21 April 2020

Gov. Cuomo’s Theological Confusion

By Bishop Robert Barron

Last week, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, made a rather interesting theological observation. Commenting on the progress that his state has made in fighting the coronavirus, and praising the concrete efforts of medical personnel and ordinary citizens, he said, “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that.”

The condition for the possibility of the governor’s declaration is the assumption that God is one competitive cause among many, one actor jostling for position and time upon the stage with a coterie of other actors. On this reading, God does certain things—usually of a rather spectacular nature—and creaturely causes do other things, usually more mundane.

[E]verything is, at once, natural and supernatural—precisely because God’s causality is operating noncompetitively, on a qualitatively different level than creaturely causality. If you want a one-liner summary of this distinctively biblical perspective, you could not do better than this, from the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (Isa. 26:12).

God is not the supreme being (ens summum in his Latin), but rather ipsum esse subsistens, which means “the sheer act of to be itself.” (St Thomas Aquinas) … Therefore, God does not compete for space, so to speak, on the same ontological grid as creatures; a zero-sum game does not obtain in regard to God’s activity and creaturely activity—the more we ascribe to one, the less we have to ascribe to the other.

Allow me to ground this rather abstract rhetoric with a very homely example. If one were to ask what is necessary to make a bicycle, the response would be something like this: “tires, brake pads, a chain, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, perhaps a schematic to guide the building process, etc.”  No one would ever be tempted to respond as follows: “tires, brake pads, a chain, God, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, etc.” And yet, a smart religious person, upon finishing the project of constructing that bike, would quite legitimately say, “Thank God!” The prayer would be a humble acknowledgement, not that God in a fussily invasive way interfered with the building process, but that God is responsible for the entire nexus of causes and behaviors that made up the process. The upshot is that the two dimensions of causality—one finite and the other transcendent—operate simultaneously and noncompetitively: “You have accomplished all that we have done.”

All of which brings me back to Governor Cuomo. To claim that “God did not do that” because we did it is simply a category mistake. What brought the coronavirus numbers down?  It is perfectly accurate to say, “The skill of doctors and nurses, the availability of hospital beds, the willingness of so many to shelter in place, etc.” But it is also perfectly valid to say that God brought those numbers down…

[Consider] the psychological motivation of those dedicated physicians and nurses. Why ultimately were they willing to do what they did? I would be willing to bet a large percentage of them would say that it was a desire to serve others and to be pleasing to God.

18 January 2020

Why Not Use Ancient Rites?

It's been more than 2 years since I last posted. So I'll try to revive things here with this post.

As the Apostles and their successors evangelized throughout the world (both East and West, and beyond these boundaries of the Roman Empire), various regional liturgies were used in the earliest times. These liturgies were "cultural expressions" of the faith. This means that the faith itself and the key outline of the Mass and Divine Office were unchanged, but the musical tones (cadence, tonal system) and means of rhetoric (circular or linear; analogical or typological or otherwise) and ceremonies (usually based on local court customs) were employed. This was noticed primarily, then, in the prayers and chants, as well as the 'flow' of the liturgical services.

In the Western part of the Roman Empire (and later extending into the remainder of Europe), all of these liturgies were built, in some way, on the Roman Rite (i.e., the rites used in the Church of Rome) with some influences (in a few scattered instances) from Eastern customs. Over time, in both East and West, for various reasons usually related to the dominance of a capital city or the need for more uniform practices, these various liturgies collapsed into four major rites, centered around the major regions of Christianity: The Antiochian Rite; the Alexandrian Rite; the Roman Rite; the Carthaginian Rite; and the Edessan Rite. (See the chart below.) In turn, these rites (among the canonical Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches) collapsed, again for various reasons usually having to do with desire uniformity, into two: the Roman Rite (which was influenced by the Gallican Rite and which, in turn, influenced the still extant Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites as well as the rites of a few religious orders); and the Constantinopolitan Rite (which was heavily influenced by the Antiochian Rite, but is not at all identical with it; and which influenced all the other Byzantine Rites.) In Europe, the collapsing into the Roman Rite was chiefly completed by 600 AD (although it underwent a few minor changes in the 9th century) and has remained in tact (excluding the protestant changes in England, etc., and the revolutionary change in Rome in 1970). In Asia and Eastern Europe, the collapsing into the Constantinopolitan/Byzantine Rite was not completed until the 13th century and has remained in tact (although different minor 'uses' appear in Russia and elsewhere).

