Saturday, March 25, 2017

Annunciation: Exalting Those of Low Degree

In most Orthodox churches, the image of the Mother of God towers over us—sometimes literally, as her icon fills the upper apse of the church temple, proclaiming there how she united heaven and earth by her willing assent to the Incarnation of the divine Messiah.  In all her icons she is a majestic figure—regal, composed, serene, the Queen of Heaven.  Many icons of the Annunciation portray her as seated on a throne, and with a small footstool, as befits royalty.  In all her images, she is a person of power.
            This is as it should be, since icons portray the eschatological reality, and present not a naturalistic perspective, but a heavenly, hieratic one.  An icon is not a painted photo or a portrait, but a proclamation of the person’s heavenly glory.  Thus it is appropriate that Mary of Nazareth be presented as the Queen of Heaven, exalted by God to a place more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim. 
            But these heavenly images of her present power should not blind us to the low degree and powerlessness that she had while she lived and walked in Palestine.  At the time of the Annunciation, Mary was not a person of power, but a simple peasant girl in a small town in Galilee, far from the halls of the mighty down south in Jerusalem and further afield in Rome, and unconnected with the movers and shakers of the world.  It would be hard to exaggerate her powerlessness as far as this world was concerned.  She was a member of a despised race, the Jews, a nation which had lost the last bit of its national sovereignty when the Romans took over in 63 B.C.  In a world which respected age, she was young; in a culture which valued marriage, she was single; in a society which revered wealth, she was poor.  She lived in Galilee, derisively called “Galilee of the Gentiles” by those in Judea, and the town of Nazareth was looked down upon even by others in Galilee.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was a proverbial taunt uttered by Jews in neighbouring Cana (Jn. 1:46).  And we must remember that at the time of the Annunciation she was of the usual marriageable age—that is, about thirteen years old.
            Later loving devotion would adorn her story with other details, like tinsel on a beloved Christmas tree.  The so-called Protoevangelium of James, written in the second century as a kind of devotional attempt to fill in the blanks of her life, supplies a number of biographical details not strictly historical.  But the sober history of the Gospel preserves a picture of what we might expect—a young girl, unknown and poor, coming face to face one day with the eternal and the incalculable.   Luke’s Gospel presents her as a young girl “betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph”, and when the angel Gabriel informed her that she had been chosen to bear the Messiah and was about to conceive Him, she was naturally “greatly troubled” and asked to know how this was possible, since she had “never known a man” (Lk. 1:27f).  When it came time to offer the sacrifice required from those who had given birth, she and Joseph offered “the sacrifice of the poor”—two young pigeons (Lev. 12:8, Lk. 2:24).  Neither does Matthew’s Gospel present her as a celebrity:  when Joseph receives news of her pregnancy he is minded to divorce her quietly (Mt. 1:18f).  In neither of these accounts is Mary presented as famous or rich and powerful.  And later in our Lord’s ministry, when people stumbled at His claims, they invoked His family with no suggestion that they were special:  “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  And are not all his sisters with us?  Where then did this man get all this?” (Mt. 13:55f).  It is clear enough from the Gospel records that Mary was not considered a celebrity by the world around her.
            This is her greatest boast, for her “low degree” was rooted in her invincible humility.  She herself said it first and best:  God’s plan was to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to put down the mighty from their thrones, and to exalt those of low degree (Lk. 1:51f).  Her Son echoed His Mother:  “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 18:14).  Mary was humble, of low degree, powerless in this age.  And because of this, God exalted her, making her honourable and powerful—indeed, more honourable than the cherubim, and reigning with her Son in heaven:  “The Queen stood at your right side, arrayed in golden robes all glorious” (Ps. 45:9). 
            Her exaltation from low degree was the first of many such exaltations.  We find this divine delight in exalting the humble playing like a theme-song throughout the New Testament.  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to nullify things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27f).  “Has not God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom?” (James 2:5).  The world utterly misunderstands the nature of true greatness, and equates greatness with outward strength and self-assertion.  In the world, the one in first place is the one who rules, who exerts his will, who makes a big splash.  God overturns all this, for in His Kingdom the one in first place will be the one who serves as the slave of all (Mk. 10:44).  It is the humble, and self-effacing, and powerless servant who is truly great.  God’s Kingdom inaugurates a revolution, and the revolution began with the Annunciation. 
            Mary is an image of the Church, and her exaltation prophesies and prefigures ours.  It is important therefore that we see and appreciate her humble estate and her powerlessness during her life, for they form the basis for her exaltation after her death.  It is right that our icons dress her in the robes of royalty and place her upon a throne, for these images simply acknowledge in art what God has done for her in heaven.  But as we venerate these images, let us not fail to appreciate the revolution they portray:  that God took a humble, young girl from a small town, and exalted her to a place unmatched in the cosmos or the Kingdom.  He exalted her who was of low degree, so that we and all generations may see His work, and call her blessed.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Council of Crete and its Aftermath

