Archive for September, 2009

Icons – Beauty and the Salvation of the World

September 20, 2009

IMG_0771“God will save the World Through Beauty.” This saying, often attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, never occurs in precisely this form in his novels – though the idea is present in such a strong sense that the phrase is correctly attributed to him. It is a phrase that is easily misunderstood. For Dostoevsky, in good Orthodox fashion, beauty is far more than a matter of aesthetics – it is the very goodness of creation itself. However (and this is the great writer’s genius), Dostoevsky sees beauty in strangely contradictory forms. The beauty that Dostoevsky sees as potientially salvific is itself a great mystery. In a very powerful paragraph in the Brothers Karamazov, the Brother, Dmitri, states the problem very clearly. Drawing on a line of poetry that says that God gave to the insects “sensual lust,” Dmitri begins by calling himself an insect and says that all the Karamazovs are insects.

 I am that insect, brother, and it is said of me specially. All we Karamazovs are such insects, and, angel as you are, that insect lives in you, too, and will stir up a tempest in your blood. Tempests, because sensual lust is a tempest worse than a tempest! Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Theotokos (Madonna)  and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.

There is no simple definition of beauty for Dostoevsky. He recognizes the contradictions within it. “I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Mother of God and ends with the ideal of Sodom.” He even recognizes that the man who has fallen into the clutches and bondage of the ideal of Sodom still has in his heart the ideal of the Mother of God. Such contradiction.


Dmitri Karamazov speaks of beauty as a hunger, a passion: sometimes for the Mother of God, the Madonna, sometimes for Sodom. But we are people whose heart envisions and propels us forward. This sense of passion is expressed in the Fathers as eros, or desire. Eros can be desire for God when rightly directed, or misdirected becomes the engine of our destruction.

In gospel terms, we would say that everyone has a hunger for the Kingdom of God. It is a deep hunger for the most profound relationship, for a beauty that is beyond the reckoning of this world. It is a beauty that is made manifest in forgiveness and responsibility for all and to all. It is the beauty of suffering love.

But Dmitri says more about this seed – this passion. He indicates that from his perspective, the madness of humanity is that it can direct its passion in either direction: the Madonna or Sodom – and even when it is in Sodom, still maintain a passion for the Madonna. There have been many examples of this in our modern world: the ugliness of the totalitarian state and yet the beauty of Shostakovitch.


In Dmitri’s notions, I hear later echoes in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Zhivago (whose name is itself a play on the Russian word for life) is both doctor and poet. Surrounded by the collapse of his world, both as a child, and later as an adult, he nevertheless has this heart and passion for life. In David Lean’s movie version of the novel (which is different enough to make it almost mandatory that one read the novel), this passion for life is represented by the music of “Lara’s Theme.” From the moment of his mother’s funeral, to the end of his life, this drive for life compels him. And like the ambiguity of Dmitri’s beauty, Zhivago is able to find beauty in his marriage to Anna or in his adulterous relationship with Lara. His relationship with both is a reaching for life – despite the immorality of his life with Lara. Both he and Lara are aware of the wrongness of their situation (Sodom) but are sustained by the sheer beauty of the life they have between them (Madonna).


There is this strange contradiction and mystery to beauty within the hunger of the human heart. Dmitri expresses this with great insight: “What’s awful is that beauty is not only a terrible, but also a mysterious thing. Here the devil struggles with God, and the field of battle is the human heart.”

The field of battle is the human heart.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great survivor of the Soviet Gulag and prophetic giant among the Dissidents of the Soviet Union, said much the same thing:


It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil. (From Gulag Archipelago)


Beauty, whether a hunger for the Mother of God or a thirst for Sodom, are both found within the human heart. One is a true hunger, man’s true end – the other a distortion, a missing of the mark.


In Orthodox teaching this is the very nature of sin. Sin is not the breaking of a law and thus the acquiring of guilt. Sin is missing the mark. Man was created, the early Fathers taught, not as an absolutely perfect being who fell from paradise – an infinite sin – worthy of an infinite guilt (and punishment). Rather man was created with a proper end. He is created without sin, with no imperfection, but he was not made at the beginning as he was to become.


