POETRY: I Went In, I Knew Not Where, by John of the Cross

I went in, I knew not where
and stayed, not knowing, but going
past the boundaries of knowing.
I knew not the place around me,
how I came there or where from,
but seeing where then I found me,
I sensed great things, and grew dumb—
since no words for them would come—
lacking all knowledge, but going
past the boundaries of knowing.

Of piety and of peace
I had perfect comprehension;
solitude without surcease
showed the straight way, whose intention—
too secret for me to mention—
left me stammering, but going
past the boundaries of knowing.

So wholly rapt, so astonished
was I, from myself divided,
that my very senses vanished
and left me there unprovided
with knowledge, my spirit guided
by learning unlearned, and going
past the boundaries of knowing.

He who reaches that place truly
wills himself from self to perish;
all he lately knew, seen newly,
seems trifles unfit to cherish;
his new knowledge grows to flourish
so that he lingers there, going
past the boundaries of knowing.

The higher up one is lifted,
the less one perceives by sight
how the darkest cloud has drifted
to elucidate the night;
He who knows the dark aright
endures forever, by going
past the boundaries of knowing.
This wisdom, wise by unknowing,
wields a power so complete
that the learned wise men throwing
wisdom against it compete
with a force none can defeat,
since their wisdom makes no showing
past the boundaries of knowing.

There is virtue so commanding
in this high knowledge that wit,
human skill and understanding
cannot hope to rival it
in one who knows how to pit
against self his selfless going
past the boundaries of knowing.

And if you should care to learn
what this mode of being wise is,
it is yearnings that discern
the Divine in all its guises,
whose merciful gift and prize is
to confound all knowledge, going
past the boundaries of knowing.

FORGIVENESS: Forgiveness In Luke-Acts, by Anthony Bash

From Forgiveness: A Theology

In his commentary on Luke’s gospel, Christopher Evans sets the writing of the gospel between 75-130 CE.  The gospel is therefore almost certainly written after Mark’s gospel, though we cannot be sure whether it was written before or after Matthew’s gospel.

Most likely, the same person is the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.  The author is usually referred to as “Luke,” and the two books as “Luke-Acts.”  When I refer to the gospel alone, I call it “Luke,” or “the Gospel of Luke.”

A quick read of the Gospel of Luke discloses that Luke incorporated into his gospel much of the Gospel of Mark, as well as having some material either of his own (traditionally referred to as coming from a source or sources called “L”) or which he shares with Matthew (which scholars call “Q”).  Luke himself says in the introduction of the gospel that his account is based on careful use of the reports of eyewitnesses and of early Christian ministers.  So it is plausible that Luke knew Mark’s gospel, had access to other material, whether oral or written, and was writing what we today would regard as a carefully researched account, based on sources that were contemporaneous with the events he describes.

Interpreting the gospel with these suppositions about the source-material Luke used can help us to identify Luke’s editorial intentions, and so his particular interests and emphases.  It can point us to how and when Luke modified material that is found in Mark; it can also point us to what Luke excludes from Mark.  Asking why Luke made these editorial changes may suggest what is distinctive about Luke’s theology of forgiveness.  For similar reasons, we will be able to identify what Luke leaves unchanged: the fact that some material is apparently deliberately unchanged, or edited in only minor ways, suggests it has an important place in Luke’s theology of forgiveness, just as it may have in other gospels where it is found.

Despite Luke’s probable use of Mark’s gospel and the presence of material they share, Luke subtly changes the emphasis he inherits from Mark’s gospel.  The result is that Luke’s gospel is a work with a different feel, and with different theological emphases.  As with Mark, there is not a great deal explicitly about interpersonal forgiveness.  Nevertheless, we have reason to say, as we shall see later, that, of the writers of the Christian scriptures, Luke is one of two theologians of forgiveness par excellence.  The other is Matthew.

Interpersonal Forgiveness

Of Luke’s four explicit references to interpersonal forgiveness (which are all in the gospel), Luke 23:34 (Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing) is a disputed reading.  The verse is in some of the best manuscripts, and not in other of the best manuscripts.  It is probably one of the best known of all verses in the Christian scriptures.  Bruce Metzger’s conclusion is that the verse “though probably not a part of the original Greek of Luke, bears self-evident tokens of its dominical origin,” and so has been “incorporated by unknown copyists relatively early in the transmission” of the gospel.

The verse is commonly (but mistakenly) referred to as Jesus’s prayer of “forgiveness” on the cross.  It is reflected in Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:60 as he was dying.  In Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60, by their prayers, both Jesus and Stephen exemplify a spirit that eschews revenge, and seeks the best for their enemies.  In this way, the prayers model Jesus’s own teaching that we find, for example, in Luke 6:27-37.  Nevertheless, the prayers are not prayers that God would forgive unrepentant wrongdoers.  In addition, neither passage supports the suggestion that one should forgive unrepentant wrongdoers, or leaves open the possibility that, in offering forgiveness, Christians thereby hang up their integrity or connive with or condone wrongdoing.

Of the other three references to interpersonal forgiveness in the gospel, Luke 17:3-4 has echoes of Matthew 18:15, 21-22, but is clearly from a different source.  Jesus states in verse 3 that if one’s brother repents (meaning by, “brother,” of course, not a male sibling only, but a fellow believer of either sex), one should forgive that person.  The emphasis is different from Mark 11:25-26: in Mark, the emphasis is on the victim taking initiative to forgive, whereas in Luke the emphasis is on the wrongdoer repenting and taking the initiative to seek forgiveness.  In verse 4, Jesus says that if the same person sins against you seven times a day, one must forgive that person, if he or she is repentant, every time that person seeks forgiveness.  (If one stops to think carefully, to be wronged seven times in one day could amount to a dreadful measure of trauma.  This suggests that the verse is another example of Jesus teaching in hyperbole to make what he said memorable.)

Two implications arise from what Jesus says in 17:4.  First, forgiveness should not be limited, reluctant, or conditional with a forgiver apparently saying or implying before offering forgiveness, I will forgive you on this one occasion, but if you wrong me again I will not forgive you.  Second, people are to forgive repentant wrongdoers, no matter how difficult it may seem and no matter what the personal cost, because the practice of interpersonal forgiveness is one of the paramount characteristics of being a follower of Jesus.

The other two verses on interpersonal forgiveness link forgiving others with being forgiven oneself.  They do not state that repentance is a precondition of forgiveness, though one should not think otherwise, because in the rest of Luke-Acts repentance and forgiveness are almost always linked.  The first of the two verses is Luke 6:37.  Jesus states baldly, Forgive [set free], and you will be forgiven [be set free].  (This is the only place in the gospel where Luke does not use aphiē or aphesis for “forgive” and “forgiveness.”  Instead, Luke uses the very, apoluō.)  The second is Luke 11:4, which is from Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer and which has parallels in Mark 11:23.  It grounds a prayer for divine forgiveness on the fact that the suppliant is a forgiver.  The words of Luke 11:4 are: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive all indebted to us.  (Debt is a metaphor for sin.)  At these points, Luke is theologically similar to Mark and the point is clear: forgiving others and being forgiven go together.

Looking at these four passages on interpersonal forgiveness together, we can summarize Luke’s theology of interpersonal forgiveness in this way: forgiveness is about not taking revenge but seeking the best for one’s enemies.  It is always unconditionally to forgive the repentant, without regard to how difficult or personally costly it may be.  People who forgive can look to God to forgive them; by implication, those who do not forgive others will not themselves receive God’s forgiveness.

In these respects, Luke and Mark are self-consistent; we might say that Luke more strongly emphasizes repentance than Mark, but apart from that, we come away with conclusions that are much the same.  What is different – significantly different – is the theological context in which Luke sets interpersonal forgiveness.  To this we now turn.

Theological Context

The organizing key to Mark’s theology of forgiveness is the kingdom of God and what that means.  Not so, with Luke.  For Luke, what is central is that Jesus is “the Christ” (Messiah).  In Luke’s gospel, the Messiah is the savior who brings aphesis, that is, forgiveness of or release from sins.  Thus, Simeon was promised he would see the “Messiah” before his death; the Messiah was the “salvation” for all the peoples of the world.  Similarly, John the Baptist’s ministry was to prepare the way for the one who would bring the promised “salvation.”  John insisted that he was “not the Messiah”; rather the Messiah was the one for whose way he was preparing.  The Messiah in Luke’s writings reconstitutes the people of God, so that its identity comes not from Jerusalem and the temple, an identity that we see so clearly at the start of the gospel, but from the response of individuals to Jesus and, in the period after the Holy Spirit had been given, by baptism in the Spirit.  It is by believing in Jesus that people are saved and forgiven.

The savior brings aphesis, not only of sins but also of much more.  In Luke, aphesis principally means “release,” that is, release from sin, from illness and death, from demonic forces, from oppression, and from injustice.  Two examples that are not of release from sin illustrate this.  In Luke 4:16-30, the first example, Jesus quotes from a pastiche of verses loosely based on Isaiah 61 and 58 about an anointed person who brings aphesis (release) for prisoners.  The same verse speaks of “freedom” for the oppressed.  Significantly, Jesus says that the verses from Isaiah that he quotes have been fulfilled in the hearing of his listeners.  By this he means that he is the anointed person whose coming brings release and completes Jewish messianic expectations.  The second example is of the woman whom Jesus healed of spinal scoliosis.  He said she had been “bound” by Satan.  In healing her, Jesus said he had made her free from the imprisonment of the disease.  The good news of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus, the Messiah and savior, brings freedom for and release to a world in the thrall of Satan.

Divine Forgiveness

Words for “forgiveness” do not occur in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Nevertheless, many regard the parable as having much to say about forgiveness because in the parable the father welcomes back his errant son.

Almost certainly and from its context in the gospel, the parable is about the fact that God restores to the community of faith Jewish people, such as “tax-collectors and sinners” (typologically represented by the younger son), who have excluded themselves from the community by sin.  The father unconditionally welcomes back the younger son when he (the younger son) returns in penitence and remorse.  The point is that there is nothing people can do, even repudiating their former place in the convenant, which can take them outside God’s welcoming mercy and love.  The only condition for return is that they want to return, seek to return, and return in penitence.

I suspect some did not welcome the parable because they thought Jesus was teaching that God favored the faithless and disobedient.  The older son in the parable represents such critics.  He was angry with his father for throwing a party for a younger brother who, in the older son’s opinion, deserved punishment and condemnation.  Jesus highlights the older son’s self-pitying, judgmental attitude, and thereby exposes the self-pity and judgmental attitude, and thereby exposes the self-pity and judgmentalism of Jesus’s own hearers toward “tax-collectors and sinners.”  In response, and by means of the parable, Jesus assures those who criticized him for extending mercy and welcome to “tax-collectors and sinners” that their (the critics’) place in the covenant is secure and that God’s love for them remains undimmed.  What Jesus means is that though there is rejoicing over lost sinners who return, it is not at the expense of continued rejoicing over those who never left.

There are two lessons about forgiveness for Jesus’s hearers here.  Obviously, there is the father’s welcome of the younger son’s return.  The point is that as God welcomes all people who wish to return, so human beings should welcome and forgive those who wish to put right past wrongs.  It is the principle of Luke 17:3, this time in parabolic form: If there is repentance, you must forgive.  The second lesson, which is not usually brought out with clarity, is that the older son must learn to forgive, too.  Forgiveness is a gift for the undeserving and for failures.  It should not be withheld as a way of showing one’s disapproval of what a wrongdoer has done.  The older son, therefore, needed to welcome home, and forgive, his younger brother.

The place of “tax-collectors and sinners” and their relationship to the “righteous” is also explored in Luke 7:36-50, the story of the woman with ointment who outlandishly and extravagantly anointed Jesus’s feet at the house of Simon, a Pharisee.

Simon is deeply critical that Jesus allowed himself to be anointed by a “sinner” – and a woman sinner at that.  Jesus tells a parable that simply demonstrates, by analogy with money debt, that the more one is forgiven, the more one responds with gratitude.  Jesus then explains that the woman’s actions are lavish because she believed she had done much that was wrong and had received much forgiveness; she knew that the measure of her forgiveness corresponded with the measure of her wrongdoing.  Although Luke does not make this link, one can imagine that the woman will herself also be a forgiving person, because of her own experience of being forgiven.

There is a “sting in the tail” for Simon, the Pharisee, to whom Jesus is speaking.  Jesus points out to Simon that, compared with the woman, he (Simon) had been relatively unwelcoming and inhospitable.  More than that, because he was not a “sinner” like the woman, he had failed to realize that he was critical about her, and perhaps even smug and self-righteous.  In other words, for all his righteousness, Simon too stood in need of forgiveness.  One hopes that Simon came to see that, like the woman, he needed to be forgiven much, even though at the start of the story, if he had applied his mind to the question, he would have thought that he did not.

In some respects, Simon is like the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Unlike the older son, he was not angry and self-pitying about another’s forgiveness and inclusion; however, like the older son, he was critical of the grace extended to an unrighteous sinner.  Both Simon and the older son were blind to their own need for forgiveness.  A critical, bitter spirit (in the case of the older son) or self-righteous, critical disdain (in the case of Simon the Pharisee) can close off people from being forgiving, and can also close off those same people from seeing their own need for forgiveness and from the grace that forgiveness brings.  Perhaps this observation helps us to make better sense of Luke 6:37 (Forgive, and you will be forgiven.) and Luke 11:4 (Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us); people who do not forgive others are often blind to their own need for forgiveness and so do not experience the grace that being forgiven can bring.  To mix Biblical imagery, they are so occupied about not forgiving others for the speck they see in those others’ eyes that they fail to see their need to be forgiven for the log in their own eyes.

