Archive for January, 2009

Is The Bible True?

January 18, 2009

family-bible

There is a fundamentalist anxiety that I hold in great sympathy. My sympathy is driven by the fact that I lived for many years under the burden of that very anxiety. It is the hidden fear that possibly, despite all faith exercised in the opposite direction, the Bible may not, in fact, be true. A great deal of energy is spent in maintaining the integrity of the dike that withstands this anxiety.

I grew in the shadow of Bob Jones University, one of the most prominent bastions of American fundamentalism. The ideas of that university permeate not only the students who study there, but in many ways the surrounding culture of Christianity in the area. The fear is pointed towards Darwin and any possibility of his evolutionary theory. It drives biology students at the university to reach strange conclusions, regardless of the science. I was taught at age ten by a biology student from Bob Jones, in a Baptist summer camp, that blacks were simply biological inferior to whites based on false information that he shared with a group of young, impressionable kids. Perhaps his biology was not the product of his university classes. But it was as baseless as much of the science that was done there.

The same fear drives the concern for the Flood of Noah and the age of the planet (not to mention any possible hint of evolutionary science). Thus the earth must be young, the flood must be literal (with perhaps a still existing Ark on Mt. Ararat). Science has an answer that it must prove, rather than a question to be answered. The agenda of such fundamentalist science is set by the need to refute anything that possibly undermines a peculiar view of Scripture. One flaw and the entire house of cards comes tumbling down.

It makes for bad science and even worse Biblical interpretation.

I am no friend of liberal Biblical studies. I suffered under such oppression for a number of years and can say that fundamentalism also has a liberal form. I was punished (intellectually) for believing all of the articles of the Nicene Creed as much as a Darwinist would suffer at Bob Jones. But that is its own story.

The history of literalism is a checkered affair. Some of the early fathers leaned in a literalist direction for many parts of Scripture, though leaving room for other, more symbolic approaches, where appropriate. The great battles over the historical literalism of Scripture arose in the 18th and 18th centuries in Europe and America (battles over certain scientific matters versus literalism began even earlier).

Part of the tragedy in these battles was that the battlefield itself was a fairly newly-defined area and failed to take into account the full history of Biblical interpretation. For a young believer in the midst of America’s own intellectual religious wars in the late 20th century – my question was whether the choices presented were the only choices available.

I should preface my remaining remarks with the simple affirmation: I believe the Bible is true.

Having said that, I must add that the Scriptures do not stand as an independent work of literature or a self-contained Holy Book. The Bible is not God’s revelation to man: Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to man. The Scriptures bear witness to Him and are thus “true” as a true witness to the God/Man Jesus Christ.

As others have noted, the Scriptures are true as they are accepted and understood by the Church that received them. They are Scripture as recognized by the Church and cannot be removed from the Church only to turn them against the Church. They are unique writings, and must be read in a unique way. That way is found in the liturgies of the Church and the commentaries of the Fathers.

It is also true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth. Read any other way, the books are interesting, but they will not be read in a manner that has been received by the Orthodox Christian Church.

Of course, the historical method (whether literal or historical critical) represents only two possibly ways of reading the text of Scripture. There are assumptions behind both that are problematic from an Orthodox perspective. For many, the notion of “salvation history” has become so dominant that they cannot think about history in any manner other than that which they have been taught. I can think of a number of problems:

First – the traditional modern view (whether fundamentalist or otherwise) of history, is a matter of chronology. It sees a beginning at some point in the past and a progression to some point in the future. This same chain of events is generally viewed as reality, or the ground of reality, and championed above all other things. God acts in history, they will argue, but history is somehow the reality with which God has to deal.

This is highly problematic for an Orthodox theological understanding. Not only does Scripture treat history as quite relative (Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, He is also the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth”), it in fact makes history subject to the end of things – making history simply one aspect of lived eschatology.

Thus time and chronology do not govern reality – God governs reality.

By the same token, Holy Scripture is a Divine account of reality, not itself explained by chronology nor subject to historical validation, but subject to the Truth as it is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Thus the New Testament is Scripture, though the writings of Josephus or Tacitus are mere history.

There is a nervousness that runs through the body fundamentalist when phrases such as “mere history” are uttered. It is a nervousness that is born of the attempts of liberal modernists to dismiss as “myth and fiction” what are seen as events essential to our salvation in Christ. No one who is a believer could treat such anxiety with anything but sympathy. In many ways, with the tools at hand, conservatives in Western Christianity have fought a valiant fight to defend the faith against a serious contender. But that fight does not justify every argument advanced by fundamentalism. Orthodoxy offers a different approach.

I recognize a nervousness that occurs among many conservatives if “truth” is approached in any manner other than literal. Liberals have played games with words for so many years that believers are rightly wary of word-games. On the other hand, for theological accuracy, it is necessary to speak of truth and its character in Christian revelation. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ Himself is the Truth. This is not to say that He is the Truth as compared to some external criterion of truth, but rather that He Himself is the criterion and definition of what is true. Things are true and false only as they are compared to Him. He may be compared to nothing else.

By that token, it is problematic to define “truth” by some particular standard of “historicity.” I understand the importance of saying, “This is really true,” and would never want to deny such a thing. The tomb on Pascha was empty, Christ is truly raised from the dead by every standard and then transcending every standard. His resurrection is the true ground of all reality.