St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in the late 2nd century, described Adam and Eve as adolescents. Their turning aside from God was a turning aside from the fullness of life in union with God that was intended for them. Thus St. Paul calls Christ, “the Second Adam.” He is the true Adam, the true man, the One who is what man was always meant to be. As Christ will say of himself, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” Or as St. Paul will say of Jesus, “He is the author and finisher of our faith.”


In the world of Orthodox Tradition, no story captures the transformation from the distortions of passion to the pure desire of God more deeply than that of St. Mary of Egypt. Far more than an obscure story about an obscure desert saint, hers is perhaps the best known story of a woman saint in the Church (not including the Mother of God). The fifth Sunday of Great Lent is always dedicated to her. Earlier in the week, in preparation for her service on Sunday, a lengthy service of repentance is done in the Church, during which her Life, first told to the Ven. St. Zossima (another 6th century saint), is read aloud in its entirety.


She begins life (at least in her teen years) as a prostitute in Alexandria. She makes it clear that she did not do this out of necessity, but because she liked it. She added to this all of the debauchery and drunkenness that one might have. She admits that she often engaged in evil not for profit, but simply for the pleasure she found.


One day, hearing a party going on (or what she supposed to be a party) she followed the sound down to the wharves. There a group was gathering and preparing for a pilgrimage to Holy Jerusalem. As a lark, she decides to join them (working the price of her passage off by corrupting various young male pilgrims). Arriving in Jerusalem she goes with them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ’s true Cross was exposed for veneration, as well as his empty tomb. Coming to the doors of the Church, something like an invisible wall, prevented her from entering. She tried repeatedly but could not enter.


In a single moment she is struck with the reality of her life and the work of repentance begins. It matures over the course of a lifetime as she becomes an anchorite in the desert. By the end of her life she has lost all outward beauty. Withered by sun and heat she is almost ghost-like in her appearance. But within there is a beauty that is the glory of sainthood.


Her story is read aloud in the Orthodox Church every year. It is a model of repentance and of the forgiveness of God. The most vile prostitute becomes a most holy woman. She has abandoned false beauty and been redeemed by a beauty that is not of this world but of God. This transformation is at the heart of the Orthodox way of life. It does much to explain the more or less canonical requirement that our churches be made beautiful. (Sometimes it’s a challenge if you’re doing church in a warehouse, a storefront, or buildings not designed to be used for Orthodox worship. Nonetheless buildings, like the people in them, should strive for beauty, the beauty of heaven.) It certainly is a large component in the making and veneration of icons.


In the creation story in Genesis, God looks at what He has made and says, “It is good.” In the Greek translation of the passage, God looks at the world and says that it is kalos a word that means “good” – but also means beautiful. The Hebrew carries some sense of this as well. The goodness God sees can be described as Beauty.We can thus say with great confidence that whether God will save the world through Beauty, Beauty certainly will be the result of salvation.


Ours is the daily task by prayer, fasting and all of the spriritual disciplines, of training the heart to see the true Beauty of the world – and in the relationship that is born in that encounter – to find the corners of salvation that God is revealing before our eyes.

Glory to God!

To See An Icon

September 19, 2009

12My previous post spoke of the world existing “iconically” rather than “literally.” I do not mean that the world cannot be seen in a “literal” fashion – only that the world will not be truly seen if seen only in a literal fashion (there is probably a better word than “literal” to describe this secularized form of experience). The seeing which sees in a “literal” fashion, assumes that things are only things, that what exists, exists only in an objective fashion and can be comprehended by such an objective viewing.

Seeing an icon involves a different kind of seeing than that normally described in an objective encounter. The writings of the Fathers surrounding the Seventh Ecumenical Council described an icon as a “hypostatic representation” (this is particularly true in the writings of St. Theodore the Studite). As such, an icon is a representation of the person, not of an essence (no painting could ever actually be a painting of an essence). But because an icon is a representation of a person, and not merely a semi-photographic portrayal of their likeness, it is also true that the icon cannot be seen as icon, except in a personal or hypostatic manner.

