Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Great Litany

           In the Divine Liturgy, after the initial doxology in which the celebrant blesses the Kingdom of God and blesses with the sign of the Cross the altar table and its antimension before using it, the assembled Church next prays the Great Litany.  This represents the intercessory prayers of the royal priesthood, wherein the Church prays for the whole world in the Name of Jesus, standing in the gap and lifting up the whole needy cosmos to the mercy of God.  St. John Chrysostom, if taken straight from his Liturgy in the fourth century to ours, would be surprised that this was done so early in the liturgical assembly.
            That is because in St. John’s day, there were catechumens present, men and women who were not yet part of the royal priesthood (that is, the holy laity), and who were therefore not yet qualified to offer those prayers to God.  Our present liturgical ordo is not the actual service as served by Chrysostom (whatever our ascription says in the final dismissal), but the service of the Byzantine Church, dating from a time after the institution of the catechumenate had died out.  In Chrysostom’s day, the intercessory prayers were only offered after the catechumens had been dismissed.  In the later Byzantine Church, there were no catechumens, and the only people present for the Liturgy were the baptized, since everyone had then been baptized in infancy.  Thus there was no difficulty in everyone praying the intercessory prayers of the royal priesthood, because everyone present was then a part of that priesthood. 
            The absence of catechumens during the praying of the Great Litany stressed the nature of the intercessions as prayers offered in the Name of Jesus.  Praying “in the Name of Jesus” does not mean that we end our prayers with the verbal formula “and this we pray in Jesus’ Name” as if it were some sort of invocational magic wand.  To pray in the Name of Jesus means to pray with the authority of Jesus, with His boldness before the Father, with His access to the Father’s presence.  It means, in short, praying as part of His Body.  That is why catechumens could not offer those prayers, for they were not yet part of that Body.  It was only through holy baptism that they became holy; only through the initiating water and the Spirit that they became part of the royal priesthood and eligible to offer the Great Litany, praying for the world with the authority of the sons of God and members of the Body of Christ.  Anyone can pray, of course, and God who hears the cry of every sparrow that falls also hears the cries of Jews, Muslims, pagans, and atheists trembling in their proverbial fox-holes.  But Christian intercession is different.  Christian intercession is done in the Name of Jesus, with sure and certain access to the presence of the Father.  Christian intercession is like no other.
In those intercessory prayers of the Great Litany we note a certain generosity of spirit and universality of concern.  That is, we don’t just pray for our little congregation, or even for all the Orthodox, or even for all Christians.  Instead we pray for absolutely everyone, Christian or not.  We pray “for the peace of the whole world”, “for this country and its President” (or its Queen, if living in the British Commonwealth), despite the fact that many in the country are not Christian and the ruler may not be Orthodox.  We pray “for every city and countryside”, regardless of how many Orthodox Christians may be in them, “for travellers by land, by sea, and by air, for the sick and the suffering”, with no concern for whether the travellers, the sick and the suffering belong to our faith confession.  In short, just as God causes His sun to shine on the just and the unjust, so we also pray for everyone, regardless of their deserving.  This generosity of spirit and universality of concern in prayer is intended to flow over into the rest of our lives too—just as we pray for people regardless of their deserving, so we love and give to people regardless of their deserving.  We pray for travellers whether or not they are Orthodox travellers, and we give spare change to beggars whether or not they are Orthodox beggars.  The Great Litany thus trains us to regard a person’s need as the primary thing, not their deserving.  Their deserving and their final eternal score can be safely left with God.  Our job is to pray, and love, and give.
We note too that such universality of concern is mentioned in general terms.  We pray, for example, for all the sick, but do not need to know their names and ailments.  If one does know the name of someone needing prayer, that is fine, but such people are generally those we already know anyway.  In saner times, the individual and specific suffering we knew about were mostly those of local people—we knew about a particular beggar’s plight because we saw him in the streets—and thus could do something about it.  That is a much saner approach than the one current today, where we are informed at length about the suffering of multitudes of people that we cannot really help.  Through newspaper, radio, and especially the nightly news, we are inundated with stories and sound bites of suffering—multitudes left homeless from a flood in China, whole families slaughtered for their Faith in the Middle East, crowds being blown up by a suicide bomber in Germany, epidemics in Britain, drought and famine in Africa.  Sometimes, on rare occasions, we are given the opportunity to actually help by contributing money to relief organizations.  But mostly we are simply bombarded, overwhelmed with news of suffering about which we can do nothing.  No wonder our heart is worn and weighed down.  We were never meant to live like this. 
