One of the criticisms of Orthodoxy’s understanding of its own history (not to mention, Roman Catholicism’s) is that there really is no unbroken Christian tradition of anything at all, that Church history is really just about multiple movements, doctrines and practices that cannot coherently be traced back to the Apostles. This is essentially one version of the historiography of the anti-ecclesiologists. If there is no true Church, then there certainly cannot be any true tradition of continuity.
The above is the first paragraph of a post I published today on the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy weblog, entitled “No True Scotsman does Church History Polemics.” It deals with one of the approaches to Church history taken by those who not believe in one, true Church (what I call the “anti-ecclesiology”), simply denying what those who lived in the centuries prior believed about their Church, that it is the unbroken continuation of the very Church of the Apostles.
I hope you like it.
The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. —T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”
When my wife and I married, one of our major logistical problems was figuring out where to put our combined libraries. We still have this problem, although we have discharged a number of volumes from our total. Among the books that were not part of the original merger but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse. It’s also—and this is perhaps a bit less obvious—because the spiritual civilization around us has already collapsed.
Rod Dreher has written in a couple pieces recently (here and here, both well worth reading), specifically addressing the question of same-sex marriage (SSM) but also touching on larger issues, that the culture war has essentially been lost by conservative Christians. (I use “conservative Christian” here to refer to a theological outlook, not a political one, though of course there are political implications to all theology.)
He writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior overwhelmed and even outright persecuted, because the competing moral vision that includes same-sex marriage as only one of its many tenets will demand more and more of the moral imagination of the people. The time is coming when Christians will not be allowed merely to tolerate moral dictates that are contrary to their own doctrines but will be expected to endorse and participate in them, or else face real penalties.
As I noted a few posts back, religious liberty is already being penalized by the courts because believers have the temerity to try to live out what their faiths teach them—and I’m not talking about trying to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else, but simply trying to live them for themselves. Christian doctrine is already thoughtcrime in countries not terribly unlike ours, and I have little reason to believe that we will somehow remain exempt.
I am not much of a social prognosticator, but I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive that something like SSM is, in Dreher’s words, “only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution.”
That is, the foundation of what was Christendom was ripped out long ago, and I would trace that to long before America’s founding. It’s taken a long time for it to come to such foundational errors regarding the nature of humanity as the Sexual Revolution makes, but those are only logical extensions of the atomistic culture of liberalism—and here, again, I am not speaking of political liberalism exactly, but of this moral idea that the individual and his desires is the only absolute on which the culture is built.
I think that conservative Christians’ problem is that we’re acting as though Christendom is under attack and that we have to defend it. But look around, folks. Christendom has already fallen. All we have left are the ruins, a handful of basic affirmations like the inherent worth of the person and the equality of all mankind—but even those things are subject to the charismatic domination of some ideology or leader, who may well turn those things on their heads, as the 20th century so amply demonstrated for us. As Dreher writes, “My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.”
We cannot act any longer as though we are imperial soldiers defending the borders of the empire from the barbarians. We are resistance fighters engaged in a guerrilla battle against an occupying force that conquered us generations ago. Or, if you like, we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.
So what, then, do we do? I think we have to continue to speak sanity clearly even in the halls of the insane, and we have to be willing to suffer for it. Even if we could use the force of law to try to enshrine certain moral precepts into the legal code, such things will not last long, as they would be counter to the prevailing cultural logic of the age. True morality is always about more than the individual, about an appeal to a narrative grander than myself alone and certainly far grander than the state with its guns. In any event, I do not believe that making the state our primary mode of speaking truth to the culture will actually serve the truth. We should of course remain involved in the political sphere, but we have to keep in mind that the law can only restrain. It cannot make men moral.
If there is going to be any hope for Christians in a post-Christendom culture, it can only be found in that primal Apostolic fire that once, long ago, turned the world upside down. We may well have to suffer some martyrdom. But we will also have to show an increasingly inhuman society what it means to be human. That is the real purpose behind a Christian localism—to demonstrate a humanity of love to those who can receive it, who are right next to us and mostly only know the Machine. This is also the purpose of our evangelism—not only to save individual souls (though that would be enough!) but also to build a new culture, refounded on the one foundation of Christ. The Church has always been counter-cultural, but in some points in history the contrast with the surrounding culture is greater than others. This is one of those moments in history.
