History of the Rosary
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 675, “Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers.” This Sunday Catholics across the world will celebrate the feast of the Ascension. Until recently, this high feast was celebrated on a Thursday—forty days after Easter. From a traditional standpoint normally a 10 day period existed from Ascension to the Coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. Regardless, of the precise days, the main point is that for a brief period, the Apostles and early disciples of Jesus lived in a transition period from when Jesus no longer visibly existed in the similar manner that he did previously and the official descent of the Holy Spirit.
Suffering from a severe dryness in my spiritual life this Easter season got me thinking: maybe I am in a transitory period myself whereby the descent of the Holy Spirit is not apparent in my life. I feel completely dried up—spiritually! Obviously, my situation is not exactly the same as the 1st century Christians who had to live for an awkward [and maybe apathetic] period before the official reception of the Paraclete. Nevertheless, maybe your life is at a stage similar to that awkward week and a half—pondering the return of Christ, experiencing doubt in Divine Providence, or possibly even living in fear or distress. Reflecting on Acts 1-2 and wisdom from the tradition of the Church—through the Catechism and the saints—I came up with three methods [not really earth-shattering] to avoid awkwardness and apathy in your spiritual life in the days after the Ascension!
Wellspring of Worship
The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). I have probably cited this paragraph more than any other passage, yet it is vitally important to the Catholic faith. What sustained the Apostles in the early Church while waiting for the Paraclete? The body of and blood of Jesus Christ in the form of the Eucharist—it is the wellspring, the origin of worship!
Although Jesus’ physical existence did not appear the same after his Ascension, he is still present to the Apostles [and to us] body, blood, soul, and divinity in the sacrament of the Eucharist. St. Pope John Paul II mentioned the importance of this sacrament in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “Her [The Church] foundation and wellspring is the whole Triduum paschale, but this is as it were gathered up, foreshadowed and “concentrated’ forever in the gift of the Eucharist” (no. 5). During periods of spiritual dryness we may be able to sojourn to the spiritual oasis of the Mass.
Hail, Mary: Mother of Perpetual Help, Mother of Good Counsel
Josemaria Escriva declared, “Love our Lady. And she will obtain abundant grace to help you conquer in your daily struggle.” I imagine the days following Jesus’ Ascension was a perilous time for Peter and the rest of the Apostles. During the most confusing and perilous times in my life it appears that Jesus is not present—the most difficult days lands in the middle of the work week when I lack the time to attend daily Mass or ability to go to Eucharistic adoration. Here is where my devotion to Mary is key to sustaining me during the staleness of my spiritual life. Jesus augmented Mary’s motherhood in John 19:27 with a simple command, “Woman, behold your son!” This is a reciprocal relationship as a mere verse later Our Lord urged the Apostle John [who represented humanity both individually and collectively] with the charge: “Behold, your mother!”
From my own experience, I normally contact my mom first [when my wife is not available!] after an incredibly stressful and frustrating day. This is not to downplay the role of my father, but there is something unique, almost mysterious about the ability for mother to sooth children in need. The Blessed Virgin Mary is no different. Mother of Perpetual Help pray for us. Mother of Good Counsel pray for us.
Trust in the Holy Spirit
The great scientist Isaac Asimov once purported, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” While the first two points of his statement may be debatable, it is quite difficult to argue that turning points in life, no matter how large or small, pose a challenge for everyone. Transitioning from physically seeing the Resurrected Christ to the age of the Church would have been a tough transitory event as well!
Jesus prepared his followers of the coming of the Holy Spirit prior to his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. According to Christ in John 14:15-19, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate* to be with you always, 17 the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live.”
While the Holy Spirit did not formally descend upon the Apostles in the Upper Room until Pentecost Sunday, the power of the Holy Spirit allowed Jesus to be substantially present in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Paraclete also guided Peter and the other Apostles in selecting a worthy replacement for Judas. Moreover, just before his Ascension Jesus repeated his promise to send another Helper to fortify his followers: “But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you,g and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Hope Always Never Despair
Although you may in a spiritual dry spell [if not now you most certainly will encounter aridity and acedia—spiritual sloth– sometime in your life!], please do not despair. Hope is always on the horizon. Through the sacrament of the Eucharist, guide of Mary, and promise of the help of the Holy Spirit we receive strength and sustenance make it past any awkward and apathetic period in our spiritual journey. Never give up—hope in the Lord always!
