Cross Purposes with Christian Symbols

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For many people the crucifix is a rather bizarre symbol to have as the primary representation of the Christian faith. As an ancient tool of torture and execution having a cross represent your religion is like having a hangman’s noose or electric chair or even a machete or AK47 assault rifle symbolising your faith.

But the cross that adorns many churches in western Christianity wasn’t the symbol of choice for the early church. Among the symbols used by the early Christian community was that of a fish. The first letter of each of the words in the statement “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” spells out the Greek word for “fish” and so the early church used the simple fish symbol to communicate what they believed.

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The five letters of a profession of faith in Christ spell out the word for ‘fish” in Greek (ichthys)

 

Another symbol used in the first few centuries was “Chi Rho”. The first two letters in the word “Christ” in the Greek alphabet is what looks like an ‘X’ (or “Chi” as pronounced by the Greeks) and what looks a ‘P’ (or “Rho”). Combining these two letters to produce a monogram it had widespread use in ancient Christianity. It was this monogram Roman emperor Constantine was said to have dreamt about before placing it on his soldiers’ weapons and flags and winning a famous battle in 312AD.

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The “Chi Rho” symbol carved into the wall at the ancient catacombs of San Callisto in Rome

A visit to the catacombs of Rome where early Christians were buried in labyrinth-like underground tunnels reveal a variety of symbols the early church employed. It may surprise some that well before the cross we know today believers used an anchor to symbolise their faith. Perhaps it came from Paul’s writings – “This hope we have in Christ is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls” (Hebrews 6:19) – and so the anchor symbol came to embody the strength, steadfastness, and calmness that comes from a belief in a risen saviour.

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The christian catacombs of San Callisto in Rome show a variety of symbols the early Christians used to identify their faith before the cross (as we know it today) became the primary icon

While symbols and icons for Christianity have changed over the last two thousand years the best symbol of faith in Christ has always been a sincere, gracious, and humble follower of the risen Saviour. So rather than wearing a cross around your neck or pinning it to a piece of your clothing to communicate your faith instead Jesus says to us today: “Love one another – and by this sign the world will know you follow me” (John 13:35)

French Resistance: The Story of Marie Durand

The Story of Marie Durand

The Tower of Constance was the perfect place for a prison. With its six-metre-thick walls rising high above the heavily fortified French town of Aigues-Mortes which itself was surrounded by salty marshes. Escape from the Tower was nearly impossible.

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The ancient walled town of Aigues-Mortes in France. In front is the salty marshes that turn the water pink (Aigues-Mortes means “Dead Waters” in English)

The year was 1730 and Marie Durand’s crime was to be the sister of a Huguenot Pastor who encouraged others to read the Bible for themselves. Young Marie also believed each individual was able to have a personal relationship with the risen Christ  – and for this she was sent to the Tower.

Marie was nineteen years old when she was imprisoned in the infamous Tower of Constance.

During her incarceration Marie Durand prayed with her fellow prisoners, shared Bible promises, and wrote messages of encouragement smuggled out to believers who themselves were being pursued by the French authorities.

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Huguenot prisoners in the Tower of Constance (painted by Jeanne Lombard in 1907)

Once every week a priest would visit Marie and ask her a simple question: “Do you renounce your belief that a person is able to read the Bible on their own, and therefore do you accept the teachings of the Catholic Church as the only true church?” If Marie would only say “yes” to that one question she would be freed from her cold, dark cell and returned to her family. But every week Marie’s reply was the same – “No” – and so in prison she remained enduring the most degrading conditions.

Marie Durand would be a prisoner in the Tower of Constance for thirty eight years.

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Marie Durand was nineteen years old when she was first imprisoned in the infamous Tower of Constance – a women only prison in the French town of Aigues-Mortes. Marie would be a prisoner at the top of this tower for thirty eight years.

On a cold January day in 1767 Prince de Beauvau accepted an invitation for a tour of the Tower and what the Prince saw appalled him. The conditions of the prison and the depravity of the guards distressed him so deeply he went directly to the court of King Louis XV and pleaded for the women to be released. Marie was eventually allowed to return to the home of her birth where she died only a few years later, prematurely aged from her life in captivity.

Today, if you visit the eight-hundred-year-old town of Aigues-Mortes and climb the circular steps up the Tower of Constance to the top level, very little remains to tell a visitor it was once an infamous prison. But on the floor, towards the centre of the circular room that once held faithful women in chains, is a single French word carved into the stonework by Marie Durand and her fellow prisoners.

