Thursday, June 27, 2013

Supreme Court Rulings on DOMA and California's Prop 8

There have been enough analyses of the decisions handed down yesterday and I would only be repeating what they have said.  However, there has been been scant commentary about how each of these decisions could affect Christian churches, particularly those which will not marry and/or bless same sex couples. 

The effects of yesterday's decisions do not give a universal right to gay marriage unlike what happened with Roe v. Wade in 1973 where the Supreme Court found (i.e. invented) a universal right to abortion.  There is speculation that this is merely an incremental step to a larger program of nationalizing gay marriage so as to avoid the controversy that occurred with Roe.  Marriage, gay or straight, still is the province of the states, as it should be and is a victory for federalism.  But, the majorities in both cases essentially hold that the only reason to rule against gay marriage is not because of any legal or constitutional argument, but is rooted strictly in animus or bigotry against gay people.  Here is part of the dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia:

It takes real cheek for today’s majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here—when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the majority’s moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress’s hateful moral judgment against it. I promise you this: The only thing that will “confine” the Court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with. [emphasis mine]
So, where does this leave the churches?  President Obama, in his haste to congratulate the plaintiffs, promised that the churches who oppose gay marriage would be left alone.  He said:

 On an issue as sensitive as this, knowing that Americans hold a wide range of views based on deeply held beliefs, maintaining our nation’s commitment to religious freedom is also vital. How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions.  Nothing about this decision — which applies only to civil marriages — changes that."
However, the Obama administration has demonstrated that freedom of religious expression should only be protected as long as that religious expression is an expressed endorsement of his statist goals.  One need only look at the administration's opposition to a Lutheran church in the Hosanna Tabor decision, where a unanimous supreme court said that the federal government had no business telling a church who it could ordain and who it couldn't.  And right now, there are many cases going on where businesses are fighting the HHS mandate that employers are required, under Obamacare, to provide abortifacients and  birth control to employees, regardless of whether they want them or not.  Some of these challenges are progressing favorably against the administration.  So, I take President Obama's statement cum grano salis.  We should not forget that the Supreme Court ruled that Bob Jones University did not qualify for tax exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating.  Well, if that form of bigotry is penalized by the state, is it unreasonable to ask how long before churches would be penalized in a similar way for not marrying same sex couples?

I don't care if two gay or lesbian people are together. That's their business and I have many other important things to worry about.  However, the insistence of the gay lobby that everyone else must accept and rejoice in what is their private business is offensive.  That's not tolerance; that's sanction. Tolerance is live and let live. Sanction means approval. And the two are not one and the same.  Justice Kennedy pretty much declared that those of us who oppose gay marriage are bigots. And if gay marriage ever becomes the law of the land (whether by judicial fiat, congressional action or if all states approve it), then those of opposed will be on the same level as racists and segregationists and members of the Ku Klux Klan.  If anyone thinks that if such a scenario ever occurred that churches would be exempted are wrong.  History is replete with examples.

In Italy, during the Mussolini reign, Catholic priests who actively preached against and condemned fascism were invited by the Fascist Leadership to have a couple of drinks.  One week, it would be one drink. If the behavior persisted, the next time would be two drinks and so on.  The drinks in question were castor oil, too much of which will be fatal and pretty gruesome. 

I certainly hope that the Orthodox Church is not forced into marrying gay couples.  The Orthodox Church has not had to deal with the issues that other Christian confessions are confronted with because of our own unique history and our relative immunity to the rampant secularism of Europe. 

At the same time, maybe a good persecution is what we need. (More on that later)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Explanation of the Icon of Pentecost

Happy Pentecost.  This great feast now brings to a close (for the most part) the season of the Church Year where the Pentecostarion has been our main guide to the weeks since Pascha.  After next week, we will put it away for another year and resume ordinary time with almost exclusive use of the Octoechos and the Menaion.  For more than a third of the year, we have been guided through the life of Christ with almost exclusive use of the Triodion and the Pentecostarion.  Now, the Spirit must take over and guide us in the Life of Christ through His Saints. 

The Icon of this feast has baffled me for a long time and I've never been able to figure it out, but thank goodness there are wiser people out there in the blogosphere who have access to knowledge which I lack.  The following is an explanation of the icon of Pentecost and how the Eastern depiction differs from depictions in the west.

This explanation is taken from the book The Meaning of Icons by Vladimir Lossky and reprinted on the website Mystagogy.

The Eastern icon representing the Great Feast of Pentecost is probably unfamiliar to most Westerners. In the Western painting tradition, the tongues of fire and the presence of the Holy Mother of God are emphasized along with, of course, the twelve apostles. At times, depending on the artist and style of the period in which the work was created, the scene can be quite animated with gesticulating figures and a composition suggesting confusion or wonderment. Excitement may seem to permeate the atmosphere.

In the Eastern tradition, icons of the Pentecost don’t always depict tongues of fire. Instead, at the top of the icon a circle or semicircle represents heaven and from its center, twelve rays point downward toward the twelve apostles, symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Also, absent from the scene (in many Eastern icons) is the All-Holy Mother of God which is strange because the Acts of the Apostles makes a point of telling she was present. Such a glaring omission begs for an explanation. Here it is: The Pentecost icons of the Eastern Church, unlike the images of the event in the Western Church, stress the underlying ecclesiological meaning of Pentecost and less so the narrative details of the descent of the Spirit or observable physical facts, as reported in Acts.
Along the same lines, in the icon at the bottom of (many) Eastern icons, is an image of something not reported in Acts. It appears to be a tomb with a king standing in the blackness of the interior. He holds a white cloth supporting twelve written scrolls. The king actually personifies the great multitude of people gathered in Jerusalem for the holy day. The image is called “Cosmos” and the dark place in which the king stands represents the whole world which had formally been without faith and had suffered under the weight of Adam’s sin. The red garment the king wears symbolizes pagan or the devil’s blood sacrifices, and the crown he wears signifies sin which ruled the world. The white cloth and twelve scrolls symbolize the twelve apostles who brought Christ’s light to the world through their teaching.

