Archive for December, 2009

Remember God Always

December 28, 2009

Somebody asked Abba Antony (St. Antony the Great of Egypt), “What shall I do in order to please God?”

He replied, “Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guide-lines, you will be saved.”


This small story from the lives of the Desert Fathers has always reminded me of the quote that Fr. Thomas Hopko offers as having been given him by his mother when he left for seminary: “Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church.”

The Christian life, it would seem, is not so much complex as difficult and the things that are difficult are themselves quite simple. St. Antony’s admonition to “follow the example of Holy Scripture” might seem to some to be asking the impossible – but he means nothing more than keeping its commandments. And those commandments are simple as well: love God, love neighbor, forgive everyone for everything (that’s my summary), do not lie, do not steal, and such things.

The difficulties that we encounter are a “living diagnosis” that something is wrong. When I lie, it is clear that something is wrong. The inside of me and the outside of me do not match – I have no integrity. Our lies are a refusal to live in the truth.

The failure to love is equally a diagnosis and evidence of the disordered condition of our lives. Christ’s teaching in Luke chapter six makes the point that the love and forgiveness that are asked of us are commandments to be like God:

But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (32-36).

And though a commandment to be “like God” can sound like the request for the impossible – we are never commandment to be like any other. We are created in God’s image and conformity to that image is our proper, natural condition. To live in the image of God is properly what it means to be truly and fully human.

And so our difficulty with all of this is evidence that something is wrong – something is disordered.

Without great analysis of the disease itself, St. Antony (and Fr. Tom’s mother), offer a straightforward remedy: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church.

The first admonition, “to remember God,” is to learn to live as a creature – to live as a contingent being (to get philosophical). I did not create myself and were I to live as though I did, it would be a lie. Such a lie is a disordered way of being. Remembering God is not unrelated to the maxim of Socrates: “Know yourself.” The forgetting of God is one of the illnesses of the heart that dominates our secular world. For it is not so much that our world says that “there is no God,” as it says, “God is not here.”

The practice of saying the ‘Jesus Prayer’ is one of the most common ways that the “constant remembrance of the name of God” is manifest in the Orthodox spiritual life. But at the heart of that prayer is simply the remembrance of God. In the words of an old friend who was a recovering alcoholic: “The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.” And we need to know that every minute of the day.

The last thoughts of St. Antony’s admonition and the last thought offered by Fr. Hopko’s mother are quite similar as well. To stay where you are and not move about in a hurry is the practice of the virtue of stability. The gather regular for prayer in Church with other believers is the foundation of spiritual stability in our daily lives. To gather regularly and faithfully requires that our life in Church be purged of many of our modern (and ancient) habits. We must learn not to judge (or before long attendance becomes either unbearable or practice for dwelling in hell). We must learn that we exist to give praise and thanks to God and not be entertained. Boredom is not the bane of our existence – it is our hatred of existence.

We have now passed the climax of a great feast. Life returns to normal. At least we should pray for life to return to normal, understanding that to remember God, to keep the commandments, and to be content with our lives as creations of the living God is the true meaning of normal.

What’s In The Cave

December 27, 2009

It is traditionally understood that Christ’s nativity was in a cave (not in a stable). The cave served as a stable – not unusual for the area of Bethlehem. However, the traditional icon of Christ’s nativity reveals the cave in an unmistakeable manner. The cave of Bethlehem resembles the cave of Hades into which Christ descends at His death. It also resembles the space framed by the rocks in most icons of Christ’s baptism. The same space can be seen on most icons of the crucifixion (beneath the cross and framing a skull). This iconographic similarity is not accidental. The cave of Bethlehem is meant to resemble the cave of Hades (just as the child in swaddling clothes resembles a body wrapped for burial). It resembles the cave of Hades for the same reason that the space framed by the rocks at Christ’s theophany resembles the cave of Hades. They are pointing to one and the same thing: Christ Incarnation is God’s descent into our world where sin and death reign. The incarnation of the Word is immediately a challenge to the darkness of death and hell.

