Sunday Dec 26, 2004

The Sunday Before Christmas: The Sunday of the Holy Fathers

Each year, on the Sunday before Christmas, the Orthodox Church reads from the first chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:

Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king.

David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa. Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon.

And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins."

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is translated, "God with us."

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

-- Matthew 1:1-25

Obviously, the first seventeen verses -- the genealogy -- are kind of "dense": your eyes glaze over reading them, my tongue ties trying to sing them in Church! But there's a wonderful message hidden in them, which, if you can discover it, points to the real meaning and power and joy of Christmas.

The key to the message is the women. This is a Hebrew genealogy; it should go from father to son, to son, to son, and so on. Who the mother is, is, genealogically speaking, irrelevant. But there are five women listed among Jesus' ancestors!

1. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar... (v. 3)
2. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab... (v. 5)
3. Boaz begot Obed by Ruth... (v. 5)
4. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah... (v. 6)

Who were these women? Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the "twelve patriarchs." He promised to marry her to three of his sons (one at a time!), but the first and second were wicked and the Lord killed them before they could give her a child, and Judah was taking his own good time before marrying her to the third, who was still quite young. So she took matters into her own hands, disguised herself as a harlot, and slept with her father-in-law, unbeknownst to him. (He just thought she was any old harlot I guess!) Jesus is descended from Perez, one of the twin sons she bore him. (Genesis 38)

Rahab was a harlot living in Jericho. When Joshua, who was leading the Israelites after Moses' death, sent spies into Jericho to see how he could take the city, she sheltered them, and helped them to escape those who were pursuing them. Because of this, Joshua spared her and her household when he conquered Jericho. Jesus is descended from Boaz, the son she bore Salmon. (Joshua 2)

Ruth was a foreigner, from Moab. She was married to one of the sons of a Hebrew couple, Elimelech and Naomi. When her husband died, rather than return to her own country and people, she decided to remain with Naomi: "Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me." Eventually, she was married to Boaz, the son of Salmon and Rahab. Jesus is descended from their son, Obed. (Ruth)

Finally, there's "her that had been the wife of Uriah", Bathsheeba. David saw Bathsheeba from his roof, one night, as she was bathing; he took a fancy to her, and slept with her. He had her husband, Uriah, one of his generals, killed by ordering him into "the forefront of the hottest battle" and commanding his men to abandon him there. David then took Bathsheeba as his wife. Their first son died, God's punishment for David's sins of murder and adultery. Jesus is descended from their second son, Solomon. (2 Samuel 11-12)

Why are these women listed in the genealogy of Christ? Strange enough (genealogically speaking) that women are listed at all -- but these women? And these scandalous unions? What's the message here?

Throughout human history, and in our own lives, we see -- painfully, tragically -- that which is whole, being broken; that which is high and holy, falling. The message here is that in human history, and very specifically, in our own lives, God can and does act to undo this tragedy. He takes what is broken and makes it whole; He takes what is fallen and raises it up! He produces, from this very humble, very "mortal" family tree, one who is capable of giving birth to His immortal Son. For the fifth and final woman in the genealogy is "Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ": Mary, who replied to the Archangel Gabriel, when he had delivered the shocking news of her impending maternity, with these words: "Behold the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word!" Mary, who is the fruit of this family tree, is the proof of God's ability, and His passionate desire!, to make right all the things that have gone wrong. By her free choice and assent, God Himself is born into the world to make it new, whole, and holy once more. By our free choice and assent, the same thing can happen to us, in us. If we are willing, God is able. If we are even willing to consider being willing, it's a start -- and trust me, sometime's it's enough! This is the real meaning and power and joy of Christmas. "Let it be to me according to your word!"

Amen -- Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Thursday Nov 25, 2004

The Final Words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann

From the Fr. Alexander Schmemann web site:

Father Alexander Schmemann celebrated the divine liturgy for the last time on Thanksgiving Day [in 1983]. This was particularly appropriate since Father Alexander had devoted his whole life to teaching, writing and preaching about the Eucharist; for the word eucharist in Greek means thanksgiving. At the conclusion of the liturgy, Father Alexander took from his pocket a short written sermon, in the form of a prayer, which he proceeded to read. This was a strange occurrence since Father never wrote his liturgical homilies, but delivered them extemporaneously. These were his words, which proved to be the last ever spoken by him from the ambo in Church.

Thank You, O Lord!

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

Thank You, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which we offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with the joy, peace and righteousness of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having united us to one another in serving You and Your Holy Church.

Thank You, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, and temptations, and restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for the sufferings You bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and reminding us of the "one thing needed": Your eternal Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to worship You.

Thank You, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed.

Thank You, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise.

Thank You, O Lord, for everyone and everything.

Great are You, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate Your miracles.

Lord, it is good to be here!


The Orthodox Church, Vol. 20, No. 2, February 1984, p. 1:1

And while you're here, check out the guy in the back of the line in this picture of Fr. Alexander, taken just a few days before this sermon was delivered, on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in 1983.

Saturday Nov 20, 2004

Today is the prelude of the good will of God...

On November 21, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Entrance of the Theotokos (Greek: "God-bearer", as the Church refers to the Virgin Mary) into the Temple in Jerusalem.

Following is an explanation of the feast by Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, from his four-part series on The Orthodox Faith.

The second great feast of the Theotokos is the celebration of her entrance as a child into the Jerusalem Temple which is commemorated on the twenty-first of November. Like the feast of her nativity, this feast of Mary is without direct biblical and historical reference. But like the nativity, it is a feast filled with important spiritual significance for the Christian believer.

