Sunday, April 20, 2014

Appreciating Pascha

           In recent months I have come to the conclusion that the best place to appreciate the significance of Pascha is in a cancer ward, or a hospice for the dying, or by a deathbed.  When one stands in any of these terrible places, one enjoys an immunity from the lies of the world.  For the world tells each one of us that we are a race of immortals, destined never to die.  Surveying our surroundings in these places reveals that  this is not so.
Both the cosmetic industry and the funeral industry conspire in their own ways to persuade us that we will remain young and wrinkle-free forever, and our media cheerfully picks up and conveys this message.  We know, of course, that it is nonsense, but we buy into it anyway.  Youth is celebrated and culturally portrayed as if it is eternal, and the dead are rarely allowed to be seen.  People expire privately in hospital rooms, and then are rushed down to the morgue.  Funeral directors (there are happy exceptions) do their best to anesthetise the survivors to the horror that is death, and often the corpse is cremated before the funeral (now renamed the “celebration of life”).  Often in of these services, the corpse is not present, and if it is, the casket is usually closed.  Our forefathers chanted, “In the midst of life we are in death” (the line is from the grave-side service in the Anglican prayerbook), but no longer.   In the midst of life we now rarely encounter death.  In the old days, people died at home, and were prepared for burial by their loving and grieving family.  Now we have people for that.
All of this culture of denial falls away from us when we survey our surroundings in cancer ward, hospice, or by the deathbed.  Whether or not we die of cancer, all of us will die.  It reminds me of the old children’s riddling rhyme:  “Doctor, doctor, will I die?  Yes, my child, and so will I.”  Our cultural denial notwithstanding, we are not a race of immortals, and all of us will one day lie upon our deathbeds.  As a priest, I have stood by a few of them.  And then one realizes afresh what Pascha really means.
Pascha is not simply a liturgical feast, something celebrating the end of a rigorous Great Lent.  And it is not simply the happy historical ending to our Lord’s life, an appendix added after the crucifixion saying, “And they all lived happily ever after”.  Pascha is God’s promise that the moment of pain we endure by the deathbed is not the final word.   For now we must be submerged in the horror and obscenity of death, but God’s plan is indeed for us to be a race of immortals, and one day this plan will be fulfilled.  Hurtling down the years to our deathbed is not a journey to oblivion but to joy.  When death’s cold hand finally closes our eyes, we will open them in paradise, and after our body returns to the dust from which it was taken, it will one day arise and be raised and transformed.   Pascha is not simply about Christ’s happy ending, but about ours. 
If one disbelieves in Christ and Pascha, then our cultural of denial of death makes good sense.  We can’t do anything about the fearful fate which awaits us, so why think about it?  Eat, drink, be merry, and watch television.  But if what the Church says about Christ and Pascha is true, we don’t need the lies or the denial.  We can look death in its fearful face and smile and say with St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”  Death may prowl the cancer ward or the hospice and may roar by the deathbed, but it will be gone soon enough.  Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Recovering the Via Dolorosa

During my recent visit to the Holy Land I was very interested in visiting the so-called “Tower of David”, or “the Citadel” located towards the southwest corner of the Old City.  It contains an excellent museum, offering a tour of its premises, including access to its summit, which itself affords a splendid view of the Old City. It was enthralling and well worth the entrance fee.  But I was looking for something certainly not found in the provided tour.  I was looking for the shadow of Pilate.  For it was somewhere here or nearby that Herod had his palace, and according to some scholars, it was this palace that Pilate used for his residence or “praetorium” when he stayed in Jerusalem.
              All questions involving the route of our Lord from condemnation to execution—the so-called Via Dolorosa or “way of sorrows”—must begin with this question.  We know where the route ended—at the place now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which in our Lord’s time was just outside the city gates.  So, since we know the terminus of the route, the only real question is “Where did it begin?”  The Gospels all insist that it began with Christ’s condemnation by Pilate at “the praetorium”.  But where was this?
            Since the middle ages, the location of the praetorium was considered to be the Antonia Tower, in the northwest corner of the Temple area, the barracks for the Roman garrison guarding Jerusalem.  This was next to the Temple, since the Romans wanted to keep close watch on the Temple grounds and to be able to respond quickly should a riot erupt there.  This is the site presupposed by those accepting the authenticity of the present Via Dolorosa, which traces a route from the Antonia Tower to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  But acceptance of this route and its use for liturgical procession only dates from the thirteenth century. There is no continuous tradition tracing this route as the true one.  It is a possible route, but other routes may be considered as well.
