Archive for August, 2011

So Great A Cloud of Witnesses

August 31, 2011

…who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.  And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 11:33-12:2)


Among my most beloved chapters of Scripture is the “roll-call of faith” found in Hebrews 11. There, St. Paul recalls the bold acts of faith and martyrdom endured by the saints of God. Beginning with the account of Righteous Abel who was slain by his brother Cain, and continuing through the Patriarchs and Prophets, the Apostle describes these lives of faith “of whom the world was not worthy.” Its summary and conclusion are found in the passage quoted above.

There are at least three ways to read the passage: the first is to take it simply as a literary device in which we are being exhorted to remember these great historic figures of faith. Of course such a reading does not make sense of their “imperfection.” In what sense are literary examples imperfect or incomplete?

A second reading would be that of the typical “two-storey” universe. In this reading the saints have died and taken their place with Christ far away in heaven. From this place, far-removed, they watch us and cheer us on. This second reading reminds me of the popular 90’s song “From a Distance” (it won a Grammy for the best song of year in 1991).  It’s pop theology told us:

…From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,
it’s the heart of every man.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.
This is the song of every man.
And God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.
Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.
God is watching us from a distance.

My first reaction to this song was to think: “from a distance Mars looks inhabited.” Primarily it seemed clear to me that God does not see us “from a distance.” God is “everywhere present and filling all things” as described in the hymnography of the Orthodox Church. We may have images of thrones and golden streets, but if such images mean that God dwells at a distance then they are deeply misleading.

This third interpretation not only understands that the great cloud of witnesses who surround us are not at all far away. The same point is emphasized with the assertion that “they shall not be made perfect apart from us.” Their perfection or “completion” is intimately joined to our own perfection. This is the classic doctrine of the communion of saints. Their lives, even their perfection and completion in Christ, is not something that can be considered on an individual basis. Our completion in Christ is, finally, the completion of our life in the Church, His body.

There is a commonplace expression in Western theology of the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant – making a two-storey distinction between our lives here and the saints’ lives elsewhere. However, the teaching of the Church as found in her Creeds, clearly states that the Church is “One.” “Christ is not divided,” St. Paul taught. Thus the “cloud of witnesses” that surround us, not only cheer for us, but participate in our struggle. They are not made perfect or complete apart from us, but we are not made perfect apart from them. The perfection we have in Christ is one perfection – Christ Himself, the “author and finisher” of our faith.

Death is generally received as a deep wound. The loss we encounter is not without its accompanying grief. But our death is also the death of Christ, because His life becomes our life. It is not the life or perfection of those we love that establishes the foundation of our faith.

For none of us lives to himself, and no man dies to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).

The foundation of our life – and the foundation of the lives of the one family of faith is the same foundation: the life and perfection of Christ – both author and finisher of our faith.

I rejoice that in Christ, nothing is lost. My grief itself, like death, will be trampled down by the death of Christ, and in Him I will share in the One life of His saints. Glory to God!

The Chariot of Israel and Its Horsemen – The Repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas

August 28, 2011

And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.”  Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. (2 Kings 2:9-12)


These verses came to mind when I heard the news this morning of the repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the title: “Equal to the Apostles.” I cannot rush beyond the Church and declare a saint where the Church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than “equal to the Apostles.”

Many people whose familiarity with the presence of the Orthodox faith in English-speaking lands are unaware that until 1962 there was no particular standard work of introduction to Orthodoxy available in English. Thus pioneers, such as Met. Kallistos Ware in England (who wrote that first standard work), or Archbishop Dmitri (who entered the faith along with his sister – as teenagers – in 1941) were extremely rare individuals and generally found conversion a nearly impossible feat.

Vladika Dmitri began life as a Texas Baptist, and, in my experience, never spoke ill of his background. I can recall him saying, “I like Baptists – they make great Orthodox!” accompanied by a sly smile. Indeed, I frequently heard him caution converts to Orthodoxy to refrain from disparaging their roots: “Most likely, it’s where you first heard of Christ.” His conversion as a teen led to a life as a scholar, missionary, teacher, leader, pastor – all in the context of kindness and love.

