Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Orthodoxy: Vintage Christianity

Vintage, it has been aged, tested. Thought and beauty are evident; enduring quality, maturity and excellence. Concerning Christianity and faith it is not ramshackle, nor trying to reinvent the wheel. True vintage is not trying to recapture something lost, it simply is.

Orthodoxy is vintaged since 33AD. Its true tons of groups like that date a lot, the difference is in Orthodoxy we claim a concrete continual link, both spiritual and historical. We are not trying to recapture something lost. In Orthodoxy we believe in a Loving God who has always been with His Body, the Church. There is not some point in history where God abandoned the Church because it had become “formal religion.” Have there been some rough points? Sure, but this is a relationship. A relationship between God and humanity. A relationship is about working through things. If God just leaves when mistakes are made (as some thoughts promote) what does that imply about the faithfulness of God? Is He faithful only if no mistakes are ever made? Thats not much of a relationship, and not really very faithful.
Orthodoxy is not just trying to claim the “golden days.” We confess that God has stuck with us through thick and thin, and, by His grace, we with Him. Through saints and sinners. Through great times and bad. Why? Because God is truly faithful, even when we may not be. This faithfulness of God is vital to being vintaged properly. If you won't claim the tough times also, don't claim the vintage. One has to do more than claim a name, one has to live a linage.

Speaking of “golden days,” we believe that is now, today is the day of salvation as St. Paul says. A person gets to “today” by living through all the yesterdays, the good and the ugly. Its not emerging, it is being. Its not a reconstructed puzzle, it is dwelling in the timeless image of God: Christ Jesus. There has been a lot of looking back to the early times of Christianity, and one get the impression that these were perfect days. No doubt great, but not perfect. I read some of the pastoral issues St. Paul dealt with, and, well, I am glad I have not dealt with them. It seems the Church hit the ground running, the battle was instantaneous. In Orthodoxy we have been living the faith for over 2,000yrs. The Church is too busy being alive in Christ to be distracted with “recapturing.”

In a relationship it would be a bummer to always hear your loved one wishing for the “good ol' days,” this would imply that something is wrong with your love today. In Orthodoxy we believe the love of God is infinitely deep. It is the same and, yet, always new. In marriage the goal is to love more deeply; love is a journey. Without the journey, through good times and bad, love will not be vintaged. It is precisely through this steadfastness, in all things and all times, that genuineness is revealed. If we claim God is love, does that not mean that He will be with His Body the Church through every second of this life? If He broke off the original relationship and started afresh at a later date with another group, how could we say God is love? This would imply God is fickle and not steadfast.
If a group or person has not endured the past how will they endure the future?

Something becomes vintaged by enduring. If it is junk, it will fall apart. If it is an imitation time will make it clear. A question of faith should be, does it endure, has it endured? Something of quality lasts.
Christ makes it clear, the Church will encounter hell, but hell will not prevail. Orthodoxy has been to the gates of hell and back.

Vintage is beyond persons and their individual opinions. It is beyond the confines of time. It is found in living the Christian life as it always has been. In living we are brought into the timeless experience of Christ and His Body; here a person abides in the vivifying grace of God throughout all the ages. Here a person is grafted into the eternal Body of Christ, and there, through the Holy Spirit, a person becomes immortal. Not by virtue of oneself, but because the revelation comes: I cannot make this up, this is beyond any of my dreams or ideas, here is truly the mystery of God.
Come partake of Christ's vintage, it is wonderful beyond words.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eternal Faith

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. Empires are exalted and then fade into the dust of time. Nations are established and overthrown. 

Yet, for over two thousand years Orthodox Christianity has been standing the test of time. 

It was born in blood under the pagan Roman Empire; grew within Roman Byzantium; withstood the brutal onslaught of the Ottoman Turkish Empire; witnessed the rise and fall of Tsarist Rus'; and endured the most brutal persecutions yet known to humanity under Humanistic Communism. 

It is faith that has been tested in the furnace of time and has been found to be true. 

It is faith that has partaken of the sorrows of mankind, it is faith that has participated in the joys of life. 

It is ever new and youthful and yet ancient and wise. It is the Christian faith personally handed down in loving awe throughout the ages by millions upon millions of men, women and children.

 It is found within time and yet is timeless. It is the Church of Jesus Christ alive and well today. It is the eternal Faith existing in a mortal world.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Scriptural understanding of image

Another talk presented at our Icon exhibit "Images of Eternity."
This talk was given by Dn. Thomas Lynch.

The Christian understanding of image is intrinsically connected to the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. By which I mean, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” i And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” ii In another place it is written that Jesus Christ is the exact image ( Greek: Icon) of the invisible God who is beyond human comprehension: Jesus, “Who being the brightness of his (God's) glory, and the express image of his (God's) person...” iii, The Father’s dear soniv “Who is the image (Greek: Eikon, Ikon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, ...all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”v

...By him were all things created...” So we read of the mystery of creation in Genesis, that God, when creating humankind, said “ And God (Elohim: plural, a revelation of the mystery of the Trinity) said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: ...So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” vi In the most ancient texts of the Old Testament Scripture, the Greek Septuagint, which were used by the Apostles and the Lord Himself, the word image here is “Icon”, just as it usually is in the New Testament writings. There is a cohesiveness and unity of thought, of revelation. Jesus is the Icon of the Invisible God, existing before time and from all eternity, and man is created as the image, the icon, of the Eternal Word, the Pre-Eternal Image of God, by whom all things were created. St Athanasius comments:

“You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high has been made manifest in bodily form.... He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There IS thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

For God is good-or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ; and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, ..., upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked - namely, the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree, they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things -namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, "Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die." 1 "Ye shall surely die"- not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.