Having said that, it must also be said that the Scriptures are true (as Scriptures) only inasmuch as they reveal Christ as the risen Lord and what that means for all creation. The witness of the Church is that these writings do precisely that and are thus Scripture. But it is the resurrection of Christ that undergirds the Scriptures and not vice versa. The disciples did not understand the Scriptures until they understood the risen Lord. And this remains the case.

Thus the import of Noah’s flood is to be found in Holy Baptism and not the other way around. Creation as shared in the first chapter of Genesis is an unfolding of the Paschal mystery and it is from that mystery that it derives its value. I could multiply such examples. When this principle is forgotten, Christians find themselves arguing over points of geology or archaeology and not over the triumphant resurrection of Christ. If Christ is risen from the dead, everything else becomes moot. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then all Christian statements become moot.

Christ is risen from the dead.

What can we say to these things? The Scriptures are true because Christ is risen from the dead and this is their message. The faith of the Orthodox is that all things find their beginning and their end – their meaning and their fulfillment in the Pascha of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the good news. What other good news could there be?

The God of the Old Testament

January 16, 2009

justingospel

Old habits are hard to break. For years as an Anglican Christian, and a conservative, I battled with academics in the Anglican world whose primary agenda seemed to me (at the time) to be the destruction of Scripture. Their historical method generally resulted in students being told that this that and the other thing didn’t happen. This was most disturbing, particularly for those who chose to extend their scepticism to the very resurrection of Christ.

It was in such a context that I took up the defense of Scripture. But, of course, it is always the case that if you set yourself in a position of reaction, whatever it is that you are reacting against has already set the parameters of the argument – in some cases distorting all of the fundamental issues.

As years went by I became more and more familiar with the early Church Fathers and later with the use of Scripture in Orthodox liturgical settings. It was pointed out to me, when I was a graduate student at Duke, that Liberal Historical Critical Studies and Fundamentalist Literalism, were actually two sides of the same coin. Both agreed on the triumph of the historical. Both sought the meaning of the text within its historical original. History was their agreed upon battleground. To enter that battleground is already, from my later Orthodox perspective, to have surrendered the Truth as received by the Church. They are both profoundly wrong.

Learning to read the Old Testament with the mind of the Fathers, is learning to read the Old Testament not so much as historical prelude to Christ, but as Scripture, received as inspired, but seen as largely typological and always interpreted through Christ. God is as He is revealed in Christ and always has been. Thus, the NT reveals the Old and the right way for it to be read.

I offer a quote from St. Irenaeus:

If anyone, therefore, reads the scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hidden in the field” [Mat. 13:44] [a treasure] hidden in the scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, “Shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplihsed, they shall know all these things” [Dan. 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things ” [Jer. 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and amibiguity to human beings; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [exegesis]. And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation [exegesis] of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God: but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of humans, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his dispensations with regard to human beings, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the one who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behod his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor. 3:7], as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” [Dan. 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have show it to be, if anyone read the scriptures.

What so many moderns find difficult is leaving behind the presumptions of either modernist Biblical Criticism or fundamentalist literalism. They are deeply married to a historical paradigm. Whereas, the paradigm of the Church is Christ Himself. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is not judged by history but is the truth of history.

There are many passages in the OT that if read literally would lead us to believe in a God far removed from the one revealed to us in Christ. This is a false reading. But many are more married to their literal historical method (of whichever form) than to Christ. Unless the OT is literal, they reason, then everything else is not true.

This is not the beginning place of the Church. Truth was only ever vindicated for us in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and that alone is our Alpha and Omega. It troubles some to begin “in the middle” though Christ resurrected is not the middle but also the beginning and the ending, if we know how to read in an Apostolic manner. Many coming to Orthodoxy think it offers another historical proof of the faith, since it is the first foundation of Christ and has an impeccable historical pedigree. This is simply fundamentalism looking for another straw to erect in its support and not a true conversion to Orthodoxy.

Christ is risen from the dead and His resurrection becomes the center of all things. Only through His resurrection may the Old Testament be read. It’s historical claims (though many are quite strong) are not the issue. Christ is the only issue and the only Truth that matters. This is frightening to fundamentalists, for any loosening of their grip on historical literalism feels like failure and capitulation to modernism. But before either fundamentalist or modernist existed, the Church existed, and has always known how to read the Scriptures. Thus it behooves us not to look for Orthodoxy to support some other structure as the nature of Truth, but as witness to that which we have accepted as the Truth. Let the dead bury the dead. Read the Scriptures with the living.

God’s Wrath

January 15, 2009

wrath-of-god

What shall we make of the wrath of God?

We have this quote from the Gospel of St. Luke:

And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of  (Luke 9:51-55).

In this passage, sending down fire from heaven, in the pattern of Elijah is rebuked as somehow belonging to “another spirit.”

Fans of New Testament wrath are quick to point out the passage in Acts concerning Ananias and Sapphira:

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things (Acts 5:1-11)

For accuracies’ sake, it must be noted that we are nowhere told that Ananias and Sapphira died as the result of the action of God. We are told that they fell down dead. This is not unimportant.

Of course the New Testament makes reference to the wrath of God. Indeed there are 45 verses which make reference to the wrath. It is little wonder that interpreters should want to make a theological point out of so common a reference. Of course many of those verses refer to our own wrath and tell us to put it away from us.

But of the wrath of God we read a typical passage:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience (Colossians 3:5-6).

A legitimate question has to be: has the Spirit “of which we are” changed between Luke 9 and Colossians 3? Or is there a deeper understanding at work?

