Is “general confession” a sacrament? If so, when did it become one?

For those who may have no notion of what I am talking about, I refer to the practice wherein a congregation approaches a priest for absolution after the priest has read aloud a general statement of sins and the parishioners have replied with a general acknowledgment of their repentance, couched in the first-person singular. I have never encountered this practice in the Greek Church proper, but it is fairly common in parishes of the OCA, that is, the Orthodox Church in America, the former Russian Metropolia, including the parish which I attend in New Jersey.

This past Sunday, knowing that there would be a large crowd of people, I arrived at church about a half hour before liturgy. At a quarter to the hour, the priest came out from behind the altar and began to read the “Examination of Conscience”: Have I stolen anything, have I lied, have I cheated anyone, have I been negligent in my work, etc. Somewhat half-heartedly, I went downstairs from the choir loft and stood amongst the congregation, hearing the litany of sins and thinking to myself which of them did or did not apply in my own case. I read the prayer of repentance along with everyone else, and got into the line for absolution, although feeling a little uneasy about the whole process, partly because the question with which I began this essay was present in the back of my mind. As usually occurs when there is a general confession, many people simply get into the line when they stroll into the church; on this occasion, a woman I know, a Russian woman who I guess is in her late 50’s, came into the church and, seeing the line, asked if it was a line for communion or for confession; she clearly found the whole thing a bit odd, although, like me, she also got onto the line. The feeling persisted that perhaps I should not be standing in this line, since “whatsoever is not of faith is sin”; but I also felt that to step out of the line would be interpreted as insulting to the priest, and perhaps as meaning that I felt I needed no repentance; so I went through the procedure. I later received communion, did not feel particularly joyous, and, by the end of the liturgy, had fallen into a minor altercation with another member of the choir over some completely trivial matter, which left me feeling depressed and which I shall probably bring up at an actual, auricular confession sometime later this week.

I have to say that I have never felt entirely happy about this practice of general confession. I have never found it to deliver much in the way of a healing of the conscience, if there is something particular weighing upon it; and if there is no particular sin that weighs upon the conscience, what is the point of going through this receiving line? If the point of it is a general acknowledgment of our sinfulness, there is certainly enough of that in the liturgy itself. Although all of us in general are sinners, sin is always a particular phenomenon, and its healing depends upon an acknowledgment of what we have done in our particularity. We sin as persons, not as an anonymous crowd; the practice of general confession, as I have mostly experienced it, far from encouraging genuine repentance, seems rather to encourage a kind of herd mentality: we’ll get into this line because a line is forming, and because not to get onto this line would be to go against what everyone else is doing.

Apparently, the practice of general confession originated in the late nineteenth century, in the ministry of St. John of Kronstadt. The introduction to The Spiritual Counsels of Father John of Kronstadt, edited by W. Jardine Grisbrooke (Cambridge, England and Crestwood, NY, 1967), pp. xxiii f., relates the following:

“This insistence on giving the sacraments their proper place was Father John’s greatest legacy to the Orthodox Church, and to the Russian Church in particular, and it was manifest not only in his teaching, but also in his pastoral practice. I have already remarked upon his daily celebration of the liturgy; he himself said that not to celebrate the liturgy was to him as death. Moreover, in sharp contrast with the prevailing custom of very infrequent communion, he insisted that all who worshipped with him should communicate with him also, and since he could not possibly hear the confessions of the thousands who flocked to his church, he substituted for auricular confession a form of public confession, his congregation confessing their sins one to another—a daring innovation which, however, received divine sanction in a vision granted to a layman present one day in the church, of our Lord stretching his hands out over all the people as Father John gave the general absolution.”

Now, I would point out that, however legitimate the practice of a public confession of sins may have been in the pastoral work of St. John of Kronstadt, “general confession,” as commonly practiced in the OCA, bears little resemblance with this picture: the members of the congregation, present at most general confessions, do not confess their sins to one another; they confess their sins silently to God, and go to receive absolution from the priest individually. Moreover, in most cases the practice is not necessitated by “thousands” flocking to the church (although it may indeed be that considerations of practical expediency have weighed heavily in favor of the adoption of the practice). What the above-cited passage does make clear is that, if a mass form of absolution was deemed necessary in the Russian Church and has not been deemed necessary elsewhere, it is because, in the Russian Church, the common assumption was that a Christian layman was required to go to confession before every reception of holy communion. Such an assumption made frequent reception of holy communion by the whole congregation a practical impossibility, unless some such a mode of “mass confession” were adopted. It seems to me self-evident that that is the original premise for this peculiar custom.

I looked on the Orthodox Wiki this morning to see if I could find an article devoted to the subject of general confession. There isn’t one, but there are links to two very interesting papers by the late Archpriest Alexander Schmemann. One of them is a paper titled “Some reflections on Confession” that was published in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly in 1961 (vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 38-44); the other is a report by Fr. Schmemann to the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, titled “Confession and Communion,” which was accepted and approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America on February 17, 1972. The Holy Synod’s formal statement of approval of Fr. Schmemann’s recommendations is worth citing here:

The Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and professor of liturgical theology, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann presented a report on Confession and Communion. The report is attached.

Resolved: 1) That the report of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann is received with gratitude and approbation. 2) That the idea of a renewal in the Eucharistic life in the Church is not only desirable but indispensable. Therefore, practice of more frequent Communion is encouraged in all parishes of our Church. In this connection, and for the purpose of deepening the spirit of repentance among the laity, in addition to individual Confession, practice of General Confessions is also blessed based on the following principles:

  1. As a rule, General Confession takes place in the evening following the evening service. The person wishing to receive Holy Communion must be in Church at least on the eve of Communion. The common practice of Confession just prior to Liturgy is harmful and should be permitted only in very special cases.
  2. General Confession begins with the reading of the “Prayers Before Confession” which in current practice are generally omitted but which, nevertheless, form an organic part of the Sacrament of Confession.
  3. Following the prayers, the priest invites the penitents to pray for a spirit of repentance in order that they might see their own sins without which the formal Confession cannot produce spiritual benefit.
  4. Then follows Confession proper in which the priest enumerates those sins by which in thought and desire we offend God, our neighbor, and ourselves. Since the priest, as all men standing before God, knows sin, and sees his own sinfulness, his enumeration of sins, therefore, is not formal but sincere coming from a humble and contrite spirit. Rather than being a confession of “you” his enumeration of sins comes from “us,” everyone realizing the sin as his own and all are able to repent. The more the priest is able to examine his own conscience the more full will be the confession and the spirit of repentance for all participants.
  5. The priest invites the penitents to direct their spiritual gaze toward the Lord’s banquet which awaits us and which is given to us in spite of our unworthiness.
  6. The priest then invites those who find need for further expression of their sins to stand aside while the remainder approach for the Prayer of Absolution and adoration of the Crucifix.
  7. Finally, after the Prayer of Absolution has been read over each penitent, the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion are read while those wishing to add to their confession approach the Confessional.

Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance. This decision of the Holy Synod is intended as a norm and regulation for the performance of General Confession and not simply as a suggestion, recommendation, or advice. Those clergy who ignore this norm and regulation are subject to Canonical Sanctions.

Resolved: To remind the clergy of the instructions previously prepared by the Liturgical Commission and confirmed by the Holy Synod that serving the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom during Great Lent with the exception of Saturdays and Palm Sunday and the serving of Requiem Liturgies on Holy Thursday and Saturday are forbidden.

Resolved: That the report prepared by Fr. Schmemann be reproduced in both Russian and English and be distributed.

Without wanting to be contentious, I would note that what the Synod describes here as “harmful” and as permissible “only in very special cases” is the standard, routine practice at my own parish, that is to say, the practice of holding a general confession just prior to Sunday liturgy. I would also note that the bishops’ injunction, that, if you want to receive communion in the morning, you must attend the service of preparation on the evening before, is not generally observed or even mentioned, either at my own parish or most other places.

I would also note that Fr. Schmemann rejects the premise on which general confession was based in the first place, the premise, namely, that says that confession and absolution is obligatory before every reception of holy communion. In his 1972 essay “Confession and Communion,” approved by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, he wrote the following:

“This practice, and I repeat once more, a natural and self-evident one in the case of infrequent, once-a-year, communion, led to the appearance in the Church of a theory according to which the communion of laity, different in this from the communion of clergy, is impossible without the sacrament of penance, so that confession is an obligatory condition — always and in all cases — for communion. I dare to affirm that this theory (which spread mainly in the Russian Church) not only has no foundation in Tradition, but openly contradicts the Orthodox doctrine of the Church, of the Sacrament of Communion and of that of Penance.”

