Monday, September 16, 2013

Struggling with the Scandal of the Cross

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Come, O People!  Let us fall down in worship before the blessed Tree.  (Vespers of the Exaltation/Elevation of the Cross)

On September 14, we began our festal celebration of the Feast of The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, to give the Feast its full title.  This feast has a full octave (Leavetaking on September 21), thus stressing the importance of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives.  It is up to us to maintain our concentration on the Cross throughout this week, and hopefully to remain vigilant in our approach to the Cross in our personal prayer life, including the veneration of the Cross within our households.  To further stress our attention toward the Cross, we recall the Third Sunday of Great Lent – the Adoration of the Cross – and the less well-observed Feast of the Procession of the Cross on August 1.  And, importantly, every Wednesday and Friday is a day of commemorating the Cross, one of the reasons that we fast on those two days on a weekly basis.

It was the Apostle Paul who already experienced the rejection of the Cross within his lifetime; and who thus anticipated this rejection throughout the centuries, when he very succinctly and profoundly captured the unbelieving world’s attitude toward the Cross in this well-known text:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I COR. 1:23-24)

This leads the Apostle to one of his most astonishing and paradoxical insights:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  (I COR. 1:26)

The “scandal” for the Jews who were contemporary with the Apostle Paul would be the claim that the Messiah was crucified.  The “folly” for the Greek/Gentile would be the claim that the divine would even enter the realm of flesh and blood and “become” human, for it was “the Lord of glory” who was crucified according to the Apostle Paul.  As the biblical scholar Richard Kugelman put it:

The gospel message shocks Jewish nationalism and Greek intellectualism.  The Jews expected and demanded signs, i.e. spectacular miracles that showed divine intervention.  They looked for a messiah who would inaugurate their nation’s sovereignty over the Gentiles by a display of miraculous power (Mt. 12:38; 16:4; Jn. 4:48; 6:30-31).  The Greeks searched for “wisdom,” i.e., philosophies that pretended to give a satisfactory explanation of man and the cosmos.

God, in and through Christ, transformed what was shameful, weak, lowly and despised – a crucified man – into “our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (I COR. 1:30)  The entire passage of I COR. 1:18-31 deserves careful, close and constant study.  It remains fascinating, and highly instructive, that even non-Christians who profess to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, struggle terribly with the scandal of the Cross.  This is clearly the case with Islam.  Jesus is treated with great respect in many passages in the Qur’an – even to the point of acknowledging His virginal conception in a passage that clearly resembles the Annunciation from the Gospel According to St. Luke! (Qur’an, 3:45-47)  However, the crucifixion is treated in a way that bears no resemblance to the Gospel accounts:  “yet they did not slay him, neither crucify him, only a likeness of that was shown to them”  (4:156-159).

The Muslims believe that someone else – a figure unidentified by the Qur’an – was crucified in the plance of Christ, but not Jesus Himself. The Muslim scholar Dr. Maneh Al-Johani wrote:  “The Qur’an does not elaborate on this point, nor does it give any answer to this question.”  Clearly, the “scandal” of the Cross is too much for Muslim sensibilities, since Jesus is for them a great prophet sent by God.  Muslims further believe that Jesus was raised to Heaven, yet before He died, clearly an odd teaching that again is meant to completely distance Jesus from His crucifixion.  If there is anything agreed upon today among New Testament scholars — believers and skeptics alike — it is that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion by orders of Pontius Pilate in the early 30’s of the Christian era.  This lends a certain fantastic quality to these claims of the Qur’an.

There is more than a passing resemblance here with an early Christian heresy known as docetism from the Gk. word meaning “to appear.”  In other words, it only “appeared” that Christ was actually crucified and died on the Cross.  St. Ignatius of Antioch (+c. 110) vehemently rejected this heresy in its initial inception, early in the 2nd century:

Be deaf, then, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died … He was truly raised from the dead, when His Father raised Him up … (Epistle to the Trallians, 9)

St. Ignatius very poignantly asks:  what is the purpose of suffering martyrdom for the Lord (as he did in the Roman arena) if the sufferings of Christ were an illusion?  Should a Christian suffer in the flesh if his Lord did not?

But if, as some godless men – that is, unbelievers – say, his suffering was only apparent (they are the apparent ones), why am I in bonds, why do I pray to fight with wild beasts?  Then I die in vain.  Then I lie about the Lord.  (Trallians, 10)

Although, as Christians, we “venerate” the Cross, we do not “worship” the Cross.  We worship the One Who was crucified upon the Cross for our salvation. Indeed, with the Apostle Paul we call Him the “Lord of glory.”  Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet in a chain of prophets sent by God.  He is the fulfillment of the prophetic testimony to His coming, as He is the fulfillment of the Law. (MATT. 5:17)  We believe, as we chant in the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy, that He is the “Only-Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God … Who without change didst become man and was crucified.”  The Cross remains “an unconquerable token of victory,” an “invincible shield.”  In fact, it is for this reason that in our practice, we

Kiss with joy the Wood of salvation, on which was stretched Christ the Redeemer.  (Small Vespers)

Christianity does not exist because of what it holds in common with other great world religions, but because of what is unique and distinctive about it, primarily the Incarnation, redemptive Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is because of our love for Christ that beginning on the personal level, we must promote respect, tolerance, and peaceful co-existence with sincerely believing people of other religions.  I see no other way for those who claim to follow the crucified Lord of glory.  This should in no way undermine our sense of Christian distinctiveness – “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (ACTS. 4:12) – but actually demonstrates our loyalty to Christ who never compels but invites with outstretched arms upon the Cross.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Nativity of the Theotokos

