Monday, 24 April 2006

The Cross of Christ

The Cross is a mystery. Any attempt to explain this mystery can encompass only a small part of its meaning, only a small part of its depth. According to the wisdom granted to him by God, St Paul has much in his epistles that approaches this mystery—this foolish act of God as St Paul himself puts it—and it is the epistles of Paul which form the basis of our theology of the Cross.

In the West, in the Reformation, a problem was posed of the nature of justification. This is a problem over the specific nature of the salvific act of Christ on the Cross. Without our wanting to say that the matter is theologically not important, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation arguments are hardened positions of one sort or its opposite—slogans, even, that were used as banners in vicious armed conflict—which really have nothing to do with a balanced Orthodox approach to the Mystery of the Cross. When we participate in the services from Maundy Thursday through Good Friday, but also the services up to and including the ‘Second Resurrection’—Vespers of Easter Sunday—we enter mystagogically into the Mystery of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. The hymns of these services are particularly rich in mystagogical content, particularly rich in an interpretation of the Cross which is fully dimensioned and completely Orthodox. There is no great special emphasis on legalism in the texts of these services, that legalism which is the basis in the West of the argument over justification by faith or justification by works. For the Orthodox, the question of the nature of justification is a tempting thought. Hence, we think that it is the wrong road, except perhaps in professional theology, for us to occupy ourselves with the ‘Orthodox answer to the question of justification’. It is more important to be baptized, so as to enter ontologically into the Mystery of the Cross, than it is to worry about ‘our position’ on justification by faith or justification by works. This is not to deny the necessity of catechism prior to baptism.

In participating in the services from Maundy Thursday through to the Second Resurrection, we live spiritually the betrayal, the trial and the Crucifixion—with the two sinners, the one who said, ‘Remember me in your Kingdom,’ and the one who rejected salvation—but also the Resurrection of Christ. Spiritually, the services are particularly rich: for example, while most people are taken by the midnight Resurrection service of Saturday towards Sunday, we ourselves have always preferred the first Divine Liturgy of Easter, which takes place on Holy Saturday: the Liturgy of St Basil combined with Vespers. Since Vespers of any day pertains liturgically to the next day, Vespers of Holy Saturday is a Resurrection service, along with the Divine Liturgy celebrated with it. It has always seemed to us that spiritually this service is a deeper encounter with the Resurrection than the Orthos and Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom celebrated with the Service of the New Light after midnight on Holy Saturday.

We are incapable of providing at the moment a commentary on the services from Maundy Thursday through to the afternoon of Easter Sunday. However, it strikes us that these services provide a balanced theological encounter with the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. What is continually apparent to us is that the Orthodox hymnographical treatment of all the Mysteries of Salvation, not only at Easter but also during the other Feasts of the liturgical calendar, is far more nuanced and multi-dimensional than the problems posed by Western theology. It is here, in the texts of the Feasts of the Orthodox liturgical calendar, that we find the answer of the Church of God to the human condition. And it is by participating in the Mysteries of the Church that we enter ontologically into those Orthodox answers, beginning in our baptism.

Hence, we find life in the texts of the services of the Orthodox Church—many people believe that the hymnographers were inspired by God—and, having experienced in our own baptism a similitude of Christ’s death on the Cross, in our own baptism we also enter into this Paschal life, when we encounter the Holy Spirit. It is this life of the Holy Spirit which is our hope, our pledge of freedom from the human condition. As the services put it, it is through the Cross of Christ that man is returned to the dignity of Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall. This is accomplished in our baptism.

May the Light of Christ shine upon all of us!
Orthodox Monk

The Mystery of Unction

On Wednesday of Holy Week, in the evening, the Mystery of Unction (Greek: Euchelaio) is celebrated. There is no particular reason why this mystery should be celebrated as part of the liturgical cycle, and no one, not even experts in liturgy, seems to know how it entered into the liturgical cycle of Easter. That being said, there is no reason for anyone to avoid attending the Mystery at Easter. It is a great mystery, for the healing of body and soul and for the forgiveness of sins. It does not replace confession, but supplements it, especially in cases where there is bodily illness, or, even, for that matter, psychological or spiritual illness. It does not work mechanically, so as to replace, say, three pills and one injection, but in common with all the Mysteries, it works mystagogically. That means that our participation in the Mystery is an encounter in the Holy Spirit with the mercy of God the Father. Hence, we do not approach the Mystery of Unction mechanically, but as an encounter with our Father who is in the Heavens, who knows what is to our profit. That, again, is not to suggest that we should not pray for the healing of our body, soul and mind, but it is to say that we encounter God in a relationship of spiritual love. The Mystery of Unction is especially powerful when we have made a good confession, one which frees us from those actions which estrange us from God.

