Sunday, 19 March 2006

The Sunday of Orthodoxy

We have been busy for a few days, so let us catch up. George was in Greece for a few days last week, and on his return he told us about an interesting event that happened while he was there: a certain priest-monk was taken out of the tomb 15 years after his burial without having decomposed at all, not even his clothes. This was the priest-monk Vissarion, who was buried in 1991 at the Monastery of Agathon near Lamia, Greece. While in life, this priest-monk had a reputation for great acts of charity—he used to content himself, for example, with wearing a torn habit so that he could save money to put children through school—and for great personal austerity. George told us that the local TV stations were quite interested in this event, and that since they have a custom of putting spokesmen for the two opposing sides on every issue side by side on the screen, along with the news announcer and a clip of the event in question, they had a priest and a spokesman for the Devil (how else to put it?) on the screen simultaneously. George tells us the the spokesman for the Devil has learned the basic method of handling yourself in such situations: start talking very loudly and don’t stop for anyone. The poor priest! He couldn’t, George says, get a word in edgewise. He was too courteous. What interests us, however, is what the spokesman for the Devil had to say. Basically, he said that becoming a saint is a personal, individual matter, with no connection to the Orthodox Church; that such things as the incorrupt relics of priest-monk Vissarion occur in every religion; and that the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church exploit this naturally-occurring sanctity for their own purposes. This got us to thinking about the Orthodox Church.

The Feast of the Sunday of Orthodoxy was instituted in 843 AD on the occasion of the Restoration of Icons, at the end of the Iconoclast controversy. In its most basic form, then, the Sunday of Orthodoxy is the Feast of the Restoration of Icons. That’s why in the litany at the end of the Divine Liturgy everyone carries an icon. Now, the Feast’s meaning as the Restoration of Icons was extended in two directions: backwards in time to a defence of the Orthodox doctrine of the two natures, the human and the divine, of Christ; and forwards to a defence, in the context of the Hesychast controversy of the Fourteenth Century, of the Orthodox doctrine of divinization (theosis).

The connection of the icon to the human nature of Christ can be seen in the defence of icons by St John of Damascus: he very firmly insists that the icon is justified by the Incarnation of Christ. For ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus Christ was a true man who could have been photographed, and who can be the subject of an icon. Hence, the extension of the Feast to a general defence of Orthodox Christology—Orthodox doctrine concerning the character of Jesus Christ as true man and true God—is quite understandable. The texts of the service for the Feast make use of the doctrine of the human nature of Christ.

The extension of the Feast after the Fourteenth Century Hesychast controversy in the direction of the Hesychast doctrine of divinization (theosis) is a little less obvious. Here, early Greek Fathers such as St Irenaios of Lyons and St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria make the matter a little clearer: ‘God became man so that man might become a god.’ The Orthodox doctrine of divinization is a doctrine, defended by St Gregory Palamas in the Hesychast controversy, that discusses how that statement of Sts Irenaios and Athanasios is to be understood: the Uncreated Energies of the Godhead permeate the soul in such a way that, by Grace, man is made a god—is divinized (theosis). This is the significance of the Uncreated Light of the Hesychast: the experience of the Uncreated Light in this life is the experience of the Uncreated Energies of God which divinize the Hesychast. This of course does not mean that man’s soul is of the same nature as God. It means that, in the person who is divinized, the image of God that man had in Eden is restored.

Now let us return to priest-monk Vissarion: that he was incorrupt when the tomb was opened (and that a perfume was smelled) is an indication that he had indeed been permeated with the Uncreated Energies of the Godhead in such a way as to have been divinized. For the Uncreated Energies that permeate the soul spill over into the body. Put another way, that the priest-monk Vissarion was incorrupt is a sign on the one hand that the icon of Christ had been restored in his heart before he died and, on the other hand, that he had returned to the condition of Adam before the Fall. In other words, the Orthodox doctrine of divinization (theosis) is a doctrine of the restoration of the image and likeness to God that Adam and Eve had in Paradise before the Fall. The Hesychast controversy of the Fourteenth Century was in part a defence by the Orthodox Church of the possibility of divinization.

The connection to the Feast of the Restoration of Icons is precisely what we have indicated: to be divinized is to be restored in this life to the image of God that Adam and Eve lost in the Fall; it is to become in this life an icon of Jesus Christ.

Now let us return to the doctrine of the Devil, that this happens everywhere, and that the Orthodox hierarchs exploit this. Priest-monk Vissarion had been baptized; he had become a member of the Church. He had become a monk and a priest. He had participated in the other Mysteries of the Church. This means that priest-monk Vissarion had received the Holy Spirit. Recall what the Gospel of John says: ‘For the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.’ It is the crucifixion of Christ, and his Resurrection and Ascension, that open the way for a man to receive the Holy Spirit. Other religions do not have this. It is by Orthodox Baptism that a man receives the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit the forms the Church, that makes disparate ‘unwashed’ individuals into the Body of Christ. Other religions do not have this. If you do not have the Holy Spirit you do not belong to Christ says St Paul. Priest-monk Vissarion died a member of the Body of Christ; his sanctification was not an isolated personal, individual matter in which the Church was irrelevant; his sanctification was accomplished while he was a member of the Church leading an ecclesiastically sound life. And we can be sure that priest-monk Vissarion was on very good and respectful terms with his Bishop. People do not come out of the tomb in such a condition of sanctification if they are not properly inserted into the Church, whose pastors are the bishops. Other religions do not have this: they do not have the possibility of being permeated by the Uncreated Energies of the Godhead, or, put another way, by the Holy Spirit. They do not have the Church of Jesus Christ.

So this is the final meaning of the Sunday of Orthodoxy: the Feast is a defence of the particularly Orthodox doctrines that define the self-identity of the Church of God.

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