Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Kindred spirits

One asked, "Why, Father, do you find more joy in the psalms than in any other part of divine Scripture? And why, when quietly chanting them, do you say the words as though you were speaking to someone?"

Abba Philemon replied, "My son, God has impressed the power of the psalms on my poor soul as He did on the soul of the prophet David. I cannot be separated from the sweetness of the visions about which they speak. They embrace all scripture."

He confessed these things with great humility, after being much pressed, and then, only for the benefit of the questioner.

Philokalia, Book 2, "A Discourse on Abba Philemon," p.347.

The wrath of the Lamb

Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

In the Western Christian world, the season of Christmas is ushered in by four weeks of Advent, remembering Christ’s second coming, during which the hymn quoted above is sung, certainly from the tone of the hymn, a frightful prospect for “those who set at naught and sold him,” and a far cry from the spirit in which this season begins in the Orthodox world, “Today the Virgin comes to the cave to ineffably give birth to the Word before all worlds. Dance, O universe, upon hearing this…”

Reading the book of Revelation, in Greek, Η Αποκάλυψις του Ιωάννου, I am always struck by this very strange phrase, “the wrath of the Lamb.” If anything could present a more ironic picture, it would be a very, very angry lamb. Almost universally, the lamb is considered an animal of meekness, gentleness and, for children, even cuddliness. Notice I said “almost.” There is something about lambs we don’t know, but the Word of God does, at least about THE Lamb.

When Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Divine Logos came the first time, He was born of woman, in an obscure place, at a time rushed and unnoticed—a census was being taken, was He even counted? Was anyone even there to receive Him? Did anyone know Who He was? Not really. Only His parents, and a handful of shepherds in the area. Only later did some astrologers from Babylon come in search for Him, and a little after that, a jealous and illegitimate worldly authority, Herod, tried to “nip Him in the bud,” by having his soldiers cruelly kill all male children recently born in the area. “Innocent?” he cried, “Not innocent! Guilty! Guilty of the womb! Guilty of the stars! There's room for only one king on this throne! Only Herod, only me!”

It will be a different story when Jesus Christ returns to earth in His second and glorious coming. It will be something like what the hymn relates, those who rejected Him “deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.” The book of Revelation, a more reliable source than this hymn, says that they will cry out to the mountains and to rocks, “Fall on us and hide us away from the One who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” (Revelation 6:16) The ikon that is always on the right side of the royal doors in an ikonostasis shows Christ seated on the throne. That’s who they’re talking about.

The wrath of the Lamb… so that’s why they fear him! That’s why our world is filled with people afflicted with the malady of Christophobia, the fear of Christ. There is a wonderfully well-written article by Srdja Trifkovic at the site Serbianna entitled Battling Christophobia in California and Serbia. I should rather have called it, Battling World Christophobia. Reading this article gave rise to the ramble above. I really latch on to a concept once a keyword has been cut for it, and Christophobia is that word. Read more at the link above, but here are some samples of what Trifkovic writes in his article…

The intention of post-moderns to destroy real people, with their natural loyalties, traditional morality, and inherited cultural preferences, is the same everywhere.

It is Christophobia, the incubator of countless secondary pathologies that are imposed and celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic under the label of diversity.

Western conservatives, he says, are hoping to save the key institution of the West—namely, Christianity—but Christianity did not originate in the West, and therein lies the crux of the matter: “The development of the West since 1054, in opposition to the Orthodox East, was a revolutionary act. The West, at its core, is revolutionary; hence the shouting of our conservatives for history to stop, while intermittently effective in slowing the slide, has proven vain. The West’s defining act was the fundamental innovation of the filioque. The fruit of the schism was apparent in successive heresies and rebellions, which led to the wars of religion that would kill millions and tear Europe apart. Later subversives would translate the revolutionary logic into decidedly unchristian contexts such as the French and Bolshevik revolutions, with monstrous results.”

While the unraveling of Western Christianity has been under way for a thousand years, it gained a new head of steam in our time. With Vatican II, Roman traditionalists were dealt a tremendous blow, and they are still suffering its consequences. Meanwhile, “The more traditionally minded Protestant denominations are now sprinting toward Sodom, while the newer ‘Bible churches,’ holding the line somewhat more effectively on the moral front, show themselves very much of this world in their Dionysian revels featuring ‘Christian’ rock music and self-help philosophies about how to succeed in the world of mammon without really trying. The job of shoring up what remains of traditional Western Christianity is, needless to say, not getting any easier.”