St. John makes this clear in the prologue of his gospel. He speaks of Christ as the “Light of the world,” and within the same breath brings that Light into conflict with the darkness: “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The story of Christ’s nativity is certainly marked by elements that have become popular in our greeting-card world. Angels sing to shepherds. Wisemen journey from afar. The ox and ass know their master.

But in typical fashion, greeting cards leave Christmas with pleasant thoughts. After all, the cultural Christmas looks no further than the presents beneath the tree.

The Church, however, sees the cave of Bethlehem for what it is: the darkness. No sooner is the Child born than His life is in danger. The wicked king Herod seeks to kill Him and, failing in his first plot, turns his wrath on every child under the age of two in the area. Tradition holds that the number of the innocents slaughtered by Herod’s men approached 14,000. Such is the darkness.

The same darkness marks the world to our day. The Light still shines and the darkness does not overcome it – but it is in darkness that the Light shines. The cave is the world – make no mistake.

Those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death according to St. Paul. It is also true that those who are baptized into Christ “receive the Light of Christ.” But to participate in the Light of Christ in this world is to be light in the midst of darkness.

But the great joy of Christmas is that the child born in the cave is indeed the Light of the world – and though we find ourselves in darkness – the darkness cannot overcome the Light. The revelation of Christ at Christmas is the same as the revelation of Christ at Pascha. Every revelation of Christ is victory over sin and death.

What’s in the cave? God Himself.

Christmas in General

December 23, 2009

“Peace on earth! Good will towards men!” is a common greeting to be found on cards during this season of the Nativity. These are, of course, the words sung by the angels the night Christ was born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:14). It is also a phrase which admits of several interpretations.

The possibility of various meanings is very likely the reason for its popularity on greeting cards. Who could be opposed to peace on earth and good will towards men (especially if the “men” is translated in a more “gender-friendly” way)? The difficulty with Christmas, for many, is that it introduces what is characteristically known as the “scandal of particularity.” The scandal, or “stumbling-block,” is the specific claim made by Christians that the child born in Bethlehem is the incarnate Son of God, the One through whom salvation alone may be found. Everyone likes peace. Most people like Jesus. Not everyone likes Christ, the Son of the Eternal God, the God made flesh.

And so the feast of Christmas becomes the great Gnostic Temptation for modern culture. Modernity wants to admit that Jesus was an important figure in history but does not want to grant that He is the Lord of history. Modernity wants to advance the cause of peace but does not want to admit that Christ alone is the Prince of Peace.

The Christian faith rightly and properly rejects gnosticism as a heresy. It is not peace and good will nor even love that Christianity properly confesses. These words, when stated without a context, have no meaning whatsoever. They become symbols of the banal and empty quality of modern life. Peace as the absence of conflict has no positive content. Good will without a reference becomes nothing more than a smile. Love without the brutal sacrifice of self-emptying is nothing more than sentiment.

Sentimentality is the content of modern idolatry. We worship feelings and those things which produce the feelings we worship. It is for this reason that entertainment and its purveyors are the “icons” of the modern world. Those whom the world holds in esteem are pictures without content – feelings without reason. And so the indiscretions of our icons (whether golf legends or the idols of our matinees) face the unrelenting judgment of the media whenever they stray from the pre-defined content of their image. Our sentiments must not be offended.

Sentimentality requires generality. Those things which we perceive in a “general” manner, lack content. Things in general have no specificity nor particularity. Their general character allows us to project our own wishes and dreams upon them without contradiction. Modernity prefers a general God for the same reason. A general God has little or nt content – little or nothing than can offer contradiction or offense to the culture god of sentimentality.

The incarnate Son of God is full of contradiction and offense. The claim to be the Incarnation of the only true God stands as a stumbling-block for the demands of sentimentality. Peace on earth and good-will towards men receive a very specific content in the incarnation of Christ. The angels sing because Christ is born. Without His birth, there is no peace nor good-will. His birth proclaims the beginnings of God’s peace on earth, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. His birth proclaims good-will – God’s good will towards men (the only good-will that matters).

