Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Impressions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

           I have only one thing on my bucket list, and through the kindness of a friend I was able recently to cross it off the list.  That is, I have fulfilled my life-long dream to see Jerusalem and venerate the holy places.  My friend and I spent a wonderful and breathless week or so there.  We visited many holy sites such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, but were drawn back time and again to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
            This church had been described to me as “grand and confusing”, so I spent much time beforehand researching its history, and how having been built by Sts. Constantine and Helen, it underwent many and dramatic changes throughout the years, including being destroyed by the “mad Caliph” Hakim in 1009 and by fire later.  It was always rebuilt, though not to its original scale.  People entering the church for the first time with no sense of history and perhaps expecting to see something like the Garden Tomb have said that they were disappointed by it.  They were expecting to find a quiet place, a place reflecting the silence and peace of that first Paschal morning, hoping to find echoes of its pristine first century serenity.  Instead they found a noisy, bustling place, teeming with people looking around and taking photos, a place of many chapels and altars, all hung with gaudy Byzantine frippery.  I have to confess that when I myself first saw the church I had no idea what they were talking about.  To me it was wonderful.
           Admittedly this was not the way it was in the days of St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century.  Even in his day there were many pilgrim visitors, but Cyril was the pastor of busy and functioning parish church.  There was a schedule of services attended by his parishioners, there were catechumens to instruct and then baptize.  There was pastoral work to be done among a more or less stable community.  Like the churches in Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople, the episcopal shepherd in Jerusalem knew the names and needs of his local flock.
            Today this is much altered.  The Patriarch still serves there, of course, but most traces of a single, unified, and stable community have vanished.  (It is significant in this regard that I could not find a baptistery, the sign of a stable and growing community.)  Today the people in that church are a continually-changing group of visitors, some tourists, some devout, but all of them only there for a short time (hence all those cameras).  I mingled with crowds of people speaking many languages, coming from places far away.  It was as if a chunk of the United Nations had been transported from New York to Jerusalem, and plunked down together in this place of history and prayer.  And here’s the point, and the reason I think that the teeming and noisy bustle is beautiful:  all were welcome.  There were no metal-detectors through which one had to pass, and no one searching you for hidden weapons when you passed through the doors.  People of all races, colours, and religions were free to come and pray and weep and find peace at the foot of the Cross and at the empty Tomb. 
            To appreciate this, one needs to visit the two other places in Jerusalem that are sacred to the two other religions there—namely the “Wailing Wall” (sacred to the Jews), and the Dome of the Rock (sacred to the Muslims).  At both places, outsiders could draw near, but not enter.  At the Wailing Wall non-Jews could stand at a distance, but not come right up to pray at the wall.  A sign said so, and the prohibition was enforced.  (Near to the Wall was another sign that read, doubtless with unintended irony, “My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”, Is. 56:7.)  At the Dome of the Rock, non-Muslims could wander about and look at the exteriors of the mosque, but could not enter.  When my companion and I started to remove our shoes in preparation to enter, we were told in no uncertain terms that entry was restricted to Muslims.  It was only at the Christian holy sites, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that one at last found the true house of prayer for all peoples.  Its noise and bustle, its confusion and multiplicity of altars and services, witness to its open and universal embrace.  More than that, it witnesses to the embrace of God, who in love reaches out to all His children.   It was that love that took our Lord to His cross.  It was that love that raised Him again, and left us an empty tomb.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre remains as an enduring sign of that love.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Women in the Altar

           In my experience, when feminists look for sticks with which to beat the Orthodox Church as old, outdated, and misogynistic, as well as making reference to our well-known refusal to ordain women to Holy Orders, they often also refer to our prohibition against women entering the altar (i.e. the area behind the icon-screen, the space containing the Holy Table).  “Not only can women not be ordained in your church,” they say, “they can’t even enter the altar area.”  By making this observation the feminists are really asking the question, “What’s wrong with you guys anyway?”  In a day when almost all other churches have women clergy who stand at the altar table and preside as priests, our prohibition against women even entering the altar area utterly mystifies them.  So, what’s the deal?  What does the customary prohibition against women in the altar mean?
