Four Transcendentals: Beauty

We come to the final transcendental this week as we encounter Beauty. Over the weeks of Advent we have journeyed through these ideas that are present in every single thing, indeed in being itself – ‘Omni ens est unum, bonum, verum et pulchrum’ – that all being is one, good, true and beautiful.

“The quality of something that brings pleasure or delight to the senses, or satisfaction and meaning to the mind through its appearance, value, usefulness, or desirability. This quality is exhibited by God and instilled in creation.” Mangum, D. et al. eds., 2014. Lexham Theological Wordbook.

The word for beauty that is commonly used in the Hebrew bible is used primarily for a description of human beauty and it is androgynous – referring equally to masculine or feminine beauty. Beauty is also the easiest experience to help us to connect to God. When we have that moment of encountering a beautiful scene in nature, or a work of art, literature, music or another person we are often left breathless. That moment will often lead us to ponder upon the wonder of God and help us to have that sense of connection with all creation – which is one of the surest indicators that we are in the presence in that moment of one of the transcendentals.

Like in the other realities that we have explored during these weeks, there are as many failures in the experience of beauty as there are concerning unity, goodness and truth. There is a fickleness in the societal experience of beauty, and yet we are so deeply formed by trends and fashions that rarely last more than a season or two. Images of beauty that adorn the covers of too many magazines are contrived and manipulated to remove all signs of true humanity which are found in the flaws and blemishes and wrinkles that help to define our true beauty.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (14mins)
Matthew 1:18-24; Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7

Four Transcendentals: True

When John the precursor asks the question of Jesus – are you the long-anticipated Messiah – or are we to wait for someone else? – he taps into the long tradition of the prophets and holy people of Israel who had longed for a new David to set them free from all of their oppressors – but with an emphasis on their political and economic freedom. Yet Jesus is content to point to the reality of his ministry which he knows is fulfilling a very significant strand of prophecy, such as we read in Isaiah 35 – our first reading today. Even if this is not the kind of fulfillment that John, perhaps representing the Essene tradition was looking for, this was enough to present the truth of the claim that Jesus was making.

During these days of Advent, as we ponder the bedrock fundamentals of our experience as humans encountering the divine, we arrive on this third Sunday (also called Gaudete Sunday, when rose-coloured vestments are worn) in this series considering the four transcendentals: that all being is one, good, true and beautiful. So this week we are pondering what it means for something to be true, how we work it out, how God speaks to us and challenges us in this, and how to go deeper and further then a simple black-and-white understanding of truth.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (14mins)
Advent Sunday 3, Year A. Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Four Transcendentals: Good

a2a-transcendentalsAll being is one, good, true and beautiful (Omne ens est unum, bonum, verum et pulchrum)

The word Good is very commonly used in the scriptures (more than 500 times), but it can mean one of ten things:

  1. useful;
  2. pleasing / agreeable;
  3. advantageous / profitable;
  4. fitting / appropriate;
  5. abundant / full-measure;
  6. generous / benevolent;
  7. sound / free from defects;
  8. excellent / unobjectionable;
  9. morally upright / righteous;
  10. just (justice)

Unlike the Greek view of an ideal ‘good’, the Hebrew Bible focuses on concrete and dynamic examples of what God has done and is doing in the lives of God’s people.

God is good (tob Hebrew / agathos Greek)
God is morally perfect & gloriously generous

The works of God are good; the commandments of God are good; all the things of God are good.
God saw all that he had made and behold it was very good (Gen 1:31)

Note, this is about good – not perfect. Good is changing and growing; good allows flaws and imperfections along the journey towards goodness. Perfection is a concept that comes from the Greek understanding – but it is finished and complete and consequently it is boring. We are called to join the Lord in the continuing work of creation – which allows space to get things wrong.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am Mass (16 mins including audio of Identity)


Four Transcendentals: One

a1a-transcendentalsOne small piece of wisdom that has come down from the ages (it was first stated in Greek philosophy, and then offered into the Christian tradition through the writings of the Eastern fathers, St Augustine, and then codified in scholastic philosophy through the writings of St Thomas Aquinas) is the Latin phrase: omne/omnia ens est unum, bonum, verum et pulchrum. Literally translated this means: All being is one, good, true and beautiful. Since I first discovered this teaching, it has deeply impacted my life. So as we begin this new season of Advent and this new liturgical year (in fact as we restart the six-year Sunday and weekday cycle from the beginning*) it seemed to be an appropriate time to begin with the very fundamental teachings that an understanding of the transcendentals provides.

