Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Evangelizing the Neurotic

June 23, 2012

I greatly appreciate the response and questions to the article by Fr. Meletios on parish life and ego-driven needs. I am working on an article with reflections.  I will be focusing particularly on the question of how we evangelize those whose egos are the driving force in their lives. If the ego (as defined by Fr. Meletios) has no true existence – what is there to be saved?

Most of us have encountered new converts who (beyond enthusiasm and zeal) seem newly-armed and ready for battle. Few things are more formidable than a well-honed critique of the West (my very formidable critique has been the product of many years’ work) and membership in the one, true Church. I do not make light of converts – I am notoriously a convert myself. However, our salvation lies within the heart and not within the neurotic narrative of the ego. What does evangelization from and to the heart look like?

I’ll have a post ready sometime Monday.

Comments and thoughts are welcome.

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!

Crises, Dostoevsky and the Gospel

October 6, 2008

There is something of a common thread that runs throughout the novels of Dostoevsky, the 19th century Russian writer: personal crises. Dostoevsky has long been recognized as a genius of psychological perception, writing at a time before psychology was a formal academic discipline. Many of his novels carry a relgious theme, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are other personal crises in many of his other works – though none that compare with those two novels. It is in these personal crises that Dostoevsky introduces the reality of the Christian faith – in particular the Orthodox Christian faith. His characters frequently live in a state that is dangerously close to the edge of madness or self-destruction until they “come to their senses” and embrace the life of the gospel. He does not describe such conversions as instantaneous or easy.

But his recognition of the role of crisis in the conversion of the human soul is an important insight. American revivalism, born from roots in the First and Second Great Awakening, seeks to create crisis for the individual through preaching. Thus the famous and common references to Hell, or “if you were to die tonight do you know where you would go?” are attempts to foster crises within the human soul.

But a true crisis is not something which can simply be manufactured – at least not with any accuracy. I once worked with an Anglican priest who was very “high Church.” His services of Holy Week were about as complete as one could find in an Anglican setting. I remember him saying to me: “On Good Friday, when the service is complete, I don’t want anyone to know anything other than that Jesus is dead.” He wanted the crisis of the death of God to prepare the way for Easter. I understood his point but felt is was somehow, artificial. After all, everyone knew that Christ has been raised from the dead. The moment of surprise had long ago passed.

Indeed, in the services of Orthodox Holy Week, though the crucifixion and entombment of Christ are marked as profoundly as possible, they are always done so against the backdrop of Pascha. Thus there is no Eastern practice of refraining from “Alleluia” during Lent (as is the fashion in some Western Churches). Christ is never not risen and nothing we do makes sense unless it is placed in the context of Pascha.

Personal crises resist manufacture (and well they should). From the Christian point of view, inducing a crisis in someone’s life might very well have the character of sin (I would make exception for things such as drug interventions and the like, although even interventions fail from time to time). There is an integrity to the human soul that is not transparent to others. God knows us and does so far more deeply than we know ourselves. I have always assumed some activity of grace at work in the human heart that, in cooperation with the world around, brings crisis in a way in which it can be salvific and not destructive.

St. Paul’s conversion is probably the most widely attested crisis in Scripture – the story being related several times within the pages of the book of Acts. As St. Paul is told, “It is hard to kick against the goads.” It is difficult to resist the prodding of the Holy Spirit.

The temptation to manufacture crises, it seems to me, is a belief that God needs our help, or that, somehow, we are the ones who “save” souls. Instead, it would seem more correct to me, that we should trust that God knows very well what He is doing in the souls of men, and it is for us to be patient, prepared and equipped to offer what help souls in crisis may need as they reach out for grace.

My experience as a pastor is that many crises present themselves without clear or obvious answers. That the answer is always, “Turn to God,” seems obvious enough, but even this requires patience and frequently long endurance. The healing of the human soul can sometimes be a very slow thing.

As such, we “put our hand to the plow,” and seek to remain steadfast in all things. And we may trust that every crisis of our life is an opportunity of salvation – even though we may not see clearly how that is so.

