Archive for the ‘The Sacraments’ Category

When Creation Speaks

October 24, 2008

An interesting theme within the holy Scriptures is the “voice of Creation.” The famous Old Testament Canticle, Song of the Three Young Men, in English traditionally known as the Benedicite, omnia opera Domini, and which in Orthodoxy forms the basis of the Seventh and Eighth odes of the Canon, very famously calls on creation to offer praise to God:

O let the earth bless the Lord;

O ye mountains and hills, bless ye the Lord’

O all ye green things upon the earth, bless ye the Lord;

praise him and magnify him for ever….

In the New Testament the same understanding is taken even deeper in St. Paul’s famous 8th chapter of Romans in which he speaks of “creation groaning and travailing unto now” as it “waits for the manifestation of the sons of God” (the general resurrection).

This “animation” of creation does not in the least seem to be an anthropomorphizing (attributing human abilities to non human things) of creation, but rather a revelation of creation’s true status. The Scripture does not see the creation as inert. In Leviticus there are many warnings as well as blessings. But the imagery used contains this same animation of creation:

Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled); lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (18:24-28)

We do not live within a universe in which we are the animate and everything around us is inert – at least not in the Scriptural account. The winds and seas “obey” Christ. they are not described as having merely been stilled, but that they obeyed the voice of His command.

This same relationship is frequently described in the lives of the saints, whether it is the story of St. Gerasimos and the lion, or St. Seraphim and the wild bears. In the presence of the holy, trees and flowers behave differently – blooming out of season as well as other behaviors.

Orthodox Christianity does not attribute a “spirit” to the things of creation – but neither does it describe creation as mute or as a secularized, universal no-man’s land. The universe is decidedly on the side of God and resists those who do evil. This is not to say that creation behaves in a way in which we are always pleased. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. The righteous die of cancer as well as the wicked. There is a fallenness to the world in which we live, but it has not been stripped of its character or nature. The winds and the seas obeyed the voice of Christ, even as the universe itself came into being through His voice.

Neither does Orthodoxy see creation has having been brought into existence and simply left alone to its own laws and devices. Instead we confess that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” God is not a stranger to the universe at any point. He sustains us and everything around us.

All of this means that how we interact with creation is not properly that of the “masters of the universe” lording it over some inert lump of stuff. The passage in Leviticus points rather to a proper stewardship of everything around us. The earth does not belong to us: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).

In recent years the Patriarch of Constantinople added a new emphasis to the Orthodox feast of the New Year (marked on September 1). To the new year he added an emphasis on celebrating our relationship with the whole of the created order and our right treatment of all things. This was ratified by the other patriarchs of the Church within the past month.

The voice of creation is not always heard by all. But it is heard by some. St. Anthony of Egypt said (when asked why he had no books), “My book is the whole creation.” It apparently taught him into paradise.

Orthodox sacraments are not bringing into the the created order something which is foreign to it – but rather – according famously to Fr. Alexander Schmemann – revealing things “to be what they already are.” The Body and Blood of Christ that we consume in the Liturgy also reveals our right communion with all that we eat. The waters which we blessed are not blessed to become something other than water, but to be what water was created to be.

By the same token, those sacraments that are directed particularly at human beings are not making us other than what we were intended to be, but are bringing us back and re-establishing us in the communion where alone we may find ourselves becoming truly human. It is also entirely appropriate that such a restoration occurs within the context of other created things – water, oil, wax, etc. All things begin to take their proper place and the liturgy releases the voices of all – man, water, oil, etc. And all proclaim the wonders of God.


October 13, 2008

St. Macarius said, “If we remember the evil that others have done to us, we shut down our ability to remember God.”

From the Desert Fathers

Memory is a very powerful thing. The older I get, and the more of my earthly life lies behind me instead of before me, memory becomes indeed powerful. I have lived in my present home for almost 20 years, which, for a priest, can be quite a while. In the Orthodox life that we now live – I do not expect to be anywhere else in my lifetime.