He cared deeply about the Christian faith and expressed concern, even dismay, as he saw many surrounding Churches that once would have been considered “traditional,” moving away from many of the primary teachings of the Christian faith. He was particularly expressive about the weakening of the doctrine of Christ’s Incarnation. He insisted that the understanding of God becoming Man was the only possible foundation for the dignity of human beings. It was a thought shared by men such as C.S. Lewis.

His advice to priests was very clear: “When you have opportunity to speak about the faith, never turn it down. And when you speak, don’t waste time on ethnic concerns. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that is the great treasure of Orthodox and that is what you have to offer.”

In 1977 he was almost elected as the Metropolitan of the newly-autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. The Holy Synod seemed less than sure that the OCA was ready for a convert-bishop to be Metropolitan. In 1978, the Holy Synod formed the Diocese of the South, with Dallas as its see city. Bishop Dmitri was appointed as its first diocesan bishop. The new diocese had little more than a half dozen parishes, strung from Florida to Virginia to New Mexico (mostly Florida). Vladika Dmitri would always smile and call it his “consolation prize.”

However, it became a great apostolic opportunity for a man uniquely suited to its apostolic task. He saw the Diocese grow over ten-fold with a remarkable spirit of kindness and hospitality. During World War II he met an Orthodox priest in California who spoke about a vision of an American Orthodox Church. It was the first time the young Dmitri had encountered the concept. It became his vision as well. In the course of a life-time, he saw that vision mature in his beloved South. Having been its apostle, he now becomes its intercessor. May his memory be eternal!

Memory Eternal – The Hymn

August 26, 2011

The final hymn of the memorial service offered for the departed. “Grant rest eternal in blessed repose, O Lord, to the soul of Thy servant, N., and make his memory to be eternal.” These are words that echo in my mind as I pray for the soul of my newly-departed father – and all the departed.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Derzhavnaya Icon & Sretensky Monastery Choir in…, posted with vodpod

The Shadow of Death

August 25, 2011

Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. “And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go” (John 11:39-44).

This summer marks 31 years since I sat first by the bedside of a parishioner and watched him die. It is an experience that I’ve now repeated hundreds of times. Some things are similar, while some are different – we do not all die in the same manner. But there is an existential quality shared by them all. To a great extent those who surround the dying and the dead make a great rush for the “second-storey” of the universe, uttering words of deep assurance to one another with scenes drawn from the cultural tales that populate that land of unmixed joy and wonder.

Virtually everything we fear is quickly covered by the comfort of second-storey tales. “He is with Mom.” “They no longer have to suffer the pain of being apart.” When my grandmother died, the Presbyterian minister who spoke at her graveside said that “God had called her home to enjoy her delicious biscuits.” All of us loved our grandmother’s biscuits, but they surely did not rise to the level of the Divine nor provide sufficient cause for a joyful death.

Death, particularly the death of someone we love, can be deeply painful. My father’s passing this past week has left me empty and full of grief. It is not wrong to feel empty and full of grief – it’s simply how the death of someone we love feels. There are many complex matters that I need to visit before I will pass through this trial.

Death in a one-storey universe is particularly difficult. The imagination and its comforts are removed. I cannot imagine what my father’s life is like at present – and the Scriptures give very few hints. The bold assurance in the book of Wisdom that “the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,” seems to me assurance enough. I cannot explain what it means to be in the hands of God, but I cannot imagine wanting to be somewhere else.

Many of the two-storey comforts that are offered in our culture are semi-pagan in origin. It is not paradise of which we speak so much as the Elysian Fields. The mystery of the Incarnation – its hiddenness and its manifestation challenges the delusions we encounter every day. God is everywhere present and filling all things, and yet we often experience Him as present nowhere and all things as empty. The great battle in which we live is not so much a battle between ideas – it is a battle between perceptions of reality and faith in those perceptions.

The Gospel is quite clear, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” And thus the most extreme majority of mankind lacks the prerequisites to speak with authority in the matter of God and His promise of paradise. Faith is quite mysterious, described by one modern Orthodox writer as an “organ of perception.” Scripture calls it the “substance of things hoped for.” In the most fundamental sense, faith is the substance of the Christian life – not a “leap of faith” or a “willful hope,” but a perception, exceedingly dim, in which the objects of its perception yield themselves just enough to give hope that the reality we are tempted to make triumphant is itself somehow lacking.

