Posts Tagged ‘Middle Ages’

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.)

Last year I found a brief discussion of how it could’ve gone if Norse Orthodox visitors and settlers here from the 10th to 15th centuries, and rumored Irish Orthodox monk-visitors, had evangelized (more?).  A few years ago I saw this somewhat more detailed discussion of the history from Fr. Andrew Phillips of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), in Britain.  Eye-opening, perspective-improving stuff!

Also a remark in the paragraph immediately above this anchor tag, suggests how slowly some who maybe could have some idea of the matter, thought it could’ve taken for Church change – such as the West’s decline from o/Orthodoxy – to reach Old North American Norse:

Not knowing whether the old Norse civilization remained in Greenland or not—and worried that if it did, it would still be Catholic 200 years after the Scandinavian homelands had experienced the Reformation—a joint merchant-clerical expedition led by the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland in 1721. Though this expedition found no surviving Europeans, it marked the beginning of Denmark’s assertion of sovereignty over the island….  {Emphasis added.}

This was after the Medieval Warm Period in the Upper North Atlantic had yielded to the “Little Ice Age,” making communication between Greenland and Scandinavia extremely difficult.

Weird coincidence: The other day my aunt wrote her nephews and nieces that she’d read about St. Bertha of Blangy-sur-Ternoise, Artois, France, a 7th-8th-century Anglo-Saxon (Kentish) and Frankish princess, wife, mother, widow, and abbess, because her mother’s, my paternal grandmother’s, name was Bertha Rider Filon (God be good to her).*  Today happens to be St. Bertha’s feast day (she’s the third personage covered by this old Catholic Encyclopedia roundup article).  And Atlantic Tropical Storm Bertha was born just yesterday.  Not knowing either fact a few hours ago, I started looking for some information about Blangy for my aunt at her request.  This appears to be the website of the village’s historical society, all in French, but I note dramatic improvements in Google’s machine translations, with only minor improvements and interjections from myself (additional ones exceed my capabilities) in this piece about Bertha and the town:

Blangy-sur-Ternoise is a small village in the valley of the Ternoise in the department of Pas de Calais (62).

Blangy-sur-Ternoise, nestled at the bottom of its valley, a little pass unnoticed from an historical perspective, it was the seat of the imposing abbey Saint-Berthe. However, we know that the Romans were probably occupied the site to 50 BC-AD, and that, according to historian Malbrancq, the village was the scene of bitter fighting between the Huns and the Franks. It is in the plain of Blangy, indeed, that Wilbert, Count of Boulogne and {of the town of} Saint-Pol, surrounded by most of the lords of the country, would have cut into pieces. Rigobert, Count of Ponthieu, who had pointed out during the battle, was then appointed Count of Blangy, a village which was at that time an important post, Clovis II having built a fortress on the banks of the Ternoise, to resist the invasion of northern tribes.

From the union of Rigobert and Ursane, daughter of the King of Kent, was born, circa 644, Bertha (first name meaning clear and bright). After her childhood spent at the castle of Blangy, at age 18, Berthe married Siegfried, Baron of Auxi-le-Chateau. After the death of her husband, in 680, and after the death of two of his daughters, Bertha decided to build a monastery on the banks of the Ternoise. Of this abbey founded under the {monastic} “Rule of St. Benedict,” Berthe became the first abbess in 682, while the king Thierry III gave it the status of royal abbey. The monastery was so vast that sixty nuns there were installed there. Died in 723, July 4, at age 79 years (which was exceptional for its time), Berthe was buried within the abbey, in a sandstone tomb.

Soon, if we are to believe the sacred writers and historians, miracles occurred around the tomb: “The blind were returned to sight, paralyzed hands became active, the lame walked aright, the violence of fevers was dissipated and every class of infirmity healed.” So many miracles that they resulted in the canonization of Saint Berthe.

Over the centuries, the abbey has, however, experienced many problems. While the holy relics were transported to Alsace for protection, Normans looted and destroyed the monastery in 892. It was not until 1032 that the relics were returned, and a new monastery was built, then occupied by the Benedictines of Fécamps. During the XIV, XV and XVI centuries, Blangy and its monastery suffered from wars, new buildings being damaged and the relics again had to be removed for safekeeping, in Saint-Omer this time. Sold as a national asset in 1791 {ie, as a result of the French Revolution}, the abbey was destroyed in the nineteenth century, except the farm (1771) and the mill (1777) that served as a secular school, then hospice, before being donated in 1956 to the institute Notre-Dame de Vie {“Our Lady of Life”?}, which has restored it into a spiritual center and retreat.

