I hope that the lenten season continues to benefit you. I would like to share a profound passage from Vladimir Lossky’s Orthodox Theology: An Introduction that I read in the recent parish newsletter:
The Father accepts the Son’s sacrifice “by economy”: “man had to be sanctified by God’s humanity.” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45, On the Holy Pascha). Kenosis culminates and ends with Christ’s death, to sanctify the entire human condition, including death. “Cur Deus homo?” Not only because of our sins but for our sanctification, to introduce all the moments of our fallen life into that true life which never knows death. By Christ’s Resurrection, the fullness of life is inserted into the dry tree of humanity.
Christ’s work therefore presents a physical, even biological, reality. On the Cross, death is swallowed up in life. In Christ, death enters into divinity and there exhausts itself, for “it does not find a place there.” Redemption thus signifies a struggle of life against death, and the triumph of life. Christ’s humanity constitutes the first fruits of a new creation. Through it a force for life is introduced into the cosmos to resurrect and transfigure it in the final destruction of death. Since the Incarnation and the Resurrection, death is enervated, is no longer absolute. Everything converges towards the apokatastasis ton panton – that is to say towards the complete restoration of all that is destroyed by death, towards the embracing of the whole cosmos by the glory of God, become all in all things, without excluding from this fullness the freedom of each person before that full consciousness of his wretchedness which the light divine will communicate to him.
And so we must complete the legal image of redemption by a sacrificial image. Redemption is also the sacrifice where Christ, following the Epistle to the Hebrews, appears as the eternal sacrifice, “the High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek” Who finishes in heaven what He began on earth. Death on the Cross is the Passover of the New Alliance, fulfilling in one reality all that is symbolized by the Hebrew Passover. For freedom from death and the introduction of human nature into God’s Kingdom realize the only true Exodus. This sacrifice, this surrender of will itself to which Adam could not consent, certainly represents an expiation. But above all, it represents a sacrament, sacrament par excellence, the free gift to God, by Christ in His humanity, of the first fruits of creation, the fulfillment of that immense sacramental action, devolving first upon Adam, which the new humanity must complete, the offering of the cosmos as receptacle of grace. The Resurrection operates a change in fallen nature, opens a prodigious possibility: the possibility of sanctifying death itself. Henceforth, death is no longer an impasse, but a door to the Kingdom. Grace is given back to us, and if we carry it as clay vessels, or receptacles still mortal, our fragility will now take on a power which vanquishes death. The peaceful assurance of martyrs, insensible not only to fear but to physical pain itself, proves that an effective awareness of the Resurrection is henceforth possible to the Christian.
St. Gregory of Nyssa has well emphasized this sacramental character of the Passion. Christ, he said, did not wait to be forced by Judas’ betrayal, the wickedness of the priests, or the people’s lack of awareness: “He anticipated this will of evil, and before being forced, gave Himself freely on the eve of the Passion, Holy Thursday, by giving His flesh and blood.” It is the sacrifice of the immolated lamb before the beginning of the world that is so freely fulfilled here. The true Passion begins on Holy Thursday, but in total freedom.
