Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Life as an Entrance

 

A man was opening a new business and one of his friends sent him flowers for the occasion. They arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card, which said: “Rest in Peace.”

The owner was angry and called the florist to complain. After he had told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry he was, the florist replied:

“Sir, I really am very sorry for the mistake, but if it is any comfort to you, imagine this – somewhere, there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying: “Congratulations on your new location!”

Entrance into Jerusalem wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Entrance into Jerusalem wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Location is everything – so they say! The Son of God also changed location – “he came down from heaven.” But Jesus’ history with us can best be described as a series of entrances – entrances not into new locations but into new modes of existence and new experiences…. entrances represented in our icons!

Today…Entrance into Jerusalem – one of many entrances that Jesus experienced.

Nativity – incarnation, entrance into human existence. He became one of us, so we can become like him! Potential

Baptism of Christ wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Baptism of Christ wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Baptism – entrance into everything that it means to be human and entrance into natural world. Sanctification of creation. He experienced everything we experience so he can be our great high priest (Hebrews 2:17-18).

Baptism was his entrance into God’s natural creation.

Jerusalem – entrance into man’s creation!

He made everything holy – both the natural and human creation. While he lived among us he even revealed his divine glory – the glory that touches every one of us. So many ways God has provided for us to share that glory!

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.… The Lord is at hand…. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” we heard in today’s reading from Philippians.

Resurrection wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Resurrection wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

But there remained one more entrance – the ultimate entrance, the entrance into death. Our Resurrection icon shows Jesus entering into the realm of death to raise up Adam and Eve, representatives of all humanity.

Our lives are a series of entrances, transitions. It’s how we learn, how we mature, how we share each other’s life. There is no greater joy than to be human and to live here, with our loved ones, with our friends, with our community of faith, with all the other living creatures on this beautiful home planet of ours, in the midst of the stars and galaxies. Endless wonder surrounds us, endless majesty. And that’s what our liturgy reveals to us. “Blessed is the entrance of your saints” are the words spoken at the Small Entrance.

The South Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge). Transfiguration and Dormition icons.

The South Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge). Transfiguration and Dormition icons.

And for us too, there remains a final entrance. But don’t picture it as a change of location. Picture it as a transition into a different mode of existence. As in the Dormition icon.

Today's Palm Sunday congregation at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine.

Today’s Palm Sunday congregation at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine. (Click to enlarge)


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Operatic Beauty for Earth Day

Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön!…

“How fair seem the meadows today!… never did I see so fresh and charming the grass, the blossoms and flowers, nor did they smell so sweet of youth or speak with such tender love to me.”

With these words spoken by Parsifal begins the “Good Friday Spell” in the third act of Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. The music is of an unearthly beauty that even Wagner had never achieved in his previous works.

Kundry washes the feet of Parsifal while Gurnemanz reflects on the beauty of Good Friday in a 19th century painting.

Kundry washes the feet of Parsifal while Gurnemanz reflects on the beauty of Good Friday in a 19th or early 20th century painting.

“Das ist Karfreitagszauber, Herr” replies the elderly Gurnemanz. “That is the magic of Good Friday, my lord!” Parsifal is reminded of what Good Friday means and is moved to correct his admiration of the meadows. Nature should not be so beautiful on this saddest of days: “Alas for that day of utmost grief! Now, I feel, should all that blooms and breathes and lives should only mourn and weep!”

But Gurnemanz corrects him in a sustained passage of incredible poetic and musical beauty:

You see, it is not so… Now all creation rejoices at the Saviour’s sign of love and dedicates to Him its prayer. No more can it see Him on the Cross; it looks up to humankind redeemed, freed from the burden of sin and terror, made clean and whole through God’s loving sacrifice. Now grasses and flowers in the meadow know that today the foot of man will not tread them down, but will step on them softly. Thus all creation gives thanks, all that here blooms and soon fades, now that nature is absolved from sin and gains its day of innocence. (Lionel Salter translation, slightly modified and shortened)

Today is Earth Day. Next week it will be the Orthodox Good Friday, the Great and Holy Friday of our Lord’s death on the Cross. Wagner’s extraordinary third act of Parsifal brings these two days in our own calendar together in a magnificent vision of nature’s redemption and sanctification inseparably from the redemption and sanctification of humanity. This is also the vision of St. Paul in the 8th chapter of his epistle to the Romans:

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Wagner’s Good Friday scene echoes St. Paul’s message. Wagner shares the same vision of liturgical harmony between nature and human beings that inspired Papadiamantis in Greece (see previous post today).

