Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Chapel of the Ascension: the Roof and the Ruins

The worst thing was the roof; the best things were the ruins.  These were my thoughts as I stood at the chapel of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives.  This has been a site of Christian meeting for centuries, the place where they gathered to commemorate the Ascension of Christ into heaven.   Before this site was built, Christians gathered in the Eleona (Greek for “olive grove”), the Church built in the fourth century over the cave on the Mount of Olives where Christ sat with His four disciples Peter, James, John, and Andrew and spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world (see Mk. 13).  Of this spacious and splendid Eleona church built over the cave, only fragments remain, near the so-called “Church of the Pater Noster”.  But in the early fourth century, the Eleona flourished as the place where the Christians of Jerusalem met to commemorate the Ascension of Christ.  Later a place was built nearby, at the present “chapel of the Ascension”, and it was to this site that the pilgrim Egeria went later in the fourth century to commemorate the Ascension.  In her day it was not a church, but a mere circular colonnade at the summit of the Mount of Olives, a place to sit that was open to the sky.  She called it “the Imbomen”, from the Greek “en bouno”, “on the hillock”, and it was a fairly modest structure.  Later a member of the Imperial family enlarged the Imbomen so that was functioned as an actual church.  It was later destroyed by the Persians in the invasion of 614, and later still by the Muslims. 

All that is left of that larger church now are the ruins, along with the original Imbomen structure, which stands about three meters by three meters.  In Egeria’s day in the fourth century, this structure was open to the sky, and one could stand in its center and look upward to heaven, and remember how Christ ascended to the Father.  The Muslims have bricked up the spaces between the columns of the Imbomen, and put up a roof overtop it.  They now charge a small fee for Christians to enter and look at its empty, unadorned interior.  

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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Not So Eastern Church

               I can, I think, count on the fingers of my one hand the number of times I have described myself as an Eastern Orthodox.  Usually the preferred self-designation is simply “Orthodox”, but sometimes this provokes confusion, as when I am further asked, “Oh, are you a Jew?”  The respondent has clearly heard of Orthodox Jews, and supposes that I must be one of them, though you would think the big pectoral cross around my neck would tip them off somewhat that I was a Christian.  On these occasions I am reduced to elaborating more fully, saying that I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian:  “You know, like the Russians, or the Greeks?”  The respondent’s eyes then glaze over for a moment, since I am neither Russian or Greek, but they usually let the matter drop.  In these conversations, the adjective “eastern” serves to connect me with a known quantity, such as the Russian Orthodox Church or the Greek Orthodox Church—i.e. the ones on television with the fancy robes and the icons.
            There is a reason for not referring to our church as “the Eastern Orthodox Church”—namely, that we are not in fact eastern.  Our own jurisdiction has its membership in the west (i.e. North America), and my own parish is situated on the extreme west coast of that western continent.  So, in what sense are we eastern?  Only in the historical sense, and long dead history at that.  In the first millennium the Church was dispersed throughout the Roman world, living in the west from Britain to Rome and in the east, from Jerusalem to Parthia and beyond.  (Yep, Parthia; like I said:  long dead history.)  In those far off days, east was east and west was west and never (or rarely) the twain shall meet.  The church organized itself into patriarchates, including the famous five of the so-called “Pentarchy”, even though the actual reality never was quite as tidy as all that.  In this ancient system, you had Rome leading the west, and Constantinople leading the east.  Latin flourished out west, and Greek out east (and later on, Slavic languages in the northern land of the Rus) and, oh yes, Syriac.  In those days, the designations of “western church” and “eastern church” meant something, since the faithful who lived in the west didn’t often visit the east, and those in the east visited the west even less often.  Most people, in fact, didn’t travel very far from their homes at all, and for the overwhelming majority a trip of a hundred miles was the trip of a lifetime.  The Greeks stayed in Greece, and the British stayed in Britain.  (The Irish monks took to travelling, but that counted as a kind of ascetic exploit, and was quite exceptional.)  Thus “the eastern church” was the church you found in the eastern part of the Roman empire, and which had certain identifiable characteristics, including language, liturgical traditions, and a certain way of organizing its life.  “The western church” was the one you found in the west, which also had its distinctive language (Latin), its liturgical traditions and ways of organizing itself.    Geography largely determined where churches with these characteristics were to be found.
            That was then, and this is now.  Since then people have enjoyed a tremendous increase in mobility.  Greeks no longer are to be found only in Greece; they can be found anywhere.  (One estimate has more Greeks living in Chicago than in Athens.)  And people formerly found only in the west are now found also in eastern regions.  Thus, people of religions that were once found in geographical concentration in a particular place can now be found everywhere in the global village:  Roman Catholicism is global—as is Orthodoxy.  As is Islam. 
            In this world it makes little sense to refer to the Roman Catholic church (or to its Protestant daughters) as “the western church”, and little sense to refer to the Orthodox church as “the eastern church”.  Geography has succumbed to mobility and world-wide diffusion.  Could one perhaps salvage the designation “eastern” by using it to refer to the liturgical usages of the church that was once rooted and concentrated in the east?  Could one say that things like the use of incense, and chanted services, and icons, and not using pews, are specifically and peculiarly eastern?
            Well, no, actually.  In the church of Britain before the Reformation, all of these things could be found there too.  One entered a British church in (say) the fourteenth century and found Latin—and also icons all over the walls, and incense, and long chanted services, and no pews.  It even had a large screen up front—the “rood screen” (not exactly an iconostas), separating the nave from the chancel.   Things that we now most commonly associate with “the eastern Orthodox church” were once universal, even in the west.  They are not so much specifically eastern as specifically Christian.  The west has dropped most of them, and these things now survive only in the Orthodox Church.
            I would suggest therefore that the issue is not whether a church is eastern, but whether its teaching is true.  I sometimes meet dear friends who come from the “western churches” of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, who tell me that they could never convert to Orthodoxy because it is “eastern” and they are “western”.  Conversion is treated as a kind of betrayal of their ancestors.  But surely this is to do a disservice to one’s ancestors, who would prefer that one choose the truth whether it accords with family pedigree or not?  And what about people from non-Christian backgrounds?  What about people from India or China?  Their ancestors were Hindus and Buddhists or Taoists, yet no one sensibly suggests that conversion to the Christian Faith involves a disservice to them.  The fact is that for all people of whatever ancestry or geography, conversion involves taking Abraham and the patriarchs as their new ancestors, and like them “leaving your country and your father’s house” (Gen. 12:1).  To be a Christian at all involves becoming a stranger to all the tribes of earth, and living as an alien and sojourner here, and of confessing that here we have continuing city (1 Pt. 2:11, Heb. 13:14).  It is folly to say that we will embrace this eschatological rootlessness, but only if we can still retain cultural vestiges that defined our ancestors. 
            The Orthodox Church is not “the eastern Church”.  It is simply “the Church”—the one that began in the east (i.e. Jerusalem) and from there spread out into all the world.  Schisms and other catastrophes have attended it over the years as it soldiered on throughout the long and winding course of history. But it remains now what it always was.   One can perhaps find our church defined as “the eastern church” in Google.  But one cannot find it so described in the Creed.  There we find it described with greater accuracy:  “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”.  Not so eastern, is it?

