Friday, September 30, 2011

What price, salvation?

There is a strange disconnect between what people say they want and what they really want, and yet they claim to be honest in their convictions. They declare their intentions and then go about laying down plans that cannot possibly bring them to their destination. What is wrong with us? Why do we try so hard to live up to our built-in law of failure?

We all know what the Church is, at least we ought to know, if we read our bibles, if we pray, and if we try to follow Christ in everyday life.

When we are honest with ourselves, how much of what we experience in the church ‘we go to’ is like what we know the Church is?

True, that may be an unfair question, but only in minor respects. We are used to massive failure in human society at large, and in human relationships up close. We have learned to adapt, ‘to roll with the punches,’ to be forgiving and indulgent, to accept the fact that ‘nobody’s perfect.’

We’ve taught ourselves not to expect the best, even when our faith in Christ keeps telling us to expect, not just the best, but ‘the resurrection of the dead,’ as we used to say in the Symbol of Nicaea before they ‘retranslated’ it to conform with modern churchly ‘norms’—it is now, ‘I look for,’ instead of, ‘I expect.’

Hey! I don’t look for the resurrection of the dead, I expect it! And it’s not my human pride, my ego or my flesh telling me to expect this: it’s the Spirit of the living God, living in me, who teaches me to expect it, and not merely look for it.

What do we find in church, then? They say that the Church is a hospital, that it is a place where the sick go to be healed. A nice metaphor, coming from the Orthodox East where sin is considered not so much a crime to be punished as it is a sickness to be cured. This is not an unhealthy attitude. It gives hope and relieves us somewhat of our natural instinct to blame and guilt-trip ourselves.

So we’re sick, that’s all it is!
Well, that means we can slow down, take it easy, follow instructions, take our medicines, and presently we will be well again. Not only that, we have this beautiful hospital, with beautiful procedures, we are simply surrounded by beauty, and we’ve been told, ‘Beauty will save the world,’ so we can be comfortable and content, as we wait to be made whole. This is the view from the patient’s bed.

We are told to be patient and follow instructions, and everything will right itself, almost magically, and we will be well again. But how long have we been lying there? Do we even know what being healthy feels like? And most importantly, do we really want to be made well?

A church says that they follow Christ, that He alone is Holy, that He alone is Lord. They say that they have seen the Light, that they have found the true faith, and that the Trinity has saved them. That’s great! But what of the others, those who can’t say these things? Those who don’t even know these things are possible? Who is supposed to tell them? Who to show them? We already know the answer to that—‘Here I am, send me!’ (Isaiah 6:8)

We go to church, and we hear the priest or deacon say—if they are good preachers—that we are the Church, not just the priests, and that ‘the great commission’ to ‘make disciples of all nations’ is our responsibility, not just theirs.

Fine rhetoric, this exhortation, very evangelical, but nothing more than fine rhetoric if it is not backed up by actions.

What happens if some of us take this responsibility to heart, and go forth two by two into the world to fulfill it? Are we supported by these same preachers? What preparations are they willing to take on behalf of our ‘mission’ and our ‘ministry’? Do they even know what preparations to take? Can it be, that all we have to offer the outside world looking in on us, is a once or twice yearly lecture series on such things as the history of the Church or its teachings ‘in our tradition, we…’, an invitation to come and ‘help us to get ready for the next festival,’ and of course, ‘just come and worship with us’?

I used to think the last one—just come and worship with us—was the best, and that it was enough, but honestly, it isn’t. We are not medieval Eastern Europe, where illiterate, barbaric people can come and be ‘awed by the beauty’ of our liturgical services. For them, perhaps, this wall of beauty was a real window into the Eternal, because they had little other possibility of access. For us today, it really can become just a wall.

Why? Because we have advantages, yet we don't make use of them. We can read. Bibles can be picked up in any language or dialect. Among us are experienced and knowledgeable ‘lay’ people, as well as clergy. If we rely on just the services to somehow magically inform and transform people, we are not giving them their true value, and we are lying to ourselves.

Christ came to make an end of magic, as holy father Ignatios of Antioch wrote to the church at Ephesos, “…every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death” (Ignatios to the Ephesians, ch 19).

If this was true and well-understood in the time of the early fathers, before the onslaught of the ‘dark ages’ submerged the Hellenic and Christian spirit, and continuing from the gospels and the apostles, how much more true today, when we have finally overcome those ‘dark ages’?

Where does this leave the churches?
Back to the statement made at the outset, there is a strange disconnect between what people say they want and what they really want, and yet they claim to be honest in their convictions.

What does the Church exist for?
Whom does it exist for?

They say it is a hospital for the sick, and that Christ is the Physician. Well and good.
Have they removed all obstacles to that purpose?
Have they laid out plans that facilitate it?
Have they got the priorities right?
Are the sick able to meet the Physician?
Are the instructions and medicines they are being administered working?
Are people being made well?

Or are secondary needs taking priority?
Are people being allowed to develop addictions to the medicines, dependence on the clinical staff, and diverted from getting to know their Physician personally?
Are the patients being administered cosmetic solutions to their real ailments, making them ‘look good’ to themselves and each other, while their critical illnesses remain untreated, because there’s no time for that, and no need?
Is a kind of spiritual homeopathy being applied, smaller and smaller doses of the same poison that created the symptoms, until these very ‘medicines’ have become nothing more than placebos, and health and recovery are redefined as ‘what the doctor tells you’ is healthy—not the Physician, but those who say they represent Him?

We are told that salvation comes through Christ. It doesn’t matter what church or denomination is speaking, the Message is the same, because we all use the same Book. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15), and “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Isn’t this what the whole mission of the Church is about, salvation through Jesus Christ? And isn’t this mission accomplished by following the simple command, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? (Matthew 28:19).

Go, make disciples, baptize.
Can it be acceptable that churches do anything above and beyond these three things? Can it even be possible? Can we really think that we can add to the mission that Christ has already given us? Can we set priorities of our own that supersede what the Word Himself commands?
Go, make disciples, baptize.

A church says that we want the salvation of all, that we are offering the fallen world around us the gift of eternal life, vouchsafed to everyone who comes to Jesus and believes in Him.

