On the Feast of the Annunciation, I was thinking about how prevalent women are in the New Testament, and I laughed as I recalled “The Embarrassing Gospels.” I then remembered being forced to listen to a crazy professor in undergrad harp on and on about how Western civilization restricted women to virgins, whores, and mothers, and, for the thousandth time, I became angry at the utter stupidity of such an opinion. What nonsense! I then noticed that the importance of women in literature, at least, was not peculiar to Christianity or even the Judeo-Christian tradition—though Esther and Judith surely fit Ambrose Bierce’s observation millennia before he defined Hebrew: “n. A male Jew, as distinguished from the Shebrew, an altogether superior creation.” Consider the classics of Western civilization and the place of women in them. In a bizarre, freakish disconnect from reality, “feminist scholars” have convinced contemporary Americans that half the human race has been absent from art and literature until recently. At the same time, such folks (or least the ones among them who can read) have an intense interest in “subversive” characters such as Antigone, Diotima, and Camilla, showing that they must realize that Western literature has always included women who do not fit into their virgin, whore, mother Canopic jars. (Such dames are fine, but one of my favorites has long been Andromache. I suppose that she is too feminine to be considered interesting for the womynist crowd.)
Anyway, Camilla led my stream of consciousness to John C. Wright’s recent “Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters,” wherein he reflects upon the butt-kicking babes of modern fantasy and science fiction. Long before Xena was Camilla—in addition to (other?) historical examples (Deborah, Boudica, Joan) that have inspired the Western imagination for ages. Indeed, if we consider immortals, we see the pagans make Athena the goddess of the battle and Artemis the goddess of the hunt. What underlies this—a fascination with mixing opposites? A long prepared divine joke to mock and to confuse feminists once they arise? Something more fundamental?
Christians themselves follow this pattern in their veneration of the Theotokos. The aforementioned academic liked to mention the Virgin Mother Mary and the redeemed whore Mary Magdalene (in the Roman tradition) as iconic representations of Western women, but what would she make of our actual liturgical texts and Marian piety that depict the Mother of God more like a combination of Attila the Hun and Aristotle than a tender mother or quiet nun (not that there’s anything wrong with that)? From the beloved akathist:
To Thee, the Champion Leader, we Thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos: but as Thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do Thou deliver us, that we may cry to Thee: Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride! . . .
Rejoice, initiate of God’s ineffable will:
Rejoice, assurance of those who pray in silence!
Rejoice, beginning of Christ’s miracles:
Rejoice, crown of His dogmas!
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down:
Rejoice, bridge that conveyest us from earth to Heaven!
Rejoice, wonder of angels sounded abroad:
Rejoice, wound of demons bewailed afar!
Rejoice, Thou Who ineffably gavest birth to the Light:
Rejoice, Thou Who didst reveal Thy secret to none!
Rejoice, Thou Who surpassest the knowledge of the wise:
Rejoice, Thou Who givest light to the minds of the faithful!
Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded! . . .
Rejoice, Mother of the Lamb and the Shepherd:
Rejoice, fold of rational sheep!
Rejoice, torment of invisible enemies:
Rejoice, opening of the gates of Paradise!
Rejoice, for the things of Heaven rejoice with the earth:
Rejoice, for the things of earth join chorus with the heavens!
Rejoice, never-silent mouth of the Apostles:
Rejoice, invincible courage of the passion-bearers!
Rejoice, firm support of faith:
Rejoice, radiant token of Grace!
Rejoice, Thou through whom hades was stripped bare:
Rejoice, Thou through whom we are clothed with glory!
Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded! . . .
Rejoice, uplifting of men:
Rejoice, downfall of demons!
Rejoice, Thou who didst trample down the dominion of delusion:
Rejoice, Thou who didst unmask the fraud of idols!
Rejoice, sea that didst drown the Pharaoh of the mind:
Rejoice, rock that doth refresh those thirsting for life!
Rejoice, pillar of fire that guideth those in darkness:
Rejoice, shelter of the world broader than a cloud!
