Monday, August 23, 2010

Physically Significant - Sermon for the Afterfeast of Dormition

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m going to begin this sermon with a statement that will probably surprise most of you, because it is a statement that appears to be true, yet it is not. And that statement is this: We celebrated the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos last Sunday.

Why is this an untrue statement? Because it is put in the past tense, as something that is over and done with. The majority of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, however, are not events that are commemorated and celebrated on one single day, then put on the shelf again until the following year. Rather, they are followed by a period - of varying length, depending on which Feast it is - called the Afterfeast, culminating on the day known as the Leavetaking (Apodosis) of the Feast. During the period of the Afterfeast, hymns for the Feast continue to be sung at the services: Vespers, Matins, and Liturgy. On the Apodosis, pretty much all of the hymns which were sung on the day of the Feast itself - with a few exceptions - are repeated, causing the commemoration of the saint who is set in the calendar for that day to be bumped to another.

The Feast of the Dormition has a particularly long period of Afterfeast... not counting the day of the Feast itself, it is a period of eight days, so that the Church will be celebrating the Leavetaking tomorrow. In a very real sense, then, we are still celebrating the Dormition of the Theotokos even now.

This is an especially long period of Afterfeast, over a week, and particularly so when it is measured against the preparatory period which preceded it. There must be meaning in this, something especially significant about this Feast which has much importance for us.

There are several significant points that can be discerned from this, but one of the most significant lies in what was found, or rather not found, in the grave of the Mother of God. At the time of her death, all the apostles were gathered on clouds from all the ends of the earth where they were preaching the gospel and evangelizing the nations. All, that is, save Thomas. He arrived a week late and, sorrowful at having missed her funeral, asked to see the body. When they opened the tomb, however, there was no body. It was gone, taken up from the earth into heaven. That this is an extremely significant point is made by the fact that the following hymn is repeated on three separate occasions during the Afterfeast: In the aposticha for Vespers on August 17th and August 21st, and in the aposticha for Matins for August 22, that is, today. And this hymn goes: “Your body was not touched by the dust of the tomb; although it was buried in keeping with nature and its laws, nevertheless it remains incorruptible.”

When we all recite the Creed we confess that we believe “in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” That her body was taken up from the grave is an assurance of this. It shows that she partakes of the first-fruits of theosis, of deification which encompasses the whole human person, both soul and body. In the Feast of the Transfiguration we are shown the reality of the hypostatic – that is, personal - union of the divine nature and the human nature in the one Christ which makes this possible, the glorification of our human nature and bodies through intimate communion with the divine. The post-Resurrection appearances of our Savior Christ recounted in the Matins gospels show us what our glorified bodies will be like, that is, truly physical... He could eat fish, could be touched... “A spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see I have.” He said.

The absence of her physical body from the tomb, then, is a great sign to us, the promise to us that this selfsame physical flesh and bone and body which we have now will not remain dead; we too will have such glorified physical bodies, in the transfigured New Creation after the final judgment, that we may live the life humanity was intended to live in Eden, ever growing into the likeness of God as human persons, soul-body unities. Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Understanding the Miracle of Euphemia and the Fourth Oecumenical Synod

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

“On the eleventh of this month we commemorate the holy Great Martyr, the all-famed Euphemia, who through a supernatural wonder upheld the Orthodox Tome of faith at the Holy Fourth Oecumenical Council..”

As the Wikipedia article for the holy one relates, “Eupehemia lived in the 3rd century and was the daughter of a senator named Philophronos and his wife Theodosia who lived in Chalcedon. From her youth she was consecrated to virginity. The governor of Chakcedon, Priscus, had made a decree that all of the inhabitants of the city take part in sacrifices to the pagan deity Ares. Euphemia was discovered with other Christians who were hiding in a house and worshipping the Christian God, in defiance of the governor’s orders. Because of their refusal to sacrifice, they were tortured for a number of days, and then handed over to the Emperor for further torture. Euphemia, the youngest among them, was separated from her companions and subjected to particularly harsh torments, including the wheel, in hopes of breaking her spirit. It is believed that she died of wounds from a wild bear in the arena under Emperor Diocletian, between 304 and 307. Eventually a cathedral was built over her grave.”

