Archive for the ‘Tradition’ Category

The Feast of the Dormition of St. Anne

July 25, 2008

Today is the patronal festival of my parish, the feast of the Dormition of Righteous Anna, mother of the Theotokos. The details we know about her life, and that of her priest-husband, Righteous Joachim, are from sources within the Tradition (though not within the Scriptures). They are often pointed to as one of the great examples of married saints. Their story, like many in the Old Testament, include a time of barrenness and no child, and the promise and gift of a child in the old age. This child, Mary, was chosen of God and appointed to be the mother of the Incarnate God.

Orthodoxy is very “inclusive” when it speaks about salvation. Our salvation, of course, is accomplished and could only be accomplished through Christ Himself. And yet Christ Himself does not become incarnate except at the humble words of Mary, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy word.”

By the same token, Mary is not an accident, a random choice from among the virgins of Israel, but is the culmination of Israel’s history, according to the flesh. She stands in the place of Eve, offering to God a “yes,” where our ancestor had offered “no.” In the new life of the Kingdom, she is the mother of all living, just as Eve had been called by that name according to the flesh.

But as Mary is no accident, so her parents are no accident, nor the entire history of Israel. It is all the economy of God, working out the salvation of mankind, through mankind and His grace.

My wife says frequently, “You never really get to know a saint by reading their story. It’s only in calling on them in prayer, asking for their help, that you get to know them.” I know there’s much to be discussed for those who do not understand this part of Orthodox Tradition. But in the 10 years I have served as the priest of a parish whose patroness is St. Anne, I have come to know her well, as a mother who cares for her spiritual children, and who is a great friend and intercessor for the needs of our spiritual family.

I like the fact that my parish is named for a grandmother. My wife reminds me that the parish is named for the wife of a priest (Joachim was a priest in the Old Temple). Good choice on both accounts.

Risky Business

July 1, 2008

Amoun found Abba Poemen and told him, “When I visit a neighbor or he visits me, he hesitate to talk with each other. We are afraid that we might bring up a worldly topic.

The old man replied, “Yes, young people need to guard their mouths.”

Amoun asked, “But how do old men handle this problem?”

Abba Poemen said, “Those who have advanced in virtue no longer have any worldliness in them. Nothing will taint their speech.”

Amoun continued his questioning. “When I must speak with my neighbor, should I speak of the Scriptures or of the Fathers?”

The old man answered, “It is best to keep silence. If you can’t, talk about the sayings of the Fathers. Speaking about the Scriptures is risky.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

In our modern world the above conversation of two monks in the desert sounds rather quaint. We have very little concern about our subjects for conversations. As autonomous individuals, we talk about whatever we want to talk about and never give a second thought as to whether the topic was suitable or whether our words were helpful or harmful.

I was particularly struck by Abba Poemen’s statement that “speaking about the Scriptures is risky.” It brought a smile. Of course, all this has radically changed in our culture. The Bible is no longer a rare book (or copied laboriously by hand). Everyone has numerous copies (usually) and more opinions than copies.

I was making a presentation several years ago at a fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee. Somewhere in the course of my comments I spoke about the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel and Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist within it (though it occurs as a commentary on the feeding of the 5,000 – it is most decidedly a teaching on the Eucharist). It is in this chapter that Christ says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you,” and many similar things.

A young man (a freshman) in the audience approached me after the lecture and was absolutely beside himself. He began to argue and to explain how the passage could not be about the Eucharist and how Christ was speaking figuratively about something else. I pointed out to him that even Protestant scholars agree that the chapter concerns the Eucharist – but to no avail.

Discussing Scripture is risky business. Part of what is missing in our Christian culture is a proper reverence for the Word of God. Even those who claim to hold it as utterly infallible in every jot and tittle, do not hesitate to use it in an cavalier manner.

I can recall several years ago a conversation that occurred within a group of Orthodox priests. The subject was the ever-Virginity of the Mother of God. Someone mentioned some of the traditional physical details associated with this doctrine. The conversation quickly ceased. One of the priests said, “I cannot discuss such things about the Mother of God.” There was no disagreement among the priests, only a sense that somethings are better left unsaid and that respect dictates that silence is best in some matters.

