Archive for May, 2007

If You Would Celebrate Pentecost – Love Your Enemies

May 24, 2007


From the Elder Sophrony’s St. Silouan the Athonite.

This commandment of Christ’s, ‘Love your enemies,’ is the reflection in our world of the Triune God’s all-perfect love, and constitutes the corner-stone of our whole teaching. It is the ultimate synthesis of all our theology. It is the ‘power from on high’ and the ‘abundance of life’ that Christ gave us. It is the ‘baptism of the Holy Ghost, and with fire’ that St. John the Baptist speaks of.  The bidding, ‘Love your enemies’ is the ‘fire on the earth’ that the Lord brought by His coming. It is the uncreated Divine Light which shone down on the Apostles on Mt. Tabor. It is the ‘cloven tongues like as of fire’ wherein the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in the upper chamber of Sion. It is the Kingdom of God in us ‘come with power.’ It is the fulfilment of the human being and the perfection of likeness to God.

However wise, learned, noble a man may be, if he does not love his enemies – that is, love his every fellow-being – he has not attained to God. Contrariwise, however simple, poor and ignorant a man may be, if he carries this love in his heart, then ‘he dwelleth in God, and God in him.’ Away from the One True God, it is impossible to love our enemies, declared the Staretz [St. Silouan]. The bearer of such love communicates in eternal life, to which his soul can testify. He is the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, and in the Holy Spirit knows the Father and the Son, knows with authentic and life-giving knowledge. In the Holy Spirit he is the brother and friend of Christ – he is a son of God and a god through grace.

Humility and Love

May 23, 2007


The following is from the Afterword of Father Sophrony’s Saint Silouan the Athonite.

If we cast our thoughts back over the bimillenary history of Christianity we are dazzled by the enormous wealth of Christian culture. Vast libraries full of the grandiose works of the human mind and spirit – innumerable academies, universities, institutes, where hundreds of thousands of young people drink thirstily of the living waters of wisdom. Tens of thousands of splendid churches, the marvellous inspiration of human genius; numberless precious works created by other forms of art, music, painting, sculpture, poetry. And much, much more. But the Staretz [St. Silouan], as it were, ignored all that, concentrating on one thing only – humility and love for enemies. Everything is there.

I remember one occasion in my life when I was carried away by the works of the Holy Fathers and said regretfully to the Staretz, ‘What a pity I have neither the strength nor the time to study theology.’ To which he answered:

‘And you think that important?’ Then, after a moment or two’s silence, he added, ‘In my opinion only one thing is important – humbling oneself, for pride stops us from loving.’

Flattery and a Secret Plot by the Kremlin

May 23, 2007

All flattery, my friends, as Josef Pieper well taught us, is a form of manipulation. Mass flattery manipulates the soul of a culture. It drags a nation to hell.

A quote from Ochlophobist‘s May 19 posting.

The thought is worth slow contemplation. I am reminded of a tee-shirt (admittedly too cute) with the picture of a kitten in a basket. The caption on the shirt reads: “Where are we going? Why are we in this handbasket.”

One question for other bloggers out there. Everytime I go to an E Blogger site, everything directional, etc., is in Russian. I read some Russian but not enough. Is there a switch to read you guys comment apparatus in English? Or is this another Kremlin Plot? Sitting at someone’s website with my Russian dictionary in front of me is not my favorite web experience. If you can help, let me know.

I Really Wasn’t Kidding – There’s Another Gospel Out There

May 22, 2007


I generally enjoy our comments and also following the links when others share some portion of Glory to God for All Things with others. Last week I posted on the necessity for the whole gospel – that is – the gospel received by the Apostles and taught to the Church. I noted that in many areas of modern Christianity, very essential elements of that gospel are in danger. I was struck when following one of the links to my post to read the following positive article, (an Anglican blog) but also noted that some members of the Anglican Church (I could not tell whether these were comments from an ordained person), in making comments on the author’s positive quoting, actually sought to deny that Christ descended into Hades. This is not a liberal Anglican site.”Stand Firm in the Faith” sounds pretty solid to me. But the conversations did an excellent job of making my point. The fullness of the Orthodox Faith is simply unknown to many, including many in liturgical Churches.