Concluding Observations

If we were to ask Luke why people should forgive one another, Luke would answer, as would Mark, that divine forgiveness is contingent upon interpersonal forgiveness.  Always go on forgiving the repentant! and Forgivers will be forgiven! could be their slogans.

For Luke, to forgive is a virtue and a duty at the core of Christian discipleship.  In his view, human beings are to be merciful to the repentant, even if the repentant are otherwise also apparently undeserving, and to practice forgiving as God forgives.  Luke highlights, in a way that Mark does not, that no one should be excluded from being forgiven if they are repentant.

Luke would add that one of the characteristics of the kingdom of God is God’s aphesis – release, restoration, freedom, forgiveness, and so on – from all that shackles and constrains human beings.  In other words, God’s aphesis undoes what oppresses human beings and (we might add) puts right injustice, abuse, mistreatment, suffering, and brutality.  God will also include outsiders who, in the present era of history, are excluded, and restore the “have nots” to their rightful place.  Interpersonal forgiveness, Luke would say, mirrors God’s forgiveness and offers a foretaste of the greater restorative work that God one day will complete.  But note that with Luke it is not interpersonal forgiveness at any price: there must always be antecedent repentance to ensure, in some measure, that forgivers are themselves not oppressed by an overriding duty to forgive at the cost of a measure of justice for the forgivers themselves.

In addition, Luke’s theology of interpersonal forgiveness is robust and psychologically astute.  Luke perceptively points out that those who think they have little for which they need to be forgiven are mistaken; their sins may not be so egregious as some, but they have sins – usually of thought and motive rather than of deed – that are every bit in need of God’s mercy as those whose outward actions deny them a place in the Jewish covenant.

APOSTLES: Peter And Paul As Preachers Of Repentance, by Finn Damgaard

From Peter in Early Christianity

As often noted, the concept of repentance plays a crucial role in Luke-Acts.  In the gospel, the call to repentance occurs frequently in the preaching and teaching of Jesus.  While Jesus in Mark and Matthew claims that he has “not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” Luke significantly adds that Jesus has come to call the sinners “to repentance.”  This undoubtedly programmatic statement has a crucial impact on the way Luke recasts the figure of Peter.  While Mark’s portrayal of Peter time and again focuses on Peter’s misunderstanding of Jesus’s person and mission and his weakness and fear, and only hints at his remorse and perhaps repentance at the end, Luke has moved Peter’s “conversion” and acknowledgement of Jesus’s holiness forward to his call as a disciple, as Peter’s words indicate: Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.  Luke’s portrayal of Peter focuses accordingly on Peter’s life after his “conversion,” and this might explain why he writes an embellished version of the Peter narrative.  Thus while in Mark’s gospel Peter’s denial was the last incident in a long line of failings, the denial is the only occasion when Peter is portrayed in a poor light in Luke’s gospel.  The account of Peter’s denials was probably included in order to emphasize Peter’s paradigmatic role in repentance and “conversion.”  Peter is, however, not the only figure in Acts that is paradigmatic for repentance and “conversion.”

As often noted, there is a parallel portrayal of Peter and Paul in Acts.  They are both led by the Holy Spirit, and learn about God’s plan through visions.  Their gospel message is very similar and they believe that the Jews as well as the gentiles are coheirs.  They speak with boldness, are successful, and act courageously before the Jewish council.  They have a miraculous aura; perform miracles, resurrections, exorcisms, and miracles of punishment.  They are imprisoned, experience a miraculous release, and have a tense relationship with parts of the church in Jerusalem at some point in their career.  The most significant parallel is, however, that they both act as preachers of repentance, and just as Peter experienced a change or reversal prior to his new ministry as a preacher of repentance, so did Paul.  They are even addressed by Jesus in a similar way when he twice calls them with their former name in the crucial narratives about their “turning.”

By focusing on the transformation of Paul, his change from persecutor to persecuted, Luke also turns Paul into a paradigmatic figure.  Paul’s journey of “conversion” becomes “representative of the conversion of all believers” when, for instance, he recalls the circumstances of his own “conversion” in order to appeal to his listeners to recognize the need for repentance.  By emphasizing Paul’s role as the great persecutor in each account of his “conversion,” Luke draws a contrast between Saul, the ideal persecutor, and Paul, the ideal missionary.  Paul’s persecution is here used as a foil to display God’s miraculous intervention.  With his portrayal of Paul as a paradigmatic figure, Luke probably exploits Paul’s self-portrayal as a persecutor of the church.  Though Paul himself claims to have persecuted the church in order “to destroy it,” he is not as specific as Luke concerning the nature of the persecutions.  According to Luke, Paul was engaged in acts of violence against his victims.  He had Christians imprisoned and voted for the death penalty against them.  Luke seems, however, to exaggerate Paul’s brutality, probably in order to emphasize God’s transforming power and highlight all the more his later missionary activity.  As rightly stressed by Arland Hultgren, Paul probably did “not understand persecution as a procedure which ends in the death of the victim”; his persecution should rather be seen within the framework of “the Jewish system of discipline prevailing at the time, i.e., the judicial flogging and imprisonment, both of which were designed to bring the offender back into line.”  By exaggerating Paul’s brutality Luke creates a greater contrast between Saul, the persecutor, and Paul, the persecuted.  Paul is now persecuted for the same reasons that he himself became a persecutor.

Luke’s portrayal of Paul seems to develop the contrast between “then” and “now” – between Paul as persecutor and Paul as preacher – which is a crucial idea in the letter to the Galatians.  Given the fact that Luke portrays both Peter and Paul as preachers of repentance in Acts, I would hypothetically suggest that Luke’s portrayal of Peter might have been written under the influence of Paul’s letters.  Luke might not only have written a “Pauline” speech for Peter at the Jerusalem council, he may even have rewritten Peter narratives such as the denial narrative under the influence of Paul’s letters – in this case Paul’s self-portrayal as a persecutor of the church.  Just as Luke turns Paul into a paradigmatic figure for repentance and “conversion,” so he presents Peter’s denial and subsequent repentance and returning as a paradigmatic experience similar to the people’s sudden involvement in Jesus’s crucifixion and their subsequent repentance and turning.

Although Luke never explicitly mentions Peter’s repentance after the denial scene (with the exception of his bitter weeping), much of the later story in Luke and Acts actually depends on this incident.  Luke accordingly picks up Mark’s figure of Peter at the moment when he breaks down outside the high priest’s palace.  While Mark left his figure in the courtyard and only indicated that Peter got the better of his fear, Luke takes on the mantle of Mark and demonstrates what the figure would look like upon leaving the courtyard.  In Luke’s view, Peter would, of course, be present at Jesus’s crucifixion, would later run to the tomb, and would be the first to meet the risen Lord.  But most importantly, he would carry on Jesus’s mission in Luke’s gospel by moving the people to repentance.


POETRY: St. Peter and the Angel, by Denise Levertov

Delivered out of raw continual pain,
smell of darkness, groans of those others
to whom he was chained—

unchained, and led
past the sleepers,
door after door silently opening—
And along a long street’s
majestic emptiness under the moon:

one hand on the angel’s shoulder, one
feeling the air before him,
eyes open but fixed . . . .

And not till he saw the angel had left him,
alone and free to resume
the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of
what he had still to do,
not till then did he recognize
this was no dream. More frightening
than arrest, than being chained to his warders:
he could hear his own footsteps suddenly.
Had the angel’s feet
made any sound? He could not recall.
No one had missed him, no one was in pursuit.
He himself must be
the key, now, to the next door,
the next terrors of freedom and joy.


POETRY: St. Peter’s Day, by John Keble

Thou thrice denied, yet thrice beloved,
Watch by Thine own forgiven friend!
In sharpest perils faithful proved,
Let his soul love Thee to the end.

The prayer is heard—else why so deep
His slumber on the eve of death?
And wherefore smiles he in his sleep,
As one who drew celestial breath?

He loves and is beloved again—
Can his soul choose but be at rest?
Sorrow hath fled away, and pain
Dares not invade the guarded nest.

He dearly loves, and not alone;
For his winged thoughts are soaring high
Where never yet frail heart was known
To breath in vain affection’s sigh.

He loves and weeps; but more than tears
Have sealed thy welcome and his love—
One look lives in him, and endears
Crosses and wrongs where’er he rove—

That gracious chiding look, Thy call
To win him to himself and Thee,
Sweetening the sorrow of his fall
Which else were rued too bitterly;

Even through the veil of sleep it shines,
The memory of that kindly glance;—
The angel, watching by, divines,
And spares awhile his blissful trance.

Or haply to his native lake
His vision wafts him back, to talk
With Jesus, ere his flight he take,
As in that solemn evening walk,

When to the bosom of his friend,
The Shepherd, He whose name is Good,
Did His dear lambs and sheep commend,
Both bought and nourished with His blood;

Then laid on him th’ inverted tree,
Which, firm embraced with heart and arm,
Might cast o’er hope and memory,
O’er life and death, its awful charm.

With brightening heart he bears it on,
His passport through th’ eternal gates,
To his sweet home—so nearly won,
He seems, as by the door he waits,

The unexpressive notes to hear
Of angel song and angel motion,
Rising and falling on the ear
Like waves in Joy’s unbounded ocean.

His dream is changed—the tyrant’s voice
Calls to that last of glorious deeds—
But as he rises to rejoice,
Not Herod, but an angel leads.

He dreams he sees a lamp flash bright,
Glancing around his prison room;
But ’tis a gleam of heavenly light
That fills up all the ample gloom.

The flame, that in a few short years
Deep through the chambers of the dead
Shall pierce, and dry the fount of tears,
Is waving o’er his dungeon-bed.

Touched, he upstarts—his chains unbind—
Through darksome vault, up massy stair,
His dizzy, doubting footsteps wind
To freedom and cool, moonlight air.

Then all himself, all joy and calm,
Though for a while his hand forego,
Just as it touched, the martyr’s palm,
He turns him to his task below:

The pastoral staff, the keys of heaven,
To wield awhile in gray-haired might—
Then from his cross to spring forgiven,
And follow Jesus out of sight.


PETER: Peter’s Miraculous Mission, by Bart D. Ehrman

From Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene

What accounts for Peter’s success as a missionary?  In the book of Acts, there is no ambiguity about the matter: God works miracles through him, and this convinces the crowds that he represents the truth they need to accept.  The first conversions come when the apostles miraculously receive the Spirit and begin speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost.  Peter preaches a sermon and thousands convert.  He heals a lame man at the temple, a crowd gathers, he preaches a sermon, and thousands convert.  Eventually we’re told that all the apostles begin doing “many signs and wonders” with the result that “many more were added to those who believed in the Lord, both men and women.”  It gets to the point where Peter is so powerful that throughout Jerusalem people can simply lay their sick out on the street on a sunny day, and if his shadow passes over them, they become well.  Everyone who is diseased or demon-possessed is healed.  It must have been great while it lasted.  And it is surprising that anyone bothered to persecute this movement.  You would think they’d set up enormous apostolic hospitals around the Mediterranean to solve the world’s problems.

The view that miracles are what drew the masses to convert continues in the legendary accounts of Peter in later works, such as the Acts of Peter.  There was a logic to this view.  People throughout the ancient world knew all too well that there were powerful forces of nature that could not be controlled by human effort.  You can’t control when and where it will rain, and so you can’t protect against drought; you can’t defend the body against diseases or demons, or the crops against blight; you can’t control if a woman dies in childbirth or if a child is stillborn; you can’t determine who is born blind or deaf or lame; you can’t control the hour of your death.  Humans are limited in what they can provide for themselves when it comes to what really counts – not just happiness, but health and life itself.

The gods, however, were known to be superhuman beings who could control such things.  Any god who manifested his or her power deserved human devotion: in fact, devotion to such a god would obviously increase the chances of divine intervention in the case of drought, famine, disease, or death.

Throughout the Roman Empire, there were hundreds – probably thousands – of religions, all of which promoted the worship of gods who could provide their devotees with what they needed.  One of the things that made Christianity different from all the other religions, with the exception of Judaism, is that it insisted that there was only one God who was to be worshiped.  None of the others was a true god.  That meant that if you converted to the worship of this one God, you had to abandon your worship of the others.  This was unlike the other religions of the empire.  For them, if you accepted a new god you could keep your old ones as well.  All these “pagan” religions were polytheistic, none of them insisting on exclusive devotion.  In fact, for these other religions it was perfectly acceptable to worship a wide range of deities who could perform a wide range of functions.  Why, then, would someone decide to give up all their other gods in order to worship the one God of the Christians?  The only reason would be if this one God was shown to be superior to all other gods, the one who could in fact provide all that was needed for healthy and happy lives.  And how could this be shown?  Through the miracles he did.

According to our earliest records of Christian missionary activity, then, it is no surprise that it is precisely the logic of miracles that drives  people to convert.  We find this logic in a wide range of tales told about the early Christian missionaries in the legendary accounts known as the Apocryphal Acts.  These are stories about such apostles as John, Thomas, and Andrew that record their missionary activities and show how the powerful miracles they did led to massive conversions to the faith.  Among the Apocryphal Acts are accounts of the missionary exploits of Paul and of Peter.

