Pastor-Daddy-Theologian: Family Discipleship

In our consumerist individualized culture, everything is cared for by specialists. We are habituated into thinking that we need specialists to fix what ails us, from fitness to food, to finances. I was listening to the radio a few days ago and heard a talk about dealing with the emotions of receiving an inheritance. They interviewed one expert that was a financial therapist who specializes in helping people deal with those emotions. Talk about specialization.

Specialization is the water we live in, and it is the air we breathe. So we shouldn’t give ourselves too hard of a time for thinking that my kids will magically have the Christian faith if I take them to Church on Sunday, youth group on Wednesday, and VBS during the summer. In light of how we live the rest of our lives, this, one could surmise, should work. 

But it doesn’t. It seems that these activities instill in our kids, not the historic Christian faith, but an insipid moralism. A view of God as either a boyfriend or emotional crutch, while also being an inexplicably distant Father figure. 

Why is this happening? Because faith isn’t supposed to be learned as a supplement to the rest of life. We are supposed to learn our faith in the context of a family who worships, learns, and prays together. 

There is an almost palpable fear about the possible demise of faith in Christian youth and children. While some of these fears might be exaggerated, it is an understandable felt fear, in light of the continued steady exit of youth from the Church. I believe that there is a counter-cultural antidote – not a silver bullet. A holistic way of approaching family and faith that can help pass on the faith to our children in meaningful and fruitful ways: Family discipleship. 

Anglican Pastor and teacher Winfield Bevins defines Family Discipleship: “Family discipleship is when parents help their children become disciples of Jesus in the home through reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, an doing mission together” (Growing at Home, xvi). Family discipleship is not a new idea. It is grounded in the Scripture and traditions of the Church. In Scripture, we can turn to the paradigm of Deuteronomy 6:4-9: 

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. 

Verses four and five function as the Creed of the Old Testament, summarizing right belief, right practice, and worship. God commands Israel to have the laws on their hearts – at the core of their being and existence. Where does this occur? In the family, and how? By teaching, them, living them, and having habits of life, mind, and heart that continually directs one’s family to the truth of God and his way of life.

 According to Scripture, we should intentionally orient our family to who God is and what God has done for us. For Israel, this was lived out in light of the Exodus and the promise of the promised land. For Christians, it is lived out in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the promise of the New Heavens and Earth. 

I firmly believe that family discipleship is key to the Church thriving in the next generation. But, the theological location of family discipleship is critical: we must understand it within Christ and under his gracious reign over the world and in the Church. This location simultaneously critiques false views of families and establishes the proper path for living our faith out as little churches in the body of Christ.  

Family is an aspect of God’s created order for the good of human flourishing. However, the Fall marred and damaged familial relationships. After the Fall, we can trace out not the goodness of family, but it’s very inverse, the fallenness of family and God’s ‘no’ to sin’s infection and rule in families. Throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit paints with precise brush strokes the detailed contours of the utter brokenness of family. So if we are to practice family discipleship, we must first begin by admitting that family is not sacred in and of itself. It is only sacred in so far as it is being redeemed and restored in Christ in the Church. 

Under this claim lays a robust doctrine of Union with Christ and the Church. A full expression of both of these doctrines is beyond my purposes here. For now, I want to highlight that 1) Union with Christ is the anchor and engine of family discipleship. And that 2) the Church is the boat in which family discipleship occurs. 

The heart of family discipleship is each person’s union with Christ in the context of the Church. When someone puts their faith in Christ by his grace and is baptized into Christ, they die and are raised with him. Their life is now hidden with Christ in God (Galatians 2:20-21; Romans 6:4-6; Col 3:1-4). Their identity and purpose are now rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ’s eternal relationship with the Heavenly Father. We have the law written on our hearts, and we have new hearts. Because of our union with Christ, the vision of Deuteronomy 6 is now possible. We are saved by grace through faith for good works prepared for us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-10), which includes family discipleship. 

