Friday, February 17, 2017

“The Doors! The Doors!”

          I sometimes think we Orthodox have a problem with modernity—by which I don’t mean that we should begin ordaining women to the priesthood or marrying homosexuals (those two thoroughly modern issues) or otherwise throwing the Scriptures into the dustbin.  Rather I mean that we seem not to be as good as we might be at coping with the demise of Byzantium.  For example, we still continue to use the term “Constantinople” when every map and travel agent in the world has used the term “Istanbul” for some time now.  And we glory in titles such as “the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East”, despite the fact that the term “the East” refers not to a direction of the compass, but to one of the original major administrative divisions of the Roman Empire, divisions which have long since lost any real significance.  We need to face the fact of Byzantium’s demise along with all its many consequences.
            One of those consequences is the sad recognition that the world is no longer Christian as it once was.  In the early Church, everyone was all too keenly aware that the world was not Christian and a hard line was drawn between the Church and the World, separating those inside from those outside with a kind of ruthless clarity.  Take for example the agape meal celebrated in the third century.  The document now known as The Apostolic Tradition gives directions for how that supper meal should be ordered.  (The details of authorship need not detain us here; regardless of who wrote it, it clearly reflects the common Christian mind of its time.)  At that meal, the faithful received a fragment of the blessed bread from the bishop’s hand before taking their own meal.  “But to the catechumens let exorcised bread be given…A catechumen shall not sit at table at the Lord’s supper [i.e. the agape meal].”  Note:  not only were the catechumens excluded from the Eucharist; they could not even sit at the same table as the faithful at the agape meal and share the non-eucharistic bread.  In the Eucharistic service, they were allowed to be present for the reading of the Scriptures and for the instruction (just as any visitor was allowed), but were dismissed with prayer immediately afterward.  They were excluded from the corporate intercessions which the faithful offered for the world and its needs, and from the corporate exchange of the Kiss of Peace, because (quoting The Apostolic Tradition again) “their kiss is not yet holy”.  The whole world lay under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19) and those in the world were tainted and unclean—a taint and uncleanness that only Christian baptism could wipe away.  That is why the catechumens were rigorously excluded from all Christian rites and functions and could only passively hear the Scriptures and receive the prayers of the faithful. 
            Clearly things have changed, and if a Christian from the early third century could be brought back to life and brought forward in time to our own century, he or she would be shocked at what we do and allow.  And the multiple shocks received at our Liturgy would begin early.  The ancient Christian might wonder a bit why the service began without the celebrant greeting everyone (as done in his day), but he would be floored when the Great Litany began with outsiders, visitors, and catechumens present.  For the prayers and intercessions of the Church could only be offered by the baptized, the royal priesthood, the communicant faithful.  In the words of Gregory Dix (old words now, but still true), “The Church is the Body of Christ and prays ‘in the name of Jesus’, i.e. in His Person.  The Spirit of adoption whereby the church cries to God in Christ’s Name, ‘Abba, Father’ with the certainty of being heard Himself makes intercession with her in her prayers.  Those who have not yet put on Christ by baptism cannot join in offering that prevailing prayer” (from his The Shape of the Liturgy).   The ancient Christian would be shocked that the line between the World and the Kingdom had somehow be erased, and that the saving boundaries and walls of the Church had apparently been torn down.  What were unbaptized outsiders doing here during the time of the Church’s intercessory prayer?  How could they offer that prayer if they were not yet part of Christ’s body?
            So what happened and caused the change, allowing the intercessory prayers to be offered at that place in the service?  In a word, Byzantium happened.  Increasingly from the fourth century onward, the line between the Church and the World came to be blurred, as more and more people in society claimed membership in the Church.  By the time the thing was in full swing, it was difficult to find unbaptized people anywhere.  There were Jewish enclaves of course, and heretical groups, but pretty everyone else in society was considered at least in theory to be in the Church as well.  This resulted in a general lowering of the spiritual temperature, about which clergy were already complaining in Chrysostom’s day.  But canonically speaking the old dividing line between the Church and the World was hard to find.  This being so, no one batted an eye at praying the Great Litany before the catechumens had been dismissed later on in the service.  The whole idea of the catechumenate had become anachronistic anyway.  One could pray the intercessions of the faithful before the catechumens were dismissed because the latter no longer existed.  (Why one would continue praying for and dismissing non-existent people is another question, and a good one.)  The Liturgy which allowed everyone in society to be present throughout was the Liturgy of Byzantium, a Liturgy which assumed that everyone present was a part of the Church.