The Acts of Peter is especially interesting because it is largely about a contest of miracles between Peter and a magician (that is, a false miracle worker) named Simon, otherwise known as Simon Magus (Simon the Magician).  This contest is over who is the true representative of God, and the outcome will be decided on the grounds of power.  Whoever does the most spectacular miracles represents the truth.  The miracles narrated in these stories may seem incredible to modern readers.  But as I have suggested, if the miracles in the book of Acts weren’t found in the Christian Bible (such as the healing power of Peter’s shadow or his ability to raise the dead by speaking a word), these might seem just as incredible.  One impossible occurrence is no more possible than any other impossible occurrence.  And what, after all, is a miracle but an impossible event that occurs?

Simon Magus is a figure who first turns up not in the Acts of Peter but in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.  The later legends about him are all based on the account of his initial encounter with the apostles in Acts 8.  According to the story, the apostle Philip travels to a city in Samaria and does a series of miracles there.  He casts out demons and heals the paralyzed and the lame.  This leads, naturally enough, to a large number of conversions to worship his God.  But there is a person named Simon who had previously amazed the Samaritan people by his power, so that everyone there said about him, This is the power of God that is called Great.  That is, they took Simon to be the representative of the greatest of the gods until Philip came along and outshone him, leading everyone to convert to Philip’s God and belief in Jesus.  Simon himself is impressed and converts and is baptized.

When the apostles in Jerusalem hear that many have been converted and baptized in Samaria, they send two of their leaders, Peter and John, to continue the work there.  As it turns out, even though the Samaritans have become followers of Jesus, they have not yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which empowered the apostles themselves, starting with the Day of Pentecost.  Peter and John arrive and lay hands on the baptized believers, and the Spirit comes upon them (presumably through some miraculous and public sign, such as speaking in tongues).  When Simon of Samaria sees the power of Peter and John, he is moved by jealousy and offers the apostles money, saying, Give me this power too, so that I can lay hands on someone for them to receive the Holy Spirit.  Peter rebukes him for thinking that God’s power can be bought, and warns him to repent, For I see that you are filled with bitter poison and unrighteous fetters.  Simon asks the apostles to pray for him that he might escape the wrath of God for his wicked thoughts.  And there the story ends.

But later legends picked up where Acts left off.  According to these legends, Simon Magus never did learn his lesson, but continued trying to compete with the apostles by convincing people that his own miracles were equal to or better than theirs, and that he was the true representative of God.

Eventually Christian authors came to portray Simon Magus as the first arch-heretic.  In the works of later writers, such as the late-second-century Ienaeus – one of the great heresy hunters of the orthodox Christian tradition – Simon was the first Gnostic, the one from whom all Gnostics could trace their origin.  In the Acts of Peter he is portrayed not as a Gnostic but simply as an opponent to the apostles and their message of salvation in Christ.  Simon sets himself up as a great power of God and, in competition for converts, tries to better the apostle Peter in a contest of miracles.  This miracle-working contest forms the heart of the Acts of Peter.

The story is designed to show how Peter’s powerful presence drove Simon from one place to another (Judea to Rome).  It is also designed to show how Peter, the apostle of Jerusalem, ended up in the capital city of the empire, Rome.  There, according to tradition, he became the leader of the church and, in fact, its first pope.  He went to Rome, in this account, to counter the nefarious doings of the archenemy of God, the maleficent Simon, whose miracles were leading many astray.

It is not altogether clear how far this account is to be taken as a straightforward historical narrative of what happened when Peter arrived in Rome and how much is simply an entertaining set of stories.  The narrative begins not with Peter but with the apostle Paul in Rome.  Paul had been converting the masses through his miracles but is preparing to leave to take his Christian mission to Spain.  His departure, however, creates a vacuum in the religious sphere, which is filled by Simon (Magus), who calls himself, “the great power of God” (an allusion to Acts 8).  Simon’s own followers exalt him, saying to him, You are the God of Italy, you are the savior of the Romans.  He announces to the Romans that he will make a grand, miraculous entrance among them, flying into town over the gate of the city.  And so he does, arriving in Rome and wreaking great havoc by doing miracles that turn people away from their faith in Christ to believe in Simon himself as the true representative of God.  But in fact he is empowered by the enemy of God, Satan.  Peter is therefore summoned by God to counter his work.

Peter sails to Rome with the intention of besting Simon and proving to the Romans that it is faith in Christ that matters before God.  When he arrives, he finds that Simon is being housed by a lapsed Christian aristocrat, Marcellus.  When the doorman does not allow Peter into the house to confront Simon, Peter performs his first miracle.  Seeing a large dog leashed to a chain, he commissions him to fetch Simon.  The dog, being loosed, enters Marcellus’s house and speaks with a loud human voice: Simon, Peter, who stands at the door, bids you to come outside in public; for he says, “On your account have I come to Rome, you wicked man and destroyer of souls.”  Hearing a speaking dog is enough evidence for Marcellus, the host: he immediately repents of his devotion to Simon and rushes out to Peter, begging for forgiveness for his apostasy to the side of evil.

While they are talking, Peter sees a man in the crowd who is inappropriate laughing.  Detecting that the man is possessed, Peter orders the demon to depart and show itself.  The demoniac rushes forward, throws down a marble statue of Caesar, and kicks it to smithereens.  Marcellus is upset, because if the emperor learns that his statue has been abused, he will mete out a severe punishment.  Peter, always in control in this account, tells Marcellus to take some running water and sprinkle it on the shattered pieces of the statue.  He does so, and it miraculously reassembles itself whole.

In the meantime, the dog returns from Simon and speaks with Peter, telling him that Simon refuses to meet with him.  The dog then lies down and dies.  Many of the crowd fall down at Peter’s feet, ready to convert on the spot.  Others want to see yet more miracles, and this is when Peter pulls the stunt with the smoked tuna, making it come to life and swim in the pond in the name of Christ to convince the crowds that Jesus is Lord of all.

The miracles continue until there is a face-to-face showdown between Peter and Simon Magus in the Roman Forum, a contest to prove once and for all who is the greater miracle worker and who, therefore, is the true representative of God.  The entire population of Rome comes to the Forum, including all the Roman senators and other officials.  The ruling prefect sets the terms of the contest: he sends forth a slave, who happens to be one of the emperor’s favorites, and he orders Simon to kill the young man and Peter to raise him from the dead.  Both do their appointed tasks.  Simon whispers a word in the lad’s ear, causing him to fall down stone dead.  Peter, not to be outdone, proclaims, My God and Lord Jesus Christ is doing many signs and miracles through me to turn you from your sins.  In your power, revive now through my voice, O Lord, into the presence of all, him whom Simon killed by his touch.  He calls the slave’s master over and directs him to take hold of the slave’s hand; when he does so, the young man is restored to life.  The crowd is impressed, and they all cry out: There is only one God, the God of Peter.

While he is at it, two parents whose children have recently died beseech Peter to raise them as well.  The most telling case involves a deceased senator whose mother begs for Peter’s help.  He directs the people to bring the son into the Forum, and proposes a new contest.  Whichever of them, he or Simon, can raise the man from the dead will be recognized as representing the true God; the other will be seen as an impostor.  As he says:

Romans, let a righteous judgment now take place between me and Simon, and judge which of us believes in the living God, he or I.  Let him revive the body which is before us, and believe in him as an angel of God.  If he is not able, I will call upon my God.  I will restore the son alive to his mother and then you shall believe that he is a sorcerer and deceiver, this man who enjoys your hospitality. (Acts of Peter, 28)

One may wonder why further demonstration is needed, since the entire city of Rome has already acknowledged that Peter is the representative of the one true God.  But the story provides a fitting conclusion to the clash of the titans.  The young senator is brought in on his funeral bier, and Simon has the first go at him.  Standing next to the bier, he bows over the body three times and shows the crowds that the man lifted his head, opened his eyes, and made a brief nod.  The people believe the miracle has been performed and rush out to collect wood for a pyre on which to burn Peter, as the impostor.  But Peter stops them, pointing out that the dead man is still lying down and has scarcely moved.

Let the dead man speak, let him rise; if he is alive, let him untie the band from his chin, let him call his mother.  Let him beckon to you with his hand.

The prefect comes over to the bier and sees that in fact the man is still lying motionless.  Simon’s magic was enough to work a partial reanimation but not a full resuscitation.  And then Peter takes over.  After speaking to the mother, he goes to the dead man, says a prayer over him, and orders him to rise.  The young man arises, unties the cloth around his chin, asks for his clothes, comes down off the bier, and speaks to Peter.  This, then, is a real resurrection.  Peter turns to the crowd, urging them to repent from their sins and to turn to Christ for eternal life.  From then on, Peter is “worshiped like a god” by the Romans, who bring him those who are sick to be cured.

You might think that his would be the end of Simon Magus, but something a bit more dramatic is in store: his ultimate demise in a final contest.  Simon decides to have one more shot at proving his superiority over Peter, and announces his decision to ascend directly to God by taking flight over the city of Rome, much as he had first arrived there.  Great magician that he is, he succeeds in taking off and sailing above the temples and hills of Rome.  But Peter, the representative of the true God, is not one to be bested.  He utters a prayer in midflight.  He crashes to the ground and breaks his leg in three places.  The crowd responds by attacking him with stones, and he ends up dying as the result of a botched operation.  Peter, then, hero of the story, is shown victorious in every way, the true representative of God whose power can overcome the magical shams of the Devil at every turn.

Saints Paul and Peter Dispute Before Nero

Saints Paul and Peter Dispute Before Nero

PETER: Peter In The Acts Of The Apostles, by Markus Bockmuehl

From Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory

Peter’s image in Acts remains appreciably Lukan, but with a number of interesting changes vis-à-vis the gospel.  As soon as the ascension occurs and the disciples are instructed to await the Spirit’s arrival in Jerusalem, Luke immediately foregrounds Peter as the leading apostle.  It is Peter who proposes to appoint Matthias by lot as the successor Judas.  Throughout the first half of Acts, it appears that Peter is the main human protagonist – the pioneer missionary and chief public speaker, healer, and prophetic overseer of church discipline.

Peter’s speeches sound, as scholars have long noted, somewhat “archaizing” and rather less theologically and Christologically developed than we normally find in Luke.  This does not support easy assumptions about either historicity or Lukan sources, since analysis has also shown extensive overlap between the characterization of different apostolic figures.  Nevertheless, we also need not assume that Luke is merely playing an elaborate game of literary charades.  During the period of living memory, Luke presents us with a picture of Peter’s teaching that would be recognizable and thus find resonance with a Roman church that remembered his ministry.

Peter, then, is indeed the prince of apostles during the first half of Acts.  He acts as the public voice for the believers in his sermon on the day of Pentecost and takes the lead in being the first to perform a miracle in the name of Jesus, with John playing an accompanying role.  In fact, Peter remains the chief miracle worker among the Twelve, with the latecomer Paul a distant, almost derivative second; even Peter’s shadow heals the sick (5:15).

In the developing conflict with the authorities, Peter is again the leading speaker and defendant when he and John appear before the Sanhedrin.  In terms of church discipline, it is also Peter who prophetically pronounces divine judgment on Ananias and Sapphira.  Evangelism and apologetics in Jerusalem and well beyond, miracles, and prophetic speech and action are all predicted of Peter but not of James the Just, who exercises a vital but rather different leadership role in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, it is Peter, not Paul, who assumes early apostolic missionary leadership outside Jewish circles, becoming first the superintendent of an outreach to the Samaritans, and then the pioneer of a mission to gentiles when he converts the household of Cornelius at Caesarea in response to a vision.  This is an episode for which he has to defend himself before an initially skeptical Jewish Christian audience in Chapter 11.

When Emperor Claudius grants Judea to Herod Agrippa after the death of Caligula in AD 41, Peter is immediately imprisoned at Passover, together with John’s brother, James, and nearly suffers the same fate of execution.  But Peter makes a miraculous escape and abandons Jerusalem as his base; Acts 12:17 says cryptically only that he went “to another place,” and like the prison guards of 12:18, we are left to wonder “what became of him.”  Peter appears once more in a position of some peripheral influence at the apostolic council of Jerusalem, but the deciding vote is cast by James rather than Peter, and this is the last we hear of him.

The subsequent silence of Acts has sometimes been assumed to constitute clear evidence that nothing much was known about what became of Peter, and certainly that no Roman ministry is likely to have occurred.  The British scholar Michael Goulder is among a long series of keen critics who have suggested that this is because once Peter was deposed from Jerusalem, his story was effectively over.  Goulder suggests that Peter returned after Agrippa’s rule to die there in obscurity in the mid-50s AD.  It is of course true that the New Testament is not very explicit about asserting a final ministry in Rome: in some ways the clearest statement is 1 Peter itself, to which we will turn below.  Beyond that, we rely on what I have called the period of “living memory.”  But what we can also show is that none of the extracanonical witnesses of that period contradict a Roman martyrdom or narrate an alternative tradition – and several of those that explicitly affirm or strongly imply it predate the latest New Testament documents.