Unfortunately, most modern stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal give us no vision of beauty. The music and the words remain, but the visual beauty is gone. Most often, today’s productions of Parsifal set the scene in some sort of post-apocalyptic time of environmental or nuclear devastation. It is certainly a sign of our own time to turn beauty into ugliness. But our earth is still beautiful; it has not been destroyed yet. We can still turn the fate of our planet around. And that is the annual message of Earth Day.

We Orthodox have a clear understanding of earth’s holiness and our need to be in harmony with God’s creation. We do not preach an individualistic and escapist gospel. Nor do we practice an inward-looking, self-absorbed spirituality. Our vision of life is liturgical. The earth itself is a sacrament of God’s presence and deifying grace.

Modern stage productions of Parsifal are ugly and dystopian, because it seems the artistic world has lost its sense of beauty. Indeed, most of us living in western societies have become cynical and pessimistic – cynical about politics and daily life, pessimistic about the future survival of the planet and life on it. Today, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of what Dostoyevsky said: Beauty will save the world.

Parsifal

The Karajan recording of Parsifal on Deutsche Grammophon (click to enlarge)

Regardless of how Parsifal is staged, the beauty remains in the music. And in my opinion the most beautiful recording of this opera remains the Karajan recording from 1980. No conductor ever achieved such unearthly beauty and splendor in an orchestra, and no cast ever sung with greater conviction and understanding. To hear the great German bass Kurt Moll sing the words of Gurnemanz quoted above is to enter the reality of creation transformed, transfigured, and ourselves with it.

Happy Earth Day! And may our own Good Friday next week speak of God’s gift to us, a home to call our own and to love with the love of Christ.


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A Holy Earth for Earth Day

Δόστου, Χριστέ μου, τη στερνή χαρά να ιδή και πάλι
τη γνώριμή του τη ζωή κοντά στο ακροθαλάσσι
Άχ! έτσι αθώα κι έτσι απλά κι αγνά την είχε ψάλει
που της αξίζει εκεί ψηλά μαζί μ΄αυτόν ν΄αγιάσει.

 

This little verse was composed by a poet, Λάμπρος Πορφύρας, in memory of one of the most important writers of modern Greece, Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911). Although it’s written in very simple Greek, the four lines are difficult for me to translate into English and do them justice. So I prefer to paraphrase and summarize.

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Papadiamantis surrounded by angels (click to enlarge)

The poet prays to Christ that Papadiamantis will be granted in heaven the joy of seeing again the life he had lived by the sea, a life that he had so purely chanted and which must be made holy together with him in heaven.

In these simple but untranslatable words the poet captures the essence of Orthodoxy – the essence revealed in the liturgical life that Papadiamantis lived on his island of Skiathos and in Athens. The verb αγιάζω (to make holy, to sanctify – inadequate English translations) is at the core of life in the Orthodox world.

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The simple sanctuary of Papadiamantis on the island Skiathos (click to enlarge)

In his stories and novels, Papadiamantis shows us a life that has virtually disappeared in Greece and all other traditional Orthodox countries. It’s what I call a “liturgical life”. It is not simply a matter of going to Liturgy. It is about making life a liturgy – a sacrament, a celebration of holiness. It’s about being a sanctifying presence in the world. That is why the poet prays that the life Papadiamantis lived on earth will be holy with Papadiamantis in heaven.

Our life on earth is meant to be holy, meant to be a sacrament of God’s sanctifying presence. Thus earth itself is holy. Orthodoxy does not share the hang-ups of Christian fundamentalists who accuse us of idolatry when we speak of the earth being holy. It is no wonder Christian fundamentalists tend to be against protecting the environment. Because quite frankly they don’t care about the environment; they’re too busy waiting for the “rapture”! They accuse environmentalists of worshipping the earth; while they worship guns, and money and nuclear supremacy; and wars in the Middle East that promote their ideology.

