Archive for April, 2011

Beyond Pascha

April 27, 2011

Forty days of Great Lent having been completed, along with Holy Week, and the Great Feast of Feasts, Pascha, having been marked in the Church, it is very easy to take a deep breath and say, “Now, that’s done!.” And with the exhalation we take our leave of a liturgical feast and return to our daily routine and schedule. Just as the modern world has little understanding of the meaning of fasting, so, too, does it fail to understand the meaning of liturgy. Liturgy is not a means of marking time on a calendar – liturgy is a means (and mode) of existence.

Through baptism and chrismation we have entered into a new mode of existence. It is an existence of constant becoming. The Scriptures describe this as new birth, the death of the old man, the putting off of the old nature and the putting on of the new. This newness, this radical change in the mode of existence, is not accomplished by human effort. It is a gift from God. Rooted in the age to come, this new existence is maintained and nourished by the Eucharist. At every Divine Liturgy we hear the good news of Christ and enter into the process of conversion. We are given the possibility to acquire for ourselves the eucharistic manner of existence. Little by little we become ourselves communion and love. At the Divine Liturgy the tragic elements of our fallen existence – pride, individualism, blasphemy, vanity, hypocricy, envy, anger, division, fear, despair, pain, deceit, untruth, malice, greed, vice, gluttony, passions, corruption, death – are being continuously defeated, in order to make us capable to be love, freedom and life. (From an article by  Rev. Alkiviadis Calivas on the Greek Archdiocese website).

Liturgy and the Feasts of the Church are thus not mere calendar events which mark the annual remembrance of occasions now lost within history. What we celebrate are events within the Kingdom of God –  now manifest in our midst.  The liturgy continually initiates and renews us in the life of the age of come.

The opposite  approach (one which dominates our modern world) is to see liturgical events as simply things among other things. They mark historical events, now past, and, as such, are reminders not of God’s presence, but His absence. Thus the modern Easter easily becomes a feast of the Christ that was (who can barely compete with the chocolate and bunny rabbits).

In the modern world, Christmas and Easter are frequently secular feasts (of various commercial interests). Thus many feasts (such as Pentecost, the Ascension, the Dormition of the Mother of God, the Annunciation – to name just a few) often pass with little attention in the Church. Even in the Orthodox Church such feasts are often poorly attended. Were there no commercial accompaniment to Christmas and Easter – those, too, I suspect, would be of some note – but not much. I recall a local Baptist Church cancelling Sunday services several years ago, because Christmas fell on Sunday that year.

I have written at length on the problems of Christianity in the secular world ( cf. “two-storey universe” and the book Everywhere Present.

This historical sense of living “in-between” adds a twist to the two-storey experience: it is rooted in our modern understanding of history and time. It is easy, almost obvious, to think of ourselves as living between major events in the Christian story. Two-thousand years have passed since the resurrection of Christ. Christians continue to wait for His second-coming. How do we not perceive ourselves as living in-between?

St. Gregory Palamas (14th Century) uses an interesting example from the Scriptures that dismantles the “in-between” model that is so common in our modern world. His example comes in a sermon on the Cross (Homily XI). He begins with the assertion that the Cross, though manifest in history at Christ’s Crucifixion, has always been God’s means of salvation – at all times and places.

His example is quite illumining:

Although the man of the sin, the son of lawlessness (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3), by which I mean the Antichrist, has not yet come, the theologian whom Christ loved says, “Even now, beloved, there is antichrist” (cf. 1 John2:18). In the same way, the Cross existed in the time of our ancestors, even before it was accomplished. The great Paul teaches us absolutely clearly that Antichrist is among us, even though he has not yet come, saying, “His mystery doth already work in you” (cf. 2 Thess. 2:7). In exactly the same way Christ’s Cross was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them. (Quotation from The Homilies).

St. Gregory goes on within this homily to illustrate (generally with typological interpretation) how the Cross was present in the lives of the Patriarchs and other righteous “friends of God” within the Old Testament period.