The transcendentals remind us that God leaves traces of Godself in everything that has been created – that is everything. We may have learnt in our childhood through the old Baltimore Catechism that the answer to the question “Where is God” with the answer “God is everywhere.” Yet, although we have taught this, we have often minimised this belief, saying rather that God, although everywhere, is really only truly present in much more limited ways – like in our church, or our sacraments, or in the people who are part of our group (and then probably only when we really like them!). The transcendentals can help us to break out of this stingy and narrow understanding of God.

This week we begin with the concept of God as one. ‘One’ is a very common word in our scriptures – used 2,222 times in the Hebrew scriptures (most in the book of Numbers), and 1,569 times in the New Testament (most often in the Gospel of John). Most of the time the word one just highlights that something is in the singular, rather than the plural. But at times it points to something deeper, emphasising the very nature of Gd, such as in Deuteronomy 6:4, which is the Shema prayer recited each day by Jewish people: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The word ‘one’ here is the word ‘ehad and is the basis of the Judeo-Christian belief in monotheism. But this belief began to become more nuanced with the claim made by Jesus (for example, in John 10:30) that “the Father and I are one” which would become part of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

All of this is pointing to the dynamic nature of God. Too often we have limited God to a very static and boring understanding, when there can be nothing that is more dynamic. The only way to know God is through relationship as a subject, not an object. If we begin to grasp this, then we can begin to live in an elevated sense of freedom, goodness, truth and beauty.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am Mass. (14mins)

* The Sundays are arranged in a three-year cycle, starting in Year A with the Gospel of Matthew; Year B with the Gospel of Mark; and Year C with the Gospel of Luke. The weekdays are arranged in a two-year cycle, with the same Gospel readings, but different first readings (drawn from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures). Over the six years the cycle runs: Year A/I; Year B/II; Year C/I; Year A/II; Year B/I; Year C/II.

If you want some background reading, the following articles may be of interest:

The law of four – part 4 (The Infancy Narratives)

lawof4As we have wandered through the stories behind the stories of the gospels and their composition and connection to the church, life and our own histories, it seemed appropriate to think about how the stories that are told about the birth of Jesus would fit within this new understanding. So considering the writings of the New Testament, it is worth looking at how the story of Jesus was built up over time. For example, by the mid-60s, when the Gospel of Mark was being written in the city of Rome, the letters of Paul (presuming that all thirteen are genuine and written in the life-time of Paul – and I have never seen any truly compelling information or argument to doubt that) would all have been complete. What is interesting about these letters is how little they speak about the life and ministry of Jesus. In fact, only five pieces of information about Jesus are found in these letters, most of which are fairly obvious and not all that helpful. Namely, Jesus:

  1. was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) – that is especially insightful
  2. was Jewish, “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4)
  3. was a biological descendant of David (Romans 1:3)
  4. had brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5) – or near kin; both are adequate translations
  5. was crucified (1 Corinthians 1:22) and he died (1 Corinthians 15:3)

When you turn to the Gospels, you find that the first and last Gospels to be written contain very little about the infancy stories / narratives. Mark is completely silent, and John only gives us a single line as part of the beautiful prologue that begins his unique gospel account. In contrast, both Matthew and Luke provide two long chapters filled with information that tell the story of the birth of Jesus in compelling ways for the community that received these gospels.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am
Advent Sunday 4, Year C.

The law of four – part 3

lawof4We saw in the first week of this series that one of the places that we see the law of four is in every great story ever told as well as in the story of our own lives – the pattern of (1) Hearing the summons; (2) Enduring the obstacles; (3) Receiving the prize/favour and finally (4) Returning to the community. This pattern runs very deeply within our physical and spiritual DNA, and we can easily understand that this is something is good and God-given. So it should be no small wonder to realise that this pattern is also able to be seen in the order of the Gospels that the tradition of the church has given us to read them. Although the Gospels, as we saw last week, were written in the order of Mark – Matthew – Luke and John, and the Gospels are given us the order of Matthew – Mark – Luke and John in our bibles, the early church has read them in the order of Matthew, Mark, John and Luke – and this order is also expressed in our liturgical cycle of readings. This is because this order captures this cycle of life, addressing the fundamental questions of change; suffering; joy and service that we meet in our lives.

