Maple seeds

April 29, 2010

In my yard, and in much of northern New Jersey, maple seeds are falling. These seeds are ingeniously equipped with wings, one wing per seed, so that, as the seed falls, the wing rotates, helicopter-fashion, and is borne up by the wind; the point of this device is, clearly, to carry the seeds away from the parent tree as far as possible and allow for their widest possible dispersion, thereby increasing the chances of some of them taking root while at the same time making life easier for the parent tree. It is as good an example of teleology in nature as one could ask for.

Normally, I would greet these signs of continuing life with joy, even given the prospect of having to clean them out of the gutters. But this year I am somewhat troubled by their appearance. The house in which I currently live is the house in which I was raised, and I distinctly remember that, when I was young, these seeds would fall around the middle of May; I know this because it was around the time of my birthday, May 22nd, that I would sweep them off the back steps. It seems clear that the maple seeds are falling this year two to three weeks earlier than they used to. A friend of mine mentioned to me yesterday that he has noticed the same thing with respect to the dandelions on his lawn and the flowers in his garden. And, most strangely, we have had a series of thunderstorms here in March and April, something that I would normally associate with summer weather.

Take these observations for what they are worth; they are not scientific proof of anything. But they agree with an increasing body of evidence, from around the world, that suggests that the planet is heating up. For my own part, I accept global warming as a reality, I accept also the common view of climate scientists that human activity — the burning of fossil fuels — is largely responsible for it, and I think concerted action needs to be taken to change things, including, in the first place, a large-scale conversion to renewable sources of energy. Those politicians who work actively for such change have my support; those who deny the existence of the problem, or who do all they can to delay and undermine any effective response to it, do not.

In the Book of Revelation, after the blowing of the seventh trumpet (11:15), the four and twenty elders who sit before God on their seats fall on their faces and worship God, saying:

“We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned. And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:17-18)

If one claims to be committed to a “culture of life,” then one ought to be committed to stop global warming. There are no two ways about it.

This Saturday, April 24th, a special program will be aired on WBAI, New York, 99.5 FM, from 2:30 to 5:00 p.m., commemorating the Armenian Genocide. According to the brief notice posted on the WBAI website, the producers of the program are Heidi Boghosian and Zaum Der Taulian. I plan to listen to this show on the radio, and, most likely, record it; for those not in the New York City area, the program can be heard over the Internet on live streaming audio at http://stream.wbai.org/. For those unable to hear it live, the program should be available afterwards at http://archive.wbai.org/.

Severian of Gabala’s Sermon on the Epiphany, or, to give it its full title, In magna die luminum, Jerosolymis prolata. De fide, deque generatione Filii ex Patre, was delivered, in Greek, in the city of Jerusalem on the 6th of January, probably in either the year 390 or the year 396 (that is, at least, Martin Jugie’s reckoning, based on the fact that, in those years, January 6th fell on a Sunday). The original Greek text is lost; an Armenian translation is extant, dating from the fifth century; it was edited and published, with a Latin translation, by Jean-Baptiste Aucher in the volume Severiani sive Seberiani Gabalorum episcopi Emesensis homiliæ nunc primum editæ ex antiqua versione armena in latinum sermonem translatæ (Venice 1837) (as Roger Pearse recently reported, this book is now available on Google Books). Below is given a passage from this sermon; the Latin text is cited from pp. 196-197 of Martin Jugie’s “Sévérien de Gabala et le Symbole Athanasien,” Échos d’Orient 14 (1911), 193-204; Jugie, in turn, reproduces the passage from Aucher, op. cit., pp. 13-17; the English translation is my own.

In his article, written just under a century ago, Jugie maintains that the passage from Severian’s sermon translated below shows numerous parallels with the Quicumque vult, that is, the “Athanasian Creed” (specifically, with its first, trinitarian section), too many parallels, in his view, to be merely accidental. To show this, Jugie sets phrases from the sermon and the Athanasian creed in parallel columns. He notes that this sermon is probably the libellum de Epiphaniæ solemnitate of which Gennadius of Marseilles speaks in his Liber de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis, c. xxi (PL 18, 1075), and speculates that it was brought to southern Gaul by John Cassian after his departure from Constantinople at the time of St. John Chrysostom’s exile. Jugie, it should be stressed, does not think that Severian composed the “Athanasian Creed”; he does, however, think that this and other sermons of Severian’s provided a template for the kind of language one finds in the Quicumque vult — language which accentuates the equality and unity of the persons through a rhetorical accumulation of parallel clauses. He discusses various fifth-century Latin writers as possible authors of the Quicumque vult, including Gennadius of Marseilles, Faustus of Riez, and Marius Mercator, without settling conclusively on any one of them.