Memory, like most things, has two sides. It can be the repository of blessings, the remembrance of the goodness of God, and it can be the repository of bitterness, the remembrance of wrongs. It is obvious in the life of the Church that we are given authority and grace to heal the remembrance of wrongs. Indeed, forgiveness (both of our own sins and those of others) seems to be precisely this power over the past – the grace of God working in us to heal what has been.

The remembrance of God has something which carries it beyond the past, however. In the Divine Liturgy, when the priest speaks the “words of remembrance” (“do this in remembrance of me”) he is not engaging in an act of recalling the past, but an act in which that which was spoken is made present reality. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. His life and actions are certainly historical, but, at the same time, they transcend any particular moment of history. The historical is united to the ahistorical: time and eternity find a union within Him.

By the same token, our “remembrance” of God is itself a union of time and eternity in which we (the timely) are united to the Eternal, and the timelessness of the Messianic Banquet is set before us. This is proper Christian eschatology (concern with the “last” things).

The remembrance of wrongs is an anti-eschatology. It seeks to make present that which has no true or proper existence. Evil certainly has tragic and destructive effects on the world, but it is still nothing. Evil is not a “something,” but merely the abuse of a free-will. It cannot truly destroy what God has established. It’s existence is a “false existence,” abiding only as a parasite on the truth of our existence.

Thus the remembrance of wrong “shuts down our ability to remember God,” not because we have put something else in God’s place, but because we have put “nothing” in God’s place. Forgiveness is the great tool of justice which God has given us. For with forgiveness we fill with goodness and the wholeness of love what before was only darkness and the emptiness of hatred and anger.

The good thief, crucified beside our Lord, found salvation “in a single moment.” His request, “Remember me when you come into Your kingdom,” is a confession of faith that recognizes that the remembrance of God, and the remembrance by God, is triumphant over every sin and every evil. It is the triumph of “that which is” over “that which is not.”

Paradise is never far away from us – it is in our hearts and on our lips as we remember God.

As the Romanian Elder Cleopa constantly greeted his disciples, “May paradise consume you!”

My it indeed consume us and with us sweep away every memory of wrong in the fullness of the remembrance of God.

Prayers By the Lake – I

June 18, 2008

Saint Nicholai Velimirovich, of whom I have written before, is the author of the wonderful, Prayers By the Lake, which he composed on the shores of Lake Ochrid. They are a treasure of modern Orthodox verse. His first poem in the cycle reflects a sense of the creation as God’s own, rather than an inert arena for secular life. I offer this poem and a link to an online edition of His prayers.



Who is that staring at me through all the stars in heaven and all the creatures on earth?


Cover your eyes, stars and creatures; do not look upon my nakedness. Shame torments me enough through my own eyes.


What is there for you to see? A tree of life that has been reduced to a thorn on the road, that pricks both itself and others. What else-except a heavenly flame immersed in mud, a flame that neither gives light nor goes out?


Plowmen, it is not your plowing that matters but the Lord who watches.


Singers, it is not your singing that matters but the Lord who listens.


Sleepers, it is not your sleeping that matters but the Lord who wakens.


It is not the pools of water in the rocks around the lake that matter but the lake itself.


What is all human time but a wave that moistens the burning sand on the shore, and then regrets that it left the lake, because it has dried up?


O stars and creatures, do not look at me with your eyes but at the Lord. He alone sees. Look at Him and you will see yourselves in your homeland.


What do you see when you look at me? A picture of your exile? A mirror of your fleeting transitoriness?


O Lord, my beautiful veil, embroidered with golden seraphim, drape over my face like a veil over the face of a widow, and collect my tears, in which the sorrow of all Your creatures seethes.


O Lord, my beauty, come and visit me, lest I be ashamed of my nakedness—lest the many thirsty glances that are falling upon me return home thirsty.

Sacraments: The World as Mystery

June 17, 2008

My recent post on Pentecost and Evangelism occasioned several thoughtful responses. One of the responses seemed to me particularly worth further reflection. I start with an excerpt:

Truly it is God we need and want, nothing less. I experienced in my heart, but didn’t realize in my head until I began to study Orthodoxy, that in my evangelical world we affirmed “by faith” having God living by His Spirit within us and that His Presence was with us in our corporate context. But in reality, because a sacramental view of reality had largely eluded us, we failed to really experience that Presence in any consistent way, especially in the context of corporate worship.