In literary terms, however, it seems significant that the narrative pattern of Acts parallels the public lives of Peter and Paul as Luke’s twin dramatis personae, his two chief actors and witnesses.  Without any significant overlap, their ministries are developed analogously.  From Acts 1:8 onward, the narrative points to the ends of the Earth, and from 19:21 onward, we know that for Paul, at least, this means Rome.  Luke does not, however, reveal what happens once he gets there – or indeed how it all ends, for either Peter or Paul.  In other words, Luke’s narrative vector points from Jerusalem all the way to Rome, and his twin narratives tell a tale that does end up there; and yet each of the twin stories ends not with a bang but a whimper.  In both cases, a mysteriously anticlimactic exit makes it reasonable to suppose that Luke knows more than he tells, and (if he has any literary skill at all) that he knows his audience is aware of this, too.  This is certainly an impression that would follow well on the much-noted analogy of the martyrdoms of Jesus and Stephen.  Moreover, it is possible that Luke may, like 1 Clement and the Gospel of Mark, have good reasons for this somewhat taciturn narrative wink-and-nudge strategy (escaping “to another place” indeed!).  Like any author of potentially dangerous underground literature, he seeks to protect both his sources and his readers from attracting official attention for what in the recent past has become a politically toxic cause.


PRAYER: The Responsory Of Saint Peter

Seek ye a patron to defend
Your cause?—then, one and all,
Without delay upon the Prince
Of the Apostles call.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.

By penitential tears thou didst
The path of life regain;
Teach us with thee to weep our sins,
And wash away their stain.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.

The angel touch’d thee, and forthwith
Thy chains from off thee fell;
O, loose us from the subtle coils
That bind us fast to hell.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.

Firm rock whereon the church is based,
Pillar that cannot bend,
With strength endue us; and the faith
From heresy defend.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.

Save Rome, which from the days of old
Thy blood hath sanctified;
And help the nations of the Earth
That in thy help confide.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.

O, worshipp’d by all Christendom,
Her realms in peace maintain;
Let no contagion sap her strength,
No discord rend in twain.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.

The weapons which our ancient foe
Against us doth prepare,
Crush thou; nor suffer us to fall
Into his deadly snare.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.

Guard us through life; and in that hour
When our last fight draws nigh,
O’er death, o’er hell, o’er Satan’s power,
Gain us the victory.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.

All glory to the Father be;
Praise to the Son who rose;
Praise to the Spirit Paraclete;
While age on ages flows.

Blest holder of the Heavenly keys,
Thy prayers we all implore;
Unlock to us the sacred bars
Of Heaven’s eternal door.


PRAYER: Prayer To Saint Peter

Author unknown

Saint Peter,

O glorious Saint Peter, who, in return for your strong and generous faith, your profound and sincere humility, and your burning love, was rewarded by Jesus Christ with singular privileges.

In particular, you were graced with the leadership of the other apostles and the primacy of the whole church, of which you were made the foundation stone.

Please obtain for us the grace of a lively faith, that shall not fear to profess itself openly, in its entirety and in all of its manifestations, even to the shedding of blood, if occasion should demand it.

Make us willing to sacrifice life itself rather than surrender.

Obtain for us, likewise, a sincere loyalty to the church.

Grant, moreover, that we may follow, in all humility and meekness, her teaching and her advice, and may be obedient to all her precepts.

Grant us this in order that we be able here on Earth to enjoy a peace that is sure and undisturbed, and to attain one day in Heaven everlasting happiness.



MIRACLES: The Task Of Definition, by Robert A. H. Larmer

From Water Into Wine?

It is important to be clear on what we mean by a miracle.  I shall begin, therefore, by defining the term.  Only if we can be clear on what we think a miracle is does it become possible to discuss questions of whether they occur and in what circumstances.  A problem we immediately face, however, is that the word, miracle, like a good many other words, is used in a number of different ways.  For my purposes, I shall distinguish between two major uses which I term subjective and objective. Before attempting any formal definition, I want to say a few words about each of these uses and indicate the one with which I am concerned.

Two Uses of “Miracle”

I begin with the subjective use of the term.  What we notice in examining this use is that the word, miracle, is used not to describe some objective feature of an event, but rather the reaction of a particular subject to it.  Like the word, nice, the word, miracle, is often used to describe an observer’s reaction to the event, not the event itself.  When used this way, we get not a description of an event, but a description of the effect of that event upon some observer.  By way of example, consider the case of a not particularly religious student who, upon unexpectedly passing a difficult examination, exclaims: It’s a miracle I passed.  Probably the student does not mean to say, This is an event which would not have occurred had not God intervened.  Probably she means to say something along the lines of, Although it is likely that this event has a perfectly natural explanation, I find it unexpected and astonishing.  She is commenting not so much upon the event itself, as the effect it has had upon her state of mind.

In contrast, we find that the objective use of the word, miracle, focuses much more upon the event itself.  When it is used in this way, implicit in calling an event a miracle is the claim that it was supernaturally caused.  As Antony Flew notes, although this sense of the word, includes the idea that wonder is called for as at least part of the appropriate response, the crux as well as the ground for the wonder is that a miracle should consist in an overriding of the order of nature.  Consider the case of a terminally ill patient who, after a period of prayer both by himself and his friends, is informed by the doctors that his supposedly fatal case of cancer has completely disappeared and exclaims, It’s a miracle that I have been healed.  Probably he does not mean to say, I feel sure that this event has a perfectly natural explanation, but I find it unexpected and astonishing.  Probably he means to say something considerably stronger, namely: This is an event which never would have occurred had God not interfered with the regular course of nature and I feel wonder and thankfulness that he would do this.

Two points deserve emphasis here.  The first is that the crucial element of difference between these two uses of the word, miracle, is not that one implies a subjective response of wonder and astonishment while the other does not, but that one specifies certain ontological considerations which makes wonder and astonishment an appropriate response, whereas the other does not.  The second is that the objective use of the word, miracle, is of greater philosophical and methodological interest than is its subjective use.  If we adopt the subjective use of the term and say that so long as someone finds an event wonderful and astonishing that person cannot be wrong in calling it a miracle, there is very little left to be said.  However, if there are certain ontological considerations which make wonder and astonishment either appropriate or inappropriate then there is a great deal to be said.  I propose, therefore, to work with the objective sense of the word, miracle.

Four Elements of the Miraculous

The immediate project, then, is to arrive at a definition which expresses the way miracle is used in its objective sense.  Two errors must be avoided.  First, it is crucial that our definition capture all the basic elements present in this idea of the miraculous.  Otherwise, a truncated definition incapable of doing justice to the concept it is supposed to define will result.  Second, it is essential that our definition exclude extraneous elements not vital to the concept.  If we fail in excluding these elements we almost certainly will arrive at a definition which has different implications than those drawn from a more correct definition.  We must, therefore, proceed very cautiously.  Our aim is not to say too little or too much, neither to ignore the essential nor to introduce the extraneous.  With this in mind, I propose to discuss briefly the basic ideas associated with the concept of a miracle when that term is used in its objective sense.  I will then be in a position to propose a definition.

There are four basic ideas associated with the objective sense of the word, miracle.  One of these has already been mentioned, namely the idea that a miracle is a physical event which is beyond the ability of an unaided nature to produce.  Also central, however, are the ideas that a miracle is brought about by a rational agent; that it is an event of an extraordinary kind; and that it has religious significance.

The idea that a miracle is a physical event which is beyond the ability of nature to produce is essentially an expression of our conviction that a miracle is supernaturally caused.  We are convinced that it cannot be explained in terms of the normal workings of nature, but demands explanation in terms of something, or better, someone, acting upon nature.  It is an event which demands an explanation in terms of a transcendent cause.

Not all philosophers would agree that this idea is basic to the notion of the miraculous.  R. F. Holland and a number of others have argued that we need not always regard a miracle as the result of an overriding of nature.  Holland provides us with the following examples of a “miracle.”

A child riding his toy motorcar strays on to an unguarded railway crossing near his house and a wheel of his car gets stuck down the side of one of the rails.  An express train is due to pass with the signals in its favor and a curve in the track makes it impossible for the driver to stop his train in time to avoid any obstruction he might encounter on the crossing.  The mother coming out of the house to look for her child sees him on the crossing and hears the train approaching.  She runs forward shouting and waving.  The little boy remains seated in his car looking downward, engrossed in the task of pedaling it free.  The brakes of the train are applied and it comes to rest a few feet from the child.  The mother thanks God for the miracle; which she never ceases to think of as such although, as she in due course learns, there was nothing supernatural about the manner in which the brakes of the train came to be applied.  The driver had fainted, for a reason that had nothing to do with the presence of the child on the line, and the brakes were applied automatically as his hand ceased to exert pressure on the control lever.  He fainted on this particular afternoon because his blood pressure had risen after an exceptionally heavy lunch during which he had quarreled with a colleague, and the change in blood pressure caused a clot of blood to be dislodged and circulate.  He fainted at the time when he did on the afternoon in question because this was the time at which the coagulation in his blood stream reached the brain.

On the basis of this example, Holland argues that a miracle need not be regarded as an overriding of nature, but merely as an unusual and religiously significant coincidence.  He comments:

The significance of some coincidences as opposed to others arises from their relation to human needs and hopes and fears, their effects for good or ill upon our lives.  So we speak of our luck (fortune, fate, etc.).  And the kind of thing that, outside religion, we call luck is in religious parlance the grace of God or a miracle of God.  But although a coincidence can be taken religiously as a sign and called a miracle and made the subject of a vow, it cannot without confusion be taken as a sign of divine interference with the natural order.

There is a problem with this view, however.  Holland fails to recognize that the believer, in calling it a miracle, is not just describing the event and the emotional impact it had on her, but making an ontological claim about its origin and cause.  He ignores the fact that those who accord religious significance to the “coincidence,” by which a child’s life was preserved, do not really regard it as a coincidence, at least not in the sense in which that word is usually understood. Generally, coincidence is used to refer to remarkable or noteworthy instances of fortuitous concurrence.  Those who would want to call an event such as Holland describes a miracle would not see it as a fortuitous event, that is, one produced by chance and not design.  Typically, they would feel that God was involved in producing the event, either directly or indirectly.  They might argue that the explanatory background is not as complete as Holland claims and that the event never would have occurred had  not God at some point directly intervened so as to alter the course of nature.  Alternatively, they might argue that, even though the event was the result of converging independent causal chains with which God did not interfere, it was nevertheless prearranged by God – that is, it was part of God’s preordained plan and that when he created the universe he designed it in such a way that it would give rise to the event at precisely the time it did.  Either view, however, makes the event the result of God’s purposeful action and not a mere coincidence which nature, so to speak, threw up on its own.  Holland is wrong, therefore, to link the notion of miracle with the notion of coincidence.

But what of this idea that God might have designed nature so as to produce certain extraordinary and religiously significant events?  Does it not force us to revise the claim that a miracle is an event which nature would not produce on its own?  I think not.  Certainly at a phenomenological level believers attempt to distinguish between religiously significant events viewed as indirectly produced by God (events which they feel God designed nature to produce), and religiously significant events viewed as directly produced by God (events which would never have occurred had God not overridden the usual course of nature).  They are apt to categorize the first class as providential events, the second as miracles.  Without wanting to claim that this analysis exhausts the idea of providential events, I do want to claim that our standard use of the word, miracle, implies something stronger than the mere prearranged convergence of independent causal chains.  This notion simply cannot do justice to paradigmatic cases such as the Resurrection or the multiplying of the loaves and fishes.  In order to account for these cases we must introduce the idea that a miracle involves the active overriding of nature.

A miracle, then, is an event which nature would not produce on its own; it is supernaturally caused and involves an overriding of the usual course of nature.  This brings us to a second idea associated with the miraculous, namely that a miracle is brought about by a rational agent who transcends nature.  A miracle is the result of an agent not bound by nature, or at least not entirely bound by nature, acting upon nature to produce an event which would not have otherwise occurred.

Whether or not this agent must be God or whether some lesser created agent might conceivably work a miracle is not always agreed upon.  Some philosophers and theologians have wanted to insist that only God can work miracles.  Yet, prima facie, it seems conceivable that beings other than God might produce miracles.  There seems no absurdity in supposing that an angel might cause a miracle and there are reports in which the alleged agent of the miracle is a person, as in Acts 3:1-9.  To insist that only God can work a miracle is to place upon the term a restriction inconsistent with the view that all that is required is an agent who, to some degree, transcends nature.


POETRY: Reflections In The Water, by Eugenio Montale

Wear and tear can’t of necessity
efface our skin. Suppressing which…
but at this point the soliloquist
saw himself reflected in the brook.
There he saw his own emanation,
but twisted and distorted, which promptly
disappeared. A nothing, he said,
which was also part of me, is gone:
the finale can proceed at a snail’s pace.
And he thought of other things.

reflections in water

CANA: Chain Of Command

It is the story from the Bible for which I have the strongest reaction.

The kind of story that makes me look around in church and wonder why people are nodding their heads at it.

This story, the story of the Wedding at Cana, makes me want to crawl under the pew, or just get up and walk out.

But it wasn’t until last Sunday when I heard a priest speaking from the pulpit and, having once been in the military, spoke about his subject at hand from the reference point of a chain-of-command, that things began to fall into place for me.

He also spoke of orders that come from outside the chain of command.

This week, as I mulled this whole story over, along with my lifelong reaction to it, I began to break it down into parts.

And, oh how many parts there are to this story.

So, let us begin.

Invited Guests

Mary, her son, and his crew are invited to a wedding.  Someone else’s wedding.  It’s the second half of the wedding.  We all know what that’s like.  No one is on the dance floor except children, couples who can’t let go of each other or ones that just love to dance and will keep going until the music stops.  Men have taken off their ties and cummerbunds, and have managed to get away from their wives to sit and talk shop.  Younger men go in search of someone soft to push into.  Women sit comfortably and exchange gossip.