Well, why aren’t they coming? Is that really how the Message entrusted to us works? Does the church go, do we make disciples, do we baptize, in that order? What have we put ahead of what we say we want? How can we have failed to realise that if we really want something, we remove all obstacles, and pursue it relentlessly?

We understand priorities in lesser things. How have we failed to apply the same principle to what we say is most important to us?
If we have to, what are we willing to give up to accomplish our mission? Have we really considered the question?
For there is really only one:

What price, salvation?

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I am a historian, but wearing that hat I often jokingly say of myself, ‘I’m not just history,’ meaning of course that I too have a life in the present. Along with my friend Onesimus, I have to ask, ‘Is there really a past?’ not in an absolute sense, for of course there is, but in any frame of reference that can be both meaningful to us and true at the same time. What he writes here says it better than I could say, or rather, ask…

Is there a 'past' that can be accessed and made intelligible on its own terms, rather than just in the service of the need of the day? Or have we so wound the figures and ideas and deeds of long ago women and men in the layers of polemic that they no longer resemble who they were or what they said or how they lived? History, especially religious history, thus becomes a minefield, littered with the improvised explosive devices of later generations. Layered with conflicts that the originals knew nothing about nor had they any intention in which to engage. But now the whole edifice of official history cracks with tension, bearing weights of dogma the architect never conceived, whole systems of belief that threaten to collapse should one brick of historical 'fact' be questioned. Christian blood was shed defending these bulging walls, wars were fought between self-proclaimed Christian armies either to conserve or annihilate the status quo. All in the name of Christ, of course.

So is it possible to pull back the conflicting dogmas and engage with what long ago people actually did and said?

In Sergei Fudel's humble but startlingly clear work, Light in the Darkness, he describes the Russian Christian intelligentsia of the 1920's, an eccentric as well as eclectic group. One of its members—I can't remember his name—was a historian who was writing a book on the History of the Church, but not a history as we're used to seeing, but a spiritual history, that is, a history of the movements of the human spirit that underlay the visible acts and events of the Church. I wish he had finished that book, and I'd want to get a copy of it if he had, but I don't have a clue where to look for it. The idea, though, intrigues me every time I reread Light in the Darkness and come upon mention of it.

I think that my participation in and understanding of the Church is very much rooted in this way of looking at history, not the visibles but the invisibles. That vision seems even clearer and more compelling than what we normally see and experience. What Onesimus is asking in his final question seems at least a tangent to this vision.

Is it possible to engage with what long ago people actually did and said? In an unexpected and surprising way, I think it is. We just have to know where to look.

What it's all about

Christianity is not all about doctrine. Christianity is all about grace. It is all about mercy and love. This is not, however, what one would think, looking at the Church. But the Church is Christianity, and Christianity is the Church. We must look deeper than the externals of history, and more finely at what the Church is, really is, in day to day life. Even there, we may find masquerades going on, but also the true.

Orthodoxy is true not because of the heroic stand against papal claims by such saints as Photios or Mark of Ephesos. Orthodoxy is true because it sings, and because it sings even in the face of sin. It is true because such saints as Elder Porphyrios can love and bless prostitutes. It is true because of such confidence in the victory and mercy of Christ that it can be gracious to sinners, because Christ is.

Doctrine and dogma are the results of a qualitative analysis of the life of the Church, that is, what the Church actually does. They are formed and accepted spontaneously and organically. When they are formulated in lecture halls or in convocations they often reflect nothing real, are merely ideologies, which the evil one uses to divide the undivided Body of Christ. Anything that resists the love and work of Christ is not Christianity, no matter what it is called.

What is the love and work of Christ? It is what we see Jesus doing in the gospels. It is what we see the Holy Spirit doing in the acts and epistles. It is what we see the saints doing who have abandoned all to follow the Lord. It is what we participate in when we follow them. It is mercy applied to the undeserving. It is love lavished on the unlovable. It is refusal of the claims of the unreal. It is forgiveness of offenses. It is justification of the sinner.

Study the scriptures. Turn to them and learn. They mean what they say and will give you language to say what you mean. They uncover the truth about you, but then cover you with the truth about Christ. They baptise and chrismate you into the life of the new creation. They offer you the water that once drunk will quench your thirst for ever. They feed you with the bread of heaven that once eaten preserves you to life eternal. They are mercy, grace and love.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Just keep loving

Right now, some of us followers of Jesus are going through the worst persecutions and attacks on our persons and our families (parents, spouses, and offspring) that we have ever endured, or that we thought we ever would have to endure. We mustn’t forget that we are in spiritual warfare, and it can be very intense. When in the thick of the battle (even when it's only inside ourselves), we sometimes want to take sides against other brethren that seem to be in the wrong, even against someone who appears to be attacking us.

But it's really like this. It is satan (notice we do not capitalise the name, it's just a thing, not a real person, it lost that privilege when it reviled the Lord), yes, it is satan that is hiding behind a parent or brother or sister or son or daughter or friend, or even one's own flesh, hiding behind someone or behind oneself, shooting arrows at us. We think it's the person that seems to be fighting us, but no, it's satan, using them as a shield to hide behind, hoping we'll shoot back—at them, of course.

If we are satisfied to get on the crooked and wide path, satan will not bother us, and our families can appear model Christians. If some of us get on the straight and narrow and some of us don't, it starts making trouble for us, pitting us against each other. But when we're all trying to follow the call, satan uses everything in its infernal arsenal to divide us from each other. (In Greek "diabolos", devil, means "splitter.")

The fatal thing is to withdraw into oneself and say, "There, there, I will just cling to the Lord, since He will always be with me. I don't care if the others hate me for no reason…" Whatever happens, don't do this! Remember, "Love endures all things…"

Whatever happens, just keep loving, that is, don't give up caring (even if the others do), don't try to understand what's happening if it's too hard, just love the people you're with, help them in simple ways, smile, say "good morning," don't take offense at anything, and try not to give offense.

Stay clear of getting pulled into battles that can do nothing but destroy everyone involved. If a fight is going on, love the combatants, speak to and touch them if you can, but if that isn't an option, retreat to the presence of the Father, and just pray, even without words if you have to, even if crying is all you can do. God the Father understands tears.