With this I offer an Orthodox answer. First, Christ Himself is the definitive revelation of God and that revelation is not corrected by either an Old Testament reading (for “these are they which testify of me”) nor by an Epistle, for Christ as witnessed to in the gospels is the definitive revelation for interpreting even the Epistles. Of course my citation of Luke 9 is often countered with, “What about the moneychangers in the Temple?” To which I can only say that He “drove them out with a whip” which is not the same thing as saying that Christ beat them, nor did He call down fire from heaven to consume them.

For various reasons, some people are determined to make the economy of salvation to be linked with the Wrath of God. If you do not repent, then God will do thus and such…   I have always considered this representation of the gospel to be coercive and contrary to the love of God. I have heard convoluted ways in which this wrath is interpreted to be “the loving thing to do” but I do not buy it.

The common witness within Orthodox Tradition is that the wrath of God is a theological term which describes not God Himself, but a state of being in which are opposed to God. Thus the work of Kalomiros, The River of Fire, makes ample citation of the fathers in this matter. We may place ourselves in such a position that even the love of God seems to us as fire or wrath.

But it is essential in our witness to the God Who Is, to always relate the fact that He is a loving God, not willing that any should perish. He is not against us but for us. This is utterly essential to the correct proclamation of the Gospel. Those who insist on exalting His wrath as a threat, inevitably misportray God and use anthropormorphism as a substitute for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Intricate theories of the atonement which involve the assuaging of the wrath of God are not worthy of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I can say it no plainer. Those who persist in such theological accounts do not know “what Spirit they are of.” It is not ever appropriate to exalt a Biblical system over the plain sense communicated to us in the Gospel. No matter the chain of verses and the rational explanations attached – we cannot portray God as other than as He has shown Himself to us in Jesus Christ. To do so makes the Bible greater than Christ.

 It is very difficult in our culture, where the wrathful God has been such an important part of the gospel story, to turn away from such portrayals – and yet it is necessary – both for faithfulness to the Scripture, the Fathers, and the revelation of God in Christ.

I commend the referenced work, the River of Fire, for its compliation of Patristic sources. I also beg other Christians to be done with their imagery of the wrathful God. They do not know the God of Whom they speak. Forgive me.

 

 

Of Whom I Am First

January 14, 2009

england101_editedIn the Divine Liturgy, it is customary for this prayer to be offered by all who are coming to receive communion. I quote a portion:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

Of course the prayer is a reference to St. Paul’s self-definition as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It is a confession made by all the faithful, gathered before the Holy Cup, everyone confessing to be the first among sinners. It would be easy to take such a statement as an example of pious excess – overstating the case of our sinfulness. Were that so it would be a travesty within the Liturgy – which exists to lead us into all Truth and to give us the gift of True Life. Such life is not grasped by uttering pious nonsense. Thus, we must accept the confession as actually what it says. How is it that I am the first of sinners?  We could assume that the language is a claim to be worse than all other sinners. But how is a comparison to be made between sin and sin? Some will say that murder is by far worse than stealing or lying – and perhaps take comfort by saying, “At least I’m not a murderer.” But this is only an echo of the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God that he was “not like other men” particularly the Publican standing nearby (Luke 18:11).

The confession is not an exercise in comparative morality – but an exercise in humility and true contrition before God. Dostoevsky’s famous character, the Elder Zossima, speaks of “each man being guilty of everything and for all.” The mystery of inquity, spoken of in Scripture, is just that – a mystery. Our involvement in sin is itself mysterious. Our culture has made of sin either a moral failing, and thus a legal category, or a psychological problem to be treated as guilt. Both are sad caricatures of the reality and neither image allows us to say, “Of sinners I am first.” Morality would reassure us that we have not done as much as others and would leave us as unjustified Pharisees. Psychology would assuage our guilt by warning us that such feelings are bad for us.

But the Church insists that we stand together with St. Paul and join in his unique confession.

I prefer to understand the prayer in the terms used by the Elder Zossima, whose thoughts are largely derived from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. My solidarity with every sinner is such that I cannot separate myself as better or in no way responsible for the sins of another. Again words of Elder Zossima:

Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him. When he understands this, then he will be able to be a judge. However mad that may seem, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.

Of course, we live in societies where we frequently make distinctions between the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral. And there are truly people who behave in an evil manner that stuns our ability to understand. And yet we share a common life as human beings and every effort to deny its reality pushes us ever further down the road of pride, envy, blame, and every form of hatred.

Thus there is no way forward other than that of forgiveness – and a forgiveness which is in the image of Christ. Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world – indeed, in the raw language of St. Paul:

[God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

If we refuse our commonality with the Christ who Himself was “made sin,” then how can we claim our commonality with Him in the righteousness of God? And if we accept that commonality – then with St. Paul we can also confess ourselves “of sinners to be the first.” The forgiveness of God that is given to us is not a forgiveness which made itself aloof or estranged from us, even though He was without sin. How can we who are sinners then set ourselves above other sinners? The way of forgiveness is inherently a way of solidarity.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is certainly the word of a gracious God. It is also the cry of a Man who yielded Himself to utter solidarity with us all.

Dostoevsky on the Individual

January 14, 2009

dostojewskijThe following passage from The Brothers Karamazov is taken from one of the “Talks and Homilies” of the Elder Zossima – one of the key characters in the novel. His thoughts echo earlier articles here that contrast man as “individual” (isolation) to man as Person (brotherhood and communion).