It was very instructive for me. The Holy always involves “boundaries” (I have written about this before). In an Orthodox Church such boundaries are particularly emphasized in the “boundary” of the altar area, and even within the altar area, the boundary of the altar itself. Only some may enter the altar area, and then only with a blessing. And generally, only bishops, priests and deacons may touch the holy altar or the things that are on it. It is an action, or refraining from action, that helps interiorize the reality of the Holy and how we should handle such things.

The Scriptures are certainly Holy, and should be rightly handled, that is rightly interpreted. But there is rarely a Godly fear in approaching such a task. Were such respect present, we would argue less and listen more, and many times remain silent.

It is utterly essential in the Christian life that believers begin to pay attention to their inner life and the state of their souls and dwell less in the fantasy of ideas and argument. The Christian faith is a way of salvation that involves the transformation of our inmost being – it is not a set of ideas with which we are trying to conquer the world.

None of this is to suggest restricted access to the Scriptures. Neither do I mean to suggest restricting access to the Holy (indeed in an Orthodox service, the Body and Blood of Christ are brought forth from the altar and given to the faithful to eat). What I mean to suggest is that we think about what it means that something is Holy and treat it accordingly. For with such treatment our hearts will begin to recognize things in the “truth of their being” and realize as well that we are not autonomous individuals in charge of the universe, but are, at most, servants of the Most High God, to Whom be glory.

Grace and “the Inverted Pyramid”

May 19, 2008

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart

 

The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

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

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

 

Is Hell Real?

April 17, 2008

On one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven. Like the small bulliten boards outside of many Southern churches, this sign belongs to a part of our culture that has been with us a long time. But everytime I see this sign, my mind turns to the subject of ontology (the study of the nature of being). Thus I offer today some very basic thoughts on the subject of being – a classical part of Christian theology.

The first thing I will note is that you cannot say Hell is real and Heaven is real and the word real mean the same thing in both sentences. Whatever the reality of Heaven, Hell does not have such reality. Whatever the reality of Hell, Heaven is far beyond such reality.

St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards “non-being.” The created universe was made out of nothing – thus as it moves away from God it is moving away from the gift of existence and towards its original state – non-existence. God is good, and does not begrudge existence to anything, thus the most creation can do is move towards non-being.

I’m certain that the intent of the billboard was to suggest that hell is not imaginary or just a folk-tale. It is certainly neither of those things. But in Orthodox spiritual terms I would say that hell is a massive state of delusion, maybe the ultimate state of delusion. It is delusional in the sense that (in Orthodox understanding) the “fire” of hell is not a material fire, but itself nothing other than the fire of the Living God (Hebrews 12:29). For those who love God, His fire is light and life, purification and all good things. For those who hate God, His fire is torment, though it be love.

And these are not simply picky issues about the afterlife – they are very germane issues for the present life. Christ Himself gave this “definition” of hell: “And this is condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

It is of critical importance for us to understand that being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth are all synonymous with reality as it is gifted to us by God. Many things that we experience in our currently damaged condition (I speak of our fallen state) which we describe with words such as “being, reality, life, goodness, beauty, happiness, truth, etc.”, are, in fact, only relatively so and are only so inasmuch as they have a participation or a relationship with the fullness of being, reality, life, etc.

Tragically in our world, many live in some state of delusion (even most of us live in some state of delusion). Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” We are not pure in heart, and thus we do not see God, nor do we see anything in the fullness of its truth. Our delusion makes many mistakes about reality. The most serious delusion is that described by Christ, when we prefer darkness to light because our deeds are evil.

I have in my own life known what moments in such darkness are like – and I have seen such darkness in the hearts and lives of others many times. The whole of our ministry and life as Christians is to move from such darkness and into the light of Christ. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1John 1:7)

Is hell real? Only for those who prefer to see the Light of God as darkness.

Is heaven real? Yes, indeed, and everything else is only real as it relates to that reality. God give us grace to walk in the Light.

End of ontology lesson.

The Holy Cross of Christ

March 29, 2008

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In writing about our union with Christ I offered the following as the response some time ago to a question. It seemed to me, worth a posting of its own, though it be short. I have, however, added a few thoughts to it. This Sunday marks the Sunday of the Cross in the Orthodox journey of Lent.

