Monday, March 14, 2011

The Delusions of Grandeur surrounding Pan-Orthodoxy Vespers Celebrations

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Great Lent. That Sunday, historically, is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy because on the first Sunday in Great Lent back in 842 A.D. the Empress Theodora acting for her son, Basileus Michael, restored the icons of our Lord, His mother, and His Saints back to the churches in Constantinople and paved the way for their restoration in other parts of the Empire where their absence had been felt for nearly 150 years. The decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council were now finally put into reality and ever since that time, on this first Sunday, the faithful go forward in procession triumphantly displaying their icons which reaffirm the incarnational theology of the Orthodox Church and then read the Synodicon from that Ecumenical Council which firmly declares what our beliefs are.

As is the custom throughout the United States and some other countries, this Sunday is the time for all the local Orthodox churches in a city to come together to celebrate Vespers together. This year the Orthodox faithful of Omaha gathered at historic St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Omaha. I was not in attendance though I have attended every one prior for the past six years. But is this con-celebration necessary? I'm not opposed to Orthodox Christians of various jurisdictions worshiping together at all, but there seems to be a delusion as to what this con-celebration actually means. This is only my opinion, but there is no need for it, not because worshiping together is wrong (it isn't) but because it seems that this event is used to promote goals which cannot be realized at this time or shouldn't be realized at all. Let me break them down as I see it.

Argument # 1: Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers is necessary because Orthodox Christians in America are not united. Not united? Administratively, no. But by faith, absolutely! I ask which is more important? Is it more important that we have one bishop over all of us in Omaha and yet we have 10 different dogmas or that we have 10 bishops, each over 1/10 of us in Omaha, but one common dogma? Yes, I'm demonstrating absurdity by being absurd. But the fact is that we are united. Our faith unites us and it is the same faith. ELCA Lutherans in this country are administratively unified but there respective churches have a myriad of different beliefs differing from pew to pew in the same church, often.

Argument # 2: Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers is necessary because this will show the mother churches that we should have independence and the right to form an autocephalous American Orthodox Church. Let's be honest. Orthodox Christians in this country, coming together for one service for the entire year from the various jurisdictions, isn't going to show anybody. Yes, the situation here in America of having so many side-by-side jurisdictions is uncanonical. And, for right now, the "mother churches" are not going to grant such a release because America is filling the mother churches' coffers with money, whether in Serbia, Damascus, Romania, Constantinople and Moscow because the wealth is here. Will it happen in time? I believe it will. But let us not delude ourselves that coming together for one hour of worship (again, a great thing) is going to convince the mother churches that there should be an American Church. Such discussions are happening. The Episcopal Assemblies are a great first start and if a great and holy council is ever convened (we are about 900 years overdue), the subject will come up then.

Argument # 3: Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers is necessary because Orthodox don't all worship the same way. They don't? I can't recall the last time I heard a praise band in an Orthodox Church or an altar call or even a time on Sunday when the Liturgy wasn't celebrated. We do worship the same way; we just express it differently. Why should Byzantine chant be preferred over the Slavic Obihod block chanting style? Why should the Russian tones be preferred over the Byzantine tones? Why should the creed or Lord's prayer be chanted instead of merely said? We do worship the same way. Our Liturgies are the same. Now, a priest here and there may cut portions out, but there is no divergence of rites like what you have with the Episcopalians.

Argument # 4: Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers is necessary because we all need to worship in English. Now this is probably the argument that no one will actually yell out but is at the forefront of many people's brains--the idea that Orthodox worship in America has to be, must be, should be, will be in English at all times. The proponents of this line of thought are generally converts who don't "get" the ethnic flavorings of Orthodoxy or who are genuinely repulsed by it. The line of thinking generally goes that if our church services are in languages other than English, people won't convert. Well, Orthodoxy is growing due to a huge influx of converts and a great many of Orthodox parishes, especially Antiochian and OCA do use English almost exclusively. Many Greek parishes are now bilingual. Many of the MP churches, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, etc. may still use traditional languages but even that is changing. But why begrudge Greeks to worship in Greek or Romanians in Romanian or Russians/Serbs in Slavonic? If a church doesn't meet our language demands, there's usually another one. If not, missions are being built all the time.

Change in the Orthodox Church has always been organic. The canons are in place not because the Church wanted to make praxis and dogma rigid with no wiggle room but were created to affirm what was already practiced and believed. Similarly, the German settlers in this part of the country had their church services in German for the longest period of time until the 1940s. Granted, a World War against Germany helped that cause greatly, but the change didn't come from a bunch of German pastors mandating English; it happened organically. Such will be the same with many Orthodox parishes here in this country especially as more and more second and third generations of Serbs, Romanians, Russians, Arabs and Greeks are born here and use English as their mother tongue. But to insist that all Orthodox churches totally be deprived of their "mother tongues" is hubristic and shows little pastoral concern.

