Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Noble Joseph

Today is the feast of my patron saint, Joseph of Arimathea. The cover of this past Sunday's bulletin featured an icon of St. Joseph that I had never seen before. He stands before Pilate, requesting the body of Christ, while a soldier looks on. (I could not find this icon on-line, but fortunately I have my digital camera handy!) Here is the story from the back of the bulletin:

While we usually think of him mainly when we observe our Lord's Passion, JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA is actually remembered by our Holy Orthodox Church on July 31. During the time of Christ, he was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin – the supreme religious court for the Jews of that era. Yet he was much more than this: he was a secret follower of Jesus who ". . . was searching for the kingdom of God." (Mark 15:43) A man of great material means, Joseph was a well-respected man in the community. His repuation, no doubt, enabled him to boldly approach Pilate and ask for the body of Christ, so that the Crucified Savior could be given a proper burial, according to the prescriptions of the Hebrew Law. Yes, he would have it buried in his own new tomb, hewn out of a rock. It is said that this act of kindness infuriated the Jews, who had him cast into prison. Tradition tells us that the Risen Lord appeared to him so that he would have first-hand knowledge of the Resurrection.

Upon his release from prison, Joseph was exiled from his homeland of Judea. He dedicated the rest of his life to preaching the Gospel, joining the Apostle Philip on a missionary journey that took them to the coast of Europe. Joseph is thought to have been responsible for bringing the Good News about Christ to the inhabitants of present-day England, winning many converts there. Joseph of Arimathea is considered to be a saint by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Legends and myths abound concerning this saintly man, including connections with the Holy Grail and King Arthur! We remember him, however, primarily for his pious gesture of burying Christ, for which we will forever ascribe the word "noble" to his name.

When Joseph went before Pilate to ask for the body, Pilate promptly granted his request. Pilate, who had not wanted to execute Jesus in the first place, had no reason to withhold the body. He might even have taken pleasure in the thought that it would annoy the Jews! But what about Joseph – did he guess the punishment that would follow from his pious duty?

This telling of the story of Joseph reminded me of Sophocles' play, Antigone. The heroine's brothers, joint heirs to the throne of Thebes, had quarreled, and one had expelled the other, who then returned at the head of an Argive army to regain the throne. They both fell in the ensuing battle. As the play begins, King Creon has decreed that Eteocles, who died defending Thebes, should receive full honors, while his brother Polynices was not to be buried – upon pain of death. Antigone promptly defied the king's command, covering Polynices with a layer of dirt. Knowing the penalty under earthly law, she yet obeyed the unwritten law of heaven, showing her brother the honor due to the dead. For her choice, she was sentenced to be buried alive – sealed in a cave. The citizens secretly honored Antigone for doing what was right and customary, but they would not contradict the king in public. The blind prophet Tiresias ultimately persuaded Creon of his sin, but it was too late: Antigone had already committed suicide. Upon finding her dead, her lover Haemon, Creon's son, also killed himself, followed by his mother Eurydice. (This is a tragedy, after all.)

Euripides' earlier version of the story, now lost, is said to have had a happy ending: the calamity was averted by the intercession of Dionysus and was followed by the marriage of Antigone and Haemon.

According to legend, Joseph was a well-traveled merchant. It is possible that he could have heard a version of the Greek legend in his travels. If so, he might have imagined the risk he was taking in defying the consensus of the Jewish rulers in order to obey the Jewish law regarding burial of the dead. Just as Antigone was sealed in the cave, Joseph was sealed in a prison cell.

Unlike Antigone, however, Joseph did not yield to despair. When the gods intervened for Antigone, in the person of Tiresias, she had already given up hope. According to Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathe, Joseph was fed during his imprisonment by daily appearances of the Holy Grail, which sustained his life and his hope. But according to the Gospel of Nicodemus (which was probably the source of elements of Joseph's story related in Sunday's bulletin), during his first night in prison Joseph was visited by Christ himself, who transported him home to Arimathea.

Joseph had already proven himself the sort of person who does not give in to despair. When all of the disciples besides John were in hiding, Joseph of Arimathea was the one who retained the presence of mind and the courage to attend to the immediate need of Jesus' burial.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Visit from St. Anna

In her latest podcast, Frederica talks with Father Athanasy, a Russian Orthodox priest who is the custodian of the myrrh-streaming icon of St. Anna, the grandmother of Christ, whose feast was today in the West, yesterday in the East.

In Orthodoxy, a frequent sort of miracle these days is when an icon "weeps" with oil infused with myrrh. Such icons and the oil that comes from them are often associated with healing miracles. Even apart from the miraculous origin of this oil, the Church has long used blessed oil for anointing the sick, and myrrh has been used medicinally for centuries, as well as for incense, perfume, and embalming.