Soon after came Gethsemane, then the Cross. Death on the Cross is that of a divine person: submitted to by the humanness of Christ, it is consciously suffered by His eternal hypostasis. And the separation of body and soul, the fundamental aspect of death, also breaks in upon the God-man. The soul that descends to Hell remains “enhypostasized” in the Word, and also the body hanging on the Cross. Similarly, the human person remains equally present in His body, recaptured by the elements, as in His soul. That is why we venerate the relics of the saints. But even more so is this true in the case of Christ, for divinity remains attached both to the body which slumbers the “pure sleep” of Holy Saturday in the sepulchre, and to the victorious soul which batters down the doors of Hell. How, indeed, could death destroy this person who suffers it in all its tragic estrangement, since this person is divine? That is why the Resurrection is already present in the death of Christ. Life springs from the tomb; it is manifested by death, in the very death of Christ. Human nature triumphs over an anti-natural condition. For it is, in its entirety, gathered up in Christ, “recapitulated” by Him, to adopt the expression of St. Irenaeus; Christ is the Head of the Church, that is to say of the new humanity in whose heart no sin, no adverse power can henceforth finally separate man from grace. In Christ, a man’s life can always begin afresh, however burdened with sin. A man can always surrender his life to Christ, so that He may restore it to him, liberated and whole. And this work of Christ is valid for the entire assemblage of humanity, even beyond the visible limits of the Church. All faith in the triumph of life over death, every presentiment of the Resurrection, are implicit belief in Christ, for only the power of Christ raises, and will raise, the dead. Since the victory of Christ over death, the Resurrection has become universal law for creation; and not only for humanity, but for the beasts, the plants and the stones, for the whole cosmos in which each one of us is the head. We are baptized in the death of Christ, shrouded in water to rise again with Him. And for the soul lustrated in the baptismal waters of tears, and ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection is not only hope, but present reality. The parousia begins in the souls of the saints, and St. Simeon the New Theologian can write: “For those who became children of the light and sons of the day to come, for those who always walk in the light, the Day of the Lord will never come, for they are already with God and in God.” An infinite ocean of light flows from the risen body of the Lord.
Very timely—as it always must be. As I mentioned earlier in the week, tomorrow is the first anniversary of Lawrence Auster’s death. Please remember to pray for him.
Last week, Metropolitan Jonah, Fr. John Johnson, and Fr. Leonid Mickle celebrated the divine liturgy in the Wren Chapel of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. You may read of the event on the Eastern American Diocese site. I have visited Williamsburg at least a dozen times, and I did not know until I read the diocesan news article that the first known American convert to Orthodoxy, Colonel Ludwell, lived on the Duke of Gloucester Street in what is now known as the Ludwell-Paradise House. I know that I have milled around its steps before, never knowing its significance.
When you visit Williamsburg (and you should), make sure to check out the college’s campus. The Wren Building is lovely, and the Sunken Garden behind it is an appropriate place for a midday picnic. Get your victuals at the Cheese Shop near Boundary Street and head over to campus for a nice break from colonial fare.
I have not posted anything yet about the news of an upcoming Orthodox council, but I did respond over the weekend to Bonald’s Orthosphere post, “Orthodox Church to hold ecumenical council?” I commented:
Thus spake the Zeitgeist of hype.
Proph ‘s skepticism about the upcoming “ecumenical” council (should it actually happen) is well justified. First council in 1,200 years? The Churches get together all the time (in Orthodoxese—that means once a century or so)—e.g. the Council of Constantinople in AD 1872. And Bonald’s supplied comment expresses well the folly that festers all too often in Constantinople of late. The patriarchs there for the last century have been lost shepherds without their flocks.
I suppose that one could call these gatherings local councils rather than ecumenical ones, but it’s not clear what makes a council “ecumenical.” All the bishops present? If so, I doubt that any council would be considered ecumenical. Approved by the majority or great majority of representative bishops? What about robber councils, as mentioned above? Received by the faithful—well, which faithful? The ones who are content with the decisions or the ones who are anathematized? Called by the bishop of Rome? Were any of the early universally agreed upon councils initiated by Rome? Were they not rather convened by the emperor? Do we need a Roman emperor to have an ecumenical council? In practice, it seems to be so, but who believes that the Church needs a particular secular authority to govern herself? Certainly not the Roman Church of late antiquity, which expressly declared as much. Confirmed by Rome? This has the position of the Roman Church for a long time, but its history is hazy. Much (and I would argue most) of the esteem for (and supplication to) the Roman Church in the early centuries came from Rome’s orthodoxy. The Roman Christian community and its leadership were solid on the faith. They were more independent from imperial interference, they were less interested in Eastern theological controversies, and they were consistent in maintaining a simple adherence to the apostolic faith. Ultramontanists interpret Roman honor and invitations for Roman jurisdiction in Eastern disputes as evidence for papal supremacy and infallibility; they hold that the bishop of Rome establishes orthodoxy. I think that the causal direction is the opposite—Rome’s orthodoxy was the reason for its authority and for the appeals from the East. And to Eastern eyes, that authority waned as its orthodoxy waned. So, having seen fourteen more councils occur in the West, especially the last two, the Orthodox quickly dismiss papal confirmation as the key to an ecumenical council.