The Christian faith begins with the Pascha of Christ. It is easy to attempt to find its beginnings elsewhere – to start with Genesis and argue the nature and timing of Creation – but no such arguments – including all those imagined by Biblical critics and fundamentalists – have any meaning except for the Pascha of Christ. His Pascha, including his suffering, torture, death, burial, descent into Hades, and his triumphant resurrection from the dead, are the only bedrock of the Christian faith. Without them, we are above all men “to be pitied,” as St. Paul said. But it is also all too easy to make of such events things of such abundant holiness that we fail to see them for what they are.

The dead body of Christ, on the Cross and laid upon the slab of stone as Joseph of Arimithea and others prepared his body for burial, bore only the signs of a dead body. Their devotion was to his memory, their grief perhaps more profound than any we could imagine because their hopes were so great.

The noble Joseph when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the tree, anointed it with spices, wrapped it in fine linen, and placed it in his own new tomb…

There were no hints given by Christ’s “most pure body” of that which was to come. Apparently the disciples had forgotten what hints he had offered them over the three years of his ministry. When the day of resurrection occurred, the disciples were more willing to believe in the theory that someone had stolen the body than in the resurrection. Even eye-witness accounts were marred by mistaken identity and grief. It is only after the resurrection that the teaching of Christ begins to make sense and to change the perceptions of the disciples. Apart from the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the ignorance of the Apostles would have remained secure.

And so our own belief in the resurrection of Christ rests with the witness of the Apostles and the Church and the abiding gift of the Holy Spirit. Having stood for lengthy times beside the body of my father this past week, I saw no hints, no intimations of that which is to come. There was his cross held in his hand, an icon tucked discreetly under another hand. He commended his spirit to God and now his body rests in hope of the resurrection.

No vain imaginations of a second-storey mean anything other than the echo of my own lonely fears. His body, like that of Lazarus before him, awaits Christ. Like the body of Christ Himself, he yielded easily to our ministrations, making no protest or resistance. His hope is the same as my hope. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon the those in the tombs bestowing life.

In time, I will likely join my father and my mother in the quiet of their tombs, awaiting the resurrection of the dead. I pray that in my lifetime I will have borne such witness to the resurrection of Christ that the attention of my friends and family will be drawn to that place of faith and not to the emptiness of my own hopeless body.

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern (Phi 3:7-17).

There are many signs to which we may point as an embrace of the resurrection of the dead. First off, the Pascha of Christ. As well the unremitting and glorious testimonies of the martyrs and saints. The intimations of our own hearts and the faithful words of God’s holy Scriptures. All of these point us beyond our own meager doubts and towards a world that tramples down the weakness of all illusions. Glory to God for all things! Glory forever!

The End of History

August 22, 2011

This past Friday morning, I arrived to visit my invalid father, only to find that he had fallen asleep in the Lord some five minutes earlier. Today (Monday) we laid him to rest beside my mother to the sounds of an Orthodox funeral – a source of reality and hope. His passing is something of an “End of the World” for me – an end of my childhood and the myths I might have nurtured in my psyche. Death is always an “End of the World” for those who are most affected. My father’s death is my death, and that of my brothers and children as well.

It is also an occasion for re-writing history. His passing has given definition to his life, and more than anything, his life is now defined by Christ, for no earthly concern can pass beyond the grave. Sins are forgiven. Words spoken are now unspoken, or must take the gracious form of a Panikhida. Pray for the servant of God, James, newly departed, and pray for yourself (and me) for the End is always near, seeking to draw us to the definition that transcends all transient matters. May paradise consume you!


 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.

The Benefits of Ignorance

August 15, 2011

I have had conversations in recent comments sections on the role of reason in the Orthodox life. I readily acknowledge that no one lives without some use of reason – but I contend that most of what forms the content of our life in Christ is not reason. The faith does have to contend with attacks and challenges from many arenas – and yet its success will not be established by the superiority of its arguments, but by faith in Christ. Arguments are often unfruitful in “reasonable” exchanges, for the form of Orthodox reason often differs from the form reason takes in many places. Alisdair MacIntyre has, to my mind, firmly established the growing incommensurable character of the many “rationalities” of our culture. Orthodoxy speaks itself most properly when it speaks “as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). This difficult apologetic requires that deep speak to deep. It is a very difficult discipline, but it saves both the speaker and the hearer, whereas argument may destroy them both. This article is a reprint, with small changes, on a theme I have addressed a number of times.