“RESIST” 

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The French-Occitan word “REGISTER” (meaning “RESIST“) carved into the middle of the prison floor by Marie Durand

Marie Durand’s faith in Christ – and that one word she left behind – has inspired persecuted and oppressed Christians for two hundred and fifty years. And may her story inspire us today.

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a Christian minister residing on the Gold Coast in Australia. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series – which you can subscribe to by clicking “follow” on this website.

The Church in the Wilderness (Part 2)

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A Waldensian Church high up in the mountains of north-west Italy

It was only a matter of time before the church authorities based in Rome would impose their will on the peaceful “People of the Valley”. The crime of the Waldensians was their arrogance in possessing and reading a Bible, and also not recognising the Vatican in Rome as the supreme authority on all spiritual matters.

Pope Lucius III excommunicated the Waldensians in the year 1184 setting in motion five hundred years of severe persecution that almost annihilated these faithful people. Labelled as heretics their communities were pursued not just in north-western Italy, but also France, Germany, and Spanish-controlled southern Italy. In these regions Waldensian towns were torched and their entire population’s murdered or imprisoned. They were hunted through the forests and when they were discovered hiding in caves they were smoked out. Those that didn’t perish in the caves were put to the sword trying to escape. Old men, nursing mothers, and young children were imprisoned and starved, and others sent on death marches over steep cliffs.

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The Waldensian Symbol of a candle on a Bible surrounded by seven stars. The Latin motto is translated as “Light shining in darkness”.

The massacre that is most remembered is the “Bloody Easter of Piedmont” in 1655. The Duke of Savoy issued a law that the Waldensian communities in these mountains should show hospitality to the 15,000 troops he was sending to bring peace to the region. The Waldensians unfortunately complied and had these soldiers stay with them in their towns and homes. The Duke’s plan was to punish these people for not attending a Catholic Church and also send a barbaric signal to any other community who intended to follow a faith other than the one sanctioned by Rome.

So, just before dawn on Saturday, 24th of April 1655, the signal was given and the Easter massacre of Piedmont began. What followed shocked the governments and people of Europe. Here is the eye-witness account of a Waldensian minister, Peter Leger:

“Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks; or were held between two soldiers and their quivering limbs torn up by main force. Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees in their own orchards, and their hearts cut out. Some were horribly mutilated, and of others the brains were boiled and eaten by these cannibals. Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive. Fathers were marched to death with the heads of their sons suspended round their necks. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first raped, then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die.”

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An illustration of the 1655 “Bloody Easter of Piedmont” (from a print published in London in 1658)

Nearly two thousand Waldensian men, women, and children were butchered in Piedmont that Saturday – a day that some in the Waldensian community considered holy according to the Scriptures.

In 2015, Pope Francis visited the Waldensian Church in the city of Turin, north-west Italy. The local church pastor Eugenio Bernardini asked Pope Francis “What was the sin of the Waldensians? It was being a movement of popular evangelisation, carried out by lay people.”

Eight hundred years after the church in Rome first excommunicated the ‘People of the Valleys’ Pope Francis responded: “On the part of the Catholic Church, I ask your forgiveness, I ask it for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behaviour that we have showed you.”

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Pope Francis visiting the Waldensian Church in Turin, Italy (2015)

Today, in the Waldensian Synod building located in the town of Torre Pellice in the mountains of Italy there is a mural of a tree with a Bible open on its trunk. The tree has some of its branches missing in honour of the many who lost their lives over the centuries endeavouring to live a simple faith in their Saviour Jesus Christ. The Bible on the tree is open to Revelation 2:10 – “Be thou faithful unto death.” And the words under the tree written in Italian read: “We swear and promise by the living God to remain faithful to the last drop of our blood.”

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Centuries ago a church in the wilderness gave us an example for today of unwavering commitment and faith in a loving Creator.

 

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About this blog: David Riley is a Christian minister residing on the Gold Coast in Australia. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series.

The Church in the Wilderness (Part 1)

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In the mountains of north-west Italy – not far from the city of Turin – a community of Christians lived humble and quiet lives for centuries. This community’s foundational belief was their faith in Christ should only come from the Bible’s teachings and not from the traditions and customs of any king or church authority.

This church in the wilderness of the Italian Alps became known as the Waldenses – meaning “People of the Valley”. It was in these mountain valleys, high up and far away from the excesses of the cities, that families and communities lived safely and simply in their belief in a risen Saviour.

