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 5

Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 5

Today I’ll blog through sections 7-8 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. But first, the link to Deacon Michale Hyatt’s  podcast if you haven’t already listened to it.

Bread and wine: to understand their initial and eternal meaning in the Eucharist we must forget for a time the endless controversies which little by little transformed them into “elements” of an almost abstract theological speculation.

O f course, in my SBC tradition, they aren’t actually bread and wine, but instead crackers and grape juice. And they have been reduced to an almost empty “symbol” with no intrinsic significance or meaning. Still, even in places that have not so reduced the Eucharist, the bread and the wine have become more abstract. I appreciate the emphasis. Let’s forget all that as we move into this section.

As we proceed further in the eucharistic liturgy, the time has come now to offer to God the totality of all our lives, of ourselves, of the world in which we live. This is the first meaning of our bringing to the altar the elements of our food. For we already know that food is life, that it is the very principle of life and that the whole world has been created as food for man. We also know that to offer this food, this world, this life to God is the initial “eucharistic” function of man, his very fulfillment as man. We know that we were created as celebrants of the sacrament of live, of its transformation into life in God, communion with God. We know that real life is “eucharist,” a movement of love and adoration toward God, the movement in which alone the meaning and the value of all that exists can be revealed and fulfilled. We know that we have lost this eucharistic life, and finally we know that in Christ, the new Adam, the perfect man, this eucharistic life was restored to man. For He Himself was the perfect Eucharist; He offered Himself in total obedience, love and thanksgiving to God. God was His very life. And He gave this perfect and eucharistic life to us. In Him God became our life.

This marks the point in the Divine Liturgy often called the great entrance, in which the gifts are brought out and processed through the people. It’s my understanding that in the ancient Church, the gifts were actually gathered from the people during the procession. We have moved into the Liturgy of the Faithful. Deacon Michael also notes an important point, I think. The gifts we bring are bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. That is, we do not simply return to God the raw food he has given us. Rather, through our efforts, we transform it into something more than it was and then offer it back. As I heard him say that, I was reminded of the parable of the talents and how the good and faithful servants multiplied what the master had entrusted to their care. Even here, at the core of our worship, we see some of that same dynamic at work.

Yes, to be sure, it is a sacrifice: but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life. Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial: it puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life.

A love that costs you nothing, that requires no sacrifice, can hardly be called love at all. Amen.

He (Christ) has performed once and for all this Eucharist and nothing has been left unoffered. In him was Life — and this Life of all of us, He gave to God. The church is all those who have been accepted into the eucharistic life of Christ. … It is His Eucharist, and He is the Eucharist. As the prayer of offering says — “it is He who offers and it is He who is offered.” The liturgy has led us into the all-embracing Eucharist of Christ, and has revealed to us that the only Eucharist, the only offering of the world is Christ. We come again and again with our lives to offer; we bring and “sacrifice” — that is, give to God — what He has given us; and each time we come to the End of all sacrifices, of all offerings, of all eucharist, because each time it is revealed to us that Christ has offered all that exists, and that He and all that exists has been offered in His offering of Himself. We are included in the Eucharist of Christ and Christ is our Eucharist.

That is powerful. Read it several times and meditate on it. Remember one meaning of “Eucharist” — a giving of thanks — as you do. The procession is bearing the bread and wine to the altar. At this point in the liturgy, the faithful remember.

“May the Lord God remember in his Kingdom …” Remembrance is an act of love. God remembers us and His remembrance, His love is the foundation of the world. In Christ, we remember. We become again beings open to love, and we remember. The Church in its separation from “this world,” on its journey to heaven, remembers the world, remembers all men, remembers the whole of creation, takes it in love to God. The Eucharist is the sacrament of cosmic remembrance: it is indeed a restoration of love as the very life of the world.

The Orthodox certainly remember, but they do not mean by that an empty, symbolic memorial to an event long past. No, this remembrance of love, this participation in Christ, restores life to the cosmos. I think I prefer their way of remembering.

The bread and wine are now on the altar, covered, hidden as our “life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). There lies, hidden in God, the totality of life, which Christ has brought back to God. And the celebrant says: “Let us love one another that in one accord we may confess …” There follows the kiss of peace, one of the fundamental acts of Christian liturgy.

