Archive for March, 2012

The Victory

March 5, 2012

Some years ago, I happened to be with some Orthodox friends when we entered a sanctuary belonging to the Church of Christ. The sanctuary was bare and stark. There wasn’t a symbol of the Faith anywhere to be seen. There were only chairs and a lectern and a projection screen. Being a clown, I said with  emotion, “OH NO!” Startled, my friends asked me what was wrong. I replied, “We’ve been left behind.”  They asked what I meant by that. I replied, “The Rapture has come. The Saints have all left and I’m still here!”  😀

Since that time, I’ve wondered what it would be like to live in a faith with no icons.

On the first Sunday of each Lent, we celebrate the Victory of Orthodoxy (or The Sunday of Orthodoxy). This marks a time when the use and verneration of icons had been restored to  the Orthodox Church. For 127 years, this heresy had been a trial and terror to many of the faithful. In the beginning of this controversy, some felt that since the Old Testament prohibited the making of images, icons were to be forbidden. From the Old Testament point of view, this position had merit. If God is invisible, unattainable, and incomprehensible, then He could not be depicted. What these people did not realize was that this was true until the Incarnation. In Jesus, God had taken on form and this form could be depicted. Furthermore, since God is glorified in His Saints, they too could be depicted.

Please note that this Sunday is not called the Victory of Icons. It is called the Victory of Orthodoxy and that is a distinction worth noting.

What the Victory of Orthodoxy means is that the truth of our Faith had been affirmed. This truth shows that our God is an Incarnational God and  Orthodoxy takes the Incarnation with absolute seriousness. Our Father, though wholly other than the physical universe, is completely immanent within it. He is “every where present and fills all things.”  Being so present, He is pleased to bear His Grace to us on physical things. Certainly His Grace comes to us by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, but since we are creatures living in time and space with physical senses, He bears His Grace to us on the things that we can see and hear and touch and taste and smell.  The prime example of this is the Lord Jesus Himself who being God, took on flesh and dwelt among us. We can, as St. Paul said, see him and hear him and touch him. If God is not incarnational, then we had best become Muslims.

God uses flesh to dwell among us. He also uses water to baptise us and make His Spirit present to us. He uses oil to anoint us and incense to remind us of his omnipresence. He uses bread and wine, and transforms it to commune with us.  He uses paper and ink to bear His Grace to us in the Holy Scriptures, and he uses paint and wood and the skill of an iconographer to bear His Grace to us as well. With icons, we find ourselves surrounded with “a great cloud of witnesses,” and we see real men and women, sinners just like us, transformed by the Grace of God into Christ-likeness.

When some enter an Orthodox Church, especially if they come from a stark sanctuary devoid of imagery, they think that an Orthodox sanctuary is a riot of colour. Some even think that its a bit gaudy. They don’t understand that it displays our fundamental belief in the Incarnation, a belief that tells us that what ever the Divine touches or enters into is transformed by that Presence. If this is not so, then having “Jesus in our heart” may not transform us either.

The burning bush is an example of this truth. It is said that the miracle was  that the bush burned but was not consumed. Actually, this wasn’t the primary miracle at all. Since the Glory of God fills the earth,  the miracle was that Moses could see it. In that moment, Moses saw the universe as it truly is, aflame with the presence of God, transformed but not consumed. We believe that we see the universe as it is, but sadly, because of our sin, we do not see it at all.  Of course, Moses only saw it in the bush because at that point, it was all that he could tolerate.

The Church teaches us this incarnational truth in the Sacraments. Certainly, the Seven Sacraments are special to the Grace of God in His Church, but this does not mean to imply that it is only in Church that we should experience this. Trained by the Sacraments, we are to become sacramental beings. Such a being sees  all of creation as sacrament, all of creation  aflame with God’s glory. If we could begin to see this or even understand it, how blessed we would be. The saints were so aware of this that they could even see Christ in those who tortured and crucified them. Lord, will I ever reach such blessedness?

This has been a lot of theology, so does it any any “practical” application? In fact, it does. Some years ago when I worked as a janitor, I was listening to the radio when the G. Gordon Liddy Show came on. Now, I’m not a fan of G. Gordon, but I thought I would listen for a while. G. Gordon said that someone had asked him a question. If he could sit down and talk with any historical figure, who would it be? Knowing something of Mr. Gordon’s past, my mind raced with the possible candidates. To my surprise, G. Gordon said that he would want sit down and talk with Jesus Christ. I must say I was shocked, but I gained a little better attitude about G. Gordon Liddy. (but I still don’t listen to his show)

If we had the chance to actually sit with Jesus, I am sure that all of us would serve him anything he wanted. We would anoint His head and wash His feet and be very attentive to his every need. Here is a practical application of Orthodox Theology- if God is everywhere present, then He is present in my wife. If I have the eyes to see this, then I will serve her every need, and love her, and anoint her head and wash her feet. I will serve her and die for her as Christ loves and serves the Church. If she sees Jesus in me, she will do the same for me.

Here is the answer to the crisis of divorce in our Church. Many enter marriage because they are in love, but they also have a reason- they want to be happy, to be served, for companionship, for a better sex life, for children, to have someone make us happy.  Few enter marriage  to serve. When our needs are not met, we grow resentful and angry, and believe that we have made a mistake. We will not forgive the shortcomings of our spouse. We don’t see God in our spouse, and we find little in them to be happy about.

