Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Meaning of the Menaion

          St. John Chrysostom had a much slimmer Menaion than we do. The Menaion, of course, is that collection of hymns celebrating the lives of the Church’s saints, offering the proper liturgical hymns for the services of Vespers, Matins, and the Divine Liturgy.  God’s grace has been so abundant throughout the centuries that there is now pretty much a saint or three for every day of the Church’s calendar year.  Take, for example and at random, November 17:  on this day, the Church commemorates St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, the venerable Nikon of Radonezh, the venerable Lazarus the Iconographer of Constantinople, the martyr Gobron of Georgia, and the venerable Genadius of Vatopedi.  Not all of these saints are honoured with hymns in the Church’s services, but all find a place in the Church’s liturgical memory (and possibly, in the Dismissal of the day when the saints for the day are mentioned).
            It was otherwise in the time of John Chrysostom when he served in the church at Antioch as one of its presbyters and when he presided as bishop and pastor over the church in Constantinople.  In his time, saints’ days were local affairs.  One of course celebrated such days as Pascha and Pentecost.  Even new-fangled days such as Christmas (concentrating specifically upon Christ’s birth at Bethlehem) were coming into vogue in the west (soon to be borrowed everywhere by the east).  But the saints and martyrs that were celebrated were mostly local martyrs—men and women of the local church who had suffered for Christ, men and women known by face and name by one’s fathers or grandfathers or great grandfathers, and whose relics were retained and treasured by the local church.  The martyrs at that time were hometown boys.  As an act of catholic generosity, some of these relics might be shared and given to other churches, thereby extending the liturgical veneration of the martyr to other places.  But by and large, in Chrysostom’s day, the saints honoured with special feasts were those who were locally known. 
            As you can see by the citation from the current church calendar for November 17 mentioned above, this is no longer the case.  The Church has broadened its liturgical horizons to include saints and martyrs from all over, so that the church (say) in Antioch now no longer simply honours those martyred in Antioch, but those martyred in any city of the Roman Empire, and even beyond it.  It is but one fruit of the Constantinian revolution, and of Byzantium:  we now think globally, and not just locally.  When we think of “our martyrs”, we include martyrs from all over.  The term “our” now means not just “our locality and city”, but “our Christian people”, even if they are people far away. 
           There is a loss in this shift and change.  When the choir on November 17 sings about St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, we may admire this saint from afar, but we do not feel the same intimate emotional connection with him that we might feel were he a former member of our congregation, as was the case in the days of St. John Chrysostom.  And when we sing about our experience of the wonderworking relics of a saint in the Vesperal verses of “Lord I call”, it is a bit experientially artificial, since we do not in fact have the relics of said saint, and have no experience of their healing power such as is extolled in the hymns.  The hymns, in fact, presuppose an experience; they presuppose that those singing the hymns have experienced the healing power of the saint’s relics or of the saint, and so there is a direct connection between what we sing and what we experience.  This connection has now been largely severed.  We sing that we have experienced healing from the saint or from his relics, but this is not often the case.  In many cases, we really have little idea who the saint is or what his life was like.  Our experience of saints’ days is therefore rather different from the experience of those in the days of St. John Chrysostom.
            But there are gains as well as losses in this change, and we would be foolish to remove these saints from our Menaion and liturgical memory just because our situation is no longer the same as it was in the fourth century.  What are the gains?  I mention two.
            First of all, the Menaion forces us to move beyond our present generation and think of the Church’s historical experience in terms of centuries.  This is essential, especially in our day when our culture pushes us toward a kind of historical amnesia.  In our culture, relevance and importance presuppose newness, and anything old is thereby discredited.  We assume without discussion that anything accepted centuries ago is thereby worthless and can have nothing to say to us.  The phrase “the wisdom of the ages” is oxymoronic, a contradiction in terms.  I think of the “Peanuts” comic in which Lucy is doing an essay in school on church history.  She writes, “For this essay I will have to go back to the very beginning:  our pastor was born in 1925.”  Lucy is here the Modern Person:  anything that goes back more than a hundred years is not even on the cultural radar.  The Menaion pushes us back beyond 1925, beyond the birth date of our pastor, beyond our own times.  It reminds us that the Church in fact has a history and experience and wisdom that stretch back two millennia.  She might therefore have some accumulated wisdom to share with our culture after all.
            Secondly, the Menaion compels us to look beyond our limited local horizons to see the experience of Christians of other lands, Christians perhaps different from us, at least in language and culture, Christians who are nonetheless our people.   We so easily define as “our people” those who share our language, our culture, people who think and dress and vote like us.  The Menaion invites us to broaden our perspective, to open our hearts.  People very unlike us are still “our people” if they love and confess Christ our God.  What do St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, and St. Alban the Martyr, and St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, and St. Nektarios of Pentapolis, and St. Raphael Brooklyn share?  Precious little, except a burning love for Jesus.  And that is enough to make them all “our people”, saints of God, men and women whose names adorn our Menaion. 
            The Menaion as presently constituted is thus a challenge to our limited memory and our cultural insularity.  It calls us to see and recognize and celebrate sanctity wherever and whenever we may find it.  And, more importantly, it calls us to strive for such sanctity ourselves.  For if God’s grace and power may be found in Neocaesarea and Roman Britain and St. Petersburg and Greece and Brooklyn, perhaps it might be found in our town too, and in our own life.  The universality of the Menaion calls us all to strive to join its sacred number, or at least to transform our lives so that its saints may recognize us also as part of their divine family.

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