The Descent into Hades is not a minor theological side issue. Iconographically, it stands at the very center of the faith. If one reads St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation you can quickly see that in the doctrine of the Divine Solidarity (an image he uses to describe how it is that Christ saves us), Christ’s descent into Hades is utterly necessary to the Christian understanding of His victory over sin and death. The services of the Orthodox Church surrounding Pascha are all grounded on the dogma of Christ’s descent into Hades and His victory.

The Scriptures making reference to Christ’s descent into Hades include more than the I Peter 3:19 that I cited in my earlier posting.

That verse and a few more are only the most obvious ones that come to mind. The understanding of Christ’s Resurrection as our Pascha (Passover) are not relegated to the image of the lamb’s blood on the door posts of the Israelites. More than that rich imagery is also the entire episode at the Red Sea (which is the type of our Baptism) clearly seen by the early Church as a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and subsequent resurrection. That Scripture and the “Song of Moses” figure prominently in the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday.

Some verses to consider:

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to
God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit;19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in

1 Peter 4: 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.

Ephesians 4:7 But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is he who also ascended far
above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Colossians 2: 15 He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

This same doctrine can be found in Western hymns (the Hymn “Victory,” one of my favorites, is one that comes quickly to mind). The modern Anglican service of the so-called “Easter Vigil” is essentially modeled on the Orthodox Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday though clearly cluttered with other later doctrines.

Great classic works of Western theology, such as Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor, make clear how utterly dominant this imagery is in the Apostolic and early Church. And yet, it has become foreign to many.

I will be bold, very bold indeed, and say that if this doctrine of Christ Descent into Hades is not known, then the most essential doctrines of our salvation are misunderstood and incorrectly taught. This is not to create an argument about whose Church is more correct, but to state a simple and plain fact of theology. If the primary story of our salvation is not a matter of agreement, then the conversation regarding the faith has barely begun.

From an Orthodox perspective, I can think of no finer article than one that has been cited before by me, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions. This article, delivered as a lecture at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis in 2002 is simply the finest summary of this doctrine that I have seen. I have taken the liberty of creating a “page” for it on this weblog for easy reference. The patristic sources, all of whom are richly grounded in Scripture, are worth the entire article. His discussion of the decline of this doctrine in the West is also worth reading.

But I return to my earlier contention, which experience is simply bearing out: another gospel is replacing the gospel of Christ – the primary metaphors of our salvation are being forgotten and set aside for a later, less Scriptural account. These are not light matters – but matters that go to the heart of the faith. I cannot write about the Christian faith and not make mention (perhaps repeatedly) of this phenomenon. Maybe more will begin to hear it – and that would be a very good thing.

Learning to Wait

May 21, 2007


I have never done a search to see how many times the word for “patience” is used in the New Testament – but my general impression is that it is a lot. Patience is not only a virtue, it is utterly necessary to our life in Christ.

I can recall having almost no patience at all as a young man. At age nineteen I was sure that the Second Coming could be no more than 5 years away. When older people would speak about patience I found myself getting angry with them. I believe that I generally thought patience was the excuse older people used for doing nothing.

Now I have come to see that patience is often the wisdom of doing nothing. This is not the same thing as laziness. One can work hard and pray, and be aware of how little they in fact know about the things that matter. What does another soul need for his/her salvation? How do we correct another soul in such a way that something is learned and you haven’t just crushed another human being?

This part of my list could be magnified enormously. We are to have faith in God – which is where patience comes in to play. Having placed something into God’s hands, we often have a secret timeline in our mind. If God has not done anything about it in a week, then we’ll see to it ourselves – as if the slowness of God’s timetable gives us permission to ignore God.

Commiting something to God may mean waiting the better part of a lifetime. This was the case with the patriarch Abraham. Salvation moves along at an almost imperceptible pace. Grace does it’s work in such a way that it frequenly remains hidden to most eyes. If you read about the Holy Spirit (what little the Scriptures say of Him) it is clear that He is the most silent and hidden of Persons.

To pray, keep the commandments and to remember God is the task we have before us everyday. With patience these will accomplish a perfect (complete) work.

This morning I drive in a rental car from St. Vladimir’s Seminary to Syosset on Long Island. Everyone around me speaks of traffic jams. Time to learn patience.

