Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

Posted: January 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Resurrection and the renewal of all things lie at the very center of the Christian faith. Christ has defeated death through his death and Resurrection and it is no longer the nature of man to die. The New Testament resounds with the proclamation of salvation through union with Christ and with the promise that those who are in Christ will never die. We will never see death. We will never taste death.

For that reason, it’s been the tradition of the Church, already established by the time the New Testament was written, to say that Christians have fallen asleep or reposed in the Lord. Paul writes that to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. We aren’t told much about the period between the time our still mortal bodies repose and the general Resurrection of the Dead, but it is clear that we continue to live in Christ.

With that said, the attitude of many modern Protestant Christians toward those who have reposed in Christ is almost an outright refutation and denial of the core of Christian faith. Some relegate those who have reposed in the body to a sort of soul sleep which bears a closer resemblance to the ancient experience of death or to the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty than anything recognizably Christian. Others agree that those who sleep in the body are conscious and with Christ, but then proceed to place them at a far remove from us — as if Christ were someplace distant rather than with us always, even unto the end of the age. No, if those who have reposed are with Christ and if Christ is with us, then truly a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us as we are told in Hebrews. Heaven is not distant. Though presently veiled, it is as close as our next breath, overlapping and interlocking with our sensible reality.

If that is not true, then as far as I can tell, there is no reason to be Christian.

So ultimately, the difference between an Orthodox Christian and a Protestant, with regard to the saints or in any other matter, is essentially this: In all things, we Orthodox Christians see the world through Jesus’ eyes, and not our own. He sees our departed brethren as alive and joined with us in worship of Him. Thus, we must see them that way, and act toward them accordingly.

Those who have fallen asleep in the Lord can and do pray for us as much or more as those who have not. And we are certainly able to pray for all those who have reposed — even though we may not know their disposition toward God — because it is no longer in the nature of mankind to die. And it makes even more sense to honor or venerate those who were martyred for Christ or lived holy lives than it does to honor the great Christians who are still among us in the body.

Perhaps this distortion of Christian faith and practice within Protestantism is one of the reasons so many modern Christians are vulnerable to alternative ideas about reality such as reincarnation or the various practices of spiritism. I don’t know. But it would not surprise me if there were indeed a connection.


The Jesus Creed 10 – Peter: The Story of Conversion

Posted: August 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 10 – Peter: The Story of Conversion

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Luke 5:1-11.

Conversion, like wisdom, takes a lifetime.

McKnight has a whole lot more in depth on conversion in his book, Turning to Jesus. Nevertheless, Peter is a good story to explore. He’s nice and complex.

For some, conversion is like a birth certificate while for others it is like a driver’s license. For the first, the ultimate question is ‘What do I need to do to get to heaven?’ For the second, the question is ‘How do I love God?’ For the first, concern is a moment; for the second, the concern is a life.

The Jesus Creed is more like a driver’s license than a birth certificate.

The Jesus Creed is about the totality of life, and so conversion to Jesus and the Jesus Creed is total conversion — heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I think the present-day American church has failed to grasp that, for a lot of us, the question of ‘how to get into heaven‘ just isn’t particularly interesting or compelling. It’s not much of an incentive for conversion. And if you ask any sort of more complicated question, it becomes much harder to pinpoint an instant of conversion. Peter is a good example. Let’s start by asking what should be a simple question: When was Peter converted?

  • Was it when Shimeon was introduced to Yeshua and Yeshua tells him that one day his name will be Kephas? His brother told Peter that this man might be the Messiah.
  • Was it when Peter confesses he is a sinner? Remember? That’s the odd conclusion to the fishing story. I never have quite figured out how a big catch of fish prompts the declaration, ‘I am a sinful man!’ But there you go. Is this when he’s converted?
  • Or is it when Peter confesses Jesus is Messiah? Peter does get it right when Jesus asks, but then almost immediately screws up again.
  • Or is he only converted after the death and resurrection of Jesus? After all, Peter had flatly denied even knowing Jesus and had had to be restored by Jesus after the resurrection.
  • Or is his conversion only complete when he and the others receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? After all, it wasn’t until then that Peter was willing to publicly proclaim Jesus to others.

