Posts Tagged ‘John Romanides’

Uncreated Star of Bethlehem

Five years ago I alluded to this, but I’ve just seen concise discussion of it from no less than the Father of the Church St. John Chrysostom, and from certain Old Testament prophecies ‘in its Light.’

It also makes me think of how some non-Orthodox “got saved” by God….  The Apolytikion (a hymn) given on this page brings home the point.  The Magi are commemorated as Saints on Dec. 25.  (Recall that Orthodoxy commemorates the Magi’s Adoration of the Incarnate YHWH not on Jan. 6 but at Christmas; our Great Feast of Theophany [Epiphany] focuses on His Baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Forerunner [Baptist].)  OrthodoxWiki mentions the memory of their eventual baptism by St. Thomas the Apostle to the Indo-Iranians, and service to The Church as Bishops.

What about the mentions of an angel?  Readers of this blog may recall our discussions of the uncreated Logos-Angel from many Old Testament theophanies … highlighted in the writings of Greek-American theologian Fr. John S. Romanides (†2001) … so this need not be a problem, especially because Orthodoxy reminds us that the Divine Hypostatic Logos is not circumscribed by His Incarnation, ie, not ‘completely contained’ in or limited by His Human Body.  Could He appear as Infant and “Angel” at the same time?  Unusual perhaps, but I don’t see why not, although I must confess I haven’t seen this explicitly discussed anywhere yet.

One Web source I read said Western European pagans, even before Christianization, appreciated this, as it were their ‘cameo’ appearance at the very beginning of Christianity’s New Testament.  Similarly, I can say that even as a blond Western Catholic child here in the States, I was fascinated by and appreciated my family’s small wood-and-hay(?) Nativity set featuring non-Mediterranean-looking “kings”: a blond, an African, and an East Asian!*  I also read that extracanonical accounts ‘internationalizing’ them are quite old indeed.  Well, they do “represent the Gentiles,” and foreshadow many more of our ancestors’ conversions to the Faith….  For some reason I thought of the “White” one as some aged King of England — I didn’t know then that that title and State didn’t exist during Christ’s life on Earth!

I couldn’t leave this off without a plug for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s “Christmas Star” (or another picture of it).  One night during college, around 1985-86, I was driving around town lost (though sober)** and someone told me I almost knocked it down or something!  It sits atop Wyandotte Hill/South Mountain, one of Penna.’s many long, skinny, relatively-low,*** ridge-like mountains, that divides the Lehigh Valley from the main Philadelphia area, as well as from my undergraduate school campus just south of Bethlehem.

And, twelve “kings”?  Catholic priest / sociologist / novelist Andrew Greeley’s Russian (Orthodox) lay student / artist / mystic / beauty / love interest in his 1997 Christmas / spiritual classic Star Bright! (available here) alludes to a 12-magi tradition, without many details except to say something I haven’t encountered personally in Orthodoxy yet, that “We Russians know there were 12 kings” (or words to that effect).  But an English translation of the apocryphal Syriac Revelation of the Magi has recently come out, and it names twelve.  Furthermore, if one Amazon reviewer reports correctly, if you have any Western European ancestry, you may have one or more Magi in your family tree.  How’s that for Gentile foreshadowing?!  Other reviews lead me to doctrinal caution about the Revelation [Apocalypse??] of the Magi, but also hint (seemingly unknowingly) at o/Orthodox Uncreated Energies Theology perhaps.  But some of the kings named by the Armenian reviewer have names or associations I might have encountered a long time ago while tracing my Norman Irish ancestors (Hibernicized McCoogs) into traditional medieval West European royal and noble genealogies … the kind today’s experts say are dubious, but were part of our cultures for most of the last thousand years if not longer … and geneticists now say we might all share in some way.  (Something like some Assyrian kings back there too, being Semites, traditionally then Kin of God!)  (This is another review I saw of it, from a Catholic perspective.)

PS: Many Years to Fr. Greeley!  Glad to see he’s doing better some!  Thank God!

(*–The one with the wind-up music box playing “Silent Night.”)

(**–If you can read and comprehend this without getting a headache, you’re a better driver than I was!)

(***–Compared to, say, the Adirondacks, or the Rockies.)

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Every time I made it to Divine Liturgy while he was with my parish, or just about,* the priest who Chrismated me, preceded Communion with a collective reminder about the o/Orthodox understanding of the Mysteries (sacraments) as special encounters with God’s Uncreated Energies.  I can’t remember it verbatim, but he said Communion is like a fire that risks consuming the unprepared, but purifies those who receive it with preparation, including prayer, fasting, repentance, Confession if necessary, reconciliation with others if necessary, reverence, etc.  I also remember either hearing or reading somewhere – not from him IIRC – a story about someone who once received Communion without preparation, and immediately fell down dead.  I’m reminded of St. Symeon Metaphrastes’ Prayer of Thanksgiving After Communion.  I’m also reminded of Fr. John Romanides’ words about how we will all see God’s Glory in the end, but for those who haven’t struggled for Purification, God’s Energies won’t be experienced as Uncreated Light, but purifying fire: IIUC this fire’s job of purifying is never completed because God is infinitely better than we are, whereas if you’ve at least tried to put yourself on the right trajectory in life, God may, as Orthodox constantly pray, “have mercy.”  And my own conclusion: Created light burns up close but lights at a distance, whereas Uncreated Light lights up close, but burns at a distance.