Look at the worldly and at the whole world that exalts itself above the people of God: are the image of God and his truth not distorted in it? They have science, and in science only that which is subject to the senses. But the spiritual world, the higher half of man’s being, is altogether rejected, banished with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” – this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horse, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing in those who are not rich, thile the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. But soon they will get drunk on blood instead of wine, they are being led to that. I ask you: is such a man free? I knew one “fighter for an idea” who told me himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his “idea,” just so that they would give him some tobacco. And such a man says: “I am going to fight for mankind.” Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for? Perhaps some quick action, but he will not endure for long. And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher used to tell me in my youth. And therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one’s habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumberable needs he himself has invented? He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole? They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.

Salvation in a Cloud of Witnesses

January 12, 2009

florence-baptistry1Perhaps more than any culture in history – America has championed the individual. The context for this cultural development was the nation’s historic resistance to the class structures of 17th and 18th century Europe (and later) as well as a positive response to certain intellectual concepts that were popular at the time of the nation’s independence. The European settlement of America in its early modern history was largely accomplished by individuals or individual families. Later migrations would see the settlement of larger groups – who frequently became part of the greater “melting-pot” in which people saw themselves first as defined by their individual talents and efforts and only secondarily as belonging to an ethnic or religious group.

American religion – first as import from Europe and later with varieties of home-grown denominations – gradually assumed the character of the culture. Salvation (already given an individual cast in some versions of early Protestantism) became viewed as almost exclusively individual in nature. By the late 20th century, Americans had become “consumers” of religion, many denominations and groups having grasped the basics of marketing.

In the face of such developments (which are quickly being exported across the globe), the essential message of the gospel – that salvation is corporate (or collective) in character rather than individual, simply sounds like heresy. At the heart of this discrepancy are two radically different views of what it means to be human – and thus what it means to be whole as a human being. I will offer several observations that seem to be related to these radically different views.

First, salvation understood primarily as individual, is inherently non-Trinitarian. This is not to say that those who teach salvation as individual do not profess faith in a Trinitarian God, but that their doctrine of salvation is divorced from their understanding of God. Trinitarian theology and soteriology have no particular or necessary connection. In such settings, worship will largely be cast in non-Trinitarian language (either emphasizing Jesus or the Holy Spirit, depending on the tradition). In many modern, market-driven models, the language of “God” will trump everything else. The Trinity is too complex and confusing to market easily.

Second, salvation understood primarily as individual, will tend towards the democratization of religion. If an individual can be saved without reference to a corporate body or collective (I’ll come back to these terms), then hierarchy is either useless or worse. The individual has his or her copy of the Scriptures, and, as individual, is seen as  increasingly capable of reading the Word of God without reference outside themselves. “What it says to me,” is seen as the sufficient criteria for interpretation.

But what does this say about the understanding of what it means to be a whole human being? What is a whole individual? Politically, such wholeness has been defined in terms of power and freedom. If an individual is deprived of power, then he cannot fully realize his potential as a human being. If he is deprived of freedom, he is again deprived of his potential to choose and act in such a way as to be whole. These same concerns are easily translated into individual models of salvation. Being empowered to choose and act freely become ever more important. Thus if there is a hierarchy that refuses to ordain women – it is a stumbling block to freedom and power. The same can be said about homosexual unions, etc. Salvation, if understood in a manner that limits empowerment and freedom, will come to be seen as wrong, if only because it is a message that runs against the flow of empowerment and freedom as viewed within the culture.

An excellent example of this occured once in an inquirer’s class I was teaching before I was Orthodox (I was an Anglican priest). I was teaching a class on Christian morality and offered as authoritative the traditional teachings of the Christian faith in matters of sex and marriage, etc. One of the couples in the class seemed upset by my presentation and asked, “What right does the Church have to tell me how to live my life?” I admit that I was stunned by the question, if only because of its honesty. I gave them a short answer, “Because you are raising my children.” The complete answer has more depth, but I thought they might find it helpful to consider that the world included someone other than themselves.

What does it mean to be a human being – such that being a whole human being would be any different than what we now are? In a proper Orthodox understanding, the very conception of the human being as an “individual,” in the modern sense, is itself one of the symptoms of sin. We do not rightly exist as individuals – and fall into sin whenever we act in such a manner. The classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human, created in the image of God, is that we are persons, which is not to be confused with individuals. Personal existence is never to be understood in an isolated, self-referential manner. In Trinitarian theology, we cannot say “Father” in a self-referential manner. The very name “Father” implies another and implies some sort of relationship. The same is true of “Son,” as well as “Spirit.” This is why some Christian modernist attempts to find new expressions for the Persons of the Holy Trinity are so often heretical. “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” was a popular usage by liberal Anglicans when I was in seminary – but is heretical because all three Persons of the Trinity can be named by any one of these functions. Christ’s revelation of the Trinity was intensely personal – not only giving us names by which we could refer to the Persons of the Trinity – but ultimately revealing the very reality that God is Personal. The language of Personhood is distinctly Christian and developed only within the context of the Church’s efforts to find proper expressions for what had been revealed in Christ.

To be whole as a human person, is quite distinct from wholeness as an individual. Person carries within it the uniqueness and unrepeatablity that we usually associate with the word individual. However, it also carries within it – at its very root – the understanding that a person properly only exists in communion with another person. It is in this sense that we may say “God is love.” Love is not some abstract essence which may be equated with the being of God. Rather, God is love because the Father loves the Son and the Spirit and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Thus when Christ speaks of the new life given to His disciples He says:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another (John 15:9-17).

