Who Am I?

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 18

Posted: November 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 18

Next I reflect on section 3 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter four.

Baptism proper begins with the blessing of the water. To understand, however, the meaning of water here, one must stop thinking of it as an isolated “matter” of the sacrament. Or rather, one must realize that water is the “matter” of sacrament, because it stands for the whole of matter, which is, in baptism, the sign and presence of the world itself. In the biblical “mythological” worldview — which incidentally is more meaningful and philosophically consistent than the one offered by some “demythologizers” — water is the “prima materia,” the basic element of the world. It is the natural symbol of life, for there is no life without water, but it is also the symbol of destruction and death, and finally, it is the symbol of purification, for there is no cleanliness without it. In the Book of Genesis creation of life is presented as the liberation of the dry land from the water — as a victory of the Spirit of God over the waters — the chaos of nonexistence. In a way, then, creation is a transformation of water into life.

We have largely forgotten the significance of water in our culture today. We turn on a tap and it’s there. We buy bottles of it. We filter it and flavor it. But we rarely think about it. Yet it remains deeply important. When I was a young teen husband and father, there were times we had to choose what utility we would or wouldn’t have turned on. After a period of a couple of weeks once without water, I realized that it’s the most important and always had it turned on first. Even in our modern society, you can survive indefinitely, if not comfortably, without electricity or gas (at least in the south where it never gets so cold that you can’t just pile on clothes and blankets — or get heat from a woodstove or fireplace). Phone is a luxury, not a necessity at all. But water? With no running water, things quickly become a nightmare just trying to manage the most basic needs. If you’re ever in a position where you have to choose, choose water first. Always.

And we miss the significance of water in the Holy Scriptures as well. Creation is brought forth from the waters. Water is primal. But it is also mysterious and dangerous. It’s life-giving and destructive. In Daniel, the monsters come out of the sea. When you understand that and the danger and mystery of the sea, you understand how one description of the eschaton in Revelation says “there is no more sea.” Yet water is also the source of purity and ritual cleanliness. It figures prominently in Torah, foreshadowing of course (from a Christian perspective) the Spirit we receive in and through Christ. And who can forget the great Water stories in John’s Gospel?

Water is significant on so many levels and not least that it’s through water and the Spirit that we are born into the life of the new Man. So, of course the water is blessed. “To bless, as we already know, is to give thanks.” We give thanks for the matter through which we enter eucharistic life.

It is in this water that we now baptize — i.e., immerse — man, and this baptism is for him baptism “into Christ” (Rom. 6:3). For the faith in Christ that led this man to baptism is precisely the certitude that Christ is the only true “content” — meaning being and end — of all that exists, the fullness of Him who fills all things. In faith the whole world becomes the sacrament of His presence, the means of life in Him. And water, the image and presence of the world, is truly the image and presence of Christ.

We have lost the sense today in many ways that Christ fills all things, that in him we live and move and have our being. We have divided reality into the “natural” world and the “spiritual.” And that is almost a blasphemous dichotomy.

But “know you not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Baptism — the gift of the “newness of life” — is announced as “the likeness of death.” Why? Because the new life which Christ gives to those who believe in Him shone forth from the grave. This world rejected Christ, refused to see in Him its own life and fulfillment. And since it has no other life but Christ, by rejecting and killing Christ the world condemned itself to death. … It is only when we give up freely, totally, unconditionally, the self-sufficiency of our life, when we put all its meaning in Christ, that the “newness of life” — which means a new possession of the world — is given to us. The world then truly becomes the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the growth of the Kingdom and of life eternal. For Christ, “being raised from the dead, dies no more; death has no dominion over him.” Baptism is thus the death of our selfishness and self-sufficiency, and it is the “likeness of Christ’s death” because Christ’s death is this unconditional self-surrender. And as Christ’s death “trampled down death” because in it the ultimate meaning and strength of life were revealed, so also does our dying with him unite us with the new “life in God.”

Read that several times. It is only by uniting with Christ’s death, his surrender to God, that we can be united to new life. The point is not primarily about forgiveness. Baptism runs much deeper than that. It’s about death and life. The newly baptized Christian is then clothed in a white garment, the garment of a king.

Man is again king of creation. The world is again his life, and not his death, for he knows what to do with it. He is restored to the joy and power of true human nature.

Christianity is, in part, a story of what it means to be truly human. If we do not grasp and live within that reality, we lose much of the power of the story.