The contradictions inherent between Christ the God-Man and the empty sentiments of peace on earth, good will towards men, form the content of modern culture wars between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” A Christmas which does not offend is not a Christmas that can save. My sin is offended by the love of God. Without such offense there can never be repentance. My sin is an offense against Christmas itself – though the true Christmas has taken my offense into itself and forgiven me everything: a forgiveness that can only have meaning if the child of Bethlehem is none other than God.

Better than “Merry Christmas” is the traditional Orthodox greeting: Christ is born! Glorify Him!

The Smallness of God

December 22, 2009

An annual December posting:

Whom have we, Lord, like you
The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.
Blessed is your honor!

St. Ephrem the Syrian


We draw near to the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, and I cannot fathom the smallness of God. Things in my life loom so large and every instinct says to overcome the size of a threat by meeting it with a larger threat. But the weakness of God, stronger than death, meets our human life/death by becoming a child – the smallest of us all – man at his weakest – utterly dependent.

And His teaching will never turn away from that reality for a moment. Our greeting of His mission among us is marked by misunderstanding, betrayal, denial and murder. But He greets us with forgiveness, love, and the sacrifice of self.

This way of His is more than a rescue mission mounted to straighten out what we had made crooked. His coming among us is not only action  but also revelation. He does not become unlike Himself in order to make us like Him. The weakness, the smallness, the forgiveness – all that we see in His incarnation – is a revelation of the Truth of God. He became the image of Himself, that we might become the image we were created to be.

It seems strange to speak of God as humble, and yet this is what is revealed in Scripture. Cultural references to God are full of power and mankind’s own claim to wisdom that somehow the all-powerful God has not straightened things out yet. On this basis some will even come to reject the very existence of God. The power of God is nothing like our power. Though He created all that is, He did so out of nothing. This bears no resemblance to anything we think of when we “create.” And He who created is also He who sustains, and yet in His humility we cannot directly see His sustenance, unless He has given us eyes to see.

The all-powerful reveals Himself in His weakness, and not, I suspect, because it was a “backdoor” plan. Rather I believe the all-powerful revealed Himself most fully, most completely on the Cross because this is indeed what the power of God looks like. I do not know how to fathom the reality that the power that can only be seen in the Cross of Christ, is the same power that created the universe, but I believe it is so.

We never know fullness, until we empty ourselves into His emptiness. We never know love until we are drowned in the waters of His mercy that do not kill but make alive. We cannot see the great until we see Him very small. He who enters the womb of a Virgin will also enter the waters of Jordan, and will also enter infinitessimally small spaces of hades’ yawning gape. And there we shall see greatness indeed, He who is everywhere present and fillest all things.

The Angels Sing

December 21, 2009

A Serbian Christmas Song – lyrics by St. Nikolai Velimirovich

Andjeli Pevaju

Noć prekrasna i noć tija,
nad pećinom zvezda sija,
u pećini mati spi,
nad Isusom andjel bdi.

Andjeli pevaju,
pastiri sviraju,
andjeli pevaju
mudraci javljaju:
Što narodi čekaše,
što proroci rekoše,
evo sad se u svet javi,
u svet javi i objavi:
Rodi nam se Hristos Spas
za spasenje sviju nas.
Aliluja, aliluja,
Gospodi pomiluj!

(deep voice) no matter what you are doing, spin threads for heaven!

Angels Sing  (lyrics)

the night so grand and placid,
a star shining over the cave,
the mother sleeping in the cave,
where the angel of Jesus hast been.

the angels are singing,
the sheperds are fluting,
the angels are singing,
the wise bring it forth:
what the nations awaited,
what the prophets had said,
here and now it is announced,

it is announced and brought forth:
Christ, our Redeemer is born!
for the Salvation of us all.
halleluya, halleluya,
Lord, have mercy!

Joy, Soul, Passion, Honor, Jesus, Faith, Hope, Salvation, Peace, Repentance, the Lord, Calmness, Love, Charity, Harmony…

(addendum) God’s peace! Christ is born! Truly, He is born!… let’s renew ourselves, let’s lift up the pillars!