            There are problems with thinking that Pilate used the Antonia Tower as his praetorium when in Jerusalem.  Firstly, St. Matthew informs us that Pilate’s wife was with him (Mt. 27:19), and it is unlikely that Pilate would have taken soldiers’ quarters in the barracks in the rough Antonia Tower under those circumstances.  Josephus admittedly describes it as “having the largeness and form of a palace” (Wars 5, 5, 8), but it is likely that by this he means only “the largeness and form of a palace compared to other barracks for soldiers”.  One wonders if Pilate’s wife would have found it so palatial.   Moreover Josephus refers “the royal palace” in the Upper City (Wars 2, 19,4).  By this he referred to Herod’s Palace, which contained three towers, named after Herod’s family and friends.  The present so-called “Tower of David” is the remnants of the only one of those towers remaining.  In other words, Herod’s royal palace was at the place now occupied by the Tower of David.
But was it used by Pilate as his praetorium while he stayed in Jerusalem?  The available evidence points in that direction.  Philo (d. 50 A.D.) writes in his Delegation to Gaius that Herod’s Palace in the Holy City was “the residence of the prefects”, and according to Josephus the prefect Gessius Florus resided “in the Palace” from 64 A.D. (Wars 2, 14, 8).  Thus when ancient readers read that “the soldiers led Him away inside the palace, that is, the praetorium” (Mk. 15:16), they would have understood by his term the Palace of Herod. 
So the Crusader route is probably not the correct one.  The true Via Dolorosa began at the royal palace, the praetorium, someplace in or near the Tower of David (for the praetorium covered more area than does the present Tower, which is all that is left of it).  The normal route would have involved going from the praetorium by way of what is now St. James Street to the main north-south road, the present “Chabad Street”.  This north-south road was the artery closest to the praetorium, and led northward out of the city through what was then known to Josephus as the Gennath Gate (or “garden gate”) because there was then a garden outside the gate.  The location of this gate is where the current David Street meets with the bazaars.  This was the true Via Dolorosa; it was by this sorrowful way that Christ accomplished His exodus at Jerusalem (Lk. 9:31).
This means, of course, that the Via Dorolosa appearing on the street signs and explained patiently by the guides is spectacularly incorrect; the true one was a northward route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Palace of Herod, not a westward one from the Antonia Tower.   This can be particularly damaging to the claims made by the various “Stations of the Cross” scattered throughout the Old City, all of which assume the medieval Crusader route.
Thus “the Church of the Condemnation”, for example, cannot be the place where Christ was condemned.  “The Church of the Flagellation”, wonderful though its 1920’s architecture and stained glass may be, cannot be the place where He was flagellated.  The Polish Catholic church which marks the site of Christ’s first fall must forfeit that claim, despite having an elegant sculpture of it, as must the (unfortunately named) “Armenian Church of our Lady of the Spasm”, which marks the place where Christ met His Mother.   The claim of the small Franciscan church to be the place where Christ encountered Simon of Cyrene also has little credibility.  And even less credibility attaches to their claim that the discolored stone on the right side of the building is discolored because Christ leaned against it while Simon assisted Him.  As my traveling companion instantly saw, this stone anyway could not be authentic because, whatever was the true route of the Via Dolorosa, the original road by which Christ traveled now lay many feet below the present level of the city.   In fact it is only when one reached the area surrounding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that the supposed Via Dolorosa intersects and combines with the real one.
For those to whom historical accuracy or even probability matters, it is important to remember that the events occurring on the way to the cross were the creation of the medieval west, and none can claim any real historicity.  That Christ was condemned is certain, and probably also that He fell at least once, since Simon was seized upon by the Roman soldiers to help Christ carry the cross-beam (Mk.15:21).  He is also recorded as speaking to the women of Jerusalem (Lk. 23:28f), though the location is not stated or known.  The other elements are the product of medieval fancy. 
A revised understanding of the Via Dolorosa means, of course, that many of the Christian sites in the Old City should properly stand down from much of their boasting.  “The Church of the Flagellation”, for example, can offer nothing more than other churches can offer—a quiet place to pray and find the Presence of Christ.  That is still worthwhile, but one doesn’t need to travel to Jerusalem to find it.  It can be found at the church around the corner back home.  Accepting a revised Via Dolorosa would reconfigure the spiritual map of the Old City, a map that has been relied upon since the Crusades—and possibly kill much of the tourist trade there, since many of the churches in the Old City would at a stroke be stripped of their biblical significance.  Walking a revised Via Dolorosa would bring one from the area along the Tower of David along James Street to the Chabad and north to David Street to the Holy Sepulchre.  There would be no church sites along that to inspire or pray in, no suggestion as to where along that way Christ fell (if indeed He did), or where He spoke to the grieving women.  It would be a quiet and perhaps solitary walk, with not much to nourish a devotionally hungry heart.  Perhaps for this reason alone, it seems as if the traditional route is in no danger of being supplanted by another route better favored by history and archeology. 