The comment goes to the very heart of the modern Christian dilemma. Without a truly “sacramental” world-view, the presence of God and of all things holy remain alien to our life and are reached only occasionally and with great difficulty (if at all). The writings I have offered on Christianity as a One-Storey Universe are precisely an effort on my part to find language to describe the alienation of the holy from a secularized world.

The whole of Orthodoxy is rooted in an understanding of the world that is not only non-secular, but even pre-secular. The language of Orthodox worship, hagiography, and writings of the Fathers, never imagines a situation in which God is removed from the world and inherently inaccessible. The world itself is a sacrament – or in Orthodox language – the world is mystery (mysterion).

It is important to say just this much – “the world is mystery” – for if we say less – we run the danger of saying that the world is indeed secular, but that there are “sacramental” moments within it. This is the danger carried by the notion of limiting the sacraments to seven in number. Of course those actions and occasions which the Church formally refers to as “mysteries” or “sacraments” are precisely what the Church says of them – but in actions such as the annual blessing of the waters on Theophany – the Church reveals that all of creation is intended to be an occasion of communion with God. Indeed, it is the very purpose of creation.

I am not suggesting anything here that has not already been better said by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his classic For the Life of the World, nor is he asserting anything there that is not simply a clear statement of the Orthodox mind. In many ways such expressions are simply commentaries on St. Paul’s theology (in any number of passages). I quote only one for this purpose:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:7-10).

There is a vast difference and distinction between a world-view which allows for such things as sacraments and a world-view which understands that all of creation is a sacrament. With the first, one can be religious from time-to-time. With the latter, communion with God is a way of life and the whole of life.

Everything is changed in such an understanding. It is in just such a context (and quoting from Scripture) that we can understand that the Church not only reads the Scriptures, but is itself the Scriptures (see my earlier series on an Orthodox hermeneutic). In the same way we not only eat the Body of Christ, we also are the Body of Christ.

Prayer and worship cease to be specialized activities that we attend and become the very fabric of our lives. This in no way diminishes the worship of the assembled Church, but we do not cease to be Church when we exit the doors of a building. We are commanded to “pray without ceasing,” and to “give thanks always for all things.” In the language of Fr. Schmemann, human beings live rightly when we live as “eucharistic, doxological beings,” that is, human beings exist to give thanks to God and to worship Him.

As the angels ceaselessly cry: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” Even so we can reply: “Glory to God for all things.”

More on an Orthodox Hermeneutic

May 3, 2008

It is the common witness of the gospels that the disciples seemed to have no clue when it came to the death and resurrection of Christ – until after the resurrection. The classic story of this is to be found in St. Luke’s gospel:

Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him. And He said to them, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?” Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, “and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. “Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. “When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. “And certain of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but Him they did not see.” Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” And He went in to stay with them. Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:13-32).

Other gospel accounts of the resurrection echo this same phenomenon. The Church did not arrive at its understanding of Christ through its reading of Scripture. The Church learned to read Scripture by having its eyes opened to Christ and seeing the Scriptures through His life, death and resurrection. Christianity is a radical re-reading of the traditional Hebrew Scriptures brought about through Christ Himself. Of all the claims to messiahship made by Christ this one is by far the greatest and most clear. To be Himself the exegesis, the meaning of everything in the Old Testament, can only mean that He is the Son of the Father. Only God could be the meaning of Scripture and His claim is to be nothing less.

But it is key to think carefully about what it means for Christ to be the interpretation of Scripture. It does not mean that He is words about Scripture, but is Himself  the meaning of Scripture. It is a different claim to say that a Person is the meaning of something, rather than just more words about words.

