For the Life of the World 29

Posted: January 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 29

The series continues in section 2 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Before death, however, there is dying: the growth of death in us by physical decay and illness. … For the modern secular world, health is the only normal state of man; disease therefore is to be fought, and the modern world fights it very well indeed. … Yet health has a limit, and it is death. … As long as a man is alive everything is to be done to keep him alive, and even if his case is hopeless, it must not be revealed to him. Death must never be a part of life.

In some ways, the above  is even more true today, as even aging itself seems to terrify our culture. People do more and more to hide, remove, delay, or change the normal signs of growing older. We do, perhaps, deal with end of life issues slightly better than we did when Fr. Schmemann wrote the above. But if so, it’s not really by all that much. We are obsessed as a culture with an almost pathological passion for denying our own mortality — at least as evidenced in the aging of our bodies.

This year I’ll turn forty-five.  That’s just about as “middle-aged” as you get. And even absent the effects of illness and disease such as celiac, I know my body has changed. I do not recover energy as quickly. Things ache and creak and pop now that never did before — not badly, but just enough that I can tell the difference. And I know that’s a taste of the future. I will continue to age. And that doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind the gray in my beard. I’ve earned it. I don’t mind the crow’s feet in the corners of my eyes. I just hope they reflect smiles rather than frowns. I’m not sure how our cultural obsession with the appearance of youth missed me, but I’m glad it did.

Our doctors are better than ever, but they still all have a 100% patient mortality rate. That’s a truth we would rather deny than face.

The religious outlook considers disease rather than health to be the “normal” state of man. In this world of mortal and changing matter suffering, sickness and sorrow are the normal conditions of life. … Health and healing are always thought of as the mercy of God, from the religious point of view, and real healing is “miraculous.” And this miracle is performed by God, again not because health is good, but because it “proves” the power of God and brings men back to God.

Remember that Fr. Schmemann is using “secular” and “religious” as two opposing poles, neither of which is actually “Christian.” The above is not only a description of the sort of “religion” into which Christianity has often degenerated. It is actually a perspective that manifests in different ways in many different religions. Whether the wheel of Samsara or the cycle of death and rebirth in much of dualistic neo-paganism, death (and often suffering) are natural or “normal.”

In their ultimate implications these two approaches are incompatible, and nothing reveals better the confusion of Christians on this issue than the fact that today Christians accept both as equally valid and true.

I had not really ever consciously recognized the above, but realized its truth as soon as I read it. Think about the sort of language used not only at funerals, but at times of sickness, injury, and disease.

But is this the Christian approach — and if it not, are we simply to return to the old — the “religious” one? The answer is no, it is not; but we are not simply to “return.” We must discover the unchanging, yet always contemporary, sacramental vision of man’s life, and therefore of his suffering and disease — the vision that has been the Church’s, even if we Christians have forgotten or misunderstood it.

And that’s the real trick. There’s a reason Christianity has spoken so deeply to so many millions over the past two millenia. And there’s a reason modern, Western Christianity is diminishing. I would say a large part of the reason for the latter is that we forgotten the former.

The Church considers healing as a sacrament. But such was its misunderstanding during the long centuries of the total identification of the Church with “religion” (a misunderstanding from which all sacraments suffered, and the whole doctrine of sacraments) that the sacrament of oil became in fact the sacrament of death, one of the “last rites” opening to man a more or less safe passage into eternity.

On some level, I knew the sacrament of “last rites” was connected somehow to healing. Unction, of course, is the act of anointing most often associated with healing rituals. We see this sacrament in Scripture, for example, in James 5. And yet, I still associated it with a deathbed rite and somehow missed its true nature. In Orthodoxy, the sacrament of healing never became narrowly focused as a final unction the way it did in the West.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the Roman Catholic version of the sacrament. Apparently Vatican II restored this sacrament to its original, broader meaning. And, in 1972, it was renamed from Extreme (or final) Unction to Anointing of the Sick. Further, it began to shift from a private ceremony back to a communal one. This, like many developments in Roman Catholicism this century, actually marks a restoration of the more ancient understanding. And yet the cultural image of “last rites” is a tough one to shake. I went to a Catholic school from 1976-1979, after both Vatican II and the formal name change, and I didn’t realize until I specifically researched it that the RCC had restored the original sense of the sacrament.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to comment that the sacrament of healing is also not simply a “useful” complement to modern medicine. Thinking of it in merely those terms misses its sacramental nature.

A sacrament — as we already know — is always a passage, a transformation. Yet it is not a “passage” into “supernature,” but into the Kingdom of God, the world to come, into the very reality of this world and its life as redeemed and restored by Christ. It is the transformation not of “nature” into “supernature,” but of the old into the new. A sacrament therefore is not a “miracle” by which God breaks, so to speak, the “laws of nature,” but the manifestation of the ultimate Truth about the world and life, man and nature, the Truth which is Christ.

And healing is a sacrament because its purpose or end is not health as such, the restoration of physical health, but the entrance of man into the life of the Kingdom, into the “joy and peace” of the Holy Spirit. In Christ everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new, its expectation and anticipation.

In this world suffering and disease are indeed “normal,” but their very “normalcy” is abnormal. They reveal the ultimate and permanent defeat of man and of life, a defeat which no partial victories of medicine, however wonderful and truly miraculous, can ultimately overcome. But in Christ suffering is not “removed”; it is transformed into victory. The defeat itself becomes victory, a way, an entrance into the Kingdom, and this is the only true healing.

The sacrament of healing manifests our life in the Kingdom. In some ways, I am reminded of Tolkien’s High Elves. We stand simultaneously in two worlds, in two realities, and we draw our deeper strength and power from the one which, though just as real and physical, is less evident to the senses of this world.

The Church does not come to restore health in this man, simply to replace medicine when medicine has exhausted its own possibilities. The Church comes to take this man into the Love, the Light and the Life of Christ. It comes not merely to “comfort” him in his sufferings, not to “help” him, but to make him  a martyr, a witness to Christ in his very sufferings.

We don’t need help or comfort as much as we need Life.


For the Life of the World 28

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 28

The series continues in section 1 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Christianity, with its message offering fullness of life, has contributed more than anything else to the liberation of man from the fears and pessimism of religion. Secularism, in this sense, is a phenomenon within the Christian world, a phenomenon impossible without Christianity. Secularism rejects Christianity insofar as Christianity has identified itself with the “old religion” and is forcing upon the world those “explanations” and “doctrines” of death and life which Christianity has itself destroyed.