Baptism unites us to Christ, and it joins us to the body of Christ the Church. The Church becomes our family. The place where we are cleansed and made holy is the Church of Christ. As we nurture and grow our nuclear family, we do so as a part of the family of the Chuch in Christ. The Church, not the family, is the primary social unit of Christians. And this is good news. Because the sin and brokenness of family are brought under the kingdom and reign of Christ for forgiveness and healing. By its participation in the Church, the family can be redeemed.  

Family is not an institution separate from the Church. Just like we cannot do our faith on our own, we cannot do marriage on our own. It exists as a graced space for Christ to work out his redemption and reconciliation of his body. Neither is it the ultimate goal of human existence. Our union with Christ and the glory that is promised in eternal communion with God is the proper end goal. 

All that said, God, in his providence created families and commanded humanity to raise children and serve God in the faith of Christ in the Church. Family discipleship is an intentional way for parents in Church to lead their family in the rhythms of redemption and union with Christ as they learn together how to love, repent, have faith and grow in Christ. 

Practically speaking, what does this all look like? 

Let me offer an analogy. How does one become a life long and an avid fan of a sports team? Usually, it is passed down through desire, ritual, and priority in the context of a family. If we can disciple our kids into the fandom of a particular team, how much more should we disciple them into Christ? 

First parents must desire it. If we do not desire to love Christ and grow in him, our kids will pick up on it and see that our loyalties are mixed. Of course, we are not perfect. So the first habit we must begin to practice in front of our children is humility and repentance. We practice this through visible prayer and confession. 

Second, we need ritual. Many people have the ritual of watching sport on the weekend. We need a daily ritual of prayer, Scripture reading, learning, Church participation, service, spiritual conversation, and practical service. I use the word ritual not to evoke an empty or rote practice, but to say that it must become a part of the warp and woof of our days. 

Third, it must become a priority. These desires and rituals must become engrained in our lives. They are what we do, and we must be willing to sacrifice other things for them. What is more important, our children’s success in a sport or their eternal and life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ? Here the Gospel of Christ confronts us and our idols. Here we must again, repent and believe. 

For more practical ideas for Family discipleship, let me recommend three resources: 

Growing at Home by Winfield Bevins

This book offers a practical vision for how to raise and disciple children in the faith. It looks at everything from reading Scripture to doing service projects together as a family. Parents are the primary people who will disciple their children. This book casts a vision and gives the tools for this work.

Parenting Towards the Kingdom by Philip Mamalakis

I ‘haven’t found a better book on parenting. The main of the book is that Christian parents are called to raise their kids to be citizens of the kingdom with the virtues of Jesus Christ and everything we do in parenting should be oriented towards this goal. This book shows us practically how to raise our kids, deal with conflict, set boundaries, and help our children learn and grow through struggle. I cannot recommend this book enough.

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

As our kids get older, we will need to make wise decisions about the place of technology in our home. Andy Crouch is a knowledgeable and helpful guide to these decisions. He ‘doesn’t say get rid of technology, but put technology in its proper place.

Thoughts from a Pastor-Daddy-Theologian: Growing in the Habit of Family Prayer

Prayer and the reading of Scripture are the Christian’s bread and butter (right along with the Sacraments, I’ll come back to that another time). Growing up in the evangelical Church, I knew that I was supposed to pray and regularly read because it is expressed so plainly in Scripture. Throughout Scripture, we are exhorted to pray (throughout the Psalms), bring our needs to God (Philippians 4:6-7) and join in the worship of God in the community of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-25, Acts 2:42). But, I’ve never been that fantastic at maintaining the habit of daily prayer and Scripture reading. Why?

First, to draw an analogy. My wife grew up in the Catholic Church; she struggled to find roots for her faith because no one could tell her why they did what they did. Why do you cross yourself? Why do you kneel? Why do you receive the Body and Blood of Christ? These formative actions and habits, without explanation, did little to form her knowledge and love of God.

Similarly, Evangelicals tell their children to read the Bible and pray. But they can quickly fail to tell and show them why this is essential to their faith. In both cases, the faith must be caught and taught.

