The Transcendent Myth

This is the 3rd and final post based on my reading of  John Breck’s short story, “A Life-giving Myth,” found in the book, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  The previous post is A Life-giving Myth (II).  This post is my taking Breck’s points from his short story and reworking them a bit and connecting his ideas to baptism.

Faith is the search for that language that can describe the relationship between heaven and earth, between God and humankind. It is a relationship which ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing. It is a relationship which though ethereal is not merely emotional. And so we rely on ritual and symbol to lead us beyond the limits of human language to put flesh on that which is spiritual. Ritual and symbol are the interface where our physical existence encounters and is transformed by that which is outside the physical, that existence which touches us and envelopes us and yet like flowing water is impossible to grasp.  Ritual, icons, poetry and symbol together enable us to express the narrative which guides our understanding of this world.

In the Old Testament, it is dogmatically clear that God has no form, that God is invisible and transcendent, and yet if God were completely invisible to us, we wouldn’t know of God’s existence at all. God created a world, a physical creation in which we creatures can encounter transcendence. God established a temple to help us experience God. Prayer, chant, icons and incense were all used to help the people experience this transcendent God but to experience God in this altered reality of symbol and ritual and even myth. The chant and the scent of the incense and the smoke wafting through the air are all there to remind us that we are encountering a reality which is physical and yet which cannot be adequately portrayed in language or in art because it is outside space and time.  The flickering candle reveals to us the immaterial world which is yet real.

In baptism, in the church in general, we are endeavoring to open our eyes, the eyes of faith, to transcendent reality, to Ultimate Truth, to the presence of eternity within our time and space, to lead us beyond the limits of space and time, and to the presence in creation and in our lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.
We believe that every atom of our physical being and every movement of our heart is directed by God toward a goal: the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.

This God who is ever inviting us to experience this goal, who created a world to allow us to in some mysterious way to experience the transcendent, then enters into our world in the incarnation. God thus not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; God shares actively and decisively participates in them.
So God creates time and space, but God does not leave us to history or history to us. The transcendent God who exists in eternity, outside of space and time, enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of this worldly existence. He accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order. God participates in what is happening in this world and what is going to happen to humanity, to the world and the cosmos. Everything that happens or that God allows to happen has an impact or an effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God!

So God in putting on flesh in the incarnation, takes on our history, and in so doing unites us to eternity. In baptism we put on Christ, we enter into the primordial waters of the Jordan River and become united to Christ and put on eternity. Everything begins in transcendence, in God, but God shares this life with a created order in which we can experience transcendence. God enters into the creation God made in order that we might be completely united to God.  Life in the Church – ritual, symbol, icon, poetic hymns – all point to the transcendent life which is just outside our empirical world, yet breaking into it. It becomes our way to experience the transcendent and to be transformed by God.

As Fr John Breck writes in his short story: “Eternity in fact is ever-present. it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe. It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.

A Life-giving Myth (I)

“A Life-giving Myth” is the title of a short story in John Breck’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  It is the last and longest story in the collection.  The stories are OK, but in some of them the “story” is superfluous as  is the case “The Life-giving Myth” where a professor is giving a lecture and the content of the story is the lecture.  It easily could have been presented as an essay.  It was my only favorite in the collection of stories.    In this series of  three posts I want to highlight the things from the “story” which seemed so profound to me.

“… those who have drifted away from the faith under secularizing pressures, or because we in the Church have done a poor job of opening their eyes to transcendent reality, and to the presence in creation and in their lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.” (p 218)

The Church leadership and members should remind themselves constantly that our real goal is to open the eyes of everyone to that transcendent reality who is love and who cares about all of creation, namely our God.  The Church too often reduces itself to defending Tradition, maintaining customs, opposing countless sins and human failures.  The Church sometimes sees the job of leadership as to be police rather than pastors (shepherds)- enforcing rules, disciplining the unruly, imprisoning in hell non-conformists.   The Church gets reduced to law enforcement as well as being involved in judgement and even punishment of sinners, rather than in their salvation.  Another unfortunate development is when the Church is willing  to be the hiding place for anyone who is afraid of the 20th Century (even though we are already in the 21st!).   Clergy can act as if their only real concern is that someone unworthy might try to touch God and the clergy come to think that their main purpose is to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Clergy, canons, iconostases, asceticsm can be used as little more than the tools to keep the unworthy away from God, so that the laity remain forever exiled from God because of their sinfulness.  AND, at times clergy act as if their main message is to make sure the laity are aware that they (the laity) are deservedly exiled from God . In this thinking, Heaven is the goal but it will always be far beyond the people’s reach because they are unworthy.