All this is part of the great worth of homeschooling, pilgrimage, gardening, opting out of the 24/7 entertainment/infotainment culture, knitting church communities more tightly together, and learning all the skills that many of our pioneering forebears had to know for survival. We may well need these things for basic survival, especially if the moral corrosion of post-Christendom continues to express itself in economic corrosion. But even apart from these skills’ value for survival, they also teach us to be human, to be humane, to love, to deny extraneous and unnecessary possessions. They have a spiritual value, both for our own salvation and for our evangelism.
We may well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which most of a galaxy is plunged into war and barbarism, but there are two libraries (“foundations”) at distant corners of the galaxy, waiting for their contents to be used to restore civilization far more quickly would have formed unaided. Christians may end up being embattled enclaves of sanity, whose very existence will stand witness to the world that it is possible to live with self-sacrificial love for one another and who will retain the knowledge of how to worship the one God and to receive the divine energies needed to be fully human.
Even if it really is the case that religious liberty is not about to be overwhelmed by the atomist culture of materialism and desire, we still have to approach this culture as the Apostles did their own. We live in an empire that is not Christendom, but rather the domain of spiritual powers working for the Enemy. If the Gospel is going to fall on ears that are anything but deaf to it, it will have to be accompanied by a clear, authentic demonstration of the humanity of love, a sane humanity that loves people, loves the earth, and treats all persons and places as holy and bearing the sacred imprint of the Creator. We will soon be the only alternative to the madness of the Machine.
And some of us may well have to die. I hope we’ll be ready.
There have been several postings online in the past few days of various articles claiming that the Christian Church at some period in history formerly sanctioned same-sex weddings and treated them just like marriages between a single man and a single woman, based mainly on the work of the late John Boswell. Someone even posted one of those articles in the comments section of my previous post. The one making the most rounds is called When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite. These articles are served up as “gotchas” to unsuspecting Christians who were under the impression that Christian history is pretty unanimous about what Christian marriage is about. (Spoiler: Their impression is correct.)
Mind you, someone may reject the Church’s historic teaching on marriage. But there really are no legs to stand on when it comes to the claim that the Church used to teach that marriage could also be between two men or two women (or any other combination). (And note here that I mean the historic Church, which is Orthodoxy. But this would also include almost all churches that are more than about 100 years old.)
Anyway, there are numerous articles which thoroughly debunk Boswell’s work. His fellow historians didn’t take it seriously, and neither should you. The only people who do (and I really am not making this up) are those who either don’t know better or quite desperately want him to be right. Boswell himself was gay and the founder of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1994 at the age of 47. He was also a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Episcopal Church (despite his much greater similarity with the latter on sexual morality).
Anyway, the point of this post is not to invite debate (because for me, the matter really is settled, and there are a quadra-gazillion other places to debate these questions; as such, I am not turning on comments for this post), but rather to point out some of the several places online where one can read refutations of Boswell’s work, far better than anything I could put together. The slams, as they say, are dunked.
- In the Case of John Boswell by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (a Catholic convert from Lutheranism) examines the scholarly reception of Boswell’s work.
- Gay Marriage: Reimaging Church History by Robin Darling Young is a detailed examination especially of the numerous specious translations in Boswell’s work (upon which his conclusions very much hang). Interesting in this piece is especially the reminiscence that its author experienced a same-sex union in an ancient church and was surprised to be told later by Boswell’s book that what she had experienced was actually a marriage. This is the first piece I ever read on this subject, and it packs a powerful punch.
- Failed Attempt to Rewrite History by Fr. Patrick Viscuso is an examination specifically of the canonical and liturgical claims that Boswell makes and how they fail to square with the actual contexts of the rites being examined. Viscuso is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church and a canonist specializing especially in marriage questions. He is also cited(!) in Boswell’s work.
- Rewriting History to Serve the Gay Agenda by Marian Therese Horvat is a general review of Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, especially focusing on what the author calls Boswell’s “advocacy scholarship.”
- A Groom of One’s Own? by Brent D. Shaw shows how anachronistic and tendentious Boswell’s readings of documents are. Shaw is himself in favor of the “liberationist movements of our time,” but he concludes that “tinkering with the moral balance of the past is a disservice to the study of history and to the reform of society.”
