Luther was the “first Martin,” or the “original Martin.” Put simply, the truth is hardly served by such talk, in fact, it is cheated. Neither Chemnitz nor Luther would have wanted the Church to lose sight of the saints of old, men like the great fourth century Bishop of Tours, for such saints of long ago are not so far removed from us as we might be tempted to think. The distance that time appears to have put between them and us is only apparent. They are our brothers, and side by side with them we gather in worship, as sheep, around the Lamb who is our Shepherd. This is the very definition of the Church which Luther says in the Smalcald Articles is apprehended by all who receive the Holy Eucharist, that is, even by the seven year old child. In other words, while we could discuss at length the importance of what the Apology (XXI) says about the threefold honor of the saints, which we ought to do a little further down the road, I suggest that we first of all remind ourselves of the place of the departed saints relative to our struggle in this world. Namely, they are very much with us, for we are united in Christ, in whom we all have sonship, and therefore brotherhood. This is a great comfort when we think of our Christian loved ones who have gone before us, those who were killed, or died of cancer, or whatever. When it comes to those we don’t know very well, such as the saints of old, we might let it serve as motivation to get to know them better.

Martin was born after the edict of Milan and a few years before the first great ecumenical Council, specifically, about 317. His father had certainly hoped that his son would have a great military career, and thus follow in his own footsteps. So he named him Martin, after the god of war, Mars. As a child Martin became curious about the Christian faith, probably because there were Christians among his boyhood playmates. To make a wonderful story regretfully brief, Martin at length did follow in his father’s footsteps, and served with distinction.

When you hear of a man whose conversion to Christ was sudden and complete in one moment, do not believe it. I would contend that in virtually all cases, conversion simply doesn’t happen as if in a vacuum, without any preparation. St. Paul, for example, had studied the scriptures for years before he was knocked on his rear end on the way to Damascus. Though St. Ambrose went from Baptism to ordination to consecration in about a week’s time, it’s not like he knew nothing of Christ before that point. Francis had waffled back and forth for years before (and after) the day he gazed upon the crucifix of San Damiano. Likewise, Martin’s conversion is in a slight need of rescue from those who tend to focus his conversion on the occasion when, as a soldier, he saw a poor man on the road, and cut his own cape with his sword, and clothed the man, receiving confirmation from Christ later in a dream that when he clothed that poor man, he clothed Christ Himself. I do find this to be a highly significant event. Yet let us be clear that Martin was not an utter pagan before this, nor did he abandon his military service the next day.

Like so many great students of scripture, Martin had a fatherly mentor. Augustine had Ambrose, Luther had Johann von Staupitz, and Martin had Hilary. Over the course of time, Hilary helped Martin learn to pray, through the asceticism of the regular praying of the Psalms, and with his help he learned to find Christ in the scriptures. Martin became a fearless opponent of heresy, which got him in no little trouble. And soon he became the bishop of Tours.

As bishop, Martin was greatly beloved by the people. Indeed, through his ministry, the people knew Christ Himself. When the time had finally come for Martin to fall asleep in Christ, and find his rest, he was about eighty years old. He died in 397, on the 8th of November. Three days later there was a great funeral, which drew about two thousand people from the entire region. The day was so memorable, that it, rather than the day of his death, as is usually the custom, became his feast.

Let me finally touch briefly on that famous day before he became bishop, when as a soldier he gave his garment to cover a poor man on the way. We ought to let that event serve for us as an image of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who fights for us, and who covers us with the perfect garment of His righteousness. Just as Martin forcefully tore his cape from his body with his weapon, so our Lord’s righteousness comes to us directly from His own violently torn apart body. We are Baptized into precisely His very Passion and death, and raised up with Him into His own life. So we wear that blood soaked garment with great joy and pride, for it protects us and saves us from the cold, misery, and loneliness of life without Him, which is really no life at all. Baptism, and the other aspects of the sacramental ministry of the Word of God, this is the means by which the Church bears and sustains her children to this day. So we thank God for His dear Church, the Bride of Christ, which, like a protective mother, covers her children with the comforting message of the Gospel. That little incident with an obscure soldier, and an even more obscure poor man, so many centuries ago, brings us to mind of all these truths, because the very word for the cape Martin wore, in French, is chapelle, which Christians throughout the world use to describe their churches, or chapels.

