The Paschal Gift

It is impossible to describe the joy of Pascha, particularly as I experience it as a priest. This year, I was deeply aware that I stand in a place that was both created for me, and for which I am unworthy. The joy of such a combination is the realization of the Gift. When you are trying to find a gift for someone, the most difficult part, it seems to me, is to think of something that communicates the unique place, the unique value, and the particular affection that you hold. Gifts can be so generic, but no human being is generic. My sense of the Gift is that it is utterly particular and unique. What God gives is never “one size fits all.” Salvation is the healing and fulfillment of a person and cannot be the same from one to another. Although all are formed and shaped “according to the image and likeness of God,” that image and likeness has an infinite variety in its personal expression.

It is in this sense, that Pascha, Christ’s death and resurrection, is the creation and birth of every human being. This is not simply the creation and birth of humanity, but of each truly unique person. Pascha is therefore my story (and yours).

This unique reality that constitutes our true self, is, in its most foundational aspect, a gift. We never “create ourselves” (pace Justice Kennedy). We are not the makers of our own reality. There is such a wonderful liberation in this when we begin to truly understand it. We do not bring ourselves into existence, nor do we form and create our world. Our present reality is not the result of some chain of decisions and consequences. Such naive reductionism (often posited by many religious people) simply fails to adequately describe even the smallest portion of our reality and that which is rightly termed, “the self.”

The modern narrative of the self views human beings as absurdly responsible for their lives. That small fraction of our lives that is affected by our decisions is credited with the creation of the whole. It is a distortion that is useful only in coercing our agreement with and cooperation in the injustice of the present world order.

The truth of our being is that we are an intersection of many things, an almost infinite concatenation. It is far more accurate to describe the “self” as a witness, the subject that bears witness to the concatenation of events that is uniquely gifted to us.

To say that “I am unworthy” is to be an accurate witness. Nothing of what I am in this moment, even in this life, is finally of my own making. It cannot be described in terms of worthiness. At its core, the experience of unworthiness is the acknowledgment of the gift, and thus the offering of thanks.

To stand rightly at Pascha, is, finally, to stand at the end of all things, the beginning of all things, and thus at the beginning and end of our lives. It is beholding Christ’s Pascha that allows us to see the gift and to understand that this – this Pascha – is the revelation of our own lives. It is also true that when we see things rightly, the unique witness that is our life, this unique gathering of events, is itself Christ’s Pascha.

St. John Chrysostom says in his great Paschal homily: “Christ is risen and not one dead is left in the grave.” Every life is revealed not only as a life but as a Pascha. “Christ is risen” is the song of our true humanity. To stand at this very moment and confess before God, “I was created precisely for this,” is to stand at Christ’s Pascha.

Glory to God for the Gift.

 

 

69 comments:

  1. It is hard to accept gifts in light of my unworthiness. May God grant humility and the joy that comes with it.

  2. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3

    Your reflection made me think of this thought from St. Paul. Can you speak to how our lives remain hidden yet revealed in Pascha?

    Thanks, Father!

  3. So much wants to steal the gift from our hearts as the crows in the parable of the sower. Alone I would never realize the gift or be able to retain any of it

  4. I have been struggling to quantify/understand the totality of my experience from Meat-fare, through Great Lent, Holy Week and the culmination- Pascha. Your insightful posting has given me a frame of reference to witness to what I experienced and to make sense of it. Gift is a perfect way to view what I experienced. It is certainly an experience that has touched me deeply and made me very aware of my unworthiness but also my acceptance into His Kingdom as scarred by sin as I am. Glory to God for All Things. He is truly risen!

  5. Thank you Father for the Post and the wonderful expression of both the Joy and the merciful wonder at Christ’s gift to all of Humanity and His creation, but especially to me in my sinful condition. I am unfamiliar with the gorgeous icon at the introduction of the this Post , can you identify where it is found and the meaning of the Gospel it presents. Thank you. He is Risen Indeed !!! Stephen from Austin

  6. St. John Chrysostom says in his great Paschal homily: “Christ is risen and not one dead is left in the grave.”

    It is for this very reason that some theologians have posited that such radical grace and life also lifted a forgiven Judas Iscariot, along with Adam & Eve, David & Solomon, and the prophets.