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, does not lend itself to the political realm, precisely because its kingdom is not of this world. It is impossible to turn Orthodoxy into a “movement” in the modern political sense, yet the Orthodox view on most political issues today largely tracks the views of traditional Roman Catholics and Protestants, in spite of their theological and ecclesiological differences: “Even in a decidedly Protestant and “revolutionary” country such as the United States, the Orthodox easily recognize the practical wisdom embodied in a document such as the Constitution and its principle of limited government. They are more than anyone averse to the deification of political figures and of the state that has been the bane of the modern era. But they are by nature ill-adapted to navigating the turbulent waters of modern politics, which grow ever more frenzied and anti-Christian.”

The greater part of the article discusses in more detail political and social issues that are not within the range of either my blog or my mindset. I am and always will be a rather apolitical Orthodox muzhik. What is important to me is God, the Bible, following Jesus, witnessing for Him, and holding wide open the doors of the Church, not arguing or combating the evil one. He has already been defeated by Christ, both in His forty days’ temptation, and in his suffering on the Cross, and since no man can be greater than his Master, I can only hope the same for me, through enduring temptation and dying on the Cross, to enter Paradise with the good thief. But I did find it interesting that there are many in the world who are not of the world, and whose role in the Body of Christ is to unmask false ideologies and defrock false authority.

Knowing that to see the Lamb when He appears will be terror and wrath to the lost, let’s use what time remains to open their eyes to Him Who is, the Holy One, the Eternal, the Only Lover of mankind, the One who says, “Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I became dead and now I am to live for ever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17).

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

On stoning thy neighbor

The feast day of proto-martyr Stephen the Deacon is coming up right on the heels of the Nativity of Christ on December 27th, and that made me think of death by stoning, a punishment specified for a number of offenses in the laws of the Torah. Last February I explored the concept during my study of the five books of Moses, which I posted HERE. Today as I was perusing the blog of a Christian brother, I came upon this very good word of Elder Païsios, which I want to reproduce here in its entirety. The Elder is one of two recently reposed saints whose words and acts I follow with the attentive eye of a bird intent on catching a worm. The other is, of course, Elder Porphyrios. I confess, these are my two favorite modern 'desert fathers,' and it's because they lived and taught by word and example the way of following Jesus in the modern world.
Here is what Elder Païsios says...

A Christian must not be fanatic; he must have love for and be sensitive towards all people. Those who inconsiderately toss out comments, even if they are true, can cause harm.

I once met a theologian who was extremely pious, but who had the habit of speaking to the (secular) people around him in a very blunt manner; his method penetrated so deeply that it shook them very severely. He told me once: “During a gathering, I said such and such a thing to a lady.” But the way that he said it, crushed her. “Look”, I said to him, “you may be tossing golden crowns studded with diamonds to other people, but the way that you throw them can smash heads, not only the sensitive ones, but the sound ones also.”

Let’s not stone our fellow-man in a so-called “Christian manner.” The person who – in the presence of others – checks someone for having sinned (or speaks in an impassioned manner about a certain person), is not moved by the Spirit of God; he is moved by another spirit.

The way of the Church is LOVE; it differs from the way of the legalists. The Church sees everything with tolerance and seeks to help each person, whatever he may have done, however sinful he may be.

I have observed a peculiar kind of logic in certain pious people. Their piety is a good thing, and their predisposition for good is also a good thing; however, a certain spiritual discernment and amplitude is required so that their piety is not accompanied by narrow-mindedness or strong-headedness. Someone who is truly in a spiritual state must possess and exemplify spiritual discernment; otherwise he will forever remain attached to the “letter of the Law”, and the letter of the Law can be quite deadly.

A truly humble person never behaves like a teacher; he will listen, and, whenever his opinion is requested, he responds humbly. In other words, he replies like a student. He who believes that he is capable of correcting others is filled with egotism.

A person that begins to do something with a good intention and eventually reaches an extreme point, lacks true discernment. His actions exemplify a latent type of egotism that is hidden beneath this behavior; he is unaware of it, because he does not know himself that well, which is why he goes to extremes.

Lord, have mercy on me, Romanós the sinner!

Back to Normal

Ah, so Google is back to normal. It’s December 26th.

Leading up to and including Christmas Day, the world-class search engine (I use it almost exclusively) had a graphic embellishment of their logo: secular holiday cards, one with a prominent ‘peace symbol’ on it, gradually accumulating. When you would hover your mouse over the logo, you’d get the message ‘happy holidays’ whereas the normal logo gives you the message ‘Google,’ nice and flat.