You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word's becoming Man (and about Image and Icon). The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their to their nature; and as_they had at the beginning come into being out of non- existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.”vii

The Eternal, self-existent God the Word took our form, our nature, and so became our Brother.viii He was and is both 'Son of Man' and 'Son of God': both completely identifying and joining our humanity, except without sin, and retaining the fulness of the Image of God. Thus being joined to us while at the same time keeping complete union with the Father, and being the very Image of the Father, He is able to restore us to our lost position, to restore us to the Image of God. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”ix God in Christ, the Creator condescending to become part of His creation, is a wonder beyond wonders. For love of us and longing to provide the way of our restoration He did what He did. He did so not for man alone, but to free and lift all of creation which was enslaved through man's rebellion to the curse and corruption. All of creation is lifted and cleansed by Christ's life, death and resurrection, and made a fitting vessel for His goodness and love.The Creator came as a creation, and through this recreated all things, making all things new, especially to him who believes. Dehumanized man was made capable of true humanity again. Even more, he is recreated in the Image of Him who created Him, and made, even more, a child and heir of God and Christ. Through Jesus' birth, man is able to be reborn, to be set free, to begin again on the true path of life. Jesus as the Image of the Father, and His union with man, through His death and resurrection, could recreate and restore man to the lost image of God.
He sanctified the body by being in it.
He sanctified creation by entering it.
He descended below, He ascended above, He fills all things. x

Man, in Christ, is made a “kingdom of kings and priests” xi to offer spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise to the Lord of all creation.
Man is made a living stone, built into a spiritual house for God to dwell in. He was a dead stone, insensible to God: now in the Rock Christ he is partaker of the divine nature.xii
It is written in the Old Testament that Israel passed through the river Jordan as on dry land. God caused the river to stop, and they passed over dry-shod.
And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over Jordan, that the LORD spake unto Joshua, saying,Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man, And command them, saying, Take you hence out of the midst of Jordan, out of the place where the priests' feet stood firm, twelve stones, and ye shall carry them over with you... And Joshua said unto them, Pass over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of Jordan, and take ye up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel:
That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones? Then ye shall answer them, That the waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it passed over Jordan, the waters of Jordan were cut off: and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.”xiii St Paul writes that the Old Testament stories are examples and allegories for us.xiv God, who forbade the worship of created matter as God, yet ordains matter as a memorial, sign and example: not as an object of worship, which is reserved for God alone, but as an aide and witness. The stones represented the tribes of Israel. Stones because they were not yet truly made alive in God. Now those who believe and obey Christ are made living stones: and God the Holy Spirit continues to instruct His servants to set up memorials - Icons - to the living stones whose lives are joined to Christ. The great cloud of witnesses surrounds usxv, not just in the Spirit, but in the matter which God has sanctified by His becoming matter. They speak to us in words beyond words in Icons, images of the image of God,Christ, whom they are joined to:
“ For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest,...
But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant...”xvi
Are come... in the Spirt, and in the body as well, when you enter a sacred space filled with the memorials to the “ just men made perfect and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant”, the living stones and the Living Stone.

The ancient prohibition of God against images was not directed at images per se (Or else why would God himself have commanded images to be made: the Brass Serpentxvii, the Cherubim overshadowing the Mercy Seatxviii, the appointments of Solomon's temple like the brazen oxenxix, the adornments of the Tabernacle of meetingxx, etc, etc); but rather the prohibition was directed at 2 main defects:
  1. The worship of material,created things as the uncreated, uncontainable, incomprehensible God.
    (This has ever been the deluding work of man's archenemy, the devil, who is ever trying to impose his image on man and seduce man to worship him and demons. (See Revelation 19.20; 20.4, 10) We have an enemy that ever desires to impose on us a false image and obstruct the image of Christ – (2 Corinthians 4.4,6)
  2. Because God had not yet revealed His form or Image -
    And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice. Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire:
Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air.”xxi
Now that God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, has taken human form, has joined His divinity to matter, it is fitting and good to portray Him, as well as those who are evident signs of His divinizing, Christifying, sanctifying work in man. St John said “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;xxii God has come in the flesh, and dwelt among men. Iconography bears eloquent and true testimony to this. That which was granted to the Apostles, to see the Lord, is given to us in a physical approximation which conveys deep spiritual truth. We “see” through the Spirit granted medium of the Icon.
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.”xxiii Icons bear faithful witness to the coming of Jesus in the flesh, and stand against the raging of the devil and the ravages of men who wish to obscure the fullness of the redemption that is in Christ.
iJohn 1.1
ii John1.14
iiiHebrews 1.3
ivColossians 1: 12, 13
vColossians 1:15-17
viGenesis 1.26,27
vii St Athanasius, On the Incarnation: St Vladimir's seminary Press, Crestwood NY: pgs. 26, 28,29
viii Psalm 22.2 : Hebrews 2.12 -“I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.”
John 20:17: Jesus said.. go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God."
x Ephesians 4.9,10
xi1Peter 2.5,9
xii2 Peter 1.4
xiii Joshua 4.ff
xiv Galatians 4.24, 1 Corinthians 10.11
xv Hebrews 12.1
xvi Hebrews 12.18-24
xvii Numbers 21. 8, 9
xviii Exodus 25. 19,20
xix 2 Chronicles 4.3,4
xx Exodus 25 - 28
xxi Deuteronomy 4. 12 -17
xxii 1 John 1.1
xxiii I John 4.2,3 & 2 John 1.7

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why Orthodox Christianity? Worship.

