Tuesday, May 29, 2012


The Church has classically been described by four adjectives: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. If I were looking for a more concise way to sum up these attributes, I would choose one word: alien.
            The on-line Oxford dictionary describes “alien” as, “belonging to a foreign country”, “unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful” and “supposedly from another world, extraterrestrial” (I imagine this final definition is of more recent vintage, and presupposes the world of Science-Fiction, E.T., War of the Worlds and the mother-ship.) I am happy with all of these definitions, for they all describe, in one way or another, the Church of God sojourning in this world. We do indeed belong to a foreign and heavenly country. The World indeed regards us as disturbing and distasteful. And the Kingdom is, by definition, another world.
This alien element in our ecclesiastical existence goes back to our Lord Himself. He said to His disciples, “Because you are not of this world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (Jn. 15:19). This was no accidental utterance, but is foundational to our identity as Christians, so that the Lord repeated it in His final prayer to the Father before His arrest and crucifixion: “Father…I have given them (the disciples) Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” (Jn. 17:14). To be a disciple of Jesus, therefore, is to be no longer of the world. The world, with its deep-seated and fallen xenophobia, instinctively recognizes this, and reacts with persecution. That accounts for the persecution of the Christians soon after the Day of Pentecost, and in almost all ages of the Church, including our own (Byzantium was a blip), and for what the ever-quotable G.K. Chesterton once described as “the halo of hatred around the Church of God”.
Since we do not (presently) live in a land governed by sharia law, the persecution today is mostly cultural. We do not live in the expectation that armed men will bang on our doors and haul us and our loved ones away to judicial prosecution or mob violence. But those who hold to the Faith are held up to ridicule, denunciation and subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) social ostracism.
There is one way, of course, that we can avoid such unpleasantness: we can soften the Lord’s words, demands and standards so that they are more in line with what the World will accept. In areas of conflict where Christ’s other-worldly ways collide with accepted social norms, we can decide to chill out and stand down (the current flash points in North America are homosexual life-style, the normalization of fornication, women’s ordination, and an appreciation of Islam). We can speak with great sophistication about how complex all these issue are, about the values of diversity. We can find pleasant and articulate proponents of homosexual life-style to speak with, we can interview with appreciation smart and famous feminists, we can dialogue with very nice Muslims. Dialogue is good. I like dialogue; it’s almost as much fun as blogging. But the pleasures of dialogue with pleasant and articulate people must not tempt us to sell out the words of Christ. In our dialogue, we must listen attentively, and then very respectfully offer the timeless teaching of Christ which the World regards as alien. This might result in a shortened dialogue, and will certainly result in fewer invitations to take part in dialogues in the secular media. But dialogue isn’t everything. At the Judgment at the Last Day, there will be very little dialogue.
Our contemporary and urgent task, therefore, is to lovingly and humbly hold to the Faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) and to be content to be regarded by the World as aliens. Like all aliens, we will pay the price, and be told that we are simplifying complex issues, that we are fundamentalists, that we are intolerant. Our fellow-Christians who have decided to ease up on being aliens will add that we are un-Christ-like, unloving, uncompassionate, driving people from the Church, and generally responsible for the fact that the world is not beating a path to the Church’s door. (This ignores that fact that when Christians did act more like the world, the world did not beat a path to their door, but ignored them as charmingly irrelevant. That is why the words “church growth” and “the United Church of Canada” are rarely used in the same sentence.) None of this negative reinforcement should count with us. We have been warned in advance by our Lord to expect it. And there are hints that when the Antichrist comes, such negative reinforcement will become more negative yet. Our task, in all ages, remains the same.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Remembering Bishop Short

The man to the left is the late Anglican Bishop, H.V.R. Short, formerly bishop of the Diocese of Saskatchewan.  It was under Bishop Short that I served my two parishes as an Anglican priest.  I came to him as a deacon, and he ordained me priest several months later in 1979.  He was always kind to me, with the heart of a true bishop and father.  When I first met him in his office before continuing my trek out to my first parish, he said something I shall never forget:  "I'm not asking you to be successful; I am asking you to be faithful.  St. Paul said that it was required of stewards that they be found faithful, and that is all that is required of us."  That is, I think, good advice, and not just for clergy.  We may not set the world ablaze, or leave our mark.  In fact for most of us, it is a certainty that within a hundred years of our death, after our children and grandchildren have also died, it will be as if we had never existed, and we will be completely forgotten by the world.  That is okay; what matters is that God keeps us in His eternal memory.  And when we finally stand before Him to be judged, He will not ask how successful we were.  He will ask if we were faithful.  Thank you, Bishop Short.  May your memory also be eternal.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ascension and the Glorification of Man

           In contemporary Orthodoxy, we are accustomed to referring to Christ as one of the Holy Trinity.  He is usually referred to as “Christ our true God”, and the Gospel of John, which stresses His divine status, is, I would suggest, our favourite of the four Gospels.  When announcing the reading from (say) Matthew’s Gospel, the deacon says, “Bless master him who proclaims the good tidings of the holy apostle and evangelist Matthew”, but when he announces a reading from John’s Gospel, he says, “Bless master him who proclaims the good tidings of the holy apostle and evangelist John the Theologian”.  The other evangelists are honoured, but only John receives the title “the Theologian” (an epithet shared only by St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. Simeon, sometimes called “the New Theologian”).  Like I said:  John is our favourite.