Keeping the End of Things in its Place – and a Little Bob Dylan

May 20, 2007


I started to entitle this, “Keeping Eschatology in its Place,” but then I remembered that I should eschew obfuscation. 🙂 But the doctrine of the Last Things, generally referred to as “Eschatology,” is deeply important for our lives as Christians – primarily because our faith is an eschatological faith. There it is in the Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead…” Like the incarnation, crucifixion, descent into Hades, etc., Christ’s second coming cannot be ignored without doing great damage to our faith. But not all eschatologies are equal.

In Orthodox terms, we believe that Christ will come again, but we also believe that He Who Is Coming, is already among us, and that any encounter with the Risen Christ (such as eating His Body and Blood) are eschatological encounters. When we celebrate the Liturgy, we believe it is a meal eaten in the Kingdom of God. The Risen Christ is made known to us in “Scripture and in the breaking of the bread.”

The behavior of Christians, the decisions and choices we make in obedience to the commandments of Christ, are eschatological acts: in loving our enemy we are acknowledging that Christ, the Lord of History, has already won the battle for us and that we are free to forgive. We do not have to be in charge of the outcome of history.

Thus in keeping the End of Things in its Place we should keep it both at the End of all things, and in the present. The Christian life should be lived always in view of the Coming Christ. “Behold the Bridegroom comes, and blessed is the one whom He finds watching.”

Not to start an argument about the nature of our nation (again), I believe it is fair to say that we have always had an eschatological view towards ourselves. Our culture has always seen itself as heading somewhere – greater freedom – greater democracy – greater equality, etc. We tend to use “change” as a positive political word. The songs of the American Civil War were quite eschatological: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” In many ways this is a good thing – we compare ourselves to something that is not yet fulfilled and we strive towards it.

There is another side to eschatology that I would cite: the cottage industry of predicting the second coming. Ever since John Nelson Darby became a major force in Christian thought (he is called the “Father of Dispensationalism”) increased speculation on the interpretation of Bible prophecy, particularly as it relates to the Second Coming of Christ, has been a hallmark of many Christian denominations. The best-selling novels of the “Left Behind” series are only the most recent examples of this strain of thought. This fascination with reading the signs has a great problem: it tends to leave the Last Things for the end of things. The great interest becomes in seeing the signs pointing towards the Second Coming, but leaves the present largely unaffected (accept where Dispensationalism has effected American foreign policy). It leaves the Church in the position of waiting, which is not quite the same thing as the Church being the place where the End intersects with the present. Something is lost.

Now for a quick confession. My reflections for this post came as I was riding along in my car listening to a Bob Dylan CD my youngest daughter had given me. (Aren’t teenagers wonderful!). I have written before about Dylan and the eschatological edge in his lyrics. The song that caught my attention was “When the Ship Comes In.” Like many of his songs, you could apply his lyrics to many situations – both present and those to come. But it may be a piece of American Eschatology at its best.  It certainly seems superior to trying to figure out what place the War in Iraq holds in Bible prophecy.

I apologize to those who are not fans of Bob Dylan and to those who may be too young to know who he is. But I offer these lyrics for your edification or enjoyment – indeed it’s almost Pascha-like in its imagery.

Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’.
Like the stillness in the wind
‘Fore the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking.
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.

Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they’ll be smiling.
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand,
The hour that the ship comes in.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline.
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck,
The hour that the ship comes in.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’.
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’.
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they’ll raise their hands,
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands,
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh’s tribe,
They’ll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

All the Fullness of Christ

May 18, 2007


When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:4-21)

Please forgive such a lengthy quote of Scripture, though such a lengthy quote is precisely what we need to read. First, it underlines that St. Paul’s goal for his converts was indeed lofty: “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpassess knowledge….” It is also a way to underline that the goal we have for ourselves should be no less lofty. When someone says that it will take a lifetime – it’s an understatement.

One of the desert fathers as he lay on his deathbed began to weep. The brothers asked him why – he had lived the ascetic life with such completeness. His reply, “I have not made a beginning of repentance.”

Neither should any of this cause us to lose heart. It should have the opposite effect! I cannot turn aside because the goal is too wonderful!

It also underlines the nature of conversion to Orthodoxy and why it can never be merely an intellectual assent. Where God is taking us “surpasses knowledge.” Why would we want to limit ourselves to the intellect? You’ll need all the intellect you have, but it won’t be enough. You are more wonderfully made than that!