Two other events are of note. Peter receives a vision that converts him to the reality that the church will include Jews and Gentiles. And finally, there is the Peter who writes the letters to the churches. He’s surely converted by the time these occur, but they are still noteworthy.

Still, a credible case can be made for any of the first five as the point of Peter’s conversion. And then Scot McKnight says this.

No one doubts that Peter is converted, but we may not be sure when the ‘moment’ occurs, when he gets his birth certificate. And therein lies the mystery of conversion. Conversion is more than just an event; it is a process. Like wisdom, it takes a lifetime. Conversion is a lifelong series of gentle (or noisy) nods of the soul. The question of when someone is converted is much less important than that they are converting.

That was a very freeing statement for me. Of course, I could shape my story to fit many boxes, but none of them ever felt quite right. There were many points of ‘decision’ and all of them were legitimate and authentic. They were also mostly of the ‘noisy’ rather than the ‘gentle’ variety. McKnight was the first Christian voice I heard who basically said my story of conversion could be my story, whatever it looked like. I didn’t have to have a singular Pauline experience. I didn’t have to have a point where I turned and was forever different. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but “There is no reason to think Paul’s is the definitive model.

Moreover, even Paul doesn’t seem to fit within the context of what many today seem to mean by a Pauline experience of conversion. Paul, after all, still had a race to complete, a mark to keep before him, a finish to achieve. The thief on the cross seems to be the sort of conversion that many evangelicals really seem to have in mind. And while God can do all things, that was clearly an exception, not the rule. After all, most of us aren’t in the process of being executed.

McKnight outlines the seven stages that we see in Peter’s story as follows:

  1. Peter suspects Jesus might be Messiah.
  2. Peter recognizes Jesus as someone profoundly superior.
  3. Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah. [But Peter disagrees with the Messiah on whether or not the Messiah ought to suffer.]
  4. Peter perceives the Messiah must suffer.
  5. Peter confesses Jesus is Lord.
  6. Peter realizes that Jesus is not just the Lord of the Jewa, but the Lord of all. Here Peter sees that the Jesus Creed is about loving all others.
  7. Peter embraces Jesus’ life as the paradigm of Christian living.

Peter illustrates a progression of conversion. And I would hazard that his example is more common than Paul’s.


For the Life of the World 30

Posted: January 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 30

The series continues in section 3 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.

The beginning of this victory is Christ’s death.

Those opening words to this section capture the paradoxical nature of Christian faith. Though not strictly related to this chapter, I will note that far too much of Christianity has placed all the focus on Christ’s death. I like the way the above is phrase. Christ’s death is the beginning of this victory, but not its fullness.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to note that the “liturgy of Christian death” is not something that comes into play when someone dies and we are ushering them on in some dignified manner. It begins every Sunday, every feast day, and most especially in every Easter. Our whole life in the Church is “in a way the sacrament of our death.” We proclaim our Lord’s death and resurrection. But we are not death-centered, because our Lord is a living Lord.

To be Christian, to believe in Christ, means and has always meant this: to know in a transrational and yet absolutely certain way called faith, that Christ is the Life of all life, that He is Life itself and, therefore, my life. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” All Christian doctrines — those of the incarnation, redemption, atonement — are explanations, consequences, but not the “cause” of that faith. Only when we believe in Christ do all these affirmations become “valid” and “consistent.” But faith itself is the acceptance not of this or that “proposition” about Christ, but of Christ Himself as the Life and the light of life. “For the life was manifested and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1 Jn 1:2). In this sense Christian faith is radically different from “religious belief.” Its starting point is not “belief” but love. In itself and by itself all belief is partial, fragmentary, fragile. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part … whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Only love never faileth (1 Cor. 13). And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the “content” of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess Him as the Life of my life.