I hope your situation isn't as bad as that, but in case it is, that's what I have to offer. I speak out of my own life with the Lord. We must stick together, and help one another in the Lord, as soldiers in the front line, even when the battle is shamefully inglorious from man's point of view.

From the angels' point of view, there's more at stake in our daily struggles than we know. And thank God for that! Meanwhile, as they say, let's pray hard, for the time is close.

Interpretations of love

There are so many interpretations of love among people.
One interpretation says…

We must love people, that is, want what is best for them,
have a good will toward them,
but we don't necessarily have to want to be with them,
or put up with them.

This is where many a marriage ends up, and many a congregation.
This is the love that can be commanded
and, once we've hedged the commandment with escape clauses,
we're free to follow this "commandment."

Though there are many kinds of love among us,
the Word of God is the only teacher of what love is.
How we apply it depends on how much we want to see.

For me, just to look, really look, at another human being,
or even at a fellow creature,
without thinking, without measuring, analyzing,
just looking,
for me love comes to the surface quickly.
I want to know the person I am looking at,
and spontaneously I want to love them.

Freedom intervenes to set the limits.
Does the other person want to be loved, or is it an intrusion?
Do I want to activate the love which naturally rises in me,
or will I let it die,
look the other way,
because I realise there will be a price to pay?

I hold myself "ready to love" others,
because Jesus may come to me in the guise of my brother.
I do not fret over whether I should or must love my neighbor
in an active way.
I just love the one who is put before me this moment.
If love requires action beyond that point,
I try to do whatever love demands.

The aftertaste of love is prayer, specifically intercession.

Mother Gavrilia says, "Love does not get tired."
I know what she means…

Once, when I was loving the brother whom God placed before us,
it didn't matter to me that I had to stay with him the whole day,
eating little, taking no rest, just making sure he was fed,
that he would stay awake (we were all up many hours that day!),
that he had somewhere to go while waiting for his bus connexion.
I just wasn't tired.
I could've stayed up all night with him, because I was loving him.

Love just doesn't get tired.

Have you ever noticed how John 3:16
(the often quoted scripture)
and 1 John 3:16
really go together,
and how the 3:16 in John's first letter is really a completion
and commentary of the 3:16 in John's gospel?

The work of sanctification

In a narrow place between two rocks there came to meet me a great Lion. The speed of him was like the ostrich, and his size was an elephant’s; his hair was like pure gold and the brightness of his eyes like gold that is liquid in the furnace…

Then I fell at his feet and thought, ‘Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him.’

But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome.’

But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’

Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man does a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?’

I said, ‘Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.’ But I said also (for the truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’

‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’

C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

The passage above from book seven of the Chronicles of Narnia
concerns Emeth, an infidel warrior who goes to his death, believing in a false god, the demon Tash. In the mythical world of Narnia, Christ wears the form of a Lion, but in most other respects His character matches that of His true form, the man Jesus Christ.

If you're not familiar with this series of books but have seen any of the recent film adaptations, they do not even come close to the story line that Lewis intended. Also, be advised that despite the warnings of a few anti-Narnia ‘Christian’ web sites, these books are not in any sense occult or witchery-laden as some other more recent series. In fact, Narnia stands in stark contrast to them. It is not a modern fantasy series, but in the best classic sense, a kind of allegory or myth.

Written for children, they never cease to interest and enlighten adult readers. They are Christian theology for children, the kind that Christ speaks of when He says, ‘to such as them the Kingdom of heaven belongs’ (Matthew 19:14).

Why did I just quote this passage? Am I going to try to prove anything by it? Not at all. I am not qualified to ask or answer the sorts of questions people sometimes debate, concerning the implications regarding ‘just who are saved’ that they read into this passage. I also don't think Lewis was jockeying into position to ask or answer such questions either.

What this passage bespeaks to me is the work of sanctification. This is not a human work but rather, the work of Christ: It is Him turning us into the kinds of creatures who not only are worthy of eternal life, but also want it. This is what comes to mind when I think about sanctification.

There is only one Christianity—biblical Orthodoxy—and all Christians owe its existence to the Church Fathers from the beginning till now.
Spiritual life goes on, undeniably, outside of the ‘visible Church.’
The work of sanctification is possible only through Christ, because only He accomplishes it.
Real sanctification is different from spiritual sophistication.
When Christ emptied the tombs He did not go only to those who knew Him or of Him, but to all.
Escape from hell and death is possible only through Christ, who is the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God.
Our narrow parameters for ‘just who are saved’ are based on a shallow interpretation of Christ's word about the ‘narrow path.’
Everyone whom He saves will finally know Him, even if while they were being saved, they may not have known by Whom.

Today I read an interesting comment on this very subject. Lorelei wrote, ‘When Jesus said “No one comes to the Father except through me,” he meant that He claims us—not that we must claim Him. Just as Aslan claimed Emeth, and not the other way around.’ This thought really contains a good dose of Calvinism, of predestination, but I am not sure that it must be taken that way.

God's plan of salvation, His divine ikonomía, as we call it in Greek, is too impossibly vast for our puny minds and meticulous methodologies to express or understand. Bits and pieces of it we learn and ingest all our lives, as we follow Jesus in faithful obedience, but we are never given to understand it completely, and as soon as we think we've got it all systematised, God acts, and our house of cards collapses again. Sounds familiar?

Back to the work of sanctification. What I wanted to say, what the story in The Last Battle speaks to me, is that wherever we find the work of sanctification going on—real sanctification, not religious hocus-pocus—there is Christ present, effecting it, since apart from Him, there can be no sanctification, as well as no salvation. The Church must look deeper than creedal preoccupations in herself and in others.

Everything we have been given on the path of sanctification and salvation is not for its own sake, but for the sake of the purposes of God the Holy Triad—what is it He wants for us? What does He intend when He creates us? Can we afford to quench the smoking flax when it is not in our own hands? If we know all is possible only through Christ, how can we welcome those whom He is sanctifying outside our gates?

Must we wait for Christ Himself to empty Hades of the souls whom we have relinquished there? What does Christ mean when He tells us, ‘If you confess Me before men, I will confess you before My Father who is in heaven’? And what does it mean to deny Him before men?
Is there only one kind of apostasy? Who has the boldness to turn away those souls whom Christ has made worthy, thinking they own His Kingdom?