The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity (CCC 1818).
“Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord,” proclaimed the late Polish pope, John Paul II in his encyclical letter The Splendor of Truth. Promulgated over twenty years ago, this writing can still act as a guidepost for every Christian, both clergy and laity alike, for moral living. Now more than ever, modern man, in a world where moral relativism and ignorance of objective truths abound, needs the illuminating light of the Holy Spirit channeled through the Catholic Church. The Splendor of Truth delineates the Church’s rich moral teaching and sheds light on the underlying assumptions of those dissenting from the Magisterium’s authority.
I will examine three points− one from each chapter. The moral duty charged to all Christians will be looked at first, followed by a survey of the Church’s stance on conscience. And finally, the need for modern-day martyrs in the face of moral relativism will be addressed.
Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?
The initial chapter of The Splendor of Truth centers on the content from the interaction of a rich young man and Jesus in Matthew 19. Here the young man begins his conversation with Jesus with a query: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” At face value this question seemed sincere for it concerned one of the utmost important issues a person must contemplate. As the late pope tersely put it, “It is an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. To ascertain the difference between good and evil people need to turn toward Christ who provides the answer. Too many times in the modern world humans seek answers to life’s hardest questions in fleeting, temporal sources such as political systems or New-Age philosophies rather than turning to God.
God is the Greatest Good
To truly live out the moral life, one must understand that an objective good does in fact exist− God. Responding to the young rich man, Jesus proclaims, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Since the ultimate good exists as God himself, it logically follows that only He can provide answers to the question about what is good in life. Not leaving man in the dark, God sheds light on moral matters by granting humans the ability to find out through reason alone the natural law. Article 12 of The Splendor of Truth mentions that God by creating man, ordered him to the good and have an innate desire for wisdom.
Due to original sin, God had to act in history to initiate his saving plan for humanity. Citing again from the encyclical, the Polish pope states, “The gift of the Decalogue was a promise and a sign of the New Covenant, in which the law would be written in a new and definitive way upon the human heart (cf Jer 31:31-34), replacing the law of sin which had disfigured that heart (cf Jer 17:1).” In other words, a strong connection is made between morality and adherence to the commandments. However, the Church, and ultimately God, does not call for a sterile, drone-like obedience, but rather a total commitment to the law through faith in Christ.
Role of the Conscience
Along with being aware of God as the supreme good and knowing that the Decalogue serves as the parameters for the moral life, a proper understanding of conscience and its connection to objective truths will enhance the Christian’s need to adhere to the Church Magisterium regarding faith and morals.
John Paul II begins his section on Conscience and Truth by saying, “The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law is most deeply lived out in the ‘heart’ of the person, in his moral conscience.” According to Church Tradition, conscience and natural law are not in tension with one another. Instead, conscience communicates moral responsibility in light of the natural law. Simply put, conscience aids man in following the natural law− for it is the “witness of God himself”.
Necessity for Proper Formation of the Conscience
Nevertheless, conscience as a human function trying to pick up God’s voice and will is not exempt from error in judgment. The Second Vatican Council succinctly states, “not infrequently conscience can be mistaken as result of invincible [inculpable] ignorance.” In fact forming a proper conscience and developing virtuous habits takes time. This requires constant conversion. The pope declares that the Church and Her Magisterium greatly aid Christians in the formation of their conscience. Not an arbitrary authority, John Paul II speaks of the Church as “putting herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit.”
If every Catholic-Christian took the pope’s message to heart on the Magisterium’s role pertaining to faith and morals laity confusion and dissent on hot-buttons issues like abortion and gay marriage, particularly during election years, would decline. Only through obedience to Christ’s authority in the Church via the conscience does man attain true freedom.
Call to Marytrdom
The best way to combat moral relativism pervading modern society today is not through polemical rhetoric or violence but for Christians to step up as martyrs for the truth. In the third chapter of The Splendor of Truth, the Roman Pontiff calls martyrdom, “the exaltation of the inviolable holiness of God’s law.” He then maps out several examples of people in the Old and New Testament who testified to God’s power through their witness. John the Baptist and Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith, both laid down their lives in testifying to the Messiah’s teaching. And they also suffered immensely unjust and painful deaths similar to Christ’s death on the Cross.