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 16

Posted: November 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 16

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 6-7 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  third podcast on chapter three.

Fr. Schmemann now explores the manner in which the cycle of services relates the Church and individual Christian to the time of day, and how the prayers and other liturgical acts, performed on behalf of the whole community, are an essential part of the Church’s redeeming mission. In the book and thus also in my post we’ll focus on the morning and the evening hours. In all traditions that join in the set prayers of the Church or are at all liturgical, these are the most prominent. In the podcast, Deacon Michael does an excellent job summarizing all of the hours. If you are not familiar with them, I recommend listening to the podcast even more strongly than I normally do.

Contrary to our secular experience of time, the liturgical day begins with Vespers, i.e., in the evening. This is, of course, the reminiscence of the biblical “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Gn. 1:5). Yet it is more than a reminiscence. For it is, indeed, the end of each “unit” of time that reveals its pattern and meaning, that gives to time its reality. Time is always growth, but only at the end can we discern the direction of that growth and see its fruits. It is at the end, in the evening of each day that God sees His creation as good; it is at the end of creation that He gives it to man. And thus, it is at the end of the day that the Church begins the liturgy of time’s sanctification.

So as our day or work and play and rest winds down, the Church does not merely add an epilogue to the experiences of that day. It begins a new day characterized by thanksgiving, turning toward God, and sanctifying the new day.

There must be someone in this world — which rejected God and in this rejection, in this blasphemy, became a chaos of darkness — there must be someone to stand in its center, and to discern, to see it again as full of divine riches, as the cup full of life and joy, as beauty and wisdom, and to thank God for it. This “someone” is Christ, the new Adam who restores that “eucharistic life” which I, the old Adam, have rejected and lost; who makes me again what I am, and restores the world to me. And if the Church is in Christ, its initial is always this act of Thanksgiving, of returning the world to God.

However, contrasted with the beauty and wonder for which we give thanks, there is also the ugliness of sin. Repentance is another theme of Vespers.

In the face of the glory of creation there must be tremendous sadness. God has given us another day, and we can see just how we have destroyed this gift of His. We are not “nice” Christians come apart from the ugly world. If we do not stand precisely as representatives of this world, as indeed the world itself, if we do not bear the whole burden of this day, our “piety” may still be pious, but it is not Christian.

The third theme of Vespers is redemption. This redemption, of course, is Christ.

Now in the time in which we can thank God for Christ, we begin to understand that everything is transformed in Christ into its true wonder. In the radiance of His light the world is not commonplace. The very floor we stand on is a miracle of atoms whizzing about in space. The darkness of sin is clarified, and its burden shouldered. Death is robbed of its finality, trampled down by Christ’s death. In a world where everything that seems to be present is immediately past, everything in Christ is able to participate in the eternal present of God. This very evening is the real time of our life.

And the last theme of Vespers is that of the end announced in the words from the Gospels of the old man Simeon.

Vespers is the recognition that the evening of this world has come which announces the day that has no evening. In this world every day faces night; the world itself is facing night. It cannot last forever. Yet the Church is affirming that an evening is not only an end, but also a beginning, just as any evening is also the beginning of another day. In Christ and through Christ it may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening.

The day that has no evening. That image echoes in my mind. Fr. Schmemann then moves to Matins. I like his opening in section 7.

When we first wake up, the initial sensation is always that of night, not of illumination; we are at our weakest, at our most helpless. It is like a man’s first real experience of life in all its absurdity and solitude, at first kept from him by family warmth. We discover every morning in the amorphous darkness the inertia of life. And thus the first theme of Matins is again the coming of light into darkness. … The Church announces every morning that God is the Lord, and she begins to organize life around God.

As Vespers, rather than epilogue announces a new day of Thanksgiving, so Matins organizes our waking life around the God whom we thank.

These two complementary, yet absolutely essential, dimensions of time shape our life in time and, by giving time a new meaning, transform it into Christian time. This double experience is, indeed, to be applied to everything we do. We are always between morning and evening, between Sunday and Sunday, between Easter and Easter, between the two comings of Christ. The experience of time as end gives an absolute importance to whatever we do now, makes it final, decisive. The experience of time as beginning fills all our time with joy, for it adds to it the “coefficient” of eternity: “I shall not die but live and declare the works of the Lord.”