Father Athanasy, with the blessing of his bishop, travels to visit parishes all over the country with the miraculous icon, leaving peace and healing in his wake. Earlier this month, he brought the icon to Holy Apostles Orthodox Church, right here in Beltsville, for the parish's patronal feast. Frederica recorded her talk with Father Athanasy after the Vigil service on 12 July, the eve of the feast. The next morning I attended the Liturgy at Holy Apostles, where I also had the privilege of venerating the icon and being anointed with its myrrh. The sweet fragrance of the myrrh on my forehead lasted all day!

At lunch after the Liturgy, I sat at Father Athanasy's table. He currently lives in Philadelphia, but he said the one thing that might make him consider relocating himself and the icon was if a church dedicated to St. Anna were to be founded in Annapolis, Maryland – literally, the City of Anna!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chrismation Date

It's now official: God willing, I will be chrismated as a member of the Holy Orthodox Church on Sunday 7 October! The chrismation will take place at 9 AM, immediately before the 9:30 Liturgy, at Holy Cross.

As some of you know, arranging the date was not easy. With my uneventful life, I can be available any Sunday this year, but my sponsor, the other catechumen, and his sponsor all have extensive travel plans in late summer and early fall. The scheduling process was complicated by the fact that we were all distracted with planning, executing, and recovering from the Parish Life Conference of the Eastern Dioceses, which was hosted by Holy Cross this year.

Shortly before the PLC, three of my fellow catechumens were chrismated. I was watching closely, knowing that I'll be next! In the first photo, as all three catechumens kneel before the iconostasis, Jack receives absolution from Fr. Gregory (they're both hidden by Jack's sponsor, Cal). In the second photo, Doane gets her tonsure.

After the Liturgy, Brandon's sponsor Keith hosted a party to celebrate the chrismations. Reader Michael took these photos at the party.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Unity vs. Truth?

I just finished reading the article "Anti-Patristic: The Stance of the Zealot Old Calendarists" (hat tip to Christopher at Orrologion for calling my attention to the article). The author of the article, Monk Basil, largely shares the underlying Old Calendarist and anti-ecumenist stances of those he argues against. Yet, citing Church history and the writings of the Fathers, he disputes and refutes their rationalizations for initiating and maintaining a schism from canonical Orthodoxy. He finds that the Fathers were reluctant to break communion over anything short of a conciliarly defined heresy. And even in those instances they were ready to apply economy (pastoral discretion) generously in order to regain their excommunicated brothers.

The article concludes with a case study, the life of St. Sophronius, which illustrates patristic forebearance toward heretical opponents for the sake of avoiding provocation of an unnecessary schism. In the early 7th century, the Monophysite schism, which had resulted from the Council of Chalcedon, was nearly two centuries old. Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was promoting Monothelitism, which was intended as a compromise that would bring together those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon and those who rejected it. In 633, St. Sophronius traveled to Constantinople and Alexandria in an effort to persuade Patriarchs Sergius and Cyrus, respectively, of their errors in teaching Monothelitism. The following year, St. Sophronius became Patriarch of Jerusalem. In his enthronement epistle to his fellow patriarchs, all of whom favored the Monothelite heresy (including Pope Honorius), he boldly proclaimed the Orthodox belief in Christ's two natures and two wills. "Nevertheless," writes Monk Basil, "he refers to Sergius as 'the most holy of all bishops, and most blessed brother and concelebrant Sergius'. He asked him to acept his dogmatic epistle and to send the 'longed for letters', which will clearly express the correct faith." By this point, Sergius had already been teaching the Monothelite heresy for nearly two decades, yet St. Sophronius did not break communion with him, as indicated by his reference to Sergius as concelebrant, in the faint hope that Sergius would repent. There is no evidence that St. Sophronius broke communion with Sergius and Honorius before they all died in 638.

St. Sophronius would neither compromise the truth for the sake of unity, as the Monothelites desired, nor would he sacrifice unity for the cause of truth, as modern zealots demand. In short, he rejected the false choice between unity and truth.

In this era, when nearly every church has its purist-zealots who are eager to separate over the pettiest of differences, it is heartening to read of the Fathers' extreme hesistation to break communion. I think history shows that the Fathers were correct. Heresies often fade with the deaths of their respective heresiarchs, but schisms can persist long after their intial justifications become moot. Schism should always be a long-delayed last-resort response to persistent, documented, unrepented heresy, not a knee-jerk reaction to a passing fad or weak theology.

In the ongoing disintegration of Anglicanism, we see the spectacle of impatient bishops on both sides demonstrating their contempt for the Anglican Communion – and, indeed, for the Body of Christ – by instituting hasty, ad hoc schisms, ignoring the documents they signed and the procedures they initiated to strengthen the communion and bring to account those who cannot abide by the Anglican consensus.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI this weekend, in the explanatory letter accompanying his apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, showed great concern for unity:
I now come to the positive reason which motivated my decision to issue this Motu Proprio updating that of 1988. It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew. I think of a sentence in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes: "Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return . . . widen your hearts also!" (2 Cor 6:11-13). Paul was certainly speaking in another context, but his exhortation can and must touch us too, precisely on this subject. Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.