The texts of the service tells how Mary was brought as a small child to the temple by her parents in order to be raised there among the virgins consecrated to the service of the Lord until the time of their betrothal in marriage. According to Church tradition, Mary was solemnly received by the temple community which was headed by the priest Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. She was led to the holy place to be "nourished" there by the angels in order to become herself the "holy of holies" of God, the living sanctuary and temple of the Divine child who was to be born in her.

There is no doubt that the verses of the Old Testamental Psalm 45, used extensively in the services of the feast, provided a great inspiration for the celebration of Mary's consecration to the service of God in the Jerusalem Temple.

Hear, 0 Daughter, and consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father's house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your Lord, bow to him...

The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes, in many-colored robes she is led to her king, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train.

With joy and gladness they are led along, as they enter the palace of the king.

Instead of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations, therefore, the peoples will praise you forever and ever.
(Psalm 45:10-17)

The Orthodox Church understands these words of the psalm to be a prophecy directly related to Mary the Theotokos. According to the Gospel of Saint Luke which is read at the Vigil of each of her feasts, Mary herself speaks the following words:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, hence-forth all generations shall call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
(Luke 1:47-50)

The main theme of the feast of Mary's entrance to the Temple, repeated many times in the liturgical services, is the fact that she enters the Temple to become herself the living temple of God, thus inaugurating the New Testament in which are fulfilled the prophecies of old that "the dwelling of God is with man" and that the human person is the sole proper dwelling place of the Divine Presence. (Ezekiel 37:27; John 14:15-23; Acts 7:47; II Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:18-22; 1 Peter 2:4; Revelation 21:1-4)

Today is the prelude of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, 0 Divine Fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation.

The most pure Temple of the Saviour, the precious Chamber and Virgin, the Sacred Treasure of the Glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven!

The fortieth chapter of Exodus about the building of the tabernacle is read at Vespers, together with passages from the First Book of Kings and the Prophecy of Ezekiel. Each one of these readings all end with exactly the same line, "for the glory of the Lord filled the house (tabernacle) of the Lord God Almighty." (Exodus 40:35; I Kings 8:11; Ezekiel 44:4)

Once again on this feast, the Old Testament readings are interpreted as symbols of the Mother of God. This "glory of the Lord" is referred to the Mother of Christ and it "fills" her and all people after her who "hear the word of God and keep it" as the Gospel of the festal liturgy proclaims. (Luke 11:28) The epistle reading at the Divine Liturgy also proclaims this very same theme. (Hebrews 9:1-7)

Thus, the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is the feast which celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. When the child Mary enters the temple, the time of the temple comes to an end and the "preview of the good will of God" is shown forth. On this feast we celebrate-in the person of Christ's mother-that we too are the house and tabernacle of the Lord.

... We are the temple of the living God, as God said, "I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." (II Corinthians 6:16; Ezekiel 37:27)

For another explanation of this feast, see the Sermon on the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple by Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica.

A glorious feast day to you all!

Friday Oct 22, 2004

Annual Halloween Rant

Every year, a few weeks before Halloween, I talk to the church school kids -- really, to their parents -- about the meaning of Halloween, and what it means to "celebrate" it. I try to time it before they go out and buy "Vlad the Impaler" costumes for their kids.

This year, I went out and Googled "history of halloween", and found a couple of useful summaries.

From the History Channel's short summary of Holiday Origins,

Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

I thought it was interesting that while we celebrate the Nativity of Christ on December 25, as the light begins to emerge from the darkness (the days start to become longer following the Winter Solstice on December 21), and we celebrate Pascha (Easter), the Resurrection of Christ, just after the Spring Equinox (when the days are finally longer than the nights), Halloween marks the triumph of darkness over light. In the words of the History Channel, "This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death." One could almost describe this day, then, which falls roughly "opposite" Pascha in the calendar, as an anti-Pascha. Rather than a celebration of life triumphing over death, Halloween is, in fact, a celebration of death triumphing over life.

It is also interesting to compare our ritual of carrying light from the Paschal Vigil to our homes with the pagan practice of lighting their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire of Samhain. We sing "Come, receive the Light from the Light that is never overtaken by night; Come, and glorify Christ, Who is risen from dead!" I can only imagine what the corresponding Halloween hymn would say or depict.

To better understand this, I went to and read Isaac Bonewits' The Real Origins of Halloween. Interestingly, the author seems to have some familiarity with Orthodox Christian practices, including our use of candles (fire) and our timing for the Feast of All Saints (which for us is the first Sunday after Pentecost, instead of... the day after Halloween).

The author writes that "Being 'between' seasons or years, Samhain was (and is) considered a very magical time, when the dead walk among the living and the veils between past, present and future may be lifted in prophecy and divination." And he quotes Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids:

Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November was a time of no-time. Celtic society, like all early societies, was highly structured and organised, everyone knew their place. But to allow that order to be psychologically comfortable, the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn, was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers' gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples' horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours' doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe'en.

But behind this apparent lunacy, lay a deeper meaning. The Druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the 'other side'. The Druid rites, therefore, were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than as sources of dread. The dark moon, the time when no moon can be seen in the sky, was the phase of the moon which ruled this time, because it represents a time in which our mortal sight needs to be obscured in order for us to see into the other worlds.