Sunday, 16 April 2006

Palm Sunday

The Gospel reading of today is this:

Jesus, then, six days before Passover, came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, he who had died, whom he raised from the dead. Lazarus, then, there set him a meal, and Martha was serving; Lazarus, on the other hand, was one of those reclining at meal with him. Mary, then, taking a pound of myrrh, pure nard, very expensive, anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the myrrh. One of his disciples, then, Judas Iscariot, he who would betray him, said: ‘Why was this myrrh not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?’ He said this not because the poor mattered to him but because he was a thief, and he had the money-box and he used to take what was put in it. Jesus then said: ‘Let her be, she has kept this for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you; me you do not always have.’ Knowing, then, that he was there, a great crowd from the Jews also came, not on account of Jesus alone, but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. The High Priests, however, took counsel to kill Lazarus too, because on his account many of the Jews were going and believing in Jesus. The next day, a great crowd, which had come for the Feast, hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took palm fronds and came out to meet him; and they were shouting: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!’ Finding, then, a young ass, Jesus sat on it, as it is written: ‘Have no fear, daughter of Zion! Behold your king comes to you sitting on the colt of an ass.’ But his disciples did not at first know these things; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written concerning him and that they did these things. The crowd, then, which was with him was bearing witness that he had called Lazarus from the tomb and had raised him from the dead. On account of this also the crowd met him, because they heard that he had done this sign.

(John 12, 1 – 18)

A few points about this Gospel passage. In an echo of the Song of Songs, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anoints the feet of Jesus with a pound of precious perfume and wipes his feet with her hair. Mary is a type of the Hesychast who cultivates a pure Eros or love for Jesus: the mystic approaches Jesus not only intellectually but with a pure love free of disturbances of fleshly desire.

As for Judas, there’s not much here about secret ways to Jesus, about secret agreements to help out Jesus in his return to his celestial home. Too bad—John is the disciple who reclined against Jesus’ breast in the Last Supper; he’s the eye-witness who’s reporting here, and he seems to have had a very sharp eye for detail.

Jesus is the King of Israel. Palm Sunday is an important Feast of the Master, but it lasts only a day: it is the preliminary to Holy Week; and immediately we leave the atmosphere of joy and exultation and turn to the King of Glory, as the icons of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion are entitled. As John himself says in the Gospel passage: ‘…when Jesus was glorified…’. When was Jesus glorified? On the Cross. The Cross is a very deep statement about the human condition.

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

More Thoughts on the Human Condition

We would like to present a few more thoughts on the human condition. After we wrote the orignial post, we realized that we had not presented Buddhism quite correctly—at least not in a formal sense. In the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, the human condition is suffering, and the cause of suffering is desire. We said in our original post that Buddhism taught in the Four Noble Truths that the root cause of the human condition, of human suffering, was ignorance. We were not correct. However, we think that what we said is not far from the deeper meaning of the Four Noble Truths taken in the context of the Eightfold Path. For the Eightfold Path clearly emphasizes meditation (we use the term loosely here so as to avoid getting into a discussion of the stages of Buddhist contemplation) as the means to liberate man from the human condition. This seems even more evident in later manifestations of Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen, where Buddhism is primarily a meditative system of one kind or another, and the ascesis is used as a means to support that meditative system.

Moreover, in Tibetan Buddhism, there seems to us to be an emphasis on meditation over and above the other aspects of the Eightfold Path, such as right conduct. While one aspect of the Eightfold Path is right conduct, interpreted even by the Buddha himself to include chastity, we understand that in Tibetan Buddhism, what a westerner would understand to be chastity is not emphasized at all. This puzzles us, and we wonder if any of our esteemed blog readers could clarify the attitude of actual Tibetan Buddhism to right conduct and chastity.

Even, however, if we take a more Theravada form of Buddhism (with the little that we ourselves know), where there is a deeper emphasis on the literal meaning of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path than in historically later forms of Buddhism, even so, the ascesis that a monk does to liberate himself from desire does not seem to be quite the same as the Christian ascesis for purification of the passions, the foundation of which is, in the tradition underlying the Philokalia, also desire. It seems to us that even in the historically earlier forms of Buddhism, ascesis, while intended to reduce desire and emphasize patterns of behaviour that support liberation, is really a foundation for the meditative system which itself is to lead to liberation or enlightenment. It is in this sense that we think that we were correct in saying that in Buddhism the root cause of the human condition is ignorance, to be solved by meditation.

We can contrast this with the Christian understanding of the human condition. The human condition is the result, as we said, of sin, both that of Adam and that of each man individually. The solution to the human condition in Christ's teaching is that we know God and his son whom he has sent. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Hence the movement of the person in Christianity is a movement away from sin to knowledge, including contemplative knowledge, of God and Jesus Christ. However, this is, first, not a matter of an ideology that we adopt as Orthodox Christians of things to do and not to do; nor even a matter of an emotionally-charged pietistic relationship with Jesus, perhaps with an emotional emphasis on his suffering on the Cross. It is a matter of an ontological (a big word; it means: 'in the depths of our souls') transformation of the person brought about first by the Mysteries of the Church—Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion—and then by repentance.