The Fourth Oecumenical Council of the Eastern Orthodox Church took place in that city in the year 451, and met in the cathedral dedicated to her. It was called to combat the Eutychian doctrine of monophysitism, which said the Christ’s humanity was swallowed up by His divinity. The council repudiated that, and set forth the Chalcedonian Decree (in Greek, Oros), which affirms “ and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood, ... recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person...”

The council’s sessions were very contentious, and it was hard to reach a consensus… so it was decided to appeal to God through the saint. One of the stichera sung at the service of Vespers for this day succinctly describes the “supernatural wonder”: “O wondrous Euphemia, the assembly of the holy fathers placed at the head of your coffin the Symbol of the Faith; you took the document into your hand, having faultlessly kept the faith, thus overthrowing all false doctrine and confounding the defenders of heresy. Thus, we glorify you and call you blessed.” According to the story, the members of the council put the stated beliefs of both parties into the coffin with the saint’s relics, and three days later the Chalcedonian Definition was found in her right hand while that of monophysitism was found under her feet.

The hymnography paints a rosy picture… heresy defeated and the truth wins out. But the reality was a whole lot messier. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Dioklea in his book *The Orthodox Church* remarks that the Council was “a rock of offence.” Sizable portions of the ancient Christian world – honest, devout Christians – refused to accept the decision of Chalcedon, nor recognize it as ecumenical. These are the Churches known today as the Non-Chalcedonians or the Oriental Orthodox, including the Coptic, Armenian, and Syrian Churches. The situation, however, has changed for the better, owing to – as Fr. John Erickson, retired professor and dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary notes in his article “Beyond Dialogue: The Quest for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Unity Today”, which is well worth reading and available on the St. Vladimir's website – the modern ecumenical movement and modern historical scholarship. Unofficial consultations between the two church families were held in Aarhus (Denmark) in 1964 and in Bristol (England) in 1967, attended by leading theologians from the two sides; there were further meetings in Geneva (1970) and Addis Abbaba (1971). The results were unexpectedly positive. It became clear that on the basic question which had led historically to the division—the doctrine of the person of Christ—there is in fact no real disagreement. The divergence, it was stated in Aarhus, lies only on the level of phraseology. The delegates concluded, “We recognize in each other the one Orthodox faith of the Church... On the essence of the Christological dogma we found ourselves in full agreement.' In the words of the Bristol consultation, 'Some of us affirm two natures, wills and energies hypostatically united in the one Lord Jesus Christ. Some of us affirm one united divine-human nature, will and energy in the same Christ. But both sides speak of a union without confusion, without change, without divisions, without separation.' The four adverbs belong to our common tradition. Both affirm the dynamic permanence of the Godhead and the Manhood, with all their natural properties and faculties, in the one Christ.” In other words, what was held to be a refusal to accept the Orthodox Faith actually was not… rather, both sides failed to hear that the same Faith was being expressed in different ways.

The two church families are not yet in communion; there remain practical considerations which must be addressed. We heard some of these in the stichera for Orthros this morning, when Dioscoros and Severus – considered by the Oriental Orthodox to be saints – are condemned and anathematized by Chalcedonians. Another can very well be the event we commemorate today, an event strategically placed in the church calendar since next Sunday we celebrate the Fathers of the first six Oecumenical Councils, but especially the Fourth.

The question for us, then, is how we understand the miracle of St. Euphemia in light of the movement, guided by the Holy Spirit, towards the reconciliation and reunion of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches? Do we have to reject the miracle of St. Euphemia?

No, we do not. Instead, we need to understand it more inclusively.

First of all, we have to remember that for us Orthodox, stories and myths – whether in the Bible, as for example the two Genesis accounts of Creation, or in hagiography or the service books – can convey absolute truth without necessarily being completely literally or historically true. Metropolitan Kallistos makes this point in his introduction to the Festal Menaion, when speaking of the stories that are recounted concerning the Nativity of the Theotokos. Christ Himself spoke in parables… stories which were quite obviously made up, yet presented truths by which men and women should live. In this way we can understand that the story we remember today need not be a literal historical recounting, nor that its interpretation need be set in stone. It can be saying that the Holy Spirit indeed affirms the central tenets of the *same* Christology that is shared by both families, the four common adverbs found in the saints hand, rejecting Eutychianism (which the Non-Chalcedonians also reject) while not necessarily excluding diverse but legitimate ways of expressing those tenets.