Prophecy and divination, the reign of chaos over order, attempted journeys to 'the other side', attempted conversations with the dead: one does not have to be much of a biblical scholar to know that these are practices abhorrent to Israel and to the Church, under the Old and New Covenants, banned by law givers and (true) prophets.

It was one passage from Bonewits' article, however, which crystallized my problem with Halloween. Like me, it seems, he talks to his "church school kids", and the difference between his faith and mine is rather stark. He writes:

A student sent me an email asking me to sum up in more personal terms what Halloween means to me and other Neopagans. Here is what I told her:

- Halloween is the modern name for Samhain, an ancient Celtic holy day which many Neopagans -- especially Wiccans, Druids and Celtic Reconstructionists -- celebrate as a spiritual beginning of a new year.
- Halloween is a time to confront our personal and cultural attitudes towards death and those who have passed on before us.
- Halloween is a time to lift the veil between the many material and spiritual worlds in divination, so as to gain spiritual insight about the pasts and futures.
- Halloween is a time to deepen our connection to the cycles of the seasons, to the generations that have come before us and those that will follow, and to the Gods and Goddesses we worship.

Halloween is no holiday/holy day for Christians to celebrate. And to participate in it, however Hallmark the occasion or Ringling Brothers the costume, is to keep it as a holy day.

At the least, as I tell the parents each year, if you can't avoid it altogether (which is my preferred approach!), be sure not to dress your holy and pure children, God's gifts to you, like the devils which they are not.

If you have to dress them up, dress them as the angels they are.

The Roman Catholic Church made a valiant effort to "baptise" Samhain as the universal church had, earlier, baptised the late-December Roman feast of the Invincible Sun. Christmas won. (Or maybe not, but that's another sermon!) Halloween lost. The baptism didn't take. So if you feel that you must give in, at least, please!, don't give up.

Saturday Sep 11, 2004

Memory Eternal to Patriarch PETROS VII of Alexandria and those with him

ATHENS (Reuters) - Egypt's Patriarch of Alexandria, a top Greek Orthodox leader in a post that traces its lineage back to one of the first disciples of Christ, was killed in a helicopter crash, Greek authorities said on Saturday.

More details are available here.

May his memory, and the memories of those with him, be eternal.

Tuesday Aug 31, 2004

AXIOS - He is worthy!

Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. And the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:1-7

God-willing and with the blessing of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, on September 14, 2004 (the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, the altar feast of his parish), my godfather Frank (Photios) Dickos will be ordained deacon.

I've got him beat, in that regard, by just under 20 years.

He's got me beat, in every other regard well-pleasing to God: for "many who are first will be last, and the last first." (Matthew 19:30)

AXIOS - He is worthy!

Tuesday Aug 24, 2004

Glutton for Punishment

I had dinner last night at one of my very favorite resturants, Evvia Estiatorio. Had the "Arnisia Paidakia - rib-cut, mesquite-grilled lamb chops", which were absolutely brilliant. So rich and well-seasoned, in fact, that I woke up with a bad case of what I do not fondly call "Pascha Belly", that very specific form of early morning dyspepsia you get after eating lots of rich food on Pascha (the Greek/Orthodox word for Easter) after having fasted from meat for some 50 days prior. Spectacular at first, weapon of mass destruction shortly thereafter. Anyway, I haven't been fasting from meat, but my lamb chops were outrageous enough to provoke the same response.

So imagine my surprise this morning, on the exercise bike (a sort of physical means of repentance), when Screwtape writes:

My dear Wormwood,

The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of Europe.

Letter 17

Great. Nailed. By a guy who passed away when I was three.

Fortunately, there was some good news for me further down in the letter. Apparently, delicacy -- fussiness over what you eat, however much or little -- is a much bigger deal than the pigging out itself. In fact, Screwtape tells his nephew, "Mere excess in food is much less valuable [to the demons] than delicacy."


"Its chief use is as a kind of artillery preparation for attacks on chastity."

Oh crikey...

Watercress salad for me tonight then, for sure.

Or maybe tomorrow. Tonight, I'm off to Kabul, quite possibly for whatever they call lamb chops in Afghanistan. Maybe I just need a Zantac before I go to bed!

Monday Aug 23, 2004

The Power of Nothing

When I go on vacation, I find it takes me a few days to wind down. (Since weekends are a small, two day vacation, this can be a real problem!) There's always the temptation to pop into the home office, fire up the workstation, and see what came in the mail. Even when I don't really want to, I find I'm drawn to check in, even to catch up on mailing lists ('aliases', in Sun-speak) I don't need to read, and didn't -- until just suddenly -- feel the urge to catch up on.

I guess C. S. Lewis observed the same thing in himself or in others around him, observed how powerful this attraction to 'Nothing' can be.

Screwtape writes:

The Christians describe the Enemy [God, from Screwtape's perspective] as one 'without whom Nothing is strong.' And Nothing is very strong; strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance asociation has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.

How bad can this be? Focusing on 'Nothing', instead of on something -- anything! -- that's real, that matters, that pertains to the present moment or to eternity? Anything, even, that brings real joy? Screwtape writes to his nephew:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one -- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

Letter 12

Something to think about, next time I get the unexplained urge just to "check messages"...

Saturday Aug 21, 2004

Thy Will Be Done

I teach the adult education class at St. George Orthodox Cathedral, and classes start up again on September 12. For most of the last two years, we worked -- and I mean worked -- our way through Fr. Alexander Schmemann's The Eucharist. It was a brilliant book; as Father's life's work, it could be no less. But as it was unfinished, and therefore, unedited, at the time of his death in 1983 (half-way through my three years at Seminary, so I did study with him in the classroom and in the chapel), it made for some rough going, even for very dedicated and theologically curious parishioners.

