Arimathea
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Religion
The human animal is the worshipping animal. Toward the divine, we have a need to pray, to sacrifice, to offer up, and to praise. From the spirit dances of primitive animism to the rational contemplation of philosophical paganism, from the ethical code of the rabbis to the theological vision of the scholastics, from the sprinkled blood (the origin of blessing) of temple cults to helping the poor in simple Christian charity, men need to relate the immanent and the transcendent -- they see their particular lives in time and space transfigured and transfused with meaning unbounded by human things. Religion is this aspect of human life where the everyday and worldly intersects with the ultimate and divine. Is this an accident of human evolution, or is it a racial neurosis brought upon us as conscious beings who live in the shadow of our own death? Is it a reflection of the divine order, where creatures naturally orient themselves toward their source? Has God revealed himself to us, as the Christians claim? In this realm, I shall try to delve into such questions as an Orthodox Christian who ever pesters God with "Why?"
Friday, June 21, A.D. 2013
Giving the Holy Spirit

This coming Sunday, I wish my Orthodox readers a blessed feast of Pentecost.

As I have mentioned before in “What Could We Salvage in the West?,” I find the Roman liturgical color for Pentecost—red—superior to the Russian Church’s color of green. I know that the Spirit renews the world, and green is an appropriate color, but fire red is hot! It differs from the maroon red that we use in the feasts of the Lord, and we need not abandon the significance of that tradition. As my personal attempt at low level parochial syncretism, I always wear bright red to the Pentecostal liturgy.

Several weeks ago, I was not able to attend the divine liturgy at my parish due to work, and the Orthodox generally do not have evening liturgies except for certain special occasions. So, when I have to miss my Sunday obligation, my penance is the Roman mass. I attend mass on Sunday evenings as the next best option. Apparently, that practice upsets both the Orthodox and the Latins, but it is what I do. Anyway, by chance, I happened to be wearing a green shirt when the Roman priest entered in his fiery vestments. I then realized that it was Pentecost in the Roman Church, and I was wearing green. Life is funny, and the Lord has a sense of humor.

The readings for that Sunday were the second chapter of Acts that recounts Pentecost, Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians wherein he writes that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel of John when Jesus breathes upon his disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit:

Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD.
Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.
And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:
Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

I quoted that same passage in “The Birth of the Church” a few years ago when I challenged the common practice of calling Pentecost the beginning of the Church. Listening to the readings, I had similar thoughts about what the various “givings” of the Holy Spirit mean. The post from a few years ago involved that idea, but I had never before really questioned the differences explicitly. The Holy Spirit inspired the prophets long before Jesus met his disciples on Pascha, and then Jesus breathed the Spirit upon those disciples weeks before Pentecost. What are the specific differences in these givings and receivings?

After I had a few conversations about the topic with friends, our uninformed consensus was that the prophetic and apostolic inspirations before Pentecost were temporary and connected to a particular moment and task to be done. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is active in the creation and sustenance of reality; man has an experience of him just by being. To the extent that the mind perceives truth at all appears to have something to do with the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth as we say in one of our most common prayers,

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

I remember reading Dulles’ distinction between revelation from above (in prophesy and scripture) and revelation from below (through nature and reason), and yet all such revelation proceeds from God. The Holy Spirit appears to have a special operational function in that revealing and in our seeing and understanding. It therefore is fitting for the Spirit to prepare the prophets to receive their special revelation, just as it makes sense that Jesus sends the Spirit to the apostles to prepare them to experience and to understand the most significant revelation of all on that first day of the week. In contrast, the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is not limited to a particular moment or mission but is rather a permanent feature of the Christian community to support the body of Christ in the life that God calls us to lead.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, June 21, Anno Domini 2013
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Friday, June 14, A.D. 2013
The Righteous Methodists

Years ago, I enjoyed mocking the United Methodist Church’s old television campaign with my friend Andrew. The advertisement includes a woman who says, “I can’t believe there’s a church that believes these things,” as if that were an effective hook to bring in people! Now, whenever I find the Wesleys’ children indulging in folly, I file the story under “I can’t believe there’s a church that believes these things.” A few months ago, I sent Andrew the following article about a Methodist congregation in North Carolina: “Church Won’t Do Weddings For Straight Couples Until Same-Sex Marriage Is Legal.” If the article is not enough for you, you may wish to visit the Green Street Church. It is “Where the Kingdom of God is breaking through!” They inadvertently put down the wrong preposition.