There are many ways of which to speak of Christ’s work on the Cross, all of them, of course, seeing it as central. In some ways, it is the whole of the Old Testament in a single moment. Which image of sacrifice is not fulfilled in that Great Sacrifice, and yet there are many images? Christ is also the Paschal Lamb, which itself is not part of the normal sacrificial system and yet it is in the Cross as well.

Nor does the sacrificial system make much sense except by some aspect of union with that which is offered. But on the Cross, Christ completes His union with us, if I may be so bold, by assuming even our death that by death He might trample down death.

The mistake too easily made is to think of the Cross as only one thing. The Cross is everything. All things are summed up and completed by Christ on the Cross, just so, everything is summed up and healed in His resurrection from the Dead. On the Cross He is the serpent lifted in the wilderness. On the Cross He is the Lamb of the Passover. On the Cross He is the Offering of Atonement. On the Cross He is Moses’ staff stretched over the waters of the Red Sea. On the Cross He is the arms of Moses stretched out at the destruction of Amalek. On the Cross He is the ram in the thicket that God gave in place of Isaac. On the Cross He is Blood poured out on the Mercy Seat. On the Cross He is the love of God made manifest in its utter self-emptying. On the Cross He is the Bridegroom now come for His bride to bring her back from the dead. On the Cross He is man in His alienation from God and God in His union with man.

All of these are part of the fullness of what it means to be forgiven, and I have only barely touched the edge of it. God has reconciled us to Himself through the Cross of Christ. This is not to say one thing – it is to say everything.

We’ll have read my writings wrong if it is seen that I have offered “the” explanation of the Cross. The Cross is the explanation of everything else, while no one other thing can explain the Cross.

Of Calendars and Christians

March 21, 2008

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This year the Gregorian Calendar and the Julian (and the Revised Julian) differ on the date of Pascha (Easter) by about as much as possible. The story of the calendars, both in the East and West is a very convoluted tale, sometimes requiring a knowledge of math (hence my reluctance to go into the matter). We know that even in the early 2nd century there was a difference on when the Pascha of our Lord was to be kept (apparently St. John the Theologian was a ‘Quartodecian’ which was a calculation that did not win out). Later, missionaries from Rome encountered Celtic Christians in the British Isles and had a small dust-up over the dating of the Feast of Feasts. Many of the Orthodox were more than a little chagrined when a Patriarch of Constantinople, in the 20th century, convened a modest council, and adopted the Revised Julian Calendar, thus shattering the unity of the Orthodox Church in matters of time (with the exception of the date of Pascha and all things that are dated by Pascha).

I do not have an opinion, other than to obey the Bishops of my Church – and I hold that “opinion” as virtually as close as I hold my salvation. But if they told me tomorrow that the Holy Synod had adopted something else, I would lose no sleep. I do pray continually for unity among Orthodox on the Calendar (and secondly with the rest of Christendom). My own family (which counts three priests in its number) has two Calendars. I’d like less complexity in planning an extended family vacation.

But as I drove around Oak Ridge and Knoxville today, doing my priestly chores leading up to our second Sunday of Great Lent, the atmosphere of things around me was clearly different than the usual Friday. Some businesses were closed. People would greet me with “Happy Easter,” which either received a reply in kind, or, time-permitting, a short dissertation on the difference between Orthodox and Western calendars, followed by a “Happy Easter” as well. Would that everybody celebrated our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection as sacred, holy days.

But it is part of the strangeness of being Orthodox in America, that you are frequently out of sync with the culture (not nearly as much as my Old Calendar Son-in-law and my daughter, his wife). It underlines the differences that exist between East and West and adds the additional problem of the feasting of others surrounding your fast. But the unity of Orthodox Pascha (which includes the dating of Lent) brings a season’s worth of Orthodox unity that reminds me of how things ought to be, and, God willing, shall be.

But for the many readers I have who are Protestant, Anglican or Catholic or keep the Gregorian Calendar for Easter – may God bless you on this holy weekend! May you unite yourself with the crucified Christ and remember His descent into Hades to rescue us all! May you know the joy of His resurrection!