Fr. Schmemann reflects on the words from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” That seems to capture the essence of the sameness of daily life. We get up, get ready, and head into a day of work, joining a rush of others doing the same. And in the evening, the rush is in the other direction as tired people head home. And the cycle, in the fallen world, repeats day after day in a blur of sameness, futility, and meaninglessness.

But we Christians have too often forgotten that God has redeemed the world. For centuries we have preached to the hurrying people: your daily rush has no meaning, yet accept it — and you will be rewarded in another world by an eternal rest. But God revealed and offers us eternal Life and not eternal rest. And God revealed this eternal Life in the midst of time — and of its rush — as its secret meaning and goal. And thus he made time, and our work in it, into the sacrament of the world to come, the liturgy of fulfillment and ascension. It is when we have reached the very end of the world’s self-sufficiency that it begins again for us as the material of the sacrament that we are to fulfill in Christ.

“There is no new thing under the sun.” Yet every day, every minute resounds now with the victorious affirmation: “Behold, I make all things new. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end…” (Rev. 21:5-6)

I love how he ends by contrasting the words of the Preacher and the words of our Lord. Indeed, Christ makes all things new, including time.


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 14

Posted: November 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 14

This post continues with my thoughts on section 3 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

From the beginning Christians had their own day, and it is in its peculiar nature that we fine the key to the Christian experience of time.

The day is a basic unit of our experience of time. I get up. I go to work. Kids go to school. We have meals. We engage in activities. All these things are contained by days and often by a cycle of days. So it’s not surprising that in order to understand the Christian experience we start at the day. As I noted earlier, the Christian day is not the Sabbath, but it is also not divorced from the Jewish experience of Sabbath, something that can be lost if you simply understand it as “doing no work.”

In the Jewish religious experience Sabbath, the seventh day, has a tremendous importance: it is the participation by man in, and his affirmation of, the goodness of God’s creation. … The seventh day is thus the joyful acceptance of the world created by God as good. The rest prescribed on that day, and which was somehow obscured later by legalistic and petty prescriptions and taboos, is not at all our modern “relaxation,” an absence of work. It is the active participation in the “Sabbath delight,” in the sacredness and fullness of divine peace as the fruit of all work, as the crowning of all time.

No, I have nothing against Sabbath, but even Sabbath properly understood has a problem.

Yet this “good” world, which the Jew blesses on the seventh day, is at the same time the world of sin and revolt against God, and its time is the time of man’s exile and alienation from God. … In the late Jewish apocalyptic writings there emerges the idea of a new day which is both the eighth — because it is beyond the frustrations and limitations of “seven,” the time of this world — and the first, because with it begins the new time, that of the Kingdom. It is from this idea that grew the Christian Sunday.

Seven represent completeness in Jewish (and for that matter Christian) thought. That’s what makes the structure of John’s telling of new creation in his gospel so significant. On the sixth day, Pilate says, “Behold the man!” and Jesus is crucified. On the seventh he rests in the tomb. And then, rather than being the end of John’s narrative of new creation, John 20 opens amazingly, “Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” There is a second first day in John’s narrative which is also the eighth.

Christ rose from the dead on the first day after Sabbath. The life that shone forth from the grave was beyond the inescapable limitations of “seven,” of time that leads to death. It was thus the beginning of a new life and of a new time.

From the moment Christ rose from the tomb, the time of the Kingdom began. As Christians, we already live within that time, rather than the old time bounded by sevens. We live in the unbounded eighth day of creation.

A “fixed day.” … If Christianity were a purely “spiritual” and eschatological faith there would have been no need for a “fixed day,” because mysticism has no interest in time. To save one’s soul one needs, indeed, no “calendar.” And if Christianity were but a new “religion,” it would have established its calendar, with the usual opposition between the “holy days” and the “profane days” — those to be “kept” and “observed” and those religiously insignificant. Both understandings did in fact appear later. But this was not at all the original meaning of the “fixed day.” It was not meant to be a “holy day” opposed to profane ones, a commemoration in time of a past event. Its true meaning was in the transformation of time, not of calendar. For, on the one hand, Sunday remained one of the days (for more than three centuries it was not even a day of rest), the first of the week, fully belonging to this world. Yet on the other hand, on that day, through the eucharistic ascension, the Day of the Lord was revealed and manifested in all its glory and transforming power as the end of this world, as the beginning of the world to come.  … The week was no longer a sequence of “profane” days, with rest on the “sacred” day at their end. … Every day, every hour acquired now an importance, a gravity it could not have had before: each day was now to be a step in this movement, a moment of decision and witness, a time of ultimate meaning. Sunday therefore was not a “sacred” day to be “observed” apart from all other days and opposed to them. … By remaining one of the ordinary days, and yet be revealing itself through the Eucharist as the eighth and first day, it gave all days their true meaning. It made the time of this world a time of the end, and it made it also the time of the beginning.