John Paul II finally points out that the first generation Church, which experienced intense persecutions from Roman emperors, also flourished in holiness due to the witness of saint-martyrs. This leads to his main point, that such witness is a remarkable sign of the holiness of the Church.
The witness of martyrs provides a beacon of light to help illuminate others moral compasses especially in a world with a muddled-up perception of what is truly good and just. “This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil,” declares John Paul II. Oftentimes, people can be turned off by an exclusively scare-tactical, fire and brimstone approach to morality. Instilling fear and prodding them with a stick may work short-term, but many people tend to revert back to their old ways without sincere conversion. The witness of martyrs offers a better panacea for moral ambiguity.
An Ugly Term Today?
Modern man likes to shy away from the term “martyr” in part due to the moral duty and responsibility charged to those people who stand as a “sign of contradiction” to the 21st century way of life. The late pope clearly states that, “Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice.” Now in being a witness for the faith necessarily involves sacrifice on some level, albeit not always to the point of a physical and tortuous demise.
Nevertheless, daily sacrifice will lead to a kind of death− a death to sin. Summing up his section on the Christian’s response to morality, the Polish pope explicitly says, “The voice of conscience has always clearly recalled that there are truths and moral values for which one must be prepared to give up one’s life.”
Role of the Church in the 21st Century
To conclude, written over twenty years ago, the encyclical The Splendor of Truth still sheds a ray of light on the moral life of the Church. This document provide an answer to the confusion of the modern world—the teaching of Jesus Christ, safeguarded by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church!
Just like the rich young man in Matthew’s gospel who questioned Jesus about how he can attain salvation the human race, in a society pervaded by moral laxity and ambiguity, must turn to God in order to ascertain what is truly morally good and just. The second point discussed from this moral treatise regarding conscience is important because a proper understanding of it will lead laity to a better appreciation of the Magisterium’s role in helping to form their conscience. John Paul II also mentioned that a properly formed Christian conscience will be able to determine how to act morally in line with natural law. And finally, the high point of the moral life consists of when a person is willing to die for the faith as a martyr. Restating the bishop of Rome, “Martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church.”
A careful and meditative reading of The Splendor of Truth will hopefully enhance a Christian’s love for the Church and a better following of Christ’s law.
 Matt 19:16.
 Splendor of Truth, 8.
 Matt 19:17.
 ST 12.
 ST 54.
 ST 58.
 ST 64.
 ST 90.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 115.
 ST 93.
 ST 94.
 St 93.
May 13th, 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the Marian Apparitions at Fatima, Portugal. I am participated in a 33-day Marian consecration which culminated on the Feast of Fatima. Because of the honor Catholics bestow towards Mary, it is important to dispel common misunderstandings non-Catholics may have about the Blessed Mother of Jesus.
According to 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself.” It seems clear-cut that any reaching out to Mary for help and mediation is to be frowned upon to prevent falling into heresy!
Honor NOT Worship
This article outlines a few explanations from both Scripture and Tradition to describe the Catholic approach to Mary. Catholics HONOR, but NOT WORSHIP Mary! First, we will look at biblical evidence. Next, we look at the Second Vatican II document on the Church [Lumen Gentium]. Lastly, we will analyze some thoughts about Mary from the St. Pope John Paul II.
Biblical background on Mary’s Mediation
Before I mention the key passage about Mary’s intercessory action I want to highlight her vow of total obedience to God first. In Luke the angel greeted Mary with these words, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). The original Greek is Chaire, Kecharitomene which translated to “Hail, full of grace”. Catholics interprets the phrase full of grace to refer to Mary being conceived without sin. Having this preliminary understanding of Mary, let us look at a strong example regarding her mediation to help humankind.
The wedding at Cana in the beginning of John’s gospel is Jesus’ first public miracle. Here Mary displays her role as a mediator and advocate when she urges Jesus to perform the miracle of changing the water into wine. According to the fourth gospel. “When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine” (John 2:3). Catholics honor towards Mary is not because she is a god but because of her close connection to God! John 2:5 is evidence that Mary’s end purpose is obedience and submission to God when she expresses to the wedding servers, “Do whatever he [Jesus] tells you.”
Testimony of Tradition
Along with the evidence from the New Testament, we will look briefly at what the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium and Pope John Paul II tells us about Mary as a mediator. According to Lumen Gentium 60,
There is but one Mediator as we know from the words of the apostle, “for there is one God and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a redemption for all”.(298) The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows His power. For all the salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ.