And (as is always appropriate to say) I greet you: Christ is risen!

The Lost Tradition

March 19, 2008

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Many people think of the loss of various pieces of “Tradition” when they think of the modern, non-Orthodox, churches. Some may think of the loss of liturgical riches or the loss of the canons. Others may see a wholesale change in the spiritual teachings of the Christian faith. When I think of the loss of “Tradition” I think of the loss of fullness – of various truncated versions of Christianity, which, though often true inasmuch as they say (quoting Scripture and the like), nevertheless lack the full context of those Scriptures and vital parts of the Christian faith, without which it is difficult to share correctly or fully the Gospel of Christ.

I am especially struck by this when I consider the Tradition and its teachings on the passions. The spiritual writings of the Orthodox Fathers constitute an unreplaceable treasure of the Christian life. More than “Tradition” in some antiquarian sense, their writings represent the fruit of lives lived in obedience to the Gospel and a roadmap in the struggle against that which is common to us all. I think of the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor and his insights into the actual character and makeup of the passions and why they work as they do – as well as how we may successfully struggle against them.

To this can be added such classics as St. John Climacus’ The Ladder, The Philokalia, and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena. I could add tens of volumes to such writings and only mention these because of their recognized universal value. They transcend the culture of their time and especially, the culture of our time. Without them we lack essential parts of the Christian experience and its testimony. Without them we are like kindergartners trying to make our way in an adult world. We are clueless.

There are great Western Christian classics as well. Even the classic Protestant Pilgrim’s Progress is largely unknown or unused by modern Protestant Christians. At least C.S. Lewis knew the Christian classics – and they made his own writings mature on a level unknown in many modern writers.

Conversations on the passions and our warfare with them should not be some peculiar province of the Orthodox – it should be a common conversation for all who love Christ, His Cross, and our call to be conformed to His image. A common knowledge and language exists in the writings of the Fathers, including those of the first five centuries that are recognized as of particular value by many modern Protestants.

The world is too dangerous and too much in need of a Savior and the truth of the Gospel for such parts of the Tradition to be neglected by any. God forbid that only Orthodox Christians stand and say that the passions are killing us (God help the Orthodox to at least say this much!). But we should have a common voice that speaks to the culture. Slavery to greed, envy, sloth, gluttony, as well as other such passions, is killing us and our children. A common voice should say to everything around us, “Enough!” And to one another, “Join the struggle! Let us follow Christ!”

The Tradition may be resisted by some on ideological grounds. But they do so to their own impoverishment. These treasures are there for all. May God give us grace to know them and use them.

Scripture and the Church

February 18, 2008

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I recently encountered a use of Scripture in a web posting that was alarming to a degree. The writer (who was not apparently a believer) sought to use Scripture to prove that God was a murderer and that the Bible was an immoral book. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on why certain approaches to Scripture will never be productive of a proper understanding and why the Bible is not a “user-friendly” source of information on God and His will for man.

I think, first off, of an event recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel. It is the story of the encounter of two of Christ’s disciples with the risen Lord, on the afternoon of the resurrection. After not recognizing the risen Lord, they begin to instruct Him on the things that had just taken place in Jerusalem and which they, as yet, did not understand. Then we are told an interesting thing:

And [Christ] said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

It is obvious that three years (or so) discipleship with Christ, eating and sleeping beside Him, listening to His teachings, watching the miracles – were simply not sufficient to provide what was needed to understand the most fundamental things about Christ within the Scriptures (at that time, meaning the Old Testament). Only with personal instruction from the Risen Lord, and later continued instruction by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), do the disciples – those first disciples – begin to understand the Scriptures. Their instruction to those who followed after them, as well as the continued instruction of the Holy Spirit (which in Orthodoxy is the proper meaning of Tradition), remain essential elements of the interpretation of the Scriptures – by the Christian Church.

Anybody can read the Scriptures. Anybody can do what they want when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures. But what the Scriptures mean to the Church, is a very particular interpretation, given to it by Christ and the living Tradition within the Church.