            Looking at church history, one can see why.  Starting early on and heating up dramatically in the fourth century, the Church was swamped with rival and alternative views of who Jesus of Nazareth was.  Arius made headlines in the fourth century by suggesting that Jesus was a creature, like all the other creatures made by God, only perhaps a bit more exalted, like an angel on steroids (my description not his).  For Arius, Jesus was only divine in an honorary sense, like a citizen being made “King for a day”.  In dealing with the distortions of Arius, the Church turned with gratitude to the emphatic clarity of John’s Gospel.  That Gospel opens with a ringing assertion of Christ’s divinity (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”), and climaxes with a confession of the same (as Thomas falls down before Jesus, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”)  From the fourth century on, the primacy of John’s Gospel was assured.  Faced with the swarming multitude of heresies, the Church would continue to declare the divinity of its Saviour, and refer to Him almost reflexively as “Christ our true God”.
            This is good.  But it should not make us to miss the significance of Him being “Christ the true man” as well.  Orthodox theology, formed by its response to the challenges and heresies it faced, takes a theological approach to Jesus:  we think of Him primarily as the pre-eternal and divine Word who later became a man for our sake.  But the earliest disciples did not begin that way.  They began with a phenomenological approach to Him.  That is, they first knew Him as a man like them, truly and completely human, and (what’s more) authentically Jewish.  For like His first disciples, Jesus referred to the God of Israel as His God (compare His cry from the cross in Mk. 15:34 and His post-resurrection reference to His God in Jn. 20:17).  He prayed to God as all His fellow Jews did, and taught that the Law’s greatest commandment was to love the God of Israel (Mk. 12:29-30).  They went to on discover and proclaim that this Man was also divine.
            We do well to remember this, because often we tend to secretly embrace a kind of crypto-docetism.  (“Docetism” is the name given to the view that Jesus was not truly human, but that He only seemed—Greek dokeō—to be so.)  We Orthodox Christians today easily remember that Jesus is divine.  We remember less easily that He is also completely human.  It is as if Christ assumed our humanity at Bethlehem, and then left it behind like a used suit of clothes at His Ascension.  It is not so:  the humanity which He assumed for our sake at His Nativity, He keeps forever. 
            It is especially important to remember this at the Feast of the Ascension, for the Ascension is not only the triumph of God, but even more the triumph of Man.  We do not glorify God by belittling man and denying humanity its proper glory.  Humanism, with its emphasis on the splendour of the human person, at least gets that right.  Man is glorious, and splendid, and worthy of praise.  He has debased himself through sin and selfishness, but the glory remains, like gold that is covered over with a layer of dirt.  This is the point of the psalmist in Psalm 8:  “What is man, that You remember him, and the son of man, that You care for him?  You have made him a little lower than God, and crown him with glory and majesty”.  The glory of man remains, whether or not one translates the Hebrew elohim in this passage as “God” or “the angels”.  Man retains his kingly position in earthly creation either way, and stands just slightly lower than those in heaven, because God “has put all things under his feet”. 
            The Church has always proclaimed that Man’s ultimate glory and destiny find fulfillment in Jesus.  He is the Son of Man to whom God subjects all things, putting them under His feet. He is the One whom God crowned with glory and honour (see Heb. 2:6-9), the true and representative Man ruling over all creation. And the moment of this crowning, this final and supreme exaltation, was the Ascension.
            That is the true meaning of the Ascension, and why the Ascension represents the triumph of man.  In Jesus, Man assumes the throne God prepared for him, reigning finally and truly as king over the rest of creation.   In the ascended Christ, sitting at God’s right hand to rule the cosmos with Him, Mankind finds its true destiny and glory and goal.
The Ascension however also reveals that this true glory comes from submitting to God’s will.  Humanism rightly sees that man is a glorious being, but it errs in supposing that man can be glorious while rebelling against God.  Secular humanism (there have been many varieties of humanism throughout the years) even declares that man’s glory consists in rebelling against God.  All this is futile.  Man finds his true dignity while kneeling before God; his true calling in gratefully adoring Him. 