The website also says that relics are still venerated at a shrine there each year during her novena, July 4-12.

(*–Grandmom, too, was of English background, and spent most of her life as an Episcopalian – things I never knew – converting to her late husband’s and her children’s Catholicism before she died.)

Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!

Yes, on the Third Monday of Pascha yesterday morning – May 12 (NS)! – some snow stuck to the ground in higher elevations of southwestern Pennsylvania (link may break), the Commonwealth where I and alot of other Orthodox live!

This discussion goes back to my recent post occasioned by the (Western) Good Friday Blizzard in the U.S. Midwest,* pointing out that the (small-T) traditional Western association of Easter with Spring is actually more likely to be fulfilled by Orthodox Pascha – for the next few thousand years anyway, if the Lord doesn’t return in Glory first – because at this time it’s usually one, two, or five weeks later than Easter, and will gradually get later vis a vis the seasons, over time, until of course it reaches Northern Autumn, at which point it will start moving back behind the other way, so to speak, toward Northern Spring.  Anyway, that means it’s alot less likely to snow in the Northern Hemisphere, or be wintry-cold; not impossible, just less likely!

I’ve been prevented by circumstances from replying to A Simple Sinner’s challenge there until now, among them my own continued study of the Calendar situation within Orthodoxy, and between Orthodoxy and Catholicism / Protestantism.  What I’ve learned is that Old Calendar Christianity – ie, most of Christendom before 1582 – essentially knowingly sacrificed, and continues to sacrifice, a little bit of astrological** accuracy in favor of perfect Liturgical convenience.  (As one calendar expert opines [quoted here], “However accurate we might try to make them, calendars should be judged not by their scientific sophistication, but by how well they serve social needs.”  Or as Another putteth it, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”)

As a result of the determination of the Orthodox Paschalion or scheduling of Easter during the first Christian millennium (pursuant to the decision of the First Ecumenical Synod, the Council of Nicea, in AD 325), Western and Byzantine Christian worship services fell into a 532-year cycle discussed briefly and relatively simply here with relatively little polemic.  NB: Father Alexander, with the staunchly Old-Calendar Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, misspoke at one point: the 19-year cycle is lunar, and the 28-year cycle is solar, not the other way around.  Vis a vis the Julian calendar of dates and leap years, the dates of the moon phases calculated for planning purposes – approximate to the observed phases – follow a sequence that repeats every 19 Julian years.  And as the same linked paragraph also notes, Julian dates recur on the same days of the week every 28 years.  28 times 19 equals 532, the two cycles resynchronizing together every 532 years.

It wasn’t just about Easter / Pascha.  For medieval Byzantine Christians, nearly every day of the year was – and for all Orthodox still is – describable in relation to Pascha, whether it’s a day of a week of the Triodion (pre-Lent), the Great Fast (Lent), Holy Week, the actual Pascha Season, or weeks after Pentecost for the rest of the year and early the following year until the Triodion comes around again.  Most people don’t make this connection – it took me a while – but literally every day is a Moveable Feast!  For medieval Western Christians, only the Season(s) of Advent / Christmas / Epiphany were taken out of the relationship to Easter, days of these weeks being defined specially.  (Byzantine Christians didn’t have such a liturgical Advent [just our Nativity Fast], nor an Epiphany / Theophany ‘season’ really.)  When I was going through Catholic schools and seminaries, even “Ordinary Time” was discussed Pentecostally in terms of “the life of the Spirit in the Church,” even if the name “Ordinary Time” seems like “generic/not exciting”!

Therefore, for Byzantine and High-Church Western Christians then and today still, any given day has two aspects.  Easterners characterize these as the Menaion and the Paschalion, ie, the Fixed and the Moveable – the commemoration of the numerical calendar date, and that of the relation to Pascha.  (This is why some of us consider it imprecise to call the Old Calendar as used in most of the Orthodox Church “the Julian Calendar.”  Caesar didn’t know about the Resurrection of Christ, because JC – the earlier one who only thought he was god – died too soon!  OC Orthodox’ Menaion is Julian, but the Paschalion is Hebrew.)  Westerners traditionally thought of them a little differently, the Liturgical Season (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost) or “Temporal Cycle,” and the saint’s feast of the numerical calendar date otherwise, the “Sanctoral Cycle.”