So, although the view of confession as an obligatory condition for communion is rejected, the practice of general confession, which originally arose in order to allow that obligation to be fulfilled by vast crowds of people, is retained, but with a new justification: the point of general confession is now seen to consist in its serving as a kind of school for the examination of conscience for secularized American Christians who are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as sinners. Its aim is to improve examination of conscience in the private confession itself. As the memo of the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America states:

“Practice reveals that those who participate in this type of General Confession learn to make better private confession. The General Confession is not a replacement of private confession, but is rather for those who commune frequently and who regularly make their private confessions, who realize the need in our times for a regular examination and cleansing of conscience and repentance.”

But this leaves me still with my original question. If general confession is conceived of as a kind of teaching tool, aimed at educating Christian consciences concerning the reality of sin, and if there is a kind of tacit acknowledgment that, if there are any serious moral and spiritual issues burdening a Christian’s conscience, such issues need to be brought up in a private, auricular confession and not be covered over with this general, all-purpose blanket, can the general, all-purpose blanket really be said to be the same sacrament as the sacrament of confession? Is it, indeed, a sacrament at all? I am not questioning the usefulness and value of getting people to examine their consciences—although I am convinced that, in most cases, the ritual of general confession fails miserably at doing that. I am questioning whether such self-examination, lacking an explicit acknowledgment of particular sins, is a sacrament. If it is, what makes it to be such?


The following letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholic Church of Ireland, issued this past weekend, addresses the much-publicized scandals in that country involving clerical sexual abuse of children and allegations of official cover-up. The text is given below as found on the Vatican website.

Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland

1. Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Church in Ireland, it is with great concern that I write to you as Pastor of the universal Church. Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.

As you know, I recently invited the Irish bishops to a meeting here in Rome to give an account of their handling of these matters in the past and to outline the steps they have taken to respond to this grave situation. Together with senior officials of the Roman Curia, I listened to what they had to say, both individually and as a group, as they offered an analysis of mistakes made and lessons learned, and a description of the programmes and protocols now in place. Our discussions were frank and constructive. I am confident that, as a result, the bishops will now be in a stronger position to carry forward the work of repairing past injustices and confronting the broader issues associated with the abuse of minors in a way consonant with the demands of justice and the teachings of the Gospel.

2. For my part, considering the gravity of these offences, and the often inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in your country, I have decided to write this Pastoral Letter to express my closeness to you and to propose a path of healing, renewal and reparation.

It is true, as many in your country have pointed out, that the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church. Nevertheless, the task you now face is to address the problem of abuse that has occurred within the Irish Catholic community, and to do so with courage and determination. No one imagines that this painful situation will be resolved swiftly. Real progress has been made, yet much more remains to be done. Perseverance and prayer are needed, with great trust in the healing power of God’s grace.

At the same time, I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children. Such an acknowledgement, accompanied by sincere sorrow for the damage caused to these victims and their families, must lead to a concerted effort to ensure the protection of children from similar crimes in the future.

As you take up the challenges of this hour, I ask you to remember “the rock from which you were hewn” (Is 51:1). Reflect upon the generous, often heroic, contributions made by past generations of Irish men and women to the Church and to humanity as a whole, and let this provide the impetus for honest self-examination and a committed programme of ecclesial and individual renewal. It is my prayer that, assisted by the intercession of her many saints and purified through penance, the Church in Ireland will overcome the present crisis and become once more a convincing witness to the truth and the goodness of Almighty God, made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ.

3. Historically, the Catholics of Ireland have proved an enormous force for good at home and abroad. Celtic monks like Saint Columbanus spread the Gospel in Western Europe and laid the foundations of medieval monastic culture. The ideals of holiness, charity and transcendent wisdom born of the Christian faith found expression in the building of churches and monasteries and the establishment of schools, libraries and hospitals, all of which helped to consolidate the spiritual identity of Europe. Those Irish missionaries drew their strength and inspiration from the firm faith, strong leadership and upright morals of the Church in their native land.

From the sixteenth century on, Catholics in Ireland endured a long period of persecution, during which they struggled to keep the flame of faith alive in dangerous and difficult circumstances. Saint Oliver Plunkett, the martyred Archbishop of Armagh, is the most famous example of a host of courageous sons and daughters of Ireland who were willing to lay down their lives out of fidelity to the Gospel. After Catholic Emancipation, the Church was free to grow once more. Families and countless individuals who had preserved the faith in times of trial became the catalyst for the great resurgence of Irish Catholicism in the nineteenth century. The Church provided education, especially for the poor, and this was to make a major contribution to Irish society. Among the fruits of the new Catholic schools was a rise in vocations: generations of missionary priests, sisters and brothers left their homeland to serve in every continent, especially in the English-speaking world. They were remarkable not only for their great numbers, but for the strength of their faith and the steadfastness of their pastoral commitment. Many dioceses, especially in Africa, America and Australia, benefited from the presence of Irish clergy and religious who preached the Gospel and established parishes, schools and universities, clinics and hospitals that served both Catholics and the community at large, with particular attention to the needs of the poor.

In almost every family in Ireland, there has been someone – a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle – who has given his or her life to the Church. Irish families rightly esteem and cherish their loved ones who have dedicated their lives to Christ, sharing the gift of faith with others, and putting that faith into action in loving service of God and neighbour.

4. In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.

Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and effective remedies be found. Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. Urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, and have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.

5. On several occasions since my election to the See of Peter, I have met with victims of sexual abuse, as indeed I am ready to do in the future. I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them. Earlier in my pontificate, in my concern to address this matter, I asked the bishops of Ireland, “to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected, and above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes” (Address to the Bishops of Ireland, 28 October 2006).

With this Letter, I wish to exhort all of you, as God’s people in Ireland, to reflect on the wounds inflicted on Christ’s body, the sometimes painful remedies needed to bind and heal them, and the need for unity, charity and mutual support in the long-term process of restoration and ecclesial renewal. I now turn to you with words that come from my heart, and I wish to speak to each of you individually and to all of you as brothers and sisters in the Lord.

6. To the victims of abuse and their families

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.

Speaking to you as a pastor concerned for the good of all God’s children, I humbly ask you to consider what I have said. I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church – a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity – you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace.

7. To priests and religious who have abused children

You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes himself present in us and in our actions. Together with the immense harm done to victims, great damage has been done to the Church and to the public perception of the priesthood and religious life.

I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment. By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions. Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil. At the same time, God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing. Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.

8. To parents

You have been deeply shocked to learn of the terrible things that took place in what ought to be the safest and most secure environment of all. In today’s world it is not easy to build a home and to bring up children. They deserve to grow up in security, loved and cherished, with a strong sense of their identity and worth. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person, to be inspired by the truth of our Catholic faith and to learn ways of behaving and acting that lead to healthy self-esteem and lasting happiness. This noble but demanding task is entrusted in the first place to you, their parents. I urge you to play your part in ensuring the best possible care of children, both at home and in society as a whole, while the Church, for her part, continues to implement the measures adopted in recent years to protect young people in parish and school environments. As you carry out your vital responsibilities, be assured that I remain close to you and I offer you the support of my prayers.

9. To the children and young people of Ireland

I wish to offer you a particular word of encouragement. Your experience of the Church is very different from that of your parents and grandparents. The world has changed greatly since they were your age. Yet all people, in every generation, are called to travel the same path through life, whatever their circumstances may be. We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people. But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever (cf. Heb 13:8). He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust! He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart. Together with your fellow Catholics in Ireland, I look to you to be faithful disciples of our Lord and to bring your much-needed enthusiasm and idealism to the rebuilding and renewal of our beloved Church.

10. To the priests and religious of Ireland

All of us are suffering as a result of the sins of our confreres who betrayed a sacred trust or failed to deal justly and responsibly with allegations of abuse. In view of the outrage and indignation which this has provoked, not only among the lay faithful but among yourselves and your religious communities, many of you feel personally discouraged, even abandoned. I am also aware that in some people’s eyes you are tainted by association, and viewed as if you were somehow responsible for the misdeeds of others. At this painful time, I want to acknowledge the dedication of your priestly and religious lives and apostolates, and I invite you to reaffirm your faith in Christ, your love of his Church and your confidence in the Gospel’s promise of redemption, forgiveness and interior renewal. In this way, you will demonstrate for all to see that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (cf. Rom 5:20).