Why Orthodox Christianity? Through the deafening din of noise in the modern age, Orthodoxy appears as just another voice in the babble, and just another flavor choice on the “what would I like today” buffet. (To clear something up from the start, Orthodoxy Christianity is not a denomination. Denominations are the result of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500's. Orthodoxy predates that by about one thousand five hundred years, placing it safely outside of denominational labels.) So, with the multitude of voices why should anyone listen to Orthodox Christianity, and in the proliferation of choices why come to Orthodoxy?

Worship. How we approach God says a lot about our understanding of God. There is and has been, at large, quite a bit of talk about Biblical or New Testament worship.
True Christian worship is an image of eternity. It is not man-centered, but God-centered, reflecting not the tempestuousness of earthly ages and existence, but rather the serene immutability of eternal heavenly living. Thus, true Christianity understands worship to be God revealed. God built the ladder by which humanity may once again ascend; He did this so that humanity may have a successful return.

In Christ Jesus, the Old Testament was fulfilled (Mat. 5:17). We now have, in Christ, the fullness of God as revealed to humanity (Eph 1:17). In the Old Testament, God gave to the Hebrew people a very concrete and definite revelation of how to worship (Ex. 35ff). Moses makes it clear, this is the revelation that he received from God on Sinai. This revelation was very particular. It was not Moses' own ideas, nor was it according to his likes or dislikes. Why? Because true worship is about humanity returning to God and being restored to His image and likeness. Worship has to be a revelation from God because only God knows the truest way for humanity to be healed and made whole.

The Jerusalem Temple
But, Christ came; surely in the book of Acts the apostles went from an intense Hebraic liturgical worship to sitting around at home having “free-form" worship? The answer is no. Even the book of Acts speaks of the nascent Church worshiping in the temple and then going to a believer's home to partake of Holy Communion (Acts 2:46, breaking of bread is known to be the Eucharist). The early Church's life was informed by Liturgical Temple worship. When the Christians were forced out of the Temple and Synagogues, this Mosaic revelation of worship became the foundation of Christian worship. St. James the brother of our Lord is credited with the first Christian Liturgy. Although one could elaborate more from the book of Acts, I want to shift to one of the most worship based books in the New Testament: the book of Revelation. In fact, only in revealed liturgical worship is Revelation truly understood. Outside of liturgy, it takes on a host of bizarre interpretations (our modern age has proven this).

In Revelation, we have a glimpse of heaven. There are the twenty-four elders with electric guitars on stage, jamming out some emotive chords. The four living creatures are casually milling about with some great java … well, maybe not. What we do see is a throne which is beautiful beyond words (Rev. 4:2-3) upon which is seated the Living God and incredible heavenly hosts falling down before Him in worship. The four living creatures sing a hymn, which they repeat, as do the twenty-four elders. Clearly, the phrase “they do not cease ...” (Rev. 4:8) denotes repetition. In our modern age and mentalities we might feel sorry for these creatures, stuck in eternity repeating the same thing; yet, one does not get the impression that this is the case for them. They are enraptured in their ritual worship because it is God-centered and is given by God. Further, we find censers, incense, lamp stands, an altar, hymns and unspeakable beauty (cf. Rev. 5:8, 6:9, 8:3-4, 16:7). There is an overall sense of extreme awe and veneration for God which is reflected in the mode of worship and the disposition of the worshipers themselves. There are distinct acts of worship, such as standing and prostrations (Rev. 4:10, 5:14, 20:12).

The book of Revelation reflects what was revealed to Moses on Sinai (the Tabernacle and then the Temple in Jerusalem had all the above elements), the conclusion is that Moses also glimpsed heavenly worship, which was then imaged in the Tabernacle/Temple (Heb. 9:23ff). In Revelation, the Apostle John was assuring the worshiping community of Christians: behold, your act of worship is an extension of the eternal reality of worship in the heavenlies. Your worship is not just some man-made thing, but it is the beginning of heaven on earth. It is part of the cosmic battle, in fact, it is a vital feature in the overthrow of the enemy. The Church of God on earth is an image of the Church in heaven, or we might say it is a continuous extension of it in time and space. Worship is one of the paramount unifying factors. One could go on, but this suffices to show that Christianity has always seen worship as an image of heavenly reality. If Moses and the Apostle had almost identical revelations of worship (we can safely call this the Biblical revelation of worship), when and why is it that some assume these models can be thrown out the window? 

When did heaven change its mode of worship?

Elsewhere in the New Testament the Lord Jesus Christ is clearly portrayed as a liturgist, St. Paul tells us of heavenly worship: “The chief point is: We have such a High Priest, Who sat down on the right of the throne of the majesty in the heavens, a Liturgist of the holies and of the tabernacle, the true one, which the Lord pitched, and not of man” (Heb. 8:1-2, the word “liturgist” is most often translated as “minister” which diminishes the clearly liturgical tone of St. Paul). This heavenly tabernacle, not of man, is the very one imaged in Orthodox Christian worship (which simply is the way Christians have worshiped throughout the ages). Undergirded by this clearly Biblical understanding of worship Vladimir Lossky comments: "Christ, who is both the Sacrificer and the Sacrifice, offers on the heavenly altar the unique sacrifice which is done here below on numberless earthly altars in the eucharistic mystery. Thus, there is no schism between the invisible and the visible, between heaven and earth, between the Head seated at the Father's right hand, and the Church, His body, in which flows unceasingly His most precious blood."
St. Paul says, “I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). It is no stretch to contend that at the heart of the Gospel is true worship of God. St. Paul confirms that Christian worship is based on revelation, not the passing ideas of men.

