Who Am I?

For the Life of the World 38

Posted: February 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 38

This post focuses on sections 4-6 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann more closely examines why the ancient Christian Fathers perceived symbol and reality so differently and it’s primarily a matter of “worldview” (to use an often overused word).  The world, created by God, is naturally “symbolical” and even “sacramental”.

If the Christian sacrament is unique, it is not in the sense of being a miraculous exception to the natural order of things created by God and “proclaiming His glory.”

And that is something that is fundamentally wrong with so many of the conversations within much of Western Christianity. “Miracles” are viewed as events or actions that contravene the natural. And in that false dichotomy we find the seed of our perception of a natural order somehow apart from God. Christ’s institution consists of filling the natural symbol with himself and making it sacrament.

Theology as proper words and knowledge about God is the result of the knowledge of God — and in Him of all reality. The “original sin” of post-patristic theology consists therefore in the reduction of the concept of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge or, in other terms, in the separation of knowledge from “mysterion.”

And that, of course, is foolish. I’m a programmer. I’m the son and nephew of scientists. I have no problem with rational or discursive knowledge. But none of that has anything to do with the way I know my wife. My knowledge of her is built on years of shared pain, struggle, and sometimes ecstasy. In many ways, she remains a mystery to me — yet I know her as I know no other. I know my children not in some rational way, but as that newborn I held, that infant whom I rocked while I sang, the young child I comforted, and through the web of life experienced together. And that, of course, is how we know God. He will always remain mystery, remain other to us as we ultimately remain to each other. And yet we know him and live within the experience of his love for us.

It must be clear by now, we hope, that the theme of “real presence” which we mentioned above and whose appearance in a way inaugurated the post-patristic period in sacramental theology was born out of theological doubt about the “reality” of symbol, i.e., its ability to contain and communicate reality.

Opposing “symbol” and “real” was simply a mistake in category, but one which has had a profound impact on humanity and on our Christian faith.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 7

Posted: February 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 7

Thomas Howard’s seventh chapter, Table and Altar: Supper and Sacrament, focuses on the Eucharist (the Thanksgiving) of bread and wine, body and blood. He opens the chapter with a strange statement that the word sacrament does not appear in the Bible. As I read the chapter, I thought perhaps he meant that the Thanksgiving, the “breaking of bread”, or the various other ways Scripture refers to what many Protestants call the “Lord’s Supper” is never specifically called “sacrament”. If that is the case, he’s probably correct (though John 6 strongly implies it at least). If that’s not what he meant, then I don’t understand his statement at all.

For those who don’t know, “sacrament” is the anglicized version of the Latin word “sacramentum”. Sacramentum was the Latin word chosen to translate the Greek word “mysterion”. And mysterion certainly appears quite a bit in the Bible. So I was left rather confused by Howard’s unqualified statement.

Mysterion is used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, the future reality of creation’s experience of God has broken into the present in Jesus. And, as Howard points out, “remembrance” as used at Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist carries the additional meaning of making the past present again in the moment. So in the Eucharist, we always have the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection rushing forward into the present moment as the future of the eschaton rushes back (from our perspective) into the same moment.  In the Eucharist, we do not live somewhere between two moments in time, past and present. Time instead collapses into the mystery of Christ’s body and blood, which makes all things new.

Howard points first to John 6 for the theology of the Eucharist, and that is always where we need to begin. It is, after all, the eucharistic chapter in the theological gospel just as John 3 is a starting point for the theology of Baptism. I’m familiar with the way John 6 tends to be “spiritualized” in evangelicalism. But Howard is correct. That explanation falls apart in the narrative of the text. If the “spiritual” meaning were what Jesus had in mind, his followers would not have all been so offended. As it is, he is left with only the Twelve by the end of the text, and they hardly offer a ringing endorsement.

Howard then traces a bit of the history of Christian writing on the Eucharist, which continues almost without interruption on the heels of the text of the New Testament. In my series on Baptists, Eucharist, and History, I covered the first couple of hundred years or so of Christian writing on the topic in a fair degree of detail, more than Howard has room to do in a section of a chapter.

However, Howard does later try to discuss the Eucharist using the categories of “natural” and “supernatural”. Those have never seemed to fit the sort of relationship between creation and God as glimpsed through Jesus to me, and I’m even less comfortable with that way of dividing reality after reading Fr. Schmemann. I would say a better description of the mystery is that it involves the union of the matter of the created world (bread and wine) with the divine reality of the Body and Blood of Christ without diminishing or destroying either. It is the union toward which we are striving and for which we consume our Lord.

