31 July 2008

"Most holy Theotokos, save us!" (Part 2)

Here we encounter a problem. How is it that we can call on anyone other than God in prayer? Protestants tend to work with a definition of prayer something like this:

(1) Prayer is talking to God.

Given that definition, any prayer offered to someone other than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be idolatry. For it would be treating as God, someone who is not God.

But the word "pray" was not always defined in the Protestant way. It simply means, "request." Those who read Shakespeare have surely encountered the phrase "I prithee," which is a colloquialism for "pray thee." Even now, plaintiffs "pray" the Court in lawsuits to grant them relief.

For us, then,

(2) Prayer is making a request of God, angels, saints, or other believers.

There is this difference, of course--in the last analysis, God is the one who grants all requests. He alone is all-knowing and all-powerful. If God alone grants all requests, why do we ask others?

First, when we ask others to pray for us, we admit our own weakness. We are not ashamed to admit that our needs are beyond our own ability to help; indeed, we do not even know how to pray as we ought.

Second, when we ask others to pray for us, we confess the bond of love that unites us. How shall we not ask others whom we love--how shall we not pray them--to intercede for us before the throne of the merciful and man-loving God? And how can we love others and not pray for them--even and especially our enemies and those who hate us?

Third, when we ask others to pray for us, we are confessing the amazing and biblical truth, that what happened for us in Christ also happens through us. All that Christ is by nature, we become by grace.

Why does the Lord walk on water? Because the divine perfections were communicated to his humanity, and his one Person works in and through both natures in performing his actions.

But why does Peter walk on water? Because through the Head, those same perfections are communicated to his Body. The power Peter displays when he walks on water is not his own power--all too soon he doubts and begins to sink. It is Christ's own power, working in and through him.

Does that mean that each and every believer will, for example, walk on water? No; each member of the Body contributes something, but no one member contributes all. There is one Head, one Body; each Christian is but a member of that body. Eyes see, ears hear.

So St. Paul can say to the Colossians, "I know that this will turn out for my deliverance (Gk soteria) through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ." Here the Spirit and the prayers of the Colossians work in a wonderful synergia.

What of the departed saints, though? Even if they could pray for us--even if they do pray for us--how can we know that they hear our prayers? "We mustn't pray to dead people," some Protestants will say.

But that's the point. The saints aren't dead, they're alive. "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him," Christ told the Sadducees. To claim that the saints are dead, is to subscribe to the world's point of view on death and life--not God's.

How can we know that they hear us? According to Scripture, when believers fall asleep in Christ, they are "with Christ," which, according to St. Paul, is "far better" than our present condition. If, in this present condition I ask people to pray for me, and I trust that they have heard me and will do it, why can I not trust that those others, joined to me and the rest of the Church by one and the same life and love, will also pray for me? The history of the Church (such prayers go back as far as archaeological evidence allows us to say) and the experience of the faithful serve to show those who believe that their requests are not in vain. No amount of "proof" will serve those whose hearts are hard against it.

Look carefully into the eyes of your beloved, and you will see the world behind you, reflected in the beloved's eyes. The saints behold the face of Christ; how shall they not, gazing into his eyes, see reflected in them the whole world?

So it is right and proper for Christians to ask others, including the saints and the Theotokos, to intercede for us with God. And if God chooses to work through their agency to meet our need, it does not take away his glory, but reveals it. "God is wondrous in his saints," says the Psalmist, and especially the Theotokos: "the Queen stood at thy right hand, clothed in a robe of gold and many colors."

"Most holy Theotokos, save us!" (Part 1)

On another blog, Pr. William Weedon cited a post-communion prayer to the Theotokos, with the hint that it's idolatrous. He was nicely answered by Reader Christopher Orr on his blog Orrologion. But the exchange did suggest a theme to me, for some subsequent posts: to take some of the things said to/about the Theotokos--typically jarring to Protestant ears--and examine them theologically.

