Monday, June 27, 2022

Matariki, Constantine, Christmas

We'll get to Constantine and to Christmas before the end of the post. Bear with.

Last Wednesday (22 June) in our weekly Diocesan e-letter, I wrote:

We are on something of adventure as a nation as we make significant steps forward in the 2020s (compared to any other decade I recall) to becoming a bicultural and bilingual society. So, this Friday is our first ever public holiday which acknowledges something of importance in Te Ao Maori: Matariki.

In this holiday we are invited to share together in celebrating the appearance of the astronomical sign which heralds the turn of the year and to remember with thanksgiving those who have gone before us. Matariki refers to both the cluster of stars called Pleiades in ancient Greece (and continued as a term in modern English) and to one of those stars. Potentially we can see seven stars, though one may be hidden. The Bible refers explicitly to “Pleiades” (e.g. NRSV) or Matariki (Te Paipera Tapu) on three occasions: Job 9:9; Job 38:31; Amos 5:8.

There is an intriguing possibility of an implicit reference to Matariki in the Book of Revelation where reference is made to the exalted Jesus holding in his right hand “the seven stars” (1:16; also 2:1; 3:1). For further intrigue on this reference and its possible connection to the geographical location of the seven churches of Revelation, see this blogpost .

This cluster of stars (about which you can read more on Wikipedia and for our local Kiwi flavour, here) consists of many more stars than seven (it has been named "The Seven Sisters") or nine or even fourteen potentially viewable to the naked eye (depending on your location and atmospheric conditions).

This picture gives us both a picture of Matariki (the cluster, but one of the stars is also called Matariki):

Matariki (as an event or festival) signals with the reappearance of the Matariki, which disappears from sight before the winter solstice and reappears soon after (this year, 24 June (also "John the Baptist"), but next year 14 July, etc), the beginning of the Maori new year, and thus a time for remembering what has gone before and for looking forward to what lies ahead.

As a celebrated festival, Matariki fell away by the 1940s but since the 2000s has been revived, and now to the point where we will have an annual holiday each year to mark this important calendrical event.

I was intrigued to hear in a report on TV One news last night (though it is not actually mentioned here in a written version of the item) that an offering of food was part of the pre dawn ceremony. A Stuff report confirms this,

"Lee Johnson (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Kuia) was charged with preparing the food that will be offered at the pre-dawn hautapu. “If the food is cooked then that’s a good sign, so I’ll be putting my best foot forward to make sure it’s cooked, if not overcooked.”"

Now I do not mention this to get into a debate about whether such ceremony takes us away from the God of Jesus Christ and closer to the traditional gods of Te Ao Maori - that is a complex and nuanced matter which involves understanding of Te Ao Maori (the worldview of Maori, including the use of personifications and metaphors in the connections made between the natural world and human life and its cycles of planting and harvesting, of life and death), that I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about to engage in discussion.

But the reference to the offering of food got me thinking that here in real time, Christians in Aotearoa New Zealand are experiencing a moment of cultural and religious change which is challenging (how will we respond?) and opportunistic (can we respond well?). 

There is no doubt that Matariki is a revival of an ancient and pre Christianity (as conveyed through the first missionaries) set of incantations and rituals, as well as a contemporary bicultural, local recognition that matters of calendar, celebration of seasonal/annual change need not be exclusive to the Christian world of our ancestors in the northern hemisphere (perhaps, notably, Christimas as a festival close to the northern hemisphere Winter solstice and New Year close after that; as well as Easter as a festival near the beginning of Spring). 

Further, as my comments cited above recognise, Matariki as a star cluster is a familar part of the night sky around the whole world, and features in many cultures, including the culture of the Bible world itself.

A moment of cultural and religious change?

Yes, and one which Christianity in our blessed islands has a choice to:

- ignore and do nothing about, save to enjoy a new public holiday weekend;

- embrace, and fuse ancient and present ideas and beliefs into a new (or renewed) Christian celebration of the cycles of God's creation, so that no part of life in this locality is beyond the prayers and thanksgivings of God's people.

