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Iconostasis of Life

Father Alexander Schmemann wrote the following in his book, For the Life of the World:

“…And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst of the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, my very death will be an act of communion with Life.”

True Christianity can only exist among Christians who have not lost their hunger and thirst for the Kingdom – or better, of the Kingdom, as Schmemann wrote it. We are not hungry and thirsty for the Kingdom – in the sense that we are just waiting to get there, as if there is somewhere. What we need to experience is the hunger and thirst of the kingdom! The Kingdom of God is hungry and thirsty for us. Do we experience that longing in our lives? That is they key question for us who live in these treacherous times of desertion.

We sit around like the paralytic in today’s Gospel reading, waiting for someone to stir the waters, to bring life into a dying institution. But there is no life in institutions. Life is in each of us. Life is given to each of us from the tomb of Christ. Listen to another great theologian of the 20th century, Olivier Clément:

Death is an iconostasis

of the faces of our friends

so let him come who gives us death

as life in Eucharist.

An extraordinary statement. Death is an iconostasis of the faces of friends. Our lives are an iconostasis! And just as in the iconostasis in every Orthodox church, Christ is in the centre. So let him come who gives us death as life in Eucharist. Our lives and our deaths are not separate experiences. They are one. And they are united as Eucharist – as thanksgiving. In the Eucharist of every Liturgy we experience what Father Schmemann wrote: the hunger and thirst of the Kingdom…the expectation of Christ, who is Life…so that our deaths become acts of communion with Life. 

Here is Olivier Clément again, from his book L’Autre Soleil:

Clots of blood fall from the face of God and the Man of sorrows is resurrected. He and everything. Him in everything Everything in Him. The children of Rachel are resurrected, Lazarus leaps out of the tomb for good, the smell of roasted fish on the shores of the lake, the long hair of the harlot, that moment when he makes them lie down on the grass to receive from the five loaves, where Peter was forgiven, and every second of your wretched life where your veins were full of life: all is risen. Everything begins; one can try to love, since there is no more death, since death itself is full of God.


Women of Freedom

I love the Gospel stories of the women who went to the tomb of Christ, especially the version in Mark’s Gospel (16:1-8). There is something almost comic about the women walking to the tomb, to anoint the body of Christ, and wondering who would roll the stone away from the tomb. Clearly they won’t be able to do it, and there are no men that they can count on. The men, the male disciples of Christ, are hiding, they are nowhere to be seen! But despite the impossible task that lies ahead of them, the women keep walking. They don’t let their minds get in the way of what their heart’s devotion urges them to do. Their minds obeyed their hearts. The words of doubt and argument were silenced and their action spoke. Their actions became prayer! 

(This painting appears to be by Herschel Pollard.)

Christians find it much easier to say, “I’ll pray for you,” than to reach out with tangible action and help someone in need and emotional support. Such ‘prayers’ count for little in the eyes of God. God is looking for Christians who walk to serve Christ, to anoint his ‘body’ wherever there is pain and need. Do not let the seeming impossibility of the task or your political preferences stop you from finding the tomb of Christ! The stone will be rolled for you! Trust that it will be. And in that trust is freedom. In their obedience to their duty to the ‘dead’ body of Christ, the women were the freest on the planet.

Søren Kierkegaard in one of his journals wrote:

The Christian is: the page of absolute majesty.

The only art is to worship absolutely – not in words and nonsense, in intricate prose or sonorous verse, but in acts of absolute obedience….to worship God absolutely in everything, always joyful, grateful, smiling.

But the fact is that the concept of the absolute and the image of absolute majesty have long since disappeared from Christendom. People have degraded God, drawn him down into the relativities and wretchedness of finite ends and purposes – foisted upon God the idea that world history is a matter of importance for him.

No, heavenly majesty is not majesty of this sort. The existence of a single Christian, if one does exist, concerns God more than all world-historical monarchies and empires and more than all the noise that we human beings have come up with and to which we attribute importance.

As always, Kierkegaard provokes radical thinking. He always used the word ‘Christendom’, as here, in a highly derogatory sense. For him, Christianity should have never become Christendom, a social-political entity marching through history hand in hand with empires and kings of all stripes. True Christian faith is obedience – not to church rules and regulations, which are prime products of Christendom – but obedience to one and one only: Jesus Christ. 