First on the list, because it can be very jarring for Protestants, is the exclamation the priest makes at the end of each Vespers service: "Most holy Theotokos, save us!" (These words are also sung sotto voce by the people during the Litany's commemoration of Mary.)

How are we to understand them? Let's break them down into subject, verb, and object.

We call upon Mary as "Most holy Theotokos." Theotokos means, literally, "the one who gave birth to God." Mary gave birth to Jesus; Jesus is God; therefore, Mary gave birth to God. Our Lord's humanity--all of it--he gets from her. Each Christmastide the Church sings,

"Today the Virgin cometh unto the cave, to give birth to the Word, who was born before all ages; begotten in a manner that defies description. Rejoice, therefore, O Universe, if thou shouldst hear, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds, (glorify) Him who by His will shall become a new born babe, and who is our God before all ages."

We call her "most holy." Holiness is a feature belonging to the Triune God. The seraphim cry out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The wonder of the Christian faith is that through the Incarnation, God shares that holiness, that glory, with creatures. First and foremost among those creatures is Mary. God's free gift of his Son was met by her free response: "Let it be to me according to your word."

She is most holy--higher than all the saints, "more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim"--because in her body she carried the One whom the heavens cannot contain, and in her soul she trusted, loved and yielded her will to the will of the Triune God.

The Church teaches, and even early Protestants like Luther believed, that she had no taint of sin. God made her a pure and holy vessel; that is why Archangel Gabriel greeted her, "Hail, O highly favored one!" She was born subject to death, as are all people; but the shadow of sin, the self-seeking that marks our lives was not found in hers.

And so we address our words to the most holy Theotokos.

30 July 2008

A taxonomy of problems

"Sir, you're drunk!" said a woman to Winston Churchill. "Yes," he replied, "and you're ugly--and tomorrow I'll be sober!"

Churchill's distinction reminds us that not all problems are alike. This is also true when it comes to religious bodies.

(1) Consider the recent troubles experienced by the OCA in Alaska. (I have no opinion on the case; I merely point out that a number of voices in the Alaska diocese had a problem with their bishop.) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the bishop in question *did* have problems. They would be personal problems--problems of character and/or conduct.

(2) But then there's the kind of problem that many Lutheran pastors have experienced in times of conflict, either with a parish or another pastor: there is no one who can step in and mediate the conflict with any real authority. There is no bishop, in the classical sense of that term.

This kind of problem is fundamentally different from (1) above. The system in which it exists is designed to produce it. It cannot be solved with a change of personnel. It is not personal, but systemic.

Nor can it be solved, from Lutheran presuppositions, say by beginning an office of bishop. For any 'hierarchy' now instituted would be self-evidently 'by human right.' At the next time of crisis, those who disagree with such a bishop can safely disregard whatever he has to say.

In my conversations with Lutherans on their blogs, this is one distinction that seems not to register with them: the distinction between personal and systemic problems. But it is an important one.

27 July 2008


During this next week my wife and I, together with my eldest son and his family, are vacationing in Montreal, Quebec. This morning we attended St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. St. George was the second parish founded by St. Raphael of Brooklyn.

As we sat at coffee after liturgy, my wife said something that moved me a great deal. "This morning our family is in three countries on two continents. But all of us prayed one and the same liturgy."

One of the joys of being Orthodox is the knowledge that, on any given liturgical Sunday, believers around the world unite in the same hymns, the same commemorations. So this morning, as we were in three countries (Canada, the US, and Ukraine), we all prayed together. Glory to God for all things!

25 July 2008

From Wittenberg to Antioch

The past few days, Antiochian Orthodox priests from around the country gathered for a clergy symposium. As with most symposia, the point is not the lectures, but the opportunity to meet new folks and renew old acquaintances. Just for fun, we gathered some of the Antiochian priests and deacons who were formerly Lutherans, to take a picture. Here they are, including your humble scribe--proof positive that the waters of the Orontes are swimmable--indeed, healing. Some were formerly ELCA, others formerly LCMS. But all alike have found their home in the Church.
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09 July 2008

Do Orthodox want non-Orthodox to convert?