Surely we’ve noticed how Google likes to put up an embellished logo to celebrate various days. The latest one that sticks in my mind was for the birthday of Zamenhoff, the Polish Jew who created the ‘international language’ Esperanto. Of course, Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, and that of dozens of people who I’ve never even heard of, have been likewise commemorated, as have events and other days of ‘world’ significance, ‘Earth Day’ for example. Surprisingly, some ‘national’ days have also been ‘honored,’ Thanksgiving for example, though in a trivialized manner that completely hides the meaning of the holiday.

Astonishingly, though, the birth day of Jesus Christ cannot be noticed. I’m not speaking of Christmas as a ‘Christian’ holiday, now—just the birth day of Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth, a Jewish non-seminary-trained, itinerant rabbi of the first century of the ‘Common Era’ (C.E.) whose profound teachings have been widely acknowledged and praised, even by those who don’t accept the Christian interpretation of His life and death. Thus demonstrated, the hypocrisy of the elite who currently think they run things in today’s world is revealed. Every good thing they have at their disposal is directly or indirectly dependent on the universal effect that the life (and death, and resurrection) of Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ, has had on the human world, and yet they cannot even acknowledge His birth day, as they run to do for lesser men.

Ironically, it is by their denial of Him in even such small details, that they acknowledge Who He is. They prove His words to be true.

They hated me for no reason.
John 15:24, Psalm 35:19 quoted by Jesus as referring to Himself

What John the Evangelist wrote in the prologue of his gospel, an overview of the situation that would prevail till the end of time, is also proven right.

The Word [that is, Christ, who is the Word of God]
was the true Light that enlightens all men;
and He was coming into the world.
He was in the world
that had its being through Him,
and the world did not know Him.
John 1:9-10

If Jesus Christ was an ordinary human being, even one of great accomplishments, He would be commemorated by Google and hundreds of other wanna-be’s and hangers-on to the world system. But Jesus is the one thing, the one person that the world just can’t stand. Why is this? Because He is the Light of the world, and that Light enlightens all men (is apparent in their reasoning minds) and reveals their darkness, and they can’t bear to be reminded of it. They don’t want to see it, because then, they would have to turn away from that darkness, from those thoughts, words and deeds of darkness, and turn towards Him, the Light. They’re afraid to become what they are not, what they know not, to lose control and let their Creator make right what they have spoiled in themselves. They’d rather live penned up in a stinking sty, than be released through the open gate of repentance, to join the flock of His pasture.But to all who did accept Him
He gave power to become the children of God,
to all who believe in the name of Him
who was born not out of human stock,
or urge of the flesh,
or will of man,
but of God Himself.
John 1:12-13

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas at a Gas Station

This story may have already gone the rounds, but it's new to me.
It's probably just a modern American folk tale, but it speaks truth nonetheless. It came to me from my dear friend Presbytera Candace in Anchorage, Alaska, to whom it was sent by her cousin,
Fr Demetrios Carellas. It's a little long, but a worthy read.
Merry Christmas to all.

The old man sat in his gas station on a cold Christmas Eve. He hadn't been anywhere in years since his wife had passed away. It was just another day to him. He didn't hate Christmas, just couldn't find a reason to celebrate.

He was sitting there looking at the snow that had been falling for the last hour, and wondering what it was all about, when the door opened and a homeless man stepped through. Instead of throwing the man out, Old George - as he was known by his customers - told the man to come and sit by the heater and warm up. "Thank you, but I don't mean to intrude," said the stranger. "I see you're busy, I'll just go."

"Not without something hot in your belly." George said. He turned and opened a wide mouth Thermos and handed it to the stranger. "It ain't much, but it's hot and tasty. Stew... Made it myself. When you're done, there's coffee and it's fresh." Just at that moment, he heard the "ding" of the driveway bell.

"Excuse me, be right back," George said. There in the driveway was an old '53 Chevy. Steam was rolling out of the front. The driver was panicked. "Mister can you help me!" said the driver, with a deep Spanish accent. "My wife is with child and my car is broken." George opened the hood. It was bad. The block looked cracked from the cold, the car was dead. "You ain't going in this thing," George said as he turned away. "But Mister, please help..."

The door of the office closed behind George, as he went inside. He went to the office wall and got the keys to his old truck, and went back outside. He walked around the building, opened the garage, started the truck and drove it around to where the couple was waiting. "Here, take my truck," he said. "She ain't the best thing you ever looked at, but she runs real good." George helped put the woman in the truck and watched as it sped off into the night.