Rejoice, sustenance replacing manna:
Rejoice, minister of holy delight!
Rejoice, land of promise:
Rejoice, Thou from whom floweth milk and honey!
Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded! . . .
Rejoice, tabernacle of God the Word:
Rejoice, saint greater than the saints!
Rejoice, ark gilded by the Spirit:
Rejoice, inexhaustible treasury of life!
Rejoice, precious diadem of pious kings:
Rejoice, venerable boast of reverent priests!
Rejoice, unshakable fortress of the Church:
Rejoice, inviolable wall of the kingdom!
Rejoice, Thou through whom victories are obtained:
Rejoice, Thou through whom foes fall prostrate!
Rejoice, healing of my flesh:
Rejoice, salvation of my soul!
Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!
Allow me, if you would, to indulge in a bit of imaginative speculation. Consider the end of days when the armies of heaven begin the final counteroffensive. As fearsome to the minions of hell as Michael must be, imagine what will happen if You Know Who joins the mêlée.
Vivent les Jeux Olympiques! Ура для Олимпийских игр!
For your daily dose of Russia, here is a television piece on twentieth century saints Luke (Voino-Yasenetsky) of Simferopol and Crimea (more on him here), Mother Macaria (Artemieva) of Temkin (more about her in Russian), and Father Seraphim of Vyritsa:
The narrator sounds like the same man who does nearly every show on the Discovery, History, and Learning Channels.
I had the opportunity to venerate the relics of Saint Luke when they visited the United States last year. What an extraordinary man!
A blessed Christmas Eve to those who follow the old calendar and a happy Epiphany to the new calendarists!
A few weeks ago on the feast of Saint Hilarion (Troitsky) of Vereya, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow delivered a sermon on the epistle reading from Galatians at the Stretensky Monastery: “Living in the Spirit.” May it be edifying for you.
Let us ask Saint Hilarion to pray to the Lord that we may always walk in the Spirit.
Today is the feast day of Saint Joseph of Arimathea on the new calendar. We old schoolers will celebrate it in thirteen days, but I thought that it would be appropriate to post something edifying to the soul today nonetheless.
A few weeks ago, I received the July newsletter of the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in West Virginia. The newsletter recounts recent events at the monastery, and it features photographs from a few of the monks’ recent pilgrimage to Russia. I forwarded it to my brother Aaron, as we were able to visit some places shown. The newsletter also contains a segment from The Brothers Karamazov along with a link to commentary by Fr. Stephen Freeman, who keeps the Glory to God for All Things blog.
The Brothers Karamazov is my favorite novel, and Fr. Stephen is perhaps my favorite religious blogger. I recommend the post. It deals with an aspect of Christianity that has long troubled me—our religion’s apparent disregard for justice. Last week, I posted Saint Romanos the Melode’s hymn for the feast of Saint Elijah, wherein the great prophet has no patience for human wickedness but the Lord, “the only friend of man,” shows endless mercy. Fr. Stephen’s analysis does not resolve the problem for me, but it illumines a promising path that I should probably explore.
I finish this week’s Doxaconapalooza with the kontakia of Romanos the Melode for Saint Elijah. Before Metropolitan Savas read selections from the work, he noted that kontakia used to be lengthy hymnographical sermons, though we rarely use them anymore except for a few akathists. In general, the kontakia were abbreviated, and we only hear one stanza of a much larger original work. I found a translation of the kontakia on a document repository site. The bottom of the page goes into further historical detail about the development of kontakia and about Romanos the Melode. Here is a more consistently formatted copy of the selection:
Elijah, of great renown, prophet with foresight of he great works of our God,
thou who didst with thy word old back the rain clouds,
Intercede for us before
The only Friend of man.
When he saw the great lawlessness of man
and the great love of God for man,
The prophet Elijah was provoked and angered
And cast pitiless words at the God of great pity, saying:
“Make Thy anger felt against those who now disregard Thee, most just Judge.”
