The Martyr Remains

“[The psalmist] says next: the back of his back is like pale gold.  Better pale gold than glittering brass: ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men.’ Gold is the Word, gold is wisdom.  This gold discolored itself, concealing the form of God and displaying the form of a servant.  It also discolored the Church, which says: ‘Do not gaze at me because I am swarthy, because the sun has scorched me.’ So then, her back is like pale gold, because she did blush at the swarthiness of the cross, she was not terrified by the bitterness of the passion, she did not flee from the ugliness of the wounds.  She even takes joy in them, and hopes that her last end may bear their likeness.   Accordingly she hears [the words]: ‘My dove in the clefts of the rock’, because all her affections are preoccupied with the wounds of Christ; she abides in them by constant meditation.  From this comes endurance for martyrdom, from this her immense trust in the Most High.  The martyr need not be afraid of raising his bloodless and bruised face to him by whose wounds he is healed, to present to him a glorious likeness of his death.”*

Here we read one of Bernard of Clairvaux’s beautifully written sermons on the Song of Songs.  He followed (and expanded) the traditional monastic exegesis of this ancient love poem as a depiction of the mystical union between the Christian and Christ.  He adds a discussion of martyrdom in this sermon.  Notice the martyr draws strength from meditation on the wounds of Christ.  The martyr’s heart focuses on the ugliness and torture of the cross but this strengthens the martyr’s resolve.  In this way, the martyr perseveres to the end.  Bernard concludes:

“While gazing on the Lord’s wounds he will indeed not feel his own.  The martyr remains jubilant and triumphant though his whole body is mangled; even while the steel is gashing his sides he looks around with courage and elation at the holy blood pouring from his flesh.  Where then is the soul of the martyr? In a safe place, of course; in the rock, or course; in the heart of Jesus, of course, in the wounds open for it to enter.”** 

How does the martyr do this?  Love.  The bodily and emotional pain are present, but the martyr rejects them for the love of Christ.  

*Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 61. III. 7, trans. Kilian Walsh, On the Song of Songs III  (Kalamazoo 1979), p. 146. [Emphasis added]

**Idem, Sermon 61.III.8, p. 147. 

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A Pride So Great

“The third reason [for Christ’s advent] is for our advantage, so that [Christ] would make satisfaction for the first lie. Moreover, that lie was a pride so great that the man (homo) might lift up himself in the mind even to equality with God. Indeed, while opposites are cured by opposite things, it is necessary that in order to make satisfaction for this pride some important man had to be brought down from the height of divinity even to the humility of a man.  No one could do this unless he was God and man.  For that reason, God became a man.” Ralph Ardent, Homilia X: In natali Domini, PL 155:1700. [my translation]

Ralph Ardent was a scholastic theologian and regular canon of the second half of the twelfth century and the early thirteenth century.  He left a large collection of sermons that reflect his theological education.  In this sermon on the birth of Christ, he explains four reasons for why Jesus came down from heaven and became a human being.  In this quote, Ralph describes the third of four reasons: the advantage or use for sinful humanity.  The first lie is the serpent’s lie to Eve: ” You shall not die you shall be as gods.”  Pride falsely convinced humans that they could ascend to be like God.  The only cure for human pride is its opposite: divine humility.

Following the Augustinian tradition  medieval theologians focused on the contest between devilish pride and divine humility. Pride led to the devil’s fall from heaven and humanity’s fall into sin.  Medieval artists also depicted the triumph of humility over pride as in this stained glass window found in a museum in Freiburg im Breisgau (Germany).  Check out another example here: Humility Overcomes Pride

Most likely, Ralph used earlier scholastic writings for his sources, like Peter Lombard’s Sentences.  Lombard’s work became the standard theological text in the Western Catholic Church.  Peter Lombard wrote the following on Christ’s humility as the means to overcome the devil’s pride and thereby redeem humanity:

“But did he, through his death, redeem us from the devil and sin, and open to the entrance to glory? God decreed ‘in a mystery,’ as Ambrose says, that man, because of the first sin, should not be allowed into paradise, that is, should not be admitted to the contemplation of God, unless so much humility should be found in one man which might suffice for all who follow him, just as in the first man was found such pride as to harm all who followed him.  Among men, none was found through whom this might be fulfilled, except the lion of the tribe of Juda, who opened the book and broke the seals, fulfilling all justice in himself, that is, the most complete humility, than which there can be no greater.  Other men were debtors, and each one’s virtue and humility was scarcely sufficient for himself.  And so none of them could offer a sacrificial victim sufficient for our reconciliation.  But the man Christ was sufficient and perfect victim; he was much more humbled in tasting the bitterness of death than Adam had become proud in his guilty pleasure through eating of the forbidden tree.  And so,  the latter’s pride was ruin to all, expelling him from paradise and closing its doors to others, much more able was Christ’s humility, by which he tasted death, to open the entrance of the heavenly kingdom to all who follow him, by the fulfillment of God’s decree, for it cancelled the chirograph of the decree.“** Peter Lombard, The Sentences, Book 3,  Distinction xviii, chap. 5. 2 (54)., translated by Giulio Silano (Toronto, 2008), pp. 76-77