Thus it is that the Scriptures can have layers of meaning and depth upon depth. For only a Person can offer the limitless possibilities of such meaning. Were the meaning of the words of Scripture just more words, its meaning and depth would be quite finite. This is where I criticize literalism as being flat. This means that. Such a model cannot represent or in any way give us the meaning of a Person, least of all the Person of Christ. Personhood inherently brings an infinite level to bear. For to be a Person entails an infinite quality – indeed qualities – both of love and of freedom. Thus, for the Scriptures to rightly present Christ to us, they must be themselves capable of depth – of bearing the good news of both freedom and love.

And on the level that reaches beyond that – the Scriptures bear witness to the Church, the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth. Of nothing else do we say that it is destined to obtain the fullness of the stature of Christ, but this is said of the Church (Ephesians 4). The Church is that which is being saved, and in the fullness of that word, it is that which is being conformed to the image of Christ. Thus, as His image, the Church is the interpretation of Scripture living among us now, made manifest by the Spirit of God who dwells in her.

In speaking this way of the Church, I refer to the Orthodox Church, which is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The disruption of the Church that has occurred through schism and heresy has created a situation in which many use the word “Church” to mean many things – some despairing of the Church Christ gave us and instead choosing to believe in an “invisible” Church, to which no epistle was ever written.

I do not mean to speak in triumphalist terms of the Orthodox Church – for to be that which she claims is only to be given the task of keeping the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints” and doing so by embracing the Cross of Christ. But she has maintained that which was delivered to her and borne the Cross placed upon her and given every generation the blood of martyrs who have faithfully carried the witness of the crucified Christ.

I would not “unchurch” all others who name Christ as Lord, but would say that they are Church only in a way that is related to the Orthodox Church – inasmuch as they confess some part of the same faith, etc.

If this is not true of the Orthodox Church, then there is no meaning of Scripture, no interpretation that is not just words about words. Christianity would have been reduced to philosophy or to a “people of the book” (God forbid). As it is, she remains the pillar and ground of truth – the Body of Christ – His epistle written in the fleshy tables of the heart.

An Orthodox Hermeneutic

May 2, 2008

Is or can there be such a thing as an Orthodox hermeneutic (method of interpretation) of Scripture?  I asserted in a recent post that there was such a thing and that the Orthodox would do well to work towards its recovery rather than using the hermeneutics of others who do not hold the Orthodox faith. I will make a small suggestion for how this may be understood.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, asserts:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Thus it is that the Church itself is the proper hermeneutic of Scripture – having been written by Christ, ministered by the apostles, not with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” Thus, to a certain extent, to say that the Scriptures are the Church’s book is a tautology. Either the Church is that epistle, written in the fleshy tables of the heart, or it is not the Church at all. It is partly for this reason that Orthodoxy sees the interpretation of Scripture as something that does not take place apart from the Church nor without the Church, but in the midst of the Church, which is herself the very interpretation, constantly echoing the Word of God in her services, sacraments, and all of her very life.

It is, of course, the case that there are things to be found within the Church that are not “of” the Church, but are things to be purged, to be removed, to be met with repentance. Indeed the life of the Orthodox Church is only rightly lived as a life of constant repentance. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50 (51):17.

But these are the sins of the old man, buried with Christ in Baptism, whose actions are to be put to death in this life (Romans 8:13).

If the Scriptures are themselves not interpreted in this manner, then every other interpretation is only words about God, and not the word of God. In many cases, Christians have left off living the word of God and have become experts at its discussion. Such exercises may be less than useless: they may prove to be harmful, for we will be judged by every idle word we speak. To take up Scripture and yet not embody it is to be a “hearer of the word and not a doer” as St. John warned in his small epistle.

I have cited the statement of the 7th ecumenical council that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” It must also be the case that the Church is an icon of Christ, or more than that, the very body of Christ. If the Church is not itself the proper interpretation of Scripture then no interpretation is to be found. If there is a modern “famine” in the hearing of the word of God it would be in the failure of Orthodox Christians to live as fully Orthodox and to keep the commandments of God.

There have been times that unbelievers could look at Christians and say, “See how they love one another.” Could there be a more eloquent interpretation of Scripture?

For this reason there can only be the one interpretation (though a passage may have many layers of meaning) just as there can only be the one Church. For the Scriptures are one even though they may consist of many books – for the meaning of every word, every book, is Christ. And the life of the Church can only be the Life of Christ for there is no other life to be found.