As an Anglican Pastor and Father, I am in danger of failing on both fronts. Conversely, I have the glorious opportunity to teach my children and church the deep meaning of liturgical worship tied a life of prayer and scripture reading.

Secondly, this practice was difficult to grow in and maintain because I expected so much out of it. The pressure to have a life-giving devotional time and to encounter God every time I prayed and read was intimidating and overwhelming. There was a felt need for a spiritual high every-time I prayed or read; it was exhausting both in anticipation and disappointment. Finally, there was also a suspicion around prayer and Scripture becoming routine, which meant I needed to spice it up; never let it get old or worn out. All these factors combined lead to an anxious prayer life

Beyond my own experience, I’ve seen this anxiety about the habit of prayer becoming routine in my limited pastoral experience. I’ve begun to wonder whether it is an implicit romanticizing of our relationship with God. Do we view our relationship with God through the lens of dating and romantic love? If we are always supposed to be on fire for God, like a fresh romance, then of course routine feels like capitulation. I think, then, the problem is the lens of romantic love. I believe friendship and Marriage are better metaphors, both of which require time, patience, commitment, and routine. What if the change, relationship, and encounter we desire in our relationship with God is experienced over time doing the same thing with the desire to love and serve God?

So how have I grown in the habit of daily prayer and Scripture reading? Falteringly, through The Daily Office.

The Daily Office is an order of prayer and Scripture reading set for morning and evening prayer with shorter times of prayer at noon and before bed. Combined with a reading plan (the Daily Office Lectionary) it is a helpful tool for making prayer and Scripture reading an essential part of the rhythm of your day.

Throughout my early to mid-’20s, I preferred and wanted to pray far more than I desired to read Scripture. But, as I entered seminary, I was ushered into the practice of daily morning and evening prayer in Chapel, which forced me to do both together. Four years of this practice slowly that shaped my desires to pray and read Scripture; sometimes being told that you have to do something, actually works. Nevertheless, the application of daily morning and evening prayer in life outside of seminary is almost overwhelming. In God’s providence, we also joined an intentional community in our last year of seminary that helped encourage praying the Daily Office by myself.

Since we left Pittsburgh, a few things, both theological and practical, have helped us to grow in the rhythms of daily prayer.

First, I needed a more robust and mundane doctrine of Scripture. Robust because I needed to see that Scripture is a primary means of grace by which the Holy Spirit shapes his Church into the image of Christ. (see my blog post what Scripture is for). Mundane, because I needed to submit to the extended slow reading of Scripture as God communicates his grace to me over many years

Second, I needed to learn to read and meditate on Scripture in the context of prayer. The Daily Office, with its rhythm of prayer and Scripture, provides that context. Worship, either communally, or as an individual in Spiritual communion with the Church, is the proper location of the reading of Scripture. We see this reflected in the prayers of the Psalms and the Early Church.

All that said, getting into a habit of praying the daily office was difficult, and for a good reason.

The practice of daily prayer forced me to walk the Gospel line between legalism and lawlessness. The Gospel is that in Christ, God loves and accepts me (justification) and in the Holy Spirit empowers me to love and obey him (sanctification) (blog post on the gospel).

The practice of daily pray consistently forces me to reckon with the Gospel. I’m not accepted or loved by doing daily prayer (legalism). However, doing daily prayer is good for me because it shapes my day around God and his grace. Further, when I fail to maintain daily prayer, i don’t just give up (lawlessness), nor I am a failure (perfectionistic legalism). I do not fall out of my justification because I am united to Christ (see my blog posts on union with Christ 1, 2, 3). But I am called to get back on the horse, to keep building the habit – to ‘always begin again.’

So how have we grown as a family in daily prayer? How do we keep going, trusting that God’s grace is given in the robust, mundane, and gospel rhythms of prayer and Scripture?