            We need to acknowledge that Byzantium is gone, and that in the words of the old song, “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople”.  More importantly, we need to acknowledge that many if not most of the people in the world around us in North America are not Christians.  Some might object to regarding nice secular people as tainted or unclean (in the same way as third century Christians regarded the non-Christians surrounding them), but this objection simply reveals how far we are from the mindset of the early Church.  The cry of “The Doors! The Doors!” was originally a diaconal call to the doorkeeper to guard the doors against secular intrusion, and served as a kind of verbal dividing line between the Church and the World.  In Byzantium it eventually came to have the same anachronistic meaninglessness as the prayer for and dismissal of the by-then non-existent catechumens, since the assembled church no longer needed protection against hostile intrusion.  Perhaps the retention today in the Liturgy of that ancient cry may yet prove providential.  The line between the Church and the World, blurred in the heyday of Byzantium, has once again come to the fore.
            The fine liturgical details resulting from this acknowledgment are less important than the acknowledgment itself.  The World is once again a place of sin, rebellion, and spiritual danger in a way that it was not when Christendom and Byzantium were still standing.  Becoming Orthodox must be seen as a renunciation of this World with its perverted values and as an entrance into a completely different moral universe.  Christians are fundamentally different from the society around them, and this difference must be insisted upon canonically (i.e. by excommunicating blatantly worldly behaviour) and possibly expressed liturgically as well.  It is no good pretending that western society around us is Christian and that we may therefore follow its norms.  Through God’s grace and baptism, we are different from the society in which we now live.  We need to realize that we belong no longer to the World, but to the Kingdom of God, and to close the spiritual doors to worldliness.  Byzantium is long gone, and once again we live as exiles and aliens in the world around us.  Let us hearken to the ancient diaconal cry, and set our faces away from the World and toward the coming Kingdom.  In words of a very old prayer, “Let grace come, and let the world pass away”—even the world which flies the national flags we so often see around us.  Our ultimate allegiance lies elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What’s Wrong with Suicide?

Eventually every pastor will be faced with the question of what to do about the theological issue of suicide, either because he will be asked to preside at the funeral of someone who has taken his or her own life, or because he will be asked to offer prayer for their repose.  What is the proper response, both theologically and pastorally?  May one legitimately preside at the funeral of a suicide or offer a memorial service (such as a Panikhida) for their repose?  What are we to think about their final eternal destiny?
            It is no good pretending that the weight of Christian history does not offer a dark view of the matter.  The classic view, at least in the West, was expressed well by G.K. Chesterton (d. 1936).  In his book Orthodoxy, he wrote comparing the martyr to the suicide in the following words: “A suicide is obviously the opposite of a martyr.  A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life.   A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.  One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end…The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually he destroys the universe…One man [the martyr] flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence.  Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren’s”.
            Ouch.  Well, no one ever accused GKC of mincing words.  And putting aside the intensity of his prose, he does express the attitude of the church of his day which steadfastly refused to bury a suicide in consecrated ground.  And this attitude was well understood for some time before Chesterton put pen to paper.  Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet knew that “the Everlasting has fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”.
            Given this negative view of suicide and the presumption that a suicide would be eternally lost, we may still ask the question “What’s so wrong with suicide?”  Obviously suicide is always a tragedy and always to be avoided, but why did our forefathers feel that those committing the act were to be reprobated in this way?  Please note here that I am discussing active suicide, the act wherein a person takes his own life or arranges for another to take his life, not the issue of what is sometime called “passive euthanasia”, wherein a person allows himself to be “unplugged” from life-support machines in a hospital and let death take its course.  That is also an important issue, but it is not the one I am discussing here.
            I think it is important to examine the question of motivation when assessing the relative morality of any act.  That is, one must look at the question of why a person commits suicide, and what he or she hopes to accomplish in others by the act.  In some cases the motivation is to inflict hurt and pain upon others.  That person wants to kill himself so that those finding the body afterward will be filled with shock, trauma, and terrible lasting anguish.  The subtext of the suicide note reads, “You’ll be sorry for what you’ve done to me!”  This act of suicide is not simply aimed at extinguishing one’s own life, but more importantly uses this self-destruction as a way of inflicting grief upon the survivors.  It is as much an act of aggression as of self-harm.  In this scenario, if the suicide’s body were not discovered, the act of suicide would have no point.  The man killing himself does not want to simply die, but to reach out beyond the grave and hurt others.  If he simply vanished by (for example) throwing himself off a ship into the sea leaving his surviving family to believe he was still alive somewhere in the world, the act of suicide would have no point, for the whole purpose of the act was to inflict pain upon those discovering that he had killed himself.
