Ancient Answers


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Waiting for Humans

The story of creation continues in today’s reading from Genesis 1:14-23. Everything is now almost ready for the appearance of human beings. I say “almost” because the “fifth day” of creation only brought into being the living creatures of the air and the waters. Land animals will appear on the sixth day, on the same “day” as humans!

Somewhere after the “fifth day” or in the middle of the “sixth day” God perhaps took a deep breath and contemplated the final act of creation. Will humans be a blessing or a curse upon the earth? The two other readings for today give us a preview of the answer to that question: Isaiah 1:19-2:3 and Proverbs 1:20-33. The picture in both readings is bleak. The “city” has failed (Isaiah 1:21); Wisdom cries out in the streets of the city (Proverbs 1:20), vainly looking for reason and faithfulness. The human domain has proven to be a failure! But God looks to a restoration, a return to “mountain” imagery rather than “city” landscape! Yes, it is the city Zion that “mountain of the Lord” refers to (Isaiah 2:2-3) and the terms are used interchangeably throughout the scriptures, but here in Isaiah the language serves also to emphasize the failure of the “city” and God’s preference for “mountain” language.

In Romans 8:19, we read: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God…” We will discuss the fuller context of that statement in future reflections, but for now we can stop here at the fifth day of creation and imagine creation and God’s heavenly realm waiting in eager anticipation for the final act of God’s days of creation, and that will come in tomorrow’s reading from Genesis. The narrative is about to reach its climax. But it will be a climax that does not appear separately from what precedes it. God’s six days of creation are indeed one majestic symphonic movement.

I like what our Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, spoke at a symposium in 1997 at the Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in California. It beautifully expresses the continuity of God’s creative action: “The Lord suffuses all of creation with His divine presence in one continuous legato from the substance of atoms to the Mind of God. Let us renew the harmony between heaven and Earth and transfigure every detail, every particle of life.” I love his use of the word legato, a musical term that describes the interpretive approach that avoids choppy, disconnected articulation and brings out the flow and continuity of musical phrases. It is an approach most masterfully employed by great conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Most of the hymnography this week is influenced by monastic negativity toward the body and its passions. Whereas the bleak pictures that Isaiah and Proverbs have presented to us concern failure to do justice and to know God, the church fell captive to monastic language of self-mortification – for example: “Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions; that we who are enslaved by the tyranny of the flesh….” and so on, you get the drift. Nevertheless, the genuine gospel spirit survives in some of the hymnography: “Let us begin, O people, the pure Fast that is our soul’s salvation. Let us serve the Lord with fear: let us anoint our heads with the oil of charity, and let us wash our faces in the waters of purity. Let us not use vain repetitions in our prayers, but as we have been taught, let us say: Our Father, who art in heaven, forgive us our trespasses in your love for humankind.” One may wince at the idea that fasting is “our soul’s salvation” – clearly that is not the Lord’s teaching – but the rest of this and similar other hymns for this week clearly resonates with memories of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:1-18.

I’ve enjoyed reading a wonderful book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril; edited by Kathleen Dean Morris and Michael P. Nelson (Trinity University Press, 2010) – a volume to which Patriarch Bartholomew and other religious and spiritual leaders have contributed. One of the “action” pages in this book (p. 163) provides a more creative way to look at fasting:

Say thank you before morning coffee, which is a gift of grace from the water and the soil, which owe you nothing.

Celebrate the season of harvest with feasting, the season of scarcity with fasting, the season of new life with dancing, and the season of ripeness with listening.

Now that’s what it means to understand the unity and “legato” of God’s creative work. And we share in that legato by harmonizing with the seasons. When you start each day with an attitude of thanksgiving, it is easier to understand how fasting has its place in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps, without consciously knowing it, the church instituted the season of the Fast out of a subconscious understanding of the “season of scarcity” which we call winter. Deep in our collective DNA there is a memory of life without supermarkets, packaged foods, GMOs, and global trade – when life depended on understanding the seasons and our indebtedness to the goodness of the earth. I’ve lived my entire life in cities and I love what the city provides, but perhaps we need some of that wild mountain language that God uses in Isaiah and elsewhere. Jesus himself preferred the desert and the mountains for his reflective moments and encounters. We need the world, this planet and all life on it. Without it we are incomplete; and without us the planet is incomplete. Can we appreciate that? The future depends on it.

Planet_Earth_by_sanmonku


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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