  7. Byron,
    I think that we make a mistake when we think there is anything other than gift to us. Indeed we are unworthy – we did nothing to deserve existence – but it is God’s gracious gift to us. It is not for us to deserve it (whoever could). It is for us to embrace it and give thanks. “Out of the mouths of babes and infants, Thou has perfected praise.” Children give thanks so easily – without self-conscious awareness and shame. They are simply grateful.

  8. I love this idea of the realization of our unworthiness not being extreme self-deprecation (as I’ve seen with Calvinists), but rather a recognition that there’s very little we actually bring to the table.

  9. Stephen,
    When we first moved toward the Orthodox Church, this icon was part of that journey: over and over we heard how much Christ loves Adam and Eve(the ones he is pulling up from Hades in the icon). Hymns at Theophany also talk about redeeming Adam in the Jordan. If Christ loves Adam and Eve so much…It underlines how much He loves you and me.

  10. Chris,
    Yes, indeed. The self-deprecation (in one common Calvinist, and cultural version) loathes the self because it has done so little. It is all about the doing, all about the will, all about the choices. And this, as I noted, has done a wonderful job of justifying serious injustices in modern economies (and many other things). You chose the wrong major. You didn’t work hard enough. You got involved with drugs. You didn’t study hard enough. Many of these things also mean little more than that you weren’t born middle class, or became that extraordinary one who beat the odds, etc. Our modern individualistic consumerist world-view, which has hijacked whole versions of Christian thinking into its service, not only justifies many evil practices, but blames the victims.

    The richest man in the world has all that he has as a gift. We earn nothing. When the end comes, and we stand face to face with death, nothing we have done will stay its hand – for our life – all of it – has been a gift.

    The clear question will be what we have done with the gift, not whether we were deserving of the gift itself. Believe me, I have seen far greater charity and kindness from crack-whores and meth-addicts than from many “normal” citizens, to say nothing of the rich. The crack-whores and the meth-addicts are not without sin – don’t get me wrong. They have terribly squandered the gift. However, there’s a reason that opiate addiction is as rampant in Appalachia (where I live). Prisons are bursting at the seams and qualified treatment, of almost every sort, is virtually non-existent, and certainly out of the reach of the poor. In some counties in East TN, nearly half the babies born are born with an addiction-withdrawal syndrome. That’s not starting at zero – that’s starting with one foot in the grave already. Many of these same people would quickly give you the shirt off their back (and steal it back again if they needed drugs). But the modern myth of individualism is more than bankrupt – it is a stench in the nostrils of God. “The poor you have with you always – and it’s their own damn fault,” would be one way to put it. It’s a lie from the devil.

  11. Stephen from Austin,
    As Byron noted, it’s the “Harrowing of Hell,” depicting Christ’s defeat of death, hell, sin, etc., and setting free those who are held captive. It is the primary icon for the Orthodox at Pascha (Easter). It is what we focus on mostly – the resurrection of Christ reveals how complete this victory is – but unlike any other group of Christians that I know – this is our greatest focus. It is, as well, the primary focus in the worship of the Early Church, as illustrated in the sermons of early Fathers, and the texts of various worship hymns, etc.

    In this icon, Christ is taking Adam and Eve by the hand and pulling them from the grave, and Hades. Beneath his feet are the smashed gates of Hades, as well as the devil bound in chains. On the left of the picture (Christ’s right), John the Baptist is pointing towards Christ is explaining (preaching) things to those around him. Etc.

  12. Yes, Father! I live in Albuquerque, NM; a city with fraught with substance abuse, poverty, and domestic abuse/violence. Working in the public school system, I’ve seen countless cases of social woes begetting social woes; drug-abusing parents tending to have children who become drug abusers, etc.

    I heard a story (perhaps apocryphal) about a man with same-sex attraction visiting St. Paisios on Mt. Athos. The man had grown despondent because of his recurring sin, and was considering abandoning Christianity altogether. St. Paisios simply asked the man if he could say a few prayers and read some Scripture and works from the saints daily. The man replied “yes,” and St. Paisios then told the man to focus on the things he could do, and leave the rest to God.

    The story was such an encouragement to me.

  13. Father, I wonder about Judas. Did he not repent of his sin before his death (suicide, I know)? Is there not hope for his salvation based on his repentence, as opposed to the standard view of his damnation due to his great sin against Jesus? I would think there is hope and we should pray for him regularly. If he cannot be saved, can we? I wonder that the Church has not spoken concerning him (that I know of, anyway).