It is also appropriate to mention that it is not a coincidence that the content of the final chapter of this council document being relating to Mary. The last major section of the chapter mentions Mary as the sign of created hope and solace to the wandering people of God. Mary is not the end. Rather, she is a signpost pointing Christians to Christ! (Lumen Gentium 68).
Witness of JPII
Finally, I want us to examine St. John Paul II’s Marian devotion. The polish pope focuses on the maternal mediation of Mary in his encyclical, Redemptoris Mater. To start off, John Paul II acknowledges hat there is only one mediator Jesus. In union with Tradition the pope states, “The teaching of the Second Vatican Council presents the truth of Mary’s mediation as “a sharing in the one unique source that is the mediation of Christ himself (Redemptoris Mater 38). Mary is the first and greatest apostle of God. God entrusted Himself to her before anyone else (Redemptoris Mater 39).
John Paul II also says, “After her Son’s departure, her motherhood remains in the Church as maternal mediation: interceding for all her children, the Mother cooperates in the saving work of her Son, the Redeemer of the world (Redemptoris Mater 40). The key word in this quote is cooperates. Mary is not equal to God, but she does COOPERATE with God and in the mediation of Jesus Christ!
The spiritual life for the Christian is not a mere horizontal path, but rather vertical and likened to a ladder— consisting of different levels of progression. Thus, the spiritual journey for the Catholic-Christian is composed of three steps being the interior, religious, and spiritual. In this post, I will focus on individuals from St. Luke’s Gospel who exhibit each stage.
Stage 1— The Interior Life
First, the “interior life” refers to the initial level of the spiritual path for Christians. At this stage, a person demonstrates the ability to be self-aware (self-autonomous) and shows the capacity to utilize their imagination. This stage is necessary for a Christian to increase and deepen their spirituality. However, it is possible to have a profound interior life without being spiritual. A pragmatic instance of this is a secular artist painting a picture. They exercise their imagination without contemplating the mysteries of God. Nevertheless, normally the more powerful the imagination is, the greater potential a person has to power their “spiritual engine”—the mind.
Example of the Rich Young Man
Two instances of the “interior life” within the Gospel of Luke include the Rich Young Man 18:18-30 and the centurion at the Crucifixion 23:44-49. Regarding the former, the Revised Standard Edition refers to the Rich Young Man as a ruler who initiates contact with Jesus by posing a query: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”(v. 18). An analysis of this statement shows the ruler demonstrating the “interior life” on a twofold manner: he knew Jesus was a good, informative teacher (he probably heard about the previous work and preaching of Jesus from others) and the question asked was of metaphysical nature, which thus required imagination and intellect to ponder.
Jesus responds by telling the man to adhere to the Decalogue. The man then tells Christ that he diligently follows the commandments. But Jesus required more, he wanted the Rich Ruler to give away his material goods to the poor. But the man was unable to do so. While he exhibited an “interior life” by asking the right question, the Rich Young Man was not spiritual due to failure to move past material wealth (v.23). Augmenting this point the narrator tells the reader that the man was sad to give up his possessions and thus shows why he cannot move past the interior level.
Example of the Roman Centurion
A second case of someone having the interior life in Luke comes at the close of the gospel. After hanging upon the cross for several hours, darkness came over the land and the veil of the temple split in two and Jesus uttered his final breath. During this a centurion proclaimed “Certainly this man was innocent!” (v.47). The centurion saw the curtain torn and perhaps remembered Jesus’ premonition that the Temple would be destroyed. Such recall shows intellect and imagination. In fact he had such a powerful imagination, that the centurion “praised God” in v.47. Because of this, he had a profound “interior life”.
Stage 2—The Religious Life
Defined as the level where one is focused on concepts of rituals and/or sacraments, the “religious life” is the next stage in Christian spirituality. To put it another way, this phase denotes an experience of contact with the Transcendent deity via religion.
Two prime examples of this are the Pharisees in Luke 6:1-5 and Peter in 9:28-36. With the former, the Pharisees badgered Jesus and his disciples for gathering grain on the Sabbath. Their query in v. 2 shows that they are primarily concerned with Jewish ritual practices, which exhibits a sign of being in the “religious life” phase. The narrator gives a further clue that this is a case of the “religious life” because Jesus corrected them by showing that David set a precedent in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. The Pharisees were thus being nit-picky about the Sabbath law.