Finally, I should note that Jugie sees the absolute, legally-binding language of the Quicumque vult — “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith; which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” — as rare among credal statements; one does not, for instance, encounter such language in the Nicene Creed itself, which begins simply “I believe” or “We believe.” There is, however, something of a parallel to such language in the late-fourth century Creed of Theodore of Mopsuestia, a creed that was in use among the Nestorians at the time of the Council of Ephesus. This leads Jugie to speculate that the Quicumque vult may have been originally intended as an antidote to Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Creed. That creed, it should be noted, laid particular stress on the idea that Holy Spirit was from the Father alone; the Quicumque vult lays equal stress on the idea that the Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son. Since the popularity of the Quicumque vult in the West was without doubt one of the main causes for the eventual introduction of the word Filioque into the Western text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, it is worth investigating what causes led to the Quicumque vult’s composition; if Jugie is right, one of those causes is to be seen in the writings of a Greek-speaking Syrian bishop named Severian of Gabala.


Erat Pater ingenitus, et Filius genitus, Ens ab illo Ente substantiali, vita e vita. Sicut, ait, Pater habet vitam in seipso, ita et Filio dedit habere vitam. Non quasi prius genuerit, et postmodum dederit ei vitam, sed Vivens viventem vitam genuit, et Creator creatorem, judicemque. Non enim improprie velut adscitiam habet Patris virtutem, sed ex natura æqualis ei fuit, juxta illud quod in Evangelio exponitur, quod: Omne quod Patris fuit, illud meum est. — Et: Ego et Pater meus unum sumus. — Et: Qui vidit me vidit Patrem. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, Being from that essential Being, Life from Life. For he says, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has given to the Son to have life” (Jn 5:26). Not as though he first begot him, and afterwards gave him life; but, as the Living One, he begot him, the Life, as Living, and, as Creator, he begot him as Creator and Judge. For [the Son] has the Father’s power, not improperly, as though it were a thing externally acquired, but he is equal to him by nature, according to that which is expressed in the Gospel, that “All that the Father has is mine” (Jn 16:15). And “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). And “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).
Omnia quæcumque Patris sunt, eadem et Filii, nisi solum quod non est Pater; et omne quicquid Filius est, idem et Pater, nisi solummodo quod non est Filius, nec carnem sumpsit; atque omne quidquid Pater est et Filius, idem et Spiritus sanctus, præter quod non est Pater et Filius, neque homo factus est, sicut Filius. Vivit Pater: Vivo ego, inquit, Dominus virtutum. Vivit et Filius: Ego sum, ait, vita et lux et veritas. Vivit et Spiritus sanctus: Caro nihil juvat, sed Spiritus est qui vivificat. All things whatsoever are the Father’s, the same things are the Son’s, excepting only that he is not a Father; and whatsoever thing the Son is, the same is the Father, excepting only that he is not a Son, nor has taken on flesh; again, whatsoever thing are the Father and the Son, the same is the Holy Spirit, aside from the fact that he is not a Father nor a Son, nor has he, like the Son, become man. The Father lives: for, “I live,” he says, “the Lord of hosts” (cf. Jer 46:18; Zeph 2:9). The Son also lives: “I am,” he says, “the life, and the light, and the truth” (Jn 14:6 and 1:9). The Holy Spirit also lives: “The flesh profits nothing; it is the Spirit that gives life” (Jn 6:63).
Unus est etiam Dominus, et unus Deus, et unus Rex; non Dominos, nec Deos, neque Reges profitemur sanctam Trinitatem, secundum quod Seraphim clamabant in templo: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus; ter Sanctus et semel Dominus. Siquidem unus est Dominatus Patris et Filii et Spiritus sancti. Unus Dominus et Deus, Pater; non est enim alius Deus Pater. Et unus Dominus et Deus, Filius; non est enim alius Filius. Et unus Dominus et Deus, Spiritus sanctus; non est enim alius Spiritus Deus, nisi Dei Spiritus. Unus est Deus Pater, ex quo omnia. Unus Dominus Jesus Christus, per quem omnia; et unus Spiritus sanctissimus, qui omnia renovat et sanctificat. Unum baptismum et unam Ecclesiam Paulus prædicat, non ipse, sed ille de quo dicebat: Si experimentum aliquod quæritis Christi, qui per me vobiscum loquitur. Again, there is one Lord, and one God, and one King; we