It is possible to see many people in the course of a given day – but that does not mean you have encountered them as persons. Frequently in our busy, de-personalized world, we encounter crowds as only so much “cattle.” Worse still is to see others in a merely objective way. In such an objective encounter, we categorize, judge, and discard the other not as person, but merely another object in our repertoire.

To see an icon as icon of a person – it is necessary that the icon (or that which is represented) be greeted in veneration. This is not an attitude of worship, but a greeting of honor and love. I cannot see another person as person except in an attitude of veneration (of honor and love). We are “fearfully and wonderfully made:” Human beings cannot be seen for what they are unless they are approached in “fear” and “wonder.”

The universe has a hypostatic character to it: it does not exist as an object that has no relation. The universe is creation – as such it has a Creator and cannot be seen for what it is unless its Creator is held in honor and love (and worship). We do not worship the creation, but we cannot rightly see it except we see it as creation. This is something profoundly deeper than seeing creation as a thing or a collection of things.

I have been to museums and have seen the relic collections of many Churches. I never fail to be struck by an object when it is associated with a person. The see an ancient set of vestments can be of interest to me – but to see a set of vestments worn by someone whom I know (such as a saint whom I know) is a very different form of seeing. Last year at about this time, I sat in the cave that served as the monastic cell of St. John of Damascus. There he prayed. There he wrote his great masterpieces of theology. I could not see the rock as “mere rock.” It had a hypostatic character that bore both its relation to the Creator as well as its lesser relation to St. John. It was not a cave, but his cave.

I daresay most people see the members of their family in something greater than an objective manner. We see beyond faults and shortcomings. We sometimes even see the state of their souls. We are rarely unaware of the web of relations in which we exist together with those we love. All of these things drive us to see one another as more than object.

To see the world as icon is to understand its place as creation and to hold it in proper veneration as the handiwork of God. Seen in such a way, everything becomes a window to heaven, the gate by which we may enter the nearer presence of God.

Is the World Literal or Iconic?

September 17, 2009

IMG_1642What do you see when you see the world and how do you see it? I have written much about the secular character of our culture and its “literal” view of the world. The world is what you see and nothing more. Significant events take their significance from their own relation to other literal events. Much that passes for Christian theology or “thought” belongs to this world-view today. Thus those who concern themselves with “prophetic” events are constantly working to make a connection between the words of Scripture and the “literal” events of today’s news. The coming of Christ is seen by them as an event that will fit within the headlines of the paper – and even fantasize about the difficulties presented to mainstream media when the event of a “literal rapture” occurs, and a significant portion of the population goes missing. It is a way to see the world – not significantly different than how any non-believer sees the world – and – I would suggest – deadly dull and wrong.

There are other ways to see the world. The “other way” with which I am most familiar is the world as icon. Of painted icons we say they are “windows to heaven.” Though no more than wood and paint, faithful believers find them to be something which points to something yet more – they both point to and make present here.

The house in which I live has a marvelous feature. The living room – dining room (more or less one large room together) has one entire wall as floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, the living room is cantilevered so that parts of two additional walls consist of windows as well. The effect is that the main living space of my home constantly includes the outdoors. In the Autumn the room is suffused with golden light from the leaves of the many trees that overlook the rear of our house. In the Spring and Summer, the room takes on a radiance from the many trees and flowers. Even in winter as the room looks out over the naked wood of trees and offers views of neighboring streets and houses – the room remains transformed.

To say that something is a window is to recognize both its “literal” presence as well as its “iconic” function. It provides both wall to enclose and yet reaches out to include. The world, I believe, when properly seen, does the same. There are occasional views of certain aspects of the world that make the most hardened, literal heart pause and recognize that something transcendent, or something which certainly hints at the transcendent has come into view.

I well understand that there are people who do not believe in God. Oftentimes when they tell me about the God they don’t believe in, I have to say that I don’t believe in that God either. But I do not understand people who live in our world and do not wonder whether there is a God – whether the beauty that refuses to disappear, despite our best efforts – is not reflective of some greater Beauty that refuses to utterly hide Himself.