Why is all this important?  Because as I said, the sequence of services – not just Eucharistic Liturgy, but also the Hours and some other Church services – repeated every 532 years.  Each day’s services were also complicated by multiple commemorations on many days of the year, and because of the Menaion and Paschalion (to use the Eastern terms) seeming to jump with regard to each other yearly, a priest needed help putting together any given day’s services.  He didn’t invent them himself eventually, but had the accumulated Holy Tradition in this regard to guide him.  As Fr. Alexander said in the linked article, for Orthodox the key to this (big-T) Tradition is called the Typikon (or Typicon), a big book that describes all the possible combinations of feasts and fasts for the 532-year cycle.  ISTM the Church of Rome had something similar whose most common name seems to have been the Ordinarius, the basis of the Ordo, although as this (old) Catholic Encyclopedia article emphasizes, it varied a bit with the addition of local, regional, or national feasts, or those pertaining to a particular religous or monastic order, and their interaction with the universal (Latin) feasts; this is also true in Orthodoxy, without vitiating the reliance on the Typicon as a whole.  Examples of Orthodox versions of the annual extracts from the Ordinarius that were eventually printed by dioceses, provinces, nations, and orders of the Church of Rome (as the CE discusses) include these from the (Old Calendar) Diocese of Alaska of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), and the “2008 Tipic” currently available on the homepage of the OCA’s (New Calendar) Romanian diocese.  (I don’t know if all the OCA’s dioceses do their own Orders of Divine Services; the Romanian diocese’s commemorations might vary from those of the rest of the OCA due to their Romanian traditions, most of the rest of the OCA being of Russian or Carpatho-Russian heritage.  And Alaska is their only remaining OC diocese, so its Menaion would differ from most of the rest of that jurisdiction [though they also have a few dozen OC parishes in other dioceses].)

So what?  I believe Fr. Alexander exaggerates when he complains that parishes and jurisdictions on the Orthodox New Calendar “throw the Typicon in the trash.”  IIUC, they will only gradually, over the centuries, accumulate combinations of feast-days not currently covered by the Traditional Orthodox Typikon.  But most usage of the Typicon t/Traditionally didn’t consist of the ‘dartboard’ approach he and others often employ – impressively – to prove its usefulness, but instead just marching through it day by day, week by week.  The Typikon in a sense was the calendar, covering both Menaion and Paschalion.  The same for the Ordinarius in the West.  I can’t find discussion of the impact of the Gregorian Calendar reform on the Ordinarius and the Ordo, but since the Western Church went from a 532-year cycle to a nearly 6-million-year one, it has had to require increasing intervention by Rome to account for unaccounted-for combinations of universal (Latin) and other feasts, a significant departure from Tradition.  Or massive depletion of feasts from the calendar, as has happend in the last few generations, with the liturgical “reform’s” increased focus on the Seasons, and the ‘lay-off’ of certain well-known but ancient Saints now questioned, such as Christopher and Philomena, and the Great-Martyr George for God’s sake!  (Sorry, I almost never take God’s Name in vain; but here, is it?!  In any case, Orthodox often include prayers and especially hymns from more than one saint-of-the-day, as well as from the season, in Liturgy, similar to what the Tridentine Mass did.)  As Dr. Roman points out in the linked article, this approach too is highly not-Orthodox – and he’s an Eastern Catholic!  Or even a dramatic simplification of the calendar and approach to feasts: for instance, I have no idea what most of this even means, since I have no memory of the Latin Liturgy before Vatican II.  “Semi-double of the Second Class”?!!  Today Latin observances are in order of increasing importance: Commemorations (ie, de-emphasized Optional Memorials during Lent), Optional Memorials, Obligatory Memorials, Feasts, and Solemnities … period.  In fairness, I don’t know what most of the Orthodox Orders of Services I linked to above are talking about either, since I haven’t had a chance to study the finer points of Orthodox Liturgy yet.  But I’ve probably seen or heard it in church, and I know it’s all hugely valued by Orthodox Holy Tradition, so much that if you touch the Liturgy, there’s rioting in the streets of Greece, even deaths … or (successful) mass resistance to Communist-backed “renovationism” in the USSR in the ’20s.  (I never heard that in “History of the Soviet Union” in college!)  And again in fairness, as Fr. Alexander points out, in the Orthodox New Calendar aka Revised Julian, there’s no cycle, it’s completely open-ended, so that it will require updating at the beginning of just about every century by dioceses or jurisdictions or synods.

