Friday, January 19, 2018

The Commentary of Fortunatianus

Some of our readers may already be aware of the recent publication in the “creative commons” of Fortunatianus’s (c. 300 – c. 360) long-lost Gospel commentary translated in English. This same commentator was the bishop of Aquileia during the Arian crisis, and influenced St. Jerome’s own scripture commentaries. He is also accused by Jerome of having pressured P. Liberius to concede to the heretics, although Jerome appears to be the only source of this accusation. (Fortunatianus himself calls Arianism a heresy when he writes on the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel [2925].)

In any case, the commentary remains an important historic text. The bishop’s exegesis is densely allegorical, as were many patristic commentaries. He identifies the four Evangelists with the four heavenly creatures of the Apocalypse, but in keeping with other early writers he identifies Mark as the Eagle and John as Lion:
Mark, observing the rule of prophecy, starts as follows: As is it written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I send my angel before your face. The Gospel according to Mark is therefore the face of an eagle, which is the likeness of the Holy Spirit. The prophets, when filled with this, prophesied continually. [10]
Fortunatianus’s references to the Gospel texts in Latin are quite different from Jerome’s later Vulgate, and even inconsistently rendered. He writes of an early and apparently very unpopular tradition that the Virgin Mary was martyred:
We believe that, in accordance with the prophecy of Simeon, she was put to death by the sword, because he said to her: And a sword will pass through your own soul. [355]
He is also a witness to the patristic tradition of St. Joseph’s first marriage:
For the reason that James and Jude are called the brothers of the Lord is undoubtedly not because they were born of Mary, but they were sons of Joseph from another wife. They were called the brothers of the Lord by normal custom because of Joseph, since he was from the same tribe, or Mary, since she was called the wife of Joseph. [360]
The talent and training for allegorical preaching is mostly lost in our time, and it is sometimes shocking to see the connections early commentators make within the Holy Writ. For instance, the mention of foxes and their dens in the eighth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel brings to mind Christ’s description of Herod as a fox and also the story of Samson burning the fields of his enemies with foxes:
Jesus said to him: Foxes have their holes. He calls heretical people foxes, just as he said of Herod, who was a Sadducee: Go, tell that fox: Leave it alone, I cast out demons. Foxes, he says, have their holes: for foxes, in order to feed, hide themselves in the deep earth, buried away in their holes. False people, heretics, who have earthly works and make dark and shady little gatherings for themselves, are similar to foxes. For Samson, too, having captured some foxes, tied firebrands, meaning torches, to their tails and set fire to their entire harvests and vineyards[...] showed because the tail is the outermost part of the body. Having taken a torch, it sets fire to the crops and vineyards, plainly through wicked preaching. [1140]
Gregory the Great’s magisterial commentary on the book of Job would run along similar lines of allegory and animal symbolism. One is hard-pressed to find anything similar in the last few centuries, arguably because of St. Thomas’s insistence on the primacy of the literal meaning.

For the modern reader, the Commentary of Fortunatianus will be more edifying when used as an occasional reference than as a systematic work of exegesis. His writing is dense and often alien to our sensibilities. It is what one friend of mine calls “holographically interesting,” in that each small part of it seems to contain an entire world. Our forebears had faith that could see the mountain in the grain of sand. In every action and word, the God-Man enfolded many teachings, prophecies, and explanations of things past. Preachers take note!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Short Intermission

I am working on the next installment of the on-going Easter Church, Five Years On series, which should be ready this weekend. In the interim, please see and comment on the dynamic of Traditionalist parishes as described by Charles Coulombe and his co-conspirator below. I find the characterizations very applicable to the local FSSP parish, probably a bit less so now than three years ago, but still applicable none the less. Generational turnover might be changing things, but the constant influx of new people from diocesan disasters (especially in Dallas) also aids the reactionary mentality.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Insanity of Sproul

Last month saw the final days of American Presbyterian theologian R.C. Sproul, longtime champion of Reformed theology and vocal critic of atheism and Catholicism alike. It is doubtful that many of our readers know anything about Dr. Sproul, but his radio program through Pennsylvania-based Ligonier Ministries was a staple of my formative years. This program served as my introduction to systematic theology and scriptural commentary, and it was far more substantial than most of the material generated in Evangelical Protestant circles.