  14. “The modern narrative of the self views human beings as absurdly responsible for their lives. That small fraction of our lives that is affected by our decisions is credited with the creation of the whole. It is a distortion that is useful only in coercing our agreement with and cooperation in the injustice of the present world order.”

    Interesting observation. Thank you, Father.

  15. Byron,
    I think many wonder about Judas. We simply have not been told about him (I presume it’s none of our business). But he is certainly among those whom we pray for on the Day of Pentecost at Vespers. His is also a case of bad “pastoral care.” He repented. He went to give the money back. And was told, “You see to that.” What would have happened had he come to Jesus with the same problem? Of course, it was not possible. But it’s something that is in God’s hands.

  16. The icon of The Harrowing of Hell is recreated at the end of Agape Vespers when the congregation gathers around the celebrant (in my parish it is our Bishop) praising God and receiving the blessing.

    Gift is the only way to describe it all.

  17. Bless me, Father

    I have struggled through the years with my faith. I’m not sure how to accurately describe what transpires within me when I have just about turned my back on my beliefs, but I feel as if a line reels me back. I return but remain troubled. Just this evening I realized where one those blocks that prevent me from kneeling before the icon emanates from. I don’t consider myself to possess strong sentiments of compassion and empathy but justice is primary for me. I mention this so you will better understand where my turmoil originates from. How can I pray, not just for what ails me but also to simply connect with God when I know so many innocents died in horrific ways or were brutalized. They too prayed. I cannot reconcile praying for my own self when I know their prayer did not attain the goal they desired. I can’t pray knowing how my life and my concerns are so trivial compared to theirs. It seems so unjust to me. You might respond by saying I should pray for them. But it’s not the answer I’m searching for. How can I pray and receive something when I know a prayer has also been whispered by a woman in Sudan, in Palestine, in Syria. Their very life is at risk whereas mine is not. Gods’ love is enormous, you will say. Everyone has God’s attention. Yes, but I still feel like a hypocrite. Do I attribute it to just luck then? That my needs are not dire. That would be very unjust. Do I deprive myself because so many are suffering? That would be nonsense because I can, in my own limited way help. Do I shout to God, are you aware, Kyrie, that this woman is suffering? No, because God moves in mysterious ways. Do I believe I’m not worthy of God’s attention? I know I am.
    I’ve rambled, I apologize. I want to pray, I want to understand why justice prevents me in my own thoughts.

  18. Father and Chris,
    I wonder if I might propose a clarification in what might be understood as “the end.” In the above article, you are careful Father to compose the composite: “To stand rightly at Pascha, is, finally, to stand at the end of all things, the beginning of all things, and thus at the beginning and end of our lives.” Is it not an important element of “standing face to face with death” as a constant and present struggle of this “life”? Isn’t the “end” here, always present and a very real decay while we are being “Paschatized” in The Resurrect as then and now? In other words, you say above that in facing our “end” we are baptized into “our” vast beginning in Christ. Our life, as gift, is, as I understand, just beginning. This composite, from what I gather from your article, is the Pashal celebration and maybe not just the “ending” that is often so hard to work through because it can so easily be taken as just that?

  19. Thank you for this article Fr. Stephen. If you have a chance I wonder how the theme that we are supposed to hate our lives relates. I have wondered if there is a translation issue I don’t understand with the use of the word hate.

    Also, please pray for my dad and sister (Monique) and our family. My dad is having a third surgery on his eye today. I hope his physical vision and all of our spiritual vision can be healed.

  20. Andrew,
    You misunderstand, forgive me. The by “end of our lives” I mean the telos, their true and proper end and purpose. Death is not an end. It’s an event, to be sure, but not the end. Reread it with that meaning.

  21. Berlin,
    This, as they say, is a temptation. I rarely pray “for myself” as such. “Give us this day our daily bread” pretty well covers it. I repent and ask for the grace to trust and to believe, to forgive, to be kind, etc. But most of prayer is simply uniting ourselves with God on behalf of all and for all. This, we do primarily in the Jesus Prayer. I do not pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” as some do (and it’s fine). I pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.”

    Unite yourself with the woman in Sudan, Palestine, Syria, and pray together with them. “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done” is always a prayer for justice (in the sense of righteousness – of “right-ness”). Christ has united Himself with them (with all of us) and suffers in us, in each and in all. The injustice suffered by all is also the injustice endured in the Cross. The life of the world, at any moment, is also the life of the Cross through the world in this moment. It groans in travail and longs to be fulfilled, to be transformed, to be vindicated. The resurrection of Christ is the “firstfruits,” the promise that all will be accomplished, fulfilled, healed, transformed. And even though we do not yet see it, we see His resurrection.

