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)

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Christianity Founded in the Home

And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.  (Acts 5:42)

“In the Orthodox worldview, the home and the family constitute the first and most important area of Christian life, of application of Christian principles to daily existence. It is certainly the home, the very style and spirit of family life, and not the school, not even the Church, that shapes our fundamental worldview, that shapes in us that fundamental orientation of which we may not even be aware for a long time, but which ultimately will become a decisive factor. Dostoevsky’s “staretz” Zosima – in The Brothers Karamozov – says: ‘A man who from his childhood can remember good things is saved for his whole life.’” (Alexander Schmemman, Great Lent, p. 100)

Naming Every Living Creature

“So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field…”  (Genesis 2:19-20)

“And yet man was created for this possession, he was called to it when in paradise God appointed him king of creation, invested him with the authority to give names to “every living creature,” i.e., to know them from within, in their deepest essence.  And thus the knowledge that is restored by this thanksgiving is not knowledge about the world, but of the world, for this thanksgiving is knowledge of God, and by the same token apprehension of the world as God’s world.

It is knowing not only that everything in the world has its cause in God – which, in the end, “knowledge about the world” is also capable of – but also that everything in the world and the world itself is a gift of God’s love, a revelation by God of his very self, summoning us in everything to know God, through everything to be in communion with him, to possess everything as life in him. … and again we witness to the world as a new creation, recreated as the ‘paradise of delight,’ in which everything created by God is called to become our partaking of the divine love, of the divine life.”  (Alexander Schmemann, THE EUCHARIST, p 177)

Pleiades Star Cluster

Today science continues to name created things in this world –  we name new elements, new bacteria and viruses, new species, dinosaurs and other extinct animals, as well as stars and even cosmic events.  We continue to do what God commanded humans to do from the beginning, to name things as a way of understanding and knowing them.  And, thus for those who believe, even science continues to be a means for us to give thanks and glory to God.

(I) Whom Do You Seek?

I seek not what is yours but you”

(2 Corinthians 12:14)

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” (J0hn 18:4-5)

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” (J0hn 6:26-27)

“For the early Christians, the Body of Christ is on the altar because He is among them. For the contemporary Christians, Christ is here because His Body is on the altar. It seems to be analogous, but in fact, there is an essential difference between the early Christians and us. For them, everything is in knowing Christ, loving Him. For us, everything is in the desire to be enlightened. The early Christians came to Communion to follow Christ, whereas now Christ is not the unique reason for partaking of Communion.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemman, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemman, p. 31)

It is possible that we are far more interested in the gifts that we will personally receive than we are in the Giver of the gifts.  We come to church for what we can get out of it.  We lose interest in Christ, but want miracles in our lives.  We crave contact with the divine but don’t want there to be a Lord over  us.

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (John 20:14-16)

Next:  (II)  Whom Do You Seek?

Remembering Memorials

Monday, May 29, is Memorial Day in the United States, a date to remember those who died in service to our country as well as all those who served in the armed forces and have already passed away.   In the Orthodox Church, we frequently do memorials for departed loved ones and for the faithful who have already departed this earth.

Fr. Alexander Schmemman explains the Church’s understanding of a memorial:

Commemoration, remembrance, and memory are all translations of the Hebrew word zikkaron, memory. However, the Hebrew “memory” is not, as it is for the modern man, a passive faculty, the mere ability of man to remember. Rather, it is to re-live in imagination that which no longer exists, and from which a person is separated by time, distance, or death. “Remembrance,” “memory,” is an active and above all a divine faculty, a divine power. To sum up an exciting aspect of biblical faith, everything that exists does so because God keeps it in his memory, because he remembers it. God remembers us, and therefore we are alive. Death is a falling out from God’s memory, from God’s remembrance. “What is man, that thou remembrest him?”

This divine remembrance is truly life-giving, and this life-giving remembrance is bestowed upon the Church as her foundation, her life. It is bestowed upon her because the Church is the Body of Christ, because we are members of his body, of his flesh and bone. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Eucharist is the zikkaron, the memorial of Christ. But because Christ is the true life of all life, the Eucharist is also the memorial and remembrance, the keeping and preserving in life, of all those who are “in Christ.” We remember in him the creation of the world, and lo! In the Eucharist, the heavens and the earth are restored to us as being full of his glory.