If someone asks me (and I do get asked) what do I have to believe in order to become Orthodox? My eventual answer (my children say my answers are very long indeed) is something like, “Everything.” It is this very character of Orthodoxy – that it is indeed the existential reality of the life in Christ – that makes conversion more of an invitation to a way of life than the acceptance of a set of propositions. And this is very difficult in our American culture.

One of my members who was received several years ago along with wife and children said to me, “Becoming Orthodox feels more like joining a tribe than joining a Church.” (Stanley Hauerwas would have loved the statement!) He meant not that the Orthodox Church is tribal – but that it was like accepting and becoming part of a family, a way of life. And this is true.

It also underlines a danger that exists for us all. The American model of the parish is simply less than what a parish should be. Our suburban lifestyle has much to do with it. I have members who drive more than an hour to reach our Church. I’m flattered and heartbroken (that there should be so few Orthodox Churches). But it also forces a sort of suburbanization of the parish. When we were in the process of finding a location for our parish, several of the land candidates were in “great locations.” What they lacked, however, was actually being located somewhere. Now that, of course, sounds silly, but it is quite possible to live somewhere in America that isn’t really anywhere.

Our current location is our own building, but we share parking with an insurance agency (which is another building) a dental office, and CPA. I like having that much traffic in and out of our parking lot daily. It feels like we are somewhere. I contrast where we are with broken heart when I think of the village churches I saw in England last summer. Driving across the countryside you will see a copse of trees every few miles and standing above the trees the steeple or tower (mostly towers) of a Church. Stopping in a village I could see where Churches (and people for that matter) belong.

I ask forgiveness again, but the American suburban neighborhood is probably the worst invention in human history for the dwelling of human beings. A vast number of people do not know their neighbors. Last week I met a woman and her young son when my wife and I and my son’s fiancee went for a walk. The mother and son joined us. They have lived in their house (40 feet from mine) for over four years and I did not know them. That is my sin (I do know my other neighbors much better).

Now admittedly, we go to different Churches and that does not help. She may go to a different grocery story, and that does not help. If she lives in Oak Ridge, she undoubtedly goes to Walmart, but everyone goes there and I don’t really have opportunity to meet her or her family there.

In such settings, the local parish becomes a commodity perveyor. Our homes are consumer units (they all have televisions – usually more than one or two). Each home, indeed, contains all that is necessary for the family to get by: Washers, dryers, etc. When I lived in an apartment building while in school at Duke, we met people while doing the laundry, walking about, swimming at the pool, etc. As awful as I thought that housing was, it was probably functionally superior to the average neighborhood.

Ideally, the Orthodox Church is the village temple. Indeed our prayers often call the Church building a “temple.” It is God’s house, a place of prayer. In many countries it will remain unlocked and there will be someone present who will offer candles for sale (so they may be lit for prayers). This also provides someone to direct you to the priest and the like. But its function is normatively a very integrated function. Church itself is part of the way of life.

When Europe was still civilized (America has long lost any Christian civilization), there were over 50 days a year set aside as feast days on which no work was done other than the festival of the Church. One of the reasons the Reformation resulted in such an increase of wealth, was it lengthened the work-year by 50 days (including, under the Puritans, Christmas and Easter).

There are places that have intentionally created communities in which the Church is in “walking distance,” and it is a very good idea and certainly a place to begin. But we are not likely to change the infrastructure of America any time soon. Thus the home has an increasing role to play in Orthodox prayer – indeed it always has – even when the Church was in the village.

Having a family “beautiful corner” (an icon corner) is important – and is equally an important place where prayer for feasts can be read in addition to other prayers. All of these “small things” are really about the one really “large thing,” the knowledge of Christ in His fullness. I am in the process of gathering materials for home usage – I’ve had some good suggestions from some responders already. And the calendar – something largely used in the West and East – originally for Church purposes alone – becomes indispensable. The flow of the days and the feasts carry us deeper into the faith and deeper into the knowledge of Christ Who is our Salvation.

We not only need to believe the Christian faith – our goal is to become the Christian faith.

How Much Is Too Little? How Much Is Enough?

May 17, 2007


One of the most pervasive rules in Christian believing is the Latin phrase, “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” usually rendered, “The Law of Praying is the Law of Believing.” It is a simple way of saying both that we believe what we pray (praying will inevitably bring about a conformity in believing), and that if something is to be preserved it must become part of the liturgical life. Time and history have largely born this out.