    Do not separate things so much. “God do you know this woman is suffering?” God is the woman’s suffering. The temptation is to imagine otherwise.

  22. Father Stephen,
    I think I try to pray too specifically also, perhaps displaying worry or anxiety in my prayers. “God, what about this? Can you help with this matter, etc.” I once asked my priest, now of blessed memory, how he prayed (btw, the most devoted man to Christ I have ever known). He replied, “Lord have mercy on….” I said, and if they’re sick? Again, he answered, “Lord, have mercy on….”

  23. That old devil is a liar and a trickster . The last 3 blogs have been helpful having grown up in an abusive and dysfunctional family. I never realized the love of God and His mercy. When I hear the words from some that we are masters of our own fate I cringe inside. When I hear the blaming and shaming I take flight. I do not want to hear these things any more.
    There are many who are suffering and this surely is not what they have chosen.
    There is a sense of entitlement like I have not seen before-rather scary.
    Michael Bauman mentioned crows in his comment. Being one who likes to paint I have been including them in some of my work along w/ light and hope in these works as well. Evil has a way of throwing a shadow over so many things. The crows were just being crows and did not know the damage they were doing. People on the other hand—
    Lord have mercy.

  24. Dean,
    Yes. I think “informational” prayer is often very unproductive for those who pray. It is not information God needs. I will mention a name, for example, and for the need, but, if I want to pray at length for them, I offer psalms. Prayer is communion with God, not informing Him or persuading Him.

  25. Father, Berlin,
    Do you ever find that, occasionally, praying the Jesus prayer, (that exceptionally unifying prayer, that unites the Heavens and the Earth), we see that any impulse to beg, (to petition or request for something, i.e.: to ask for God’s gifts rather than God), even if that petition is partially left ‘open’ to the discernment of God – effectively taking the ‘have mercy on me’ or ‘on us’, or ‘on them’ as saying just ‘Thy will be done’– this “urge to request” becomes the bringer of anxiety and even of a sense of God-forsakeness to the self, since the self expects an answer from above within our own timescale…?
    So, as with the debilitating panic in the face of certain horrific psychological tortures [eg being buried alive] that takes away even the victims’ capabilities to breath, it is sometimes better to stick to no asking at all, i.e.: just calmly repeating the invocation “Lord Jesus Christ”, removing the ‘centre’ from the self-that-demands, (even if that ‘demand is a perfectly acceptable request based on the natural, human self-preservation instinct) and anchoring it on the Creator of all Who allows things to reach their divine telos in ways often incomprehensible to us today.

  26. Also – what I have experienced in those prayers which hang on the more tragic or difficult situations of life, is that my “very specific” prayer request becomes a point of expectation and eventually a struggle between me and Lord rather than a fulfillment. There is a temptation to wonder why He isn’t orchestrating the outcome from my very small point of view rather than from His mercy. He is the searcher of hearts and the only One who rightly sees reality. Not me.

  27. Is it not true that any act of mercy or prayer for mercy extends to all? Is it not also true that each act of contrition and thanksgiving somehow helps restore creation to its right order–right useness?

    It seems to be more real to unite in prayer with all who pray to Christ Jesus, the Crucified and risen one than to decry the suffering of others for whom we can do little.

    But perhaps I am wrong.

  28. This discussion fascinates me when placed in juxtoposition with another (on a different site) about the “rightness” of “hitting a nazi in the face”. It amazes me that even our secular society, in general, preaches tolerance and love–right up to the point where it explodes into violence and oppression. And yet, the people who support and take part in the violence never see themselves as less than loving and tolerant.

    I think this has something to say about the manner in which we pray. If we do not humbly recognize our own heart’s damage, our prayers become (as Victoria stated so well) “a point of expectation and eventually a struggle” between us and God. We do not pray with God’s heart and it is reflected in our lives. Oh Lord, have mercy on us!

  29. Byron,
    I’m not sure my prayers have ever become, but have always been “a point of expectation and (are) a struggle between (my self) and God.” This I think is what Father said above to Berlin: “God is the woman’s suffering” which is not what I imagine prayer to be; an apprehending of mystery largely incomprehensible and “knowable” through struggle.

