Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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The Logos of Advent

 

Advent is a time of rich liturgical and popular traditions in the western churches, especially in the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. But it is a much undeveloped liturgical time in the eastern churches, where it is primarily observed as a fasting season, probably thanks to the disproportionate influence of monastics in the evolution of the Orthodox tradition. Our loss, I guess one can say. In fact, the Orthodox liturgical tradition has only one hymn that could be accurately called an Advent hymn – and it is the Kontakion we sing in the season before Christmas:

Ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον, τὸν προαιώνιον Λόγον, ἐν Σπηλαίῳ ἔρχεται, ἀποτεκεῖν ἀπορρήτως. Χόρευε ἡ οἰκουμένη ἀκουτισθεῖσα, δόξασον μετὰ Ἀγγέλων καὶ τῶν Ποιμένων, βουληθέντα ἐποφθῆναι, παιδίον νέον, τὸν πρὸ αἰώνων Θεόν.

Today the Virgin comes to the manger to give birth in a mystery to him who is the eternal Word. Hear this and rejoice all the earth and glorify with the angels and the shepherds; for the pre-eternal God now comes to us as a new child.

It is a beautiful hymn, expressing not only the anticipated joy but also the profound theology of the Logos, the Word. It comes from the opening 18 verses of the Gospel of John:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν….Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας….θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς υἱός [θεὸς] ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father….No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son [God], who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

Notice the textual variation in the last sentence, indicated by the square brackets? The majority of manuscripts have μονογενὴς υἱός, the only-begotten Son. But two of the earliest papyrus manuscripts that we possess (from around 200 AD), 𝔓66 and 𝔓75, and some other early manuscripts read θεός instead of υἱός. Scholars now speculate that θεός was replaced by υἱός in later manuscripts to bring John’s statement more in line with standard trinitarian language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it is very likely that John did indeed write θεός to wrap up this majestic opening of his gospel, in which he unveils the Logos in his full divine and cosmic glory.

The police drama Columbo was very popular in the 1970s. Unlike other police dramas, it showed the crime and the perpetrator at the beginning of each episode. So we the viewers knew whodunnit before Columbo, brilliantly played by Peter Falk, came on to the scene, with his usual battered coat.

That’s something like what John did in the opening of his gospel: he told us up front who he is going to reveal to us. The Advent Kontakion does something similar. It tells us up front, it’s the Logos who is coming into the world. It is the human manifestation of the Logos that Christmas is all about. It is not Santa, it is not just my personal Lord and Saviour. It is the Word of God – the reason for all creation, the reason why we have life, the reason why there is light in the world, even if sometimes the darkness seems to prevail. But “the darkness has not overcome it,” John tells us.

John’s use of the Logos locates his understanding of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures, the dabar yhwh; but also in the Greek philosophical tradition of the Logos going all the way back to Heraclitus (535-475 BC). Thus, Logos helped John combine Hebrew and Greek insights into the origin, purpose and cosmic scale of our existence! Look at the map below, compiled by astronomers, showing our neighbourhood of the universe. Click it once and click it again to expand it and fill your computer screen. How can you look at the scale and movements of the galaxies and not believe that there is Logos behind the magnificent complexity and marvel of the universe?

Currents of galaxies (white spheres) are drawn by gravity toward galaxy cluster and even more massive cosmic pileups like the “Great Attractor.” Red and yellow show zones of attraction; dark blue shows the voids that galaxies flow away from. (Credit: Courtois, Tully, et al.) (Click to enlarge)

This cosmological map helps me understand Jesus better than any icon does. I see the cosmic scale of God’s creative and redemptive purposes. And I am in there too, in that section called the Milky Way; and I am part of the big picture. We are part of the big picture! Don’t reduce Jesus to be your little saviour. His is an ecumenical, cosmic birth. The οἰκουμένη rejoices and dances with the angels and the shepherds – because a new child is born, the pre-eternal God.

We have a hard time conceiving infinity. Think about pi, π. (See excellent Wikipedia article.) π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is usually represented as 3.14; but in actual fact, π can be expanded to an infinite number of decimal places. It just goes on and on as we increase the precision of calculation:

π = 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592……

How far do you go in contemplating infinity, eternity? And what lies beyond infinity, beyond eternity? The mind stops; we can’t conceive the inconceivable. So in our hymnography we don’t even use words like “eternal” to speak of God the Word: he is “pre-eternal” – before and beyond eternity!

Christmas is the profound mystery of the pre-eternal God crashing into our universe, into what he created. We are his, the entire οἰκουμένη is his, all creation is his. “Lord save your people and bless your inheritance,” we sing in one of our most popular hymns. The earth is his inheritance. It belongs to him, and he comes into his inheritance. He comes into his own, even though his own more often reject him than welcome him. We reject him when we reject his work, his inheritance, our place in the cosmos. We reject him when we misuse his inheritance, when we treat it as our own possession. What happened 2,000 years ago is like the opening of a Columbo episode. It told us everything we need to know about the story of Jesus down through the ages. It all played out there – and it has played out in identical ways for 20 more centuries. Let us not be among those who reject him. Let us be among those who welcome him – not just as an excuse for mindless shopping. Let us welcome him as the source of truth, life and love. The Word is God…and the Word became flesh.


