“O man, if you consider carefully the mercy of God, you can possess in yourself the image of mercy.  What made Christ become incarnate, except mercy? What subjected him to our wretchedness, except his clemency? This is man’s only way to God, and God’s to man.  O blessed way, which alone knows the exchange of our salvation, which alone points man up to God, and brings God down to man.” Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, p. 79.

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No Word Sounds Sweeter

“Your word pierced me like the sharp arrow of the Mighty. As a result, I began to compare your statements with the passages of Scripture which speak of poenitentia [repentance]. And behold — what a most pleasant scene! Biblical words came leaping toward me from all sides, clearly smiling and nodding assent to your statement. They so supported your opinion that while formerly almost no word in the whole Scripture was more bitter to me than poenitentia (although I zealously made a pretense before God and tried to express a feigned and constrained love for him), now no word sounds sweeter or more pleasant to me than poenitentia. The commandments of God become sweet when they are read not only in books but also in the wounds of the sweetest Savior.”* 

In this letter we read Martin Luther’s early theological insight related to repentance.  Remember the issue that instigated the Reformation as a social movement revolved around the late medieval understanding of repentance and indulgences.  In fact, the first thesis from Martin Luther’s famous academic challenge to the late medieval church’s teaching on penance read: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”**

From 1516 to 1520 Martin Luther studied and contemplated the nature of penance in relation to God’s Word and faith in His promises. His insights reflected his new understanding of poenitentia. Medieval theologians had different views on the nature of contrition, priestly absolution, and acts of satisfaction in relation to repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Academic theologians had debated these things since the twelfth century. In 1520, Luther explained the relationship of these things in The Babylonian of the Captivity of the Church when he wrote:

 “Beware then, of putting your trust in your own contrition and of ascribing the forgiveness of sins to your own remorse.  God does not look on you with favor because of that, but because of the faith by which you have believed his threats and promises, and which has effected such sorrow within you.  Thus we owe whatever good there may be in our penance, not to our scrupulous enumeration of sins, but to the truth of God and to our faith.  All other things are the works and fruits which follow of their own accord.”***     

*Martin Luther, “Letter to John von Staupitz,” Wittenberg, May 30, 1518, Luther’s Works 48: 66. [Emphasis added] 

**Luther, Ninety-Five Theses, LW 31:25. 

***Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, LW 36:85. 

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Some Criminals Receive Correction

“However, when it was already late at night there came to Sulla’s camp messengers from Crassus to fetch food for Crassus himself and for his soldiers. For they had defeated the enemy, pursued them to Antennae, and were now in camp there. When Sulla heard this and heard also that most of the enemy had been destroyed, he came to Antennae at dawn.  Here 3,000 of those left inside sent a deputation to him to ask for terms, and Sulla promised that he would guarantee their safety if, before coming over to him, they would do some harm to the rest of his enemies.”*

Plutarch describes the triumph of the Sulla and his generals in a civil war from 83 BC to 81 BC. Crassus, later the wealthiest man in Rome, fought with Sulla.  His army chased their enemies to Antennae where Sulla made the deal with the men there.  They did attack Sulla’s other enemies and many killed each other. In the end, Sulla’s army rounded up about 6,000 of his enemies and put them in the Field of Mars in Rome. Then Sulla called the Senate to meet near there.  Plutarch explained:

“He then summoned the senate to meet in the Temple of Bellona, and at the same moment as he himself rose up to speak those who had been given the job began to butcher the 6,000 in the circus.  The noise of the shrieks – so many men being massacred in so small a space – was, as might be expected, easily audible and the senators were dumbfounded.  Sulla, however, continued to speak with the same calm and unmoved expression. He told the senators to listen to what he had to say and not to bother their heads with what was going on outside. ‘Some of the criminals’, he said, ‘are receiving correction. It is being done by my order.’ “**

Plutarch discussed Sulla’s actions in the following paragraph:

* Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Empire, trans. Rex Warner, Revised Ed. (New York, 2005), pp. 95-96

** Ibid., 96.

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Unto Us A Child Is Born

“Show us, Lord, your mercy, cloaked in our misery and working the cure of the miserable by a new kind mercy drawn from our very misery. For this, the art of mercy, has blended God’s beatitude and man’s misery in making them one in the Mediator, that by dint of the mystery of this unity, in virtue of the resurrection, beatitude may absorb misery, life swallow up death and the whole man pass glorified into fellowship with the divine nature. The divine dignity accepted all the weakness of the flesh to which human nature because of its guilt is subject, without of course the guilt.”*

Guerric of Igny, a Cistercian abbot in the twelfth century, wrote this sermon for Christmas based on Isaiah 9:6, “Unto us a child is born,” a common verse associated with the Christmas liturgy.  The Lord cloaked his mercy in misery when he took on human flesh and blood and became a Man, a human being, THE Human Being.  For medieval Christians, only a man descended from Adam could pay the debt for Adam’s original sin and a man could only be born of a woman. To mediate between God and Miserable Man, God became a Human Being through a miraculous conception, but natural gestation and birth.  Guerric explained later in the sermon: 

“It was not enough for [Jesus] that he should become less than angels by assuming mortal nature; he would become less even than grown men by adopting the state of helpless infancy. Let the holy and the humble see this then and glory in it, while the wicked and proud see it and confounded. Let them, I say, see the great God made a tiny child to be worshipped: an amazing mystery, the redemption of the holy and the glory of the humble, the judgment of the wicked and the ruin of the proud.”**

*Guerric of Igny, “Sermon 6: The First Sermon for Christmas,” Guerric of Igny: Liturgical Sermons, translated by the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. Kalamazoo: Cistercian 1970, pp. 37-38.