Christianity offers life from and within the ultimate source of all life — God. And yet so much of it has degenerated today into little more than a discussion about what happens to the “real” you after you die. That’s the focus of traditional religion and should never be the central focus of Christianity.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think of secularism as simply an “absence of religion.” It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an “other world” of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a “survival” about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given “value” in terms of death. Secularism is an “explanation” of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life — so thinks a secularist — and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. … The American “funeral home” is indeed the very symbol of secularist religion, for it expresses both the quiet acceptance of death as something natural (a house among other houses with nothing typical about it) and the denial of death’s presence in life.

That actually describes the perspective of many modern Christians. On the one hand there are those who view everything in terms of the “afterlife” (which Fr. Schmemann calls the “old religion”) and on the other hand are at least as many who mostly ignore death, think in terms of the “best life now,” and when they must face death, consider it as something unpleasant, but natural. Neither perspective, though, is actually Christian in any sense that can be connected to our historical faith. And secularism is increasingly common in our culture because it works. It helps more with its life-centered approach than most religious approaches.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. … If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die — and not just live — for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Indeed, we have already seen that last prediction come to fruition in the decades since Fr. Schmemann wrote it. So what then is Christianity?

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. … Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. … In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere “help,” not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an “other world” which looks like a cemetery (“eternal rest”) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to “dispose” every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a “just society” and to be happy! — this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his “positive ideal” — religious or secular — and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes “awful,” the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the “end” and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.

Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Christ agonized over the horror of his own impending death. That’s what Fr. Schmemann is referencing in his closing line above. Another thing I recall hearing at funerals is that a person died when God determined they should die. They are essentially making God responsible for death instead of recognizing death as the enemy. It’s little wonder that so many reject such a religion in favor of almost anything else. If it’s what I believed Christianity was, I would reject it in a heartbeat myself. No faith is better than that. Buddhism is better than that. Shintoism is better than that. Hinduism, in its many and varied forms, is better than that. If I believed in a God like that, I might as well convert to Islam. Insha’Allah.

Thanks, but no thanks.


For the Life of the World 27

Posted: January 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 27

The series now moves onto section 1 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

We live today in a death-denying culture. This is clearly seen in the unobtrusive appearance of the ordinary funeral home, in its attempt to look like all other houses. Inside, the “funeral director” tries to take care of things in such a way that one will not notice that one is sad; and a parlor ritual is designed to transform a funeral into a semi-pleasant experience. There is a strange conspiracy of silence concerning the blunt fact of death, and the corpse itself is “beautified” so as to disguise its deadness.

That’s Fr. Schmemann’s opening to this chapter, Trampling Down Death by Death, and I think it remains a pretty accurate description of the American approach to death. We try to sterilize death and push it to arm’s length and beyond.

But there existed in the past and there still exist — even within our life-affirming modern world — “death-centered” cultures, in which death is the one great all-embracing preoccupation, and life itself is conceived as being mainly preparation for death.

Historically, of course, ancient Egypt provides an excellent illustration of such a culture. However, pockets of such a cultural formation permeate even our modern America. It’s one of the reasons we have our Jim Jones, David Koresh, and others. If the cultural soil did not exist their particular vision would have a harder time taking root. Moreover, Fr. Schmemann points out that Christianity became a religion (in the negative sense he explained earlier in the book) that explained death and tried to make it palatable.

Where is Christianity in all this? There can be no doubt, on the one hand, that the “problem of death” is central and essential in its message, which announces Christ’s victory over death, and that Christianity has its source in that victory. Yet, on the other hand, one has the strange feeling that although this message has certainly been heard, it has had no real impact on the basic human attitudes towards death. It is rather Christianity that has “adjusted” itself to these attitudes, accepted them as its own.

Fr. Schmemann points out that on the one hand Christianity dedicates to God all our frenetic, hectic, and life-centered activity, blessing skyscrapers and all the signs of “progress.” On the other hand, at funerals it can present life as suffering and death as a liberation. We jump back and forth between the two poles and neither is true. Christianity is not essentially life-affirming, at least not in the way we usually think and act. For at its center lies the crucified Christ. However, neither can we reconcile people to death, make it something natural. Doing so falsifies reality.

For Christianity proclaims that Christ died for the life of the world, and not for an “eternal rest” from it. This “falsification” makes the very success of Christianity (according to official data church building and per capita contributions to churches have reached an all time high!) into a profound tragedy. The worldly man wants the minister to be an optimistic fellow, sanctioning faith in an optimistic and progressive world. And the religious man sees him as an utterly serious, sadly solemn and dignified denouncer of the world’s vanity and futility. The world does not want religion and religion does not want Christianity. The one rejects death, the other, life. Hence the immense frustration either with the secularistic tendencies of the life-affirming world or with the morbid religiosity of those who oppose it.

While official data shows a Christianity that is no longer peaking today, but in decline, Fr. Schmemann’s point remains valid. And thus we have the Joel Osteens on the one hand and the Pat Robertsons on the other. And while most are probably not at the extremes, there does tend to be a strong tendency toward one direction or the other. Fr. Schmemann goes on to note that this will continue as long as Christians continue to maintain an utilitarian view of their faith, as long as they continue to perceive Christianity as something intended to help them. Most of all, we have to stop viewing death as something natural or even desirable.

For neither the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, based on the opposition between the spiritual and the material, nor that of death as liberation, nor of death as punishment, are, in fact, Christian doctrines. And their integration into the Christian world view vitiated rather than clarified Christian theology and piety.

As we maintained such beliefs in our formerly religious or “death-centered” culture, we actually paved the way for the growth of modern secularism. I’ll continue exploring Fr. Schmemann’s perspective on that idea tomorrow.


For the Life of the World 26

Posted: January 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The series now continues with the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

In this chapter, Fr. Schmemann weaves a look at the way our culture approaches life, death, and health in and around his exploration of the Orthodox funeral rite and healing sacrament. Death thrust its way into my life and consciousness at an early age, but as I’ve moved into and through middle age, it seems that funeral attendance has become an ever-increasing part of my life. Since my family and friends are spiritually diverse, that means I’ve been exposed to funerals and attitudes toward death across a broad spectrum of traditions, Christian and otherwise. Curiously, they have not actually been very different from each other when you scratch beneath the surface appearance.