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Regardless of the time of year one visits, it is always Christmas in Bethlehem.   For westerners like myself, approaching the little town of Bethlehem involves a return to one’s childhood, to Christmas carols and Nativity sets, to a lost time of wonder and innocence.  In my memory of Christmases past, it was always snowing in eternal Bethlehem.  One comes to Bethlehem now with the expectation of finding the tranquility of the stable seen on a thousand Christmas cards, with the three wise men parking their camels outside, and a star softly shining directly overhead.
            Except that now the “little town of Bethlehem” does not enjoy a “deep and dreamless sleep” beneath “the silent stars”, nor does it “lie still” like the song says it does.   Rather it now lies within the troubled borders of the Palestinian Authority, and its embattled and besieged Christian population survives largely on tourism.  Its sleep is not dreamless; most of its Christian population dream of leaving the town and the armed Zionist state, and many already have.
            Furthermore the stable portrayed on a thousand Christmas cards never was a stable as northern Europeans knew stables.  It was a cave.  Even as early as the mid-second century, the Church recorded the local tradition that Christ was born in a cave.  St. Justin Martyr writes in chapter 78 of his Dialogue with Trypho, “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village, and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger.”  Origen, writing a little later in 248, says that
“In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes.  And the rumour is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.”  St. Jerome knew of the cave’s location, and took up his own monastic abode right next to it.  Entrance to that abode can be found from within the present day church.
            In the days of Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem was a tiny little hamlet, so small that the slaughter of its toddlers by Herod didn’t even show up in the history books.  (After all, history could focus upon much more important people slaughtered by Herod.)  And in those ancient days the area around Bethlehem was wooded, and contained a shrine of the pagan deity Tammuz.  Constantine soon changed all that.  Bethlehem was one of a number of sites he chose to adorn with large and splendid churches.  The church which Constantine built in Bethlehem was destroyed by the Samaritans in the sixth century, but later rebuilt by Justinian in 565, and it is this building which survives until today.  You can even see some of the original mosaic on the floor through a trap door.

