Monday, July 27, 2009

For the Life of the World 3

The Time of Mission: Eastern Orthodoxy and the Sacrament of Time

The last few times, we have been up on the mountain in the new Jerusalem. We have been talking about the Sunday feast of the Church, the Eucharist. We have gotten a glimpse of heaven. Now we have to go back out into the world again to do mission. We have to come out of the timelessness of heaven and enter again into time.

Time. How do you view time? That's an ambivalent subject. It's a two-sided issue. Time opens up life as a possibility for growth and fulfillment. We move forward hopefully into the future. For all of this good possibility that time opens up for us, though, we all also experience time as an enemy. We're always running out of it. We're always on the clock. Time is tick, tick, ticking away. One day, the clock is going to run out for each of us. Time ultimately means death. On that unhappy note, let's begin our exploration of the Eastern Orthodox perspective on time. As our author lets us know, what Eastern Orthodoxy provides when it comes to time is not a solution but a gift.

The gift is liturgical time, the Church calendar. Fortunately, I think, Protestants are beginning to reclaim the Christian year, the feasts and the seasons and even the old liturgical cycles of prayer. The Reformers, especially Zwingli and Calvin, rejected a lot of this stuff as ceremonialism and superstition. They thought that one day was just as sacred as the next and there's also the fact that they couldn't find any mention of feast days and seasons in the Bible. They thought that these were man-made traditions that Christians were not obliged to follow. I think they were right to reject the idea that observing the days of the Church gets us points with God but I think this was a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

What is the benefit of the liturgical calendar anyway? Schmemann talks in the opening pages of this chapter about the "symbolism" of feast days and seasons. Are these just symbolic decorations or occasions for remembrance of things that happened in the past, or are we to understand them as having some other kind of significance?

Well, he thinks that viewing these times just as symbols is a problem. For him, it reflects the Christian rejection of time as having any real meaning. So, I raise the question, What do we understand to be the significance of time in our faith? Does it have any real significance? Isn't Christianity really about salvation from time? We talked a while back about the otherworldly perspective that thinks of Christianity in terms of salvation from the world. I think we see this in our attitude toward time also. We want to escape time and the world and all of the frustration and difficulty that go along with them. We want rest and relaxation. Vacation, retirement, heaven. Rest. When we think of Christianity's relation to time in this manner, the liturgical calendar is basically just a way to decorate meaningless time with beautiful symbols and colorful rituals. Do you all agree with his portrayal?

Well, Christ didn't enter time just to rescue us from it. Nor did he leave us here in time just so we could fill it up with symbols. Just as he came into the world not just to save us from the world but to transform the world and give it back to us as a means of communion with God, so has he come into time not just to rescue us from time but to transform time and return it to us as a means of communion with God. Alongside the sacramental Church and the sacramental world we have discussed, Eastern Orthodoxy has sacramental time.

The first place to start in discussing the sacramental time of Orthodoxy is in talking about the Lord's Day. Christians have always had their own special day. Of course, that stretched all the way back into Judaism with the Sabbath, but Sabbath and Lord's Day are not interchangeable. They're connected, but there's a difference. In Judaism, the Sabbath is the seventh day, but, in Christianity the Lord's Day is the first day of the week. It's also the eighth day of the week. To understand this though, we need to talk about the Jewish Sabbath first. What does Sabbath represent in Judaism? Schmemann talks about it on 50.
In the Jewish religious experience Sabbath, the seventh day, has a tremendous importance: it is the participation by man in, and his affirmation of, the goodness of God's creation. "And God saw it was good. . . . And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made." The seventh day is thus the joyful acceptance of the world created by God as good. . . . It is the active participation in the "Sabbath delight," in the sacredness and fullness of divine peace as the fruit of all work, as the crowning of all time.

There is a problem with God's good world though. It is also the world of sin and revolt against God. We aren't in Eden anymore. Because of this, the seventh day as it is in the fallen world has to point beyond itself to the day of God's triumph over evil. That's why we get this talk about an eighth day. It's beyond the limits of the seven, where death now reigns. This eighth day is also the first day because it marks the beginning of a new time—that of God's Kingdom.

This is where the Christian idea of the Lord's Day comes from. It fulfills the Jewish Sabbath. It's not incidental that Jesus rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath. It's the eighth day of broken creation. It's the end of the old creation and the beginning, the first day, of the new creation, the day on which, in remembrance of the Resurrection, we ascend into heaven to share in a foretaste of the Lord's Banquet in the "age to come." Notice too how Schmemann says that this first day and eighth day business shows up in John's account of the Resurrection. I hadn't noticed that before.

It's also important to understand that the Lord's Day is a fixed day. For the early Christians, in addition to Sunday being the day of Christ's Resurrection, it was just one of the days of the week. I think he says that for three centuries Sunday wasn't even a day of rest. Notice how this otherworldly event of Christ's Resurrection, and the celebration of it that includes the Eucharist, which we have seen is a step out of time and into eternity, notice how, in spite of all of its heavenly significance, that it is just one of the days of the week. Sunday belongs completely to the world as well. That the Lord's Day belongs both to the world and to heaven indicates that the joy of Sunday is to spill out into the rest of the week and fill the whole week with the joy of the Lord. Every moment, every hour, every day, is to be understood in the light of the Lord's Day.

On 51 and 52, Schmemann describes it this way:
On the one hand, Sunday remained one of the days, the first of the week, fully belonging to this world. Yet on the other hand, on that day, through the eucharistic ascension, the Day of the Lord was revealed and manifested in all its glory and transforming power as the end of this world, and the beginning of the world to come. And thus through that one day all days, all time were transformed into times of remembrance and expectation, remembrance of the ascension, and expectation of its coming. . . . The week was no longer a sequence of "profane" days, with rest on the "sacred" day at their end. It was now a movement from Mount Tabor into the world, from the world into the "day without evening" of the world to come. Every day, every hour acquired now an importance, a gravity it could not have had before: each day was now to be a step in this movement, a moment of decision and witness, a time of ultimate meaning.