Long story short, nearly all the world’s Orthodox keep the Traditional Orthodox Paschalion,*** and the overwhelming majority of the world’s Orthodox keep the Traditional Orthodox Calendar aka Julian (though a minority in the Western world), among many, many other reasons, because this Menaion and Paschalion are, mathematically speaking, internally perfect.  They trade one day every 134 years vis a vis the sun and stars and climatic seasons, for the convenience of continuing to follow the Services sanctified by centuries of Orthodox Fathers and Mothers of the Church, Saints, and the All-Holy Spirit of God, without requiring any more novel Hierarchical intervention than necessary (eg, when new Saints are added to the calendar), or the gutting of the calendar or its feasts and Saints (most of the world’s Orthodox treat their Saint’s name-day more importantly than their “birthday according to the flesh”), or of the Liturgical Tradition itself.  And it’s not rare among Orthodox to express doubt that the Lord will delay His Return in Glory long enough to let us seriously worry about Pascha in Northern Autumn – though if He does, there’s always the Southern Hemisphere!  (I guess then they’ll trade kielbasa at the parish Pascha bash after late-night Liturgy, for “shrimps on the barbie“!  Or wait, they’re shellfish and not part of the Fast.  You get what I mean though….)

Think of it computerwise: The raw data are (1) the universal calendar, (2) the elements of the Liturgies (Eucharist, Hours, etc.), (3) a national or regional calendar, and (4) a local calendar.  The Typikon or Ordinarius is/was the database assembled from these raw data.  Holy Tradition is/was the software.  And the annual Ordo’s or other printouts are the output.  Michael Purcell (Orthodox) says his Menologion 3.0 software (both calendars) is ready for download and use on your computer, but generally speaking, the Typikon is in some ways similar to that, and in other ways different, as you could see sampled at the Alaskan and Romanian links above.  To really see it computerwise, a Melkite Catholic priest (Gregorian Calendar) has computerized (5.6 MB) an unofficial software version of his diocese’s typicon for the next 1,000 years(!), and although he says the Hours will be added in a software update expected at the end of next year, the list of options just for Eucharist is more than the Menologion provides, because the Menologion isn’t intended to provide those things.

(*–As well as part of a long-term ongoing attempt to get my head around Orthodox calendar stuff for the sake of explaining it here.)

(**–As they called it a long time ago.)

(***–Metropolitan KALLISTOS [Ware] in The Orthodox Church says Finland’s Orthodox are required by the government to follow the Gregorian Calendar, ie, not even the Revised Julian.  I don’t know why Constantinople’s Estonians do, representing one in eight Orthodox in that country.)

The main meaning of the Greek verb baptizo, from which the English word baptism is ultimately derived (as Mr. Portokalos advised us!), is to dip, as in water.

Christianity as such didn’t invent the practice of dipping converts in water.  The Old Testament Church sometimes baptized proselytes, and so did some other Near Eastern religions.  But dipping quickly became a hallmark of Christianity.  The Lord was baptized by the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist, John, and very early, Christians commemorated this on a yearly basis, along with the Lord’s other “manifestations,” on the Great Feast of the Theophany, January 6.  The Gospel According to St. John the Theologian 3:22, 4:1-2 indicates that the Lord Himself and/or His disciples baptized followers very early.  Water imagery is frequent in the Gospels.  And of course, the Lord commanded his Apostles to ‘make students [disciples] of all nations, dipping them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ which they did, as the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles attest.

However, I haven’t made a study of it, but I have never seen a depiction, East or West, of the Lord’s Baptism by John, in which He seemed completely immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John.  (That might be hard to draw or paint.)  Usually what seems to be going on is that the Lord, or both He and John, are standing in the river, partially immersed, with John pouring water over the Lord’s head.  Today Orthodox Judaism requires total immersion for some mikvah bath-taking, including for conversion to the faith.  Something similar is reflected in Orthodox Christian theology, East and, originally, West, from very early on, including in the canonical Epistles.  The most profound o/Orthodox theology around Christian Baptism is actually uniting the convert to Christ’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection from the Dead, as the Holy Apostle Paul is well-known to point out (see Romans 6).  The early Fathers of the Church discuss how triple-immersion Baptism mimics burial in the ground and resurrection from the dead – done three times, once for each day the Lord spent in the tomb; or for His (1) Death, (2) Burial, and (3) Resurrection from the Dead; and of course for (1) the Father, (2) the Son, and (3) the Holy Spirit, as He commanded.  In fact some Christian sects baptized by single-immersion, and this was condemned by Ecumenical Councils as “baptism only into His Death,” as if not also into His Burial and Resurrection from the Dead.  Thus, even now, the unbaptized enter Orthodox Christianity by triple immersion.

