Monthly Archives: May 2007

Who do you want to be like?

Those who wish to be Christians have examples before them, most especially among the apostles of the Lord and the others who wrote the New Testament documents, and numerous later writers of sterling character and excellent ability we usually refer to as the Church Fathers (among whom are included several Church Mothers, as well). While these are fine examples, it has become commonly accepted in certain circles, due to the work of various modern liberal scholars, that their mindset is primitive, and in most cases simply wrong. Their methods of Biblical interpretation, utilizing type-antitype and allegorical exegesis, like the Church Fathers of the following centuries, are decried as misguided, and favor is shown to numerous other schemes which sap the New Testament writings’ foundations in the Old Testament Scriptures, toppling the great walls of traditional exegesis, replacing them with the mismatched hovels of individual scholarly imaginations. It is, in the end, very simple: modern scholars place themselves in apposition to the apostles. They claim to be right and the apostles and Church Fathers wrong. And yet the scholars are wrong, and self-deluded at the same time. Lacking faith, they are unable to enhance the Faith. And avoiding the apostolic and patristic methodology separates them from the very movmement they would claim to be illuminating, rather like taking a cup of water from a river and calling it the river, while denying the river is a river! The River rolls on.

So who would you be like? Do you want to follow the apostles and their followers and those who learned from them down to the present, who approached the Scriptures in a way that resonates down the ages, from within the Old Testament itself into the writings of modern saints today? Or do you want to follow some man or woman or group of no moral or ecclesiastical standing whatsoever advocating a different mindset, promoting contradicting theories, yet always calling those apostles and their descendants wrong in so many different ways? On the one hand you have the saint, the apostle Paul, and on the other hand, a legion of academics cherry-picking his writings for errors or new theories on what he really wrote, writing more on any single phrase of his than they do on the Gospel he proclaimed. Who would you follow? Saint Peter, the greatly faithful, greatly gifted, and on occasion greatly failing, our example as the greatly human leader of the Twelve? Or some infighting German academics with a penchant for Nazism?

Peter, and Paul, and John, and Justin Martyr, and the Desert Fathers, and John Chrysostom, and all the others are clear: it’s all or nothing. That same process by which they were and are conformed to Christ is the very same process for each and every one of us throughout the ages. And that also requires entering into the interpretive world that they inhabited, one in which Scripture, the Word of God, the written image of the Son of God and a mix of the eternal and the timebound, speaks to us still, not just to the ancient Hebrews and the first generations of Christians. Their belief was that such was the way that Scripture was inspired, to retain a multiplicity of meanings until the end of the world. Their methods should be ours. The methods of Paul and the other New Testament writers are indeed truly as valid as they have always been considered in the life of the Church as represented through the ages in the patristic writings, and these methods of interpretation are especially important if one is to remain flowing in that River that is the Church, as these methods have always been in living use therein. The liturgy, hymnography, iconography, homilies, writings, and other products of the Church’s life through the last two millennia are indecipherable without an understanding of those ancient exegetical methods, yet even mere understanding is not enough. It is necessary to personally adopt these methods, to enter into this worldview of the Scriptures as one’s own living worldview with full acceptance and assent, and then the Church’s life suddenly springs into vivid clarity, the connections, the allusions, the majestic, complicated tapestry that we call Tradition all come into a joyous focus. Our recognition of each element is accompanied by a joyous “Yes!” that is expressed in the heart rather than the intellect, in the growth bed of the Spirit rather than the flesh. It is thus necessary to return Biblical study to the theological realm, that of a lived theology, not just a studied one, a life of prayer, not just of the intellect. To quote a passage by Fr Thomas Hopko which is relevant:

The task of theology in the Church is exactly this: to transform the external expressions of truth, and the externality of God Himself, into our own truth, and so to be able to express this truth within the context, conditions and demands of our own life and mission. Thus theology will be first of all our own vision of reality and so, our own salvation. And only then can it be the authentic expression of truth to others as proclamation, witness and defense. In this sense, theology is as much an ascetical and spiritual task as it is an intellectual and academic one. It is the task of faith, prayer and purification as much as the work of investigating the Traditionally accepted and affirmed “intellectual contours” of truth preserved in the Church, together with all affirmations about reality of the philosophers, scientists and artists. Thus theology is the task of attaining and appropriating in the most authentically personal way the Spirit of Truth, the Mind of Christ, the Consensus of Tradition, the Sensus of the Church, the Phronema of the Fathers.
Fr Thomas Hopko, from “Criteria of Truth in Orthodox Theology” (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 15.3 [1971], 126-9), as quoted in Fr John Chryssavgis, The Way of the Fathers: Exploring the Patristic Mind (Analecta Vlatadon 62. Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1991), page 189.