Yes, let us worship together but let's not be hung up on whether or not we have one bishop or 20, or one language or five, or one chant style or seven. The Orthodox Faith is the same faith given to us by Christ once and for all. It is the same the Apostles preached. It is the same the martyrs died for. It is the same the Confessors defended. It is the same preached from our pulpits. Let's not get hung up on the variations on the theme.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reflections on the first week--The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

We have now entered into the contest, into the struggle, into the fight to repent of our sins and follow Christ's journey to Gologotha where His sacrifice of His very self has brought unto us life. This first week, John the Forerunner and Christ's single word that summed up their ministry--Repent!--is at the head of every liturgical service in the Orthodox Church. And no where else in Orthodox hymnography is the subject of repentance so dominant, so beautifully laid out as to why it is not only necessary but also liberating than in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.

I need not go into the various irmoi or troparia of this particular canon but I want to share an incident that happened in conversation with me during the week. At my parish, during the first week, on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday we chant Great Compline with the Canon of St. Andrew. On Wednesday, we celebrate the presanctified Liturgy. We will not return to the canon again until the fifth week of Great Lent. Great Compline with the Canon (even if only 1/4 of it) along with a Gospel reading appointed during only the first week makes this a very long and involved service. It clocks in regularly at about 2 hours, but what a wonderful two hours it is. Unforunately, not everyone feels the same way and I shouldn't expect them to but I was taken aback by a comment made to me by a parishioner when he remarked that the chanting of the canon was not necessary because it not only made the service too long (a complaint we get from too many parishioners, mostly older ones) and because the Canon can be summed up in seven words: "I have sinned, Jesus. Have mercy upon me." There was no need to have all these Biblical, both Old and New Testament, exempla to demonstrate this very fact. I didn't know how to respond so I just shrugged it off and went about my business. I wanted to say, "If you're going to complain, don't come" but such would not be in the spirit of the season and that would be a retort more for a priest to his flock than a lowly non-tonsured chanter to give.

That night I went home to think about this question. To be honest, the man had a point: if the canon is meant to draw attention to our sin, why do we need the Bible lesson about other sinners? And the answer came to me as I was rereading +Fr. Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent. I read this book every year for Lent and I always discover and rediscover something new. And this was definitely something new. Schmemann says that such a question represents a fundamental misunderstanding of sin.

Sin is not just something that happens to us. Sin is nothing. It is an absence of good. It is an absence of God. Sin is the very mark that we, as a race, are alienated from God. Our individual sins are not new. As Solomon once said, "There is nothing new under the sun." Our sins are those of the harlot, the publican, the pharisee, the persecutor Saul, Lamech, Cain, Adam, Eve, David, Joseph's brothers, the blind man, etc. Now, we may not all be adulterers or thieves or murderers or slave traffickers but it makes no difference. Sin is a contagion that infects the entire human race; it diminishes our health. Our inherited corruption (not guilt) makes us immediate kin to such great sinners as Saul, Adam, Eve, David, the harlot. Their sins are our sins because we are of the same stock.

The question also reveals that we, particularly as Americans, are so self-centered and individualistic that we think that our sins couldn't possibly be connected to anyone or anything else. I'm sure that someone would respond that such an approach reveals Americans' prerogative to take personal responsibility and maybe there is some truth in that. Yes, take responsibility and confess your sins, but don't think for a moment that your humanity is different from everyone else's; it isn't. We may fall individually, but the cause of that fall is universal and our salvation is also universal.

Finally, the question also reveals that so many of us treat sin not as something inherently corrupting or destroying but as an inconvenience that can be soothed over by the church acting more as psychotherapist/life coach than as a physician for people who are ill. Sin is regarded as a weakness to which the cure is to toughen up or mask it so that it doesn't appear to actually affect us. The truth of the matter is that for many people, sin doesn't affect them or they don't actually realize it does. They see it as something perennially there and hopefully a little confession will get them "in order" for Pascha. The cure of repentance will not even be tried.

Keep in mind that this question came not to me from a Protestant or Catholic, but an Orthodox Christian. I don't know much about this particular person but I know he has been Orthodox much longer than I, possibly from birth. However long is irrelevant. What this demonstrates is that the Orthodox churches, her clergy, her teachers, her families, her laity face a huge battle in our own flock. I'm not sure how to address it and to treat it. We should not stop what we are doing liturgically and we cannot force people to attend and we cannot force people to change their mind with regards to what sin really is.