Example of the Transfiguration
The second incident of a person existing in the “religious life” level of spirituality occurs a few chapters later at the Transfiguration. Upon witnessing Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, Peter utters a seemingly perplexing statement, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths…” (9:33). Knowledge of the main Jewish celebrations is needed to ascertain Cephas’ point. Peter is referring to the Feast of Booths which recalls Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their wandering in the desert for 40 years. Although Peter is being an astute Jew by wanting to follow that ritual custom of erecting a tent, his missed the true purpose of the Transfiguration and hence he is at the “religious” level of the spiritual life and not yet at the final stage.
Stage 3—The Spiritual Life
The final phase of the spiritual journey is at the level of the “spiritual life”. The phrase “the spiritual life” is delineated as the level where mankind’s spirit and the Holy Spirit connect— it also presupposes and fulfills the latter two stages in the spiritual excursion.
Example of Mary
At the outset of Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s fiat in 1:26-38 is the most perfect expression of obedience to God and a person having the fullness of the “spiritual life”. First of all, when the angel Gabriel came to her, Mary although initially concerned did not flee. Rather she listened to the message. After hearing the news of her future pregnancy, Mary asked “How can this be since I have no husband?” (She pledged her life to remain a virgin). Gabriel responded by telling her that Jesus will be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s reply in v. 38 displays her complete surrender to God’s will and shows why she exhibits the “spiritual life”.
Example of the Repentant Sinful Woman
The next case of the “spiritual life” in Luke also is of a woman. In 7:36-50 a sinful woman wept at Jesus’ feet, because of her sins, and cleansed them with her tears and expensive ointment. Luke juxtaposes this woman with Simon, Jesus’ Pharisaic host. He scorned the woman due to her sin. Jesus quips back by saying that the woman washed his feet without him asking. Simon failed to welcome Jesus with the same hospitality (v.45-47). Verse 48 shows the climax of this passage, “Your sins are forgiven”. She desired forgiveness and Christ is pleased to forgive. For this reason, she is an example of having the “spiritual life”.
St. Francis de Sales declared, “All of us can attain to Christian virtue and holiness, no matter in what condition of life we live and no matter what our life work may be.” Our reflection on St. Luke’s Gospel proves that God meets individuals at various places and times. Whether you are at the beginning or more advanced path to holiness, the key to “climbing” the spiritual ladder is to let Christ carry you— cooperate with Divine Providence this week! I challenge you to plunge yourself into the Scriptures this week and mediate on how you can better encounter Jesus.
My favorite healing story in Mark’s Gospel is the curing of the blind man at Bethsaida. God confirmed this because the lone bookmark in my study bible remained on Mark 8:22-26. I placed that bookmark over 4 years ago!
Like most of the healing stories in Mark, the curing of the blind man is short. Here is the text,
22When they arrived at Bethsaida, they brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on him and asked, “Do you see anything?”g 24Looking up he replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” 25Then he laid hands on his eyes a second time and he saw clearly; his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly. 26Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.” (Mark 8:22-26 New American Bible)
I call this Jesus’ “apparent failed miracle” mostly because he has to cure the blind man in stages—the cure does not happen instantaneously. The man’s statement, “I see people looking like trees and walking”, is the oddest sentence I ever read in the New Testament. It took me a long time to realize the purpose of this story. I give two reasons for why Mark 8:22-26 is the turning point in Jesus’ ministry.
The healing happened in stages
This healing stands unique against Jesus’ other healings because Jesus does not heal the blind man right away. St. Jerome in Homily 79 viewed this passage allegorically to signify mankind’s gradual increase in wisdom. In other words, God’s revelation of truth throughout the Old Testament, New Testament, and current in the age of the Church is incremental.
Peter’s declaration happens immediately after this healing
I previously mentioned the significance of having a contextual reading of the Bible as a whole. Most people tend to see this as reading books in the context of other biblical books. Yet, in the case of Mark 8:22-26 a contextual reading to draw out this passage’s meaning can occur within the gospel itself. Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ in Mark 8:30. I do not think this was a coincidence on the part of the evangelist. I believe Mark placed the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida before Peter’s revelation strategically. He wanted to show how God’s truth is revealed gradually. From this point of the gospel until the end Jesus starts to ramp up his predictions of his Death and Resurrection. He reveals his identity more and more!
