Archive for December, 2006

These are “the highest legislative and administrative authority within the” Orthodox Church in America (OCA) – “sobors” from before its 1970 autocephaly, “councils” thereafter. They are comparable to the Greek Archdiocese’s Clergy/Laity Congresses, as well as the national or binational conventions of bishops, clergy, and laity, of the other jurisdictions.

I mention them because the name sounds a little funny in convert ears! For a better understanding, one needs to look to their background in the Russian Church. First, sobor is simply Russian for council, but the OCA decided to differentiate between the earlier and later gatherings by the different terminology. (I believe the Serbs use a similar word, spelled sabor.) As for All-American, it’s not at all an attempt to wave the flag, as far as I can see – in fact, since it gathers bishops, clergy, and laity from not only the United States but also Canada and Mexico, it’s using “American” in the continental, North American sense, common not only in Russia but throughout Eastern Europe. In fact, sometimes the All-American Council has been held in Canada! As for the All part, that stems from the usage of the phrase All-Russian over there, and possibly other Eastern European usages of All- phrases, to simply indicate “from throughout the designated territory or constituency.” (Four times during its separate existence the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia [ROCOR] has convened All-Diaspora Councils, too – though these only pertained to their own specific jurisdiction, like all the others.) This isn’t limited to the Church: during the Soviet era several government organs and civil organizations contained the phrase All-Union in their names (as in Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) as a substitute for or extension of the historical All-Russian designation, and I believe this too is the case outside the Church, in some other places in Eastern Europe, even in the post-Communist era. This usage of All is not unlike usages of the Greek word/prefix Pan.

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Quite a bit of ink is spilled (or bandwidth used) over just how to translate Theotokos from Greek into other languages. “Mother of God,” “Mater Dei,” “Birthgiver of God,” “Deigenitrix,” “Deipara,” “God-bearer,” etc. Neologism has its place in this history: the word was rendered into Slavonic by a similar one-word compound, Bogoroditsa. To do the same in English would produce Godbirthgiver. While that kind of compounding might work in German, it doesn’t quite carry in English. And in Orthodox speech, “God-bearer” is problematic because it may also render theoforos, a title of many (other) Saints, most famously, St. Ignatius of Antioch just celebrated…who obviously did not give birth to God! Which brings us to my suggestion: that we not be afraid to occasionally translate Theotokos phrasally, “(she) who gave birth to God.”

(Why not “Mother of God”? Because mother does not necessarily convey giving birth, as most adoptees will tell you. And Mary definitely did not adopt the Lord! Most users of the phrase “Mother of God” mean this, but clarity is best. Orthodoxy isn’t completely averse to the expression, as indicated by nearly all icons of herself – the Greek letters “MP THU” – short for Meter tou Theou – with which they are captioned – and in some hymns and prayers. But when we’re talking about giving birth, we say giving birth! And we almost always make reference to The Giving Birth – so in a sense every day is Christmas for prayerful Orthodox!!!)

This article is from the so-called “Rainbow Series” by Very Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (OCA) near New York City. (NB: How the services are scheduled on or before Dec. 25 may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, depending on each one’s particular liturgical and spiritual tradition.)

“On the Eve of the Birth of Jesus,” an excerpt from Son of Man (1959) by Fr. Alexander Men (murdered near Moscow, Russia in 1990):

The spiritual crisis in the Roman Empire was profound. Ancient beliefs and myths began to elicit scorn in many. Religion lost its meaning, turning into one component of the system of civil responsibilities. Even Cicero said that the official cult was only necessary for maintaining order in the masses.

Some were prepared to go even further. The poet Lucretius saw in religion simply a harmful delusion. In his book, “On the Nature of Things,” he resurrected the materialism of the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicureaus. According to their doctrine, the world is nothing but an accidental organization, born of the dancing of atoms. Sooner or later destruction awaits it. Lucretius saw already the omnipresent symptoms of the world’s autumn, portending the end and fall of the world. Similar ideas were widely circulated not only in the West but also in India and China.

However, the very nature of the human spirit did not allow man to be reconciled with meaninglessness. Even having ceased to believe in anything, people did not want to recognize life as an accidental splash of matter, after which darkness would follow.

Thus, having become acquainted with the religions of the East, the Romans greedily reached for them. The true conquest of the West by foreign cults began. People from Britain to the Balkans began to pray to the Egyptian Isis, Jewish synagogues were built in Rome, as were temples to the Phrygian Divine Mother Cybele and the Persian God Mithra. Street preachers pronounced truths brought from the Ganges, from Parthia and Central Asia. Greek mysteries were reborn, which promised their participants immortality and knowledge of higher worlds. Occult teachings, astrology, magic and fortune-telling found followers in all classes of society. The pursuit of the miraculous yielded an increase in superstition and charlatanism.