Ikons or not

Fr Stephen has written an excellent testimony about ikons at his blog, Glory to God for All Things, from which this excerpt is taken…

An important aspect of icons (in the teaching of the Church) is that an icon must be true. We cannot make icons of that which is not true. I recall a conversation with an elderly iconographer. We were discussing a particular icon of the Russian New Martyrs.

“It is not an icon!” she declared. I remember at the time wondering what she meant. It clearly obeyed all the canons and conventions for an icon – those whom it portrayed were truly martyrs. She drew my attention to the portrayal of those who were pictured carrying out the martyrdoms.“There is hate in this icon!” She exclaimed. A true icon can never contain hate.

She did not mean that an icon could not portray the martyrdom itself (often a gruesome event). Rather she meant that within the portrayal of the evil-doers, the hatred and anger of the iconographer could be seen. It was, perhaps, a subtle point. But it was a point that was quite vital to this very accomplished iconographer. For veneration and hatred cannot coexist. Hatred will create a distortion which is not healing to the soul but damaging.

I have had this kind of experience and have also written about it here. What offended my faith in viewing a certain picture in ikonographic style was precisely what the elderly iconographer said, ‘There is hate in this icon!’ and that is what makes it a non-ikon. Other than this, and the fact that for Orthodox Christians, ikons must be historical, not allegorical (though the rule is sometimes broken), there is little else to prevent a two-dimensional image from being regarded an ikon.

I may prefer ikons written in the Byzantine style, but others may find realistic paintings of Christ and the saints work for them just as well. That Orthodoxy has standards which it relaxes out of love and necessity is one of the chief characteristics of this Christian faith, and the open secret as to how it has been able to remain voluntarily united for so many centuries.

Monday, September 26, 2011

In our midst

Orthodox Christianity is not so much a religion as it is healing for the soul, the Church not so much a temple as it is a hospital for sinners. This is what has been handed over to us by the Fathers, to whom it was handed over by the Apostles, to whom Christ Himself handed it over. Religion, or rather what men have embraced as religion, is a sickness, and Christ is both the healer and the cure.

At the end of every orthros service we sing from Psalm 41:4, Ιασαι τήν ψυχήν μου ότι ήμαρτόν σοι, ‘Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.’ Our approach to God is always to the Divine Nature as יְהוָה רָפָא Yahweh Repha (Exodus 15:26), ‘the LORD [our] Healer.’ Christ Himself is the physician of souls (Matthew 9:12). Even to this day, the pious among the Jews sing incessantly, ‘I want Mashíach,
I want Mashíach now!’
 (Matisyahu). They too are sick; they too know that not religion, but only Christ, Mashíach, is the cure.

Yes, but Orthodoxy is still a religion. That is how it is experienced by most of its adherents. Indeed, Christianity in general is experienced as a religion. How and why is this possible?

To begin with, every people has a religion, and all religions begin as myths, that is, stories and traditions that convey truths without themselves being the Truth, providing some relief to the human condition, but never able to cure us. Even the people to whom the Divine Nature revealed Himself, taking up their myths and fulfilling them by signs and wonders, instituting the only divinely revealed religion, even the Law given to them as an incapable covenant, even that could not heal them. ‘If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law’ (Galatians 3:21). Of course, this people is Israel, which now fills the world as Jews and as Christians.

Christianity is a religion because it is the co-heir with Judaism of that ‘only divinely revealed’ worship of ‘the Being’, in Greek ο Ων, ho Ón, in Hebrew יְהוָה, Yahweh. Into this religious heritage Jesus of Nazareth was born and raised, of this people He has been acclaimed Lord and Christ, proven by His resurrection from the dead and all that follows from it, and nothing that He did while He walked the earth as a Son of Israel ever refuted or denied this religion. Instead, everything He did fulfilled and perfected it.

Worship of the Father is no longer ceremonies alone, and it never was. The Only-Begotten Son of the Father had to come, in person, to settle once and for all every dispute among the children of Israel on this and all other points. Those who worship the Father must worship in spirit and in truth. And He is the Truth.

There is only One Israel, and yet there is the Church and the Synagogue. In the first, Christ is revealed, in the second, He is hidden. ‘Truly, God is hidden with you, the God of Israel, the Saviour’ (Isaiah 45:15). What tender and pitiful love the Messiah, the Christ of God, Jesus of Nazareth, must have for His people, to have suffered through the centuries hidden within them, as they have maintained their faithful watch over the holy things of God! How faithfully He has stood by them through their every persecution and suffering, even to the gates of She’ol, to near annihilation. He who prays, ‘Father, forgive them,’ has made good His prayer, becoming the Father’s answer, having emptied She’ol for all humanity, for all time, till the last human creature passes into the brightness of His mercy.

And what of the Church, the Bride of Christ, even His Body on earth, visible sign of His presence, home to fugitives and exiles of earth? This is the Israel of God, religion her mainstay, hemmed in by walls the world builds to protect itself from her, though she is its place of healing, and her food and drink its best medicine, no less than the Bread of heaven, and the Blood by which the whole universe was restored before it ever began. He has come and lives in her midst, who says, ‘It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’
(Mark 2:17).

Knowing Him as He is, for who He is, and why He has come, the Church has more than mere opportunity, more than promises only, but possibility. Faith is fulfilled in obedience, sickness cured in love, slavery dissolved in faithfulness, and death, finally, overcome in mercy. ‘And there will be princes dancing there. All find their home in you’ (Psalm 87:7).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

St Sergius of Radonezh

A saint is not remarkable on the surface; all his riches are internal, in his soul.

A peasant came a long way to the monastery to see St. Sergius of Radonezh. When he asked for the abbot, he was told that he was working in the garden. The peasant went off to the garden and saw a man there in poor and dirty clothing, hoeing along with the other workers. The peasant returned to the monastery dissatisfied, thinking within himself that the monks were making fun of him, and repeated, that there might be no mistake, that he wanted to see the famous holy father, Sergius.