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Their simple, genuine and life-affirming belief in Christ amongst these mountains would be contrasted with the pride and excess of the headquarters of the medieval church less than five hundred miles south in the city of Rome. While the Waldensian communities held their worship services in mountainous caves the official church was building massive monuments and cathedrals all through Europe.

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A cave in the mountains where some of the Waldensian community would hold their worship services (our group held a short praise service today singing two ancient hymns the Waldensians may have sung)

And the reason for the uncomplicated and contagious faith of the Waldneses was these people of the valleys had long been in possession of Bibles translated into their own language. The Waldensians of north-west Italy didn’t require a priest or Pope to interpret the values of God’s kingdom to them. Instead, they would read the Word of God themselves and teach it by memory to their children. It was in communities like the Waldenses that God preserved precious truths such as salvation by faith in Christ alone, simplicity of life, service to others, and honouring the seventh day Sabbath as a symbol of obedience to the Creator.

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An ancient school where the Waldensians would teach the Bible to their children and youth

It was in God’s Word the Waldenses knew they were to take the good news of salvation to the world. Waldensian missionaries – young and old – walked out of the valleys, over the mountains, and into the world with a message of hope.

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As these missionaries from the mountains encountered others they would sense some were open to biblical truth. When they were lead by God’s Spirit they gave these people sections of Holy Scripture. Sometimes their gift was only a page or even a few verses, sometimes it was an entire book. These gifts were words of life to people who had never seen the Bible in their own language, and in doing so the Waldensians were daily risking their own lives. In sharing the Gospel these people from the wilderness sowed seeds of salvation that would bring spiritual enlightenment to thousands.

The Waldensian motto became “lux lucet in tenebris” – a light shining in darkness.

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So, it was only a matter of time before the dark forces of kings and popes – realising their hold on their kingdoms would be lost if people read the Bible for themselves – would unleash multiple massacres on the Waldnesians that would shock the world.

(To be continued)

 

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About this blog: David Riley is a Christian minister residing on the Gold Coast in Australia. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series.

Starting Fires in Florence

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The “Old Bridge” over the Arno River in Florence

It all started so well for Girolama Savonarola. With his message of heart-felt change and personal piety he had thousands of people turning up to his church in the city of Florence (Italy) to hear him preach each weekend. The city of Florence – now known for its art and culture – for a short period of time would be Girolama Savonarola’s city.

That’s until the people of Florence had him hanged, burnt, and thrown into the river on May 23rd, 1498.

Girolama was always a bit different. He was short, had strange facial features, and would write poetry calling the Catholic Church’s governing body a “false, proud whore”. Probably not the best career move for a Dominican Friar.

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Despite his personal short-comings and confrontational style the people of Tuscany flocked to him hear him preach on topics like the end of the world, the evil of wealth, and the need to live a humble and upright life just as Jesus did. The year 1500 was approaching and the people of Florence felt surely that had to mean the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of days.

Girolama enlisted the children of the city to go door-to-door collecting anything that would be a distraction from a relationship with God. They collected things like mirrors, cosmetics, chess pieces, card games, musical instruments, women’s hats, books and art. With these items they built tall piles in the city and set them on fire – calling them “Bonfires of the Vanities”. While it’s lamented today that priceless Renaissance art ended up in ashes, Savonarola’s aim was for Christians in Florence to take their faith seriously and have it affect their daily lives for the better. After centuries of greedy and immoral behaviour from Florence’s clergy Friar Girolama Savonarola was a breath of fresh, pious air.

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Statue of a preaching Girolama Savonarola in his hometown of Ferrara, Italy

Savonarola virtually became the ruler of the great Italian city of Florence, but as often happens things began to change. Perhaps it would have been wise not to call out Pope Alexander VI for his obvious corruption and also call the Vatican “the sink of Christendom”. Or maybe when the young people of Florence rioted due to not being able to sing or dance Savonarola should have recognised that it’s OK for a Christian to occasionally have some healthy fun. But Girolama was a man of principle and he felt he had to speak his mind, even when the Pope excommunicated him.

So when the Pope threatened to place an interdict on Florence unless the city stopped the short monk with strange facial features from preaching, it was inevitable that Girolama Savonarola would end up in the public square just outside the Old Palace being hung, burned, and thrown in the river.

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“Execution of Girolamo Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria” by Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli (Museo di San Marco, Florence).

Today marks the 519th anniversary of his death and the people of Florence will place flowers around the plaque that commemorates his execution, as they have done every year since.