His sense of time recognizes a reality of history, “even though he has not yet come,” but transcends that limitation in recognizing that “his mystery doth already work in you.” And of the Cross “[it] was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them.” This understanding of time and history places these categories in a subsidiary position – they are not the frozen, solid stuff of an empty, empirical world. They are a place in which we live – but also a place that is permeated by things that have not even “come into existence.”

St. Gregory’s treatment of these things is rooted in the classical Orthodox understanding of the relation between earth and heaven; past, present and future; and the mystery of the Kingdom of God at work in the world. His universe is distinctly “one-storey.” This understanding also undergirds the Orthodox understanding of eschatology (the study of the “last things”). St. John Chrysostom, in his eucharistic prayer, gives thanks for the Second Coming of Christ in the past tense – not that he is saying that the Second Coming has already occurred in history – but that the Eucharistic celebration stands within the Kingdom of God, such that the Second Coming can be described in the past tense. The Eucharist is the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb,” the “Banquet at the End of the Age.”

To speak of ourselves as living “in-between” or to think of liturgy as mere remembrance, is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea.

Living “in-between” is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things, time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past or things that have not yet happened.

This stands in sharp contrast to St. Paul’s statement in Hebrews: “Faith is the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). The relationship of faith with things “hoped for and not seen” is more than a trust that they will be, more than a longing for what is not. Faith is the very substance of such things.

In earlier postings on faith, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith. To describe faith as the substance of things is to grant a kind of existence to them. And so in Hebrews 11, St. Paul describes the faith of our forefathers (Old Testament) and the impact that the substance of faith had in their lives and world. St. Gregory’s homily echoes this very same phenomenon (indeed he quotes extensively from this chapter in Hebrews).

By faith, we do not live in-between. By faith, we live in a one-storey universe in which the realities of God’s Kingdom permeate our existence. We are not alone nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that haunts our every step is produced by a false perception – a delusion.

Of course, this is an easy thing to assert, but a difficult thing to live: it is the great struggle of our times. But without this struggle, faith will remain alien to us and we will remain lost “in-between” the worlds, trapped within those things that “are passing away.” Christ has given us something greater.

St. Paul says, “But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus…” (Heb. 2:8-9). It is the presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit that is made manifest in our feasts – but this is the same Christ who is made manifest in our hearts and who promised to “abide with us.” We do not see Jesus “in-between” but rather as the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Indeed, He is the Feast of feasts.

Christos Voskrese!

April 23, 2011

A wonderful Pascha song from Serbia!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Easter orthodox song_Hristos voskrese, posted with vodpod


People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mountains sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow*, animals roar:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to You God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

15th Antiphon of Holy Friday Matins – Sung by Archbishop Job

April 21, 2011

This is a wonderful video of the late Archbishop of Chicago and the Midwest. May his memory be eternal!

Vodpod videos no longer available.
more about “The 15th Antiphon Sung by Archbishop …“, posted with vodpod

Saved in Weakness

April 20, 2011

It is counter-intuitive that God saves man through His own weakness. The irony of the Divine Reversal has provided endless material for the hymnographers of the Church through the centuries: the Strong becomes weak; the Sinless takes on our sin; the Rich becomes poor; God becomes man – the whole of the gospel seems to be a Divine irony.

This irony has a beauty that has always drawn me. Sometimes the imagery drawn out in a hymn within the Church becomes so poignant I want to stop the service just to savor it (of course I can’t do this).

However, I think there is something that makes us want to keep our irony Divine and minimize it in our own lives. St. Paul says that he “glories in his weakness,” but I find that few other people, including myself, want to do so. The irony that despite our intelligence, we are foolish is not our favorite topic. The embarrassment that often accompanies confession is the irony of our sin – it contradicts the image we want to hold of our own ego – or that we at least want others to hold.

At some level, we believe that we are not saved through our weakness, but will be saved through our strength, and that the whole life of grace is God’s effort to make us stronger – never suspecting that God’s grace may actually be purposefully developing our weakness.

I do not mean that the grace of God causes sin to abound. But I find it interesting that the work of grace makes sin less opaque – more apparent to ourselves. The greatest saints also seem to be those who are most aware of their sins – and aware of their true sins.