Of course, I have to begin this post with the acknowledgement that I am an ignorant man.

Having gotten that out of the way, I want to spend just a few moments on the benefits of ignorance. Several years ago I was blessed to have a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko while we waited in line to greet the new Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Fr. Thomas is the retired Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.  He has taught a generation of priests.

Our conversation turned to writing. My comment came from my reflection on the experience of writing this blog. I noted that the more I write, the less I seem to know. Part of this realization flows from the fact that I try to restrict my writing to those topics of which I have some knowledge (experience). His smiling response came immediately: “Someday you won’t know anything and then you’ll be holy!”

It was not entirely spoken in jest. There are many forms of knowledge – or many kinds of knowing which our limited language describes as “knowledge.” For Christians the most dangerous form of knowledge is that which we simply acquire through reading and study. It is largely just information. Of course, if you have enough information you can manage the illusion of actual knowledge.

I know a lot of numbers, but I am not a mathematician. I have met mathematicians. Most of what they know is not about numbers – strangely.

There is no great sin in ignorance – or at least there is far less sin in ignorance than in knowledge. The simple truth is that we will not know anything of value until we first know that we do not know. In the competitive world of American Christianity, this is hard. It is not hard for ignorant people to argue – but it is very hard to argue while at the same time admitting that you are ignorant.

This ignorant man has spent a lot of years acquiring “knowledge” (falsely so-called). Knowledge of the sort that is readily available is not at all the same thing as knowing God – the only knowledge that has worth (though every true form of knowledge flows from that single knowledge). Somewhere in the course of my life I came to the place of spiritual exhaustion – I wanted to know God badly enough that I didn’t want to know something else in His place. So I became an ignorant man.

Today I know very few things. And though I write almost every day – if you go back and read what I have written you will see that I know very little. I say many of the same things to different questions, for they are the answers I know.

Thus when I wrote a while back that I had never seen a case of righteous anger – I did not mean to say there was no such thing, only that I’ve not seen it in 57  years of life. I have seen anger that would seem well justified (the anger a husband has over the senseless murder of his wife). But I have seen the same anger kill the man who bore it.

I was born into an angry world. “Jim Crow” South was full of anger. Whites were angry at Blacks and Blacks were angry at Whites. We were angry at Communism. We were angry about the Civil War. We were angry at poverty (especially our own). Others were angry at those who were angry and the injustice of the entire system.

I remember an Abbot, a friend now deceased, who said that after the Vietnam War many young people came to the monastery – “They were so angry about peace,” he observed.

I served as an Anglican priest while the Episcopal Church inexorably jettisoned its traditional doctrine. I was consumed with anger. My anger did not save that Church and did me (and likely many others) great harm.

It is not just anger that works in such a fashion. Any of the passions could be chosen. An ignorant man is frequently on the losing end of battles with the passions. It is therefore important for an ignorant man to be aware of his ignorance. Can such an ignorant man argue theology? Not to any benefit.

The great good news is that Christ came to save ignorant men. We are easier to save if we admit our ignorance up front. Our opinions are so much dead weight. I know very little of God. I know that He is good – beyond any grasp of my knowing. I know that He loves in the unfathomable measure of the good God entering Hell in order to bring us out.

I have been in several versions of hell and rescued numerous times. Ignorant men are always getting themselves into stupid, dark places.

That God is good, that He loves us without measure, that He will go to any lengths to rescue us – I know a little about these things, though even of these things I am mostly ignorant. But I will not tire of speaking this good news. Ignorant men everywhere may be glad to hear it.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

August 12, 2011

Orthodox Christians (New Calendar) are currently observing a two-week fast in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition, a day which marks the death (“falling asleep”) of the Mother of God. For those for whom such feasts are foreign, it is easy to misunderstand what the Orthodox are about – and to assume that this is simply a feast to Mary because we like that sort of thing. Flippant attitudes fail to perceive the depths of the mystery of our salvation. The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of many doorways into that mystery – all of which is Christ – who alone is our salvation.