Sergius arrived back at the monastery just then, and welcomed the peasant, serving him at table. The saint looked into the heart of his guest, and saw there the thoughts about himself. To quiet him, he told him that he would see St. Sergius if he waited a little.

Just then, a prince arrived at the monastery with his nobles. Both the prince and the nobles bowed low to Sergius and asked his blessing. The monks then removed the peasant from the room to make room for the new guests, and this peasant looked with wonder from afar, and peered to see that which he had spurned the sight of from nearby. He chided himself for his ignorance and was deeply ashamed.

When the prince had departed, the peasant quickly went up to the saint, fell at his feet, and asked his forgiveness. And the great saint was gentle with him, and said: “Don’t grieve, my son; you thought a true thing of me, reckoning me as nothing, while others are deluded in thinking me something great.”

Good Christian

This was the Lord’s Day when we hear in the gospel the command, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ This is the Lord Jesus calling out to His disciple Peter, who was out on the sea of Galilee with his companions casting his nets without catching anything. ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!’ the Rock called back, as if the Lord didn’t already know, and then, ‘but at your word I will let down the nets.’

Often try as we might, all our efforts come to nothing, that is, when we are doing what we think we should do. But when the Lord intervenes in our failures—for He always does, though we don’t always notice—when the Lord gives the command, if we dare accept it and do what He tell us, well, something good always results, without exception. We may not always be ready and willing for what happens, but the word He sows in us never returns to Him empty.

So Peter did as he was told, willingly and yet reluctantly. The scriptures don’t tell us either way, but I can only imagine what I’d have done, if it were me. On the one hand, willingly because I want to obey His word, reluctantly because I am always apprehensive, always afraid, of change. I heard an important but startling truth from the lips of Fr Demosthenes, our preacher, this morning, ‘God never gives us a word that He doesn’t expect us to act upon.’

To put the same idea positively, ‘God always gives us a word, that He expects us to act upon.’ When I think about it, this is absolutely true, at least it has been in my life. Most of my sins have been and continue to be not ‘sins of commission’ but ‘sins of omission,’ knowing what is the right thing to do, and not doing it, for whatever reason. Why we don’t recognize this more quickly is due to our religious upbringing. We think only bad things we do are sins.

As Fr Demosthenes also pointed out—for this post is going to be nothing more than what I remember from his honest homily this morning—we think of ourselves as good people, as good Christians because we tell ourselves, ‘I haven’t killed anyone. I go to church. I volunteer and support good causes. I am a nice person,’ and that’s where we leave it. The problem with this is, it is simply not true. We aren’t good people, though we may be nice.

We do what we want to, and we call it good.

Do we do what God wants us to do? Are we even listening for His voice? Would we recognize it, if we heard it?
Christianity—Father Demos said ‘Orthodoxy’ but we can substitute a more general term—is not religious activities, training or even study. We can know a lot of stuff and even act within the confines of our select knowledge without ever reaching the only kind of knowledge that matters, that is, knowing the Lord.

‘What is the benefit of knowing the Lord, and why isn’t my religious affiliation, activities and training enough to guarantee my salvation?’
Because none of these things can compare to knowing the Lord, and knowing Him, to love Him, really Him, and not an imagination or idea of what or who He must be. It’s the difference between worshiping an idol and following the living God, to put it bluntly and not mildly. If we know the Lord, we will love Him and do what He commands.

So to be a good Christian, one must do more than pay my tithe of dill and cumin as the Pharisees boast, and place oneself in the presence of the Lord and listen for His voice, His word of command. ‘God never gives us a word that He doesn’t expect us to act upon.’ Do we want to hear that voice? Do we want to act on that word? Like Peter, something in us wants to protest, even in the face of love. Yet if we know the Lord, our love for Him conquers the old man in us, just as His love conquered death and Hades for us.

What of the consequences? We know one thing: that obeying the word of Jesus Christ always changes us, always changes the people around us, always changes the world. Metanoía, a word with so many shades of meaning that we lose track when we try to count them—repentance, turning around, renewing our minds, change: those are some of the simplest—from metá, ‘beyond’ and noó, ‘what the mind does, thinks’: this is the meaning of our every encounter with Jesus.

‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ Yes, Lord, and what a catch! This was more than I bargained for. Your love and mercy and abundance are too much for me. If I dared, I would say, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, but You already know it, already know everything about me. You even teach me about myself things I could never know. You know I am sinful. That’s why You came for me. That’s why You called me. That’s why I even exist at all. You love me.

Me, a good Christian? No. A good man? Again, no. I might dream I am good somehow, but out of that silly dream I always awake. We are just following you, Lord. Following along the saints who follow behind you, hoping that we will continue from day to day, knowing that every step is only at Your beckoning. All we can cry out is, ‘Lord, help us to know you more, so that we can love You more, and loving You more, that we gladly run to fulfill Your word, that it does not return to You void.’

Now, where to next?
Help me to keep my eyes on You. Help me to walk, my feet fitting Your footprints. Raise me when I fall. Carry me when I am too weak to move. Awaken me when I slumber, raise me again from the sleep of death every day, for You are the Resurrection and the Life. Change me, renew my mind, turn me around, help me to repent. Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The work of Christ

I found this essay on the internet, but I couldn't discover its author, other than that it appeared in a Lutheran publication. It seems to me to be a good analysis of the difference between (authentic) Christianity and Islam.

The work of Muhammad is based on being honored and the work of Christ is based on being insulted. This produces two very different reactions to mockery. If Christ had not been insulted, there would be no salvation: This was His saving work: to be insulted and die to rescue sinners.

Already in the Psalms the path of mockery was promised.
‘All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads’ (Psalm, 22:7). ‘He was despised and rejected by men ... as one from whom men hide their faces . . . and we esteemed him not’ (Isaiah 53:3).

When it actually happened it was worse than expected.
‘They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head.... And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him’ (Matthew 27:28-30).

His response to all this was patient endurance. This was the work He came to do.
‘Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7).

For Christ, enduring the mockery of the cross was the essence of His mission. And for a true follower of Christ enduring suffering patiently for the glory of Christ is the essence of obedience.
‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account’ (Matthew 5:11).