I give thanks to God that in my life I have had occasion to “read” this book in the fleshy tables of the heart. I have also seen many occasions in which those of the Church failed to fulfill the vocation we have been given. But even in the midst of our falling short, I have seen the bright light of Christ, the True Life, and tasted of the heavenly banquet. I have heard the voice of angels singing in choir the one song of the ages.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The Truth About the End Times

March 28, 2008


I live in the South – which means plenty of bumper stickers warning, “In case of rapture this car will be unmanned.” I grew up surrounded by preaching on the last days in a context that was decidedly Dispensationalist, Pre-Tribulation, etc. If you are a reader who does not know what all that means then you’ve missed a huge part of our American Culture. It means one believes that time is divided into different “dispensations” and that the end of the world will have seven years of the worst possible calamities, complete with the Great Beast, the Anti-Christ, (all known as the Great Tribulation), but with the Church being “caught-up” into the air to meet Christ and go to heaven just before the beginning of the Great Tribulation (hence, “pre-tribulation”). This is the larger story behind the popular “Left-Behind” series of novels which are selling like hotcakes in the Evangelical culture. Of course, the books are more interesting to read if you happen to be a Pre-Tribulation Dispensationalist.

These are not esoteric doctrines in this part of the world. You could have a fairly serious discussion with a pious farmer about various aspects of end-time Dispensationalist doctrine. Many local Churches will advertise “Prophecy Workshops” of one sort or another – explaining various details of the doctrine and, always, making comparison to present-day headlines (Not to mention the televangelists who major in End Times).

Is this simply an aspect of Christian teaching that is a hallmark of some Protestants, or is it a serious distortion of Christian teaching? And if it’s a distortion, does it matter?

Apart from all the various details involved in “end-time” teaching – the larger theological picture is overlooked. That picture is the radical change in eschatology from that of the Scriptures. Eschatology is the term for the study of things that have to do with “the last things” [eschatos]. For moderns following popular end-time teaching, there is an expectation of a coming event in history, but no sense that time itself is changed or given a different character by the Second Coming of Christ (much less His first coming). It is this loss of a proper understanding of time that, it seems to me, carries the largest error in popular end-time teaching.

It is possible to view time in a straightforward, chronological manner, as one event following another. Indeed, this seems the most natural way to view things – particularly to a modern mind. Of course, such a view of time is as devoid of God as is the naturalist view of creation in which it exists and operates independent of God. Both views are just variations on a secular theme. One can be religious in a secular setting, but the secularization of the faith is a radical departure from the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints.”

I have written about this secularization particularly in my articles on a One-Storey Universe versus a Two-Storey Universe. The point of that metaphorical distinction is to help us think about the consequences of modern secularized thought. As I have noted before, the primary religious effect of secularized thought (which is the mindset of a majority of modern Christians) is to exile God from what we think of as the “ordinary” world. Strictly chronological thought about time (including the end-times) is a secularization of time. God becomes an actor in history, but history remains somehow inert. Time is not effected by its encounter with God (in the modern secularized account).

The clear Biblical and Gospel teaching is that the Kingdom of God has as much effect on time as it has on everything else in our world. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. When He stands of the stage of history, the very End of history is standing in our midst. It is not merely 33 A.D., it is the fulfillment of all things. Thus, Christ does not say, “Before Abraham was I was or I existed,” but rather, “Before Abraham was I am.” There is a world of difference.

Christians themselves are not purely confined to chronological time. “We have been translated into the kingdom of His dear son” (Col. 1:13). This is not something we are waiting to see happen – it has already been accomplished. Of course there is also our experience of praying, “Thy Kingdom come,” and for a fulfillment that we await, and yet we already have a “foretaste” of that Kingdom, in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Indeed the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst takes us “out of time” or rather brings us into the “time of the Kingdom.” The Eucharistic meal that Christians eat, is not a chronological event in which we “remember” something that is past. It is the Messianic Banquet; Christ is truly present on the altar. The Body and Blood of Christ which we take into our mouths belongs not only to our time but also to the “time” of the Kingdom.