The Christian life, as taught by the Scriptures and the fathers, is grounded in the mystery and reality of communion. We do not exist alone, nor do we exist merely as a collection. Our lives are a communion of lives. We share one another in ways that permeate the whole of our being. I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.

The belief that God became man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, makes no sense and has but little value apart from the reality of life understood as communion. It is thus crucial that the Creed confesses, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The womb of the Virgin was not “borrowed space” which God inhabited until His birth. The womb of the Virgin is also that place and that source by which God “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”

There are many theological accounts of Christ and His work of salvation that center almost solely upon the idea of Christ as a sacrifice on the Cross that pays the penalty of our sins (the doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement). This account tends to “stand on its own.” There is nothing inherent within Christ’s birth from a Virgin to such a view of the Atonement. Nor does the Virgin herself have any inherent connection to the saving acts of God as made known to us in the Scriptures. Thus those who profess her virginity in such cases only do so because it is recorded in the Scripture – but they do not do so because they understand its true role in our salvation.

However, our salvation is not achieved by an objective payment (even if the image of payment may be found in the Scriptures). The unifying teaching of the Scriptures with regard to Christ is our salvation through union with Him, through true communion in His life.

His Incarnation thus becomes a part of reality of God’s restoration of our communion with Him. He becomes a partaker of our life, that we might become partakers of His. This reality is made profoundly clear in that God not only comes to dwell among us, but comes to do so as a man, having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary. He becomes “flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone” (Ge. 2:23). And yet another image: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). Mary is united to Christ in the flesh, and mystical in her soul as well.

Her role in the salvation of the world (through union with Christ) is so profound that it is prophesied in the early chapters of Genesis (Ge. 3:15). She, and the Virgin Birth, are pre-figured repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (as interpreted by the fathers). There is a traditional hymn, sung during the vesting of a Bishop that makes reference to just a small sample of such prefigurements:

Of old the Prophets aforetime proclaimed thee,
the Golden Vessel, the Staff, the Tablet, the Ark,
the Lampstand, the Table, the Uncut Mountain,
the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible,
and the Throne of the King,
thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.

Perhaps the greatest collection of such references can be found in the 6th century hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos.

This prefigurement and their abundant use in the fathers, all flow from the fundamental understanding of salvation as communion. Thus she, as the Mother of God, belongs with Christ. She belongs with Him as the Golden Vessel belonged with the Manna (she is the vessel who contained the Bread of Heaven); she belongs with Him as Aaron’s Rod belongs with the buds which sprang forth (that He should be born from her virginal womb is like the life which springs forth from Aarons lifeless rod); she is the Tablet as Christ is the words inscribed; she is the lampstand as Christ Himself is the Lamp, etc.

As the Creed tells us, Christ died, in accordance with the Scriptures. This does not mean in “accordance with the Gospel writings”, but “in accordance with the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (we first see the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Through the eyes of the fathers and the Tradition of the Church we begin to see that in accordance with the Scriptures is more than the few references that can be found that refer to payment or sacrifice or that point to the Cross. The Gospel given to us includes a very wholistic understanding of salvation and its story – and unfolds that from beginning to end.

The union with the flesh of the Virgin is the union with our humanity – indeed with the whole created order. What Christ takes to Himself in that action, He takes with Himself throughout His ministry, taking it into death and Hades and raising it again with Himself on the third day. Thus St. Paul can say:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Romans 6:4-6).

These comments on death and resurrection in the context of Baptism, in which “we have been united together,” only make sense in an understanding of salvation as communion.

The death of the Mother of God (for He who was born of her was truly God as well as truly man), commemorated in the Feast of the Dormition, is something in which all of creation shares. For the point of the Incarnation was not simply to take flesh of the Virgin, but to be united with the whole created order. And so creation itself “groans and travails” as it awaits the final completion of our salvation (Romans 8). Or as the Church sings:

All of creation rejoices in Thee, O Full of Grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child.
Our God before the ages,
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O Full of Grace, glory to thee!

Her Dormition is indeed a day the earth stood still – for the Mother of us all passes from death to life.

Escape from Reason

August 8, 2011

Francis Schaeffer, the Evangelical Protestant theologian, authored a book by the title Escape from Reason. He argued that modernity could only find a solid ground within a world grounded in the inerrancy of Scripture. This article does not engage Schaeffer’s work. Instead, it suggests that “Reason,” as popularly understood is a distortion of the proper Christian use of the word.

