The Human, The Male, The Theotokos

Man is called not to the implementation of rules but to the miracle of life. Family is a miracle. Creative work is a miracle. The Kingdom of God is a miracle. 

The Mother of God does not “fit” into any rules. But in Her, and not in canons, is the truth about the Church.

Inasmuch as a man is only a man, he is, above all, boring, full of principles, virile, decent, logical, cold-blooded, useful; he becomes interesting only when he outgrows his rather humorous virility. A man is interesting as a boy or an old man, and is almost scary as an adult; at the top of his manhood, of his male power.

A man’s holiness and a man’s creativity are, above all, the refusal, the denial of the specifically “male” in him.

In holiness, man is least of all a male. 

Christ is the boy, the only-begotten Son, the Child of Mary. In Him is absent the main emphasis, the main idol of the man – his autonomy. The icon of the infant Christ on His Mother’s lap is not simply the icon of the Incarnation. It is the icon of the essence of Christ. 

One must know and feel all this when discussing the issue of women in the Church. The Church rejects man in his self-sufficiency, strength, self-assertion. Christ proclaims: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 272)

The Eucharist: Food for the Spiritual Battle

Holy Communion is the fulfillment of all our efforts, the goal toward which we strive, the ultimate joy of our Christian life, it is also and of necessity the source and beginning of our spiritual effort itself, the divine gift which makes it possible for us to know, to desire, and to strive for a “more perfect communion in the day without evening” of God’s Kingdom. For the Kingdom, although it has come, although it comes in the Church, is yet to be fulfilled and consummated at the end of time when God will fill all things with Himself. We know it, and we partake of it in anticipation; we partake now of the Kingdom which is still to come. We foresee and foretaste its glory and its blessedness but we are still on earth, and our entire earthly existence is thus a long and often painful journey toward the ultimate Lord’s Day.

On this journey we need help and support, strength and comfort, for the “Prince of this world” has not yet surrendered; on the contrary, knowing his defeat by Christ, he stages a last and violent battle against God to tear away from Him as many as possible. So difficult is this fight, so powerful the “gates of Hades,” that Christ Himself tells us about the “narrow way” and the few that are capable of following it. And in this fight, our main help is precisely the Body and Blood of Christ, that “essential food” which keeps us spiritually alive and, in spite of all temptations and dangers, makes us Christ’s followers.

(Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p. 47-48)

Being American is to Be a Revolutionary

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann celebrating the Divine Liturgy. Photograph taken by M. RoshakFr. Alexander Schmemann, reflecting on his adopted country, noted that in his mind the very characteristic that made America great and which distinguished America from all the nations of the “old world” is America means change.  America is constantly adapting to changing realities and by its adaptability and embrace of change is in fact changing realities.  This he saw as an energy which drives America’s leadership role in the world and constantly refreshes the American spirit. 

He wrote in his journal on 11 January 1980:

“Amazing – this general hatred for America. It’s truly irrational. By analyzing it and understanding this irrationality, one can perhaps begin to explain the contemporary world. I am convinced that America’s wealth and well-being are not the source of this hatred. Deep down and precisely in its irrational source, this hatred is caused by the fact that America is different from everything else in the world and because it is different, it is threatening. Just by touching it, America changes and – in some way – disintegrates any perception, any structure of life.

The essence of that threat is not only that America carries in itself a different way of seeing and doing things and offers change that always produces resistance, but essentially America proposes change as a method of life. Everything, all the time, is in question, everything ceases being stable, obvious, thus reassuring. The paradox is that Americans don’t talk at all about “revolution,” whereas Europeans, and now the Third World, made this word the basis of all their discourse. The reason is that Europeans understand “revolution” as a replacement of one system by another system; in other words – start with the system, the idea. But an American does not believe in any system and is therefore ruled by an idealistic revolution, although he is, in his very nature, a revolutionary. Even the American Constitution, in the final analysis, is nothing other than a permanent “revolution.” It is not by chance that the main occupation of the courts in America is to test the legality of its laws, i.e., of any “system.” A continuous revolution, guaranteed by the Constitution! 