Means and Ends

March 17, 2008


St. Seraphim of Sarov is quoted as saying, “You cannot achieve good ends through evil means.” I have taken this to be a given since I first read it. It does not mean that God does not work all things together for good. But it does mean that I must consider carefully how I go about seeking to do a “good” thing. In the history of Christianity there have been many tempatations to use evil means to achieve good. More than one leader of the Church, bishop, pope, General Convention, Synod, etc., has defended a bad decision by the good he or they thought it would achieve. These are tragic moments in the life of Christianity.

One of the great modern tragedies in Christianity has been the mistaken understanding of evangelism. “I have become all things to all men if by any means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22),  is St. Paul’s famous self-description. It has been lifted out of its context for a number of years (as well as similar passages) to justify any number of actions by Christians in order “to save some.” Most particularly in our modern world, some denominations (and “non-denominations”) have themselves become a members of the market, recognizing the unbeliever as a consumerof religion, and itself as a purveyor. God, or salvation, becomes the commodity.

Besides the obvious errors in that calculus, the is the failure to recognize that the nature of the market is that it is governed by the “passions.” Thus, particularly in our modern world of sophisticated advertising, our basest instincts are used to sell anything and everything to us. Whatever works. Sex sells – and thus automobiles somehow become entwined with sex in the eyes of consumers. Young girls are marketed into anorexic neuroses by the manipulation of their passions. Virtually nothing is sold to us that has not made some appeal to our passions.

It is interesting that the early Church generally practiced a three-year catechumenate, the better part of which was spent in spiritual formation (and this prior to Baptism). The entry into the Church was an entry not through the passions, but in spite of the passions.

There is something disordered in the marketing of the gospel by an appeal to a baser instinct (success, happiness, or free candy and bicycles). I might add (stepping on the toes of some of my fellow Orthodox) that there are similar questions to be asked about fund-raising through games of chance and the like. Stewardship is a fundamental Christian virtue and should be taught and inculcated in our members. “Raising money” is, in fact, not the point.

As a side note to any who wonder, my Archbishop practices and teaches the tithe and encourages only this Biblical teaching in the area of stewardship. I follow his lead. 

If we teach that human beings are saved by grace (which is indeed correct), why is it that we believe that the gospel must be marketed as though it were a commodity? Are we saved by the same forces that sell a Chevrolet? This not only demeans the gospel, but, in fact, denies the doctrine of salvation by grace. We cannot achieve good ends through evil means.

When St. Paul said he became “all things to all men,” he did not indicate that he in any way became a sinner in order to save sinners. Instead, he was an “ambassador for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). None of us are called to be anything less. Strangely, it is illegal for American companies to use bribes overseas in order to sell American products. May God give us the grace to believe in grace.

Justice and Mercy – With Thanks to the Pontificator

January 22, 2008


Fr. Al Kimel has recently posted an article (The Injustice of Grace) on the triumph of God’s mercy that is well worth reading.  The following is an excerpt in which he quotes passages from St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Antony the Great:

The seventh century ascetical master, St. Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)

The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:

God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. As St Antony the Great wrote:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

To Father Al’s thoughts (which take these quotes to other important conclusions) I would add my own. This thoroughly patristic understanding of God’s justice and the metaphorical sense that must be applied to such words as wrath, etc., is utterly essential in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It goes to the very heart of our understanding of God. Nothing, in my mind, has done more damage to the Gospel of Christ than the loss of this understanding, and the substitution in its place of various theories in which the anger of God has been propitiated by His only Son. It is surely true that Christ’s death is a work of atonement – it makes possible and restores our relationship with God – but it brings about no change in God. The love of God is made manifest in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The death of Christ on the Cross makes no change in the love of God – but every possible change in the sinners for whom He died.

Every other proclamation of the Gospel that says otherwise seriously distorts the revelation of God in Christ and fails to properly appropriate the Tradition of the Holy Fathers as the Church has received them.

