Christ is Risen! See below for a wonderful recent homily given at the Institute for Religious life in Mundelein, IL.
Homily for Bright Friday
Institute on Religious Life, 2013 National Meeting, Mundelein, IL
Abbot Nicholas Zachariadis, Holy Resurrection Monastery
Among the many challenges the New Evangelization faces today is a relatively new charge against faith by our opponents. How often one hears from atheists today the allegation that, at the heart of the religious world view, is violence. This is not just the old criticism that religious people are hypocrites for carrying out violence while preaching peace and love. Many contemporary “new atheists” like to say that cruelty is actually integral to the concept of the “supernatural.” To believe in divinity is to believe in a Force that twists the natural world as observed and described by science, which bends the natural world to its will, which breaks, beats and bewilders the universe.
A superficial reading of the two scriptures we’ve just heard might well be cited by atheists in support of their position. In the reading from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus certainly acts with violence. Is his aggression not entirely directed at the heart of the natural world? Aren’t the money changers in the Temple simply operating according to the principles of natural competition, furthering in their own cultural sphere what might even be an evolutionary imperative? Perhaps the really horrifying violence of the religious Man in this event lies not in the plaiting of a whip, but in the insistence on a supernatural ethic in permanent opposition to a natural one?
A fear of this critique has entered even into certain kinds of scriptural exegesis. One of the less happy results of the Enlightenment has been a deep suspicion of miracles. For Enlightened deists this was because they were perfectly content with one—and only one!—miracle: the natural world, with its intricate and perfect laws. This has led in a few short intellectual steps from deism to atheism, but perhaps there are some Christians who find themselves somewhere along this trajectory, not quite ready to dispense with God altogether, but embarrassed to think of Him as in any kind of opposition to nature.
The outcome of all this among liberal exegetes has been to refuse to accept as literal truth the occurrence of miracles of the kind we read about in the reading from Acts, the healing of a lame man by the Apostles. Haven’t the Apostles taken a kind of whip to nature? Surely we need a less literal, less fundamentalist reading of these miracle stories in which God is not so forceful in his breaking apart the laws of science, his violation of nature by acts of grace?
This is far from an academic question. If you think about the great moral questions in our culture today, they have almost all to do with the question of nature and grace. Does God impose on the human embryo a spiritual dignity? What about the human at the end of life? How are we to handle biological impulses to sex, food, status? How often do we hear a charge that such and such Catholic practice is “not natural”, be it opposition to extra-marital or homosexual sex, clerical celibacy or you name it?
My brothers and sisters, I want to propose to you that beneath this problem, or series of problems really, lies a fundamental assumption about the relationship between nature and grace. I want to further propose that this assumption, so often called “religious” or even “Christian” is in fact far better called “Western.”
You can guess, then, in what direction I’m going to point to get us somewhere better!
There’s no time in what I still hope will be a short homily (!) to really do justice to this argument. Let’s start with what I admit will be a shockingly abrupt treatment of the Latin tradition! There are various ways I could caricature this tradition. We Easterners generally like to go back to St. Augustine as the fons et origo of the fundamental disconnect between nature and grace. But let’s pass over the history and focus on one aspect of contemporary Catholic spirituality that I think illustrates the point I want to make.
For Western Catholics it is common to speak of “offering up” suffering, including the kinds of disciplines people choose for Lent. This sacrificial language is absolutely NOT an error—don’t get me wrong! It’s perfectly in keeping with the sacred Scriptures and in a tradition that certainly can be traced back further back than Augustine, to Cyprian of Carthage and others. And it’s by no means absent from oriental practices either.
No, “offering up” fasts, abstinence, daily mortifications and unpleasantness is a lovely idea. But it depends for its power on a sense that suffering comes precisely from trying to reconcile the demands of nature with those of grace. The logic of sacrifice says that what I’m giving up is intrinsically good, though in competition with the higher good toward which my surrender is directed.
For this reason, the concept of “offering up” sacrifices reinforces a version of God that can lead, if not properly balanced by alternative views, to seeing him as a tyrant, as a demanding, even monstrous totalitarian who wants us to give up what is natural to us in favor of a different kind of good altogether.
The problem the West faces, if I may be so bold, is that it tries to do this balancing entirely from within its own tradition. God can’t be a monster. We know that. So what? Let’s make him less demanding, more tolerant, kinder, more human. We can’t ditch the idea of sacrifice, but let’s make it more tolerable, more like liberal politics. Sacrifice is acceptable if it helps the poor, if it has some earthly, some natural utility. Since our fundamental assumption is that grace and nature are likely to be in conflict, let’s avoid this conflict by turning grace into something more like nature, and God into someone more like us. In any conflict there has to be a winner and a loser. Traditionally the winner is grace, the loser nature. The modern liberal project seems to me to be simply the other side of that same rather debased coin: the apotheosis of “nature” at God’s expense.
The problem is that the trick never quite works. There’s still all that stuff in the Bible like the readings today: Jesus wielding a whip, the apostles turning nature on its head, resurrection from the dead. People do notice when you ignore these things! Hence the ultimate failure of the western liberal project, though this does not remove from the conservative project the basic problem liberals have striven vainly to solve.
