Mary 19 – Annunciation

Posted: February 15th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 19 – Annunciation

Annunciation

This feast, another of the twelve Great Feasts in the Orthodox liturgical year and a feast in the Western Church falls on March 25th. While the Western church will move the feast if it falls during Holy Week, the Eastern Church never moves it. This feast celebrates the events of Luke 1:26-38, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she would have a child of the Holy Spirit and Mary ultimately replied, “Let it be to me according to your word!”

Mary is often called the second Eve because her willing assent to God reversed the effects of the first Eve’s rejection of God in the Genesis story. It’s an extension of the same typology Paul uses to contrast Adam and Jesus. Evangelicals tend to largely ignore the Annunciation. If pressed, they will often express the idea that Mary was little more than a “vessel” for the Incarnation. Hidden (or sometimes not particularly hidden) behind that idea is one that if Mary hadn’t worked out, God would have just found another vessel. But there’s no such indication anywhere in the story. There’s no evidence of a “plan B”; Mary’s yes to God was for the healing of creation. Indeed, all generations should call her blessed.

There are actually two Churches of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The Roman Catholic Church is located where tradition holds Mary’s home was located. Orthodox tradition is that the Annunciation occurred at the well in Nazareth and their Church is located at that site.

The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

The Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth


Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

Posted: January 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

The oldest surviving complete text containing the even older oral tradition of the life of Mary is the Protoevangelion of James from the second century. There appear to be some older works that are quoted in later writings, but none of those have survived. The Protoevangelion of James is about the life of Mary up to the events surrounding the nativity. It’s not written by James, of course, which is why the Church did not include it in the canon lists of the New Testament. The only texts considered Scripture by the Church were those surviving texts written by an apostolic author — someone who had seen and been sent by the risen Lord. However, while some works were rejected completely and were not to be read at all, there were in the ancient world (as continues to be true today) many works that were considered valuable to read even though they were not Scripture. The Didache (often considered to have been distilled by those who were ‘traditioned’ the faith by Paul and/or Barnabas) and the Shepherd of Hermas are such works from the first century. This is one from the first half of the second century. If you’ve never read it, it’s not very long and worth taking the time to read.

The writing also describes a couple of events that are celebrated as major Feasts within the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. It describes the Nativity of the Theotokos, born to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna. And it describes the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple (the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the West).

I happen to find some of the things people use to reject the protoevangelium interesting. For instance it describes Jesus being born in a cave as is depicted in the icons of the Nativity. If you look around online, you’ll find some people attributing the reference to a cave as Mithraic in origin and a reason to reject the account. Ironically, modern archeology has revealed that animals in that region at that time were often kept in naturally insulated rock-cut caves. It’s an instance where an ancient tradition that had been discounted by many is now known to be pretty likely. And that makes sense. Many of the people who preserved the text lived in that region. If the text (or the older oral traditions it captured) had been discordant with things they knew, they wouldn’t have accepted and preserved it.

You’ll also find people who reject the tradition because of its description of temple virgins. They attribute those references to the pagan Roman vestal virgins. However, there’s ample evidence in the text of Scripture and in extra-biblical sources like the Mishnah for a liturgical role for specifically Jewish temple virgins. Moreover, the document and the oral tradition it captures date from a time when many Jews were still converting to Christianity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was not some distant event. It was still recent. And, at least according to apologists like Justin Martyr, Jewish leaders were trying to stem the conversions and discredit the Christian claims. If the description of temple virgins had had no basis in reality, there would have been no ground for the tradition to take root. That should be easy to see with just a little bit of historical imagination.

I have to admit I find it odd that so many people who don’t hesitate to read modern commentaries, theological, and inspirational books, reject out of hand ancient works that fall into the same category. You do have to be discerning, of course. But in a modern landscape filled with the likes of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, and Bishop Spong you have to be pretty discerning in what you choose to read today as well.