- Procrustean Marriage Beds by Robert Louis Wilken can best be summed up by its last two sentences: “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe creates a world that never existed, misrepresents Christian practice, and distorts the past. This is a book on a mission, scholarship at the service of social reform, historical learning yoked to a cause, a tract in the cultural wars, and it is in that spirit that it should be read.” Wilken is one of the most respected patrologists of our time.
- Do you take this man… by David Wright shows how Boswell’s Same Sex Unions is essentially a rehashing of his earlier work that fails to take into accounts the criticisms the earlier one drew.
- Remarks to the Catholic Press by Fr. Robert Taft is not really a review but just some blunt offhand remarks by one of the most respected Jesuit liturgiologists of all time. (Warning: Do not read this out loud to children!)
- Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, the famed liturgical translator from the UK also did a review of Boswell’s work for the journal Sourozh for its February 1995 issue, but it doesn’t appear to be online. There are bits of it quoted in the Wikipedia article on Adelphopoiesis (“brother-making”), the rite Boswell claims was a same-sex marriage.
If readers find other pieces offering up similar debunkings, feel free to send me the links, and I’ll add them here.
Again, just to be clear: I don’t hate homosexuals or people whose politics would have homosexual marriage enshrined and enforced as a civil right by the state. I also don’t hate people who reject Orthodox Christian teaching. The point of this post is to point you to some information debunking the claim that the Church has not always taught that same-sex attraction is a temptation like any other temptation (note I didn’t say “worse than all other temptations”) that has to be struggled against and repented of when indulged. I also do not believe that acting on that temptation is a worse sin than any of my own sins.
Oh, and this bit is pretty good when it comes to laying out a clear sense of what it means to be a Christian who believes in traditional Christian morality and isn’t going around hating people who don’t or who fail to live up to what they do believe in.
I have to say that this is one of my favorites among the things I’ve written. A number of folks have actually asked me to expand this into a book, but I don’t think I really yet have the experience or background to have enough material to warrant a book on this. Perhaps I will someday.
Sunday before the Elevation of the Cross, September 11, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“Nothing will ever be the same.” So went the refrain again and again and again on September 11, 2001, and for weeks and now years following. I also clearly remember Dan Rather just saying over and over again, “There are no words.” Some people called it “the day the world changed.” Almost everyone seems to agree that the 9/11 attacks were a watershed moment in history.
Certainly, there is now a whole industry dedicated to supporting that claim. Books, movies, TV and radio specials, an almost endless array of columns, articles, analysis, conspiracy theories—all these things shout out in a cacophonous symphony playing one melody: “Nothing will ever be the same.” And the rhythm underneath it all is the drums of war. Our armed forces have been sent by our leaders into at least sixteen different countries since those attacks, with varying results.
No matter what one’s views are about foreign policy, military interventionism, Islamic Jihadism, the “War on Terror,” the effect on personal liberties of the Patriot Act, etc., as Orthodox Christians we have a unique perspective on what the meaning of events like the 9/11 attacks really is.
For one thing, a major part of what gave 9/11 such a cultural impact was its sheer scale, that nearly 3000 people died in those attacks, and another 6000 were injured. Those deaths and injuries were indeed terrible, and many stories of genuine heroism emerged in the aftermath.
The impact of 9/11 is also great because it is the first large-scale attack on mainland American soil in living memory. There was a strong sense of vulnerability that resulted from hijacked airliners slamming into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and also downing in the fields of the western part of our state. How could such a thing happen here? I thought we were safe. This doesn’t happen to America.
As Orthodox Christians we have an ecclesial memory of numerous instances when many thousands of Christians died for their faith—the nearly 2600 beheaded with St. Andrew the Commander, the 9000 killed with St. Ia of Persia (whose feast is today), the more than 11,000 killed with St. Meletius the Commander, the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia (burned for their faith), and let us not forget the untold millions killed in the 20th century in Communist Eastern Europe. We are a Church defined by martyrdom. We know what it means for there to be a holocaust, a great sacrifice of people for some evil cause.
At the same time, we Orthodox Christians have a strong tradition of facing death squarely in the eye, of not feeling safe and secure and comfortable. Death can take any of us at any time, whether in the sudden immolation or crush of a flaming ruin in the heart of Manhattan or through the decay of cancer or an accident on the highway. Truly, none of us has the guarantee of a long, comfortable life. And whenever that death does take place, our funeral service is honest and straightforward about it, not glossing things over with nothing but praise for the deceased, but a serious and honest confrontation with the horror of death and what its spiritual meaning is.
