A Christian End to Our Life

Then, I come to our faith. What is our faith concerning death? It can again be described in simple sentences, but behind each one lies a wealth of experience and vision. In Christian doctrine, death is first of all called the “sting of sin.” It is not just an elementary answer about biological or physical death. In Christian vocabulary death means separation from God as a result of sin – a kind of ontological catastrophe that has made creation, or rather man’s life, into what it was not when God created it. Thus death carries the sting of sin. As separation from God, death – not physical, not physiological death, but death as sin and separation – has been abolished by Christ’s death. Therefore the dead – those who sleep – are alive in Christ.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, p. 145)

For the human, separation from God is the definition of death.  Christ’s death has changed everything – for even in death we are not separated from Christ our God. There is no place we can go where we will be separated from Christ. As it says in Psalm 139:8 –

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

 He descended to the place of the dead, filling all things with Himself.  In death we are with Christ who triumphed over death and its separation from God.  Christ is Lord of the dead as well as the living for all are alive in Him.

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.   (Romans 14:8-9)

The Marriage Crown

Before the final blessing of the marriage, the priest prays that God will “take up their crowns.” This image is an encouragement for married couples to live in holiness and follow the ways of the martyrs and married saints to salvation. Salvation is a gift that is tried by many obstacles and temptations; yet, it is expressed as joyful life in the presence of God in his kingdom. This joy is not as fleeting or simple as temporary “happiness.” Rather, it contains within itself the fruits of labor and assists in the development of the unquenchable desire to serve the other in accordance with one’s natural inclination as a communal being.

Then secondly, the glory and the honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the kingdom is the martyria–bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. (Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

Crowns become the reward for and sign of carrying the cross. Before marriage a specific cross is given to the individual, but now a new cross is given to the two united as one. This new cross requires cohesive work with the other in a way that is unique to the individual and is bearable only in services to Christ, through the spouse, by the Holy Spirit and in concordance with the Father. In this sacrificial love, martyrdom is made manifest. Again, in the words of Fr. Schmemann,

In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not ‘happiness’!] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

(Bp. John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 57-58)

The Joy of Humility

Everything, absolutely everything in religion is ambiguous, and this ambiguity can be cleared only by humility, so that the whole spiritual life is or must be directed at seeking humility. The signs of humility: joy! Pride excludes joy. Then: simplicity, i.e., the absence of any turn into one’s self. Finally, trust, as the main directive in life, applied to everything (purity of heart, when man can see God). The signs of pride are: the absence of joy; complexity and fear.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, p. 161)

 

 

 

The Beauty of Holiness

“From earliest times man called sacred or holy that which he perceived as the supreme value, demanding reverence, acknowledgement, awe, and thanksgiving; which at the same time attracted man to itself, inspiring familiarity and intimacy. We speak of the sacred feeling of homeland, of the sacred love towards parents, of sacred awe in the face of beauty, perfection, wonder. Thus, the sacred is that which is higher, purer, demanding all that is best: the best sentiments, the best efforts, the best hopes in man. The peculiarity of the sacred is precisely in the fact that it demands from us an inner awareness of self-evident and free desires; yet not simply an awareness, but action and life consistent with this awareness. The awareness that two times two makes four, or that water boils at a specific temperature leaves us neither better nor worse; such an awareness belongs to the righteous and the unrighteous, to the ignorant and the intelligent, the genius and the simpleton. But if we experience a sacred awareness in terms of beauty, or moral perfection, or a special intuition about the world and life, then this awareness immediately makes some demand on us, effects some change in us, invites us somewhere, captivates us, seduces us.

How simply and beautifully Pushkin described this in his famous poem, “The memory of a glorious moment….” The poet forgets the “vision,” the instruction of “disturbing storms,” the dispersion of “previous hopes,” and writes,

…my soul was stirred

And once again you came,

A passing vision,

A glimmer of beauty pure.

In fullness beats my heart,

Feeling once again

The resurrection of divinity,

And inspiration, and life,

And tears, and love.

Here is the description of the sacred as beauty. This experience changes life in its entirety, fills it, in the words of Pushkin, with meaning, and inspiration, and joy, and the divine. “

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 26-28)

Holy Tuesday (2018)

 

Eschatology” is the name given to the understanding by religion of the ultimate destiny of the world and of man, the doctrine of the so-called “last things.” Everyone agrees that the early Church was eschatological par excellance. Her whole faith, her whole life, was shaped by her joyful and confident expectation of Christ’s return in glory, her anticipation of the common resurrection, and the consummation of all things in God. “Come, Lord Jesus: Maranatha!” This is the ultimate expression of her faith and worship in the liturgy, in prayer. This eschatology can be termed “cosmic,” for it is distinct, as such, from the individual or personal one.