1. Community

Establishing the practice of prayer and Scripture reading is a lot easier to do when other people are doing it with you. My time in seminary and an intentional community grew the desire for a rhythm of prayer and Scripture reading. Now with our small family, we push one another to pray and read, even when we don’t feel like it. I receive and am reminded of God’s grace every time my daughter pipes up at mealtime telling us to pray, ‘more pray.’ Even when I don’t feel like it, I know I need to do it and having a community with the same goals and desire helps grow the habit.

2. Diversity of Tools for different times

The Book of Common Prayer is an excellent tool for prayer. But sometimes, in life, we don’t have the time or capacity to sit down and pray and read for a half-hour. Thankfully, there are a variety of tools and options. The two we’ve found most helpful are Trinitymission.org and ACNA’s Family Devotions.

During our early days of parenting, we would listen to Fr. Michael Jarrett read morning prayer, through the trinitymission.org. At this point, we felt like we were accomplishing a lot by just listening and praying along with him. These times of prayer framed our days and instilled in our family the importance of daily prayer, even when our daughter was fussy, or Lindsay was driving to work. At that point, evening prayer was much harder to accomplish with any regularity.

As our daughter grew up, we slowly moved away from listening to actively praying with her and as a family, by praying ACNA’s Family prayer (link). It is a shortened version of morning, midday, evening, and compline prayer. It starts with a Scripture reading, a psalm, a scripture verse, The Lord’s Prayer, and a Collect. We add our prayers, readings from the ACNA Catechism, and the Apostles Creed. We can accomplish the bare-bones version this in under 2 minutes or spend up to 10 minutes.

Reading Scripture as a family continues to be a challenge. Lindsay and I read from the ACNA’s Daily office lectionary (two-year plan) separately, and try to read together on the weekends. But more often than not, we forget or don’t prioritize it. In the evenings, we’ve been trying to read a story from *The Jesus Storybook Bible* with Maren.

An additional tool, for Scripture reading, that we’ve found vital is thebibleproject.com. This resource helps us learn the big picture of the books of the Bible and see how each book points us to and is about Jesus.

Music has also played a part in our family prayer life. The music of Roots for Rain graces our car drives, and during certain seasons we incorporate music from the Liturgical Folk. I think Luther said that when we sing, we pray twice, and we all love singing praises to our Lord together.

3. Patience and Trust

Growing in the habit of prayer all requires patience, trust, and for me, a consistent battle against legalism. I have to be patient with what we can do, trusting that over time, we are growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Patience and trust help me fight against the temptation to feel like I’m not doing enough, or we could be doing it better. Again, this brings me back to the Gospel. We put effort into our growth, and the growth comes from God (see Philippians 2:12).

4. Grace is for doin’ something.

Finally, the discipline of daily prayer and Scripture reading through the Daily Office is grounded in the sanctifying Grace of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ll write more about this point another time, but, in short, God’s grace is the Triune God’s personal work of transformation in our lives is both for forgiveness and transformation. In some Christian circles, grace is seen primarily as forgiveness; grace is given when we admit when we’ve done wrong. While this is true, the Grace of God also compels, directs, and changes; Grace is for doin’ something (see Ephesians 2:8-10 which emphasizes both aspects of grace). It is by the grace of God that we’ve grown in daily prayer and the grace of God will be what keeps us going.

If you want to learn even more about The Daily Office and Anglican Worship, hop over to Theanglicanpastor.com; it is a wonderful resource for all things Anglican.

Also, I am a huge fan of the ACNA’s new Book of Common Prayer. Here are some videos about it, and the place to go buy it.

Thoughts from a Pastor-Daddy-Theologian: Parenting with an End Goal

Though I’ve only been a parent for two years, and I realize that every day my daughter gets older I know less and less, I’ve found this one nugget of truth a guiding light: I need an end goal. By no means is this an original thought. In fact, ‘end goals’ are a fundamental way we orient all of life.

The idea of an end goal, or telos, is one of my favorite theological rabbit trails, and it relates deeply to parenting, so forgive me, while we follow it out for a moment.