In subsequent posts, I plan to walk slowly through this chapter. I found myself highlighting almost everything Fr. Schmemann wrote in it, so it’s going to take some work to trim down what I actually use. In this first post on the chapter, though, I’m going to capture and explore some of my encounters and reactions to the American attitude toward death. After all, one of the things that continues to draw me into Christianity is its outrage at death. It’s an outrage I’ve shared at least from that day when, as an eight year old, I watched my stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to an ambulance. Jesus weeps outside Lazarus’ tomb. And twice, John notes that he is deeply moved, he is outraged, he is angry. In Jesus, we see God’s response to the death of the eikon. We were meant to live. And in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus truly trampled down death by death. It is no longer the nature of man to die.

But you would never know that from attending virtually any Christian funeral or memorial service in the US today. Consistently, those grieving are told they are grieving for their own loss, that their beloved is happy now and “free” from suffering. However comforting they are meant to be, such sentiments are a denial of John 11, and almost a slap in the face of those grieving. Yes, it is true that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our hope and trust is in Jesus. We do believe that he has defeated death. Nevertheless, we grieve, and not simply for our own selfish pain of separation from our beloved. Jesus grieves at the death of his friend. God is outraged at the death of his icon. Death is an abomination. Death is the ultimate enemy. We are not selfish when we grieve and it dishonors those grieving when they are not given proper room to own their grief.

What about the picture of our beloved “freed” from suffering and “at home” with the Lord? What about the message that they are “happy” now and we should try to be “happy” for them? Yes, to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. (Though I will note that that is one of the very few things Scripture actually says about the period between the time our bodies sleep and the general resurrection of the dead.) I won’t argue with that at all. But to say that I would be perfectly happy and content even as I know that those who love me are suffering painfully from my death denies my own humanity and love! Would I not continue to pray for those I love? Might I not even be able to love them better? Might I not pray for some sign or other form of comfort for them? Would I no longer seek to help them? We need to listen to the messages we actually send with our words.

It’s also common to tell those mourning that the body is not their beloved, that their beloved has “left” it behind, that it’s just a shell. It’s probably this sentiment that has led to the modern acceptance of cremation among Christians. But such an idea is not even vaguely consistent with Christian faith. It’s nothing more than a form of ancient pagan dualism revived and given a veneer of Christian language. First, the idea that you are somehow not your body, that the material body is merely a container for the “real” you (usually coupled with at least a disdain for the “physical” as opposed to the “spiritual”) can be found in a host of non-Christian sources. But the one that probably most influences modern Western thought is likely Plato. Even if you’ve never read a thing he wrote or studied him in any way, some of Plato’s perspective on reality and the nature of things seems to permeate modern Western culture.

No. The Christian perspective is very different. While we are more than merely our physical bodies, our identity and personhood cannot be separated from those bodies. We are embodied icons of God created for a reality that is both physical and spiritual, intertwined and intermingled. Those we love have only known us in and through our bodies and we have only known them the same way. The promise of Christianity is not one of disembodied spiritual existence like Plato’s happy philosophers. No, Christianity rests on the hope of resurrection of which Jesus is the first fruit. We are our bodies and however God sustains us in this interim period while our bodies sleep, we will be resurrected. Like Jesus, our bodies will be more than they are now, but will be continuous in some manner with our present bodies.

Finally, if the beloved has been a Christian, then that body has been the temple of the Holy Spirit. When you look upon the body of a Christian, see it with the same lens as the ground upon which Moses stood before the burning bush, compare it to the presence of God with the ark of the covenant, see in it the shekinah glory of the Lord filling Solomon’s temple, see the clouds of glory filling Isaiah’s vision. If what we believe is true, then that body is as holy as any of the above and should be treated with the same honor and reverence. Even if the person was not a Christian, that body was still created as an icon (image) of the one true God, shaped and formed to reflect the love of God into creation. That reality does not suddenly change in death. Remember the story of Elisha’s bones, how contact with them raised the dead to life.

It seems to me that if we hope to ever exert any sort of Christian influence within our culture, we have to regain a Christian perspective on life and death ourselves. And right now, we seem to have largely lost that perspective.


For the Life of the World 25

Posted: January 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The series now moves to section 4 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter five.

Fr. Schmemann takes what, for me at least, was an unexpected turn in this last section of a chapter on marriage and love when he focuses on priesthood. His point, of course, is that any true Christian priesthood is rooted in love. And that makes sense to me when I think about it. If God is love, then it follows that those who serve the people of God do so in the context of love. Here’s how Fr. Schmemann introduces the idea.

Nowhere is the truly universal, truly cosmic significance of the sacrament of matrimony as the sacrament of love, expressed better than in its liturgical similitude with the liturgy of ordination, the sacrament of priesthood. Through it is revealed the identity of the Reality to which both sacraments refer, of which both are the manifestation.

Fr. Schmemann follows with some harsh words for what he terms “clericalism,” a process or attitude that makes “the priest or minister beings apart, with a unique and specifically “sacred” vocation in the Church.” Vocations that are not “sacred” become “profane” even if that precise language is not used. Fr. Schmemann notes that this is hardly something that happens only in the so-called “liturgical” churches. Every modern church that has specially designated or “ordained” ministers of any sort tends to fall into the same trap. It’s the modern distinction that made room for what we call “secularism” and in some sense made its rise inevitable. His words made me think of a friend who, from the stories he tells, at one point in his life was so heavily invested in his “ministerial” or “sacred” vocation that it became almost a destructive force. By the grace of God, he saw the danger and made some significant changes before it consumed him and those he loved. Others, however, are not so fortunate. “Clericalism” is indeed a path away from life and toward death. (And yes, I’m thinking of the “two ways” in the Didache — and in much of Jesus’ teaching — when I say that.) That’s true in the Orthodox Church. And it’s true in the SBC. Clericalism may not have exactly the same outward appearance when it grows from those two different soils, but it shares the same heart and is just as deadly.

It is not accidental, therefore, that the words “laity,” “layman” became little by little synonymous with a lack of something in a man, or his nonbelonging. Yet originally the words “laity,” “layman” referred to the laos — the people of God — and were not only positive in meaning, but included the “clergy.” But today one who says he is a layman in physics acknowledges his ignorance of this science, his nonbelonging to the closed circle of specialists.