Orthodox Christian Worship
When one enters an Orthodox Church these God revealed images are alive. There is an altar, beauty, incense, lamp stands, ritual hymns, petitions, a priest and so on. Everyone (priest and people) faces the altar, which has a host of meanings, among which is the throne of God. The focus is not a preacher, nor a band, nor a techno screen, nor a spinning globe, etc. We all face the throne of God (as they do in heaven). True Christianity does not reflect the mutable age (though it must work and live in it, engaging it on many levels) but the age to come: eternity. True worship reminds the worshiper that the paradigm of fallen earthly realities (no matter how innocuous) are not abiding (Jn 15:19). True worship reminds the world that it is temporal and passing away. St. John of Kronstadt says: “The church and worship are the embodiment and realization of all Christianity: here in words, in persons and actions is conveyed the entire economy of our salvation, all sacred and church history, all that is good, wise, eternal and immutable in God … His righteousness and holiness, His eternal power. Here we find a harmony that is wondrous in all things, an amazing logical connection in the whole and its parts: it is true divine wisdom accessible to simple, loving hearts.”

Modern "Christian rock worship"
Unfortunately many sectors of Christendom have abandoned the heavenly model of worship; opting instead for an earthly reflection, one that resonates with worldly likes and dislikes. Some even become indistinguishable from worldly events. Instead of being the image of heaven, Christianity is reduced to a fad of humanity; the worldly rather than the heavenly becomes the model. 

Lacking the heavenly image modern "Christianity" becomes a hollow shell, a mutable thing of this world rather than the eternal and immutable revelation of God.  A worldly model will never heal the world (though it may draw large crowds and be very entertaining, with a great emotional high), only the heavenly can (cf. Jn 6:33); indeed it must be light to the world (Jn. 8:12, 12:46).

Secular rock concert. Looks the same as "Christian rock"

When a Biblical standard is held to, one finds that Orthodoxy is living and worshiping accordingly. Of course, it was Orthodox Christianity that compiled the canon of Scripture (the Bible)…

Why Orthodox Christianity? Because true Christian worship is a revealed reflection of eternity centered around the throne of God. We invite everyone to come and worship the Living God as Christians always have.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Historical Experience and Spirituality of the Icon

The transcript of one of the icon talks given at Images of Eternity, an Icon exhibit and talks presented by St. Michael's Orthodox church on September 30th. The talk is entitled The Historical Experience and Spirituality of the Icon, presented by Fr. Zechariah Lynch

I hope to impart to our listeners in this brief talk a basic understanding of, first: what we will call the development of the icon, and second: the inner life of Christianity from which it developed. The inner life is what we understand as eternal revelation, and what we have named development is the expression of that revelation in time. Indeed, we are looking at two facets of a single reality.
It must be understood that when we speak of development, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, we are not speaking of something that was not and slowly developed into something that is. The underlying principle, the essence is for us unchanging. Human encounter and penetration and expression may develop. Thus we have for the confine of this talk two aspects, the essence and the expression of that essence in time.
First, I will address the expression of that essence in time. This is the Historical Experience. I have purposely said experience, because we must leave behind the notion that history is something that has happened, simply a string of past events. Indeed in the Christian life it is something happening. The Orthodox Christian faith does not see itself as detached from time, or driven along by time, but fulfilling time, and in an ultimate sense timeless. Thus, for us events that happened, in what is called the past, have deep significance. The history of the Church is not so much a culmination of events, as an organic whole of existence in Christ. Christ Jesus manifested Himself in time, but in Him time is also transcended. So, we see ourselves as abiding in time timelessly. This is important because we are not presenting events as marks on a time-line, but as parts, happenings of a life.

Image, Eikon, has existed in the Christian faith from its very beginning. Thanks to archaeological achievements many of these images, icons, have been uncovered. It is important to note that ancient Christianity ascribes the practice of icon painting to the Apostle Luke. Some would argue that this is a ploy to ascribe the practice to a famous figure, clearly we do not take this view. Tradition, which for us means the vivacious keeping alive of the knowledge and experience of Christ, attests that the Apostle Luke recorded for Christian posterity the image of Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. From the perspective of Christianity we are not looking for archaeological or historical evidence so as to “prove” that the practice of painting images is “ancient,” we know in the center of our being, in the essence, the very heart, that it is. Any evidence is simply icing on the cake, so to speak.
Image of Christ in the catacombs
Some of the most ancient Christian imagery is preserved in what is known as the catacombs. A simple search on all-knowing google reveals a wealth of information about Christian catacomb art, or one may prefer simply to check the library. Many of the images in catacombs such as, Commadilla, Domitilla and Priscilla, date from the 3rd and early 4th centuries. Images include Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, various early saints, Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Daniel and the three youths in the furnace of fire, etc. The catacombs highlight the fact that from earliest times Christians have viewed certain places as sacred space, area not simply used or occupied in a utilitarian way. It is also clear that Christianity sought to beautify and hallow the space in which it abode, not only through the worship of God in an oral manner but also in a pictorial. These spaces are filled with images and various decorative ornamentations and symbols. Even the floors of unearthed ancient Churches reveal a deep love of ornamentation and beauty, such as the site in Megiddo Israel which dates to the 3rd century.
Thus, we have the personal witness of the Church testifying that icons have been a part of her life from nascent years, plus archaeological evidence of early Christian sacred spaces. The 4th century historian of Christianity, Eusibius, mentions the practice of icons, though he himself was not a supporter (he was also an Arian), nonetheless he stands as a negative, so to speak, witness. I will note here that, like many other things in Christianity, icons were not simply unequivocally accepted. Yet, it is clear from historical experience icons have always been an integral component of Christian worship. Interestingly enough the precise expression of Christian thought regarding icons did not happen until the Iconoclast (one who fights or destroys icons) controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries. This is not too surprising. It in no way implies that there was a lack of earlier theological understanding, indeed it would have been impossible for such a deep spirituality to come out of nowhere. Those who gave expression to the theology of the icon were giving expression to the primordial revelation of Christ. From the Orthodox perspective we were never out to formulate a systematic Faith, almost all formulas of faith in the Orthodox Church are in counter to what is understood as untruth, or heresy.
Christianity is not a set of laws compiled and dictated from an elite echelon, but the keeping alive of the true experience of life in Christ. In its essence Christianity is content to live and know the experience of God, but if proper experience and life are challenged then the faith is expressed in as much as needed at that time to keep it true. Thus icons were an intrinsic experience of Christian life. When challenged they were explained and upheld through the experiential revelation of knowledge in Christ Jesus as preserved in the Church. When I say preserved do not think along the lines of canning, or mummies, but along the lines of the immune system. Our immune system preserves us from sickness, its job is to keep us healthy and alive. This is what we mean when we say preserving the faith.