So this year, we decided to tackle something a little lighter, a little more fun -- and chose C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. I'm re-reading the book in preparation for the class (my secret of teaching is to stay one chapter ahead of the rest of the class at all times -- don't tell!!), having read it for the first time probably 30 years ago. And as I'm reading it, I'm realizing how much it has colored and affected my own sensibilities, and how bits and pieces of it have, unconsciously, worked their ways into my sermons over the past 20 years.

I'm only part-way through, but a passage struck me yesterday, and I wanted to share it with you. It has to do with facing fears and bearing crosses, with which things anyone living in this day and age and "the present anxiety and suspense" are certainly familiar, even if they use different words to describe them. Screwtape, an old and experienced devil, and under-secretary of a nameless department in the service of "Our Father Below", is writing to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter in the same service, giving him advice on the temptation of Wormwood's "patient". So when he says "The Enemy", he is in fact referring to God.

Screwtape writes:

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy's will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him -- the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say "Thy will be done", and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is easier and is usually helped by this direct action.

Letter 6

How less anxious would I be if I resigned myself to the featherweight cross I actually bear, rather than the dozen redwood-sized "different and hypothetical fates" I find myself losing sleep over? And how much more "direct action" could I avail myself of if I asked for help with the things I really need to deal with, versus (to borrow an image from Harry Potter) the boggart in the closet?

This is why so many Orthodox refer to the Anglican Lewis as "our father among the saints."

Friday Aug 13, 2004

The Seven Maccabees, their Mother Solomonia and Eleazar the Priest (Part 3)

Okay, so why am I going on and on (and on and on) about fasting? Why is it such a big deal? (One big caveat here: I talk a good game, but dollars to...em... doughnuts, I won't be referred to as "the blessed ascetic" when I'm gone! So please, do as I say, not as I do.)

There are a dozen reasons. Maybe even a baker's dozen. First and foremost, because Jesus fasted (Mt. 4:1-2), for forty days straight as a matter of fact; and because He told us to fast.

Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Mt. 6:16-18

Note that the operative point is "when you fast", not "if you fast".

Apart from these, though, there are two reasons that came to mind as I was thinking about the Seven Maccabees, their Mother Solomonia and Eleazar the Priest.

First, we have to recognize that eating is much more than a physical thing, the simple meeting of a biological need. If you think about it, the worst thing that ever happened to the human race came about as the result of "bad eating": Eve and the forbidden fruit. (I think I mentioned once before, the bible never says it was an apple.) And the best thing that ever happened to the human race came about as the result of "good eating": the Last Supper. In fact, the very image Jesus uses to describe the Kingdom of God is that of a wedding feast. What we eat, and when we eat, and even how we eat, makes a difference. It is a physical activity with great spiritual consequences. "What we do in life echoes in eternity." (From the Gladiator, not the Gospel, but he makes a good point.)

And second -- and this is just common sense, not deep theology -- when you love someone, you do what they ask. Out of love and out of simple respect. You don't, or you shouldn't, have to have them explain it to you, even justify it to you, over and over again. (Any parent will tell you that "Because I asked you to" is a perfectly acceptable answer to more questions than you'd think.) God tells the Jews what they may and may not eat, and He's very clear that "the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch. They are unclean to you." (Lev. 11:7-8)

Eleazar takes this seriously. As does Solomonia, and as do her seven sons. So seriously, in fact, that they would and did give their lives rather than break this commandment. This is serious stuff. Eleazar goes further, in fact, and refuses even to pretend to eat the forbidden food, for fear of scandalizing those who would be weakened in their own faith because of it:

Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring meat of his own providing, proper for him to use, and pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal which had been commanded by the king, so that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them. But making a high resolve, worthy of his years and the dignity of his old age and the gray hairs which he had reached with distinction and his excellent life even from childhood, and moreover according to the holy God-given law, he declared himself quickly, telling them to send him to Hades.

"Such pretense is not worthy of our time of life," he said, "lest many of the young should suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year has gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretense, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they should be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. For even if for the present I should avoid the punishment of men, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws."

When he had said this, he went at once to the rack. And those who a little before had acted toward him with good will now changed to ill will, because the words he had uttered were in their opinion sheer madness. When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned aloud and said: "It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him." So in this way he died, leaving in his death an example of nobility and a memorial of courage, not only to the young but to the great body of his nation.

2 Maccabees 7:21-31

His example of nobility and his memorial of courage are left to us as well -- of whom, by comparison, so little is asked -- to inspire us to offer our eating: what we eat, and when we eat, and even how we eat, to his God and ours.

Sunday Aug 08, 2004

The Seven Maccabees, their Mother Solomonia and Eleazar the Priest (Part 2)

We left our story with Solomonia, the mother of the "Seven Maccabees", watching her sons being martyred one by one for their faith in God and their resulting refusal to eat sacrificial pork ("the other forbidden food"). The first six, from eldest to the next-to-youngest, defied the mad King and were killed, leaving the seventh and youngest child, Solomonia's only remaining son. The author of 2 Maccabees writes of her:

The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day [six thus far], she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their fathers. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman's reasoning with a man's courage, and said to them, "I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws."

