Happy New Year

September 1 is the start of the ecclesiastical year in the Orthodox Church. The liturgical event is Sep 8 (this coming Tuesday), the celebration of the birth of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Even though I’ve been Orthodox for many years, I still approach the Orthodox liturgical year with wonder at the logic of how it works and when it starts and stops. As a result, this essay is from the perspective of a Protestant looking in.

In the West (Roman Catholic and Protestant), liturgical time is marked by two great cycles. The major cycle begins with Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent — and ends with Pentecost. It’s structure is as follows:

  • 40 days of preparation (Lent)
  • The great feast of Easter
  • The festal season that runs 50 days from Easter to Pentecost

The minor cycle begins with Advent and ends with Epiphany:

  • 24 days of preparation (Advent)
  • The feast of Nativity on Dec. 25
  • The festal season that lasts 6 days until Epiphany, which in the West is observed with the Three Mysteries of the arrival of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the first miracle at Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.

In summary, there are two great cycles of what might be called Liturgical Time, one approximately 90 days long and the other approximately 30 days long. This leaves about 240 days of what is called Ordinary Time.

There is a wonderful theology that goes along with this. The Greek language has two different concepts for time. Chronos is the sort of time that can be marked with calendars and clocks. One hour follows the next, one day follows the next, one month follows the next. This is Ordinary Time. This is the concept that makes the arc of history possible.

In contrast to this is Kairos. Kairos is time, but it occurs differently. It breaks into chronos unexpectedly. It is time that has depth and fullness. It is, in a sense, divine time. The two great cycles are kairotic in nature, breaking into the Ordinary Time of the chronological calendar.

While this conception is internally consistent and theologically rich, it is fundamentally different than the Eastern Orthodox conception of time. The Orthodox church year is more like an onion. The innermost layer is the three day period of Good Friday (the death of Christ), Holy Saturday (the descent into Hades) and Pascha (the Resurrection of Christ). Enveloping that layer is what could be called the earthly ministry of God, which runs from the conception of Christ (the Annunciation) to the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Enveloping this “earthly ministry of God” layer is what I would call the Incarnational layer of salvation. This takes a bit of explanation.

God’s activity on earth is normally clothed in the stuff of creation. The figure of “the Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament is God’s presence and interaction with humans in a human form. At the burning bush, God is embodied in fire. During the Exodus God is embodied as both fire (to illumine) and smoke (to hide). In the life of Christ, the embodiment in the stuff of creation is represented by Mary, Jesus’ mother.

So it is that Mary the Theotokos (literally, “God-bearer”) is the Ark of the Covenant. Fr Andrew Stephen Damick explains this very well in a sermon given on Sep 8, 2010.

In the Old Testament, to approach the Ark of the Covenant was to approach the Lord God Himself. This was not because God could be contained within a golden box, but rather because God chose that golden box as a place of utmost holiness and divine presence on Earth. There on that Mercy Seat God communed with His people in a powerful, mystical way. And now the Lord has approached us once again, but the locus of His coming to Earth is a human woman.

And just as the Ark of the Old Covenant was carefully constructed and prepared by human hands, so, too, was the new Ark carefully prepared. But instead of the preparation of carpenters and goldsmiths, the preparation of the Virgin Mary was by her quiet and humble obedience to and cooperation with the will of God.

This is why we honor the Virgin Mary, not because we want to elevate her to the status of a goddess and worship her, but because she is the carefully prepared vessel which bore the God of the Universe, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through her came our salvation. Through her came a new life for every human being and the whole world. Through her came union between God and man.

The great historian of theology, Richard Niebuhr, observed in several places that the Western Church always had difficulty fully embracing the incarnation. Thus the most common heresies in the West were and are those that deny the significance of creation as the means of salvation.  Various forms of gnosticism and rationalism that deny the sheer physicality of how God presents himself pop up in the West over and over again.

Since the fourth century in the East, these sorts of anti-incarnational heresies have been relatively insignificant. I would argue that the very structure of how the East conceives of liturgical time, as mystery, enveloped in divine presence, enveloped in the very stuff of creation is a reflection of this radically different sensibility.

In the West where kairos, or divine time, breaks in upon ordinary time or chronos, unexpectedly and as if it is coming from the outside of time and space, there is a natural liturgical tendency to disconnect creation from the work of the Creator.

But in the East, where the Church Years begins with Mary’s birth (Sep 8) and ends with her death (Aug 15), and within that is the earthly ministry of God (Conception of Christ to the coming of the Holy Spirit) and within that is the mystery of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Pascha, what we see first is creation. We see the new Ark of the Covenant. And when we, with fear and trepidation, look inside the carefully prepared Ark (which is the ordinary stuff of creation), we see the presence of God the Creator and the ineffable gift of salvation (or union of our physical beings with God).