Breck instead envisions a transcendent God who in Christ is imminent and accessible to humans:

“Eternity in fact is ever-present.  it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe.  It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.”  (p 232)

The claim of the Gospel is that God is always drawing us to Himself to embrace us, love us, share His divine life with us.  The whole of Orthodoxy is based in one idea that God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  God wants us (especially sinners!) to come to Him.  God came to earth to gather us together, not to cause us to flee from His presence.  The purpose of Liturgy and ritual and Scripture is to make God accessible to us – to make the transcendent break into our lives.

And for this reason Breck tries to rescue the idea of “myth” as a way of seeing how God is making Himself known to us and accessible to us.  Scripture is theology under the guise of narrative as the Fathers said.  Myth in this thinking does not mean “fiction” but provides us a way of gaining insight into reality.  God uses “story” or narrative to convey divine and eternal truths to us even in our sinfulness and despite it.

“Such myths use symbolic metaphorical language to express relationship between heaven and earth, between God and human kind, that ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing.”  (220-221)

How often the Patristic writers warned us that our language is inadequate for understanding God, and that if we think too literally, we not only do not understand God but rather turn God into an idol of our our making, in our own image, to suit our own purposes.   Poetry and myth, the languages of Scripture try to lead us beyond the limitations of our own experience and to take us to the unknown, to God as God is and chooses to reveal Himself to us.  Poetry and myth both remind us that God cannot be apprehended by human concepts and language.

“…every aspect of our life, every atom of our physical being, every movement of our heart is directed by him (God) teleologically toward a single goal:  the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.  Thus we can affirm that he not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; he shares actively and decisively in them.  He ‘knows’ them in the biblical sense of participation.  There is no human suffering, for example, that he does not share to the very depths.  As Isaiah declares of the Lord’s Servant, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.‘  This is as true a characteristic of God as his creative energy that ceaselessly brings things from non-existence into being.”  (pp 230-231)

God does not leave us to history, God enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of it.  God accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order and what is happening and is going to happen to humanity, the world and the cosmos.  Nothing that happens or that He allows to happen has no impact or effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God and God in the incarnation makes sure of that!   History and our experience of it become imbued with divinity, and thus become something more than mere materialistic events, they become the stories of God, they are turned into God’s Word.  The Word becomes flesh, but in that process human life becomes the Word as recorded in the Scriptures.  Myth in this sense is not fiction but human life revealing divinity and divinity working in and through humans and human history.  We can never fully understand how the transcendent God can not only touch creation but becomes part of it.  That is the real sense of Christian myth – our world touched by the transcendent because God is revealing Himself to us and in His Light we see light.

Christianity is not meant to be a self-help program to allow us to succeed or be satisfied with material creation.  Christianity is not trying just to help us get to heaven.  Rather Christianity is God’s own presence in this world, enabling us all to become united with God, here and now – to experience heaven on earth even in the midst of sin and suffering and death because Christ has overcome this world.  Christianity is revealing this world as our way to union with God.

We really don’t need the Church to tell us how far we have become separated from God, alienated from the divine, exiled from Heaven.  We can experience that perfectly in our daily lives.  What we need is for someone to show us the way to reunion with God, to show us what communion with God looks like, and enables us to become deified.  That is the purpose of the Liturgy, of icons, of ritual, symbol, or poetic hymns.  It lifts us up to heaven and makes heaven present on earth.

Next: A Life-giving Myth (II)

 

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)

Fellowship Hour in the Ancient Church

Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) commented on what for him was an ancient practice of the Christians sharing a meal together after their Eucharistic celebration.  He saw it as a wonderful opportunity for the wealthy to share with and minister to the poor and needy members of the Christian community.  He presents this as normal and expected behavior for the local parish.

They were in the habit in the churches, in fact, after the eucharistic ritual, of eating in common, rich and poor alike, and from this practice great consolation derived for the needy; the affluent brought provisions from home, and those in the grip of poverty shared in the good cheer on account of their participation in the faith. (Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, p. 205)

Palm Sunday (2019)

Palm Sunday       

45993405974_e54c3e2920_nThe day after Jesus resurrects his friend Lazarus, Jesus is joyously welcomed as he enters into Jerusalem in what will be the only time in His three years of ministry that He received any kind accolades in a public display of hope and faith (John 12:1-18).  It is also the entry into His last week of life on earth.  Some historians note that at about the same time that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was entering Jerusalem with an armed cohort to remind the Jews that they were in subjugation to the Roman Empire.  The contrast between the two entrances is part of the backdrop against which events are unfolding. The Jewish Temple leadership had aligned itself with their Rome overlords ostensibly to secure the place of the Temple in Jewish society, but the price they paid was they themselves were collecting tax money and funneling it to Rome.  And they accepted the responsibility for keeping the Jewish population in check to appease Rome.  They had little interest in encouraging Jesus and His band of followers and were working hard to contain Jesus and His disciples.  