In a word, yes. And why not? If we are convinced that "We have seen the true Light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true Faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us"--how could we not want others to see that same light, receive that same Spirit and find that same faith?

Truth is not divided, or relative. So St. Paul frequented the synagogues, after his conversion; he traveled to the Gentiles; he sought out rich and poor, slave and free, man and woman. The Church and her message are for all people alike, and the stakes are high. She rejects the Anglican "branch theory" and the protestant "invisible church." She judges no individual, but she can and must judge the bodies to which they belong.

The issue is urgent, as we see western Christendom give way to relativism. It is one thing to be mistaken that something is the truth when it is not; it is another thing entirely to say that truth no longer matters, and to live in existential communion with falsehood. The former have hope; the latter have none.

How we share this truth is important: the message shapes the life of its messengers.

If we do not seek our own repentance and faith, we have nothing to share. That is why St. Seraphim said, "Acquire the spirit of inner peace, and thousands around you will be saved."

But it is also true that if we withhold speaking until we think we "get it," then we will never speak at all. We carry the treasure of the Gospel in clay pots. We must make it our aim to be "all things to all people, so that by all means we might save some."

We must also be willing to speak, as winsomely as possible, to those in error with the nature of that error. Khomiakov did so in a marvelous and prophetic way to the western confessions, as did Dostoyevsky and, more recently, Fr. John Romanides. St. Ambrose of Optina wrote a tract against Lutheranism. Every council, every father fought the good fight of faith, and suffered willingly rather than deny the truth.

There is a synergy between the work of the Holy Spirit, and the works and words of God's people. So St. Paul says, "we are co-workers with God" precisely in the context of speaking the truth for others' conversion.

May the Lord convert me, an unworthy sinner, and bring me to the glory of his Kingdom!

Mone me si erro.

08 July 2008

The same root error...

...occurs in many loci of dogmatics.

In revelation, it's called "Barthianism." The word of God touches the world of man only at a single mathematical point--like a tangent touches a circle.

In the mysteries, it's called "Receptionism." The eucharistic bread is the body of Christ only in the act of its being consumed.

In the doctrine of Christ, it's called Nestorianism.

In the doctrine of the Church, it's called "the hidden/invisible Church." The Church is only Church in that moment when the Word is being preached and the Sacraments being administered rightly.

and with the Theotokos, it's called the denial of her perpetual virginity. Mary's motherhood is but a surrogate moment; once Jesus is born, mother and virgin no longer co-exist, but virgin gives way to mother.

All of these hang together, in some way I cannot now articulate: but it's guaranteed that, over time, those groups who fall into one will fall into the others...

Mone me si erro.

07 July 2008

St. Augustine and the analogia entis

CAUTION: The following is advanced material, in a relatively unformed state. If you aren't well-grounded, please avoid it!

After a long hiatus, back to St. Augustine's De trinitate. In Book 3, at the end, he writes,

"But now, when the Lord was born of the virgin, and when the Holy Spirit came down in bodily form like a dove, or in visible fiery tongues and a sound from heaven on the day of Pentecost after the Lord's ascension, what appeared to the bodily sense of mortals was not the very substance of the Word of God in which he is equal to the Father and co-eternal, nor the very substance of the Spirit of the Father and the Son in which he is co-equal and co-eternal with them both, but something created which could be formed and come into being in those ways."

Following the example of St. Augustine himself, I apologize at the outset for any unclarity of thought or infelicity of expression in what I'm about to say, and I welcome those who are better-schooled to correct whatever error I might make.