Of course there is a chronological time in which we live – and yet that time has been altered and revealed as a sacrament of the Kingdom in the coming of Christ. Every minute is a Spirit-bearing minute and not merely a tick on a clock.

We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:1-2).

These verses carry more meaning than simply “you should convert today.” The “accepted” time and the “day of salvation” are also eschatological events – our end has come upon us now.

The tragedy of living in two-storey chronological time (first storey is chronological, second storey is timeless), is that we fail to see the true character of every moment now. We waste our time reading newspapers and wondering about events in the mid-East, as though any of that would tell us something about the Kingdom of God. People live secularized lives, just “marking time” waiting to be raptured out of this wicked world so that God’s great plan for the end of the world can take place.

The truth about the end times is that Christ Himself is the End. “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

I am an Orthodox Christian. I believe in the Second Coming. “He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” But the One who is coming is none other than the One in Whom I partake at every Eucharist. He is none other than the One Whom I am called to serve in the “least of these my brethren.” Such things are “eschatological” moments. Better to serve Christ in the least of these than to waste time thinking about Bible prophecy and the pattern of events at the end of the world. It will come as a thief in the night, anyway. And if we are not serving Him in the least of His brethren we will be found to have no oil in our lamps.

In case of the rapture, everything will be unmanned. For when Christ comes, He will come to judge the whole earth. Most importantly, we should learn to see time as it truly is – as it is being transformed by the Lord of time and is itself a vehicle, a sacrament of His presence. Now is indeed the Day of Salvation.

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

March 11, 2008


There is a wonderful translation of Jean-Pierre De Caussade’s  Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, which bears the same title as this post. I am borrowing the phrase, not to comment on the volume (though I highly recommend it), but to bring into focus something of at least equal importance.

It is the reality of our moment by moment encounter with God. We confess that God is everywhere present and fills all things, but we still largely walk through the world treating all the things that we encounter as just that – things. We carry no sense within us that God is in fact sharing His life with us in and through all things.

This goes to the very heart of living life as though the world were secular, of living life in a “two-storey” universe – the storey in which we live being the one not inhabited by God.

It has been a common observation that when various reformers set about to reform the Church, they declared “all days to be holy days,” and thus rid the calendar of any particular holy day. The unintended result was that before long not only were all days not holy days, no day was a holy day.

In the same way, the decrees concerning the “priesthood of all believers” rather than making every individual a priest, became a meaningless phrase, for without the sacramental priesthood, the phrase lost its reference of meaning. No one had seen or dealt with a priest so to be told that they had some kind of “priesthood” from Christ was meaningless.

The same has been true of the more recent democratizations of the liturgy where the “people” gather around the altar and God is in our midst. Somehow, God becomes lost. All boundary between myself and the holy disappear and I can no longer know the holy.

Strangely, most of these reforms were not misguided. They were rooted in Scriptural truth and embodied a certain amount of truth. But invariably they were reforms that were lost in the “law of unintended consequences.” The general principle triumphed over the particular instance and the result was the abolition of something important.

But God is indeed “everywhere present and filling all things.” One of the clearest examples of this in Scripture is to be found in the resurrected Christ’s encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They conversed and the disciples did not recognized Him. Indeed, their hearts “burned” within them as they walked along and He instructed them in Scripture concerning the Christ. But things became clear – they recognized the risen Lord when He stopped with them for the evening meal. There He “took bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them,” and we are told, “their eyes were opened.” Those four verbs, “take, bless, break, and give,” are always used in Eucharistic encounters in Scripture. They are keys for our understanding. Nonetheless, the Scriptures do not say that there was a “formal” liturgy or even a clearly demarcated sacred meal. Only that Christ was present, and that He “took bread, blessed, broke and gave it too them.” And He was made known to them.

The Eucharist reveals Christ to us. But as Fr. Alexander Schmemann always noted, the Eucharist not only reveals Christ to us, it also reveals the true nature of creation to us. Bread can no longer be the same if Christ has taken it and made it His body.