*Bold print is added

**Colossians 2:14 (Italics in the original)

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The Blood of Abel

This painting comes from late medieval Strasbourg (c. 1410) It is currently in an art museum in Colmar, Alsace (France). Source of Image

This image demonstrates the summation of medieval Christian piety with the bleeding, dying Jesus and the compassionate Blessed Mother.  These devotional emphases became more pronounced in twelfth-century sermons and devotional works.  The artistic flowering of the late medieval period and early Renaissance also adopted many of these devotional themes.  As I was reading Peter of Blois’s sermon on the Lord’s Supper, Peter’s words reminded me of this image.  They read:

“For Christ with his own hands affixed our sins to the cross and so that he might redeem wretched man (homo). After a multitude of miseries, he offered himself as the evening sacrifice.” Peter of Blois, Sermo 19: On the Lord’s Supper, PL 207:615D [my translation]

“For, the Passion made atonement for all our iniquities.  The blood of Abel calls out for vengeance, the blood of Christ calls out for redemption.  This is the blood of the unspotted Lamb, with whom the highest priest, having found holy, eternal redemption, entered once.” Peter of Blois, Sermo 19: On the Lord’s Supper, PL 207:616 [my translation]

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History As a Good or Bad Medicine

“In the same way political history is also made up of three parts.  The first consists of the industrious study and collation of documents; the second is topographical and includes the survey of cities, places, rivers, harbours, and in general the special features of land and sea and the distances of one place from another; while the third is concerned with political activity. And just as in the case of medicine, many people aspire to write history because of the high opinion in which political history has been held; but most of them bring to the undertaking nothing to justify their claim to write it except irresponsibility, recklessness and roguery.  They court favours like vendors of drugs and will always say whatever the occasion may require for the sake of scraping together a living by this means.  I need say no more about authors of this kind.” Polybius, The Histories XII. 25e, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 442-43.

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Imagining the Enemy

“Disturbing news has emerged from Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople and is now constantly at the forefront of our mind: namely that the race of Persians, a foreign people and a people rejected by God, indeed a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not steadfast with God [Psalm 78:8], has invaded the lands of those Christians, depopulated them by slaughter and plunder and arson, kidnapped some of the Christians and carried them off to their own lands and put others to a wretched death, and has either overthrown the churches of God or turned them over to the rituals of their own religion.  They throw down the altars after soiling them with their own faith, circumcise Christians, and pour the resulting blood either on the altars or into the baptismal vessels. When they feel like inflicting a truly painful death on some their pierce their navels, pull out the end of their intestines, tie them to a pole and whip them around it until, all their bowels pulled out, they fall lifeless to the ground.” Robert the Monk’s History of the First Crusade, trans. Carol Sweetenham (Ashgate: Burlington VT, 2005), p. 80.

The race of Persians were seemingly among the most brutal conquerors.  Certainly, the Seljuk Turks (the real identity of peoples to whom Urban II referred) could be vicious warriors and killers.  The Turks had also pushed further and further toward Constantinople in the 11th century after they had taken control of much of the Middle East.  However, Robert the Monk’s version of Urban II’s sermon at Clermont in 1095 demonstrates that monastic historians of the First Crusade wanted to create a Feindbild, an image of the Muslim enemy for their readers.  In this case, the image of a savage group with a demonic hatred of God, Christians, and the holy places.

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Winning Hearts and Minds

On March 6, 1522, Martin Luther returned permanently after an approximately ten-month stay in the Wartburg Castle.  The electoral duke of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, had sent Luther to the Wartburg after the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, issued the Edict of Worms in May 1521.  The imperial decree made Luther an outlaw.  It also could implicate anyone who supported him.  In Luther’s absence the leadership of the early reform movement in Wittenberg fell to his young colleague, Philip Melanchthon.  Other theologians, like Andreas Karlstadt, began to implemente reforms to the liturgy and called upon the townspeople to remove images and statues from churches.  The Wittenberg town council approved many of these reforms in early 1522.  

Beginning on March 9, Luther preached eight sermons in eight days.  These sermons were later published and became known as the Invocavit Sermons because they were preached starting on Invocavit Sunday in Lent.  In these sermons, Luther took on the issues that had caused problems in his absence: changes to the divine service (the Mass) and the removal of images from churches.  However, he argued with great conviction that the gospel cannot be enforced by law and even what may be good changes can be done too quickly.  First, Luther stated that the people must be taught why these changes are necessary, then, after a time of instruction, officials should make the necessary changes.  He also stated that God’s preached word and right teaching would bring about more lasting change. He expressed it famously in this manner:

“For where the heart is not good, I care nothing at all for the work.  We must first win the hearts of the people.  But that is done when I teach only the Word of God, preach the gospel, and say: Dear lords or pastors, abandon the mass, it is not right, you are sinning when you do it; I cannot refrain from telling you this.  But I would not make it an ordinance for them, nor urge a general law.  He who would follow me could do so, and he who refused would remain outside.  In the latter case the Word could sink into the heart and do its work.  Thus he would become convinced and acknowledge his errors, and fall away from the mass; tomorrow another would do the same, and thus God would accomplish more with his Word than if you and I were to merge all our power into one heap.  So when you have won the heart, you have won the man–and thus the thing must finally fall of its own weight and come to an end.  And if the hearts and minds of all are agreed and united, abolish it.  But if all are not heart and soul for its abolishment–leave it in God’s hands, I beseech you, otherwise the result will not be good.” Martin Luther, Eight Sermons at Wittenberg (1522), in Luther’s Works 51:76 [Emphasis added]


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Universal Nature and Injustice

“Injustice is sin. When universal Nature has constituted rational creatures for the sake of each other–to benefit one another as deserved, but never to harm–anyone contravening her will is clearly guilty of sin against the oldest of the gods: because universal Nature is the nature of ultimate reality, to which all present existence is related.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Chap. 9, trans. Martin Hammond (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 83.

Marcus Aurelius (d. AD 180) ruled the Roman Empire from AD 161 to 180.  Despite his significant reign as the last of the “good emperors,” his written collection of short meditations have made him famous as a Stoic philosopher.  In this text he expresses the Stoic idea that justice is a universal ideal rooted in nature.

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Trust the Science

“Then came the explosion of this myth.  It climaxed in the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and in the fierce fury of fifty-megaton bombers.  Now we have come to see that science can give us only physical power, which if not controlled by spiritual power, will lead inevitably to cosmic doom….We need something more spiritually sustaining and morally controlling than science.  It is an instrument which, under the power of God’s spirit, may lead man to greater heights of physical security, but apart from God’s spirit, science is a deadly weapon that will lead only to deeper chaos.”*

Martin Luther King identified this myth as the idea that scientific innovation and technology could bring about a kind of utopian society.  He emphasized the fact that humanity’s deepest needs are spiritual as evidenced by the emotional and spiritual discontent in society.  Science, or knowledge of the material world, can lead to better temporal lives for humanity.  However, science also can lead to the greatest destructive powers in human existence: nuclear weapons. 

King concluded: “Why fool ourselves about automatic progress and the ability of man to save himself?  We must lift up our minds and eyes unto the hills from whence cometh our true help.  Then, and only then, will the advances of modern science be a blessing rather than a curse.”**   

*Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia 1963), p. 74.

**Ibid. 74-75. 

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God Descends into Dust

“Majesty compressed himself to join to our dust the best thing he had, which is himself.  God and dust, majesty and weakness, utter lowliness and utter sublimity  were united in a single person.  Nothing is more sublime than God, nothing is lower than dust–and yet God descended into dust with great condescension and dust ascended into God with great honor, so that whatever God did in it, the dust is believed to have done, and whatever is the dust bore, God is said to have borne in it by a mystery as ineffable as it is incomprehensible.” Bernard of Clairvaux, “On the Eve of the Lord’s Birth, Sermon Three” in Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season  (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 2007), p. 66.

Bernard of Clairvaux, the famous twelfth-century Cistercian preacher, describes the Incarnation of Christ as the union of God and dust.  God descends into the dust of humanity to redeem the dust itself. Notice, the dust ascended into God and received credit for whatever God-in-dust did.  Previous to this section Bernard described how God created human beings from the dust of the ground then endowed them with sensation and reason.  


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God Crowns His Own Gifts

One day someone asked Martin Luther whether godly persons should expect merit for their good works that result from their justification.  Luther answered that even the justified were still sinners, who pray for forgiveness and live under grace.  While God promises rewards to those who do good works, no works earn any merit.  Luther explained:

In short, the article of justification by Christ solves everything. If Christ merits it, we merit nothing.  In Christ there are gifts, not merits. Likewise, since capital and substantial righteousness is nothing, how much less will accidental righteousness count in God’s sight? Substantial righteousness is the righteousness of faith, but accidental righteousness is gifts, not merits.  God crowns nothing but his own gifts, as Augustine said. (Luther’s Works 54: 329) [Emphasis Added]

In Luther’s estimation, the gift of faith in Christ formed the substance of faith, but even the outward actions derived from faith were gifts.  He described how Augustine of Hippo demonstrated that merit rests completely on God’s grace and not on human will or activity.

Augustine (d.430) influenced Western Christian theology more than any writer except for Holy Scripture.   He lived during the tumultuous era of Germanic invasions.  In fact, he died as the Vandals approached Hippo in North Africa.  While Dr. Luther did criticize Augustine’s teaching at times,  Luther always emphasized Augustine’s influence on his own (re)discovery of the Gospel and grace.  Augustine taught clearly that salvation and eternal life were gifts which God bestowed by grace through faith in Christ.  When others inquired as to the role of merit in salvation, Augustine explained that grace by its very nature cannot be obtained by meriting anything.  Rather, it is God’s grace that grants faith and any merit associated with the good works resulting from faith.  Augustine stated concisely: “If, then, your good merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts.” (Augustine, On Grace and Free Will 6. 15., NPNF 5: 450.)

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