He turned and walked back inside the office. "Glad I gave 'em the truck, their tires were shot too. That 'ol truck has brand new ones." George thought he was talking to the stranger, but the man had gone. The Thermos was on the desk, empty, with a used coffee cup beside it. "Well, at least he got something in his belly," George thought.

George went back outside to see if the old Chevy would start. It cranked slowly, but it started. He pulled it into the garage where the truck had been. He thought he would tinker with it for something to do. Christmas Eve meant no customers. He discovered that the block hadn't cracked, it was just the bottom hose on the radiator. "Well, shoot, I can fix this," he said to himself. So he put a new one on. "Those tires ain't gonna get 'em through the winter either." He took the snow treads off of his wife's old Lincoln. They were like new, and he wasn't going to drive the car anyway.

As he was working, he heard shots being fired. He ran outside, and - beside a police car - an officer lay on the cold ground. Bleeding from the left shoulder, the officer moaned, "Please help me." George helped the officer inside, as he remembered the training he had received in the Army as a medic. He knew the wound needed attention.

"Pressure to stop the bleeding," he thought. The uniform company had been there that morning and had left clean shop towels. He used those and duct tape to bind the wound. "Hey, they say duct tape can fix anythin'," he said, trying to make the policeman feel at ease.

"Something for pain," George thought. All he had was the pills he used for his back. "These ought to work." He put some water in a cup and gave the policeman the pills. "You hang in there, I'm going to get you an ambulance." The phone was dead. "Maybe I can get one of your buddies on that there talk box out in your car." He went out only to find that a bullet had gone into the dashboard --- destroying the two way radio.

He went back in to find the policeman sitting up. "Thanks," said the officer. "You could have left me there. The guy that shot me is still in the area." George sat down beside him, "I would never leave an injured man in the Army and I ain't gonna leave you." George pulled back the bandage to check for bleeding. "Looks worse than what it is. Bullet passed right through 'ya. Good thing it missed the important stuff though. I think with time your gonna be right as rain."

George got up and poured a cup of coffee. "How do you take it?" he asked. "None for me," said the officer. "Oh, yer gonna drink this. Best in the city. Too bad I ain't got no donuts." The officer laughed and winced at the same time.

The front door of the office flew open. In burst a young man with a gun.

"Give me all your cash! Do it now!" the young man yelled. His hand was shaking and George could tell that he had never done anything like this before. "That's the guy that shot me!" exclaimed the officer. "Son, why are you doing this?" asked George, "You need to put the cannon away. Somebody else might get hurt."

The young man was confused. "Shut up old man, or I'll shoot you, too. Now give me the cash!" The cop was reaching for his gun. "Put that thing away," George said to the cop, "we got one too many in here now." He turned his attention to the young man. "Son, it's Christmas Eve. If you need money, well then, here. It ain't much but it's all I got. Now put that pea shooter away."

George pulled $150 out of his pocket and handed it to the young man, reaching for the barrel of the gun at the same time. The young man released his grip on the gun, fell to his knees and began to cry. "I'm not very good at this am I? All I wanted was to buy something for my wife and son," he went on... "I've lost my job, my rent is due, my car got repossessed last week." George handed the gun to the cop. "Son, we all get in a bit of squeeze now and then. The road gets hard sometimes, but we make it through the best we can."

He got the young man to his feet, and sat him down on a chair across from the cop. "Sometimes we do stupid things." George handed the young man a cup of coffee. "Bein' stupid is one of the things that makes us human. Comin' in here with a gun ain't the answer. Now sit there and get warm and we'll sort this thing out." The young man had stopped crying. He looked over to the cop. "Sorry I shot you. It just went off. I'm sorry officer." "Shut up and drink your coffee," the cop said.

George could hear the sounds of sirens outside. A police car and an ambulance skidded to a halt. Two cops came through the door, guns drawn. "Chuck! You ok?" one of the cops asked the wounded officer. "Not bad for a guy who took a bullet. How did you find me?" "GPS locator in the car. Best thing since sliced bread. Who did this?" the other cop asked as he approached the young man. Chuck answered him, "I don't know. The guy ran off into the dark. Just dropped his gun and ran."

George and the young man both looked puzzled at each other. "That guy work here?" the wounded cop continued. "Yep," George said, "just hired him this morning. Boy lost his job." The paramedics came in and loaded Chuck onto the stretcher. The young man leaned over the wounded cop and whispered, "Why?" Chuck just said, "Merry Christmas boy... and you too, George, and thanks for everything."

"Well, looks like you got one doozy of a break there. That ought to solve some of your problems," George said.