Given this background, it is perhaps clear that the 'pre-schism' Western Rite is the Roman Rite which was used (most often in Latin) from 600 AD until 1970 AD in the Church of Rome; and has been used in the Orthodox Church since the 1880s. To use 'ancient Western liturgies' offers an historical, liturgical, and theological challenge. The historical challenge is that the documentation for exactly how those Rites were used (the ceremonies and chants, as well as the texts) is spotty at best; certainly it is not in tact fully. Furthermore, the best of these rites have already been folded into the Roman Rite, and so teasing them out may leave lacunae. The liturgical challenge is that 're-creating' a Rite that hasn't been used for at least 1000-1400 years follows the Protestant model that the Rites are not received nor the work of the Holy Spirit, but devised by humans and therefore open to 'liturgical archeology' (the exact same argument that lies behind the Novus Ordo of the Roman Church). The theological challenge is centered around this question: what is objectionable now to the Roman Rite that was never objectionable before the so-called 'Great Schism.' (Remember, the date for the Great Schism is arbitrarily chosen by post-reformation European scholars, mainly Anglican [i.e., Protestant]). Some will answer that question by presuming that the liturgy carries the seed for whatever heresies might be extant in the Church of Rome; a dubious premise, at best.

Given this history with the attendant challenges, when the Churches of Russia, Constantinople, Antioch, Romania, Serbia, and Alexandria issued decrees concerning the use of the liturgical tradition of the Western liturgy in their churches, they collectively approved the continued use of the Roman Rite (with the use of the Benedictine Breviary) as it was practiced prior to the 'Great Schism'--which is no different (except in a few feasts) than what was done in the Church of Rome and the Benedictine monasteries until 1970.


31 October 2017

The Irony of the Reformation

Ever since, as an 18 year old college freshman, I first read Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther (Here I Stand), I’ve been struck by the irony of how October 31, 1517 came to be. The standard tale, which is hardly disputed, is that Luther was exercised over the abuse of one of the holy sacraments; namely, the Sacrament of Penance (Private Confession). He was exercised, not because he thought that sacrament was illegitimately termed a sacrament, or that it imposed the clergy between God and the person. Luther never advocated the abolition of Private Confession. Rather, Luther was exercised because the sale of indulgences was pastorally destructive. In other words, it destroyed the pastoral means of curing the soul. And it did so by encouraging the average person to think that, with one piece of paper, he no longer needed to go to confession.

This abuse, this despising of the sacrament, which undermined the best of pastoral care—this is what caused Luther to re-examine Rome’s understanding of forgiveness. Justification was the theological term. But, as at least one Lutheran scholar has pointed out, the abstract notion of justification takes on concrete form when the penitent sinner, after confessing before a faithful witness, hears, outside of himself, God’s forgiveness by one authorized (ordained) to speak it.

What is ironic is that a protest against the despising of a sacrament very quickly morphed into a rebellion against most (if not all) of the sacraments, as well as against the very means that Christ set up to administer justification individually to the repentant sinner. It’s as if the patients, upon hearing that the medicine was being withheld, then determined—with all manner of support—to overturn the entire medical profession and, in fact, all medical science in order to establish their own self-serving cures.