It has been a rule that concerns people who write or translate liturgies – and it has been a rule for those who helplessly watch as others write and translate liturgies. For it is simply the case, if the people do not pray it, in time they will cease to believe it.

This principle is linked in my mind to the question of what is needed in theology. What do we need to believe to actually confess the Christian faith? Are there elements, which if neglected, would bring about a change in the faith – possibly even a fatal change?

I believe the answer to this last question is quite clear: it is possible to leave certain elements aside with the result that what is left is no longer Christianity, however it may be disguised.

When I was studying systematic theology (I know, Orthodox Theology is rarely accused of being systematic), it was well understood that if something was not an integral part of the faith, it would soon enough become not a part of the faith. Doctrinal belief is like muscles in our body – if left unused, it atrophies.

I am convinced that for an increasing number of Christians, an increasing number of essential elements are no longer essential to what they believe – the result being the creation of increasingly new belief systems. These may still be described as Christianity, because they are religions centered around the figure of Jesus Christ, but are, in fact,  new belief systems.

I began to be convinced of this as I read the systematic theologies of others. The same conclusions can be reached by anecdotal evidence – speaking with various believers about what they think is important.

This morning, for instance, I celebrated the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Ascension of Christ (40 days after Easter). I was also aware that probably two, possibly three other Churches in my town were doing something similar. There is a Catholic Church and I’m sure there was at least one mass, if not more. There is an Episcopal Church, and it is possible, though not not necessarily the case, that there was a liturgy today or tonight. I would also think it possible that the feast was kept by one or two of our Lutheran congregations. What I have mentioned is indeed a minority in our Southern town. For most Christians, the Ascension of Christ will never be mentioned to them in a way that would make them think that the event was significant.

We had a number of conversations within my congregation (which is largely convert) back at the end of Holy Week and during the early parts of Pascha. Most of them admitted that it was not until they became Orthodox that they even realized that Christ descended to the dead when he died on the Cross. Some even told stories of having been in Bible studies when young, and, when reading the verses regarding Christ’s descent to the dead, were told, “We don’t know what these verses mean.” Needless to say in the churches these people had first acquired the Christian faith, it made no difference that Christ had descended into Hades.

I believe that there is a truncated version of Christianity that is moving towards a dominant position with our religion. It is simply the atonement – largely taught in the language of penal substitution, as the only important dogma of the faith. Thus to believe that “Christ died for our sins,” means anywhere and everywhere that he paid a price that we could not pray and that by trusting in Him we will be spared the punishments of Hell.

Everything else, if mentioned at all, is simply a corollary to that single thought. Thus (and I know this is extreme) some years back I had an argument with an Episcopal priest friend who said, “I would be much more comfortable with the doctrine of the resurrection if we could find the bones of Jesus.” He certainly believed that Christ had paid the price of his sins, and that through faith in Christ he would be saved. But the bodily resurrection of Jesus was not important to that theology and he found its primitive, literal quality to be a bit of a bother.

I warned you – it was an extreme case. Many if not most Christians believe that Christ was raised from the dead – but they increasingly do not know why, other than as a reassurance to us that we will be raised as well (Lazarus’ resurrection could have done as much). Indeed the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is troublesome for many Christians who would rather prefer to believe in “Life after death, or eternal life.”

This same principle can also be applied to the sacraments of the Church. Many are the young couples who would say, “I don’t need a piece of paper declaring me to be married.” Joni Mitchell sang in her sweet warble, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall/ keeping us tied and true/my old man/ keeping away my blues …” The rate of illegitimacy for children in the black community exceeds 50% and draws closer to that mark in the white community. And this, of course, is only thinking about the sacrament of marriage.

The sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism may soon be on the way out for many. Many Churches long ago reduced them to something done at a service other than Sunday morning, and then only four times a year. It is not a sacrament that seems integral to the story of salvation as that Church teaches. Never mind the fact that Christ said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”

I spoke this week to someone who was joining one of the new “Anglican” Churches, I believe the one that is under an African Primate. I asked him about their communion teaching. “Do they practice open communion?” The answer was yes, with the addition that there was some sort of statement of what the Church believed and asked that only those who ascribed to that statement should receive communion. This, of course, is far more than is required in most Christian Churches today, despite the fact that closed communion was the normative practice of virtually every denomination of Christians until the late 1960’s.