    I think it is Fr. Seraphim Aldea who encourages that prayer can actually involve the battle that we engage in our minds to order our thoughts before God while saying nothing at all. Just learning to wait, “knowing” that God takes the effort (of just standing in silence for starters) as a gift. The becoming aspect implies and I hope will be less expectation and more internal peace, which is what I take to be the beginning of divine prayer “in the end” as Father has clarified to being the telos.

  30. This reminds me of something I read in a booklet by Fr Lev Gillet “Prayer of the heart”. He says that we can pray the Jesus prayer, even saying “me”, but, uniting myself, in love, to everyone else, or to a specific person. I tried it and it brought healing. I can pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, while putting myself in the other’s shoes, thus embracing him or her, exposing him to the Lord’s healing love.

  31. The correct title of the book is “the Jesus prayer”. I was simply translating its Arabic title.

  32. Theodosia,
    Elder Aimilianos and Saint Porphyrios were surprisingly zealous proponents/advisors of never saying “us” (considering it a most subtle distraction) and always saying “me” (understood here as the utterance of an all encompassing, “cosmic Adam” – the entirety of creation invoking the Creator through a singularly focused, hesychastic stance of a person in direct communion with and unwavering appearance before Christ)

  33. Thank you Dino…. I always look forward to reading your comments…
    I had once, some difficulty in relating to one particular person. She was very different from me and I could not empathize with her. Her problems always looked extremely difficult to deal with. I tried to pray for her, but could not “feel” with her until I tried the “Jesus prayer” in this way, i.e. saying “me” while thinking of her. The result was amazing (at least to me): I could love her with God’s love, the all encompassing kind of love. This was the first time I experienced being able to get through to her, at last…

  34. Christ is risen!

    Father, when you wrote, “God is the woman’s suffering.” (in your comment to Berlin), did you mean, “God is in the woman’s suffering.”?

  35. Wonderful comments, all.

    Thank you, Sbdn Andrew. I should go back and reread Fr. Seraphim Aldea’s writings on prayer.

  36. Byron,
    Yes, Fr. Seraphim’s book “Killer Prayer” is wonderful. It’s worth re-reading.

    And I should probably “re-offer” it to anybody here who does not have it 🙂
    I bought many copies to share with the readers of Father Stephen’s blog, and have several left. It allowed me to make friends with many of you here 🙂 [my secret ulterior motive! :-)].

    BTW, Fr. Seraphim has finished the reconstruction of the roof on the historic church in Kilninian and recently bought a house on the island to for his first monastic dwelling (possibly a pilgrims house in the future, when the monastery is built closer to the church). He continues to need our financial support, may God grant us generosity in supporting his efforts.

  37. Agata,

    I rarely comment, but read frequently. This is the first I’ve heard of Fr. Seraphim. Can you tell me what it is?

  38. Matth,
    If you go to his web site (mullmonastery. com), under “Books”, you will see “On Prayer” red booklet (with two scary looking characters on the cover) 🙂
    (the art choice is a bit “different” for my tastes, but the content of the book is very good – I assume it did not change much from the original edition which was called “Killer Prayer”)

    Mid last year I sent several copies to readers on this blog who gave me their address (I bought several to help the monastery and to spread the word about it). You could purchase it yourself, or send me your snail mail address and get a gift from me! 🙂

    my gmail is agatamcc….. Any of the newer readers of the blog are welcome to request one!
    🙂

    Agata

  39. Photini,
    The first time I wrote that sentence, I wrote, “God is in the woman’s suffering…” But I rewrote as “God is the woman’s suffering…” in an effort to express just how fully He unites Himself with us in all of this. It could easily be mistaken as “God is causing her suffering…” which I do not mean. English is so limited sometimes.

  40. Dino,
    I understand the notion and zeal of “me” in the Jesus Prayer, in the all-encompassing Adam. It is for the same reason that I use “us.” “Me” (when I’ve tried it stands in the way of the Elder’s sense of it). Language is funny that way.

  41. Peter, it varies. I have no set patterns, though I’ve seen some. Sometimes I’ll just offer a Kathisma (if you have an Orthodox arrangement of the Psalms, there are 20 something of these).

  42. Father,
    I know Elder Sophrony favoured ‘us’ while Elder Aimilianos wanted the use of ‘me’, as did St Porphyrios. But none of this can really be sanctioned as a commandment outside of a monastic way. And even there individual trial and error is a valuable method to decide which one suits. Unfortunately few of us devote enough time to acquire such a maturity in order to inform such details of the prayer life adequately. And a most experienced practitioner of the prayer ought to be there to guide one too.