What is true of the Christian is macrocosmically true of the Church, of which he is a member. And just as a man is covered with the righteousness of Christ, as with a garment, so we can say the same of the Church as a whole, a bride who is chaste and pure precisely because she is bought and redeemed by Christ. Let us then, never tire of seeking the covering, the mantilla, if you will, of the Church.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Clarifying Luther's Bowling Skills

Martin Luther was born into the world on this day in 1483. The day is not exactly marked by great celebrations around the world. That is unfortunate, though not unexpected. The greatness of the Blessed Reformer is invisible to much of the Church in this world, where her vision, even of herself, is so blurred.

What ought to be less unexpected, however, yet is true nonetheless, is that one won't hear much about such celebrations on Luther's birthday even from the great centers of Confessional Lutheranism. There is something about the present state of the modern Confessional Lutheran movement that strikes me as bored (or at least boring), lazy, and uninspired. I lament this, and I pray for genuine Catholic and Evangelical renewal among the children of Luther's Reformation, renewal that will build on the past without a fear of boldly stepping ahead.

The Confessional revival of the nineteenth century, inspired as it was by the great Lutheran anniversary years of that time, struck a cord particularly with the university students of the day. Just so, I believe that renewal in our time can and will happen at the grass roots level, if you will, among students (not all the students, but among them), at the universities, especially those independant of ecclesial bureaucratic control, where scholarship will once again shake itself free of the clutter, and open its eyes afresh. It will also take place in the parish, not all parishes, but among the ostensibly Lutheran ones there are even now precious embers that are glowing in the pile, trying to feed themselves upon the clean air of the Gospel. They are scattered and insignificant at first glance, stretched out in places like Gretna and Suring and Khartoum and Riga. They will strengthen also by building upon each other. The bureaucrats may have forever ruined the fire analogy, and I hasten to clarify that I do not envision the Catholic renewal of the Church ever becoming a great overwhelming, all consuming movement. The slow burning, fragile embers in and under a much greater pile of ash is an apt picture of the way the Church will always be in this world. Nevertheless, once in a while the Lord breathes His Spirit over the face of the mess, which sustains and renews it. Indeed, this can and will happen again in our own time. This is my constant prayer.

Meanwhile, I didn't want this day to pass without offering some sort of comment on the holy, blessed, and pious doctor of the Church, Martin Luther. One way of doing so would be to compose a thought or two on a slight annoyance I have been harboring lately. I hate that which is utterly cliche, though I am surely as guilty of it as anyone. Cliche is that to which the writer and speaker at times almost can't help but resort. Lutherans are often more guilty of it than anyone. When we recognize it, though, we ought to take aim at it, and thereby refresh and renew our discourse. One cliche I hear a LOT lately, especially in the Catholic world, is to blame Luther for all things Protestant by saying that, whatever his own intentions may have been, he is the one who "got the ball rolling." I'm serious. Not only is the notion cliche, but more and more I am literally hearing that very metaphor being employed. "Luther got the ball rolling."

Let me state this as clearly as I can. Martin Luther was not a Protestant. We also ought to get away from the notion that there was one great Reformation in the sixteenth century, and that Luther, therefore, was its pioneer, and leader (the one who, yes, you guessed it, got the ball rolling). Rather, there were several so called reformation movements in that era. They had differing aims, goals, concerns, and visions of the Church.

To take a case in point, one cannot appreciate Luther's reformation without understanding that one of it's great pillars was his defense of the true presence of our Lord Jesus in the Blessed Eucharist. From the 1520s through 1546 this is abundantly clear. Luther demonstrates in his eucharistic writings, and at Marburg, that his position is the truly Catholic one, and that it has nothing in common with the leaders of the other confessions of his day, the other "spirits," as Luther was wont to call them. There is no brotherhood between Zwingli and Luther, as became manifest in 1529. The Lutherans need to be reminded of this at times. There are Catholics who need to learn it. The Protestants have always known it, especially when they have seen Lutherans being Lutherans.

Luther didn't get any ball rolling, except maybe in his back yard. There are good scholarly Luther scholars, even in the Roman Catholic Church, who see this. To name just one off the top of my head, there is a man like Franz Possett, who penned an outstanding doctoral dissertation at Marquette University, Luther's Catholic Christology, centering on the Johannine lectures of 1527. I would love to see more of Possett's style of level headed discussion, and less of the silly perpetuation of nonsensical cliches. Let us all, all of us, that is, who care deeply about the Gospel and the unity of the Church Catholic, commit ourselves to thoughtful, reasoned, and Christian discourse, which at times includes repentance and conversion. In other words, sometimes we need to stop, assess what we've been doing, and then get the ball rolling again. Oops. Did I do that?