But if we have the eyes to see Him, we will see Him in the beauty of nature,  in the radiant smile of our spouses, in the joy of a well cooked meal, in the power and beauty of good music; but even more, we will see him in our fellow Church members, in our priest, in our Bishop, in our co-workers, in our boss, in our teacher, in our students, in the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door,  in the poor and even in the rude guy who just cut us off in traffic. St. Seraphim of Sarov used to greet everyone with the words, “My Dearest.” Everyone.  His eyes were open.

King David says that even in hell, God will be there.

Was God in the stark and empty sanctuary? Yes, but I had no eyes to see. It would have helped me if there had been an icon or two, or at least a Cross.

Thank God for the Victory of Orthodoxy!!!




March 5, 2012

When we think of Adam and Eve, we think of the Fall, of sin and its impact upon the world and upon each of us individually. Rightly so, but there is another aspect to consider. Certainly, to live outside of Eden in the physical world meant struggle and sweat and pain and toil. But I also think that my Ancestral Parents lived with a great sadness that came from their remembrance of Eden, and this sadness was deepened by the frustration of not being able to return to it. This existential reality, the remembrance of Eden and the frustration of being kept from it,  has remained in the hearts of all of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Generation after generation has, in its own way, attempted to get back to the Garden and has felt the frustration of the failure to do so.

One biblical account of this effort was the tower of Babel. We believed that if we could just build high enough we would converse with God.  We would regain our status as children of God just as it was when He walked and talked with us in the Garden “in the cool of the evening.” The problem was that  God  placed an angel with a flaming sword  at the gate, and every attempt to enter would fail. At Babel, the tower experiment failed and the human family was divided by language, a tragedy that continues to shape and form our  history and society today. One theologian speculated that the formation of cities was an attempt at Eden, but often Sodom was the result.

Some years ago, I attended a lecture on architecture and the professor skilfully showed how that many abiding features of architecture psychologically reached back to the remembrance of our primitive past. For example, he stated that columns represent trees and architecture uses them to create not only an aura of strength, but also to remind us of the times when we lived among the trees.  With this insight, I began to notice expressions of the Garden in many things. I walked into a shopping mall and there was Eden with trees and fountains. I saw it in  hotel lobbies. I saw it in the way some commercials on TV were crafted to imply that should I buy this car, I would be driving in a self-contained, temperature controlled, rolling paradise. I begin to notice how we create our gardens and lawns and public parks-all of them to make us feel “at home.” You can even see it in rock music concerts with the haze and smoke and special lighting. Surely, we modern folk are striving to fulfil an inner and sometimes undefined desire to re-enter the Garden.

As with the tower of Babel, this remembrance of the Garden and our desire to enter is frustrated, often with tragic consequences. We might call this deep seated urge the “pursuit of happiness.”  Though it is our birthright guaranteed to us by the founding documents of our society, the pursuit of happiness rarely results in the possession of it. The angel with the flaming sword still stands at the gate of Eden and will not allow us in. This produces a deep frustration  that creates a sadness or anxiety that our lives will never be complete, or happy, or of any lasting value and this thought makes us frantic to prove that it is not so.

Despite our frustration and all evidence to the contrary,  we continue to pursue it with vigour. We believe that if we can just get that promotion, if we can get a raise in pay, if we can find a partner who will serve all of our physical needs, if we can live in a finer home, or write a better book, lose weight, gain weight, get some plastic surgery, win the lottery, be a star, better drugs, more parties, another drink, etc., we will cross over the threshold into our own gated community and happiness will be assured. We hang on to this conviction despite the evidence that many who gain these things eventually end up broken, divorced, addicted, or dead. The power of our desire for Eden blinds us to these facts.

It has always seemed to me that we have come to believe that science will lead us to a new utopia. I am no luddite and I appreciate all that science has accomplished. Yet I remember the day that the Challenger exploded over Florida. Besides the shock and sadness at the loss of so many talented people, I thought of the tower of Babel. This tragedy was a reminder that the angel still stands at the gate.

Let me reverse my thoughts about this.  This desire for Eden is important and God allows it for a good reason.

Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  The Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are they who hunger, for they shall be filled.”  This hunger for Eden is important because without it, we would give up our pilgrimage. Desire and longing are vital because they will not let us rest with what is. This desire propels us to scan the horizon for a new place to dwell.  We would surely die without this inner thirst and hunger. As a priest I often pray, “Lord, give us all a sense of starvation that we might seek the Bread of Life.”

Yet if the way is blocked,  is God only torturing us with this restless desire?  In fact, the gate to Eden can be opened and the angel will let us pass. The key to the gates of Paradise is the Cross of Christ.  By it and only by it, can we  enter into the Paradise of God. Remember what the Crucified Lord said to the thief, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” When the gates of Eden open in our hearts, and we find the Kingdom is within us, we again converse with our Father because the Lord Jesus said he would come into our house and sit down with us. The Fathers also say that humility opens the gates of Eden. There is no difference here because it is only by embracing the Cross that anyone can attain true humility.

Fine architecture, nice homes, good automobiles, health, well-being – there is nothing wrong about any of these things as long as we understand that we will not find paradise by them.  The momentary happiness they bring will pass. There is a joy that can remain and we can abide in that paradise. St. Paul said that the Kingdom of God was “joy in the Holy Spirit.”  That joy will not come and go with the circumstances of life. That is certainly paradise.

I want to end by saying that we err if we think that Paradise is just an inner state of being.  I will refer you to the life of St. Euphrosynos the Cook for further details.