Another thing to remember, and I will close with this, is that the stories of hagiography are not meant to be bludgeons with which to attack other Christians, whether in the Church or outside of the Church. They are not proof-texts to use as weapons to score points in debates, as fundamentalists are wont to do with scripture. They are meant to edify and upbuild Christians in their daily lives and struggles, that every human person soul and body united may be saved and deified. Amen.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Changeless Change" - Sermon for the Sunday of the First Ecumenical Synod


In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There’s a common little joke floating around that seems to fit the Orthodox to a T. It goes like this: “How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer is, "None - we don’t *change* the light bulb.” While certainly funny, this joke illustrates a very crucial point for us as we work to explain the Orthodox Faith to inquirers. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, “The thing that first strikes a stranger in encountering Orthodoxy is usually its air of antiquity its apparent changelessness,” Now this changelessness is certainly the case, particularly when the Orthodox Church is contrasted with church bodies which have departed from any understanding of the actual existence of the historical Jesus, or of the literal reality of His resurrection from the dead, or of other basic truths of Christianity.

But it is also obviously true that the Orthodox Church of today is in many ways different than what she was during the first centuries of her life, the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic periods. For but one example, the Divine Liturgies we celebrate today are very much changed from the Eucharistic service as given in the Didache, an early second-century writing. The question, then, which will be addressed now in the ongoing task of equipping the saints is how to understand change in the context of the Church’s unchanging Tradition, and how this understanding can be applied in our lives as Orthodox Christians today.

The event the Church sets forth for our rememberance today provides us with an answer. On this day we commemorate the Holy First Oecumenical Council which met in the city of Nicaea in the year 325. This council was convened by the emperor St. Constantine to combat the teaching of Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ and made of Him a creature. We all know the outcome of that council: his teaching was condemned, Christ was confirmed to be truly God, and the Council drew up the Symbol of Faith which - along with the additions made by the Second Council - we all proclaim during every Liturgy. But what is relevant to the question we are addressing today is how the Council safeguarded the Orthodox understanding of Christ as God and His relationship to God the Father. How it did so was by introducing into the life of the Church one word: homoousios.

This is the Greek word we translate as “one in essence.” For us, looking back on it from the perspective of 1700 years later, it is easy to forget just how radical was the Council’s decision to use this word. First of all, it was an innovation in that it was completely unscriptural. In the beginning the Council had tried to limit itself only to language used in the Scriptures, because the holy fathers felt – and rightly so - that there must be continuity with what the holy apostles said, with what God said in the words of the Old Testament, and with what was written in the Gospels. This was an important point for them; just how important may be seen from a ruling of St. Constantine’s son Constantius which came later on during the period of reaction after the Council: “I do not want words used that are not in Scripture.” Pretty blunt, but it serves to make it very clear that Scripture was very important to the Fathers of the Council. And so to use this word which was not in Scripture was a very bold step, but a very necessary step. Because for all its importance, it was a point that the Council could not keep to, because the Arians could take many passages of Scripture and interpret them to support their own views.

Secondly, the word homoousios was radical because it did not originate within the Church; its origin came from outside the Church. It was first used by the Gnostics, and it was connected with the Manicheans. Gnostics were those who particularly denied the goodness of the material world and the created order. And Manicheans were a sect very similar. Again, they were very dualistic, spirit is good, matter is evil. It was also associated with the explicitly condemned teachings of one Paul of Samosata, who taught an adoptionist Christology - that is, what he said was that Jesus was a man upon whom God the Logos descended and indwelt at the Baptism in the Jordan, and only after that was He considered Christ and God.