However, I do agree with the overall arc of the chapter, even if I was inclined to quibble in a few places.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 5

Posted: February 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 5

Thomas Howard’s fifth chapter is titled: Hail, Blessed Virgin Mary: What Did the Angel Mean? Oddly, to my mind, he uses that introduction to explore how marriage is both a spiritual and physical union in a way that is intertwined and inseparable. He then builds on that to show how the foundation of Christian faith, flowing from the material and earthy sacrifices of Torah, did not become something ethereal and spiritual. No, the origin of our faith lies in a messy gynecological reality of real child-bearing, wombs, and physical birth. The root of our particular faith begins in the mystery of the Incarnation.

I agree with pretty much everything Howard writes as he explores the above in length. But then I’ve never had any bias against honor or reverence toward Mary or, indeed, any of the saints. If what Christianity (and Christ) says about the nature of reality is true, then all of that naturally flows along with it. But I was not shaped as an evangelical. I gather Howard felt it necessary to approach Mary somewhat obliquely, disarming mental traps, rather than tackling the matter directly.

The Christian piety that has been afraid almost to name, much less to hail, the Virgin and to join the the angel Gabriel and Elisabeth in according blessing and exaltation to her is a piety that has impoverished itself. Stalwart for the glory of God alone, it has been afraid to see the amplitude of that glory, which brims and overflows and splashes outward in a surging golden tide, gilding everything that it touches. … A Christian devotion afraid to join the angel of God in hailing the Virgin as highly exalted is a devotion cramped either by ignorance or fear.

I do find that I prefer to emphasize the particular nature of what Mary accomplished through her ‘Yes‘ to God flowing from the ancient title Theotokos (God-Bearer) more than emphasizing her state as Virgin. But neither do I reject or find either one troublesome. I suppose, even after a decade and a half, I still don’t understand that visceral negative reaction by evangelicals.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 3

Posted: February 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Thomas Howard opens the third chapter, Christian Worship: Act or Experience?, with a story of his time living in England and attending an evangelical church that was part of the Church of England. It was familiar to him in its evangelical belief. (For those who don’t know the Anglican communion includes both evangelical and anglo-catholic churches as well as just about everything in between.) But it was named after a saint (St. Andrew); was  eight hundred years old, with a history stretching back before the Protestant Reformation; used set prayers, also kneeling for prayer; and sang the Psalms. It was both familiar and alien to him.

I can’t say that I’ve had any similar sort of childhood or adult revelations. Although my childhood formation was not specifically Christian, it did include a broad exposure to lots of different sorts of Christianity within the context of modern Christian pluralism. Nor did I have any particular bias toward one form of Christianity or another, though as a child I tended to prefer (or at least I better remember) the beauty and symbolism of the liturgical traditions over the more iconoclastic forms of Christian expression. But I adapted easily and readily to all sorts of spirituality — Christian or otherwise. So the aspects of Thomas Howard’s narrative where he is surprised by his encounter with differences is a little hard for me to inhabit. I can understand it intellectually, of course, but I can’t really grasp the impact it had on him.

One of the first things discussed is the fact that this Anglican church knelt for prayer. Howard had always wanted to be in a corporate setting that knelt, but had been constrained within his evangelical context. Nor is it simply a trivial matter of personal preference. What we do with our bodies does not merely express something internal. Rather, the posture and movement of our bodies works the other way around as well. If we are still, that stillness can begin to percolate inwards. I liked the way he uses a hypothetical Tibetan lama to make that point.

The phrase worship experience missed the point. Worship, in the ancient tradition, was not thought of as an experience at all; it was an act.

The above, of course, ties directly to his title for this chapter. He continues with his encounter of antiphons, responses that his evangelical formation had always denigrated as rote. The vicar says, “The Lord be with you,” and the church responds, “And with thy spirit.” They are not rote at all, of course.

Love greets love. … Hell hates this. It can only hiss, Out of my way, fool. But heaven says, The Lord be with you. This is what was said to us in the Incarnation. This is what the Divine Love always says.

Howard is generous in his analysis of the reasons evangelicals may react against things like antiphonal responses and set prayers and corporate postures in innocence. I’m probably a little less generous, but that’s a failing of my character, I think. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

In the public order we are delivered from the small confines of our own breasts. We do not want intimacy here. The attempt to make public worship personal, intimate, and informal is misbegotten. It confuses the public with the private, and in so doing it betrays both.

The above is an interesting point. I had never really considered it in those terms exactly. But the thought rings true to me.

The worship of the Church is an act — a most ancient and noble mystery — and almost nothing is gained by endlessly updating it, streamlining it, personalizing it, and altering it.

I would go even further. Not only is little gained, but much is lost in the process.

Evangelicalism, stalwart as it is, had in effect left me with nothing but the Bible and the modern world. “Sola Scriptura!” we cried. But it is not sola scriptura. This is to ignore, with almost unpardonable hubris, the Church, full of the Holy Ghost, moving faithfully along through history. It is to pit the Bible against the Church, which is heresy.