I often tell people who say they are struggling with prayer to quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican. We often want to pray from strength – to approach God when we at least feel spiritually alive. The Publican refuses to lift his eyes to heaven. The contradiction of his life and the goodness of God are more than he can bear. And yet he prays. And, ironically, it is he who goes down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.

“My strength is made perfect in weakness” is the word God gave to St. Paul. I pray that it is so, for I find times in my life that what I have to offer to God and to others is my weakness – or so it seems.

In the better than 30 years that I have been in ordained ministry, I have learned that I am not alone in my weakness. All of us share common problems and brokenness, even if they are not identical. But the great irony is that it is precisely those problems and brokenness that Christ has made His own. There is nothing abstract about Christ’s union with our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). The great joy (and irony) is that we are heading to Pascha to share in the victory of life in the midst of weakness – not despite weakness.

Glory to God for all things!

So Close to Heaven

April 18, 2011

When I think of the Iconostasis of the Church (the wall that demarcates the Holy Place) I thinkof “boundaries,” and how the definitions that exist in the Church reflect even greater realities. I believe those realities are two-fold.

The first reality is to be found within ourselves. Fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God, there is a spiritual reality to our composition and inner relationship that is far too easily overlooked in our materialistic age. It seems correct to me that we are now seeing that many components of our life have a grounding not just in the “mind” (whatever a materialist would mean by that) but in the body itself (every thought has a chemical expression). We are not angels, disembodied spirits. We are human beings who think with flesh and blood. And this is a marvelous thing.

And yet, at least in our ignorance, we cannot speak very clearly of such matters. We often have to draw on other metaphors – though we should remember that our embodied existence is just that, embodied. I wrote in the previous post of the Temple of our body, and how there are distinctions and boundaries to be found there and respected.

Much of this is the cause of our problem with “prayer of the heart.” It is interesting that the “prayer of the heart” almost always has a certain amount of physical instruction. “To pray with the mind centered the heart,” is one such admonition.

I believe it is a place that we also encounter, or can encounter icons. I have seen people literally be converted by the presence of an icon. Last year I was in Atlanta when the Icon of Our Lady of Sitka was being taken around the country. The image that came to me as I stood with the other priests and offered the Molieben (prayer service) to Our Lady of Sitka, was that of a surface that has been distorted by the weight of an object placed on it (think of a flexible surface). In such a situation, the surface on which we stand is pulled down as if in a “cone shape,” and eveything around it falls towards it.

Now that may sound strange and having just written it sounds strange to me – but that’s what I felt. It was as if something very big and very heavy were in our midst. I believe this to have been the spiritual weight of the icon itself. Thus many of the people in attendance at the service felt “drawn” to the icon. My own language would have said that I did not feel drawn, I literally felt as though I were falling towards the icon.

Perhaps I am delusional. That is always a distinct possibility, but it is clear that many people were touched by the presence of the icon that night.

One of the most famous “boundary” stories in all of Orthodoxy, is that of St. Mary of Egypt. She was a young prostitute who, on a lark, traveled to Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She came with a procession of pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the cross was exhibited). But she discovered that when she tried to cross the threshhold of the Church she was repelled as if there were an invisible wall blocking the way. After several attempts she turned to an icon of the Mother of God beside the entrance. She prayed for help and promised to give up her life of prostitution and give herself completely to God. Then she was able to cross the threshhold.

In such an occasion I can only say that a person stands at the boundary of earth and heaven. Unable to enter heaven except by repentance they find that every human effort to press forward thrusts them backwards. Heaven opens to us only as a great gift of grace.

This same experience is something that I think exists frequently in our prayers. We frequently stand outside the door, and are all to frequently satisfied not to enter into the depths of the bridal chamber (the altar of the Church is called the Bridal Chamber during the Bridegroom Matins services of Holy Week). We stand and pray and are satisfied with a wandering mind and a hardened heart. There is a great need in our lives to press forward until we come to the place of true repentance. Then we find the doors of heaven opened to us and we enter into true prayer.