Fr Hopko describes the need to assimilate the Church’s theology, while I describe the need to assimilate its exegetical framework or worldview, which is that of much of Scripture, and a subset of the theology proper of the Church. Even so, we both describe assimilation of the Church’s way as necessary, not accomodation with a secular and antagonistic academic worldview which brings only contradiction, uncertainty, skepticism, and the spectacle of enhancement of individuals at the expense of the corporate, something more and more often seen these days. And this assimilation of the Church’s way enables a proper perspective of other relationships with the world, finding the good and the beautiful everywhere, sometimes even in the academic Scriptural studies mentioned so negatively above. Assimilating the mind of Christ, the mind of the Church, will lead one to more and more focus on the gold rather than the dross in any direction one focuses attention. This is very important, to see the positive around us and encourage it, much more than to criticize the negative. It is, after all, easier for a desert to remain barren. But it can be made to flower with work.

So, who do you want to be like? One who sows faith or one who sows doubt?

God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Posted in Theobabble | 7 Comments

Raining flames

Coming down to those on earth
the Holy Spirit’s spring was seen
in the form of fiery streams
apportioned spiritually to all
as it bedewed and enlightened the Lord’s Apostles
And thus, the fire became
a cloud bedewing them,
filling them with light,
and raining flames on them.
And through them, grace hath been vouchsafed us
by fire and water in very truth.
Behold, the Comforter’s light is come and
hath illumined the whole world.

Sessional Hymn, Monday after Pentecost. Translation: The Pentecostarion (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1990), p. 428.

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Vermes on Ratzinger

Geza Vermes has written a short review article on Joseph Ratzinger’s (alias Pope Benedict XVI) recently released book Jesus of Nazareth. I have always found great value in the writings of Vermes, but I find this short review to be hasty and entirely too superficial for this important work. I expected better, but instead found a review that reads like a caricature of pontificating professorship in high dudgeon. In fact, this rather snide, tossed-off little review has quite changed my opinion of him.

It appears that Vermes has skipped over entirely Ratzinger’s critique of the historical-critical method found in the foreword to the book, a critique that quite obviously, if implicitly, includes the historical Jesus research of Vermes. Considering that fully three-quarters of the article presents Vermes’ review of Jesus scholarship, marking rather arbitrarily the “quests” (“fads” would be a better word, if biblical studies weren’t such a boys’ club that always requires cool-to-boys terminology) for the historical Jesus, the time Vermes spends “reviewing” Ratzinger’s book itself is negligible. Indeed, I see no evidence of an actual reading of the book itself in the form of extensive interaction with Ratzinger’s stated goals in the foreword. He doesn’t even mention that it’s only the first volume of a two-volume work, or give much more detail than a peek at the table of contents would reveal. Vermes certainly doesn’t address Ratzinger’s critiques of the historical-critical method’s epistemological failings, but rather implies that Ratzinger simplistically brushed them aside, which is decidedly not the case. Did he even read the book?

I just love this from Vermes:

As a final comment, may I, after a lifetime of study of Judaism and early Christianity and in the light of hundreds of letters inspired by my books, voice the conviction that the powerful, inspirational and, above all, real figure of the historical Jesus is able to exercise a profound influence on our age, especially on people who are no longer impressed by traditional Christianity.

Pope Vermes of the Church of the Disaffected Hundreds? Over a billion and a half people are still impressed by “traditional Christianity” and find value in Pope Benedict’s approach, one billion of them finding value in him as a teacher in a way that Vermes has never experienced and will never experience. And those people actually find more value in the living Christ of the Gospels than in the often ridiculous entities proposed by modern “questers.” Not a single one of those inventions draws the interest that the Jesus of “blind faith in the literal truth of the Gospels” draws, nor will ever, including Vermes’ rather boring version, who is little different from Honi the Circle-Drawer, who of course must have a couple billion followers today, too, right, because he was so extraordinary? Oh wait…. Tiresome anti-Christian bigotry and an inept review: what a cocktail.

One thing I think is clear. This book Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict (Ratzinger) will come to be recognized as a watershed in a way that none of the other Jesus books ever has been or ever could be, a flaming sword between the Paradise of a faithful reading and application of all the Biblical texts fully informed by Patristic writings and Church Tradition yielding an image of the Living Jesus Christ, and the desert of academic historical-critical and other fads seeking a new and different contemporary Jesus to pad curricula vitae.

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Out of the mouths of babes . . .

