By Christopher Wells
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
— Psalm 19:1
While preparing me for confirmation, my mentor at Yale Divinity School, who became my godmother, taught me that the proper mood of Anglican theology is praise: glorifying God, in grateful prayer. Our theology — and spirituality, the two being indistinguishable — ought not be antagonistic, much less angry. Arguments will crop up, errors will need correcting, and the Church will always need defending and reforming. But the heart of our tradition, and its relentless focus, should be the triune God himself, who may be known as he is revealed in Scripture and in the apostolic tradition of the Church’s worship and reflection. Around this divinely given center, all other questions of faith, order, and the Christian life may be arranged and wisely considered. As we lose sight of this center, we fly apart into one and another opposed party, defined by rancorous dispute and supposed irreconcilable difference.
To be sure, Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology subsists in these same spiritual and theological sources, from which various Protestant adumbrations of the faith likewise seek sustenance. These sources are the wellsprings of the Church herself, founded in God’s life. The apostolic Church of the first few centuries would have agreed that a quadrilateral of Holy Scripture, the creeds (which organize and summarize Scripture), the principal sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and an episcopal office together constitute the pillars of ecclesial life. Add to these a living liturgy and a flourishing monastic movement and you have an evangelical mission capable of propagation far and wide — for instance, to England by the Benedictine monk Augustine in 597. This primitive synthesis anchored the Western Church for more than a millennium before the 16th-century Reformation, and still sustains ecumenically catholic patterns of prayer, including our own Anglican tradition, which conserved so much that had come before. My godmother urged all her students to adopt the discipline of an at least annual monastic retreat, and to cultivate a habit of daily prayer, starting with authorized offices for morning and evening, which could be modified or replaced by alternatives when praying privately.
A decade downstream of her formative labors, I found myself in Milwaukee one September day in 2009 about to write my first column as editor of The Living Church and needing, John Schuessler advised, to choose a name or title for the series. Only a moment’s reflection yielded the idea of Psalm 19, which calls as its witness the heavens to demonstrate how human beings ought to proclaim the “glory” of God (v. 1), that is, his awe-inspiring creative power and steadfastness. God, of course, is a speaker, and so all of creation must, as a feature of its creatureliness, similarly communicate, both with God as source and with the other companions and co-laborers God provides.
To state a thesis, the heavens “declare” God’s glory by displaying his “handiwork” (v. 1). The psalmist has in view the beauty and vastness of the heavens, including all the stars, and the play of light and darkness throughout the day and into the night in its unstinting astonishment. Thus, the psalm celebrates the unending relay of day to day and night to night, each telling a “tale” to the next and so imparting “knowledge,” albeit without “words or language” or “voices” (vv. 2-3). The very passage of time is suffused with sacramental significance because it is superintended by intelligent heavenly bodies that steadfastly narrate the meaning of events, pointing to the creator God who brings all things continuously into being. In this way, the heavens, drawing attention to their outward glory, utter a spiritual word that focuses our minds and hearts upon the author of glory, whose intelligence, once recognized, can only captivate creaturely thinking and imagining.
What, therefore, in the psalmist’s view, is on God’s mind? What does God wish to say? The answer comes, first, in a characterization of the nature of the word, or “message,” in this case: as a “sound” sent “into all the lands.” As ever, God is concerned with the whole. His creative mission necessarily reaches “to the ends of the world” (v. 4). On this count, the heavens bear witness to the consistency of God’s character, bent on speaking and calling and ordering even the cosmos — and the cosmos first of all, as a prologue, a protoevangelion — into a fullness of catholic and apostolic faith and life.
This leads the psalmist to his star witness, who embodies the most dramatic instance of God’s heavenly loquaciousness: the singular and glorious sun. Likened to a bridegroom “coming forth” each morning “out of his chamber,” the sun “rejoices like a champion to run its course” across the great expanse of the sky, designed by God as a “pavilion” for this purpose (v. 5). Here the nuptial imagery adds another layer of sacramental signification that may be read both in terms of hastening to a wedding day and the promised pleasures that the subsequent feast will entail. Indeed, the sun “goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again; nothing is hidden from its burning heat” (v. 6; cf. 1 Cor. 7:9). The outward and visible means are placed in service of a purifying, spiritual end, writ as an impressively powerful burning, duly conscripted.