The series of prayers that a Bishop, Priest, or Deacon must offer before entering the holy altar at the beginning of any Divine Liturgy (these entrance prayers are prayed before the service of the Proskomedie). All of these prayers recognize the holiness of the altar area and the unworthiness of those who enter.

These boundaries, places and points where earth and heaven meet, are probably far more frequent in our lives than we admit. God is so gracious and merciful that He comes to us again and again. It is our fault that we increasingly secularize the world around us, and we see no boundaries, no doors.

Christ speaks of such moments in His famous parable of the Last Judgment when he tells us that all of these needy neighbors who surround us (the sick, the naked, the hungry, those in prison, etc.) were all occasions where Christ was to be encountered. They each stood before us as the Gate of Heaven and we refused to enter.

It is good when we pay enough attention to our heart that we can be aware of the generosity of God who meets us in so many ways. We need to be like Jacob of old who awakened from his dream at Bethel (the dream where he saw the ladder stretching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending). He did not wake from his dream like a secular man. A secular man would have said, “What a strange dream. I wonder what I’m worried about. Or did I eat something bad last night.” For the secular man, reality is defined only by himself. Jacob woke from his dream and said:

Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Gen. 28:16-17).

These are not the thoughts of a modern man. But, with the renewal of our mind, they can be our thoughts.

On Pascha – Melito of Sardis

April 14, 2011

Among the most powerful meditations on Pascha is found in the writings of Melito of Sardis (ca. 190 AD). His writing On Pascha is both a work of genius as poetry and a powerful work of theology. Its subject is the Lord’s Pascha – particularly as an interpretation of the Old Testament. His writing is a common example of early Church thought on Scripture and the Lord’s Pascha. I offer a short verse, a meditation reflecting on the first-born of Egypt, who die in the Old Testament Pascha. He speaks of the darkness of death, and the grasping of Hades:

If anyone grasped the darkness
he was pulled away by death.
And one of the first born,
grasping the material darkness in his hand,
as his life was stripped away,
cried out in distress and terror:
“Whom does my hand hold?
Whom does my soul dread?
Who is the dark one enfolding my whole body?
If it is a father, help me.
If it is a mother, comfort me.
If it is a brother, speak to me.
If it is a friend, support me.
It it is an enemy, depart from me, for I am a first-born.”

Before the first-born fell silent, the long silence held
him and spoke to him:
“You are my first-born,
I am your destiny, the silence of death.”

The poetry is poignant – the words of death as horrifying as any ever spoken, “I am your destiny, the silence of death.”

When translated into existential terms, we become both the first-born of the Egyptians, and the first-born of Israel. As the first born of Egypt, we too often know our destiny, the silence of death. We know the emptiness of our lives and the hollow constructs of the ego. We know the silence of prayer – not the deep mystical silence of union with God – but the empty silence that hints that no one is listening.

Never before, it would seem to me, has the human race been more hungry for God’s true Pascha. In an over-abundance of experience, we declare ourselves to be the first-born of Egypt. We find ourselves in the grasp of a darkness we do not understand. Our lives are very often removed from the immediacy of their existence and instead live and move in the context of the digital world (whether of entertainment or other examples). We create names and roles for ourselves in make-believe worlds. Re-enactors become some imaginary personage on the weekend, enduring reality only for the benefits it creates within the imaginary world.

Many people indeed live lives of “quiet desperation” simply because they have no hope and cannot imagine where hope would begin. The siren song of modern scientists, who find some strange comfort in the hope of ever-changing DNA, is just another form of voice, “I am your destiny, the silence of death.” Those who stumble along with some vague hope in extra-terrestrial life (as though it would change the nature of our own existence) and the march of “progress” (the mere aggregation of technology) if they take time to notice will see again, the “silence of death.”

In our strange, modern world, some have made peace with this silence, the last blow of the secularist hammer on the fullness of the life of faith: better the grave than the resurrection.