Now, that might seem a bit harsh, but that’s not my intent. My intent is merely to point out, in stark terms, how awry went Luther’s academic propositions for (in his mind in 1517) well-meaning debate. And also this: to remind the reader that Luther’s initial concern—that Private Confession was threatened—led to a large group of Christians who continue the same vehement insistence as the indulgence-bearing hedonists that Luther wanted to heal. For both the by-gone indulgence wavers and today’s Protestants have in common the desire not merely to avoid, but to deride the precious and living-renewing Sacrament of Penance.

21 September 2017

The Mass is Not Ours but For Us

During the Mass, we say (or sing) together these words: “Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven.” Those words are, of course, from the Nicene Creed—the statement that summarizes the basics of the Orthodox Faith.
For now, let’s focus on the word “for.” As in, “for us men” and “for our salvation.” In the context of the creed, that word “for” means “on behalf of” and “for the sake of.” It’s a way of saying that Our Lord Jesus accomplished our salvation because we could not; and that what He did He offered to His Father on our behalf.
We summarize that concept using the word “sacrifice.” A sacrifice is something we do for, or on behalf of, or for the sake of, others. We do the work; they get the benefit. In its purest form, this sacrifice “for” someone else is unselfish.
A synonym of the word “sacrifice” is the word “liturgy.” Liturgy is a work done for others. For their sake, on their behalf, and even in their place. That’s how the word was used in both politics. The ruler is a liturgist because makes decisions “for” the people. Ideally, he or she is acting on our behalf, for our good. At least, that is how St Paul sees it when he writes that the Emperor Nero is the liturgist of God for good. (Rom 13.4)
The use of the word “liturgy” in ancient worship came from its use in politics. In the Old Testament, the priest offers prayers and sacrifices to God for the people. In other words, he takes their offerings into the temple, and says the prescribed prayers. And the person who offers gets the benefit from the work the priest does. Hence, it’s a sacrifice—a selfless act on behalf of another person.
Because of His sacrifice, and because He does it “for us men and for our salvation,” Jesus is called a liturgist. His sacrifice is our liturgy. Only, the liturgy Christ offers far exceeds anything done by a politician. For the Lord’s liturgy, His work for us, is enacted and firmly rooted in better promises than any politician makes. And Our Lord’s goal is not merely to represent us, but to present us to the heavenly Father in His kingdom. And to present us, He must cleanse us, restore us, and renovate us. That is His work for us—His liturgy. And that work for the people—that liturgy—is what redeems and saves us.
Yet Our Lord’s work seems so distant—both in time and in our minds. And so we need to recall it, again and again. And recall, here, is not a memory thing but a re-enactment thing; in the sense that Christ Jesus enacts once again, before our hearts and minds, that exact same liturgy or work for us that brings us salvation. Not that He is repeating what He did; but that He is mystically transporting back to the original act, back to the sacrifice, back to His work for us.
Because we are weak, and because we are too earthly-bound, Our Lord uses ministers—liturgists—to do this re-enacting work for His people. As the priest offers the liturgy, He is presenting once again Christ’s sacrifice before our spirit’s eyes. The priest is working for us in order to help us see that we stand, both at the same time, at the foot of Calvary 2000 years ago and in the timeless Kingdom of Heaven.
Perhaps we could do this work ourselves. But if we did, then it would no longer be a selfless sacrifice; instead, it would be our work for our own sake. And then it would no longer be the work for the people, but the work of the people. And if it’s our work, it no longer needs Christ working “for us men and for our salvation.”

All of this is to say that, when we are in the Divine Liturgy, when we assist at the Mass, it is not our work, like paying our tax or obligation to God. Instead, it is us receiving what the Lord has already accomplished and done for us; receiving the work He has worked for our benefit. And our “work,” if we need to call it that, is simply to receive gratefully and in true faith all the benefits that our great liturgist presents and offers and gives to us.

This reflection is constructed from these thoughts 

21 July 2017

The Mass Presents Christ

As we stand in heaven during the Mass, Christ is in our midst. He is in our midst mentally, as we think about, contemplate, and meditate on His saving work and His sacred gifts. He is in our midst emotionally, as our hearts are uplifted due to His loving-kindness and many mercies which we certainly do not deserve. He is in our midst spiritually, as the Holy Spirit draws us slowly, gently, kindly, into His soothing and invigorating embrace. But most of all, Christ is in our midst physically. He is really present, standing before us not figuratively but literally, not symbolically but actually, not metaphorically but truly.