It is always possible, indeed it has already happened, that we build a fence around that sacred moment and confine it to the liturgy itself. Outside the service, everything returns to “normal and ordinary,” and the Orthodox become as secular as every Christian around them. This is a denial of the Orthodox faith.

God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” thus there is no “normal and ordinary,” no “secular.” Everything is changed. There is no eating of bread that is not a communion with God. There is no encounter with a tree that is not an encounter with the hard wood of the cross, the “weapon of peace.”

In Jeremiah (23:23-24) we read:

Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD.

We do not have a “neutral zone” where we live apart from God. Instead, we have zones of ignorance, where believing Christians live as unbelievers, awaiting their next attendance at a “God permitted” zone.

No, the truth is that God has united Himself not only to humanity in the incarnation, but to matter itself. Man is the “microcosm” according to the Fathers, a “little cosmos” in himself. This is most fully and completely true in Christ, who has truly summed up the cosmos within Himself. Thus we look forward to the redemption and resurrection of the whole created order and not just man (Romans 8). 

Thus we are never separated from God who is freely with us, but also giving Himself to us in everything around us. This is no profession of pantheism. God has not become everything else. But everything else holds the possibility of encounter with God as surely as the holy water within the Church or every sacrament He has given us. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fr. Schmemann said that there were two “no’s” in his life and one “yes.” “No” to secularism; “No” to religion as a human institution; and “Yes” to the Kingdom of God. I am saying nothing different.

This carries us as well to this great season of Lent. We begin by formally asking forgiveness of each member of the Church. But if such a service were confined to Forgiveness Vespers, then not even all the members of the Church would have participated. But, in truth, it only occurs in Church so that we may be taught our true relationship with everyone and everything around us. Repentance is not a legal state in which we say, “I’m sorry,” so that we can hear, “You’re forgiven.” Repentance is part of the true state of human beings, a small part of the larger humility that is our true natural state of being. God Himself is humble (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). In figurative terms, the Old Testament even speaks of God “repenting Himself.” It is the simple openness of ourselves to others and the truth of their existence, and the true existence of all things as revealed in Christ. Only the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:8) and is also true that only the pure in heart see anything as it truly is.

So this brings us to the “sacrament of the present moment.” Everything, everyone, every place, filled with God, becomes a moment of communion and theophany. Thus we pray for the whole world, and finally know the fullness for which God is preparing us.

And lest we forget, forgiveness reaches backwards in time, and thus not even the past is fixed in some secular mode, but is subject to the Spirit of God and may be changed by my forgiveness. As God has promised through His beloved Apostle:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:9-11).

And because the existence of all is underwritten by the Good God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”) we are in no way the lords of our own existence. We do not control history nor its outcome. Acts of murder do not remove the existence of our victims, only increase our own distance from the truth of existence. There is no place to run, to flee, to hide ourselves from the truth which resides in God and it is to this truth that we must finally be reconciled if we are ourselves to stand in the truth at the end of all things. And so to everything that is we announce the goodness of the Kingdom of God and ask forgiveness of everything and everyone and for all time. Less than this would not be the fullness of life. Glory to God for all things.

A Personal Salvation

February 4, 2008


Perhaps the most difficult theological truth to communicate in the modern world is that of personal existence. Modern English has taken the word person from the realm of theology and changed it into the cheapest coin of the realm. Today it means that which is private, merely individual. As such, it becomes synonymous not with salvation but with our very destruction. Life lived as a mere individual is no life at all but a progressive movement towards death and destruction.

Thus there is always something of a hesitancy when someone asks (in newspeak), “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” If only we would, it would be truly significant. But in our modern street-wise theology, Christ as personal savior becomes synonymous with Christ as private savior, and as such is no savior at all. For no one and nothing can save the false existence we have created in the privacy of our modern existence. We were not created for such an existence.

In the story of Genesis – the first appearance of the phrase, “It is not good,” is applied to man – in an existence that is private. “It is not good for man to be alone.” We do not exist in the goodness which God has created for us when we exist alone. The most remote hermit of the Christian desert does not live alone, but lives radically for others and to God. Of all men he is the least alone. No one would take on the radical ascesis of the desert for themselves alone: it is an act of radical love.