(The Liturgy of Death, pp. 128-129)

The Redemption of the World

“First, God has created the world…To claim that we are God’s creation is to affirm that God’s voice is constantly speaking within us and saying to us, ‘And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Gen. 1:31). The Fathers state that even the devil is good by nature and evil only through misuse of his free will. Then there is a second element, inseparable from the first: this world is fallen – fallen in its entirety; it has become the Kingdom of the prince of this world.

The Puritan world view, so prevalent within the American society in which I live, assumes that tomato juice is always good and that alcohol is always bad; in effect tomato juice is not fallen. Similarly, the television advertisements tell us, ‘Milk is natural’, in other words, it is not fallen. But in reality tomato juice and milk are equally part of the fallen world, along with everything else. All is created good; all is fallen; and finally – this is our third ‘fundamental acclamation’ – all is redeemed. It is redeemed through the incarnation, the cross, the resurrections and ascension of Christ, and through the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. Such is the intuition that we receive from God with gratitude and joy: our vision of the world as created, fallen, redeemed. Here is our theological agenda, our key to all the problems which today trouble the world.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann in Living Icons by Michael Plekon, p 192)

 

Death: The Unnatural Enemy

“Death is the solution to all problems. No man – no problems.” (Joseph Stalin)

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:26)

“But for Christians, death is not natural or normal, it is not the way things are meant to be. ‘Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life, is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give is a ‘status’, a rationale, make it ‘normal.’ Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible.’” (Alexander Schmemann in Suffering and the Nature of Healing by Daniel B. Hinshaw, p 231)

Christ, the Church’s Sacrament


“The question of what it is that saves us is crucial to this debate: is it the church itself, or is it Christ, who cannot be contained by the Church (although he may be found in the Church)?  …  Father Alexander Schmemann has said that Christianity is not an institution with sacraments; it is a sacrament with institutions, and the sacrament is Christ. The distinction is crucial: the church is not a divine institution which is about Christ, among other things. It is either rooted entirely in Christ or it is false to itself and its mission.” (John Garvey, Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox: A Brief Introduction to Orthodox Christianity, pp 111-112)

 

Peace: The Search for Being Human

In the 13 June 2016 issue of TIME, Belinda Luscombe writes an article, “How to Stay Married.”   Part of what interests me is that article is defending marriage and the benefits for couples who remain in the same marriage for life.  The article is not advocating some retro-return to a religious past nor is it overtly defending conservative religious values.  It notes the divorce rates have declined over the past few decades, and does claim there really are health and happiness advantages to remaining married over a life time.

However interesting the articles main points are, I was also intrigued by the worldview expressed about humans, which seems to be a natural extension of secular, humanistic assumptions.  Luscombe writes:

“Lifetime monogamy, as many have pointed out, is not a natural state.  Very few animals mate for life, and most of those that do are either birds or really ugly (Malagasy giant rat, anyone?).  One theory as to why humans took to monogamy is that it strengthens societies by reducing competition among males.

But natural and worthwhile are not the same things.  Reading isn’t a natural thing to do.  Neither is painting, snowboarding nor coding.  Nobody suggest we abandon any of those.  Monogamy also has a certain energy-saving appeal: it saves humans from wasting time and effort on constantly hunting out new mates or recovering from betrayals by current ones.

Luscombe did not apparently do much research in or reflection on the entirety of Western Civilization (Christian, Jewish or Islamic) and its understanding of what it is to be human or its attitudes towards marriage and monogamy.  If she had she might have easily recognized what is so totally incomplete in her own thinking on humanity and marriage.  [BTW, just because it is bizarrely interesting, I will mention that wolves are reportedly monogamous, and so too vultures!].