How do we know this? How do we know most anything that really matters, anything that soothes our soul and helps us see beyond this life? Only by faith. Only by faith do we know, and trust, and embrace that Christ is in our midst. Just as, only by faith, do we know and trust and believe that we stand in heaven during the Mass.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Yet faith, for us, is easily distracted because we tend to get caught up in our own selves and so rely, way too much, on the impermanent things and feelings that we are convinced are so real. What is real is what lives beyond death. And what is real is what gives us a happiness that no heartache or suffering can diminish.

As well as being easily distracted, our faith is also weak because faith requires us to see beyond our eyes, to see past our hopes and fears, and even to see more than we can imagine. And so, to help our faith and to lift our hearts into what is truly real, Christ provides us with various means, modes and instruments that speak not just to our eyes but to all our senses, so that we might truly see Him as He stands before us.

We tend to think that our most powerful sense is sight. The Lord recognizes this, and so He offers us visual cues of His real and actual presence during the Mass. The most obvious of these is the priest. This is obvious, not because the priest stands up front and leads the liturgy, but because he dresses so differently from the rest of us; so differently, in fact, that the priest is covered, head to toe, with uncommon clothing. It’s as if we don’t want to see him; as if we want his shape and other attributes to fade away; as if his clothing wants to transport us to another time and place; as if we don’t want him there for himself, but instead long for someone else in his place. And that’s precisely why we dress-up the priest. It is so that we remember that Christ is in our midst, when the priest stands before us; and so that we remember that the words he speaks and the prayers he says are not his words but the Lord’s own Word. (By the way, that also explains why the bishop requires the priest to say so few words of his own, and to say instead the Scripturally-soaked words.)

Yet, if truth be told, one of our most powerful senses is our sense of smell. Among other things, it governs our reactions, triggers our memories, and directs our taste buds. Using our olfactory organ, Christ shows us that He is truly present. With the help of the servers, the priest uses the censor to produce, emit, and disperse perfumed fragrance. But not any fragrance; rather, the precise fragrance that was used when Christ was buried, the fragrance that emanated from His resurrected body when He stood in the midst of the Apostles. That cologne from His body as He spoke—that is the same scent we get to smell during the Mass. It announces to us, as it did to Peter and Thomas, that the resurrected Christ is in our midst, bringing not the stench of death but the aroma of life.

And how close to us is Christ? Consider what is incensed: the altar (which represents the tomb of Christ); the priest (who operates in the person of Christ); the Gospel (which contains the words of Christ); the faithful (who are the Body of Christ); and the Eucharist (which is Christ Himself). How close is Christ to us? “He is nearer than we believe.” Like the incense, He permeates and saturates and pervades the church and the liturgy.

And what ought be our response? To approach Christ Himself as He presents Himself as our means of salvation. For that is why Christ is in our midst—so that we might connect with Him, trust Him, and embrace Him as authentically and truly as He is present for us.