Just this last weekend, we had our annual Festival of Greece at our church, Ascension Cathedral in Oakland. I got to know some really great people from the church better over the weekend, for which I’m very thankful.

There was an odd little incident that stuck with me. A lady came into the icon booth, where I was helping out (inside the windmill, if you happened to be there; I was the guy with the baseball cap on) with her cute little son, probably on the short end of three years old, at most. The top of his head barely came up to the tables on which the icons were all laid out. But he reached up and held one up and put it back down, and then another and another, until he seemed to settle on one that really struck him, which he’d hold onto, all the while his mother was there looking on, making comments on the icons, and pointing out details and things like that. So far, so good. It was a really charming scene, seeing what looked like a pious little kid looking for a particular icon, which we’d seen a few times that day already, believe it or not. And then, it turned. The little boy kept going, picking up more icons, and more of them, too many for his little hands to hold, so they were about to fall all over the place. So his mom started taking them and putting them back, telling him one was enough. At that point the kid had a little tantrum, so she bought the one icon, and then took him out and away. Later on, he showed up again, starting to have a tantrum because his mother wouldn’t buy him a particularly shiny icon of the Theotokos. She said to me, “Sometimes you just have to tell him no,” and then she took him away. I thought, “Lady, that’s not my job.” But in a way it is.

Because later, I thought to myself, I’m that kid, and the Church is that lady. I want all these things, books, crosses, icons, whatever, that I justify my desire for through their connection with the Faith. What a spoiled little brat! There’s some hungry little collector inside that wants to amass all this stuff, exquisite as each piece may be. But one aspect of this Way is gaining control of the passions, and a passion for religious stuff is certainly part of that continuum of things needing control, lest it grow completely out of control into insatiable greed. The lesson is there to be learned, if we have eyes to see.

So, oddly enough, I’ve learned a very important lesson in the least expected of times from the least expected of directions: a child not even waist high yet. Sometimes, I just have to tell my internal acquisitive little pest, “No!”

Thanks, kid, and thanks, lady.

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Ascension, then and now


On the whole Mount of Olivet there seems to be no spot higher than that from which the Lord is said to have ascended into the heavens, where there stands a great round church, having in its circuit three vaulted porticoes covered over above. The interior of the church, without roof or vault, lies open to heaven under the open air, having in its eastern side an altar protected under a narrow covering. So that in this way the interior has no vault, in order that from the place where the Divine footprints are last seen, when the Lord was carried up into heaven in a cloud, the way may be always open and free to the eyes of those who pray towards heaven.

For when this basilica, of which I have now made slight mention, was building, that place of the footprints of the Lord, as we find written elsewhere, could not be enclosed under the covering with the rest of the buildings. Whatever was applied, the unaccustomed earth, refusing to receive anything human, cast back into the face of those who brought it. And, moreover, the mark of the dust that was trodden by the Lord is so lasting that the impression of the footsteps may be perceived; and although the faith;of such as gather daily at the spot snatches away some of what was trodden by the Lord, yet the area perceives no loss, and the ground still retains that same appearance of being marked by the impress of footsteps.

Further, as the sainted Arculf, who carefully visited this spot, relates, a brass hollow cylinder of large circumference, flattened on the top, has been placed here, its height being shown by measurement to reach one’s neck. In the centre of it is an opening of some size, through which the uncovered marks of the feet of the Lord are plainly and clearly seen from above, impressed in the dust. In that cylinder there is, in the western side, as it were, a door so that any entering by it can easily approach the place of the sacred dust, and through the open hole in the wheel may take up in their outstretched hands some particles of the sacred dust.

Thus the narrative of our Arculf as to the footprints of the Lord quite accords with the writings of others–to the effect that they could not be covered in any way, whether by the roof of the house or by any special lower and closer covering, so that they can always be seen by all that enter, and the marks of the feet of the Lord can be clearly seen depicted in the dust of that place. For these footprints of the Lord are lighted by the brightness of an immense lamp hanging on pulleys above that cylinder in the church, and burning day and night. Further in the western side of the round church we have mentioned above, twice four windows have been formed high up with glazed shutters, and in these windows there burn as many lamps placed opposite them, within and close to them. These lamps hang in chains, and are so placed that each lamp may hang neither higher nor lower, but may be seen, as it were, fixed to its own window, opposite and close to which it is specially seen. The brightness of these lamps is so great that, as their light is copiously poured through the glass from the summit of the Mountain of Olivet, not only is the part of the mountain nearest the round basilica to the west illuminated, but also the lofty path which rises by steps up to the city of Jerusalem from the Valley of Josaphat, is clearly illuminated in a wonderful manner, even on dark nights, while the greater part of the city that lies nearest at hand on the opposite side is similarly illuminated by the same brightness. The effect of this brilliant and admirable coruscation of the eight great lamps shining by night from the holy mountain and from the site of the Lord’s ascension, as Arculf related, is to pour into the hearts of the believing onlookers a greater eagerness of the Divine love, and to strike the mind with a certain fear along with vast inward compunction.