I looked at the photograph subpage, and the first image has seven people prostrating toward one another in a circle. The photograph is an excellent visual essay on how mainline Protestantism has largely degenerated into mutual self worship—and the idolaters are blind to their idolatry. But, then, aren’t they always? Moreover, do not miss the sub-Saharan African themed designs on the altar. You see, such multicultural pandering is how the white people in the parish show the little colored boys that Jesus loves them . . . though it is odd that those kids’ own parents failed to set the proper tone when deciding how to clothe their children. For they are dressed like normal American kids. The false consciousness of the racially oppressed—will it never cease?

Posted by Joseph on Friday, June 14, Anno Domini 2013
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Thursday, June 13, A.D. 2013
Journey to Mount Athos

Happy Ascension Day!

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) narrates a well executed documentary on Mount Athos, Путешествие на Афон (Greek: Ταξίδι στο Άγιο Όρος). Even if you do not know Russian, the footage is interesting.

One day, God willing, I would like to visit the holy mountain.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, June 13, Anno Domini 2013
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Wednesday, June 12, A.D. 2013
A Late Pascha

Христос васкрсе!

The paschal season is coming to an end, and summer is well upon us. It was a late date for Orthodox Pascha this year. M.J. Montes has a page dedicated to the dating of Pascha: The Date of Orthodox Easter 1875 to 2124. He lists the years on which Pascha falls on a certain date, given in both the Julian and Gregorian reckoning. This year, Pascha fell on April 22 (Julian) / May 5 (Gregorian). That is late on average. In the range covered (A.D. 1875 - 2124), Pascha falls on that Julian date annis domini 1907, 1918, 1929, 2002, 2013, 2024, and 2097 and on that Gregorian date annis domini 1907, 1918, 1929, 2002, 2013, 2024, 2097, and 2108. The difference is due to the two systems’ becoming a further day apart from A.D. 2100. Using the Gregorian system, the only later dates for Orthodox Pascha are annis domini:
May 6—1888, 1945, 1956, 2040, and 2108
May 7—2051
May 8—1983 and 2078

On the Julian calendar, I believe that April 25 is the last day on which Pascha may fall. However, the Gregorian date will get later as the two calendars’ discrepancy grows.

Mr. Montes has a neat table that shows how often in each century the Orthodox and Roman dates for Pascha coincide and differ (and by how many weeks): “Tables of Differences between the Dates of Orthodox and Western Easter, AD 1583 to AD 3000.” GM Arts also features nifty graphs of the discrepancies: “Easter Sunday Date FAQ.” Evidently, the last year of our Lord in which the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Church will celebrate Pascha on the same date is A.D. 2698. Pascha will fall on April 6 (Julian) / April 24 (Gregorian) that year.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, June 12, Anno Domini 2013
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Wednesday, June 5, A.D. 2013
Obstacles to the Gospel

Христос воскрес!

Pravoslavie.ru has posted some good counsel by Hieromonk Sergius Chetverikov: “Obstacles on the Path to the Gospel.” Here is Father Sergius’ second point, well worth consideration:

The second obstacle on the path to the Gospel is the excessive preoccupation with oneself, one’s own person. There is nothing more spiritually deadly than to make oneself, be it consciously or subconsciously, the focal point of life. When man makes himself the center of his life, his own idol, he will never reach what he is searching for, i.e. real happiness. He will always be devoured by dissatisfaction and distress. Shower him with millions, give him the opportunity for unlimited entertainment and pleasures, world fame and glory, and after a short period of delight he will feel emptiness and loneliness. And he will feel that way until he can renounce himself. Without that, no matter what kind of elevated goals he sets, he will be doomed to ephemeral and illusory moments of joy, which will invariably be substituted by prolonged disappointment and boredom.