With all of that in mind, can we say that “nothing will ever be the same”? Did 9/11 fundamentally alter the course of all history?
It is certainly true that 9/11 altered the course of many people’s lives, and not just the ones that have made a career out of the 9/11 industry. Thousands died, and many thousands more will mourn for years to come. But is it true that nothing will ever be the same?
We can alter our foreign policy. We can take different approaches to relations with Muslims and the nations which are their homes. We can choose a different use for our military. We can approach civil liberties differently. As a democratic, representative republic, those things are not unalterable. They do not have to remain the same. But, in a deeper sense, will nothing ever be the same?
I think that such a claim is fundamentally myopic. For one thing, there are many nations on earth where thousands of people have died and continue to die. Such attacks may be a surprise on American soil, but for some places in the world, they have been a way of life for decades. And we know that history is replete with too many great massacres to name. So while we should never impugn the memory of those who were sacrificed on 9/11, we must also take a larger view of our history, of the world in general, and more critically, a larger view of human history.
You see, there has indeed been a moment when nothing would ever be the same. It is not the union of the Greek city-states by Alexander the Great. It is not the Roman Empire’s Pax Romana that stretched from the eastern shore of the Black Sea in the East to Great Britain in the West. It is not the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is not the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It is not World War I or World War II. All of those major turning points in human history can and probably will be turned again. Even our American empire will someday contract and then fall.
The moment when human history irrevocably turned, when nothing truly will ever be the same again, was that moment that we are about to celebrate this week in the Church. It is the moment of the death of God.
If you want to know what it is that sets us apart as Orthodox Christians from the rest of the world, this is it: God became man, and God died. One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh. And because God is immortal, when He died as a mortal man, He broke the power of death. And then He passed on the power to conquer death to His Apostles, who have passed it on to us.
Orthodox Christianity is about coming face to face with death, grappling with death, and wrestling it to the ground. It is not about accommodation to this world. Those who prefer to be accommodated to this world will always be utterly devastated by moments like 9/11, because they cut so sharply into the comfortable complacency of a consumerist culture. For them, it is true that nothing will ever be the same. But those who will not surrender, those who will not be defeated by death or by the world that death holds in its thrall, those who have put on Christ and struggle to put on Christ every day—they cannot be destroyed.
Be sure of this: We are indeed engaged in a war. But it is not a war against grasping politicians, tyrannical dictators, or fundamentalist terrorists. As Orthodox Christians, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). We are engaged with much deeper and darker spiritual forces than even the nineteen Jihadists of 9/11 who set it in their minds to slaughter our countrymen were trying to conjure up.
Because we do indeed live on this earth and in time, we as part of an earthly nation must face the real threats that come our way. But as a heavenly nation, the royal priesthood of the Church, our greatest attention must be on those great spiritual threats, the threats of complacency, of secularism, of accommodation to this world. If we do not remain vigilant, if we do not constantly train ourselves to embrace Christ’s death on the Cross and therefore conquer death with Him, then we will be conquered by death, as evil takes deeper root in our hearts.
If anything, 9/11 was a great wake-up call to America that our comfort and complacency can be shaken by people who have strong wills. I don’t care if it takes 9/11 or something else, but we ourselves are being called upon to wake up, not so much to the temporal threats of those who can destroy bodies, but rather to the destruction that can be wreaked upon our souls.
Is your soul in ruins? Can you look at your spiritual life and say that it is not just “pretty good” (which is not a spiritual life at all!) but truly alive? Today, on this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let us remember the suffering and the dead. But let us also remember the path to Life, which is by joining ourselves to the Cross of Christ and thus to His conquest over death.
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
I was asked to pass this on. God willing, I’ll be giving a short paper at this symposium about the detachment of the Antiochian parishes from the Russian archdiocese in the 1920s and 30s.
For Immediate Release
Registration Discount for Orthodox Conference at Princeton About to Expire
There are still a few days left to register at the early-bird rate for “Pilgrims and Pioneers: The Growth of Orthodox Christianity in 20th Century America,” a conference taking place at Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary from September 30 to October 1, 2011.
