Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The White Student Union and the Kingdom of God

              A young man who is a student at Towson University is concerned about the level of crime afflicting his campus and the seeming inability of the police to stem the tide.  So, he is arranging for a series of unarmed student foot patrols around the university to increase student safety.  The problem?  The student arranging for the foot patrols heads a group called the “White Student Union”, and its blog warns that the university is experiencing a “black crime wave”, with “black predators” preying upon the “white majority student body”.  Ouch.  To make matters worse, the young man, Mr. Mathew Heimbach, is an Orthodox Christian, who stated his desire to enter seminary to become an Orthodox priest.  Double ouch.

            What are we to make of all this?  It seems that the fallen tribalisms of this age are hard to eradicate from the human heart, and sadly, can even survive conversion to the Orthodox Church.  It is commendable that someone might want to arrange for student-led patrols of the campus to increase safety.  It is less commendable that anyone would define himself, especially today, in terms of colour or race.  Why have a White Student Union?  Why call the “crime wave” a black crime wave?  Presumably no one, of any colour or race, cares much about the colour of the person beating them about the head and taking their money.  Defining the criminals and the victims in terms of their colour seems unnecessarily provocative, if not incendiary.  Why describe the situation on campus in terms calculated to increase racial tension?

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Understanding Thomas

St. Thomas, it seems, can never catch a break, at least in popular culture.  Our culture knows him as “doubting Thomas”, and one single and uncharacteristic lapse has forever labelled him as a doubter and made him the patron saint of sceptics.   He is regarded as suffering from an innate tendency to doubt and to faithlessness, as if he somehow loved his Lord less than the other apostles.  A quick look through the other pages of John’s Gospel reveals it is not so.  If anything, Thomas loved Jesus more.
            Remember how a few short days before the catastrophic events of Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion all the other disciples hung back in fear when their Master spoke of leaving the safety of their place across the Jordan to return to Bethany in Judea to visit Lazarus?  Jesus told them plainly that Lazarus was dead, and then said, “let us go to him”.  The apostles all thought that He meant visiting Lazarus’ bereaved family in Judea and being stoned to death for it, as He almost was before (John 11:7-8, 14-15).  They all hung back, aghast at their Master’s determined plan.  It was Thomas who refused to let Him go and die alone:  “Let us also go,” he told them, “that we may die with Him” (v. 16).
            Thomas’ famous lapse therefore did not spring from a cold heart, nor from a deficit of love.  When the other apostles told him after the Resurrection that they had seen the Lord, and when Thomas responded, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25), this was not the voice of scepticism.  If Thomas were a despairing sceptic, he would not then have been with the other apostles at all.  He would have said, “I’m done”, and returned to Galilee.  No, this was not the voice of scepticism.  It was the voice of desire.
            That is, Thomas desired more than anything in the world to see His Lord alive again.  His poor heart had sustained such a pounding and been broken into so many tiny pieces by the events of that last terrible Friday that he could not risk having it broken again.  He dared not believe this latest report, for fear that it was wrong.  He felt that if he raised his hopes again only to have them dashed, he could not survive.  No more risks, no more taking chances.  From now on, seeing was believing.  But he clearly wanted to see and to believe.  When he drew his line in the sand and said he would not believe this report unless Christ appeared to him personally, he wanted more than anything for it to be so.  He drew this line, hoping beyond hope that Christ would cross over it.  When Christ did, and offered His risen flesh to Thomas for inspection, Thomas sank to his knees, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”  Here was everything he ever wanted.
            Thomas’ desire for Christ challenges us today—and not just to believe in Christ without seeing Him for ourselves.  Thomas challenges not just our faith, but our priorities.  Thomas wanted Christ more than anything else, and everything else grew dim in the face of that desire.  What do we want?  What is our deepest desire?  Is it for money?  For health and happiness?  Is it for the health and happiness of our children?  Is it for success and recognition in our chosen field?  Thomas would cheerfully have sacrificed all these things, if only he could have his Jesus back again.  For Thomas, nothing was more important than Jesus.  After falling down before Christ with his confession, he turns to us with a question:  what is our deepest desire?  How important is Jesus to us?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Appreciating Pascha

           In recent months I have come to the conclusion that the best place to appreciate the significance of Pascha is in a cancer ward, or a hospice for the dying, or by a deathbed.  When one stands in any of these terrible places, one enjoys an immunity from the lies of the world.  For the world tells each one of us that we are a race of immortals, destined never to die.  Surveying our surroundings in these places reveals that  this is not so.