          What was originally billed as “the Great and Holy Council” threatens to leave a legacy of a great and unholy mess.  The mess to which I refer is the bitter battle and division swirling around the question of whether certain documents produced by the council were genuine and unexceptionable or erroneous and heretical.  The statement on ecumenism draws most of the fire, with some people saying that the use of the term “church” in the statement to describe non-Orthodox Christian groups denies our dogma that Orthodoxy alone is the one true Church, and other people denying such a conclusion.  Accordingly some say that the council preaches a heretical ecumenism and should be soundly and loudly denounced, and others say that even if the council was a bit of a yawn, its conclusions were sound enough so that only a fanatic would deny them.  The battle lines were drawn even before the council concluded, with many shots over the bow being fired before the attendees of the council returned home.
            It cannot be said that the Ecumenical Patriarch has done much to de-escalate matters and help everyone involved to relax.  Voices from the Phanar were saying that the conclusions reached by the council were binding upon everyone, including those churches like Russia who did not attend the council.  Further Patriarch Bartholomew “called on the Archbishop of Athens to prevent reconsideration of the results of the Holy and Great Council and defend the documents approved at it” and called on the Greek archbishop “‘to influence’ those bishops who disagree with the decisions made at Crete”.  He also warned that the Ecumenical Patriarchate “would break off all contacts” with such individuals who disagreed.
A number of individuals did indeed disagree, among them Greek archpriest Theodore Zisi. After repeatedly asking his bishop Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki to disavow the charges of ecclesiological heresy and receiving no reply whatsoever, and after being publically rebuked by him, on the past Sunday of Orthodoxy he ceased to commemorate him.  Thereupon Metropolitan Anthimos suspended him.
Things are hot in Romania as well as Greece. Those opponents of the council who persist in vocal denunciation of it will face “disciplinary, administrative and canonical sanctions”—i.e. suspension or deposition.
I am not a big fan of the council.  The decision to ask only representatives of the universally-recognized autocephalous churches and not all the bishops that could attend, the decision to exclude such pressing problems from its agenda as the status of the Orthodox Church in America, and the other bishops in the so-called “diaspora”, the decision to meet for only one week—all of these give the impression of a stage-managed event, the purpose of which was to make a splash in the international press and aggrandize the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not to resolve the many pressing issues facing the Church.  If one were serious about dealing with modernity as Vatican II attempted to deal with it, one wonders why the Great and Holy Council didn’t invite a similar number of bishops to attend as Vatican II did and spend a similar amount of time debating.
The real problem however is in the aftermath.  One can declare the event “great and holy” all one likes, but in Orthodox theology what makes a council ecumenical or great and holy is its reception by the faithful after the attendees have returned and the rank and file start to debate its findings.  Long ago we told Rome that although the Faith may be defined by bishops in council, it is recognized and preserved by the totality of the people of God throughout the world.  That is how we know that the council of Nicea in 325 was a true council and the later council of Sirmium in 357 was not; how the iconodule council again held in Nicea in 787 was a true council and the iconoclast council held in Hieria in 754 was not.  Doubtless the bishops meeting in Sirmium and Hieria loudly declared their gatherings were great and holy, but the verdict on their greatness, holiness, and authenticity lay with the people who considered their findings afterward, not with them. 

That is why it is a mistake to shut down discussion.  It is hard to listen to voices saying things one violently objects to, especially if what they object to is something you said.  It is even harder to bear with discussions when one finds oneself personally the target of denunciation.  It is true that not all discussions are equally polite.  Some are quite impolite and the language used inflammatory and over-reaching.  But shutting down the discussion is still a mistake, for the discussions are the way the Church at large has of eventually making up its mind so that the council will either be received as genuine or rejected as erroneous.  Besides, the discussions will take place anyway.  Sometimes one wonders if the bishops trying to silence their opposition have ever heard of the inter-net or social media.  Heavy-handed attempts to pre-empt or forbid working through the topic only serve to polarize matters further and make true dialogue more difficult.  It might even provoke schism.  Denunciations of the council need to be answered, not silenced.  If the council is truly that great and holy, the people will work things through eventually and know soon enough.  Bishops need not only the boldness to speak the truth, but also the patience to wait while their faithful flocks receive what they have spoken.  After all, the truth of Orthodoxy is ultimately preserved not in the Phanar, but in heaven.  The one who ultimately guides the Church is not the Ecumenical Patriarch, but the Holy Spirit.  It is time to relax and trust Him.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why Wait?

