Monday, October 22, 2012

The American Election

             My Dad, a veteran of the second world war, is fond of telling me that in the army, there were two things you did not discuss: religion and politics.  One can see why, of course:  the military needed its men to get along and have unity among themselves, and there was nothing like religion and politics for dividing people and getting them arguing.  I have found that my Dad, in this as in so many other things, was right.  Nonetheless, the dangers of division notwithstanding, I do talk about religion—and about politics in those very few areas where politics also involves religion
            My personal pastoral practice is not to tell people how to vote.  This is partly because I assume that they are smart enough to make such decisions without me giving my unsolicited advice, but also because I try to be careful not to offend.  I feel that if I must give offense, it should be over the Gospel and the scandal of the Cross, and not over politics.  I will cheerfully tell you who should be the Lord of your life; who should be the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Canada is something else.  But a part of bringing one’s life under the Lordship of Christ does involve political concerns in some way, since the Lordship of Christ touches every part of our life.  And in this current climate when feelings are running high, opinions are polarized, and (it seems to me) a touch of hysteria is in the American air, with some people proclaiming that electing the wrong candidate will bring about a disaster of apocalyptic proportions, it becomes all the more important that we be all reminded of the abiding Christian realties and of our abiding Christian duties.
            Our first duty is to pray.  St. Paul is quite clear:  “First of all [that is, of first importance] I urge that entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all, for kings and all who in in authority, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all piety and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).  Note that he does not tell us to pray for rulers only if we happen to like them.  In his case, the king at the top to be prayed for was Nero—an emphatically unlikable character, and one whose persecution of the Christians would cost Paul his life shortly after he wrote these words.  Nero might have been wicked, but he was still the lawful governing authority, and (again according to Paul), “There is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom. 13:1).  Whatever Nero’s personal short-comings (and of these he had no shortage), he was still God’s instrument for the restraint of social chaos, and the Christians still had a duty to pray for him.
            The Church always did this, praying for rulers, even throughout the dark days of pagan persecution (as they often reminded their persecutors).  If they could pray for rulers like Nero, certainly we should be able to bring ourselves to pray for our own rulers, of whatever party or policy they may be.  If our rulers do well, we should light a candle for them.  If they do badly, we should light two. 
            Our second duty as Christians is gratitude.  Gratitude to God should always characterize our life, and especially in North America where we have so much to be grateful for.  America and Canada have never known foreign invasion (let’s forget about the War of 1812 for now).   We have lived in comparative peace.  Moreover, we live amid affluence and plenty.  This is not to deny the existence of some hardship and poverty in our lands, but even here we still need to place our national situations in a global and historical context.  As the evening news stories tell us, many in the world have it much worse than we do.
            One of the blessings for which we should be grateful is the opportunity to have free elections, and of democratic process.  That is, we do not suffer tyranny as Russia did throughout much of the twentieth century, or as Germany did in the 1930’s.  If we do not like our rulers, we can vote them out of office, and such changes are accompanied without bloodshed or rioting.  We should not take this blessing for granted, for many nations in the world do not currently enjoy it.  In North America we have the freedom to criticize our government and vote for whoever we choose, without fear of reprisal.  We show our gratitude for this blessing partly by giving thanks to God (the source of all blessings, even political ones), and by voting.  Many people, it seems, are tempted to stay home on voting day, cynically thinking that changing rulers is no more significant than changing the hood ornament on a car.  I sympathize with this sentiment, but still think it is a mistake.  And voting on election day, besides showing our gratitude to God for our freedom, also gives us the moral right to complain about the results in the months to come after it is all over.
            Our third duty is remembering the Kingdom, and the things that truly endure.  A favourite old hymn of mine, “Amazing Grace”, ends with the words, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”  This is true:  one day, the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up (see 2 Pt. 3:10).  We, however, will still be alive, and will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of our Father (Mt. 13:43), and will go on shining for ten thousand years, and endlessly after that, like the hymn says.  Does anyone really imagine that after we have been shining with joy for ten thousand years in the age to come that we will still care who was the President of the United States in 2012, or the Prime Minister of Canada?  That is not to say that these things are unimportant.  On the contrary, they are important.  But not all-important.  Only Jesus is all-important.  We are told over and again by the Scriptures to keep our eyes on Jesus, to seek first the Kingdom of God (Heb. 12:2, Mt. 6:33).  We should not let lesser things distract our gaze from Him, or deflect us from our primary task of seeking His Kingdom.  Politics is okay, but it is human, and will not outlast this age.  It is the Kingdom which will outlast this age, and in which we will shine forever like the sun.  As we progress through this age to that Kingdom, let us pray, and have gratitude, and remember the things that eternally endure.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sealed with the Kiss: Exchanging the Peace at the Divine Liturgy

During my pre-Orthodox days when I was an Anglican priest, one of the most popular services for the devout was the so-called “8 am service”—a much-shortened Communion service offered without hymns, without sermon—and usually without many people.  Those who favoured it said they liked the service because it was short and quiet and one could “make one’s own Communion” without the necessity of meeting other worshippers.  It allowed them their own quiet devotional time with the Lord, without all the fuss and bother of other people.