Dr. Sproul was unafraid to remind his listeners about the theology of Sir Luther—Calvinist though he was—and what still separated them from the Catholic Church. He was a brutal opponent of the Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994) about which he once said, “Somebody is preaching a different gospel and when Rome condemned the Protestant declaration of justification by faith alone, I believe that Rome when placing the anathema on sola fide placed the anathema of God upon themselves.” He was no respecter of persons nor of niceness, though his behavior could hardly be called base or rude. He simply knew where he stood and was unafraid to preach the conclusions of that stance.

The Young Reformed (aka New Calvinist) movement that peaked in the early 2000s bore some of Sproul’s influence, though perhaps more from John “Desiring God” Piper and Mark Driscoll. The early American Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards enjoyed a brief resurgence, and the movement’s proto-hipster population also attempted to appropriate G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor to supplement Calvinism’s noticeable lack of non-homiletic literary culture.

When Sproul was not singing the praises of early Reformation luminaries, he was pretending that St. Augustine’s theology was harmonious with Calvin’s. He also spoke highly of St. Thomas Aquinas, although he was slightly more honest about the latter’s peculiarly Catholic theology.

The primary concern of Sproul’s theological exegesis was the sovereign holiness of God, and the infinite terror engendered by the realization of the utter otherness of Divinity. His popular series The Holiness of God included lectures on “The Trauma of Holiness” and “The Insanity of Luther.” This separatist view of the divine nature was at the root of Sproul’s so-called “doctrines of grace” (i.e., Calvinism), and worked its way through doctrines of predestination, of the limitation of God’s love to the elect, of the “divine rape” of grace, all the way to the admission that on the Cross the divine nature of the God the Son “turned his back” on the human nature. (Protestant theology has always been uncomfortable with the intimacy of God with humanity that the Incarnation necessarily implies, and Sproul was more open than most about how much of Luther’s thought leads to Christological heresy.)

I lost track of Sproul after my reception into the Church, but by all accounts he continued to preach and publish until his health failed him in late 2017. He was well read in literature, philosophy, history, and science in addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of Protestant theology. He was a great practitioner of the art of rhetoric. He possessed an undying and irrational devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of his like one cannot find among his peers, and I have no doubt he could preach circles around the vast majority of American Catholic priests. He was not given to sentimentalities nor to shielding his flock from harsh truths.

In one of his many near-poetic expositions on the inevitability of death, he once wrote,
In his final moments my father tried to leave me with a legacy to live by. He sought to overcome his own agony by encouraging me. He was heroic; I shrank from his words in cowardice. I could not face what he had to face. I pled ignorance as I only understood enough of his words to recoil from them. He said, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”… My father was speaking from a posture of victory. He knew who he was and where he was going. But all I could hear in those words was that he was going to die.
On Thursday, December 14, 2017, the feast of the poet-saint Venantius Fortunatus, Robert Charles Sproul died surrounded by family and by his fellow pastors and elders. Once he wrote, “As fearsome as death it is, it is nothing compared with meeting a holy God.” How fearsome it must have been for him to come face to face with the God about whom he had taught so many heresies, after he had actively prevented so many baptized persons from entering into the Church Catholic. “You go round about the sea and the land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides.”

There is a harsh truth, indeed.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Miracle at Cana: Pious Impiety?

Today is the feast of Theophany, or Epiphany. Before the celebration of Christmas began in the fourth century, the various manifestations of the Godhead-made-Man were recalled by the Church on this day, namely the birth of Christ, the visit of the gentile astrologers, the Baptism of Our Lord by St. John in the Jordan, and the transformation of water into wine during a wedding at Cana. The Lord's Baptism in the Jordan is now on the octave day of Epiphany, completing the week wit the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the visit of the Magi occupies most of the feast proper. It is the last act of Theophany, however, that seasonally gives this writer the heeby-jeebies, and not because of the miracle itself.