PS: Nobody’s “worthy” to receive.  The best we can do is prepare, and hope in God’s Mercy.

(*–My health usually prevents me, so I don’t know if he does this all the time.)

I just ran across local newspaper science columnist Faye Flam’s old article (PDF) about speculation around, let’s say marital relations, in the afterlife.  She does remind us that the Lord Himself reported that in Heaven the saved do not marry [and therefore do not have sexual relations], but live as the angels.  (In fact Orthodox Monasticism is often referred to as angelic life, or anticipation thereof, both in pious expressions and in hymns on monastic Saints’ feast days.)  Angels don’t “do it” because they lack a fundamental requirement: bodies!*  We even call them “the Bodiless Powers.”

Flam also reported a non-Christian insight more relevant than she realized: “Zoroastrians, he said, believed there was sex in heaven but people would wean themselves away from both food and sex as they got used to being dead.”  I point this out because the Orthodox Way includes not denial that we are embodied human beings, since we are not dualists like the Zoroastrians (ancient “gnostics” still around today), but seeking to repent of and purify ourselves of any sinfulness (including that related to sexuality and food, though not of sexuality or eating itself) and seeking healing of our domination by our passions (including the sexual and gluttonous).  Mainstream Orthodoxy never considered “intercourse for pleasure … ‘depravity'” as the Western Christian mainstream Flam discusses did.  In fact, the ancient Fathers of the Church recognized the unitive and agape-building, relationship-building qualities of marital relations so much that it is from them that Christianity has its tradition of allowing them (if grudgingly in the West medievally) during infertile times such as pregnancy and menopause, vs. the still-heard Western idea that reproduction is the overriding point of human, Christian sexuality, and anything else mere condescension to human drives.  Nevertheless, the Orthodox Way, especially Monasticism, is also sometimes referred to as “dying to the world,” not entirely unlike what the Zoroastrians say about ‘dying to sexuality and gluttony’ after death.

But fear not!  Since Orthodoxy retains the doctrine that Heaven isn’t merely some kind of ‘earthly life on steroids,’ but advancing ever deeper into the Glory of God as Uncreated Light (as well as glorious fellowship – communion, koinonia – with the other saints, such as those we commemorated this past Sunday, All Saints Day, both those recognized by the official Church and the overwhelming majority not) and God-like-ness, we won’t miss sex!  Although to get there we do need to collaborate (synergeia, synergy) with God purifying us of our exaggerated attachment to it in the first place, here on earth….  Fr. John Romanides was fond of castigating the West’s attachment to “happiness” as fundamentally opposed to Orthodox Glorification / Salvation.  What do I know?  But perhaps another way of seeing it is that we need to find our happiness in God today, or else we’ll really hate spending eternity with Him.**

What about the Orthodox Mystery (sacrament) of Holy Matrimony?  Theologically it isn’t a ‘license to screw’ if you’ll pardon the expression, but just like its counterpart, Monasticism, a form of discipling to use a popular Evangelical word.  IIUC, the Orthodox discipline (or as I like to think of it, disciplin’) of fasting Traditionally includes married couples abstaining from relations, ie, most Wednesdays and Fridays, during Lent, the Apostles’ Fast (going on right now), the Transfiguration / Dormition Fast (in August), the Nativity Fast, the couple other fast-days on the calendar, and also on days before receiving Communion.  (This may or may not be a complete list.)  IIUC, part of the idea is that Orthodox marriage partners help each other with this discipline / disciplin’, since theologically they marry to help each other get saved.  In Orthodox fellowship / communion / koinonia with each other, they’re not to struggle in individual isolation, but to share each other’s burdens and build up each other’s gifts.  (This may have something to do with the ancient preference that Orthodox only marry other Orthodox, not non-Christians or even Heterodox Christians, though today marrying Heterodox Christians of certain denominations is tolerated alot, and of course we were never required to separate from non-Orthodox spouses when ourselves converting to Orthodoxy, since the Holy Apostle Paul counseled that we might help save our spouse.)

(*–With apologies to Fr. Andrew Greeley, who delights in the medieval Western speculation around what exactly the angels do have, for bodies!)

(**–I believe the latter clause comes from Fr. Anthony Coniaris in a basic intro to Orthodoxy of his, but I’m not certain.)

A newspaper column he wrote 40 years ago on the unlikely topic of life in outer space provides a remarkable precis of his life’s work.

“All Planets the Same:
Religion’s Response to Space Life V,”
Rev. John S. Romanides, PhD., The Boston Globe, April 8, 1965, page 18.

I can foresee no way in which the teachings of the Orthodox Christian tradition could be affected by the discovery of intelligent beings on another planet. Some of my colleagues feel that even a discussion of the consequences of such a possibility is in itself a waste of time for serious theology and borders on the fringes of foolishness.

