Friday, August 27, 2010

Tomorrow will be my last day of teaching for the summer; Monday begins a new school year. Your prayers are coveted.

Those Orthodox Christians under the (Old) Julian Calendar will celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos tomorrow; I wish all of them a blessed feastday; as we will be entertaining company from out of town who will be celebrating the feast on that day, I've been thinking (again) about the feast, and my earlier talk of a post.

Fr. John's homily on New Calendar Dormition struck me for several reasons, most of all because it asserted, as do the earliest fathers of the Church who speak of the celebration, that it is a historical event steeped in the ancient consciousness of the Church--it is, in other words, a feast which was treated as venerable and established even in the fifth centuries (the dates of the earliest festal homilies we have come from this period).

As is not surprising, St. Gregory Palamas' homily on the subject provides the reader with a succinct, thorough explanation of the Church's honoring of the Falling-Asleep of God's mother. He begins with an exposition of the Scriptures that prophetically put forth her role as the Queen Mother, the Queen of Heaven. The seat at Christ's right hand was not his to give to James or John, for at the right hand of the King stands the Queen (Ps. 45.9, LXX). This idea that the Queen and Mother would sit enthroned at the right hand of her son the king was something imminently familiar to the Ancient Near East; Bathsheba, upon entering to speak with King David, bowed before him, yet after his death, Solomon not only rose to greet his mother, but arranged for a throne to be built for her at his right hand (I Kings 1.16, 31; 2.19, and it is interesting to note that Solomon listened to the petition of his mother). Taken in and of themselves, these passages do not point to the Theotokos any more than, say, Isaiah 7.14 in its historical context, necessarily points to Christ instead of a deliverer-king against the Syrians of Isaiah's day. The point is, as St. Gregory points out, that "she is the only one who has a place in heaven with her divinely glorified body in the company of her Son."

Indeed, he asks, moving to another prophecy from the Psalms, "how can that body which not only received within it the pre-eternal, only-begotten Son of God, the ever-flowing found of grace, but was also plainly seen to bear Him, fail to be taken up from earth to heaven" when it was written "that the ark of Christ's holiness should arise with Him who rose on the third day (Ps. 132.8, LXX). Again, these prophecies were understood--and rightly so--to refer to she who had held Him who is God; they, together with other readings which liken her to the Burning Bush, Jacob's Ladder, and the Eastern Gate of Ezekiel's vision, leave one with a strong sense of how the apostles reacted to the Mother of God and how the Church has seen her since.

The most beautiful aspect of the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God, however--and this is borne out in the story of the Dormition quite explicitly--is that the Mother of God patterns herself after her Son (as should we all) and is thus a conduit for divine grace of which we may partake. She, in other words, becomes by grace what Christ is by nature--she, through the energies of God becomes what Christ has and is via the divine essence. She becomes the bush through which we encounter the fire of God, she the tongs with which we are offered the divine coal, she the means through which we may "partake of and touch the intangible divine nature." Thus, when St. Gregory says that the Theotokos "sends briught shafts of holy light and grace down to earth, illuminating all the space around the world," or that she is "the synthesis of divine, angelic, and human loveliness, a nobler beauty to embellish both worlds," he does not mean One divine by nature and pre-eternal, coming down to be the Man from Heaven, but rather one "originating from the earth" and thus partaking of Christ's divinity through divine energies.

Why is this important? It was not simply necessary that Christ be the mediator between God and man by being both human and divine; he also needed to form an example foundation, par excellence, of renewed creation. In paradoxical form, the Mother of God "is the cause of what preceded her the protectress of what comes after her, and she procures eternity" for us through her humanity deified by his divinity. As with her, so with all of us, and we are "illumined by her, the true lamp of divine radiance."

Blessed feast.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Blessed Feast

Am currently working on a reflection of yesterday's festal liturgy and a sermon of St. Gregory Palamas on said feast; to read the festal homily, click HERE.

A most joyous feast to all!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

"Now, I beseech you, strive to lift up the eyes of your understanding towards the light of the gospel message, that you may be transformed by the renewing of your mind, and having acquired the divine brightness from above, be conformed to the likeness of the glory of the Lord, whose face shone like the sun today on the mountain.

"In what way like the sun? There was a time when sunlight was not contained within the disc of the sun, for the light was made first, whereas the Creator of all formed the sun on the fourth day, kindling its light and making it the source of daylight and a luminary to shine by day. Similarly, the light of the Godhead was not always contained in Christ's body, for that light existed always without beginning, whereas the human body which the Son of God assumed from us was made later for our sake, receiving the fullness of the Godhead, and so being kindled as a deifying and divinely radiant source of illumination."