And the waiters go to refill the goblets, and, alas, there is no more wine.

So, who steps up to save the day?

Mary.  The mother of Jesus.

An invited guest.

Now I’m something of a professional at holding events.  For many years of my life, I hosted a dinner party every Friday night.  It was one of my most favorite forms of entertainment.  The conversation of various people coming together, eating great food, drinking great wine, and just letting things in their lives drop away.

For me, if I am at an event where the wine runs out before the event is over, all this means is that the party drank heavily.  Very heavily.

And now it’s time to supply some nice aromatic and very strong coffee.

But if someone came to one of my dinners and, joining me in the kitchen, declared that he didn’t like the sauce I was serving and was going to remake it to his taste so the dinner would be better, I would think him rude.

Now the wedding that the Christ gang attended was no small event at a poor girl’s hut where any offer of assistance would be appropriate and most welcome.

This was a banquet in a home that employed a steward.  No, not a headwaiter or a caterer.  An events manager.  A man who coordinated the food, the entertainment, the decoration, the behavior.


And under this man, the wine runs out.

And who steps forward to solve the problem?

Mary.  The mother of Jesus.

Who assumes the role of hostess for the evening.  In someone else’s house.

So I will just stop right there and ask myself, Why?  Why did she do this?  What was she looking for in such an action?


Ah.  So we dig a little deeper.  In those days (a phrase oft used in justifying this whole ordeal), it would be shameful to run out of wine at a wedding.  Really?  How shameful?

Often it can be a sign that the party is over and people should be heading home to their own beds.

But this is one element that really sticks in my throat.

This is the first public miracle of Jesus.  We can’t really say it’s his first miracle, because we don’t know that.

And it’s a miracle performed in order to accommodate the shame of running out of wine at a wedding banquet.


A miracle of God (let’s not forget that small aspect in all this) that is concerned with the shame of running out of wine too early.


The words, shame, and, ashamed, appear throughout the Bible.

They really don’t focus on the amount of wine there is in the cellar.

They focus on our relationship with God.


But now they desire a better country, that is, an Heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:16)

How about that?  Even God is discussed in terms of shame.

Not about how much wine he is providing us, though.

Fine.  Enough of that.


This story is all about context.  To understand the wonder of this story, they say, you MUST put it in context.

The water in the purification jars was turned into wine.  Get it? 

Why should I have to get it?

The importance of it all comes from its linkage with other mythical stories.  With getting the ancient Jewish laws and rites.

The significance of it is such that only a very educated scholar can speak to it.

Who is able to grasp the depth of the wonder of this first public miracle.

Oh really.

Take a minute and look over all of the other miracles Jesus performed.  Or at least the ones that we know of because they were reported.

See any context-needing skills in them?

Jesus healed a bunch of lepers.

One comes back to thank him.

Do we really need to go to school to get that?

How about feeding the crowds?

Again, are these acts so sublime that we need a teacher to walk us through them?



I’ve read this story in many-a different translation.  Different Bibles.  Different approaches.

And no matter who does the work at translation, no matter how friendly they want to make the storytelling, Jesus’s response always comes down to:

Who the hell do you think you are to tell me what to do?

(In all honesty, at this point I am always tempted to stand up and cheer.)

No.  No.  No.  Jesus was not being rude to his mother!

Why and how is that exactly?

(Enter the scholastic.  Who I see not as a real theologian but as fairy master, there to sprinkle fairy dust over everything to make it all rosy and sweet.)


Yeah, right.

I’m a mother.  I know how sons can speak to their mothers.  Rudeness really isn’t that hard to detect.

And it’s not even the first time Jesus slights his mother verbally.

In the temple, shocked that his parents had to look for him, Jesus asks, Why didn’t you know where I was?  I was here.  Duh.

The voice of a 12-year-old boy.

Impatient.  Arrogant.  Self-possessed.

Which, if you are the Son of God you really have a right to be.

Doesn’t make it any more polite, however.

Chain of Command

Ah, now to the good stuff.

The chain of command.

Who is in charge of the miracles Jesus performs?   His mother?



His mother?

The priest I listened to the other Sunday said it very succinctly: Someone outside my chain of command can give me orders.  But it is up to me to know that unless that order goes to someone in my chain-of-command and then passed down to me, I am not obligated to do it.  

In fact, the person issuing an order to a soldier from outside his chain-of-command should be referred to the soldier’s superior.


There is no reference to God in this whole story.


It’s all about Mary.  With Jesus being her sidekick.  Her servant that she can order about.

Mary is the hostess.  Jesus is the supplier of wine.

Go there, she says.  Do that.

And Jesus has to realize somewhere in his confusion and anger that he has to get it together and obey.

Obey his mother.

She’s the boss.

Of God.



(Clears throat.)

The Fruit of the Vine

So here is the deal for me: I ask, What’s in it for Mary?

There’s nothing really in it for Jesus.  He’s not even thanked.

(And do you notice that?  Normally after a miracle Jesus tells the miraclee to go and tell no one.  Shhhh!  Let’s keep this a secret between us.  OK?  But not here.  It’s kept secret for no real reason whatsoever.)

Oh, right.  This is the First Miracle of Jesus and this makes it significant.


Kind of like when a child rides a bike for the first time?  Not much to see, but gets the job done?


There are a number of “take-aways” from this story.

One is that Jesus is doing the job of the bridegroom: supplying the wine.

Jesus is the Bridegroom.  (He gets a capital letter in his title.)

So who is the Bride?

Israel.  They say.

The church.  That does not yet exist.

Or, Mary herself.

That’s right.  One of Mary’s titles is, Bride of Christ.  You can see it in all sorts of paintings.  Jesus and Mary, sitting in a tree.  That kind of thing.  The perfect married couple.

Mary, mother and bride.  Of Jesus Christ.

(This is truly the most uncomfortable part for me.)

Another take-away of this is the nature of the miracle.

What healing took place here?

How was God’s love manifested on Earth?

We’re talking about wine.  A lot of wine.  And a bunch of very drunk people.  Except for a few servants, who were probably fairly smashed themselves, who is going to thank God for this great miracle?

Right.  No one.  Absolutely no one.

Who is going to wander about and tell people to follow Jesus because he’s such a good magician he can turn water into wine?

Where is God the Father in this miracle?  Where even is Jesus, except as the guy with the magic wand?

What there is here is Mary.

The spotlight seems to be focused on her.

And yet we call this a miracle of Jesus.

As I wrote, The story always brings up strong feelings in me.



POETRY: Footnote to John ii.4, by R. A. K. Mason

Don’t throw your arms around me in that way:
I know that what you tell me is the truth—
yes I suppose I loved you in my youth
as boys do love their mothers, so they say,
but all that’s gone from me this many a day:
I am a merciless cactus an uncouth
wild goat a jagged old spear with grim tooth
of a lone crag… Woman I cannot stay.

Each one of us must do his work of doom
and I shall do it even in despite
of her who brought me in pain from her womb,
whose blood made me, who used to bring the light
and sit on the bed up in my little room
and tell me stories and tuck me up at night.

Cana 3

JESUS: The Wedding At Cana, by Brant Pitre

From Jesus the Bridegroom

Jesus and the Wine of the Messiah

First, by performing a miracle in which he provides miraculous wine, Jesus is beginning to reveal his identity as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

In order to see this clearly, it is important to emphasize not just the miraculous nature of the transformation of water into wine, but the amount of wine produced.  According to the Gospel of John, Jesus goes far beyond just solving the problem of the lack of some wine for the wedding guests at Cana.  In carrying out the miracle, he specifically instructs the servants to fill to the top the six stone jars used for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  If we do the math, it totals up to somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine!  Even in our own day, when wine is cheap and accessible, that’s a lot of wine.

From an ancient Jewish perspective, the sheer amount of wine provided by Jesus would call to mind the fact that in Jewish scripture, one of the marks of the future age of salvation is that it would be characterized by superabundant wine:

In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen.  The mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.  (Amos 9:11, 13)

And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth form the house of the Lord. (Joel 3:18)

Indeed, according to ancient Jewish tradition outside the Bible, one of the ways you would know that the Messiah had finally arrived would be the miraculous abundance of wine:

And it will happen that the Messiah will begin to be revealed.  And on one vine will be a thousand branches, and one branch will produce a thousand clusters, and one cluster will produce a thousand grapes, and one grape will produce a liter of wine. (2 Baruch 29:1-2)

When Jesus’s miracle is interpreted in the light of these ancient Jewish expectations of the superabundant wine of God’s banquet, and ancient Jewish hopes for the future, we can see that in providing hundreds of gallons of wine for this small country wedding at Cana, Jesus is signaling to those who have the eyes to see that the ancient Jewish hope for the superabundant wine of the age of salvation is beginning to be fulfilled in himself.

Jesus Takes the Role of the Bridegroom

Second, by agreeing to provide the wine for the wedding, Jesus also begins to reveal that he is not just the Messiah, he is also the Bridegroom.

As a guest, Jesus was not responsible for providing the food and drink for the wedding party.  This would have been the duty of the bridegroom of Cana and his family.  This is another reason that Mary’s implicit request is so odd.  The logical person to whom she would naturally bring the problem would be the host, the bridegroom himself.  But she doesn’t.  She goes to Jesus with the problem, and he solves it.  However, because he does it secretly he leads the steward of the feast to react to the miracle in a way that reveals its deeper meaning:

When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Every man served the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.”

Although we don’t know much about the details of the office of “steward of the feast,” he seems to have been the ancient Jewish equivalent of a kind of headwaiter or modern-day wedding caterer.  (In Greek, his name is architriklinos, which literally means, “ruler of the table.”)  It would have been his responsibility to oversee the quality and purity of the food and drink at the wedding banquet, something very important to Jews because of the Biblical laws of ritual purity.  When the steward at Cana tastes the water that has become wine, he does not call Jesus over to thank him because he has no idea that the wine was provided by him,  Instead, the steward calls the bridegroom (Greek, hymphios) – whose name is never given in order to praise him for having saved the “good wine” for last.  The irony is that is was the bridegroom’s responsibility to provide the wine, but it is Jesus who has actually done so.

In light of the steward’s reaction, all of the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.  When Mary implicitly asks Jesus to provide wine for the wedding, she is not just asking him to solve a potentially embarrassing family problem.  In a Jewish context, she is also asking him to assume the role of the Jewish bridegroom.  As New Testament scholar Adeline Fehribach puts it: When the mother of Jesus says to Jesus, “They have no wine,” she places him in the role of the bridegroom, whose responsibility it is to provide the wine.

If Mary’s implicit request is not just about the wine at Cana, but also about the wine of Jewish prophecy, then the implications of Jesus’s action run even deeper.  For, as we have seen already, in Jewish scripture, it is God himself who provides the wine of the banquet of salvation.  And even more, in Jewish scripture, it is God who is referred to as the Bridegroom of his entire people, (e.g., Isaiah 62:4-6).  When we combine the prophecies of the wine of YHWH with the prophecies of YHWH the Bridegroom, Jesus’s actions at Cana lead us to conclude that by transforming the water into wine and assuming the role of the Jewish bridegroom, Jesus is also beginning to suggest that the prophecies of the divine bridegroom are being fulfilled in him.  In the words of Adeline Fehribach:

An ancient reader would have realized that Jesus’s action of providing quality wine in abundance from the purification jars illustrated that he, in fact, accepted the role of the bridegroom, but that he was no ordinary bridegroom.  The sign Jesus performed illustrated that he was accepting the role of the messianic bridegroom and that, as such, he was assuming the role of Yahweh, the bridegroom of Israel.

In other words, by means of the miracle at Cana, Jesus is beginning to reveal, in a very Jewish way, the mystery of his divine identity.


JESUS: Water Into Wine, by N. T. Wright

From John, Part 1

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee.  Jesus’s mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.

The wine ran out.

Jesus’s mother came over to him.

“They haven’t got any wine!” she said.

“All right, mother,” replied Jesus, “but what’s that got to do with you and me?  My time hasn’t come yet.”

His mother spoke to the servants.

“Do whatever he tells you,” she said.

Six stone water-jars were standing there, ready for use in the Jewish purification rites.  Each held about twenty or thirty gallons.

“Fill the jars with water,” said Jesus to the servants.  And they filled them, right up to the brim.

“Now draw some out,” he said, “and take it to the chief steward.”  They did so.

When the chief steward tasted the water that had turned into wine (he didn’t know where it had come from, but the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called the bridegroom.

“What people normally do,” he said, “is to serve he good wine first, and then the worse stuff when people have had plenty to drink.  But you’ve kept the good wine till now!”

This event, in Cana of Galilee, was the first of Jesus’s signs.  He displayed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.

After this, he went down to Capernaum, with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples.  He remained there for a few days.

One of the first events I ever organized was a treasure hunt.  It was during the school holidays, when I was about ten or eleven.  I invited all my friends from neighboring houses and streets to come and join in.

With my mother’s careful help, I planned each of the clues in cryptic rhyming couplets, and worked out the different things people would find as they followed them.  I remember feeling nervous as fifteen or twenty children poured out of the house, eager to follow up the clues they had been given.  Would they understand them all right?  Would they get bored and give up?  Would some be much better at it than others?  I needn’t have worried.  The event was a success, and everyone had fun.