As we saw in the last chapter, every member of the laos enters through baptism and chrismation. We are a royal priesthood, ordained to offer the proper thanksgiving of creation to God and live as the icon (image) of God as we were created and now are being recreated or made new. From the beginning of the church, there are those within our priesthood who are ordained to serve the laos in particular ways. But there is no “sacred” and “profane” divide. The division between “natural” and “supernatural”, “religious” and “secular”, or “divine” and “ordinary” is illusory. From the Christian perspective, those ways of ordering reality are a lie.

Our secular world “respects” clergy as it “respects” cemeteries: both are needed, both are sacred, both are out of life.

I’m not sure it even “respects” clergy that much anymore. This book was, after all, originally written in 1963 and revised and expanded in 1973. Attitudes have continued to degrade in the decades since it was written.

But what both clericalism and secularism — the former being, in fact, the natural father of the latter — have made us forget is that to be priest is from a profound point of view the most natural thing in the world. Man was created priest of the world, the one who offers the world to God in a sacrifice of love and praise and who, through this eternal eucharist, bestows the divine love upon the world.

And as Fr. Schmemann points out, Christ is the one true priest (and our high priest), because he is the one true man. Mankind failed and because of our failure “the world ceased to be the sacrament of divine love and presence and became nature.”

But Christ revealed the essence of priesthood to be love and therefore priesthood to be the essence of life. He died the last victim of the priestly religion and in His death the priestly religion died and the priestly life was inaugurated. He was killed by the priests, by the “clergy,” but His sacrifice abolished them as it abolished “religion.” … He revealed that all things, all nature have their end, their fulfillment in the Kingdom; that all things are to be made new by love.

And thus the central connection to love that this chapter explores. All things made new by love. All things made new. All things. We look into the heart of God, into the heart of creation and we find love.

If there are priests in the Church, if there is the priestly vocation in it, it is precisely in order to reveal to each vocation its priestly essence, to make the whole life of all men the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world. It is, in other terms, not a vocation “apart,” but the expression of love for man’s vocation as son of God and for the world as the sacrament of the Kingdom. … The Church is in the world but not of the world, because only by not being of the world can it reveal and manifest the “world to come,” the beyond, which alone reveals all things as old — yet new and eternal in the love of God. Therefore no vocation in this world can fulfill itself as priesthood. And thus there must be the one whose specific vocation is to have no vocation, to be all things to all men, and to reveal that the end and the meaning of all things are in Christ.

I can’t say I had ever looked at “priests” (or “ministers” if you prefer — presbyter and episcopos are the Greek words for the two orders specifically under discussion here I believe) as called to have no vocation so they could guide the laos in living out their priesthood within their various vocations. It’s a different way of looking at it. Fr. Schmemann goes on to describe how the priesthood reveals the humility of the Church and its utter dependence on Christ’s love. And it’s in that love that he finds the sacrament of ordination the same as the sacrament of matrimony. Even if the priest is also married with a family, he is in some sense also married to the Church he serves. There is (or should be) that same deep bond of love.

The final point is this: some of us are married and some are not. Some of us are called to be priests and ministers and some are not. But the sacraments of matrimony and priesthood concern all of us, because they concern our life as vocation. The meaning, the essence and the end of all vocation is the mystery of Christ and the Church. It is through the Church that each one of us finds that the vocation of all vocations is to follow Christ in the fullness of His priesthood: in His love for man and the world, His love for their ultimate fulfillment in the abundant life of the Kingdom.

The emphasis on vocation reminds me once again of N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. And certainly the common interest and concern of all with marriage and priesthood removes both from the sphere of individual concern where we so often place them today.


For the Life of the World 24

Posted: January 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The series now moves to section 3 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter five.

We now can return to the sacrament of matrimony. We can now understand that its true meaning is not that it merely gives a religious “sanction” to marriage and family life, reinforces with supernatural grace the natural family virtues. Its meaning is that by taking the “natural” marriage into “the great mystery of Christ and the Church,” the sacrament of matrimony gives marriage a new meaning; it transforms, in fact, not only marriage as such but all human love.

Dn. Hyatt draws some observations about recent weddings he’s attended in this podcast and in the prior one. They are good illustrations. At their best, the symbolism in most of our modern marriages make marriage into something that is essentially between the individual man and woman before God. Basically, we are doing exactly what Fr. Schmemann points out above. We are adding a religious blessing to a natural marriage so God is somehow included. But there is no sense that we are speaking about Christ and the Church. The Church is not really even involved or engaged in any way. In some ways, I think that omission helps feed the rampant idolization of “family” in the circles in which I have moved these past fifteen years.

Fr. Schmemann also comments that as a separate rite or ceremony developed for marriage and as the Church gained the civil authority to perform legal marriages, marriage was gradually divorced from the Eucharist — the very thing which had formerly marked and transformed a marriage into a mystery of Christ and the Church. I find it significant that as forgiveness flows from baptism, and thus confession is linked to baptism, so marriage — or love — flows from the Eucharist. Fr. Schmemann weaves connections I had never considered before, but which seem obvious once he points them out.

From that history, the Orthodox rite of matrimony developed into two distinct services. The first service, the betrothal, is not performed inside the Church, but in the vestibule instead. This is where rings are blessed and exchanged. It’s the Christian version of the “natural” or “civil” marriage.

For the Christian, natural does not mean either self-sufficient — a “nice little family” — or merely insufficient, and to be, therefore, strengthened and completed by the addition of the “supernatural.” The natural man thirsts and hungers for fulfillment and redemption. This thirst and hunger is the vestibule of the Kingdom: both beginning and exile.

The “natural” marriage unites the couple, but they are not united in the Kingdom. They stand outside it, in the vestibule. The imagery is powerful if you stop and try to inhabit it.

Then, having blessed the natural marriage, the priest takes the bridal pair in a solemn procession into the church. This is the true form of the sacrament, for it does not merely symbolize, but indeed is the entrance of marriage into the Church, which is the entrance of the world into the “world to come,” the procession of the people of God — in Christ — into the Kingdom. The rite of crowning is but a later — although a beautiful and beautifully meaningful — expression of the reality of this entrance.

I’ve heard of the Orthodox rite of crowning before. The couple do not exchange vows in this wedding. They make no promises to each other or to God. Instead they stand together and are blessed and crowned as king and queen of creation. For that is what were created to be and we cannot escape our reality. We can abuse it. We can turn the world we touch into a little hell. But we were created to reflect God into creation.

