Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Mystery of Bodies and Words

A full week. The seminary community put forth a relatively strenuous effort this past week with, in addition to the normal lenten daily Matins/Vespers and Wed. Presanctified, a reading of the entire Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and a reading of the life of St. Mary of Egypt on Thursday morning (beginning at 6am), followed by another Presanctified Liturgy at noon the same day. Akathist to the Theotokos w/Matins was served Friday evening, followed by a Saturday liturgy the next morning, Vigil for the Resurrection last night, and liturgy this morning.

The body is a mystery. I spoke today with the husband of a dear friend of mine from college when we went to the zoo this afternoon (having three small children necessitates going more kid-friendly places, even if the company is currently without children of their own). He, a devout Evangelical Protestant, is nonetheless open to certain questions that some Evangelicals have been looking for answers to in the Orthodox Church. Consequently, the tension held between bodily, physical life and spiritual renewal and life is a mystery with which he is comfortable. The both/and of asceticism--where (ideally) our bodily efforts translate into steps towards sanctification (with the understanding that such is a participation in, and not an earning of, something that has already been freely made available to man apart from any effort or merit of man)--has been apparent during the fast.

Clean Week, the first week of Lent for Orthodox Christians--was full of lengthy services, much psalmody, and many prostrations, along with very little food, which left us exhausted, dazed, and hungry. This hunger for many folks was broken after several days with the Eucharist on Wednesday, when we traditionally celebrate the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (so called because an extra portion of bread is offered during the previous Sunday's liturgy and is changed by the Holy Spirit, according to Orthodox tradition and biblical witness, into the Body and Blood of Christ, which is then distributed to the faithful during the more somber Lenten week as a means of spiritual sustenance in a time of more penitential reflection, repentance, and increased spiritual effort). While I didn't refrain from food totally--the hospital hours were and are very demanding--such a period left me in a state of what I call "ascetic shock and awe," where the body is forcibly reminded that it is not, in fact, the one in charge, and that it is obliged to submit to the soul, which is in turn to be submissive to the Spirit of God.

Lent being the time of battle that it is, such a well-intended beginning often comes under fire and, as many Orthodox Christians can no doubt attest, we often wind up forgetting the word given to us and losing ourselves in the very things we tried to strip away from ourselves in detachment during Lent. This past week was a renewal of sorts, with a reminder that seasons of physical exertion are part and parcel to our life as humans who live in and have a body as an integral part of who we are. What is most glorious about this fifth week of Lent, now past, however, is (in my opinion) the fact that such an austere, extremely penitential Thursday not only shows us how someone as given over to what we now term sex addiction can be brought to lightness and redemption in Christ, but is followed almost immediately with the bright, buoyant--even triumphalistic!--hymns of rejoicing to the Mother of God. Here is she who, surrounded by an understanding of where and how babies are brought into being and knowing the consequences of straying from Mosaic norms, has the mind-blowing wideness of mind and largeness of heart to be the New Eve and say "Yes!" When all of the physical things around her demanded to be taken on their own terms and as ends in themselves, she realized that the order of those things' nature can be overthrown in a moment. All she was given was the word of an angel--fleeting, ethereal to human ears, but eternal in its power and scope, accomplishing what it was purposed to accomplish--and she gave it a place to settle in her blessed heart, where it was cherished and kept...and from her taking in the word came forth a short Word in the earth, the Word made flesh. Her body was the property of and temple of this Word. Our bodies are subject to--and, God grant, illumined by--this Truth.

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