Month: January 2011

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Choosing Orthodoxy

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The Calling of the Apostles

There is a critique in Orthodox convert circles, especially in what one reads on the Internet, of the “problem” of converting to Orthodox Christianity. Part of the problem, the argument goes, with American culture is its emphasis on conscious choice, that is, consumerism. We are bombarded nearly non-stop by our advertisement culture to make various selections which will be sure to enrich our lives and (most critically) the stock values of corporate shareholders. This mindset finds its way into everything, and religion becomes boutiqued, bourgeois, commercialized, smorgasbordized (if I may).

As such, someone who chooses to become an Orthodox Christian is still really just continuing in his consumer approach to personal life, culture, religion, etc. He may seem to be becoming Orthodox, but because he made a conscious choice to do so, such an act is inherently heterodox and therefore, well, wrong. Ergo, we must conclude that converts really are not truly Orthodox. The norm, you see, is Holy Russia, Imperial Byzantium, etc., where one true religion was the norm, no one made a conscious choice of it, and faith was never commercialized. There may even be some lauding for the compulsory side of this whole business and how much more authentic that really is.

I’ll be quite frank and say that I think that idea is utter garbage.

For one thing, it’s mostly converts who seem to advance this argument, and any argument that necessitates self-loathing is immediately suspect. (And one must ask how these people know what they’re saying to be true, since, by their own definition, they’re not really Orthodox.) But of course I believe the critique has its merits, which is why it seems to have some life and gets repeated every so often. The consumerism of America is a serious problem, and its siren call to put the Almighty Me at the center of everything is indeed a vicious and spiritually debilitating evil. But our problem isn’t the choosing. Our problem is bad choices. My problem is choosing Me.

The norm is not some mythical Holy Nation. The norm, if there is one, is the time of the Apostles, a time where every single Christian made a conscious choice to be one. In the first few generations, relatively few were baptized as infants. Instead, what we see are thousands upon thousands of grown-ups making deliberate choices to become Christians. There was no compulsion to it—indeed, compulsion tended to lead away from the Church. Compulsion was at the hands of the state, which was all too happy to butcher Christ’s followers.

The first Christians lived in a time when there was a lot of religion to choose from. It was pretty normal for most people in the Roman Empire to be poly-religious in one way or another. The notion of One True Faith was something new with Christianity. Monotheism, while on the scene before Christ, really was not a major worldwide force until the Apostles started making it one. So if you were a Gentile, you just picked from plenty of gods, whichever you happened to need for the moment.

But Christ sent the Apostles to call the Gentiles out from that vain world. But one had to answer the call, and in answering that call, converts made a deliberate, conscious choice. I really dare any of these self-loathers to tell me that people like the Apostles and those they converted from among both the Jews and the Gentiles were really not authentically Orthodox because they made a choice to become Christian.

A man who is a philanderer who gets married and settles down is not engaging in more philandering by virtue of choosing one woman to be his wife. He is leaving that life behind, choosing one woman to the exclusion of all others and continually making the conscious, daily choice to remain faithful to her.

Where this self-loathing argument fails is that it assumes we are meant for slavery and that freedom is the real problem. But Christ doesn’t call us to slavery, but to freedom. And in that freedom, we freely choose union with Him. And we have to keep choosing it. Faithfulness is not something one is born into.

Nor is the true Christian life authenticated by virtue of having no will of one’s own. Indeed, this is a kind of monothelitism, in which the will of God so swallows up the human will that the latter is utterly erased. But the Christian, like Christ, is to have a human will in obedience to the divine will. Even the monastic who “renounces” his will does not become an automaton. He still exercises his will to be obedient to his monastic superior.

If this claim regarding the inauthenticity of converts’ Orthodoxy may be likened to a kind of Calvinism, another distortion of Orthodox Christian spirituality is like a sort of semi-Calvinism common to Evangelicals. Many Evangelicals believe in “once saved, always saved,” that your will is operative in choosing Christ, but it immediately becomes inoperative ever after. In the “Orthodox” variant on this doctrine, which a friend of mine calls the “blessing culture,” you are permitted to choose to become Orthodox. But everything you do after that has to have a “blessing” from your “spiritual father,” who is probably your poor parish priest, who now finds himself responsible not only for hearing your confession and giving you spiritual advice, but also must weigh in on what job you will take, whether you will buy a new car, etc. And you must never do anything at all without his direct permission.

Again, this is a form of slavery, and it is not worth the dignity of man. God did not create us to hand over all responsibility for our lives to another person, to turn off our minds. The authentic Christian is not the lobotomized man, but the man whose mind has been transformed by renewal. Again, even a monastic who is obedient to his superior makes the choice to stay in the monastery and to keep on keepin’ on.

Be a man, I say (with no apologies to the women, who know what I mean)! Your life is yours. You can use your will to choose Christ, to choose holiness, to choose to dive into the great depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Or you can choose to live hellishly. He’s calling you. Are you listening? Will you respond?

You gotta choose.

Make His paths straight

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The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. amen.

More than 400 years ago in Tudor England, there was a custom of celebrating a holiday called “Twelfth Night,” which took place on January 5th. Twelfth Night was so named because it was the twelfth day of Christmas, beginning with December 25th as the first day.

During this celebration, a lowly servant would be chosen to be the Lord of Misrule, and all the norms of life would be turned upside down. The Lord of Misrule would preside over this bizarre festival, and his word was law. The masters would serve the servants, and the servants would live like kings. All sorts of strange things would take place, often including a good bit of immorality. Twelfth Night was a time for merrymaking, but it was also a time for twisting everything around. The normal order of life would be abandoned, and all that was improper became proper.