Each family is indeed a kingdom, a little church, and therefore a sacrament of and a way to the Kingdom. Somewhere, even if it is only in a single room, every man at some point in his life has his own small kingdom. It may be hell, and a place of betrayal, or it may not. … This is what the marriage crowns express: that here is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom. The chance will be lost, perhaps even in one night; but at this moment it is still an open possibility. Yet even when it has been lost, and lost again a thousand times, still if two people stay together, they are in a real sense king and queen to each other.

As we’ll explore shortly, marriage is not easy. If it were easy, it would not change us, and we desperately need to be changed. But I like the image above. However often you lose it, together you can keep fighting back toward the reality of Christ and the Church.

Fr. Schmemann then points out that in our culture the “icon” of marriage is typically a young couple. But then he tells a story to illustrate the fallacy of that perspective.

But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind — yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present — and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty.

This year will mark our twentieth wedding anniversary. It is my hope and goal to one day reach a place not unlike the one Fr. Schmemann describes above.

Then secondly, the glory and honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the Kingdom is the martyria — bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. This is expressed in the sentiment that one would “do anything” for his family, even steal. The family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it. In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not “happiness!”] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

Wow. Read that a time or three. I confess that I could conceive of “doing anything” for my family. Lie (even in formal settings)? Steal? Kill? Curse Christ and offer incense to the emperor cult? I have no confidence that, if truly pressed, there’s a point beyond which I would not step. I may not be a particularly good husband or father, but I can’t recall any other serious or deeply held ambition I’ve ever had for my life. It’s not exactly the sort of Christian idolization that Fr. Schmemann describes and which I’ve certainly encountered, for it’s been my deepest desire even when I was as “anti-Christian” as they come. If the above does not trouble you, at least a bit, then you’re a better person than I’m ever likely to be.

The third meaning of the crowns in the Orthodox rite is that they are crowns of the Kingdom. Interestingly, as the priest removes the crowns from their heads, he says, “Receive their crowns in Thy Kingdom.” God alone is the end and fullness of perfected love.

The common cup given to the couple after the crowning is explained today as a symbol of “common life,” and nothing shows better the “desacramentalization” of marriage, its reduction to a “natural happiness.” In the past this was communion, the partaking of the Eucharist, the ultimate seal of the fulfillment of marriage in Christ. Christ is to be the very essence of life together. He is the wine of the new life of the children of God, and communion in it will proclaim how, by getting older and older in this world, we are growing younger and younger in the life which has no evening.

Even the Orthodox rite, apparently has been divorced from the context of the couple taking the Eucharist in communion with the gathered people of God. I know in the Roman Catholic Church, it remains an option (though often not taken) for the marriage to take place within the context of a full mass, including the Eucharist. I wonder if it remains an Orthodox option or not.

Marriage is one of the things that Scripture expressly and literally calls a mysterion or sacramentum. It seems like that would give the more “literal-minded,” “bible-believing,” anti-sacramental sorts of Christian pause. For some reason, though, it doesn’t. I’ve never quite understood why that is so.


For the Life of the World 23

Posted: January 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 23

The series now moves to section 2 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter five.

Perhaps the Orthodox vision of this sacrament will be better understood if we begin not with matrimony as such, and not with an abstract “theology of love,” but with the one who has always stood at the very heart of the Church’s life as the purest expression of human love and response to God — Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It is significant that whereas in the West Mary is primarily the Virgin, a being almost totally different from us in her absolute and celestial purity and freedom from all carnal pollution, in the East she is always referred to and glorified as Theotokos, the Mother of God, and virtually all icons depict her with the Child in her arms. … In her, says an Orthodox hymn, “all creation rejoices.”

It’s really not as much a leap to look to Mary to understand Christian marriage as it initially appears. To understand Christian marriage, we must understand what it means to truly love as a human being. And it’s hard to find a greater example of the fulfillment of that love than Mary. This was not some meek, mild woman as she is sometimes depicted. Nevertheless, the same woman who sang what we call the Magnificat, also said to God, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

Not having been raised and formed within the protestant camp, I don’t have the aversion toward honoring and venerating Mary for her amazing participation with God that seems so common and widespread. I recognize that some of that aversion springs from Roman Catholic excesses that sometimes look the way Fr. Schmemann describes above. However, the West is not quite that homogeneous. Yes, there is an emphasis on Virgin, sometimes more than God-Bearer, but there is also healthy devotion to Mary and people who draw great strength and comfort from her as Mother and as the one who said yes to God more than as some unreal Virgin. I can think of a number of such people just from my personal network of relationships.

But what is this joy about? Why, in her own words, shall “all generations call me blessed”? Because in her love and obedience, in her faith and humility, she accepted to be what from all eternity all creation was meant and created to be: the temple of the Holy Spirit, the humanity of God. She accepted to give her body and blood — that is, her whole life — to be the body and blood of the Son of God, to be mother in the fullest and deepest sense of this world, giving her life to the Other and fulfilling her life in Him. She accepted the only true nature of each creature and all creation: to place the meaning, and, therefore, the fulfillment of her life in God.

I have the sense that many of my fellow evangelicals reduce Mary to little more than a vessel, one of many that could have “done the job” of giving birth to Jesus. When you ascribe no particular importance to Mary herself, when you fail to honor her “yes” where we had all said “no”, when we fail, as she herself proclaimed under the power of the Holy Spirit, to call her blessed, we come at least close to engaging ancient heresies that denied the full humanity of Christ. While the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, the Word of God, uncreated, true God from true God, has always existed in his divine nature, his human nature, his humanity, the essential mystery of the Incarnation, comes from Mary.

Mary said yes.

And that is love. A love for God that overflows into a love for all humanity, a willingness to face the unknown and the terrifying, a willingness to be what we never imagined we could be. There is no evidence that just any human vessel would have sufficed. Had Mary said no, I’m not sure God would have simply moved on to the next person. I see no evidence in our lives that God operates with a plan B. Oh, he does not abandon us. Often, it seems like he is saying, “Well, this is not what I wanted for you, but since this is where you’ve gotten yourself, here’s what we have to do to begin to get out of it again.” I don’t believe that God would have given up on us had Mary said no. Love, after all, never fails. But I do not believe that it would have been a simple matter of shopping around for another willing vessel. I do believe creation would have gotten darker. And I cannot imagine God’s next move.

Of course, imagination does not help us and can hinder. ‘Might have beens’ mean little. But I do not think we can emphasize enough the importance of Mary’s faithfulness and love. When we fail to honor and venerate her faithfulness, when we fail to call her blessed as she prophesied all generations would do, we diminish the glory of the Incarnation and we minimize its importance. When we do that, we not only step close to ancient heresies, we darken the image of true love.