Both the cosmetic industry and the funeral industry conspire in their own ways to persuade us that we will remain young and wrinkle-free forever, and our media cheerfully picks up and conveys this message.  We know, of course, that it is nonsense, but we buy into it anyway.  Youth is celebrated and culturally portrayed as if it is eternal, and the dead are rarely allowed to be seen.  People expire privately in hospital rooms, and then are rushed down to the morgue.  Funeral directors (there are happy exceptions) do their best to anesthetise the survivors to the horror that is death, and often the corpse is cremated before the funeral (now renamed the “celebration of life”).  Often in of these services, the corpse is not present, and if it is, the casket is usually closed.  Our forefathers chanted, “In the midst of life we are in death” (the line is from the grave-side service in the Anglican prayerbook), but no longer.   In the midst of life we now rarely encounter death.  In the old days, people died at home, and were prepared for burial by their loving and grieving family.  Now we have people for that.
All of this culture of denial falls away from us when we survey our surroundings in cancer ward, hospice, or by the deathbed.  Whether or not we die of cancer, all of us will die.  It reminds me of the old children’s riddling rhyme:  “Doctor, doctor, will I die?  Yes, my child, and so will I.”  Our cultural denial notwithstanding, we are not a race of immortals, and all of us will one day lie upon our deathbeds.  As a priest, I have stood by a few of them.  And then one realizes afresh what Pascha really means.
Pascha is not simply a liturgical feast, something celebrating the end of a rigorous Great Lent.  And it is not simply the happy historical ending to our Lord’s life, an appendix added after the crucifixion saying, “And they all lived happily ever after”.  Pascha is God’s promise that the moment of pain we endure by the deathbed is not the final word.   For now we must be submerged in the horror and obscenity of death, but God’s plan is indeed for us to be a race of immortals, and one day this plan will be fulfilled.  Hurtling down the years to our deathbed is not a journey to oblivion but to joy.  When death’s cold hand finally closes our eyes, we will open them in paradise, and after our body returns to the dust from which it was taken, it will one day arise and be raised and transformed.   Pascha is not simply about Christ’s happy ending, but about ours. 
If one disbelieves in Christ and Pascha, then our cultural of denial of death makes good sense.  We can’t do anything about the fearful fate which awaits us, so why think about it?  Eat, drink, be merry, and watch television.  But if what the Church says about Christ and Pascha is true, we don’t need the lies or the denial.  We can look death in its fearful face and smile and say with St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”  Death may prowl the cancer ward or the hospice and may roar by the deathbed, but it will be gone soon enough.  Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Recovering the Via Dolorosa

During my recent visit to the Holy Land I was very interested in visiting the so-called “Tower of David”, or “the Citadel” located towards the southwest corner of the Old City.  It contains an excellent museum, offering a tour of its premises, including access to its summit, which itself affords a splendid view of the Old City. It was enthralling and well worth the entrance fee.  But I was looking for something certainly not found in the provided tour.  I was looking for the shadow of Pilate.  For it was somewhere here or nearby that Herod had his palace, and according to some scholars, it was this palace that Pilate used for his residence or “praetorium” when he stayed in Jerusalem.
              All questions involving the route of our Lord from condemnation to execution—the so-called Via Dolorosa or “way of sorrows”—must begin with this question.  We know where the route ended—at the place now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which in our Lord’s time was just outside the city gates.  So, since we know the terminus of the route, the only real question is “Where did it begin?”  The Gospels all insist that it began with Christ’s condemnation by Pilate at “the praetorium”.  But where was this?