I know that many of you are disappointed, bewildered and angered by the way these matters have been handled by some of your superiors. Yet, it is essential that you cooperate closely with those in authority and help to ensure that the measures adopted to respond to the crisis will be truly evangelical, just and effective. Above all, I urge you to become ever more clearly men and women of prayer, courageously following the path of conversion, purification and reconciliation. In this way, the Church in Ireland will draw new life and vitality from your witness to the Lord’s redeeming power made visible in your lives.

11. To my brother bishops

It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise. They too have taken part in recent discussions here in Rome with a view to establishing a clear and consistent approach to these matters. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.

Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal. The Irish people rightly expect you to be men of God, to be holy, to live simply, to pursue personal conversion daily. For them, in the words of Saint Augustine, you are a bishop; yet with them you are called to be a follower of Christ (cf. Sermon 340, 1). I therefore exhort you to renew your sense of accountability before God, to grow in solidarity with your people and to deepen your pastoral concern for all the members of your flock. In particular, I ask you to be attentive to the spiritual and moral lives of each one of your priests. Set them an example by your own lives, be close to them, listen to their concerns, offer them encouragement at this difficult time and stir up the flame of their love for Christ and their commitment to the service of their brothers and sisters.

The lay faithful, too, should be encouraged to play their proper part in the life of the Church. See that they are formed in such a way that they can offer an articulate and convincing account of the Gospel in the midst of modern society (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) and cooperate more fully in the Church’s life and mission. This in turn will help you once again become credible leaders and witnesses to the redeeming truth of Christ.

12. To all the faithful of Ireland

A young person’s experience of the Church should always bear fruit in a personal and life-giving encounter with Jesus Christ within a loving, nourishing community. In this environment, young people should be encouraged to grow to their full human and spiritual stature, to aspire to high ideals of holiness, charity and truth, and to draw inspiration from the riches of a great religious and cultural tradition. In our increasingly secularized society, where even we Christians often find it difficult to speak of the transcendent dimension of our existence, we need to find new ways to pass on to young people the beauty and richness of friendship with Jesus Christ in the communion of his Church. In confronting the present crisis, measures to deal justly with individual crimes are essential, yet on their own they are not enough: a new vision is needed, to inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common faith. By treading the path marked out by the Gospel, by observing the commandments and by conforming your lives ever more closely to the figure of Jesus Christ, you will surely experience the profound renewal that is so urgently needed at this time. I invite you all to persevere along this path.

13. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is out of deep concern for all of you at this painful time in which the fragility of the human condition has been so starkly revealed that I have wished to offer these words of encouragement and support. I hope that you will receive them as a sign of my spiritual closeness and my confidence in your ability to respond to the challenges of the present hour by drawing renewed inspiration and strength from Ireland’s noble traditions of fidelity to the Gospel, perseverance in the faith and steadfastness in the pursuit of holiness. In solidarity with all of you, I am praying earnestly that, by God’s grace, the wounds afflicting so many individuals and families may be healed and that the Church in Ireland may experience a season of rebirth and spiritual renewal.

14. I now wish to propose to you some concrete initiatives to address the situation.

At the conclusion of my meeting with the Irish bishops, I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country. I now invite all of you to devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland. I encourage you to discover anew the sacrament of Reconciliation and to avail yourselves more frequently of the transforming power of its grace.

Particular attention should also be given to Eucharistic adoration, and in every diocese there should be churches or chapels specifically devoted to this purpose. I ask parishes, seminaries, religious houses and monasteries to organize periods of Eucharistic adoration, so that all have an opportunity to take part. Through intense prayer before the real presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm, at the same time imploring the grace of renewed strength and a deeper sense of mission on the part of all bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.

I am confident that this programme will lead to a rebirth of the Church in Ireland in the fullness of God’s own truth, for it is the truth that sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32).

Furthermore, having consulted and prayed about the matter, I intend to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. Arrangements for the Visitation, which is intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal, will be made in cooperation with the competent offices of the Roman Curia and the Irish Episcopal Conference. The details will be announced in due course.

I also propose that a nationwide Mission be held for all bishops, priests and religious. It is my hope that, by drawing on the expertise of experienced preachers and retreat-givers from Ireland and from elsewhere, and by exploring anew the conciliar documents, the liturgical rites of ordination and profession, and recent pontifical teaching, you will come to a more profound appreciation of your respective vocations, so as to rediscover the roots of your faith in Jesus Christ and to drink deeply from the springs of living water that he offers you through his Church.

In this Year for Priests, I commend to you most particularly the figure of Saint John Mary Vianney, who had such a rich understanding of the mystery of the priesthood. “The priest”, he wrote, “holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of his goods.” The Curé d’Ars understood well how greatly blessed a community is when served by a good and holy priest: “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.” Through the intercession of Saint John Mary Vianney, may the priesthood in Ireland be revitalized, and may the whole Church in Ireland grow in appreciation for the great gift of the priestly ministry.

I take this opportunity to thank in anticipation all those who will be involved in the work of organizing the Apostolic Visitation and the Mission, as well as the many men and women throughout Ireland already working for the safety of children in church environments. Since the time when the gravity and extent of the problem of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions first began to be fully grasped, the Church has done an immense amount of work in many parts of the world in order to address and remedy it. While no effort should be spared in improving and updating existing procedures, I am encouraged by the fact that the current safeguarding practices adopted by local Churches are being seen, in some parts of the world, as a model for other institutions to follow.

I wish to conclude this Letter with a special Prayer for the Church in Ireland, which I send to you with the care of a father for his children and with the affection of a fellow Christian, scandalized and hurt by what has occurred in our beloved Church. As you make use of this prayer in your families, parishes and communities, may the Blessed Virgin Mary protect and guide each of you to a closer union with her Son, crucified and risen. With great affection and unswerving confidence in God’s promises, I cordially impart to all of you my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of strength and peace in the Lord.

From the Vatican, 19 March 2010, on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph


Prayer for the Church in Ireland

God of our fathers,
renew us in the faith which is our life and salvation,
the hope which promises forgiveness and interior renewal,
the charity which purifies and opens our hearts
to love you, and in you, each of our brothers and sisters.

Lord Jesus Christ,
may the Church in Ireland renew her age-old commitment
to the education of our young people in the way of truth and goodness, holiness and generous service to society.

Holy Spirit, comforter, advocate and guide,
inspire a new springtime of holiness and apostolic zeal
for the Church in Ireland.

May our sorrow and our tears,
our sincere effort to redress past wrongs,
and our firm purpose of amendment
bear an abundant harvest of grace
for the deepening of the faith
in our families, parishes, schools and communities,
for the spiritual progress of Irish society,
and the growth of charity, justice, joy and peace
within the whole human family.

To you, Triune God,
confident in the loving protection of Mary,
Queen of Ireland, our Mother,
and of Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid and all the saints,
do we entrust ourselves, our children,
and the needs of the Church in Ireland.


On Physiognomy

March 17, 2010

Aristotle says that thinking does not occur without images (De Anima III.7, 431a17). In support of this observation, I would note my own curious habit, when reading, to form mental pictures of persons whom I have never seen and of whose appearance I actually have no notion. Often these mental pictures are later found to bear little resemblance to reality. Orthodox iconography appeals to this natural human tendency by presenting standard ways of representing people: St. Paul is always represented as balding and dark-haired, with a dark beard, a somewhat thin man, as befits a scholar; St. Peter is usually shown with a full head of greying, curly hair and a short, curly beard, a stocky, muscular man, as befits a fisherman. The Three Great Hierarchs have their own recognizable physiognomies; no one familiar with Orthodox iconography would confuse an image of St. Basil the Great with an image of St. Gregory the Theologian, or, again, an image of either of them with one of St. John Chrysostom. It is possible that these iconographic traditions go back to portraits drawn from life; it is also possible that, in some cases, they are imaginary representations. Whether the iconographic tradition of representing female saints is as well developed as this, I would not venture to say; I can recognize an image of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg from afar and can differentiate it from, say, an image of St. Mary of Egypt or from an icon of St. Macrina, more however because of their respective manners of dress than from their physiognomies as such.