My children (now adult) laugh at me for once having scolded them about “fairy circles.” We were walking in the woods in Durham, N.C. My oldest girl was 8, her sister between 5 and 6. We came on a clearing with a beautiful circle of mushrooms. “It’s a fairy circle!” I exclaimed. Despite late night readings of Tolkien and Lewis, both of them laughed at me and said, “Papa!” in their most disapproving, skeptical voices. My scolding was that they did not at least pause to wonder.

I do not believe in fairy circles, nor did I expect my children to. But I do wonder (and I still pray that my children do and often). I wonder because I believe the world to be iconic – a window that reveals more than a first glimpse. It reveals a beauty and a vastness that stretches beyond the literal. The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep. He dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven and saw angels going up and down the ladder. His response was iconic: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not! How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”

I want to sleep and wake like a patriarch.

Memory Eternal

September 15, 2009

dscf0018A personal note:

I received news this evening (September 14) of the falling asleep of my mother, Nancy Freeman, in her home in South Carolina. Her passing was peaceful and marked with words of love.

My heart is very full. Earlier today I had given thanks for this 5th anniversary of my parents’ reception into the Orthodox faith. It seems significant to me that on this date my mother is now received into the heart’s true home. May her memory be eternal!

I am grateful for the many kind words that readers have shared with me over the past couple of years. I would ask that you remember my mother in your prayers. I would take it as a great kindness, indeed.

The Precious and Life-Giving Cross of Christ

September 13, 2009

crucifixionThe Mystery of our Salvation is contained within the Cross of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. And it is correct to say the “mystery of our salvation,” for what is contained there is more than a cosmic transaction (Christ pays for our sins): it is also the whole of our way of life. It is truly the mystery of our salvation.

The extent of this mystery is hinted at in Christ’s admonition: “Whosoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” This clearly goes much further than a single transaction or even our faith in the efficacy of that transaction.

The mystery is again invoked in St. Paul’s statement: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet, not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

The clearest statement of this mystery is perhaps found in St. Paul’s description of the “mind of Christ” in the second chapter of Philippians:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Here the Apostle speaks of the Cross in its universal form – the mystery is being unfolded. To take up our cross and follow Christ is to have within ourselves the “mind which is yours in Christ Jesus.” That “mind” (phronema) is a complete orientation of our life – a life that understands that only in the path of self-emptying are we to find the path of exaltation. Our salvation – our deliverance from the emptiness of death – is found, mysteriously, in our willingness to be empty for Christ’s sake. The way of the Cross is the way of life, and, a way of life.

This is the path that martyrs have traveled. It is the path that everyone who would know love must travel. For love is found in “laying down its life for its friends.”

What we see in the Cross of Christ is surely everything we say of it as the moment of our salvation. There Christ died for us. There His blood was shed for us. There His life was poured out for the life of the world. There we were reconciled to God.

But the Cross also stands outside of time and for all time (the Lamb was slain”before the foundation of the earth”). The Cross was always the way of life. Love, self-emptying love, was always the love of God for all mankind – though until He made it manifest in the Cross of Christ we did not know it.

But now we know it. And now it should become our mind.

September 14 is the Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross

An additional thought:

The Orthodox Tradition, as it developed in ancient Syria, had a great devotion to the Cross of Christ. It was believed by the Orthodox in Syria that the Shekinah glory of God, which had once dwelt in the Ark of the Covenant and filled the Temple in Jerusalem, came to reside in the Cross following Christ’s death and resurrection. There was thus a very deep and profound devotion for the Cross (any Cross) within Syrian Orthodox practice. It serves, I think, as a reminder that the Cross we wear from our Baptism, the sign of the Cross that we make when we pray, and the Cross wherever it is depicted and displayed, should be approached with great reverence and care. It is not (as the popular culture would make it) jewelry for the decoration of our bodies nor mere art. It is the sign of our salvation and the mystery of its power was ever held in great reverence by early Christians (and everywhere to this day by Orthodox Christians).