So, what is the magical formula for determining an ecumenical council? No one knows. Such is a powerful argument from the papist apologist’s perspective—those confused and disorganized Greeks . . . they are so lost without the One True Vicar to shepherd the flock. I, however, am wary of such formulations. Truth does not depend on procedural measures, and all human institutions have failed and will continue to do so, including the Roman papacy. There is no substitute for a sincere good will, purified soul (with lots of prayer and fasting), and charitable disposition open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the bishops, priests, deacons, and all the people of God attend to the Lord in spirit and in truth, then Christians will find the right path. Any attempt to abstract and to formulate such is but dowsing rod idolatry.
As for the upcoming council, regardless of its status, who knows? I certainly don’t trust the wisdom or piety of contemporary bishops much. We are a faithless and perverse generation, and I do not see good things to follow. And Bonald is quite wrong when he states “calendar issues that nobody but bishops cares about.” The “C” word is a fight’n one!
If I, lowly sinner that I am, had to pick an agenda for a council, it would be:
* Address the calendar issue. It is crazy that the Orthodox Churches follow different calendars. I am personally ambivalent about the resolution, but I have strong opinions that the Constantinopolitan brewed mess from the 1920’s was terrible and probably illegal. Such a change must come from a conciliar resolution, and it must involve all the Orthodox. Mixed calendars, hybrid calendars. It’s madness!
* Canonical update. I know, I know, civil defense sirens and all that. However, they really do need to update the canons—not in the sense of getting groovy in the modern world, but in the sense of applicability. The canons, after all, are practical and pastoral.
* Common guidelines for relations with the non-Orthodox, including intermarriage and reception issues as well as “ecumenical” activity. I have to agree with my co-confessors, Proph, in that union with Rome will not be on the table. However, the bishops could declare that we Orthodox are happy to cooperate with Rome, Protestants, rabbinical Jews, Mohammedans, or whomever in doing God’s work.
* Jurisdictional tidying . . . the recent move by Jerusalem (establishing a diocese in Qatar, which is in Antioch’s territory) proves that pan-Orthodox cooperation is necessary to resolve differences between the Churches . . . not to mention the problems of the “diaspora.” [I hear those papist chuckles out there!]
* Encouraging a normalization of irregular groups, including various Old Calendarist groups, the Macedonians, and the Ukrainian schismatics. A welcome mat for the uniates might be nice, too. And the disaffected Protestants.
As I hinted earlier, we’ll see what actually happens. They have been kicking this can for generations, and I suspect that it will be delayed . . . until further notice.
I often criticize Christianity for its life-negating tendencies, and I wonder at times if Nietzsche is right in condemning our “slave morality” where we, following Paul, glory in weakness and suffering. I find the precepts of Christian forgiveness and deference to one’s enemies troubling—a veritable recipe for social disaster. Moreover, I find the obsession over one’s petty sins and constant worries about kingdom come rather nauseating. It all seems so vulgar, so low, so wretched.
And yet . . .
And yet Christians created the greatest civilization. Ancient pagan cultures impress, and I quickly confess my awe and appreciation before them, but, contra Nietzsche, Christianity made them finer. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas stand without shame among the many Socratic disciples throughout history. Compare the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Rome’s basilicae maiores, and the Gothic cathedrals of France and Britain to any structure in the world—has man ever reached such architectural and aesthetic heights elsewhere? Consider the Italian Renaissance or Andrei Rublev’s iconographic legacy. Or what about Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Rachmaninov, or the recalcitrant Christian Tchaikovsky? And should we even need to list what Christian civilization has bequeathed to literature? For all the Christian insistence on and mindfulness of humility, beggars, sackcloth and ashes, and such, the cultures that grew from the gospel have ennobled and enriched mankind beyond anything imagined by heathen fantasy.