So what do I imagine people like John Bekkos, Gregory of Cyprus, George Metochites, Constantine Meliteniotes, George Moschabar, the Emperor Michael Palaiologos, and all the rest of the characters I am engaged in studying looked like?

I used to think that Gregory of Cyprus looked like Vice President Dick Cheney with a beard. That is to say, someone with an ingrained scowl, someone whose long experience in secret dealings behind other’s backs to overthrow political and personal enemies had left recognizable traces upon the face that God gave him, leaving a kind of public testimony to a life shaped by arrogance and resentment. I have no way of demonstrating the truth of this intuition, and probably if I were better versed in the Cypriot’s own writings I would have to revise this picture in various ways, but I am simply stating for the record how I have imagined his appearance.

Is it not a remarkable thing how the mind shapes the body? If one looks at a picture of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and compares it to a picture of Rush Limbaugh, does one not detect a certain spiritual resemblance: the pudginess of the face, the beadiness of the eyes? One would think that holding certain political views for long periods of time effected changes in one’s bodily structure: the eyes and brain shrink from lack of use, the jowls expand….

What about Bekkos? I am not sure. There is a representation of him made by an anonymous artist in the seventeenth century to accompany Jacques Goar’s Euchologion; some months ago I scanned this image and added it to the Wikipedia article on Bekkos. The image shows a medieval Greek bishop, holding the wide-brimmed hat then in use, leaning slightly backward on his episcopal staff, as if poised either to declaim against some injustice or perhaps to hurl the said episcopal staff down on the ground in a fit, as Bekkos once did in the presence of the Emperor Michael when the latter refused to pardon a man. The expression on his face is somewhat ambiguous, and might even be read as a smile, but more likely it is an expression of defiance in response to some affront or to some egregious statement of untruth. The dramatic poise suggests that the artist was acquainted with the acting conventions of seventeenth-century Italian opera.

I have no idea if this image looks anything like Bekkos’s actual appearance. It conveys a certain type: an image of a Greek bishop, forthrightly glaring at his foes, passionately rejecting the perpetuation of Christian division. In some ways, that is all that an image of a person one has never seen can be expected to do: to give a visual representation of the fundamental idea that shaped the person’s life. The image serves as a kind of play actor. One does not have to see a production of the play King Lear to know that the leading role has to be performed by a man who can convey both authority and instability at the same time. An image of King Lear is already present in our minds before we see Richard Burton or whoever else performs the role on stage take it upon himself for a certain season. And few people can actually perform this role convincingly because, quite simply, few of us have the internal resources of character to represent greatness. There are few things more pathetic than to see a convention of Lincoln impersonators, men who think that, by merely donning a beard and a stovepipe hat, they can cover the mediocrity of their own lives and represent this man to other people. One cannot put on a love of justice and truth quite so easily as a hat and a beard; without that, the external representation rings hollow.

Whatever the external lineaments of John Bekkos’s face, it is clear to me that a love of justice and truth formed part of the internal lineaments of his mind and heart; given the nature of things, these internal lineaments probably manifested themselves upon his countenance in some way eventually. It is also fairly clear that the man had his limitations: at the show trial of early 1283, he consented to sign a document condemning his own teaching, and much of the final years of his life are marked by an unmistakable sense of bitterness towards the man who succeeded him as Patriarch of Constantinople. For myself, I do not make Bekkos my “idol,” as one reader of this blog charged earlier this year. I see Bekkos as someone, first of all, whose thought I would like to understand, since the fundamental problem which he confronted, the problem of Christian division, has not gone away; I presume to think that, as he analyzed the causes of this problem carefully and at great length, I might learn something from him. I altogether doubt that the solution for all the problems faced by Christianity in the present world, or even for the specific problem of Christian disunion, is to be found in a reenactment of the Union of Lyons. And I similarly doubt that, for many of the spiritual issues that confront me personally, John Bekkos has all that much to say; anyone who thinks that one can receive adequate spiritual nourishment by reading a steady diet of polemics over the Filioque issue surely has some self-examination to do. But I believe that Bekkos was an honest man, and an intelligent reader of the fathers, who rightly, I think, pointed out that the position of most of the early Greek fathers of the Church on the subject of the Holy Spirit’s procession was not as absolutely inimical to the Latin Church’s position on this subject as Photius and his followers represented it, and continue to represent it. And I also think that the debate between Bekkos and his opponents had important implications for the direction Byzantine theology would take in the next generation; questions of how the divine presence and activity in us are to be understood were already being argued over by Bekkos, Melitentiotes, and Metochites, on the one hand, and men like George Moschabar and Gregory of Cyprus, on the other. Both as an historian and as a Christian, I would like to understand the terms of that debate, and see how it unfolded.

So, in brief, while I do not have in my mind a clear picture of what Bekkos looked like, a photographic image is not the point of my reading him. One reads authors in order to perceive the truth that they perceived, and to be shaped internally by it. It would of course help me in my studies if I had a clearer mental picture of the streets of Constantinople in the late thirteenth century, of daily life, of the ritual of the imperial court, of what it was like to attend a liturgy in Hagia Sophia in the days before it became a mosque. My understanding of these things is necessarily limited, in part by the fact that I live seven hundred years later. But perhaps it is just as well that we don’t see the past with perfect vision; perhaps it would cause us to forget that life is actually lived in the present, and one emulates the life of the righteous, not by wearing the same clothes, but by serving the same God, who is the ever-living source of life to all.

I find today that Nathan Hollenbeck has again begun posting at the blog Toward Transfiguration. He has there a remarkable video showing the appearance of a bright form, in the shape of a woman, standing on the roof of a Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo, filmed this past December 16th, the day that marked the beginning of the Coptic month devoted to the Virgin Mary. I viewed it just now, with my poor, dial-up connection, and found it altogether remarkable. And it seems to me that Nathan’s remarks need to be taken to heart:

“I tremble when I see this and remember Kibeho and Fatima. Fatima preceded and prophecied a world war. Kibeho preceded and prophecied the Rwanda genocide. The greater the mercy, the greater the trials ahead. Perhaps also God … has allowed his Most Holy Mother to appear to Christian and Muslim alike as a plea to her Muslim children to turn to God in light of what she, God, and the holy angels only know the future may hold if we don’t all repent, pray, and fast, but what we already see foreshadowed in current tensions.”

In view of Cristian Ciopron’s article on the Transfiguration, which I posted earlier today, I would recommend that readers of my blog look at this video, as a testimony to the reality of the transfigured life in Christ and as a plea for Christian unity more powerful than any which my poor pen can muster.

Cristian Ciopron is a Romanian physician who writes the blog Din viaţã. For about a year now, I have corresponded with him by e-mail. The following essay is a revision of a recent post to his blog; I asked him to send me an English version of it, and have edited it with a view to improving the English grammar, but not to changing its content.

The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor

The Transfiguration of Jesus occurs in the Synoptic Gospels. It is an event narrated only by the Synoptics, as it belongs to their logic and to their line of discourse about who Jesus of Nazareth is. These Gospels narrate the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor as a sequence of events, the first of them being a visible manifestation of Christ’s identity, something which must be interpreted in conjunction with the other signs. I presume that the Gospels are speaking about a visible light, a visible reality, not about a metaphorical light, such as the light of knowledge or understanding; in fact, each synoptic author tries to convey the exact impression made by the Lord’s transfigured luminosity, and seems to indicate a visible light, something to be seen, in the proper sense of the word. I believe that the Gospels speak about a light pertaining to the domain of visibility, not to that of knowledge.

According to a certain fashionable reading of the Transfiguration narrative, the core of the episode is to be found in the visible signs of Christ’s glory—making the other events more or less redundant, mere restatements of what was already shown in the first step. In my view, it would be more true to say that the progression of events on Mt. Tabor shows a patent crescendo, from the radiance of Christ’s face to, secondly, the testimony of the Old Testament prophets, and then to the real climax of the story, the Father’s concise utterance. The three elements join together, pointing to a conclusion. All of this has a very synoptic ring to it, and the event was indeed one which all the Synoptic Evangelists thought deserved a quite detailed narration and found to be useful for their purposes.