During the above mentioned Iconoclast controversy a great many icons were lost. It was a policy of most Byzantine emperors starting with Leo III in 726AD to actively hunt down and destroy icons, and many times to torture and kill those found defending them. A very simplified reason for the rise of iconoclasm may be due to the political losses of the Byzantine Empire at that time. These losses were seen as chastisement, and a search began for the reason. Icons became the scapegoat: they must be a form of idolatry and we are finally paying for it! The arguments were of course very nuanced. There was brief respite from 786-815, during that time the 7th ecumenical Council of 787, which confirmed the Christian practice of icons, was held. Yet iconoclasm was not completely subdued until 843, in what is known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. From this time on icons flowered without resistance in Orthodoxy. Iconoclasm was not about art and its place in Christianity, it was about revelation and the place of representing Spirit and Truth through material mediums. The most ancient icons painted on boards (such as those on display here) were mainly preserved outside of the Byzantine Empire. One the most ancient notable treasuries of our day resides at St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai.
After what is referred to as the Great Schism of 1054 (this date is good for general reference only, details, as most of the time in history, are varied and complex), which marks the parting of ways between the Orthodox east and the Latin west, the Orthodox east became the de facto guardian of the icon. To a great degree icons became lost to the Latin and Protestant west. In fact further resistance to the icon found a home in western Europe.

But why icons? Why has Christianity so resolutely lived, practiced and defended icons? Why do we understand them to be holy objects? What is the inner essence, the spirituality, from which the icon springs? As has been pointed out in preceding talks, image has a fundamental role in Christianity. Christ, the Scriptures teach us, is the image of the Father (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, Heb 1:3), and a Christian is to be conformed to the image of Christ (1 Cor. 15:49, 2 Cor. 3:18, Col 3:9-10). Christians should reflect not some random idea, but the concrete revelation of God in the Eikon of Christ Jesus. (Keep in mind icon means image.) In Christ the Image of the Unseen God is revealed. The shining forth of true image is at the very heart of Christianity, it is part of its very nature, “since it is not only the revelation of the Word of God, but also the Image of God, manifested in the God-Man” (Ouspensky, Vol 1 p. 41).
The icon stands as a witness and trophy to the revelation of God on earth. It testifies for us that God has indeed become man; if He had not, icons would not be possible. Moreover, depicted around us even in this church are many men and women considered saints. The great cloud of witnesses as spoken of in Hebrews. They are here witnessing to the reality of Christ. For us they are not simply people who did good, they are people who in a most dynamic way, through the grace of God, were conformed to the image of Christ. For us icons are not memorials to righteous dead people, according to Orthodox thought no one who is in Christ is dead. The Icon is thus also a most vibrant herald of the Resurrection. We understand ourselves to be communing with the living, for they are abiding in Life Himself.
In the Icon we take up earthly material: wood, gesso, pigments and so on and re-orient them to proper reality. Through what is referred to in Christianity as the Fall of mankind, proper orientation was lost. Humanity and matter no longer were focused on God. In the icon matter is reinstated to its former purpose. God has once again sanctified matter by Himself becoming flesh (matter) and using matter for His glory. Matter was intended originally to lift mankind's vision to eternity, in the icon it is once again fulfilling this purpose. We confess the renewal of the created order in Christ. The icon is a focal point reflecting the potentialized sanctification of humanity and the material world through the Divine Incarnation.

the Transfiguration
In the mystery of the icon we find heavenly grace being transmitted to us who are still very much earth bound. In its proper role it becomes a lightening rod, transmitting in a focused manner the limitless power of Divine energy. It is not lightening itself, but a revealed conduit of its energy and power. The Icon in reality is the coming together of the spiritual and the material. It testifies to the fact that in truth there are not two different worlds, one material and one spiritual, but one unified whole in and through Christ Jesus. This unity is not some abstract metaphysical unity, it is objective and personal; the icon is founded upon the real union of the earthly, material and human to the heavenly, spiritual and divine in the person of the God-Man Christ Jesus. This reality extends to all aspects of the Church, in Orthodoxy everything becomes a reflection of this paramount principle. Indeed this is why from the earliest times Christians have sought to sanctify their places of worship with images. Orthodoxy is seeking to reflect not this broken world that is in desperate need of healing, but the endless timeless perfect age that is already advancing upon us. The age that is whole and complete, where it has been revealed there shall be no more brokenness or fragmentation; it is not to come, but indeed is right now coming. The icon is one of its heralds. It is in light of this that icons are sometimes referred to as “windows to heaven,” though it should be clear they are not simply windows for passive viewing, but of active beholding. And as has been seen in the preceding talk sometimes there are very miraculous manifestations (from our point of view) poured forth from the icon.