This passage would largely be nonsense in an individualistic understanding of the human. The love we are commanded is none other than the love of the Father for the Son. Christ is not offering a moral homily on the advantages of acting in a loving manner. We are commanded to love, indeed to “abide in my love.” These things are for the fullness of our being, “that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” We are transformed from servants into friends – friendship being defined as mutual sacrifice of life. This is the love of God manifest in the “emptying” (kenosis) of Christ on behalf of all creation described in Philippians 2.

It is this image and reality of personhood that is damaged in the fall. Eve eats the fruit in a manner that has no regard for God. Thus she inaugurates the first moment of non-eucharistic behavior. Food is eaten with regard only for oneself and not with regard to God. It is not a communion of life, but a meal of death. Ever after, fallen human beings turned ever inward, away from the love of other. The result is death and murder and every form of brutality. It is betrayal and coldness of heart, greed, envy and lust. These are not moral failings, but existential failings. We do not live as persons, but as mere individuals. As such we could never be saved.

The incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ are the invitation of God to humanity to an existence that is truly personal rather than individualistic. Thus it is that the first act to which a believer submits is Holy Baptism. There the individual ceases to exist as individual and is Baptized into true Personhood. It is the first act of communal existence given to the Christian and is the hallmark of every Christian action to follow. Met. John Zizioulas describes the new birth in Holy Baptistm as the birth of the “ecclesial hypostasis.” (I’ve never used his term in the context of a sermon-and don’t recommend it). But the “ecclesial hypostasis” means simply an existence that is “Churchly” and “Personal” (ecclesia=Church; hypostasis=Person). We are put to death in Baptism, united to Christ in His death, and made alive in His resurrection. The new existence we are given in Holy Baptism is no longer that of an individual (isolated and self-referential) but now of a Person – whose existence is confirmed and fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. These are not moral acts of a new moral code, but life-giving acts that fulfill a new existence.

Thus, to exist as a whole Person is the goal of salvation in Christ. It is for this reason that the place of communion and participation become of primary importance. Koinonia, the NT word for this reality, (often translated poorly as “fellowship”), is the truth of our existence the very mode of our being. The mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist are thus rightly seen as a participation, as is our part in the Body of Christ. Indeed all of life becomes transformed into communion and participation in the life of God. It is the life of the age to come.

Our salvation occurs in a manner that is in no way isolated, but rather in a “Cloud of Witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We are Baptized into a community of existence that is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:23). For this same reason the Church prays as community, the prayers of all generations united in one voice of praise to God. For His life is our life, our salvation and our hope.

Understanding the Incarnation

January 11, 2009

img_0408Of words that have been important in my life in Christ I cannot omit “incarnation.” Of course, the word refers to the doctrine of God become man, the Word made flesh. I wrote previously about the importance of reading St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and its impact on my life as an Orthodox Christian.

Of course, Orthodox Christianity does not have a patent on the word “incarnation.” It is a favorite as well among other groups of Christians. When I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke University, he noted that the word “incarnation” was particularly beloved by some. I was interested in what he had to say.

“Some people should be forbidden to use the word ‘incarnation’,” he said in his usual teasing manner. “They have an understanding of the incarnation that says: “The Word became flesh. And then, looking around, He said, ‘Hey this isn’t so bad!'”

His humor was an indictment of the misuse of the doctrine – a case where the doctrine of the incarnation was simply another way of saying “things aren’t so bad around here, isn’t life great!” Of course, if you are a wealthy Christian and enjoy good health, you might take that view on creation. His comic comment points to how the word incarnation is frequently misunderstood and misused.

That God became flesh (matter) and dwelt among us, does not suddenly confer an inherent blessing on all matter. The world into which the Word was born, was and still is a fallen world. What is immediately changed and restored is the matter which the Word became. It is indeed the same matter which we all share – but this matter is also united to the Second Person of the Trinity and is thus restored into its proper communion with God. Thus at the Last Supper, Christ can say to His disciples, “Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you for the forgiveness of sins.” This matter, now the bearer of the very life of God, becomes for believers the source of true life.  “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”

The key to this proper understanding of the incarnation is incarnation as communion or participation. The Word does not become flesh in order to confer an inherent legitimacy on the material world. The Word becomes flesh to restore communion between creation and God. It is in this communion of Uncreated and created that God says of the world, “It is good.” As Christ Himself would later note, “There is none good but God.” Thus nothing is good in itself, but only as it exists in communion with the only Good.

A true  incarnational theology is thus not a theology that speaks about the material order that has an inherent goodness. This is simply a modernist attempt to convey Divine blessing on the world conceived in the secular model [secularism is not the belief that there is no God, but that the world is self-existent, God remaining at some defined distance]. In the name of such a secularized goodness, everything thing that exists becomes “blessed.” Thus the world, without reference to God, becomes good in itself, and our various cultural arrangements doubtless blessed as well.

In such a misunderstanding the Incarnation is simply an act of Divine Affirmation – a saving event only in the sense that it proclaims “good will towards humanity” (sic).

True incarnational theology is rooted in the Biblical understanding of koinonia, participation or communion. God has become one with us, that we might become one with Him. Or in the famous words of the early fathers, “God became man so that man could become god.” I prefer to state this in the terms: “God took our life upon Himself, that we might become partakers of His Divine Life.” All that we do in our life in Christ is done with an eye to our communion with Him. Thus even the alms we do, we are told, “You did it unto Me.”

This proper incarnational theology, rooted in koinonia and all that it means, is also the source of the Church’s understanding of what it means to be Church. We pray with and even to the saints simply because we are in communion with them. Their life and our life is a common life. How can we pray and ignore our common life?