Some of you may be familiar with William Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. In the play, there are cases of mistaken identity, cross-dressing, and people pretending to be what they’re not. Just like the holiday of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is focused on a world turned inside-out, where people are not what they seem to be.

Our world today is an endless Twelfth Night. What God created to be the normal order of things has been turned upside-down. The culture is filled with merrymaking, but it is not filled with the joy that comes from being who and where we’re meant to be. The messages we receive through advertising and the media are that we need to relax more, take more “me time,” attend to our own needs more, have more fun, and keep buying more and more stuff.

And yet with all this attention we’re paying to ourselves, modern man feels more and more alienated. Even with the possibility for instant communication with people on the other side of the earth, mankind feels disconnected. What was supposed to be a global village has become for many of us a global prison, a set of cells which keep people from each other, barricaded by our possessions and pretensions.

In this cultural Twelfth Night, our identities have become distorted and twisted. Many of us are pretending to be someone we’re not, trying on various masks. Our culture in particular is obsessed with a sexual Twelfth Night, trading identities, reversing roles, and delighting in what is outside the boundaries.

We have each become our own Lord of Misrule, servants who pretend to be masters, and in our inside-out worlds, our word is law. The right of the individual to determine everything in his life is the most sacred thing in our society. Yet how many of us sit alone in the dark at times and wonder, “Who am I? What am I supposed to be? Where am I going?” No one who lives in the endless Twelfth Night can know who he is, because the whole world is designed to deny it and keep it hidden.

In our celebration of Theophany, the Lord’s baptism, we also celebrate St. John the Baptist, called John the Forerunner. In the Gospel account, John is baptizing people in the River Jordan when he sees Jesus approaching him. As soon as he sees Him, he proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John the Baptist was not a man who suffered from a Twelfth Night identity crisis. He knew who he was. His whole life is summed up in these words: “Behold the Lamb of God!” John’s purpose was to point the way to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He is the voice crying in the wilderness, prophesied by Isaiah, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

In the Great Feast of Theophany, we see the climax of John’s ministry. He has prepared the way for Jesus, and when Jesus comes, John baptizes Him in the Jordan. The Virgin Mary gave birth to God in the flesh, and John the Forerunner baptizes God in the flesh. For this reason, on most Orthodox iconostases, we see the Theotokos on His right and John on His left. And Jesus Himself calls John “great.”

Why is John great? His greatness is not merely in the physical act of baptizing Christ, just as the Virgin Mary’s greatness is not in the physical act of giving birth to Him. Rather, John’s greatness is precisely because of his obedience to the Word of God which came to him and told him who he was and what he was supposed to do, just like Mary.

People like the Theotokos and John the Baptist live outside the world’s Twelfth Night precisely because of what occurs at Theophany, the day after Twelfth Night, the day when all the games and foolishness come to an end, when the curse of the previous day’s darkness is lifted. At Theophany, those who look with the eyes of faith see the first clear and unmistakable revelation of the Holy Trinity. The voice of the Father bears witness, the Son in the flesh is baptized, and the Holy Spirit descends on Him as a dove.

What was previously hidden has now been uncovered. For thirty years, the secret of Jesus’ identity was known only to a few, and for many centuries, the people of Israel had hoped for His coming. But now, uncovered before us is the revelation of the identity of the Son of God, revealed as both God and man. There is no hinting or cryptic suggestion at Theophany. There is only the in-your-face, fullout, no-mistake revelation of the Almighty Creator of the universe as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it is Jesus Who reveals this to us.

For those of us who find ourselves trapped in Twelfth Night, following after meaningless merrymaking and denying ourselves true joy, the feast of Theophany is precisely the way out. As we have seen, there is nothing in Theophany that even remotely resembles Twelfth Night. It is utter denial of that whole way of life.

If we want to find our true identities, it can only be in Christ, Who created us. If we want to know who we really are and where we’re going, it can only be in union with the Holy Trinity, the communion for which we were made. The first step is baptism. In being baptized, we identify ourselves with Christ, Who was baptized at Theophany in order to make our baptism possible. When He entered the water of baptism, He made it holy and filled it up with Himself. When we enter that same water of baptism, we receive Christ and put on Christ.

If you have not been baptized and received into the Church, then know that the grace of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan is available to you. You can escape the instability and meaninglessness of the world’s Twelfth Night by entering into the revelation of the Son of God.

If you are an Orthodox Christian today, then you have the grace of that same baptism which happened almost 2000 years ago in the Jordan. You have put on Christ. But many of us nevertheless wander back toward Twelfth Night. We can renew our baptism by the holy mystery of confession, which the Fathers tell us is like a “second baptism.”

The power of Theophany is not limited only to human beings, however. The whole world finds itself in Theophany, which is why the Church blesses water for this feast, the element which runs throughout all creation and gives it life. The cosmic effect of sin is undone by the cosmic power of the uncreated God becoming one with His creation.

Ultimately, our identities find their completion and revelation in the same way that John the Baptist’s did. We know who we are by looking for Jesus and then by declaring, “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” Like the Virgin Mary, we give birth to Christ in our hearts by hearing the word of God and keeping it. And then we bring that birth to its full revelation in us by baptism, identifying with Christ in the Jordan.

And now, like John, we must point the world to Christ, loudly proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, the hope of all the nations. With John, we must say: “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” The only way we can find ourselves is by finding Him.

To Him therefore be all glory, honor, power and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.