But in no way d he change the heart of the good Lord for the chastisement
Of those who had scorned Him; for always He awaits
the repentance of all men,
The only Friend of man.
Then when the prophet saw that all the earth was in a state of lawlessness
And that th Exalted One was not angered but even allowed it,
He was moved anger, and he declared to the Merciful One:
“I shall take control over and punish the impiety
of those who scorn Thee.
They have all despised Thy great long-suffering;
and they have not considered
Thee as All-Merciful Father.
But Thou, the Lover of children dost take pity on Thy sons,
Thou, the only Friend of man.
“Now, I shall judge in favor of the Creator;
I shall completely wipe the impious from off the earth,
And I shall decree their punishment; but I fear His divine kindness,
For the Lover of man is troubled by a few tears.
What, then, can I think up in the face of such goodness?
And how shall I counteract His mercy ?
Perhaps in strengthening my decree with an oath, so that, shamed at it,
the Just One will cancel
My harsh sentence, and in so doing confirm my judgment
that He as the All-Powerful One
Is the Friend of man.
The oath preceded the judgment and was a preamble of the decision
But if you wish, let us hurry to the Bible and let us read its words.
For the prophet said in his anger, as is written:
“By the life of the Lord, neither dew nor rain shall fall except at my word.”
But at once the King answered Elijah:
“1f I see repentance and tears flowing freely, it will be impossible for me
not to supply my mercy to men.
I am the only Friend of man.
The prophet at once spoke up and put forward the rightness of his oath:
“I have sworn by Thee,” he said, “the God of all, the most holy Lord,
that rain will not be given except by my command.
Whenever I see that the people have repented, I shall entreat
It is not, then, in Thy power,
O most just Judge, to do away with the punishment
Resulting from the oath that I have made.
Guard and seal it as Thou dost restrict Thy tender care,
O only Friend of man.”
Famine besieged the land, and the inhabitants were brought to ruin,
Groaning and raising their hands in supplication to the All-Merciful.
The Master was distressed by a dilemma:
On the one hand, He wished to open His heart to the suppliants
and to hasten His compassion,
But, on the other hand, He respected the oath of the prophet.
He did not give rain, but
He devised a pretext that would restrain and distress the spirit of the prophet,
He, the only Friend of man.
The Master, seeing that the Thesbite was roused to anger by his own people,
Thought it right that the just man should share the punishment
of hunger along with the others
In order that, when he was pressed by hunger, he would decide
In line with his oath on humanitarian considerations,
to put an end to the punishment.
For it is in truth a fearful thing, the inexorable demands of the stomach!
And He supports through nourishment in His divine wisdom
every living thing—man and beast.’
He is the only Friend of man.
The Compassionate One, who wished to save the earth,
At once answered Elijah: “Now hearken carefully to my words, and heed what I say.
I am suffering, and I hasten to find a release of the punishment.
I struggle to give nourishment to all who are famished, for I am indeed merciful.
When I see the flood of tears, like a father I am moved;
I feel pity for those consumed
By hunger and anguish, for I wish to save sinners through their repentance—
I, the only Friend of man.
“Hear me carefully, prophet, for I am very much in earnest about what you know:
All men have in me a decree of mercy,
And in it I agreed that I did not want to see the death
Of those who had made mistakes; but rather I wished their life.
Do not then, expose me as making false promises to them, but welcome my plea.
I offer my mediation to you, for only the tears of the widow have disturbed you,
but I feel for all men, I the only Friend of man.”
Elijah made his mind, heart, and ears submissive to the words of the Most High,
And he also brought his spirit under subjection and displayed it in these words:
He said, “Let Thy will be done, O Lord.
Give rain and life to the one who is dead, and vivify all creation.
God is life and resurrection and redemption;
grant Thy Grace to man and beast,
for Thou alone art able to save the world from death,
Thou, the only Friend of man.
At once, the clouds, at the order of the Creator,
Pregnant with water, passed over the air, sending down rain in streams.
