Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Annunciation: Exalting Those of Low Degree

              In most Orthodox churches, the image of the Mother of God towers over us—sometimes literally, as her icon fills the upper apse of the church temple, proclaiming there how she united heaven and earth by her willing assent to the Incarnation of the divine Messiah.  In all her icons she is a majestic figure—regal, composed, serene, the Queen of Heaven.  Many icons of the Annunciation portray her as seated on a throne, and with a small footstool, as befits royalty.  In all her images, she is a person of power.
            This is as it should be, since icons portray the eschatological reality, and present not a naturalistic perspective, but a heavenly, hieratic one.  An icon is not a painted photo or a portrait, but a proclamation of the person’s heavenly glory.  Thus it is appropriate that Mary of Nazareth be presented as the Queen of Heaven, exalted by God to a place more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim. 
            But these heavenly images of her present power should not blind us to the low degree and powerlessness that she had while she lived and walked in Palestine.  At the time of the Annunciation, Mary was not a person of power, but a simple peasant girl in a small town in Galilee, far from the halls of the mighty down south in Jerusalem and further afield in Rome, and unconnected with the movers and shakers of the world.  It would be hard to exaggerate her powerlessness as far as this world was concerned.  She was a member of a despised race, the Jews, a nation which had lost the last bit of its national sovereignty when the Romans took over in 63 B.C.  In a world which respected age, she was young; in a culture which valued marriage, she was single; in a society which revered wealth, she was poor.  She lived in Galilee, derisively called “Galilee of the Gentiles” by those in Judea, and the town of Nazareth was looked down upon even by others in Galilee.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was a proverbial taunt uttered by Jews in neighbouring Cana (Jn. 1:46).  And we must remember that at the time of the Annunciation she was of the usual marriageable age—that is, about thirteen years old.
            Later loving devotion would adorn her story with other details, like tinsel on a beloved Christmas tree.  The so-called Protoevangelium of James, written in the second century as a kind of devotional attempt to fill in the blanks of her life, supplies a number of biographical details not strictly historical.  But the sober history of the Gospel preserves a picture of what we might expect—a young girl, unknown and poor, coming face to face one day with the eternal and the incalculable.   Luke’s Gospel presents her as a young girl “betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph”, and when the angel Gabriel informed her that she had been chosen to bear the Messiah and was about to conceive Him, she was naturally “greatly troubled” and asked to know how this was possible, since she had “never known a man” (Lk. 1:27f).  When it came time to offer the sacrifice required from those who had given birth, she and Joseph offered “the sacrifice of the poor”—two young pigeons (Lev. 12:8, Lk. 2:24).  Neither does Matthew’s Gospel present her as a celebrity:  when Joseph receives news of her pregnancy he is minded to divorce her quietly (Mt. 1:18f).  In neither of these accounts is Mary presented as famous or rich and powerful.  And later in our Lord’s ministry, when people stumbled at His claims, they invoked His family with no suggestion that they were special:  “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  And are not all his sisters with us?  Where then did this man get all this?” (Mt. 13:55f).  It is clear enough from the Gospel records that Mary was not considered a celebrity by the world around her.
            This is her greatest boast, for her “low degree” was rooted in her invincible humility.  She herself said it first and best:  God’s plan was to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to put down the mighty from their thrones, and to exalt those of low degree (Lk. 1:51f).  Her Son echoed His Mother:  “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 18:14).  Mary was humble, of low degree, powerless in this age.  And because of this, God exalted her, making her honourable and powerful—indeed, more honourable than the cherubim, and reigning with her Son in heaven:  “The Queen stood at your right side, arrayed in golden robes all glorious” (Ps. 45:9). 
            Her exaltation from low degree was the first of many such exaltations.  We find this divine delight in exalting the humble playing like a theme-song throughout the New Testament.  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to nullify things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27f).  “Has not God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom?” (James 2:5).  The world utterly misunderstands the nature of true greatness, and equates greatness with outward strength and self-assertion.  In the world, the one in first place is the one who rules, who exerts his will, who makes a big splash.  God overturns all this, for in His Kingdom the one in first place will be the one who serves as the slave of all (Mk. 10:44).  It is the humble, and self-effacing, and powerless servant who is truly great.  God’s Kingdom inaugurates a revolution, and the revolution began with the Annunciation. 
            Mary is an image of the Church, and her exaltation prophesies and prefigures ours.  It is important therefore that we see and appreciate her humble estate and her powerlessness during her life, for they form the basis for her exaltation after her death.  It is right that our icons dress her in the robes of royalty and place her upon a throne, for these images simply acknowledge in art what God has done for her in heaven.  But as we venerate these images, let us not fail to appreciate the revolution they portray:  that God took a humble, young girl from a small town, and exalted her to a place unmatched in the cosmos or the Kingdom.  He exalted her who was of low degree, so that we and all generations may see His work, and call her blessed.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Mind, Body, and Spirit: a Single Offering

       The common division of the human person into  “mind, body, and spirit” has one of its roots in the prayer offered by St. Paul in 1 Thess. 5:23: “May the God of peace sanctify you entirely, and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Despite the fact that Paul was not analyzing the composition of human beings but simply praying for them, systematic theologians of later ages have jumped upon this brief prayer and waxed eloquent about the tri-partite nature of man, often arm-wrestling with other systematic theologians who waxed eloquent about the bi-partite nature of man. Did the human person, they ask, consist of two parts—body and soul—or three parts—body, soul and spirit? Reading their works and arguments, it is difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that they all simply had too much time on their hands.
