Ancient Answers


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Lights of God rise in the darkness

Over a hundred years ago (in 1915, to be precise) the great German theologian wrote the following, in an essay called “The Righteousness of God”:

What is the use of all the preaching, baptising, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, the counsels of ‘applied religion’….the efforts to enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God?… Are we not rather hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will?

Not exactly a feel-good passage for someone like me who is involved in “preaching…religious moods and modes, applied religion…monthly church papers” and other forms of “modern ecclesiasticism”! Am I and the people with me waiting for the “critical event that ought to happen” but “probably never will?” What is the “critical event”?

Elsewhere in this same essay, Barth wrote:

We make a veritable uproar with our morality and culture and religion. But we may presently be brought to silence, and with that will begin our true redemption.

In the reflection I posted early this morning about the Orthodox celebration of the Elevation of the Cross I ended by proposing a different form to the ritual of the elevation, a form that would shift the focus of the church from inward-looking to outward-looking. The Cross of Jesus Christ – of Jesus Christ, not something other that any of us might call “my cross”! – is the most perfect expression of God’s righteousness. And it is the Cross that we should present to the world, not the “uproar” of “our morality and culture and religion”! And the Cross does’t need an uproar or words and slogans. The Cross asks us to be silent, empty, in order for the Cross to reveal Christ to the world.

Barth wrote this essay over a hundred years ago, in the midst of the First World War. We today are not in the midst of a world war, but we are in a war nevertheless. Once again, I call upon Karl Barth from his European vantage point of 1915. Perhaps things are not much different. Only the guns of war have changed.

There seem to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion – to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the grey sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe – in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion and militarism – the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the ‘religious life’ go their uninterrupted way…A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception!

In the midst of the unrighteousness Barth names – and how contemporary they sound a hundred years later – the church takes comfort inside our walls, surrounded by our holy icons, repeating age-old rituals (while not even probing their spiritual meaning). As our pews empty, we take comfort that the ‘faithful’ still come. Meanwhile, hordes are leaving for other religious fixes. And then there are the ones in our midst who resent the changes going on in the church: they resent that the church today is not the church of their fathers and mothers! I hear that from men and women in their 40s and 50s.

How do we reach men and women in their 40s and 50s who want nothing else than the church to be the church they grew up in, when the church was little more than an ethnic club? I imagine that the words of Karl Barth are completely incomprehensible to people who live in an imaginary past, when America was GREAT, when the church was GREAT!

The Orthodox Church relies on its traditions and liturgical wealth to ensure its existence and durability. We baptise infants, we trust that the sacraments and sanctifying acts of the church will plant the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our people. And I fully believe that we are right in making these claims. I believe that God acts in the lives of people through the sacraments and the various sanctifying acts of the church. God acts through the sermons that are preached with the sacraments. God acts through the community bonds that Christian fellowship engenders. But only if we allow the righteousness of God to be revealed; only when we don’t see our own righteousness as the measure of faith; only when we allow ourselves to be silent so God can speak.

We will not fill our pews with smarter programs and entertaining music and feel-good sermons. Mega churches do those things and pack them in by the thousands every Sunday. Good for them. Though they claim to be ‘evangelical’, Karl Barth would probably have a hard time recognising them as Christian. Programs, ‘relevance’ and ingenious efforts at Christian entertainment were prevalent a century ago when he wrote his essay “The Righteousness of God”, and they have been brought to new levels of ingenuity in our technological age. But they are not the mission of the church. Relevance is NOT the mission of the church! Relevance to what? Facebook, short attention spans, social media, materialism, the politics of race and division, our therapeutic fixations?

Barth’s magnum opus was his multi-volume Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics)

No, the church represents – or should represent – the presence of God’s righteousness, which is why I proposed that the Cross could be more appropriately elevated outward on Sept. 14th, so it could face outward from the church. The Cross of Jesus Christ is our emblem and we should live as the Cross teaches us. Then and only then can the church escape the dead ends of relevance and power. Let us face the world with the Cross of Christ – not as a trinket around our necks, but as the force that shows us how to live as the righteousness of God in the world. Is the Elevation of the Cross merely a ritual? Or does it bring us closer to the “critical event”?

