Archive for February 1st, 2007

To Fulfill All Righteousness

February 1, 2007


On February 2nd, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The feast is also known as the “Meeting” focusing on the “meeting” with St. Simeon and the Prophetess Anna. Again, the feast is also called the “Purification” remembering that one important aspect of this 40-days after the birth of a first child, a woman makes an offering in the Temple for her “purification.”

If we want to be very technical about things, the Theotokos, in giving birth to Christ, remained a Virgin, thus there is nothing in need of “purification” according to the Jewish Law. But there is no discussion of this, only a submission to the Law as it stood.

Like so much else that we see in the life of Christ, God has done what was not required of Him. He was required by nothing to become Man, and yet He did. He was required by no one to submit to the rite of Baptism, and yet He did, with the words, “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

The Theotokos follows in the same path as the Savior. There is no argument about “I don’t need this!” Instead, there is the humility of the handmaiden of God who herself, will fulfill all righteousness as she follows the path of her Son.

The Way of the Cross is always this same path, a path that leads us to fulfill all righteousness, to do not “what must be done,” but to do freely what we could do otherwise. Thus we fast freely, we give freely, we love freely, we lay down our lives freely. The Way of the Cross always carries this element of freedom: “No man takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

When someone looks at the “externals” of Orthodoxy, it might be possible to conclude that we have “many rules.” These are not the rules of the Law, but the rule of the heart, in which the Church gives us guidance in learning how to lay down our life for Christ. She teaches us to love as He loves and to love in freedom.

This is our only true vocation – to love as Christ loved. Those who think (as many moderns do) that “I must do thus and such in order to be fulfilled,” are seeking to fulfill the wrong thing. The self, when approached in such a manner, is a bottomless pit. It will never be filled. We can only be filled by emptying.

A Virgin enters the temple to offer the sacrifice that only a non-Virgin should have to pay. In return she is promised that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” And she will not turn from that sacrifice either. She is following her Son, just as we are bidden to do. And as we do this, all righteousness will be fulfilled.

Saving the World Through Beauty

February 1, 2007


This essay of mine was originally posted on Pontifications. It is reprinted here with some slight changes.  

 Thus the most persuasive philosophic proof of God’s existence is the one the textbooks never mention, conclusion to which can perhaps best express the whole meaning: There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists.
– from Pavel Florensky’s

This short quote from St. Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis is among the most startling in his extant works. It is not unlike the oft-attributed Dostoevsky quote, “God will save the world through beauty.” Both thoughts bear witness to a beauty that both transcends our world and at the same time establishes and saves our world. Rightly understood, they are also related to Holy Scripture.

Some years ago, within my thesis at Duke University, I wrote about the iconicity of language, meaning that language, especially Holy Scripture, functions in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council stated that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I turned that succinct statement around to ask if Scripture does with words what icons do with color. It became the starting point for my thoughts on the iconicity of language.

We know, dogmatically, much about how an icon “works,” how it makes present what it represents. I sought to apply that understanding to the reading of Holy Scripture. As time has gone by (better than 15 years now) I have come to see that Scripture may indeed best be understood in an iconic fashion. An icon of Christ is not Christ Himself, but a representation of which He is the prototype. But, St. Theodore the Studite noted, it is a representation of the hypostasis, the person of Christ, rather than a representation of His nature. This is a significant dogmatic statement, because it provides a way for speaking of Christ’s presence in a manner that is not a sacrament, in the sense of the Eucharist. The Holy Fathers taught that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the very Body and Blood of Christ. Thus there is not a normal analogy between an icon and the Eucharist.

Neither is Holy Scripture to be likened to the Eucharist, for it is like the icons. An icon is holy because of the presence of the “person,” not because the wood and paint have undergone any change. Christ is “hypostatically present,” but not “naturally present.” He does not become incarnate as wood and paint.

