Community

In his First Apology (155 a.d.), the second-century Christian philosopher and apologist Justin Martyr wrote a fascinating account of Christian worship and beliefs. Originally addressed to the Roman emperor in defense of Christianity, Justin’s description gives us a window into what early Christians actually did when they gathered together to baptize, celebrate the Lord’s Supper, worship, and build community. Here is an excerpt from this classic book.
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How we dedicated ourselves to God when we were made new through Christ I will explain, since it might seem to be unfair if I left this out from my exposition. Those who are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true, and promise that they can live accordingly, are instructed to pray and beseech God with fasting for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast along with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are reborn by the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were reborn; for they are then washed in the water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savoir Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ said, “Unless you are born again you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.”

Now it is clear to all that those who have once come into being cannot enter the wombs of those who bore them. But as I quoted before, it was said through the prophet Isaiah how those who have sinned and repent shall escape from their sins. He said this: “Wash yourselves, be clean, take away wickedness from your souls, learn to do good, give judgment for the orphan and defend the cause of the widow, and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them as white as wool, and though they be as crimson, I will make them as white as snow.” . . .

After thus washing the one who has been convinced and signified his assent, [we] lead him to those who are called brethren, where they are assembled. They then earnestly offer common prayers for themselves and the one who has been illuminated and all others every where, that we may be made worthy, having learned the truth, to be found in deed good citizens and keepers of what is commanded, so that we may be saved with eternal salvation.

On finishing the prayers we greet each other with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of water and mixed wine are brought to the president of the brethren and he, taking them, sends up praise and glory to the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanksgiving at some length that we have been deemed worthy to receive these things from him. When he has finished the prayers and the thanksgiving, the whole congregation present assents, saying, “Amen.” “Amen” in the Hebrew language means, “So be it.” When the president has given thanks and the whole congregation has assented, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water, and they take it to the absent.

This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus. For the apostles in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, thus handed down what was commanded them: that Jesus, taking bread and having given thanks, said, “Do this for my memorial, this is my body”; and likewise taking the cup and giving thanks he said, “This is my blood”; and gave it to them alone. …

After these [services] we constantly remind each other of these things. Those who have more come to the aid of those who lack, and we are constantly together. Over all that we receive we bless the Maker of all things through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And, as said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president similarly sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen; the distribution, and reception of the consecrated [elements] by each one, takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons.

Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses to. What is collected is deposited with the president, and he takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among [us], and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need.

We all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturday, and on the day after Saturday, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them these things which I have passed on to you also for your serious consideration.

Making Sense of Mortification

 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”

Galatians 5:22-25

For many years I believed that “desires of the flesh” are bad, wrong, or otherwise opposed to God. As I grew older I started to question that belief. What’s wrong with enjoying a warm shower? Why should I not enjoy the sweetness of a strawberry? Is there hell-fire in my soft bed?

The answer to these questions is that there is nothing wrong with enjoying a warm shower, God is present in the sweetness of a strawberry, and no hell-fire is found in the comfort of my bed. So what is the obsession with mortification of the senses, passions, and desires? How are we to make sense of scripture passages like Galatians above?

On Easter morning, my son was sinking his teeth into the ears of a chocolate bunny, just after shoveling a fist full of starburst jellybeans into his mouth. I imagine the sugar melting on his tongue produced a rather enormous eruption of sweetness. I offered him a slice of the kiwi that I was eating. He refused with a wave of his hand. Too subtle a flavor I guess, but a true delight for those who have outgrown the dependence for an explosive dextrose addiction.

There is nothing wrong with chocolate. There is nothing sinful in jellybeans. There is nothing unholy about sugar. They are all part of the human experience, but what is truly misguided is a child’s obsession, compulsion, and infatuation with sugar. There isn’t a parent on earth who does not try to temper and mortify their child’s preoccupation with candy. It isn’t the candy itself that is bad, it is the addiction.

Don’t we act in similar fashion however? Do we not have our own addictions to food, comfort, money, security, praise, chemicals, alcohol, thought, desires, sex, pleasure, caffeine, gambling, anger, internet, technology, nicotine, work, relationships, love, exercise, health, television, shopping, medication, video games, entertainment, sports, gossip, pornography, among many many others.

Mortification has nothing to do with denying the goodness of God’s creation, but with destroying the addiction of our own creation. Addiction is idolatry in its purest form. Fasting and mortification and the purification of the senses is about putting creation back in its place, and refining our hearts to experience the subtle but deep sweetness of God’s presence. It’s about re-placing our hope for happiness and fulfillment from the things of this world, which have never once satisfied us but enslaved us, back to the creator of the world itself.

Mortification feels like dying. But it is the death of all that is false within us. Jesus called this “fasting”. And together with prayer (meditation or contemplation) they comprise the two things necessary to “be still”, in response to God’s command…

“Be still and know that I am God…”

-Psalm 46:10

Once we are still, then God’s grace may finally seep into our hearts and minds bringing about a true “repentance”, (metanoia, or new mind, a literal rewiring of your brain to be able to perceive as God does. This metanoia is what Jesus was preaching from the beginning of his ministry…

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent [metanoia]and believe the good news!”

-Mark 1:15

So, deny yourself and enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven within you!

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”

-Matthew 16:24

Fr. Richard Rohr

Dying to Self

In truth, we must change our very self-image rather than just be told some new things to see or do. To be a Christian is to objectively know that we share the same identity that Jesus enjoyed as both human and divine, which is what it means to “follow” him. In fact, I believe that this is the whole point of the Gospel and the Incarnation! (Read John 14 and 15 in their entirety, lest you think I am overstating my position; or study the early Fathers and Mothers of the Eastern Church, who understood this much more clearly than the Western Church.)

This realization that Someone is living in us and through us is exactly how we plug into a much larger mind and heart beyond our own. Afterward, we know in a different way, although we have to keep relearning this truth over and over again (the point of daily prayer). But it demands a major dying of our own small self, our ego. Maybe that’s why so few go there. As Jesus clearly puts it, one “self” must die for another “Self” to be born. That message is quite explicit in all four Gospels (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; John 12:24). In the practical order, this mostly feels like taking my “self,” my ego–both its hurts and its importance, which are largely manufactured by my mind–less seriously day by day. Growth in salvation is growth in liberation from the separate self and falling into our first nature, which is our “foundational holiness” or original, ontological union with God.

God has always–and only–been in union with an obviously imperfect humanity. That is the essential character of divine mercy. Salvation is always pure and total gift from God’s side. Living and thinking autonomously, separately, or cut off from such a Vine or Source is what Paul means by being foolish and unspiritual. Living in union is wisdom.

One must fully recognize that mystics like Francis and Clare were speaking from this place of conscious, chosen, and loving union with God, and such union was realized by surrendering to it and not by any achieving of it. Surrender to Another, participation in Another, and divine union are finally the same thing. Once we are aware that we participate in this union, we look out at reality from a much fuller Reality that now has eyes beyond and larger than our own. This is what it means to “live in Christ” (en Christo), to pray “through Christ,” or to do anything “in the name of God,” phrases with which Christians are quite familiar.