When story after story is read over the news detailing disasters from across the world, I sometimes want to reach into the television and seize the news anchor and demand, “Why are you telling me this?  No really—why are you telling me this?”  It is not because I need to know, for I can and do pray for the sick and suffering anyway without this information.  It is unlikely my prayers are made more effective by the weighing down of my heart.  So then why am I told this?  The answer, I’m afraid, is “For the entertainment value”, though of course no one in the media would phrase it like this.  It is left to the prophetic song-writers to pull the mask off our cultural dysfunction and speak the truth.  Take for example the old 1982 song “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley.  Henley reveals why I am told this:  “It’s interesting when people die.”  The Great Litany, on the other hand, allows us to pray for the world without knowing the details.  There is only one person with large enough shoulders to bear the weight of the world, and know the details, and hear every suffering cry.  And He has already carried their sins on the Cross.

The prayer offered at the conclusion of the Great Litany seems not directly connected with the petitions that have preceded it, but seems to be a general sort of prayer that could be offered in any situation.  In it the celebrant invokes God “whose power is incomparable, whose glory is incomprehensible, whose mercy is immeasurable, and whose love for man in inexpressible”.  Note all the negative adjectives.  They show that God is bigger than any words could describe (theologians call this “apophaticism”), beyond any description we could come up with, so that words almost have no meaning.  Almost, but not quite—at the end of the day, we do have to say something in our corporate prayers.  But by using these negative terms (“not comparable, not comprehensible, not measurable, not expressible”) we show how vast is God’s love and mercy to us.  And that, when all is said and done, is why we sinners have the courage to pray and intercede at all.  God allows us the vast dignity of causality, so that our little prayers become caught up in the immense tapestry of God’s will, and help work His purposes in the world. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

What Good is the Holy Fire?

The so-called “Holy Fire” is the name given to the fire that appears on ends of the candles of the Patriarch of Jerusalem and others every Holy Saturday.  The Patriarch, accompanied by a church crammed filled with others, awaits for the annual miracle every Holy Saturday.  On that day the Patriarch strips himself of his holy robes and enters the Tomb of Christ with a bundle of unlit tapers, says certain prayers, and then awaits for his tapers to be miraculously lit from heaven.  He is not disappointed:  his tapers are miraculously lit every year and he emerges from the Tomb with the flame to the tumultuous shouting of everyone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The light is shared with everyone there, and then taken to others who transport it back to their homes, sometimes in far countries.  This year the Holy Fire and miraculous light has been carried back to those in North America.  My own little parish of St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C. received the light from our neighbouring parish across the border in the State of Washington on a Saturday night, and we shared it with our own parishioners the following Sunday morning.  As I write the fire remains burning in our family icon corner, and in the icon corners of many in our parish.  Some may ask the question, “What good is the Holy Fire?  How does it help anyone?  What’s the point?” 
            I am not here concerned to answer those who deny the miraculous nature of the original gift every Holy Saturday.  Those who like to read may refer to such volumes as Holy Fire by Haris Skarlakidis.  Others may Google the event and witness it on Youtube as they wish.  I have seen on Facebook (that faithful oracle) a video debunking the miracle in which the debunkers produce fire without the aid of a lighter, and this, they assert, is how the fraud is accomplished every year.  Since the Holy Fire has been filmed as not singeing hair during the first fifteen minutes of its miraculous existence, I invite the debunkers to reproduce this experience also, and subject their facial hair to the same treatment of washing in their newly-produced non-miraculous flame so that we may observe the results.  If their own hair does not burn (as the hair first subjected to the Holy Fire does not burn) I will be interested.  And greatly surprised.
            My focus here is on not the sceptics who doubt the miraculous nature of the Holy Fire.  My focus rather is on the significance of the miracle itself, and I address the question, “What good is the Holy Fire?”  That significance, I suggest, is two-fold.
            The first is that the Holy Fire witnesses to the miraculous nature of the Christian Faith itself.  Many New Testament scholars since the time of David Strauss (d. 1874) have assumed the principle that the miraculous does not exist, but they are fools—highly educated and perhaps smarter than you and I, but still fools nonetheless.  In fact the ministry of Jesus was attended by a multitude of miracles (acknowledged even by His enemies, though they attributed these miracles to the power of the devil), and His life culminated in the miracle of His resurrection from the dead.  That miracle was quickly succeeded by the miracle of Pentecost and other miracles done by the hands of the apostles.  Miracles have abounded and still abound in the Church, which is miraculous throughout.  