2 Maccabees 7:20-23

Please don't hold the "man's courage" thing against him; he was writing 2200 years ago, and no doubt he would agree that Solomonia was more courageous than 99% of the men who ever lived. Me, I freak out at the sight of a splinter, so she's got me beat hands down.

At this point, the king is furious. He's zero for six in converting the boys, and Solomonia has only made matters worse by encouraging them. He has one chance left, with the youngest son -- who, according to the Prolog, is just three years old -- and he doesn't want to blow it. He promises him riches and rewards, and then pressures the mother to talk some sense into him. "After much urging on his part [we can only imagine what that entailed], she undertook to persuade her son." (v. 26) And so she speaks to him "in their native tongue" (v. 27), Hebrew, which the Greek king cannot understand, and says to him:

My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years [talk about courage!!], and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God's mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.

vv. 27-29

Not only is she courageous, she's also a ground-breaking theologian. Her remark that "God did not make [the heaven and the earth and everything that is in them] out of things that existed" is the first direct biblical teaching that God created ex nihilo, that is, "out of nothing" (rather than from things which pre-existed along with Himself), which is a fundamental doctrine of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Compare with the opening verses of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." (Gen. 1:1-2) What deep? What waters? God didn't created the seas until verse 9, on the third day of creation. Genesis, written much earlier than 2 Maccabees, is much less clear on ex nihilo. Kudos to Solomonia.

But back to the story. Inspired by his older brothers, and by his mother and her strengthening words, the three-year old proceeds to lambaste the king for eight verses (he goes on longer and in much more detail than his brothers!):

What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king's command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses. But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all men, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God. For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God's covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation."

vv. 30-38

before he is tortured more brutally than his brothers, and meets his end.

"Last of all, the mother died, after her sons," (v. 41) continues 2 Maccabees, though the Prologue relates the tradition that "she leaped into the flames and was consumed in the fire rendering her soul to God": further testimony -- as if it were necessary! -- to her "man's courage."

"Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures" (v. 42) -- though I shall return to talk about why fasting is so important, as much for us as it was for the Seven Maccabees, their Mother Solomonia and Eleazar the Priest.

Thursday Aug 05, 2004

The Seven Maccabees, their Mother Solomonia and Eleazar the Priest (Part I)

On August 1, as the Orthodox Church enters the Dormition Fast, we remember the Jewish martyrs known as "The Seven Maccabees, their Mother Solomonia and Eleazar the Priest."

From "The Prologue from Ochrid" (select August 1):

They all suffered for the purity of the faith of Israel under King Antiochus, called by some "Epiphanos," the "enlightened one" and by others "Epimanis" the "insane one." Because of the great sins in Jerusalem and especially the vying over priestly authority and crimes committed during the occasion of this struggle, God permitted a great calamity on the Holy City. After that, Antiochus wanted by any means to impose upon the Jews the idolatry of the Hellenes in place of their faith in the one living God and he did everything toward this goal. Assisting Antiochus in his intention were some treacherous high priests and other elders of Jerusalem. On one occasion, King Antiochus himself came to Jerusalem and ordered that all Jews eat the meat of swine, contrary to the Law of Moses, for eating pork was an apparent sign that one has disowned the faith of Israel. The elder Eleazar, a priest and one of the seventy translators of the Old Testament into the Greek language [the Septuagint] would not partake of pork. Because of that, Eleazar was tortured and burned. Returning to Antioch, the king took with him the seven sons called the Maccabees and their mother Solomonia. The seven Maccabean brothers were called: Avim, Antonius, Eleazar, Gurius, Eusebon, Achim and Marcellus. Before the eyes of their mother, the wicked king tortured the sons, one by one, ripping the skin from their faces and, afterward, casting them into the fire. They all bravely endured torture and death but they did not disown their faith. Finally, when the mother saw her last son, the three-year old in the fire, she leaped into the flames and was consumed in the fire rendering her soul to God. They all suffered honorably for the faith in the one living God about one hundred eighty years before Christ.

You can read the full account of their (prototypical) martyrdom in the apocryphal/deuterocanonical "2 Maccabees". 2 Maccabees does not appear in the Hebrew scriptures themselves (and thus does not appear in the Old Testament sections of most English bibles) as it was originally written in Greek, and first entered the biblical canon as part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures which was prepared for the Greek-speaking (i.e., no-longer-Hebrew-speaking) Jews of Alexandria about 250 B.C. According to the Prologue above, Eleazar helped to translate the Septuagint, being one of the "Seventy" Jewish scholars whose number gave it its name. You can find the account of the martyrdom in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 of 2 Maccabees, and it is well worth your time to read.

One of the interesting things you'll notice, if you do, is that it is clear that by the time the events described took place (about 180 B.C., per the Prologue), the Jews had some conception of life after death, in which the righteous would be rewarded, and the unrightous, punished.

When the second son was put to the test, he replied to Antiochus, "You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws." (2 Maccabees 7:9)

The third son made it clear that he was expecting not just a spiritual, but a bodily resurrection: "When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, 'I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.'" (vv. 10-11)

The fourth son said, "One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!" (v. 14) Not quite the Johanine teaching that both the righteous and unrighteous will be raised ("The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth--those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." -- John 5:28-29), but it's not bad for 200 years before Christ.

The fifth and sixth sons warned of punishments for Antiochus and his progeny:

But [the fifth son] looked at the king, and said, "Because you have authority among men, mortal though you are, you do what you please. But do not think that God has forsaken our people. Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!"