Through the icon we may behold and participate in the whole encompassing reality of the redeemed cosmos. The cosmos that is both transfigured and being transfigured through the transformative energy of Christ God. From day one Christians have been trying to live this message, which is essential to Faith. And from day one Christianity has been announcing this message in word and in image; expressing in a comprehensive manner the mysterious vision of faith.
In closing, the icon is a potent reality of Christian spirituality and eschatology, it takes its form from matter but transmits power from eternity. The icon witnesses to humanity of its true purpose in the order of the redeemed cosmos. But it must be understood that the icon is not a magic trinket, nor an image standing in the place of God. It is empowered by God's grace, and to understand and see it for what it is requires eyes that have been enlightened by divine light. If we approach with eyes burdened down with the ideologies and systems of this broken existence, then the icon will remain shrouded in darkness, whether idolatrous blasphemy, primitive religious art for display in museums, or a cloud of mystical confusion.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

"Tell me what your authorities are ..."

A very pertinent reflection by St. Hilarion (Troitsky). He lived in the days of the rise of socialism in Russia, and ended his life as a martyr. The discerning reader will find the applicable correlations to current times. Though socialism may not be the popular word of our day, many of the underlying principles of the overarching philosophy remain. In some sense 100 years later we are still facing similar struggles. What follows are selections from an article entitled "Christianity and Socialism" originally published in English in Orthodox Life, May-June 1998, pp.35-44. 

This truth remains ever and everywhere immutable. Any single truth or any series of truths always comprise what is “greater” for man, and this “greater” is man’s authority; he refers to it, he “swears” by it. Yet the same truths are not what is “greater” for all men. Sometimes what is “greater” is entirely false; yet man nevertheless swears by this illusory “truth” as though it were authoritative. The measures by which men approach the phenomena of the life which surrounds us are quite varied. Each chooses that authority which seems best to him, and therefore one may accept the position: Tell me what your authorities are, and I will say what sort of man you are.

St. Hilarion
Now, many have quite different, and even contradictory, authorities. Truly, where now can one find in the “progressive” press any reference to God and the Church? Is not agreement with the laws of God and the Church of Christ now considered the hallmark of what is bad, of backwardness, while opposition to them is considered a sign of what is good? I recall a certain student (at the {Theological} Academy, alas!) who, seeing a man with whom he was unacquainted eating fasting food, said: “He is probably one of those who participates in the pogroms!” Another student, when I praised the Theological Academy in his presence, enumerating its good qualities, quite seriously interrupted me, saying: “No, tell me: What has your Academy done for the Revolution?” I declined to enumerate such dubious merits, yet such a statement is entirely characteristic of our times. Now it is not what is pleasing to God or the Church that is good, but what is “progressive,” “liberal,” revolutionary; that which is “right-leaning” is the concatenation of all evils. “It is in agreement with Marx!” - this is the highest praise for any teaching, for any opinion. Even holy Christian doctrine is assessed on the basis of this new standard. Thus, all of Christianity’s fundamental teaching concerning the personal struggle of repentance and humility is cast aside, while only some sort of “social teaching” is taken up and given consideration, and in it only that which one can reinterpret in a liberal-revolutionary way is approved. Those who wrote and labored in the Church, even the great Holy Fathers, are assessed using the same debased, inferior coinage. We ourselves were witness to how a certain “orator,” delivering a panegyric to Saint John Chrysostom on November 13th, 1907, declared that the great hierarch ‘thought like Marx on some things, though not as well.’ Such - we dare to say - blasphemy is now troubling to very few. In life, some new world-view is urgently announcing itself; new gods, new idols are being erected. Of course, the Church of Christ is holy and without blemish. The people of the Church continue to live in accordance with the divine laws of the past, refusing to bend their knees before Baal. For them there is no other god than God and His Christ; there is no authority besides the authority of the Church. However, there are no few people who have already adopted the new world-view, who have already bowed down before the new idols, yet nevertheless have not for some reason left the Church entirely. Such people are constantly passing judgment on Christianity, on the Church. They pass judgment not as ones taught by the Church, but as ones who would teach it; they wish to “correct” the Church’s understanding of Christianity, replacing it with their own, in which the teaching of Christ is shown to bear a remarkable resemblance to all the most recent teachings and actions of the godless, up to and including revolutions, expropriations, and bombings.

Eras of decline are always characterized by the absence of definite, clearly expressed convictions. Men become, as it were, impotent; their laziness does not allow them to think a thought through to the end, and for this reason the most contradictory elements, taken from various sources, peacefully coexist within their world-view. Such is the nature of eclecticism. Our times may serve as an illustration of this. Do not many now desire to bring together in unity the most impossible things? There are far too many who share such a desire in our days!