The Silent Word

December 20, 2009

Phillips Brooks, the Anglican priest who wrote the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” offered a very rich phrase with his observation, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous Word is given…”  The ubiquitous sound of Christmas music has accompanied me into almost every store and restaurant since late November.  At its best, the music is quiet and reverent. At its worst, the music jars the mind with every imaginable form of cultural distortion.  Thus my thoughts have turned to the silence of the Word.

The silence of the Word made flesh is a crucial aspect of the Incarnation. Though Christ taught – it is not as Teacher that the Church knows Him best: He is certainly not to be compared to other religious figures who are primarily known for their teaching. It is Who He is, and what He did and does that distinguish Him as Lord and Savior. Even the words spoken by Him need to be received into the silence of the heart, according the fathers of the Church.

In a very noisy season, it is worth pausing for silence – listening for the silence of the Word. Spoken into our hearts, the Word again “takes flesh,” as we hear Him in obedience.

Christmas Throughout the Ages

December 17, 2009

I’ll have to ask for forgiveness at the outset on this post – mostly because of its speculative nature – something I generally prefer not to engage in – at least not for others to read.

The Incarnation of Christ is significant in the course of our salvation – but we all too easily look at the story from a mere moral or soteriological point of view and fail to stop and think what has actually happened. St. John says it quite clearly in the prologue of his gospel (vs. 14), “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

There are several places on which to place the emphasis in that short sentence, but the fact that God has actually become flesh, has united Himself with our material world, is not the least significant of those.

St. Paul will spend ample time in the 8th chapter of Romans speaking about the ultimate end of matter, what St. Maximus the Confessor would later call the “marriage of heaven and earth.”

We experience this on a regular basis when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Bread and Wine are not mere bread and wine. Something else has taken place and we receive the Body and Blood of God.

In all of the sacraments or mysteries of the Church, something quite ordinary (as we think) and material is changed and becomes united with Heaven and we receive Heavenly things (or better yet, are united with God). Thus the Baptismal waters become the “waters of Jordan” and are themselves embued with the Holy Spirit. We come out of the waters no longer the same.

My speculation (the above is not speculation, but dogma), is to think about the union of Heaven and Earth, but to think about it in the course of our daily lives – to think about it as a matter of course.

One of the gifts I received for Christmas was a CD of a Russian choral group singing music somewhat of the Church, somewhat of more folk origin (though it is largely modern in its composition). The group is called, “Svetilen,” and is a delight to listen to (I think I first heard them on Ancient Faith Radio.) Part of what they do is an attempt to recover the experience of an older great culture (Holy Russia), but, I would say, it is also an attempt to convey heaven in music. For if ever there was a Holy Russia, it was only because there was, for some and in some places, a union of Heaven and Earth to some degree.

I think about this today because I wonder what it is we want to do in our music, in our art, and especially when we do these as part of the expression of the gospel in Church.

It certainly cannot be enough to try and capture a bygone era, or evoke feelings of something past. A great icon, a truly great icon, is indeed a window into heaven. This is both a function of the iconographer, the icon, and the viewer of the icon. It requires all three. But what I am describing is, in fact, a normative view for the Christian life.

We should never yield to the temptation to simply relegate sacraments to Churchly rites that take place, “holy things” we go to Church to get and go home the better for it. They are surely that, perhaps, but must be much more. The whole of a service should be much more.

I can recall speaking with some Russian Church singers several years ago after a performance in Knoxville. They had just sung some of the most sublime and difficult music of the Orthodox Church, but had rendered it in a fashion that was beyond description. I was discussing this with a couple of the singers (there were only about 5 or 6 in the group), and was told, “We must be very careful of our relationships with one another. If we are not in love and kindness with each other, the singing will be a disaster.” Thus the music is more than mere notes mixing, it is also the sound of heaven, human beings transformed by God into the sound of heaven as they sing in love and forgiveness.

Art, too, should carry this element and more. Indeed, my speculative question today has to do with the whole of our activity. What does it look like to live in union with heaven? How does it sound? What else should it mean? The Word has become flesh, but flesh must also be united with the Word and be changed from glory to glory into the image of Christ. This is Christmas throughout the ages.