Some of the figures whose lives and ministries will be discussed during the conference include St Tikhon Bellavin, St Raphael Hawaweeny, St Nikolai Velimirovich, St Alexis Toth, Fr Theoclitos Triantafilides, Archbishop Iakovos Koukouzis, Fr Georges Florovsky, Fr Alexander Schmemann, and Fr John Meyendorff.
More information is available on the conference’s website: http://www.princeton.edu/~florov/orthodox_history_symposium.html
Early-bird registration expires on August 15, so please register today—and encourage others to do likewise!
If you have any questions, please contact the Fr Georges Florovsky Orthodox Christian Theological Society of Princeton University at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In light of yesterday’s post, I thought it might be useful to comment on the “other” side of the questions of inter-religious relations. By no means is this a sort of antithesis of yesterday’s thesis. Indeed, I believe a vigorous engagement precisely on doctrinal terms is the basis on which the best inter-religious friendships can occur. I’ve known some good men who have been engaged in honest, “ecumenism with a gun” type of dialogues who have made many good friends along the way, even if they remain on different sides of doctrinal questions.
Now, it should be noted that I do not rise in any sense in defense of “religion.” There is no such thing. There are only religions. Religion is far too broad a term to be useful in any real sense as a phenomenon to which one can point or offer criticism or defense. (For more on this, see the opening pages of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). That said, I find religion quite interesting, and if we boil it down at least to its etymological roots (re + ligio), it means “reconnection.” Religion is fundamentally about reconnecting oneself—to community, to transcendent principles, to metaphysics, to tradition, etc. And in that sense we can see the fundamental irreligiosity of our age—even while attendance at religious services remains quite high just about everywhere, there is more and more a fundamental cultural sensibility of disconnection rather than reconnection. Indeed, much religion is, in this sense, distinctly irreligious.
The forgetfulness of politics (e.g., the senator who today insists that the sovereign debt ceiling must be raised who five years ago spoke out against it on principle, yet without any loss of reputation or influence), the ahistorical character of much theology and spiritual life, the general ignorance of history and disdain for tradition, the banality of modern industrialized mass education, the popularity of contraception—all of these things form a maelstrom of disconnection, of people from their pasts, of people from each other, of people from what orders their lives toward what is noble. The irony of our age is that, as telecommunications gives us more of the illusion of connection, we are plunged further into isolation.
Thus, I rise today in praise of faith, which is fundamentally not a set of beliefs, but an act. Faith is the act of reconnection. It is the act of religion.
I am fascinated by religions, and the more I learn of them, the more I learn to love Orthodoxy—not out of disdain, happy to be “free” of their problems, but rather out of being able to see my own faith more clearly and having my blind spots cleared up because of the way some other faith emphasizes things. It was a class on Hinduism which helped prepare me for the paradoxes of Orthodox Christianity. It was a friend’s decision to become Roman Catholic that articulated for me why I could no longer be Protestant. It was in seeing Islam in prison that I caught a glimpse of what prisoners experience. It was a Roman Catholic roommate in college who demonstrated for me what firmness in faith could look like for men in their twenties. And of course it was my Evangelical upbringing that gave me Christ.
All those who believe in what is beyond the world of the dull senses, who are willing to use tools of knowing that are beyond what has become standard in our world, have something in common, and that is that we believe in the possibility of self-transcendence. If there is a God (or even gods), then that means that humility is called for.
There is also something about man’s reach for transcendence that produces beauty. I can see the beauty in Buddhist culture, though I have a hard time relating. I can see it much more clearly in Catholic and Anglican Christendom, and indeed, in many ways, I still feel more at home in those Western Christian worlds than I do in the cultures of Orthodoxy. I of course want to go see Greece, Syria, Russia, etc., but I don’t think that they will thrill my heart in quite the way that my pilgrimage to the British Isles did in 2001. And I still try to read Tolkien every year.
I am also moved by the seriousness and capacity for compassion of the believers I meet outside of Orthodoxy, as well. Of course the family in which I grew up is highest among them. But I also greatly respect my clergy friends in other confessions that live and work here in Emmaus. I don’t believe in their theology, but they (who are mostly far more experienced than I) have a maturity and a comfortableness in their own churches that I hope someday to attain in my own. And I also very much wish that the sort of strong moral voice that certain communions have in America (particularly Rome) were characteristic of the Orthodox.