Private Confession, long ago jettisoned by most Protestants, has become fairly rare for many within the Catholic Church. Lent as a season of fasting has atrophied beyond recognition.

Actually writing or summarizing the teaching of the Church in which all of the major events in the story of our salvation are given their proper weight is a minimal requirement if one is actually to be or become an Orthodox Christian. What is it about the Descent into Hades that is necessary to our salvation? What is it about the Resurrection that is essential to our salvation? What does the Ascension have to do with being saved (and it does)? What does the second and glorious coming of Christ have to do with our salvation? What does being born of a Virgin have to do with Christ’s saving of mankind?

In Orthodox understanding, all of these things are integral parts of Christ becoming what we are in order to make us what He is. The metaphor of the substitutionary atonement, though not unknown, is simply too thin and weak to bear the full weight of the story of our salvation. Christ became fully human, that we might have a share in His divinity. It was into the depths of our humanity that He descended when He entered the Virgin’s womb, having done no damage to the freedom that belongs to mankind. It was into the depths of our damnation that He descended, when, dying on the Cross, He entered Hades and loosed the bonds of the captives. Now there is no where we may go that He has not filled with Himself. It was still in glorified union with our humanity that He rose from the grave, having trampled down death by death. It is our humanity that he bore (“like a yoke” we sang last night) into the very heavens themselves and in that union sat our humanity down at the right hand of the Father.

These actions, all primary statements in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, not only provide a summary of the events in the life of Christ – they are the utterly essential elements of our salvation. As the Creed states: “…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…”

All that Christ did is and should be an integral part of any proper account of Christian salvation. They should thus be integral parts of the worship and prayer life of the Church. Where they have been relegated to some lesser status – there you may be sure that some essential part of our faith has been laid aside and remains in danger of ceasing to be part of the Christian faith – except for the fact that it will remain a part of Scripture.

Two years ago this was demonstrated in an embarrassing manner when a large number of Christian Churches in America closed their doors for Sunday worship in order to steer clear of conflict with the “family holiday” of Christmas.

There is no lowest common denominator of Christianity. There is no modest form of the faith around which we may gather. There is only the “faith, once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Anything less is either no longer Christian, or building a foundation for something that in time will not be Christian.

How much is too little? How much is enough? I consider that if Christ thought it necessary to do certain things and to give us certain things, it was because they were needed for the fullness of our salvation.

How much is too little – anything less than everything.

How much is enough – only everything.

Ships and Saints and All the Company of Heaven

May 15, 2007


I offered a quote from Charles Taylor in a previous posting – as a small reminder I offer it again.

One of the central points common to all Reformers was their rejection of mediation. The mediaeval church as they understood it, a corporate body in which some, more dedicated, members could win merit and salvation for others who were less so, was anathema to them. There could be no such thing as more devoted or less devoted Christians: the personal commitment must be total or it was worthless…. for Protestantism there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat.       From Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

My thoughts in my earlier post were focused on the corporate character of our existence – we are persons who partake of a common substance – we are consubstantial with one another. “If one member suffers, then all the members suffer,” as St. Paul says.

I add a further thought in this post – that of the role of the saints – for it was particularly the saints that the Reformers had in their crosshairs – with the battlecry, “There is but one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus!”

It is certainly the case that in Holy Baptism we are not asked, “Do you unite yourself with the Theotokos and all the Saints?” but rather, “Do you unite yourself to Christ.” For union with Christ is the very definition of salvation. Everything else flows from that union.

But being united to Christ also means that we are united to the Theotokos and all the Saints – because they are in Christ. You cannot have a Christ apart from them because there is no such Christ. St. Paul (whom I am sure knew the implications of his statements) said: 

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21)

I recall reading this very carefully as long as 35 years ago, long before my conversion to Orthodoxy, and being struck that St. Paul, in using the analogy of the body as an image of the Church, had just said that the “head” cannot say “I have no need of you,” knowing full well that it is Christ who is the head of the body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (12:12).

This is the Church revealed in its true character. As the Church has defended the title Theotokos for the Mother of God, we must always be mindful that there is no incarnate Christ apart from her. We are not merely traveling together in a common ship – we are living together in a common life – which life is Christ.