No, we Orthodox don’t worship the earth. We don’t have to worship the earth! Because the earth is not our idol; the earth is our love and our home. Nothing manifests God’s love and God’s creative wonder than our beautiful planet set in its ideal location within the solar system amid the endless majesty of the universe that surrounds us. And that endless majesty is also here on this planet that is our home world. The variety of life on our planet is almost as inconceivable as the variety of stars and planets and galaxies. We live in paradise!

Papadiamantis_Aleksandros_by_NirvanasPapadiamantis lived a very humble life on the island Skiathos amid the humble goings on of ordinary people whose lives revolved around family, work and church. Their lives were liturgical because they were whole – and wholly in touch with the soil and the life that was nurtured by the soil, air and sea. They were environmentalists without knowing it. Unfortunately for us in this discombobulated life we live, to be an environmentalist becomes a political problem instead of the spiritual obligation it really is.

Today is Earth Day. But why only today? Shouldn’t every day be an earth day? Shouldn’t every day be a day in which we are in touch with the source of our being? Is there really any greater obligation for a Christian than to care for the home God has entrusted to us? The Ecumenical Patriarch several years ago instituted September 1st as an annual day of prayer for the protection of the environment. But I wonder how many of us observe this day?

Today is Earth Day. September 1st is the Orthodox “Earth Day.” But every day is a day to sanctify the earth, to sing and chant its goodness like Papadiamantis did. Every day is a day in which to protect life – ALL life! Every day is a day in which to demand action to halt global warming and the evils of pollution, fracking, fossil fuels, and the killing of wildlife for profit. Then, indeed, like Papadiamantis we will always enjoy the holiness of our home throughout all eternity. For the earth is made holy together with us. How holy do you feel on this Earth Day?

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Perfected in forgiveness

 

As I think upon the Cross of Jesus Christ today, I remember the first words that Jesus spoke on the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Forgiveness, the hardest thing for human beings to do. Yet, the thing most characteristic of the one who was God and Man! Oh, but you might still say, so easy for him to forgive! After all, he wasn’t just a man, he was God! Yes, but God nailed to a Cross in human flesh, enduring human suffering. God humiliated by sinful men! You want to think again about how easy we should presume it was for God to forgive?

Here is the thing about forgiveness. It is not a theoretical thing, something for philosophers and theologians to write about or speculate about. It is an action. And only if you have suffered in the hands of someone else can you forgive, can you experience forgiveness. To be truly forgiving, God had to suffer the indignity of the Cross. That is the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus did not die in order to appease an angry God, as you often hear from TV and radio preachers. Quite the contrary, Jesus died to bring to perfection God’s love – because love is perfected in forgiveness. It is the highest human perfection – it is the thing that makes us most like God.

Hebrews 2:10-11  In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation (ἀρχηγὸν τῆς σωτηρίας) perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same source (ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες). So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.

Poster for the film Of Gods and Men (click to enlarge)

Poster for the film Of Gods and Men (click to enlarge)

Powerful example of forgiveness: seven French Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, beheaded by Islamic extremists in 1996. Their story was made into an award-winning film in 2010, Of Gods and Men. The prior of the Algerian monastery, Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France. Opened after his murder, it read in part:

If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.

I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this: How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?

I know the caricatures which a certain Islamic ideology encourages and which make it easy for some to dismiss the religion as hateful…

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But such people should know that at last I will be able to see the children of Islam as He sees them—all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His passion. His secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.…

For this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you” … I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

The man who wrote these words understood the meaning of the Cross. We most likely will not experience death by beheading or death on a Cross. But we can forgive!

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There are many websites with information about the monks of Tibhirine. For example: Here and here.

Wikipedia has articles on Christian de Chergé and on the assassination of the monks.

The full text of the “last testament” of Christian de Chergé can be read here. Also here in a slightly different translation: Testament-engl