I’ll focus only on the Christian version of this, but Luscombe’s concept of what is “natural” is incomplete, for humans have not only an animal nature (which they do share with other animals) but humans also have consciousness and a conscience.   Humans are not limited by what is natural to animals because they are not reducible to only animal nature.  Humans have a human nature which undeniably is tied to our animal bodies, but which is capable of self-awareness, of consciously changing behavior and rising above mere animal instincts.    Morally, humans have developed traits of altruism, kindness, sharing, self denial, love, forgiveness, selflessness, philanthropy, apologizing, benevolence, etc.  These are very much part of what it is to be human.   Monogamy may not be common in the animal world, but it is a consciously and conscientiously chosen human behavior.   From an Orthodox Christian point of view, morality is a normal part of human nature.

Humans choose monogamy not simply because it has some benefit for natural selection, but for moral reasons, for religious beliefs, because they can!   For believers, human practices such as monogamous marriage, is not the random outcome of natural selection, but a morally chosen path for humans.  Humans are capable of self-consciously choosing behavior which is not purely animalistic because humans are more than mere animal nature.

Being self-conscious, humans have to choose behaviors, and can reflect on their choices and which can reflect their chosen values.  Humans can create abstract reasons to defend their choices, and for believers, can receive revelation from God about how to use their consciousness, free will and conscience for a greater good.  Humans are not completely limited by their genes, but now are actively shaping their genetic futures.  We are not completely and uncontrollably pre-destined either by our individualism nor by our genetic make-up.  We are capable of being philanthropic and making choices good for our species as well as for the world. [And sadly, we don’t always choose those options!]

Luscombe’s comments seemed to me to be exactly the kind of thinking about humanity which Fr. Alexander Schmemann so lamented and skewered as where humanity has gone wrong.   A recent issue of The Wheel (Number 4 | Winter 2016), has a quote from Fr. Alexander which is exactly to the point, though he is addressing a different issue and problem (reducing humans to economic beings), yet the underlying errant assumption is materialism.  He writes:

“Man’s nature demands peace, but his life conduct constantly opposes it. Why?

The materialistic worldview that is presented by its preachers as the most advanced teaching about a human being not only does not give an answer to this question, but does not see the question itself. It reduces all human divisions to economics and the distribution of earthly goods, while the overcoming of those divisions is reduced to struggle, including armed struggle. Therefore calls for “world peace” smack of a terrible hypocrisy on the lips of the representatives of a materialistic worldview that does not, in essence, recognize peace. There cannot be true peacemaking where there is no person to be reconciled to, to reconnect with, where there is no one with whom harmony, accord, and love can be reconstructed. This is because, from the point of view of materialism, there is no peace in the very nature of man; there are only animal needs, the satisfaction of which does not pacify but only affords a sense of satiety.

The Christian approach to man sees in division and strife a tragically irrational disparity with respect to his true nature and calling. The cult of natural demands to which, in essence, all materialistic anthropology is reduced is seen by Christianity as a sinful perversion of the original concept of a human being. Division and strife came about precisely because man had become satisfied with minimalistic self-valuation, had accepted a caricature of himself. Therefore the central place of peacemaking is in restoration of the true person and true humanity. Peacemakers will be called the sons of God because reconciliation is the transcendence of the boundaries of one’s “I,” the recognition of one’s brother in another, the reconstruction of life as the unity of love, the regaining of paradise lost.”

Humans, as Fr. Schmemann’s thought would have it, not only transcend the boundaries of “I” in peacemaking, but in marital love-making as well.  We choose monogamy to transcend our animal nature, our basest instincts and animals drives.  We do it because of love – because we are loved by God, and we are capable of loving others – rising above the limits of our animal nature and aspiring for sharing in the Divine Life and Love.

Becoming and Being Christian

“‘Know you not,’ writes St. Paul to the Corinthians, ‘that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have of God, and you are not your own? For you are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s’ (1 Cor. 6:19-20). These words are  real summary of St. Paul’s constant appeal to Christians: we must live according to what has ‘happened’ to us in Christ; yet we can live thus only because it has happened to us, because salvation, redemption, reconciliation, and ‘buying with a price’ have already been given to us and we are ‘not our own’. We can and must work at our salvation because we have been saved, yet it is only because we are saved that we can work at our salvation. We must always and at all times become and be that which – in Christ – we already are: ‘you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s’ (1 Cor. 3:22)” (Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p 119)