do not profess the Holy Trinity to be Lords, or Gods, or Kings. This agrees with what the Seraphim cry in the Temple: “Holy, Holy, Holy” — thrice “Holy” and yet once “Lord” (Is 6:3). Since, indeed, there is one lordship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There is one Lord and God, the Father; for there is no other God the Father. And there is one Lord and God, the Son; for there is no other Son. And there is one Lord and God, the Holy Spirit: for there is no other God the Spirit, aside from the Spirit of God. One is God the Father, from whom are all things. One is the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things. And one is the Most Holy Spirit, who renews and sanctifies all things. One baptism and one Church are preached by Paul, or rather, not by himself, but by him of whom he said, “If you seek some proof of Christ, who speaks to you through me” (2 Cor 13:3).
Genuit Pater Filium, non tamen in Genitum suum mutatus fuit; sed est Pater, Pater; et Filius, Filius; et Spiritus sanctus, Spiritus Dei. Genitus est Filius, nec tamen in Patrem mutatus est; non enim in opprobrium vel in explosionem est Patris Filius, sed ex scientia [Jugie: ex essentia] Ingeniti Genitus. Ne diffidamus de divina generatione. Ne contemnamus et ipsius carnalem nativitatem. Ne pessumdemus et voluntariam paupertatem. Dignitas angelorum, honor coram standi est; dignitas Unigeniti sedere a dextra Patris. Angeli vel nomen ipsum ministerii est, et archangeli principatus ministerii. Deum autem apud Deum dici, nomen Dei est. Deum, inquam apud Deum, non Dii. Non enim duos Ingenitos neque duos Genitos confitemur, sed unum Ingenitum et unum Genitum, et unum Spiritum veritatis ex Patre procedentem. The Father begot the Son, but he has not been changed into the one begotten by him; but the Father is Father; and the Son is Son; and the Holy Spirit is God’s Spirit. The Son is begotten, but has not been changed into a Father; for it is in no way to his shame or discredit to be Son of the Father, but he is begotten of the essence* of the Unbegotten. Let us not show little faith in the divine generation. Let us also not show contempt for his nativity in the flesh. Let us not put down his voluntary poverty. The dignity of the angels is the honor of standing in his presence; the dignity of the Only-begotten is to sit at the right hand of the Father. Even the name itself “angel” names a ministerial function, and the name “archangel” names a principal ministerial function. But to be called “God” alongside God — that names God. God, I say, alongside God, not “Gods.” For we do not confess two Unbegottens, nor two Begottens, but one Unbegotten, and one Begotten, and one Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father.
Tres et unus, unus et tres, quia unam essentiam sanctæ Trinitatis profitemur, in tribus hypostasibus perfectarum personarum. Non enim persona Patris est persona Filii, neque persona Filii aut Spiritus sancti est persona Patris, quamquam jam inde ex una ipsa essentia Patris est Filius et Spiritus sanctus. Quoniam Unigenitus Filius, qui ante sæcula est et ex Patre et apud Patrem, Deus apud Deum, et idem homo cum hominibus, non decidens a divinitate, etsi incarnatus comperitur, non deturbatus a prima sua nativitate, etsi per carnalem nativitatem ex Virgine apparuit in carne natus. Imo etiam dum in utero Virginis erat, non erant ab ipso vacui cœli et terra universaque creatura. Three and One, One and Three: for we profess one essence of the Holy Trinity, in three hypostases of perfect persons. For the person of the Father is not the person of the Son, nor is the person of the Son, or that of the Holy Spirit, the person of the Father, albeit it is, indeed, out of the one very essence of the Father that the Son and the Holy Spirit exist. For the Only-begotten Son, who before all ages exists both from the Father and with the Father, is God with God, and is, the very same, man with men, without any falling away from his divinity, even if he is found to have taken on manhood, nor is he cast down from his first nativity, even if, by his fleshly nativity from a virgin, he has appeared as one born in the flesh. Rather, even while he was in the Virgin’s womb, the heavens and the earth and the whole creation had not been emptied of him.
Ingenito Deo Patri, et Genito ab ipso Filio unigenito et Spiritui sancto procedenti ex illorum essentia, tribus in una substantia omnis gloria, nunc et semper, et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen. To God the Father, the Unbegotten, and to the Only-begotten Son, begotten from him, and to the Holy Spirit who proceeds† from their essence, to the Three in One substance, be all glory, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

