Pagans and Patriarchs | Sojourners

Pagans and Patriarchs

Summer Sundays with Phyllis Tickle

Welcome to summer. Officially and totally summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It's certifiably summer by every means of our accounting, be it psychological or physical, historical or theological. Which of these we choose to employ makes no difference. This is still Summer, with a capital "S."

Experientially, spring began to morph into summer weeks ago for most of us, but astrologically or geologically speaking, that transfer was not complete until last Friday...last Friday at 7:59 p.m. EDT... last Friday at the exact moment of the Summer Solstice...last Friday on that night which, for our ancient forebears, was the most mysterious of the year.

Before the Christianization of Europe, the mystery was seen as the death of the Oak King and the advent of the Holly King. It was the slip or rift in time when the Earth began to bear down in birth to deliver her bounty. It was the interruption of the ordinary through which the spirits, dressed in new foliage, danced in the moonlight to the devils' tunes. Litha, they called it, and Litha it still is for Wiccans and Neo-pagans. And Litha the whole season will be for them until Mabon....Mabon that comes this year just as precisely and on point as Litha did-- except in September, not June. In September, at 11:44 EDT on the 22nd; for that is the time of the Autumnal Equinox.

While physicists and astronomers may speak in the patois of the sciences and while Wiccans may speak in the hoary vernacular of their heritage, most of us in this hemisphere speak either not at all, or almost not at all, about the strange slippage of spring into summer. Those of us who live in the country, as I and my family do, still mark the seasons, but not so often the sky. Our view is more horizontal than that these days, and our physical world considerably less God-haunted. But liturgy, of whatever origin or persuasion, has always given form and formality to what the body knows and can not otherwise convey to the mind. Such is the function of liturgy, in fact, be it Christian or otherwise.

In the case of Christianity, which is the tradition in which my own faith is implacably rooted, and in the case of the liturgy which gives it form, our secularly un-remarked upon passage away from spring is still very much remarked upon during the first full week of summer. That means that twice this week, Christians will stop and consider, hopefully to our souls' benefit, the stories of two men. One of them biblical, the other not. The biblical saint is so well-known as to need no great mention here. That is, on Tuesday, the 24th, Christians will say prayers of thanks for the life of John, the Baptizer, herald and forerunner of Our Lord. And on Saturday, the 28th, we will give thanks for Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons.

Now, most of us, whether Christian or simply Christianized, secular or other, to some greater or lesser extent, have a sense of who John, the Baptizer was. Irenaeus, on the other hand, is a bit of a stretch. Irenaeus lived in the second century, dying in old age at some point near or just before 200 C.E. He was, as his citation indicates, bishop of Lyons, the second one for that city ever to have, in fact. The whole idea of "Church" was that new in the mid- and late decades of the second century. Yet it was that very "newness" of institutionalization that makes Irenaeus so important, so worthy of being the non-biblical saint with whom summer opens.

Irenaeus, you see, was a disciple of Polycarp; and Polycarp had been a disciple of St. John, the Evangelist and Gospeler. That is to say, Irenaeus knew intimately the man who had known intimately the man who had known intimately Jesus of Nazareth. And what Irenaeus learned from Polycarp and, through him, from Polycarp's own mentor, was sufficient. It was sufficient for Irenaeus to stand against the persecutions of the emperor Marcus Aurelius from 161 - 180 C.E.; and it was sufficient for him to become the first theologian of that tenuous entity that was becoming the Church. It was sufficient, as well, for him to be the first Christian to argue for the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as authoritative and, more than that, as their being the only authoritative ones.

When Christians speak of the canonical Jesus, they can speak because of Irenaeus. And conversations about the historical Jesus or the theoretical Jesus or the edited Jesus or whatever other way one may choose for arriving at a distant Jesus always, eventually, trip over old Irenaeus. There he stands, haloed by the centuries right smack at the beginning of summer and saying, "This. This is what I heard from the man who knew the man who saw and heard and recorded it." All of which is a sobering way to enter, God-haunted, into summer.

So be it.

Phyllis Tickle ( is the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and author of The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord and the forthcoming fall release, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.

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