And thus the personal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, determined that salvation for humanity could only take place as we lived fully and truly into the existence for which we were and are created: the Church. In the Church we do not exist as mere individuals but as members of the Body of Christ. My life is the life of Christ. What happens to me is essential to what happens to all the members of the Body and what happens to the members of the Body is essential for what happens to me. Their life is my life.

Thus when we approach the cup of Christ’s Body and Blood, we never approach it for our private good but as members of the Body. We are thus enjoined to be in love and charity with our neighbor and to forgive the sins of all – otherwise the cup is not for our salvation but our destruction.

The salvation into which we are Baptized is a new life – no longer defined by the mere existence of myself as an individual – but rather by the radical freedom of love within the Body of Christ. To accept Christ as our “personal” savior, thus can be translated into its traditional Orthodox form: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” And this question is more fully expounded when we understand that the Christ to whom we unite ourself is a many-membered body.

After the resurrection, Christ appeared to the Apostle Peter. Their dialog must have been the most profound dialog ever to take place between man and God. “Do you love me?” Christ asked Peter. Peter hedged his answer. But Christ responded, “Feed my sheep.” For to love Christ and to feed His sheep are not two things but one. For Peter to finally know this was indeed his personal salvation. It is ours as well. Glory to God.

The Alpha and the Omega

January 18, 2008

st-catherines-monastery-500As Christ walked in the midst of the people of Israel an event that was far more than historical took place. The One who was in the midst of them is also the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Strange paradox that you should meet and encounter a person who is Himself the beginning and the ending of all things. This paradox has led to many of the more profound insights of the Christian faith.

St. Maximus, reflecting on this, said that “the Incarnation of Christ is the cause of all things,” thus paradoxically placing the cause not “before everything” but in their midst, for the one who was in their midst was “before all things.”

Christ Himself would utter strange paradoxes that were completely true though opaque to his listeners: “Before Abraham was I am.” (John 8:58)

This aspect of who Christ is lies very much at the heart of much Orthodox understanding. Thus we understand that when we gather together for the Divine Liturgy, it is “heaven on earth.” It is not a change of locations of which the Church speaks, but a change in the nature of the location in which we gather – for as we gather “two or three,” “there am I in the midst of them.” And so our remembrance uttered in that service transcends the bounds of time:

Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which came to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting down at the right hand, the second and glorious coming again…

The language of the service has us speak even of the second coming in the past tense – not because we believe this is an event which has preceded us historically, but because in the presence of the Risen Christ, we stand at the end of things as well as their beginning. The Lord of time and space is not bound by his creation but raises His creation “into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.”

It is this reality that is also proclaimed by the holy icons. They are not placed in the Church as though they were a photograph album of heroes now long dead. They are instead the “great cloud of witnesses” made present to us in the image, not as wood and paint, but hypostatically (i.e. personally). Thus icons are described as “eschatological” images – images that are painted according to the end of all things and not according to the historical record. The language of inverse perspective becomes the grammar of the age to come in the icons of the Church – pointing us not to what has come and gone, but to what is coming and now is.

And the whole congregation is invited into this new existence. Baptized into the death of Christ and raised in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:3-6). It governs our actions. Being dead to this world, we forgive the things of this world (“by his resurrection” we sing at Pascha). A life lived in forgiveness toward enemies and love for all is a life that is lived in confidence that all has turned out as it is promised by Christ. Christ defines history and gives it its meaning in His death and resurrection. His sentence of forgiveness, spoken from the Cross, is nothing less than the justice of God echoing across our world. For there can be no other justice than His freely offered forgiveness. Such light may be unbearable to some, particularly if they were counting on God to smash their enemies for them.

It is to such an Alpha and Omega, such a fount of forgiveness, such a liberty of resurrection, that we are invited to draw near as the Holy Cup of the Body and Blood of God is brought forth to us. God help me to forgive all by the resurrection and to stand before the cup of the New Covenant – and in everything to remember where I am and when I am.

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18-24).