            To enter the Church of the Nativity (as it is now called), one has to enter through a small door.  In Justinian’s day the door was appropriately large and grand, but the Crusaders filled it in to reduce its size, and in Ottoman times it was reduced in size even further so that looters would not drive their carts through it.  It is sometimes called “the Door of Humility” because everyone must bow a little to enter.  No bad way to enter such a holy place.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Gay Rights in Springfield

Note:  I reprint here by request a post of mine which appeared first on "The Sounding" blog for Orthodox Christian Network in the summer of 2012.  

          In August 2012, the Rev. Dr. Phil Snider made a speech in Springfield.  He was speaking to their City Council on behalf of a proposed amendment which would add LGBT people to the list of minorities protected from discrimination, making it illegal for businesses and landlords to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgendered employees, customers and tenants.   It was a brilliant speech, and all the more so since he had to cram it into the short time allowed for such public submissions.  He began by ostensibly protesting against the gay rights amendment, drawing his arguments from the Bible, and denouncing gay rights as unnatural and opposed to the Word of God, and sounding like many people of the religious right who have denounced homosexual lifestyle.  At the end of his long religious denunciation, he sprang his trap.  That is, he revealed that he had in fact been reading from a denunciation of racial civil rights from the 1950s and 1960s, simply substituting the words “gay rights” for the words “racial integration”.  At a stroke he aligned the controversial struggle for the legitimacy of homosexuality with the heroic struggle of American blacks for civil rights, thereby portraying any who opposed the gay rights amendment as exactly like the bigots who formerly opposed racial integration.  His appeal:  “stand on the right side of history”.  In other words, those who opposed the passing of the gay rights amendment will one day soon be recognized as unenlightened villains, and will be justly denounced when the history books of the future are written.  It was a brilliant performance, and went viral on the internet. 
            What are we Orthodox to think of the whole thing?
            First of all, I think we may take issue with his wholesale equation of the present opposition to homosexuality with the historic opposition to racial integration.  It is easy enough to do (especially if you have a doctorate, as the Reverend Doctor Phil does), but it still represents a kind of historical sleight-of-hand.  Certainly the arguments of some white preachers of the 1950s sounded similar to some of the present arguments of the religious right, but that simply proves that very religious Protestant people all sound the same when they get upset.  If an American Bible-believing Protestant gets wound up about an issue, of course he will pound the Bible.  That doesn’t prove that the upset Protestant of the 1950s and the upset Protestant of 2012 are referring to equivalent things, or that the issues of the 1950s and 2012 are essentially the same.  It simply proves that it is easier to pound the Bible than to produce an argument. 
            The Reverend Doctor is, in fact, trying to pre-empt and hijack the argument before it starts, in a kind of clever ad hominem attack.   By demonstrating that those opposing the gay rights amendment in 2012 Springfield are essentially the same kind of bigoted Neanderthals who once opposed racial integration, he no longer has to deal with the arguments they make.  These people are clearly bigots and are not “standing on the right side of history”, so why listen to them?  Dr. Snider has effectively discredited them before they have been allowed to make their case and participate in the long back and forth of extended argument required to do justice to such a contentious and complicated issue.  When you think about it, for all its effectiveness, the strategy is not really all that noble.
            There are many differences between the issues of homosexuality and race, and these differences mean that the two issues are not truly parallel.   Let us state some of the obvious.  First of all, the whole issue of race and racial integration was preceded by a long and terrible history of slavery, wherein men, women, and children were sold like cattle simply because of their race and the colour of their skin.  It is unnecessary to detail the suffering and injustice involved in this, for they are well known.  When the struggle for civil rights began in earnest under people like the Reverend Martin Luther King, those opposing racial integration reacted with considerable brutality and violence, a violence which was often sanctioned by the highest powers of the State, which used its formidable legal and military machinery to crush to new civil rights movement.  Police with barking dogs, truncheons, anti-riot gear, water cannon, and other forms of violent intimidation were used against those pushing for racial integration.  As I say, the facts of the struggle are well known, and need not be rehearsed here in all their gory detail.  But the point is, the details are gory enough. 
            We do not find a parallel experience in the case of those working for LGBT recognition.  This is not to deny genuine instances of hostility and prejudice against gays.  Especially in schools, gays can experience terrible bullying, with some children feeling desperate enough to contemplate or even carry out suicide.  Bullying and violence are evils that must be denounced and resisted whenever they are encountered, whether the persons being bullied are targeted because they are gay, undersized, poor, of a different race, or wear glasses.  Violence, discrimination, and bullying are never justified. 