By the same token, our salvation is a common salvation, never a private matter. There is no such thing as a private salvation. The Fathers say, “No man is saved alone. If we are lost we are lost alone. But none of us is saved alone.”

Incarnation is the Divine Solidarity, to use a phrase of St. Athanasius. God has united Himself to us that we might be united with Him. The true Christian life is the life that is lived increasingly in union with the God/man, Jesus Christ. His incarnation makes possible our deification. One without the other is a departure from the faith.

Favorite Thoughts

January 9, 2009

Any reader of this blog will very quickly notice certain ideas and words that come up repeatedly in my writings. Some of my parishioners say that I only have one sermon – so perhaps it’s also true that I only have one blog article…

But I have been meditating on some of my favorite words or thoughts and why they are as important to me as they are. The first that comes to mind is the word “fullness” which I would couple with the word “smallness”  or “emptiness.” Another couplet are the words “to know” and “mystery.” A third set are the words which surround the question of existence versus non-existence. These are all words drawn from Orthodox theology – so there is no surprise in my usage. It is their importance to me on the most fundamental level that brings them repeatedly to mind (whether in writing or in speech).

Fullness is a wonderful word – common to both the Scriptures and the Fathers. It can carry meanings that other words do not. For instance, I prefer to say that within Orthodoxy is the “fullness of truth,” rather than saying, “The Orthodox Church is the True Church.” It’s not just a matter of semantics – but says something about the nature of the truth as it abides in the Church. The Church does not possess the truth as though the truth were a syllogism to be debated or memorized – but is indwelt by the truth in its fullness. Thus you can live in the fullness of the truth, but you cannot simply think the fullness of the truth. Orthodoxy is not an argument. Fullness says this better than “the complete truth,” for that simply sounds as if we have more words or better words, etc. The fact is that the fullness of the truth is something that transcends words – all the words in the world could not completely express it. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He did not become a book and dwell among us – nor can Scripture as the “word” of God be spoken of interchangeably with Christ who is the Word of God. We are not “people of the book.” In the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God we sing: “Athenian philosophers became as mute as fish” before the wonder of the Virgin Birth. Indeed. Great art Thou, O Lord! There are no words sufficient to hymn Thy wonders!

Related to fullness is the word smallness or even emptiness. This is the great mystery of our salvation – that the Fullness emptied Himself and became man. One of the deepest aspects of the love of God is made manifest in His willingness to empty Himself, to become small for the sake of all whom He loves. It is, indeed, defining of the very character of love. This leads us to understand that if we would have the fullness of life, we must be willing to empty ourselves as well. The mystery of prayer is found in this “empty fullness.”

Not unrelated to this first set are the words to know and mystery. In my writings (and preaching) the relation of these words can be seen as an effort to keep our understanding of knowledge closer to a Biblical and Patristic model – rather than the merely rational or logical understanding that sometimes dominates the use of the various words for knowledge in our culture. There is a way of knowing that is irreducible to anything that may be spoken or rationally expressed. The doctrines of the Church – her Creeds and dogmatic definitions – are not statements that exhaust the truth, but statements which set limits around our speech about the truth. They point us in the proper direction but do not contain the end to which they point. Thus, to say that “Christ is the only-begotten Son of the Father” is entirely correct and cannot be contradicted in the teaching of the Faith. However, the Fathers are quite clear that the manner of the Father’s begetting of the Son is beyond all understanding. To say that something is “beyond all understanding,” however, does not mean that we cannot know it, if we remember that knowledge is often had in the form of a mystery – that is – it has held in a unspeakable manner.

I frequently push this understanding to its farthest limits – to urge readers to see that not only is God a mystery, but all that He has created is mystery as well. It calls for a different approach to other persons, and to every tree and blade of grass. I do not suggest such things in an effort to deny science, but in an effort to reduce science to its proper place. It is not the queen of knowledge, but simply a useful form of knowledge. We may study things and know them in many ways – but having done so is not the same thing as saying that we know things in their very being. Again, I do not deny that things can be known at the very level of their being – but they cannot be known in such a manner through the means of science. Science cannot express nor understand how it was that the “winds and the seas obeyed” the voice of the Son of God.

I also write and preach frequently around the subject of existence and non-existence. In this I am following particularly the writings of St. Athanasius the Great. It is also evidence of the influence that Dostoevsky has had on my understanding as an Orthodox Christian. To me, the failure to perceive the precarious position of humanity, indeed, of all creation, is the failure to see things as they are. We are poised at the very precipice of non-existence. We are not as solid and immutable (nor is the world) as we tend to think. Some of this is rooted in my early childhood experiences in which the sudden death of beloved family members and friends was more frequent than is common in our American culture. At age 10 I was already having something of an “existential crisis.” The fragility of our existence is simply a given. I have personally ministered at the deaths of hundreds of people (part of this as a chaplain with hospice). That “we are dust and return to the dust” is staggeringly real to me.

Perhaps it is for this reason that I find St. Athanasius’ account of salvation in The Incarnation of the Word so compelling. He describes our salvation in terms of being grafted into Christ and given the kind of life that is not ours by nature. By nature we are mere creatures – whose existence is brought out of nothingness. Without the gift of God, we would fall back into our nature and into non-existence and nothingness. But by God’s gracious gift we are sustained in life and invited into His own very life. In this sense, the deepest question of my heart has never been about “how do I get to heaven?” but “how do I not cease to be?” The answer in Christ is a gift far beyond mere existence – a life that is beyond all imagining.