  43. Everyone can also go to this website: ancientfaith.com and find many of Fr. Seraphim Aldea’s podcasts here: (called “Through a Monk’s Eyes”)
    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/monkseyes
    from which he reads portions of his books on prayer and many other thoughts. It is incredible to hear his voice and north “celtic” accent. And he also talks about his stand on the “me” and “us” versions of the Jesus Prayer.

  44. Andrew,
    His accent is peculiar because he’s Romanian whose English was acquired and influenced in the Universities of England (Durham, Oxford). It’s actually quite fetching!

  45. A bit like Fr. Irenei Steenberg (now His Grace Bishop Irenei of Sacramento), isn’t it Father? 🙂
    They both have charming accents!

  46. Thank you, sdbn Andrew! I didn’t make the connection, but I’ve downloaded a number of his podcast episodes to listen to (I travel for work a lot, and it’s sometimes nice to have a break from Fr. Thomas Hopko).

  47. Agata,
    I sort of understand Fr. Seraphim’s accent a bit better – going from Romanian to British. I’m sometimes a bit puzzled by Bp. Irenei’s accent, in that he’s an American who lived and studied for a while in Britain. Of course, my own daily English is not my native dialect. I was taught to speak a more standard dialect because my native Appalachian is often considered uneducated, ill-bred, and stupid. Sadly, Appalachian dialects are really only derivatives of Northern Irish dialects. But, a priest lecturing who sounds like Jed Clampett just won’t do. I should have shot for the British thing, though!

  48. Fr. Stephen,
    Bet not many remember Jed Clampett! My last year in the Air Force was spent in Montgomery, Ala. I worked with two radio and TV announcers, both Alabamans, at Maxwell AFB. They had purposefully lost their native accent for sake of their career. My wife came from Arkansas to California at age 5. Three of her older siblings still have pronounced Arkansas accents, though living in Calif. most of their lives. They will often use “ideal” in place of “idea,” and say”excape” to mention a couple examples. A friend from Nebraska says, “hows come?”. I love language and it’s many idiosyncrasies! Thank God we don’t all use a bland standard American speech.
    .

  49. Χριστός ἀνέστη! Христос воскрес! Krishti Ungjall! المسيح قام! حقا قام Christ is Risen!
    Truly a joyous gift to serve..
    “Although all are formed and shaped “according to the image and likeness of God,” that image and likeness has an infinite variety in its personal expression.” Unity through diversity comes to mind. An image and reflection of God and the Church.
    Father, my wife and I just watched “The King’s Speech” and had a similar conversation as to why an English accent has such a presence, clarity, and grandeur. Living in New England it has always grated on my nerves when I hear a stereo typical Boston or New England accent. Why would my mind tend to turn off – if I heard a sermon in such a seemingly harsh accent?
    Unity through diversity ..
    My diakonisa and I Thank you Father for this blog.

  50. Father, English is limited only in the sense that it has not been fully Baptised into the faith. Arabic, Slavonic and Greek have centuries of being formed in the Faith. Also hundred’s of Orthodox martyrs. I am constantly in awe of the fact that there are many families in my parish who can trace their Christian faith back to the time of the Apostles–coming from the Dicease of Homs in south west Syria. One of the oldest in the Christian world. The Traditional languages carry all of that experience in a way English does not-yet.

    English can be achingly beautiful when used by masters. Unfortunately, the current trend is to de-sacralize the language, de-mystify it. Indeed to wipe out literacy all together.

    It is important that we continue to forge English into a more appropriate theological tool don’t you think?

  51. One of the great problems of English is its tendency to be imprecise in meaning. I have a friend who has a Masters in Philology (the study of language) and he says that English is a shop keepers language that was invented to cheat people in. He is being facetious but he has a point. Greek verbs have moods and English ones do not. The mood tells you much about the meaning. For instance, one of the common arguments I find myself in with my Protestant friends is when they try to convince me that the Lord did not really mean that the bread is His Body and the wine His Blood. They try very hard to weasel on what He actually meant until I remind them that the Greek text records this statement in the Indicative Mood, which is literal. The Lord meant what He said. Had the to be verb been Optitive Mood, then they would have a point, but it is not so the Lord meant what He said.

