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Lessons in Stewardship

 

The women came to anoint the body of Jesus. An anonymous woman had already anointed Jesus, but Jesus pronounced that as a symbolic preparation for his burial. Now his burial has taken place and the women go to the tomb to properly anoint the body of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea had been too much in a hurry to take down the body from the cross before the sabbath started and had no time to do the proper anointing. They don’t know how they will move the stone to enter the tomb, but they go, faithfully.

By the way, let’s deal right here with something you often hear. Atheists and conspiracy proponents tell us that the resurrection is a myth, that the Gospel writers – those four men up in our ceiling – invented all the stories of the resurrected Jesus. If Mark had invented the story we just read, he would not have had women go to the tomb. In the patriarchal society of Jesus’ time, women’s testimony was worthless and rejected at all levels of society “because of the levity and temerity of their gender,” according to Josephus. Yet Mark has women as the only witnesses to the empty tomb! He would never make that up if he wanted his account to be taken seriously.

They encounter a young man in white robe. The usual interpretation is that this was an angel, and that’s the most likely explanation. But there is another possibility. Mark 14:51-52 tells us that when Jesus was arrested: “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.” Same Greek words – νεανίσκος περιβεβλημένος – here at the tomb. Could the young man at the tomb be the same young man? Dressed again in white, but now clothed with the radiance of Christ’s resurrection!

I like that possibility. A young man is the one chosen to announce the good news, but a young man who has known Jesus. He is not here, he is risen. But he will meet his disciples in Galilee. Where else, but in the place that was most familiar to them. He is Jesus of Nazareth, after all. This is another tell-tale sign that this was not an angel. An angel would most likely have used a loftier title to refer to Jesus. But Jesus of Nazareth almost takes us right back to the beginning of the Gospel. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth,” Mark tells us in chapter 1. We’ve come full circle. The kingdom of God’s presence is not in some fantasy land, but right there where Jesus had his greatest joys and greatest troubles, where he was even rejected by his own people in Nazareth!

In Galilee, life will begin again for the disciples. Without Jesus, but armed with his spirit and his resurrection power, they will spread out in all directions to bring the news of what God has done and will do for as long as humans exist on earth.

As you’ve heard me say before, Mark’s Gospel ends in verse 8, with a hanging preposition: εἶχεν γὰρ αὐτὰς τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις· καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν, ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ. Such an ending was unacceptable, so some later editor or scribe added another 12 verses to where Mark had stopped writing. But most early manuscripts end at verse 8. Why such an abrupt ending? We are told not to end sentences with hanging prepositions – a silly, pedantic rule, by the way. But to end an entire book with a hanging preposition? That takes some guts. But Mark did it. Why? Because at the end, the young man is also speaking to us. Go home, go to the place most familiar to you – there you will meet Jesus, in the ordinariness of life. 

Every one of us is a continuation of the Gospel story. And every one of us has his or her own story, our own circumstances in which we live out the reality of resurrection. The Gospel is open-ended; it brings each one of us into an encounter with the risen Christ. Remember what he told to Thomas last week? You believe because you see me? Blessed rather are those who have not seen and yet believe. We have not seen, but we know, because we have been touched, and our lives have found meaning and purpose and spiritual strength. We are part of a family that transcends all human borders and boundaries. And we are here to take care of each other and of our home planet until the Lord comes to fill everything with light. Until then, let us be light.

Today is Earth Day. It is a day that reminds us to be stewards of God’s creation, just as the women were faithful to their stewardship in going to the tomb to care for the body of our Lord. There are people who are trying to create doubt about the damage we are doing to our environment and our precious planet and life on it. But logic, science (real science!) AND our Christian faith tell us to put our hearts to the task of caring for God’s creation. Let’s be good stewards of what God has placed in our care, just as the women were good stewards in their commitment to caring for Christ at his burial. And just as they were surprised by the resurrection, so also we might be surprised to find what our small actions can do for the planet!

We do not worship the earth. Have you noticed the psalm verses that we sing during this Paschal season at the First Antiphon of the Liturgy? They are from Psalm 66:

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth! Sing of His name, give glory to His praise!

Say to God: How awesome are Your deeds!

Let all the earth worship You and praise You! Let it praise Your name, O Most High! 

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth! Let all the earth worship You and praise You! The earth worships God, and we worship God together with all the earth and all life on it. We don’t worship the earth; we worship with the earth!


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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.

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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?

Alexandros_Papadiamantis-4


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Arise Earth, Arise with Christ!

The whole world has risen in Christ … if God is “all in all,” then everything is in fact paradise, because it is filled with the glory and presence of God, and nothing is any more separated from God. THOMAS MERTON

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Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) was one of the most important Christians of the twentieth century. A Reformed theologian in Scotland, he also practiced a deeply ecumenical understanding of the Christian faith and wrote extensively on the early Church Fathers, but with an honesty and critical insight unmatched by any contemporary Orthodox theologian. I made extensive use of Torrance in writing my dissertation on the Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria, but I hadn’t touched any of Torrance’s books for thirty years – until recently, when I dug out my old Torrance books and began dipping into them again.

In his collection of essays, Theology in Reconstruction, published in 1965, I chanced upon this passage today:

Now I believe that the real problems which the Church has to face today are not those created by science and the changes in cosmological theory, but in the recrudescence of the old pagan disjunction between God and the world, in which redemption is divorced from creation and the mighty acts of God are removed from actual history… Once this radical dichotomy is posited… the basic affirmation of the Christian Faith, namely that in Jesus Christ we have none other than the Being of God himself in our human existence in space and time, is called in question… What is at stake is in a modern form the same problem that the Church faced when it battled with Gnostics and Arians in the early centuries. The great dividing line is once again the doctrine of the Incarnation, or if you will, the homoousion, i.e. the doctrine that… in Jesus Christ in our flesh and history we have in person the eternal Word of God… (p. 263)

It’s no easy task reading Torrance, and I have edited a whole page here to quote only the parts that are most easily understandable. But his point is very easy to understand. He is saying that when we separate creation from our salvation in Christ, we are reviving the old heresies of Arius and the Gnostics; indeed, we fall into paganism. Arius rejected the idea of Christ being the homoousios Son of God. Gnostics rejected the goodness of creation, and therefore they ended up denying the Incarnation. Orthodox theology affirms that the Son of God became truly and fully human, and in doing so tore down the separation between God and creation. In reconciling us with God, Jesus Christ reconciled all creation.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is within it.” This phrase from Psalm 24 is spoken at the conclusion of every funeral service in the Orthodox Church. “We are from the earth and to earth we return,” the priest intones as he places some earth on the body before closing the casket. The earth is our home – during our waking life and after we depart from this life. The earth is also our eternal home, if the words of Revelation are to be taken literally. Romans 8:21 states very clearly: “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

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If all this is true, should we Christians not be at the forefront of caring for the earth and celebrating its beauty? I see Earth Day as a day on which I can affirm my belief in the incarnation of the Word of God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” the Gospel of John declares in its majestic opening chapter. καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, the Greek text says: “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent with us.” It’s earthy language, the language of the desert and the sand – not the language of a nice home in the suburbs. Everything about Jesus is earthy, because we are of earth and to earth we return.

Let us take care of our earthy home. Let’s pitch our own tents and walk barefoot and lightly on our beautiful planet. Let us do our own part in protecting this precious gift from God. It is the only home we will ever have. Happy Earth Day! May every day be earth day!

CHRIST IS RISEN! The whole creation is risen with him!!

Planet_Earth_by_sanmonku