I remain perplexed that this question is not as universal as I would have thought.

There are doubtless other words among my favorites. You may be all too familiar with them. I suspect, however, that the readership enjoyed by these writings is an indication that some of these words are as helpful to others as they are to me. I can only write about what I know – or I can only write responsibly about what I know. Every effort I have made to do otherwise has met with what felt like disaster.

The prayers of readers and your encouragement are of deep value to me – thank you.

The Longest Liturgy

January 7, 2009

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It is not uncommon for visitors and members alike to comment on the length of an Orthodox liturgy. Sunday liturgies are often an hour-and-a-half or more (longer still in monastic communities).  Many of the services surrounding feast days such as vigils and the like take more than two hours (the version used in local parishes are extremely shortened in comparison to the literal “all-night” vigils for which some of the great monasteries are famous). I tell people that are new to Orthodoxy that they have to get past the internal clock that wants things done in an hour or less.

However, the truth of things reaches far beyond the general experience of liturgical chronology. There is a liturgy that is far longer than any of us imagine. It is not separate from the liturgy of the Church, but is often not seen by those in attendance: it is the liturgy of the heart.

The life of worship among Christians has taken many forms, particularly over the past 500 years. Driven by various factors, both cultural and ideological, the act of worship has morphed into enough disparate manifestations that the word “worship” cannot be used between two Christians unless accompanied by great elaboration.

In an effort of clarity I offer some suggestions of what worship is not.

Worship is not:

– a service of outreach by which we seek the lost…

– a hymn-sing in which we lift our voices with our favorite hymns…

– primarily for the benefit of those who attend…

– designed to make me feel closer to God…

I could make this list much longer, but to little good effect. The point, I think, is sufficiently made. But if worship is none of these things, then what is it? A small quote from Archimandrite Zacharias’ Hidden Man of the Heart:

The Divine Liturgy is worship; there is prayer and a whole life there, the life of Christ. In the Holy Eucharist, we accomplish the exchange of our limited and temporal life for the unlimited and infinite life of God. We offer to God a piece of bread and a little wine, but in that bread and wine, we place all our faith, love, humility, expectation of Him, all our life. And we say to God, ‘Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee in all and for all.’ We offer to God all our life, having prepared ourselves to come and stand before Him and do this act. And God does the same: He accepts man’s offering and He puts His life – the Holy Spirit – in the gifts, transmaking them into His Body and Blood, in which all the fullness of Divinity is present, and He says to man, ‘The Holy things unto the holy.’ God accepts our gifts and fills them with His life, and He renders them back to us.

His small definition of worship as exchange says far more about what is essential in worship than any possible outward description. The exchange which takes place within worship is a communion, a participation, the engrafting within us of the life of God and the engrafting of our life within Him.

It is perhaps possible to give an objective description of the service of worship – but to do so will have missed the point. To reduce the liturgy purely to the act of the consecration of bread and wine, the transmaking of bread and wine into the Divine Body and Blood – is an impossibility. Nothing can be reduced into the Body and Blood of Christ. The reduction of worship to a thirty minute collection of certain “necessary” elements, towards the end of which believers are given the sacrament not only misses the point of liturgy but threatens to misrepresent worship in the extreme. “Worship” that has no intention of exchange may be many things – but it fails to rise to the level of true worship.

Bearing these things in mind, I return to the earlier description of the longest liturgy: the liturgy of the heart. There are many outward details that comprise a Divine Liturgy (particularly in its Orthodox form) and yet they all share in common this Divine/human exchange. The exchange takes place not only in the gifts (bread and wine) that are offered and received – but simultaneously in the heart as well.

There is a long series of prayers, generally called the “secret prayers,” that are traditionally offered silently by the priest during the prayers led by the Deacon and Choir, or at other key moments in the Orthodox liturgy. They contain a wealth of theological piety – being directed particularly at the heart of the priest and his effort to rightly serve and pray. Two examples come to mind. The first is the prayer offered silently just before the Great Entrance (the bringing of the bread and wine to the altar). The choir is singing the hymn: “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares.” The priest prays:

None is worthy among those that are bound with carnal desires and pleasures to approach or draw nigh or to minister to thee, O King of glory, for to serve thee is a great and fearful thing even unto the heavenly Powers. Nevertheless, through thine ineffable and immeasurable love of man, without change or alteration, thou didst become man and didst take the name of our High Priest, and deliver unto us the priestly rite of this liturgical and bloodless sacrifice, for thou art Master of all. Thou alone, O Lord our God, art Master over those in heaven and on earth, Who on the throne of the Cherubim art borne, Who art Lord of the Seraphim and King of Israel, Who alone art holy and restest in the Saints. I implore thee, therefore, who alone art good and ready to listen, look down upon me a sinner and thine unprofitable servant, and purify my soul and heart from an evil conscience, and, by the power of thy Holy Spirit, enable me, who am clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this thy holy table and to perform the sacred rite of thy holy, immaculate Body and precious Blood. For thee do I approach, and bowing my neck I pray thee, turn not away thy face from me, neither cast me out from among thy children, but make me, thy sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer unto thee these gifts, for thou thyself art He that offereth and is offered, that accepted and is distributed, O Christ our God, and unto thee do we send up glory, together with thy Father, who is without beginning, and thine all-holy, and good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

And again, after the gifts are placed on the altar, while the Deacon and People pray the Litany of the Offering, the priest prays:

O Lord God Almighty, who alone art holy, who dost accept the sacrifice of praise from those that call upon thee with their whole heart, accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bring it to thy holy Altar, and enable us to offer unto thee both gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the ignorance of the people, and vouchsafe that we may find grace before thee, that our sacrifice may be acceptable unto thee, and that the good Spirit of thy grace may abide in us and upon these Gifts set forth, and upon all thy people.