The three signs of Jesus’ filial quality (visible radiance; the prophets’ testimony; God’s voice) lead to one another, and do not merely repeat the same message, but the first two are completed and given their deepest meaning only in the third. The Father’s declaration provides the key to what the Apostles have witnessed. The radiance of Jesus’ face stemmed from his prayer (cf. St. Luke 9: 28-29) and led to, or prepared, the Father’s declaration.

The Transfiguration, as an event narrated in its threefold, synoptic form, is one of the Gospels centering upon Christ’s identity—linked not only with the Caesarea Philippi event, which it follows, but also with the Baptism theophany. It illustrates what Stephen Williams has called the “theology (and language) of sonship deployed in the Synoptics.” [1]

The Transfiguration completes the itinerary begun at Caesarea Philippi, but it mirrors Christ’s first public consecration—his Baptism in the waters of the Jordan. The testimony of St. John the Baptist is mirrored by the testimony brought by the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament. St. Basil (in his work On Baptism) notes that the baptismal water is “the likeness of the cross, and of death, and of the grave, and of resurrection from the dead”; and, in the same writing, St. Basil repeats that baptism by water is “the likeness of the cross and of death.” On this large scale, both of these events in the life of Jesus, both his Baptism and his Transfiguration, point to Jesus’ mission and to his redemptive death.

St. Basil understands and interprets the baptism of Christians by Jesus’ Cross and redemptive death. In this view, not only does the Transfiguration correspond to Christ’s Baptism, but his very Baptism announces and foretells the Passion, the baptismal water being the symbol St. Basil says it is. (In baptism, Christians are “planted together with Christ in the likeness of his death.”)

At the Jordan, Jesus was shown to the world; on Mt. Tabor, he is shown to three chosen disciples, and they are required to keep secret what they have witnessed. So what is disclosed here is of a secret nature, and this secret is temporary; they are not to make it public until he conquers death—“till the Son of man is risen from the dead,” writes St. Mark.

To whom does the Father address his words on Mt. Tabor? He speaks, presumably, to the frightened disciples.

The “synoptic look” of the Tabor episode is striking—it is very much something that a synoptic writer would narrate. The Transfiguration belongs very much in a synoptic frame, in the intention of a Christology “from below.” Equally obvious is that the evangelists describe, in material terms, a physical, visible light, seen by the apostles with their bodily eyes. Each evangelist is striving to convey a sensorial impression of Christ’s appearance; they do not employ it as a metaphor for a higher knowledge, but as a description of what the three apostles physically saw.

The Transfiguration mirrors Christ’s Baptism, announces his Crucifixion, and has a pedagogic function: it shows the apostles an “image of the kingdom,” a “symbol of the future glory” (St. Theophylact), fulfilling the promise made. It foretells the Resurrection, the glory and the kingdom, before the Crucifixion. The Fathers call this vision a symbol of the glory, an image of the kingdom: more a foretaste than the unveiling of a camouflaged reality. (St. Gregory the Dialogist doesn’t share this interpretation; he believes that the kingdom which Jesus had promised that some of those standing there would see is the Church.) The Transfiguration is linked with the Baptism, with the Crucifixion, and with the Resurrection.

St. Luke’s narration is very precise; he writes that Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, and was transfigured during his prayer. St. Luke is also the only evangelist to indicate the content of Jesus’ conversation with the two prophets.

The Gospels give precise attestation to the visual-sensible nature of the experience on Tabor. The luminousness is not, for the synoptic authors, a metaphor, but a visual characteristic. The data pertain to the seen, bodily nature of the experience. The Taboric episode has to be understood in terms of its connections, in its relation to the Holy Spirit’s descent at the Baptism in the Jordan (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22, John 1:32-34)—both events prefiguring the Christian sacraments of anointment, chrismation and consecration—and to the Crucifixion. The error made by some consists in insolating this mystagogical event, which leads to its de-signification. In isolation, it can no longer be understood; it comes to mean nothing, or wrong meanings are arbitrarily assigned to it. The visual splendor is (only) the preparation for the Cross: it is Jesus’ strengthening, and the Apostles’ education. Here the Lord chose to instruct his disciples by glory, which some fathers call the glory of his resurrection, and, we hope, of our own as well, and which other fathers call the divine glory. The Transfiguration has a function in the economy of this redeeming passion. As a manifestation of Jesus’ power or hidden substance, the episode on Tabor is correlated with the notion of the economic passion; it places Christ’s mundane itinerary into a sovereign perspective, appearing as the specification of the Messiah’s place in the economy; the references are to redemption-history and to sonship, showing the unity of the Covenants in order to make fully evident the Nazarene’s dignity as Son. In the narratives of the Synoptic Gospels, the transfigured Jesus’ visible characteristics do not possess more significance than the prophets’ presence, the heavenly voice, the apostles’ confusion. With the transfigured face as overture, the account ascends towards its full meaning.

There is, in other words, something else going on in the Transfiguration, besides Jesus’ new radiance, which serves to designate him as Son. The Taboric episode belongs rather to a Christology “from below,” ascending. It is not by chance that only the Synoptics see the need to report it. The Tabor event belongs to the Messianic order; it doesn’t belong to a Christology of the Godhead, a Christology descending “from above”; rather, it belongs to a Christology of the glorified humanity, permeated by God, to a Christology of sonship, of the One chosen, manifested as Son. The Tabor event is exemplary for the New Testament’s Christology of sonship; a synoptic logic underlines it, an understanding “from below” motivates its presence and the Synoptics’ unanimity.

This enigmatic event forms, in fact, a counterpoise to the Spirit’s descent at Jesus’ baptism in Jordan; it is also one of the few passages where Jesus’ face and physical appearance have a role.

The disciples will again see a changed, transfigured Jesus: after his Resurrection. The resurrected Jesus is again a transfigured Jesus, one on whose face and body shine and radiate the deepest layers of reality; though none of the accounts of his appearances after the Resurrection mention a resemblance to his luminosity on Mt. Tabor.[2] Anyway, what happened on Mt. Tabor already points to Christ’s victory on the Cross, that joyful victory that resounds in St. Paul’s letters, in the Acts and in the Book of Revelation.

The Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor is one of the best-attested episodes in Jesus’ life, described by all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew (17: 1-13), Mark (9: 2-9), and Luke (9: 28-36). Newer exegetes pretend not to see what correspondence all these synoptic accounts could have with historical fact. The accounts, are, though, remarkably at unison (with St. Luke’s being the most detailed).

Bede says that this glory was the glory of the resurrected flesh: “Our Savior then, when transfigured, did not lose the substance of real flesh, but showed forth the glory of his own or of our future resurrection; for such as he then appeared to the Apostles, he will after the judgment appear to all his elect.” The Fathers insist that Jesus’ Transfiguration is not a real transformation, a change of his shape, but only an adding of light, and that he did not change or modify his figure, that the Taboric event brings no modification in Jesus; this, probably, in order to prevent interpretations of an Adoptionist bent. But St. Thomas’s comments in the Catena for St. Matthew (XVII, vv 1—4) suggest why another misinterpretation has to be avoided as well: “He appeared to the eyes of the Apostles such as he will appear at the Judgment Day. Let us not imagine, though, that he left his first shape and his ordinary figure, and that he left the true body … to take a spiritual or aerial body.… Because the Evangelist (St. Matthew) describes the brightness of his face and the whiteness of his raiment, the substance was not, therefore, destroyed; only the brightness was changed. Doubtless the Lord was transformed in this glory which he will wear when he will come to establish his kingdom; but this transformation gave him a new brightness, without changing the features nor the nature of his face. Let us suppose that his body has become a spiritual body; was the nature of his raiment changed as well? It became so white, says another Evangelist (Mark), that no fuller on earth could give it a similar whiteness. Now objects of this kind have a bodily form, can be touched, and are not something spiritual and aerial.…”

Light, to be visible, has to be an electromagnetic wave within a certain range of wavelengths. Uncreated light, if taken in a sensorial sense, as in the Mt. Tabor event, would mean uncreated electromagnetic waves.

Yet, if exegetes do not believe that Christ’s substance was changed or transformed at the Transfiguration, their explanations tend nonetheless to imply that the change was in him, and that it was real, not that it was in the Apostles’ capacity to perceive what they couldn’t seize before. So, Christ does not change his substance on Mt Tabor; nor do his Apostles. There is, in exchange, a real, objective, physical transformation in Christ’s shining. (The mere fact that Jesus separates himself with his three disciples from the rest of the group suggests that the event is an objective one, accessible to witnesses, not an interior change in a few chosen who are thus made apt to see what they couldn’t see before.)