Theologically, Orthodox Baptism unites you to the Lord’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection from the Dead – the Mystery of our Salvation.  In this way, you are united energetically – in His Energies, but not His imparticipable Essence – to Him, becoming a member of His Body, His Orthodox Church, just like His hands and feet, eyes and ears, mouth and nose, as St. Paul says repeatedly.  God’s All-Holy Spirit, of course, is “everywhere present, filling all things,” as Orthodox pray constantly in the prayer “O Heavenly King.”  But especially in Christ’s Body, whether during His three years on Earth, now in Heaven, or in His Body on Earth the Orthodox Church since Pentecost.  So it is as a member of Christ’s Body that you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you too after Baptism and the sealing with the Holy Spirit, Chrismation (“confirmation”), immediately after Baptism.  Thus is Adam and Eve’s sin, the Ancestral Sin, removed from you – through your “death,” “resurrection from the dead,” union with Christ Himself “who knew no sin,” and filling with His Divine Spirit.

Somehow much of this has been lost in Western Christian tradition, where baptism became associated only formalistically with water, washing, joining the church, and salvation, as exemplified by the old Catholic Encyclopedia article.  By which I mean that they may sometimes still say the words in the homily or in spiritual journals or theological essays, but as someone who studied for both Latin and Protestant ministries, I can say they lack the resonance that they have in an Orthodox Church that baptizes by immersion.  As the CE points out, non-immersion Baptism was (and still is, in Orthodoxy) always considered permissible in unusual circumstances – unavailability of sufficient water, illness or decrepitude, disability, maybe even a perceived need for secrecy in situations of persecution.  But according to this source (scroll to bottom), baptism by pouring became the usual method in the West just on the eve of the Protestant Reformation.  I am unable to find out why it did so even in the case of infants – the most common candidates for baptism – who should be pretty easy to dip!  But I have a theory: In what might be called ‘standing immersion,’ as with depictions of the Lord, water was poured over the candidate’s head – in o/Orthodox Christianity, perhaps evoking His Burial at least by completely covering the body with some water, even after the fashion of throwing dirt on the grave.  Now if the association of Baptism with Christ’s Burial and Resurrection from the Dead was essentially lost in the West, you were left with pouring water over the head without standing in water, a theology mostly of (merely) washing (ie, “washing away Original Sin”), and from there, the degradation of the rite and its associations in faith and practice, until you reach a point where a slightly-revived Immersion practice (post-Vatican II) is feared by some Latins as threatening the theology of the sacrament!  You even have the obsession of some Western schools of theology – Latin and Protestant, for and against – with the question of ‘how little is required to have a “valid baptism”?’, leading to exhaustive, contrived discussions of sprinkling, smudging, use of sand, baptism by a nonbeliever, even baptizing in utero, and all the other s/Scholastic excesses that never had any significant place in actual Western Christian life.  I don’t have specific historical information regarding how the association with Christ’s Burial and Resurrection from the Dead were essentially lost, except to cite the general erosion of o/Orthodox t/Theology in the West, especially after the final real loss of Communion by the West with the rest of the Church dated at AD 1054.  (Celt that I am, I’m developing a renewed appreciation for just how “dark” the “Dark Ages,” a Western phenomenon,* really became – tragically.  Why would God allow that?)

Under Western influence, some Orthodox dioceses (and apparently most Byzantine-Rite Eastern Catholics) temporarily adopted Baptism by Pouring as their main method in the 16-1800s, but I believe most if not all Orthodox now normally use some form of Immersion again.  There is some discussion about how to receive converts to Orthodoxy who have been previously baptized by various methods in Heterodox Christianity, and it has varied somewhat historically from time to time, from place to place, and from Heterodox church to Heterodox church, but I believe the most common method, at least in the United States now, is by Chrismation – as I was received into the Greek Archdiocese of America in 2002 – not seeing an absolute need for a fresh Orthodox Baptism given the situation here.  (It’s actually more complex than that, and I don’t have a firm grip on it myself, but this is the decision of our Bishops and Synods, whose responsibility it is.  Greek Orthodox Metropolitan ISAIAH of Denver, who I am under the impression is quite the theologian, discusses this pastorally in a couple letters to his clergy in 2000 here and here.  The Archdiocese also advises me that it’s technically on a case-by-case basis.)

(*–Remember that only in the West did the true Empire of the Romans fall in the middle of the first Christian millennium.  It lived on in the East for another 1,000 years, with civilization, urbanity, literacy, science, etc.  Constantinople was the world’s largest city outside China!)