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“Did you help?”

 

Dorothy Sayers began one of her public talks with the following words:

What I am going to talk about is theology. … I think it only fair to warn you about this, because I so often get letters from people saying that they “don’t agree with theology.” They don’t like it, as some people don’t like spiders. If anybody here feels like that, this is the cue for them to rise and make a graceful exit. (Quoted in Creed Without Chaos, Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers, by Laura K. Simmons, page 11)

She was a popular writer in Great Britain, known primarily for her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels. But she was also a very articulate defender of the Christian faith when the Church of England was already beginning to drift from classical Christian teachings. She was part of that unique circle of Christian intellectuals at Oxford University that also included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others, during the 1930s and 40s. She died in 1957.

My own first awareness of Sayers was in Florence in 1978, when I picked up Dante’s Divine Comedy in the translation by Dorothy L. Sayers. What better place to start reading the Divine Comedy than in Florence, Dante’s hometown? And with Dorothy Sayers as translator?

I like the way she began that talk, giving people an opportunity to walk out if they don’t like theology. Many people don’t like theology. This is actually the prime problem that keeps people away from church, or keeps people in an infantile version of Christianity. Our church is deeply theological. Our Liturgy is deeply theological. No wonder people can’t relate to it. The argument is often made that the church does not speak the language of today. That is true. And of course, I don’t mean whether the church speaks English or Greek or whatever. I mean of course the conceptual language of today’s people, the language with which they view the world and relate to the world. But what is even more true is that today’s people don’t speak the language of the church and don’t even care to learn or understand the language of the church, or the language of the Bible, or the language of the Creed! And so we have an impasse.

In the early 1940s Sayers produced a series of radio plays for the BBC titled, The Man Who Would Be King – a series in 12 parts dramatizing the life of Christ. One Jewish man who listened to the radio plays understood Jesus for the first time in his life. His difficulty had been the Incarnation — that is truly the primary Jewish difficulty. After hearing the plays, he felt that so good and great a man must have been God. Before, he hadn’t been able to see how so great and good a God could have become man.

This dear friends is where most of us are. We also have trouble with the Incarnation. How could a great and good God become a human being? It’s a problem for the theologians, most people would say. Yes, if by theology you mean some abstract kind of religious philosophy. That’s not the kind of theology Dorothy Sayers spoke or wrote. It’s not the kind of theology that I embrace. My kind of theology is the theology that embraces and nourishes. That is why my primary gateway to theology is the Liturgy – not just the Sunday Liturgy, but the whole liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, especially the great annual feasts, some of which we represent in our icons.

Jesus spoke theology – not with fancy words, but with actions that opened people’s eyes to the liberating love of God. Jesus spoke theology because He is Theology! The Word of God, the Logos. People think that’s a bit of Greek philosophy that crept into the Gospel of John. No, it’s not. It’s Hebrew. The dabar of God – the word of God came to Abraham (Genesis 15:1); the word of God came to Elijah (1 Kings 21:17); the word of God came to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:26) ; “the word of the Lord came to me,” wrote Ezekiel over and over in the book that carries his name. The word of God was always coming, because God always goes out of himself toward his proudest creation, the human being. And God finally, at the right time, went out of himself all the way and became a human being.

It’s only when we see the actions of Jesus in their whole context – not just the first century, but history before and after, that we can begin to do theology, to speak properly of God. God gives us voice, like he gave voice to the woman with the flow of blood in today’s Gospel reading. And God raises us from our depths of solitude and ignorance like he raised the girl from the dead in today’s reading. Giving voice to the bleeding woman was for her as good as raising her from the dead, from a living death. This is theology: To be touched by God; to be given a voice by God; to be raised to life by God. It’s all there. How we respond is the challenge.

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One writer writes about going to a meditation center in Paris. He writes:

Madame de Salzman asked me whether I found the meditation at the Maison last evening useful. She had not been feeling well and could not come herself. Someone else, a senior person in Paris, had led the meditation. I had felt a little disappointed by the fact that she had not come and I had not been able to make a deep connection with myself during the meditation. I made some complaint about the way the meditation had been led. Madame de Salzman asked me something which struck me like a thunderbolt, and showed me the level of my self-occupation. She asked simply, “Did you help?”  (Quoted in Parabola Magazine, Winter 2016-17 issue, page 112)

Did you help? Perhaps that is the question we need to ask ourselves and each other when we find the Liturgy irrelevant, when we feel the church does not speak the language of today. Do we help? Do we work with the grace that God pours into our lives every moment? Do we try to learn the language of the Liturgy, of the church, of the Bible, of the Creed? Do we allow the language of the church and the Liturgy and the Bible and the Creed to embrace us, to heal us, to nourish us, to raise us up, to give us voice, to sanctify us? That is what Jesus also would ask. “Did you help?” Do you help?