It is interesting that St. Thomas insists that Jesus kept the substance of his body and in this very Body he shone, and in this body he showed the eschatological luminosity of the resurrected. This implies that the Resurrection’s light is accessible to human beings, such as the Apostles, in their present condition, provided it is shown to them.

Besides, the Gospels and Church Fathers not only fail to mention any preliminary, preparatory mystical improvement in the Apostles’ spiritual condition, necessary for seeing what they couldn’t see before—but they insist on the Apostles’ fear (“for they were sore afraid,” St. Mark) and on St. Peter’s clumsiness and uninspired proposal (“for he wist not what to say”).

The accounts of the Transfiguration speak almost as much about the Apostles as about the Christ.

Hardly the condition of the elect when they will be deemed to see God in Heaven, and hardly a very exquisite condition of spiritual perfection. The Apostles behave as if they are still on this side of the fence—frightened, confused, clumsy, uninspired (and the interpreters speculate on St. Peter’s obtuseness and not very generous reasons in making such a proposal as he did). The Apostles’ behavior does not look like the apotheosis of the elect made fit to see God Himself in heaven. On the contrary, their encounter with the Kingdom leads to fear, confusion and lack of inspiration. St. Jerome gives a harsh reading to St. Peter’s uninspired intentions; so does Rabanus. Origen is more indulgent. St. Luke says the Apostles were sleepy. St. John of Damascus concludes that the disciples hadn’t yet received the fullness of the Holy Ghost.

The same Bede, quoted by St. Thomas in his Catena Aurea (on St. Mark), says that the Transfiguration is a new revealing of the mystery of the Holy Trinity—the Holy Spirit appears as a “bright cloud.” (Bede also says that, at the Resurrection, the elect will be sheltered “by the glorious rays of the Holy Spirit.”)

Some Fathers believe that the Transfiguration serves as an instruction about the life of the resurrected. In a gloss in his Catena for St. Matthew, St. Thomas observes that the Transfiguration mirrors Christ’s Baptism because, in fact, the Transfiguration mirrors the Resurrection. The Resurrection is the second regeneration, Baptism was the first. St. Thomas analyzes the relation of “the mystery of this second regeneration, which must take place at the Resurrection, when our body will rise again,” with “the mystery of the first (regeneration), which takes place in baptism, where the soul is reborn to new life.” So the Transfiguration stands in relationship with Baptism via the Resurrection. St. Thomas calls the Transfiguration “the mysterious symbol of the second regeneration,” and believes that the whole Trinity appears (the Holy Spirit appearing as the cloud). The Holy Spirit gives, in baptism, innocence; in the resurrection, shining and refreshment.

Christ’s transfiguration as an overabundant radiance announces God’s nearness; one is reminded of Exodus 34:29, where the skin of Moses’ face shone “because he had been talking with God.” Jesus’ new luminosity is the luminosity of one who stands before God, and also something higher. St. John of Damascus makes this comparison, but adds that the shining of glory came to Moses from an exterior principle, while for the Lord it was “the inborn splendor of the divine glory.” St. John of Damascus is the interpreter who gives the most “from above” reading: “the Word and human nature have one and the same glory,” the body shining with the glory of God. Yet, on a second look, St. John only expresses forcefully what all the other fathers grant: that Christ shines on Tabor with his glory, which is also the glory of his Resurrection, of the kingdom, and, to some degree, of the future resurrection of the elect. (And, with this, we have arrived at another issue, the theology of glory in the Exodus, 33: 19-20, where the holy Moses sees God’s glory, but not his face. In this sense, Jesus shows on Mt. Tabor what was shown to Moses: God’s glory.)

A threefold testimony: Christ’s shining, the prophets’ presence and conversation, and the Father’s voice. There is an obvious gradation: it begins with Christ in his own obvious excellence, it continues with the Old Testament’s testimony (and an irrefutable one, bringing the two most esteemed Old Testament prophets), showing him to be in accord with what has been given before, and it concludes with the Father himself. So Christ’s status is “proved” (a) by himself, (b) by the Law and Prophets, and (c) by the Father. This constitutes the threefold testimony about the Christ’s filial dignity.

Stephen Williams writes that “according to Matthew and Mark, the voice heard on the mount of transfiguration referred to ‘the Son whom I love’ (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7). In Luke, it is ‘my Son, whom I have chosen’ (9:35). ln all these cases, we are directed back to the baptism of Jesus Christ, and the words heard when Jesus was baptised are commonly taken to echo the words of Isaiah 42:1: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight’ and Psalm 2:7: ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’”[3]

Modern exegetes have taken note of the pedagogic interpretation given by the Fathers: the Transfiguration is understood more in terms of the benefit of the faithful, of its utility for the Apostles’ instruction, as something meant to instruct and edify the Apostles and then, in due time, the rest of the faithful, than in the dynamic of Christ’s own life.

The first text to propose such a reading of the Taboric event is 2 Peter 1:16-18. The testimony offered by the author also implicitly links Transfiguration with Baptism in the river Jordan. Both at 2 Peter 1:17 and at Matthew 3:17, the Father’s declaration is addressed to the bystanders (at the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, the Father’s words are addressed to Jesus himself). The two ends of Jesus’ public career are thus guarded and confirmed by similar events of an epiphanic nature, by two proclamations of sonship. St. Luke’s narrative account of this seems the one most freed from the common pattern, since it gives the only indices we possess about Jesus’ inner life during this event—Luke’s Gospel is the only one that mentions Jesus’ prayer and the topic of his conversation with the two exemplars of the Old Covenant. In Luke, we get a glimpse of the Transfiguration within the dynamic of the Messiah’s life: the event takes place while he is praying, and we are given some idea about Jesus’ interaction with the two prophets.

The Synoptics narrate the Baptism (St. John preserves the Forerunner’s testimony, John 1:32-33); they also, unlike John, narrate the Transfiguration. St. Luke suggests that the Transfiguration is Jesus’ preparation for his suffering to come, a strengthening, similar to the one in the garden of Gethsemane. Moses and Elijah are summoned to confirm that Jesus is the Master for whom they have worked. Jesus instructs his Apostles, not only by showing them the divine glory, but also by linking it with his own future destiny and that of the elect, the glory of the Resurrection and of the Kingdom. There are multiple aspects to be seen in this event: there is pedagogy, instruction for the Apostles and for future believers, and, in Jesus’ prayer and his conversation about the approaching Passion, one perceives what may be called, in the words of one Latin Father, “the glory of the Cross.”


[1] Cf. Stephen Williams, “The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Part 2) — Approaching Sonship,” Themelios 28.2 (Spring 2003), 16-27.

[2] On the resurrection appearances, cf. H. B. Swete, The Appearances of Our Lord after the Passion, 1908.

[3] Williams, op. cit.

H. B. Swete (1835-1917), a minister of the Church of England and, from 1890 to 1915, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, was one of the great English patristic and biblical scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; his books and articles still retain their value, and, in particular, I have long found his studies of the history of the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit to be among the most enlightening and dependable things written on that subject. Below is transcribed the final chapter, pp. 97-114, of his last book, published posthumously, The Life of the World to Come: Six Addresses given by the late Henry Barclay Swete (London and New York, 1917); it is a lenten sermon, delivered by him in the year 1917 to his parishioners in the village of Hitchin, halfway between London and Cambridge.

Eternal Life and Summary

“I believe in the life everlasting.” So ends the Apostles’ Creed, as we recite it at Mattins and Evensong. But in the Baptismal Office, the sponsor is asked, “Dost thou believe in everlasting life after death?

The old Roman Creed of the second century ended with “the resurrection of the flesh.” When “the life everlasting” first appears in a creed toward the middle of the third century, it takes the place of “the resurrection of the flesh,” and was probably regarded as an alternative for that article. Later on, it followed the Resurrection, as it does now. “The life everlasting” in our present creed is therefore no doubt the life after death, or rather, after the Resurrection. The Church will be raised again, that it may for ever live, in the glorified body, with Christ in the presence of God.

We thought last week of the body in which we shall rise if we are Christ’s. To-day we think of the life which we shall live in the risen body.