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The annual “Florita” at the plaque that marks the place of Girolama Savonarola’s execution

Savonarola wanted to reform a church that had wandered significantly from the Saviour’s teachings, but historians today will say he went too far too fast. Twenty years after Girolama Savonarola’s death Martin Luther would learn from his mistakes and spark the Reformation that would light a spiritual fire through Europe. We celebrate the 500th anniversary of that event this year.

A Dead Man on Trial

How does a workplace dispute end up in a dead man going on trial?

The setting for this bizarre court case is the famous Cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome. Despite what most people believe Saint John Lateran is the main cathedral in Rome and not St. Peter’s. As you enter Saint John Lateran you see these words in Latin set into the stonework: “This is the head and mother of all churches in the city and the entire world”.

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The entrance to Saint John Lateran Cathedral

The cathedral was first built over seventeen hundred years ago and during the centuries has seen the crowning of popes, the convening of important conferences, and the signing of dramatic documents.

This church claims to hold the severed heads of the Apostles Peter and Paul and regularly the masses are held under the canopy that holds these heads. When Emperor Frederick II was threatening the city of Rome in 1241AD Pope Gregory IX brought out the skulls of Peter and Paul and held them up to the people of Rome in order to rally the population to resist the Emperor’s attacks.

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The interior of Saint John Lateran with the statues of the twelve apostles lining the side walls

One of the more bizarre incidents this cathedral has seen is the trial of Pope Formosus by his successor Pope Stephen VI in 897AD. What was different about this trial was that Pope Formosus had been dead for nine months. Pope Stephen had Formosus’s corpse dug up and dressed in his papal clothes. Formusus’s body was placed on a throne and tried for perjury, covetousness and disloyalty to the church. The dead body even had a lawyer assigned to it, but despite the lawyer’s best efforts the mute corpse was found guilty of the charges. Part of the court’s judgment was to have three fingers cut off Formosus’s body – the fingers he would have used to give a blessing when he was alive. He was reburied in a commoner’s grace – but Pope Stephen IV still wasn’t done with disparaging his predecessor’s legacy. Stephen later had Formosus’s body re-exhumed and thrown into the Tiber, the main river in Rome.

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“Pope Formosus and Stephen VI – The Cadaver Synod” painted by Jean-Paul Laurens (1870) 

So, if you ever hear that a former work colleague is being critical of your efforts remember it’s probably not as bad as the fate of Formosus!

Since this bizarre trial in the ancient cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome no pope since then has chosen to take the name Formosus when they’ve been crowned.

Wise choice, don’t you think?….

Silver and Gold

There’s a story in the New Testament of the Apostles Peter and John going to the temple in Jerusalem one afternoon to pray. Along the way they met someone who had been unable to walk since birth and had to resort to begging in order to live. When this man asked Peter & John for money, Peter’s well-known response was “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you – In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” Peter’s faith in Christ enabled him to perform a miracle and that day the man went home not just walking but leaping for joy.

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Twelve hundred years later Thomas Aquinas was visiting the Vatican and surprised Pope Innocent when Thomas walked into one of the treasury rooms. The Pope was unexpectedly present helping to count a very large sum of money. Pope Innocent sheepishly looked at Thomas and said: “Well Brother Aquinas, I guess the church is in an age where we can no longer say ‘Silver and gold I do not have.’”

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“That is true, Holy Father,” Thomas respectfully replied. “And for that reason,” Thomas continued, “the church can no longer say to the lame ‘In the name of Jesus Christ rise up and walk.’”

Thomas Aquinas understood the correlation between material comfort and faith. Often when one is in abundance the other is lacking. Are the riches and comforts in our age the reason we see less of the miraculous works of Christ?

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One Man’s Voice

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The ruins of the famous Colosseum in Rome today. Up to 80,000 spectators once crammed into watch battles between gladiators and beasts, and also the execution of Christians.

ONE MAN’S VOICE:

Sixteen hundred years ago a simple holy man from the countryside found himself in Rome for the first time. His name was Telemachus – and when this Christian monk arrived in Rome the “eternal city” was mid-festival celebrating its recent battle victory over the Barbarians. As part of the festivities the famous Colosseum was hosting a series of gladiatorial events – and so this rural monk simply followed the crowd into the huge stadium. Telemachus didn’t know what he was about to witness, nor did he know that this day his actions would bring about the end of gladiators fighting in the Colosseum.

As Telemachus stood at the back of the stands wondering what the commotion was for, the gladiators came out and stood before Emperor Honorius. These trained fighters gave the pledge their profession had been giving for centuries: “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant” (“Hail, Emperor, we who are about to die salute you”).