God created humanity with this desire for him as their end goal. This embedding is an aspect of being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27-28). Humanity was created by God to find in God their end goal. This is what Jesus was getting at when prayed, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The true end goal of life is eternal life, communion, joy, and bliss with God in the New Heavens and Earth. This end goal is supposed to focus and orient all of life. Often, though, we have competing goals in our lives. This is one way we can think about salvation: God reorients our end goals, which are only leading to death, to him, our savior and source of eternal life. Much of the Christian life is about allowing Christ in the Holy Spirit to order our lives to God; ordering our loves as Augustine and Aquinas said (see Aquinas, Summa, II.II. Q26).

God created us and redeemed us so that we could find our end goal in him, and this frames how we raise our children. Our vocation as parents are to foster, nurture, and orient our children towards this end goal.

Philip Mamalakis, a Christian family therapist, really helped me articulating this whole idea of end goal in parenting. Most parents, he notes, want their children to succeed, but how does this look for Christians? Consider what Mamalakis says:

“As parents, we want our children to be successful in life. As Christian parents, we need to be clear about what we mean by successful. That’s where God’s perspective on success become important… God’s desire is for us to raise children who know Him, who love him, and who walk in His ways. God wants our children to know who He is and grow up near Him, to become saints. That is success.”

Now, we all think about our parenting in terms of end goals, some immediate goals, and some long-term. For many of us, some of our immediate end goals include getting our children to be quiet, behave, listen, share. Perhaps some of our longer-term end goals include independence, a good job, a successful marriage, etc. Now, none of these are lousy end goals in and of themselves. But they must be submitted to the end goal of becoming Citizens of the Kingdom.

We must order all our end goals to the end goal of our children knowing and serving Christ. “Our Long-term goal is to raise up children who understand themselves as children of God, who live their lives according to his commandment. We should think less in terms of stopping bad behavior and more in terms of disciplining — nurturing disciples, raising children who understand that they are citizens of heaven.”

When we frame parenting in terms of this end goal, every interaction is colored by the end goal of helping our children grow up in the way of Christ. What does this look like on the ground? In short, it looks like thinking about every parenting situation as an opportunity to instill in our children the character and habits of citizens of the Kingdom of God. Every mundane moment of your child wanting connection, struggling to share, even whining is a sacred opportunity. It is a moment to practice our end goal with our children, to walk with them into the virtues and values of God’s life.

Framing parenting in terms of our end goal also means something changing about how we think and live as parents: We must be submissive and humble disciples of Christ as we disciple our children. We cannot live by the motto: do what I say not what I do. Of course, we won’t be perfect; we are sinners just like our children. And if there is one thing I’ve learned thus far in parenting is that I’m usually more wrong than I am right, I have plenty to confess, and in doing this, I show my daughter, how to orient her life to the way of Christ and his Kingdom.

Being like Jesus Christ is every Christian’s end goal, and it is the end goal of raising children in Christ. If you are interested in the ‘how’ of this, I highly recommend Mamalakis’s book Parenting towards the Kingdom.

Pastor-Daddy-Theologian: A New Focus for “Always Beginning Again”

Midnight. Awake. Nothing was wrong, my wife was sleeping, my daughter too. But I couldn’t get back to sleep. My mind flooded with ideas for writing. During our vacation we were trying to practice morning and evening prayer, and I realized that my blog title, ‘Always We Begin Again’ really connected to this practice. Even when we missed a day or time of prayer we would just begin again the next day. This thought lead to the idea that I should write what I’m learning about being a daddy as a pastor and a theologian. With one daughter and another on the way, my thoughts, practices, and desire have increasingly turned toward how to lead and nurture my family in Christ. So, at midnight, two nights into our vacation in Asheville, I realized my vocation as a Pastor-Theologian must be integrated with my vocation as a Daddy.