In fact in every generation the Church survives by new miracles, such as the miracle of the new birth and the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The official name for such a regular supply of miracles is “sacraments”.  One may also mention other miracles such as miracles of healing through the hands of the clergy and the relics of saints, but that hardly matters.  The main miracle is that of the new birth, whereby sinners are re-created as the children of God and the co-heirs of Christ.  This reveals that Christianity is not a philosophy, but the presence of the living Christ in our midst.  Dead philosophers do not work miracles; a living Saviour does.  The fact that the Holy Fire comes as a miracle from heaven every year expresses and confirms the miraculous nature of the Christian Faith.  Miracles, of course, come when they are needed, and it seems that the Holy Fire first came when it was needed most—during the time of the Islamic oppression of the Church, when the Christians suffering under the yoke of Muhammad most needed confirmation that their faith in the crucified and risen Christ was true. 
            The second thing to note about the Holy Fire is that it witnesses to the way that Christianity is spread—i.e. from person to person, just as the flame is spread from person to person, beginning at its epicenter in Jerusalem.  We note a kind of recapitulation of the original spread of the Gospel:  the Gospel spread from the upper room in Jerusalem, then to Judea, then to Samaria, then to the ends of the earth, even as the Lord had said (Acts 1:8).  That is, it spread from person to person, as each one spoke the Word and gossiped to his neighbour what he or she had heard about Jesus.  Like the flame spreading from candle to candle, so the Word of the Gospel spread from person to person.  That new Gospel reality not only spread geographically, but also temporally, so that the same Gospel message spread from person to person across the globe, and also from decade to decade and across the centuries.  The shorthand for such a method of transmission is called “Holy Tradition”.  Just as the one Gospel was once spread throughout the centuries from apostolic Jerusalem and reached as far as our own parish in Langley, so the same flame is now transferred from candle to candle, beginning in Jerusalem and eventually even reaching the west coast of British Columbia.  The flame now burning in my icon-corner is the same flame which the Patriarch of Jerusalem first received on a recent Holy Saturday, and the faith we confess in our parish is the same faith which the apostles confessed in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, when another miraculous fire descended upon their heads.
            It is true, of course, that having the Holy Fire in our icon-corners does not provide any shortcut to sanctity, much less any substitute for it.  Whether or not we have the Holy Fire we still need to strive mightily for holiness and pray and fast and read our Bibles and go to Church.  If we do not do these essential things, it will matter little whether or not we have the Holy Fire burning in our icon-corners.  But though it does not provide a substitute for holiness, it does provide an expression of our own inter-connectedness with those other Orthodox who have accepted the Holy Fire with gratitude and of our place within the communion of saints generally.  We are not alone, though the walk of faith can sometimes feel very lonely.  When I look at the flame burning upon my own little icon-corner, I cannot help but think of all the multitude of my brothers and sisters who have also received that miraculous gift, and who are perhaps thinking of people like me.  We are all one, united within the same fire of faith, a flame first kindled two millennia ago in Jerusalem.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Part Two: Of Homosexual Christians and their Struggle

In a recent blog piece I looked at the issue of gay Orthodox Christians who embraced and celebrated their homosexuality and who were sexually active and who received Holy Communion in Orthodox churches.  In this piece I would like to look at the issue of homosexual Orthodox Christians who embrace the teaching of their Church that homosexual desires are disordered and who struggle against giving in to those desires through sexual activity.  I will not deal here with the question of whether or not one is “born” with such an orientation or the question of whether or not such an orientation can be overcome.  I will look rather at the question of what the path might be for a gay Orthodox Christian as he or she strives to please God in an Orthodox Christian parish.
In all instances, a Christian (and especially a pastor) must embrace the homosexual with love, even if the gay person is not yet ready to repent and strive for wholeness.  I remember one person in an Orthodox community in the American mid-west.  He shared with the priest that he wanted to join the Orthodox Church, but said that he was gay and asked if this was a problem.  The priest replied, “No, not at all, but you would have to repent of homosexual activity and embrace chastity.”  The person responded that he was not ready to do that, since he was currently in love with his boyfriend.  After much conversation and listening, the priest and the inquirer prayed together, embraced, and parted as friends.  When later the young man got a tattoo, he came straight back to the priest the same day and asked him to bless his new tattoo.  The priest was happy to do so.  The man knew that the Church could not change its dogmas or alter its standards for him, but he still felt loved and not condemned. He was welcome to attend worship, though he could not become a catechumen.  I am told that he still regularly visits the Church for Liturgy and enjoys the warm loving atmosphere found in the parish.
What about homosexual Christians who have repented and who struggle to embrace chastity?  Their way is a hard and heroic one, for they sometimes find themselves vilified by Christians who reject them simply for having homosexual desires as well as by those in the gay community who vilify them for refusing to celebrate and express their homosexual desires.  Thus, adding to the burden of embracing chastity is the added burden of loneliness.  That is why (to quote from 1992 OCA episcopal encyclical Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality and the Sanctity of Life), they are “to be helped to admit these feelings to themselves and to others who will not reject or harm them”. 