16 June 2017

In the Midst: Holy Orders

he Ordination of men as priests or deacons can occur at any time. In the Western Orthodox tradition, the Ember Days of Advent, Lent, September—and most especially the week of Pentecost—are designated for conferring the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
During these Ember days, the entire Church joins the candidates in a special fast and penitential Mass on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday leading up to the ordination of deacons and priests during the Saturday Divine Liturgy. (The lesser orders may also be
conferred at this time.). At this time, the entire community of the faithful pray for the Spirit’s grace both upon the men who will be ordained, and upon the whole church so that she may increase and her members may grow in faith and holiness.
Our Lord’s Church cannot grow in faith or holiness without His sacred ministers. Their ministry is to deliver His gifts—the sacred mysteries—which unite us to Christ, seal us with His Spirit, heal our bodies and forgive our souls, and strengthen our life in and with each other until we together attain the fullness of the kingdom of heaven.
But there is something more that is revealed in this Ember Day practice. The whole Christian community fasts and prays (while only some are being ordained) because this Holy Sacrament—unlike all the sacred mysteries—centers the Christian parish family. That is the essence of this sacrament. Fr Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, puts it this way:
If each man [or woman] is to find in Christ his own life, if Christian engineers find in the Church what it means to be a Christian engineer, if a Christian novelist finds in the church the idea of what is Christian art, if a Christian father and a Christian mother find in the Church the essence of Christian parenthood, there must be someone in the center of the community who, just as Christ, has nothing of his own, but in whom and through whom everyone else can find his way.
That “someone” who stands in the center of the community is “the one who makes Christ present—who ‘represents,’ but in a very real sense, Christ’s care, Christ’s love, Christ’s teaching.” (Schmemann) To say it simply, the Priest is the one who re-presents Christ; that is, who repeatedly makes Christ present. And it is the same with the Deacon: he also presents Christ again and again.
The significant difference between the priest and deacon is that the priest’s primary focus is making present Christ’s compassion and mercy for the soul (i.e., through the sacraments and visitations), while the deacon’s primary emphasis is making present Christ’s compassion for the body (i.e., through material assistance and prayer).
These roles are clearly demonstrated in the Divine Liturgy. The Deacon reads the Gospel of Our Incarnate Lord, reminding us in every word that God came in our flesh to put an end to our captivity to ungodly passions not by freeing our souls from our bodies, but by healing, redeeming, and restoring our bodies as well as our souls; and that this liberation culminates when, by His Ascension, Our Lord shows that our flesh will be capable of being raised up to heaven to see the Father with our very own eyes.
In a similar way, the Priest does not just promise but actually bestows upon us the compassion and mercy of the Father through the Son in the unity of the Spirit. This peace with God, which surpasses our understanding, is delivered when the Priest leads the prayers, and gives the blessing. And most especially, when the Priest handles the Lord’s very own Body and Blood, and leads us to give thanks by consuming the Holy Eucharist, then is the Lord’s own divine nature, abundantly and unfathomably, knitted to our own flesh and coursing through our veins.
In both instances, when the Deacon and the Priest serve us, the re-present Christ to us, making Him present, standing in our midst. For they say, “The Lord be with you,” each time before they exercise their specific ministry. These words mean that the “I AM,” who is always with us, now, by means of the Deacon and Priest, stands in the midst of the “two or three” (or more). The faithful acknowledge this whenever they respond, “And with thy spirit.” For those speak declare that the Holy Spirit, given to the Sacred Ministers in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, has permitted us to see not them, but Christ; not their failings and weaknesses, but His strength and undying kind-heartedness.
In practical, every-day terms, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is exactly that: a re-ordering of the life of the ordained man. No longer does that man have a “private” or “individual” life. No longer can he make decisions based solely on what is best for himself, his health, his prosperity or success, or even his family. And no longer can he set aside, even when “vacationing” or on his “day-off,” his duty and responsibility to serve at the altar or pray the prescribed prayers.
In a very real sense, then, the ordained man is “under orders.” In every moment, he must “become all things to all men.” He must “do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” For his life is no longer his own, but is offered up as Christ gave Himself completely as a self-offering for men.
This is why Holy Orders is a sacrament which conveys the grace to bolster and sustain those who are ordained. And perhaps you see why it is both good and necessary for the whole Church to join in the fasts and prayers—not only for the men who will be ordained, but even more so for the priests and deacons who now serve. For by your fasting, you remember the sacrifice; and by your prayers, you support and encourage them in being faithful to their orders.

V. Rev. John W. Fenton
Pastor, St Michael Orthodox Christian Church, Whittier CA
Assistant to the Vicar General, Western Rite Vicariate

Pentecost Week 2017