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Jesus entry into Jerusalem attracted some attention, but it is hard from the Gospel accounts to know how much or even to determine what gate Jesus entered or what streets he was traversing.   The “crowd” is variously described as “the whole multitude of the disciples” (Luke 19:37), “many people” (Mark 11:8), “a large crowd” (Matthew 21:8), and John refers to “the great crowd that had come to the festival” (John 12:12) which means they weren’t there specifically to see Jesus.   Although Matthew says all the city was disturbed by Christ’s entrance, it is clear that many don’t even know who Jesus is and so are asking, “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10)   And since there was no media coverage, Christ’s entrance would only have attracted those who knew he was coming and where he would enter the city.   Jerusalem was swamped with visitors for the Passover, so there was already a lot of chaos in the city.  This is also why Pilate and the Roman legion entered the city – to be a visible presence to remind the Jews who is lord and master over them.

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Liturgically, Palm Sunday is kept as one of the Great Feasts of the Church.  It marks the end of Great Lent and the transition into Holy Week. There is a joyous tone to the weekend and the events it celebrates.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes:

.Palm Sunday: the Feast of the Kingdom, the feast of the reign. Everything is so clear during that feast. All of Holy Week is the revelation of the Kingdom. The Lord’s Entrance into Jerusalem is the revelation of the King. The Last Supper – the revelation of the Kingdom. The Cross – the reign, the victory of the King. Pascha – the beginning of the eternal Passover, the entrance into heaven. “And He opened for us the gates of paradise…” (The Journals of Father Alexander Schememann, p. 232)

Palm Sunday is a day of rejoicing for Christians at the conclusion of Great Lent.  Even the Epistle for the day is joyous (Philippians 4:4-9).  Orthodox scholar Peter Bouteneff comments:

St. Paul tells us to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). Why? Because they are imitations of God. They describe Jesus Christ. They are window to his presence. They soften our hearts. ( How to be a Sinner, p. 39)

We are to think about Christ and our life in Him, always remembering His connection to us involves the Cross.  “...looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:2-3).

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Lazarus Saturday (2019)

Lazarus Saturday

Our sojourn into Holy Week begins with the sad news that Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died.  In the Gospel account we see the grief not only of Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, but of Jesus himself who weeps at the tomb of his friend (John 11:1-45).  Any of us who have suffered the loss of a friend or family member, or even a pet, know the sting of death.  

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Yes, I know that the kingdom of God is to come, or at least I hope and believe in that. Somehow my life is still directed by that faith. And yet, we have those wonderfully happy days in this life that suddenly or slowly come to an end. Is it not sad, always? We cannot stop the events of life, nor all that is disappearing. The tonality is very Christian, because this brokeness in time and space, the impossibility of repealing the iron law of aging, our faculties’ decline into weakness and senility, is the sad reality of this world. And therefore the lamentation, the fear and sorrow on all those levels, have their place. It is our own eternal crying with Christ, who heard about his friend, the one whom Martha said: “Lord, don’t approach! He has been dead four days, and he stinks.” We listen to that “he stinks” in the light of the first description of man uttered by God: “And God saw it was very good.” Now that “very good” lies there in decomposition. (Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, pp. 166-167)

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As people of faith we should not cringe from death since we believe God is the Lord of the living and the dead:  “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).  Yet, death has a sting to it which brings us heart-rending grief.  And, as Fr. Schmemann notes above, not only does it have a sting, but a stink.  We use funeral homes to sanitize our funerals to remove the stench of death, but when Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he was warned that the foul odor of death was already there.  Jesus Christ has overcome death – both its stink and sting – and that is the faith we affirm as we prepare ourselves for His crucifixion and burial.

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In this regard we think of Christ’s dialogue with Martha in the Gospel according to John. Christ asked her: “Do you believe that your brother shall rise from the dead?” “Of course I believe it,” she said, “he will rise on the last day” (Jn. 11:24). The Lord however was not satisfied with her answer; not that what she said was incorrect, but because she had failed to understand the question. So Christ says to her: “I am the resurrection and the life (Jn. 11:25). I am the source and cause of resurrection, or rather I am myself the resurrection of your brother. There’s no need to wait until the “last day” for your brother to rise. Your brother is already risen, for I am the resurrection; Your brother lives, for I am the life of the world” (Jn 11:25; 14:6). It is one thing to say that “Lazarus will be resurrected” and another thing entirely to confess that the resurrection is Christ Himself.