I conclude with more words by Karl Barth:

In the midst of the old world of war and money and death…Lights of God rise in the darkness, and powers of God become real in weakness. Real love, real sincerity, real progress become possible; morality and culture, state and nation, even religion and the church now become possible – now for the first time! One is taken with the vision of an immortality or even of a future life here on earth in which the righteous will of God breaks forth, prevails, and is done as it is in heaven.

There is the “critical event” so far as I can make out without reading the entire essay. There is the “critical event” that has not happened yet and probably never will in Barth’s own words: When God’s righteousness prevails “and is done as it is in heaven”! But can we at least aim to be lights of God in the darkness? Can we rise from our lethargy and allow the Cross and the Holy Spirit to guide our walk through life, this life?

I don’t own a copy of Barth’s essay “The Righteousness of God”. All the above passages are as quoted in the book “Church as Moral Community – Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922” by Michael D. O’Neil, published in 2013 by the Paternoster Press in England.


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A Simple Change in Symbolism

On September 14th the Orthodox Church celebrates the Elevation (or Exaltation) of the Holy Cross. In Byzantium this was more than a holy day. In some respects it was the national holiday of the Byzantine Empire! Consider the primary hymn of the day:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the kings over the barbarians, and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (politeuma).

Many Orthodox churches today have de-politicised this hymn with translations like the following:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the faithful over adversities (or, obstacles), and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (or, your people).

But once you move past the imperial context of this great feast, you are confronted by some strong theology. Consider the following hymn from the Vespers of the feast. It is sung/chanted, yet reads like a theological treatise.

Come, all you nations, let us worship the blessed tree, through which has come the eternal vindication. For he who deceived our forefather Adam by means of a tree is himself ensnared by the Cross. And he falls headlong tumbling down, who formerly held the royal master-work in tyranny. By the blood of God, the venom of the serpent is washed away, and the curse of the just sentence is lifted by the unjust sentence on the Righteous One who was condemned. For it was necessary to remedy the tree by a tree, and to put an end to the passions suffered by the condemned at the free by the Passion of the Lord. Glory to you O Christ King; glory to the awesome plan for our salvation, by which you saved everyone, as you are good and the lover of humankind. 

Note the references to the Cross as “tree”. This is classic terminology and serves to contrast the tree of the Cross to the tree in Eden which was the instrument for the fall of the first human beings. It is this contrast that the hymn articulates and celebrates.

The high-point of the feast observance occurs at the end of Matins. The Great Doxology is sung and at the concluding portion a slow procession of the Cross takes place. The Cross is decorated with basil in the Greek tradition. (Flowers are also used: in combination with basil, or alone in parts of the world where fresh basil is not common.) Basil is basilikos in Greek, “of the king”, so in one sense it reconnects us with the imperial history of the feast. But the true King is, of course, Jesus Christ – so Jesus is the true reference of the basil. The Cross of King Jesus is embedded in basil and carried in a solemn procession to the centre of the church where a unique ritual takes place.

The procession ends at a small table that has been set up in the centre of the church in front of the gathered congregation. The priest stands in front of this table, intones a short prayer and then slowly lowers the cross toward the floor while holding it above his head and then raises it back up again above his head – all this while the choir or the chanters repeat the words “Kyrie Eleison.” Then the priest moves to stand facing the right side of the table, and the lowering and elevation of the Cross is repeated. Then the priest stands facing the rear side of the table, then the left side, and finally back to the front. So a total five times the ritual of lowering and elevating the Cross takes place.

The symbolism is clear. The table represents the world, the inhabited earth (oecumene). The Cross is raised on each of the four points of the compass to bless and protect the entire world. The tree of the Cross recreates the entire world; it reverses the fall which happened at the tree of Eden. The entire world becomes a restored Eden. Of course the vision is eschatological, but in the Byzantine Empire the message was also one of hegemonic power.

It struck me last night as I celebrated the feast in our church that we need a different symbolism to complement the traditional understanding. Instead of the Cross being raised while facing the table, why not face outward from the table at the four points of the compass? Instead of representing the world being blessed/protected by the Cross, the table represents the Church! And the Church faces outward, proclaiming the Cross of Jesus Christ to the world!