You Can Never Be Too Kind

December 22, 2007


When I was first assigned as lay pastor, and later, as priest for the fledgling mission in Knoxville, TN, I asked my Archbishop for advice. He had served and been a successful Orthodox missionary in the South for better than 30 years. His simple advice to me was, “I have made it a rule always to accept an invitation to speak.” His method generally followed that model. He practiced hospitality and kindness to all. In the better than 30 years he has served as the hierarch for the OCA’s Diocese of the South, the diocese has added roughly 60 parishes, nearly 10 times the number it started with. The heart of his work has been his steadfast and simple proclamation of the Orthodox faith and a hospitality that is the mark of his Cathedral and any parish which he has had opportunity to influence.

In my own nearly 10 years, his rule has guided my ministry. I have tried to go where I was asked and to practice hospitality in my parish to whatever extent possible. We have gradually grown from about 12 to 15 people to over 150.

Today brought home the important of Vladyka’s admonition. Around four years ago, I received an email from an inquiring stranger. He lived in Utah and was married and had an interest in Orthodoxy. His background was Baptist. His questions were sincere and quite thorough. He gave no reason for contacting me (of all the priests you can find on the internet – I was not blogging as yet), but I responded as kindly and patiently as possible. The correspondence lasted maybe a month or so and that was the end of it – as far as I knew. I recall discussing occasional questions with my wife and taking time to answer them carefully.

But stories have a way of finding a better end. I did for him what I have done anytime the opportunity has arisen: followed the Archbishop’s admonition. My travel has not been that great – but a keyboard allows you to speak at great distances.

This morning (and the rest of the story is too long to fill in details) I received my Utah correspondent and his wife into the Orthodox faith and baptized their two children. They were part of a group of eight who were received into the faith this morning in our parish. Everyone had their own story. I took a delight when I discovered some partway into his catechumenate, the connection with my email correspondent of several years back. God is good. Today he has the good fortune to live in Tennessee and my parish has the good fortune of a new young family.

From time to time I have received private emails from readers of this blog who have found their way into the Church, or found their catechumenate strengthened by reading. I pray that I do more good than harm in writing and hope that this “virtual” space, is hospitable to all (though the sparks do fly occasionally).

I give thanks when I look back at my own life that when I first began inquiries into the Orthodox faith, I was consistently met with kindness and patience. Most of my questions were of the curious sort; my actions requiring more patience than my words. May God grant many years to the newly Chrismated and Baptized! May he give patience to all who do missionary work, and perserverance to all who seek the Truth.

The Mystery of Salvation

August 8, 2007


There is a song I recall from my childhood – sung by John Hartford – in which the operative phrase is, “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been there…” It runs the permutations on life’s possibilities. One thing leads to another. It is this connectedness that always seems to trump the power of choice that adds one of the greater mysteries to life. I know that I “chose” to marry my wife – but I did not choose to meet her. That was something more like chance. And, of course, upon reflection, so much that is of great moment in our life has this unchosen quality to it.

It is for this reason that when we speak of salvation, we must always remember to think of the “mystery” of salvation. It certainly may and often does involve choices that people make, but so much of our life is something other than choice. It is not simply that events around me happen unpredictably (as far as I can see) but the inner state that happens to be my heart at the time I encounter any particular event has its own randomness.

An atheist writing in response to one of my recent postings made the comment that had I been born in India I would have been a Hindu rather than a Christian. There is, of course, no way to respond to this. The odds are far and away on his side. However, salvation, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective, has never been so crude as to assume that the mere accident of birth decreases someone’s chances of salvation. The Gospel Story according to the Orthodox is quite cosmic, and includes the proclamation of the gospel to the departed. Equally, we believe that the grace of God is at work “everywhere” and that though that work may largely be hidden, it is nevertheless dealing with human hearts in lives in ways others may not see this side of judgment day.

And thus it is that we are always confronting the mystery of salvation. It is very difficult or impossible to judge anything at present. It does not mean that we cannot say that murder is a sin (it is) but we cannot know what a good God may do despite such a heinous act. We only know that His love for a murderer is no less than His love for a victim. We know that His will is the salvation of us all (“for He is not willing that any should perish”).

On the personal level of my life – I can know as a believer – that all things are working towards my salvation – that is – all events in my life. The question, of course, is whether I am working towards my salvation. With what meager effort I may make, do I pray, do I fast, do I seek God? Do I revel in the hardness of my own heart or do I bemoan the fact, begging for mercy?