Yes, I want everyone to be an Orthodox Christian. But I do not go around trying to “make” people Orthodox. I will of course debate doctrine if that is appropriate at the moment, but I’m mainly interested in trying to facilitate an encounter with Christ. And just like St. Justin Martyr believed of old, Christ can be encountered outside the visible boundaries of the Church, as the spermatikos logos, the Word of God in seed form. That doesn’t mean that Christ’s Church doesn’t have boundaries, but it does mean that He’s out and about. He’s on the move.
It is not the case that everything outside the Church’s visible boundaries is unmitigated darkness. Any place where God is sought, where Christ is loved, or where the Truth is desired is a place where I can find joy.
There are, of course, cheerful materialists out there, people for whom transcendence or absolutes are utter nonsense yet are not bothered by it. But almost all of them are enjoying the inheritance of religion and not really ready to abandon it.
John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without religion. The last prominent man who really did that with any consistency and honesty was Nietzsche. And I’m not fond of the vision he concocted. He was ready to deal with a world with a dead God.
It’s a good thing he was dead wrong.
The following is a repost from last year of the sermon I gave on Sunday, August 1, 2010. Happy Lammas!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today, let’s spend some time thinking about bread.
I don’t think we have any British wheat or grain farmers here, but if you were such a person, you would probably be working right around this time of year to bring in the first harvest of grain. As such, there is an ancient English Christian custom, probably not really followed much any more, of baking a first loaf of bread from the flour of that harvest and then bringing it to church to have it blessed.
This custom came to be fixed for celebration on August 1st, and so today is called “Lammas,” which is a compound word formed from the phrase “loaf mass.” There are actually a number of English words formed in this way, such as Michaelmas for the feast of the Archangel Michael in November or Candlemas for the feast of Christ’s presentation in February, when candles are traditionally blessed. But probably the only one most of us are familiar with is Christmas, the feast of Christ’s nativity. Today is Lammas, a day to focus on bread.
Blessing a loaf of bread in church may sound a bit odd to some. What’s so special about bread? But to those who find that odd, it may also be interesting to note that the standard Orthodox prayer books for priests also have prayers to bless not just things like grapes for Transfiguration, flowers for the Dormition, or palms for Palm Sunday, but also for digging wells, for salt, for sowing seed, for barns, for herds and enclosures for cattle, bees, beehives, honey, planting vineyards, stocking fishponds, building boats, ambulances, fire engines, trains, cars and bridges. And that’s just in the abridged volume.
What’s interesting to note about all these blessings is not so much their specialness, but rather their very ordinariness. Many of them have to do with an agrarian farm life that most of us never touch directly, but certainly at least one of them touches us in some way, even if it’s just the blessing for cars or salt.
One of the illnesses of our age is that Christians have removed God out of the ordinary. The essence of secularism is not so much a denial of God or even a rejection of coming to church, but rather the relegation of spiritual things to one compartment of our lives. We can understand easily why God would bless someone’s heart and soul, but it’s perhaps less obvious today why He would bless salt or a loaf of bread.
Yet, if we think about when God touches us in the Church most clearly, it is precisely through objects like this, in the most primal, elemental, basic and foundational stuff of everyday life: Water, wine, oil, bread, cloth, hands, hair, dirt, stone, language, fire, wax, wood. All of these are to be found in the sacramental, mysterious life of the Church, and it is through them that the divine presence is communicated to us. Through these things, we connect to God.
The ancient Celtic Christians, the neighbors of the English, also had prayers for rather ordinary things. Babies were washed by dipping them three times in the water, while saying the Names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—an echo of baptism. There were also prayers for rowing boats, walking, giving birth, and lighting fires. It is so, so very sad that so many of us have lost this sense of God’s presence in the mundane, ordinary moments of life.
One of the things priests sometimes hear in confession is that God feels distant. Being told “blessed are they who believe without seeing” is sometimes not very comforting, because our hearts, whether we know it or not, very much long to see God, to experience Him in a way that we know for certain that He’s there, that He loves us, that He is touching us and connecting with us.