St. Melito obviously offers an alternative view of the world. The Christ who “trampled down death by death,” the Lord of Pascha, is foreshadowed in the world (particularly the account of the Old Testament). The Christ proclaimed by St. Melito is the Christ who confronts death itself, including the meaninglessness that we know too well in our modern world. This Christ is God in the Flesh, who has condescended into the existence of man and grappled with the “destiny of the silence of death.” In the face of the death of His friend, Lazarus, Christ cries out, “Lazarus, come forth!” With that cry the Church’s observance of Holy Week begins.

This observance is not the mere recounting of history. The recounting of history (the stories of the Old Testament) has been taken up by Christ into a new and fulfilled existence. The call to Lazarus is now a call to all of humanity. The silence of death has been broken by the voice of the Son of God.

“The day is coming and now is, when those in the grave will hear the voice [of the Son of God] and come forth.”

Our “angel” has come to protect us from the devastation of the angel of death, the one who promises us only “the silence of death.” The Lamb has been slain and the Cross has been signed over our doorposts. We need not go quietly into the night.

On the night of Pascha, the priest stands before the closed doors of a darkened Church and cries, “Let God arise! Let His enemies be scattered! Let those who hate Him flee before His face!” It is the eternal cry of God over His creation. We were not created for death. We were not created for meaninglessness. We were not created for the empty imaginations of modern philosophers. We were created for God and He has come to save us!

Some years back I sat in the tomb of Lazarus. I sat and listened for an echo of the voice which shattered death. I did not hear it with my physical ears – but my heart was lifted up in hope. “All those in the graves will hear His voice.”

Drawing Near to Pascha

April 12, 2011

We live in a “linear” world. This is to say that we experience time and events in a sequential manner. “B” does not happen before “A”. It would be, perhaps, just as accurate to say that we live on a “flat earth.” Though we may know that the world is round, we live like it is flat. Thus we say, “The Sun rises,” rather than, “the Earth rotates,” etc. “Things fall,” rather than “things are attracted by gravity.” Physics and reality (as we live it) are often two very different things. All of this is to say that even on the most mundane level, we speak about things in an inaccurate manner – and this speach largely colors our thought, even though we “know better.”

Something of the same can be said about our perception of  the feasts of the Church – our perception of time and the reality of the Kingdom are not at all the same thing. The tendency within our lives is to reduce the feasts of the Church to mere celebrations – days we decide are special and that we treat in a special way. Thus, nothing about the day is, in fact, different. “Reality” is only found in the make-believe of the liturgical game we all play.

Of course, this is a complete contradiction of the Church’s self-understanding and its understanding of the relationship between God and the Liturgy. It is true that the calendar may be somewhat relative (despite the Orthodox propensity for arguing among themselves about the calendar). However, that which is celebrated is not relative, nor is it only in “our minds.”

The celebration of Pascha, for example, is not a mere annual remembrance of the events of that day (on which Jesus rose from the dead) – it is, instead, by the grace and condescension of God, a true participation in the event itself. This is not because the time itself is special or even significant – nor is it because we ourselves are thinking in special ways. The liturgical and spiritual reality of holy events are a gift from God – a condescension to us – not unlike the condescension of His incarnation. God gives Himself to us in our worship of Him.

This is the very heart of worship. As Archimandrite Zacharias of St. John’s in Essex notes: “The heart of worship is an exchange.” The exchange that takes place in our worship of God is that we offer ourselves and all that we have (including our sin) and receive in return the very Life of God. “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” This mutual participation in the life of God and man is also the very content of our salvation. God becomes what we are, that we might become what He is.

In our liturgical life, this reality is also expressed in the exchange of time. We offer to God what we have (the time we give in our worship) and this time is exchanged: God gives us the eternity of His Pascha. Thus we do not merely remember Pascha, we participate in Pascha.  Christ “tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life,” and in our liturgy He tramples our death by His death and grants us lives in the hopelessness of the tombs we have created for ourselves.

I have stood at the historical places of Holy Week: I have touched the rock of Golgotha and knelt and prayed; I have knelt within the tomb of the risen Christ as a priest beside me prepared the bread for the Eucharist; I have kissed the rock upon which His lifeless body was laid and prepared for its burial. These and many other things were the content of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in which I participated several years back.