A new friend, Destination Macedonia has left a new comment on [my] post “Liturgy: On Second Thought…“: I am curious to learn how the Orthodox Church has seen the Hellenic culture. So I’ve suggested some readings on my blogsite. Could you help me with your comments? Thanks

and on [my] post “Pope’s Regensburg lecture“: I am curious to learn the Orthodox Church link with the Hellenic culture. So I’ve suggested some readings on my blogsite. Could you help me with your comments? Έρρωσθε

Dear Friend,

Thanks for your interest from all the way over in Thessaloniki! Please forgive my lateness in responding. Between Pennsylvania’s heat waves this summer and my own health problems, I’ve been off my computer most of the last four months. Also, if you don’t mind, I’ve taken the liberty to make my response a separate article, so if you’re inclined to post comments, please do so here rather than at your original comments, or on your own site, since I can’t monitor your site. Thanks. And I pray you haven’t been harmed by the fires!

I gather from your website that by “Hellenic culture,” you mean pre-Christian, or Classical. And I don’t know if I can tell you anything you don’t already know, living over there and everything, but I’ll try my best.

The first principle of Orthodox Christianity in this question is to seek to persuade people outside the Orthodox Church to join it, called evangelization or spreading God’s Good News (Greek euangelion). Orthodoxy doesn’t rule out the possibility of salvation for non-Orthodox, but encourages others to take advantage of the ‘full information/training’ available in the Orthodox Church if possible. (And of course today the Orthodox Church is alot more widespread, geographically, than ever before!) In ancient times Orthodoxy did this almost completely nonviolently, as opposed to the much more violent spread of Western Christianity (ie, Catholicism and Protestantism) later, after it became heterodox.

As for persons already in the Orthodox Church, the ancient Orthodox Fathers of the Christian Church are divided on whether Christians should acquaint themselves with the philosophies and religions of their non-Christian ancestors, eg, the ancient Greeks. Some said there was only spiritual danger there, but others – even the great Saint Basil – thought there could be some intellectual benefit to academic students at least. In fact, in some Greek Orthodox temples (churches) even today I am told you may see murals that include Classical Greek philosophers in the vestibule (without halos), calling one or more of them “the Moses of the Greeks” (ie, of the pagans), because some of their philosophy came close to basic Christianity, or prepared the Greeks for Christianity, as Moses did for the Israelites. But certainly the Orthodox Fathers of the Church opposed embracing non-Christian religion as apostasy, requiring Baptism and Chrismation anew if someone who did so later returned to Orthodoxy. (This practice differs from Catholicism and Protestantism, which don’t believe baptism can or may be repeated.) (Ironically, the pre-Christian Roman Empire took a similar stance: one of the charges typically levelled against Christians in the persecutions was atheism, because they ‘apostatized,’ turning to the worship of an ‘unapproved’ God, or rejecting worship of ‘approved’ gods! [Sound familiar?! 😉 ])

(It is frequently said here in the West that Orthodox theology is heavily influenced, even “in thrall to,” pre-Christian Greek philosophy. This is ironic for two reasons: [1] It is actually Western Christian – Catholic and Protestant – theology that is so, as a result of the Rennaissance of Classical Greco-Roman culture in Western Europe, without a similar “rennaissance” of contemporary Byzantine-Greek Orthodox thought in most of the West; and [2] Although Orthodox theology clearly echoes pre-Christian Greek thought, the Orthodox Fathers and Mothers of the Church make clear that Orthodoxy’s teachings are the result of God revealing His Uncreated Divine Energies to them, and not Christian Greek “philosophizing.” See below.)

I believe I have read that as late as the 7th century AD, there were significant pockets of the old Greek paganism in the Byzantine Empire; in fact, the Orthodox Byzantines used the word Greek or Hellene pretty much to refer to paganism, and called themselves Romans or Romaioi (because Roman citizenship had been bestowed upon all subjects of the Empire in AD 212, ironically a century before Emperor Saint Constantine the Great), and often the words Roman and Orthodox in their usage were synonymous, and sometimes the Empire of the Romans was called instead the Empire of the Orthodox. Furthermore, a small minority of the Empire’s academics remained ‘fans’ of the paganism, both of the philosophy and even the religion (though not practicing it – as far as mainstream histories know anyway); it was these in part who, fleeing the Empire, sparked the “Rennaissance” of Classical Greco-Roman culture in then-largely-illiterate and impoverished Western Europe among Catholics and even eventually Protestants, in part leading to the Protestant Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, and the whole Modern Era as it is thought of by Westerners and others under Western influence (post-1500), with its revolutions in science, skepticism, philosophical speculation, economic “rationalization,” the Industrial Revolution, (small-R) republicanism, Civil-Law human rights on the Continent of Western Europe and subsequently in modern international law [Arguably the basic rights doctrine under English/American Common Law does not derive from this but is far older.], Communism, Nazism/Fascism, secularism, “post-modernism,” Evolution, the presumption of “progress” in history, anti-traditionalism (ironically perhaps), mass warfare, ideological politics, modern technology(!), etc etc etc.