Living out the Gospel
I challenge you all to reflect upon this healing story and ask yourself these questions: At what stage am I at in my faith journey? Do I truly recognize Jesus to be the Christ as Peter proclaims, or am I still partially blind in my faith and seeing “theological trees”?
Originally published in 1976, Christoph Schönborn makes some qualifying remarks in his book God’s Human Face: The Christ Icon. Firstly, this monograph was not an exclusively treatment on icons. The cardinal theologian explicitly states in his preface to the 1984 edition, “Yet the basic idea on which iconographic art primarily is built has seldom been studied: the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of God” (p. xiii). From this vantage point Schönborn launches his academic outline of key patristic sources in the theological formulation of iconography. He also provides twelve illustrations in hopes to add further lucidity to the text. Schönborn’s aim was to produce both a “book as academic as necessary, and as readable as possible” (p. xiv).
Theology of Icons
The first section of the book provides the theological foundations for which a theology of icons can be built. With reference to the Trinitarian foundations, Schönborn’s prime goal is to show the “divine image as the archetype of all representation in image” (p. 4). After a deft delineation of Arius’ soteriology, the Austrian archbishop follows this with discussion on Athanasius’ solution to this diabolical theology. The great “Father of Orthodoxy” clarified the heretic’s misconception by saying that the Word was a consubstantial image of the Father (pp. 8-9). Safeguarded in this orthodox Trinitarian theology, the concept of images is not subordinated.
The second half of this chapter focused on the development in understanding of personhood as given by Gregory of Nyssa. An urgent task after Nicaea was a need for clarification of terminology. Vagueness in ousia and hypostasis led to more debates in the 4th century (p. 18). The Cappodociean father helped shift the understanding toward the individual being a higher reality than the essence of humanity (p. 21-22). After mapping out the various patristic definitions and a treatment of the theological approach to personhood (pp. 22-33), Schönborn gives a brief soteriology. Rejecting any notion of Christ as a passive instrument, he states, “To reduce the Son to a mere instrumental power would amount to denying him the freedom that distinguishes even man. It is not possible to speak of obedience without including freedom” (p. 42).
Early Schools of Christological Thought
Chapter two landscapes the Christological foundations for an authentic iconography. Spanning over ninety pages, the cardinal theologian limits himself to a detailed survey of four prominent patristic Christologies: Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus Confessor. With the former two there is an iconoclastic tendency, while the latter were championed by the iconophiles. According to Schönborn, Origen denigrates the flesh to the realm of shadows (p. 48). He laconically sums up Origen’s position as heavy-laden by a spiritualism that tends to stress the “imageless” (p. 53). Eusebius’ Christology is even more explicitly anti-icon for he takes the term “image” as a subordination of the Logos to the Father (p. 60). Schönborn shows that the bishop of Caesarea went as far as jettisoning the body out of the definition of man, whereby true creation consisted of only formation of the soul (p.76).
Following in the footsteps of Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria held fast to the notion of the eternal Logos being the perfect and consubstantial image of the Father. The Austrian theologian writes that Cyril opposed Eusebius’ belief that the body was a mere fleshly façade. For Cyril the flesh is intrinsic to the Word (p. 82). Though he presented an orthodox view of the Incarnation, Schönborn critiques the Alexandrian bishop’s theology as not being refined and containing Monoenergist jargon (p. 92-94). With Maximus the Confessor in the 7th century, this represented, says Schönborn, “the most wonderful christological synthesis of the ancient Church” (p. 102).
Both Maximus’ theology and argot presented a balanced approach to the Incarnation. He maintained the hypostatic union and asserted two wills and two actions in the One Person of Christ (p. 116). According to Schönborn, the novelty of his thought was purporting the Incarnation as entirely flowing from the Trinitarian will (p. 121).
History of Iconoclasm and Christology
The second half of the book shows how the iconoclastic controversies were inextricably tied to the early stages of Christological developments. In seeing the icon as a condensed creed, the red-capped theologian demonstrates the significance for studying iconography (p. 138). Chapter one outlines the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy. Here Schönborn delineates the main arguments and figures opposed to icons. Centering on Exodus 20:4, the iconoclasts took the prohibition on fashioning idols literally to mean a wholesale rejection of images (pp. 148-149). A leader in the charge against icons was Emperor Constantine V. His propaganda led to falsely calling the icon cult a Christological heresy (p. 168). While the emperor and iconoclast bishops differed on definition of personal countenance, their sinister ardor crystallized in the Council of 754 A.D. which tried to force iconophiles into a false dichotomy between Monophysitism and Nestorianism (p. 174).