The above is dense and you may need to read it a few times. But it captures something that is important and that we have almost completely lost in our modern world. If we cannot recover it, we will not live within a Christian sense of time and our ability to shape and sanctify the time in which we live will continue to be severely muted. Sunday is not first and foremost about a day we remember and keep holy. It is a day set apart. It’s not that somehow every day is now Sunday in a way that renders no day special. But Sunday, representing all “ordinary” days is set apart so that in and through our recognition of the Resurrection of Jesus on the first day, we make all days now holy. There are no days, just as there are no places, in a Christian perspective of reality, that are not holy. The first day and the eighth day are one.


For the Life of the World 13

Posted: November 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 1-2 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

As we leave the church after the Sunday Eucharist we enter again into time, and time, therefore, is the first “object” of our Christian faith and action. For it is indeed the icon of our fundamental reality, of the optimism as well as of the pessimism of our life, of life as life and of life as death. Through time on the one hand we experience life as a possibility, growth, fulfillment, as a movement toward a future. Through time, on the other hand, all future is dissolved in death and annihilation.

Fr. Schmemann dives right into the existential crisis of time in his opening to this chapter. Time is not some uniquely Christian problem or paradox. Philosophers of all stripes have tried their hand at it. However, I like the way he puts Christianity’s response to the conundrum of time.

Here again what the Church offers is not a “solution” of a philosophical problem, but a gift. And it becomes solution only as it is accepted as freely and joyfully as it is given. Or, it may be, the joy of that gift makes both the problem and the solution unnecessary, irrelevant.

We cannot accept that gift if we turn Christianity into a religion (in the pejorative sense that Fr. Schmemann uses the word) that saves us from time rather than within time.

Christians were tempted to reject time altogether and replace it with mysticism and “spiritual” pursuits, to live as Christians out of time and thereby escape its frustrations; to insist that time has no real meaning from the point of view of the Kingdom which is “beyond time.” And they finally succeeded. They left time meaningless indeed, although full of Christian “symbols.” And today they themselves do not know what to do with these symbols. For it is impossible to “put Christ back into Christmas” if He has not redeemed — that is, made meaningful — time itself.

I didn’t remember that last line above when I wrote my first post. I think his sentence definitely sums it up quite well. Christ entered into all creation in the Incarnation and that definitely included time. In the Resurrection he has made creation new. The Resurrection itself happened within time, as I’ve already mentioned, on the first day that is also the eighth day of creation.

And thus our question is: did Christ, the Son of God, rise from the dead on the first day of the week, did He send His Spirit on the day of Pentecost, did He, in other words, enter time only that we may “symbolize” it in fine celebrations which, although connected with the days and the hours, have no power to give time a real meaning, to transform and redeem it?

N.T. Wright points out that in every description of the eschaton which we have there are still sequences of events. There are still ongoing activities. In other words, though time (which is fundamentally the ordering of events) is assuredly made as new as everything else in creation, it doesn’t simply go away. Yes, we will be partakers in the very life of God through theosis, but the leaves of the tree are still for the healing of the nations. The Christian eschaton seems to be many things, but it is not boring or somehow timeless. Why do we seek to make it so?


For the Life of the World 12

Posted: November 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 12

This post continues my reaction to the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

Before I really dive into this chapter on a Christian perspective of time, I want to comment on something that seems to be a pervasive misunderstanding within modern American Christianity. Deacon Hyatt speaks on it briefly in his podcast. I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright speak about it. And I’ve read and heard it from multiple sources. It’s never been a surprise to me, though, since I entered Christianity with a long-standing interest in the ancient Greco-Roman world. I knew the realities of that time, within which the Church initially lived and grew as soon it spread to the Gentiles.