For the foreseeable future I’m going to use this blog to meditate on and write about being a pastor-daddy-theologian. What I share will primarily arise out of my experience of fatherhood over the last two years, mixed in with some theological reflections, and resource recommendations. While I am sharing from my experience, my hope is that what we do as a family can be easily translatable into other families. I hope to encourage others that, whatever your other vocation may be, being a daddy/mommy theologian is a core aspect of being disciples of Jesus Christ for those who have been called to be parents.

I realize that in blogging on this topic, I’m hitting on something that is deeply personal and potentially alienating. Raising children is difficult, and talking about what we do and don’t do to raise our kids is kind of like treading on sacred ground. I plan on being sensitive to this, while not shying away from trying to share truth in love. This topic can also be very alienating, because many people desire to have kids and don’t. I hope that my thought on raising children in Christ can be translated to the larger family of the church.

One logistical note: to protect my children’s privacy I will be using pseudonyms for them.

I look forward to going on this journey of reflecting on my life as a Pastor-Daddy-Theologian who seeks to serve his family, Christ, and the Church for the Glory of the Triune God.

Resurrection life: Mortification and Vivification

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I wrote this for the blog of the AMiA. https://theamia.org/ 

When I think of resurrection life, my impulse is to emphasize the joy, peace and abundance of Christ’s resurrection and forget the cruciform life of discipleship. The tension arises in Christian circles quite frequently: Are we cross people or resurrection people? Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between these two. Instead, I suggest that in Christ’s resurrection life we are cross and resurrection people.

Consider what Gregory of Nazianzus preached in an Easter sermon on the matter: “Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with him; yesterday I died with him, today I am made alive with him; yesterday I was buried with him, today I rise with him. … Let us become like Christ since Christ also became like us.” (Oration 1.4-5).

St. Augustine notes the difficulty of this daily process of dying and rising, and uses the metaphor of healing to describe it: “This is agony, Lord, have pity on me! It is agony! See, I do not hide my wounds, you are the physician and I am sick; you are merciful, I in need of mercy.” (Confessions, X.28.39).

In these two quotes, Gregory and Augustine follow the contours of Paul’s description of discipleship: It is a life of dying and rising in Christ with the express purpose of becoming holy (Ephesians 4:23-24). Consider how Anglican Theologian John Webster describes this aspect of resurrection life: “This active life of holiness is at every moment characterized by mortification and vivification. As mortification, holiness is the laying aside of that which has been put to death at the cross of the Son of God; as vivification, holiness is the living out of that which has been made alive in the Son’s resurrection.” (Webster, Holiness, 88)

Webster, Gregory and Augustine all testify to this biblical truth: The resurrection life is dying and rising day by day, moment by moment in Jesus Christ.

What does it mean that mortification and vivification are “in Christ”? We must begin by saying Christ’s death and resurrection is the cause of our mortification and vivification (Philippians 2:1-11, Ephesians 4:20-24). When we are baptized into Christ we are brought into union with his death and resurrection through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20-21, Romans 6). In union with Christ, he reckons us righteous and then makes us so; this is the double gift of union with Christ: justification and sanctification. And it is in this context that mortification and vivification occur. Christ’s humiliation and exaltation become the means and ends of Christian existence (Philippians 2:1-11). In Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God puts to death our flesh and raises us up to new life.

How then do we live the resurrection life today? Trust, surrender and discipline. We must trust in God’s loving providence as he works in our daily life circumstances to mortify the habits of the flesh and vivify us to new life (Galatians 5:16-25). As we learn to trust, we surrender daily to Christ’s revealed will moment by moment. We keep our minds on the things above, putting off what is earthly and putting on what is heavenly (Colossians 3:1-17). Finally, we discipline our minds, hearts and hands, in virtue-forming habits, as Christ, our physician, slowly purges our festering wounds and heals us with his infinite life.

Christianity isn’t a choice between the cross or resurrection; it is both in Jesus Christ. Mortification and vivification is our resurrection life until all death is killed and eternal life is ours in the light of the Resurrected One.