            Admittedly some Orthodox attitudes about women in the altar do make Orthodoxy something of a hard sell with the world.  I think of a story of one clergyman saying that a female iconographer working in his church could paint the icons in the altar area, but only after the Tabernacle containing the Reserved Gifts was removed, and of a story of clergy forbidding women to enter the altar anytime for any reason whatsoever, even to clean it on a Friday afternoon.  Is it true that women, as women, have always been absolutely forbidden to enter the altar area for fear that their presence there would somehow defile it?
            Well, no actually.  In the early church from about the third century anyway, deaconesses were ordained for their specifically feminine ministry, and they were ordained at the altar.  The early church therefore had no problem with a woman being in the altar, provided she had a reason to be there.  St. Gregory the Theologian even praised his mother, St. Nonna, for having ended her earthly life, “clinging to the altar table”.  (This last example was cited by the OCA Department of Religious Education publication, Women and Men in the Church, in 1980.)
            So where does the prohibition come from?  In part at least, it comes from canon 44 of the Council of Laodicea, held in about the mid-fourth century.  Said canon simply reads:  “Women may not go the altar”, without giving any reason or rationale for the prohibition.  Presumably everyone at Laodicea then knew the context and therefore the rationale for the decision so that it didn’t need to be spelled out.  A hint about what that reason might have been can be gathered from canon 69 of the so-called “Quinisext” Council—i.e. the canons appended in 692 A.D. to the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils held earlier.  That canon reads, “It is not permitted to a layman to enter the holy altar, though in accordance with a certain ancient tradition, the Imperial power and authority is by no means prohibited from this when he wishes to offer his gifts to the Creator.”   This canon prohibits any laity from entering the altar, though it makes an exception for the Emperor, who customarily entered to altar to make his own gift.  (Being Emperor clearly had its privileges.) 
            It would seem that certain people from the laity were in the habit of entering the altar area, probably because they felt that such a public show would add to their prestige.  Canon 69 forbids this, and says that no one should enter the altar area during the service unless there is a liturgical reason to do so.  (We note in passing that the ordination of deaconesses at the altar, in places where deaconesses existed, would have constituted such a liturgical reason.)  Consistent with this, I suggest that in Laodicea, certain women were also in the habit of entering the altar area for reasons of prestige.  Human nature being what it is, I suspect that these were rich women who wanted to enter the altar to flaunt their wealthy and important status, and the canon 44 of Laodicea forbids it because the desire to flaunt one’s importance is not a valid reason to enter the place set apart for liturgical worship.
            So, the abiding teaching of the Church seems to be that no one, man or woman, may enter the altar during Liturgy unless there is a valid and liturgical reason for doing so.  Women in Laodicea then and universally now, not having a liturgical function of serving at the altar, have no reason to enter it during Liturgy.  This interpretation of the prohibition is consistent with the present custom of women monastics helping the priest in the altar during Liturgy when the priest serves in a women’s monastery:  there being only women in a women’s monastery, sometimes nuns serve with the priest to hand him the censer, prepare the zeon, and perform other duties.  (I am told that they do so unvested—i.e. not dressed as subdeacons or acolytes in a stichar, but simply in their usual monastic habit.)  This shows that the canonical custom is less about women as women, as it is about function and necessity.  In all this, the Church’s concern is not to keep down the women out of a spirit of misogyny, but rather to preserve the dignity of the altar as a place of liturgy and prayer.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The People's Pascha

            At the end of October in 1840, the celebrated author Hans Christian Andersen (famous for his fairy tales) left his native Denmark for an extended trip in the east.  He wrote about his travels in his book A Poet’s Bazaar: a Journey to Greece, Turkey and Up the Danube.  Andersen was an experienced traveller, who had visited Italy some years before.  In his latest memoir, he compared his experiences of Easter in both Rome and Greece in the following words:
            “The Catholic Easter in Italy, especially in Rome, is wonderful, fascinating!  It is an uplifting sight on the vast square of St. Peter’s to see the whole throng of people sink to their knees and receive the Blessing.  The Easter Festival in poor Greece cannot be celebrated with such splendor.  But having seen both, one comes to the conclusion that in Rome it is a festival which, in its splendor and glory, comes out of the Church to the people; whereas in Greece it is a festival which flows out from the hearts and minds of the people—from their whole way of life—and the Church is only one link, one strand.”