This response is total obedience in love; not obedience and love, but the wholeness of the one as the totality of the other. Obedience, taken in itself, is not a “virtue”; it is blind submission and there is no light in blindness. Only love for God, the absolute object of all love, frees obedience from blindness and makes it the joyful acceptance of that alone which is worthy of being accepted. But love without obedience to God is “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16), it is the love claimed by Don Juan, which ultimately destroys him. Only obedience to God, the only Lord of Creation, gives love its true direction, makes it fully love.

When you truly love God, you desire good for others and not evil, for that is the reality of our God. I would also say that any love which selflessly desires and acts for the good of the other is rooted in the love that is our God, whether the person who loves realizes it or not. But all other sorts of “love,” if pursued to their end, will destroy the beloved, yourself, or both. This is not some sort of division between agape as a “good” love and eros as a “bad” love and phileo as an in-between “so-so” love, a caricature I have often seen in evangelical circles. I think the approach Pope Benedict XVI took in his encyclical is the better one. All love can be rooted in God and directed first toward God. All love is meant to be “good” love.

True obedience is thus true love for God, the true response of Creation to its Creator. Humanity is fully humanity when it is this response to God, when it becomes the movement of total self-giving and obedience to Him.  … This is why the whole creation, the whole Church — and not only women — find the expression of their response and obedience to God in Mary the Woman, and rejoice in her. She stands for all of us, because only when we accept, respond in love and obedience — only when we accept the essential womanhood of creation — do we become ourselves true men and women; only then can we indeed transcend our limitations as “males” and “females.” For man can be truly man — that is, the king of creation, the priest and minister of God’s creativity and initiative — only when he does not posit himself as the “owner” of creation and submits himself — in obedience and love — to its nature as the bride of God, in response and acceptance. And woman ceases to be just a “female” when, totally and unconditionally accepting the life of the Other as her own life, giving herself totally to the Other, she becomes the very expression, the very fruit, the very joy, the very beauty, the very gift of our response to God, the one whom, in the words of the Song, the king will bring into his chambers, saying: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee” (Ct. 4:7).

Read that enough times for it to begin to sink in. It’s so much deeper and richer than the shallow theology of “gender roles” that dominates conservative evangelical life and thought and which I tend to find repellent and, for lack of a better word, icky. I judge it damaging to both men and women.

The above places all of creation, including mankind, in our proper place of acceptance and response to God. It’s why the Church saw Mary as the new Eve. She was faithful and accepted what God asked of her. She aligned her will with God in obedience. It was not a blind obedience. She asked questions. But she chose to trust God and acted accordingly. As Christ recapitulated the life of all mankind as the true and faithful adam or man, so Mary recapitulated eve, the living one, restoring the proper acceptance and response of the whole living creation to its Creator.

Mary is the Virgin. But this virginity is not a negation, not a mere absence; it is the fullness and the wholeness of love itself. It is the totality of her self-giving to God, and thus the very expression, the very quality of her love. For love is the thirst and hunger for wholeness, totality, fulfillment — for virginity, in the ultimate meaning of this word. At the end the Church will be presented to Christ as a “chaste virgin” (Cor. 11:2). For virginity is the goal of all genuine love — not as absence of “sex,” but as its complete fulfillment in love; of this fulfillment in “this world” sex is the paradoxical, the tragic affirmation and denial.

To be honest, I’m not sure I understand the last sentence above. But I include it because I think I want to understand it. It strikes me that, in an evangelical context we tend to treat chastity as a negation, as a list of things you can’t do. (And note that Christian marriage is simply another form of chasteness.) We do not treat it as “the fullness and the wholeness of love itself.” Perhaps that’s one reason we don’t actually behave as a group any differently in this area than those who are not Christian. It’s something to consider at least.

Mary is the Mother. Motherhood is the fulfillment of womanhood because it is the fulfillment of love as obedience and response. It is by giving herself that love gives life, becomes the source of life. One does not love in order to have children. Love needs no justification; it is not because it gives life that love is good: it is because it is good that it gives life. The joyful mystery of Mary’s motherhood is thus not opposed to the mystery of her virginity. It is the same mystery. She is not mother “in spite” of her virginity. She reveals the fullness of motherhood because her virginity is the fullness of love.

On one level I intuitively grasp the above. But I’m not sure I can turn that understanding to words that expand in any way on what Fr. Schmemann has written. So I won’t try. But do read and meditate on it a few times.

She is the Mother of Christ. She is the fullness of love accepting the coming of God to us — giving life to Him, who is the Life of the world. And the whole creation rejoices in her, because it recognizes through her that the end and fulfillment of all life, of all love is to accept Christ, to give Him life in ourselves. And there should be no fear that this joy about Mary takes anything from Christ, diminishes in any way the glory due to Him and Him alone. For what we find in her and what constitutes the joy of the Church is precisely the fullness of our adoration of Christ, of acceptance and love for Him.

Truthfully, if you are not overwhelmed with awe and amazement at what Mary did, at the reality of her bearing, giving birth, and raising he who was and is true God from true God, then you have not truly considered it. Such a response is the only possible one if you truly acknowledge Jesus as the uncreated Son of God.

In the next section, Fr. Schmemann returns from this exploration of love through Mary to the discussion of the sacrament of matrimony.


For the Life of the World 22

Posted: January 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 22

The series now moves to section 1 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter five.

This chapter revolves primarily around the sacrament of marriage, but is entitled The Mystery of Love. I am in some ways reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, God is Love (Deux Caritas Est). Fr. Schmemann introduces the chapter with Ephesians 5:32.

This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.

In a Christian sense, it is impossible to talk about marriage without also speaking of Christ and the Church. And, as Paul notes, this is a great mystery. (Curiously, mysterion is the word that in Latin is translated sacramentum and from which, obviously, we get sacrament in English.)

But first for a bit of history, because marriage, unlike much that we have so far explored, did not originally have a specific ceremony within the Church. Fr. Schmemann mentions that fact later, but I thought I would explore it a bit more than he does and open with it. Certainly throughout much of the period of the Church under persecution, there was no specific marriage ceremony. People were wed in a Roman civil ceremony just like everyone else. If the couple were both Christian, the marriage was then consecrated in the Church when the married couple entered the Church and took the Eucharist together (along with the rest of the people, of course). In other words, it was the act of communion that sealed the marriage as a Christian marriage. And that was pretty much it until the Church was legalized and then, as it became the official religion of the state, received state powers to enact marriage. Keep that history in mind as we work through this chapter.