John’s Gospel is planned as a kind of treasure hunt, with careful and sometimes cryptic clues laid for us to follow.  Now that he’s set the scene with the opening stories about John the Baptist and Jesus’s earliest followers, he gives us the first clue, telling us that it’s the first one so we know where we are.  He will tell us about the second one, too, two chapters later; from then on, we’re on our own, and he wants us to use our initiative and imagination in following the clues to the very end.  I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the answer at the moment, but if you wanted to sit down and read right through the gospel you might be able to work it out for yourself.

The word he uses for “clue” is “sign.”  He is setting up a series of signposts to take us through his story.  The signs are all occasions when Jesus did, you might say, what he’d just promised Nathanael that he would do.  They are moments when, to people who watch with at least a little faith, the angels of God going up and coming down at the place where Jesus is.  They are moments when Heaven is opened, when the transforming power of God’s love bursts in to the present world.

That’s why it simply won’t do, despite what some people have said, to see the things that Jesus did, and the stories about them in this gospel and the other ones, as pleasant but imaginary legends – things that didn’t actually happen but which “illustrate” some supposedly deeper, more “spiritual” truth.  The whole point of the “signs” is that they are moments when Heaven and Earth intersect with each other.  (That’s what the Jews believed happened in the Temple.)  The point is not that they are stories which couldn’t have happened in real life, but which point away from Earth to a Heavenly reality.

Whatever people today may think actually happened – and the more you get to know about Jesus the more you realize that this sort of thing was precisely what you should expect with him around – we should be in no doubt that what John badly wants to tell us is that with these events the life of Heaven came down to Earth.  That’s why one of the motto texts for the whole gospel is the Word became flesh.

The present story has all the elements that we shall come to know well as we work through the gospel.  It is about transformation: the different dimension of reality that comes into being when Jesus is present and when, as Mary tells the servants, people do whatever Jesus tells them.

This is one of only two occasions we meet Jesus’s mother in this gospel, the other being at the foot of the cross.  This is important, because Jesus’s strange remark, My time hasn’t come yet, looks on, through many other references to his “time,” until at last the time does come, and the glory is revealed fully, as he dies on the cross.  That event, for John, is the ultimate moment when Heaven and Earth meet.  That is when it takes all the faith in the world to see the glory hidden in the shame: the creative Word present as a weak, dying human being.

But events like this one point on to that moment.  The wedding is a foretaste of the great Heavenly feast in store for God’s people.  The water-jars, used for Jewish purification rites, are a sign that God is doing a new thing from within the old Jewish system, bringing purification to Israel and the world in a whole new way.

The wedding itself, in the town where Nathanael came from, would probably involve almost the whole village, and several people from neighboring ones too; which is why Mary, her son, and his friends were invited.  Running out of wine was not just inconvenient, but a social disaster and disgrace.  The family would have to live with the shame of it for a long time to come; bride and groom might regard it as bringing bad luck on their married life.  Though Jesus hereafter addresses himself to other kinds of problems, we are already witnessing the strange compassion which comes where people are in need and deals with that need in unexpected ways.

The transformation from water to wine is of course meant by John to signify the effect that Jesus can have, can still have today, on people’s lives.  He came, as he says later, that we might have life in all its fullness.  You might want to pray through this story with your own failures and disappointments in mind – remembering that transformation only came when someone took Mary’s words seriously: Do whatever he tells you.


POETRY: Hymn On Faith—The Wedding Feast, by Ephrem

This poem is translated from the Syriac by Sebastian Brock.

I have invited you, Lord, to a wedding-feast of song,
but the wine—the utterance of praise—at our feast has failed.
You are the guest who filled the jars with good wine,
fill my mouth with Your praise.

The wine that was in the jars was akin and related to
this eloquent wine that gives birth to praise,
seeing that that wine too gave birth to praise
from those who drank it and beheld the wonder.

You who are so just, if at a wedding-feast not your own
You filled six jars with good wine,
do you, at this wedding-feast, fill, not the jars,
but the ten thousand ears with its sweetness.

Jesus, you were invited to the wedding-feast of others,
here is your own pure and fair wedding-feast: gladden your rejuvenated people,
for your guests too, O Lord, need
Your songs; let your harp utter!

The soul is your bride, the body your bridal chamber,
Your guests are the senses and the thoughts.
And if a single body is a wedding-feast for you,
how great is your banquet for the whole church!

The holy Moses took the synagogue up on Sinai:
he made her body shine with garments of white, but her heart was dark;
she played the harlot with the calf, she despised the Exalted one,
and so he broke the tablets, the book of her covenant.

Who has ever seen the turmoil and insult
of a bride who played false in her own bridal chamber, raising her voice?
When she dwelt in Egypt she learnt it from
the mistress of Joseph, who cried out and played false.

The light of the pillar of fire and of the cloud
drew into itself its rays
like the sun that was eclipsed
on the day that she cried out, demanding the King, a further crime.

How can my harp, O Lord, ever rest from your praise?
How could I ever teach my tongue infidelity?
Your love has given confidence to my shamefacedness,
—yet my will is ungrateful.

It is right that man should acknowledge your divinity,
it is right for Heavenly beings to worship your humanity;
the Heavenly beings were amazed to see how small you became,
and Earthly ones to see how exalted!

Refrain: Praise to you from all who perceive your truth.

Cana 2

POETRY: Cana, by Thomas Merton

Once when our eyes were clean as noon, our rooms
Filled with the joys of Cana’s feast;
For Jesus came, and His disciples, and His Mother,
And after them the singers
And some men with violins.

Once when our minds were Galilees,
And clean as skies our faces,
Our simple rooms were charmed with sun.

Our thoughts went in and out in whiter coats than God’s disciples’,
In Cana’s crowded rooms, at Cana’s tables.

Nor did we seem to fear the wine would fail:
For ready, in a row, to fill with water and a miracle,
We saw our earthen vessels, waiting empty.
What wine those humble waterjars foretell!

Wine for the ones who, bended to the dirty earth,
Have feared, since lovely Eden, the sun’s fire,
Yet hardly mumble, in their dusty mouths, one prayer.

Wine for old Adam, digging in the briars!

cana 1

JESUS CHRIST: Changing Water Into Wine, by Tom Harpur

From Water Into Wine

John, or the Fourth Gospel as it is called to differentiate it from the three Synoptics, calls the miracles attributed to Jesus, “signs.”  In other words, then, the author wants to make it perfectly clear that the meaning of the signs, of which significantly there are seven in his Gospel, is symbolical or allegorical.  This includes the healing of the blind man and other healings.  Still, down the ages into the literalisms of today, the vast majority of ordinary Christians have simply assumed they are meant to bear a pedestrian literal sense – and the clergy, for the most part, though knowing better themselves, have done little to avoid the misunderstanding.

This issue can be clearly seen in the very first sign or, in Greek, semeion, that John describes as beginning Jesus’s public ministry, in Chapter 2 of his Gospel.  He tells us that on the third day there was a wedding in a place called Cana of Galilee.  This story is very familiar to Bible readers.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to be attending the celebration, and Jesus, along with his disciples, has been invited as well.  (The writer assumes we know that Jesus had a group of disciples already, although in John’s version he has only so far named the four we meet in Chapter 1: Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathaniel.)  In any case, the wine supply gives out suddenly and Jesus’s mother reports this embarrassing detail to her son.

She is met with what many scholars agree is a rather sharp response: Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  This is followed (rather lamely, it appears to me) with the words, My hour has not yet come.  Most people would not have been reassured by such a response in “real life,” but Mary is depicted as taking what seems like a rebuke for a full consent to act, because she then immediately says to the servants: Do whatever he tells you.

At this point we are told there are six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification standing nearby.  Each one, according to John, holds twenty to thirty gallons.  Jesus commands the servants to see that they are filled up to the brim.  Then he instructs them to draw some out and take it to the chief steward or head waiter for tasting.  As soon as he has done so, the steward in turn calls the bridegroom and says the well-known words: Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But, you have kept the good wine until now.

All who are familiar with not only the Judeo-Christian Bible but also the other “Bibles” or sacred writings of the ancient Near East will know that wine symbolism is an almost constant theme.  All the gods of antiquity were gods of wine, from Horus of Egypt to Dionysus or Bacchus of ancient Greece and Rome.  As noted in my book, The Spirituality of Wine, wine, grapes, and the vine are mentioned hundreds of times in the Old and New Testaments together.  Wine, being a composite of spirit (fermentation) and matter (water), was the perfect symbol of the miracle of Incarnation, a complete type, glyph, or analogue of the Christ in each of us.

Earth Forces Become Divine

There is a fourfold progression in our evolution from the mineral, the vegetative, the animal, and, finally, the human.  This latter, human phase was in turn thought of as progressing through seven stages, the final or seventh (meaning perfection) being that of the coming of the indwelling Christ.  The six water pots thus represent the hidden, earthy, or elemental stages in the incarnational development of the Christ principle in matter prior to the seventh stage, the full blossoming on the human plane that the Jesus persona models or fulfills.  This “coming” or final stage, which is the spiritual heritage belonging to every member of the human family, is, when claimed or fully recognized within, like the vast difference between ordinary existence and truly being fully alive; it’s like the difference between a really good win compared with plain water.  In passing, it’s interesting to notice that when Mark describes the transfiguration of Jesus, in Chapter 9, he tells us that it also happened after six days.  Again, the meaning is symbolical and has nothing to do with actual chronology.

Since in many ways John is widely recognized by scholars as the most anti-Judaism of the Gospels (it’s misleading to say “anti-Semitic,” since presumably the author is Jewish), it’s not surprising that the editor can’t refrain from making the point that the jars were for use in various Jewish rites of cleansing, such as of the hands before meals.  This illustrates in his view (since they now contain wine) the superiority of the Christian version of truth to that of the parent faith.  But that’s not (thankfully) his main objective in the story.  It’s plainly to make certain from the outset of all that he has to say that the message of Jesus is like the “divine mania” of which Plato wrote, the intoxication of mind and senses with a living experience of the presence of God in our midst and in our hearts.  It’s as different as water and wine.  That’s what the inner meaning of this passage now brings home to me as I read it.  No longer is it the semi-magical act of a distant “hero,” but an illustration of the impact on one’s life made possible by awakening to or laying hold on the reality of the Christ mind and spirit too often left dormant or unrecognized at the center of one’s own being.

Notice that there were six stone [or earthenware] jars.  Jesus, symbolizing the seventh or transforming power, comes to transform the nature that had been put together by the first six outpourings of primal life into a higher spiritual status.  The Christ always is given the task of converting or transfiguring the six lower elemental or “stone” – earthy – forces into divinity.  Just as a single ray of light passing through a prism breaks into seven colors, so too in both the natural and the spiritual realm basic processes were thought of as ultimately forming a sevenfold stream of development from the source of all being.

We know that Horus of Egypt turned water into wine and was a god of wine, but to get something of the full texture of the cultural and religious background of what John is expressing in the story of the wedding at Cana, here is an excerpt from the famous play by Euripides called, The Bacchae.  It’s about another god of wine, Bacchus, or Dionysus:

Next came the son of the virgin, Dionysus,
bringing the counterpart to bread, wine
and the blessings of life’s flowing juices.
His blood, the blood of the grape,
Lightens the burden of mortal misery.
When, after their daily toils, men drink their fill,
sleep comes to them, bringing release from all their troubles.
There is no other cure for sorrow. Though himself a god,
it is his blood we pour out
to offer thanks to the gods. And through him,
we are blessed.

The vivid metaphor, then, of changing water into wine is really a powerful way of stating what the Jesus story is about: The transformation that happens when the secret of being wholly alive and awake as children and bearers of the Light within breaks in upon us.  This alone, according to John, is the key to a life lived more abundantly.


PRAYER: The Contemplative Life, by Thomas Keating

From The Transformation of Suffering

Everybody who does centering prayer always asks, How can I be a contemplative in everyday life, with its noise, turmoil, and constant interruptions?  How can I be interiorly quiet when the world is getting noisier and the pace of life faster?

The answer is to slow down and pray more.  Prayer has the great advantage of giving us a perspective on what we have to do.  If we practice contemplative prayer every day, we find that we have more time for everything else.  This is because we were doing a lot of things that we don’t really have to do.  Contemplative prayer cultivates the gift of discernment.  Spiritual discernment is not something we have to try to do; it arises spontaneously as one of the fruits of the Spirit communicated to us during contemplative prayer.

The greatest source of security, independence, and true love is the firm conviction that the Divine Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – dwells within us all the time, twenty-four hours a day, under all circumstances, and is totally available to us.

In every circumstance, however tragic or horrendous, difficult or trivial, this presence is always there.  That means that the Spirit is counseling us in what to do in difficult situations, and that the Father is always present, holding us in an embrace of infinite tenderness and empowering us to manifest his presence in every moment.  The chief job of a Christian is to manifest divine love in everything we do.  The Spirit patiently guides us step-by-step through our whole lives in the course of our spiritual journey, inviting us to look at what was good in our life and to reinforce it, and to allow what was not so good to be put on the junk pile.  As God works back through our personal history, he comes to early childhood, where most of the problems actually began.  These problems we have either repressed into the unconscious or developed compensatory activities to deal with.

But as the Spirit brings us close to the source of our difficulties, and as we become aware of specific traumatic experiences – such as rejection, abandonment, loss of a parent, persecution by peers, disappointments, failures – it can seem to us that we are getting worse.  Of course, we are not really getting worse.  We are just finding out how badly off we always were.  The purpose of this process is to see how we can free ourselves from childish influences that stick to us like molasses on a piece of clothing.  Therefore, our spiritual practice is to work with God dwelling within us, with incredible closeness, tenderness, and love.  God never punishes us in this process of purification.  In fact, God is only concerned for our healing.  His will is to communicate the maximum amount of divine love that we can possibly receive.  And if we fill that up, God enlarges our capacity so we can receive still more.  God is not interested in judgment for or against anyone, but in communicating the gift of his own being to everyone.