Those places, locked within the geography of the earth, had their share in the events which took place within and upon them. Their veneration was worthy and deeply moving. But none of them can compare to the reality of the exchange and the Pascha that occurs within the worship of the Divine Liturgy.

It is a misunderstanding of place and time that leads us to value the linear – the place and time – over the transcendant – which makes this place and time to be united with that place and time – and makes us to be united with Him.

Thus every Christian makes pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to the tomb of the Crucified and Risen Christ as he approaches the Holy Mysteries in faith and love. God grant us a good Holy Week and good Pascha. Let us not deny or despise the exchange that awaits us.

Behind Closed Doors

April 10, 2011

The phrase, “behind closed doors,” has become synonymous in English with things being done in secret – generally of an unsavory or nefarious sort. Institutions speak of an “open door policy,” and promise “transparency” to those from the outside. Closed doors have always had a sense of secrecy about them. Sometimes the secrecy hides the darkness of evil, other times it protects us from the wonder of the holy.

The stories of Christ’s resurrection are filled with closed doors. It is a common phrase in the resurrection narratives: “the doors being shut for fear of the Jews.” The disciples had lost their leader and teacher and they feared that they themselves would become victims. That fear led them to flee. It led St. Peter to deny that he even knew Christ. It led them all to hide behind closed doors.

Closed doors occur even earlier. The first doors known in the stories of Scripture are the gates of Paradise. Adam and Eve, having broken God’s only commandment to them, are forced to leave Paradise. The gates of the garden are shut and an angel is set at the gate to guard against their re-entry. More than the story of our first parents – it is the story of man.

The gates represent the brokenness of our communion with God. We exist – we have life – but our life is somehow cut off, “shut out” of its right and proper communion: we stand outside the Garden.

Later mystagogical teaching about the use of doors during an Orthodox service echo this estrangement. The priest praying before the closed doors at Vespers is sometimes said to represent Adam weeping before the closed gates of Paradise.

Our own lives are filled with closed doors – places from which we have been evicted – places into which we may not enter – places that represent secrets and broken relationships. Closed doors have gained an infamous character for good reason.

I can recall as a child standing outside closed doors while adults carried on arguments (“away from the ears of children”). I have stood outside closed doors as I understood responsible adults to be lying. There have been closed doors of wealth, class, education, ethnicity and dialect. Most people, in most places, have a profound sense that there is somewhere they do not belong. I can think of few things as painful as a door, slammed and locked in the midst of an argument.

From the point of view of Christ’s resurrection – the doors are slammed and locked from the other side. The gates of Hades are not closed by God, but by those who would keep God out. The gates Christ smashes are the gates that would refuse entry to the Light of Life.

Even the gates of Paradise are closed only for our protection. It is not the joy of Paradise or any pleasure that God would deny us – only our own efforts to approach to Tree of Life in a manner that did not involve our repentance, and therefore our salvation. To have become an immortal sinner would to have been to become like the demons.

But at Pascha, Christ confronts the doors of fear. Interestingly, he does not smash these doors. He simply appears within. He does not ask His disciples to first overcome their fears so that He may come to them. He comes to them and their fears are overcome. We cannot do what we must do unless He comes to us.

Thus the New Testament image becomes: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).

It is not God who has closed the doors – it is God who knocks and who appears inside, though they be closed.

We live in a world of locked and closed doors. Only a loving and resurrected God could overcome such obstacles. Glory to God who appears behind closed doors and sets the prisoners free.

The End of History

April 4, 2011

Recent conversations of the trans-temporal character of the Cross suggested I re-post this small meditation.

Christianity is sometimes referred to as a “historical” religion – its beliefs are specifically tied to events which have taken place in space and time. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are events which have taken place in space and time or Christianity is not true. No matter how noble or inspirational its teachings – the space-time reality of Christ’s death and resurrection are fundamental to the faith. Those who deny that reality have departed from the traditional confession of the Christian faith.