To See the Heavenly Country

December 15, 2009

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

On the Orthodox Calendar, the two Sundays before the feast of the Nativity are set aside for the commemoration of the “forefathers.” The first of these Sundays remembers the righteous ones of the Old Testament, the second, the ancestors of Christ according to the flesh. The Eastern Church differs from the West in its treatment of the saints of the Old Testament. They are given feast days, Churches are dedicated to them. In every way they are given honor equal to that of the New Testament saints.

It seems to me that there is something of a “historical temptation” for those of us in the modern world. For the modern mind is largely responsible for the creation of history. Not that stories of the past have not always been told. But the temptation of history is the temptation to value the past only as historical artifact. Things of the past are seen as having value only for what they have caused in the present – or worse – as having value only if you are interested in that sort of thing.

America was one of the first truly modern nations. The story of its founding is the story of the triumph of ideas. America is a decision and not an inheritance or an ethnicity. History is a very tenuous thing in America. The knowledge of the young about the past is often non-existent. As a modern nation, America looks to the present and believes that it can create the future (or one of our controlling myths certainly believes this). An increasing number of modern nations are coming to see the world in this same modern way. Europe is daily re-inventing itself with little view to its past. The temptation of history is becoming ubiquitous.

I describe history as a temptation, for history does not properly have a place within the Christian faith. That may seem a strange statement coming from an Orthodox priest. No Church is more firmly grounded in Tradition than the Orthodox. But to be grounded in Tradition is not the same thing as being grounded in history (as Moderns think of history). Tradition is not the tyranny of the past over the present: Tradition is the adherence to the same eternal reality throughout all time.

That eternal reality for Christians (and for all creation) is the end of things – Christ the coming Lord. Our faith proclaims that He who was born of the Virgin is also the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8). It is this same Christ unto whom all things are being gathered together into one (Ephesians 1:10). It is this End of history that is the meaning of all history – the meaning of all things.

It is also this Christ (the End of all things) that is the focus and center of the faithful through the ages. The Letter to the Hebrews, quoted at the beginning of this post, makes clear that it is this vision of Christ that grants the single purpose of all the righteous (including the Old Testament righteous cited by St. Paul).

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

The homeland they seek is none other than Christ Himself. And it is this same seeking that unites the people of God through all time in one single Tradition. The seeking of Christ is the Tradition of the Church (or so it can be said).

The temptation of history is to reverse Tradition as though it were a seeking of the past. But what unites us with the historical past is the same faith, the same purpose, the same vision, the same Lord. If the saints who have come before us directed their gaze to Christ, then it is to Christ that our own gaze should be fixed.

The preaching of the Kingdom of God is not a proclamation of the past, but the proclamation of Him “who was, and is, and is to come.” The same Christ who died and rose again is the same Christ who is coming. It is the same Christ who is given to us in the mysteries of the Church.

It is a theological irony that modernity, whose self-definition was an opposition to Tradition, is itself the creator of a history devoid of a future. Modernity denies Christ as the End of all things, and in so doing relegates itself to a place in history, but not to a place at the End.

For the faithful, we should desire a better, a heavenly country. And so God will not be ashamed to be called our God. He has already prepared such a city for us.

Brighter Than Any Royal Chamber

December 13, 2009

At the end of the Great Entrance, when the priest places the Holy Gifts on the altar, there are several verses which he repeats quietly. They are all deeply meaningful to me, but one has been on my heart much of late: “Bearing life and more fruitful than paradise, brighter than any royal chamber: Thy tomb, O Christ, is the fountain of our resurrection.” For me, these words point to the true and proper source of our healing and the definition of what it means for a human being to be whole.

That may sound almost obvious – but in our culture, the terms and teachings of the Orthodox faith must be carefully defined. We are part of a culture that has made “wholeness” into something of a cult – offering self-help books and related pop-psychology books as though they were just so many Romance Novels. Self-improvement has been a mantra of American culture since nearly its beginning (if not before). Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, that collection of homey sayings (“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”) is only an early example of this cultural fascination.

