Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Peter Chrysologus (Who?) and the Final Section of the Gospel of Mark

Peter Chrysologus

         Peter Chrysologus is not as famous to most Americans as his contemporaries Augustine and Patrick, but in his day he was highly influential, for Peter was bishop of Ravenna, in Italy, from 433 to 450, when Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire. (It was in Ravenna that the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire was deposed in 476.)  Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church honor him as a capital-S saint.  He was declared to be a doctor of the Roman Catholic Church in 1729, which seems to have caused generations of modern-day Protestants and American evangelicals to ignore his works.  (The fourth edition of the UBS GNT, at least, fails to mention him.)  His traditional surname “Chrysologus” means “of the Golden-Word,” on account of his many concise yet insightful sermons.  

           A selection of Peter Chrysologus’ sermons were translated into English by George E. Ganss in 1953, and published as Volume 17 in the Fathers of the Church series.   More recently (in 2004-2005), Chrysologus’ sermons were again published in English, having been translated by William B. Palardy, and quite a bit of Palardy’s translation (in three volumes) can be viewed online. 

          Using Ganss’ translation (Copyright 1953, Fathers of the Church, Inc., NY), we may turn to Peter Chrysologus’ 83rd Sermon and observe that his text for this concise composition was Mark 16:14-18.  He began by stating, “Thus the holy Evangelist has told us today that within the very time of the Crucifixion the Apostles were concerned with the table; that they were gazing at foods, concerned about banquets, and forgetful of the Lord’s Passion. He states: ‘He appeared to the eleven as they were reclining at table.’”  (Cf. Mk. 16:14a)

          The implication of this seemingly unremarkable opening should not be overlooked:   Chrysologus clearly was not introducing a new text to his listeners. 

          As Chrysologus continues, he briefly criticizes Peter and the other apostles for seeming to enjoy a meal so shortly after Jesus’ death, inviting his listeners to imagine Jesus returning to the land of the living to find that his followers have already resumed going about their own business.  He then quotes Mark 16:14 in full.

          Then Chrysologus’ portrayal of the apostles takes on a more sympathetic tone:  using John 20:19 to set the stage, he explains that the apostles’ meal was not festive, but mournful and despairing, as if they themselves still tasted the vinegar and gall that had been given to Jesus.   The apostles were locked in.  But when Jesus appeared to them He set their hearts free, Chrysologus explains, and he sent them back into the world via the words, “Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature.”  (Cf. Mark 16:15.  The Latin text:  Ite in mundum universum, praedicate Evangelium universa creaturae.  It should be noted that this is slightly different from the usual Vulgate text, which reads “omni” instead of “universa.” )   

          Chrysologus pictures how these words stirred the apostles, and then resumes quoting the text:  “‘He who believes,’ He continues, ‘and is baptized will be saved.’  Brethren, faith is to baptism what the soul is to the body.  Hence it is that he who is generated from the font lives by faith:  “He who is just lives by faith.”  Therefore everyone who lacks faith dies.”

          He then briefly diverges to emphasize that the convert is to believe correctly; he should not just believe whatever he happens to have already believed, but he should believe in one triune God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, co-equal.  He proceeds to delineate what should be believed in a somewhat creedal sequence – that Christ arose for our sake, that Christ, though already everywhere, will return to rule over the earth, that through Christ sins are forgiven, that man should believe in the resurrection of the body (“that is, that it is the man himself who arises”), and in eternal life (“to keep a second death from occurring”).

          “In addition to this,” writes Chrysologus, as he begins to wrap up, “the greatest indication of firm faith consists in the following signs.  The devils, that is, the ancient foes, get exorcised from human bodies.  One language intelligible in many others comes forth from one mouth.  Serpents grasped in the name of Christ lose the power of their venom.  Through Christ, cups of poison have no power to harm those who drink them.  Bodily diseases are cured at the touch of one who preaches Christ.”  And he then quotes Mark 16:17-18 – Signa credentes haec sequantur:  in nomine meo daemonia ejicient, linguis loquentur novis, serpentes tollent, et si quid mortiferum biberint, non nocebit eos, super agros manus imponent, et bene habebunt.”

          Lest anyone misunderstand his words as an invitation to recklessness, Chrysologus concludes, “Therefore, O man, be a  physician to yourself through your faith,” and he instructs his listeners to pray so that “we may be free from anxiety and exult because of our good conscience.”

          Very clearly, the final section of the Gospel of Mark was regarded by Peter Chrysologus and his congregation in Ravenna as sacred and inspired Scripture.



          (The 1750 edition of Peter Chrysologus’ sermons, prepared by Sebastianus Pauli et al,  was used to access the Latin Text.)



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