Thus, it is a more or less meaningless statement when someone outside the Church says: “the Bible says,” or “the Bible teaches.” Books are not self-interpreting, and this is most certainly the case for the Scriptures, or is at least the case for the Scriptures as they are understood by the Christian Church.

To a degree, this ecclesiastical position of the Scriptures can be a weakness in the classical protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (meaning the Scriptures alone). There is indeed a sense in which nothing can speak as clearly or authoritatively as the Scriptures for a Christian. With this, the Orthodox would never argue. But the Scriptures must speak in their proper context – which is in the living Tradition of the Body of Christ. Removed from that context, and the Scriptures remain problematic – subject to misuse and abuse – to misinterpretation (which simply means “not the Church’s interpretation”) – and to confusion.

Thus when a non-believer, or lone believer, takes up the Scriptures and begins to make them say things about God that the Church has never said about God – or uses them against themselves as though it were a book of perfect syllogisms to be tested by a process of non-contradiction – it is simply an absurd case of someone using something that does not properly belong to them and of remaining in at least as much darkness as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus prior to their encounter with the risen Lord.

The Church does not have to defend Scripture to those outside the Church – for the book is not the book-outside-the-Church. St. Paul wrote letters to Churches, or letters to leaders of the Church. The whole of the New Testament, in every instance, is addressed to believers only. Others may read it, and may even come to faith by reading it (God is sovereign and may do whatever He pleases), but they do not and cannot read it authoritatively. That reading – is and has been given to the Church and to the Church alone. It’s not a unique appropriation of a book – it is simply defining what the word “Scripture” means.

Now it is also the case that the ecclesiology of various groups of Christians will understand what the word “Church” means in different ways and will understand the relationship of “Church” to “Scripture” in different ways. What I have offered here is the classical understanding of the Orthodox Church – that understanding which is common to the Fathers of the undivided Church of the early centuries – and remains the understanding of the Orthodox Church today.

The Bible has come to hold a unique place within English-speaking culture, and American culture in particular – a place that is far removed from its proper ecclesiastical position. Everybody can own a Bible now and carry one around in their pocket. Everyone is free to study and to quote. Everyone is free to misunderstand the Scriptures to their heart’s content – but not everyone is free to speak in a manner that is authoritative for the Church. The Scriptures, as they are to the Church, is sui generis, a case unto itself. As such, there can be no “objective” discussion of the meaning of Scripture, or a discussion on its meaning in which the grounds of that meaning are something other than its meaning “to the Church.” Of course, such discussions take place all the time, but, to a certain extent, they are of no concern to the Church.

There is a danger, always present, that the Bible will be viewed as a “Holy Book” by itself – ripped from its context within the Church. The danger is that when Scripture is removed from that context it almost invariably comes to take on other meanings or to be used in a manner that seeks to give it an authority somehow unrelated to the Church. Christians are Baptized “into the Body of Christ,” and “into the death of Christ,” according to St. Paul. He nowhere says that we were Baptized into the Scriptures. And although we are taught by the Scriptures to “desire the sincere milk of the word,” we are also taught by Christ to “eat His flesh and to drink His blood” in the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, we are told that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no Life in you” (John 6:53). The living Body of Christ, the Church, is the proper context of all Christian activity.

The Apostles who were taught by Christ and who wrote the Scriptures of the New Testament, themselves gave instructions that go beyond the Scriptures:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

And thus it is that in the life of the Church, the living Tradition is both the mind of Christ in the Holy Spirit, manifest particularly in the understanding of Scripture, as well as in those matters which have been handed down to us from the beginning (such as the sign of the cross, etc.).

I do not generally care for the phrase that says “the Bible is the Church’s book,” if only that it may make the Scriptures to seem to be less than they are. But it remains the case that the Scriptures are inherently ecclesiastical – they belong in the Church and are themselves, as Scripture, a part of the Church’s life. Torn from that context they become something else – which, as St. Peter warned (speaking of St. Paul’s epistles): “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).

May God give us His grace.