Original Sin 21 – Psalm 50:7 (or 51:5)

Posted: March 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 21 – Psalm 50:7 (or 51:5)

The next text St. Augustine used, and one which you will hear widely quoted as a text defending the idea of original sin as inherited guilt is Psalm 50:7 (LXX) or 51:5 (Hebrew Masoretic numbering). I’ll start by providing an English translation of each, beginning with the Septuagint rendering (OSB).

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, And in sins my mother bore me.

And here’s the Hebrew Masoretic translation (NKJV).

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.

It is difficult to discuss this verse divorced from the context of the entire Psalm and the way it has been used for centuries by the Church. Even today in the Orthodox Church, the entire Psalm is used in the services of Orthros, the Third Hour, and Compline. It is also recited in every Divine Liturgy by the priest as he censes before the Great Entrance. This is the great penitential Psalm and has been so used by the Church for as long as we have any records. I think it is best approached as a whole text in that light and with that attitude.

However, the natural reading of the single verse above does not communicate to me any idea that David is saying that he was conceived and born with some sort of inherited guilt. Rather he is lamenting the damaged and broken state of humanity into which we are all born. Those who conceive and bear us do so within the brokenness of their own transgressions and sins — their own mortality. Who among us would deny that reality? It’s also possible that in his song of repentance, David is engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not necessary to assume that’s the case. It’s perhaps a bit clearer in the translation from the LXX, but David is obviously not referring to his own sin in that verse. He’s referring to that of those surrounding him from the moment of his conception. He is making reference to the brokenness which forms and shapes us all.

The verse just doesn’t say what St. Augustine and others who try to use it the same way want it to say. It doesn’t communicate that idea when you lift it out of its context and that is certainly not the message of Psalm 50 (or 51 in the Hebrew numbering) when taken as a whole.


For the Life of the World 19

Posted: January 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

During the press of the holidays, illness, and all the rest that has been happening, I’ve fallen pretty far behind in this series. I’m going to work to catch up this week. I find both Fr. Schmemann’s book and Dn. Hyatt’s podcasts on that book fascinating and illuminating.

The discussion now moves from baptism to chrismation in section 4 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter four.

In both the book and the podcast, the history of this sacrament and its divergent path in the West are touched upon. But I’m going to take this first post to focus on it in more detail. From my personal experience, I doubt that many modern evangelicals know much about the mystery of chrismation or its Western counterpart, confirmation. I went to a Roman Catholic school for three years growing up (and an Episcopal school for another year and change), I was as interested as I have ever been in spiritualities of every sort, and I still didn’t really understand confirmation until I encountered the older Orthodox tradition of chrismation.

In the early days of the church, each individual church had its own bishop assisted by his presbyters. And though anyone could baptize at need, absent an urgent need, the presbyters or the bishop performed baptisms. However, the bishop alone blessed the oil used to anoint and then anointed the newly baptized with the seal of the Holy Spirit, ordaining them as priests and kings in the royal priesthood of Christ.

As an aside, that was one of the disconnects I noted pretty early among so many modern churches. They refer to the royal priesthood of all believers, but they have no practice that anyone in the ancient world would have connected to either kings or priests. Coming from a Jewish context, that would obviously be part of a ceremony that included anointing with oil, as it was priests and kings who were anointed in the Old Testament. And I’ll note that one of the gifts the young Christ received from the magi was a rich oil. Gold, incense, and oil — truly gifts for a kingly priest. Further, the gospels recount stories of Christ being anointed by expensive oil. Though not like the anointing everyone would expect (what about Jesus happened the way people expected?), nevertheless, he was anointed with oil.

The formerly pagan believers would have understood such an act even if it wasn’t entirely native to their culture. Neither group would have understood what evangelical churches do today as something that anointed or ordained you into a royal priesthood. The concepts of king and priest had a deep cultural reality for them that we largely lack in our native culture of liberal democracy. I knew something had to be missing in our modern practice, but I wasn’t sure what it was until I encountered chrismation. It fills that gap perfectly.