Orthodoxy in its true essence is not about rules and regulations; it is not the church as handmaid to earthly rulers. No, the real essence of Orthodoxy is freedom – freedom to experience God and the mystery of Christ in Liturgy, in sacraments, in prayer, in icons, in sacred music and chant, in the beauty of worship and earthly majesty. Freedom – not rules, not regulations, not bondage to history and old empires and ancient languages and cultural imperialism. And yet it is precisely bondage to the past that characterizes most Orthodox visions in the 21st century. For some people it works, for others it is a reason to escape and find freedom elsewhere. Tragic, because true Orthodox vision is all about freedom.

And in that vision is the only freedom that is worthy of the name freedom, and the only freedom that truly liberates human beings from all the lies – the brutal lies – of history and the rulers and powers of today. The tragedy is that very rarely do Orthodox people receive from their church leaders this message of ultimate freedom. So we construct myths of our own vainglory. 

Father Alexander Schmemann was one of the most prophetic Orthodox voices of the 20th century. He wrote this in his journal on February 1977:

I realize how spiritually tired I am of all this “Orthodoxism,” of all the fuss with Byzantium, Russia, way of life, spirituality, church affairs, piety, of all these rattles. I do not like any of them, and the more I think about the meaning of Christianity, the more it all seems alien to me. It literally obscures Christ, pushes him into the background.

Fr. Alexander at the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy at St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel in the early 1980s.

Father Alexander Schmemann was at his best during the Paschal season, the season we are in now. And he perhaps sometimes saw himself like one of the myrrh-bearing women, going with absolute trust to an encounter with Christ. Those amazing women did not know they would meet the risen Christ; they didn’t even know how they would open the tomb to go in and anoint the body of their Lord. But they went, in beautiful obedience, in obedience to freedom! Sounds like a paradox? Obedience to freedom? Aren’t freedom and obedience opposites? Not when Jesus Christ is the source of the freedom and the one who receives the obedience. In Jesus Christ obedience becomes freedom. Those precious women were the freest people on the planet when they walked to the tomb.

Am I speaking nonsense? According to a Princeton University study quoted in Harper’s magazine, Facebook users who are over 65 are SEVEN times more likely to share fake news stories than Facebook users who are between 18 and 29. No wonder Donald Trump was elected president in 2016! Just think how easily people believe stuff that do not liberate their spirit, and how difficult it is to trust that Jesus can lead people to a life of true freedom in the beauty of obedience. The myrrh-bearing women thought they were going to anoint a dead body and they found life – life full of divine beauty and energy. We have been given life – life of divine beauty and energy – and have turned it into a dead relic. I want to be one of those women. Don’t you?


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The Cross is not a political slogan

Living in Montreal and two other Canadian cities in the 1970s I became aware of the politics that ruled the Greek Orthodox churches in Canada. As a matter of fact, it came to the point, at least in Montreal, that the Hellenic Community administration that governed all the Greek churches of Montreal was split along the lines of the political parties of Greece!

The politicization of the church has been a fact since the unfortunate transformation that the emperor Constantine initiated. We are still living in the Constantinian era. And not only the Orthodox Church! Even those churches that do not consider Constantine as a saint are nevertheless living under the shadow cast by his reign.

Consider the 20th century. The official Lutheran Church in Germany quickly capitulated to Hitler, leaving only a small remnant of German Lutherans who remained loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than Nazi ideology. The Catholic Church in Spain supported the dictatorship of Franco; and in most Latin American countries supported and blessed ruthless dictatorships throughout most of the 20th century. Even in the Greece, the church embraced the dictatorship of the colonels, 1967-73,  and the slogan, <<Ελλάς Ελλήνων Χριστιανών>>, loosely translated as, “Greece, [the land] of Greeks, Christians”. I inserted “the land” which is not present in the original but is one of the ways it can be translated – the other way being “Greece, [for] Greeks, Christians.” I also separated Greeks and Christians by a comma to capture more of the flavor of the original. For the meaning is not that there are Greeks who are Christians – but Greeks ARE Christians. If someone is not a Christian he or she is not Greek, and hence not part of Greece. It was a slogan that perfectly expressed the marriage of church and state and the nationalist identity of every embedded member of that society.

The colonels’ slogan can be equally well applied to other societies. There is a very sizable segment of the US population who would subscribe to something similar for American society. It is all part and parcel of the politicization of Christianity that we have inherited from the fourth century revolution in church-state relationship.