And yet Christians not only defended their lands with valor and strategic genius, but Christian nations also came within living memory to dominate the entire world. Indeed, the West became weaker after it began to abandon its faith. The faith did not weaken its people; it did not cause civilizational ruin. Quite the opposite! What would Gibbon think now? And Christianity is only for eunuchs and slaves? Tell that to Charlemagne, Jan Sobieski, the Duke of Wellington, Robert E. Lee, and many other men of armies and arms who knelt before the cross.
And yet the words of Jesus Christ leap straight from the gospel to the heart with an authority that I cannot dismiss. For some years, I just discounted this power as one of conditioning. Being a product of Christian conditioning, I expectedly endowed scriptural passages with meaning and profundity. I do not think that this dismissal holds up, though, without undermining one’s ability to reason at all. How can we possibly judge anything rightly if we cannot rise above mindless conditioning? Such a criticism destroys every attempt to reach the truth of things—including itself. Like all reductions of man’s ability to know, this form of spillover psychoanalysis fails the retortion test.
Furthermore, the type of Christian most representative of the religion’s objectionable traits—the monk—shows himself to be fully human after all. I have met many folks who have chosen (or answered the call to) that path, and I find them on the whole quite alive.
So, perhaps, the Nietzschean attacks misunderstand the nature of Christianity and the nature of man.
Here is a charming video of some monastic hermits in Romania.
They are an odd lot—weird in its precise and casual meanings. The last one manifests well monkiness—the peculiar life, light, and insight that come from renouncing the world’s vanity and devoting oneself to God.
The National Gallery of Art recently closed its exhibition on Byzantine art: “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.” The museum has hosted several lectures and concerts related to the show since last October, to which the Beltway Greek community turned out in force. David Hammer also produced a short film for the museum modestly titled “Five Byzantine Churches.” Therein, you may see some lovely footage of Greek Christian art and architecture.
Concerning those museum events, I attended the concert by Cappella Romana last October, and I have an interesting story about the evening. I was not able to get to the museum until fifteen minutes before the beginning of the concert. All of the seats had been taken (by those swarming Greeks!), and the museum’s staff was rushing to set up more chairs in the western garden court where the concert was held. As I was waiting at the back of the line, I watched an agitated man of a somewhat unpolished appearance start pacing and moving around. I prejudicially thought that one of the District’s many deranged homeless had come to the concert to kill some time and to relax away from the street. When the last of us were seated, I was sitting next to the aforementioned fellow. I noticed that the man had a program, which included the Greek text of the songs along with an English translation. The museum had run out of the programs before I had the chance to get one, but my neighbor had secured one in advance (which, I found out, was what he was doing when I first saw him pacing frantically). The man eventually realized that I was following the Greek on his program during the concert, and he offered me it. He also pointed out where the singers were at the time, and he was right, which shocked me. I nodded gratefully and then wondered privately how this destitute fellow knew Greek. During the intermission, the man asked me where I had learnt Greek, and we started to chat. I think that I was right about his domicile condition—he was homeless—but quite wrong about his mind. The fellow was very bright, calm, and educated. He grew up in D.C. and was part of the Greek Orthodox community. He had graduated from a nearby university forty years ago. I knew that he was telling the truth. D.C. homeless folks like to spin tales, but one comes to know when their mania and/or manipulative nature trumps truth. Anyway, I was really surprised. Movies and television sometimes showcase the smart, sane man down on his luck as the homeless specimen for character study, but I do not remember ever meeting one beforehand. Sure, I had met bright folks, but they were also all guano loco—men whom schizophrenia and other disorders had reduced to poverty. I also met many folks who had destroyed their lives with substance abuse. Maybe such played a part in my concert partner’s downfall. Perhaps, he suffered some traumatic incident from which he could not recover, where no one helped him through it. I do not know, but I found the experience pretty sobering.
A few years ago, I shared a touching video on a Ukrainian monastery: “Outpost.” I have recently discovered that there exists a subtitled version:
Have a beneficial Lent!