Regarding the defenders of images, Schönborn breaks this section into three eras. He focuses on three important figures for the initial period: Germanus I, George of Cyprus, and John Damascene. Among the salient points include John’s detailed categories of images (pp.192-199). Schönborn then goes on to outline the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. Here the orthodox bishops maintain an argument of tradition to support icons (p. 202). Finally, he writes about the Golden Age of icons with examples of Nicephorus and Theodore the Studite as among the most lucid and erudite authors on this topic during the ancient Church.
From the outset of his book, Christoph Schönborn stated that though the topic of icons is pervasive throughout his prose, relatively little specific attention is given to that subject. Indeed, recognizing the various historical treatments dealing with the aesthetic aspect of icons, the red-hatted theologian wanted to provide the theological cement upon which the edifice of icons could be built. It is in the author’s opinion that Schönborn in both a wonderful scholarly and readable way accomplished his task.
All Doctrine Originates from the Trinity
Doctrinally speaking the cardinal theologian rightly began his theological foundations with the Trinity− the premise of all doctrines. In charting out the Nicene problem and ensuing Trinitarian developments, Schönborn does a masterful job of delineating the main characters (Arius, Athanasius, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, etc) without succumbing to a lofty prose or bogging the reader down with a ton of periphery names. Another insightful item about this book was the topical headings and subdivisions within each chapter as well. For instance, regarding the Trinitarian Foundations, Schönborn divided the section into three parts: foundations on the eternal image, novelty of the Christian notion of personhood, and various patristic soteriologies. Glancing at the table of contents allowed me to better understand Schönborn’s definitions and logic.
In chapter two, the Archbishop presents both Christologies of the iconophiles and iconoclasts. He details Origen’s spiritual readings of biblical texts, viewing Jesus’ body as an instrument for his divinity. Some scholars purport his tendency to highlight the image-less places him in the iconoclast camp. However, Schönborn acknowledges that Origen’s teachings were preserved in mere fragments (p. 47). The cardinal speaks objectively when he warns of a false reductionism of Origen. He is also wary of viewing Origen as a spiritual Father for iconoclasm. Schönborn declares, “Origen is much too universal too biblical, too ecclesiastical, too “Catholic”, to allow the reduction of his work to only one of its dimensions” (p. 53-54).
Moreover, the Archbishop provides an in-depth sketch of the champion of the iconoclast Christology− Eusebius of Caesarea. Schönborn asserts that the crux of the anti-icon position pivoted around the “image of God” being a subordination of the Logos. Utilizing samples of Eusebius’ writings, Schönborn demonstrated the logic to such a view. From the pro-icon side, he did an adroit job showing the development of orthodox thought. He showed the gradual clarification in the term “hypostatic union” from the “unrefined” Cyril to the “more-polished” Maximus.
In the second half of the book, Schönborn clearly asks: May and should Christ be represented in an image? Yet, he makes sure to qualify the chronology of the icon controversy as not being exhaustive due to space restraints.
The treatment of the theological outline of the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy illuminated the reader because it showed the milieu by which this position germinated. In keeping with his contemporaries that the emperor (Leo III and later his son Constantine V) was the main impetus for the iconoclasts, Schönborn admits that what motivated the “purple” pronouncement remains unknown. What he does purport is that outside forces such as Monophysitism, Islam, and even Judaism may have contributed to iconoclasm. Lastly, Schönborn successfully simplified the pro-icon position by only focusing on the novelty and specific influence in advancing iconophile theology of the main players. Thus, he eliminated any unnecessary verbiage.
Broadly sketching out the theological scaffolding and also delineating individual patristic thoughts is important for an adequate understanding of a theology of the icon. Schönborn presented his prose in a lucid fashion while still writing with skilled acumen. His contribution to Christology was a return to seeing the icon as “a creed in miniature”. The twelve illustrations also allowed for a profound mediation on his prose. In sum, the author of this review suggests this book to any fan of Catholic Christology!