At first, every church had one bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people (all anointed as kings and priests, but with different functions within the body). This is the picture we see, for instance, in St. Ignatius’ writings.  As the Church grew, there came to be more churches in a city to serve all those converting. The bishop delegated presbyters to act in his stead in the churches and visited each as he was able. And it is at this point that East and West began to diverge.

In the ancient world, we have to remember, the West was the frontier. It had a single apostolic see in Rome. And it had widely dispersed peoples. As Rome contracted, it contracted first in the West. This was further complicated by the fact that the West always had fewer bishops than the East. So over time, an individual bishop was not over a church or even a set of geographically close churches, but often serving a far flung network of churches.  The bishop could not physically be at every baptismal service at every church.

And so, in the West, they decided the physical presence of the bishop was the important thing and began to separate baptism from chrismation and communion. And over time, that developed into the confirmation of baptism performed as children entered into what was considered the earliest of the ages of majority in the medieval West. I believe, even today, confirmation is always performed when the bishop is present (though I could be wrong about that). Eventually, even first communion became separated from either baptism or confirmation. Now it is normal in the Roman Catholic Church for a child to be baptized at birth, begin taking communion sometime as a child (in a ceremony known as First Communion), and finally be confirmed near the onset of puberty.

The East took a different path as they encountered the same problem. The bishop still blessed the anointing oil of chrismation, but it was distributed to all his presbyters. And along with baptism, communion, and everything else, the bishop delegated the performance of chrismation to his presbyters so its unity with baptism could be preserved. Even today in the Orthodox Church every person, whether 9 weeks old or 90 years old, who is baptized, is baptized, chrismated, and communed in that first service. The unity of the mysteries was maintained.

The practice of the East makes sense to me. That doesn’t mean it’s right, of course. But I do think it’s significant that I couldn’t truly understand the Western sacraments until I saw them in light of the Eastern practice.


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.


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.


For the Life of the World 4

Posted: October 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 4

In this week’s podcast, Deacon Michael Hyatt covers sections 5-8 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. This chapter walks through the whole of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, so there is a lot in it. First, the link to the next podcast in this series.

The next step in the liturgy is the entrance, sometimes called the little entrance, in which the celebrant comes to the altar.  This involves a procession with the Gospels. Father Schmemann notes that though the act has been given many symbolical explanations, it is not itself a symbol.

It is the very movement of the Church as passage from the old into the new, from “this world” into the “world to come” and, as such, it is the essential movement of the liturgical “journey.” In “this world” there is no altar and the temple has been destroyed. For the only altar is Christ Himself, His humanity which He has assumed and deified and made the temple of God, the altar of His presence. And Christ ascended into heaven. The altar thus is the sign that in Christ we have been given access to heaven, that the Church is the “passage” to heaven, the entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, and that only by “entering,” by ascending to heaven does the Church fulfill herself, become what she is. And so the entrance at the Eucharist, this approach of the celebrant — and in him, of the whole Church — to the altar is not a symbol. It is the crucial and decisive act in which the true dimensions of the sacrament are revealed and established. It is not “grace” that comes down; it is the Church that enters into “grace,” and grace means the new being, the Kingdom, the world to come.

There is something to the way N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, describes the Eucharist as a point where past, present, and future come together transcendentally in Christ. As we participate together, we are not remembering the past, living in the present, or looking toward the future Kingdom. It is, as the above passage says, a place and a time when we enter into the world to come.

I’ve been familiar, in Western liturgy, with the division between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As we will see, there is not the same sharp distinction between Word and Eucharist in the East. The entire Divine Liturgy is the Eucharistic liturgy and it is instead divided into the Liturgy of the Catechumens and the Liturgy of the Faithful. It’s an interesting division because it means that the parts we have retained in the so-called “non-liturgical” churches (the reading of Scripture and the homily or sermon — though we often omit the formal reading of Scripture these days) were the parts that were, in significant measure, directed toward the education and teaching of those who were interested, but not yet Christian. In the ancient Church the catechumens left after the Liturgy of the Catechumens was complete. Though those who are not among the Orthodox faithful no longer physically leave, the Divine Liturgy remains marked by that distinction. I think there is much to ponder here. Has the majority of the Protestant tradition virtually abandoned that part of the liturgy intended to sustain the faithful?