This desire to avoid others at church and reduce worship to a private act is deeply ingrained in the fallen human heart, which instinctively builds walls to keep the other out.  It found a peculiarly American expression in the institution of “drive-in churches” where a family drove into a church parking lot and remained isolated in their cars for the duration of the service.  (I’m not making this up.)  According a description in a 1967 edition of Time magazine, “Many worshipers are attracted by the lack of usual Sunday formality, and show up in everything from bathing suits to pajamas...Ushers distribute printed hymns as the cars roll in, help plug in speakers, take car-to-car collections during the service or request worshipers to place donations in a bin on the way out. Some drive-ins also pass out car-to-car wafers and grape juice for Communion…Some pastors try to talk briefly with churchgoers as they roll out through the gates; (one pastor) even encourages his mobile congregation to greet visiting preachers with ‘a gentle, dignified horn toot.’”
What is lacking in all this, whether it be the venerable Anglican institution of the 8 am service or the tragi-comic fad of the drive-in church, is the recognition that Christian liturgy is a corporate act, something done by a united body of people, the royal priesthood of the church (see 1 Peter 2:9), and not by private individuals who regard the presence of others at worship as an unfortunate but necessary distraction.  
This corporate understanding of Christian worship is at the foundation of the apostolic practice of exchanging the Kiss of Peace, (or “the holy kiss” as they called it; 1 Cor. 16:20).  From the days of the apostles, “at every Christian synaxis (or gathering)”, the faithful exchanged the Kiss, sealing all their intercessions with the sign of unity.  The original place for the Kiss was “immediately after the prayers at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, for its pristine purpose was to conclude the synaxis of readings and prayers…It was the symbol of fraternal love that sealed the Christian service” (Robert Taft, The Great Entrance, pp. 375, 376).
How did this work?  In the earliest times, it would seem that the Kiss was given indiscriminately, between all Christians regardless of gender, and on the lips.  (We recall how this was the way St. Mary of Egypt gave the Kiss to Zosimas before receiving Holy Communion.)  In the earliest days when the Church was persecuted by the pagan state, the group assembling for the synaxis was a small intimate one which knew one another well, and such mixing of gender was not much of a problem.  Later, and especially after the Peace of the Church under Constantine, the numbers grew dramatically, and propriety demanded a separation of genders, with the men standing on one side and the women and children on the other.  But even then the Peace was still exchanged and given on the lips, with the men greeting the men standing immediately around them and the women doing likewise with the women around them.  
This state of affairs continued even to the 10th century.  But by the 11th century, the Kiss began to be exchanged only by those in the altar, and a 13th century Georgian version of Chrysostom’s Liturgy prescribes that the priest, when serving alone without other clergy, simply omit the Kiss entirely, since there was no one else in the altar with whom he could exchange it (Taft, op.cit., p. 395).
In many Orthodox places today, the Kiss is now being restored (though not without the same controversy that once attended the restoration of more frequent Communion).  Its restoration need not disrupt the service, nor degenerate into a kind of warm and fuzzy hugfest.  At my own parish of St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C., the faithful simply turn to those on either side and exchange a greeting, saying, “Christ is in our midst!”, with the response, “He is and shall be!”  I actually timed it once; it took 10 seconds.
But importance can’t be measured with a clock (after all, how long does it take to receive Holy Communion?)  For the exchange of the Kiss of Peace, when simply and reverently done, does something to a congregation.  It knocks down the walls mentioned at the beginning of this article, knits people together into a family, breaking the barriers which sin erects between brothers, preparing all to stand together as one body before the Holy Chalice.  
By restoring the Peace, we are, after all, simply obeying and fulfilling what is already in our own Liturgy (to say nothing of obeying the ancient injunction of the apostles):  each Liturgy the deacon stands and cries out, “Let us love one another!”  He is not simply telling us to have a loving attitude; he is directing us to exchange the Peace, and the proof of this is that this is exactly what concelebrating clergy still do in response.  (Watch them the next time the bishop visits.)  I suggest that we should take our Liturgy more seriously and try doing what it tells us.