This was
not true of Muhammad, and Muslims do not believe it is true of Jesus. Most Muslims have been taught that Jesus was not crucified. One Sunni Muslim writes, ‘Muslims believe that Allah saved the Messiah from the ignominy of crucifixion.’

 Another adds,
‘We honor [Jesus] more than you [Christians] do...We refuse to believe that God would permit him to suffer death on the cross.’

 An essential Muslim impulse is to avoid the ‘ignominy’ of the cross. That's the most basic difference between Christ and Muhammad and between a Muslim and a follower of Christ.

During His life on earth Jesus was called a bastard
(John 8:41), a drunkard (Matthew 11:19), a blasphemer (Matthew 26:65), a devil (Matthew 10:25); and He promised His followers the same: ‘If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they malign those of his household’ (Matthew 10:25).

The caricature and mockery of Christ has continued to this day. Martin Scorsese portrayed Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ as wracked with doubt and beset with sexual lust. Andres Serrano was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to portray Jesus on a cross sunk in a bottle of urine. The Da Vinci Code portrays Jesus as a mere mortal who married and fathered children. How should His followers respond?

On the one hand, we are grieved and angered: On the other hand, we identify with Christ, and embrace His suffering, and rejoice in our afflictions, and say with the apostle Paul that vengeance belongs to the Lord, let us love our enemies and win them with the gospel. If Christ did His work by being insulted we must do ours likewise.

Jesus Christ is still the only hope of reconciliation. And it means that His followers must be willing to
‘share His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death’ (Philippians 3:10).

The above is not a testimony inciting Christians to hate Muslims or even to disparage the faith of Islam. It is not meant to provoke confrontation. Despite the political and social thrust of Islam which makes it a worldly force to be reckoned with, even Islam harbors souls who truly do seek God and love Him. As Christians in the West, our response to Islam will necessarily be different from the response of Christians living in predominantly Islamic countries.

Wherever Christians live, we must be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice when challenged by the world system, because we follow a crucified Lord. But like His, our response must consist primarily of love, even if this love leads to our own death. A world under Islamic domination will always look different from a world inhabited by those whom Christ has freed, but we have seen neither world in history yet, only partial glimpses. Not Islam, but Christ. Not slavery, but sonship.

So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:36 Jerusalem Bible

Behold, I send you

Neither failure nor hostility can weaken the messenger's conviction that he has been sent by Jesus. That His Word may be their strength, their stay and their comfort, Jesus repeats it, ‘Behold, I send you…’
(Matthew 10:16).

For this is no way they have chosen themselves, no undertaking of their own. It is, in the strict sense of the word, a mission… Where the Word is, there shall the disciple be. Therein lies his true wisdom and his true simplicity.

If it is obvious that the Word is being rejected, if it is forced to yield its ground, the disciple must yield with it. But if the Word carries on the battle, the disciple must also stand his ground. In each case he will be combining wisdom with simplicity. ‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves’ (again, Matthew 10:16).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Ch. 24

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Church Invisible

What I have come to see and participate in at least a little is the Church Invisible. The visible Church at regular intervals pays its respects to this invisible Church by calling them ‘unsung heroes, the uncanonised unknown saints,’ and the like. Sometimes they even drag out a story or a legend about one of these cross-bearers and extols them—but to what effect?

The Church Invisible

How do you know when you're approaching the borderlands
of the invisible church?

You begin to take on the state of invisibility yourself.

The best thing to do when you sense this happening is… 

Run even faster after Jesus!
Don't look back!

Strain ahead for what is still to come.
Accept the loss of everything
and look on all the advantages you have in the world
and even in the visible Church
as so much rubbish.

Because all these things are really disadvantages,
as holy apostle Paul declares in his letter
to the church at Philippi (Philippians 3:2-16).

Decide now and every day to follow the call of Jesus Christ,
decide once and for all that ‘all I want is
to know Christ and the power of His resurrection
and to share His sufferings
by reproducing the pattern of His death’

(Philippians 3:10 JB).

How do you enter the ranks of the invisible church?

By paying your tithe with more than money,
by not looking to be thanked,
by announcing the Word of God without charge, fear or praise,
by emptying yourself to assume the conditions of a slave,
by putting yourself in places
where faith is not only possible
but inevitable,
by serving those whom the world considers unworthy,
because by doing so you turn tables on the world—
the Word of God calls people like this,
‘those of whom the world was not worthy’
(Hebrews 11:38).

The author of Hebrews continues giving good instructions
for those who are willing to enter the ranks
of the Church Invisible

‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, 

we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us,
especially the sin that clings so easily,
and keep running steadily
in the race we have started.
Let us not lose sight of Jesus,
who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’

(Hebrews 12:1-2).

 “Three times Jesus encourages His disciples by saying, ‘Fear not.’ (Matthew 10:26-39) Although their sufferings are now secret [invisible], they will not always be so: some day they will be manifest before God and man. However secret these sufferings are at present, they have their Lord's promise that they will be eventually brought to the light of day. … Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men. All preachers of the gospel will do well to recollect this saying daily. … We are in God's hands. Therefore, ‘Fear not.’

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, "The Decision"

One final thought.

Yes, in the Orthodox Church,
the visible church is plastered with ikons,
that is, images of the saints, to remind us
of what the author of Hebrews wrote,
‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us…’
When we worship there, we are visibly present
and the ikons are visibly present,
to incite us to look beyond them
to the invisible presence of the saints.

I almost wrote, ‘What if we took seriously…’
but instead, I want to say,

Just take God at His Word
and ‘throw off everything that hinders’ you,
‘especially the sin that clings so easily…’
What sin is that?

The sin of being satisfied with the externals,
with what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched
in the church visible.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus!
Then, follow Him, no looking back!
The visible church with its visible ikons fades out
as the Church Invisible with its living ikons
invisible to the world
reveals itself—and you among them,
a living ikon.

Yes, go with Jesus.

Safe inside His wounds

We know ourselves to be always unworthy, and it is no mere negative boast, but the truth about us, making it doubly more shameful. Yet the deeper we fall in whatever way, we keep finding the Lord already there, waiting for us. He has become sin for us, He has become our unworthiness, He has exchanged His righteousness for our filthy rags, and yet we do not know how it is we can wear them, wear Him, be clothed in His very flesh.
We only know that He has opened wide His wounds to let us inside, and there, if nowhere else, we are safe.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Η εκκλησια — the true ‘United Nations’

Greek εκκλησια ekklisía, from εκκαλειν ekkaleín, to summon forth: εκ- ek-, out; + καλειν kalein, κλη- kli-, to call. Hence, the called out people.