As the celebrant enters, the Church sings the Trisagion, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal one, have mercy on us!” It’s the song of the angels before the throne of God.

“Holy” is the real name of God, of the God “not of scholars and philosophers,” but of the living God of faith. The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions. The knowledge of God leads to this on, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. And in this one word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other, the One about whom we know nothing, and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, the inaccessible One who mobilizes our wills, the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him. “Holy” is the word, the song, the “reaction” of the Church as it enters into heaven, as it stands before the heavenly glory of God.

Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent post on The Knowledge of God which fits in excellently at this point and says better what it means to know God than anything I could write. I recommend you take a moment to read it. Holy. It’s a word that has little actual meaning as anything but a name for God.

Next the celebrant turns and faces the people for the first time in this journey. The Church has ascended.

And the priest whose liturgy, whose unique function and obedience in the Church is to re-present, to make present the priesthood of Christ Himself, says to the people: “Peace be with you.” In Christ man returns to God and in Christ God comes to man. As the new Adam, as the perfect man He leads us to God; as God incarnate He reveals the Father to us and reconciles us with God. He is our peace — the reconciliation with God, divine forgiveness, communion. And the peace that the priest announces and bestows upon us is the peace Christ established between God and His world and into which we, the Church, have entered.

It is not a gesture or a symbol. The celebrant proclaims peace and the gathered Church receives the peace of Christ — “which passes all understanding.” Father Schmemman next makes the point I alluded to above.

Western Christians are so accustomed to distinguish the Word from the sacrament that it may be difficult for them to understand that in the Orthodox perspective the liturgy of the Word is as sacramental as the sacrament is “evangelical.” The sacrament is a manifestation of the Word. And unless the false dichotomy between Word and sacrament is overcome, the true meaning of both Word and sacrament, and especially the true meaning of Christian “sacramentalism” cannot be grasped in all their wonderful implications. The proclamation of the Word is a sacramental act par excellence because it is a transforming act. It transforms the human words of the Gospel into the Word of God and manifestation of the Kingdom. And it transforms the man who hears the Word into a receptacle of the Word and a temple of the Spirit.

I wonder if those who have been conditioned to hear and read “Word of God” essentially as referring to the Holy Scriptures in every usage will catch the nuance above. Think about what the phrase “Word of God” means in Scripture itself and then re-read the above. You might find yourself reading it in a different light.

This is why the reading and the preaching of the Gospel in the Orthodox Church is a liturgical act, an integral and essential part of the sacrament. It is heard as the Word of God, and it is received in the Spirit — that is, in the Church, which is the life of the Word and its “growth” in the world.

As I did last week, I’ll continue with the next two sections that were covered in Deacon Michael’s podcast tomorrow.


On the Incarnation of the Word 36 – Who Reigned Before He Could Call For Father Or Mother?

Posted: October 5th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 36 – Who Reigned Before He Could Call For Father Or Mother?

This brief section of Athanasius’ treatise references another prophecy with which I was not familiar.

But what king that ever was, before he had strength to call father or mother, reigned and gained triumphs over his enemies?

In the Orthodox Church, the passage of Isaiah which includes the above (Isaiah 8:4) is read at Vespers of the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord. We tend to call that “Christmas” I believe. And it’s appropriate.

Who, then, it is on whom the nations are to set their hope, it is worth while to see. For there must be such an one, as it is impossible for the prophet to have spoken falsely. But which of the holy prophets or of the early patriarchs has died on the Cross for the salvation of all? Or who was wounded and destroyed for the healing of all? Or which of the righteous men, or kings, went down to Egypt, so that at his coming the idols of Egypt fell?

We do see the magi representing the nations giving Jesus tribute not too many months after his birth. We see Jesus eluding Herod’s judgment, thus in an ancient sense demonstrating that he was not subject to Herod. And we see all this when he was still an infant.