Thus Constantine and Christmas!

There is a critique of Christianity in relation to Constantine which says that lot of things about Christianity have been perfectly dreadful since Christianity became the faith of the Roman Empire and Christendom arose out of that fusion. The radical vision of Jesus for a new, egalitarian kingdom died with the bishops harnessed to the needs of "the establishment", etc.

Yet, reflecting from our local cultural and religious moment which - to be clear - I think we should embrace and not ignore, did Christianity have any reasonable, viable choice than to take the road of Constantinian fusion?

There is a critique of Christmas (from within and without Christianity!) that it is pretty much a Christianization of a pagan festival, conveniently attached to celebrating the birth of Jesus. (I am aware that there are various arguments about how accurate this is, etc, etc.) But, here's the thing: assuming that Christianity saw a need to transform and not ignore pagan celebrations of the Winter solstice, was there much choice, in reality. To ignore and hope such pagan festivities would go away, not be attractive to Christians, and so forth: would that have worked? 

I think not. Better to embrace and transform, surely.

In our case, bearing in mind the biblical texts cited above, we have much to embrace (aspects of the starry heavens and the earth beneath) and much to transform (an ancient celebration of life, death and new life in which we are inspired to offer thanks and praise to the God of all life, in sea, earth and sky).

Perhaps you think otherwise. Discuss!

Postscript: here Down Under we are not unaware that this weekend is also a cultural, religious, political and (for millions of women) personal moment in the USA as Roe v Wade is swept away and the legal status of abortion now varies from state to state. So far, my reading of Twitter and other responses is less than inspiring, other than to inspire me to make no further comment from afar.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Obviously, it is time to post on ... demons

So, the gospel reading for Ordinary 12 was Luke 8:26-39, The Deliverance of Legion.

A familiar story, notable in our memories for the man living in a local cemetery, the legion of demons, the swineherd, and the destruction of the pigs (2000 according to Mark 5:13), neverthless raises some questions, one of which for me I do not recall previously seeing!

That question (before the other ones) is, 

Why does Luke describe the man as being possessed both by a singular demon and by plural demons?

He introduces the man as having "demons" (27) but then reports that Jesus had "commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man" (29) and talks about the man being "driven by the demon into the desert" (29) before the remainder of the story focusing on the man (or the demon(s) within him) as being named "Legion" and described in plurality (30, 31, 32, 33). 

A possible answer is that Luke is wrestling with Mark's version of this incident. Mark 5:2 introduces the man as "a man with an unclean spirit" and describes Jesus as commanding "you unclean spirit" to come out of him (8) before the dialogue in which Jesus asks the man his name, with the reply "My name is Legion: for we are many" (9) and the remainder of demonic references being about plural demons.

Luke (on this hypothesis) both wishes to correct Mark a little (so his verse 27 describes the man as having demons plural, rather than having an unclean spirit, in keeping with how the story unfolds later on), yet also be faithful to Mark, and especially to Mark's report of what Jesus says and does (Luke 8:29 becomes a report on Mark 5:7, referencing "unclean spirit" as Mark does. 

A further correction, or, at least, restraint on repeating a detail of Mark, is that when Mark says the man (or his demon(s)) is called "Legion" which could imply as many demons as there were soldiers in a Roman legion, about 5000) but describes the number of pigs killed as "2000" (which, if there was one demon per pig, is well short of 5000), Luke adroitly repeats that the man is called "Legion" but omits the number of pigs that are killed.

Other questions?

In a Western world somewhat wary of talk of demons/unclean spirits (unless they appear in a horror movie), how do we understand this story today? Is it, for instance, speaking to a phenomenon in our world that we are not willing to engage with? Or, (somewhat comfortingly for 21st century people more used to talking about psychiatry and mental health), was Jesus - unique Son of God - especially provocative of the demonic world, so that they (the demons) showed their faces (so to speak) when Jesus came along, but now that he is ascended, they work in a more hidden way, ergo we don't need to worry about them or talk about them?