I offer this short confession of faith in order to allow myself to write with some care about time and history and the Christian faith – without – I trust – causing others to stumble.


There is a Russian proverb from the Soviet period: “History is hard to predict.” The re-writing of history was a common political action – enough to provoke the proverb. Students of history are doubtless well-aware that re-writing is the constant task of the modern academic world. The account of American and World History which I learned (beginning school in the 1950’s) differs greatly from the histories my children have learned. Some of the re-writing was long overdue – while other projects have been more dubious.

Of course re-writing is not a recent phenomenon. Virgil’s Aeneid was an effort to re-write history, giving Rome a story to rival Greece’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Reformation became a debate not only about doctrine but also about the interpretation of history and the Church.

The rise of historical studies in the modern period, which questioned long-held beliefs about the historical veracity of the Scriptures, gave rise to an anxiety within modern Christianity. Many of the debates that permeate Christianity at the present time turn on questions of history and historical interpretation. As the debates rage, history becomes increasingly harder to predict.

I would suggest that it is a mistake to describe Christianity as a “historical” religion, despite the space-time reality of its central events. It is more correct to describe Christianity as an “eschatological” religion – a belief that the end of all things – the fulfillment of time and history – has entered space and time and inaugurated a different mode of existence. To put it in the simple terms of the Gospel: the Kingdom of God is at hand.

There has been a tendency in some forms of Christian doctrine to draw abstractions from the concrete events of the Gospel. Thus atonement theory often speaks in forensic terms that primarily describe God’s own acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, whether as payment or punishment fulfilled, etc. In a manner, the event verges on being reduced to modern symbol (something which stands for something else) the abstractions and theories carrying most of the weight of significance.

For this same reason (I suspect) most modern Christians overlook the Scriptural doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hades: it does not fit within the atonement theories put forward in many circles. Even the Resurrection is diminished by many atonement theories – serving as a mere proof of Christ’s divinity for some – or a dramatic reassurance of forgiveness for others.

Thus, though these historical events are considered to be important in their historical reality – few articulate precisely how this is so.

I would agree that history alone is insufficient for an understanding and interpretation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Christ is crucified on a particular day and hour in a particular place. But the Scriptures also teach us that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth,” making Christ’s sacrifice something that also exists outside of space and time. His Crucifixion is an intersection of time and eternity, of heaven and earth. It is a manifestation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In like manner His Resurrection has elements both of history and of something that utterly transcends history. The Kingdom of God is made manifest.

This is the very heart of the Christian faith – not simply that events happened about which we now theologize. Rather, the events are the in-breaking of Reality itself – earth fulfilled by heaven. We glorify Christ’s Resurrection – but we also know it, because though it is a historical event, it is also an event of the Kingdom. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection because these events, though historical, are accessible to us in the mysteries of the Church.

The Orthodox faith is not what it is because it is simply the oldest, etc. Such concepts become entangled in the typical give-and-take of historical argument. The faith is what it is because it lives within the Kingdom of God throughout history. If it is not a way of life that incorporates us into the Kingdom – then it would be of mere historical interest. As it is, the Church constantly invites us into a way of life that is life in the Kingdom, despite the historical nature of our existence.

When the Orthodox faith is described as “mystical,” it is this very real proclamation that is being referenced. In Christ, the Kingdom of God is come and nothing will ever be same. What came into the world in Christ, abides in the world with us, and in that Reality we are changed – earth united to heaven – creation to the Uncreated – man to God.

From the Foundations

April 2, 2011

Among the more interesting statements in Holy Scripture is found in Rev. 13:8:

All who dwell on earth will worship it [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life, of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world…

That Christ is here described as the Lamb is not at all unusual: the Scriptures use that title for Christ from the time of John the Baptist forward. Indeed, though Christ himself is nowhere quoted as describing Himself as the Lamb of God, it is clear that the Church understood this to be true from its very beginning. He is not only the Lamb, but the Lamb slain. The easiest identity is with that of the Passover Lamb, though there are other lambs of sacrifice. St. Paul makes the connection with Passover in his statement:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast…

These appellations for Christ have become so commonplace within the Christian world (in hymns such as the Agnus Dei), that we frequently fail to stop and listen to what is being said, or to consider how astounding the title itself is. It is clearly a title that has considered and understood the larger meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross. His death is not a martyrdom, but a sacrifice. It is the Passover (Pascha) in a new and more cosmic dimension.