After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, "Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened. But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!"

2 Maccabees 7:16-19

Much more to say on this (are you surprised?!), but the hour is late. I'll come back and talk about Solomonia, their long-suffering mother, in the next installment.

Saturday Jul 10, 2004

The Two-Edged Sword of Freedom

Well, I can't say y'all were very much help in the sermon department, but my son Joe came through with a great insight, and that did the trick. This is, more or less, what I talked about last Sunday, July 4, on which we read the gospel account of the Gergesene demoniacs, and celebrated the memory of, among others, St. Andrew of Crete and Tsar Nicholas and the Royal Martyrs of Russia.

What do these things (including Independence Day) have to do with one another? Not much, on the surface. But if you think about it, there's a common thread that connects them all, and that is the idea of freedom.

Freedom is our greatest gift from God; it is His image in us. Free will is that in us which makes us like God. Think back to the Garden of Eden, and the very first thing God gives Adam to do: "Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name." (Genesis 2:19) Adam shares in the act of creation with God; God forms the thing, and (this is so cool) He immediately brings it to Adam to see what its name should be -- and think of "name" in the loaded biblical sense of containing something of the essence of the thing. Our free will makes us like God, in a good way.

But the next thing you know, we misuse the gift. The serpent tells Eve a lie -- a half-truth, really, which is the most pernicious kind of lie:

Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, "Has God indeed said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden'?" And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'" And the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:1-4)

The serpent was correct; eating the forbidden fruit (note that it never says it was an apple) bestows on Eve,and then on Adam, another attribute of God -- but it was a gift they were not ready for, a gift they had been forbidden by God for their own protection. (Fire can be handy to have around, but we don't let children play with matches.) Trying to be God-like without God, God-like on their own terms, they broke off from the source of their life and well-being, were banished from the Garden, and... well, that explains so very much of the world we see around us today. Freedom used poorly leads to disaster.

St. Andrew of Crete, in his Great Penitential Canon, spends a great deal of time lamenting our fall. He also considers, of course, the central and most important event in the Old Testament, the exodus of the Children of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Think back: God gives His people the gift of freedom; they cross the Red Sea and journey to Mount Sinai, where God calls Moses to come to Him on the mountain, to receive the law. What happens next?

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." And Aaron said to them, "Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" (Exodus 32:1-4)

Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Israelites tried to make their own god, on their own terms (this time, a calf, rather than themselves); once again, they broke off from the source of their life and well-being, and after a number of rounds of this sort of thing in the wilderness, God more or less gave up on their whole generation (but for Joshua and Caleb, who alone were faithful to Him). There was no hope for them, only for their children. Freedom used poorly leads to disaster.

Now, let's take a huge leap in time, and consider (briefly) the Russian revolution. The people rebelled against a repressive feudal society, exercising their free will. But they turned against God and the Church in the process, killing the Royal Family and hundreds of thousands of bishops, priests, deacons, monks and nuns -- and for their trouble, suffered for seventy years under the even-more-repressive Soviet regime. Freedom used poorly leads to disaster.

Or consider the American revolution. Our forefathers rebelled against repressive Colonial rule from England, which rebellion we obviously consider to be a good thing, given that we're celebrating its 228th anniversary on July 4. And yet... without repeating the sermon on Reality TV, you have to admit that we're not using our freedom very wisely. God seems fairly far out of our picture. We exercise our free will -- consistently -- with no regard for its giver, or His intentions in giving it to us. You have to wonder what the outcome will be. Given our track record since the (very) beginning, it's bound to get us into trouble one of these days.

It turns out, however, that the starkest example of all is in the gospel reading from St. Matthew. My son reminded me that the same demons who were possessing the two Gergesene men were once angels, and that the angels were free. Lucifer, the most radiant of them all (his name means "Light-bearer"), led half of their cohort in rebellion against God. (Purportedly because they were incensed -- no pun intended -- that the image of God was in man, not in angels, and that the Son of God would become incarnate in human form rather than angelic.) These fallen angels -- who used their freedom so poorly -- show plainly what is the outcome of such poor use: defilement and self-destruction:

Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding. So the demons begged Him, saying, "If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine." And He said to them, "Go." So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water. (Matthew 8:30-32)

This is the unavoidable end of the misuse of the great gift of freedom, truly a two-edged sword.

Of course, what should frighten us the most is the epilogue of the gospel story: "Then those who kept [the herd of swine] fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region." (Matthew 8:33-34)

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve turned away from God, unknowing. In Jesus's time, the Gergesenes turned away from God, unknowing -- even casting Him out of their city.

Two thousand years later, are we any wiser?

Wednesday Jul 07, 2004

"The utterance of the man whose eyes are opened..."

I'm quoting Balaam the son of Beor here, from Numbers 24, vv. 3 and 15. I have a soft spot for the guy -- I always have. This despite the fact that he's roundly condemned from the Book of Numbers, where he first appears, all the way through the Revelation. In the New Testament alone, Sts. Peter, Jude, and John all take swings at him. So clearly I've got it wrong about him. Which is why I bring him up.

My eyes were opened earlier this week in regards to something else I was wrong about. And it was interesting enough -- to me, anyway -- that I wanted to share it.

I mentioned in an earlier posting my belief that childbirth did not originally -- prior to the fall -- include labor pains. I based that belief on the lack of pain and blood involved in the Virgin Mary's giving birth to Christ.

The problem is, there seems to be some division on that point.