            Since the middle ages, the location of the praetorium was considered to be the Antonia Tower, in the northwest corner of the Temple area, the barracks for the Roman garrison guarding Jerusalem.  This was next to the Temple, since the Romans wanted to keep close watch on the Temple grounds and to be able to respond quickly should a riot erupt there.  This is the site presupposed by those accepting the authenticity of the present Via Dolorosa, which traces a route from the Antonia Tower to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  But acceptance of this route and its use for liturgical procession only dates from the thirteenth century. There is no continuous tradition tracing this route as the true one.  It is a possible route, but other routes may be considered as well.
            There are problems with thinking that Pilate used the Antonia Tower as his praetorium when in Jerusalem.  Firstly, St. Matthew informs us that Pilate’s wife was with him (Mt. 27:19), and it is unlikely that Pilate would have taken soldiers’ quarters in the barracks in the rough Antonia Tower under those circumstances.  Josephus admittedly describes it as “having the largeness and form of a palace” (Wars 5, 5, 8), but it is likely that by this he means only “the largeness and form of a palace compared to other barracks for soldiers”.  One wonders if Pilate’s wife would have found it so palatial.   Moreover Josephus refers “the royal palace” in the Upper City (Wars 2, 19,4).  By this he referred to Herod’s Palace, which contained three towers, named after Herod’s family and friends.  The present so-called “Tower of David” is the remnants of the only one of those towers remaining.  In other words, Herod’s royal palace was at the place now occupied by the Tower of David.
But was it used by Pilate as his praetorium while he stayed in Jerusalem?  The available evidence points in that direction.  Philo (d. 50 A.D.) writes in his Delegation to Gaius that Herod’s Palace in the Holy City was “the residence of the prefects”, and according to Josephus the prefect Gessius Florus resided “in the Palace” from 64 A.D. (Wars 2, 14, 8).  Thus when ancient readers read that “the soldiers led Him away inside the palace, that is, the praetorium” (Mk. 15:16), they would have understood by his term the Palace of Herod. 
So the Crusader route is probably not the correct one.  The true Via Dolorosa began at the royal palace, the praetorium, someplace in or near the Tower of David (for the praetorium covered more area than does the present Tower, which is all that is left of it).  The normal route would have involved going from the praetorium by way of what is now St. James Street to the main north-south road, the present “Chabad Street”.  This north-south road was the artery closest to the praetorium, and led northward out of the city through what was then known to Josephus as the Gennath Gate (or “garden gate”) because there was then a garden outside the gate.  The location of this gate is where the current David Street meets with the bazaars.  This was the true Via Dolorosa; it was by this sorrowful way that Christ accomplished His exodus at Jerusalem (Lk. 9:31).
This means, of course, that the Via Dorolosa appearing on the street signs and explained patiently by the guides is spectacularly incorrect; the true one was a northward route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Palace of Herod, not a westward one from the Antonia Tower.   This can be particularly damaging to the claims made by the various “Stations of the Cross” scattered throughout the Old City, all of which assume the medieval Crusader route.
Thus “the Church of the Condemnation”, for example, cannot be the place where Christ was condemned.  “The Church of the Flagellation”, wonderful though its 1920’s architecture and stained glass may be, cannot be the place where He was flagellated.  The Polish Catholic church which marks the site of Christ’s first fall must forfeit that claim, despite having an elegant sculpture of it, as must the (unfortunately named) “Armenian Church of our Lady of the Spasm”, which marks the place where Christ met His Mother.   The claim of the small Franciscan church to be the place where Christ encountered Simon of Cyrene also has little credibility.  And even less credibility attaches to their claim that the discolored stone on the right side of the building is discolored because Christ leaned against it while Simon assisted Him.  As my traveling companion instantly saw, this stone anyway could not be authentic because, whatever was the true route of the Via Dolorosa, the original road by which Christ traveled now lay many feet below the present level of the city.   In fact it is only when one reached the area surrounding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that the supposed Via Dolorosa intersects and combines with the real one.