Seeing this, people who were skeptically inclined were ready to give up completely hope of arriving at the purpose of life. In their opinion, there was no answer to the question, “What is truth?” In a word, the mental disorder was complete. Mystical searches and a lack of spirituality, thirst for purity and moral disintegration could be found together in one family. Not infrequently the father shut himself up in Stoic scorn for the vanity of the world, the mother went to nightly sectarian rites, and the son developed new forms of pleasure and acute experience.

Man stood at the crossroads and heard from every side beckoning voices: “Be indifferent to the sorrows and joys of life, immerse yourself in peaceful contemplation,” said the Buddhists and the Stoics; “Live in harmony with nature, like all things,” taught the Cynics and the Epicureans; “Happiness is in knowledge and reflection,” objected the natural philosophers; “Cleanse yourself with secret ordinances and you will obtain immortality,” assured the teachers of mysticism; “Remain faithful to the one God and obey His law,” announced the religion of Israel; and the Roman Eagle, looking over its prey, swooped over this spiritual maelstrom where, as in the primeval chaos, opposing beginnings were mixed together.

The hope that the one who would lead the world out of this labyrinth would appear was revived from time to time. The poet Virgil foretold the birth of a young boy from which the Age of Saturn would begin. The Buddhists waited for Maitreya Buddha, the Hindus the next incarnation of the god Vishnu, the Persians the Savior-Saoshiant, the Jews the Messiah…

In Palestine, the atmosphere of mystical aspirations thickened with each passing year. The people hoped that the prophet Elijah would shortly appear from heaven and perform the anointing of the Messenger of God. Many thought that he would be a great warrior who would smash the kingdoms of the heathen. Others believed in the final triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, immortality over death. They believed that “God will visit His people.”

Finally, when it seemed that all options had been tried and exhausted, dawn lit the dark horizon of history. In the twentieth year of the reign of Augustus, in the small settlement of Nazareth, a Galilean Maiden heard the news, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His Kingdom there will be no end.”

From St. Nicholai (Velimirovic) of South Canaan (Pennsylvania), Ohrid, and Zhicha (Patriarchate of Serbia) – “The Serbian Chrysostom” – from The Prolog of Ohrid, excerpted in The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox, ed. Johanna Manley, p. 1056:

If human philosophy can content a man, why did the philosophers Justin and Origen become Christians? Why did Basil and Chrysostom and Gregory, who had in Athens studied all Hellenic philosophy receive baptism? And Blessed Augustine, who was familiar with Hellenic and Roman wisdom – why did he throw everything aside and seek salvation and light in the Christian faith? And St. Clement of Rome, who was very rich and very learned? And St. Catherine, who was of the royal house and learned in all the secular knowledge of Egypt? And Joasaph, the heir of India, who was versed in the whole of Indian philosophy? And so many, many others who first sought an explanation for the enigmas of the world and light for their souls in philosophy, and then drew near to the Church and came to worship Christ the Lord.

This isn’t mod “process theology,” just the reality attested by Orthodoxy from the beginning that the Uncreated is infinitely greater than creatures, so we’ll never ‘arrive’ at being ‘all that we can be,’ we’ll just keep trying to be holier in this life, and even in the next go “from glory to glory.” As St. Vladimir’s Seminary professor Peter Bouteneff puts it (emphasis added):

‘Sanctity is God’s will for everyone, and it is our clear and definite vocation as faithful members of the Church. Sanctity is also not a simple “yes or no” proposition. Done right, the very pursuit of sanctity is sanctity. It is a journey without arrival, and our failures on the way must not be cause for despair, but for change and renewal.’

Look for some kind of cinematic release maybe next Christmas or Xmas* ’08, they’re saying. The little website impresses visually, at least! And if you’re in western New York state (where the flick is being shot and produced), you may already be seeing a one-minute tease on TV, and the website will have a two-minute version available starting at 12:01am EST (USA) Christmas morning. (Is that 05:01 UT, or 06:01?)

And they say we’ll get the real story about the Council of Nicea,** not the DaVinci Code version…. Also the Orthodox/Catholic memory of Holy Emperor Constantine the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles (although I never heard him called a Saint by Rome), not the “Fall of the Church” Protestant version I used to adhere to. There’s even an “elf”-precursor among the characters, a Little Person childhood friend of Nicholas’. But of course, the focus is on Nicholas’ life himself, from childhood to orphanhood (I didn’t know that!) to religious persecution to his episcopate, for which he’s best-known.

Some interesting comments here.

(*-Remember, it’s not an X, it’s a Chi for Christ!!!)
(**-Nicholas was there…and assaulted the ‘unitarian’ heretic Arius…and got in trouble for it!)

A slightly different, and at times alot clearer!, view from Frederica MG.