We also see more clearly how this four-fold structure is captured in the new logo that we have adopted as a parish community.

Play MP3

View the slides | Read the explanation of the logo and summary of the journey so far

Recorded at St Paul’s, Albion Park, 9.30am (16 min 30 secs)
Advent, Week 3, Year C.

Video: Christmas Mystery (Dan Stevers)

The law of four – part 2

lawof4This week in our Law of Four series, we looked in more detail at the four Gospels, and particularly the connection and relation of the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) – why we call them the Synoptic Gospels, and how over the last 150 years we have developed a better understanding of the way that these gospels are connected. We then looked at the history of the first century of Christianity in light of the question of the composition of the Gospels.

Play MP3 (17 mins)

Download Adobe PDF of the notes.

Sunday 2, Season of Advent.

The law of four – part 1

lawof4Parish logo - letterhead

The new parish logo has been inspired by a much larger and more ancient reality. Looking at the nature of church and our involvement within it, as well as the structure of the liturgical year and the arrangement of the readings from the Gospels is part of what we will be considering over the next four Sundays of this new season of Advent and this new liturgical year – in this four-part series called ‘The law of four.”

These are the notes from my presentation. You can also download them as Adobe PDF

Over the last 1000 years & more:

  • The world dominated by science & rationalism
  • Emerging desire for music + art; emotion + spirit


Mary and Gabriel

The scene that is presented in the Gospel today is one of my favourites. We read from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 26-38. The angel Gabriel appears to announce the birth of a child and follows the pattern established in the Hebrew Scriptures: the angel says, ‘do not be afraid’; the recipient is called by name and reassured of God’s favour; the birth and name of the child is disclosed and then the future role of the child is revealed.

But the similarity between this scene and the announcement of the birth of John also invites us to closely reflect on the differences. While the announcement of John came as the fulfilment of fervent prayer, the announcement to Mary of the birth of Jesus was completely unanticipated. Even more so, while John would be born to parents who were past the age of child bearing, the miracle of the birth of Jesus would be far greater – he would be born to a virgin. The announcement spirals down and through time from the general to the specific: from God to the region of Galilee to a town called Nazareth to a virgin who is betrothed to a man named Joseph – and finally to Mary.

According to the customs of the time, the marriage would have been arranged by her father. Mary would live at home for a year, then the groom would come to take her to his home and the wedding celebrations would last a week. But legally the marriage was already sealed after the engagement. For example, if Joseph had died before the wedding, Mary would have been treated as a widow.

The birth of this child would not only be extraordinary – but he would be the Son of the Most High God. Although Mary had not had sexual relations with any man, this child would be born by the power of God.

These scenes remind us that God works in the lives of ordinary people like Zechariah and Mary. Gabriel was not sent to the home of a queen or princess, but to the insignificant home of a girl betrothed to a labourer. Her significance lies in her answer: “Let it be done unto me, according to your word.” Let our significance be the same.

Play MP3

Description is of the Journey radio program reflection: Three versions of the homily available here (including radio)

Advent, Sunday 4. Year B.

Rejoice always and pray constantly

seantmWhen you learn a new language one of the things that you need to become familiar with are the rules of grammar and syntax. But the degree to which you have to continue to remember each of the rules in turn is an indication that you haven’t yet become fluent in the new language. Once you do, the rules can be left behind and you can get on with the job of enjoying the new possibilities. It is a similar situation with the Christian faith. There are necessary rules and frameworks that Paul understood the early church needed to know – and he shared some of them in eight short and simple declarations that form the first part of our second reading today – taken from his earliest letter. They provide ample fruit for our Advent reflections to guide us during these hectic and crazy days.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (I Thessalonians 5:16-24)

Play MP3

Advent, Sunday 3, Year B