But first let us deal with a conception of eternal life which we find in S. John, and which regards it as something not future only, but present, a possession which the Christian man or woman has here and now. At first sight this seems to contradict our Creed, for the Creed, as we have seen, places eternal life after death and after the Resurrection, whereas, according to S. John, it is ours while we are still on earth. “He that believeth on the Son,” he says, “hath eternal life” (John 3: 36); and again, using Christ’s words, “He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6: 54)—where the present gift of eternal life is clearly contrasted with the future gift of the Resurrection. The same identification of eternal life with the present life of faith appears in S. John’s first Epistle. “God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath the life” (1 John 5: 11, 12). He has it here and now, and does not only hope for it hereafter.

But what is eternal life, according to S. John? We have the answer in John xvii. 3, at the beginning of our Lord’s great high-priestly prayer. “This is life eternal, that they should know Thee the only true God, and Him whom Thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.” The knowledge of God and of Christ which comes of faith, love, fellowship, is a life which death cannot touch. And this, in its beginnings, every sincere Christian has already. It will be realized more fully after death, and yet far more after resurrection; but it begins on earth; the resurrection of the body cannot begin it, where it has not been before, but will only perfect and complete it. Our knowledge of God here is, as S. Paul would say, the first-fruits, the earnest of our great inheritance, secured to us already by the gift of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ. There is therefore no disagreement between S. John’s teaching and the Creed; both are true, though they represent different aspects of the truth. S. John thinks of eternal life as already begun in the life of the Spirit which is ours on earth; the Creed speaks of the same life as perfected, after death and resurrection, in heaven. To-day we will take the Creed’s view of life eternal, and consider it in its future development, as it will be when our nature is perfected by the resurrection of the body.

1. In the life beyond the Resurrection eternal life will consist of the knowledge of God and of Christ. The partial knowledge which is ours here, S. Paul says (1 Cor 13: 8 ff.), shall be “done away.” We speak and think now of the great realities of our faith as children speak and think of the things that concern their elders. The strange conceptions that children form, the crude or naïve words in which they express their conceptions, fall away from them as they grow to maturity; the man puts away “childish things.” They were appropriate in childhood, but if they are retained by the adult, they mark him as of feeble mind. So, it may be, the terms and forms of our theology will pass from us; we shall need them no more. Creeds, exact definitions of our faith, dogmas, and articles of religion, are fitting and necessary now; to try to free ourselves from them is to behave like children who copy their seniors, and merely make themselves ridiculous. But the sons of the Resurrection will have reached maturity, and will no longer need the things of childhood. They will see “face to face”; they will see God in the person of Jesus Christ; they will know God in the same intimate way in which He now knows them. And as their knowledge of Him will be vastly greater than ours, so their spiritual life will be incomparably fuller. Now it is a life animated by faith and hope; then it will be a life of vision upon vision. Now we see as in a mirror, the metal mirror of ancient days, which gave a dim and broken reflection; things spiritual and heavenly are riddles at the meaning of which we can only guess. In the coming age the riddles of life will be cleared up and solved in the light of God. “What thou knowest not now thou shalt know hereafter” (John 13: 7); and that full, ever-growing knowledge will be eternal life matured.

2. Eternal life is perfect knowledge of God: quem nosse vivere—”in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life.” But it is more than knowledge; it is (secondly) possession. It is, again to quote S. John (2 Jn 9), to have Christ, and so to have God; to “have both the Father and the Son”: to possess God as our own.

Like so many other New Testament ideas, this thought runs back into the Old Testament. In the partition of the land of Canaan among the tribes, the Levites were passed over, and had no territory assigned to them, because their tribe had God Himself for its portion. The Psalmists take up this conception, and apply it to themselves. “The Lord is the portion of my inheritance, and of my cup…. I have a goodly heritage” (Ps 16: 5, 6); “God is my portion for ever” (Ps 73: 25); “thou art my portion in the land of the living” (Ps 142: 5).

Jesus Christ, and God in Christ, is the portion of the Church. There is indeed a reverse to this truth, or rather a complementary truth, that the Church is Christ’s portion, His particular property, His purchased possession. “Ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s,” S. Paul writes to the Church at Corinth (1 Cor 3: 23). But if we are His, so also is He ours. His whole Person and work is ours; He is “made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1: 30). His life, His death, His Resurrection, are all ours; they are made over to us in the Sacraments; we appropriate them by faith; each of us can say, as Thomas did, when he saw and believed, “My Lord and my God.” But in Him we say “Our Father”; His God and Father is our God and Father also. And to have Christ for our own is to have Him who is the Life; it is “life indeed” (1 Tim 6: 19). Even here a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of his earthly possessions, but in the abundant supply of the supernatural life which flows from the Head of the Church into all its true members. But the risen saints will no longer live by faith, as the just do here on earth; they will see their great possession. They will no longer draw supplies of grace from Him through sacramental channels, but by immediate contact and fellowship with the Lord. They stand before the Lamb; they follow Him whithersoever He goeth, and He guides them to fountains of the water of life. He is theirs, and they are His; and the mutual relation, realized and enjoyed, is the deepest, the fullest life.

3. But eternal life is not privilege only, or enjoyment; it is service; it is work.

We make a great mistake if we connect with our conception of Heaven the thought of rest from work. Rest from toil, from weariness, from exhaustion—yes; rest from work, from productiveness, from service—no. That abundant and increasing vitality of spirit and of body which is poured into the saints from the glorified Christ, that life from the very source of life, is not to be spent in idle harping upon harps of gold, reclining on clouds, or wandering aimlessly through the paradise of God, clad in white robes and with crowned heads. These apocalyptic pictures are symbols of a bliss which passes words; but there is another side to the picture, which is too often forgotten in our anticipations of the life to come. “They rest not day and night” (Rev 4: 8); they “serve day and night” (Rev 7: 15); “His servants shall do Him service” (Rev 22: 3).

The activities of the heavenly life are beyond our knowledge, as they are at present beyond our powers. From Him that sits on the throne to the least of saints at His feet, all are at work. “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,” said our Lord (Jn 5: 17). It is the law of the Divine life. It is the law of all life which is worthy of the name. Here work is broken, necessarily—rightly broken—by intervals of rest. God has given us the night for sleep, as He has given the day for work. And there are longer intervals caused by sickness, or enforced abstinence from work, and the last, immeasurable interval of death. To each of us “the night cometh, when no man can work” (Jn 9: 4). But beyond, in the age to come, there lie illimitable fields of work. Work without weariness, without rest, because there is no need of rest, and no desire for it; work which is rest and joy, the keen delight of overflowing vitality, perfect health, unclouded brain, untiring strength, absolute devotion.

And all this work is service. “His servants shall serve Him.” It is one of the best features of our day that so much time and thought are given by men and women to the “service of man.” Christ served humanity: “the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mk 10: 45); not to be served, but to serve, and even to give His life for mankind. It is Christ-like to serve man. Yet to serve God, as they will serve Him in the world to come, is greater and nobler. But let us understand what we mean by this. “Divine Service,” as usually understood, means the public prayers of the Church. We inherit the phrase from monasticism, which spoke of the hours of prayer as the Opus or Servitium Dei, the “work” or “service” of God. But we are mistaken if we think of the life of heaven as worship only in our sense of the word. Worship, no doubt, it will be, all of it, because in that world all work will be worship, and every act will be brought into relation with God, will be a doing of His will, an offering of a free heart to Him, a priestly service acceptable to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. We shall serve as priests and kings; for to serve God, as the old Collect says, is to reign. It is perfect freedom; it is royalty. To serve God without intermission in every thought and act is the highest glory, and the ultimate goal of human nature.

4. Will eternal service grow monotonous, as the ages advance? Many lives here are saddened by monotony. There is the same round of trivial duties to be discharged day by day, without any prospect of change or incident before the end. Men and women in this position become too often mere machines; their drab existence works itself out in unbroken dulness till the hour of death cuts it short. Imagine a deathless life of this kind, with immensely increased powers, to be employed eternally in the repetition of certain acts which at last become mechanical!

Not such is the eternal life to which we are called. It is not only a life of knowledge, of service, but a life of unceasing progress towards the infinite Wisdom and Goodness and Power.