Today politics define the Christian experience in this country to an increasingly alarming extent. Once a label has been attached to a person’s form of Christianity, that person is only allowed to support the politics that go with that label. So, for example, a “liberal” Christian cannot be liberal if he or she is against abortion. A “conservative” Christian cannot be conservative if he or she approves of same-sex marriage. If you were “evangelical” in 2016 you had to vote for Donald Trump; if you were “progressive” you had to vote for Hillary Clinton – you were a traitor to your label if you voted otherwise! So your political or religious label puts you in a straitjacket – hence the polarization that is quickly destroying the social fabric and the possibility of reasonable dialogue.

Nazi insignia combining key symbols, including the cross (click to enlarge).

Typical piece of Nazi “Christian” propaganda (click to enlarge)

This is a frightful situation. Allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ is replaced by allegiance to a political slogan or ideology. This is what the church did in Nazi Germany. Nazi Christians even represented the Cross inside or with the swastika! But there were a few Christians who did not fall in line – and many of them paid with their lives. The most famous of the resisters was the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent two years in Nazi prisons but was quickly killed by order of Hitler in the last days of the war, as the Allies were about to enter Berlin. During his two years of imprisonment, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters and theological essays that were collected after his death by his close friend and relative, Eberhard Bethge. They were published under the title Letters and Papers from Prison, a book which I consider one of the most important books ever written by a Christian. It is a book well worth reading as the line between the cross and political and racist ideologies becomes increasingly blurred.

Like all citizens of a nation, Christians will have their own political views and preferences – but we do not have God’s permission to turn the Cross into a slogan or marry the gospel of Jesus Christ to any political ideology, left or right. Political engagement is important and necessary for Christians. But political engagement is tricky and treacherous. Better to be wrong in your politics than to be wrong in defending your politics with scripture! Venture with fear and trembling. And never assume that God agrees with your politics.


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We are not neutrinos!


On a recent trip to Germany we visited friends in the city Karlsruhe, a typical German city of medium size. I did not know at the time – but found out just days ago – that Karlsruhe is the site of a very important experiment in physics: the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment, Katrin for short. Its purpose is to find the mass of the neutrino – the most insignificant entity in the universe. Insignificant because for a long time it was believed to have no mass, but scientists now know that it has an extremely tiny mass. What is significant about neutrinos is that they are present everywhere. Every second, right now, billions of neutrinos pass through your body! Uncountable numbers have been left over from the Big Bang birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago. There are more neutrinos in the universe than any other kind of particle, but because they do not interact with any type of matter, they are hard to detect and measure. Because they are present everywhere in huge numbers, their mass could determine the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand for ever, to all eternity, until it dies a cold death? Or will it stop expanding and perhaps even contract and collapse again?

The main spectrometer of Katrin on its way to Karlsruhe in 2006. The project is set to get under way in June 2018.

You might think that the fate of the universe countless billions or even trillions of years in the future is hardly something for us to be concerned about. How about the fate of your grandchildren or great-grandchildren a hundred years from now? Is that something you might want to be concerned about? Although the current administration in Washington does not believe in global warming and human-caused climate change, the White House did release last Friday an exhaustive scientific report put together by 13 federal agencies that says humans are the dominant cause of the global temperature rise that has created the warmest period in the history of civilization. The report says that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything other than humans — the cars we drive, the power plants we operate, the forests we destroy — are to blame.

Will it change people’s minds about climate change? Will it change the position of the current administration, which allowed the release of this report?

Change of mind is a hard thing for humans. And that is why in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) we hear Abraham say to the rich man: ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’

It is hard for humans to change our minds. It will be interesting to see what impact – if any – this newest report will have on public opinion and the politics of Washington.

The rich man did not change his ways, though he saw Lazarus every day at his doorstep. So also his brothers will not change their ways even if someone should rise from the dead. The human heart can be very hard, implacable.

Do we go through life like neutrinos, not interacting with what’s around us? Do we go through life like the rich man today, not caring for those who need our compassion? Do we go through life not caring how our lifestyles might be ruining the environment and the future life of our children and grandchildren? Those are good questions to ponder on today.

May the Lord preserve us from hard-heartedness. May the Lord continue to work on us, to give us soft hearts, compassionate hearts. We are not neutrinos!

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An Ordinary Saint

Back in November 2014 I came to Patra, Greece, for the funeral of my mother. Father Andrew at my mother’s parish church ushered me into the sanctuary and gave me vestments to wear so I could preside at my mother’s funeral service. So there I was, a clean-shaven priest from America between two local priests, both sporting typical long beards. Not for one moment did I feel out of place.