St. Gregory Palamas, From Homily 35, on the Transfiguration of the Lord (Veniamin, Christopher. St. Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. The Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, UK., 2009, pp. 275-6)

Monday, August 02, 2010

Bread and Gnarled Hands

A song I've loved for over half my short life:

"Old ain't a word that I'm fond of," he said.
"And these days I've begun to lose count."
Mumbling she rolls in her wheelchair, and says,
"I'm afraid that they've closed my account."

There's a blur that occurs in the line of their life
That decays the whole notion of sense
And they call to the past, insisting that it last,
While they're climbing down reality's fence
Singing with me

Take me
Take me
Write my name in the most Holy Tome
And when it's my time
To assume the sublime,
Take me to my promised home

And their hands aren't gnarled, they're in love with the earth
And they're dying to go there again
We say the essence of life is strong in our youth,
Slowly buried under wrinkles of skin
But there's God in the way that life comes to an end,
In the way that it draws to a close,
In the saying of soul to the house of the skin,
You're too weak now to really oppose


Lyrics found HERE (p. 10 in the pdf)

I remember my grandmother, with whom I lived for most of my childhood and who, during my high school years, succumbed to emphysema and congestive heart failure. She had been a heavy smoker earlier in life and, in keeping with the history of women in that branch of the family, had a stroke because of it. Therapy helped her, but in those last years her body simply would not keep up with the damage already done. She knew, the night before she died, that she was slipping away. I remember being called out of an assembly the next day. I remember picking up my aunt at the airport not an hour later. I remember reading Rev. 21.1-4 over her body as the heartbeat slowed to zero, while her chest continued to rise and fall. We always told her, "Keep breathing, Ma-Gram," when she'd complain about a breathing treatment. She showed us. I remember nothing else from that day.

There are things the body knows, things it must learn, that the mind can't grasp. In today's world this type of statement is often used to push a sort of libertine sentimentality meant to justify debauchery in the face of natural law or the like. What I refer to is chastity and sobriety. Today we begin a countdown of sorts to the day when the "Crown of continence," as the Akathist refers to her, folds into the earth peacefully and silently. It is this quietness and stillness, this learned obedience to the Word that feeds what food cannot, that the mind cannot understand yet which the body must learn.

We heard today, on the celebration of the Procession of the Cross, that some demons only go out by prayer and fasting. St. Innocent (Veniaminov) of Alaska reminds us that "the goal and intent of fasting are to humble and lighten the body, thereby rendering it more obedient to the soul, for a well-satisfied and fattened body requires peace and comfort; its disposition to laziness interferes with thinking about God. It binds and constricts the soul like a self-willed, spoiled and capricious woman who rules her husband." Primarily, however, fasting for St. Innocent means "abstinence and strict moderation in the use of food," although "while fasting bodily you must also fast spiritually. That is, you must refrain from speaking evil."1 There is a type of bodily asceticism associated with Orthodox fasting that ultimately amounts to a self-inflicted "creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough," to borrow a phrase from Sartre's work No Exit, though it is interesting that the slight gnawing at the stomach is the suffering that, when combined with prayer, leads to the exit the Mother of God found in Ephesus but which eluded Jean-Paul (and, I would say, most men today who live by bread alone which, they insist, must be bread alone if they are to justify living as they do).

Fasting as a cross is, of course, not a major suffering--especially in our context of Veggie-Meat crumbles and whole-food, organic substitutionary tendencies. What's meant in our eating fewer types of things and less of that is a slight stretch into that breaking down of the body that must and will happen, a reminder of that against which our entertainment-addled minds scream yet which our bodies will one day obey. Audra said several years ago that the total fasting from her charismatic upbringing (which did not happen often, but was a part of her parents' spiritual regimen from time to time) was actually easier than the Orthodox practice of abstinence and fasting; this constant feeding of the body just enough to keep going while still remaining hungry was something that grated on her. And rightly so.

For the bread of earth is simply Argon's chalk delusion that, when the light of Thabor rains in, will evaporate, bringing us a judgement of whether or not we've made the counterintuitive leap from bread of earth to Bread of Heaven, from clawing for oneself to open hands for others. She who held the one who condescended to be the Man from Heaven is now preparing to be held by the One who will take her, the New Eve, to be the Queen of Heaven, the sword which pierced her soul having done its work, having found nothing but a cherished, hidden, quiet, small, εὐαγγέλιον which will pick up her body which was pure and true and made more spacious than the heavens "with the Archangel's voice," breath Life into it (again), and set it--set her--free.

[1] Oleksa, Fr. Michael. Alaskan Missionary Sprituality. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2010, p. 111.