Lenten Reading: Augustine on the Mercy of God and almsgiving

What did you give up for Lent? There is a temptation to treat Lent and lenten fasts as nothing more than a renewal of our new years resolutions. Maybe Lent, in the secret places of our hearts, is just a way to prepare for summer – lose some weight while looking righteous. According to Augustine, Lent is not so much about adding Spiritual disciplines, the traditional three being almsgiving, fasting and prayer, but intensifying these three in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. This means that almsgiving, fasting, and prayer are suppose to be a normal part of the Christian life.

Why do we discipline our minds and bodies as Christians? To overcome sin and temptation, and to put on the character of Christ. This, however is not something we do in our own strength, but through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Sermon 207 Augustine grounds the disciplines of Lent in the person and work of Jesus Christ: “Our Lord, the only begotten Son of God showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us” (89). He goes on to show how our acts of mercy, fasting and prayer are all done in and through Jesus Christ. In his section on Almsgiving he offers a classic example of how Augustine thinks about Christ’s person and work for us:

Moreover, what mercy could be greater, so far as we poor wretches are concerned, than that which drew the Creator of the heavens down from heaven, clothed the Maker of the earth with earthly vesture, made him, who in eternity remains equal to His Father, equal to us in mortality, and imposed on the Lord of the universe the form of a servant, so that He, our Bread, might hunger; that He our Fulfillment, might thirst; that He our Strength might be weakened; that He our Health, might be injured; that He our Life might die? And all this [He did] to satisfy our hunger, to moisten our dryness, to soothe our infirmity, to wipe out our iniquity, to enkindle our charity. What greater mercy could there be than that the Creator be created, the Ruler be served, the Redeemer be Sold the Exalted be humbled, and the Reviver be Killed? In regards to almsgiving, we are commanded to give bread to he hungry, but he first have himself over to cruel enemies for us so that He might give Himself as food to us when we were hungry.

Augustine, Sermon 207, 89-90

Augustine grounds almsgiving in Jesus’s own infinite and humble gift of his life. Jesus took on the Form of a Servant to serve and die for us and to give us his life. In grounding the Christian discipline of almsgiving in Christ Jesus’s infinite gift of his life for us, and his continual sustaining of us through the Holy Spirit and the Sacraments, Augustine is grounding our good works in our union with Christ. We give because we’ve received and we are united to Christ who gives us more than we can ask or imagine.

Fasting and prayer are grounded in Christ’s own fasting and prayer. As he humbled himself to death on the cross, so we walk in the way of the cross and put to death the deeds of the flesh (90). Almsgiving and fasting prepares us, according to Augustine to pray to God especially for our enemies (91). In all of this, the mercy of God expressed in the magnificent humble beauty of Christ’s is the means and end of our discipline.

Lenten Reading: Aquinas on the good and necessary reasons for the Incarnation

If God is who as he is revealed in Scripture, was it really necessary for the Word of God to become incarnate to save humanity? This question is an honest one, seeing that Christians confess that God is all powerful and perfect, he could, conceivably, have restored human nature without becoming incarnate. However, Aquinas argues that according to Scripture, the mystery of the Incarnation was necessary to save humanity. To defend this Aquinas first qualifies what is meant by necessary, and then shows the benefits of Christ’s Incarnation for humanity in terms of how it helps those who believe in Christ grow in the good and withdraw from evil.

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of necessity: essential necessity and convenient necessity. The first, he argues is like the necessity of food for life. The second, is like the necessity of a horse for a long trip. “When the end is attained better and more conveniently” (III.Q1.A2). He argues that the incarnation was necessary in the second way, and not the first, because God who is all powerful could have done it differently. Yet, in light of humanity’s plight and God’s goodness, Aquinas, pointing to Augustine who says, “There was not a more fitting way of healing our misery” (III.Q1.A2).

To explain how the incarnation of the word is the most fitting way he divides his topic into two sections: How the incarnate Word draws us to the good and withdraws us from evil. Under the first section he shows how the Incarnate Word is the cause of Faith, Hope, Charity, good works and glory in the Christian. It is appropriate that Aquinas frames his understanding of Christ’s person and work in these terms, because he has just covered this path of life in Christ in the previous volume in terms of faith, hope, love, virtue, all of which leads to the end goal of “Full participation of the Divinity.” In presenting these five steps, he quotes Augustine. Let’s consider them one by one.