For those to whom historical accuracy or even probability matters, it is important to remember that the events occurring on the way to the cross were the creation of the medieval west, and none can claim any real historicity.  That Christ was condemned is certain, and probably also that He fell at least once, since Simon was seized upon by the Roman soldiers to help Christ carry the cross-beam (Mk.15:21).  He is also recorded as speaking to the women of Jerusalem (Lk. 23:28f), though the location is not stated or known.  The other elements are the product of medieval fancy. 
A revised understanding of the Via Dolorosa means, of course, that many of the Christian sites in the Old City should properly stand down from much of their boasting.  “The Church of the Flagellation”, for example, can offer nothing more than other churches can offer—a quiet place to pray and find the Presence of Christ.  That is still worthwhile, but one doesn’t need to travel to Jerusalem to find it.  It can be found at the church around the corner back home.  Accepting a revised Via Dolorosa would reconfigure the spiritual map of the Old City, a map that has been relied upon since the Crusades—and possibly kill much of the tourist trade there, since many of the churches in the Old City would at a stroke be stripped of their biblical significance.  Walking a revised Via Dolorosa would bring one from the area along the Tower of David along James Street to the Chabad and north to David Street to the Holy Sepulchre.  There would be no church sites along that to inspire or pray in, no suggestion as to where along that way Christ fell (if indeed He did), or where He spoke to the grieving women.  It would be a quiet and perhaps solitary walk, with not much to nourish a devotionally hungry heart.  Perhaps for this reason alone, it seems as if the traditional route is in no danger of being supplanted by another route better favored by history and archeology. 
Does that mean that walking the traditional Via Dolorosa has no value?  Not at all.  For the true value of walking that route—either the traditional Crusader route or the more probable one—is not found in geographical accuracy.  What matters more is the geography of the heart, and the devotion poured out by the believer along the way.  Walking the Via Dolorosa has always been more than a merely historical exercise.  It has been a devotional journey, an attempt to relive the final hours of Christ with Him, to try to bring home to the normally all-too-cold human heart some of the pathos and power of the death of Christ.  One walks and prays, and stops and reads and prays, and walks and prays some more.  It is the prayer that counts, not the steps.  The fruit of the journey consists not in the accuracy of the route, but in the outpourings of love for the Lord, who loved us enough to walk a way of sorrows to save us.  That is why, in Roman Catholic churches in the West, each church once contained “the Stations of the Cross”, offering the fruit of the Via Dolorosa to those who would never be able to go to Jerusalem.  One needs to worship God with the mind and not uncritically accept everything that a guide tells us.  But the head must not be separated from the heart, for it is with the heart that we choose to love God; it is with the heart that man believes (Rom. 10:10).   I would never disparage the Via Dorolosa.  Indeed, I think it precious enough to refine, and correct, and bathe in historical truth.
I therefore all the more wanted to see the place where Christ had His last interviews with Pilate and where He was finally condemned.   My prowling about the Museum and ramparts of the Tower of David brought few echoes of Pilate’s praetorium, but then I did not expect it to.  The original Royal Palace had covered both the Tower of David and other area as well, and it had been effectively demolished by the Romans long ago, who left only these fragments.  The Museum had other concerns than mine, and there was no way of knowing precisely where the Palace began and ended, nor what it would’ve looked like, though we can be sure that Herod built it to a grand scale and made it as sumptuous as possible.  There was little for my hungry historical imagination to feed on, apart from the conclusion that somewhere within a block or so from here, Pilate paced up and down, and rubbed his eyes in frustration over the political and judicial problem the Sanhedrin handed him, and at length washed his hands of it all.  Somewhere within a block or so Christ stood silent before His accusers, like a lamb led to slaughter; somewhere not too far away His back was laid open by scourges, and they laid the cross-beam upon Him.  Somewhere close to where I stood in the sunlight near the present Tower of David, Christ staggered northward to the beckoning city gate, carrying His cross, and the sins of us all.  The day was drawing to a close when I left the Tower of David.  I made the sign of the cross, and walked out into the setting sun.