            Given this motivation, one can readily see why some might be so opposed to the act, and why it opined that the dead man’s chances for eternal bliss were so slim.  But not all suicides (or, as I suspect, actually very few suicides) spring from this motivation.  Of the people I knew who killed themselves, their primary motivation was not to inflict guilt or pain upon those surviving, but simply to make their own interior pain stop.  This is the way it is, I am told, with those who kill themselves when they are clinically depressed.  They do not want to die; they just feel that they cannot go on living in such pain, and suicide seems to them to be the only way to make the pain go away.  Such people deserve our sympathy and our prayers—including our corporate liturgical prayers.  It may be that some liturgical tweaking could be done with the prayers normally used at Christian burials expressing the ambiguous and tragic nature of the situation and accentuating the mercy of God.  That would be for bishops to decide and to bless.  But it seems to me that clergy should be allowed to preside at such funerals, and to offer the comfort of the Church’s intercession for the dead.  Indeed, the bishops of the North American Church (SCOBA) have a decade ago have issued a pastoral letter tending in this direction.  In the case of suicide, as with so many other things, motivation is everything.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Liturgy and the Language of the Street

          One sometimes comes across mild debates in Orthodox circles about whether or not our Sunday Divine Liturgy should employ the archaic forms (e.g. “Thou hast”) or the contemporary ones (e.g. “You have”).  Our own O.C.A. website has perhaps wisely decided not to jump into the debate and take definitive sides, but to offer the liturgical texts in both forms, so that one has a choice of downloading either the “You/ Your Version” or the “Thou/ Thy Version”.   What can one say about this debate?
            First of all, one can recognize that there is no such thing as an inherently holy language.  Muslims declare that Arabic holds such a privileged position, so liturgical prayers must be offered in Arabic regardless of whether or not the Muslim worshipper understands the language.  But Christians have never made such claims for their own faith, and accordingly liturgical Christian prayer has been offered in all languages.  That of course was part of the point of Pentecost:  now all the tongues of men have been sanctified by the indwelling Spirit so that one can pray with complete authenticity in one’s native tongue.  This Pentecostal truth finds expression also in our Bible translations:  despite the fact that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (and Aramaic) and the New Testament written in Greek, the Bible may be and has been translated into many languages, and no one suggests that the product is not actually the Bible.  Of course some translations are better than others, but we do not follow our Muslim friends.  They deny that Scripture can be authentically translated at all and they dub such translations as only “the meaning of the Quran” and not the actual Quran itself.  Unlike them, we say that Scripture may indeed be authentically translated.  The King James Version or the English Standard Version, for example, whatever their virtues and flaws, are still the Bible.  All language is simply a vehicle; it is the meaning that matters.
            Secondly, since it is the meaning that matters, the meaning of prayer must be comprehensible and understood by the person doing the praying.  That is why liturgical prayer has always been translated from the original to the vernacular of the nation using it.  Cyril and Methodius, though doubtless saying their own prayers in Greek, took pains to translate those prayers into the tongue of the Slavs for use in their later missionary endeavours.  They did not insist that the Slavs learn Greek in order to commune liturgically with God.  Some people in their time opined that the Church’s worship must be conducted in either Latin, Hebrew, or Greek, the three languages atop the cross of Christ announcing to the world that He was the King of the Jews.  Cyril and Methodius demurred, and with them the rest of the Orthodox Church.  Pentecost means that all vernaculars are acceptable, and moreover “it is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people” (to coin a phrase). 
            Thirdly, the importance of liturgical comprehensibility means that both the “You/ Your Version” and the “Thou/ Thy Version” are legitimate, since both are equally well understood by speakers of English.  The debate over which English forms to use in North American churches pales in comparison with the debate over whether to worship in English or (for example) Slavonic.  The former debate is not unimportant, but needs to be put into its proper context.  For the debate over whether to use archaic or contemporary English concerns the proper amount of reverence required for worship; it is important but less important than the concern for comprehensibility.  Worshipping in a very reverent Slavonic does the English worshipper no good if he or she cannot understand Slavonic.  It would be like listening to glossolalia:  the Slavonic speaker in tongues may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified (1 Corinthians 14:17)—better in such a case to speak five words that can be understood in the vernacular than ten thousand in a tongue (v. 19).