And so the word not only was unscriptural, but also had a lot of baggage which would appear to make it unusable in the life of the Church. But these things were known to the Fathers at Nicaea; nevertheless they introduced that word while refining its meaning. They did this because they knew this: that the Church had always lived with the experience that Jesus Christ is God even if the ways used to express that experience were not entirely unambiguous nor entirely adequate. So we have “the truth”, and “the expression” of the truth. They knew that that unchanging truth, of Christ as God, needed a new expression so that the Church could remain true to itself, true to the Tradition she received and in turn handed down. That is what it means to have change in the Church: it is not that we change the eternal truths and dogmas of our Faith; they are set. But the ways those truths are expressed in each and every generation quite possibly need to be renewed so that we can take those truths into ourselves, make them one with us, make ourselves one with God in the Truth. That is the meaning of changeless change in the Church. Now an image that is often used for the Church is that of the body. If we think of human bodies, we know that bodies grow and develop, while still quite obviously remaining the same person, the same body. They develop while remaining true to themselves.

Now, what are the expressions of the Truth that we have in the Church? There are many ways in which the Church expresses her unchanging truths. We have of course preeminently the Symbol of Faith, the Creed. We have iconography, which expresses in pictorial form the truths of the saints, the feasts, the dogmas of the Church., and in we can discern different schools of iconography – one iconographic tradition, but different and developing schools within that tradition. These schools and their ways of approaching the saints and divine events do change and do develop over time.

The liturgy is another - we have already mentioned how the present liturgies have developed from and are very different than that one which is given in the Didache. And for those who have not read the Didache, this part at least is well worth reading because it gives a glimpse into the Eucharistic life of a second century Christian community. It is still the Liturgy of the Church, but it is the Liturgy before it developed into the form and the expressions we have today. So even in the Liturgy, there is room for development and change, when needed to better express Christian truths. On such Christian truth… well, we call the liturgy “LEITOURGIA” because it is “The People’s Work.” It is not just the work of the priest, but of both the priest and the people in SYNERGEIA, in cooperation. And, unfortunately, for a long time the sense of that was lost, a sense we are only now rediscovering, first of all in the efforts to recapture congregational singing, which we all know about because we have already been working on that here… the efforts of the people to contribute to and participate in the Liturgy in that way.

But there is another way to recover and renew the participation of the people in the Liturgy, and this gets back to what was mentioned a couple of weeks ago in the Teaching Liturgy concerning the Eucharist, the fact that the Eucharist is the center of our Christian life, and – again, that the Eucharist is not the sole action of the priest, bit is accomplished through the co-operation of the priest and the people. And this is expressed in the Liturgy, probably the most concretely, in the epiclesis, when the priest calls down the Holy Spirit. If you listen carefully, he calls down the Holy Spirit not only on the gifts on the Altar, but also on the “people here present”, so that the gifts may become the real Body and Blood of Christ *and* that we may become the Body by participating in them.

And so that prayer… as Fr. Tom Hopko said, there are no private prayers in the corporate worship of the Church, everything is communal prayer. So even that prayer, the epiclesis, is not just the prayer of the priest but is also the prayer of the people. And the people respond to it with their affirmation, “Amen!” Such that, when the priest is calling down the Holy Spirit and says, “And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ.” It is not just the priests and deacons serving in the Altar that say Amen, but ideally it is *all* the people because it is all of our prayers, all of our joint work. “And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ.” – everybody: “Amen!” “And that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Your Christ.” – everybody: “Amen!” And then, “Changing them by Your Holy Spirit.” - everybody: “Amen! Amen! Amen!” Because, as St. John Chrysostom says, “The prayers of the Anaphora are common.” He stresses that, that it is communal. There is distinction, obviously. The priest is the one celebrating, the people are the ones affirming… there is distinction, but there is no division within the leitourgia, the people’s work.

So this, too, is an area in which a new expression can reflect an ancient and unchanging truth: that all the People of God are One Body, participating in One Eucharist, and affirming the coming of the Kingdom of God. Amen.

This sermon may be heard as well, at the following link:

Written material which accompanied this sermon may be found at:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Doubt in the Christian Life: Sermon for Thomas Sunday, April 18, 2010

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

When speaking of the Christian life, people usually set belief and doubt against one another: Belief is the good thing, which all should unquestioningly have, but doubt the evil thing which should always be beaten down whenever it surfaces, without ever giving the mind a chance to examine it at all. Belief is always positive, doubt negative. Belief always builds up the Christian life, while doubt destroys it. But is this really the case, or is it rather that this is a simplistic view of a more complex dynamic. That is, is unquestioning belief always a good thing? Is there a place for healthy doubt and skepticism in the Christian’s journey in theosis?

