Archive for December 5th, 2006

Fullness and Reform

December 5, 2006


There is a certain givenness to life – at least a whole lot of it. I have gradually come to accept that thirty years, ok, forty years after my growth spurt, I will never be taller than 5’7″. I’ve even given up on adding the extra 1/2″ that I claimed for many years. You are what you are. There is something deeply anti-modern about such a confession. To agree that your gender is the same gender you were born with and that there is nothing you wish to do about it is, at least, out of step with most of network television.

We live in the land of choice and thrive in an economy of choice. Thus anything that offers us the ability to redefine ourselves, to make choices, seems preferrable. We like to be “all that we can be,” and prefer to be the ones who make that determination.

There are few if any things in our lives that we do not believe can be made better. “New and improved,” is ubiquitous in the grocery aisles of our rich land.

All of this becomes very confusing when we turn our attention to Christianity and the Church. None of us would probably want to belong to a Church that billed itself as “new and improved,” and yet the assumptions that undergird much of our commercial civilization undergird much modern theology. The operative word here is “modern.”

When the Reformation began, it was, by definition, a “modern” movement. The philosophy that guided many of its leading lights was, in fact, known as the via moderna, to distinguish it from the way of Aristotle or Plato. Semper Reformanda (always in need of reform) was a hallmark of 16th century Western thought about the Church. Something was wrong and something needed to be fixed. The semper was probably the killer word. “Always” guaranteed not a reform, but reform as a way of life. Change became the name of the game.

Now it’s also true that many would probably want to nuance all of this and say that semper reformanda only referred to some things and only to the state of humanity who was “always” messing things up and therefore “always” in need of reform.

It’s hard to argue with that. As an Orthodox Christian I would quickly agree with any demand of “always repenting.” Anyone who is as accomplished in sin as myself would have to admit the constant need of repentance in life. The difference would be that as an Orthodox Christian I would agree that repentance is, in fact, the natural state of man, the right state of man in relationship with God, not simply the state needed to fix me. Repentance is what it looks like to rightly live in relationship with God, and not simply my efforts to return to some other state. We don’t really have a word for that other state. Righteousness cannot exist apart from repentance in the Orthodox life.

What is missing in modern notions of reform or change is an acceptance of the givenness of life. Givenness could perhaps be embraced as the “sovereign will of God” under many Reform schemes – but such ideas will always stand in tension with the notion of reform or change.

Orthodoxy certainly agrees that something has got to change – but that which must change is me. I am not the reformer of the Church – the Church is the reformer of me. There’s a great difference. I do not accept everything in life that is given – certain injustices are worth everything I can do to change them. But much of what must change in me is the idolatrous notion that I can change anything and everything.

Certain primal notions define our view of life and the world. “Ever Reforming” is one notion – one that plays a large part in our modern world.

The Orthodox notion of “fullness,” that God has given us the “fullness” of Himself is a contrary primary notion. It assumes that pretty much everything I need already stands there waiting. What hinders this fullness from taking up residence in my life is not the need to reform the fullness, but the need for this poor vessel to repent and yield its heart.

An interesting character who turned from one world view to another was the author, Fyodor Dostoevsky. As a young man he was enamoured of much of the revolutionary thought floating around Russia. Socialism (a secularized version of certain Christian ideas) promised to change the world. The result was a young man’s clash with the Tsar’s intelligence service and a death sentence.

The turning point of his life occurred in the last few minutes as he awaited a firing squad. In those few minutes, when, quite assuredly the revolution was not about to occur, Dostoevsky found a different revolution, one that changed him profoundly. Suddenly he saw life – the whole of it – and embraced the Gospel of Christ. As a Russian Christian he embraced that life in terms of the beauty of the given world. He saw the fullness of life around him that he had spurned and his heart discovered repentance. Fortunately, he was issued a reprieve and was instead sent into exile.

The result can be found by reading his novels. There, the world does not change – people do. The fullness comes to dwell in the heart of a murderer, a prostitute, a drunk, an idiot. In all of his characters, it is the fullness that beckons to a greater life, not the hubris of man’s dream of building a better world, or an improved church.

Competing visions – fullness and reform. Dostoevsky or Marx. On the whole, I’m happier with Dostoevsky.

Not the Fathers’ Christmas

December 5, 2006


Christmas [as a holiday] was long ago corrupted by our culture. Certain aspects of the story are too good to leave alone. The drama of Christ’s birth – the Virgin who has to explain the unexplainable – Wise Men looking for a King – a wicked old King looking for any challenge to his throne – no room in the Inn – and angels singing, “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” How could all of that have been left intact and not retold and resold again and again? There is no need to comment on the commercialization of the holiday – feast days have always had something of a commercial side – there’s no necessary sin in the conducting of commerce.

So this year is no exception. Hollywood, who enjoyed box office success with The Passion of the Christ, hoped to succeed again with The Nativity Story – a new telling of the birth of Christ.

But here my Orthodox heart begins to sink. The gospel accounts of the conception of Christ and the stories surrounding his birth are among the richest theological material in the New Testament. They are far richer than mere history. They are accounts that are as richly shaped as an icon – and it is this iconic vision of the Nativity that is so lost in the hands of Hollywood movie makers. Indeed, if the Nativity story, as told by Orthodox Christians were to be made into a film – the controversy would rock popular American Christian culture.

Would popular Christianity understand Joseph as an older man? Would it accept the presence of older brothers and sisters, not children of Mary, but of Joseph (Orthodox Tradition holds that Joseph was a widower who had four sons and two daughters from an earlier marriage).

How would a film begin to share the rich imagery of the Theotokos? The Church sings of her as the Ark, the Candlestand, the Tablet of Stone, the Burning Bush – the list goes on and on. Just as Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, the key to its understanding, so His mother is present there as well, for where there is no Theotokos there is no story of the incarnation, no prefiguring, no prophecy.

All of this, in its richness, can and is told in the worship life of the Church. At times the telling can become so poignant that it is impossible to worship without tears.

This same richness underlines why it is that the gospel cannot be mutilated and reduced to a few brief sentences. The gospel is not just the retelling of several events of cosmic significance (crucifixion, resurrection, etc.) but is the telling of the entirety of the human story in its relationship with God that finds its culmination and fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Christ.

I have said from time to time in sermons, “Everything is Pascha.” It is the only shorthand I have found to try and say that everything, simply everything, is connected and finds its fulfillment and meaning in the events of Pascha. All of human history (and even before the foundations of the world) all is Pascha.

St. John wrote in his gospel: “There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).

We cannot write all those books, much less reduce them to film. But somehow in the reality of its fullness, the worship life of the Church makes present the whole of it.

The Nativity is Pascha as well. Look at any well done icon of the feast. It is not accidental that the cave the Christ child lays in looks like the cave of Hades in the resurrection icon of Pascha. Those swaddling clothes are meant to evoke the “fine linen” of His burial shroud. The very tones in which the hymns of the feast are sung echo the tones of Pascha. Only the worship of the Church, in which Heaven itself is made present, can begin to reveal all of this to us – and even then only with time and attention.

I bear no ill will to anyone who wants to tell the story of Christ – but this year’s Christmas movie is just too thin. It doesn’t look enough like the Christmas I have known to interest me. The only pity is that it may be the only Christmas some people will ever know.