Before Thy Cross
We bow down and worship, O Master,
And Thy holy resurrection, we glorify!

Hymn before the Cross

A Mother’s Word

September 12, 2009

Greece Best 046a

Amma Syncletica said, “If you start a good work, do not let the enemy discourage you. Your endurance will defeat the enemy. When sailors encounter unfavorable winds they do not toss their cargo overboard or abandon ship. They struggle against the storm for a while and then reestablish their course. If you run into a headwind, raise a cross as a sail and you will continue your voyage in safety.”

The Religion of the Mind and the Religion of the Heart

September 11, 2009

St-Nicholas-DomeI write frequently about what I term the Religion of the Heart. Archimandrite Meletios Webber has a short piece on what can be called the Religion of the Mind. The distinction between mind and heart is not a distinction between thought and feeling. Rather it is a distinction between the mind (seat of thoughts and feelings) and the heart (the seat of a deeper awareness – sometimes called the nous in Orthodox writing). Orthodox spiritual practice would ultimately look for the integration of the whole person and the union of mind and heart. Without the heart, the mind behaves in a fashion that is a constant distraction – torn largely between fear and desire. Fr. Meletios’ observations are worth a careful reading. Those interested in reading more should pick up his Bread & Water, Wine & Oil. This excerpt also has some bearing on yesterday’s post differentiating between doctrine and opinion.

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task.

Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right. Interestingly enough, Jesus never once suggeted to His disciples that they be right. What He did demand is that they be righteous. In listening to His words we find that we spend almost all our energy in the wrong direction, since we generally pursue being right with every ounce of our being, but leave being good to the weak and the naive.

People fight wars, commit genocide, and deprive others of basic human civil liberties, all in the name of being right. There is little doubt that if a further nuclear war ever takes place, it will be because the person pushing the button believes himself to be right. About something.

Religion, at the level of the mind, can be a terrible thing, causing wanton destruction to individuals, families, and even entire nations, all in the cause of being right. Almost every religious system can, and in most cases, has operated solely at this level at some point in its history. This is the level of religious awareness that can cause the servants of the King of Peace to wage war on those who think thoughts different from their own; it bestows on those who have been commanded to forgive their enemies the right to annihilate their foes.

Fr. Meletios’ writings are not an argument for a relativist “why can’t we all just agree?” Rather it is a careful analysis of how the heart perceives and responds. It is the place in which we encounter the Kingdom of God.

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling. Rather, it begins with an awareness of its relationship with the rest of creation (and everything and everyone in it), accepting rather than rejecting, finding similarity rather than alienation and likeness rather than difference. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. Little wonder, then, that the mind, always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate it so thoroughly.

Doctrines and Opinion

September 9, 2009

From the Desert Fathers:

Malicious sceptics visited Abba Agathon to see if they could annoy him. They had heard that Agathon possessed great discretion and self-control. They spoke directly to him, “Agathon, we heard that you are an adulterer and full of pride.”

He answered, “Yes, that’s true.”

“Are you the same Agathom who gossips and slanders?”

“I am.”

“Are you Agathon the heretic?”

“No, I am not a heretic.”

“Why did you patiently endure it when we slandered you, but refuse to be called a heretic?”

Agathon answered, “Your first accusations were good for my soul, but to be a heretic is to be separated from God. I do not want to be apart from God.”


candlesChristianity inhabits a confused and confusing world of religious belief. There are those among us (including the Orthodox) who use the label “heretic” too easily. There are others for whom the word has no meaning – they are indifferent to doctrinal belief.

One reason for this particular confusion is that, for many, doctrine inhabits a space called “opinion” and they are right not to give much weight to opinion. My opinion in doctrine does not matter. Others recognize that doctrine matters (the history of the Christian faith bears witness to this) but still do not make a proper distinction between opinion and doctrine.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, once wrote that doctrine is “a verbal icon of Christ.” That statement may not carry much weight with the non-Orthodox – but should come as a profound revelation for contemporary Orthodox believers. What we find in the teaching of the Church is not a collection of “right opinions” but a verbal representation of Christ, similar to the representation found in the holy icons. Again, the non-Orthodox may not perceive the power in this statement – but it is an important way for Orthodox Christians to remove themselves from the position of valuing opinions and restore them to the position of holding doctrine in its proper veneration.