Turning to modern Greece, it is this “Rennaissance” heritage of the West that led to Western romanticism over the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s, and the high level of support for it there, even apart from Great Power interests in dismantling “the Sick Man of Europe,” that Empire, by supporting linguistic-ethnic separatism in the Balkans and the Middle East (the results of which, some critics say, we are still living with today, for better or for worse). As a result of this dynamic, there have been two schools of thought in Greece since the War of Independence, which may be characterized as neo-Classical or neo-Byzantine. While Orthodoxy has been the official religion of the Greek State, ISTM some Greeks view Greekness largely through quasi-Rennaissance (“neo-Classical”) eyes, and others largely through quasi-Medieval (“neo-Byzantine”) eyes… and perhaps some lie in between these two poles. Another, related way of looking at this – and I say this with some hesitation, but descriptively, not judgmentally – might be a “cultural” view versus a “theological” view. I believe this ambivalence can be seen even in the life of the Greek Church as such, both in the Eastern Mediterranean (ie, the Churches of Constantinople [mostly], Alexandria [mostly], Jerusalem [still largely], Cyprus, and Greece) and in the “diaspora”: some folks elevate Greeks’ ancient heritage and culture, and its outworkings in more recent Greek cultural manifestations, which we in the diaspora see at Orthodox parish Greek or Grecian Festivals; while others elevate Greeks’ Byzantine and Orthodox religious heritage over the former; and naturally, there has been some cross-pollination as well, as we are reminded of the Orthodox and Christian religious background to the more recent cultural manifestations, etc. The question of whether the two can be reconciled in modern Greekness, or even already have been, is a question for those more Greek-culturally-involved than I: although I have a couple Byzantine Emperors in my family tree, as well as an unnamed pre-Christian Greek concubine to a Mideastern potentate, I only found out about them in the last decade, and was raised mostly Irish-American, and also Native American (Indian)!

But then there is the question of Greek non-Orthodox, even non-Christians. Back to the history discussion, once the Byzantine Imperial throne was firmly in Orthodox hands for the first time, from the late 4th century AD, the Emperor came to be seen as protector of the Church and the Truth. In a sense his first responsibility was supposed to be his nation’s salvation, not in the same way as this is clergy and bishops’ responsibility, but he was supposed to take salvation into consideration when making policy. (In fact, IIUC, this was the choice offered St. Lazar, King of Serbia, going into battle against the Ottoman Empire – victory OR salvation. He chose salvation.) So increasingly, Jews, Heterodox Christians, apostates from Christianity, and I presume pagans in the Byzantine Empire, suffered legal disabilities, and some harassment. But the main interest of the Church here would not have been power for its own sake, but protection of its people from the perceived falsehood and temptation posed by these persons or doctrines/practices. We must remember that Orthodoxy doesn’t see itself as simply another philosophy or sect; ideally, it experiences itself, as do the Orthodox Fathers and Mothers of the Church, the Orthodox Saints, and other Orthodox spiritual fathers and mothers, as the cure of humanity’s fundamental problem of alienation from God’s Divine Energies. The late Father John Romanides of America and Greece, and other Orthodox writers like him, have compared Orthodox Church councils (synods) to meetings of the national psychiatric association (a better U.S. comparison, in part, might be to a state board of licensing), defining illnesses, prescribing therapies, endorsing practitioners, and proscribing “quacks.” Therefore it’s not just mere routinized “paternalism” when Orthodox Church leaders become concerned about their people and spiritual temptations to them, but real spiritual fatherhood and care for souls under their responsibility. True Orthodox spiritual fathers and mothers have God’s Wisdom to perceive dangers in the lives of their spiritual proteges.