This is something that cannot be understood or accepted by all others – whether rich or poor, civilized or not. And these “others” cannot be understood by Americans because an American perceives life itself as a continuous change (and strives for it, even when change is unnecessary). A European perceives change as something radical, grandiose, comprehensive, scary, even if wished for – it’s his “revolution.” How ridiculous, therefore, that the most non-conservative, the most revolutionary society in the word – America – is hated as a conservative society and as anti-revolutionary.”

(The Journals of Father Alexander Schememman, p. 245-246)

For Fr Alexander, writing at the end of the 1970s, the genius of the American way is not to see change as moving from one system, perspective or paradigm to another, different system, perspective or paradigm.  Rather the American genius is to see change itself as the way of life – this is what inspired American creativity, the can-do spirit, seeking solutions rather than just seeing problems.  But as we approach 2020, 50 years after Schmemann’s comments, we see a hardening of the mindset in America.  Both the left and the right are so locked into their own way of seeing things that they no longer look for the new way of seeing old things, they no longer work for the compromise and cooperation to solve problems, but have embraced the “old world” attitude of seeing change as moving from their way of thinking to a different way of thinking which makes them feel threatened and causes both extremes to be reactionary against anything that doesn’t perfectly match their preconceived ideology.   Maybe, some Independence Day we will again embrace the creative experience which Schmemann so loved in America as quintessential American.

What maybe resonated in Schmemann about change is his Orthodox roots in metanoia.  We need to change the way we see things and think about things to see God’s new creation.

 

THE Message of the Church

For Christ, the apostles, and the Church, the kerygma, the announcement of salvation. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God’that is the theme of Christianity! We believe in God not because he satisfies our happiness in this world and also promises us, as a kind of bonus, a pleasant survival. Rather, we believe in a God who revealed to us that he created this world, so that ultimately, at the end (in Greek, eschaton), God will be all things, ‘all in all.’ We believe that in Christ each of us will find the image of his ineffable glory. We will all be, as the Pentecost prayer says, “anointed with the Holy Spirit” and become prophets, kings, priests. Ultimately, the glory of God – the Shekinah, communion, presence, knowledge, wisdom – will triumph, and the world will become truly the temple of God and of eternal life. That was the faith, why the martyrs died happy.”

(Alexander Schmemman, The Liturgy of Death, pp. 173-174)

The Motherhood of Every Believer

Fr Alexander Schmemann held to particular ideas about the differing natures and roles of women and men.  His ideas about what it is to be male and female were certainly based in the world in which he grew up (and this socialization created his “man box” some would say).  Indeed, some today have questioned his assumptions (see for example Vol 16 of The Wheel) and have offered some justifiable criticism of his assumptions about what it means to be male or female.  In quoting him here, I’m not defending his assumptions about the nature and role of women.  I do think it is possible, to bracket those criticisms, accepting them as valid, and to read Schmemann for the point he was making even if his assumptions and perspective no longer satisfy the ideals of the 21st Century.  In the quote below, I think his point is that all humans to be fully human must be capable of being receptive to God’s action, so all humans need what he considered to be a feminine quality.   Whereas he attributes this receptivity to being a feminine characteristic, nevertheless his point is still that all of us, females and males, need this characteristic in order to respond to God’s salvation – in order to be fully human.  In effect, we all need to learn “motherhood” in order to be fully human and Christian.  And so naturally he sees the Virgin Mary as being a model for all Christians as the perfect human, not just a perfect woman.  In his thinking she shows us what this perfect motherhood is – being receptive and obedient to the Word of God.

Fr Alexander wrote:

True obedience is thus true love for God, the true response of Creation to its Creator. Humanity is fully humanity when it is this response to God, when it becomes the movement of total self-giving and obedience to Him.

But in the “natural” world the bearer of this obedient love, of this love as response, is the woman. The man proposes, the woman accepts. This acceptance is not passivity, blind submission, because it is love, and love is always active. It gives life to the proposal of man, fulfills it as life, yet it becomes fully love and fully life only when it is fully acceptance and response. This is why the whole creation, the whole Church—and not only women—find the expression of their response and obedience to God in Mary the Woman, and rejoice in her. She stands for all of us, because only when we accept, respond in love and obedience—only when we accept the essential womanhood of creation—do we become ourselves true men and women; only then can we indeed transcend our limitations as “males” and “females.”