If God feels distant to us, it may be because we have not invited Him to be with us. Our Lord and Savior, in His great love and kindness and compassion, will never force Himself into our lives. He is there just as much as we want Him to be. But how much do we want Him? We have all known people who want something so badly that they will do whatever it takes to get it. Perhaps we have been that person. Perhaps we were training as athletes or academically ambitious or in love. Do we have that same fire for the eternal love of God?
The star athlete will tell you that he did not go from being a flabby weakling to an all-star overnight. He worked at it, doing what he could, taking it slow, then gradually building up to an intense, driving training in his sport. Spiritual life is the same. If we want God to be present for us in the extraordinary moments, we need to invite Him into the ordinary ones.
So we begin again with bread. Of all the physical things that the Church makes use of in her life, there are two which are at the very center of what it means to be Christians in communion with our God—wine and bread. Since today is Lammas, let’s talk about bread.
With the exception of God’s gift of manna to the Hebrew people in the wilderness and moments such as the miraculous feeding of the Prophet Elias, bread is always the result of the work of human persons. It is baked in an oven, tended by a baker, who has formed the bread out of flour, salt, water and yeast. And the flour is from wheat, which is harvested by people. The salt is distilled from the sea or dug out of the ground, the water is drawn from its source, and the yeast is collected and propagated. At every stage, human activity is required for there to be bread.
Yet there would be no wheat without God, nor would there be water, salt or yeast. Even the strength and knowledge of the baker find their ultimate source in God, to say nothing of his very existence. And God created the physical laws according to which the matter of the universe normally operates. So it is clear that at every stage of its development, divine activity is required for there to be bread.
These two observations, that there would be no bread without man and that there would be no bread without God, are an indication of what in Orthodox theology is called synergy, the working of God and man together. Far from solely being our Creator and our Lord, God also joins us as our co-worker, standing next to us in the most basic and ordinary moments and tasks of life. If we consider bread in particular even more deeply, it is not only something that we make together with God. It is our nourishment. Nearly every diet in every culture in the world includes bread in some form. Even the most meager of diets—bread and water—includes bread. Bread goes to the very heart of human life.
It is therefore no coincidence that when the Lord chose the means to make His Body available to us as food, as the divine Eucharist, He chose to do it through bread. Let us consider for the moment therefore the holy and divine Eucharist we are about to receive. It was made with the hands and the knowledge of a baker, and at the same time, it is the fruit of the divine Energy of God in His creation. And it is this ordinary product, which comes from the ground, from the water, from the air, and from seed, which is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but in synergy with the prayers of the holy people of God, the royal nation of priests which is the Church—this is what now holds the awesome mystery of the wholeness of the Godhead within itself.
Christian life truly is so very intimate. Its power is that it spiritually intertwines the uncreated God with the created world. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the most basic, fundamental, everyday things become for us the vehicles for the communication of what is truly beyond our ability to describe it. So consider therefore, when the blessed Chalice comes forth from the altar this morning, that contained within it, in a great mystery, is God Himself. And that is what you will be eating.
How can we not stand in awe at the God Who touches the ordinary to make it holy, Who lifts up broken, messed-up people to become saints? Let us therefore remember at all times to invite Him not just into the high point of our week—Sunday morning—but into every little moment.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Post Script for the 2011 repost: The following is a comment I made on the post last year which further explores why it is the Church blesses physical objects:
In a world in which the Son of God did not become incarnate, there is of course no point at all in mingling up spiritual things with the material world.
But because the Son of God did become incarnate, then that means that physical matter has the possibility for bearing within itself the divine energies of God. The event of the Incarnation has ramifications throughout history, both before and after the Annunciation.
There are numerous cases in Scripture of God working through physical matter—indeed, almost every time we see Him doing anything, it is with created matter as a major element, whether it is healing the blind or snake-bitten, resurrecting the dead (e.g., as upon the relics of Elisha in 2 King 13:21), the cloud and the pillar of fire for the Hebrews, ordination, baptism, the Eucharist, etc.
The point in asking God’s blessing upon physical objects is precisely the same. We are asking God to make Himself present in them, so that in and through them we may come into contact with His divine power, His energies. We do not believe blessed objects are “magical,” possessing any independent power of themselves. They are simply vessels for God’s grace, His actual presence in and with us.
In short, we are banishing secularism from our world. There is no place and no thing where God does not wish to manifest His presence. He has chosen to work through our prayers to make this a reality.
Some news from Conciliar Press:
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