In order to be truly happy, one must consider a life goal outside oneself. The more significant and important the subject, which we consider the goal of our life, the more we dedicate ourselves to it, the more we forget ourselves because of it, and the more joyful and happy we become. Happy is the man, who unselfishly dedicates himself to his favorite activity, be it physical or intellectual. Happy is the scientist, who is completely absorbed in his scientific research, like some Archimedes immersed in his drawings, or Xenophan, who dedicated his life to studying the stars, or Spinoza, immersed in his religious-philosophical contemplations. Happy is the mother, wholly living for her children; happy are the brothers and sisters through their mutual love, and friends, through pure and sincere friendship.

The greatest happiness, the fullness of happiness, according to the Christian teaching, is in unselfish, complete love towards God and humans—not to abstract mankind, but to the neighbor who is near us—with all his infirmities and drawbacks. The terrestrial life of Jesus Christ and His teaching, in particular—His Sermon on the Mount and the farewell conversation with His disciples, His sufferings and death are an example of carrying out the law of love.

And the entire salvation of our soul consists in denying oneself and, taking up one’s own cross, i.e. the burden of one’s own life, and following Christ. Only then will the heavy stone of inner dissatisfaction fall from our soul, and the soul will feel warm and light. A loving person will never get tired of living by loving. And no matter how much time his love will last, it will always seem to him that this love is just beginning. There is no danger for a Christian that his ideal will one day be fully realized or depleted, because the Christian ideal is not in outer achievements, but in inner development, which has no end.

The well-known phrase of Maxim Gorky: “Man—this sounds proud” has some meaning only as much we see in man the image of God; but if one applies this phrase to a person who is isolated from God and deprived of immortality, it will sound pathetic and senseless, for everyone knows the insignificance and powerlessness of man, who exists today, but tomorrow is blown off the face of the earth, like a miserable grain of sand, like a soap-bubble. The power and glory of man are only in the union with God and immortality, but are in no way in himself, in his isolation.

That is why everything that was said in this section can be summarized like this: to approach the Gospel correctly, one has to be freed from the habit of considering oneself to be the focal point and goal of life, one has to humble oneself and bow down before God, Who is the Highest and Only focal point and goal of life of everything that exists.

I recommend the entire essay.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, June 5, Anno Domini 2013
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Monday, June 3, A.D. 2013
The God Man

Χριστός ἀνέστη!

Kristor posted a thoughtful Orthosphere piece last week, “Why Does Jesus Pray?” I recommend the short article and the comments section, to which I contributed. In the article, Kristor makes the point that God knows humanity through the incarnation. I responded:

Though useful preaching material, it doesn’t seem necessary for God to be incarnate — as the messiah — to know what it is like to be a man. God knows me better than I do, though I have no reserved throne of glory. Wouldn’t the Lord God and almighty Father, creator of all things, know what it is like to be a bat?

Kristor replied:

It’s a tricky question. Obviously, he’s omniscient, right? So how can he be ignorant of what it is like to be anything?

The way I have parsed this is to distinguish between knowing what it is *like* to be a bat, and knowing what it *is* to be a bat. One knows what it is like to be a bat by knowing of experiences that are similar to those of a bat. But one can’t know what it is to be a bat unless one *just is* a bat. And until one knows what it is to just be a bat, one’s inferences about what it is like to be a bat are just that: inferences.

In virtue of the Incarnation, God knows, not just what it is like to be a man, but what it is to be a man. He does this by being a man. And – this bit is quite familiar to you, I know – in virtue of the Incarnation once in history, God is a man from before all time, and eternally; so that in the time of the creation of the first man, God already knows what it is to be a man.

And, obviously, once you know what it is to be a man, you also know what it is like to be a man.

Finally, because God knows eternally what it is to be a man, his omniscience in this regard is preserved. For all we know, God also knows what it is to be a bat; it seems quite certain that he knows what it is to be an angel. God could have committed himself to something like Incarnation in any number of different things, without in the least compromising the special and salvific nature of his Incarnation in Jesus. He is Jesus; but he is nowise limited to the Dominical instantiation.