The goodness of God is the assurance that the mystery of salvation is the great mystery that surrounds us all. Even though Scripture speaks of a mystery of evil, we can know that a greater mystery is at work, a greater hand directs events and my life, regardless of its chances, perhaps in spite of its choices, is still the object of a Will to Save. Without that, who would stand a chance?

Leaving the Secular Life

July 23, 2007


The default position of America is secular protestantism.

I say this is the default position and mean by it – that without effort and care – we all find ourselves thinking and acting out of a secular protestant mindset. Of course, I need to offer a definition for my terms. By secular protestantism (and I mean no insult to Protestants by the term) I mean a generalized belief in God – but a God who is removed from the world (hence the term secular). Secularism is not the belief that there is no God – but the belief that God belongs to a religious sphere and the rest of the world is neutral in some independent sense. I add the term “protestantism” to it, because, generally, our culture gives lip-service to protestant foundations, and because Protestant Churches generally understand themselves as relatively human organizations, the true Church being something in the mind of God. (I will grant exceptions to my definition and understanding).

With such a mindset, of course, whatever religious sense one has is generally a matter of effort, organization, control, marketing – in short – religious life is no different from every other aspect of life. It is separated and defined only by its purpose. Such religion is, of course, not Christianity at all, even though it may strive to do good secular work for Christ. True Christianity is a life lived in union with Christ and all that we do that has value is what we do in union with Him.

It is in reflecting on this that I ponder many conversations I hear (or overhear). Many times I hear myself or others expressing dismay or anxiety over a situation, or plotting to achieve one goal or another. The frightening dynamic in many of these conversations – let alone the actions that flow from them – is the dynamic of secularism. We live as though there were no God, or as if the God Who Exists is not able to act within our world. Having decided what is in God’s best interest, or the interest of the faith, we design our efforts (perhaps even thinking to please Him).

But God does not seek to be pleased by actions taken in separation from Him. It is union with God that saves us (and this alone). Neither can we undertake any activity that has a saving character except that activity be taken in union with Christ.

Why should we love our enemies and pray for them? Because there is little else you can do for them that is in union with Christ. You cannot seek vengeance in union with Christ. You cannot even seek to “fix” other people in union with Christ. The action of Christ is always respectful of our freedom and always acts in love. Action in union with Christ cannot have some other character.

Actions such as kindness and mercy, patience and love are easily lived in union with Christ. But our secular mindset rarely sees such actions as useful.

I read the following statement in the counsels of the contemporary Elder, Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia:

Our love in Christ must reach all places, even to the hippies in Matala [in Crete]. I very much wanted to go there, not to preach to them or to condemn them, but to live with them, without sin of course, and leave the love of Christ to speak of itself, which transfigures life (from Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit).

Such a statement is a world away from our secular mindset. The Church is either the Mystical Body of Christ or it is nothing at all. And if it is the Mystical Body of Christ in this world, then its life will be lived and governed in no way different from the life of Christ considered in any other manner. Thus, the way of the Cross is always the way of life. Laying down our lives for one another and for the world is simply how we are to live. It is not an extraordinary act – it is a normative act.

Doubtless our culture and its mindset will be what they are. But in its midst we should live “without sin” and let the love of Christ speak of itself (if the love of Christ isn’t speaking of itself, then our own words about the love of Christ will be hollow and meaningless) – and this transfigures life. This is not a plan or a roadmap for the transformation of our culture. God alone knows such things. But it is a roadmap for obeying the admonition of the Apostle:

“…be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2).

The God Who Is Beautiful

June 28, 2007


Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when is is turned away from God.

Fr. Pavel Florensky

I come to the end of a day that has been filled with other activity and little time for writing. But in my reading at bedtime I came across the above quote. It obviously contains a world of truth, indeed, from a certain perspective it contains the whole of the Gospel. It is both commentary on how we see the world (as beautiful or ugly) or how we are within ourselves. The ugliness of sin is one of its most important components – and the inability to distinguish between the truly beautiful and the false beauty of so much of contemporary life offers a profound diagnosis of our lives and culture.