But what if some Greeks (to focus on the question at hand, but applicable to others as well) wish to embrace other faiths, or none? As a “modern,” a Westerner, and especially an American, my impulse is that they should be legally free to do so in the eyes of the state. How would I feel if non-Orthodoxy were imposed on me here in America?! Furthermore, I grew up as an Irish-American Catholic with a strong sense of Catholics’ second-class status in their own Catholic-majority country of Ireland under British Protestant minority rule from the Reformation until the 1920s, and arguably continuing today in Northern Ireland under the rule of a slight Protestant majority since the Partition of the Island, as well as the history of anti-Catholic discrimination here in the Protestant-majority States largely until 1960, and in many places continuing to the present. In addition, recent sociology claims that all sects do better in a “religious free market,” in terms of adherents’ observance, than in a situation where one sect is legally favored by the State: they compare the relatively high level of religiosity in the U.S. to the much lower levels in many Western European countries having a legally-established Protestant or Catholic faith, even though in the last generation or more they have all ‘established’ individual freedom of religion – the implication being that even the perception of continuing governmental favor toward or involvement with one sect in particular is too much “socialization” (to extend the economic metaphor!), and hurts the whole “market,” and thus everybody in it.

Three questions arise for me considering this just now: (1) Is the “free market” thesis even applicable to non-Western-European countries where Orthodox are in significant numbers or even a plurality or majority, such as Greece? After all, religious cultures are different. (2) From an Orthodox perspective, is the “free market” model a good idea, or spiritually responsible? A true “free market” would seem to require more than a token number of non-Orthodox. How many souls should Orthodox spiritual fathers and mothers be willing to sacrifice for the “benefit of the free market” in religion? Or is this like some other things the West has experimented with “market-wise” over the last couple centuries, only to discover that “the market” isn’t always the best provider of necessity, equity, or social justice? So, do Orthodox Church leaders simply have to find other ways to increase observance among the faithful, or at least concede that a lax, skeptical, or even scandalous Orthodox is still spiritually better-off than s/he would be as a Latin, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, apostate, atheist, Neo-Pagan, or anything else? (It’s common among Catholics and Protestants to consider that someone is better-off in a creed they care about, than one they don’t. But such “relativism” would be a novelty to Orthodoxy, I believe.) And (3), presuming ambivalence toward a “free market” in religion, what should the attitude of the Orthodox Church as such be toward religious “tolerance,” especially in a country that is officially or quasi-officially Orthodox? Should other faiths be allowed to build their own houses of worship, the question you raise at the end of this post on your blog? worship or preach in public places? proselytize? publish? broadcast? make use of historical sites for their own religious purposes? vote? hold public office? receive government support? be passed-on to children? be taught about in government-supported or government-run primary or secondary schools? Or should Orthodoxy call on the “Orthodox” State to protect the Church, the Truth, etc., and if so, how exactly?

In spite of all this, however, as well as how it may feel to you, my friend (and believe me, I am not without sympathy), the Orthodox Church does not rule Greece, any more than it ruled the Byzantine Empire. Orthodox theology strongly prefers a strict separation of powers between civil rulers, who are laity, and ecclesiastical leaders, who are Bishops – the Ottoman millet system, the Montenegrin prince-bishops, and Archbishop MAKARIOS‘ presidency of the Republic of Cyprus being exceptions more-or-less forced onto the Hierarchy IIUC. And throughout Orthodox history, Orthodox lay civil rulers have frequently done things that they considered politically or militarily expedient, if not exactly “Christian” or even “Orthodox.” Therefore it stands to reason that the lay civil rulers of Greece also, minimally, will do for non-Orthodox, including your Hellenic culture and/or religion, what seems expedient from time to time, taking into account internal partisan and electoral politics, the domestic legal and court system, Church relations, and international relations. I have no familiarity with these currently, so I can’t say how much hope that offers you; you probably have a better idea of that than I.

Finally, not to assign too much homework(!), but I’ve just browsed a recent statement by the Orthodox Bishops of the Patriarchate of Moscow, who work not just in Russia or the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also in the Western world in all sorts of legal and political contexts. It’s a bit long, and sometimes not well translated, as well as not fully-informed on certain points (such as constitutional monarchy), but I think may reward your attention as you seek to understand Orthodoxy’s position in your regard. I highlight for your attention in particular the first five chapters, and chapter XIV section 2 (scroll down about half-way). Again, it’s kind of general, and not too specific to Greece or pre-Christian Hellenic culture or religion, but it might help shed light on Orthodox perspectives for you.

I don’t imagine any of this will persuade you, but I hope you find my poor attempt helpful in understanding those around you in Greece.

Best wishes,

Leon Petros Foulaniou 😉