       Paul's approach (more like that of a front-line soldier than an ivory-tower academic) was more practical. In this prayer, he was praying fervently for his spiritual children—new converts and babes in Christ whom he had left in Thessalonica to face the opposition which had run him out of town. (Read all about it in Acts 17:1-10.) These new Christians were under constant fire from forces in a militantly secular and pagan world, and it was in this hostile environment that they had to learn a lifestyle foreign to anything they had known before. As they faced these new temptations, Paul encouraged them, insisting that they live differently than the world around them lived. “This is the will of God,” he wrote in 1 Thess. 4:3, “your sanctification”. God willed that every nook and cranny of their lives become holy, every facet of their existence be dedicated to Him. They must seek to please God in their bodies, fleeing fornication and the sexual immorality that filled their culture, avoiding gluttony with food and drink. They must seek to please Him in their souls, their personalities, striving to be kind, and forgiving, and hardworking. They must even seek to please Him in their innermost spirits, their secret motivations, not only doing the right thing, but also striving to do it for the right reason. In short, they must struggle to bring every part of their life under obedience to their new-found faith, for that was what their baptism was all about. This was a tall order for them, living in such hostile circumstances in the first century. It is not much easier for us living in North America today.
       The Enemy tempts us to compartmentalize the various aspects of our existence. That is, we are tempted to think that it is acceptable to confine our dedication to Jesus to one or more parts of our life, hermetically sealing them off from the other parts. For example, we might go the Liturgy on Sunday morning and dedicate that part of our life to God, and yet still sleep (i.e. fornicate) with our girlfriend/ boyfriend on Friday night, thereby separating the religious part of our life from the sexual one. Or we might work hard at our church's food festival during the day, and yet treat the members of our family abusively in the evening, thereby separating our public life from our private one. In this way, we offer God one part of our totality, but refuse to offer Him other parts. It is as if we are trying to make a deal with the Most High, and say to Him, “You can have my mind, but my body remains my own. You can have my worship on Sunday morning at Liturgy, but what I do at a party Saturday night is my own business.”
       We sometimes see this ability to compartmentalize in our politicians.  In the Canadian scene (with which I am more familiar than the American one), Christian politicians are sometimes asked by journalists their views on abortion. Some have been known to respond, when they cannot dodge the question entirely as they would prefer, “Privately, I am against it”, despite the fact that publicly they refuse to oppose it. This dichotomizing reflects an advanced ability to keep things in separate, water-tight compartments. In the compartment they label, “My Private Religious Beliefs” they are pro-life. In the compartment labelled, “My Public Political Pronouncements”, they are pro-choice.  Some would label this ability to compartmentalize a kind of spiritual schizophrenia.  The Scriptures have a much simpler label:  there the ability is called “hypocrisy”.  We easily detect such hypocrisy in our politicians, and rightly detest it.  It is less easy to detect in ourselves.
       The task given us (or "the will of God" as St. Paul called it in his epistle) is to unify our life, and offer all the parts of it to God. We must strive to offer all our desires to God (whether it be the desire for sex or for food) just as we offer our liturgical worship to God, to be as holy at home, or the marketplace, or the mall as we are at church. The term "sanctification" sounds like it applies only to A-list Saints, the people whose images we see on our iconostas. In fact all those who have been baptized are called to sanctification, and all who call themselves Christians are obligated to strive for holiness in all things. It's relatively easy to be holy when we are in church; it's easy to offer one part of our life to God. The challenge comes in offering all the various parts of our life to God.
       Of course we have help in this task, for the saints pray for us, and as Paul said, it is "the God of peace" who "sanctifies us entirely". God is the One who ultimately does the sanctifying and provides the transforming power; our responsibility is to take up each separate piece of our life and offer it up to Him, placing all the varied aspects of our existence upon the altar of sacrifice so that the sanctifying fire of the Spirit may come down upon them. St. Paul wrote that we must make ourselves "living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God" (Rom. 12:1). As one wag responded, the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep climbing down off the altar. The solution is for us to remain on the altar while we await the descent of the Spirit's consuming fire, to unify our life so that no part of our daily existence is kept safe from God. In this way, as the apostle prayed, our "spirit and soul and body will be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ".

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Modernizing the Church

           It is difficult in these days of early March 2013 not to find the Roman Catholic Church when one tunes in to almost any news programme.  In response to the historic resignation of Pope Benedict, Roman Catholic cardinals, charged with the task of electing his papal successor, are flocking to Rome (no pun intended), along with multitudes of journalists, charged with the task of covering it all.   The Pope is the public face of Roman Catholicism, and though there may be debates about how much effective power he wields in his Church, there is no debate about how much influence has retains over popular conceptions of Catholicism.  Every journalist with a microphone or a notepad is speculating about what the new Pope will be like.  Will be come from South America?  From Africa?  Will we have our first black Pope?  Will he be (comparatively) young? And, in particular, will he be conservative, like his predecessor?