Were I to begin quoting the words of the pre-communion prayers, those prayers that are to be prayed by all Orthodox Christians before a liturgy, this same theme would resound repeatedly. The point of all of these prayers is the “liturgy of the heart.” The exchange which takes place in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, is itself a constant liturgy that should take place at every moment and in every place in the heart of every Christian.

This is the longest liturgy – for it is the liturgy of our whole life. If the heart is rightly occupied in this “inward” liturgy, the length of a service will be of little consequence – other than those that are forced upon us by our physical existence (and not even always then). Responsibilities as parents can also offer interruptions of the outward liturgy, but need not interrupt the liturgy of the heart. Serving Christ in the least of His brethren is not an interruption of the liturgy, but part of its proper offering.

The great barriers to the liturgy of the heart are those that are familiar to anyone who seeks to have communion with God (true prayer). Distractions of the mind and emotions, temptations of the flesh and a host of other things seek to carry our mind away from the heart and center it outside of Christ and the exchange to which we are invited.

It is deeply important to note that the liturgy of the heart is constantly being offered and received (or not). In every action and word the liturgy is either a part of us, and we a part of it, or we are standing outside the life of God. It is indeed the longest liturgy – whose “Amen” will resound at the appearing of our Lord. Then everything will be “Amen.”

Crushing Dragons in the Waters Across the World

January 4, 2009

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I must add to this post from last year, my memory of standing by Met. Kallistos Ware and other pilgrims for the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Jordan River this past September. As the Metropolitan’s voice rang out, a school of fish gathered in the water as an audience. The scene was surreal, as though standing within an icon, which indeed we were. The weather was hot – but the waters were cool.

This coming Tuesday (New Calendar) marks one of the greatest feasts of the Orthodox year, the Feast of Theophany, Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan river. Across the world Orthodox Christians will gather after the Liturgy to bless the waters: the ocean, a river, a spring, etc.  

Every feast day in Orthodoxy is connected to the Feast of Pascha, because Pascha is God’s great act of salvation. However, some feasts show this connection more clearly than others. Three feasts in the year share the same pattern of services: Pascha, Nativity, and Theophany. Each has a Vesperal Liturgy on its Eve and a Vigil the night before (with occasional variances).

The icons of the three feasts are strikingly similar, with Christ descending into a background that is usually rendered with darkness. At Pascha the darkness is the darkness of death and Hell where Christ has gone to raise the dead. At Nativity the darkness is the cave in which he is born. This darkness is the darkness of the world that is caught in sin and death – but it is the same darkness as Hell. At Theophany the icon depicts Christ standing on the waters of the Jordan – but the waters themselves are depicted as dark, or at least highlighted with a dark background. The darkness at this feast is precisely the same darkness as that pictured in the icon of Pascha. For Theophany is the feast of Christ’s baptism – and baptism, St. Paul tells us is a baptism into the death of Christ. His Baptism is a prefigurement of His death.

Thus the waters of the Jordan become symbolic of Hades. Christ’s descent into the waters becomes his descent into Hades where he “leads captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8) and sets free those who have been held in bondage to death. The vigil of Theophany, like the vigil of Pascha, includes the reading of the book of the prophet Jonah – the reluctant messenger of God who was thrown overboard by his companions and swallowed by a great fish. This book is read because it contains the same image as the icons – the descent into the depths of Hades.

Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

At the Vespers of Theophany we hear this phrase:

Thou hast bowed Thine head before the Forerunner and hast crushed the heads of the dragons. Thou hast descended into the waters and hast given light to all things, that they may glorify Thee, O Savior, the Enlightenment of our souls.

The phrase, “crushed the heads of the dragons,” comes from Psalm 74:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy might; thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters. Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan, thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

In this Psalm, God is recalled both as Creator, but also as the one who has brought order into the chaos of the world. He not only creates the waters, but crushes the heads of the dragons that dwell there. The “dragons” in the Psalm are an old English translation of the Hebrew word for whales. But the word “dragon” is an apt description of the demonic forces that are defeated in Christ’s death and its prefigurement in Baptism.

In the prayer over the waters, the priest says:

Thou didst sanctify the streams of Jordan, sending down from heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons that lurked therein.

This same prayer is prayed over the waters blessed on the day of Theophany. The service for the blessing of the waters usually takes place by a local body of water.. At the very heart of the blessing a hand cross is thrown out into the water three times and retrieved with the singing of the festal troparion:

When Thou O Christ wast baptized in the Jordan,

the worship ofthe Trinity was made manifest.

For the voice of the Father bear witness to Thee,

and called Thee His beloved Son.

And the Spirit in the form of a dove,

confirmed the truthfulness of His word.

O Christ, our God who hast revealed Thyself,

and hast enlightened the world glory to Thee!

The same troparion is sung throughout the homes of the faithful during the season after Theophany as the priest carries the same blessing into our homes. Theophany is a proclamation to nature itself of Christ’s salvation. Our lives have plenty of “dragons,” in all shapes and sizes. But Christ is victorious over everything that would destroy his creation – particularly the people who are His own.