Myrrhbearers, Love, Gay Marriage, Death, and Taxes

OrthoAnalyika Show: 18 April 2010

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St. Mark 15:43-16:8

What the Myrrhbearers Teach Us about Love

Introduction: today’s “Feast of Association”
Today we celebrate a “Feast of Association”; a “Feast of Association” is that time when we celebrate those who were associated with a certain great Feast. In this case, we are celebrating the lives of some very special people who were associated with the Great Feast of Pascha. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were both “secret disciples” of Christ; they took the dead body of Christ from the Cross, quickly prepared it for burial and placed it in a new tomb. The Myrrhbearers were disciples of Christ; they went to the tomb before dawn on Sunday morning in order to anoint the Lord’s corpse with special oils. Each of these saints is remembered on their own “name day”, but today – during Paschaltide – we remember them in conjunction with the Pascha of Our Lord.

Segue: the importance of stories
And there is no disputing that such people and activities should be remembered. A nation’s stories are part of who it is, and its culture is lost when its stories are forgotten. As Christians, we are God’s chosen people, the “New Israel” and if we forget our stories then we lose this identity. But remembering our stories is not enough to preserve our place as the “New Israel” – the culture that we are to preserve is not a museum where people can go to learn about the past, and the collection of stories that we retell each year is not just an anthology of interesting tales from days gone by. Rather than a museum, our culture is the Church – the Living Body of Christ Incarnate; rather that a history tome, our collection of tales is the story of the world’s salvation and a “how-to” manual of how to participate in it.

We have to learn these stories and apply them to our lives lest we forget who we are and become children of the fallen world rather than Children of God and participants in the world’s recreation. And though we remain in The Church; though we (through grace) continue to be a mysterious part of God’s Incarnation, (to our disgrace) there is much that we have forgotten. And much that we have forgotten can be remembered by studying Joseph, Nicodemus, and the Myrrhbearers. This includes the relationship between faith, prophecy, and revelation; how to care for and venerate the bodies of departed loved ones; and, as I will discuss today, the proper nature of love.

Why Love?
I want to focus on love, because it is supposed to be the center of who we are, the very sign that we are Christians. This fact comes from the mouth of God Himself, as recorded by St. John; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (St. John 13: 34-35). But we have forgotten what love is, replacing it with what the world says it is. If we allow this to continue, then the logic is obvious: rather than having true love serve as a sign of our unity in the new creation in Christ; fallen love – a thing that is a mockery and perversion of true love – marks our unity with a fallen world and its unholy master. It is a great victory of the Evil One that the very virtue that is the foundation and Way of Perfection; has been redefined in such a way that its pursuit is instead the very path to perdition. And as important as the other lessons to be learned from today’s feast are, this one is fundamental.

What Love?
What has the devil done to love? Why does pursuit of the “love” he has defined lead us away from Unity in perfection in Christ? What is it about the fallen conception of “love” (and relationships) that ensure that any happiness based on it will be fleeting; that its lasting fruit is not joy, but broken hearts and despair?

One of the greatest signs of the Evil One’s control over this fallen world is the way he has convinced so many people – Christians included – that love is an emotion; that love is a feeling that is granted and shared between people who were “meant” to be together. Following this feeling becomes the definition of devotion. For the Christian, the trap is even more devious: because the Christian knows love to be the fundamental virtue, everything becomes justified by the pursuit of this feeling.

Every part of such a person’s life – and most especially his will and his concept of perfection – becomes a slave to this passion. Do you understand what I mean? He has this feeling, this attraction to someone or something else; then he defines this as the most important thing that ever could be; then devotes all of his faculties to the embrace and celebration of this feeling. Do you see how this is so upside down? How it is so diabolical? Instead of drawing him outside himself into union with others, it leads him to serve only himself; and even there to serve only the most unreliable part of his entire constitution: his feelings and emotions! He loves others not because he has put their welfare before his own, but because it makes him feel good.

And where does this leave him – and us – when the feelings disappear? Because the emotion – the increased pulse rate, the flush of the cheeks, the desire for physical intimacy – is the very definition and sign of love, their absence must therefore be an indicator that something is wrong and that we have somehow “fallen out of love”! To make matters worse, when those same physical and emotional “feelings” rise up towards a new target, our hearts become conflicted; pursuit of this “most holy” feeling pits us against our commitments and established routines. The worldly solution to this dilemma is clear: you follow your heart. Is it any wonder why divorce, adultery, and serial monogamy are commonplace? That our fallen world “groans in agony”? That we can find no lasting joy?

What love!
The bottom line is that our hearts and minds were not meant to serve our passions. They are not virtues, and they are not the way to perfection, unity, and joy. Our prayer book calls the emotions and feelings our fallen world worships and celebrates “vices”. they only become virtues when the proper order is restored: when we submit our feelings to our rational wills, and our rational wills to Christ. This is the way to find balance and the way to enjoy a lifetime – indeed an eternity! – of joyful love.