It is in the Mysteries of the Church that we encounter the ultimate meaning of Christ's Crucifixion: Baptism is a participation in his death so that we might live with him in his Resurrection. It confers the forgiveness of our sins (for recall that the root cause of the human condition is sin); it grants us grace—the presence of the Holy Spiritto turn to God and his Son Jesus Christ in our personal lives. This turning to God after our baptism is usually seen as repentance. This repentance is to purify the person from sins committed after his baptism, and from the passions, the root cause of which is indeed desire. (It should not surprise us that in many and various places people have realized that desire is the root of emotional disorder.) It also allows the person to know Jesus Christ in greater fullness.

It is usually said that Jesus Christ is known in prayer, and this is true as far as it goes, but our whole being should be prayer, our whole life, our whole being. Hence, this purification which arises from repentance is a living thing, a movement to a greater and greater knowledge of and participation in the life of Jesus Christ, or, more properly expressed, the life of the Holy Trinity. Hence, when we say that the movement of Christianity is from sin towards a knowledge of Jesus Christ, this is neither intellectual (ideological) nor pietistic (emotional), but ontological (spiritual). It involves a spiritual relationship with the Holy Trinity, a participation, as the Elder Porphyrios put it, in the Uncreated Church which is ultimately the Three Persons Themselves of the Holy Trinity. We experience this participation in the Uncreated Church as Life, as Light, as Joy, as Love for God which spills over into love for our fellow man. It is such an encounter with the uncreated Church that led the emissaries of the Ruler of Kiev to say of the Divine Liturgy in Constantinople: 'We did not know whether we were in Heaven or on earth.'

Hence, in the Christian understanding of the human condition the movement is from sin to life. This life is understood as a relationship with, as a union with, as a spiritual knowledge of, God and his Son Jesus Christ. And this life brings us to the fullness of our own personhood. This relationship is founded on the gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive in Baptism, and especially in Chrismation. This relationship and union is consummated in the Mystery of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That is why it was important for St Mary of Egypt to receive Communion before she died: for the completion of her movement from sin to knowledge of and union with God and his Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. We are all, or should be, on the same road.

Kalo Pascha!
Orthodox Monk

St Mary of Egypt

Sunday was the traditional day in Lent that St Mary of Egypt (4th Century) is celebrated. Briefly, she was an Egyptian Christian who from an early age led a life of fornication—much like many people do todayonly to go on a whim to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, paying her way by prostitution. She was prevented by an invisible force from entering the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, and, brought to repentance by that experience, she promised to reform if she were to be allowed to venerate the Holy Cross. She venerated the Holy Cross and, making the Mother of God her patroness, she went out into the desert to practise asceticism.

St Mary of Egypt's life has some interesting information on asceticism, because it speaks of the temptations that St Mary experienced, and how she was purified. However, we are not able at the moment to go into details. What is important, however, and this is why St Mary is celebrated during Lent, is that St May is a type of the power of repentance. While St Mary was leading her profligate life she was already a baptized Orthodox Christian, so her repentance is similar to our repentance—that of the member of the Church.

The important thing about St Mary's purification is that it is not seen as the movement to a higher state of consciousness, as we discussed in our previous post, The Human Condition, but as repentance, as purification of the passions. That is not to say that St Mary did not attain to a rather high state of purity: that she obviously did is why St Zosima, when he finds her in the desert, wants to know who she is: she obviously had 'boldness' with God. So we can see here that the Christian movement of asceticism is purification so as to attain to bold familiarity with God, and that it is a movement of purification that can make sinners saints.

Moreover, we see another important aspect of Christian purification. St Mary did not receive communion all those years in the desert. But she did finally receive communion: communion is the centre of the Christian relation to God. 'He who eats my body and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.' With all the talk about secret versions of Christianity, secret doctrines and what-not, it is well to bear in mind that our primary means of knowing God is first in Baptism, then in Chrismation and then in Holy Communion. There is no other 'secret way to God'. It is in this context that we encounter both sin and repentance. Our repentance leads us to God not separately from the Church and its Mysteries but in harmony with them.

Friday, 7 April 2006

The Annunciation

Those of us who follow the old calendar will be celebrating the Annunciation today. What was 'announced' today? We spoke in the last post about Christian compassion in the context of the human condition, which, in the Christian understanding, is the result of the Fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise, and of the personal sin of each man and woman on the face of the earth. What was announced to Mary the Virgin on a certain day in Nazareth was all about Christian compassion, or God's compassion for man. For as we pointed out, man by his own efforts cannot free himself from the human condition. In the Gospel, Jesus says this: 'No greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you keep my words.' The Word of God incarnated out of love for man, a love which is consummated in the self-sacrifice on the Cross, so that man might have life, and have it abundantly. And this life is the Holy Spirit, and its reception by a man is a participation in the life of the Holy Trinity. Christian asceticism and Christian contemplation is the realization of this life, of this love for man that Jesus manifested on the Cross, of his sending forth the Holy Spirit from the Father. And we must thank Mary, full of grace, for cooperating with God, so that God might become man, a man like us in all things but sin, so that he might love us with a love greater than which no man can have, that he lay down his life for his friends.