Ancient Answers

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The Khora of Salvation

Landscapes were important in defining God’s interactions with the people of ancient Israel. And landscapes were important in Jesus’ own ministry. Desert, mountain, sea, city and village – places, topoi, where the drama of salvation was played out in the Gospels. Those same landscapes became important in Orthodox tradition, in the writings and meditations of the church fathers and mothers, but even more crucially in the iconography and hymnography of the church.

In thinking about what the Bible and theology of the church say about salvation, I’ve found much inspiration from the book Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium by Veronica della Dora, published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. While the letters of the apostle Paul have been the prime sources of much of what the church has taught about salvation in Christ, the iconography and hymography of the church have been guided by the Gospel narratives and the typological interpretation of Old Testament events. The Gospels show us that Jesus was very much connected to the land where he walked and where he brought people into direct knowledge of God. The drama of salvation played out in the landscapes of Judea. Jesus was connected to the land and he became the land of salvation!

Consider two famous mosaics from the 14th century in what is today Istanbul but was then Constantinople. These two mosaics are in the Church of the Khora, now known as Kariye Camii in Turkish. Khora (Χώρα) literally means place, space, country. Why Khora? These two mosaics tell us why:

Both mosaics contain the word Χώρα, Khora. Both Christ and His Mother are represented as spaces of life. She is the space which contains the One who is uncontainable, namely Christ, vividly shown as if contained in her womb. Christ, who is God, cannot be contained in any space; and yet, in the miracle of the incarnation, He comes to be contained in her womb. In words of space and in vivid iconography, the incarnation is boldly represented. You can’t miss the play on the word Χώρα. She is Χώρα of the one who is beyond χώρα or χῶρος, beyond any idea of space – he is αχώριτος, akhṓritos. Amazing theology in just a few words and a beautifully crafted mosaic.

Christ is αχώριτος, beyond any conception of space or containment. But in the parallel mosaic in the same church He is Χώρα. Χώρα of what? Of the Living – Χώρα των Ζώντων. He who is beyond space took on existence within the dimensions of space in order to become for us the place, the space, where we receive Life! He is the Land of the Living! And that’s about as good a definition of salvation as one can give in one or two sentences.

Orthodox iconography and hymnography fully exploited the landscapes in which the drama of salvation played out, both in the Old and the New Testaments. Different topoi – mountains, deserts, seas, rivers, caves, gardens, towns, villages – became places of judgment and redemption in the Old Testament; but they took on new meanings when Jesus entered these topoi in the Gospels. The book by della Dora is a wonderful way to begin exploring this rich dimension of biblical and patristic imagination.


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The Language of Blessing


Water is a prime symbol in all religions. No surprise, since water covers over 70% of the earth’s surface. In Genesis, the earth is all water at the beginning. Then we have the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Jordan, etc. In the New Testament, water is again prime symbol. John baptizes in water – but asserts that Jesus will baptize in fire and the Spirit. But Jesus himself says to Nicodemus that unless you are born of water and the Spirit you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus stood and proclaim to all the people: If any one thirsts, let him come to me and drink. If you believe in me, out of your heart will flow rivers of living water. And this he said to mean the Holy Spirit which would be given to all believers.

So water is life. But it is also a destructive force. In all ancient religions, water represents chaos, the uncontrolled destructive forces of nature. Every ancient religion had powerful gods associated with the sea or the great rivers that governed their lives.

In the second century, a group of Gnostics in Egypt were preaching that Jesus had been born a mere mortal like all other men, but then received divinity on the day of his baptism, when the Spirit of God came upon him in the form of a dove. They chose to commemorate this important event on the sixth of January, on the same day that Egyptians celebrated a pagan feast in honor of the god of the Nile.

The Church opposed the teachings of the Gnostics but kept January 6th as the date for celebrating the baptism of Christ. In addition to Epiphany, the alternate name Theophany was promoted to emphasize the orthodox idea that it wasn’t a man who was made divine, but the divine second person of the Trinity became man and lived among us.


Medieval icon of the Baptism of Christ (Click to enlarge)

Medieval icon of the Baptism of Christ (Click to enlarge)

In many icons of the Baptism, there are little humans shown in the river, along with various creatures. These undoubtedly represent the mythological figures associated with water. But now, as Jesus steps into the water of the Jordan, these mythological figures lose their power over human beings. This is the first thing that Jesus accomplishes in his baptism – he removes from human consciousness the fear of the unknown, the fear of nature, the fear of gods and goddesses. Water is once again restored to its divine mission to sustain life. Water becomes a means of sanctification – which is why we celebrate the Blessing of Water. We bless water – which means we reveal its divine purpose.