This also Arculf related to me about the same round church: That on the anniversary of the Lord’s Ascension, at mid-day, after the solemnities of the Mass have been celebrated in that basilica, a most violent tempest of wind comes on regularly every year, so that no one can stand or sit in that church or in the neighbouring places, but all lie prostrate in prayer with their faces in the ground until that terrible tempest has passed.

The result of this terrific blast is that that part of the house cannot be vaulted over; so that above the spot where the footsteps of the Lord are impressed and are clearly shown, within the opening in the centre of the above-named cylinder, the way always appears open to heaven. For the blast of the above-mentioned wind destroyed, in accordance with the Divine will, whatever materials had been gathered for preparing a vault above it, if any human art made the attempt.

This account of this dreadful storm was given to us by the sainted Arculf, who was himself present in that Church of Mount Olivet at the very hour of the day of the Lord’s Ascension when that fierce storm arose. A drawing of this round church is shown below, however unworthily it may have been drawn; while the form of the brass cylinder is also shown placed in the middle of the church.

This also we learned from the narrative of the sainted Arculf: That in that round church, besides the usual light of the eight lamps mentioned above as shining within the church by night, there are usually added on the night of the Lord’s Ascension almost innumerable other lamps, which by their terrible and admirable brightness, poured abundantly through the glass of the windows, not only illuminate the Mount of Olivet, but make it seem to be wholly on fire; while the whole city and the places in the neighbourhood are also lit up.

Excerpts by St Adamnan of Iona of the description of the Imbomon Church at the peak of the Mount of Olives, site of the Lord’s Ascension, written by a certain Bishop Arculf, who visited Jerusalem, who also drew the original of the above diagram circa 670 AD. A translation of all the excerpts from Arculf is here. The reconstruction plan is from Jerome Murphy O’Connor, The Holy Land: And Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 124. I’ve rotated both images, so that north is to the top. The dashed octogon in the reconstruction drawing indicates the outline of the currently standing dome illustrated below.

Such was the beauty of the ancient Imbomon Church. The victory of the Muslim Saladin led to the church being transferred to the ownership of some of his retainers, who stripped it of its beauty, covered it with a dome and added a mihrab to the south wall (visible in the interior photo), making it a mosque, which it is to this day, unfortunately. The following pictures date to between 1900 and 1920, and are from the online Library of Congress collection of the Matson Photo Archives.

Thou hast ascended in glory, O Christ our God, and gladdened Thy disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit; and they were assured by the blessing that Thou art the Son of God and Redeemer of the world.

Troparion, fourth tone, for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord

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Ah, yes

I have always suspected that Grandma wasn’t really dead but was merely living somewhere else, somewhere with green grass and a nice big garden; and while I know the woman I saw wasn’t her, I also know that it might as well have been, and that it will be.

Today I simply caught a glimpse of the joy of it, the inevitable and enduring joy.

excerpt from a post by Amanda Witt, of Wittingshire

“. . . I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.”

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Conquer the Kingdom

Contrary to what many think or feel a period of spiritual endeavour (during Lent, perhaps, or while taking part in a retreat) is a time of joy because it is a time for coming home, a period when we can come back to life. It should be a time when we shake off all that is worn and dead in us in order to become able to live, and to live with all the vastness, all the depth and all the intensity to which we are called. Unless we understand this quality of joy, we shall make of it a monstrous, blasphemous caricature, when in God’s very name we make our life a misery for ourselves and for those who must pay the cost for our abortive attempts at holiness. This notion of joy coupled with strenuous effort, with ascetical endeavour, with struggle indeed, may seem strange, and yet it runs through the whole of our spiritual life, the life of the Church and the life of the Gospel, because the Kingdom of God is to be conquered. It is not something which is simply given to those who leisurely, lazily wait for it to come. For those who would wait for it in that spirit, it will come indeed: it will come at the dead of night, it will come like the Judgement of God, like the thief who takes us unawares, like the bridegroom who comes when the foolish virgins are asleep. This is not the way in which we should await the Kingdom and the Judgement. We must recapture an attitude of mind which, usually, we cannot conjure even out of our depth, something which has become strangely alien to us

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | 4 Comments