Who Am I?

For the Life of the World 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For the Life of the World 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For the Life of the World 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary said yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For the Life of the World 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For the Life of the World 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For the Life of the World 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

Posted: December 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

There are many aspects in the study of ancient cultures and life that make it difficult for us to grasp the way people thought and interacted and the way various events are tied together. Not least of these problems is the essentially ephemeral nature of most human artifacts. A lot of people I encounter seem to think we know (as in some certain knowledge) a lot more about the ancient world than we actually do. The reality is that ancient history is a process more akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing and no certain idea what the assembled mosaic should portray. Discerning the overarching threads of the picture is made even more difficult because we do not think about or approach the world around us in the same way they did. Our culture, that is our basic assumptions about the nature of reality, other people, power structures, and the threads that tie it all together, is very different from any ancient culture. When we simply look at collections of artifacts or bits of information through the lens of our modern culture and assumptions, we will invariably construct a false picture of the past.

That’s one of the things that has always made ancient history so fascinating to me. I love the challenge of trying to see the world through those very different lenses. I can never fully do it, of course. I’m as much the product of the forces and assumptions that shaped me as we all are. But I can catch glimpses here and there. I can have flashes of insight. In truth, it’s the same sort of problem that has also drawn my interest to different modern cultures, trying to understand how they shape and form the lenses through which people view reality. But with ancient cultures, you’re operating with fragments. The glass is shattered. Nobody presently alive was a part of that ancient culture and so you’re looking through small pieces at a time and trying to discern the whole.

One of the core differences between most of our modern cultures and the ancient cultures is that modern cultures are predominantly literate cultures rather than oral cultures. Now, that statement means a whole lot more than simply whether or not people can read and write. In the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish worlds it was not unusual for people of all classes (even slaves and women) to be able to read and write to some extent. But the cultures were fundamentally oral cultures. And that has some profound implications.

(I haven’t read biblical scholars to any great extent because many of the modern ones don’t seem to be historians and are thus less interesting to me. However, I have noticed that Ben Witherington III and N.T. Wright are two biblical scholars who are also historians and incorporate a lot of this into their work. I’m sure they aren’t the only ones. But, as I said, I haven’t read or listened to any broad spectrum of biblical scholars. I just happened to stumble across the two above over the course of years.)

One of the hurdles we face seems at first to be a relatively minor difference at first. We trust things in writing more than things that are spoken. They trusted things that were spoken more than things that were written. In other words, if somebody tells us something and we aren’t sure if they are telling us the truth or not, we will try to look it up in a trusted written work. We will look for a signed contract outlining the agreement. We elevate the text over the merely verbal.

In the ancient world the opposite was true. If someone spoke, you knew who was speaking and you knew for certain what they said. You could then decide (often through complex chains of trust) if the person speaking was someone you would believe or not. Agreements and contracts relied on verbal oaths with witnesses. Even when they were written down, the written text was considered poor evidence. Texts, on the other hand, were inherently untrustworthy. You had no idea if the person to whom they were attributed actually wrote them. You didn’t know if they had been changed or altered. And they were subject to misinterpretation.

Those problems were further exacerbated by the nature of writing in that part of the ancient world. Material on which to write was not inexpensive and so none of it was wasted. Ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts did not have upper or lower case letters. They did not use punctuation. And they did not put spaces between the words. Ancient written Hebrew didn’t even use vowels. They were inferred from the consonants and context.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine trying to read and understand this post if it were written in all capital letters, with no punctuation, and no spaces.

Now take out the vowels.

Most “letters” in the ancient world were very brief and factual. You could give a servant or messenger a letter that said (after greetings), “Here are the three donkeys I promised to send to you,” with little chance of being misunderstood. The “letters” in the New Testament are really not much like letters at all. They are generally sermons or treatises sometimes inserted inside the structure of a formal letter. (Not all the “letters” have any of that structure. 1 John, for example, is simply a sermon.) As a result, the written text alone would never have been trusted or even correctly understood by its recipients as a mere text. Rather, the text would have been entrusted to a messenger, someone those receiving the text would either know or know about, and would trust that the person came from the one said to have sent the text. That person would then deliver the text verbally in the stead of the one who sent it. It was the person carrying the message who was trusted first, not the message itself. And it was that person who knew how to accurately read the text and who could hand over the correct reading (or tradition it) to those receiving it. Once you recognize that fact, you realize how important those delivering any text like those in our New Testament canon actually were and you realize that a text had no independent authority. Paul does us the favor of identifying many of those who carried the sermons he could not deliver in person to various places. And it is therefore much more significant than many modern people seem to realize that the sermon/treatise to the Roman Church by Paul was given to Deacon Phoebe to deliver.