The importance of this exchange of the Peace may be seen in what we laity are given to say in response to the deacon’s directive.  We leap in with enthusiasm and finish his sentence for him—he says, “Let us love another that with one mind we may confess…”, and we join in “…Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided!”  In other words, it is only after uniting our hearts in love that we can truly confess the Orthodox Faith.  Faith without love is not true faith, but mere cerebral gameplaying.  A true confession of faith can only come from a heart touched by the love of God and united in that love to our brethren.  Thus only after exchanging the Peace in love can we go on to recite the Creed, savingly confessing our faith in the Holy Trinity.  
When all is said and done, the other people at the Liturgy are not a fuss and bother, nor a distraction to our devotion.  They are fellow members of the Body of Christ, which Body alone makes our private prayers truly Christian.   Our participation in their liturgical presence is our joy and salvation.   Let us love one another indeed! 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Musings on the Holy Fire

             Like many Orthodox, I am fascinated by God’s annual gift to His Church of the Holy Fire, which He kindles faithfully in the Church of the Resurrection (or "the Holy Sepulchre") in Jerusalem every Holy Saturday.  I first heard of the Holy Fire from reading (of all things) H.V. Morton’s famous travelogue of his visits to the Holy Land, his In the Steps of the Master (first published 1934).  It’s fair to say that this English churchman was not impressed. He wrote that he thought it “an extraordinary thing” that “a frenzied ceremony that might have occurred in a grove of Adonis should have taken place at the Tomb of Christ”, wherein “hundreds of simple, but apparently mad, Christians believed that God had sent fire from heaven”.  Morton didn’t believe God did send fire from heaven.  He wrote, “The crowds have been told time and again that the Holy Fire is a piece of symbolism, but nothing will shake their belief that on this day it descends from heaven into the Tomb of Christ.”
            Morton is a wonderful writer, but one should be careful in drawing conclusions from him.  (This is apparent from his biography, In Search of H.V. Morton by Michael Bartholomew.)  Whether or not “the crowds were told time and again that the Holy Fire” was a mere “piece of symbolism”, we probably will never know.  But what we can know is that the Holy Fire is not a mere piece of symbolism, because, unlike in Morton’s day, we now have cell-phone cameras and other gadgets which can film the event live and make the miracle available for viewing on line.  (See, for example,
            This site also contains an interview with the Patriarch of Jerusalem who annually received the Holy Fire.  Far from suggesting to the crowds that it was a mere “a piece of symbolism”, he related his own experience of receiving the miraculous Fire.  In his own words, “I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees. Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the color may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake — it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn — I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire. The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church.”
            The gift of the Holy Fire goes back a long way.  In the years 1106-1107, the Russian abbot Daniel, wrote of “Miracle of the Holy Light” in his itinerary.  Even Morton acknowledges that “Bernard the monk  mentioned it in his visit to Jerusalem in 870 A.D.”  Why does God send the gift so faithfully?
            As with any question beginning with the word “why”, we can only guess.  But I think it had something to do with the circumstances of the church in those days.  That is, the church in Jerusalem was a church on the cross.   As G.K. Chesterton writes (in his The New Jerusalem), “No man living in the West can form the faintest conception of what it must have been to live in the very heart of the East through the long and seemingly everlasting epoch of Moslem power.  A man in Jerusalem was in the center of the Turkish Empire as a man in Rome was in the centre of the Roman Empire.  The imperial power of Islam stretched away to the sunrise and the sunset; westward to the mountains of Spain and eastward towards the wall of China.  It must have seemed as if the whole earth belonged to Mahomet to those who in this rocky city renewed their hopeless witness to Christ.”  A hopeless witness indeed.  But to know the risen Christ is to know the Hope of the hopeless, and to know that hope always ends joy, that the Cross ends in Resurrection, and that the night ends with the coming dawn.  That, I think, is why God gave the gift of the light to those making their “hopeless witness to Christ” through those long years of darkness. 
            The lasting significance of the Holy Fire is not in the candles that are kindled from it, but in the light that is kindled in our hearts.  God gives the gift of the Holy Fire as the gift of hope, to give us the strength to carry on another year.  Morton may have found the Christians who received the Holy Fire mad.  I would retort that they must have been mad to continue their hopeless witness to Christ our God in the dark heart of the Islamic Empire, lighting candles and saying prayers to the Crucified One whom they could not openly and with impunity confess under the sun. The gift was what kept the mad people sane, the enslaved people faithful.  Chesterton wrote that we Christians had “nothing to set up under the overhanging, overwhelming arches of such a temple of time and eternity, but this brief candle burnt out so quickly before God’s shrine”.  He was right.  The single, guttering, flickering candle of our years is indeed all we have.  And in Jerusalem, every Holy Saturday, they know this candle is lit by the risen Christ Himself.