There is in the world as we know it much progress which is hurtful and downward in its tendency. “Whosover goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ (so writes S. John in his second Epistle” hath not God.” Those are weighty words, worthy to be borne in mind in an age which attaches inordinate value to mere progressiveness. True progress is not found in breaking away from the old ways, but in abiding in the teaching of Christ and His Spirit in the Church. There is an apparent contradiction here, for how can we abide, and yet advance? It is a paradox, like much else in scripture; but Christian experience proves it true. Those make the best progress in religion who hold fast by the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and not those who drift away from their moorings, rudderless upon a sea of doubt.

For the saints in the world to come there can be no change in the object of their faith and hope and love. They have Christ, they have God, and they are satisfied. There can be no monotony in the contemplation and worship of the Infinite. Their great possession is unchangeable, but also inexhaustible; no change is possible where all is love and truth. The centre of the heavenly life is fixed and immovable, but the circumference may ever be advancing toward the centre; the saints may ever be drawing nearer and nearer to a goal which they can never reach. There may be progress in knowledge, progress in enjoyment, progress in service—a progress which at every point will open up new wonders, new opportunities, new outlooks into a greater future, and as that future unfolds itself, new and unsuspected scopes for the energies of redeemed men, new ways of fellowship with God in Christ, new companionships with the good and great of past generations, and with angelic beings who have watched and guarded us in life, and rejoiced over our repentance, and are ready to welcome us into the eternal mansions, and will share our worship and our work, our service and our joy, in the ages to come.

But may we carry the idea of time into the life beyond? And if not, how can there be progress? The true answer seems to be that which has been given by a great living philosopher (Bergson), that while what he calls “clock-time” is limited to the present life, “duration” continues in the world to come. That is, as I understand him to mean, although we cannot think of divisions of time, such as hours and days and years, as existing in a future life, there will be succession there, age following age, though no age, as it passes, takes away from the sum total of that deathless life. Certainly this is assumed everywhere in the Bible, where the next world is called “the ages of the ages” (e.g., Phil 4: 20), and even once by S. Paul “all the generations of the age of ages” (Eph 3: 21). As the ages roll by, only that other ages may succeed them, the happy saints will find themselves nearer to God and to Christ, not raised as on earth by a cross, but drawn toward the Throne by growing love and fellowship—of which there is no limit, and no end.

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Let me spend the rest of our time to-day in gathering up the threads of these six instructions into one final view of the life of the world to come.

1. The immortality of the soul—i.e., its survival after the death of the body—is one of the oldest beliefs in the world. It was held in Egypt some 3,000 years before Christ, and in Babylonia, before Abraham went out of Ur to the land of Canaan. Israel inherited this belief, and in some of the Psalms it is expressed in noble words which Christians can make their own. In Greece and at Rome it was part of the popular faith, but by the Christian era this belief had gradually lost its hold upon the educated classes in the Gentile world, who were, as S. Paul says, practically without hope of a future life. The Gospel restored hope, and made it for the first time a living reality. Our Lord, but His teaching and His own Resurrection from the dead, threw a bright life on the life of the future. Immortality became, in His illuminating presence, far more than a survival of the soul after death; for Christians it means the sure and certain hope of the ultimate restoration both of soul and body to a blessed eternal life with God.

2. Of the life of the soul in the interval between death and resurrection we know comparatively little. But the dark exile of the Hebrew Sheol, the gloom and dreadfulness of the Greek Hades, have been robbed of their terrors by our Lord’s descent into the state of the departed. For His own faithful people He has converted Sheol and Hades into Abraham’s bosom, into the Garden of the Lord. He Himself remained in Hades or Paradise, in His human soul, but for a few hours, long enough, however, to welcome the spirit of the penitent robber and to proclaim the news of His victory to the spirits in prison. But though He is not now in Hades, but in Heaven, He vouchsafes His spiritual presence to the faithful departed after a manner of which we have but faint experience here; they are “at home with the Lord,” they are “with Christ, which is very far better” than life on earth can be. And to be with Him, in this fuller sense, must surely be to be purged from the remains of all earthly imperfections, and to grow more and more prepared for the final life of the Resurrection which they still await.

3. Of this great hope, the hope of the resurrection of the body, we have the guarantee in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. That event is the keystone of the arch on which our Christianity depends; “if Christ hath not been raised, your faith is vain.”

The evidence for the historical truth of our Lord’s Resurrection comes to us (a) through the Gospels, (b) the witness of S. Paul in 1 Cor. xv. It turns on two point (1) the empty tomb, and (2) the appearances of the forty days.

This evidence does not compel assent; it might have been stronger. All we affirm is that it is as strong as we can reasonably expect, and sufficient, if we take into consideration the character and claim of the Person who rose. If Jesus Christ was what His character, teaching, and work declare Him to have been, it is not surprising, it is in accordance with the probabilities of the case, that He should conquer death. It was “not possible that He should be holden of it.”

But the Resurrection of our Lord is more than a fact. It is a moral force, of which all believers are conscious. They know the power of His Resurrection, and they, apart from the external evidence, have the witness in themselves.

4. On the question of a future resurrection of the dead the Jews were sharply divided; the Sadducean priesthood denied, the Pharisaic scribes affirmed it. Our Lord, while rebuking the unbelief of the Sadducees, could not make common cause with the Pharisees, and for the most part He seems to have said little on the subject. But three passages of S. John’s Gospel give us the essentially Christian view. They connect the future resurrection with Jesus Christ. It is His voice which will call forth all who are in the tombs. He is “the Resurrection and the Life,” and He will raise those who believe in Him to eternal life. He conveys His life to them through His Flesh and Blood, through His Incarnation and His Sacrifice, which He gives us to assimilate through sacramental channels, and by feeding upon which our souls and bodies are preserved and immortalized.

Thus far we are led by the teaching of our Lord in the fourth Gospel. The Spirit of Christ in S. Paul carries us further. We learn to connect our future resurrection with His. Christ is the first-fruits; the rest of us are the harvest. Christ is the last Adam, who came to repair the ruin caused by the first Adam’s sin; “as all in Adam, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” This much all humanity receives from the Incarnation. But they that are Christ’s, who are one with Him in faith and love and hope, who have not only a common nature with the Incarnate Son, but a common life, shall not only rise, but rise to the resurrection of life; following in their own order, rank after rank, in the great procession of the returning Christ, and entering with Him in His eternal joy.

5. But “with what body” are the risen saints to “come”? The Apostles’ Creed in its original form speaks of the resurrection of the flesh, and this phrase is still retained in the interrogative form which is put to sponsors at the baptism of an infant. It was meant to guard the Church against the mistake of supposing that the resurrection is merely moral or spiritual, and that it is in fact “past already,” taking effect at the font, and in the new life which ought to follow. The Church taught, in opposition to this error, that the flesh shall rise, that material organism of some kind will be restored to every human being at the coming of the Lord. But the word “flesh” in this connexion is open to grave misunderstanding, and in early Christian times the common belief was that the scattered dust will be brought together again and every limb and organ replaced.

It is not thus, however, that S. Paul answers the question with what body the risen are to come. “With a spiritual body,” he replies; not meaning by this a body made of spirit, but a body fitted to be the companion and servant of the spirit: a body “celestial,” adapted to the heavenly order, as contrasted with the “terrestrial,” earthly body of our present tabernacle, our present humiliation.

“Is this incredible to you?” S. Paul seems to ask. Then look at the yearly miracle of the spring: at the resurrection body which God gives to the seed that you yourself sow in field or garden. You sow a dusky grain; part of it decays and dies, and that which lives, the vital germ of the young plant, comes up a green blade, wholly different in appearance from the seed. So God in His field will bring incorruption out of corruption, glory out of dishonour, the spiritual from the animal, life from death. The last Adam is “a quickening spirit,” “the Lord from heaven.” “We have borne the image of the earthy,” of the first Adam; “let us bear the image of the heavenly”—in our spirits first, in hearts and lives lifted up to our ascended and glorified Head; and so when He returns we shall bear the image of His transfigured human form.

6. To that glorious risen life no death can come. A life in which God is all in all, which consists in the knowledge of God, the possession of God, the service of God, has no limit to its vitality, its progress, its joy. It is life indeed, life that answers fully to its name, life that satisfies all the cravings of the human spirit, which God has made for Himself. It is ours in Christ. May we all steadfastly believe this faith of the Resurrection life! May we embrace and ever hold fast this blessed hope!