Fr. Schmemann begins by noting that designating marriage a sacrament naturally raises the questions, “Why this one state? Why this one vocation? Why is marriage singled out?” And he notes that if it’s only a divine sanction of marriage, a blessing for the procreation of children, those questions make a great deal of sense.

For a “sacrament” as we have seen, implies necessarily the idea of transformation, refers to the ultimate event of Christ’s death and resurrection, and is always a sacrament of the Kingdom. In a way, of course, the whole life of the Church can be termed sacramental, for it is always the manifestation in time of the “new time.” Yet in a more precise way the Church calls sacraments those decisive acts of its life in which this transforming grace is confirmed as being given, in which the Church through a liturgical act identifies itself with and becomes the very form of that Gift. But how is marriage related to the Kingdom which is to come? How is it related to the cross, the death and the resurrection of Christ? What, in other words, makes it a sacrament?

Good questions. I have to confess I had never really thought of marriage in that light. What’s different? Why is it a mystery concerning Christ and the Church? Part of the answer lies in our modern perspective of marriage.

We do not even remember today that marriage is, as everything else in “this world,” a fallen and distorted marriage, and that it needs not to be blessed and “solemnized” — but restored. This restoration, furthermore, is in Christ and this means in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, in the pentecostal inauguration of the “new eon,” in the Church as the sacrament of all this. Needless to say, this restoration infinitely transcends the idea of the “Christian family,” and gives marriage cosmic and universal dimensions.

I would say that our modern American idolization of marriage, at least among evangelicals, at best obscures and at worst destroys its Christian meaning. While I’ve been married (with plenty of kids) my entire time as a Christian, I have noticed that if you are an adult and you are not married, or if you have no children, you stand more on the edge. It’s almost as though the fullness of the faith is reserved for those who are married with children.

Here is the whole point. As long as we visualize marriage as the concern of those alone who are being married, as something that happens to them and not to the whole Church, and, therefore, to the world itself, we shall never understand the truly sacramental meaning of marriage. … We must understand that the real theme, “content” and object of this sacrament is not “family,” but love. Family as such, family in itself, can be a demonic distortion of love — and there are harsh words about it in the Gospel: “A man’s foes shall be those of his own household” (Mt. 10:36). In this sense the sacrament of matrimony is wider than family. It is the sacrament of divine love, as the all-embracing mystery of being itself, and it is for this reason that it concerns the whole Church, and — through the Church — the whole world.

And so in the next section, Fr. Schmemann explores love. It will be an interesting post.


For the Life of the World 21

Posted: January 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 21

This post continues with section 6 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World, the last section of the chapter. Here is the link again to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter four.

This section shifts to look at the sacrament of penance or confession, which at first glance seemed odd to me in the chapter on baptism. However, I saw the connections Fr. Schmemann was drawing and they make a lot of sense.

It is only in the light of baptism that we can understand the sacramental character attached by the Orthodox Church to penance. In its juridical deviation, sacramental theology explained this sacrament in terms of sheer “juridical” power to absolve sins, a power “delegated” by Christ to the priest.

I think it’s my familiarity with that perspective (shared by both Roman Catholics and Protestants), which Fr. Schmemann calls the “juridical deviation,” that led to my original confusion. For whether you are confessing to a priest or directly to God, within the juridical perspective you are primarily seeking absolution. And that’s not quite the same as forgiveness. Curiously, though played for its comedic value and somewhat caricatured, a recent episode of Desperate Housewives captures this idea and its effects pretty well. Bree is convinced to do penance for her affair by taking care of Orson and through that penance, she seeks to find absolution and a removal of guilt.

But this explanation has nothing to do with the original meaning of penance in the Church, and with its sacramental nature. The sacrament of forgiveness is baptism, not because it operates a juridical removal of guilt, but because it is baptism into Jesus Christ, who is the Forgiveness. The sin of all sins — the truly “original sin” — is not a transgression of rules, but, first of all, the deviation of man’s love and his alienation from God. That man prefers something — the world, himself — to God, this is the only real sin, and in it all sins become natural, inevitable. This sin destroys the true life of man. It deviates life’s course from its only meaning and direction. And in Christ this sin is forgiven, not in the sense that God now has “forgotten” it and pays no attention to it, but because in Christ man has returned to God, and has returned to God because he has loved Him and found in Him the only true object of love and life. And God has accepted man and — in Christ — reconciled him with Himself. Repentance is thus the return of our love, of our life, to God, and this return is possible in Christ because He reveals to us the true Life and makes us aware of our exile and condemnation. To believe in Christ is to repent — to change radically the very “mind” of our life, to see it as sin and death. And to believe in Him is to accept the joyful revelation that in Him forgiveness and reconciliation have been given. In baptism both repentance and forgiveness find their fulfillment. In baptism man wants to die as a sinful man and he is given that death, and in baptism man wants the newness of life as forgiveness, and he is given it.

The above is pretty dense, but read it several times. Baptism is joining Christ in his death because we want to die as the man we were and then also joining him in his Resurrection, receiving life and forgiveness from the one who is The Life and The Forgiveness.

Baptism is forgiveness of sins, not their removal. … It is indeed after baptism and because of it, that the reality of sin can be recognized in all its sadness, and true repentance becomes possible.  … The feast is impossible without the fast, and the fast is precisely repentance and return, the saving experience of sadness and exile.

That is, of course, one of the key flaws in the more juridical perspectives of the West, especially the overarching framework of justification theory. It requires that anyone be able to recognize their sin as sin against a particular God (and thus also discern that God) simply from the nature of the creation and recognize that they are helpless in the face of it. And that’s simply not true. I’ve only begun to be able to grasp the ways in which I am a sinner since I’ve begun to understand reality through the lens that Jesus provides. It is not self-evident that the path of enlightenment of Buddhism or the Wiccan Rede or the animism of Shinto or the various perspectives of the karmic cycle within Hinduism do not accurately describe the natural order of reality.

This also has profound implications for what passes for evangelism in so much of the West. Under the juridical perspective, you basically have to find a way to make someone feel bad about themselves so that you can then pitch the absolution you’re selling. Love and healing are much better things to offer. Repentance, the sort of repentance that arises from a deepening recognition of yourself as sinner, comes as the light of Christ shines in every corner of your soul. Not before.