When we look at the cross, we are really looking at God the Father giving himself away to us in the person of his greatest treasure, namely, his son.  It is as if the Father is saying: I’m giving you my son as the proof of how much I want to give myself to you and to bring you into the fullest possible share in my divine life. 

contemplative prayer

PRAYER: Jesus In The Kitchen, by Richard F. Bansemer

From Praying on the Journey with Christ

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days. (John 2:1-12)


Twice John tells us exactly where Jesus did the first of his signs. People and places make ministry real. Jesus’s ministry is grounded in real places, real people, and real events. There is little need to speculate about a phantom God, with no more substance than a wisp of smoke. The wedding was as real as the kitchen, the six stone water jars, the bride, the groom, the guests, and Cana in Galilee.


Lord Jesus Christ, you seem to have been forced to begin your ministry before you were ready. Like a mother robin, your mother seems to have pushed you, ever so gently, into the public arena.

I wonder where and how you expected your signals to begin? It is surprising to see you caring about such a mundane problem — a matter of inconsequence when set against the big problems of the world. It is surprising to see you and your disciples at the wedding as invited guests. Surely, you were too busy to come. Surely, there were far greater needs to attend to.

Lord, how am I to understand what you want from me, except to try to be where the need is greatest? Yet you simply took care of a little problem, as though that were an important enough matter on which to spend a rare miracle.

You made a lot of wine, Lord. Such abundance. Perhaps miracles aren’t as rare as I suppose. Perhaps they are appropriate at places where the need isn’t always critical.

But you see what this does? It makes it impossible to know when to expect a miracle. When is one due? Why does one person “get” a miracle when he wants one, and someone else doesn’t?

No one really asked for a miracle, yet that was the solution you chose to solve the problem. I choose that too, Lord, but I can’t make it happen. I don’t have your power.

You knew, of course, that once you did a miracle things would never be the same for you again. You would be in demand. You would be noticed and talked about. (How did you do it, Lord? How are physical things under your control, just like spiritual things?)

I know that’s not the point. I know that this is a diversion from seeing you as hospitable — doing graciously what only you could do, suggesting that I do what only I can do in any situation.

Lord, like you, help me to give more than necessary. Teach me the art of hospitality. Give me such an interest in others, that their special moments become special to me, too. And when I am successful, at a real time, in a real place, with real people, may I remember that I learned this grace from you.



POETRY: Saint Clare, by Louise Erdich

The Call
First I heard the voice throbbing across the river.
I saw the white phosphorescence of his robe.
As he stepped from the boat, as he walked
there spread from each footfall a black ripple,
from each widening ring a wave,
from the waves a sea that covered the moon.
So I was seized in total night
and I abandoned myself in his garment
like a fish in a net. The slip knots
tightened on me and I rolled
until the sudden cry hauled me out.
Then this new element, a furnace of mirrors,
in which I watch myself burn.
The scales of my old body melt away like coins,
for I was rich, once, and my father
had already chosen my husband.

I kept my silver rings in a box of porphyrite.
I ate salt on bread. I could sew.
I could mend the petals of a rose.
My nipples were pink, my sister’s brown.
In the fall we filled our wide skirts with walnuts
for our mother to crack with a wooden hammer.
She put whorled meats into our mouths,
closed our lips with her finger
and said to Hush. So we slept
and woke to find our bodies arching into bloom.
It happened to me first,
the stain on the linen, the ceremonial
seal which was Eve’s fault.
In the church at Assisi I prayed. I listened
to brother Francis and I took his vow.
The embroidered decorations at my bodice
turned real, turned to butterflies and were dispersed.
The girdle of green silk, the gift from my father
slithered from me like a vine,
so I was something else that grew from air,
and I was light, the skeins of hair
that my mother had divided with a comb of ivory
were cut from my head and parceled out to nesting birds.

My Life As A Saint
I still have the nest, now empty,
woven of my hair, of the hollow grass,
and silken tassels at the ends of seeds.
From the window where I prayed,
I saw the house wrens gather
dark filaments from air
in the shuttles of their beaks.
The cup was made fast
to the body of the tree,
bound with the silver excrescence of the spider,
and the eggs, four in number,
ale gold and trembling,
curved in a thimble of down.

The hinged beak sprang open, tongue erect,
screaming to be fed
before the rest of the hatchling emerged.
I did not eat. I smashed my bread to crumbs upon the sill
for the parents were weary as God is weary.
We have the least mercy on the one
who created us,
who introduced us to this hunger.

The smallest mouth starved and the mother
swept it out like rubbish with her wing.
I found it that dawn, after lauds,
already melting into the heat of the flagstone,
a transparent teaspoon of flesh,
the tiny beak shut, the eyes still sealed
within a membrane of the clearest blue.

I buried the chick in a box of leaves.
The rest grew fat and clamorous.
I put my hand through the thorns one night and felt the bowl,
the small brown begging bowl,
waiting to be filled.

By morning, the strands of the nest disappear
into each other, shaping
an emptiness within me that I make lovely
as the immature birds make the air
by defining tunnels and the spirals
of the new sustenance. And then,
no longer hindered by the violence of their need,
they take to other trees, fling themselves
deep into the world.

When you entered the church as Basia
holding the scepter of the almond’s
white branch and when you struck
the bedrock floor, how was I to know
the prayer would be answered?
I heard the drum of hooves long in the distance,
and I held my forehead to the stone of the altar.
I asked for nothing. It is almost
impossible to ask for nothing.
I have spent my whole life trying.

I know you felt it, when his love spilled.
That ponderous light. From then on you endured
happiness, the barge you pulled
as I pull mine. This
is called density of purpose.
As you learned, you must shed everything else
in order to bear it.

That is why, toward the end of your life,
when at last there was nothing I could not relinquish,
I allowed you to spring forward without me.
Sister, I unchained myself. For I was always
the heaviest passenger,
the stone wagon of example,
the freight you dragged all the way to Heaven,
and how were you to release yourself
from me, then, poor mad horse,
except by reaching the gate?

st clare assisi

PRAYER: Remembering The Environment In Our Public And Private Prayers Of Intercession

Produced by Advisory Group on the Environment in the Newcastle Diocese of the Church of England

If human beings are the “priesthood of creation,” then we have a duty to pray for the whole Earth, not just our fellow human beings. But prayers for the environment are often missing from the intercessions in church on a Sunday morning, perhaps because we struggle to find the right words. The use of these prayers should help us to include environmental concerns in our corporate and personal prayers.  I commend them to all churches. (The Right Reverend Martin Wharton, Bishop of Newcastle)

 Why We Should Pray

We pray for the Earth:

  • in acknowledgement of God’s love for all creation
  • because we pray for what we care about, and care about what we pray for
  • because humanity is the ‘priesthood’ of creation, giving voice to the ceaseless praise that the whole creation offers to its creator
  • because we need to learn a less self-centered language, in order to re-discover our place within and dependence on the whole of creation
  • in response to an acute environmental crisis affecting all life on

How We Should Pray

These prayers may be used in a variety of ways:

  • By those who lead the intercessions of the church
  • By groups of Christians whenever they pray together
  • By individual Christian in their personal prayers
  • As a weekly cycle
  • As a monthly cycle
  • As a supplement to other forms of intercession
  • As a source of set prayers on particular subjects
  • As a starting point for praying in one’s own words

A Weekly Cycle of Prayers

Day 1.  (Sunday)  Light and power

God said, ‘Let there be light. … Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to … be for signs and for seasons.’  (Genesis 1.3, 14)

We thank you for brother sun, sister moon and the stars. We give thanks for the rhythm of the days, months and years. Help us to value both light and darkness. Grant us wisdom in the use of energy supplies, and inspiration in the development of renewable resources. [We pray for …]

Alternative prayers:  No.s 1, 8, 15, 22 from the monthly cycle.

Day 2.  (Monday)  Air and climate

God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters.’ … God called the dome Sky.  (Genesis 1.6, 8)

We thank you for the air that we breathe and for the ever-changing skies. We give thanks for the rhythm of the seasons, for the warmth of the summer sun and the sharpness of the winter frost. Help us to feel the freshness of the breeze upon our faces and to discern the rainbow of hope that you give us.  [We pray for …]

Alternative prayers:  No.s 2, 9, 16, 23 from the monthly cycle.

Day 3.  (Tuesday) Water

God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place.’  (Genesis 1.9)

We thank you for the life-giving waters of the earth. We give thanks for the rains that bring refreshment to the dry land and succour to living things.  Help us to see your peace in the still waters, your power in the flood and the crashing wave, your joy in the babbling brook, and your timeless presence in the cascading waters. [We pray for …]

Alternative prayers:  No.s 3, 10, 17 from the monthly cycle.

Day 4.  (Wednesday)  Land and vegetation

God said, ‘Let the dry land appear. … Let the earth put forth vegetation.’  (Genesis 1.9, 11)

We give unbounded thanks for the land which sustains us, in all its variety and complexity. We thank you for high mountains and deep valleys, for fertile plains and desert places, for tropical forests and meadow grasslands. Help us to value the soil of which we are part, and to be good caretakers of the land on which we all depend. [We pray for …]

Alternative prayers:  No.s 4, 11, 18, 25 from the monthly cycle.

Day 5.  (Thursday)  Sea, air and land creatures

God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth. … Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind.’  (Genesis 1.20, 24)

We thank you for the integrity and diversity of all living creatures. Enlarge within us a sense of fellowship with our brothers and sisters, the animals, with whom we share the earth and who love the sweetness of life. Grant us compassion in our dealings with all creatures great and small.  [We pray for …]

Alternative prayers:  No.s 5, 12, 19, 26 from the monthly cycle.

Day 6.  (Friday)  Human beings and the environment

God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’ (Genesis 1.26)

We thank you for creating humankind according to your likeness. Help us, like you, to see the goodness of creation. Help us to remember that we are part of a greater whole, and that we have a duty to care for the earth, not just for ourselves. Help us to live in balance rather than conflict, to treat the material world with care and gentleness, and to conserve and nurture the things around us. [We pray for …]

Alternative prayers: No.s 6, 13, 20, 27, 29-31 from the monthly cycle.

Day 7.  (Saturday)  The need for restraint

God rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  (Genesis 2.2)

We thank you for the gift of sabbath rest amid the busyness of our lives.  May we have time to stand and stare, to reflect on the beauty of the created world, and to appreciate the many blessings of this life. Help us to be satisfied with enough, and to live within our means in relation to the earth.  [We pray for …]

Alternative prayers:  No.s 7, 14, 21, 28 from the monthly cycle.

praying for the earth

PRAYER: A Prayer of Gratitude for Creation, by Fiona Murdoch

From Eco-Congregation Ireland

God of the universe,
We thank you for your many good gifts:
For the beauty of Creation and its rich and varied fruits,
For clean water and fresh air, for food and shelter, animals and plants.

Forgive us for the times we have taken the Earth’s resources for granted,
And wasted what you have given us.
Transform our hearts and minds
So that we would learn to care and share,
To touch the Earth with gentleness and with love,
Respecting all living things.

We pray for all those who suffer as a result of our waste, greed, and indifference.
And we pray that the day will come when everyone has enough food and clean water.
Help us to respect the rights of all people and all species
And help us to willingly share your gifts
Today and always.


gratitude for creation

POETRY: Gratitude, by Anna Kamieńska

A tempest threw a rainbow in my face
so that I wanted to fall under the rain
to kiss the hands of an old woman to whom I gave my seat
to thank everyone for the fact that they exist
and at times even feel like smiling
I was grateful to young leaves that they were willing
to open up to the sun
to babies that they still
felt like coming into this world
to the old that they heroically
endure until the end
I was full of thanks
like a Sunday alms-box
I would have embraced death
if she’d stopped nearby

Gratitude is a scattered
homeless love


POETRY: Prayer’s End, by Brooklyn Copeland

Nature remains
faithful by
natural light,
only. Immeasurable,
invisible in the wind.
Visible when
and branches bend.
The wind
speaks fluent
rain. Despite it
the rain
falls straight. And beyond it
abandoned barns

branches bend

PRAYER: A Prayer for Spiritual Depth – Ephesians 3:14-21, by Jerry Starling

From Committed To Truth

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Of whom the whole family in Heaven and Earth is named,

That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love,

May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

And to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us,

Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

(Ephesians 3:14-21)

This is the second of three prayers in this short epistle. In the first, Paul spoke of the Resurrection Power of God at work in the believer. In this prayer, he expands on that theme. There are many superlatives in this prayer. All of them derive from God’s greatness – and all of them have an impact on our lives as we walk with Him.

The Name of God

For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in Heaven and on Earth derives its name. (vv. 14-15)

In the verses just before, Paul wrote of God’s purpose for us to become object lessons in making his wisdom known among the principalities and powers in the Heavenly places. Obviously, something wonderful must happen for us to reach such a high standard!

The prayer begins with recognition that our very identity comes from the Father himself. Perhaps Colossians 3:17 (And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.) has greater significance than doing all things “by the authority of” the Lord. If our very name comes from God, could Paul there mean that we are always to live in that name? If so, the thought would be similar to what he goes on to state in Ephesians 4:1: As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.