On the one hand, Fr. Thomas Hopko, my confessor at Seminary, my dogmatics and spirituality professor, and one of the two priests who served at my wedding, wrote in his book The Winter Pascha,

The use of expressions such as "without corruption" or "without defilement" for the birth of Christ and the womb of Mary are "ontological" not "ethical" statements. The point is that Christ's birth takes place in a miraculous manner, leaving Mary's virginity intact. This is no way compromises the reality of the birth as "opening Mary's womb" since the gospel claims that her womb was opened (Lk 2:23), and the icons of the feast depict midwives washing the newborn Christ Child. The Church opposes any attempt to deny, or even to minimize, the genuineness of Christ's humanity, which is officially defined by the fourth ecumenical council in Chalcedon as identical to our own. (p. 123)

On the other hand, I had some vague recollection that the addition of the midwives' washing to the Nativity icon is improper (though, no doubt, Fr. Tom would know better than I).

More significantly, if you look at Canon LXXIX of the Council in Trullo, the Fathers of the Council confess "the divine birth of the Virgin to be without any childbed", and they "subject to correction those who... on the day after the holy Nativity of Christ our God are seen cooking semidalin, and distributing it to each other, on pretext of doing honour to the puerperia of the spotless Virgin Maternity."

The commentary on the canon is clear on the fact that "Mary was ever-virgin, even after she had brought forth the incarnate Son, so it follows necessarily that there could be no childbed nor puerperal flux", and Zonaras adds: "childbed (puerperium) is the emission of the foetus accompanied by pain and a flux of blood: but none of us ever believed that the Mother of God was subjected to sufferings of this sort."

So the first question is, who's right? Fr. Tom or Zonaras?

And the second is, if in fact there was no "pain or flux of blood" at the birth of Christ, is it reasonable to suppose that these were results of the fall, and did not exist in Paradise?

I wrote to John Erickson, the Dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary, my canon law professor and friend, and posed these questions to him. He forwarded them, for reasons which will shortly become obvious, to Fr. John Behr, whom I did not have the privilege of studying with when I was at St. Vlad's, mostly because... I'm too old.

It's Fr. John's answers to my questions -- or rather, his perspectives on the questions themselves -- that were the real eye-openers for me. I trust that he won't mind my excerpting his e-mail here (with minor edits for clarity):

Basically, I think that both Fr Tom and Zonaras are right, but that they are answering different questions: Fr Tom is pointing out that Christ really was born in the flesh, and that there should be no attempt to mitigate this (i.e. a kind of anti-docetic point [against those who claimed that Christ only appeared to be a man]); Zonaras is emphasizing that Christ's birth is from above, that God is his Father, that he was conceived without sin, etc. (i.e. a kind of anti-"psilanthropist" point [against those who claimed that Christ was a "mere man"]).

It seems to me that rather than treating the birth of Christ as the birth of any other human being (and then asking questions of his birth which we might ask of any other human being - how painful was it?, was there much blood or none at all?, etc.), we need to be much more attentive to how it is that we in fact speak of the birth of Christ. We need to be aware that the language that we use to speak of Mary as the Theotokos [God-bearer], whose "womb is wider than the heavens" for she bore the infinite God, is the language of confession, not gyneacology - that is, it derives, ultimately, from how we speak of Christ himself, the crucified and exalted One, and speaks in terms which are similar...

I would in fact argue that Mary's virginity, in the order of theology, is the consequence of Christ's saving Passion, even if it is the prerequisite. What I mean is this: the disciples did not know who Christ was before the Passion and exaltation; [only] in the light of the resurrection, the disciples come to understand who he is (the risen Christ opens the books of the Scriptures to show how they all speak of him, etc.). The saving efficacy of the Passion, they then understand, results from Christ's voluntary and spotless self-offering: if Christ gave himself up to death, then he showed himself to be stronger than death - death could not hold him (and so the empty tomb is a witness to the saving nature of the Passion). But Christ could only truly freely give himself up to death if he was not bound (as we are) to death, and hence the virgin birth. This is the way that St Athanasius presents the topics in his work "On the Incarnation" (dealt with fully in my new book, "The Nicene Faith").

And because the "theological logic" works in this way, the virgin birth is then described in terms of the Passion - made most clear in our icons of the Nativity, where we do not depict Christ being born in a stable (as a naive historicist position would demand), but we depict him wrapped in swaddling clothes (the "fine linen" that the crucified Christ was wrapped in really should be translated this way), with a cross in his halo (for this is his identification), laid in a manger (to be eaten, by us who eat the body of Christ) and placed in a cave, with the Virgin positioned so as to continue the shape of the cave (just as the crucified Christ was placed in a "new-hewn" (i.e. virgin) tomb owned by the other Joseph). Our language about Mary is the result of theological reflection, it is a confessional statement, and must be treated as such.

With regard to your other question about Eve and the Fall, have a look at James Barr's book, "The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality". Personally, I would avoid questions about what things were like before the Fall or what was introduced as a result of the Fall. There are too many unexamined assumptions that usually go into such discussions - especially, what are we talking about anyway? An event which can be dated as we date other events in history?