If we depend on what we think or believe, we are standing on shaky ground. Such things can change easily. I know. I’ve probably shifted beliefs more than most people do. The one who kept the swirl of Christianity engaged, even if just barely so at times, with my life was Jesus of Nazareth. And it was people in a strange way almost manifesting this Jesus who kept drawing me back. I’m still not sure what I think or believe or how much more it will change, though I’m rather more certain now what I don’t believe. But I’ve come to know Jesus enough to be certain that I want to love him more. I am confident that in him we see a good God who loves mankind — and who loves me.

The Church is the entrance into the risen life of Christ; it is communion in life eternal, “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” And it is the expectation of the “day without evening” of the Kingdom; not of any “other world,” but of the fulfillment of all things and all life in Christ. In Him death itself has become an act of life, for He has filled it with Himself, with His love and light. … And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life. … Christ is risen and Life reigneth.

What more to say than amen? That is where I have placed my hope — with Life.


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 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.”


For the Life of the World 17

Posted: November 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 17

We now move on to sections 1-2 of the fourth chapter, Of Water and the Spirit, of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter four.

As the title suggests, this chapter explores Holy Baptism. Fr. Schmemann’s opening sentence is again provocative.

All that we have said about time and its transformation and renewal has simply no meaning if there is no new man to perform the sacrament of time.

The title of the chapter obviously refers to John 3, one of the water stories in John, where he tells Nicodemus that a man must be born again, that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit” they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Just as John 6 is the theological chapter on the Eucharist, so John 3 is the theological chapter of Baptism. As Paul writes in Romans, in Baptism we participate in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we are baptized into Christ.

For a long time the theological and spiritual interest in baptism was virtually disconnected from its cosmic significance, from the totality of man’s relation to the world. It was explained as man’s liberation from “original sin.” But both original sin and the liberation from it were given an extremely narrow and individual meaning. Baptism was understood as the means to assure the individual salvation of man’s soul. … Validity was the preoccupation — and not fullness, meaning, and joy. Because of the obsession of baptismal theology with juridical and not ontological terms, the real question — what is made valid? — often remained unanswered.

It’s odd in many ways. I’ve spent my time as a Christian within a group who place a great deal of emphasis on the correct form and timing of baptism, even rebaptizing those found to be remiss in either category. And yet, at the same time they hold baptism to be a mere symbol, effecting no ontological change, accomplishing nothing. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that conundrum, for I never realized that it was a focus on validity almost to the exclusion of meaning.

But ecclesiology, unless it is given its true cosmic perspective (“for the life of the world”), unless it is understood as the Christian form of “cosmology,” is always ecclesiolatry, the Church considered as a “being in itself” and not the new relation of God, man and the world. And it is not “ecclesiology” that gives baptism its true meaning; it is rather in and through baptism that we find the first and fundamental meaning of the Church.

The Church is the renewed human being fulfilling his place in the world in and through the one faithful man or its nothing.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to describe how, through the water and oil (of chrismation), baptism is inextricably tied to the matter of creation. It is a part of the “new time” of the Church. We have moved away from that to the point that:

Baptism in particular has suffered an almost disastrous loss of meaning.

Preparation for baptism for adults (as opposed to infants) once took as long as three years. Even now it still begins in the Orthodox Church with an enrollment in the catechumenate, those who formally expressed a desire to follow Christ, to become Christian, so that they may begin the process of learning what that means, what reality looks like through the lens of Jesus. As one who was raised with a highly pluralistic spiritual formation, I can appreciate the need for that. It is not easy to shift the way you view reality, though I’ve probably done it more often than many.

The Orthodox baptismal liturgy itself begins with exorcisms and a renunciation of Satan. Given all that our Holy Scriptures say, that actually seems reasonable to me. I wonder why other Christian traditions have abandoned the practice? (It is, after all, found in the Didache as long-time readers might recall.)

According to some modern interpreters of Christianity, “demonology” belongs to an antiquated world view and cannot be taken seriously by the man who “uses electricity.”

I wonder if that’s a significant part of the explanation?