The sacrament of penance is not, therefore, a sacred and juridical “power” given by God to men. It is the power of baptism as it lives in the Church. From baptism it receives its sacramental character. In Christ all sins are forgiven once and for all, for He is Himself the forgiveness of sins, and there is no need for any “new” absolution. But there is indeed the need for us who constantly leave Christ and excommunicate ourselves from His life, to return to Him, to receive again and again the gift which in Him has been given once and for all. And the absolution is the sign that this return has taken place and has been fulfilled. Just as each Eucharist is not a “repetition” of Christ’s supper but our ascension, our acceptance into the same and eternal banquet, so also the sacrament of penance is not a repetition of baptism, but our return to the “newness of life” which God gave to us once and for all.

It’s not about absolving us of the guilt of our sins. Christ reconciled all creation to God in his Incarnation, descent into death, and Resurrection. God entered into all the brokenness and even took on himself the utterly forsaken death on the Cross. Even at our most broken. Even when we are most forsaken and most turned from God, he is there in that place with us.

Repentance is about healing us. It’s about making us truly alive. In confession, we enter again and again the forgiveness of our baptism. Time, especially redeemed and recreated time, does not always operate in the way we normally expect. Thus we participate again and again in the one Eucharist of Christ. And we enter, time and again, the forgiveness of our one baptism. And that’s true no matter how many times we turn from that forgiveness.


For the Life of the World 20

Posted: January 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 20

Now we’ll dive into the book itself, with sections 4-5 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link again to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter four.

In the Orthodox Church, what we call today the second sacrament of initiation — that of chrismation (or confirmation) — has always been an integral part of the baptismal liturgy. For it is not so much another sacrament as the very fulfillment of baptism, its “confirmation” by the Holy Spirit. It can be distinguished from baptism only insofar as life can be distinguished from birth. The Holy Spirit confirms the whole life of the Church because He is that life, the manifestation of the Church as the “world to come,” as the joy and peace of the Kingdom.

As Christ said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The two belong together.

It is the Holy Spirit whose coming is the inauguration, the manifestation of the ultimate, of the “last things,” who transforms the Church into the “sacrament” of the Kingdom, makes her life the presence, in this world, of the world to come.

The eschaton, the culmination of all things, is present now in the Church. The Church itself is a mystery or sacrament. And it is the Holy Spirit who transforms both time and us in this way.

Confirmation is thus the personal Pentecost of man, his entrance into the new life in the Holy Spirit, which is the true life of the Church. It is his ordination as truly and fully man, for to be fully man is precisely to belong to the Kingdom of God. And again, it is not his “soul” alone — his “spiritual” or “religious” life — that is thus confirmed, but the totality of his human being. His whole body is anointed, sealed, sanctified, dedicated to the new life: “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” says the Priest as he anoints the newly baptized, “on the brow, and on the ears, and the breast and on the hands, and the feet.” The whole man is now made the temple of God, and his whole life is from now on a liturgy.

Meditate a bit on that last sentence. Liturgy is not some religious or worship activity that we do, though such acts are certainly a part of it. Our whole life becomes a liturgy. There is no distinction between spiritual and material, sacred and profane, religious and secular. Those distinctions, according to the Christian profession, form a false picture of reality. The true distinction is between the created and the uncreated, latter being God, of course, and the former everything else. Take for example, the modern difficulties with the “supernatural.” That is not a true category, since it places the sensible, material creation (including man) on the side of “natural” while placing the spiritual powers, angels, demons, and others on the “supernatural” side along with God. No. All the spiritual powers are created and are on the same side of the demarcation of reality that we are. And on the other side? God and God alone.

To be truly man means to be fully oneself. The confirmation is the confirmation of man in his own, unique “personality.” It is, to use again the same image, his ordination to be himself, to become what God wants him to be, what He has loved in me from all eternity. It is the gift of vocation.

We find ourselves in Christ. This is the uniquely Christian promise. It’s not about becoming a better person, though according to a properly ordered view of “better” you will. (There are lots of other ways to define “better” and as a Christian you should not become a “better person” in those ways.) Rather, it is about becoming truly human, for only when we become human can we be fully ourselves. Being “pious” is not necessarily a good thing.

Piety in fact may be a very dangerous thing, a real opposition to the Holy Spirit who is the Giver of Life — of joy, movement and creativity — and not of the “good conscience” which looks at everything with suspicion, fear and moral indignation.

I see many Christians trapped in exactly that morass of “suspicion, fear and moral indignation.” I’m certainly a poor Christian, often unsure, not doing all I should as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. I won’t dispute that. But I see the bog that has mired so many and I know I don’t want that at all. I may not have much of a clue what to do or the will to do it, but I know what I’m not going to do or become. I feel sorry for those so trapped, but I don’t have a clue how to help them out of the swamp. There is no prison so strong as the one you’ve constructed for yourself. I know. I’ve been there. Maybe not in the particular way of pious suspicion and moral indignation, but a prison is a prison. Perhaps that’s one reason I pray the Jesus Prayer so much. It’s hard to become (or at least stay) morally indignant, even against the morally indignant themselves, if you keep praying for God to have mercy on you.

Confirmation is the opening of man to the wholeness of divine creation, to the true catholicity of life. This is the “wind,” the ruah of God entering our life, embracing it with fire and love, making us available for divine action, filling everything with joy and hope.

Wow. I can really think of nothing else to say about those two sentences. They leave me speechless.

In the ancient tradition, converts were baptized on Pascha or Easter as part of the great celebration. There was great significance in that, connecting their new birth with the death and resurrection of our Lord, a death and resurrection we enter into in baptism.

And then, for eight days — the image of the fullness of time — the newly baptized were in the church, and each of those days was celebrated as Easter. On the eighth day took place the rite of the washing off of the holy chrism, the cutting of hair, and the return into the world. … The visible signs of the sacrament are washed off — the “symbol” is to become reality, the life itself is now to be the sacramental sign, the fulfillment of the gift. And the cutting of hair — the last rite of the baptismal liturgy — is the sign that the life which now begins is a life of offering and sacrifice, the life constantly transformed into the liturgy — the work of Christ.

I didn’t actually realize that every person is tonsured (cutting of hair) in baptism. It’s another sign of ordination and anointing. I find that illuminating.

I also find myself asking if my life is in fact being constantly transformed into the work of Christ? Is it really a life of offering and sacrifice. I’m not so sure. Another reason I need to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”