What are we to make of St Maximus' claim that Adam fell "at the same time as he came into being"? Or that of St Irenaeus, "Since the Savior existed it was necessary that that which would be saved should come into existence, so that the Savior might not exist in vain"? Again, it would seem to me to be necessary to follow the logic of theology: the disciples were waiting for a Messiah to come to liberate them from Rome, etc., but not to liberate them from sin and death. Yet the risen Christ then changes their world. Christ confronts Paul as the Savior of all, and so Paul therefore understands that all need salvation, and hence the typology: Adam sinned, death entered the world, Christ was righteous, life entered the world. I.e., the solution comes first, and then we understand the problem, and in the light of the solution, it makes no sense to speak of a "pre-fallen" time, when man did not need Christ. Adam was created already with a view to Christ: Adam is a type of the one to come.

I quote Fr. John at length, both to share with you his sublime commentary for its own sake, and also to share with you the genesis (no pun intended) of this experience of being completely wrong about something -- that is to say, not simply coming up with the wrong answers, but asking absolutely the wrong questions. Of being entirely oblivious -- think Inspector Clouseau -- to the "theological logic" which undergirds the biblical and traditional accounts of the Garden of Eden and the Virgin Birth.

How many times have I pontificated about the fact that the books of the bible must be treated in ways which are natural and appropriate to each? Genesis is a book of stories, not a science or history text book -- powerful stories, deep and meaningful stories, stories which are true -- but not stories which are to be taken literally, as one might take a diary or a travelogue. And yet here I was, approaching both the completely speculative and hypothetical mechanics of pre-fall childbirth (Adam and Eve didn't have children until after the fall) and, by reverse extension, the Virgin Birth of Christ, like a medical student. Or an investigative reporter.

Actually, like a hack theologian, who knows so much less than he thinks he does.

I wrote back to Fr. John with the words of Job: "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know... Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

A little over the top, to be sure -- but at least here, I know I've got it right.

Thursday Jul 01, 2004

God and Belly Dancing, Part I

Well, as promised, more wild and crazy theological fun. :)

Perhaps you've been wondering why a link to "Belly-dancing Theologians (Boston)" appeared on this page a week or so ago. Well, you can wonder no more. It's a pointer to my friend DeAnna's website, "", where she advertises her professional belly dancing services. "Raqs Sharqi" is Arabic for belly dancing, which -- factor in her delightfully twisted sense of humor, as in "Shaken Not Stirred" -- explains the URL.

I met DeAnna a few years ago through her religion column in the North Andover Citizen, our local paper. We're much too small a town to have our own religion columnist: DeAnna worked for Community News, which published a number of local papers, and syndicated certain columns throughout, including hers. She wrote on the most interesting topics, including the snappy slogans you find on the front-lawn billboards of New England UU (Unitarian Universalist) Churches, and most memorably, that interesting wailing that Cheb Mami (he's a guy, by the way) is doing in the background of Sting's "Desert Rose". She traced the roots of that style of music back to the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures), one of my great interests, and to the mysterious term "Selah", which you'll see from time to time in the Psalms.

It was this latter column that led me to write to her at the newspaper's email address, to see if she'd be interested in meeting some of the people from my Antiochian Orthodox church in Worcester, or our sister parish in Lawrence, both named after St. George, the Patron Saint of Lebanon. It turns out DeAnna has a great interest in middle eastern people and culture, and was researching an article on the post-war reconstruction of Beirut, which -- she eventually proved to her editors at the Boston Herald -- was indeed a bigger deal than Boston's "Big Dig". Nobody in Boston believes there is any bigger deal than the Big Dig, nor could there ever be, so it took quite a bit of convincing. As part of her research, she traveled to Beirut and was hosted by the president of our parish council, who keeps an apartment there (in the same complex as the President of Lebanon), and was toured around the city, often described as "the Paris of the Middle East", by his driver. Her interest in belly dancing stems from that trip and the many night clubs she visited, whose growing number is emblematic of the rebirth of the city.

DeAnna's background is as eclectic as her tastes: she studied to be a Pentecostal minister, with theology degrees from Boston College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and worked as a private investigator prior to becoming a journalist and religion columnist. And now she is a part-time professional belly dancer.

Like my own, her interests cross-pollinate... which finally brings us to God and Belly Dancing. DeAnna's written a book, "God Belly Danced", which documents -- among many other things -- biblical accounts of belly dancing in the ancient near east. The book has been excerpted on a belly dancing website, starting with a brief article which relates the Hebrew word for dance (Chol) with the name of God (YHWH, "the One who lives"), and with Eve (Chava, "the mother of all the living"). Living, she argues, is not a dull, quiet thing, but full of shaking and pulsating:

In our current mindset "being" is a state. "Just be" means simply to sit there, take a few deep breaths and meditate. But Yahweh "will never slumber nor sleep" (Psalm 121:4) and most of the time Yahweh's presence brings shaking, storms, wind and thunder.

Yahweh's very being pulsates with energy and power. When Yahweh creates the world in Genesis, the process is cataclysmic, not mild. Likewise, no living human comes into being quietly, unless during a tragic stillbirth. When a nurse or doctor first induces a child to breathe, the newborn usually lets out a bloodcurdling scream. That's when you know you have a healthy baby.

In other words, belly dancing is a more profound, essential thing than you'd think.

Anyway, I agree with many of the things she's written, and disagree with some others. Top of mind: I believe that childbirth did not originally -- prior to the fall -- include labor pains, that Jephthah really did sacrifice the daughter who greeted his return from battle with belly dancing, and that Salome, whose belly dancing led to the beheading of St. John the Baptist, was a baaaad girl.

We got together this morning to discuss. And some more interesting theological "Did You Know?"s came up. (That's why this is "Part I".)

Stay tuned!




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