Something similar is happening here. The Lord does not simply provide me with refuge, but He Himself is my refuge (cf. Pss 18:2; 31:1-4). (Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 137-138)

Jesus said:  “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  While we know Holy Week is headed to the arrest, torture and execution of our Jesus Christ, our faith is in the Lord who has overcome the world.

Apocalyptical Times

 

There are periods in history in which apocalyptic thinking comes to the forefront of some people’s minds as they are convinced the end of the world (or at least the world as they know it) is imminent.  Such apocalyptic rhetoric is often popular and can catch on like wildfire  and consume the attention of groups of people.  This thinking has become common even in the extremely polarized culture  of American politics in which both Democrats and Republicans want to so demonize each other that they try to convince their base that the election of “the other party” will bring on a cataclysmic catastrophe for the country.   Certain forms of American Protestantism with its literal reading of Scripture sometimes makes the book of Revelation its centerpiece for interpreting current events.  It can strike a fervor in the hearts of some believers, even if it is completely misguided.

The Orthodox Study Bible offers a few thoughts on reading Revelation or apocalyptic literature in general that might help us see the literature in a bigger context which can help us understand the text and the see the context for what it is.

“The apocalyptic texts are offered to Christians in every generation to encourage them in their struggles against sin, the principalities and powers of darkness in this world (Eph 6:12) and the fear of death. These writings assure us that even in the midst of the cosmic cataclysms and battles against evil powers occurring just before Christ returns—the time of “great tribulation” (Mt 24:21)—the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Mt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7–10). ”  (Kindle Loc. 65918-23)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance—just as He did His prophets and apostles—so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.”   (Kindle Loc. 65924-26)

“So the essential purpose of the apocalyptic writings is to encourage the faithful to be full of hope and prepared to persevere to the end, no matter what happens (Mt 24:3–13; Lk 21:25–28). All are inspired to look through the darkness of the present age and to behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride—the Church—who, through Her sacraments, has prepared herself for the coming of the Lord (2Pt 3:7–14; Tts 2:11–14). The closing words of the New Testament express this very sense of expectation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).”  (Kindle Loc. 65926-31)

Reading the book of Revelation or any of the apocalyptic literature is not meant to induce panic or offer a panacea for all that ails the world.  The literature is a reminder that no matter what happens in the world or in history, God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!  It is to give us faith and hope so that we can persevere, trusting God in all circumstances, even when darkness seems to prevent us from seeing the Light.  Throughout Great Lent, we pray and fast to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We celebrate this victory of God because it prepares us to await the Coming Again of Christ.

The Sinner and Humility

“Today we heard the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Lk. 18.10-14). It speaks of humility. I won’t repeat the story to you now, because you all know it perfectly well. But within the larger meaning of the parable, there’s something I’d like you to take careful note of. The Pharisee thought he knew God. He believed that he and God were friends. He was, however, mistaken in this belief, and it was rather the other man, the Publican, who was God’s friend.

The Pharisee thought he knew God, but he didn’t. It’s not that easy to know God. But because he faithfully observed the outward rules of religion, he was under the false impression that God was somehow in his debt, that God owed him something. God for him was a kind of accountant, keeping a set of books showing what people owed him and what He owed them. But it’s not like that.

The moment the Pharisee said, I’m not like those other people (cf. Lk. 18.11), he cut himself off from God. Why? Because God is humble, and since the Pharisee felt no need for humility, it follows that he felt no need for God. He knew the law, and the traditions of his faith, but he did not know God.

The Publican, on the other hand, had no illusions about himself. He was sunk up to his neck in the swamp of his sins. And yet, even though he was awash in the slime of his transgressions, what did he say to God? Be merciful to me a sinner (Lk. 18.13). And at the moment, in his sinful, suffering, disconsolate heart, he felt certain that he was justified (Lk. 18.14), which means that God recognized and received him. As a sinner he had been living in darkness, but his humility brought him into the light of paradise and granted him communion with God.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 296-297)

The Canaanite Woman: Breaking the Lord’s Boundaries

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.   (Matthew 15:21-28)

St Ephrem the Syrian taking the Gospel lesson writes lyrically: 

You, too, daughter of Canaan, for righteousness

conquered the Unconquerable One by boldness.

The Just One set a boundary on the land of the Gentiles

that the gospel might not cross over.

Blessed are you who broke through the obstacle fearlessly,

The Lord of boundaries praised you for the strength

of your faith. From afar He healed your daughter in your house. (Hymns, p. 379)