Called out from what?
from where?
and why?

"…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."
1 Peter 1:29 NIV

On what is called ‘the Sunday of Orthodoxy’—the first Sunday falling within the kairós of sarakostí, the forty days of the Great Fast before Pascha, the resurrection Sunday of the Lord, Jesus the Christ—the Orthodox Church commemorates its victory over heresy, culminating in the Seventh Ecumenical (Greek οικουμενη ikouméni, the inhabited world) Council, famous for the restoration of the ikons. Cut away every other facet of Orthodox Christianity, what's left is the veneration of ikons, known to no other church. ‘Ikons are just pictures,’ as I've heard said. ‘They don't replace, and aren't meant to replace, the Verbal Ikon, the Holy Bible.’ Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but this Word is worth a thousand pictures. Maybe that's why I sometimes don't carry a pictorial ikon during the procession around the outside of the temple. I carry my Bible. (I see some others doing the same.)

Back to the theme of this post, the called out people, the ekklisía, more properly the ekklisía tou Christoú, the called out of Christ.

One of the first things that converts were taught over twenty years ago when I rejoined the Orthodox Church was that Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel. What started happening in that upper room where the disciples along with the mother of Jesus were praying together on that fiftieth day, pentikostí, after Pesach, the Jewish Passover, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the speaking in various languages, was the beginning of a great reversal for mankind.

In our natural state, this is man:
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:4 NIV

Because of the contamination of sin, God would not allow us to destroy ourselves, so He confounded us, that is, divided our languages from one into many. This was to be in effect until the kairós (appointed time) of His grace, when, freed from sin through the Blood of His Only Son, mankind could be entrusted with the Holy Spirit, through whom “we hear them [the apostles] preaching in our own language about the marvels of God.” Acts 2:11 JB

By accepting the Christ of God, Jesus, we receive the Holy Spirit, who makes everyone speak the same language, in the spirit. This is how Pentecost is a reversal of Babel.

With that in mind, as I look around me from time to time during the liturgy, it all becomes quite clear in my mind's eye. I am granted a glimpse of this

“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Revelation 7:9-10 NIV

Truly, gathered together is the whole ikouméni in the little space of Aghía Triás cathedral, my local church. People from all over, at least you could read their ancestry in the faces and forms. Eritreans from the Red Sea coastlands. Phoenicians from Lebanon. Arabs from Syria. Copts from Egypt. Greeks from Europe and Asia Minor. Blonde Slavs and Scandinavians from the east and north of Europe, Celts from the utter west of it. A Native American from Alaska. An Indian from the coast of Malabar. A Balinese woman, the first-fruits of her native island. And of course, Americans whose families are by now so well mixed of several nations amd races that we can now finally be called Americans.

Add to this picture the fact that I am not watching this on TV, am not a stranger to these people. I actually know many of them personally, I know their stories. Their stories in His story.

On every Lord's Day, the Church commemorates its victory over iconoclasm, and what gives meaning to it all is not knowing the history of churchly struggles, but experiencing the presence of the living ikons around me, praying and worshipping with me. I wish this could be carved in big letters on the bronze doors of the church…

“What you have come to is nothing known to the senses: not a blazing fire, or a gloom turning to total darkness, or a storm; or trumpeting thunder or the great voice speaking which made everyone who heard it beg that no more should be said to them… But what you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven. You have come to God Himself, the supreme Judge, and been placed with the spirits of the saints who have been made perfect; and to Jesus, the Mediator who brings a new covenant and a Blood for purification which pleads more insistently than Abel's. Make sure that you never refuse to listen when He speaks.”
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24 Jerusalem Bible

Remembering Ise 伊勢

When I was at 伊勢神宮, the great shrine at Ise, Japan I had an experience at one of the smaller shrines off the beaten path. It was exactly like all other Shinto shrines, a building with a wide and deep porch all inside an enclosure. Across the front of the building were tied bundles of branches to either side of the gate. In my mind's eye, I suddenly saw the whole enclosed area filled with worshippers standing in the Orthodox fashion, and the bunches of branches were now interspersed with the icons typical of an Orthodox temple, and the central doors were now the Royal Doors. Everything amidst the peaceful forest. No more bowing and clapping hands, no more hanging up paper streamers to the kami. The presence of 大神, Okami, the living One, was there, gathering up His people like babies in a large silk blanket. It was a sudden and piercing insight with other facets I cannot even describe. This is not a vision, just what happens to the heart that is seeking the will of God, when the mind is in the heart.

You too can be Christ

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 28:19

Who is Christ talking to? Surely, not to me, I’m just an ordinary Christian layman. I can’t baptize anyone. He must be talking to the apostles and their successors, the bishops and priests of the Church.
I wouldn’t know how to make disciples. I hardly know how to be one myself. He can’t possibly be talking to me. This is the Church’s responsibility.

Well, then, who or what is the Church?

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
Matthew 7:24-27

Does it really matter, then, to ask who or what is the Church when we have words like these from the Son of God Himself? Can anyone put Christ’s words into practice for us? Can anyone be blamed if we ourselves do not put them into practice? We may not all be called to be apostles, that is, bishops, priests, deacons, evangelists and other professors of the Word. What is there left for us to do? Have all the important works been taken away and given to these men who are so much closer to Christ?

Jesus said: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’

Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Luke 10:30-37

So, we are not bishops, priests and deacons. They’ve been given the all important work of going out and making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them. That’s not our call. We can’t be expected to go out of our way and do such extraordinary things. But what about the people that we don’t go out to, but who come to us, or who are placed in our path?

The Church fathers take the parable of the Good Samaritan, quoted above, and they tell us some of its meanings. They don’t tell us who the priest and the Levite are, but they do tell us the identities of the Samaritan, the traveler, the innkeeper, and the inn.