I think this is as far from dualism as we can get. All of time, each moment, each hour, each day becomes sacred in this sort of understanding. The Lord's Day sanctifies time, makes it communion with God. This is what makes our mission as the Church possible. It transforms each and every day into the time of mission.

The next thing Schmemann points us to when it comes to the sacramental time of Orthodoxy is the Christian year with its sequence of liturgical feasts and celebrations. The whole idea of this revolves around the joy of the feast. Schmemann has some interesting things to say about our modern skepticism when it comes to the joy of the feast. He says we are too adult and serious in our modern Christianity to enjoy what was once such a central aspect in the life of the Church. In this description, I see that Puritan work ethic creeping around that makes us feel guilty when we aren't doing anything productive or serious, when we’re partying instead of working. I am certainly prone to those Puritan moments of guilt when I'm not doing something productive, when I'm enjoying myself instead of working. What about you all? We really can't resonate with the idea that the joy of the feast is the root or even the goal of our work in the world as the Church, but that's where we are headed with the Orthodox understanding of the Christian year.

Just as is the case with the Lord's Day, for the Orthodox, the feasts of the Church and the liturgical seasons are all about filling up time with meaning and giving it purpose. In this respect, the early Christians were simply carrying on a tradition from the pagan cultures around them, in which feasts were central aspects of life. In those cultures, the feasts served to make the hard work and the fruits of that work and the natural cycles of time all worthwhile. The feasts were a source of power and meaning for the rest of life. What the early Christians did was take those feasts, as Schmemann says, through death and resurrection and made them apply to Christ. In that context, then, what the feasts did for the early Christians was to enable their mission, to give them their power to go out into the world and spread the Gospel of the Kingdom. Let's read that first paragraph of section 5 on page 55.
"Through the Cross joy came into the whole world"—and not just to some men as their personal and private joy. Once more, were Christianity pure "mysticism," pure "eschatology," there would be no need for feasts and celebrations. A holy soul would keep its secret feast apart from the world, to the extent that it can free itself from its time. But joy was given to the Church for the world—that the Church might be a witness to it and transform the world by joy. Such is the "function" of Christian feasts and the meaning of their belonging to time.

Do you all resonate with this? Are Christmas and Easter times that really excite you and encourage you to do mission? I must say that we do Christmas really well around here. It was truly a pleasure to be with you all this past Christmas and to join in all the pomp and pageantry and beauty of the Vespers service and the Christmas Eve service and Epiphany. Those were times of excitement for me. I can really see how the Christian feasts can put a fire in our bellies and give us the joy and energy to go out and change the world and people's lives for God's glory.

I'm starting to run out of time here, but, I want to take a brief look at his critique of the idea of the feasts as times of commemoration. He points out that remembering Christ's death, burial, and resurrection is always central to our mission. We don't just think about Christ's Passion during the Easter season but all through the year. In the Orthodox perspective, then, what we are doing on our special days, in some way, just as is the case with the Eucharist and the Lord's Day, is sharing in the very mystery that we are signifying. During the Easter season, for instance, we are given the gift of the very joy that Mary Magdalene and the apostles experienced on that day when they found the tomb empty and when they encountered the risen Lord. Schmemann really has a wonderful description of the Easter Vigil in the Orthodox Church. As he quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa, the night of the Easter Vigil is the night that becomes brighter than day. It is this joy that gives time its ultimate meaning and transforms the year into the "Christian year." He also talks about how the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost are given to us as the joy of the feast. I really think that we need to recover this full Easter celebration in the Western Church. I'm not sure how we do that though. At any rate, it is the joy of Easter in the Orthodox tradition that enables the Church to enter back into the world after Pentecost and carry out its mission. And he emphasizes that this mission is taxing and difficult. He calls it fasting for the world, it's effort, sacrifice, self-denial, and death. This is especially so for the Church in the places where there is persecution. It is only through the gift of Joy that the feasts bring that the Church can fulfill its mission, that we can be, as Schmemann says, "the fragrance of the Holy Spirit, the presence here in time of the feast of the Kingdom."

Finally, I'll conclude with a brief note on Schmemann's discussion of the Church and the individual Christian's relation to the time of day. He talks about the Vespers service in the evening and the Matins service in the morning. The thing to take from this is this idea of the rhythm of the beginning and end. Vespers is at the end of the day, but it is in the beginning of a new day. It is the end of life in the world of sin and death but the beginning of the evening without end that Christ will bring when he comes. Schmemann refers us to the story in Luke's Gospel of the old man Simeon, who had waited for the coming of the Lord. God had promised to Simeon that he would see the coming Messiah before he died. When Simeon saw the Christ child in the temple that day and held him and gloried in him, he was ready to depart. It was the end of his days, but the beginning of God's reign, which he was about to experience in an ever deeper way in his death. When it comes to Matins, Schmemann makes this point about how we are at our weakest and most pathetic in the morning. With the rising of the sun, we are at the end of the night of sin and weakness and death and at the beginning of the new day of the Lord's reign.

We will conclude with the thought that time becomes meaningful when we refer it to beginning and end. In this way it becomes "Christian time."
We are always between morning and evening, between Sunday and Sunday, between Easter and Easter, between the two comings of Christ. The experience of time as end gives an absolute importance to whatever we do now, makes its final, decisive. The experience of time as beginning fills all our time with joy, for it adds to it the "coefficient" of eternity.

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