One question that young singles often ask when confronted with the Church’s traditional teaching that one should not engage in sex until marriage is “Why should I wait?”  It is a reasonable question to ask when everyone in our sex-soaked culture is bombarded with the assumption in every movie, television show, and pop song ever produced that of course healthy young people will be sexually active before marriage.  Indeed, one young Christian lady in Europe, when hearing that some of her fellow Orthodox in Canada regarded pre-marital sex as out of bounds, responded, “Oh, we’re not prudish about that in Europe.”  Prudish?  In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  A prudish person is one who will not even talk about sex before marriage.  A person who will talk about it but not do it is not a prude, but simply a Christian following the Scriptures.
            But the question still requires an answer.  If, for example, one is in love with another person and planning to marry that person one day or even soon, what is the problem with having sex before the matrimonial knot is officially tied?  Why wait? The answer is two-fold. 
            First of all, many relationships come undone before the matrimonial knot is tied.  I remember one fine young Christian lady in the Australia who met a fine young Christian man, and they affirmed that they were both in love, and would marry in due course.  Why wait?  They didn’t wait, but consummated a marriage that had not yet taken place—a marriage, as it turned out, which never did take place, for not long afterward they both decided that they were not as compatible as they had thought and they went their separate ways.  But a gift had been given which could not be taken back, and when the young lady later meets another young man and they marry, she will not have that gift to give, for it has already been given to someone else.  In the case of other more secular people, sometimes the gift is given to many someone elses, to the diminishment of the actual wedding night.  If the young Australian woman had known the marriage would never take place, she would not have given the gift, for it was given on the understanding that of course marriage would follow. 
            The point is that the rule “No sex before marriage” can seem, if not prudish, then certainly arbitrary.  The Australian couple certainly did not see the point of the rule, which is why they did not keep it.  But it turned out that the rule was not in fact arbitrary, but rather based upon the possibility of circumstances they did not foresee.  And here’s the kicker:  the apparent arbitrariness and inflexibility of the rule turned out to be the only thing that could have saved them from the folly their action.  They didn’t have such a rule, so they didn’t keep it.  If they had said, “We can’t have sex yet because we have this rule”, they would’ve been happier in the end.
            That of course is the point of rules—they are pretty inflexible, even to the point of appearing arbitrary.  In this matter guidelines will not work quite so well as rules.  I remember a scene in the original Ghostbusters movie with Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver.  A ghost-possessed Weaver attempts to seduce Murray, and he demurs, saying that he has a rule never to sleep with possessed people.  When Weaver grabs him, straddles him and kisses him passionately, he says, “Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule”.  Ghosts and comedy aside, this is not just the Ghostbuster’s experience, but that of every hormonal teenager who has indulged in such behaviour.  In the heat of the moment, rules can often become mere guidelines, to be disposed of quickly enough.  If one has no rules but only guidelines to begin with, they will melt away even faster.  In a world drowning in sexual images and propaganda for promiscuity, young people need all the help they can get, regardless of how hormonal they are.  They don’t need guidelines or abstract theology.  When the storm comes, they need rules.  Only rules can save from the onset of a hormonal storm or the vicissitudes of changing relationships.
            The second reason for waiting involves the honour due to the matrimonial moment itself.  Say for example that the issue was not the gift first given on the wedding night, but a gift given on Christmas morning.  If you gave me a Christmas present on December 1, carefully and colourfully wrapped, and I tore it open immediately or perhaps as soon as I returned home, would you not detect in me a certain cultural insensitivity and even greedy ingratitude?  The point of the giving was not just that I should have the gift, but that I should have it as part of the celebration of Christmas.  Waiting to open the gift means that the exchange of merchandise is not just about me and my pile of possessions, but also about Christmas, and how to honour something greater than myself.  If I tried to defend my action in opening the present early by saying, “Well, I would have opened it eventually anyway, so why wait?” one might well conclude that I didn’t understand Christmas and was not honouring it properly.  We honour Christmas by leaving the presents wrapped and waiting under the tree until Christmas Day is upon us.  Otherwise the gift-giving is not about Christmas, but only about getting stuff.
            It is the same, for Christians anyway, about the wedding ceremony.  The ceremony is not simply about wearing an expensive dress or having a party.  It is about a mutual exchange of lives, the moment when an intention to give one’s life fully and permanently to another person become an actuality.  The intention alone is not worthless, but it falls short of the actuality, as broken engagements testify.  Waiting until intention becomes actuality is not only a protection against failed intentions and changed plans.  It is also a way to honour the reality that the wedding produces. 
For the wedding consists of a promise finally given—a promise to stay with the other person for the rest of one’s life.  That promise, when kept, becomes the security in which one can safely embrace the vulnerability that comes with sex.  Sexual intercourse involves mutual vulnerability, and can sometimes lead to a broken heart, as well as unwanted pregnancy.  The promise to build a life together (which is the essence of the wedding ceremony) provides a bulwark against such tragedies.  The wedding ceremony is the time when this promise is given and the bulwark is built.  Before the ceremony, the two people are still separate, and so can go their separate ways.  After the ceremony, they are one, and bound to each other by promises and vows (and legal obligations).
Waiting to give the mutual gift of sex until this reality occurs is the way we honour that reality.  Enjoying the gift before that day would be like greedily tearing into a Christmas present before the dawn of Christmas Day.  We understand that we should not open Christmas presents early because we understand what Christmas is.  Our society has largely forgot what a wedding is.  That is why it cannot understand why the gift of sex should not be given before the wedding day.  Instead it asks, “Why wait?”