I can recall pondering St. Paul’s statement that “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” and marveling at the wealth of content conveyed in that simple statement. It forced me to ask myself, “From where did St. Paul get this?” The obvious answer is that it was already a settled part of the Church’s teaching and Tradition. Paul did not find it necessary to argue or prove the point. It is stated, indeed, in order to make a further point.

Revelations does not repeat the mere assertion that Christ is the “Lamb of God.” It goes further and adds that He is the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.” This lifts the event of Christ’s crucifixion from a point within history with a beginning in time and an end in time to the level of an event which transcends time. The Lamb who was slain on Calvary, is also the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.

In truth, He is not only the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth, but also, in so saying, He is also the Lamb Who is slain beyond all time. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Lamb whose slaying is both historical event and eschatological event. Thus there is no time either before the first century nor since, nor yet to come, in which He is not the Lamb Who was slain.

This is a very unique and powerful proclamation. Those who would reduce the sacrifice of Christ into a momentary “once and for all” (based in a mis-reading of Hebrews 9:12), reduce the suffering of Christ into a mere three hours, His sacrifice into something which seems less than its fullness and its greatness. The witness of Scripture is otherwise. The Lamb who is slain for us, has been slain from before creation, and remains the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. As long as we suffer, He suffers. He is the Lamb always and for all.

This does not diminish the efficacy of His sacrifice: it magnifies the measure of the love of God.

There are many difficulties when Christians begin doing theology and introduce historical time into the mix. The sacrifice of Christ does not follow the sacrifices of the Old Testament (as their mere fulfillment). It precedes them. They are but its type and shadow. The reality both precedes them and comes after them for it was always the greater.

There never was suffering or sin on the earth that Christ has not taken upon Himself, though it was not always known to those who were suffering or sinning. None of those who have been born on earth were ever reduced to a category (“those who have not known Christ”). A human being is not able to be confined to a category. The love of God makes such confinements impossible. Each suffering, each sin, is infinitely borne by the Crucified Lamb, for all time and before all time.

Modern Christianity is afflicted with historical consciousness – it is a by-product of our modern philosophy. All things are simply discreet moments within the timeline of history. It is useful for teaching history to the young – but it is foolishness for adults. We should know better.

Simplistic and literalistic approaches to history simplify things for those who would prefer not to think. For the fundamentalist Christian, things are true because they happened in a literal, historical manner; there is no mystery within his view of history. By the same token, modernists (believers and unbelievers) accept things only according to their supposes historical veracity. Thus their concern is determining what “actually” happened (as though such could ever be determined). For some, historical (archeological, etc.) evidence is convincing and productive of “faith.” For others, history excludes the claims of the gospel. Their lives have risen above the claims of Christ, having relegated Him to the dustbin of history.

The faith of the Church and of the Fathers, transcends history. The modern historical perspective is a diminution of human thought – a shrinking of human understanding to its least possible meaning or significance. Nothing stretches beyond itself – nothing carries the irony or allegory of multiple meaning. The world has become flat and two-dimensional. It is the reduction of secularism to the level of the utterly banal.

The richness of the Scripture sees and understands Christ in terms that explode human understanding. The “Lamb” is slain even before the foundations of the earth. How can we comprehend such a claim? How can we conceive of His suffering on behalf of all and for all?

This explosion is the invitation to the human heart to be “enlarged” in the words of St. Paul. Dare we allow ourselves to be ravished by such a fullness? It will rob us of words and even understanding. It invites us into an understanding that itself belongs not to a specific time, but to the ages.

It is the sacrifice of this Lamb that we approach in the feast of Pascha that draws near. It is both invitation to salvation – but a salvation that invites to step outside of every limitation which we have known.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.