George went into the back room and came out with a box. He pulled out a ring box. "Here you go, something for the little woman. I don't think Martha would mind. She said it would come in handy some day." The young man looked inside to see the biggest diamond ring he ever saw. "I can't take this," said the young man. "It means something to you." "And now it means something to you," replied George. "I got my memories. That's all I need."

George reached into the box again. An airplane, a car and a truck appeared next. They were toys that the oil company had left for him to sell. "Here's something for that little man of yours." The young man began to cry again, as he handed back the $150 that the old man had handed him earlier. "And what are you supposed to buy Christmas dinner with? You keep that too," George said. "Now git home to your family."

The young man turned with tears streaming down his face. "I'll be here in the morning for work, if that job offer is still good." "Nope. I'm closed Christmas day," George said. "See ya the day after."

George turned around to find that the stranger had returned. "Where'd you come from? I thought you left?"

"I have been here. I have always been here," said the stranger. "You say you don't celebrate Christmas. Why?"

"Well, after my wife passed away, I just couldn't see what all the bother was. Puttin' up a tree and all seemed a waste of a good pine tree. Bakin' cookies like I used to with Martha just wasn't the same by myself. And besides I was gettin' a little chubby."

The stranger put his hand on George's shoulder. "But you do celebrate the holiday, George. You gave me food and drink and warmed me when I was cold and hungry. The woman with child will bear a son and he will become a great doctor. The policeman you helped will go on to save 19 people from being killed by terrorists. The young man who tried to rob you will make you a rich man and not take any for himself. That is the spirit of the season and you keep it as good as any man."

George was taken aback by all this stranger had said... "And how do you know all this?" asked the old man. "Trust me, George. I have the inside track on this sort of thing. And when your days are done, you will be with Martha again." The stranger moved toward the door. "If you will excuse me, George, I have to go now. I have to go home where there is a big celebration planned."

George watched as the old leather jacket and the torn pants that the stranger was wearing turned into a white robe. A golden light began to fill the room. "You see, George... it's My birthday. Merry Christmas."

George fell to his knees and replied, "Happy Birthday, Lord Jesus!"

Never divided

About half-way through my life as an Orthodox Christian, I remember going to a retreat at my local church where I heard an Orthodox priest say something like, "The Church divided? The Church has never been divided. If you think that the Church has been, or could ever be, divided, you have a problem." Sorry to say, I can't remember who I heard say this. It could have been a visiting presbyter, or it could have been one of our local priests, maybe even my catechist, Fr Michael Courey, who said this. All I remember is the saying, and my reaction when I heard him say it, one of immense relief. In the book, Against False Union, by Dr Alexander Kalomiros, we read the following,

The commotion about union of the churches makes evident the ignorance existing as much among the circles of the simple faithful as among the theologians as to what the Church is.
They understand the catholicity of the Church as a legal cohesion, as an interdependence regulated by some code. For them the Church is an organization with laws and regulations like the organizations of nations. Bishops, like civil servants, are distinguished as superiors and subordinates: patriarchs, archbishops, metropolitans, bishops. For them, one diocese is not something complete, but a piece of a larger whole…

Such a concept of the Church leads directly to the Papacy. If the catholicity of the Church has this kind of meaning, then Orthodoxy is worthy of tears, because up to now she has not been able to discipline herself under a Pope. But this is not the truth of the matter.

The catholic Church which we confess in the Symbol (Creed) of our Faith is not called catholic because it includes all the Christians of the earth, but because within her everyone of the faithful finds all the grace and gift of God. The meaning of catholicity has nothing to do with a universal organization the way the Papists and those who are influenced by the Papist mentality understand it.

Of course, the Church is intended for and extended to the whole world independent of lands, nations, races, and tongues; and it is not an error for one to name her catholic because of this also. But just as humanity becomes an abstract idea, there is a danger of the same thing happening to the Church when we see her as an abstract, universal idea. In order for one to understand humanity well, it is enough for him to know only one man, since the nature of that man is common to all men of the world.

Similarly, in order to understand what the catholic Church of Christ is, it suffices to know well only one local church. And as among men, it is not submission to a hierarchy which unites them but their common nature, so the local churches are not united by the Pope and the Papal hierarchy but by their common nature.

A local Orthodox church regardless of her size or the number of the faithful is by herself alone, independently of all the others, catholic. And this is so because she lacks nothing of the grace and gift of God. All the local churches of the whole world together do not contain anything more in divine grace than that small church with few members.

