Fr. Stephen feast

I’ve probably said this before, or something very like it: I read every one of the blogs of Fr. Stephen Freeman, but they are so nuanced that I almost always wait until a quiet time when I can reflect on them a bit. That’s why I tend to share them all at once; I’ve read them all at once, too.

1

At a large gathering of some tens of thousands, hands are lifted in the air, people are singing, the music swells. If I stop the description at that point it is possible to assume that this is a moment of praise/worship. If, however, I note that the venue is a concert, then it’s mere adulation of a celebrity. But the grammar of the action is utterly the same.

Fast forward to the setting of an Orthodox Church. Here there are numerous icons of holy men and women (saints) adorning the Church. Candles and lamps burn before them. A non-Orthodox contemporary Christian, visiting for the first time, becomes distinctly uncomfortable and thinks to himself, “They are worshipping saints!” Somehow, the psychological confusion that is contemporary culture can distinguish between the worship of God and the adoration of celebrities but accuses traditional Christianity of violating the second and third commandments.

What we have is a clash of grammars.

I suggest a working definition for contemporary worship: any number of activities, including singing, dancing, waving hands, shouting, weeping, when in a religious setting. The same actions in a non-religious setting are not worship.

The contemporary roadmap of religion consists almost exclusively of various psychological states. The honor given to a Rock Star is understood to differ from that given to God based on the intention within the person who is giving the honor. To an outside observer, the actions might appear indistinguishable. But, “God knows the heart.” And so, “God can tell the difference between the two.”

My son was around eleven or twelve when he first encountered a patriotic event within a Church. He had grown up in the Church (Episcopal) and had become Orthodox a year or so earlier. However, we were on summer vacation with family who were faithful Baptists. That Sunday was also July 4th. The Church service consisted of patriotic songs and a sermon on Christian America. My son was deeply upset. On the way home, he expressed his distress and kept insisting, “That’s idolatry!” In hindsight, I think he was right and I think the seamless ease with which that particular group of Christians could move from religious event to patriotic is more than a little problematic.

(The Sacrifice of Worship, May 30, 2017) So, then: if “worship” is not the achieving of some psychological state, then what is it?

Christians of the first millennium-and-a-half understood that the “bloodless sacrifice” of the Eucharistic offering was the central act of worship. Their hymns and psalms happened as part of that context. We no longer offer the sacrifice of bulls and goats. But we continue to offer the bloodless sacrifice of Christ’s death. It is the single, perfect offering of all humanity, made through the Person of God’s Son. Because he is also God, that sacrifice is eternal, always present and able to be offered and shared by His people.

Read the original blog for the full discussion.

2

Many modern Christians treat Pascha (Easter) as though it were a celebration of Jesus’ personal return after a tragic death. Orthodoxy views Christ’s Holy Week, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection as one unending, uninterrupted assault on Hades. This is the great mystery of Pascha – the destruction of death and Hades. Death is the “last enemy.” Those who forget this are like soldiers who have forgotten the purpose of the war in which they fight.

(Entering Hell on Pentecost – With Prayer, June 3, 2017)

3

We cannot imagine ourselves as slaves. But let’s try. We have all been taken captive or were born in captivity. We are abused, and, in turn, we abuse others (and ourselves). Some have chosen to work with their masters in a slave’s version of the Stockholm Syndrome. There are good slaves and bad slaves, kind slaves and cruel. But we are slaves. There is certainly free-will, and choices that are made day-by-day. But the general context of slavery is not a choice and no separate action of the will occurs outside the context of that slavery.

Whose fault is the slavery? And what possible use is an answer to that question? Sit and explain to the slave the meaning of his slavery and its causes and you still have a slave. Perhaps he can start a discussion group.

This is not a first-world scenario. However, it is profoundly the scenario of Scripture. The liberation of Israel from Egypt, the great primal story of Passover, is a slave narrative. This same point-of-view is the context of the New Testament as well. Christ came to “set at liberty those who are held captive,” and to “seek and save those who are lost.” St. Paul describes us specifically as “slaves to sin.” The patristic and liturgical treatment of Pascha is almost exclusively that of setting captives free.