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The Word and my words

And so we begin. During the weekdays of Lent, the Orthodox Church reads from the Old Testament instead of the Gospels and the Letters of Paul. And three books of the Old Testament in particular are read on a daily basis: Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs. Today, it’s the beginning of each of those three books: Genesis 1:1-13; Isaiah 1:1-20; and Proverbs 1:1-20.

CreationOfLight%28008236%29__25713.1409569925.1280.1280How extraordinary those opening sentences of Genesis, they never grow old. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light….” 

god_the_geometer

CreationSeriesGroup__50522.1405401018.900.900And so it continues. God speaks and things come into being; and things order themselves according to God’s wishes – and God sees it all, and it’s all good.

Or, is it? Isaiah paints a bleaker picture. Here, too, God speaks. But God speaks to lament:I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” A new “word” is now spoken – not a word that creates, but a word that judges: “Hear the word of the Lord… What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

Prophet_Isaias__20333.1409482756.490.588Have you ever read such words before in any holy book of any religion? This is why I love the Old Testament. There is nothing “old” about it; that’s a terrible misnomer that Christians use to devalue words of God that are just as contemporary today as they were three thousand years ago! What is “old” about what we read in this opening of Isaiah? Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” It just doesn’t sound like the god of many of today’s Christians, does it?

But this is a god who is open to dialogue: Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord…” That’s why this is no ordinary god, but God! This is why the Bible is no ordinary human document. It is a human document permeated by an experience of the living God. Too bad we look at Isaiah as primarily a prophet of the coming of Christ. We end up missing 95% of his message.

And what about the third book that the Orthodox Church uses during this Lenten season, the Book of Proverbs? Let’s be honest; most of this biblical book is full of antiquated moralistic teaching, much of it patriarchal and misogynistic. And yet, scattered here and there, in this book also, there are extraordinary insights into the same truths that Genesis and Isaiah reveal more frequently. And so we read in this opening chapter of Proverbs words that sound remarkably like those in Isaiah: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction… If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent… do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood… they lie in wait—to kill themselves! and set an ambush—for their own lives! Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”

The language in Proverbs is less cosmic, less awe-inspiring than what we read in Isaiah, but the message is the same: Flee from evil, flee from greed – it will take possession of you and drive you away from God, the living God. The “fear” of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: not so much fear of punishment, but fear of losing the intimate reverence and fellowship that was meant to be ours from those first words spoken at the very beginning: “Let there be light…” Not only the light of cosmic creation, but light in our lives and in our relationship with others.

Yesterday, the Matins service included the following Kontakion: Τῆς σοφίας ὁδηγέ, φρονήσεως χορηγέ, τῶν ἀφρόνων παιδευτά, καὶ πτωχῶν ὑπερασπιστά, στήριξον, συνέτισον τὴν καρδίαν μου Δέσποτα. Σὺ δίδου μοι λόγον, ὁ τοῦ Πατρός Λόγος· ἰδοὺ γὰρ τὰ χείλη μου, οὐ μὴ κωλύσω ἐν τῷ κράζειν σοι· Ἐλεῆμον, ἐλέησόν με τὸν παραπεσόντα.

Beautiful prayer for the last day before Lent: O Master, Guide to wisdom, Giver of good counsel, Instructor of the unknowing and Champion of the poor: Make my heart firm and understanding. O Word of the Father, give me word: so that my lips will not stop crying out to you: Merciful One, have mercy on me the fallen. And here, of course, Word (Logos) is the name that the Gospel of John (1:1-18, especially verses 1 & 14) designates for the eternal existence of Jesus.

It’s too bad that monastic self-absorption crept in at the end of this kontakion. How much more meaningful if the writer of this kontakion had been inspired by Isaiah instead of the morbid theology that has poisoned many lives with self-loathing. Here is what we read in Isaiah 50:4 – The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.” (Most modern translations have really messed up this verse and taken away its poetry, which is why I prefer the Revised Standard Version which I have quoted here.)

How much even more meaningful this kontakion would be if we took our lead from Isaiah and today’s Bible readings – and from the first half of this same kontakion! – to say something like this: “O Word of the Father, give me word, so that I may comfort the weary, instruct the unknowing and defend the poor.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of myself as “fallen”! I know I sin and I need forgiveness, but to call myself “fallen” seems to deny everything that Orthodox theology has taught me. If the monks want to consider themselves fallen, that’s their privilege, but don’t put words in my mouth to speak their sentiments. I’d rather the Word put words in my mouth so that I can speak comfort – to myself and to others – and speak wisdom – again, to myself and to others – and to speak up for the poor and the oppressed.

That’s what Lent means to me. It’s a season that tells me to listen as one who is taught, so that the Word might to speak through my words. The Bible speaks to us today and every day with words of creation (Genesis), words of challenge and correction (Isaiah), and words that instruct and alert us (Proverbs). How the Word relates to my words is the essential lesson I need to learn during Lent. Everything else follows from this.