And that brings us to the way knowledge is held and transmitted in oral cultures. We use the written word as our repository of knowledge and our means of transmitting that knowledge to others. That is not essentially true in an oral culture. People instead commit the important things to memory. I’ve noticed that a lot of modern people are amazed at that or think it’s impossible. But it’s really not. We have trained our minds to work within the context of a literate culture so we use our memories differently than those in an oral culture do. But in an oral culture, people routinely commit segments of their tradition to memory essentially word for word. That is the process of “traditioning” knowledge in an oral culture.

When we do not understand that facet, we miss the many places where our texts speak of “handing over to you what I received” or urging people to hold fast to what was “traditioned” to them either in person or in a text delivered by a trusted messenger. We also misplace our trust. Their trust in the ancient Church was never in a text. They didn’t even have texts in all instances. (Texts were hand written and very expensive.) Their trust was in those who gave them the tradition of our faith within the context of our shared communion. The trust was in the network of people who proclaimed our Lord and who, originally, had seen our risen Lord and been instructed by him. That is actually the basis behind the acceptance of certain texts as canonical. They were texts believed to have originated from those taught by Jesus after his death, those who traditioned the apostolic witness to the Church, and they were texts that were widely read in the Church. (The gnostic gospels and other texts, by comparison, were very narrowly read. Others, like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, lacked a definitive connection to a specific apostolic witness.)

When we miss this facet of an oral culture, we also miss the import of statements like that in the Didache, where before Baptism those being baptized “say all these things”. They were reciting the tradition to show they had properly received it and were prepared to join the community. If you read ancient texts from an oral culture through the lens of a literate culture, you will misunderstand the framework that supports the texts and thus often misunderstand the texts themselves.

It’s hard for me to say whether any text in our Holy Scriptures has a “plain meaning” or not. I certainly find both John’s Gospel and Paul’s sermon to the Romans deep theological treatises that are not at all easy to understand and have layer upon layer of meaning. But I do know that even those texts that might have had a “plain meaning” to those originally receiving it no longer have one for us. We are simply too far removed from the cultural context, language, and understanding to interpret them on our own. We need the interpretation of the communion of the life of the Church to understand our faith. We need to receive it first from the Church. Now, that does not mean we cannot critically examine what we have received. That does not mean the Spirit will not lead us into new insight (though I tend to distrust ideas I have that seem truly new). It doesn’t even mean that everything we receive has necessarily been preserved accurately. But it does mean that if I read the text, or I meditate on God, and I come up with an idea that is not only new, but which contradicts the overall tradition of our faith, I am deeply suspicious of it. And that’s the standard I tend to apply to any teaching or idea promulgated by another.

I never applied that same standard to other spiritualities I pursued. There have been other buddhas and other sutras in Buddhism since Gautama Buddha. Every guru in the myriad paths we today label Hinduism takes a different turn of interpretation or application of the vedic literature. But Christianity is rooted in a specific person who lived, taught, and made known to us a very specific God with a particular perspective on the nature of reality. Christianity is tied to history in a way no other faith I’ve explored has been. Either Jesus of Nazareth was all that God is and the events of his life happened essentially as we believe, or there is no reason to be Christian. So there is no room for a plurality of visions about God within our faith. There is one faith and this is the faith in Jesus as delivered by and through the apostolic witness. If something demonstrably contradicts that witness, I don’t understand why someone would choose to believe it. If I believed their witness were wrong in a substantive way, or that the Church had lost the tradition that had been handed over to it, I wouldn’t see any point in being Christian at all. Once lost, I see no way a tradition as specifically focused as Christianity and rooted in historical events and teachings could ever be recovered.


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?