            Sometimes outsiders can see with greater clarity and objectivity than insiders can, and I think that in this case the non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Andersen was onto the something.  Andersen appreciated both the Catholic and the Orthodox Paschal celebrations, but he thought that the Catholic one “came out of the Church to the people”, whereas the Orthodox one “flowed out from the hearts and minds of the people”.  In other words, both Easter festivals were like the churches which celebrated them, the Catholic Easter manifesting the clericalism which characterized the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Pascha manifesting the popular spirit which characterizes Orthodoxy.  In the Orthodox Church, Pascha “flows out from the hearts of the people”.  Clergy are involved, of course, since they too are part of the holy laos, but Pascha is primarily the people’s Pascha.
            This popular spirit of Pascha reveals something fundamental about the Church’s life, namely the reality that St. Paul calls “the koinonia of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14, Phil. 2:1).  The Greek term koinonia eludes easy translation.  It is sharing, fellowship, joint participation, communion, an experience of the Spirit which is shared by all the faithful and which binds all of them together.  In Phil. 2:1 St. Paul groups it together with “encouragement in Christ”, “incentive of love”, and “affection and sympathy” as inspirations and reasons for maintaining unity within the local church. 
            This is why it is so important for a community to travel together, with a sense of mutual belonging.  We define ourselves not just in terms of our relationship to Christ, but also in terms of our relationship with one another; we serve Christ as our Lord, but as members of a particular community, as fellow-communicants with Sam and Suzy and Vladimir and Antonios whom we see at the Chalice every Sunday.  It is as a community that we journey through Lent; it is as a community that we experience the power and intensity of Holy Week.  It is as this same community that we finally arrive together at our Paschal goal.  Our weekly Sunday attendance at Liturgy and our annual experience of Great Lent and Holy Week all combine to meld us into one body, allowing us to experience the koinonia of the Spirit, and it is as this united body that we experience Pascha.  Pascha “flows out from the hearts of the people” as Andersen noted because the koinonia of the Spirit has knit our hearts into one.  The priest prays for this at the conclusion of every Anaphora:  “grant that with one mouth and one heart we may praise Your all-honourable and majestic Name”.  After Holy Week has come to its climactic conclusion on the following Sunday, this prayer is abundantly answered, as the people’s Pascha flows out from this one heart.  Andersen saw this when he visited “poor Greece” well over a century ago.  It can be seen even today in Orthodox parishes throughout the world.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Holy Thursday: Feasting in the Shadow of Death

           There are certain disadvantages to knowing how a story ends.  This is true in the case of our Gospel story:  we know that the story ends in triumph, and joy, and Resurrection.  This knowledge tends to blunt our sensitivities as we read along, and cause us to miss certain things in the flow of the narrative before it comes to its end.  In particular, we miss the main element of the story of the first Holy Thursday, which is fear.
            As we read the Gospels two thousand years later and many miles away from its original time and place, we tend to imagine that Galilee was more or less the same as Judea.  Both regions are just names to us—names of Biblical Places, which because they are Biblical have a certain holy feel to them.  We therefore miss the fact that for the Lord and His Twelve, they were not alike at all.  Galilee in the north was a place of safety, while Judea in the south was a place of danger, and for this reason they were reluctant to enter Judea at all.  Thus, when Christ suggested to the Twelve that they leave Galilee to visit Lazarus in Bethany in the heart of Judea, they were less than enthusiastic.  In fact, they were incredulous:  “Rabbi,” they protested, “the Jews were but now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” (Jn. 11:8)  It seemed stupid and suicidal.  When Christ said that He was determined to visit Lazarus because he had fallen asleep, they assumed that by this He meant normal slumbering sleep, and concluded that there was therefore no need to visit him—“Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover” (Jn. 11:12).  In other words, “no need go south to Bethany”.  When the Lord explained that Lazarus had died and that He was still determined to go to him (v.15), they naturally concluded that He was speaking of joining him in death.  Thomas displayed courage when he roused the others to risk death to accompany their Lord, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (v.16).  In all these exchanges we see how dangerous Judea was for Christ—and Jerusalem was the epicenter of that danger.