With the advent of modern psychology our fascination has left off its interests in quaint advice and moved on to self-diagnosis (and the diagnosis of others) in terms and understandings borrowed from various branches of psychology. Thus, words such as “extrovert” and “introvert,” drawn from the work of Carl Jung, have simply become part of our general vocabulary, even if their popular meanings are somewhat removed from the theory which spawned them.

I have a sign beside the door of my church office. It is a quote from the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo:

Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

In theological terms we would say that everyone you meet is a sinner like yourself. In our modern culture we might very well analyze everyone we meet and try to figure out precisely which battle it is in which they are fighting. Neurotics (of every stripe), Co-dependents, Bi-polars, Attention Deficit Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder – and the list goes on. Of course a century or more ago our ancestors were grouping people as “choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine” – based on medical theories that have long since disappeared.

But what we mean by wholeness also has tremendous bearing on what we mean by “sick.” The teaching of the Church maintains that wholeness of the human being is defined by the resurrection and nothing less. We are not complete without the resurrection – it is the fullness of what it means to be in the image of Christ.

Nevertheless, there is a confusion in our culture with “spirituality” and “psychological wholeness” or with any number of other images.

One way around this confusion is to make our wholeness something completely “other” than ourselves. Thus, if salvation is understood as an extrinsic gift, and external reward bestowed on us by Christ, then there is only a good effort here and no particular expectation of more. The spiritual life consists in waiting for the second coming. This approach works well with a secular culture. So long as a relgious minimum is met (various groups have various minimums) all is well. We mark time in a secular world with a secular life. It is the Second Coming that will take care of the world in which we live.

This same external approach can have other versions – some more responsible than others – but all leaving the battle outside ourselves. Of course these approaches leave wholeness as a cultural norm – something we work on because we’d like to be a “better person” or simply through some sort of inner, moral imperative.

Of course, the Scripture offers something more:

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).

The transformation which is promised us in Christ is not a transformation that is necessarily delayed to the “afterlife” but is simply the work of God in us at all times to save. The resurrection is what salvation looks like. Thus we draw ever closer to that which is the fountain of our resurrection.

Met. Hierotheos Vlachos, in a series of books, writes about the spirtual life as “Orthodox Psychotherapy.” What he teaches is simply the traditional three-fold life of purification, illumination and deification. The Elder Sophrony and his disciples (cf. Archimandrite Zacharias) write of a movement from a “psychological” to a “hypostatic” understanding. In this use of theological terms they are referring to a movement away from experience and problems as commonly understood and an extension, through grace, of ourselves into a fuller life of true personhood. I have found the Elder Sophrony’s writings to be of greater help to me personally – but that is nothing that I would ever generalize.

Our commitment to Christ is not necessarily a call to psychological well-being – as understood by the world. Such a healing may or may not be our lot. I have never been hesitant to recommend that someone see a doctor if it seemed clear that they suffered problems that needed medical help. There are certainly many mental conditions that are helped by medication. But medication is not resurrection. It is a band-aid. If you are bleeding that is a useful thing to have.

The greater realization is that we all share the same call in Christ – a call to go from “glory to glory.” The vision of beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord” is not unique to any one Christian. As St. Paul says, “But we all…” However the Christian beside you, beholding the same glory, may very well do so in the woundedness of his neurosis (or whatever terms we come to use). Our task is not to find ways to “fix” one another – but to love one another. Such love will make room for whatever woundedness it finds in others – perhaps even coming to behold the glory of God in the face of someone they would otherwise be tempted to fix.

The Doorway to Bethlehem

December 11, 2009

As we draw near to the feast of the Nativity, Bethlehem looms ever larger in my mind. At the same time, the entrance to Bethlehem appears as well. This article, posted on Christmas of last year, draws attention to the unusual feature of the entrance of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We all have a journey to complete before we reach the manger of the Christ Child. This article describes an aspect of that journey.

Pardon a bit of history – then I’ll get to the point.