 

At the Edge of Tradition

January 28, 2008

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There are many things that we see in our lives to which the word “traditional” may be attached. It can refer to a style of dress or an understanding of relationships. In Church it may refer to the use of certain kinds of music or a sytle of worship. Many years ago, pastoring my first parish as an Episcopal priest, I had a young couple who were Roman Catholics, who had come to the Church as inquirers. One of their first statements and complaints to me was that the service in my parish was not “traditional” enough. I was slightly puzzled. My eleven o’clock service was a choral Eucharist, about as traditionally “high church” as Anglicans get. I was also aware that the surrounding Catholic Churches were all pretty contemporary in their worship. I should add that the couple was in their early twenties.

They explained away my confusion. By “traditional” they meant: “where are the guitars?” “In the eye of the beholder,” is all I could think.

The same can be said of the contemporary use of the word “traditional” or other phrases such as “ancient,” etc. I know there are experiments out there to bring a more “traditional” style of worship into Evangelicalism (and here “traditional” means, I believe, “liturgical”). In many places an increased emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary service of worship on Sundays is also part of the package.

On the one hand, these efforts can hardly be faulted from an Orthodox point of view. The more people explore the “tradition,” the more likely they are to confront the faith – which was, after all, “once and for all ‘traditioned’ to the saints,” for that is the meaning of Jude 1:3. But on the other hand, there is a danger in confusing the outward trappings of “tradition” with “Tradition” itself. For what was once and for all delivered to the saints, was not so much questions of liturgy and incense (although all of these ritual and liturgical elements of Orthodoxy do carry with them the content of Tradition – they are not electives), rather the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints was and is indeed the content of the faith – the living union between the true and living God and man. That faith truly reveals to us and makes accessible to us the true and living God, and it also reveals to us and makes accessible what it is to be a truly living human being. The content of the Christian faith, the living Tradition, is the truth of both God and man, and the truth of our salvation through union with God in Christ.

The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality – God with us.

And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.

Invariably, the great stumbling block faced by various attempts to “recreate” or “rediscover” the “early Church,” is that the “early Church,” is not an historical reality. It is a present reality – not simply as the “early Church” (this is not a Biblical phrase anyway). The present reality is the same as the “early Church”: it is the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the true and living Way. It never ceased nor was overcome by the gates of Hell. It has lived and thrived in enough places to have picked up many languages, many customs, but always the same faith.

This always comes as a stumbling block, I believe, because the existence of the Orthodox Church stands as a stark witness to the True and Living God – not the idea of a God – but God. In my own conversion, I was utterly shocked by this fact. I had read about Orthodoxy for years. I agreed with it for years. I would have even readily agreed for years to everything the Orthodox Church said of itself, and yet I remained outside. When, at last, my family and I were actually received into the Church, I was staggered by the reality of God. I know that sounds strange (since I had been an ordained Anglican priest for 18 years prior to that) but such was the case. There was no longer any question about discussing God, or refining the tradition, or even debating how all of it was to be applied. I was now in the thick of things and God was reigning down in canon, text, Bishop, sacrament, penance, sight, sound, rubrics (which I could not begin to fathom at first) – everything!

Thus, I surprised friends constantly in my first year or so of Orthodoxy when they asked me what was the most important thing about my conversion. My constant reply (to this day) was: the existence of God.

This, somehow, is the content that sets the Tradition apart from all discussions of appropriating tradition, etc. You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s to small to appropriate God.

Thus many in our time stand at the edge of Tradition. I have written that it is all really about Being – and it is. Thus it is worth going over the edge, to cross from thinking about God, to being plunged into the heart of it all. Frighteningly, it will come complete with Bishops whom you like and whom you despise – with stories of contemporary saints – and encounters with contemporary sinners. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. What else can a man do?

St. Gregory the Theologian on our Ransom by God

January 22, 2008

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One of the greatest orators of his age, St. Gregory the Theologian (also known as Gregory Nazianzus), is considered among the most central of Church fathers. His work, and that of St. Basil the Great, did much to win the day for the Nicene Creed (by God’s grace) and to secure its completion at the first Council of Constantinople, where the Creed received its final and present form. He is not as easy to read for moderns as Augustine or some of the Latin Fathers. But is well worth the read. Below is a portion from his Second Paschal Oration in which he asks the question: “To whom was the ransom (Christ’s death on the Cross) paid?”

Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence.

His final summation puts my garrulousness to shame.