Psalm 8 reveals this, as does the example of Jesus.  In Psalm 8, we see that it was God who “made man a little lower than elohim” (v. 5); it was God who made him rule over the works of His hands, and put all things under his feet” (v.6).  Man did not attain to such heights by his own effort, by a kind of “triumph of the will” (to quote an old and horrifying documentary).  Man does not glorify himself by pulling himself up by his Pelagian bootstraps (it was Pelagius who seemed to downplay our need for God).  It is God who glorifies him, as His gift, as man submits in love to His will.
The life of Jesus reveals this also.  Christ the Man always did the will of His Father, even though it cost Him His sweat and blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross.  In obedience “He offered up both prayers and supplications to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His piety” (Heb. 5:7).  It was because of this obedience and humility before the divine will, this saving self-emptying, that “God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:8-9).  First came the Cross, and only then, the Crown; first the kneeling tears in the Garden, and only after that, the sitting at the Right Hand.  Christ’s glory was the fruit of His humility, and of His obedience to the Father’s will.  He proved Himself true Man when He knelt and prayed; He proved Himself true Man when He turned from His own will to the Father’s.  And because of this human obedience, God exalted Him, raising Him from the dead and bringing Him to His right hand in glory.
Christ’s ascended glory therefore points the way home for us as well.  The glory that Christ was given by the throne of His Father is the same glory that He will share with us (see Rev. 3:21).  But we must follow in the footsteps of His humility if we would arrive finally at His glorious goal.  The Ascension calls us to be authentically human, to fulfill our destiny by serving and loving God.  The Man Christ Jesus has not only revealed the glory of the Father.  He also revealed the true glory of humanity as well.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ecclesiastical Nostalgia

             If one is the type that is easily discouraged, one can find today much that is discouraging—secularism is making inroads, even in the Orthodox Church, men of power scorn and minimize the insights proffered by Christians, the Church makes up a small fraction of society, and our bishops are sometimes not up to meeting the multitude of challenges faced by the Church.  The temptation for those easily discouraged is to look back fondly and nostalgically to an imagined Golden Age for the Church.  There are a number of contenders for this Golden Age.  One of the most enticing contenders is the fourth century.  After all, this century saw two ecumenical councils (Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381), as well as the ministries of Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.  Surely if any period of church history could lay claim to being a golden age, especially as far as bishops were concerned, it would be the fourth century.  That was the time to be an Orthodox Christian!  If only we could have lived then!  If only our bishops now could be more like bishops then!
            One of the salutary effects of scholarship and of reading church history is to disabuse one of such facile notions.  Books such as Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church, by Andrea Sterk, examine the episcopate of the fourth century, and paint a different and more nuanced picture.  Gregory of Nyssa, for example, wrote much of what the ideal bishop looked like, largely because such an ideal bishop was hard to find.  The revolution begun by Constantine, with all the tremendous advantages and opportunities it opened for the Church, also brought with it a flood of candidates for the episcopate who were less than ideal.  Gregory of Nyssa, for example, in his Life of Moses, wrote of men with selfish ambition and arrogance, men who “thrust themselves into the honour of the priesthood and contentiously thrust out those who had obtained this ministry from God”, men who “fatten themselves at rich tables, and who drink pure wine, and anoint themselves with the best myrrh, and who make use of whatever seems pleasant to those who have a taste for a life of luxury”.  Sterk wrote that “political manoeuvring was not unusual for the attainment of positions in both the civil and ecclesiastical hierarchies of the fourth century” (op. cit., p.113).  The office of bishop was a plum, a way for social and financial advancement, and many men sought the office for precisely this reason.  And their flocks did not object, or see anything wrong with this.  Most of the people wanted and demanded for their bishops men who were rich, aristocratic, and esteemed in the eyes of the world, preferring them to men who were holy, yet poor. As Gregory the Theologian said in his Oration 42, the people “seek not for priests, but for orators, not for stewards of souls, but for treasurers of money, not for pure offerers of the sacrifice, but for powerful patrons.”   The supposed golden age was not that golden. 
            Compare this with our current situation.  The bishops I know (admittedly, mostly from afar) are men of faith, men who accepted the episcopal office not because they hungered for social prestige and riches.  They did not sidle up to the Emperor (or President or Prime Minister) and jockey for episcopal preferment.  There are things to criticize in the bishops, of course—just as there are things to criticise in the presbyters, the deacons, the readers, and the rest of the laity.  But over all, our North American bishops seem to have their eyes on the Lord, not on the Emperor or their bank accounts.  This is a welcome change from the fourth century.