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The church was quite filled – and the “Communion line” was quite long – yesterday morning for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos.  And Great Vespers on Saturday evening was also well-attended and therefore “festal” in nature.  Coming as it does right after the beginning of the Church New Year, this Feast allows us a good start that we further hope we can sustain as the liturgical year unfolds before us.  As a straightforward and joyous feast of commemorating the birth of the Virgin Mary, we receive a “taste” of the joyousness of life from within the Church that is often obscured by life’s challenges, difficulties and tragedies.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it like this:  

In and through this newborn girl, Christ – our gift from God, our meeting and encounter with Him – comes to embrace the world.  Thus, in celebrating Mary’s birth we find ourselves already on the road to Bethlehem, moving toward to the joyful mystery of Mary as the Mother of God.

In an age of cynicism and unbelief, to encounter the purity of Mariam of Nazareth – the Virgin Mary and Theotokos – is to see life with a restored vision that, again, is only possible from within the Church.  Goodness, purity of heart and faithfulness to God are embodied realities lived by real human persons.  Such a restored vision of life will strengthen our sense of the inherent goodness of life that sin may obscure, but never obliterate.  Yet,  if  we can no longer “see” that, then we have lost something absolutely vital to our humanity, and we need to repent and embrace that “change of mind” that will restore our own humanity. 

Some will undoubtedly see nothing but a stereotype of the “feminine” here, but perhaps Fr. Schmemann has something worthwhile to say his approach to the “image of woman” as manifested in the Virgin Mary:

The Virgin Mary, the All-Pure Mother demands nothing and receives everything.  She pursues nothing, and possesses all. In the image of the Virgin Mary we find what has almost completely been lost in our proud, aggressive, male world:  compassion, tender-heartedness, care, trust, humility.  We call her our Lady and the Queen of heaven and earth, and yet she calls herself “the handmaid of the Lord.”  She is not out to teach or prove anything, yet her presence alone, in its light and joy, takes away the anxiety of our imagined problems.  It is as if we have been out on a long, weary, unsuccessful day of work and have finally come home, and once again all becomes clear and filled with that happiness beyond words which is the only true happiness.  Christ said, “Do not be anxious … Seek first the Kingdom of God” (see Mt. 6:33).  Beholding this woman – Virgin, Mother, Intercessor – we begin to sense, to know not with our mind but with our heart, what it means to seek the Kingdom, to find it, and to live by it.  —Celebration of Faith, Vol. 3

On the day following the Feast – in this case today, September 9 – we commemorate the “ancestors of God,” Joachim and Anna, the father and mother of the Virgin Mary according to the Tradition of the Church.  This is a consistent pattern within our festal and liturgical commemorations:  On the day after a particular feast, we commemorate the persons who are an integral part of that feast day’s events.  For example, the day after Theophany we commemorate St. John the Baptist; and on the day after Nativity, we commemorate the Theotokos.  Therefore, because of the essential role of Joachim and Anna in the current Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity, today is the “synaxis of Joachim and Anna”  and we thus bring them to mind in an effort to  discern and meditate upon their important place in this festal commemoration.

The source of their respective roles is the Protoevangelion of James, a mid 2nd c. document.  As Archbishop Ware has written:  

The Orthodox Church does not place the Protoevangelion of James on the same level as Holy Scripture:  it is possible, then, to accept the spiritual truth which underlies this narrative, without necessarily attributing a literal and historical exactness to every detail. 

One of those “spiritual truths” alluded to by Archbishop Ware is the account of both Joachim and Anna continuing to pray with faith and trust in God’s providence even though they were greatly discouraged over the “barrenness” of Anna.  A lack of children in ancient Israel could easily be taken for a sign of God’s displeasure, thus hinting at hidden sins that deserve rebuke. Though disheartened, they continued to place their trust in God, refusing to turn away from God though thoroughly tested as to their patience.  Perseverance in prayer in the face of discouragement is a real spiritual feat that reveals genuine faith.  The conception and then birth of the Virgin Mary reveals to joyous outcome of their faith and trust in God.  Perhaps this is why we commemorate Joachim and Anna as the “ancestors of God” at the end of every Dismissal in our major liturgical services, including the Divine Liturgy:  We seek their prayers as icons of an everyday faith that is expressed as fidelity, faith and trust in God’s Law and providential care.

Joachim and Anna could also be witnesses to a genuine conjugal love that manifests itself in the conception and birth of a new child.  Their union is an image of a “chaste” sexual love that is devoid of lust and self-seeking pleasure.  The strong ascetical emphases of many of our celibate saints may serve to undermine or obscure the blessings of conjugal love is envisaged in the Sacrament of Marriage.  In fact, through its canonical legislation going back to early centuries, the Church has struggled against a distorted asceticism that denigrates sexual love even within the bonds of marriage as a concession to uncontrollable passions.  The Church is not “anti-sex.”  But the Church always challenges us to discern the qualitative distinction between love and lust.  The icon of the embrace of Joachim and Anna outside the gates of their home as they both rush to embrace each other following the exciting news that they would indeed be given a child, is the image of  this purified conjugal love that will result in the conception of Mary, their child conceived as all other children are conceived.

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos has four days of Afterfeast, thus ending with the Leavetaking on September 12.  That allows us to then prepare for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on September 14!