The subtleties of Orthodox and Byzantine symbolism are lost on most Orthodox Christians today, and it is incumbent on clergy and lay teachers to open the treasure chest that we have inherited. Why boast of the “Treasures of Orthodoxy” if they remain meaningless rituals that don’t inspire and motivate the Church to spread the gospel of the Cross of Jesus Christ? And isn’t the visual message of looking outward instead of inward a needed corrective to the Orthodox tendency to look inward and live in the past?

(Unfortunately, no photos were taken of our vigil service, so the photos included here are from the Internet.)


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Elevation of the Cross

The feast of the Universal Elevation of the Holy Cross was originally an immensely political feast-day in Byzantium. It is clearly seen in the Apolytikion of the day: Σῶσον Κύριε τὸν λαόν σου καὶ εὐλόγησον τὴν κληρονομίαν σου, νίκας τοῖς Βασιλεῦσι κατὰ βαρβάρων δωρούμενος καὶ τὸ σὸν φυλάττων διὰ τοῦ Σταυροῦ σου πολίτευμα. This is a victory song and a prayer for the Byzantine emperors to conquer the “barbarians” by the power of the Cross – the same Cross which was also to guard and preserve their political apparatus (politevma).

Russian icon of the Elevation of the Cross (click to enlarge)

Russian icon of the Elevation of the Cross

This was the original purpose of this great feast day. But for us today it takes on its proper biblical and spiritual meaning. The lowering and elevation of the basil-decorated Cross at the four corners of creation signifies for us the sanctifying power of Christ’s Cross on all creation – everything and everyone! Christ did not die “for me” or for you or even for us, but for all, for the entire world. The Cross has power to heal every division, every hatred, every sin. Let us elevate the Cross in our hearts and let us march by the power of the Cross – not to vanquish our enemies, but to win them over with our love, compassion and efforts at dialogue. This meaning of the feast is clearly announced in the three Old Testament readings that are part of the Vespers service. Exodus 15:22-27 is a message of  healing, of turning bitter water into sweet. How the Byzantines could turn the sweetness and healing of the Cross into a weapon of war is difficult to understand, though the hymns of the day do refer to the Cross as Christ’s weapon of peace – but only Christ’s weapon of peace, not the people’s who are called by his name? There’s a good question to reflect on.

The Cross as Tree of Life

The Cross as Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

The second reading of Vespers from Proverbs speaks of the “tree of life,” and this too is an image of the Cross. The third reading from Isaiah mixes images of co-existence with language of subjugation – the usual mixed signal that we get from the prophets of the Old Testament, less a message of healing than the previous two readings. In the first two of these readings from Vespers we see images of healing trees. In the Orthodox church the Cross is most often referred to as the Tree of the Cross. The reasons for this are many. On a practical level, of course the Cross was made of wood, and wood comes from a tree. But on the spiritual level, the Tree of the Cross is a reference to the Tree of Paradise that was the cause of the exile of Adam and Eve. Then we have the healing references to trees in the readings from Exodus and Proverbs mentioned above. The Tree of the Cross is the reversal, the forgiveness of what the Tree in Paradise caused. And the Tree of the Cross is a healing tree, like the tree of life in Proverbs, and a tree that turns bitterness into sweetness. Powerful symbolism all around.

Christ, the True Vine and Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

Christ, the True Vine and Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

The hymnography of Sept. 14th is extremely rich with messages of peace, healing, salvation, sanctification – the entire panoply of Orthodox theology and spirituality. So let’s ignore how the Byzantine emperors saw the Cross. The Cross is called Christ’s weapon of peace in the hymns of the day. Let it also be our own weapon of peace: peace in our bodies and souls, as we seek to be whole; peace in our relationships with others; peace in how we view the world and what kind of politics and social agendas we prefer to follow or vote for; peace in our relationship with nature and non-human life… And peace with God! There is nothing to fear in our relationship with God, nothing to waste our energy on. Just relax and allow grace and sanctification to work in your life and carry that sanctifying power to those around you. It’s wonderful and traditional for people to bring basil on Sept. 14th to those who are not able to attend Liturgy. Let’s not just bring basil; let’s bring the fullness of Christ’s powerful love, the love that heals and raises our lives to a divine level.

Have a blessed feast day of the Cross. Give glory to Christ the Lord of life.

Some profound resources and thoughts at this website: http://www.antiochian.org/elevationofthecross