It occurs to me that those who have never experienced any sort of Christian liturgy at all may not even be aware of the existence of the kiss of peace or its meaning. While often minimized today, it has always been a key part of Christian worship until recent times. The kiss is, of course, referenced in Scripture, but it strikes me as I read this section that I’ve never really heard any “non-liturgical” Protestant relate it to Christian worship in any way. That’s odd, actually, but I suppose it makes sense when you have excluded it from your worship.

The Church, if it is to be the Church, must be the revelation of that divine Love which God “poured out into our hearts.” Without this love nothing is “valid” in the Church because nothing is possible. The content of Christ’s Eucharist is Love, and only through love can we enter into it and be made its partakers. Of this love we are not capable. This love we have lost. This love Christ has given us and this gift is the Church. The Church constitutes itself through love and on love, and in this world it is to “witness” to Love, to re-present it, to make Love present. Love alone creates and transforms: it is, therefore, the very “principle” of the sacrament.

The discussion of the love of Christ that constitutes the Church reminds me of a Molly Sabourin podcast. It was the first time I had ever heard of Forgiveness Vespers, as practiced in the Orthodox Church at the onset of Lent each year. If the kiss of peace is the regular affirmation of love, Forgiveness Vespers provides the annual opportunity to clear away any lingering impediments to love as those in the Church ask for and offer forgiveness of everyone else, even those they do not know very well. I can think of little that I have heard within any path of spirituality in my highly varied journey that has ever struck me as so simply … beautiful. The first time I heard that podcast, it brought tears to my eyes. If we do not have love, we have nothing.


Sola Scriptura 4 – Canon and History

Posted: August 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The thread of deconstruction I have in mind today is a tangled one indeed. I’m not sure how well I can express it one post, but I’ll do my best. Put simply, many of the ways “the Bible” is discussed among those today who hold to some variation of sola scriptura simply don’t reflect the reality of its development and often strangely try to set it at odds with the Christian tradition which produced it. Now this is by no means everywhere true. (Actually, I would tend to say that very few statements I could make are everywhere true, but that’s another discussion.) But when any interpretation of Scripture that is divorced from traditional interpretations is promoted as somehow authoritative in some sense because of some quality innate to the text itself you see the influence of this thread of thought. Scripture is very important in the life of Christ in the church. Scripture, especially in the Gospels, preserves for all generations the core of the tradition of our faith within the context of the church.

But that last phrase is critically important. Scripture as we know it in a canonical form is a product of the Church. It can be nothing else. We see that most clearly when we look at what Christians call the Old Testament. Each of the various primary traditions of the Church, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant have a different Old Testament canon. (I would say the first three are most similar to each other since they are all essentially variations of the Septuagint which we know took various forms in the pre-first century Diaspora. The latter tradition adopted the Masoretic Jewish canon which was developed as a canon beginning in the second century. That summary oversimplifies things, but is the best I can do in a few sentences. As a matter of history, we know the NT authors and the early church used the Septuagint in one form or another since that was the Greek text in use in most synagogues and the text the gentile converts could understand.) The OT canon itself was rarely a matter of particular concern through most of the history of the church since everyone simply used the form of the Septuagint they had received (or its Latin translation). In the second century, as the Jewish rabbis were developing what became the Masoretic Hebrew canon, you do see some Christian writers complaining that they were changing some of the texts to reduce or eliminate the Christian interpretation of them by which Christians were still converting Jews.

The New Testament canon was another matter altogether. The writings from the first century were preserved, but it’s mostly in the second century that the awareness within the church that these writings were also Holy Scripture began to develop. The first references I recall are references to the Gospels being “read” in church.  I think it’s easy for modern Protestants to misunderstand those references, though. They don’t mean people gathered around, opened some scrolls, and talked about the texts. They would have been doing that anyway as time allowed or the need presented itself. To understand that phrase, you have to think of the synagogue worship that formed the framework for what we now might call the Liturgy of the Word. That phrase means that the Gospels were chanted or sung in the same place in worship where the OT Scriptures were chanted or sung. Other works also became ones that were read in church and over time we see various lists or canons of such writings.

Once the Church was legalized under Constantine, bishops from across the empire were better able to discuss their lists. They were all pretty similar and the process of developing the canon, in large part, involved eliminating those texts that were only read in specific places. That process reduced the number that required more detailed discussion to a relative handful. But the NT canon itself is a product of the church, not the other way around.

We’ll delve more into that tomorrow.