The earth rejoiced and praised the Lord,
and the woman received her resurrected child.
He rejoiced with all the others, and the earth shouted with joy
To the only Friend of man.
Then, after a certain amount of time had passed, Elijah saw man’s sin,
And he took thought as to how an even harsher punishment might be inflicted.
The Merciful One, observing this, said to the prophet:
“I know the zeal that you have for righteousness,
and I know your intention,
But I feel for the sinners whenever they suffer beyond all measure.
But you, as blameless, grow angry,
And you are not able to endure it.
But I cannot endure that anyone be destroyed;
I am the only Friend of man.”
But after this, the Master, seeing that Elijah was harsh toward men
And that he was disturbed about the race of man,
separated him from their earth, saying:
“Be set apart from the dwelling of men.
But I, as One who pities, shall descend to men and become man.
Depart, then, from the earth, since you are not able to endure the sins of men,
While I, a heavenly creature, shall be with the sinners,
and save them from their sins,
I, the only Friend of man.
“If, as I have said, prophet, you are unable to live with men who have sinned,
Then, come, and with me inhabit the domain of my friends;
there is no sin there.
But I shall descend, since I am able to take
On my shoulders the lost and to cry to the fallen:
‘All you who are sinners, come, hurry to me and find rest, for I have come,
Not to punish those whom I created, but to snatch sinners from impiety.’
I, the only Friend of man.”
And so, Elijah, sent off to Heaven,
appeared as the prototype of the future,
For the Thesbite was translated in a chariot of fire, as it is written.
Christ ascended in clouds among the powerful.
But Elijah sent down his mantel from on high to Elisha,
while Christ sent to the apostles His Holy Spirit whom we have all
When we received baptism.
Through it we are sanctified,
as He taught all of us,
He who is the only Friend of man.
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.
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?
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.
May this Holy Friday be blessed, and may you have a great Pascha.
At this time of year, we tend to become more aware of our lack of worth, seeing how God does everything for us and how we fail so significantly at being human. Yet, we may console our vanity by reasoning that God is God and that we are men and that we ought not to worry about such a natural discrepancy. However, our nonchalant self justification teeters when we learn the lives of the saints—mere men and women like the rest of us.
A few weeks ago, I read about Saint Luke of Simferopol. What an impressive man! Read this short biography of the saint by Father Victor Potapov: “One who came to love suffering.” The Lord is gracious in the gifts that he sends to us, most especially in the form of rational creatures—and starting with himself.
May the Triduum be an occasion of joy for you and yours!
Crkvenikalendar.com features an impressive online Church calendar with beautiful icons and short hagiographies for the saints of the day. The site also offers codes for webmasters to display a saints of the day window on their pages. I prefer Ponomar’s Menologion Online for its flexibility and cuustomizations, but Crkvenikalendar’s ready-to-post feast day windows may be better suited for certains pages, especially social networking sites.
If it were a leap year, tomorrow would be the feast of Saint John Cassian. As it is, we celebrate the good saint’s feast on February 28 (March 13 on the Gregorian calendar). On my patron’s feast day last year, Fr. Stephen De Young published a decent article on John Cassian on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: “The Curious Case of St. John Cassian.” I recommend it. It is yet another reminder of how the preponderance of Saint Augustine in Western Christian thought—without adequate patristic counterweight—has perverted the West. I do not quite understand how it happened, though. Even without the multitude of voices from the Greek fathers, the West still had Hilary, Ambrose, John Cassian himself, and others, though I suppose that Augustine’s writings were so vast and impressive that they overshadowed the rest. Still, it was not until the Reformation that the balance truly tipped, but why then? Why did Luther, Calvin, and the gang draw their inspiration from Augustine’s extreme anti-Pelagianism? Was it their rejection of scholasticism and the medieval tradition, where the next previous stop in history was Hippo? Did they find a soulmate in the “Doctor of Grace”? Why did a Platonist from late antiquity appeal to the nominalists who transformed post-Renaissance Western Europe? Curious, indeed.