Does that mean that walking the traditional Via Dolorosa has no value?  Not at all.  For the true value of walking that route—either the traditional Crusader route or the more probable one—is not found in geographical accuracy.  What matters more is the geography of the heart, and the devotion poured out by the believer along the way.  Walking the Via Dolorosa has always been more than a merely historical exercise.  It has been a devotional journey, an attempt to relive the final hours of Christ with Him, to try to bring home to the normally all-too-cold human heart some of the pathos and power of the death of Christ.  One walks and prays, and stops and reads and prays, and walks and prays some more.  It is the prayer that counts, not the steps.  The fruit of the journey consists not in the accuracy of the route, but in the outpourings of love for the Lord, who loved us enough to walk a way of sorrows to save us.  That is why, in Roman Catholic churches in the West, each church once contained “the Stations of the Cross”, offering the fruit of the Via Dolorosa to those who would never be able to go to Jerusalem.  One needs to worship God with the mind and not uncritically accept everything that a guide tells us.  But the head must not be separated from the heart, for it is with the heart that we choose to love God; it is with the heart that man believes (Rom. 10:10).   I would never disparage the Via Dorolosa.  Indeed, I think it precious enough to refine, and correct, and bathe in historical truth.
I therefore all the more wanted to see the place where Christ had His last interviews with Pilate and where He was finally condemned.   My prowling about the Museum and ramparts of the Tower of David brought few echoes of Pilate’s praetorium, but then I did not expect it to.  The original Royal Palace had covered both the Tower of David and other area as well, and it had been effectively demolished by the Romans long ago, who left only these fragments.  The Museum had other concerns than mine, and there was no way of knowing precisely where the Palace began and ended, nor what it would’ve looked like, though we can be sure that Herod built it to a grand scale and made it as sumptuous as possible.  There was little for my hungry historical imagination to feed on, apart from the conclusion that somewhere within a block or so from here, Pilate paced up and down, and rubbed his eyes in frustration over the political and judicial problem the Sanhedrin handed him, and at length washed his hands of it all.  Somewhere within a block or so Christ stood silent before His accusers, like a lamb led to slaughter; somewhere not too far away His back was laid open by scourges, and they laid the cross-beam upon Him.  Somewhere close to where I stood in the sunlight near the present Tower of David, Christ staggered northward to the beckoning city gate, carrying His cross, and the sins of us all.  The day was drawing to a close when I left the Tower of David.  I made the sign of the cross, and walked out into the setting sun.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"That's Not Logical!"

          Recently I was taking a walk in a park nearby our home when two young girls met me, offering a tract and (ostensibly) wanting to talk about the Kingdom.  Actually they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and what they really wanted was to convert me to their sect.  Usually I politely decline and the preacher man keeps walking, but today I took the time to converse.  It was, as I knew it would be, a complete waste of time, since both young ladies had been well and thoroughly indoctrinated.  But she did say something interesting.
            We were talking about the divinity of Christ.  Discussions about the Greek of John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) went nowhere, since discussing the intricacies of Greek grammar could not dissuade them from accepting their idiomatic and unique translation of it as “…and Word was a god”.  One girl, Joanna by name, pointed out John 20:17, where Christ tells Mary Magdalene, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God”, and stressed that Jesus here calls the Father His God, and therefore Jesus could not be theos or God in the absolute sense that I said John 1:1 asserted He was.  “Christ said that the Father was his God” she kept repeating, “so how could he be God and at the same time have the Father as his God?”  I simply said that, yes, Jesus was God and that the Father was His God, and that this was possible because Jesus was the incarnate God. “So,” she said, admirably restraining her exasperation, “Jesus was God”.  Me:  “Yes.”  Her: “And he had the Father as His God.”  Me:  “Yes.”  Her:  “But that’s not logical!  God is love.  The Bible says that God is love.  It’s not loving to be mysterious.”
            Hearing such an astounding utterance was well worth the time wasted in talking with these two earnest and utterly deceived young ladies.  It certainly qualifies as one for the books, and should find its place in a theological Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  What an astonishing thing to say:  “It’s not loving to be mysterious”, as if mystery and love were mutually exclusive.  Not only are mystery and love not mutually exclusive, love itself is a mystery.   All the life-giving realities are mysteries, including the reality that is human nature.   Love baffles us even as it heals us; it leaves our cognitive faculties behind in the dust even as it transforms us into something better.  And it is not just divine love that does this.  Human love does the same.  If you doubt this, just honestly ask yourself why your spouse loves you. 