One of the more prominent misunderstandings which have arisen in this area is the misunderstanding about socialism. On the one hand, they aver that Christ was a socialist; and on the other hand, that socialism is entirely in agreement with Christianity. This implies that in all these discussions Christianity is not taken to be the only possible and definite form of the Holy Church of Christ. The Holy Church is mindlessly disparaged as “official,” “the one which put itself at the service of the old regime,” et al. Everyone interprets Christianity as he pleases, and only a small part of its sacred books is given any attention. The epistles of Paul are rejected; no one knows them! Even from the Gospels only that which is “appropriate” is selected, e.g., the expulsion of the merchants from the temple, as proof of the lawfulness and necessity of violence, though of course only revolutionary violence. With such devices, it is not difficult to demonstrate whatever one pleases, and not only some “agreement” between Christianity and socialism. In light publicistic literature one may constantly encounter attempts to reconcile pagan socialism and Christianity. It is sufficient merely to socialize Christianity and to Christianize socialism - and, lo! Christian socialism is the result!
Therefore, any attempt to investigate, from a strictly Christian point of view, the question of whether socialism is appropriate for Christians, or is our adversary, can only be welcome ….

If socialism looks upon itself as a world-view, what, then, is this world-view? It is, first of all, a consistent materialism … Socialism replaces everything with itself; it is founding its own religion. In the resolutions of the various socialist assemblies and the discourses of socialist leaders one finds clearly and definitely expressed the demand for a revolution in all human thought. “Socialism is not and cannot be a mere economic science, a question concerning the stomach only... In the final analysis, socialists are striving to bring about revolution throughout the entire juridical, moral, philosophical, and religious superstructure” (Vandervelde). “Is socialism merely an economic theory?,” we read in the socialistic catechism of Bax and Kvelch; “In no way! Socialism envelops all the relations of human life.” According to Bax, in religion socialism is expressed as atheistic humanism.

It is understood that in the socialist world-view there will also be no place for belief in the immortality of the soul. The denial of immortality is one of the main conditions for the success of socialism, “because with the weakening of belief in heaven, socialist demands for heaven on earth will be strengthened” (Bebel). Dietzgen advises that one prefer “a comfortable world here” to the other world. On February 3rd, 1893, a certain Catholic deputy asked the social-democrats of the German Reichstag the question as to whether they believed in the afterlife. They answered unanimously in the negative. One socialist newspaper, Neue Zeit, suggested that “the threats of hell be mocked, and that pointing to heaven be disdained.”

Now the socialists have but one desire: to debunk Christianity, to undermine trust in its historical principles, to mock the content of its ideals, and to drag even its moral teachings through the mire. Christianity arises from economic conditions and spiritual needs. For the sake of decency, they try to present the case as “scientific.” At the Mainz Conference, the demand was made “to provide a scientific refutation of the teachings of Christianity suitable for the purposes of agitation.” And so, a filthy and blasphemous caricature of Christianity appears in “scholarly” literature. “Here one does not know what to be more surprised at: the psychological limitations of the authors, their ignorance of history, the backwardness of their point of view from the standpoint of principle, or their dishonesty in distorting the facts and twisting the sense of the texts. In no single area does the science of this socialism, which boasts of its scholarship, bring such shame upon itself as here, in its juvenile, perfervid criticism of Christianity” (Kozhevnikov, p. 39).

Irrefutable conclusions of science” arise among the socialists of Tubingen. Lafarge sees in the Christian Faith a “systematic amalgamation of ideals and myths, which dominated in the ancient world for hundreds of years.” For Bebel, the existence of Christ is “very uncertain”; Christianity borrowed from Egypt, from India, Buddha, Zoroaster, and even from Socrates; of course, it is of human origin, and “its elimination, from the point of view of progress, is essential.” The Church is “the yoke with which the clergy harness the people in the interests of the ruling classes” (Bebel).
The dogmatic aspect of Christianity is of no interest to the socialists. Who now considers dogmas obligatory? Yet the socialists dare to blaspheme even the moral teachings of Christianity and to propose their own “greater.” According to this teaching, all morality is conditional; it is immoral only to deviate from one’s own morals, and in no case from those of others (Kautsky). The conscience, according to Menger, is only fear of unpleasant consequences for opposing power and what is commonly accepted, and power and morality are in essence identical. “Hope in the Messiah is senseless; Christianity has not fulfilled its promises of universal redemption from the needs and cares of existence.” (But where is the proof that it ever made such promises?)
To criticize the moral teaching of Christianity, which they do not wish to acknowledge, the socialists do not undertake criticism, but prefer to wage war. Christianity is “a religion of hatred, persecution, and oppression” (Bebel) … The perfection of the “modern socialist movement” is not in Christian life on earth, nor in eternal blessedness in heaven. Both the former and the latter are relegated to the archives. “Our ideal is not poverty, nor abstinence, but wealth, and wealth immeasurable, unheard-of. This wealth is the good of all humanity, its holy object, its Holy of holies, toward the possession of which all our hopes are directed” (Dietzgen).

I have only wanted to show what moral ugliness socialism is, what an abyss of falsehood lies within it, and, therefore, how mistaken is any attempt to reconcile socialism and the divine Christian Faith. Such attempts are being made not only by Christians who have lost their faith, who have “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like the corruptible man, and birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23); certain among the socialists, or better to say, workers seduced by socialism, are also naively convinced that it is possible to combine socialism and Christianity. The socialist press is also trying to take advantage of this trust, arguing “that Christ belongs not to the churchmen, but to the socialists.” Oscar Zimmer, in his booklet “The Socialist from Nazareth”, reaches the conclusion that all the religious teaching of Christ was a mere addendum to His preaching of socialism. In the opinion of another author, Christ unfortunately could not fulfill His most important task - to write a manual of political economics; but the modern lights of socialism have brilliantly carried out this task.