**Ibid., 39.

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The Test

“In private life, if you wish to pass judgement on the characters of good or of bad men, you would not, assuming that your opinion is to be subjected to a genuine test, examine their actions only at periods of unclouded tranquility, but rather at times of conspicuous success or failure. The test of true virtue in a man surely resides  in his capacity to bear with spirit and with dignity the most complete transformations of fortune, and the same principle should apply to our judgement of states.” Polybius, The Histories VI. 2. trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 302.

Polybius, the Greek hostage who taught Scipio Aemilianus, wrote a history of the Roman Republic up to his own time.  This work contains commentary such as the quote above.  While his surviving literary work contains sections on the Punic Wars, here he discusses changes to the Roman constitution. His advice is clear here:  study people and societies in times of prosperity and adversity to understand their true character.

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Gluttony Over Glosses

“For clerks of our own day follow more readily the schools of Antichrist than Christ, are rather given to gluttony than glosses; they collect pounds rather than read books…now all learning goes cheap, all reading is half-hearted; there is no-one who reads books: ‘There is not even one; all fall off, and all alike are made unprofitable.’ Now the school of Christ is deserted; it is concerned with two things, with life and with learning, but the true life is despised, and learning is buried.  Once, even though the good life was not loved, yet learning was embraced. But now exorbitance, obstinacy, and alienation are at their height, when not only good behavior is set aside, but also what befits it, that is learning, is despised.” Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, trans. Gillian R. Evans (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1981), 139.

Alan of Lille was a teacher and theologian in the schools of Paris in the second half of the twelfth century.  In this text he lamented the focus on material gain and not real learning at what would become the University of Paris in 1200.  Glosses were the study notes based on the lectures of Parisian teachers on famous texts of the Bible or other works.  Alan criticized his contemporaries’ love of the temporal life above the eternal truths of theology.

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Legislation Abounded

“Hence arose demagogues like the Gracchi and Lucius Appuleius Saturnis – and the senate’s partisans such as Marcus Livius Drusus with their equally comprehensive offers.  By these, Italian hopes were raised, only to be dashed by the tribunes’ vetoes.  Even during the Social and Civil Wars, contradictory legislation continued.  Then the dictator Sulla repealed or altered earlier laws, and passed more himself.  A pause followed; but not for long, since disorder quickly returned owing to the legislation of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (II), and the tribunes soon regained their power of unlimited popular agitation.  Thenceforward measures were concerned with personal instead of national issues.  Corruption reached its climax, and legislation abounded.”  Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome III. 27, trans. Michael Grant (London: Penguin, 1956, reprint 1996),  pp. 132-133. [Emphasis added]

In this paragraph Cornelius Tacitus (b. c. AD 56) summarized part of the late history of the Roman Republic from 133 BC to 77 BC.  At this time, Roman dominance of the Mediterranean world was already changing the Roman State from a Republic to an empire. Various factions emerged in a struggle for power that lasted for decades.  Every leader of a faction seemed to want only to enrich his allies and punish his enemies.  Sulla did this ruthlessly through mass executions and exiles.  As Tacitus points out, they passed new laws constantly, but these laws only served their corrupt enforcers.

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Imitate the Martyr

“It is the passion of the most blessed martyr Cyprian that has made this day into a feast for us, and the celebration of his triumph that has brought us together in such a spirit of devotion. But the right way to celebrate the festivals of the martyrs should be by imitating their virtues.  It’s easy enough to celebrate in honor of a martyr; the great thing is to imitate the martyr’s faith and patience.  Let us do the first thing in such a way that we commit ourselves to the second.  Let us celebrate the feast, that we prefer rather to imitate the virtues.”*

In this sermon, Augustine of Hippo preached at the church in Carthage where the great martyr, Cyprian, was buried. By the early fifth century (when Augustine was preaching), the observance of Cyprian’s martyrdom in AD 258 had become an established liturgical event. Later in this sermon, Augustine rebukes some people for celebrating the martyr in worldly ways including dancing and excessive drinking. Notice how he explains the proper manner to observe the festival of a martyr: imitate their virtues. According to Augustine, martyrs are not spiritual intercessors but rather patterns of holy living. Later in the sermon he described how to do this:

“So, despise the world, Christians; despise the world, despise it. The martyrs despised it, the apostles despised it, the blessed Cyprian despised it, whose memory we are celebrating today. You all want to be rich, want to be held in honor, want to enjoy good health; the man in whose memory you have come together despised the lot. Why, I want to know, do you have so much love for what the man you honor like this had such contempt–the man whom you wouldn’t be honoring like this if he hadn’t held it all in contempt? Why do I find you to be a lover of these very things whose scorner you venerate? Certainly, if he had loved these things, you wouldn’t be venerating him.”**

Augustine usually brings the focus on the Christian back to love. He preaches here what he taught in other works: our love determines our true identity and thus our actions. Cyprian became a martyr because he rejected the sinful world and loved God more then men. It would be foolish to observe this festival by doing the opposite. To honor Cyprian we must follow Cyprian’s love and actions. How do we despise the world and love rightly? Augustine concluded:

“The way lies open; Christ is the door. For you too the door was opened, when his side was pierced by the lance. Call to mind what flowed out from there, and choose the way you may enter. From the side of the Lord hanging and dying on the cross, after it had been pierced by the lance, water and blood flowed out. In one is to be found your purification, in the other your redemption.”***

*Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 311: On the Birthday of the Martyr Cyprian, in Sermons III/9, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1994), 71.  [Emphasis added]

**Ibid., 72.


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Force and Consent: Liberalism vs. Collectivism

“I challenge the Liberal gentleman to tell if ever in history there has been a government that was based solely on popular consent and that renounced all use of force whatsoever.  A government so constructed there has never been and never will be.  Consent is an ever-changing thing like the shifting sand on the sea coast.  It can never be permanent:  It can never be complete…If it be accepted as an axiom that any system of government whatever creates malcontents, how are you going to prevent this discontent form overflowing and constituting a menace to the stability of the State?  You will prevent it by force.  By assembling of the greatest force possible.  By the inexorable use of this force whenever it is necessary.  Take away from any government whatsoever force–and by force is meant physical, armed force–and leave it only its immoral principles, and that government will be at the mercy of the first organized group that decides to overthrow it.  Fascism now throws these lifeless theories out to rot.” Benito Mussolini, Force and Consent (1923) in The Western Heritage, eds. Kagan, Ozment, Turner, 9th Ed (2007), p. 888.

Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister in late 1922 by appointment of the Italian monarch, Victor Emmanuel III.  When he published this work the following year, he was still seeking to consolidate his power through political coalitions.  It is important to point out that “Liberal” here does not mean what Americans or Canadians have called “Liberal” since the mid-twentieth century.  Liberal here means the nineteenth-century philosophy that combined personal liberty,  popular consent via elections, and laissez-faire economics.  Mussolini rejected these things and wanted to replace them with a heavily regulated economy that focused on the collective nation instead of individuals’ choices.  Collectivists (socialists, fascists, national socialists) all shared this disdain of individual-based liberalism.  The progressive movements in the USA adopted many of these collectivist ideas in less extreme forms in the early twentieth century.  Many people in these movements eventually adopted the term “liberal” to describe themselves despite their adoption of many collectivist ideas.*  In the following section, Mussolini concluded prophetically:

The truth evident now to all who are not warped by [liberal] dogmatism is that men have tired of liberty.  They have made an orgy of it.  Liberty is today no longer the chaste and austere virgin for whom the generations of the first half of the last century fought and died.  For the gallant, restless and bitter youth who face the dawn of a new history there are other words that exercise a far greater fascination, and those words are: order, hierarchy, discipline…” [Emphasis added]

After the ravages of the foolish Great War that led to millions of deaths, the destruction of nations, and economies, many of the youth did want these things.  People in many countries to varying degrees began to choose collectivist policies over personal liberty.  Exactly 100 years later (2022), it seems the world has embraced such things again.  History does rhyme and human nature does not change.

*F.A. Hayek. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents. The Definitive Edition. Ed. Bruce Caldwell. 2007. [Original Text published in 1944 by U of Chicago], pp. 76-77.

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Slavish Obedience

“He seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians.  Indeed, he attracted everybody’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace.  Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law.  Opposition did not exist.  War and judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit.  Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially.  They had profited from the revolution, and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous uncertainties of the old regime.  Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces.  There, government by the Senate and the People was looked upon sceptically as a matter of sparring dignitaries and extortionate officials.  The legal system had provided no remedy against these, since it was wholly incapacitated by violence, favouritism, and – most of all – bribery.” Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. Michael Grant (London: Penguin, 1956, reprint 1996),  p. 32.  {British spelling is used in this translation.}  [Emphasis added]

In this manner, Tacitus (b.c. A.D. 56) described how Octavian (later known as Caesar Augustus) became the ruler of the Roman Empire.  The Annals cover the period from Augustus’s last years to the death of Nero. While he claimed to write without indignation or partisanship, Tacitus included harsh criticism of early Imperial Rome.  The late Roman Republic had been evolving into a real empire for 200 years by this time.  When Romans realized how wealthy they could become through conquest and plunder, they could not be satiated.

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