            Our Lord’s foes down there were actively seeking to kill Him (see Jn. 8:40), so that His entry into the city of Jerusalem had to be secretly pre-arranged with passwords.  (That was the whole point of the mysterious exchanges mentioned in Mk. 11:2-6).  Other signs and passwords guarding secrecy were later required to pre-arrange a place in the city where the Passover meal could be eaten (Mk. 14:13-16).  Our Lord’s foes, humiliated time and again by Christ as He taught that week in the Temple, could not risk arresting Him openly in the midst of the festal crowd (Mk. 14:1-2).  They were desperate to find Him alone, far from the safety and protection of the public eye, for only then could they safely arrest Him without being stoned by His crowd of supporters.  And that was why they rejoiced when Judas secretly offered to supply them with the information of His whereabouts, and even act as a guide for them, for that was the only way they could get Him alone and defenseless.
            We must fully appreciate this atmosphere of danger as we read the story of the Last Supper on that Holy Thursday.  The place upstairs in someone’s home had been secretly secured and made ready, and the Lord went there with His disciples without being seen.  Everyone at that supper knew that our Lord’s enemies were scouring the city to find Him, and that they would arrest and kill Him if they did.  The excitement generated in the city which began when our Lord entered in triumph had reached its fever pitch now that everyone was keeping the Passover, for everyone was expecting the coming of “the kingdom of our father David” (Mk.11:10), and Passover was the perfect time for that kingdom to come.  Surely something had to give—it was time for either Christ or His enemies to triumph.
            This atmosphere of almost unbearable danger and impending crisis was further deepened by he events of the Supper itself.  It was, as the Synoptics make plain, a Passover meal (Mk. 14:12, Lk. 22:13-16), with cups of wine, and bread, and the Passover lamb itself.  Certain prayers and blessings, such as the blessing over the bread and the cup, would have been said, as at every Passover meal.  But Christ added other words to these customary blessings:  as He broke the bread at the beginning of the meal, He said, “Take; this is My body”.  And after the meal, during the third cup, the “cup of blessing”, He added the words, “This is the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many”.  The words were dark and cryptic and alarming.  As the bread was between their teeth, as the wine flowed over their lips, the disciples heard words identifying the bread and wine with His body and blood, broken and poured out.  The Passover feast of life and joy and freedom was becoming a feast of darkness and death.  They of course could not understand all that the words meant, but they understood well enough that it spoke of His death.
            Other words were less cryptic, and even less encouraging.  During the meal, He said that one of them would betray Him—one whose hand was even then eating with them at the festal table.  And He said that He would not drink another cup of wine until the Kingdom had come (Mk. 14:18, 25).  St. John’s Gospel draws the veil aside even further, and tells us that He openly spoke of leaving them (Jn. 13:33), of weeping and lamentation, and of His enemies’ rejoicing (Jn. 16:20), of them all being scattered and leaving Him alone and defenseless (Jn. 16:32).  The Passover meal was meant to be a time of light and hope for every Jew, a time when they gloried in God’s love for His people, and looked to His deliverance.  The disciples ate that meal in shadow and fear, darkened by a coming doom.  We know how the story ends, and how Holy Thursday was followed by Great and Holy Friday, and then again by Pascha.  But we must not import our hope prematurely into the narrative lest we misread the atmosphere of that first holy supper.
            And that is just the point:  in the midst of darkness and fear, grace took root and blossomed, and has since filled the world with its saving fruit.  The supper of death (like the Cross of death) has become the supper of life.  The Last Supper has become for us the Mystic Supper, and the place where the disciples cowered has become a place of joy and exultation.  For us the Supper is a place of light, of triumph, a place where all fear is banished, and where life chases away every trace of death.
            This is the abiding lesson of that night.  We are sometimes tempted to imagine that God saves us from fear and from danger, that He rescues us by not leading us into places where we are afraid to go.  We desperately want Him to exempt us from being in such dark places, and from experiencing terrible things.  We do not want to go to Judea, we do not want to enter Jerusalem which always kills the prophets (Mt. 23:37).  We do not want to have to endure the tragedies of life, and would at all costs avoid the valley of the shadow of death.  But God leads us there nonetheless, and there He is with us and prepares a table, even though we eat in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23:4-5).  God does not exempt us from suffering.  He does something better and more wonderful:  He meets us there, and reveals His grace.
            Maybe it’s not so bad after all knowing how the story ends.  For if we know that Holy Thursday gives us the Eucharist and ends with Pascha, maybe we can better face the suffering we have to endure.  This dark and dangerous world need not steal our hope or diminish our joy.  In the midst of the darkness, we lay hold of bread and cup, and give thanks, and find Christ and His Kingdom.