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He Who Was Before the Ages

Reflection on the Basilica Hymn for the Sunday after the Ascension

For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.

Starting Over Again

Between the four Gospels, there are two distinct but complimentary approaches to presenting the Good News of salvation which occurred in the life of Christ. The first approach, which is utilized by the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is to begin with what is most obvious to the observer, the fact that Christ is a man, and to work from there to conclude decisively that he is also God. For example, Matthew and Luke, for different reasons, present the genealogy of Christ near the beginning of their Gospels to show the Lord’s human background, but, through the course of their presentation, they make it clear that their main intent in writing (by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is to show the reader that Jesus is the Son of God. This dialectic formulation which works to prove something step-by-step and point-by-point is the most properly human way of thinking, but it is not the only one.

John’s Gospel does not begin with what is most basic and obvious to us, but rather what is most basic and obvious to God. He does not start with the genealogy of Christ’s legal human forefathers as does Matthew, but with his Divine Generation before the beginning of time: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is to see things, as we saw when we examined the hymn of the Ascension Feast, from God’s perspective. This is to begin anew, even as Christ said we must be “born anew,” to re-view human history and to see it, not through the suffering sinful eyes of those on earth, but through the loving and merciful eyes of the One who has ascended to heaven.

A Greater Richness

The Mesopotamian School, that is, the intellectual heritage of the Church of the East, has no complex about taking what is of value and making it her own. In theology and liturgy, she made many attempts to remain updated with developments happening in the West, for example by making certain to confess to the Creed of the Council of Nicea (a serious concern at the Council of Isaac in 410), or by using the Trisagion (Qaddysha Alaha), a Greek hymn, in her liturgy. These are two among a multitude of examples that show that the true nature of the Church of the East is to be in union with, not in isolation from, the rest of the Christian Church.

Even more so, God has provided an abundant richness to his Church, and oftentimes a good thing comes to the whole universal Church through one particular tradition. That is why any authentic Apostolic Church must both be open to understanding its parallel traditions and receiving from them as well as to holding fast to everything it has in its own tradition, since God may again wish to give something to the whole Church through one particular Church. The Church of the East has received everything from Christ, and many things from other particular Churches, but I believe now is a time when she is to give to others by showing the Church Universal the treasures she has been keeping hidden for centuries.

The Gifts of God

A most unusual development in the history of the Faith is the misunderstanding and exaggeration of the word “alone.” The popularization of such terms as “Scripture alone” or “faith alone” leads the mind of the believer to a minimalistic approach to the work of salvation, making it common experience to hear someone say “I don’t need the Church when I have the Bible,” or “I don’t need the Sacraments when I have faith.” What precisely is necessary in order to be saved is not my question here; such discussions are already abundant. Rather, what I wish to point out is the absurdity of the question itself. The question ultimately boils down to this: “What is the absolute minimum required for my salvation?” It is like a parent asking “what is the least I can do in raising my children?” or a husband saying “I have done X and Y. My job is done.”

What manner of arrogance does it take to refuse a gift from God? What type of personality could watch the Creator of the world pour his graces out in a thousand ways and respond that “I only need this one, not the others.” Why would God give us something we do not need? Faith is a gift from God – it is not a human endeavor, but the human mind accepting the freely given knowledge of God through the Holy Spirit. But faith is not the “only” thing Christ has given us; nor is the Bible. He has given us the Church; he has given us his Body and Blood; he has given us baptism; he has given us and continues to give us manifold graces in manifold ways. How could we reject a single one of them?

Even more, hasn’t God given us an example to follow in being so unexpectedly abundant with us? When he has been so beneficent in providing graces, how could we be so cheap, both in receiving them and in giving good things to others?

The Point

The Basilica Hymn for the Sunday after the Ascension is an example of the Church of the East being expansive in her self-understanding and in her understanding of God’s benefits. First of all, it is “Johannine” in nature, beginning with the eternal Existence of the Word of God. Secondly, it is one of the very few hymns that were adjusted when the Chaldean branch of the Church of the East came into re-union with the Catholic Church, in order to bring together the genius of the patrimony of the Church East of the Euphrates with the terminological and theoretical developments of the West, in a way concurrent with the drive of the Synod of Isaac and the other early Synods and liturgical developments of the Church. Finally, and most importantly, it is a reflection once again on the abundance of things that God has done for us in Jesus Christ the Son, and on the fact that nothing we do can even begin to repay the Lord for all his benefits to us. In fact our response can only be to “glorify, and in knowledge believe, and in wonder confess” the fullness of the Faith:

God the Word, who, in his perfect Existence has abounded his mercy toward our lowliness, has assumed our nature and united it to the Qnoma of his Divinity and bore the suffering of the cross, that in his death he may give life to our race, and has ascended and taken his seat in heaven, above the princes and powers. Thus, as in the first Adam we had been condemned, in the second Adam we have conquered: and who can tell of his glorious age! And so we glorify, and in knowledge believe, and in wonder confess as he taught us in truth; nor indeed if even an angel from above were to come and speak to us, and alter his Gospel beyond what has been preached to us, we will not deny his humanity, nor will we forget his Divinity.

Ancient Version:

[God the Word, who, in his perfect Existence has increased his mercy toward our lowliness, has worn our image that it may be the dwelling of his Divinity and took it and fastened it to the Cross, and gave it over to death, that in it he may give us life; and lifted it up and seated it in heaven, above the princes and powers.]Thus, as in the first Adam we had been condemned, in the second Adam we have conquered: and who can tell of his glorious age! And so we glorify, and in knowledge believe, and in wonder confess as he taught us in truth; nor indeed if even an angel from above were to come and speak to us, and alter his Gospel beyond what has been preached to us, we will not deny his humanity, nor will we forget his Divinity.

The “dogmatic” nature of this hymn, that is, the fact that it is an affirmation of several articles of the Faith, does not prevent it from being intensely personal at the same time. In fact, the more deeply we look, the more we see that it is preciesely the most “abstract” teachings of the Church that mean the most to us as individuals, and have the deepest impact on our direct friendship with God. Here, we have the Word taking on “our” nature, giving life to “our” race. Even more so, “we” are the ones who conquered in this Second Adam. In some marvelous way, then,we ourselves have ascended to heaven and sit at God’s right hand, since it is our nature that he assumed.