(Hell, Justice and the Heart of Prayer – Thinking Like a Slave, June 6, 2017)

4

If you are in the “helping professions,” confronting problems in people’s lives, it doesn’t take long to realize that no one is purely and simply an individual. The problems we suffer may occasionally appear to be “of our own making,” but that is the exception rather than the rule. Whether we are thinking of economic or genetic inheritance, or the psychological and social environment, almost all the issues in our lives are a matter of “connection.” The same is true when it comes to virtue and wholeness. Saints are not a phenomenon of individuality.

One of the earliest complete accounts of Christian salvation was written in the 4th century by St. Athanasius the Great. It has long been recognized as a touchstone of Christian theology. In that work, On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius explains in detail that the salvation of humanity is brought about through the action of God becoming human. The work of Christ’s death and resurrection are not external to our humanity. Rather, their power to work salvation lies precisely in the fact of our communion with Him through the single common human nature that He assumed. Our cooperation with that action completes and makes effective what has been given to the whole of humanity through the God/Man, Jesus Christ.

Our cooperation (a choice) is only effective, however, because of the communion established in the Incarnation. Salvation is not a reward given to someone who chose correctly. Salvation is a new life that is lived as a communion, a mutual indwelling (koinonia).

St. Silouan famously said, “My brother is my life.” …

The modern myth of human beings as individual, self-contained moral agents is not just incorrect. It is also a tool of deception. The myth is often used to absolve us from the mutual responsibility that constitutes a just society, as well as to falsely blame individuals for things over which they have little or no control. That contemporary Christianity is often complicit in this deception is perhaps among its greatest errors.

(Saving My Neighbor – Just How Connected Are We?, June 9, 2017)

My little parish has several young people who like what I think is called “roots music.” They eventually did an album, mostly or entirely of original music, in a roots music style they dubbed “Byzantine Bluegrass” for its interwoven Orthodox religious inspiration. My favorite track featured this rollicking chorus, which surely shows that they were coming from somewhere other than Jesus’n’me individualism:

It’s a long way to heaven, dear Lord.
It’s a slow road to hoe.
And I don’t know if I’ll make it, dear Lord,
but I sure won’t make it alone.

5

[T]he American Dream may be the greatest obstacle to salvation the world has ever known.

The New Testament is quite clear: we are saved through our weakness. We are not saved in spite of our weakness. Nor is our weakness healed so that we can then be saved. Our weakness is precisely the point at which, by which and through which God saves us.

And our weakness can be found in places where our brokenness most resides: weak, sick, poor, tired, handicapped, dysfunctional, awkward, incompetent, inadequate – these all describe the place where Christ intends to meet us.

The good news is that despite the popularity of the American Dream, even those who find it most successfully remain weak. Their success can make them blind to their weakness, or can be so alluring that their weakness remains unacknowledged. But the very best of the successful remain broken enough to be capable of salvation.

Why are we saved through our weakness? There are many ways to answer this question, but I will choose but only one: Weakness is the path that is most like Christ Himself.

(Weak, Sick, Poor, Tired: A Story for Losers, June 15, 2017)

6

The Cross is the heart of our salvation. It is on the Cross that we see the fullness of God’s love and it is in the Cross that we are united to that same love. Every Christian shares the commandment, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24) This commandment long ago passed into the common stock of cultural proverbs. “To bear one’s Cross” has come to mean something of a passive resignation to a difficult, even distasteful situation. There is almost nothing in it to inspire the heart. Of course, this seeming familiarity with the concept obscures the depth of Christ’s teaching and alienates our understanding from one of the most essential parts of our discipleship. St. Paul writes in virtual ecstasy when he says, “…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death!” (Phil. 3:10) What are we missing?

This traditional prayer (similar to a number of others) is an example of Orthodox thought:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Your holy will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Your holy will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from You.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

Its theme is directed primarily at the acceptance of the day. It assumes that each day will bring its own “fatigue” and “unexpected occurrences.” It does not ask for a list of good things. Indeed, it is rightly assumed that God only wills us good and that He knows our needs better than we ourselves.

(Giving Thanks for All Things – The Cruciform Life, June 21, 2017)

7

I don’t think I’d even try to clip and share a nub from A Priest’s Thoughts on Depression, Anxiety, the Soul, Your Body and Your Brain (June 26, 2017). Suffice that if you suffer panic attacks, depression or deep shame (don’t brush off that last one), it could be the single step that begins your journey of a thousand miles.

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There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.