She has her presbyters and bishop; she has the Holy Mysteries; she has the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Within her any worthy soul can taste of the Holy Spirit’s presence. She has all the grace and truth. What is she lacking therefore in order to be catholic? She is the one flock, and the bishop is her shepherd, the image of Christ, the one Shepherd. She is the prefiguring on earth of the one flock with the one Shepherd, of the new Jerusalem. Within her, even in this life, pure hearts taste of the Kingdom of God, the betrothal of the Holy Spirit. Within her they find peace which “passeth all understanding,” the peace which has no relation with the peace of men: “My peace I give unto you.”

One local church is united with all the other local Orthodox churches of the world by the bond of identity. Just as one is the Church of God, the other is the Church of God also, as well as all the others. They are not divided by boundaries of nations nor the political goals of the countries in which they live. They are not even divided by the fact that one might be ignorant of the other’s existence. It is the same Body of Christ which is partaken of by the Greeks, the Negroes of Uganda, the Eskimos of Alaska, and the Russians of Siberia. The same Blood of Christ circulates in their veins. The Holy Spirit enlightens their minds and leads them to the knowledge of the same truth.

There exist, of course, relations of interdependence between the local churches, and there are canons which govern them. This interdependence, though, is not a relation of legal necessity, but a bond of respect and love in complete freedom, the freedom of grace. And the canons are not laws of a code, but wise guides of centuries of experience.

The Church has no need of external bonds in order to be one. It is not a pope, or a patriarch, or an archbishop which unites the Church. The local church is something complete; it is not a piece of a larger whole…

Just for the record, this is the Orthodoxy that I confess as a free follower of Jesus Christ, who is born today. This is the Church that I belong to, the Body of Christ, the Bride of the Bridegroom, who is born today.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What shall we offer Him?

Every year I am deeply moved by the hymns of Christ’s Nativity composed by my name day saint, Romanós the Melodist. Somehow in their simplicity of lyric and melody they capture a side of Christmas that escapes the notice of our culture. In the Western world, the famous short hymn Silent Night has a similar effect of reducing everyone who hears it to the level of the simple awe of the shepherds of Bethlehem. Yet, Today the Virgin, maybe because of its poetry and the details so carefully woven together with tender irony, surpasses all other hymns in conveying both what it was like in time, and what it is like in eternity—the Word became man and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.

Η Παρθένος σήμερον, τον προαιώνιον Λόγον,
εν σπηλαίω έρχεται, αποτεκείν απορρήτως.
Χόρευε, η οικουμένη ακουτισθείσα,
δόξασον, μετά Αγγέλων και των ποιμένων,
βουληθέντα εποφθήναι, Παιδίον νέον,
τον προ αιώνων Θεόν.

Today the Virgin comes to the cave
to ineffably give birth to the Word before all worlds.
Dance, O universe, upon hearing this,
and with the angels and the shepherds glorify Him
who freely willed to become a new Child,
the God before all ages.

Η παρθένος σήμερον, τον υπερούσιον τίκτει
και η γη το σπήλαιον τω απροσίτω προσάγει,
Άγγελοι μετά ποιμένων δοξολογούσι
Μάγοι δε μετά αστέρων οδοιπορούσι,

δι’ ημάς γαρ εγεννήθη Παιδίον νέον
ο προ αιώνων Θεός.

Today, the Virgin bears the One beyond being,
and the earth offers the cave
to the Unapproachable.

Angels with shepherds glorify Him.
Magi migrate to Him by a star.
For unto us is born a new Child,
the God before all ages.

(Sigh!) The English translations, no matter which ones you look at, don’t really convey the sense of the original, though they come close. Especially the “Dance, O universe” which translates, Χόρευε, η οικουμένη, Chóreve i ikouméni. That’s what it means!

I’ve been thinking about these hymns, and also this prayer which follows, for the last few days…

What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?
Every creature made by You offers You thanks:
the Angels offer a hymn; the heavens, a star;
the Wise Men, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder;
the earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger,
and we offer You a virgin Mother!
O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

And I’ve been thinking about the ikons, as I wrote in my previous post. We know that we’re the living ikons of the Lord Jesus Christ, made in His image, broken by sin but restored by His saving grace. We know that He says things to us like, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me,” and “Whatsoever you do to the least of My brethren, that you do unto Me.” So, the meaning of ikons is far more than just the religious pictures you see in an Orthodox home or church. Abba Anthony (one of the Desert Fathers) says, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”

We know that the Bible is the greatest ikon of all, in that it is the verbal ikon of the Word of God, and that it should be treated with all reverence—venerated, honored, read and obeyed as the Source of everything we can possibly know about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and about His ikonomía, His “plan of salvation,” as the only divine scripture on earth. Just as we don’t casually throw it around, or use it as a place mat or door stop, but rather always give it the place of honor, kissing it and holding it respectfully and lovingly, for His sake Whose Gospel it contains, so we also treat our fellow man. We don’t treat him casually, or as a means to an end, but respect him as one to whom Christ comes, for whom Christ died, and through whom Christ comes to us.