What we must affirm, what the Church has always affirmed, is that the use of electricity may be “demonic,” as in fact may be the use of anything and of life itself. That is, in other words, the experience of evil which we call demonic is not that of a mere absence of good, or, for that matter, of all sorts of existential alienations and anxieties. It is indeed the presence of dark and irrational power. Hatred is not merely absence of love. It is certainly more than that, and we recognize its presence as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate. In our world in which normal and civilized men “used electricity” to exterminate six million human beings, in this world in which right now some ten million people are in concentration camps because they failed to understand the “only way to universal happiness,” in this world the “demonic” reality is not a myth.

Ah, part of the heart of the postmodern critique expressed from within an ancient Christian perspective.

And whatever the value or the consistency of its presentation in theologies and doctrines, it is this reality that the Church has in mind, that it indeed faces when at the moment of baptism, through the hands of the priest, it lays hold upon a new human being who has just entered life, and who, according to statistics, has a great likelihood some day of entering a mental institution, a penitentiary, or at best, the maddening boredom of a universal suburbia.

Wow. The priest breathes “thrice” in the face of the catechumen, signs his brow and breast three times with the sign of the Cross, and says the following, which I think is worth reproducing here in full.

In Thy Name, O Lord God of Truth, and in the Name of Thine only-begotten Son, and of Thy Holy Spirit, I lay my hand upon Thy servant, who has been found worthy to flee unto Thy Holy Name, and to take refuge under the shelter of Thy wings … Remove far from him his former delusion, and fill him with the faith, hope and love which are in Thee; that he may know that Thou art the only true God. … Enable him to walk in all Thy commandments and to fulfill those things which are well pleasing unto Thee, for if a man do those things, he shall find life in them. Make him to rejoice in the works of his hands, and in all his generation that he may render praise unto Thee, may sing, worship and glorify Thy great and exalted Name.

I hope I am worthy to flee. That’s not how we often think of our embrace of Christ, is it? Maybe it should be. We flee and find refuge in Jesus. Next, the catechumen (or  godparent on behalf of an infant) formally and liturgically renounces Satan, even spitting upon him. (That’s also in the Didache, I believe.)

The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often proclaim, or to use a more modern term, “sell” Christianity today? … How could we then speak of “fight” when the very set-up of our churches must, by definition, convey the idea of softness, comfort, peace? … One does not see very well where and how “fight” would fit into the weekly bulletin of a suburban parish, among all kinds of counseling sessions, bake sales, and “young adult” get-togethers.

When I read the above, I immediately thought of a friend of mine who loves the movie, Fight Club. I have a feeling he might understand those words even better than I do.

“Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ?” says the priest, when he has turned — has converted — the catechumen to the east.

In other words, face west, be exorcised, renounce and spit on Satan, and then be turned by the priest from west to east — a literal change of direction to match the repentance or turning you have proclaimed you are making.  I deeply appreciate the depth of meaning. It means more when you do something with your mind, words, and body. Much more than with merely one alone.

Then comes the confession of faith, the confession by the catechumen of the faith of the Church, of his acceptance of this faith and obedience to it. And again it is difficult to convince a modern Christian that to be the life of the world, the Church must not “keep smiling” at the world, putting the “All Welcome” signs on the churches, and adjusting its language to that of the last best seller. The beginning of the Christian life — of the life in the Church — is humility, obedience, and discipline.

Christian life is only appealing if it does, in fact, describe the true nature of reality. If Jesus was not the true and faithful man and only-begotten of the Father, if God is not good and loves mankind, if we cannot be restored to eucharistic humanity, then what’s the point? Why be Christian?

The final act of preparation for baptism again involves the body.

“Bow down also before Him.” And the Catechumen answers, “I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

And, of course, you actually bow. How many of us truly bow down before the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?


For the Life of the World 15

Posted: November 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 15

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 4-5 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter three which more or less tracks this post.

Fr. Schmemann now turns from the “day” to the “year.” And he does so in a way I found unexpected. In order to understand the “Christian year,” you have to understand what it means to feast. And we have largely lost that understanding today. (Oh, we have no problem consuming great quantities of anything. But that has little to do with knowing how to feast.)