Acknowledging that the questions in the paragraph above deserve a very long discussion, and that there are other questions related to these ones, neverthless I want to observe that, whatever else this story might mean, it is part of Luke setting out the case that no power was able to defeat Jesus: not illness, not death, not shortage of food, not storms and, here, not demonic "anti-God" spiritual forces.

Yet, in our world today, we see forces at work against God, the church and, more generally, the flourishing of humanity (e.g. Russian aggression in Ukraine), which Jesus does not seem to be defeating?

What might we say about the seeming victory of evil in our world today?

One thought I had is that we should read about our world (and the presence of the ascended Jesus within it) with the whole of Luke-Acts in mind.

Acts, after all, tells us much about what the mission of Jesus looks like when he is no longer on earth as a flesh-and-blood human being. What do we find there? Certainly, demons are delivered (e.g. Acts 16:16-18). But the world is a brutal world. In that particular deliverance story, the apostles concerned are hounded into jail as a consequence (though later rescued). Some key figures in the mission are executed (Stephen, James). Paul ends the story in a sanguine position, as a well-treated prisoner in Rome, but we know from later histories that he will die as a martyr.

To a degree, evil wins, at least in a limited way, in the history of Christianity in our world.

But, Acts might steer us in another direction, re evil in our world. Acts is also the story of the followers of Jesus doing something rather than nothing about the state of the world. There is a better news story to share with the world, in word and in deed, than the current news story of the Roman Empire. The apostles and other disciples get out and about telling the gospel and doing the gospel through healings and deliverances.

In our world today, we may feel powerless, but there is always something gospelling we can do and say.


Luke's narrative has a very, very neat ending (which, again, I do not recall previously noting, but some commentaries have helped me out).

In Luke 8:39, Jesus commands the man to return to his home and "declare how much God has done for you."

But what he actually does is to proclaim "throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him."

A lovely identification between God and Jesus. Cracking Lukan theology!

Monday, June 13, 2022

Quicunque vult and a coupla other things

It is Trinity (as I start writing this post) so it's time to remind ourselves of Quicunque vult or "The Creed of Athanasius" (which may not have actually been written by him). In the lingo of the BCP:

"Whosoever will be saved : before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled : without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this : That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.


Now this is discomforting for those of us, including myself, who worry about a "propositional" approach to faith because we do not see much in the NT which says we will be judged for what beliefs we hold, other than a basic belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Except in the last words of the last sentence is a clue as to why this creed is correct in what it says: if we believe that Jesus is more, much more than a teacher or prophet or even both, that in his divinity-and-humanity lies our salvation - Jesus is the One who identifies with us as humans and who as God in flesh is able to redeem us from our sinfulness, then not only are we saved, but we also incipiently believe what the "Catholick faith" is about, as spelled out in precise and comprehensive terms by this creed.


I see a debate is breaking out for the umpteenth time in TEC over baptism in relation to communion, or, Can an unbaptized person receive communion? Bosco Peters has the wrap here.

My own contribution is to cite three sentences from an Anglican hero I haven't mentioned here for a while.

Richard Hooker. Who else?!

"The grace which we have by the holy Eucharist doth not begin but continue life. No man therefore receiveth this sacrament before Baptism, because no dead thing is capable of nourishment. That which groweth must of necessity first live." (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Book V Section LXVII (1)).

I think that's a No.


While with Hooker, my eyes doth (see how influential the man is on my writing) glance a little further on in the above section LXVII to see what he says about the eucharist.

I really, really like the way in which he eschews getting stuck on either consubstantiation or transubstantiation while, naturally, avoiding Zwinglianism. A few sentences ... 