To say that God is Beautiful carries with it also profound insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?” is a question on which I have posted several times of late. If we ask the question, “How do we recognize Beauty?” then we have also shifted the ground from questions of intellect or pure rationality and onto grounds of aethetics and relationship. The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points as well to a capacity within us to know God. I would offer that this capacity is itself a gift of grace – particularly when we admit that the recognition of beauty is subject to delusion.

In a famous passage from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov has this to say on beauty as well as delusion:

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

Dostoevsky’s paradox, that “beauty,” for the mass of mankind, is found in Sodom, is a paradox that can hold two meanings. Either it can mean that even the corrupted “beauty” of Sodom can be redeemed (this is not Dostoevsky’s own intention) or that our heart can be so corrupted that we perceive the things of Sodom to be beautiful (closer to Dostoevsky’s point). We can also bring in a third – that of Florensky quoted above – that the “beauty” found in Sodom is corrupted precisely because it is turned away from God. It’s repentance can also be its restoration of true beauty.

I prefer this third thought (which is more or less the same as the first) in that it carries within it the reminder that when God created the world He said, “It is good (beautiful)” [both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning].

We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the Evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.

St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.

John the Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord

June 22, 2007


We approach the feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner of Christ – a feast noted around my household for also being the birthday of my wife (and of her brother). Thus we celebrate and are sometimes slightly distracted from the ecclesiatical meaning of the day. But a family cannot be faulted for the joy it takes in its mother, nor I in my spouse. But I want to turn my thoughts today to the Forerunner of Christ before our family calendar overtakes the day itself.

St. John has always been a fascinating figure – perhaps among the most unforgettable encounters and events in all of the Gospels. St. John’s gospel is content to make no mention of our Lord’s birth, beginning instead with His pre-existence. St. Mark’s Gospel is equally silent on matters of Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth. Sts. Matthew and Luke are our only witnesses for the feast of Christmas. St. John makes no direct mention of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper (though his sixth chapter’s discourse following the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is by far the most complete exposition of the meaning of the Eucharist despite its being given before the unmentioned event occurs). St. John is also the only witness we have for the Lord’s merciful treatment of the woman taken into adultery, and many liberal scholars want to take even that away.

Nevertheless, Evangelists who show an ability to diverge in their accounts of our Lord’s life and ministry to the consternation of fundamentalists and the confounding of the faithless, nevertheless rally with an amazing agreement when it comes to the figure of the Baptist. St. Mark opens his Gospel with the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Needless to say his ministry also marks the beginning of the adult ministry of Jesus in both St. Matthew and St. Luke, the latter including stories of the birth of the Baptist as well as that of Christ. It is in this marvelous context that the Mother of God offers the Magnificat, St. John himself leaping as a babe in the womb at the very sound of the Virgin Mary’s voice.

The Baptism of Christ is universally presented as the inauguration of His ministry and John is clearly indicated as a witness of this event. He sees the Spirit descending like a dove. There is also another aspect of Christ’s encounter with John, only noted in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, and that is the questioning of John. Is Jesus the one or should he look for another? What had seemed to be settled was still a matter unsettling in the heart of John. Christ’s answer is to cite one of the great messianic prophecies and to note that it is fulfilled in his ministry. Thus, we are to understand, John’s doubts are settled.

In Church tradition, John continues his role as forerunner. He is martyred sometime before the crucifixion of Christ and thus enters Hades with the same message, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”Not only does he prepare Hades for the reception of Christ, but clearly he had prepared some of the disciples for the reception of Christ as Messiah.

I would urge the Orthodox to listen to the hymns of his feast for theological content of his ministry. This is a man whom the New Testament does not see as a minor player, but in every gospel, finds essential to the work of Christ. There is no ministry of Christ without him, just as there is no birth of Christ without the Theotokos. Little wonder that many iconostases always include his icon as a matter of course (not all Orthodox traditions do this). I am very fond of our icon of the Forerunner, and am even aware of a few minor miracles associated with it. Happy feast to all.