St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great (also a saint of the Church), was, according to British legend, the daughter of King Cole of Britain – indeed, the King Cole of the famous English nursery rhyme:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he.

He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his fiddlers three…

St. Helena, following the conversion of her Emperor son, traveled to the Holy Land and is credited with the discovery of many relics, including, most famously, the true cross. She also initiated a building spree in the Holy Land, erecting Churches at holy sites, for what was now a newly protected religion of the empire. Thus the initial foundation of many churches in the Holy Land date back to the fourth century and the efforts of St. Helena.

However, in 618, the Holy Land was invaded by Persians who destroyed all but three of the churches built by St. Helena (thus foundations remain of others but have later churches built over them). One of those three churches is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The mosaics within the Church are among the oldest in the Christian world, and played a role in the building’s survival of the Persian invasion. It is said that when the Persians entered the Church of the Nativity, they saw in the mosaics depictions of the Magi (who were Persian). They spared the building thinking that there must be Persians somewhere in the area.

This same edifice underwent further danger after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land. It became a commonplace for soldiers to ride their horses into the Church (a means of harassing the local Christian population). The local bishop, afraid to approach the Sultan directly, instead ordered a secret solution. He had stonemasons work overnight to reduce the size of the entrance – leaving the present entrance which is well below the height of a man’s head. The only way to enter the Church today is to bow deeply as you go through the door. And it certainly does not permit the riding of a horse.

So much for history.

My encounter with this Church and the history of its construction took place during my pilgrimage to Jerusalem this past September. Like all of the pilgrims and tourists, I entered the Church with a bow. It is a very fitting exercise to approach the cave-shrine that marks the place of Christ’s birth. It is an action that follows the image of God’s own humility as He condescended to be born a man. It is a humility that St. Paul enjoins upon us:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

I am reminded of this physical action everytime I enter my own parish. As is Orthodox custom (not universally observed), the Church is entered with bows (cross yourself and bow – three times before entering). This same action is used as icons are greeted (and this is indeed widely observed) when entering the nave of the Church. Many visitors, unfamiliar with Orthodox customs and the veneration of icons, mistake this bowing as an act of worship. It is nothing of the sort, but rather an act of humility by which we give “honor where honor is due.” We honor those depicted in icons (Christ, His mother, the saints, etc.) because it is either an image of Christ, or an image of the saints – those whom Christ God Himself has honored and shown forth as bearers of His holiness. Orthodoxy makes a distinction between veneration (relative honor) and worship (the honor which belongs to God alone).

This Tradition of the Church, like the door in Bethlehem, requires an action which is unusual in our culture. The culture of democracy has a history of “leveling,” treating all things and all people as equal. This has a benefit when it comes to our standing before the law – even a President has to submit to the laws of the land (theoretically). But it can also lead to a misperception – that all things are, in fact, equal. St. Paul has a small comment on equality:

There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory (1 Cor. 15:40-41).

Even if all things and all people were equal, the admonition in Philippians remains. Christ, though equal with the Father, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to).” The humility that is asked of us is an action that sets aside the demands of equality and allows us to bow before God and before all whom He has asked us to serve (which includes all of humanity). To bow as we enter the Church, or as we greet the saints, is nothing more than an outward action that has been demanded of our innermost heart.

I have said in other places that believing in God is harder than many people think. It may be less difficult to believe that there is Someone who loves me, or Someone who can help me – but it is quite difficult to believe that there is anything greater than oneself. As an old recovering alcoholic once told me, “There’s only one thing you need to know about God – you’re not Him.”

Our culture teaches a form of democracy – one in which we find it difficult to bow before anything – but it also teaches us a form of idolatry – where we bow before things that have no worth (I think particularly of the cult of entertainment). How necessary it is for us to learn to bow – to honor that which is honorable. It is a lesson which teaches the heart the importance of contrition and brokenness before God (Psalm 51).

It is a lesson taught by a doorway in Bethlehem – a dim shadow of the great Act of humility that emptied itself and was born in a cave – not far from that door itself.


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