(re Zwingli) "... that men should account of this sacrament but only as a shadow, destitute , empty and void of Christ." [ LXVII (2)]

(re an overview of the "contentions" about where Christ is) "... I can see on all sides at the length to a general agreement concerning that which alone is material, namely the real participation of Christ and of life in his body and blood by means of this sacrament" [ LXVII (2)]

"I wish that men would more give themselves to meditate with silence what we have by the sacrament, and less to dispute of the manner how?" [ LXVII (3)]

"The bread and the cup are his body and blood because they are causes instrumental upon the receipt whereof the participation of his body and blood ensueth." [ LXVII (5)]

"The real presence of Christ's most blessed body and blood is not therefore to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament." [ LXVII (6)]

This last point, incidentally, very much drives forward one of our own (ACANZP) key statements in our most frequently used eucharistic prayer (NZPB, 423):

"Send your Holy Spirit that these gifts of bread and wine which we receive may be to us the body and blood of Christ ..." (my bold).

Also (NZPB, 467):

"By your Holy Spirit this bread and wine will be for us the body and blood of Christ" (my bold).

Now, I have previously, in line with others, thought of Hooker as promoting a "receptionist" view of the eucharist: the bread and the wine of eucharist become the body and blood of Christ when received by us. And, above, we do find the word "receipt" and "receiver" used (the citations from LXVII (5) and (6) respectively). 

But, I wonder if a better description of Hooker's approach would be "participationist" (LXVII (2) and (5) above respectively)?

That is, through the sacrament of communion, we who believe in Jesus and receive the sacrament, participate in the life of Christ, in the body and blood of Christ, the emphasis falling not on what we receive (i.e. ingest and digest material food and drink) but on the connection that food and drink make with the life of Christ. It is that life, the real life of Christ, which nurtures our life in Christ.

Does this make 1 Corinthians 10:16 the most important New Testament verse for our understanding of the sacrament of the eucharist? (NRSV=REB=NJB: "sharing"; NIV "participation".)

Monday, June 6, 2022

The church of God will live, but its shape may be interesting!

Let's keep thinking about the future of the church (at least Down Under) - a future which may or may not have a strong inclusion of things Anglican. This week I'll offer a few thoughts on some of the many insightful if not challenging comments made to last week's post which focused on Anglicanism itself. With a couple of other comments from further afield noted at the end.

(1) There must be converts to Christ in the future of the church. This is a point underlined in the comment below (and by the comment further below, at 3), which also raises the question of what we might do differently. 

(My point) whatever we do today as church is different to what was happening in Cranmer's day. And that was different to what was happening in (say) Lydia's church in Philippi. What could or should tomorrow look like? 

Back to the need for converts:

BW - May 31, 2022 at 4:45 AM: "A math point: when individual conversion has a network effect, it grows at a steadily increasing rate (eg the Roman Empire). Those accustomed to relying on weddings and baptisms as a church growth strategy miss the importance of the network effect and can inadvertently tolerate or foster an ethos hostile to it.

When church shrink comes up, as it has off and on for thirty years, some hear this as a source problem ("we need a new gospel") and others as a distribution problem ("we need to try new ways of reaching people"). Those who want to fix the former are ignored by those who want to fix the latter, and vice versa. Those who want to fix both are ignored by everybody. Can we do better?

Clayton Christenson's Innovator's Dilemma was discovered in business, but may have some application here: to do what can thrive in the future, an organization must often pivot away from offerings that are still popular today toward others only beginning to build a following. Few Americans buy electric cars, but that is so clearly the wave of the future that automakers here up yonder no longer have engineers to design and test any new internal combustion engines. Like most organizations, churches seem unable to bear the strain of that sort of decision. Look, for example, at how hard it is for dioceses to close parishes." 

(2) Are we going to win converts to a narrow form of Christianity (or a series of narrow forms of Christianities)? Yes, Jesus spoke about the narrow gate but he did unleash on the world a movement which came up with four versions of the gospel reports of Jesus, as well as Paul's take, James' take, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation. Can we affirm the following comment as we engage with the question of evangelism in the 21st century? 