            The media, of course, is not conservative—or at least not in Canada (I write with less knowledge of my American neighbours to the south), and this makes for some mildly entertaining television when the media people come to interview their Roman Catholic guests about what they think the new Pope will be like.  The people conducting the interviews are professional, and part of their professionalism demands that they be courteous to their guests when they interview them.  Bluntly put, the interviewer cannot give the impression that he thinks the interviewee is an idiot, even if he thinks so. 
And it is apparent that a number of the interviewers do indeed think that the persons they are interviewing are, if not idiotic, then at least retrogressive, wrong-headed, narrow, and spectacularly out of touch with the world around them.  That is because the interviewer is generally a worldling, and therefore thinks like a worldling, reflecting the views and biases of the world.  The average journalist (at least up here north of the forty-ninth parallel) is usually of a more liberal bent—he (or she) is not particularly religious, is pro-choice, and is in favour of what are called “gay rights”, and of the ordination of women.  The Roman Catholic guests they are interviewing, however, are usually committed to different positions— they are religious, they are not pro-choice, and are not in favour of normalizing homosexual relations or of the ordination of women.  Interviewer and interviewee therefore face one another across a considerable ideological divide.   They may be sitting across from each other at a small table in the news studio and talking politely, but in fact a great distance separates them and they are actually trying to converse with one another across a great chasm.  Often they are not speaking so much to each other as passed each other.  It is not the fault of the interviewer.  He or she is on a schedule, and has only a few minutes to ask questions.   This format does not allow time to actually converse, clarifying terms, stating presuppositions, examining one’s another arguments.  Complex issues must be despatched in three minutes to get on with the next story of a sink hole in Florida or of a war in Syria.  It is no one’s fault that issues get over-simplified or glossed over.  But the whole thing could not exactly be called communication. 
This was painfully apparent to me when watching a news anchor from the CBC interview someone from “Salt and Light”, a Roman Catholic organization.  The interview between the two women was cordial enough, but I thought I could detect a flavour of frustration, both on the part of the interviewer as well on the part of the interviewee.  The news anchor was asking her guest about what she thought the new Pope should do to meet the challenges currently confronting the Roman Catholic Church.  In particular, did she feel the Pope should modernize the Church?  Did she not think that the new Pope should rethink his Church’s traditional ban on the ordination of women?  Did she not think that by thus modernizing the Church would be better placed to recoup some of its numerical losses and reach out to the modern world?  The unspoken subtext was quite clear:  “When is your out-dated Church going to finally get with it?”
The guest answered quite civilly, though I thought I could detect a smidgeon of difficulty in retaining her smiling ease.  My guess is that she had been asked about this issue of the Church’s ban on women’s ordination a gazillion times before and was sorely tempted to drop the gloves and have a go at the person doing the interview.   If so, she wisely chose to desist, and tried to steer the conversation in a less polemical direction, talking instead about our common call to be saints. 
What instantly occurred to me was that when the world (through its very polite CBC journalists) talks about “modernizing the Church”, what it really means is “secularizing the Church”.  The news anchor in question took entirely for granted the standards, views, prejudices and value judgments of secular society and not for one nano-second did it occur to her that those judgments might be wrong.  It was simply inconceivable to her that the stand of the historic Church (both very visible Roman Catholic and largely invisible Orthodox) about such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women might in fact be right.  It was obvious that the views of the historic Church differed from those of secular North American society, and so it was the views of the Church which must change.   The question posed by her, “Is the Church going to modernize?”, when fed through the translation machine, comes out, “Will the Christian Church sacrifice its traditional views on controversial things to fit in with the views of non-Christians?”  The lady interviewed, I think, understood the true import of the question.  She was, however, too polite to meet the question head on and call the interviewer on her secularism. 
It is odd, when you think of it.  No one would dream of inviting a Rabbi to the news show and then asking him why Judaism was not prepared sacrifice some of its traditional values such as not working on the Sabbath to better fit in with non-Jews for whom Saturday is just another day of the week.  They would not dream of inviting an Imam to the show and asking him when Islam would jettison its practice of praying at set times of the day so that Muslims might better fit in with others at the office who would never think of praying during the day at any time.  It seems that there is respect for the essential traditions of every religion except the Christian one. 
In many ways, the professionalism and courtesy of the journalists mask what is really going on.  In the secularized West (which includes all of Canada; I can’t speak for the American Bible Belt) there is an undeclared cultural war raging against Christianity.  We are quickly being pushed to the margins of cultural life and in the public forums our views either ignored or denounced and mocked.  Our Roman Catholic friends, being more culturally prominent than most, naturally draw the most fire.  There may be many things which we Orthodox object to in Roman Catholicism, but in this cultural war, we find ourselves fighting alongside them.  All the more reason to pray for them—including whoever the cardinals elect as their new Pope—and to ask for their prayers for us in return.