Perhaps it is my limited imagination, but I find Krishna like multiple incarnations unsettling. I have heard folks postulate sin among alien races and ask whether God would have to become one of them to rescue them. Instead, I lean toward “one and done,” and I explain my thoughts in the next somewhat truncated comment:

I follow my favorite Western father — Bonaventure — in attempting to understand divine knowledge. God knows creation by knowing himself, as he is the source of all. In knowing the divine essence, he knows all that is (and, it seems, all that could be). The Lord is no demiurge who works with pre-existing stuff. There is no input besides God of which God could be ignorant. Still, your words have me thinking . . .

I once had a Platonist Christian professor who taught that creation as a whole was an incarnation of God and that the incarnation of the Logos as Jesus was the most visible and perfect manifestation of that act. This may smell of heresy to some, but it always made sense to me.

God has given man demarcated sacred space (temple) and time (ritual) so that man, in his spiritual blindness, may begin to recognize God’s presence, and then hopefully he will come to see the transcendent divinity that lies beyond and behind all phenomena. It is not that God is absent from mud, or spit, or rocks, but our fallen eyes and minds need trained, and lessons begin with blessings. Of setting things aside. Of offering our first fruits to the Lord. Of separating a chosen people from the rest of mankind. Our carnality needs to start with the concrete and particular before it can comprehend wider vision. And Christ is the first and last pedagogue of mankind. As a person and in his acts, he opens our eyes to the truth. When Christ “transfigured” on Mount Tabor, it was not he who changed but rather than perceptive abilities of Peter, James, and John, who finally caught a glimpse of a higher reality that was always there. I think that something of this is also relevant to the Eucharist. In our most sacred act, we acknowledge the real presence of Christ in bread and wine. When we no longer see through a glass darkly, we may come to see God in all things. Such seems distasteful to those who fear idolatry and immanentism (in other words, religion), but I think that the old pagans, philosophical pantheists, and new agers have a true insight but lack the interpretive apparatus necessary to make sense of it.

The incarnation makes the rise above idolatry possible for us because of the mysteriously unified joining of God and image in the person of the God Man. The rest of creation is an echo, a shadow, an image of this providential unity of creator and creation, and this allows all things to be opportunities for prayer and for communion. For the saint, to be is to be holy. The process of salvation is relearning to see the Lord walking in the garden.

The world is God’s image, and part of that world — man — is an exceptionally clear icon of the divine. How sad it is to contemplate, when we look at actual men! Nonetheless, man is God’s appointed chief and priest. He has neglected his duty spectacularly. Yet, Christ is the New Man, the New Adam, who recapitulates all of creation in his incarnation, and he thus also redeems all of creation through the incarnation, death, and resurrection according to Irenaeus of Lyons. Why should this be? Maximus the Confessor taught that man is God’s cosmic mediator — one of our original and final vocations. In becoming the perfect man, Jesus fulfills man’s true purpose as the creaturely conductor of the Lord’s cosmic symphony.

So, if you are correct that God’s knowledge of being a creature depends on the incarnation (rather than simply knowing his own essence and its effects), then perhaps in becoming man, God knows all of creation “from the inside.” For that is our job, and we succeed at times to a remarkable degree in understanding the rest of creation, even in our wretched state. Observe the relationships that sometimes occur between man and beast, or even man and plant (or thing). Lewis remarked that we bring animals into the intellectual, spiritual sphere by assimilating them into human life, but perhaps that limited activity is but a taste of what human life in the world should really be. The God Man’s cosmic role is not simply as God but as man, and by that, the whole universe is made anew.

Kristor has the last word, ending on a note worthy of Ammonius’ approval:

I would add one thought. When I say (as you have paraphrased me) that God’s knowledge of being a creature depends on the Incarnation, so that, in becoming man, God knows all of creation “from the inside,” that is just another way of saying, as you and St. Bonaventure say, that God knows creation by knowing himself, for in knowing the divine essence, he knows all that is (and, it seems, all that could be). God’s act of being, his act of creation, his act of knowing his own essence, his act of Incarnation, and his act of knowing his creation are a single motion.

I had not considered Kristor’s point beforehand. It is very difficult to abandon entirely “image-thinking” and to re-orient the mind to think beyond the reference points of everyday life. The climb from the cave is arduous and fraught with dangers.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, June 3, Anno Domini 2013
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