Back to the prayer quoted above, “What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?”

Since Christ is now among us, in us as His living ikons, how can we offer, not only what shall we offer, to Him?

This question posed itself to me, as I was thinking of Christmas gifts. The hymns and prayers of Christmas describe various beings (not just humans, but beings) offering gifts to Christ at His becoming a “new Child.” Hypersomatic beings (angels) offered “hymns.” Outer space (the heavens) offered “a star,” (quite possibly a supernova). The educated (wise men) offered “gifts,” (we know what they were—gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The working class (shepherds) offered “wonder”—what else did they have? The planet earth offered a cave (and as at the beginning, so at the end, in a rich man’s unused tomb). The wilderness offered a manger (so that the animals, too, could get a good look at their Creator). And finally, the human race, in the shape of her own willingness to risk everything she had ever known and every happiness she ever hoped for, a young virgin as His Mother.

Where does that leave us, who have come two thousand years too late?

No, it’s never too late. We can give to each other everything that we would give to Christ personally. He is here with us, after all! Yes, it’s presents at Christmas. The more of ourselves, the better. It’s a smile and a hug in loneliness, a kind word in sorrow. It’s a helping hand to one who needs it, to one who needs what you have but don’t need. “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry” (Luke 3:11 NIV). This is another facet of the theology of ikons. This is why ikons have come into existence—because the invisible, incomprehensible, eternal God has freely willed to become… one of us.

Do we sit out on a country hillside at night, enjoying the canopy of stars, looking for and trying to commune with the God of all? Wait! Perhaps He is there, sitting beside us, looking up at the stars too, that He created, because they are beautiful, and waiting…
for us to notice Him.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Ikons don't lie

That’s a curious notion. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it said that way before, but it’s a statement of a truth that Orthodox Christians take for granted. “Ikons don’t lie,” means something like this: You can depend on an ikon to faithfully represent what is written in the Holy Scriptures, or what we know from the life of the Church in history. Anyone pictured in an ikon has to have existed, not exactly as they are depicted (though often the image is nearer their real appearance than many think). Any thing and any event shown in an ikon has to have existed or taken place. Modern historical critics notwithstanding, we believe what the ikons show us; we accept them as “Gospel truth.”

A limited number of figures in an ikon are known representations of invisibilities. Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers,” and other “bodiless powers” (cf. Colossian 1:16 JB), or of intangible yet real entities, “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:9 NIV). The former are depicted as winged men, winged wheels, flames of fire, and the like; the latter is often shown as a dragon (a mythological monster) or as a dark-hued human. We understand what’s going on. We’re not taken in, we know the reality is there but can’t be shown directly, so we accept what’s been handed over to us.

When a person really understands this, that ikons don’t lie, he can begin to explore the writer’s mind and share in his spiritual vision. (The painter of an ikon is called its writer.) Many people are drawn to Orthodoxy at first because of the ikons, attracted to them by the experience of the holiness of beauty. Hopefully they won’t stop there but, following the path indicated by the ikons, soon come to the beauty of holiness. Ikons are there partly to assist in dividing the wheat from the chaff in us, and among us. This is an invisible winnowing, outside the ken of most of mankind, but it has effects.

Why are ikons so important to the Orthodox?
Why are they considered indispensable?

It’s supposed to have something to do with the Incarnation.

If the invisible, eternal God never came among us, He could not have been depicted—hence, the iconoclasm (ikon-breaking) of the Jews who believe in the pre-incarnate God and cannot conceive of Him any other way. If the Eternal had not come and “pitched His tent” among us, we would indeed be transgressors in depicting Him. As such, in Orthodox ikons, the Father is never depicted, “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father” (John 6:46 NASB); nor is the Holy Spirit, “The Spirit breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth” (John 3:8 Douay-Rheims). Only the image of a dove, the sign not the appearance of the Holy Spirit, or flames of fire, again a sign of His presence, yet not His face, are shown in the ikons.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
John 14:8-9 NIV

Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God before all ages (cf. John 1:1), tells us that to see Him is to see the Father. The holy apostles continue in His teaching, writing “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NIV). All these testimonies are foundational to the Orthodox Christian understanding of ikons. Jesus Christ is the ikon of the Father. We are ikons of Jesus Christ. Whoever honors Jesus Christ, whoever honors the Word of God, honors the Father. Whoever honors human beings, who are ikons of Jesus Christ, honors the Lord. This is the less talked about meaning of ikons.