The issue is the issue of Sabbath. I realized it was issue when a BSF class I once attended made the blanket statement that all ten commandments still apply and are still observed by Christians today, that they were somehow a universal “Law”. I immediately pointed out that Christians don’t keep Sabbath, so that’s at least one commandment of that ten which no longer holds for us. You would have thought I committed sacrilege from the reaction. Some just immediately responded that of course we do. Others, who knew a little bit more about the Holy Scriptures and about Sabbath acknowledged that we no longer kept it on the seventh day of the week (Saturday for us), but then went on to assert that we observe Sunday as Sabbath and so we simply shifted the commandment to a different day. (Never mind, I guess, that there’s nothing in Scripture to support such a shift.) One other person in my group understood my point and we spent a little bit more time explaining it, but realized it was a major issue for many in the class and dropped it. (And yes, the “official” BSF position on that question is one of many places they are simply historically and scripturally mistaken.)

Yes, Christians have always worshiped on the morning of the first day of the week. But that worship, in its origin, had nothing to do with Sabbath. Christians met and worshiped on that morning in order to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. He rose on the first day, and we will discuss that some in this chapter. He rose in the morning. And he is also associated in scripture with the rising sun. (Which is also why churches traditionally are built facing east and the west is associated with the devil and evil.) That is all true.

However, the Jews who became Christians in the earliest centuries continued to observe their “lazy day” (which is what the Romans called the Sabbath) on the seventh day of the week. And Gentiles who converted? They didn’t get a “lazy day” like the Jews did, either before or after their conversion. Arguably the relatively few wealthy converts might have been able to get away with adding such an observance to their week if there had been a reason to do so, though that would have drawn attention to their conversion to an illegal religion. For the vast majority of Gentile converts — slaves and poor — there was no such choice at all. So throughout the first centuries, the Church met for worship very early on the morning of the first day of the week and then everyone went off to their full day of work, Jew and Gentile alike. (Actually, the worship of the first day actually began in the evening of the day before. Christianity inherited that sense of time from Judaism and you still see that pattern in liturgical churches. It was probably that feast in the evening that Paul was particularly chiding the Corinthians over rather than their first day morning gathering. But that’s just a guess on my part. I haven’t particularly studied it.)

That pattern continued at least until Constantine made Christianity legal. I would have to do some refresher research, but either Constantine instituted the idea of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath or it came sometime after him. If it came later, it probably coincided with the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire.

Now, I’m not saying the idea of Sabbath is not a good one. I believe it is a very good practice and discipline. I’m just saying that it is not a primary Christian belief or practice. Our focus is not on the rest of the seventh day, but the work of the new creation of the eighth day.  In the Gospel of John, which from his opening words is clearly (and daringly) a retelling of the creation narrative, the seventh “day” is the day Jesus rested in the tomb in death. Make of that what you will.

Well, I had intended to begin working through the book, but I’ve meandered down another rabbit trail. I’ll work my way into the book on my next post. I promise.


For the Life of the World 11

Posted: November 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 11

This week we move on to the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three.

In his podcast, Deacon Hyatt makes a statement that stuck in my mind. He says it in an off-hand way, but for some reason his statement kept bouncing around my head. I want to start with it before I dive into my thoughts on this chapter in the book.

You can’t put Christ back into Christmas without a Christian view of time. You can’t put the Resurrection back into Easter without a Christian view of time.

In recent years in the Christian circles I’ve inhabited, the first one in particular has been a big deal as people take offense over commercial retailers using the Happy Holidays salutation rather than saying Merry Christmas.

(In truth, it’s my impression that my tradition doesn’t really know what to do with the Resurrection, anyway. It’s sort of the adjunct event that proves that in their particular perspective on the Cross — which is the important thing — the payment has been accepted. The Resurrection itself is pretty anti-climactic and almost devoid of meaning. I once made the mistake of greeting one of our ministers, whom I do like, with the traditional Christian greeting on Easter, “Christ is risen!” I clearly confused him to the point that he didn’t know what to say. I felt pretty bad for doing it. I wasn’t being snarky or anything. It just bubbled out of me.)

But back to Christmas. Personally, the whole outrage struck me as pretty ridiculous. What possible difference does it make what sort of greeting retailers use? What does the ancient Christian celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord have to do with the American holiday — an orgy of consumption celebrating our wealth and propping up our economic system — beside a common name? Might as well eliminate even that vestige so there is no way the two can be confused. That was the part of my reaction I was able to put to words at the time.