            Indeed, the marginalization of the Church which some find discouraging is actually a reason to be encouraged.  There is no social advantage any more to becoming a Christian.  Rather, professing faith in Christ is more likely to garner criticism and social disadvantage.  This is all to the good, for it increasingly means that those who live their lives in the Church are truly dedicated to Christ.  The Church does not need multitudes to do its job, only dedicated souls willing to serve Him and die for Him.  Better a small and dedicated church, than multitudes of merely nominal believers. Better bishops who serve the Church despite the fact that it brings no smile from the Emperor, than episcopal time-servers and men-pleasers.  Better twelve men filled with the Pentecostal Spirit, than a thousand without zeal for God.  Of the thousands that flocked around Christ when He did miracles and healed their sick, only a few stayed faithful to Him after the Cross.  Of those thousands, only a hundred and twenty were found in Jerusalem’s upper room at the end.  But these one hundred and twenty had hearts that burned with love for Jesus.  And that was enough.
            There is no need to be nostalgic for the long dead past.  The golden dedication which we seek is not the possession of any single age, century, or epoch.  The gold is found in the hearts of all who love Jesus with all their might, in whatever age they live. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Life Is Good

           I offer the observation in the title defiantly, because there is much evidence to the contrary.  Admittedly, I am a happy camper—more or less healthy, my extended family happy and doing well, blessed with a wonderful parish and a good bishop.  Even my cat is contented.  But I am aware that many people in the world are not happy campers, that suffering and sickness abound, that poverty and war mar the lives of many innocent people, that children across the globe go to bed hungry, while their parents can only weep and extend their empty hands.  Many in the world would contend that life is not good.
            That is why I offer the sentiment defiantly.  We must, of course, do what we can to feed the hungry, to strive to heal the sick, to dry the tears of the suffering, to comfort the children.  There are many opportunities to do this (one thinks, for example, of the work of IOCC), and our Lord commands that we use these opportunities according to our ability.   Affirming that life is good does not involve stopping up our ears so that we cannot hear the cries for help of the needy. 
            But it does involve living with sensitivity to all the gifts which God daily showers upon us.  Our temptation is to continue with insensitivity to these gifts.  And let’s be honest:  if we do not feel that life is good, it is not usually because we are haunted by the sufferings of others, but because we are too self-absorbed.  Fallen creatures that we are, we find it easy to focus on the petty slights of others, the minor disappointments of the day, the stresses and strains that come with living.  It is as if we are on a long hike through the mountains in springtime, and can think only of how tired our feet are.  We miss the view, the shining, wet, loud, radiant world that crowds around us, that shouts at all our senses, telling us that the whole world is filled with God’s glory.   We are insensitive to this.  All we notice is the fact that our feet hurt. 
            Orthodoxy challenges us to live sacramentally, to receive each day as an unmerited gift from God, to lose our sense of entitlement, and recover a sense of wonder at how strange and beautiful is the world  God made and the life He has given us.  It will all be over soon enough.  Like the country song says, “You get one time around, one roll of the dice, one walk through the garden, one quick look at life.”  All the more reason to notice every flower in the garden, every smile, to enjoy every chocolate, to savour every sip of wine.  As well as a theology of asceticism, we almost need also a theology of pleasure, recognizing all the pleasures which God packs into His world for us to enjoy. 
C.S. Lewis knew this well:  in his famous Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape observes of God, “He’s a hedonist at heart.  All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade.  Or only like foam on the sea shore.  Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure.  He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore’...He has filled the world with pleasures...Everything has to be twisted before it’s of any use to us.” (Screwtape, ch. XXII).  Calling asceticism “a façade” is perhaps not quite it, but the point Lewis makes in Screwtape’s indignant demonic rigorism is that joy is the final goal, and asceticism is merely the means to achieve it.  God likes pleasure; that is why He made it.  All the pleasures God made, small and great, are His gifts to us.  We don’t deserve any of them, and yet God continues daily to pour out His evidently endless cascade of blessing and beauty.  And all of it free.
            Well, maybe not quite free.  Though He needs nothing from us or from any, He does ask something in return—that we say “Thank you”, that we eat to our fill and then bless Him for it.  This response is not meant to be like the sullen and mechanical “Thank you” wrung from a child in obedience to the prompting of a parent.  It is meant to be the natural and spontaneous overflow of a full heart when we truly see with open eyes all that God does for us.  No doubt we often fail to show such gratitude.  I remember as if it were my own confession of sin the words of Garrison Keillor, in his anthology, Leaving Home:  “Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”  Keillor is right.  Life is good.