I began to be aware of the saints as a young Anglican. The stained glass windows bore witness to their presence, much in the same way that icons do in an Orthodox Church. But in Orthodoxy the role is clearer and the presence always there. Taylor noted that the Reformers wanted no one other than Christ to gain salvation for us by their merits. Of course, this kind of language is foreign to Orthodoxy in the first place. But the corporate character of our salvation is not in the least foreign to Orthodoxy. We are saved together. Not first a hand, then a toe, later an arm or leg – the whole body works together as we grow into the head – into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

I frequently think that we contemplate our salvation in the commercial terms of our modern culture. It’s not that we think that we are “buying” our salvation – but we do see ourselves as great “choosers.” We choose to sin or not to sin and with our choices we are choosing Christ. But, of course, he first chose me. And the choices of so many around me mean that when I have to make a choice I am not standing alone. Were I to show up week after week at Church and no one else were there (what an odd thought!), doubtless something in me would begin to waver, as it would in all of us.

I have served in start-up missions, where fingers and toes are sufficient to count the congregation. You know when someone is not there and their absence is felt like an ache. The same ache is present with me as I pray over the names of each member of our congregation in preparing the bread and the wine on Sundays, particularly if it is the name of someone “missing”. In some manner I am diminished in their absence – we are all diminished.

I give God thanks for the untiring faithfulness of so many – who like icons take up their place within the worshipping Church. They stand as witnesses to Christ, but also as those who pray for me, as I pray for them, as all of us are uplifted in the risen Christ. And this is salvation. I know nothing of merits or the like – but I know prayer and that through your prayers and that of all our holy fathers and mothers we will find the grace necessary to live as a Church – a Ship bearing Saints and All the Company of Heaven.

Falwell’s Death – the Passing of an Era?

May 15, 2007


When I was fresh out of seminary, the year was 1980, an election year. I was a newly ordained Episcopal Deacon, serving in a parish with a priest who told me on the first day, “I do not pray.” That same summer I began to get mailings from something called the “Moral Majority.” Those of you who are younger than I will not remember a time when American politics were less polarized – but 1980 is the pivotal year, when, primarily driven by the politics of the abortion debate, politics took on the character of a culture war.

I kept getting inundated with mail. The newly minted “Rev.” on the front of my name put me on mailing lists for groups I’d never heard of. I have to confess that at the time abortion was not a large issue in my voting conscience, nor if you listen to the debates of politicians, was it very large for them either.

In the years since then, much water has gone under the bridge. The polarizations on abortion have grown wider, though, frequently voting one way or another has made little difference other than the makeup of the supreme court (and not much there – Reagan nominated some of the more liberal members of today’s court).

But politics came rushing into religion (or was it the other way around) with a bang. Frequently this has served to sharpen issues (as did the debates surrounding abolition in the 19th century) but has also served to politicize Christianity.

In the years since 1980, I have served in parishes that included one Democrat Governor of South Carolina (later Secretary of Education under Clinton), one Republican Governor of South Carolina (earlier a member of the House of Representatives and now a victim of Alzheimers), their surrounding families and a host of local politicians.

I do not preach politics – I try to preach the gospel. And though the gospel will sometimes have political ramifications, often those ramifications are for the short run, mostly seeking any base of support that will put them over the top.

I believe that the existence of the Church is profoundly political (I did study under Stanley Hauerwas, afterall), but not political in a way that any party should want to endorse. I believe that the Kingdom of God is real and should have such real consequences in our lives that Caesars (under whatever form of government) should tremble before the King of Kings and the Kingdom that is not of this world.

Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, on one of the days in which the Politburo stood atop Lenin’s Tomb to watch the parade of Soviet military might pass by, a priest came bursting through the crowd with a handcross in his hand. He shouted, “Michail Sergeivich! Christos Voskrese!” And he was not shot or hampered in any way. It was the signal of a change in that regeme.

There are still plenty of politics in America’s religion, and plenty of religion in America’s politics. There is far too little proclamation to George W. and anyone else in power, “Christ is risen!” Or a recognition by our culture of the significance of the statement.

But Christ is risen, the significance does not depend on anyone’s recognition. Christ is risen and everything else has passed into shadow beneath the power of the Cross. There is a Quaker song that I enjoy that may have more to say to the politics of being a Christian than many things I have heard:

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?