So, Happy New Year. And this year, in the words of accidental Australian theologian Olivia Newton-John, “Let’s get physical,” and begin our exploration of the very being of God by exploring the very depths of the creation of which we are a part.


A Feast of Joyful Sorrow

Today (Aug 29) on the Orthodox church calendar is the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner. It’s an odd feast in that it’s the only feast in the Orthodox Church that I know of that is commemorated by a strict fast rather than a feast. John the Forerunner is an important figure in Orthodoxy. He represents the end of the Old Covenant (while Mary represents the beginning of New Covenant). It’s in the contrast between John and Mary that we can appreciate this odd Feast/Fast day.

There is a wonderful oral tradition about Thomas and Mary at the time of her death. Mary was human exactly like all the rest of us, and because she is human like the rest of us, she died like the rest of us. After her death and funeral, the disciples sealed her in her tomb (the traditional means of burying people at that time and place). The story is that Thomas was several days late to the funeral (just as he was several days late to Jesus’ resurrection appearances). Against the other disciples’ advice, he insisted that the tomb be unsealed so he could offer his final farewell to her body. (Christians, because Jesus Christ both created and then recreated creation, give great honor to the physical world as the place where God works, thus Christians give great honor to dead bodies.) When they opened the tomb so Thomas could properly honor it, her body was gone. The tradition is that her body was translated to heaven in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah.

The theological point of this tradition is that it illustrates the staggering significance of the incarnation. Because of Christ, everything is changed. Not only are our souls saved, but all creation is transformed, including our bodies. Heaven is not a spiritual place somewhere out there, it is, as John describes it in the Apocalypse, a new heaven and a new earth with all of us feasting eternally at the Banquet of the Lamb.

And just as Mary’s ending is befitting the first Christian, the first person of the New Covenant, so John the Forerunner’s end is befitting the end of the Old Covenant and the old order of the world. Sinfulness is seemingly woven into the very fabric of the created order (that is, the old order) and does not give up without a fight. Jesus compared the end of the age to the time of Noah (ie, the flood) and Sodom and Gomorrah (ie, fire falling from the sky). This idea of a watery and fiery end of the world as we have come to know it speaks to the violence involved in extricating God’s good creation (the emergence of the New Covenant) from grip of evil. This salvation that God brings to the world is, from this perspective, a terrible thing.

John the Forerunner’s death by beheading, brought about by the whims of infighting in a wicked ruling family who ultimately manipulated a young (“innocent”?) girl into requesting this gruesome death, is a perfect metaphor for the end of this age. It is terrible and savage, and yet it is necessary so that all can be made new. It is why the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner is the only feast in the Orthodox Church celebrated, not with feasting, but with a strict fast. We joy at that which is to come even as we weep and wail at how it must be accomplished.

So, may you have joyful sorrow on this, the most odd of feast days, commemorating John the Forerunner’s terrible death.


Happy Birthday

Today is the celebration of the birth of Mary, the Theotokos. No doubt it’s my context here at a conservative Presbyterian high school, but I am particularly aware of how easy it is to slight Mary by focusing only on Christ.

Of course, in truth, we don’t focus only on Christ; we too often manage to focus on ourselves in the context of Christ.  “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” (That’s the answer to the first question in the Shorter Catechism.) I have been particularly reminded in the last few weeks how self-centered that opening question is: Christ is all in all, and as a result we talk about is how that blesses me, about how I get to enjoy God rather than focusing on how I might bless God or serve God.

Let me point out that the first question is true — I am not in the least bit disagreeing with the first question of the Shorter Catechism. But when the Magnificat says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me,” I must remember that the first person singular in this sentence is not me, nor the Church, but rather Mary herself.

We (the Church as well as individual Christians) will be blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for us, but our blessing is subsidiary. We are blessed because we were grafted on to the Shoot by the Holy Spirit. This blessing first pointed the other direction, to the one whose womb was the very throne of God. Mary is blessed because she is the root from which the Shoot sprung forth.

I was reminded of this double trajectory of blessing when I read the second morning antiphon for Sept 8, in honor of Mary’s birth:

When the most holy Virgin was born, the whole world was made radiant; blessed is the branch and blessed is the stem which bore such holy fruit.

Blessed indeed! For holy indeed is the Holy Fruit.

Happy Birthday, Mary. Indeed we will proclaim you, God’s lowly servant, blessed forever.