Icon of St. Hilarion
The believing man is absolutely unable to speak of any agreement between socialism and Christianity whatever. Socialism is not only not ours, it is our declared and dangerous adversary. It is guilty of enmity toward Christianity and deserves no condescension. It is our enemy. Every member of the Church must be aware of this, and it is essential that the Church explain this for all the world to hear. If passing into heresy entails separation from the Church, passing into socialism is an error more grievous than any heresy, and is even more deserving of punishment. “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema” (I Cor. 16:22). We have already seen how socialism ‘loves’ Jesus Christ. It is necessary to commit all inveterate socialism to anathema. Ravening wolves must be driven from the flock, else the whole flock will perish. How can one speak of the ‘Christianization of socialism’? These are empty words. Can one Christianize atheism? “Christian socialism” is a contradiction in terms. What is Christian cannot be socialist. If we do not loudly and openly declare that socialism is the enemy of Christianity, nothing will result except harm and scandal. All compromises are inappropriate here. One must look one’s enemy in the eye. To underestimate danger is always deleterious.

St. Newmartyr Hilarion (Troitsky)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cultural or Cosmic Wars?

    About this time I see again such phrases as Orthodoxy does not “actively advocate” such and such, or we are not “political,” or we do not “get involved in cultural wars.” What does this mean? Is it because we want to appear so heavenly, that we do not dirty our hands with such “mundane” earthly things? I am not addressing political parties or platforms, or the confines of narrow American politics. What troubles me is when issues, which True Christianity has always had a clear voice on, are brushed aside under “culture wars,” or whatever the label may be. Is this an attempt to appear more sophisticated than other Christian groups? (I am wondering.) Am I “involved” simply because I affirm that Christianity has always upheld the dignity of human life, and therefore understands that abortion is an all out attack against the dignity of the human person? Or that cold and ruthless drone killings are inhuman and criminal? If we as Orthodox are not “involved” in the struggle to preserve human dignity what are we doing? Or in regard to the question of proper sexual expression, if we affirm the timeless teaching of the Faith, that sexuality is a relationship between a man and a woman in the mystery of marriage, is this “political?” The Faith does not condone pornography, masturbation, homosexuality, fornication or any sexual misuse. I am not “warring” I am stating what the Faith has always upheld, regardless of the times. If I fail to do this I am failing in my obligation to uphold the Faith (a vow every Orthodox Christian takes at baptism). Are these new issues? I don't think so. As Metropolitan Jonah has said: “So often, people think that if we name sin for what it is, that we are judging people. No, we're just pointing our reality. It is not a matter of judgment to say abortion is a sin. It is not a matter of judgment to say that homosexual activity is a sin. It is a matter of simply stating the truth of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.”

 An answer might come “we are not simply a moralizing Church,” true, if the meaning of morality is contained in the narrow dictates of puritanical thought. But we do not draw a line between the inner workings of the heart and the outer expressions of a person. That is, the outward deeds of a person reflect his inner state; thus, true “morality” is the reflection of an inner disposition, it has roots in the heart. An exterior veneer morality, with no roots in the heart, is of course condemned by Christ and the Saints, and conversely I can't “love Jesus in my heart” and be engaging in behavior clearly spoken against by the Faith. “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, fornications, adulteries, thefts, murders, covetings, wickedness, guile, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, folly; all these evils from within go forth and defile a man” Christ Jesus says. St. John the Theologian clearly states, "This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (1 Jn 5:3). The “job” of the Church is to bring mankind to spiritual health in Christ, how can we do this if we fail to address the ailments? We do not hate, nor are we against anyone, we simply know what Christ has revealed to be true spiritual well-being for His creation; and failing to properly convey this to my society and times would be an utmost lack of love, akin to a doctor who refuses to inform his patients that they are sick, even though a cure may be offered.  I am still trying to find the part in history where Christianity has been on the sidelines. (Please keep in mind I mean all this beyond our limited national politics.)

The Faith transcends  the narrow mentalities of the ages. Our “war” is never cultural. As Met. Jonah said, “we're just pointing out reality.” The reality is: as humans we are created and we will answer (sooner or later) for our heart and actions to our Creator: God. This is something the world does not want to be reminded of (and sadly many “christians”), and when we cower in a corner trying to appear detached we are failing. We must be the leaven in the world, we must be the salt of this age. This transcends earthly politics, indeed to relegate proper living to politics is to betray a sad lack of understand regarding the essence of the matter. Politics and culture have nothing to do with it. Christianity, in it's essence, is the penetration of eternity into this mortal corruptible existence. It stands as a testimony that mankind is not its own master, that we are created for God and only in giving our whole self to Him, abiding in Him and through Him, will we have true Life. And yes, this will be reflected in our outward living.

   I am sorry secular society your desire for a free-for-all amorality is wrong. I would be remiss if I failed to tell you.

   If we are not the voice of Truth we are called to be, then who will be? There is a war and it will not leave those on the sidelines in peace, “For us the wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the cosmic rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of evil on account of the heavenly things” (Eph. 6:12). St. John Chrysostom comments, “What darkness? That of night? Not at all, but if wickedness. 'For you were once darkness [Eph. 5:8],' he says, so naming that wickedness which is in this present life; for beyond it, it will have no place, not in heaven, nor in the ages to come.”

   We must both be tending our own hearts and speaking the Truth in love. As a Joseph at says: “One’s responsibility for his own spiritual state does not negate his social responsibilities. One’s lack of ultimate spiritual perfection must not paralyze him from tending to more worldly duties. That some Christians seem unable to grasp this reveals a rot in Christendom.”
I am afraid there is a war, and there is blood on the ground, but it is not cultural it is cosmic.