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Bill Buford was at one time the fiction editor for The New Yorker, but I think the first time I really took notice of him was when I came across a review essay on his book, Heat, in the London Review of Books a number of months ago. Buford was irresistibly drawn to the purism and passion of his friend, culinary superstar Mario Batali, who inspired him to switch the gears on his career, and immerse himself in the world of food preparation. Heat tells the story of that journey, and I heartily recommend the book to anyone who wants to be taken to an exciting world concerned about what is real, and genuine. Beyond what it tells the reader about pasta and short ribs and fast paced kitchens (the “roomful of adrenaline addicts,” the likes of which I came to know and love as a server at Biaggi’s), it may just inspire your own search for that which is uncompromisingly real in your life. I suppose that is the main reason I find myself drawn to Buford.

Now of course good Missouri Synod Lutherans are not supposed to read The New Yorker. They are supposed to content themselves with reading more Republican material, like The Limbaugh Letter and For the Life of the World. So as I was reading this week’s issue of The New Yorker (the October 29 issue), I noticed that Buford is at it again with his Notes of a Gastronome. His article, “Extreme Chocolate: The Quest for the Perfect Bean” (68-79) takes the reader to the source of some of the world’s greatest chocolate, the rainforest of Bahia, off the coast of Brazil. Along the way, he gives glimpses of the life of a relatively small time organic chocolate maker, Frederick Schilling, who founded the Dagoba chocolate company. Schilling is a raving fanatic. He even claims to have had on at least one occasion a visitation by night from an Aztec goddess, who made him vow never to be untrue to his purist chocolate ideals.

Schilling, and the other chocolate makers to whom he introduced Buford at the Fancy Food Show, have a seriousness about their craft that goes well beyond the money making goals of the big chocolate companies. As Buford observes:

“They were uniformly earnest. They told no jokes. They seemed to have no interest in selling, wanting to talk only about what they made, bars invariably (anything else-a filled confection like a truffle, for instance-was frivolous), in the compulsive, insistent way that upmarket vintners go on about their wines.”

Schilling himself at one point says, “I like getting in the truck and driving sixteen hours to a village that hasn’t replaced its original stock with the latest hybrid. Every bean is a story.”

Now comes the logical question, what do either Bill Buford or pure dark chocolate have to do with theology, and a theologically oriented blog? Frankly, if you don’t see what should be plainly obvious to you by now, then I can’t help you. (I’m just joking there. I’m not Scaer, and you’re not in my classroom.)

As I stated above, Buford is passionate about searching for what is most real and genuine in his field of study, and I like that in a writer, and in a man. Why, I ask, should we waste our time and energy doing things in a mediocre manner? So I am drawn to the purist in any realm. And as a bonus, when I come across such people, it serves to remind me that there are plenty of people in the world and of the world who, even if they will not do some of the things that a Bill Buford will do, yearn for what is most genuine in life. If they are going to agree to give religion a try, and spend their time in church, an increasing number of people, especially the young, want to find something worth their while, something they can respect. Their parents, the children of the sixties and seventies, are largely still busy pleasing themselves with pursuits that are ultimately empty and self serving; they have, for example, founded mega churches, made in the likeness of their own mega image of themselves. The young, I think, want something older, and more genuine, than their parents.

Also, note how he goes about his research. To him, research is a true search. Buford is the kind of man who believes that the only way to ultimately learn about a thing is to see it less as a theory upon which to speculate, and more as an experience, a journey, that must be taken. To know something, as King James uses the word, is to truly relate to it, interact with it, ponder its every facet, and then dive into it, and take it into oneself. Hence his affinity for doing things like submitting himself to the rigors of the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, or of learning the qualities of a strange Brazilian fruit by taking hold of it, and sinking his teeth into it, and feeling its effects in his mouth. His approach to learning is, dare I say, in some sense sacramental, as he fittingly shows in this latest piece, wherein he explores chocolate, which some call the “food of the gods” (theobromine, which I prefer to translate as “God’s food”).

Perhaps Buford’s article will convince you, if you have yet to be convinced, of the virtue of seventy plus percent chocolate. More importantly, though, let the Christian reader take it as an illustration of the fact that the only way to truly know God is to know Him sacramentally. Indeed, it is better to say that God thus comes to know us. From heaven above to earth he comes, not as a scandalous thing He had to do in order to save and redeem us (though he does thereby save and redeem us), but as the ongoing reality of the life He loves to share with us, His beloved spouse. And as He thus comes to us, He in fact not so much leaves heaven behind as much as brings it with Him.