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“Hail, Emperor, we who are about to die salute you” – was a famous greeting gladiators would give the watching Roman leader before each battle

 

Telemachus might have lived a simple country life as a monk but he wasn’t dumb. He quickly realised these men were about to battle to the death. Unable to understand why people would watch men kill each other he cried out “In the name of Christ, stop!” but his voice was lost in the cheering crowd.

As the gladiators began to fight each other Telemachus ran down to the front of the stands and yelled out again “In the name of Christ, stop!” but still he was unsuccessful in being heard.

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So Telemachus did the unthinkable. He climbed over the wall into the arena and walked towards the battling gladiators, pleading “In the name of Christ, stop!”

The crowd cheered as they saw this scrawny and dishevelled holy man thinking it was part of the entertainment, but quickly grew angry as they realised he was trying to interrupt the entertainment.

As Telemachus approached the gladiators he continued his appeal: “In the name of Christ, stop!” But instead of heeding Telemachus’s appeal one of the fighters lifted his sword and plunged it into the monk’s body. Telemachus dropped to the sand and his last words were to the gladiator who had delivered the fatal blow: “In the name of Christ, stop!”

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Telemachus climbed into the arena and pleaded with the battling gladiators ““In the name of Christ, stop!”

 

As the other gladiators stopped their fighting and stood over the body of this simple man the spectators fell silent. And then one-by-one the crowd began to leave the Colosseum. The stadium soon emptied and that day’s events were subsequently cancelled. The Emperor was so moved by the death of Telemachus that he soon passed a law putting an end to gladiatorial battles, and the Roman Colosseum would never again host this barbaric entertainment.

One tiny voice filled with the spirit of christian compassion was willing to take a risk. And Telemachus’s actions changed history.

You may think your voice won’t be heard over a crowd unwilling to listen but what impact might you be able to make in your world by simply saying: “In the name of Christ, stop!”?

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Author: David Riley is a minister on the Gold Coast in Australia. This blog is a series of articles and “rambles” on the Reformation and christian church history written by David.

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Power Struggle

On the stunning Amalfi coast near Naples in Italy there are towns that cling to cliffs and wind their way down to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. At the end of the Almalfi road you’ll find the town of Salerno with an impressive cathedral dedicated to St. Matthew. 

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In this cathedral under the chapel lies a tomb built over a thousand years ago and is said to house the bones of Matthew – one of the original twelve Disciples of Jesus. Saint Matthew gave up a high income profession to follow Jesus and be taught by the Master for three and a half years. Matthew would later go on to write one of the four biographies we have of Christ’s life. 

What’s particularly interesting is that to the right of the main alter in the cathedral is the tomb of Pope Gregory VII who died here in 1085AD.

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Pope Gregory VII was famous for a number of things – including being especially arrogant and also very political. It was Gregory who first declared that the Roman Catholic Church was infallible – and had therefore never made a mistake in its decisions or understanding of the Bible. And it was Gregory who engaged in a political power struggle with King Henry IV – the young emperor of Germany. When it became clear to Henry that Pope Gregory had the upper hand Henry decided to go to the Pope to ask for forgiveness. 

So the king made the long journey from Germany to Italy and arrived in the winter. When the king knocked on the door Pope Gregory made Henry stand outside in the snow, bare-footed and without any head covering for three days. And for those three days King Henry had to constantly repeat out loud “I’m sorry. Please forgive me!”

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Picture that scene – the head of the church making a king grovel for forgiveness. Compare that scene with Christ who doesn’t make anyone beg for forgiveness but offers it freely and immediately to anyone with a genuinely repentant heart. In fact Jesus says in scripture that it is He who knocks on the door of our hearts and then waits for us to invite Him in (Revelation 3:20). Don’t leave our humble Saviour in the cold. Open the door, tell Him “I’m sorry. Please forgive me!” – and invite Him in to your life.

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Reverential Ramblings

For the next six weeks I’ll be travelling through some of Europe on a study tour of some of the main sites of the “Reformation”. It’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther knocking his “You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me (times 95)!” checklist into the church door in Wittenberg. Those who are a little familiar with church history in Europe will know there’s more to the kick-off and subsequent brouhaha (now there’s a word that should be used more) than Luther’s hammer and his ninety-five theses.  So, this blog will be aiming to bring together some “Reverential Ramblings” as I share mostly tidbits but also the ocassional titanic thought!

Hope you enjoy 🙂

Pr. David Riley