An answer is provided to us in the event the Church commemorates today, the first Sunday after Pascha. The Gospel reading which we just heard a short while ago told us of two appearances of the Risen Lord to his apostles, the first without St. Thomas present, the second with him there. Now, why Thomas was not there we don’t know – it has been said that it was perhaps by divine oikonomia, heavenly dispensation, that he was not there, that Thomas’s personal reacting to and cooperation with God’s providence in synergeia nudged him to another place precisely so that truth might be revealed and a powerful point made… which it was. What we do know is Thomas’s response to the cry of the other apostles, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas said that unless he saw Him with his own eyes and felt Him with his own hands, he would not believe it. He was going to be absolutely sure before assenting.

You know, something that is often overlooked and which people do not give much thought to is just why Thomas doubted the way he did, and made the demand for proof that he did. The Gospel passage today doesn’t say anything about that, and in that absence it’s easy to say that he was just being obstinate and to judge him negatively. But it is also quite probable that Thomas was remembering – and heeding – Christ’s own words when, as recorded in Matthew chapter 24, He said, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Christ,’ or, ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There He is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” Granted, these words were spoken in response to a question about the end times… but with the events of the previous week and with the disciples huddling behind closed doors for fear of persecution from a howling mob incited by the religious establishment of the time, Thomas can be forgiven for thinking, perhaps, that the end had indeed come.

In any case, there words are a command from the Savior to doubt. Nor are they the only such example found in the New Testament. In the first epistle of St. John the Theologian, chapter 4, we read: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.” This too, is a command to doubt, one which is probably rooted in the same words of the Lord quoted before, which John would have paid attention to as much as Thomas. And so the question for us is, why must we doubt? What is the purpose of healthy doubt?

These commands to doubt are given us for a reason: our protection. They are meant to insure that we do not give ourselves over to false ideas about God and Christ, about humanity and the world. The goal of the Christian life is theosis, becoming gods by grace. God – capital G – is relational: three persons in the most intimate communion each with the others. We too are called to that intimacy, communion with the Trinity, with our spouses, with our children for those who have them, and with our fellow members of the People of God. But intimate communion can only be such when we know in truth those with who we desire to be in relationship. For us, the doctrines of our faith aren’t mere intellectual propositions to be assented to; they are the data of relationship with God and with each other. They are revelations of the inner beings of the persons of God and of each other, what we know of them and what they know of us. The so-called rules of our faith aren’t legalistic laws binding us but instead the physical and spiritual means of effecting that intimate union in theosis. Knowledge of persons must be real knowledge; if it isn’t, one is not really in communion with that person but with a false image of that person. We must doubt, then, in order to be assured of the truth of what we know of God and of each other.

St. John the Theologian was writing against the Gnostics, who were promoting false ideas about the physical world and Christ’s relationship to it… that is, the created, material world is evil and so Christ could not have a real body, real flesh. The Church, on the other hand, always affirmed the intrinsically good nature of creation and matter, though fallen and in need of salvation and regeneration in Christ. And this truth, that Christ indeed came in the flesh, sanctifying it and everything about it, is also that which is affirmed by Thomas’s confession recounted in today’s Gospel. The Tradition of the Orthodox Church explains that his cry, “My Lord and my God!” is an affirmation of the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine. Because such a confession came from his questioning, the Church in her hymnography calls Thomas’s stand “believing unbelief” – a phrase used, for example, in one of the Vespers stichera for this day.

Brothers and sisters, let us always practice this “believing unbelief” when we are confronted with strange ideas which seem to run contrary to the core of our faith in a loving and merciful God, especially if these ideas have their origin outside the Church even if they are subsequently taken up and championed by leaders in the Christian community – remember, Arius was a clergyman of the Church. We must doubt them at first to discern what we should know and live in order that we all, as whole persons both soul and body, may be saved and deified. Amen.