Christ’s incarnation furthers faith because Christ is the Truth revealed in human flesh. As Augustine says it: “In order that man might journey more trustfully toward the truth, the Truth itself, the Son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded the faith.” Faith is established in the Truth by means of the Truth himself becoming human and revealing himself in the humility of human life. Hope is encouraged and strengthened by the revelation of God’s love for us which is most beautifully expressed in the Son of God becoming human. This same infinite divine love enkindles charity in us, according to Aquinas and Augustine, because what presents God’s love for us more than him becoming one of us and dying for us?

Having grounded Faith, Hope, and Love in the person and work of Christ, Aquinas focuses in on how Christ is our example for the perfect human life. Again, turning to Augustine, he argues that Christ makes visible the invisible God so that man could follow God’s will. For Aquinas, this is not mere imitation, but a life infused with Grace, through the Holy Spirit’s presence. (see further 1-2.Q109-114).

Faith, hope and love grounded in Christ, infused with the good works of Christ given through the Holy Spirit is the life of the Christian which leads the Christian on to end goal for which they were created: “Full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and the end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ’s humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon: God was made man, that man might be made God.” In Christ is the whole means and ends of true human life given to all those who believe in him as John 3:16 says. It is worth nothing that Aquinas he uses the same framework of Faith, Hope and Love when he presents the reasons for Christ’s resurrection and ascension (III.Q53.a1, Q57.a2.ad3).

But the human condition is not one of neutrality, it is one of enslavement to evil. This Christ also had to free humanity form the enslavement and destitution of their fallen selves. Aquinas, explains this withdrawal from evil in five moves.

The first two moves relates to how humanity understand itself. First Christ incarnation shows us to not prefer evil and the devil over humanity itself. In other words, if God became human, then there is a certain goodness to humanity over and against the powers of evil. This is amplified by the his second point: “we are thereby taught how great is man’s dignity…” (III.Q1.A2). This has two effects in one’s Christian life, it reminds us of our God-given worth, and it exhorts us to pursue holiness.

In these first two the dignity of humanity is established, despite sin. In the third and four, Humanity is shown in Christ’s incarnation that they could not save themselves from the pride and presumption of sin. Here we see a kind of pendulum swing from one extreme to another: we either think of humanity as nothing, or as everything. Christ in his glorious humility both raises humanity up to its proper dignity, and gives humanity its properly creaturely humility. As Augustine says, quoted by Aquinas: “Because man’s pride, which is the greatest stumbling block to our clinging to God, can be convinced and cured by humility…” (III.Q1.A2).

The establishing of humanity’s proper dignity and relation to God occurs in Christ’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension, when he frees humanity from the “thraldom of sin.” Jesus, as God and man made satisfaction for humanity’s sin and death in his death and resurrection. Aquinas establishes this point by quoting Pope Leo at length:

“Weakness is assumed by strength, lowliness by majesty, mortality by eternity, in order that one and the same mediator of God and men might die in one and rise in the other – for this was our fitting remedy. Unless he was God, he would not have brought a remedy; and unless he was man, he would not have set an example.” (III.Q1.A2).

Aquinas, ends his answer by pointing his readers back to the fact that the Incarnation and ensuing saving work of the Trinity is beyond our apprehension, by positing that there are many more advantages of the incarnation given to humanity which are beyond our understanding. This is an essential reminder for Christians and Theologians, we may apprehend much about Christ and his gospel, but we will always be standing in the face of the infinite personal mystery of the Triune God and his infinite holy love.

This summary of Aquinas’s understanding of the good and necessary fittingness of the Incarnation is just a tiny taste of the deep theological and exegetical reasoning Aquinas offers in his Doctrine of Christ. I just finished reading through the 59 questions on Christ and cannot recommend them enough.