So how can the East help? Well, for a start, there’s absolutely nothing in the liturgical or spiritual tradition of the Greek Byzantine Churches (which is all I’m qualified to speak about) that uses the language of “offering up” sacrifices like fasting, prayer, almsgiving. No, the language used is not that of sacrifice, but that of asceticism: of medicinal healing and athletic training.
Perhaps this is because the intellectual powerhouse in the Greek tradition is not Augustine of Hippo but Origen of Alexandria. Origen got his metaphysics wrong, but the basic insight behind his notion of “pre-existing souls” was that the fundamental relationship between the natural and supernatural orders is not one of conflict, but of companionship and solidarity. It was this insight that later Orthodox Fathers purged of its un-biblical elements to develop into the characteristic Byzantine sense that creation and redemption are not separate events, but merely two stages on the same movement that leads to theosis.
This notion of theosis depends also on an understanding that “grace” is not some thing God imposes on a recalcitrant nature. The notion of created grace is far less significant to Greek theology than that of grace as the direct experience of God. Grace for us is the uncreated Gift of God Himself, sweeping us up into His Trinitarian Life.
People sometimes compare the Byzantine Rite to what we now call the Extra-Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Both are characterized, it is said by a sense of mystery. Perhaps. Admittedly I can’t speak much about the Latin liturgy, but about the Byzantine tradition I can say this: mystery for us is not just what we do in church! It’s how we see everything! Every Christian is part of the hidden life of the Sacred Trinity. Every Christian is a mystic. Being a mystic means being a liturgical being, nothing more. Everything we do is (or ought to be at least!) wrapped in the mystery of the direct experience of God.
I can’t say this enough: this sense of mystery is not just a feature of how we “do church!” It colors how we see sin: not so much as a moral crime, as a failure to worship, not the exercise of a defiant human will in opposition to God, not an exercise of freedom, but a failure to be who we really, deep down in our heart want to be. Sin isn’t an act of rebellious freedom. It’s simply a failure to be free at all.
(How many people reject the Church because they hate its teaching on sin? Perhaps they only know a partial version of that teaching, because they only have a partial knowledge of what the Church is? Or, for that matter, what the Christian faith is? Surely this challenge must be addressed in this year designated as the “Year of Faith!”)
Our vocation as mystics challenges us to be ascetics, to purge away everything in our nature that doesn’t support our deepest desire to be united to God. It is this ascetical dimension to our mysticism that makes the Byzantine “sense of mystery” so intensely practical. It explains the central importance of monasticism in this way of being Christian, not just as a special vocation for a few but, as Pope John Paul II put it in his Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen, “the reference point for all the baptized.”
Incidentally, if you want to really experience the Byzantine tradition, don’t just be content with a brief experience of a Divine Liturgy. To be immersed in the tradition visit a Byzantine Monastery. Holy Resurrection Monastery will do! There we try to make the whole package: asceticism, liturgy, mystery make sense in the real world for ourselves and those who make retreats with us.
But let’s think specifically about the Byzantine Liturgy. This liturgy is long, not because we think God begrudges us our time, but because in time we already begin to experience the first inkling of eternity. It is rich in ceremony, not because God wants to dictate our movements, but because our natural human yearning for beauty—whether in color, movement, the scent of incense of whatever—finds fulfillment in our experience of God in the Divine Services. The liturgy is entirely sung, without instruments, not to test our endurance, but to teach us how to be the best versions of our selves.
In short, everything about our Liturgy is intended to show us just how close God is to us, that we are made for Him, and that He has made room for us in His inner, Trinitarian life. There’s no competition here (shouldn’t be anyway!) between ceremony and charity, between social justice and moral living on one hand and sacramental ritual on the other. These are all stages on the same road, or movements in the same dance. Our Temple must be cleansed so we can worship. Our legs must be healed so we can walk into heaven on our own two feet. The Saints have power to work miracles, but not because there’s anything wrong with nature! Miracles show us what nature is already in process of becoming in the continuous and never-ending process of creation leading ultimately to the “New Heaven and the New Earth” of the Eschaton.
I firmly believe that the only way the Western tradition can avoid the criticism that its God is either a tyrant or a wimp is to step outside itself and understand that there are other ways of thinking about nature and grace than as being locked in necessary conflict. We Easterners are not just here to provide you with an esoteric experience, an exotic amusement. If that’s all we are, then lock us up in a museum or put us in a circus tent! But that’s hardly what Vatican II called us to contribute to the Universal Church, a mere sideshow, nor why recent Popes have insisted Western Catholics become familiar with the Eastern traditions. No. We have something to offer, if we are true to ourselves and thus true to you.
What is it that we offer? A reminder, perhaps, that mystery, transcendence and the experience of God are not for a few Christians, but for all. We certainly can’t answer all the challenges to the New Evangelization from within the Byzantine tradition: no single tradition is enough for that! But perhaps some of our failures happen because each tradition is fighting with the other hand, as it were, tied behind its back. Let’s unloose the bonds that hold us back, lets get to know one another’s strengths, and just see what the Spirit can do!