As a child I read the story of the Miracle at Cana not as Christ doing something against His will because His Mother told Him to do so, but Christ drawing out His Mother's pity so He could in turn show His own compassion for the bridegroom and bride. It may not be a "Traddie" idea, merely a devotionalist idea, but whenever the Miracle of Cana is recounted in the second Sunday after Epiphany, the Roman Catholic blogosphere seems to saturate with articles on why devotion to Mary is essential for Christian life—and it is—on grounds that seem faulty. It usually goes something like "Jesus is both justice and mercy. Mary is all mercy." Call me an effrontery to piety, but is this not quite impious? Ought we call Our Lord and God's justice something else from His mercy, as though the two are separate? Or as though they oppose each other? Or as if one crowds out the other within the infinity of His Godhead? Or that His justice is supplanted by His Mother's kindness?

The Greek Theotokon texts for the Church Offices often employ phraseology like "No one knows a Son like a Mother" and commends all our confidence in prayer to the Blessed Mother for this very purpose. Along a similar vein, one of the most beautiful Roman collects in the Sundays after Pascha (one of the great Latin treasure troves) is this:
"O God, Who makest the faithful to be of one mind and will, grant to Thy people the grace to love what Thou dost command and to desire what Thou dost promise, that amid the change of the world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are found."
Is this not true of Mary more than it is of any other saint? That she, above all, understands what Her Son desires and can point the faithful to His will? The multiplication of Marian apparitions in the last few centuries, particularly that from Fatima, carry messages from heaven about Christ's dissatisfaction and desires for the world, not the Virgin's free-standing mercy.

Interestingly, the most common depiction in all Western art, after the Crucifixion, is probably the Annunciation. Even the Crucifixion rarely excluded Mary until the years after the Reformation, with the Virgin "swooning" or appearing opposite Saint John on Rood screens. In Greek iconography Mary is almost never shown without Christ; the Deesis images and the Seat of Wisdom are especially poignant reminders of the congruity between the Mother and Divine Son. And yet more modern religious art, often kitsch as can be, has Mary standing on a globe, almost ruling the world and crushing sin on her own, without her Son in sight. The common Catholic who prays in front of such an image in the local parish likely does not share the dodgy Mariology that elicited such artwork, but that same Mariology continues in some quiet, narrow corners of the Church whenever the Second Sunday after Epiphany of Our Lady of Mount Carmel rolls around.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Lux Fulgebit: A Review

Just as last year ended with a review, so this year begins with a review. Today we look at Lux Fulgebit: the Mass at Dawn of Christmas Day, a recording by the Schola Cantorum of Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. Immediately, two distinct features make this recording worth a listen: it presents a hitherto unheard English Renaissance setting for the ordinary of the Mass by William Rasar; and that it is a full of a rarely heard Mass, as the second Mass of Christmas day is routinely neglected for the midnight and daytime Masses.

Lux Fulgebit is comprised of serious scholarship and recording effort. The Mass Christe Iesu, Rasar's only extant work, had to be consolidated from two manuscripts in order to present the full work, including the tenor part from a separate tradition. The decision to contextualize Rasar's Christe Iesu within a Mass means the complete Mass of Christmas at Dawn, replete with the collects and commemorations of St. Anastasia, the lesson, gradual, Gospel, preface, bells for the consecration, the Pater Noster, and the dismissal—all from the Roman liturgy despite the Mass's author having written in England in 1515.

The Mass begins with an organ prelude, the Introit, and a plainsong Kyrie before transitioning into the Gloria, which, with the Benedictus, was my favorite track on Lux Fulgebit. Because so few voices sing on the tracks, the parts are clear and harmonize very well, especially the treble parts, presumably sung by a woman rather than a boy, but without any of the vibrato or "breathy" sound one typically hears with the female voice. The choir paces itself while and resists any undue need to embellishment, instead letting the natural harmonies within the work's key provide layering of sound so characteristic of the English Renaissance and so atypical of the later "chirpy" polyphony.

Unfortunately, the plainsong and clerical parts fail to meet the same standard of excellence the polyphony achieves. Perhaps the sound equipment was too tuned or the choice of recording setting was not amicable to chant, but the Gregorian melodies are flat, without resonance, and far too intelligible in a bad way; one can hear the moisture of the cantors' mouths and that hiss every time a word ends with the letter "s". The real tragedy is that I am familiar with this choir's singing from when I lived in Connecticut and I know they can do much better this.

Is Lux Fulgebit a triumph? No, but it is a very good first recording that advances awareness of Rasar's Christe Iesu Mass and it is a pleasant listen. I am looking forward to St. Mary's next offering.