            But the tragic suffering of those experiencing hostility and violence because of their sexual orientation must not lead us equate things that are not equal.  Terrible as abusive discrimination of gays is, it still cannot be compared to the violent discrimination encountered by those originally pushing for racial civil rights.  Those marching in Gay Pride parades in the many cities of North America have never encountered State-sponsored violence such as was experienced by those marching in the civil rights marches.  We do not find today the widespread, ingrained, and systemic violence made famous by the KKK.   On the contrary, we find that in many Gay Pride parades people of power such as the Mayor, or those aspiring to power such as politicians running for office, are eager to appear.  Homosexual orientation is celebrated in many major films (Brokeback Mountain being just one), and many celebrities have endorsed the life-style as equally legitimate with a more traditional sexuality.   Many politicians openly endorse such legitimation.   These differences between the two movements are profound, and mean that the current movement for gay rights cannot be justly compared with the older civil rights movement, with all of its heroism.  The mantle of such heroism must be earned by suffering in the streets, not simply seized by a verbal and historical sleight-of-hand in a Springfield City Council.
            But the main difference between the issues of racial integration and gay rights lies not just with the history and progress of the two movements, but rather with the underlying realities of race and gender.  That is, gender is more basic to humanity than is race, and any attempt make sexual differences as insignificant as racial ones is invalid.  Race is, in fact, somewhat accidental to the question of a person’s humanity, of no greater significance than eye colour, or height, or inherited left handedness—which is why interracial marriage and childbearing are biologically possible.  It is otherwise with gender, which is basic to our nature.  The main demand which the civil rights movement made was for the legal recognition that race did not affect one’s humanity, and therefore should not affect the civil rights based upon that recognition of a common humanity.  The gay rights movement demands a more sweeping change—namely, the acceptance of a view that homosexuality is every bit as legitimate as traditional sexuality, and that therefore discrimination based upon a perceived inferiority of one to the other should be illegal.  The civil rights movement was looking for simple justice between different races of men; the gay rights movement looks for a alteration in how we perceive human nature itself.
            In all this debate, the stated issue is, I suspect, not the real issue.  On the surface, it would seem as if the debate were about law, and the question of whether or not it should be legal to refuse employment, customer service, or tenancy to people on the basis of their sexual orientation.  Put like that, I think there is no problem with the amendment.   I do not think that people should be denied these basic things simply because they have embraced a life-style which Christians and people of many religions over the centuries have considered to be immoral.  I see no reason to deny employment or tenancy to a sexually-active gay man any more than I would deny them to a fornicating heterosexual man.  If the amendment before the Springfield City Council is simply about law and legal entitlement, I have no problem with it.
            But I am not sure that it is simply about law and legal entitlement.  Surely a law which prohibits discriminatory refusal of employment, service, or tenancy to people in general is sufficient for this?  Why add an amendment that specifically mentions gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and the transgendered?  The LGBT community is specified, I believe, because there is something deeper at stake.  The underlying issue and the final goal is the total legitimation of homosexual lifestyle as one that is completely morally equivalent to traditional sexuality and marriage.  The goal is not simply to make it illegal to refuse a job or an apartment to a woman because she is a lesbian, but rather the radical cultural redefinition of sexual normalcy.  It is not enough for a potential employer to say to himself, “I think Suzie is abnormal in her sexual desires and choice of partner, but I will hire her anyway as a bank teller because what she does after she goes home is no concern of mine.”  I would hope that most employers say that to themselves already (at least they do in Canada).  For the advocates of this amendment, I suspect that the culture must be altered so that the employer will say to himself, “Of course I will hire Suzy, because there is no real moral difference between lesbianism and heterosexuality.”   The target is not the employer’s hiring policy, but his inner convictions.

            That is why Gay Pride parades exist—to alter the perceived definition of normalcy.  The goal of those pushing for gay rights cannot be achieved with amendments and laws alone.  The sound and fury at the Springfield City Council is not the main arena for this struggle.  The true arena is the human heart, the inner attitudes and perceptions of the common citizen, and these are changed more slowly, through cultural infiltration with the new images and norms.  This amendment in Springfield has significance only because of its symbolism.  By passing the amendment, the City Council symbolically declares for the new and redefined normal.  By denying it, it opts to stay with the older and traditional view of what is normal sexuality.  Whether or not the amendment is passed I suspect will have precious little effect on actual hiring practices.  But then hiring practices are not the real issue.  The real issue—and the real reason the amendment should be resisted—is whether or not our culture should redefine sexual normalcy according to the new canons of the gay community.