            But if my young J.W. friend was not correct in denying that something can be loving and mysterious at the same time, she was absolutely correct in saying that God is not logical.  There is nothing logical about Him.  It is not logical to love the human race which constantly spurns His love and continually labours to fill the earth with waste, sin, and cruelty.   It is not logical to unite human nature to Yourself in the womb of a Jewish teenager and live among men when You know in advance that this will result in Your crucifixion.  It is not logical to tell creatures of dust and ashes, creatures addicted to the pleasures of the senses, that they should become perfect even as God is perfect (Mt. 5:48).  It is not logical for God to become Man hoping that Man might in turn become divine.   None of this is logical, and the Church never said it was logical.  It said it was grace.

            God is beyond logic.  Like the laws of nature that He Himself made, He transcends logic.  God made logic when He made the laws of nature—laws which say that when a man dies, he soon rots, and in four days there is nothing left to do but endure the stench.  But these laws are God’s handiwork, not His prison, and He can transcend them if He pleases.  If it seems good to Him, He can overcome the laws of nature, and stand outside the tomb of a man four days dead and cry, “Lazarus, come forth!”, and the dead man will come forth, leaving the processes of rot and stench and all the other laws of nature behind in the tomb.  “When God so wills, the laws of nature are overcome”, as the Church sings.  Our God is the God who rises above logic and nature, and frustrates laws which mere creation finds inflexible.  He covers Himself with light as with a garment; He stretches out the heaven as if it were a mere tent curtain; He makes the clouds His chariot; He rides on the wings of the wind.  In Christ this God draws near to us and shares our flesh and our creaturehood.  He calls the Father His God, and calls us to be His brothers.  This is our hope; this is our boast.  Our God is not logical at all.   He is the Lord, and has revealed Himself to us.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Let No One Put Asunder

          We live in a culture of divorce.  In North America, fully one half of all marriages end in divorce, and sometimes persons have several divorces, divorcing one spouse after another.  This leaves a hidden trail of broken families and the challenge of creating blended families.  It also places tremendous strain on the children who come from divorced homes, so much so that some children sometimes find themselves vulnerable to gangs, drug use, and other risky behaviours.  It is not politically correct to draw attention to these unfortunate facts, but they remains true even if one may not speak of it when discussing the causes of depression in children.  The point of calling attention to these facts is not to heap blame on divorced persons, or to deny that God can forgive and heal anything when we repent and offer our wounds to Him, but to draw our real attention to the sanity and essentially compassionate nature of our Church’s teaching about marriage and divorce, and to call persons contemplating marriage or who are already married to heroism and perseverance. 
            But first, a little history.  In the eighteenth century, divorce was stigmatized, and was correspondingly hard to get.  It took years, and a pile of money, and you had to prove that your spouse abandoned you for a long time with no financial support.  If you were female, you had to prove that your husband routinely beat you within an inch of your life, or that he was openly and brazenly womanizing.  After you got the divorce, you were persona non grata socially, and not welcome at church events.  I am not, I hasten to add, looking back at this state of affairs as if it were “the good old days”.  But it is important to understand how much we have changed the fabric of our society.  Now divorce is much easier to obtain, and the new concept of “no fault” divorce has been introduced, which allows one partner to unilaterally divorce the other, with no one taking any blame.  No doubt the people introducing the changes and making divorce easier were motivated by compassion, and justified the changes by pointing to heart-rending cases where a woman found herself legally chained to a violent and womanizing brute and who had no way of escape from her terrible plight.  No one at the time could have known that by making things easier for this poor woman they would within a generation begin weakening the glue which held all marriages together and altering society’s very understanding of what it meant to be married.  But good intentions notwithstanding, they did weaken that glue and change society’s understanding all the same. 
            The Church’s teaching anyway is crystal clear:  marriage (defined as the publically recognized union of one man with one woman, consummated by sexual congress) is for keeps.  It fundamentally alters a person:  before marriage one was a single individual; after marriage one is but one half of a new organism.  When people describe their spouse as “my other half”, they are not so much being poetical as Biblical.  It was Christ who said, “The two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let no one put asunder” (Mt. 19:6).  Marriage alters a person, creating a new organism where it did not exist before.