At this point, the psalmist seemingly changes direction entirely, turning to an extended meditation on the “law of the Lord,” which is “perfect” and “revives the soul,” just as his “commandment … gives light to the eyes” (vv. 7-8). On reflection, however, we see the constancy of God’s speaking and communicating in creation, now incorporating the call of human beings similarly to speak acceptable words (v. 14). And we find here, as well, an intimation of the nuptial character of salvation, set forth by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians as the sacramental coupling of Christ and the Church. Read in this way, the celestial bridegroom of verse 5 reflects and prefigures the law, testimony, statutes, commandments, and judgments of the Lord (vv. 7-9), understood as figures of the Word of God. This Word, uttered eternally by the Father, oversees, mediates, and subjects himself to all subsequent divine communication, incorporating the Scriptures, the call of Israel, and the greatest surprise of incarnation “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). In every case, God’s Word and words are shared lavishly, as gifts of his very self, even to the end (John 13:1), so that the bride may be made “holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:26). Along this passionate road, which was and is a way of suffering and death, Christ continuously “presents the Church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind — yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
A lofty account of marriage, and certainly “a great mystery,” as Paul admits (Eph. 5:32), since it enlists our coupling and cleaving and wrestling with one another “out of reverence for Christ” as a singular icon of Christ’s love for the Church (5:21; see 5:25). Mysterious; but, like all the sacraments, also explicable as a divinely ordered therapy, offered as a means of grace along the pilgrim road marked Hope for Glory. We know what Paul is getting at. We have not only heard but also “seen with our eyes,” “looked at and touched with our hands,” our own marriages and those of our parents, siblings, and friends, all of which “concern the word of life” (1 John 1:1), wittingly and unwittingly. Sweet and seasonable fruit sits alongside the foulness of rancorous rebellion, variously and recurringly, even in the same marriages; for “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” God forms and refines our hearts and draws us to himself in a sanctifying process that takes at least a lifetime. “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Heb. 4:12-13).
This, finally, is the word of Psalm 19 for all acolytes of the Word made flesh, including stewards of words made print and byte who would be Christians. The message subsists in the passion of God and is his life. For this reason, it can only proceed according to his timeline, in conformity to his pattern of self-giving, in unity with his Son, scripturally and sacramentally.
Of course, the suggestion that communications media would do well to court crucifixion is likely to elicit chuckles, and understandably so. These are not the easiest days for journalists, amid a deafening din of posturing, partisanship, and bullying that threatens to drown out civil discourse and respectful debate. We do well to support and encourage trustworthy, reliable, respectful voices wherever they may be found, and to teach the better way of patient listening, humble service, forgiveness, kindness, and gentleness.
We also, however, should be realistic about the nature of the struggle at hand. St. Paul, ever ready to call a spade a spade, notes that “the word about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). This is surely true. Christian speech, properly crucified, will always fly in the face of secular ambition. We expect the slaves of mammon and power-hungry sycophants to drown in their own self-referentiality and self-promotion, but it will — ought — not be so among us (see Matt. 20:26). Our countercultural call is instead to cultivate crucified words, fed by the passion, nourished in the soil of resurrection, offered to the communion of saints and to all people of good will who hunger for the bread of life. In this way, we may manage to make ourselves ready for the marriage of the Lamb. That is, the Lord, by his grace, may grant us “to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure,” namely, “the righteous deeds” and words “of the saints” (Rev. 19:7-8).
A personal coda may not go amiss. This will be my last column for The Living Church, and I must say a hearty thanks for the pleasure of serving as publisher and sometime editor of this venerable institution. I have counted it both an honor and a joy. I carry with me a continuing commitment to the mission and vision of TLC and stand wholeheartedly by our strategic plan and the stolid staff and board now charged with carrying the work forward. I will continue, for now, as editor at large, the duties for which will be worked out in time with my successor, and I am grateful to remain a Covenant contributor and a member of the governing foundation.
Let us pray for one another. Pray, please, for the ministry of the Living Church Foundation: that it may continue to flourish and courageously carry forward its ministry in service of the one Church, for her healing and wholeness. Pray, too, for the Anglican Communion: that it may answer, more and more, the call of God to visible unity with all Christians, starting at home. May we all be one!
Please pray also for me, as I head to London and the Anglican Communion Office, and for my fiancée, Laura, to whom I will be wed on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, in a few short weeks.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
This is quite beautiful and, to be sure from this author, full of theological depth. I was struck by one set of words in regards to the sacrament of holy matrimony — that marriage is a “divinely ordered therapy.” It is an unusual idea, strange and mysterious, but it is my experience that marriage is indeed a deep healing that a person (true for two separate individuals ) did not know he or she needed at all–until it happens–but which divine Wisdom provides anyway. I have tried this idea on a few people over the years and all agree about… Read more »
Best wishes and thank you.
Congratulations and good wishes!