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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 Divine Child

A sermon by my beloved professor of liturgical theology, Father Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory: The Divine Child.

Fr. Schmemann was a remarkable teacher, a true visionary, an advocate of genuine Orthodoxy rather than the false, pretentious versions that are on the increase, especially in North America. He worked tirelessly for ecclesiastical unity, but his vision died with him: the Orthodox world today is far more divided than it has ever been since the era of the ancient ecumenical councils. Petty politics, rivalries, mindless traditionalism, and overt misanthropy are destroying the Orthodox Church from within. Fr. Schmemann in this sermon, spoke of the child within each of us. Too bad the church is run by old men who do not know their inner child.

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Priests of thanksgiving

st-andrew-iconToday, November 30th, we celebrate the memory of St. Andrew the Apostle, the brother of Saint Peter. The Gospel of John tells us that Andrew was the first of the apostles to follow Jesus and it was Andrew who then brought Peter to Jesus. Thus, in the Orthodox Church St. Andrew is called the First-Called. He met his death by martyrdom in the city of Patra in the Peloponnese in Greece. Today this is a busy port, but it is best known for its huge cathedral church of St. Andrew where the relics of the apostle are kept for veneration by the faithful. Andrew was crucified by the Romans – but he requested that his cross not be identical to the cross on which Jesus was crucified. He didn’t feel worthy to be crucified the same way as his Lord. So he was crucified on an X-shaped cross.


Saint Andrew achieved the end of his life with a sense of fulfillment and gratitude. A much more recent man of God also reached the end of his life with words of thanksgiving. Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s last Liturgy was on Thanksgiving Day 1983 and the words he spoke at that Liturgy have been printed previously in this blog and need not be repeated here. He was a true priest, perhaps the truest priest I’ve ever known in my life. And the words he spoke on Thanksgiving 1983, just three weeks before cancer took him home, encapsulate his own priesthood, as well as the priesthood of every believer. Thanksgiving is at the heart of what the priestly vocation is all about. So I will paraphrase the words of Fr. Schmemann and claim: Everyone capable of thanksgiving is a priest.

My reflections on this theme, in today’s sermon, can be heard here. (Pardon a couple of sound glitches and my own reaction to them.)