I am tempted to agree with them for several reasons.

As I understand the problem, the discovery of intelligent life on another planet would raise questions concerning traditional Roman Catholic and Protestant teachings regarding creation, the fall, man as the image of God, redemption and Biblical inerrancy.

First one should point out that in contrast to the traditions deriving from Latin Christianity, Greek Christianity never had a fundamentalist or literalist understanding of Biblical inspiration and was never committed to the inerrancy of scripture in matters concerning the structure of the universe and life in it. In this regard some modern attempts at de-mything the Bible are interesting and at times amuzing [sic].

Since the very first centuries of Christianity, theologians of the Greek tradition did not believe, as did the Latins, that humanity was created in a state of perfection from which it fell. Rather the Orthodox always believed that man [was] created imperfect, or at a low level of perfection, with the destiny of evolving to higher levels of perfection.

The fall of each man, therefore, entails a failure to reach perfection, rather than any collective fall from perfection.

Also spiritual evolution does not end in a static beatific vision. It is a never ending process which will go on even into eternity.

Also Orthodox Christianity, like Judaism, never knew the Latin and Protestant doctrine of original sin as an inherited Adamic guilt putting all humanity under a divine wrath which was supposedly satisfied by the death of Christ.

Thus the solidarity of the human race in Adamic guilt and the need for satisfaction of divine justice in order to avoid hell are unknown in the Greek Fathers.

This means that the interdependance [sic] and solidarity of creation and its need for redemption and perfection are seen in a different light.

The Orthodox believe that all creation is destined to share in the glory of God. Both damned and glorified will be saved. In other words both will have vision of God in his uncreated glory, with the difference that for the unjust this same uncreated glory of God will be the eternal fires of hell.

God is light for those who learn to love Him and a consuming fire for those who will not. God has no positive intent to punish.

For those not properly prepared, to see God is a cleansing experience, but one which does not move eternally toward higher reaches of perfection.

In contrast, hell is a static state of perfection somewhat similar to Platonic bliss.

In view of this the Orthodox never saw in the Bible any three story universe with a hell of created fire underneath the earth and a heaven beyond the stars.

For the Orthodox discovery of intelligent life on another planet would raise the question of how far advanced these beings are in their love and preparation for divine glory.

As on this planet, so on any other, the fact that one may have not as yet learned about the Lord of Glory of the Old and New Testament, does not mean that he is automatically condemned to hell, just as one who believes in Christ is not automatically destined to be involved in the eternal movement toward perfection.

It is also important to bear in mind that the Greek Fathers of the Church maintain that the soul of man is part of material creation, although a high form of it, and by nature mortal [sic].*


{*-By this ‘sic’ I don’t mean Fr. John misspoke. He actually meant it. I only highlight it because it’s so unexpected, because we’re so under Western influence.  -LPO’F}

Only God is purely immaterial.

Life beyond death is not due to the nature of man but to the will of God. Thus man is not strictly speaking the image of God. Only the Lord of Glory, or the Angel of the Lord of Old and New Testament revelation is the image of God.

Man was created according to the image of God, which means that his destiny is to become like Christ who is the Incarnate Image of God.

Thus the possibility of intelligent beings on another planet being images of God as men on earth are supposed to be is not even a valid question from an Orthodox point of view.

Finally one could point out that the Orthodox Fathers rejected the Platonic belief in immutable archetypes of which this world of change is a poor copy.

This universe and the forms in it are unique and change is of the very essence of creation and not a product of the fall.

Furthermore the categories of change, motion and history belong to the eternal dimensions of salvation-history and are not to be discard[ed] in some kind of eternal bliss.

Thus the existence of intelligent life on another planet behind or way ahead of us in intellectual and spiritual attainment will change little in the traditional beliefs of Orthodox Christianity.

Photo caption: Rev. John S. Romanides, professor of dogmatics and history of theology, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary, Brookline.

NEXT — Rev. Charles K. Von Euw, professor of oriental theology and patrology at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton.

(UPDATED 4 August 2008, clarifying about the Son and Spirit proceeding eternally [ie, Their “existence”] only from the Father, ie, no Filioque in the true experience of God’s Glory.)

From Prophet of Roman Orthodoxy: The Theology of John Romanides, by Andrew J. Sopko, Dewdney, BC, Canada: Synaxis, 1998, pages 41-42:

Lest glorification/divinization be equated with a mystical ecstasy, it will suffice to say here that the true experience always contains a revelation of the Holy Trinity in uncreated glory. In the realization that there is no similarity between the uncreated and the created, the following are apprehended:

  • The co-inherence of the three divine persons;
  • The existence of two divine persons [ie, the Son and the Holy Spirit] from one divine person [ie, the Father only];
  • A common essence is shared by the persons;
  • The essence is incommunicable, while the energies are communicable;
  • Although the energies are communicable, they are not understandable;
  • Not only the divine essence, but the energy have no similarity with anything. And, if the revelation has occurred after the Incarnation,
  • Christ is the natural source of divinization.