It has been noted on this blog (and in many other places) that argumentation rarely brings someone into the faith. Argument may have an important role to play in the lives of some – but generally the Orthodox faith (even for those who came to believe it through argumentation) must be embraced not as the result of right argument – but as a gift from God given to us to correct our heart and rightly dispose us to the work of God within us.

For instance, it is not possible to give God proper honor nor to rightly dispose our heart to Him unless and until we acknowledge Him as our Creator (to use one of the most simple but profound doctrines of the faith). “For He that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). But such a belief must be held as more than an opinion – it is a profound revelation of Who God is and how we must relate to Him. It is not a mere statement of Christian cosmogenesis. If God is Creator, then I am creature and there is a profound love and veneration due to Him.

I could take this same method and look at everything the Church holds as doctrine. The role of doctrine and dogma (officially stated teaching of the Church) is not a morbid concern with correct phraseology or ancient metaphysics: all doctrine is taught for the sake of our salvation. This does not mean that, in the end, God will reward those who get an ‘A’ on their doctrine report card. Rather, doctrine is for our salvation because it teaches us the true path to union with God, Who alone is our salvation.

Many times the statement of Doctrine is an answer to the question: “Which God?”

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible:  and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds,  Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father: God from God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, etc.

Orthodoxy exists as a place for the embracing of teaching and the living out of its reality: it is not a place for the sifting of opinion.

Abba Agathon understood the role of doctrine. It was not His opinion he held in high regard (for He held his opinion with no regard). Rather He recognized the verbal icon of Christ and would never choose to be separated from Him.

It is a thought worth considering – and perhaps a place for the heart to be changed.

The Nativity of the Theotokos

September 8, 2009

nativityofthetheotokosToday marks the birth of the Mother of God on the calendar of the Orthodox Church (New Calendar). It is one of the twelve major feasts of the year. It is also a feast which shares a great deal in common with many other events in the course of Scripture – all of which emphasize the character of our salvation.

The story of Mary’s conception and birth, as received by Tradition in the Orthodox faith, is similar to many stories within Scripture: it is the story of fruitfulness within the context of barrenness. The account tells us that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, were elderly. St. Joachim served as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem – his wife had never given him a child. In the story, Joachim bears the reproach of his fellow priests. He and Anna offer prayers to God in their barrenness and God shows mercy: they conceive a child and become the parents of her who is to be the Mother of our Lord.

The story of barrenness is common in the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah cannot have a child. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, cannot have a child. God hears their prayers and gives a blessing. From their barrenness will come the salvation of Israel.

The ultimate barrenness in this understanding is the virginal womb of Mary. How can a virgin give birth to a child and yet remain a virgin? All the stories of barrenness in Scripture look forward  to and prefigure this final barren womb. God will bring fruitfulness out of barrenness.

Mary’s fruitfulness itself is a prefigurement of the cosmic barrenness of a world that has cut itself off from God. Hades is the ultimate barrenness. There the dead cannot even offer praise. But Christ becomes the “firstborn of the dead” – a phrase that is so rich in contradiction and paradox that it is often overlooked. How can death yield life? How can the barrenness of Hades yield a firstborn anything? And yet it does.

God, Who so loves the world, has emptied Himself and entered the most barren of all places. There He has trampled down death by death and made a path to the resurrection for all. Hades becomes the place of new birth. Thus it is into Christ’s death we are Baptized that we might be raised in the likeness of His resurrection.

These things remind us that the barrenness of our own lives are not the final say. God brings life from death and undoes the emptiness of the universe by making it full.

May She who was born this day, the mother of God the Word, pray for us all that we, too, might be fruitful bearers of the word of God to the praise of the glory of His grace!

The God Gene

September 7, 2009


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