            Fourthly, it is true that divine worship must be not only comprehensible, but also reverent.  This debate is muddied by the fact that use of the form “Thou” is sometimes lauded as more formal and reverent than the form “You”, when in historical fact the form “thou” was intended as the familiar, not the formal.  In the Anglican classic Book of Common Prayer, God was addressed as “Thou” since Christ taught us to invoke Him with loving familiarity as our abba; it is only the bishop in that book who is addressed with the formal “you”.   But after all language is more than history, and what was familiar in one age may end up being formal in another age.  Certainly the present use of the term “thou” does savour of a reverent and specialized usage. 
            Some people say that the Liturgy must be conducted “in the language of the street” while others insist that it must not be.  One must be careful to define exactly what is meant by the term.  If one means by this that there should be no difference between the language used when speaking to our buddies at Starbucks or the hockey game (to say nothing of the locker room), and the language used when speaking to God in church, then this is clearly wrong.  People like Fr. John Whiteford have pointed out that the Church has always used the best and most elevated form of language available for its divine worship.  (See his excellent .)  But if by the term “the language of street” one simply means an actual vernacular, then such a language should be acceptable, for the vernacular can still be sufficiently elevated and poetic.  Take love poetry for example:  a man may write elevated poems of great tenderness and beauty to his beloved without necessarily addressing her as “thee”.  Language need not be archaic to be elevated and beautiful. 
Take for a liturgical example the exclamation of the Prayer of the Thrice-holy recited by the priest just prior to the singing of the Trisagion Hymn.  At our own St. Herman’s parish the prayer ends with the words, “for holy are You, O our God, and unto You we send up glory:  to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages”.  It is not much different than praying “for holy art Thou, O our God, and unto Thee we send up glory”.  The former is not any more an unworthy “language of the street” than the latter.  Rendering it in true “street language” would look something like “for You’re holy, God—glory to You forever”.  One need only glance at this true street version to see the difference.  Poetry, beauty, and an elevated spirit do not depend upon verbal archaism.  A poet knows that things as simple as an inversion of words (“holy are You” instead of “You are holy”) and the use of the vocative “O” (“O our God” instead of simply “our God”) can work wonders, bringing the language away from the Starbucks tables and into the divine throne room of God.  It is contemporary, but still elevated.   Once again, comparison is instructive:  at Starbucks I might say to my buddy, “you’re looking good, my friend”; I would not say, “looking good You are, O my friend”.  If I did, he would look at me rather oddly, and perhaps ask me why I was talking like Yoda.
Finally, if both the archaic and the contemporary can be equally reverential and elevated, why choose one over the other?  I would suggest that the contemporary possesses the added advantage as being closer to our speech during the time when we are not in church.  There is always a terrible temptation for all of us to separate our Sunday morning behaviour from our behaviour after we leave the church.  We can hermetically seal off Liturgy from life, and neglect what some have called “the liturgy after the Liturgy” so that we are afflicted by a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, with our worship split off completely from the rest of life.  This can be exacerbated if we possess a special language in which we address God (not, I hasten to add, that those who opt for the archaic forms are guilty of this.  I speak here only of temptations and of my own heart).  As St. James long ago pointed out, out of the same mouth come both blessing and cursing—with the same tongue we bless the Lord and Father and also curse men who are made in His likeness (James 3:9-10).  It may be of some help if we forego use of a specialized liturgical tongue and retain the same language for both God and men, for then the inconsistency of which James warns us can be more easily detected and avoided.  Using the contemporary vernacular to bless the Lord and Father ought to carry over after the Liturgy has concluded so that we refuse to use that language to curse men made in His likeness.  Liturgical language can help unify our lives and our hearts, so that the holiness of the time spent praying to God flows over into the rest of our lives as well.

One last added thought:  it is important after we have made our liturgical choices to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).  Both choices can be and have been made by people genuinely concerned to honour God and to please Him.  As St. James reminds us, honouring Him means holding our brethren in honour as well, regardless of whether or not their own liturgical choices are the same as ours.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Feast of the Meeting: a Celebration of the Elderly

The Feast of the Meeting of Christ in the Temple (February 2) is a feast of the elderly.   When the Holy Family entered the Temple courts to offer the required sacrifice for the purification of Mary after her giving birth to Jesus, her Son was recognized as the Messiah by only two people, picked out by the power and illumination of the Spirit from all the multitudes of people swarming through the holy courts, and these two were very elderly.  Christ was practically a newborn (little over forty days old) and His Mother was young herself, probably about fourteen years old.  But the two people who identified them as the Messiah and His Mother were themselves “well stricken with age” (as the phrase has it), so that fresh-faced youth collided with the wrinkled faces of the elderly.