That is the core message of the Eastern depiction of Pentecost. The message is not so much about the physical manifestations of the descent of Holy Spirit as it is the substantial presence of the Spirit in the Church, acting through the Church, to sanctify the world. The Ascension of the Lord represented the end of Christ’s earthly mission and Pentecost represented the beginning of the residency of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Rather than a general disturbance - often portrayed in Western images of Pentecost - caused by the descent of the Spirit, Eastern icons of the event express an overall sense of order, calm and solemnity. Here we see the unity and singleness of purpose of the hierarchic Church in converting the world. A formal arrangement of the apostles in a semi-circle surrounding the tomb and king is broken only by an empty space in the seating arrangement at the top of the bend. It is the seat reserved for Christ, the head of the Church. On close inspection, you will notice that the apostles are depicted in inverse perspective: the size of the figures grow bigger the closer they are to the seat reserved for Christ. St. Peter sits to the right (our left) and St. Paul, to the left (our right). St. Paul, of course, was not present at Pentecost, but that fact is not relevant here where the meaning of the icon is the substantial presence of the Spirit in the institutional Church. Actually, there are a few others also represented here who were not of the original twelve apostles: Luke the Evangelist (third from the top on the left) and Mark the Evangelist (third from the top on the right). They hold their gospel books. Paul also holds a book, symbolizing his letters. Others hold scrolls, symbols of having received the gift of teaching.

Contrasting with the uniformity of the semi-circle, and in harmony with the hierarchic detail, are the variety of poses in the figures of the apostles. No two figures strike the same pose. This goes to the inner meaning of the icon: although there is the one Spirit - one Body - each member is given special gifts.

As liturgical art, icons open a door for the worshiper into a transfigured world and into an experience of sacred time. An icon compresses events into one image and folds time into a holy present in order to communicate an inner meaning. It all comes together in this icon to show us the divine guidance given to the hierarchic Church in the conversion of the world.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Nothing is your fault

You may have read the headlines yesterday where the AMA (American Medical Association) labeled obesity as a disease.  That's right.  Obesity has now joined the undistinguished and now easy to get into club of diseases joining AIDS, cancer, alcoholism, the common cold, flu, chicken pox, etc..  You can read details here. 

What does this say about the AMA and society at large?  We have essentially made a lack of willpower into a disease which is therefore out of someone's hands to control and must be treated medically.  Are we saying that the deadly sin of gluttony is just a medical condition?  I hope not.  Now, before you condemn me for being insensitive, let me be clear that I do realize that there are medical conditions such as those that affect the hypothalamus or thyroid gland that can trigger overeating and also obesity is a trait in my family and something that I particularly have to guard against especially if I want to remain on the earth long enough to raise my son with my wife.

So, what is the AMA telling us?  Quite simply: it's not your fault.  Just like alcoholism: it's not your fault. You have a disease. You're powerless. You need medicine, you need doctors, you need pills, you need hospitals or rehabilitation centers.  YOU'RE NOT AT FAULT!

I doubt if the AMA was looking towards modern Protestantism when it redefined obesity as a disease, but modern Protestantism does seem often enough to emphasize that it's not your fault since God loves you anyway.  Maybe that same cultural opinion has informed the AMA.  The point is that this should not be surprising in any way.  Our culture regards sin as something that results from mitigating circumstances.  The reason he murdered that person is because he wasn't loved as a child. The reason she stole is because she grew up impoverished.  The reason he raped is because he was spurned by women.  The list goes on and on.  What are we responsible for anymore?  Nothing, it seems.  Everything can be reduced to a legal justification and now, a disease.

When Christ (and also St. John the Baptist) began his ministry, his first word was "repent!"  Now, the Greek word for "repent" is μετανοιετε.  Literally, it means to change your nous which is often mistranslated as mind.  The nous is called the window into the soul by St. John Damascene.  It is more than an intellectual sifter. I could dedicate a whole post to what the word means.  The nous, though, is something that sets us apart as human beings, created in the image of God, from the animals.  Repentance is created by change of our very self, not mere words or platitudes we say, but a  change in who we are to grow in union with Christ.   If nothing is our fault, then there can be no repentance.  Repentance demands us to see fault.  How can we change if we don't know from what we need to flee? 

Repentance also demands the use of our will oriented towards God.  St. Augustine says that the will is a medium bonum, a so-so good thing.  It can be used for good just as it can for evil.  The will also is one of the Trinity of the mind.  Will is joined with memory and reason.  All of those coexist or subsist within each other yet will is not reason and reason is not memory and memory not will. (Very Trinitarian, wouldn't you say?). If one of those is shackled then the others are affected.  God's will, reason and memory are perfect.  Ours are not.  But if God is also just, how can any of us be condemned if we were not responsible for our own actions?  Free will may be shackled, but it can still break the chains.

I wonder how many of us will plead before the dread judgment that our sins are not our fault?  Hopefully, someone will shut us up before we get that far.  Fortunately, Christ is also merciful and compassionate and loving; maybe He will overlook the fault that we should declare and simply say, "Come and sit at my right hand."