Reason has played an off-again, on-again role in Christian theology. St. John’s use of the word Logos [which can be translated, “reason”] as a term for the the Second Person of the Trinity (John 1:1), gave rise to easy connections between the reasonableness, or logicity, of the universe. This connection between the Logos and Reason, was used both to speak of the reasonableness of the universe as evidence of the truth of God’s existence, as well as basis for so-called “natural theology”: if all things are created through Christ the Logos, then it would seem possible to work from “all that is created” towards a full theological account of the world.

In the hands of the masters of the Enlightenment and their “enlightened successors,” Reason became the arbiter of all truth. For some, this Reason maintained a connection to Christ the Logos. For others, Christ the Logos seemed too irrational, and Reason became the only and independent basis for understanding all things.

My suggestions in this post will be that Christians have long been misled by the terminology of Logos/logos and have turned the equation upside-down, coming to precisely the wrong conclusions. I am venturing to the edge of Orthodox thought in saying this, but hope I do not cross boundaries and speak contrary to the Tradition.

St. John teaches us that “in the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, the Logos was God. All things were created through Him (the Logos) and nothing was created apart from Him.”

It is important to note that the Logos of whom St. John speaks, is not an abstract principle. He is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – God who becomes incarnate – the God/Man, Jesus Christ. It is a matter of the Christian faith to understand that everything which exists has a unique logicity – but this is not the same thing as saying that everything which exists has a reason-based existence. It would be more accurate and revealing to say that everything that exists has a Christic basis. Everything that exists echoes the existence of Christ and longs to join the song of His praise.

Such language sounds like “mere poetry” to the modern ear, but the witness of the fathers hears far more. The witness is to a knowledge of the reality of creation – or of the “true reality” of creation known within the experience of the Church. Not all who see are able to see all that is. But those who do, bear witness to the logoi of created things – which reflect, not their “rational” structure, but their structure within the light of Christ.

By such knowledge, the miracle of the calming of the sea of Galillee seems not so strange, nor the multiplication of loaves. Many of the wonders of the sanctified life which  confound both scholar and layman, offer wonder and joy to the blessed, but no hint of confusion nor misunderstanding. The mystery of such miracles is consistent with the logoi and the Logos, but without any inherent relationship to an abstract which we term reason.

To say that all things have a “Christic” or “logistic” character explains how it is that Christ will “gather together into one all things” (Ephesians 1:10). This gives us a basis in Christ for the understanding of all things, but it does not establish a “reason” (or logos) independent of Christ. Those who speak of the use of “reason” in the interpretation of Scripture, as though the study of Scripture were a science, do not understand the nature of the Logos (and thus of true reason).

It may be true that there is a shadow of the true Logos to be found within modernity’s notion of Reason – but such a shadow cannot be interpreted without reference to the Logos Himself, nor can Reason be understood as some natural reality that stands on its own.

All things have their reason and their being in Christ. Apart from Him, we know nothing. When Christianity speaks of human beings as rational creatures, we are not making an assertion regarding their use of intelligence or logic. A human being who is mentally handicapped, even in the most extreme degree, is still “rational” in the sense the word is used by Christian Tradition. Such a human being is created in the image of the Logos, in a manner that is unique to humanity.

The rationality of the universe, in Christian usage, should be a reference to the universe’s relationship to the Logos, and not an elevation of an independent concept of rationality. The universe is indeed rational, but you have to know the Logos in order to know that.

The Mount of Transfiguration and the Bridal Chamber of Christ

August 3, 2011

There is a propensity in our modern world to break things down – to analyze. We have gained a certain mastery over many things by analyzing the various components of their structure and manipulating what we find. It has become the default position for modern thought. This power of analysis, however, is weakened by its very success. Frequently the truth of something lies not in the summary of its parts but in the wonder of the whole.

This is certainly the case with the Christian faith. It is not uncommon for theology to be addressed under various headings: Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, etc. It makes for an impresive array of titles on a seminary faculty listing. The problem, however, is that theology ultimately seeks to describe or state one thing (or it should). That one thing, however, is so large that it cannot be spoken with ease. The fullness of the faith is not revealed in the analysis of various constituent elements, but in the slow (and sometimes sudden) apprehension of the whole.