In the Middle Ages, the west spilled quite a lot of ink over the question of the nature of talk about God. Three options were offered:

  1. Such talk is univocal--that is, when we use terms about God they have the same meaning as they do in our normal talk. This, I take it, was (in some form) the position of Duns Scotus.
  2. Such talk is equivocal--that is, when we use terms about God they have nothing at all in common with those terms as we use them in our normal talk.
  3. Such talk is analogical--that is, terms about God are related proportionally to those same terms in our normal talk. This, I take it, was the answer given by Thomas Aquinas and was in turn founded on the analogia entis (analogy of being).
I wonder if this whole discussion was necessitated because the west did not make the essence/energy distinction in God? If all you have is essence/persons, then (since the divine essence is utterly unlike any creature) there is no ontological foundation for our speech about God; it must be somehow equivocal. Yet even if we cannot say that the Lord's humanity is the divine essence, we ought to be able to say that his flesh is divine, and that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and in the form of tongues of flame.

But if the energies are divine, and yet distinct from the divine essence, then you have an ontological foundation for talk about God--precisely in his revealing himself to us. "God is the Lord who hath shown us light"--the uncreated light of his glory.

Mone me si erro.

05 July 2008

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr

On July 5, the Church commemorates St. Elizabeth the New Martyr. She was born February 24, 1864 as the daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom. Elizabeth was raised in the Lutheran confession. When she married Grand Duke Sergei of Russia, she was chrismated into the Orthodox Church.

Of her conversion, she wrote:

"Above all one's conscience must be pure and true... many will -- I know -- scream about (it), yet I feel it brings me nearer to God... You tell me that the outer brilliance of the church charmed me... in that you are mistaken -- nothing in the outer signs attracted me -- no -- the service, the service, the outer signs are only to remind us of the inner things."

Her husband was assassinated in 1905. Elizabeth visited the assassin in jail, assuring him of her forgiveness, and she worked to have his death sentence commuted.

Ridding herself of most of her possessions, she became a nun and founded the Convent of Sts. Mary and Martha. She gave her life in selfless service to the poor. But when the Bolsheviks took over, they were determined to destroy the royal family. Elizabeth was taken to the Ural mountain region where she was martyred on July 5, 1918 (O.S.).

Here is the testimony of one of the murderers:

"At last we arrived at the mine. The shaft was not very deep and, as it turned out, had a ledge on one side that was not covered by water.

First we led grand duchess Elizabeth (Ella) up to the mine. After throwing her down the shaft, we heard her struggling in the water for some time. We pushed the nun lay-sister Varvara

St. Barbara The New Martyr
St. Barbara The New Martyr
down after her. We again heard the splashing of water and then the two women's voices. It became clear that, having dragged herself out of the water, the grand duchess had also pulled her lay-sister out. But, having no other alternative, we had to throw in all the men also.

None of them, it seems, drowned, or choked in the water and after a short time we were able to hear all their voices again.

Then I threw in a grenade. It exploded and everything was quiet. But not for long.

We decided to wait a little to check whether they had perished. After a short while we heard talking and a barely audible groan. I threw another grenade.

And what do you think - from beneath the ground we heard singing! I was seized with horror. They were singing the prayer: 'Lord, save your people!'

We had no more grenades, yet it was impossible to leave the deed unfinished. We decided to fill the shaft with dry brushwood and set it alight. Their hymns still rose up through the thick smoke for some time yet."

When the White army reclaimed the area temporarily, her remains were recovered and eventually were placed in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, where they remain to this day.

Troparion, Tone 4:

Causing meekness, humility and love to dwell in thy soul,
Thou didst earnestly serve the suffering,
O holy passion-bearer Princess Elizabeth;
Wherefore, with faith thou didst endure sufferings and death for Christ, with the martyr Barbara.
With her pray for all who honor you with love.

Kontakion, Tone 4:

Taking up the Cross of Christ,
Thou didst pass from royal glory to the glory of heaven,
Praying for thine enemies, O holy martyr Princess Elizabeth;
And with the martyr Barbara thou didst find everlasting joy.
Therefore, pray ye in behalf of our souls.