It’s interesting. When I was reading, but not writing about them, I think I tended to skim over some of these sections without paying close attention. Writing as I go forces me to read more closely.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 25 – Conclusion

Posted: August 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This seems like a good place to bring this series to a close. I believe I’ve demonstrated what the Internet Monk called “the historical problem” with the Baptist understanding of the Eucharist. I’ve meandered through the writings of the early church, the church under persecution, from the first century to the third century. Consistently, from the writings of the Holy Scripture in the New Testament, to those taught by the apostles, those taught in turn by them, and onward from generation to generation, all those we would consider in any sense “orthodox” confess that the bread and wine are the body and blood of our Lord. It was a matter of great mystery and power. The Eucharist equipped the people of God so that they might stand under persecution. Even those like the early gnostics, who rejected the goodness of the material world and the Incarnation itself, understood the confession of the Church and so refused to partake of the Eucharist.

There is simply no place from the foundation of the Church and the writing of the Holy Scriptures, to the end of persecution in the fourth century where the teaching and practice of the Eucharist changed from one thing into something else. There is no point in time where the early Church believed anything different, taught anything different, or practiced anything different. Instead, there is a deep unity and consistency.

After this period, of course, Christianity became a legal religion and we have many more preserved writings, all of which maintain the same tradition. The oldest Christian liturgy still in use today is the liturgy of St. James the Just. We know it was certainly in use by the fourth century and may date much earlier in the Apostolic See of Jerusalem. This is the liturgy that St. Basil somewhat shortened and which St. John Chrysostom further abbreviated. This liturgy is thus the source for the Divine Liturgy most commonly used in Orthodox Churches. Spend time with the whole text (and remember that it is sung), but this tiny excerpt leaves no doubt about what those participating believed about the Eucharist.

Your same all-holy Spirit, Lord, send down on us and on these gifts here set forth, that having come by his holy, good and glorious presence, he may sanctify this bread and make it the holy body of Christ, and this Cup the precious blood of Christ, that they may become for all those who partake of them for forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. For sanctification of souls and bodies. For a fruitful harvest of good works. For the strengthening of your holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which you founded on the rock of the faith, so that the gates of Hell might not prevail against it, delivering it from every heresy and from the scandals caused by those who work iniquity, and from the enemies who arise and attack it, until the consummation of the age.

A great mystery? To be sure. Nevertheless, this was the confession of all Christians from the first century through to the sixteenth. Yes, in the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas used the language of Aristotle in an attempt to rationally explain the mystery. And because most people don’t really approach the world through the lens of Aristotle, the theory of “transubstantiation” has certainly been poorly understood and ill-used at times. St. Thomas was himself simply trying to make rational sense of the mystery of the Eucharist using terms and symbols with which he was familiar. Transubstantiation actually says that the substance or the true reality becomes the body and blood even while the accidents, that is the parts we can see, touch, smell, and taste, remain sensibly bread and wine. St. Thomas would probably have been better served to leave it a mystery beyond explanation.

As we observed earlier in this series, of the sixteenth century reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, only Luther maintained a perspective of the Eucharist at all consistent with the entire preceding history of the Church. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther probably would have been better served leaving the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood a great mystery. But he was a product of both medieval Roman Catholicism and the early modern era and felt constrained to attempt to rationalize it in his theory of consubstantiation. Nevertheless, he locates the body and blood of Christ with the bread and wine of the Eucharist in a real way.

Calvin and Zwingli? They both essentially invented new ideas about the Eucharist. Their ideas are sixteenth century innovations that didn’t exist before they conceived them. Unfortunately, they ended up having more influence over Protestantism than Luther did. Luther’s teaching remained largely limited to Lutherans. Calvin’s had broader influence. While some version of Zwingli’s teaching on the Eucharist has become the norm for most of Protestant belief and practice. It can be fairly said that those who follow Zwingli or Calvin in their teaching of the Eucharist are practicing a faith that is less than five hundred years old rather than one that is more than two millenia old.

Is that a historical problem?

I would call it one.