Monday, March 6, 2017

A Little HIstory Lesson

Not long ago the question about whether or not Orthodox Churches could accept homosexuality as a valid lifestyle came to the fore.  The year was 1983.  A denomination by the name of the “Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches” applied for membership in the association of mainline Protestant churches, the National Council of Churches.  The raison d'ĂȘtre of the Metropolitan Community church was the acceptance of homosexual lifestyle.  It was and saw itself as, “the gay church”.  This was acknowledged at the time by G. William Sheek, the Director of the National Council’s unit on Family Ministries and Human Sexuality, who wrote that accepting the Metropolitan Community Churches into membership would contribute to the “high visibility” which had been tending to legitimize homosexuality.
            Many in the National Council of Churches wanted them in.  But the Orthodox balked, and in fact drew a line in the sand:  if they were in, the Orthodox were out.  In a statement drafted by the Greek Fr. Stanley Harakas with help from the Antiochian Fr. Joseph Allen, and with supplementary comments by the Orthodox Church in America’s Fr. Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory), the Orthodox were clear that accepting the Metropolitan Community Churches into membership would not contribute to inter-denominational Christian unity (the supposed reason for the National Council’s existence), but represent “a further dilution” of the ecumenical work.  In a prepared statement, the paper drafted by Frs. Stanley and Joseph said, “A body whose raison d’etre is not the faith of the Scriptures and the Creeds, but a passion universally condemned in the age-long tradition of the Church as inappropriate and unfitting to the calling of the Christian life, cannot in fact be seen as a Christian communion by the Orthodox.”  In other words, the Orthodox Church could not maintain an ecumenical relationship with a body which blessed homosexual practice.  The Metropolitan Community Churches were characterized as a group which was (to quote the Orthodox statement again) “specifically organized around a moral failure, and which finds support in a thoroughly rewritten exegesis of the apostolic, patristic, canonically embodied mind of the Church”.   The acceptance of the Metropolitan Community Churches into membership of the NCC therefore would make Orthodox membership in that body impossible. 
The debate over the motion whether or not to accept the Metropolitan Community Churches into membership was a long and agonized one, lasting almost two hours.  At last, by vote of 116 to 94, the board agreed to “postpone indefinitely” the decision on whether or not to accept them for membership.  Documents, including the Orthodox statement and Fr. Hopko’s even more radical stance, can be found here.
This is not ancient history, representing the benighted first century or the medieval times before Science enlightened us all.  This was 1983.  The irony of the whole thing of course (as Archpriest John Morris pointed out in his book The Historic Church) is that this was “a meaningless victory”, because since that time many Protestant churches have come out in favour of homosexual practice anyway.  (The irony was doubtless not lost on the Metropolitan Community Churches.) 

What has changed in the few years since 1983?  Just this:  the cultural tide is now flowing in favour of those promoting the legitimacy of homosexual practice in a way that it wasn’t just three short decades ago.  Do the Metropolitan Community Churches proclaim “another Jesus”?   In 1983 we thought so, and said so clearly and emphatically.  The question now is whether or not we will retain the courage to say so when the majority of secular society is ready to shout us down for saying it.