The Samaritan, they say, is Christ. The traveler beaten and robbed and left on the road to die is every man in need of salvation. The inn is the Church, and the innkeeper is the ministers of the Church.

Christ is he who does not pass by on the other side, avoiding the inconvenience of helping the wounded man placed in his path. We may not be innkeepers—clergy—that is true. But anyone of us can minister to the one God has placed in our path.

You may not be a priest or Levite either.

But you too can be Christ.

Running along behind you

          Running along behind Your followers
          I dare call myself Your disciple.

          Hiding among the baggage
          of Your Prophets and Holy Ones
          I dare say I am a pilgrim.

          Of all that is best in me, Lord,
          I am ashamed, and I am hushed
          In Your Presence.

          My thoughts, words and deeds
          Condemn me for my inaction,
          For only Your thoughts, Your words,
          Are worthy, and Your deeds.

          Look for me, Mother of Christ,
          Among the pilgrim host,
          And finding me not there,
          Seek me again in Jerusalem.

          Even if only in the shadows
          Of the Temple’s copper gates,
          I want to be found hanging
          On your Son’s fruitful words.

          Found hanging, Saints of God,
          With you who hear the call and run
          To the place of your crowning
          And your everlasting new birth.

          To steal the word of your call
          I have been brazen,
          But once stolen, let me keep it.
          Forgive me, commend me to your Lord.

          Running along behind you,
          I dare call myself His disciple.

          Lord, I trust in Your mercy.
          I am Yours, so save me.

— Romanós
Version française par Claude Lopez-Ginisty 

Nothing would be impossible

It’s no wonder that the world does not follow the teachings of the Church. Except for when the world is masquerading as the Church for its own reasons, it is happy to ignore what the Church has to say at best, and at worst, it likes to entertain itself by mocking it.

The Church, however, has no teachings, even when it says it does because it’s full of its own authority, and it’s that false authority that the world loves to mock. The world incites the Church to claim an authority it does not have, so that the world can mock it,
‘See, you’re no better than us!’

The Church has no teachings and no authority of its own: it has only what Christ has given it, what Christ has handed over to it, as a steward receives from his Lord what is not his, but what is entrusted to him. What has been entrusted to the Church is teachings and authority, from Christ the Only Teacher of mankind, the Only Authority, of whom God the Father says,
‘You are My Son’ 
(Psalm 2:7).

There is a difference between the perceived truth and the actual truth which even members and leaders of the Church sometimes fail to discern. Discernment, διακρισις, dhiákrisis, is here the key word. So often what the Church has is not discernment, but judgment, κρισις, krísis. When the Church exercises the former, the world fears and respects her, when the latter, she is made a laughingstock.

In 1983 the Sunday in January that falls closest to the day on which the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions were handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, January 22, 1973—was declared national ‘Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.’ Over the past 38 years, 51 million lives have been taken through abortion. For some, this data is hard to take in, and they ask, ‘How long will God forbear with our generation?’

Declarations are human things, the works of those who take on their shoulders the mantle of the King of kings of kings, relying on His promises to be with them, but as rulers not as servants. The world knows when we are playing the game that it plays, even when we are dressed up in that robe.

Only Christ can wear that robe, and when He reigns from the tree, He has already taken it off, and reigns naked, not only mocked but also rejected by the world which does not know what it is doing, does not know what He has accomplished from that throne of suffering, on which as King of Glory, He reigns.

Reigns, not rules. Discerns, not judges.

There is a Kingdom that, as Christ says, is not of this world. That Kingdom in time claims no rights, no power, not even the power to save from death. Christ says, ‘Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father who would promptly send more than twelve legions of angels to My defense?’ (Matthew 26:53).

The scourge and crime of abortion is to be opposed, to be sure, but how? With what weapon that the world cannot turn against us, or that we will not snap in two on a rock? The world brings its epileptic son to the disciples for healing, and they cannot heal him. Yet Jesus shrives the boy with a word.

‘Faithless and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to Me!’ (Matthew 17:17) Christ is speaking not only to the wounded and demon-infested world, but to the disciples as well, who come to Him privately and ask,

‘Why were we unable to cast it out?’ He answered, ‘Because you have little faith. I tell you solemnly, if your faith were the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it would move; nothing would be impossible to you’ (Matthew 17:20).

And some manuscripts add, ‘As for this kind [of devil], it is cast out only by prayer and fasting.’

The cross

The cross.

I used to wear a cross once.

All Orthodox are supposed to wear the cross they received at baptism.

That original cross of mine is packed away among my memorabilia, I hope. I did wear a cross for at least 20 years of my adult Christian life—the cross of San Damiano, an ancient icon painted by Serbian Orthodox monks that found its way into a small church in central Italy, dating from the days when Italy was still an Orthodox land. The cross of San Damiano was the icon from which Christ spoke to Francesco of Assisi, ‘Repair My Church which, as you can see, is lying in ruins.’

I stopped wearing my cross because it was worn out, and because at some point, my cross changed from something metallic and detachable, to being a part of me, something others can't see, something I can never take off. When I knew that for sure, that I was bearing my cross, then I didn't have to wear it.

The cross is something you can't really talk about, when it's the reality of your life. All the jabber and blab about the cross, however eloquent, is still just words. To enter into the reality of the cross is a gift of God. When He grants it to you to suffer, and to suffer in ways you never knew existed, then there is no longer an image outside yourself that really stands for anything much. The whole panoply of Orthodox iconography, in fact, dies away into mere imagery, when the cross is your life.

I know I wanted to communicate something in this post, but it isn't really possible, I know that now. But crossbearers know each other.

Their sanctuary is the time and place where in this world they meet for even a moment, their communion is feeding each other with the broken fragments of their lives that Christ has taken to Himself and returned to them, ‘This is My Body broken for you.’

No matter how big the visual cross, whether it's empty, plain wood, or has an icon of Jesus on it, whether the ceremony were slow and awe-inspiring, or the quick, efficient march that we experience in some contemporary churches, it would be the same. 

It can never compare to the reality of being pressed like raw dough with the seal of the true cross, so as to be baked in the oven of tribulations, to come out as pure communion bread. That's our life in Christ, broken but not divided, eaten but not consumed. Christ is in our midst. He is, and ever shall be.