To speak of it [Christian year], however, is even more difficult than to speak of Sunday, because for the modern Christian the relation between this “Christian year” and time has become incomprehensible and therefore, irrelevant. On certain dates the Church commemorates certain events of the past — nativity, resurrection, the descent of the Holy Spirit. These dates are an occasion for a liturgical “illustration” of certain theological affirmations, but as such they are in no way related to the real time or of consequence to it. Even within the Church itself they are mere “breaks” in the normal routine of its activities, and many business minded and action-oriented Christians secretly consider these festivals and celebrations a waste of time. And if other Christians welcome them as additional days of rest and “vacation,” no one seriously thinks of them as the very heart of the Church’s life and mission. There exists, in other words, a serious crisis in the very idea of a feast, and it is here that we must begin our brief discussion of the Christian year.

I want to note that Fr. Schmemann is primarily speaking to Orthodox above. He is not critiquing other groups. He is critiquing the life of the Orthodox Church. I would say the situation is much, much worse elsewhere, especially in those of us who have abandoned all semblance of a Christian year.

Feast means joy. Yet, if there is something that we — the serious, adult, and frustrated Christians of the twentieth century — look at with suspicion, it is certainly joy. … Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. … The modern world has relegated joy to the category of “fun” and “relaxation.” It is justified and permissible on our “time off”; it is a concession, a compromise. … With all these spiritual and cultural connotations, the “Christian year” — the sequence of liturgical commemorations and celebrations — ceased to be the generator of power, and is now looked upon as a more or less antiquated decoration of religion. It is used as a kind of “audio-visual” aid in religious education, but it is neither a root of Christian life and action, nor a “goal” toward which they are oriented.

And, of course, in traditions like my own we’ve largely discarded even the “audio-visual” aid. And in so doing, we no longer experience time together as a shared experience. We no longer know how to properly feast. We’ve rendered “church” itself irrelevant.

To understand the true nature — and “function” — of feasts we must remember that Christianity was born and preached at first in cultures in which feasts and celebrations were an organic and essential part of the whole world view and way of life. … A feast was thus always deeply and organically related to time, to the natural cycles of time, to the whole framework of man’s life in the world. And, whether we want it or not, whether we like it or not, Christianity accepted and made its own this fundamentally human phenomenon of feast, as it accepted and made its own the whole man and all his needs. But, as in everything else, Christians accepted the feast not only by giving it a new meaning, by transforming its “content,” but by taking it, along with the whole of “natural” man, through death and resurrection.

And that is important, as Fr. Schmemann moves to that peculiarly Christian lens.

“Through the Cross joy came into the whole world” — and not just to some men as their personal and private joy. Once more, were Christianity pure “mysticism,” pure “eschatology,” there would be no need for feasts and celebrations. A holy soul would keep its secret feast apart from the world, to the extent that it could free itself from its time. But joy was given to the Church for the world — that the Church might be a witness to it and transform the world by joy. Such is the “function” of Christian feasts and the meaning of their belonging to time.

Fr. Schmemann then proceeds to illustrate his point in this section using just Easter and Pentecost as examples. They are rich illustrations, but not really the sort of thing that can be summarized. In the podcast you’ll find a good discussion of the feasts and what they mean within the context of the Christian year.


On the Incarnation of the Word 23 – Public Death Necessary

Posted: September 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 23 – Public Death Necessary

In this section of On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius specifically addresses the necessity of a public death in order to support the Resurrection.

But even if, without any disease and without any pain, He had hidden His body away privily and by Himself “in a corner,” or in a desert place, or in a house, or anywhere, and afterwards suddenly appeared and said that He had been raised from the dead, He would have seemed on all hands to be telling idle tales, and what He said about the Resurrection would have been all the more discredited, as there was no one at all to witness to His death.

A similar objection could have been made if there were just a few witnesses. But Jesus was crucified near a main entrance to Jerusalem right before the Passover with thousands aware of his execution. Of all the objections that were raised against the Resurrection in the early centuries, nobody tried to assert that Jesus hadn’t died.