The funeral service was followed by a procession to the cemetery where the burial took place. There I encountered Father Mihalis and another priest, who preside at gravesite services. When they learned that I was a priest, they immediately insisted that I do the gravesite service. I didn’t have a book with me, so I went from memory, and they helped when I stumbled on a word or two. Again, a study in contrast, and again total acceptance, accommodation and priestly fellowship such as I have never encountered back home.

The two cemetery priests in 2014. Father Mihalis is on the right, with white beard.

Today I was back in my mother’s home parish for morning Liturgy. At the end of Liturgy we had a memorial service for her. Father Andrew was as kind as in 2014, though I chose not to put on vestments and participate in the Liturgy and memorial prayers. Later in the afternoon we drove to the cemetery, and there was Father Mihalis making his rounds. I immediately accosted him and asked him to come to my mother’s grave.

He showed some signs of recognition. I took out my iPhone and showed him the pictures of the Nov 2014 gravesite service. We started walking to my mother’s grave and he began to introduce me to other people that we passed. I at one point told him to stop doing that, and he was surprised. Why are you nervous? You’re an Orthodox priest and it’s a blessing for people to know you! A woman went to kiss my hand – something very common among Orthodox people – and I pulled back. Don’t be like that, he gently said to me.

I completely surrendered to his loving care. Both in 2014 and today I worried that people would think less of me because I’m from America, clean shaven with short hair, looking nothing like a Greek Orthodox priest. And yet not a single person in 2014 or today even remotely looked at me with any disapproval. So who was more caught up with external appearances – I or Father Mihalis and the people he was introducing me to? The answer was clear!

Father Mihalis is very special. He is an ordinary saint. I couldn’t stop embracing him today. The church canonizes extraordinary men and women and calls them Saints. They might be martyrs for the faith, ascetics and great spiritual masters, renowned bishop theologians, etc. Father Mihalis is not extraordinary in any of the usual senses. He is a simple cemetery priest, making his rounds, responding to every call to go to a grave for a prayer service, and humbly accepting whatever small payment he might receive for his services. His priestly garments are old, worn out and not recently cleaned. His hand are brown from the sun and from handling incense and being close to the earth at every graveside. If Jesus were walking around the cemetery today, he’d probably look a lot like Father Mihalis, but probably younger and with a shorter beard.

He wanted to get vestments for me so I could do the service. I told him, No, I wanted him to do it! When we finally got to the graveside, where my wife and aunt were waiting for us, he immediately included all three of us and even pointed to me to do some of the priest’s prayers, though I was dressed in regular street clothes. Such a spirit of openness and inclusiveness I have never encountered in America. And here I was in conservative Church of Greece and I’ve been blessed to have experienced the love and welcoming spirit of Christ in the persons of Father Andrew and Father Mihalis. They are true priests in the service of Christ, not of worldly appearances.

Today with Father Mihalis I felt in the presence of a saint, an ordinary saint. We need more ordinary saints in the church. They are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the meek who will inherit the earth. Which earth? The earth that Father Mihalis touches in his gravesite services and in which he will join his wife Ismene who died this past January? Or the earth that can still be made holy by men and women like Father Mihalis? I pray that he will continue to make the rounds of the cemetery for many years so I can meet him again and be touched by his gentle spirit. 

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Finally, our Archbishop speaks

Statement from His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America     

Feb 4, 2017

As Greek Orthodox Christians and as Americans, we express our sadness and pain for our brothers and sisters all over the world who find themselves in tragic circumstances of hostility, violence and war, where families have been torn apart, displaced and where people are denied basic human rights.

Following the example of Christ, we are called to offer unconditional love to our fellow men while starting immediately to pray for them.  In our great country, which has historically and practically welcomed people of every nation, tribe, and tongue, we have the distinct privilege and honor to offer philoxenia – love of the stranger – to humans from all walks of life.

The New Testament is replete with an ethos of philoxenia – love of the stranger – based not on fear but on care and on gratitude.  Welcome one another, says Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, even as Christ welcomed you (Rom. 15:7).  Christian philoxenia must not only be extended to those close to us, but must be extended to those near and far away, and even to those who will not reciprocate—to the poor, the stranger, even those who hate us.  For Christ says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? (Luke 14:14).

As a vital expression of love, we must continue to fervently pray for peace for the entire humanity, especially for those affected by difficult circumstances.  Our fellow humans who are suffering under terrible conditions and ordeals all over the world are expecting justice and begging for our love and prayers; even the least among them.  As Christ said, Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).  In these most difficult times, the strongest expression of our philoxenia becomes a very urgent matter.

United as one people, as one nation under God, let us proceed courageously, prudently, and lovingly.  Always with the help of the Almighty God!