This notion of “hypostatic representation” opened for me a whole new way of understanding the Scriptures and of speaking of their role in revelation. Icons have many strange features (at least those painted in accordance with the canons). The characters are drawn in a manner that differs from photographic reality. Time is somewhat relative – several events separated by time may be pictured together in the same icon if there is a connection between them and they enlighten one another. Other examples could be given. So, too, the Gospels have a way of presenting the saving actions and teachings of Christ in a manner that is iconic. The Gospels frequently ignore time sequence placing events in differing relationships to the whole, in order to reveal yet more of the Truth of Christ.

St. John’s gospel is perhaps the most striking in this respect. Following the Prologue there is a sequence of water stories, followed by a sequence of bread stories. Little wonder that the Church traditionally used St. John for its post-baptismal catechesis. His pericopes are far more like pictures than narratives. And so it is in John’s gospel that we read the finest commentary and teaching on the Eucharist not around the event of the Last Supper (which John does not actually mention) but around the event of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Read in a purely historic manner, Christ’s teaching on the loaves and fishes, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood…”, would not only be scandalous to some, but would literally make no sense. Equally senseless (in the light of the sixth chapter) would be the claim of some historical critical scholars that John knows nothing of the Tradition of the Last Supper. How utterly silly!

Having said all this (and there is so much more that can be said) it is possible to see how the Scriptures resist rational forces that seek to wrest them into one thing or another. One rationalist seeks to harmonize all the Scriptures in a mechanical manner that yields a narrow conception of inerrancy. Another seizes on the iconic character of Scripture and assumes that these oddities represent historical flaws. Like an icon, the Scriptures present the Truth of God to us – and do so in a way that we can indeed begin to see the truth.

There is a propositional character to be found in Scripture – after all, an icon of a human being still looks like a human being, even if it is painted in a style that is other than photographic. But the propositions of Scripture function in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. We are not led to reason God, but to know God. The propositions of Scripture, particularly the most confusing ones, lead the reader to see what cannot be seen in this world until we have the eyes to see.

St. John’s gospel is easily my favorite, if only because I know it better and have spent more time in its pages. There is a transcendent beauty in its words – a beauty never lost regardless of the language into which it is translated. The beauty is more than the sum total of the words or even the beauty of lofty concepts. It is a beauty that is nothing other than the personal (hypostatic) representation of Christ. “These things are written so that in reading them you might believe.”

There exists the Gospel of St. John; therefore, God exists. God is indeed saving the world through beauty.

Asceticism and Normalcy

February 1, 2007


It always seems to me that I run into two kind of people when it comes to ascetical labors. One person tries to do too much too soon, and quickly becomes disgusted with themself and thereafter does little. Another person does very little, out of fear, and again remains in the same position. Oddly, the end of both is the same. We would do better to add humility to our fasting, to our prayers and not drive ourselves crazy.

From St. Seraphim of Sarov:

One should not undertake ascetic labors beyond one’s measure, but one should strive to make our friend – the flesh – faithful and capable of performing virtues.

One should go by a middle path: turn not aside to the right hand nor to the left (Prov. 4:27); and one should render unto the spirit what is spiritual, and unto the body what is bodily; for the maintenance of temporal life, one should render what is necessary, and for life in society, that which si lawfully demanded by it, in accordance with the words of Holy Scripture: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21).

One must condescend to the soul in its infirmities and imperfections, and bear its defects as we bear those of others; one must not, however, become lazy, but should spur oneself to do better.

Perhaps one has eaten too much, or done something similar to this which is natural to human weakness – do not be disturbed at this, and do not add injury to injury; but bestire yourself to correction and at the same time strive to preserve peace of soul, according to the word of the Apostle: Blessed is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth (Rom. 14:22).

The same thoughtis contained in the words of the Savior: Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3).

If the body has been worn out by ascetic labors or sickness, one should strengthen it with moderate sleep, food, and drink, not observing even the times. Jesus Christ, after the raising of Jairus’ daughter, immediately commanded: Give her to eat (Lk. 8:55).

Every success in anything we should refer to the Lord and with the Prophet say: Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give glory (Ps. 113:9).