For man can be truly man—that is, the king of creation, the priest and minister of God’s creativity and initiative—only when he does not posit himself as the “owner” of creation and submits himself—in obedience and love—to its nature as the bride of God, in response and acceptance. And woman ceases to be just a “female” when, totally and unconditionally accepting the life of the Other as her own life, giving herself totally to the Other, she becomes the very expression, the very fruit, the very joy, the very beauty, the very gift of our response to God, the one whom, in the words of the Song, the king will bring into his chambers, saying: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee” (Ct. 4:7). (Fr. Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World, found in Building an Orthodox Marriage, p. 25)

If we can lay aside our concerns about whether Fr Alexander’s prejudices about the nature of male and female are correct, it is possible to hear his message about what it takes for each of us to be fully human.  All of us need to be receptive to God’s Word and salvation.  He is calling us to rise above the limitations which he himself understood to be true about the nature of males and females.  Only when we receive God into our lives can we also incarnate Christ by becoming members of the Body of Christ.  Then we bring forth the spiritual fruit like Mary the Theotokos did.

Whether or not Fr Alexander’s ideals of what it is to be male and female are current or correct, he still makes a point about what it takes to be human.  Mary is the model human in her obedience to God and accepting God’s Word.  She receives the Word into herself and incarnates that Word.  Her life becomes the model for every human who wants to love God.  When we each follow Mary’s lead, we transcend the limits of male and female and become the humans God intends us to be.  The feminine and motherhood are thus categories which transcend gender and belong to our shared humanity.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.   (Genesis 1:27)

there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.   (Galatians 3:28)

The Joy of Repentance

 

Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes this as the sorrow that pervades the Lenten services that lead up to Pascha. He calls it “bright sadness.” Is not Lent itself a joyous gift from God? The Church Fathers refer to it not as a season of misery but of joy, a “springtime of the soul.”

It is a time to weed out the passions that trip us up on life. It is a time to focus on Christ and to find in Him our greatest joy. It is a time to ask God to heal us of all those things we hate about ourselves, all those things that mess up our lives and destroy us. Let us rejoice every time we discover a new imperfection because through repentance and godly sorrow that imperfection (sin) can lead to forgiveness, joy and newness of life. Bishop Kallistos Ware observes that the purpose of repentance “is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God, I can yet become.”

Lent was not given to us by the Church to make our lives miserable. It is a God-given opportunity to remove from our lives all those passions that enslave us to set us free to experience “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It is this “joy-creating sorrow” or “bright sadness” that leads to repentance which, in turn, leads to salvation and explodes with joy at Pascha.

(Anthony M. Conairis,Holy Joy: The Heartbeat of Faith, p. 36-37)

 

The Significance of Vespers

“…the recovery by the Church of the true spirit and meaning of the liturgy, as an all-embracing vision of life, including heaven and earth, time and eternity, spirit and matter and as the power of that vision to transform our lives… For, as we have seen, the only real justification of the parish as organization is precisely to make the liturgy, the cult of the Church as complete, as Orthodox, as adequate as possible, and it is the liturgy, therefore, that is the basic criterion of the only real “success” of the parish.

Let the Saturday service – this unique weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection, this essential “source” of our Christian understanding of time and life, be served week after week in an empty church – then at least the various secular “expressions” and “leaders” of the parish: committees, commissions and boards, may become aware of the simple fact that their claim: “we work for the Church” is an empty claim, for if the “Church” for which they work is not primarily a praying and worshiping Church it is not “church”, whatever their work, effort and enthusiasm. Is it not indeed a tragic paradox: we build ever greater and richer and more beautiful churches and we pray less and less in them?…

All conversations about people being “busy” and “having no time” are no excuses. People were always busy, people always worked, and in the past they were, in fact, much busier and had more obstacles to overcome in order to come to Church. In the last analysis it all depends where the treasure of man is – for there will be his heart. The only difference between the present and the past is – and I have repeated this many times – that in the past a man knew that he had to make an effort, and that today he expects from the Church an effort to adjust herself to him and his “possibilities.”

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Problems of Orthodoxy in the World,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1965, pp. 188-189)

Deliver Us From Evil

“The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.

Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation.

And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: “And lead us not into temptation.”

The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him.

It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted in him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.

We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.”   (Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 78-81)

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)