            The first wrinkled face belonged to Simeon.  God had promised him that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, and he lived in that luminous hope.  Every day he rose up from his bed wondering if today would be the day, and every night he retired a disappointed man.  Year succeeded year and still he went to his bed with the promise unfulfilled.  Then one day, led by the Spirit, he entered the Temple and God pointed out among the hundreds thronging those sacred courts a young woman accompanied by a much older man, and in her arms, a young baby:  that child was the Messiah.  Boldly he approached them and took the child into his aged arms, praying, “Lord, now You are dismissing Your servant”—a declaration, not a prayer; the Greek verb is in the present tense—and he knew that this child was the sign that he God was dismissing him and he could now die in peace.  His eyes had beheld the Messiah, He who was to enlighten all the nations of the world and glorify the people of Israel.  Simeon’s age is not given, but he was clearly elderly, for he was now ready to die a happy man.  (Traditions which make him one of the translators of the Greek Septuagint offer poetic symbolism and not sober history, for that would make Simeon about 250 years old.)
            The other person to recognize the babe in arms as the Messiah was also elderly.  Anna was a prophetess—not someone who stood and publically proclaimed oracles like Isaiah did, but a woman to whom God confided things and who stood deep in His secret counsels.  St. Luke reported that after her marriage she lived with her husband for seven years, making her about twenty-one or so when she suddenly became a widow.  Instead of remarrying she remained in that state, taking her grief into the presence of God and remaining in the Temple day and night—not literally day and night, for there is no reason to think that the Jewish Temple offered dormitories for women—but virtually day and night.  She was the first one to enter the Temple when its gates opened and the last one to leave, and she spent all her time fasting, praying, worshipping, and pouring out her heart to the Lord.  The Greek text of Luke 2:37 says she was “a widow of eighty-four years”, which could mean that she was eighty-four when she met the Holy Family or that she remained a widow for eighty-four years, which would make her about 105 when she met the Holy Family.  Either way, she was a very, very old woman.
            God thus chose as the vehicles for His revelation two people who had walked with Him for many years, and who had served Him for decades.  He could have chosen anyone, including younger people, people with strength, vigour, and the ability to cross land and sea with the important news.  He didn’t.  Instead He chose two people who were wrinkled, white-haired (or balding), stiff and bent with age, people who had grown old in His service, people who were soon to die.  What does this mean?  It means that faithful service is important, and that God honours age.  It means that our own goal should be to grow similarly old in the service of God, so that God can confide in us as He did to Simeon and Anna.
            Our own culture does not value age.  Age is shameful, and the elderly are often shunted off, disappearing into nursing homes, their presence an unwanted burden, their witness and voice of no account.  Our culture instead values youth, and we are often treated to the sight of young celebrity twenty-somethings being interviewed on television and consulted about their views on everything from politics to spirituality.  When I see such young wrinkle-free celebrities sitting on talk shows and pontificating I often want to shout at the television, “Why are you asking them?  They are scarcely old enough to legally vote, drink, or drive, and you think they have some secret wisdom to impart?  Their grandparents have forgotten more than they themselves know!  Why aren’t you asking their grandparents?”  Alas, the experience of the elderly, accumulated often through suffering, too often counts for nothing.  They have committed the ultimate offense:  they are old, wrinkled, and not pretty.  Not even Botox could disguise their shame.
            Saner societies than ours take a different view.  The Scriptures counsel us to “rise up before the hoary head and honour the face of an old man” (Leviticus 19:32)—i.e. to stand up when a person old enough to have white hair enters the room.  Significantly the commandment is rooted in basic respect not just for the elderly, but for God, for the verse ends with the words, “and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord”.  Indeed, many if not most societies demand respect for the elderly.  Even our own canonical tradition insists upon a certain maturity for its office-holders:  deacons may not be ordained until they reach twenty-five years; presbyters until they reach thirty years, and bishops until they reach thirty-five.  And in those days, thirty years of age was older than it is now, for a man thirty years old had been married for a while and you could tell how his children were turning out.  It is otherwise now; thirty is the new twenty.  The point is the Church valued maturity, and made it an essential requirement for those in its service.
            Simeon and Anna thus counsel us to flee from the inanity of our culture which despises age and idolizes youth, and return again to a place which respects the wisdom which only the passing of years can bestow.  There are exceptions, of course.  Some old people remain foolish and stupid, and some young people are replete with a wisdom beyond their years.  But these exceptions prove the rule.  The Feast of the Meeting brings to our attention God’s choice of the elderly as His vehicles for divine insight.  Let us aspire to follow in their footsteps, and grow old in the service and wisdom of God.