Over the weekend, I saw service truck for a local business named “Titan.” The truck had an image of a sword on its side in the middle of the company name. Upon seeing it, I initially thought that it was an odd name for a business because the Titans were the bad guys of the Theogony. However, I reconsidered my bigoted opinion, as the Titans were just one set of gods who warred against (and lost to) another set of gods—those whippersnapper Olympians. We tend to categorize the Olympians as good, but the mythology does not really justify that judgment. From a human perspective, the Titan Prometheus seems to have been on our team. So, the Titans were not all bad according to man’s self interest, and they had many beautiful and fine qualities comparable to those on Olympus. I then thought of all the nastiness that occurs among the Olympians themselves; they are always making trouble for each other (and for the rest of the world). Therefore, in Greek paganism, there really are no good guys or bad guys among the gods. There are simply conflicting interest groups vying for dominance. Absent an overarching authoritative power that accords every lower principle and agent its proper place, there is everlasting strife and no final peace. Switching metaphors, there is no way to have true harmony without a unified composing principle (or principal); we get only a cacophony of noises with each trying to override the other.
This meditation lasted only a few seconds in my mind, and then I saw in yet another manner how the modern world resembles paganism. For without a notion of the ultimate good (the monotheistic God), we have endless demands upon our allegiance—every particular human will determines its own hierarchy of values at every particular moment. That is hellish confusion enough for one will, but the anarchy only multiplies in a human community with many competing wills. Order hides, chaos reigns, and man finds himself unable to appease the discordant gods from within and without that demand his attention and worship. The contemporary Westerner thus despairs as his ancient heathen ancestors who risked the jealous wrath of other deities whenever they sacrificed to one, but perhaps the situation is worse for modern man. For ancient paganism provided balms for his wounded soul, however inadequate they were for real healing. But Western man, having once met the true physician, rejects that old herbal medicine for the spirit. Unfortunately, he has also now forgotten about the doctor. He wanders the world with ailments being quite susceptible to any snake oil peddling con who comes along with a newfangled concoction that promises to relieve him of his pains.
Today is Clean Monday, and I would like to wish everyone a beneficial Lent.
Appropriate for the day is a practical address about fasting that Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov gave at the most recent Saint Herman’s Orthodox Youth Conference: “Fasting for Non-Monastics.” Fr. Sergei begins:
A curious phenomenon can be observed in the interactions between pastors and their parishioners at the beginning of each major fast of the Church. Pastors attempt to call their parishioners’ pious attention to the spiritual heights of fasting: the fighting against sin, the conquering of passions, the taming of the tongue, the cultivation of virtues. In turn, parishioners pester their pastors with purely dietary questions: when fish is allowed, whether soy milk or soy hotdogs are fasting, whether adding milk to coffee is breaking the fast, or whether there is some dispensation that can be given to the young, the elderly, those who study, those who work, women, men, travelers, the sick, or those who simply do not feel well. In response to the overwhelming preoccupation with dietary rules to the detriment of the spiritual significance of fasting, some pastors, seemingly out of frustration, began to propose in sermons and internet articles that dietary rules are not important at all: if you want yogurt during Lent, just have some as long as you do not gossip; if you want a hamburger, then eat one, as long as you do not devour a fellow human being by judging and backstabbing. Unfortunately, such advice rarely helps eradicate gossip, judging or backstabbing. Rather, it seems to confuse people into thinking that since they have not yet conquered these and many other vices in their hearts, they do not have to fast from hamburger either. . . .
Indeed! Spiritualizers who grow impatient with low minded, “fundamentalist” peasant pharisaism end up destroying both the pharisaism that they rightly reprove and the foundational piety required as a condition for the higher spiritual state at which they aim. This process is repeated again and again in the modern world as johnny come lately wise guys move ancient landmarks to reflect their subtler boundaries of truth, but they end up mucking up the field of human toil. Their cures tend to be worse than the ills they seek to treat. So, by all means, do not stop reminding people about the more important aspects of the Church’s discipline, but remember that men are animals with bellies and that ascesis begins with disciplining the beast. To appropriate our fellow Abrahamic friends’ terms: of course, we need to lead people to the inner jihad, but we must keep in mind that slaying pagans where one finds them remains an important practical matter in one’s spiritual struggle.