  52. Michael,
    Correct me if I am wrong, I am asking, but isn’t Slavonic an extention of the efforts of Sts. Methodius and Cyril in the 9th Century? Isn’t “english” in it’s origins an Anglo-Saxon derivative of Germanic origin starting perhaps in the 5th Century and developed as a bridge of monks, once again, seeking to differentiate liturgical language from pagan worship without being totally alienating? I think this also pertains to the prior discussion of the “us” and “me” composite: it is in th– (they, them, their–us?) which was a Northern English-Scot influence as inherited from Norse colonization that mixes and influences the Anglo-Saxon variant h- (hie, him, hera–me?) And so, perhaps in our blendings we throw out the composite origins of words by trying to be too precise and fragmentory.

    The wisdom of Humpty Dumpty to Alice comes to mind: “You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” And if I might interpret a bit, those meanings are not always complimentary, but contractual? I think a portmanteau was originally thought of as the two compartments of a suitcase. But I am not sure that “me” and “us” could become “muse” as this would side too strongly with the gods of music and art. And how does this process not devolve into a mocking gaffery? The very nature of our linguistic empericism is dialectic if we don’t as “missionaries” re-unite the meanings into antinomic words–without also becoming gnostic.
    Please clarify the baptism of our language that you propose Michael. Would it help if our “english” was “liturgized” as the early Greek missionaries did for the “slavs?” They no doubt had to be creative.

    I know this could become a mere play on words, but the Jesus Prayer as said by the main character in “The Island” says it this way: “Jesus Christ…have mercy on MY sinful self.” And I cannot remember which language uses the word “meus” as meaning “my.” Portugese perhaps? Interesting connections….

  53. Father,
    Yes, you are quite right about Fr. Aldea’s fetch of linguistic music. And I think this “celtic” thing is really quite a hodge-podge of language mixes as I am told that it isn’t just an Irish clan, but reaches down into Cornwall, Brittany, Scotland, Isle of Man, Ireland, Wales, Iberia and Portugal prior to the Romans, Germans and Slavs. To be “celtic” really is likened to being “american” in its vast mix of cultural diversity. I think this is one of the reasons why Fr. Aldea seems to be careful in his discussion of the Celtic Saints as their many missionary journeys really was expanse of many decades and into a millenia of influences. I think St. Brendan’s journey alone took the better part of a decade to complete?

  54. Subdn Andrew. The core problem with English is it’s Germanic origin IMO.

    But the task at hand is to baptize the language we have. That takes living Christian lives and doing the best to articulate that experience in English.

  55. Nicholas,
    Thank you for your comment about the Greek meaning of Christ’s words. I’m always grateful to learn the history of meanings of words in biblical passages. Sometimes it is helpful to learn the specific origins to have a better understanding of what has been lost in translation.
    As I have contemplated this, I’ve come to the question, given that many historians (and parts of the NT) have claimed that Christ spoke a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, is there a similar construction of mood as there is in Greek? This might be a question put to me because the people with whom I typically speak about these matters are not Protestant but unbelievers (although not atheists).

  56. Dee
    If we are reading Matthew, it was most likely first written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek. John’s Gospel was written in Greek. I have only scant knowledge of Aramaic but I have to believe that both Matthew and John were well aware of what the Lord meant and when the opportunity to concretely say it in Greek was given them, they recorded the meaning of Christ’s words accurately. Certainly all the Apostolic Fathers that commented on the Eucharist were of one accord in that He meant what He said and that the Body and Blood are truly His. Only modern scholars and their followers argue differently.
    One of the greatest problems of scholasticism is that for a scholar to obtain a PhD he or she must come up with something unique and new and support it through philosophical argument in writing a thesis. This has led over the centuries to some things that are way off the mark and the concept of denying the reality of the Eucharist seems to be one of those things. A few years ago I listened to a Methodist “scholar” argue that Jesus was merely an allegory not a real human being and that the Gospels were written to teach us moral values. He was not alone in his position and gained some traction in his arguments. It was another “brick in the wall” moment that led me to Orthodoxy.

  57. Thanks Nicholas! Your response was very helpful regarding Matthew’s and John’s Gospels. And while I’m not that familiar with scholarship in the biblical fields within Christianity, I’ve read similar descriptions as you provide by other Orthodox clergy.

    Also I’m grateful for Fr Stephen’s mentioning an historian’s talk on YouTube (I think it was Habermas) that offered a rather convincing approach to the ‘witness ‘ in the Gospels and Epistles. Hopefully the Methodist scholar you mentioned will one day hear his talks too.