To put it differently, and in somewhat over simplified terms, eschatology’s interest lies not in what happens to me when I come to the end of my life and die; rather, it is concerned with what will happen to the entire creation when Christ returns in glory and, according to Saint Paul, “All things shall be subjected unto him, and he himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).  (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, 120-121)

Great Lent: To Soften the Heart, Not Empty the Belly

Lenten Rose

However, if we pay close attention to the Lenten prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings, we quickly realize that Lent is a time when we should put greater emphasis on others rather than on ourselves as we literally lay down our life for our neighbor.

The late Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemman referred to Lent as the Lenten Spring, a new birth, where we turn away from the darkness of sin and once again turn back to God:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of forma, predominantly negative rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent-something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning.

This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may be open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

The grace has shown forth, O Lord!

The grace which illumines our soul.

This is the acceptable time!

This is the time of repentance!

Let us lay aside all the works of darkness

And put on the armor of light

That passing through the fast as through a great sea

We may reach the resurrection on the third day

Of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior, of our souls.

(Apostikha for Forgiveness Sunday)

(William C. Mills, Let Us Attend: Reflections of the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. V, IX-X, 1)

If Christ is Not Risen

A tremendous task faces us of correlating our theology with the gospel, for ‘If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14).‘ The world was converted to Christianity not by the subtleties of the Palamite controversy, but by this impossible, unheard-of affirmation that ‘death has been trampled down by death.’  Whose death? Christ’s death. How could he? Because he is the Son of God. Why ‘Son of God’? Because he was obedient to his Father. We are back to the Trinity, to Christology.”   (Alexander Schmemman, The Liturgy of Death, pp. 153-154)

To Love as Christ Loves

“Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to ‘prove’ His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: ‘He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…’ (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: ‘…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe’ (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do‘ (Lk 23:34).

Once again, the Gospels and genuine Christian faith do not view miracles as proofs to force belief, since this would deprive man of what Christianity regards as most precious, his freedom. Christ wants people to believe in Him willingly without the coercion of a miracle. ‘If you love me,‘ Christ says, ‘you will keep my commandments‘ (Jn 14:15). And we love Christ–sadly, all too little–not because of His love, His humility and because, as those who heard Him said, ‘No man ever spoke like this Man!’ (Jn 7:46).

(Alexander Schmemmann, The Virgin Mary, p. 17-18)

The Rich Ruler Considers the Value of Poverty

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world;

but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.   (1 Timothy 6:6-11)

In Luke 18:18-27, we are given a record of a conversation between a wealthy man who also had some political influence and Jesus Christ.  It is a rare Gospel lesson in that it does directly mention the man’s inner, emotional reaction to a teaching of Christ.

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

In Luke’s version of this story, we are told that the rich man became very sorrowful when told to give away his wealth.  We are not told whether he ever acted upon what Jesus told him.  The man in Luke’s Gospel is not referenced again.  We can surmise based on the other Gospel versions of the narrative (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31) that the man walked away from Christ grieving.  Mark additionally notes that Jesus  actually loved the man for keeping the commandments and spoke to him out of love for him.  Be that as it may, the man still walks away from Christ.  Luke, however, does not have the man walk away from Christ.  Whatever the man’s inner grief was in thinking about giving up his wealth, we aren’t told what he actually did.   Did this rich man actually think about the value of poverty or the spiritual bankruptcy of wealth?  Luke does not tell us.  It is possible the man grieved but then did what Christ directed him to do.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann at one point in his writings considers the phrase from this Gospel lesson, “It is difficult for the rich…”

“It is quite obvious that at the center of Christianity is the renunciation of wealth, any wealth. The beauty of poverty!–there is also, of course, the ugliness of poverty, but there is beauty. Christianity is enlightened only by humility, by an impoverished heart. Poverty does not consist always of lacking something–that is ugliness–but in being content with what there is.”   (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 50)

The rich ruler of the Gospel lesson was not sure he could be content with having nothing.  His contentment was based on his wealth.  His spiritual dilemma was that in being told to give away his possessions, he thought this was giving away his contentment and his self worth.  Without his wealth, he couldn’t see himself as having any value.

This Life and This World Are Godly

“In receiving the gifts of God and willingly offering them back to him, we are blessed to participate in both heaven and earth, in a mode of ordered liturgical existence. In this way, we are ourselves offered up in order to perform liturgy, by preserving and participating in all that is ‘good‘ (Gen. 1:31). ‘It is this world  (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be.’  With these words Fr. Schmemman expressed that this world is not merely a dwelling place for humanity, but an integral part of humanity’s aspiration towards transfiguration.

Man receives both ‘this world’ and ‘this life’ to be offered up and transfigured. In this way, mankind may truly become human. This offering of one’s self and the world is the purpose of mankind, which is fully realized and expressed in the incarnation of the Word of God himself.”   (Bishop John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 14-15)