Detailed view of the bottom of the icon on the left to show the two mythological figures in the waters of the Jordan (Click to further enlarge)

Detailed view of the bottom of the icon on the left to show the two mythological figures in the waters of the Jordan

When we bless each other, we reveal our divine purpose. When we bless God, we declare God’s purposes. “Bless you” is not a little pious sentiment, a little bit of spirituality to show that we are religious. Greetings are holy acts! In Liturgy too!! No, when I say, “God bless you,” I’m saying may God reveal your divine purpose, may God speak good into your heart and soul so that you can wake up to why you are really here. Think how beautiful that is, how truly unique you are – not because some afternoon talk show tells you, but because God has a unique word, and a unique purpose that he reveals to you. And we can help each other. Next time you say “God bless you” to someone you are asking for the most transformative things that can happen in that person’s life.

Jesus restores water. He restores all creation. He takes back everything that the ancient people surrendered to gods and goddesses. Everything is brought back to its proper relation to us and to God. And everything is a blessing, a path to the divine life. Superstition should have no place in human lives. It never ceases to amaze me how superstition still rules the lives of many who call themselves Christian.

The other great symbol is light. This is a feast of light. In Greek, the feast of Epiphany is simply called Τα Φώτα – The Lights. Jesus is the light of the world. He came from light in order to bring light to those who were sunk in darkness, the darkness of unbelief and pagan superstition. He came to bring light so that we can see with clear eyesight the beauty of the world around us, the nature that is sanctified along with us. Look at the icons around us. Light everywhere. Jesus brings light to the world at his baptism; light from the mount of transfiguration; light into the city of Jerusalem and every city and neighborhood; light into the depths of Hades, the realm of death, so that death itself is freed from being our enemy = light at the death of his mother and of every mortal.

It’s all light, dear friends. Fear nothing. Evil exists and does great harm on a daily basis. But evil never endures, it is always defeated. Bless God in the sanctuary; bless God in our lives. Amen.

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It’s always a birth

On August 15th the Orthodox Church observes the feast of the Dormition of Mary (Assumption in the Roman Catholic Church). The simple event of our Lady’s earthly death became adorned with all sorts of legendary additions which have never interested me. It’s the theological and mystical dimensions of this wonderful feast that interest me.

Dormition comes after Transfiguration in the month of August. They go together in celebrating our entry into the divine glory – what is often called ‘deification’, though that term is open to much controversy and misunderstanding, hence my preference for ‘entry into divine glory.’ In the Transfiguration the divine glory radiates outward from the transfigured form of the Lord, sanctifying creation and humanity. In the Dormition, Mary enters into the divine glory, she is no longer external to it.


Rays of divine glory emanate from the transfigured Christ

Rays of divine glory emanate from the transfigured Christ (click to enlarge)

Mary is taken into the divine glory as a newborn babe.

Mary is taken into the divine glory as a newborn babe (click to enlarge)

Mary enters into the divine glory as a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths. In the icon of the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), the infant Jesus is wrapped in swaddling cloths.

The Christmas icon (click to enlarge)

The Christmas icon (click to enlarge)

In the Nativity, Mary wrapped her infant Jesus in swaddling cloths.


(click to enlarge)

In the Dormition, Jesus holds the spirit of Mary in swaddling cloths. In iconic form, the son becomes the mother!


(click to enlarge)

The Dormition is not so much about the death of Mary but about her birth into eternal life and her entry into the divine glory. Salvation history can be seen as a series of entrances. Iconography is the best way to express this particular way of looking at salvation. And, indeed, we ‘look’. The north wall of our church contains four large wall icons, all of them expressing the theme of entrance:

The North Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge)

The North Wall at Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge) From left to right: Entrance into Jerusalem, Resurrection, Baptism

We have the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in Jerusalem as a young child (not shown in the photo above), then the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, The Resurrection and the Baptism. At the Baptism, Jesus entered into the created order and the human experience. At the Entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus entered into the city where he would die on the Cross. In the Resurrection icon, we see Jesus entering the realm of death to destroy the power of death. These are all key events in the process of Jesus entering into our world and existence. They are events that make up salvation history in the Christian understanding.

The south wall of our church contains just two large wall icons, and these complete the main iconographic scheme in our church.

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.

Here we have the Transfiguration of Christ and the Dormition of Mary side by side. Not only do they fall on the same month, August, within a week of each other, but they also complete the theme of entrance. The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to enter into the divine glory – not to become God, but to be brought into the divine life. Jesus entered our existence so we could enter the divine existence.

Our iconography is uniquely gifted to represent these mirror aspects of salvation: Mary held Jesus in swaddling cloths; Jesus holds Mary in swaddling cloths. Jesus entered human existence; we enter divine existence. Many of the so-called Fathers of the Church spoke of Christ being born in us. Jesus was born of Mary physically. He is to be born in each of us spiritually. And he will receive each of us into divine glory, just as he received his mother: as a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” said Job in the midst of his trials (Job 1:21). Except we don’t quite return naked to the Lord; we return in swaddling cloths, like infants. As infants we enter the divine glory. Jesus himself said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4) It seems the good news of Jesus Christ always involves a birth!