Or how were His disciples to have boldness in speaking of the Resurrection, were they not able to say that He first died? Or how could they be believed, saying that death had first taken place and then the Resurrection, had they not had as witnesses of His death the men before whom they spoke with boldness? For if, even as it was, when His death and Resurrection had taken place in the sight of all, the Pharisees of that day would not believe, but compelled even those who had seen the Resurrection to deny it, why, surely, if these things had happened in secret, how many pretexts for disbelief would they have devised?

Even with the evidence and witness at hand, more did not believe than believed. How much easier it would have been to disbelieve absent the public nature of his execution. The Christian proclamation of Jesus as Lord always includes both Cross and Resurrection, never one without the other. They are intricately and inextricably interwoven.


On the Incarnation of the Word 16 – Was the Cross the Sole Aim of Christ’s Birth?

Posted: September 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 16 – Was the Cross the Sole Aim of Christ’s Birth?

This section of On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius is a very short one, but I think critical for us today. I very much recommend that you read the entire section several times and reflect on it. It seems to me that some segments of modern Western Christianity have so emphasized the Cross that the life of Jesus simply becomes a preparation for it and the Resurrection is reduced to little more than an afterthought.

I was particularly struck by this fact some years ago when the SBTC Texan, the newspaper for our state convention, published a series of articles defending and discussing the Resurrection. They all strongly defended the historicity of the Resurrection and clearly held it to be important. However, when they tried to express why it was so important, the best that anyone could say was that it proved that the Father accepted the Son’s payment for our sins on the Cross.

It was one of those moments of crystalline clarity for me. I had been a part of this group of Christians for more than a decade and I had never until that moment really begun to understand how they perceived Christ. I thought I had, of course. But I realized then that I really hadn’t, after all.

In all of the ancient writings, as in Scripture, you will rarely ever find the Crucifixion separated from the Resurrection. If you’ve been reading the posts on my blog where we’ve been working through some of them, perhaps you’ve noticed that. Without the Resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth was simply another first century failed Messiah wannabe. In this section, however, Athanasius points out that we also can’t reduce the work of Christ to simply his death and resurrection.

Now for this cause, also, He did not immediately upon His coming accomplish His sacrifice on behalf of all, by offering His body to death and raising it again, for by this means He would have made Himself invisible. But He made Himself visible enough by what He did, abiding in it, and doing such works, and shewing such signs, as made Him known no longer as Man, but as God the Word.

When you look at it that way, it’s obvious. Of course, in one sense the Word did become flesh to die. That is he became fully human in every way and inherited the fullness of our mortal nature. At the same time, though, he joined it to the divine nature which could not die. And in the heart of that paradox, he defeated death on behalf of all mankind.

However, that was only part of his work. As Jesus said, he came to make the unknowable God known to us. In him, we know and experience the fullness of God. We are able to participate in the life of God. We can be one with God and with each other. We can know true communion. So Jesus also came to make God known in the only way we could know him.

For by the Word revealing Himself everywhere, both above and beneath, and in the depth and in the breadth—above, in the creation; beneath, in becoming man; in the depth, in Hades; and in the breadth, in the world—all things have been filled with the knowledge of God.

When we try to reduce the work of Christ to something simple which we can rationally grasp in its entirety, we render it meaningless. When we reduce the Incarnation of the Word to a single task, whatever that task might be, we strip it of its transcendence and mystery. The Incarnation transformed all creation in ways that go beyond any words we might use.

Christ was born to live, to die, and to rise uncorrupted and incorruptible from the grave. No single act is of greater purpose or necessity than the other. It is in the fullness of Christ that we find salvation. Had Christ not filled creation in a new way in the Incarnation, had he not made himself known to us through our senses, had he not recreated us as human beings in his death and resurrection, Pentecost could not have happened. Man has been united to God in Christ, thus God can particularly indwell man in the fullness of the Spirit through Christ without consuming us. (Remember, our God is a consuming fire.) And through the physical body and blood of Christ, we know the unknowable God.

Is your mind blown yet?