Why is it less talked about?

Maybe, because it has practical significance. Maybe, because people would rather not admit it.

Why are ikons on my mind today?
It’s because I’m thinking about the theology of giving gifts, yes, the theology of giving each other gifts at Christmas. People say that this is just a Christian version of the gift giving at certain holiday times practiced by almost every culture since time began. I’m not so sure…

Is this the face of true Orthodoxy?

Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev of Moscow and all the Russias (1946- ), the actual First-Amongst-Equals in the Orthodox world. Over half of the entire oikumene lies under his omofor. Here, he is meeting with officers of the RVSN, the Military Strategic Rocket Directorate.

The Patriarch of New Rome was First-Amongst-Equals only because Constantinople was the place where the Christian Emperor resided. Today, the role of the Christian Emperor is not vacant, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin fills that role. Ask the fathers at the Great Lavra on the Mountain! They came out enthusiastically when he visited the Mountain a few years ago. Who’s the actual First-Amongst-Equals? It’s Kirill Mikhailovich Gundyaev, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. Kirill is a robust and intelligent 300-pound (all muscle) Varengoi warrior wielding a sharpened war-axe; Bart is a skinny 90-pound weakling with water on the brain armed with a flit-gun.

The above photograph and text (all of it) has been copied without any changes from the blog of an American member of the Russian Orthodox Church who has a penchant for belittling converts, the Orthodox Church of America, the Greek patriarch of Constantinople, and anyone else that she doesn't care for. This is not the kind of thing we expect during the season leading up to the feast of the Lord's Nativity, but alas, this is what we have, barbaric yawp instead of brotherly love and the greeting of Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Will this world never cease infiltrating the Church and trying to tempt it to follow the road that Christ refused when satan kept offering it to Him for forty days in the wilderness?

Let's pray and hope that the new liberty of the Russian Church in its homeland does not tempt it to fall for what satan perpetually offers—ועתה אם תשתחוה לפני הכל יהיה לך׃—“If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine” (Luke 4:7 KJV).

Why He became man

Like many others, I have not had very much time to blog my thoughts or adventures this month. Christmas is coming. That means a heavier work load at the office that saps the energy normally left over for “free time” activities, and even that “free time” is reduced to near zero because of “seasonal” activities like shopping for and wrapping presents. Perhaps after the Day comes (and for most of the world, goes), I will have time to return to blogging, but not as an end in itself. Meanwhile…

Through a contact in FaceBook, I came upon this excellent article in The New York Times online, Opinions column, by Ross Douthat, which is extremely well-written and reminds me of the logic and style of C. S. Lewis, like what Lewis would write about the subject if he were still alive today. The title of my post reflects what I think is the main point of the article, which is itself entitled…

Heaven and Nature

It’s fitting that James Cameron’s “Avatar” arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James.

But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing.

If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.”
And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”

Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.

As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,’ and a piping-hot apocalypse.

At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.

Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.

But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Korean Greek Orthodoxy

I was very surprised and happy to receive a collection of photographs of Saint Nicholas Korean Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Seoul from my dear friend and brother Heo Seung Pil, known to us as "Phil" (pictured left, taken at the Oregon Coast). How Brock and I met Phil on a flight to Japan and started our friendship is told in the post Passover Flight. Phil's original email was missing his message, but he just resent it, and I want to share what he says...

As promised, I called the Korean Orthodox church and learned that there is a service at 10:00 A.M. every Sunday. So, I visited today and participated in the service, which ran almost two hours. The service was very spiritual and was nothing like any church services I had ever been to. I was awed by the holy mood there and could sense most of the believers were not like other usual Christians. Anyhow, after the service I asked for permission to take some photos of the inside of the church. I hope both of you like the photos. This church was not big, but I like the genuineness, which was something I always find it difficult to grasp in most of the churches I had been to. Some day, if both of you come to Seoul again I will take you there. I prayed for both of you during the service as you would do for me.

It's wonderful to see how the Korean people have taken to Orthodoxy and how they are developing it in their culture. The ikons have inscriptions in Hangul as well as Greek, which is what one would expect, but otherwise one feels that the sanctuary could be in Greece or on Mount Athos itself. It is a very beautiful cathedral.

Click on the images to zoom them. The detail is great!