*Reading, with Jugie, ex essentia instead of ex scientia.

†The Latin word procedere commonly translates a number of different Greek words; what the original word Severian used here is not clear. It might have been προϊέντι or προερχομένῳ, in which case the translation would read “who comes forth from their essence.”

The Harrowing of Hell

April 3, 2010

Last week, a friend of mine, who is writing a screenplay, asked me a question about Christ’s descent into hell. He wondered what scriptural support the doctrine had. I told him that, so far as I am aware, the doctrine is based on a single New Testament passage. In the First Letter of Peter, it is said that Christ “went and preached unto the spirits in prison”:

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3: 18-20)

This preaching to the spirits in prison is understood to have occurred during the interval between Christ’s death and his resurrection, and it is that descent into hell that is particularly commemorated by the Church on Holy Saturday. My friend, somewhat surprised, asked me if that was all the scriptural support the doctrine had. I told him that, in the Bible itself, that was all, although in Christian tradition the doctrine has a long history; the usual Orthodox icon of the Resurrection is actually a depiction of the Harrowing of Hell; Christ stands on hell’s broken gates, and is grasping the hand of an old man—Adam—and, in some versions of the icon, the hand also of a woman, Eve. I also mentioned to him a passage in Dante’s Inferno, in which Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell, points out a place where, such and such number of years before, someone came through and broke down a wall. I looked for that passage today, and eventually found it in Canto XXI:

Then to us he said: ‘To go further along this ridge
Is not a thing you can do, because the sixth arch
Is lying in pieces down at the bottom;

And if you wish none the less to go on,
Keep up upon the ridge above the bank;
Nearby is another projection where there is a way.

Yesterday, five hours later than this hour,
One thousand two hundred and sixty six years
Had passed, exactly, since the path was destroyed.

I am sending some of my troop in that direction,
To make sure no one has come up for air:
Go with them, they will not be treacherous.’

(Inferno, Canto XXI, lines 106-117; C. H. Sisson, tr.)

As usual, when citing things from memory, I got some of my facts wrong. These lines are spoken in the fifth chasm of the eighth circle of hell (Malebolge), not, as it turns out, by Virgil, as I had thought, but by a demon named Malacoda (Evil Tail), who, as it also turns out, is lying to Virgil: there is, in fact, no bridge in the direction to which he is pointing the two poets, but he is leading them into a trap; not long afterwards, in Canto XXIII, Virgil has to extricate Dante and himself from this trap and from an imminent demonic assault by grabbing Dante and holding him safe while sliding down the rocks to the next level of hell. But the temporal indications Malacoda gives are very precise: 1266 years ago yesterday, he says, five hours later than this hour. A note by David Higgins, accompanying Sisson’s translation, interprets this to mean that, when Malacoda is speaking, it is 7:00 in the morning; Dorothy L. Sayers disagrees: in the notes to her translation (the old Penguin translation, now out of print), she points out that, according to the Synoptic Gospels, Christ’s death occurred at the ninth hour, i.e., 3 p.m., which would put Dante’s and Virgil’s visit to this particular bowge at 10:00 a.m. on Holy Saturday. It should be noted that the Divine Comedy begins on Good Friday in the year 1300, when Dante is 35 years old (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,” that is, midway in our journey of life of three score and ten years). Dante thus dates the crucifixion to the year 34 A.D.

Perhaps it would be foolish of me to inquire what time zone it is in hell, and to what standard the demons set their clocks. Infernal Standard Time, presumably. Infernal Standard Time is defined by it being always too late to do anything that might make one happy.

May the readers of my blog not set their clocks to Infernal Standard Time, and may they have a joyous Easter.

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