In this they are in principle no different from anyone else in the church community who struggles with addictions and sinful desires (an addiction to pornography comes to mind).  In striving for victory over these desires, they should seek help through prayer, confession, weekly Holy Communion, and perhaps the encouragement of close friends whose love they trust.  They need not feel that they are left alone in their struggle, since in Christ everyone must help bear the burdens of the others.  It may be helpful to point out that the homosexual Christian who has committed to a life of chastity and celibacy deals with the same or similar struggles as a heterosexual single Christian does.  Though the single heterosexual Christian may one day marry, while their singleness lasts, the struggle for celibacy is also a burden sometimes hard to bear.
In that encyclical mentioned above, one also finds the words, “Men and women with homosexual feelings and emotions are to be treated with the understanding, acceptance, love, justice and mercy due to all human beings… Assistance is to be given to those who deal with persons of homosexual orientation in order to help them with their thoughts, feelings and actions in regard to homosexuality”.  This assumes (correctly) that homosexual desires are not sinful in themselves, any more than a heterosexual desire for fornication is sinful in itself.  Rather it is the fulfillment of such desires through action that alone is sinful.  The homosexual Christian is primarily a brother or sister in Christ, and must be treated as such.  He or she is defined by that commitment to Christ and their communicant status, not by their homosexual desires.  Their homosexual desires constitute part of their brokenness, but in fact every communicant in broken in some way.  As long as one renounces one’s sin and strives against it in a struggle for wholeness and holiness, that brokenness is not a barrier to communion with Christ. 
It also should not be a barrier to normal relationships in the parish.  There is no reason why a homosexual man (or woman) should not run the Sunday School or the Youth Group or sit on Parish Council or read liturgically or serve in the altar.  Like anyone else in the parish they should be included in the day-to-day sharing of social life, lunches, and parish events.  Their inner struggles and temptations should have no bearing upon their place in the Church, any more than the struggles of anyone else should.  After all, they are communed with the same formula as anyone else.  When they stand before the Chalice, the priest does not say, “The homosexual N. partakes of the precious and holy Body and Blood”, but rather, “The servant of God N. partakes of the precious and holy Body and Blood”.  Life is more than sexual orientation, and our life and ministry in the Church cannot be defined by orientation or ascetical struggle.   
The current western battle for the full legitimation of homosexuality, often pursued with draconian fervour, has become perhaps the issue of our age, and the sounds of battle can sometimes deafen us to other noises—noises such as the song of the coming Kingdom.  Now is the time for struggle, as faithful Orthodox homosexual Christians struggle for sanctity, other faithful Orthodox singles struggle to preserve chastity, and all faithful Orthodox struggle to survive the deluge of lies which inundate us all.  But a time is coming when such struggles will be a thing of the past, when we will step into the calm and sunlit meadow of the age to come to sing a song which knows no ending and enjoy a day which will know no evening.  Then all our struggles will find their full and true reward, and sanctity will come as effortlessly as breathing.  Even now we stand on tip-toe and await that day.  We can struggle knowing our painful podvigs will not last forever.  The cry of all Christians, homosexual or straight, married or single, is Maranatha!  The Lord is coming, and He is bringing our eternal reward.                                                                  


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Sanfilippo’s “Conjugal Friendship”

Recently the Public Orthodoxy site has published a piece by Giacomo Sanfilippo under the title “Conjugal Friendship”.  In it Sanfilippo writes, “To the question, ‘Can two persons of the same gender ‘have sex’ with each other?’ we hear from Holy Tradition a resounding no. Yet if we ask, ‘Can two persons of the same gender form a bond in which ‘the two become one?’ the scales begin to fall from our eyes. Holy Tradition possesses in germinal form everything necessary to articulate, thoughtfully and cautiously, an Orthodox theology and spirituality of what we now call same-sex love, adequate to the pastoral needs of the 21st century”.  Like all liberals and heretics of every age, of course the claim is made that the new heresy is actually just the old Orthodoxy dressed in modern garb.  Those who have been following the LGBQT debate until now will recognize that by the “the pastoral needs of the 21st century” is meant simply conformity to the worldly spirit of our age and the insistent demands of secular western culture.
