For an evangelical Christian (and many other Protestants), and even perhaps a Roman Catholic to some degree, coming to the Orthodox Church, it can be somewhat jarring to encounter the emphasis on the bodily dimension of an Orthodox way of life. The worship involves the bodily senses in major ways: the bright colors of the icons, the gold on the vestments and the instruments of worship (cup, paten, censer, candelabra); the strange tonic system of the Byzantine chant which fills the hearing; the rich smells of the incense and interwoven with honeyed nuances of the beeswax candles; the taste of Holy Communion and of the antidoron; the feel of the one’s body, bowing, prostrating, making the sign of the cross, embracing fellow worshippers and one’s family, even how one’s body feels while others are moving around during the service and while one stands. An evangelical is used to much more sitting and listening, perhaps standing and joining in during the praise music part of the service. There may well be bright colors and images in visual presentations and posting of hymn lyrics, perhaps some candles. Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) will be used to some kneeling, and occasional use of incense as well as the images of crucifixes and statues and paintings of saints, perhaps a few icons. But among all these, the Orthodox experience is, if I may dare to say it this way, very sensual.
In this season, we are both in the beginning of the Advent season for “western” Christians, and in the middle of the “eastern” Advent, the Christmas Fast, for Orthodox Christians. In this time of year, when we can tune out the noise of the commercial mercantile season, we hear notes of hope and waiting. This season is the time where we enter mystically, spiritually the experience of ancient Israel, as well as the entire cosmos, hopefully anticipating, waiting for, the appearance of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Although merchants focus us on the joy of the season, so that we’ll purchase their things, the Christmas joy is not yet. We’re in the time of hope and waiting.
It’s important to make sure we keep this distinction. Oh, yes, I know, even the Orthodox hymns of this time are already starting to “turn the corner” with their joyful hints and glimpses of what’s to come. And even though Orthodox traditions in the United States still try to keep a spare and penitential theme during the Nativity Fast, we’ll still celebrate St Nicholas’ day with gold-foil chocolate coins in the shoes of the children on December 6th, St Nicholas’ Day, and it’s not unheard of that Christmas stockings with candy, nuts, fruit and little icons will be passed out to the children near St. Nicholas’ Day. Yet, even so, Orthodox keep this season in fasting and almsgiving. We will feast. For twelve days beginning Christmas Day. But now we wait and hope.
About eight years ago, I determined that I would no longer spend energies and time reading what I will call “academic” theology. By that I mean books and articles on theological topics written for intellectual, rational examination and evaluation, as well as dialogue and debate. There is definitely a need and a place for such things–we are called to test and examine the spirits to discern whether they are of God–but I discerned a need, for my spiritual well-being, to cease such activities indefinitely. Instead I focused on learning the ancient prayers of the Church, and praying them, practicing the asketical disciplines of the faith, and reading the lives of the saints (which is another way of reading theology). This week, partly through providence, partly through prayer, I determined that I would begin again wisely and with discernment to allow myself to return to reading “academic” theology. What changed my mind? This is the providential part: I was given a copy of Joseph Farrell’s Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor.
Today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, or Mary’s death and translation to heaven. I wanted to offer some general thoughts on Mary, Jesus’ mother.
In the Orthodox Church, our hymns are incredibly rich with two thousand years of Christian theology and devotion. The writings of the Church Fathers are full of traditional and historical doctrines, of Christian belief about Mary. But my own initial thoughts and experience regarding Mary were far less doctrinal, and much more personal. To be sure, as a Protestant, non-denominational evangelical, I had to address certain questions I had when I became Orthodox. But these never seemed all that problematic. No, my first experiences were, if you will, much more relational.
The assurance of faith is often talked about in terms of feeling. We feel assured, we feel a conviction in our hears, we feel confident of a belief or hoped-for outcome. And there is no doubt an aspect of assurance that involves feelings. The difficulty however is that feelings are fleeting. They come and go. We may feel assurance about something, but days or weeks or months later, no longer feel that assurance. And then after a time, we once again feel that assurance. If that’s assurance, that’s not very sure.
Part of the dilemma is that we normally associate conviction with knowledge. If we know a thing to be true, we are convinced of it. But if we are uncertain about something, then we normally assume we don’t have enough knowledge about the thing. Or, worse, we assume that we lack faith. Because if we have faith about a matter, we believe we also will have strong feelings about it. We separate out faith and knowledge. And, tragically, since we tie faith and feeling so closely together, we lose a vital aspect of faith, which is to bring assurance to our hearts. Or, to say it another way, assurance is the expression of trust. We are certain of a matter, because we trust that it is true or will come to be true. Assurance is the exercise of faith itself.
Take a seven year old boy, have him lie awake at night contemplating his salvation, and it will not be a surprise if he hears the voice of God telling him to be baptized. And he will be baptized. Take that same boy a few months later and put him in a summer Little League baseball uniform, and he will be a boy that prays. And if he prays, he will learn a thing or two about God.
So let him pray before every game that his team will win. And let his team win every single game until the final championship. And let that boy pray with confidence that his team would win the championship. Then let his team lose. He will wrack his little brain and pummel his heart trying to figure out what went wrong. And if he does it right, he’ll learn a thing or two about God.
I’ve posted a new entry on my writer’s blog. Please take a look.