I'm cheating a bit here. I have some posts being sorted, but what is coming out isn't ready. Jet lag, a bit of insomnia, I'm left without much hope of turning out something of meaning. I've spent the past few days wrestling with a question, one I shall be simply transparent with you about: do I or do I not pursue a PhD? Am I called to that? Is that the measure of faith I have been given? I honestly knew a few months ago. I honestly don't know now.
How appropriate, I think, that I can cheat with this post of a homily I gave at a vespers service a year ago. The service was for anyone, but particularly for a small collection of graduate students taking a course in Christology, taught by one of my absolute favourite professors, in which I sat in on. (See that ugly sentence? That's sleep deprivation.)
Now, this is quite poor of me, but I've misplaced the Scripture references, so you're sort of getting this out-of-the-box. Pretend you've heard something read from Ezra, something of a Psalm, I think Revelation 6. Come with me into a small stone chapel with beautiful, if not highly modern, stained glass. Come with me, and hear what I needed to rehear, what I am so often in danger of forgetting, what may, I don't know, need only be for me:
In Ezra, King Artaxerxes, having his heart stirred by God, commands the return of the Israelites to their homeland to rebuild, in particular the Temple of God. But as we learn earlier in the book, this does not come without difficulty. Construction of the Second Temple is also an act of remembering the Temple that had been destroyed. The Scripture records, “The old men who had seen the first Temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of the Second was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping.”
In turn, the account of the scene in Heaven in the Apocalypse of St. John opens with a loud and vibrant cry of the majesty of God but closes with the fearsome consequence: the glory of the Lord, as it had done at the consecration of the Tabernacle in the Exodus and the First Temple in The Book of First Kings, overwhelms so that none may enter and look upon it, in this instance in particular, until the wrath of God upon the earth in the six bowls of increasing plague and the seventh, whence comes the voice of God: “It is finished!” is complete.
Significantly, the word for finished there is rendered in the Greek as the perfect active indicative of γίνομαι, that is, the completed past tense of the verb to become. This is unlike the word chosen by the same John in his Gospel when Jesus upon the cross says, “It is finished,” τετέλεσται, which means to bring to completion something commanded. Rather, the word chosen in the Apocalypse signifies the finishing of the whole of God’s intent for this cosmos, His wrath against the evil within it met and brought to close with the pouring of the seventh bowl.
How do we reconcile the reading of Ezra and the Apocalypse? Perhaps by mutual affirmation of the words of St. Peter that this world, heaven and earth, shall pass away by fire: the Israelites foretasting in the memory of the destruction of the First Temple, the Blessed bearing witness to it in the scene in Heaven.
But, perhaps there’s more.
We have met the question once posed by Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” with satisfactory retort. We reject pure theological poetics that miss the important contribution of philosophical balance. It’s easy to note that without Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and the stabilizing of the Church in the thirteenth century could not be, and though there be other arguments and proofs to give to this point, he whom Chesterton names the Dumb Ox proves often enough a sufficient response.
We have gleaned a vocabulary by which to speak of the things of God and His effects, manna for an abundant spiritual mind both formed by and in conversation with the Tradition.
Yet, if we find ourselves in the position of the psalmist, entreating God to return to His people and recall His covenant, Athens no longer holds much of an answer. The mother of the miscarried child, the refugee attacked by the relief worker, the problem of Evil meets no satisfactory end in the answer of Athens. First premises and definitions are not incarnate things and pass, like this cosmos, away by fire.
The psalmist pleads God to “turn His footsteps toward the perpetual ruins; for the enemy has damaged everything within the sanctuary.” As came the cries of the Israelites in Ezra and the song of the Blessed in the Apocalypse, there is no answer to the brokenness of the wounded cosmos save that one which is found in Jerusalem alone: Christ our Lord Himself. If He is forgotten in the midst of vocabulary concerning Him, then all is but waste. For what the Israelites and the Blessed share in the two passages is a unique awareness that we are often want to forget: it is only by the supernatural, violent breaking of God into the midst of the world that true redemption comes about.
Arguments, without the fearsome power of Holy Ghost, are but chaff.
We must find ourselves in the citizenship of the Blessed, as the writer of Hebrews commends us, finding our homeland to be Jerusalem while we sojourn in Athens. Accordingly, the Angelic Doctor, Thomas himself, after having a divine vision before his death declared: “I can no longer write, for God has given me such glorious knowledge that all contained in my works are as straw—barely fit to absorb the holy wonders that fall in a stable.”
Some have used this to dismiss Thomas altogether, I myself being among the foolish not too many years ago. Yet it was this posture of heart that made all the saint’s work so commendable, for he did not seek to explain God through proofs, but to guide men into Mystery. Perhaps nowhere is this better observed than in Dante’s Paradiso, where St. Bonaventure, the beautiful Franciscan devoted to a mendicant life observant of holy works, not only lauds Thomas’s concern with doctrine but also refers to him by the affectionate nickname Thoma, reconciling in the Heavenly ether the dual importance of dogma and practice.
For those in Athens, as Dr. Miner has so beautiful put it, do not feel that they are home.
We did not read the Gospel appointed, but it is a familiar passage, the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Though I affirm the literal reality of the miracle, I do not overlook the metaphorical word. In our own way, we are but meager loaves ourselves, but through the miraculous working of Christ we may be multiplied for the sake of feeding the hungry. It is the hungry that do not go to the gates of Athens looking for charity, for the hungry seek the abundance of Jerusalem. As the Canaanite woman once spoke to our Lord: even the dogs may have their share of the crumbs from the Table.
Are we putting Athens to the proper use?
Athens, too, shall pass away by fire. As the Israelites in Ezra rejoice in the return of the people of God to the communion of God, so the blessed in the Apocalypse rejoice in the destruction of the infirmed cosmos in anticipation of the new creation. While this is not to say that Athens holds no value, for if Aquinas may be our example we know it most certainly does, but if we, like the psalmist, stand in an age crying out, “We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet,” then it is not in Athens we must make our search.
Let us forfeit all citizenship in Athens in favor of the better City, taking Athens’s wares for what they are and putting them in the service of our God. Let us journey; let us make no home permanent, instead temporary shelters on roadways, in strange lands, equipped with the elements of Athens—like those freewill offerings Ezra was given to take back with him—but, let us feed by the Elements of Jerusalem those hungry pilgrims we meet on our way, as we in turn are on our own walk to that place where, in the unity of the Blessed, Angels and Archangels, we might rejoice in that finished Temple, in that cosmos that shall be evermore: Home.