If I had to use a single word to describe the one thing that is “everything” it would be Pascha (in its fullness). I cannot think of any part of the Christian life or revelation that is not gathered into the fullness of Pascha. It is one of the reasons that the liturgical celebration of Pascha is as utterly overwhelming in its Orthodox expression.

Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth. This grammar does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive theological writing. I have written about this previously.

For one, Orthodox liturgical practice has a habit of bringing elements of the Christian story together that are frequently kept apart – particularly in our modern compartmentalized approach to the faith. There are “theological rhythms” within the Orthodox cycle of services. Each of the seven days of the week has a particular assigned theme (Mondays for the Angels, Tuesdays for St. John the Baptist, etc.). Every day on the calendar has one or more (usually many more) saints whose memory is kept on that day. There is also the cycle of feasts that depend on the date of Pascha, and others that are determined according to a fixed date.

These cycles are always meeting each other and bringing their own elements and insights into the service. Thus those who come to worship are never “just doing one thing” but are always presented with “several things.” And, greater than that, everything is brought together as a “whole” and not just a collection of parts. The “one thing” is seen at every service, even if one facet shines brighter than others.

August 6 marks the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (this Saturday on the New Calendar). The Church remembers His transfigured appearance before the disciples on Mt. Tabor, with Moses and Elijah appearing with Him. The material used in the liturgical celebration of the feast looks at this event from almost every conceivable angle. One of those angles caught me by surprise the first time I encountered it. – it was occasioned by the normal confluence of liturgical structure – but gave me an image that left me speechless in wonder.

It came at Matins on the day before Transfiguration (known as the Forefeast). During Matins each day, there is the reading of “the canon.” This is a hymn that follows a particular poetic structure. It consists of nine odes, each of which takes its inner meditation from one of the nine traditional Biblical canticles of the Old Testament (such as the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15:1 and following). The sixth ode is always a reflection on the hymn within the book of Jonah (whose three days in the whale is always seen as a “type” of Christ’s three days in the belly of the earth).

This is the verse that struck me:

Making ready for His friends a Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come, Christ ascendeth the mountain, leading them up from life below to the life of heaven.

I have generally viewed the Transfiguration in its own “compartment.” I have extended that consideration to include reflection on the Palamite doctrine of the Divine Energies, since St. Gregory Palamas used the image of the Light of the  Transfiguration for much of his theological understanding. But I had never made the leap to Pascha (to which belongs the image of the Bridal Chamber).

I found myself speechless. The idea was too full. The image of the bridal chamber and its affinity with Pascha is rich, in and of itself. The Church looks forward to the “marriage feast of the Lamb,” an image used for the close of the age and the fulfilling of all things. Pascha is that close and that fulfilling even though it also occurs at a particular moment in history in 33 A.D. The death and resurrection of Christ is the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of God and man, the fulfillment of all things. Having revealed to His disciples the “Bridal Chamber” (as far as they could bear to see it), He then begins to speak to them of His coming resurrection and His sufferings in Jerusalem

The Transfiguration is also the Bridal Chamber (and is described in many other ways as well). It is a glimpse, (out of sequence in a place where sequence has no place), of the fullness of Divinity. Christ appears with Elijah and Moses, the living and the dead, the prophets and the law, and speaks with them concerning His Pascha. And this happens in the context of the Divine Light – a brightness that was beyond the disciples’ ability to bear.

Our faith itself should have this quality of fullness about it – something that is greater than our ability to bear. Our compartmentalization of the world and our faith reduce both to bearable levels – but then we fail to live or to believe. Understanding begins with wonder – and wonder requires something beyond our normal limits. The Transfiguration is an invitation to the Bridal Chamber – the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in the depths of Pascha. Shame on us if we compartmentalize the event in a meditation on the Divine Light. The Light shines in the darkness for a reason, and for a reason the darkness does not comprehend it.

May Christ carry each of us into the Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come – and bring us up from the life below to the life of heaven in the wonder of His Pascha!


I beg pardon of my readers. I will be in Dallas for a few days and cannot predict my access to my computer for managing and answering comments. May God give you all the joy of the feast!