  58. On language and Christ: Christ clearly spoke Aramaic with his disciples, the common language of Galilee. Certain words (Abba) and names (Cephas) are Aramaic and preserve those conversations. St. Paul and St. John, in their writings, refer to Peter as Cephas, clearly revealing that they are on a contemporary, personal name basis with him. They know him.

    But, and this is very easy for Americans to overlook, Jesus would most assuredly have been fluent in Greek as well, even on just a human level. The Romans conquered the parts of the Hellenistic empire (which included Israel). That empire had a policy of “Hellenizing” (teaching Greek language and customs) that had been in place for 200 years. That’s the reason that the New Testament is written in Greek – even the Letter to the Romans.

    We can see different levels of proficiency in Greek among the NT writers. St. John’s work is quite simple. Luke’s is by far the most polished. St. Paul’s is ok. etc.

    What we cannot know is how much use Christ made of Greek in his teaching. To address audiences that included non-Galileeans, it is quite likely that he would have spoken Greek. It was the primary common language of that area in the world. Roman soldiers, for example, would not have known Aramaic. If you spoke with a Centurion, for example, you would at least have spoken Greek (Latin would not have been necessary).

    The earliest oral tradition of the Church seems to have had a Greek form, probably from the beginning. St. Paul, for example, in 1Cor. 11, recites the story of the Last Supper, describing it as having been a specific oral tradition (“that which was delivered to me”). It is almost word for word the same account as in Matthew, Mark and Luke, indicating that they knew the same oral tradition, in Greek, as St. Paul (St. Paul’s 1 Cor. is written before their writings – though the oral version of the gospel tradition clearly goes back to the earliest community). It is said that St. Matthew’s gospel was probably written in Aramaic – though we cannot be sure that St. Matthew’s Aramaic gospel and our Matthew’s gospel are the same. St. Matthew’s gospel as we have it does not particularly appear to be a translation. It uses the same Greek tradition found in the others and in Paul.

    There is so much that we cannot know and can only conjecture. But it is clear that a Greek language version of the Tradition existed from within the earliest community in Jerusalem. The Gentiles who become almost the immediate object of the Church’s evangelism would have been Greek speaking for the most part. Jerusalem had people from all over. The largest community of Jews outside of Israel was in Alexandria, Egypt. They were Greek-speaking. It is also clear from the NT that there were synagogues in various places in Israel itself that used Greek in their services (the so-called “Hellenes”).

    So, when we say that Aramaic was the language of Jesus, it is more accurate to say it was “a” language of Jesus. He clearly would have spoken Greek as well, and occasionally taught in it – and might have done so much more widely than many imagine.

    I earlier said that this is difficult for Americans because we live in a country where most people can only speak one language and have a hard time imagining otherwise (except when we’re traveling abroad and are surprised that everyone doesn’t know English). It’s not unusual for people in “occupied” lands of an Empire to speak numerous languages quite fluently. It’s actually really normal.

  59. Thank you for this explanation and language history lesson Father,
    It’s really wonderful and helpful.

    Recently, I have listened to Fr. Tom Hopko’s recording on sin (“Sin: primordial, generational, personal”). Fr. Tom mentions several times how important the proper understanding of what’s in the Scriptures is, and how wrong theology comes from wrong translations. Fr. Meletios Webber once said that the Church speaks many languages, but thinks in Greek! 🙂

    How blessed are those who were born into this language, or those who took the time to learn it (like you Father)… Some day, it’s on my “bucket list”… 🙂

  60. Thank you Fr Stephen!
    Our Lord had a humble childhood. For that reason I had supposed that he might not have had exposure to Greek. But part of thatchildhood took place in Egypt, it is said. So with a Hellenic community there, and in Jerusalem it does make sense that his words and these writings were likely in Greek originally. Also the Gospel of Matthew translates Christ’s words from the Cross., which suggests that the readers might need a translation. And last, many many years ago, I had Jewish friends in the Judaica program at Brown University who used the Septuagint for their studies.— Now the pieces of this history fall into place and my eyes are opened. Thank you!

  61. Dee
    One would hope that all would hear and obey. Mankind seems so busy finding excuses not to believe. If they spent one tenth of that energy on believing we would have a world full of Saints

  62. Dee
    Further evidence that may point to the Lord’s use and understanding of Greek is the fact that all of His quotes of the Scriptures were from the Septuagint.

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