Posted in: history by bill-o on May 09, 2009

Today, Shadows and Symbols is pleased to introduce a new category: history. With this new category for posts, we’ll be able to explore shadows and symbols of the past.


The military and political structure of the empire had evolved into a governmental system where the western and eastern halves of the empire each had one or two emperors. These emperors, at least in theory, ruled over supreme military commanders. The eastern side of the empire had multiple military commanders, and the emperors there managed to maintain control over these military leaders. In the west, however, there was only one military commander, and successively weaker emperors began to lose control over them.

By the mid-470s, the last remnants of the Western Roman Empire were decaying to the point of disappearance. The last western emperor to be approved by the eastern leadership, Julius Nepos, made a mistake that cost him his throne: He appointed a military commander named Orestes who would soon overthrow him.

The usurpation of a ruler by military generals is an old story in history throughout the world, and there is nothing remarkable about it. Yet, what Orestes did next after deposing Julius Nepos was unusual.

Instead of taking the imperial throne for himself or appointing his brother or another adult, Orestes decided to appoint his teenage son, Romulus, as emperor. The reasons for Orestes’s action are not clear, yet it does appear that this was a way for this commanding general to maintain his military office while filling the imperial throne with someone whom he could control. Finally, the western empire had changed to the point where the emperor was a complete figurehead.

Through his actions, Orestes had involved his own son, Romulus, within his own political machinations in at least three different harmful ways:

1.  Rebellion. The father had made his own son into a usurper. The western and eastern emperors had by custom concurred on the imperial succession of the other half of the empire. Since Julius Nepos had been deposed without the permission of the east, Orestes had undertaken the illegal overthrow of a legitimate emperor.

2.  Hypocrisy. The father, Orestes, nominally was serving his son but, in reality, the father was controlling his son for his own political purposes.

3.  Endangerment. Orestes was himself deposed and executed within a year of his own coup against Julius Nepos by Odoacer, a Germanic king. For some reason, Odoacer decided not to kill Romulus but merely to depose him. Still, the young son had been placed into a position of danger and risk-of-life by his father.

The life of Jesus presents a different picture of fathers and sons. It demonstrates to us a heavenly father and his love for his adopted children on earth. The Lord’s Prayer itself begins with an affirmation of our relationship to God, when it says, “Our Father”. Consider what Jesus and his original followers said that runs directly counter to the three items above:

1.  Legitimacy. Adopted sons and daughters have a full share of the inheritance of their heavenly father. The children are legitimate because they are of the same house (family) as their father. They are also privileged to call upon him in order to see his will done on earth as it is in heaven, and then to participate in his plans to make that will a reality.

2.  Truth and Reality. Rather than seeking to use us for selfish purposes, our heavenly father earnestly seeks to bring his children into a full measure of maturity. Those who are faithful with a little are then given much more to be faithful over. Authority in the kingdom of heaven is given to us those who are clothed in humility.

3.  Protection. The shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The children of God have no need for “bargained-for exchanges”, where a weaker person lays claims on higher authorities through legal processes. The hairs on their heads are numbered, and they are fully entitled to all of the provision and protection of heaven.

The New Monasticism: The 12 Marks: Mark #1

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on September 02, 2008

Let’s now examine and think about the first mark of the New Monasticism:

“Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.”

In the gospels, we find three different ways that Jesus was referred to as being a son: son of David, son of Man, and son of God. As son of David, we are reminded of Jesus’ connection to the Jewish people, the tribe of Judah, and the Davidic royal house within Judah. As son of God, we see Jesus’ eternal relationship to God the Father. Yet, in spite of these two significant titles, it was “Son of Man” that was Jesus’ favorite self-referential designation.

It’s “son of man” that suggests Jesus’ descent and connection to Adam, the biblical first man. Since we are all Adam’s children, Jesus with this title is also suggesting his connection and relationship to all of us. Taking a closer look at the four gospels, when Jesus used this term to refer to himself, the majority of the time it was in the context of some type of movement, such as coming, going, sending, or handing over. It’s in the incarnation of Jesus that we see the Son of Man, the one who uniquely joins and identifies himself with human beings, coming into the world.

Jesus made it plain that he was only doing here on earth what he saw his father doing. His time here with humanity was about representing the specific interests of his father here on earth. These interests and the representation thereof is called the kingdom of God. Jesus relocated himself from heaven to earth in order to be the perfect ambassador for God’s kingdom here in this world.

Jesus expressly stated that he had come for those who were truly in desperate need: the blind, the sick, the poor. Those who lived on the margins of society were those closest to his heart. (The ten lepers who lived in the no-man’s land between Samaria and Galilee were a good example, and there were many others.)

As followers of Christ, we have been commissioned by Jesus to be his ambassadors here on earth. As Jesus relocated himself in the most dramatic way possible (from heaven to earth and then on to the cross), so now we are each called to move ourselves by his spirit and in his love out to a lost and needy world. We are called to go to the abandoned places: the areas that have been largely forgotten and overlooked by the societies around us.

The term of abandonment strongly suggests the orphaned nature of humanity. For once upon a time, our progenitors Adam and Eve had a face-to-face and unblemished relationship with God their father in Eden. When they were cast out of that garden for their failings, so were we.

Where are these abandoned places? Most of them are right around the corner of your heart. They are the inner cities of the U.S.; they are places of grinding rural poverty in the developing world; they are the orphans on the streets and the widows waiting to die. Each one is precious, created in the very image of God. Each one needs to be blessed, loved, and encouraged by God’s representatives in flesh and blood here on earth.

The term “Empire” could be interpreted in many ways. I see this as, biblically, pointing to the kingdom of darkness. As followers and ambassadors of Christ, we are called to shine the light of Christ into the dark places of this world. When we do, the light overcomes the darkness and the spiritual prisoners are set free. Their freedom comes in changing their alliances from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God.