            The Orthodox Church reads Christ’s teaching a bit differently than her Roman Catholic friends read it.  That is, it reads it as counsel and command, but not as law.  Christ is not legislating, giving laws as inflexible as the law of gravity.  Thus Orthodoxy not only believes the permanence of marriage, but also in repentance, and grace, and forgiveness, and healing, and the possibility of remarriage after divorce.  But this grace should not be presumed upon, lest it become “cheap grace”.  And there is no use talking about God’s forgiveness unless we also acknowledge that there is a sin present to forgive.  And the Church always classed divorce and remarriage as a sin, and required those who remarry after divorce to undergo a period of penance, barring them from the Eucharist for a time.  For how long a time?   In such cases canon 87 of the Quinisext Council mandates seven years exclusion from the Chalice (see Meyendorff’s Marriage: an Orthodox Perspective, p. 64).  This is not to assert that this canon should be applied today in the same way as it was in the seventh century when it was promulgated.  But the canon does express the Church’s insistence that marriage is for keeps, and that Christians cannot walk away from it without sin.
            This is the standard which Christ set for His disciples.  St. Paul applied the Lord’s teaching to the different situations in which his converts found themselves in a pagan setting, and he produced a more comprehensive set of counsels—such as what to do if married to an unbeliever.  Thus, St. Paul says, if one were married to an unbeliever (i.e. if one pagan in a pagan marriage converted to Christ while the other partner did not; it was assumed that no Christian would knowingly marry a pagan), then divorce and remarriage were possible.  The Christian should still stay together with the pagan partner if the partner was willing, but if the pagan partner insisted upon divorcing the Christian, the Christian could acquiesce:  “in such a case, the brother or sister is not bound” (1 Cor. 7:15).  But if both partners were Christian, then of course divorce was simply not possible.  Discipleship to Christ implied obedience, and the willingness to lay down one’s life for Him.  It is nonsense to say that one will suffer martyrdom for Jesus, but not suffer in marriage for Him.  Faith in Christ involves always being willing to change and forgive and love.  Such a faith, if shared by two disciples who are married to each other, will always find a way to work out their problems and stay married. 
            Thus married Christians should never ever divorce one another.  If they fall from the obedience of faith and their marriage ends in divorce, repentance and canonical penance still allow for the possibility of forgiveness and remarriage, as we have seen.  But the original standard remains and the original command not to divorce still stands.  And it is the clergy who are the standard bearers.  That is why this economia is allowed for laity, but not for clergy.  Someone has to keep the bar where it is, and that someone is the clergyman.  Some have suggested that one should move the bar and lower the Church’s standards.  Thus Joseph Allen in a book edited by himself (Vested in Grace) and in his article entitled, “Practical Hope for Positive Change”, argues that clergy should be allowed to remarry after being widowed and still remain clergy.  He also asks the question, “Can a second chance for marriage be allowed to clergy in certain cases of divorce?”  He doesn’t answer this second question specifically, but one can guess at his answer:  the present status quo he denounces as “the archaic and crippling conditions of a dead past” (Vested in Grace, p. 266).  Allen is clearly for lowering the bar.
            Despite Allen’s show of scholarship, the question is not one for the scholar’s study, but must be answered on the front line.  As the sky-rocketing divorce rate shows, marriage is under attack from all quarters.  By this I do not mean that there is a chance that people will no longer get married.  I mean something more alarming:  that people in our culture already no longer understand what it means to be married even as they tie the knot.  The Christians alone seem to know what God originally meant by marriage, and if we follow Allen in his suggestions even this will be soon be forgotten. 
Marriage creates a permanent change in a person.  It is not so much a civil or legal reality as an ontological one, so that divorce is less like dissolving a partnership and more like tearing a body in half.  One can survive the sundering, but the wound and the scar will remain forever, even after the sin involved is forgiven.  The trauma and the wound are why Christians must never divorce each.  When married Christians hurt one another, the Church’s prescription is always repentance and forgiveness, not divorce.  And when divorce happens it is a sin and a tragedy:  ask any child.  Come to that, ask the partners themselves while they are still in love.  Love is exclusive and eternal.  When people are in love they bind themselves with chains of eternal constancy, and separation from the other is intolerable and unthinkable.  A person in love knows that marriage is for keeps, both in this age and in the age to come.  That is what “eternal” means.  The clergy must uphold this standard and embody it.  And all Christians must strive for it. 
It’s hard.  Life in this age soon takes the sheen off of everything shiny, including marriage, and our omnipresent culture of divorce says this is all but inevitable.  The hard work of making it work can feel like death and martyrdom.  But Christians are not afraid of death and martyrdom, for we serve one who has triumphed over death, and who has taught us not to fear it.  We are called to defy death, and to defy divorce.  Christians once amazed the world by going to their martyrdoms without fear.  Let us amaze the world once again by staying in our marriages with the same confidence and courage.