MM - May 31, 2022 at 5:50 PM: "The ocean of grace has many shores.

Gosh, we spend a lot of time arguing which boats should enter which harbour."

Speaking of arguing about boats and harbours, I note across the Tasman that we have two further contribtions post-General Synod: first by Matthew Anstey and then a rejoinder by Mark Thompson. I cannot help but think that a comprehensive Anglicanism finds - should find - a way to draw on the best of what both offer!

(3) In reflecting on our life together as Anglicans, bound as we are by a liturgical tradition (even if held to very lightly here and there), we must reckon with what worship means for us, how we are to worship God both faithfully and fruitfully. In the comments to last week Bosco Peters offers an important observation re worship and the five marks of mission. Then there is this comment, reminding us that we can be experienced as something of a "mixed bag":

M - June 3, 2022 at 8:23 PM: "Why do Anglicans keep going to church? I have two faithful Anglican friends. One loves the weekly communion as a special connection with her Lord. The other loves joining in the sense of tradition and history through the liturgy though she has all sorts of theological questions. I go because I am strengthened in spirit by joining in worship regularly. However a young woman, an unchurched believer, strayed into a liturgical service and commented that it seemed as if she had come into the middle of a history book and hadn’t read the first half! Our church has both positives and negatives and will never be more than a small part of the universal Church, but nonetheless precious."

(4) If there is a question of a zeitgeist sweeping all before us, so the decline of the church seems to be beyond our control, then there is, as the comment below reminds us, a counter-question of what the gospel itself looks like when it is the zeitgeist. And another way of talking about "beyond our control" is to talk about "not thinking at the scale of the question posed."

How, indeed, do we nurture our dreamers and prophets?

Back to BW - June 6, 2022 at 3:36 AM : "Before + Peter moves on to the next topic, a final thought that should have been my initial thought: the gospel is spread at grand scale when it is generating cultural capital where it goes, and so, although we do need to know our scales and arpeggios to play, the music is improvised from some larger sense of what cultural capital God wants some people somewhere to have. Jesus himself models this in a way one can only call divine.

From another perspective, Graham Kings was able to write about *missionary spirituality* because evangelism is cultural work that requires an alive spirit. It can be done disastrously when religion is pushed as a human work, but there is no higher vocation than to participate in the Spirit's inculturation of the gospel. The present impasse is not that the numbers are bad, but that churches are not nurturing sons who dream dreams and daughters who prophesy.

We are not thinking at the scale of the question posed."

(5) Speaking of Anglican decline, a very acerbic column by NZ's own Damien Grant, this Sunday past, of the Platinum Jubilee weekend, manages to sheet all sorts of worldly ills of decline at the Queen's feet AND spiritual decline as well. But is the Queen, a model Christian, really responsible? Methinks Damien is having some fun at her expense:

"Yet let us not forget that the role of Her Majesty is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England; she is the Defender of the Faith.

It escapes my limited comprehension why anyone would want to belong to a religion founded by a man who beheaded two of his wives, one merely a teenager at the time, and is one of the most morally repellent successors to King Alfred. Yet, that is a task that befalls the British Monarch and is yet another example of failure.

When she was anointed with consecrated oil, the Anglican Faith was a powerhouse of the Christian community. Now it is in terminal decline.

It is projected to collapse entirely in the United States and merely 3% of British youth consider themselves Anglican; at this rate the Druids are set to overtake Anglicism by the end of this century.

(6) Let's end this pot pouri on a much brighter note!

It is "Thy Kingdom Come" time in 2022 and on Twitter I noticed this lovely and inspiring thought by Archbishop Angaelos (Coptic Archbishop of London). 

"Adoring God is something we are called to do. Not because He requires us… but because when you look at His attributes, His love, His sacrificial nature, you can do nothing but adore.

Beautiful reflection on 'Adore' from

for #ThyKingdomCome2022."

Is there any future for the Anglican church here and everywhere which is not a future of praise and adoration?