            Sanfilippo is quite right in pointing out that in previous ages, the “ideal of friendship as constitutive of ‘one soul in two bodies’” has a long and venerable history.  He cites the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and the examples of David and Jonathan.  (Making Christ and John another example is pushing it, to say the least, and “Christ and John’s embrace in icons of the Mystical Supper”--picture above--is simply disturbing visual trash.)  He might also have added as a champion of the glory of Philia the writings of C. S. Lewis, especially in his book The Four Loves.  In it, Lewis opined that friendship was a virtue under-valued in his day because it was so little experienced in his day. 
Of course Lewis’ day is not our day (he died in 1963), and the disease of sexualizing everything which was seizing western culture by the throat in Lewis’ day has progressed far and has thoroughly throttled our own culture today.  Even then Lewis gave fair warning, cautioning against the idea that “every firm and serious friendship is really homosexual”.  In fairness to Sanfilippo, his paper stops short of suggesting that all deep same-sex friendships are at base covertly homosexual.  But Sanfilippo does make clear that by “conjugal friendship” he means what we would identify as gay marriage.
            There several problems with the details in his presentation.  By saying that the monastic/ liturgical rite of “brother-making” (Greek adelphopoiesis) “precedes by a century or two that of marriage”, he gives the impression that somehow the late Byzantine rite of “brother-making”—i.e. sanctifying a deep bond between friends for a specific purpose—somehow shares some sort of ontological parity with marriage.  (Shades of John Boswell!)  Otherwise why mention the timing at all?  In fact of course marriage itself did not arise after brother-making, but in the Garden.  But the fact that the current rite of marriage in its Byzantine liturgical form continued to evolve after the form of brother-making ceased evolving is irrelevant.  If anything it shows the shortened shelf-life of the form of brother-making and its limited use.  The rite of adelphopoiesis did not continue to evolve liturgically because the need for it ceased to be felt.
            Sanfilippo also says that the term “sexual orientation” is modern, and its use “as a marker of personal identity” was unknown to the ancients.  That is true, but that does not mean that the ancients felt no such desires, or that their words condemning homosexual activity no longer apply to us today.  It simply means that they did not share our own modern obsession with personal identity.
            Also problematic is his anachronistic identification of certain details of friendship as suggesting a sexual component to the friendship.  Mentions of “patristic encomiums to friendship that have an almost romantic quality about them”, or an icon which “depicts SS. Theodore of Tyre and Theodore Stratelates in military attire holding hands like any modern couple” are misleading in the extreme. Again, Lewis could have warned him.  “Kisses, tears and embraces are not in themselves evidence of homosexuality” he wrote.  They are only evidence that all ancient friendships had a physical component to them, and that the modern disease of sexualizing everything, including friendship, had not taken hold of the ancients.   Hard as it may be for some today to believe, a friendship could be physical, and still not sexual. 
            The main problems with Sanfilippo’s thesis are twofold.  First, he fails to see that friendship need not be confined to two persons.  His relentless pairing of friends and talk about “one soul in two bodies” fails to see that friendship need not be so confined.  Again Lewis:  “Two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best...True friendship is the least jealous of loves.  Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth…They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, ‘Here comes one who will augment our loves…’”  Sanfilippo’s insistence on regarding friendship as consisting of two persons when real friendship does not so confine itself reveals his secret agenda.  Friendship is not necessarily the exclusive union of two that he would make it.  He is not in fact talking about Friendship and Philia, but about Marriage and Eros.  For Eros is exclusively and jealously about two persons, as the Song of Solomon shows.  By focusing relentlessly upon friendship as pairing (e.g. talk of “the two becom[ing] more perfectly a single I”) he distorts the true nature of friendship.
            The second and most fundamental error in Sanfilippo’s message is the sexualisation of Friendship.  Friendship may be conjugal, if one marries one’s friend and soul-mate.  But most friendships are not conjugal—that is, they are not sexual.   The fact that healthy friendship is not exclusive, jealous, or confined to two persons reveals this.  One may have four friends or more, but (in Christian thought) only one spouse.  Conjugal union is, by definition, a union of two and only two, because it is sexual.  Friends stand symbolically side by side; spouses, face to face.  The face to face posture of spouses expresses, both symbolically and physically, the sexuality of their union, and its essential difference from Friendship.  Sanfilippo’s talk of “two persons of the same gender form[ing] a bond in which ‘the two become one’” deliberately sexualizes a non-sexual bond.  Two persons of the same gender can indeed have a friendship and form a bond.  But Sanfilippo’s use of the phrase “the two become one” (from the Biblical description of marriage) introduces an alien element into the bond.   He is not helping scales to fall from our eyes, but simply our minds to become confused.  That confusion, part of a modern secular sexualisation of practically everything in our culture, is typical of homosexual concerns.  It is also characteristic of Public Orthodoxy, and Fordham University.