Part of the reason the above quote stood out to me, I think, was because I recognized the futility of trying to put Christ back into Christmas in such a shallow way. After all, Christmas did not become a Christian holiday in isolation. Rather, pagan practices around the winter solstice were christianized by incorporating the celebration of the nativity of our Lord within a framework that sanctified all of time. And the nativity feast itself covered many days and the people prepared for feasting through a season of fasting. Instead, we throw ourselves into our cultural holiday of consumption and feast in many ways until, on the actual day, after we indulge ourselves in the “gifts” we have received and feasted one last, we collapse in exhaustion. We’re done.

Does anyone even remember the gifts you received last year? The year before? The year before that? In what way will retailers having their employees say Merry Christmas to you as you enter or leave their store put Christ back into that Christmas? Since this seems to matter deeply to many evangelicals, I’m sincerely curious. What possible difference does it actually make what store employees do or don’t say to the customers they are serving?

My tradition has rejected almost the entire framework of the Christian year, of Christian feasts, of Christian time. And then we wonder that our experience of time is no longer shaped by Christ, but rather by our culture? Without a Christian view of time, without a Christian practice of time, it’s not possible to sanctify the experience of time within a culture. Our ancestors knew what they were doing as they replaced a pagan experience of the cycles of time with a Christian one. By abandoning their wisdom, we are culpable for the “de-christianization” of time in American culture.

I was part of the group who began a sometime practice of the observance of Good Friday in our church, which I gather is fairly unusual within Baptist circles. We never did anything like a traditional Good Friday service. Rather, we put together different sorts of dramatic presentations. Even so, there were a number of people who considered it an odd thing to do. And we were pretty insistent at leaving each service with Christ’s death, a particularly dark moment. The Resurrection was for Sunday. On Friday, we wanted those participating to leave with a temporal experience of the death of Christ and the anticipation and longing for the Resurrection on Sunday. There was often some resistance or push back against that point, though never anything major. I never really understood why, but I think it has something to do with our adoption of a desire to escape time rather than make time Christian.

Well, I’ve meandered quite a bit and never really got to the book itself in this post. I’ll do that in the next one.


For the Life of the World 10

Posted: November 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 10

And now I’ll finish with sections 15-16 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. Also, if you haven’t listened to it yet, here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast over sections 9-16.

The next act in the liturgy is the intercession. I like the emphasis Fr. Schmemann gives it.

The Church is not a society for escape — corporately or individually — from this world to taste of the mystical bliss of eternity. Communion is not a “mystical experience”: we drink of the chalice of Christ, and He gave Himself for the life of the world. The bread on the paten and the wine in the chalice are to remind us of the incarnation of the Son of God, of the cross and death. And thus it is the very joy of the Kingdom that makes us remember the world and pray for it. It is the very communion with the Holy Spirit that enables us to love the world with the love of Christ. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity and the moment of truth: here we see the world in Christ, as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view.

The Church is not a society for escape. Indeed. Yet how often do we try to turn it into exactly that?

Life comes again to us as Gift, a free and divine gift. This is why in the Orthodox Church we call the eucharistic elements Holy Gifts. Adam is again introduced into Paradise, taken out of nothingness and crowned king of creation. Everything is free, nothing is due and yet all is given. And, therefore, the greatest humility and obedience is to accept the gift, to say yes — in joy and gratitude. There is nothing we can do, yet we become all that God wanted us to be from eternity, when we are eucharistic.

The central gift of the Eucharist is Life itself. Christ is the food of true life. It was Jesus who said that unless we ate his flesh and drank his blood we had no life in us. And life, of course, is what we so desperately need. Jesus came to give us life and to give it more abundantly. He came to give us himself, the only true source of life. There is nothing more startling or amazing when you consider it.

And now the time has come for us to return into the world. “Let us depart in peace,” says the celebrant as he leaves the altar, and this is the last commandment of the liturgy. We must not stay on Mount Tabor, although we know that it is good for us to be there. We are sent back. But now “we have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit.” And it is as witnesses of this Light, as witnesses of the Spirit, that we must “go forth” and begin the never-ending mission of the Church. Eucharist was the end of the journey, the end of time. And now it is again the beginning, and things that were impossible are again revealed to us as possible. … This is the meaning of the Eucharist; this is why the mission of the Church begins in the liturgy of ascension, for it alone makes possible the liturgy of mission.

I’ve heard much the same thought from N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Communion. We receive Life in order to then take life into the world.