And I would add that sola scriptura is a myth and a lie. No text means anything absent interpretation. The only thing accomplished in that claim is to pit your individual, personal interpretation against that of the Church. Though, to be fair, most people who claim to believe in scripture alone are not actually asserting their own personal interpretation of the text. Rather, they accept the interpretation taught to them by someone who, for whatever reason, they trust. The problem arises when a particular interpretation can be traced to a specific individual at a specific point in time (usually in the last five hundred years or so) and that interpretation contradicts the most ancient interpretations of the text and is either a novel interpretation or a new expression of an ancient heresy. Why would a reasonable Christian accept either one as true? Of course, I guess most people never trace the provenance of the interpretations they accept. They just trust those who passed them along to them.


For the Life of the World 28

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 28

The series continues in section 1 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Christianity, with its message offering fullness of life, has contributed more than anything else to the liberation of man from the fears and pessimism of religion. Secularism, in this sense, is a phenomenon within the Christian world, a phenomenon impossible without Christianity. Secularism rejects Christianity insofar as Christianity has identified itself with the “old religion” and is forcing upon the world those “explanations” and “doctrines” of death and life which Christianity has itself destroyed.

Christianity offers life from and within the ultimate source of all life — God. And yet so much of it has degenerated today into little more than a discussion about what happens to the “real” you after you die. That’s the focus of traditional religion and should never be the central focus of Christianity.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think of secularism as simply an “absence of religion.” It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an “other world” of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a “survival” about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given “value” in terms of death. Secularism is an “explanation” of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life — so thinks a secularist — and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. … The American “funeral home” is indeed the very symbol of secularist religion, for it expresses both the quiet acceptance of death as something natural (a house among other houses with nothing typical about it) and the denial of death’s presence in life.

That actually describes the perspective of many modern Christians. On the one hand there are those who view everything in terms of the “afterlife” (which Fr. Schmemann calls the “old religion”) and on the other hand are at least as many who mostly ignore death, think in terms of the “best life now,” and when they must face death, consider it as something unpleasant, but natural. Neither perspective, though, is actually Christian in any sense that can be connected to our historical faith. And secularism is increasingly common in our culture because it works. It helps more with its life-centered approach than most religious approaches.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. … If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die — and not just live — for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Indeed, we have already seen that last prediction come to fruition in the decades since Fr. Schmemann wrote it. So what then is Christianity?

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. … Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. … In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere “help,” not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an “other world” which looks like a cemetery (“eternal rest”) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to “dispose” every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a “just society” and to be happy! — this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his “positive ideal” — religious or secular — and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes “awful,” the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the “end” and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.

Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Christ agonized over the horror of his own impending death. That’s what Fr. Schmemann is referencing in his closing line above. Another thing I recall hearing at funerals is that a person died when God determined they should die. They are essentially making God responsible for death instead of recognizing death as the enemy. It’s little wonder that so many reject such a religion in favor of almost anything else. If it’s what I believed Christianity was, I would reject it in a heartbeat myself. No faith is better than that. Buddhism is better than that. Shintoism is better than that. Hinduism, in its many and varied forms, is better than that. If I believed in a God like that, I might as well convert to Islam. Insha’Allah.

Thanks, but no thanks.


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.


On the Incarnation of the Word 17 – Fully Human, Fully Divine

Posted: September 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 17 – Fully Human, Fully Divine

We say, of course, that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. It has become almost formulaic. Yet we don’t really reflect on the depth of that mystery and have a tendency to emphasize one over the other. We have discussed and will discuss what it would mean for Christ to be any less than fully human. In today’s section, though, Athanasius focuses on Christ as the divine Word.

For He was not, as might be imagined, circumscribed in the body, nor, while present in the body, was He absent elsewhere; nor, while He moved the body, was the universe left void of His working and Providence; but, thing most marvellous, Word as He was, so far from being contained by anything, He rather contained all things Himself; and just as while present in the whole of Creation, He is at once distinct in being from the universe, and present in all things by His own power,—giving order to all things, and over all and in all revealing His own providence, and giving life to each thing and all things, including the whole without being included, but being in His own Father alone wholly and in every respect,— thus, even while present in a human body and Himself quickening it, He was, without inconsistency, quickening the universe as well, and was in every process of nature, and was outside the whole, and while known from the body by His works, He was none the less manifest from the working of the universe as well.

So even as Jesus lived his human life, the divine logos still sustained all creation, not just the one body within which it was incarnate. Of course, we know that has to be true from Colossians, but it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around. That has always been true. We still see today groups who on the one hand tend to portray Jesus as so divine that he is other than human and on the other as so human that he’s less than divine. Both the superhero and the everyday joe images are easier for us to accept than the reality of Christ.

Fully God and fully man? That’s a tough nut to swallow, but it’s precisely what the Incarnation uncompromisingly demands from us.