We are always to live with recognition that we are children of God, not the children of the culture around us.

How are we to do that?

Strengthened with Power

It will not be in our power. Paul prays for spiritual power through his Spirit in your inner being. This power is measured by the standard of God’s own glorious riches. God’s Spirit in us strengthens us to do the things we could never do in our own power. Look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

To love others, even enemies, as we love ourselves, to find joy in pain, to have peace in turbulence, to have patience with all, to show kindness when abused and goodness to all, to be loyal in adversity, to be gentle when others rail on you, and in all things to exercise self-control and restraint, is this the work of a mere man? Or is this possible only by the Spirit of God in your inner being?

If there is any question that the Holy Spirit actually indwells the Christian, this prayer should settle it. The literal translation of the last phrase is, his Spirit into your inner being. Yes, that word, into, is the Greek word, eis – the same word Peter used in Acts 2:38 when he said to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.

That Christ May Dwell In Your Hearts

The activity of the Spirit has an objective: that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, (v. 17). The indwelling of the Spirit and the indwelling of the Christ go hand-in-hand. Without Christ, we cannot have the Spirit, for Christ sent the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we cannot have the Christ, for the Spirit always points to the Christ and leads us into his paths.

There is perfect harmony among all within the Godhead. There is no competition, but God works consistently. When we walk in faith and in love, we also walk harmoniously with the Deity.

To Know the Knowledge-Surpassing Love

Paul’s prayer continues:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (vv. 17-19)

How can you know a love that surpasses knowledge?

I illustrate this by asking a class if they have seen the ocean. Since I live in Florida, I nearly always get 100% affirmatives. I continue by asking where they saw it – and suggesting that they only saw it to the horizon. Then I talk about flying across the ocean to New Zealand or to Europe – but point out that, though my horizon was greater than when I saw the ocean from the beach and though that horizon moved along the flight path of the airplane, I still just saw a limited portion of the ocean. I then suppose I am an astronaut in a polar orbit that takes me across the entire surface of the globe so that I would have visibly seen all of the oceans of the world – but I still would only have seen the ocean’s surface. There are still depths that I would not have plumbed. Yet, I have seen the ocean.

In this prayer, Paul speaks of the width, length, height, and depth of the love of Christ. His love is as wide as the world, as long as eternity, as high as the heavens, and far deeper than the sea. In a lifetime, I will not comprehend his love fully. He will continue to amaze me with the greatness of his love for me. What is amazing, is that my love for you is to be as his love is for me.

But do I know his love? Yes, I do. I see it in every line of scripture.  I experience it in Christian fellowship and friendship. I feel it in my soul when he lifts me from the depths of despair or discouragement. My perception is shallow and incomplete – but day by day, I come to know it more fully. Then one day, I will see him as he is and will know him as he knows me.

Filled With the Fullness of God

When I simply think about the magnitude of his love, I can see why Paul prayed that I come to know it. Otherwise, I could never stretch to the point that I could be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

How great is that fullness? Listen to the doxology at the conclusion of the prayer:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (vv. 20-21)

How can such a one as God be glorified by such a one as I?

It can only be according to his power that is at work within us, (v.20). The earlier prayer in Ephesians 1:19-20 informs us that his power working in the believer is the same power he used in raising Jesus from the dead.

This Resurrection Power is what enables me to glorify God and to have genuine spiritual depth.

resurrection power

PRAYER: Paul Prays For His Readers’ Inner Strength And Praises The God Who Can Give It, by Frank Thielman

From Ephesians

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Of whom the whole family in Heaven and Earth is named,

That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love,

May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

And to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us,

Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

(Ephesians 3:14-21)

Perhaps reminded by mention of his imprisonment and his readers’ discouragement (3:13), Paul now makes his way back to the intercessory prayer he had started in 3:1.  In his first intercessory prayer report in 1:17-23, he had described his prayers that God might open the eyes of his readers’ hearts so they might see the “surpassing greatness” of the “power” he had made available to believers (1:19).  Since then, Paul has himself helped to answer that prayer by reminding his readers of all that God has done for them.  God has saved them “in Christ” from the power of sin, the devil, and the flesh (2:1-10); he has overcome their alienation from his people Israel and from himself (2:11-22); he has created them anew (2:10); he has included them as building blocks in his spiritual temple (2:19-22); and he has revealed to them the critical role they play in his age-old plan for the universe (3:10; cf. 1:9-10).  The instrument of this revelation, Paul himself, is an example of God’s grace and power at work (3:2-13).

With all this behind him, Paul is now ready to launch a second intercessory prayer report, whose burden is similar to the first report.  He wants his readers to know that he prays for God to strengthen them in the inner human being so that Christ might dwell in their hearts and they might become strong enough to grasp the vast dimensions of Christ’s love for them.  The ultimate goal of this prayer is that his readers might “be filled up to all the fullness of God,” (3:19b), that is, that they might be all God has created them as individuals, (2:10), and as the church, (2:15), to be.

Paul next brings the entire first half of the letter to a close with an elaborate ascription of praise to God.  This doxology incorporates some of the most important themes of his intercessory prayers, (3:20-21).  The God who is at work in Paul and his readers is powerful enough to do more than they can even imagine.  Eternal glory is his, precisely in the place where his powerful work is evident (the church) and in the person through whom he has so lavishly blessed the church (Christ Jesus).

The whole section consists of two long sentences, one of eighty-six words and one of thirty-seven words.  Both sentences are characterized by a peculiar combination of structure and looseness.  The intercessory prayer report, (vv. 14-19), contains an introduction and three purpose clauses.  The first two purpose clauses each contain a main verb followed by two explanatory infinitives and the final purpose clause gives the climactic goal of Paul’s intercession.  Important elements of the syntax and grammar within this larger structure remain profoundly ambiguous.

The doxology follows the same pattern: it has a standard liturgical structure, but it revises and expands this structure in crucial ways to accent the themes that have consumed Paul’s attention in the letter so far.  He becomes so redundant and expansive that he seems to be grasping to the express the ineffable.

As we have sometimes seen elsewhere in the letter, this combination of formal structure and spontaneity probably originated in the letter’s oral composition.  When Paul dictated it, he was able by the cadence of his voice to solve the syntactical problems that now face us as we pore over the text in silent study.

The intercessory prayer report and the doxology, therefore, are not mere repetitions of traditional forms, and they certainly are not scholarly literary productions.  They are heartfelt prayers and examples of exactly the kind of “boldness and confident access” that believers have through faith, as Paul has just mentioned in 3:12.  God is Paul’s Father, and so Paul can speak as freely as any son would speak with a father in whose love he has confidence.  The mention of kneeling, the wordiness, the syntactical ambiguity, and the way that at least the intercessory prayer report unleashes “a flood of thoughts” in an intensifying crescendo betray Paul’s emotional investment in the subjects of the prayer and those for whom he prays.  The apostolic responsibility he felt for the encouragement of his readers, combined with a deeply seated conviction that they could be encouraged by the power of God and the vast love of Christ, gives the intercessory prayer report and the concluding doxology their unusual character.


PRAYER: Paul’s Prayer For The Believers, by Jack W. Hayford & David P. Seemuth

From Spirit-Filled Life New Testament Commentary Series

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Of whom the whole family in Heaven and Earth is named,

That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love,

May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

And to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.
(Ephesians 3:14-19)

In order to be effective in the assault upon the powers of darkness believers need supernatural empowerment through the Holy Spirit.  In addition, because of the fullness of the love of God in Christ, God fully inhabits believers and the church is triumphant in the battle over evil.  But first things are first.  The church must embrace these important aspects of God.

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in Heaven and Earth is named. (vv. 14-15)

The focus of this chapter is Paul’s prayer that begins in this verse.  He begins the chapter with the same phrase, For this cause, only to digress for thirteen verses out of the overflow of the Holy Spirit in his heart.  This is a glimpse into Paul’s prayer life, however.  He is never far from petitioning the Father.  Paul fully recognizes that prayer is an integral part of assaulting the principalities and powers.  He accomplishes his purpose through prayer and writing to the Ephesians.

In identifying God as Father, Paul highlights that we are members of God’s family, born into it through faith in Jesus Christ.  So, we are to live solidly, established in the certainty of the Lord’s life in us.

That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man. (v. 16)

God’s strengthening only happens through the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  God’s reserves for blessing are inexhaustible.  The riches of his glory show that believers may draw upon God’s power at any time, place, or in any circumstance.  Power failure is impossible with God.  The place of his ministry is deep within the believers.  The inner man is similar to the heart in verse 17.  It is the very seat and center of every human being whom God empowers and changes by his Holy Spirit.  In fact, no lasting change can come without a change in the inner man.

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God. (vv. 17-19)

The dwelling place of Christ is in the heart, the very center of one’s being.  In using the word, dwell, here, Paul emphasizes a permanent residence.  Paul could have used a related word that refers to a temporary dwelling place.  But God abides within the believer as the Holy Spirit.  This is a permanent dwelling place through faith.  Because God dwells in people by faith, they grow in his love.

Thus, Paul prayed that the believers in Ephesus be filled with all the fullness of God, and so experience stability rather than a transient experience of Christ.  Nothing firms this up more clearly than the term, rooted and grounded.  Being rooted and grounded in the Lord makes possible the growth of Jesus’s life in us.  God’s love is a believer’s roots and ground that lead to growth and fruit-bearing.

Paul prays that the believers will have a comprehension of God’s love that transcends knowledge.  He describes the width, length, depth, and height of God’s love to show that God’s love is inexhaustible.  No one is far from his love; no one is in too deep a hole to experience him; no one will ever reach the end of the demonstration of God’s love.  Such knowledge of God’s love surpasses knowledge.

Paul prays for the knowledge of love that surpasses knowledge.  This is a play on words.  He hopes that the Ephesian believers will have such a comprehension of the love of God in the inner man that simple explanation is inadequate.  The goal is that all the fullness of God may dwell in the believer.  This is the Christian’s goal.  God accomplishes this in love by the power and work of the Holy Spirit.

rooted and grounded

PRAYER: Learning to Pray from Ephesians 3:14-21, by Vince Black

From The Town Church

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Of whom the whole family in Heaven and Earth is named,

That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love,

May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

And to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us,

Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

(Ephesians 3:14-21)


Begin by kneeling, closing your eyes, lifting your hands, holding hands with others – proceed with some kind of action that reveals a mindful approach to God.

Father, I approach you knowing that you have blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. You have chosen us before the foundation of the world. You have predestined us for adoption. You have redeemed us through the blood of your Son. You have forgiven our sins. You are our Father who loves us in ways we will never fully understand. You know me by name. You know the names of everyone you have adopted to be a part of your family. Father, I approach you knowing these things to be fully true of you.


It is because you are a loving Father that I can ask you according to the riches of your glory that you would strengthen ________ with power through your Spirit. Specifically Father, I ask that you would strengthen _______ internally. Would you help them to understand more and more the truths of the gospel. Would you help them to understand more and more the depths of their sin and their need for Jesus. Would you help them to apply that internally to their hearts. Father, I ask that you would strengthen _________ internally.

Father, I also ask that you would increase the faith of _______ and that they would experience Christ’s dwelling presence as they walk with you today. I ask that you would help them to believe that Christ came to dwell among us – and that when he ascended to take his throne, he left the Spirit to indwell us. Father, I ask that they would sense the indwelling presence of Christ today.

Father, I also ask that you would help _______ to understand the multi-faceted love of Jesus. Help them to understand the limitless love of Jesus – the love that caused him to give his life as a ransom for our sins. Would you help them to understand more and more the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ.  Even as you help them to comprehend Christ’s love, I ask that you would help them to understand that the limitless love of Christ surpasses their limited knowledge. It’s beyond our comprehension. Father, I ask that you would cause that understanding to increase their affections for Jesus. I ask that you would guard them from frustration and doubt about the fact that Christ’s love surpasses knowledge. Increase their affections and adoration for Jesus.

Finally Father, I ask that you would fill _______ with all the fullness of yourself. Fill them with greater thoughts of you. Fill them with a greater desire to see more of you and be filled with your presence.


And now Father, I offer up these prayers to you knowing that you are able to do far more than anything I could ask or even think to ask. I’m sure there is more I could pray. I’m sure there is more I could ask of you. You are able to do far more abundantly than anything I could ask of you for ________. You are the one who has given us power to accomplish the things you have set before us to accomplish. You are the one who has given us power to be strengthened internally, to know the love of Christ and to understand that the love of Christ surpasses our understanding. You are the one who has given us this power.

It is to you alone that glory is due in the church. You alone are the one who is to be glorified in the body you have called, chosen, predestined, and redeemed. You are most glorious in the church and in Christ Jesus your son.

You are to be praised, honored, glorified, worshipped adored yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever and ever throughout all eternity.


group prayer

POETRY: Morning Reflections, by Enuma Okoro

What is this unfolding, this slow-
going unraveling of gift held
in hands open
to the wonder and enchantment of it all?

What is this growing, this rare
showing, like blossoming
of purple spotted forests
by roadside grown weary with winter months?

Seasons affected, routinely disordered
by playful disturbance of divine glee
weaving through limbs with sharpened shards of mirrored light,
cutting dark spaces, interlacing creation,
commanding life with whimsical delight.

What is this breaking, this hopeful
re-making, shifting stones, addressing dry bones,
dizzying me with blessings,
intercepting my grieving
and raising the dead all around me?

purple forest