Joseph, Nicodemus, and the Myrrhbearers had this kind of balance: their passions were controlled by their wills, and their wills were devoted to Christ. As such, their actions were loving, and their love brought them into perfection. Can you imagine if they lived the way the Evil One teaches? If they submitted their wills to their feelings? Think back to the terrible events of Passion Week – think of the danger of being true to Christ, think of the terrible fear that filled even the most stalwart of the apostles (leading him to deny Christ thrice before the rooster’s crow). Do you really think that it was the emotion the world calls “love” that allowed these men and women to overcome their fear and risk everything for the sake of the treatment of a loved one’s corpse? Wouldn’t a constitution that subsumed the will to the passions have rationalized the same course of action the other disciples of our Lord took? No, you cannot pretend that it was their emotion that led them to risk everything to care for the body of our Lord; again: their passions and emotions were controlled by their wills, and their wills were devoted to Christ.

This is the life that we are called to. This is the love that we are called to. Remember: we have been given two great commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor. We are not called to do this only when we feel like it; nor are we to give up on this love when it is hard, risky, or unpleasant.

No, the Christian is called to selfless service; to genuinely put worship of God and service to neighbor ahead of his own well-being. The saints we commemorate today lived this kind of life; they overcame their emotions to really love. But serving Christ and living for others doesn’t just mean being willing to suffer physical torture, humiliation, and death for others – such heroic measures may or may not eventually called for – but without a doubt it demands that we sacrifice our feelings to the pursuit of righteousness.

So find True Love. It is not hiding. It is here, and through Christ, it is yours. Submit your will to Him. This is the Way to joy and blessedness. A Life in Christ will transform your passionate and most strongly felt vices into the deepest and most enjoyable of virtues. It will save and sanctify your marriages, it will perfect every bond, and is will bring you lasting peace. And God will grant it to all who follow Him.



What is the Orthodox Church’s stance on homosexuality, gay rights, gay marriage, role as Orthodox Christians, and can they become Orthodox, etc.?

Homosexuality (i.e. same sex attraction): it’s real and no discrimination (physical, political, religious, etc.) should be tolerated.

Gay rights: politically, the Orthodox are all over place on this, but the Church teaches that any sex outside marriage is harmful to both the participants and society. Nor does it conduct same-sex marriages; plus, getting married outside the Church (for gays or straights) is an act of voluntary “excommunication”.

Gays can certainly be Orthodox (everyone is encouraged; it’s The Way for all, and in Christ such differences dissolve!) – they will be encouraged to live celibate lives (as is everyone who is not married).

Unfortunately, this would be unacceptable for many gays and lesbians (as perhaps it would be for any single, but committed/sexually active straights in our communities; although they can at least say they are working towards marriage; gays/lesbians do not have this option).

This puts our gay/lesbian friends in a tough spot. They recognize their same-sex love as real, and (thanks largely to our culture and some to our natural instincts) see sexual intimacy as a natural/good expression of that love. We accept the love they have for one another, but not the intimacy.

Fr. Thomas Hopko is the most reasonable Orthodox theologian I have found on this (because he has actually worked with gays/lesbians and understands their love and challenges). His book “Orthodoxy and Same-sex Attraction” is worth reading, even if it doesn’t give an easy answer to the problem.

FWIW, When the surrounding culture had the assumption of celibacy, the Church blessed “friends” to live together as brothers (or sisters). These were (presumably) “platonic” relations where such love could be expressed in a way the Church sees as healthy.

I have warned everyone who will listen that we need to be ready for a procedure to bring gays/lesbians who have married outside the Church back into (or into, for the case of converts) full participation/membership in the Church. But with all the other things going on, I don’t think it’s made it to the top of the list.

The compassionate Orthodox Christian recognizes the difficulty of the situation, but cannot solve it by either extreme; I mean, we cannot do what some Christians do and completely condemn homosexuality and homosexuals. But nor can we pretend -as some other Christians do – that same sex-sex (and marriage) isn’t problematic. Either of those solutions would be such a radical departure from accepted practice as to require a pretty serious Council (IMO).

We are left with what serious people are often left with: the need to act with love, and compassion; a complete – and pastoral – dedication to the Truth; and the readiness to ask for forgiveness when our actions do damage (all the while looking forward to the time when such compromises/dilemmas are destroyed/transcended in the Great Remaking).

In summary: Rights/protections for homosexuals- yes. Membership for homosexuals – yes. Same-sex marriages for homosexuals – no.

Don’t hesitate to ask follow up questions, point out the problems, etc. This is a tough one.

In reaction to an Orthodox Political Economy (and it may be worth going back and rereading that – I added quite a bit for a presentation at URI):

1) What should be done about the imperfection of the world?

• Ideally, the world’s imperfection would be rectified through Christ; but not all accept this solution and free will demands that we respect this.

• And even if everyone where enlightened, there would still be the short term problem of managing our affairs until the world is completely remade (Orthodoxy rejects the notion of a seamless crescendo into perfection… it expects “wars and rumors of wars”).

• The political answer is that we muddle through, adding love wherever and whenever we can.

The more meaningful answer is that we transform ourselves, our communities, and the world around us.

2) Who wields legitimate political authority?

• There is a real sense in which any worldly Caesar is legitimate; that doesn’t mean all regimes are good, because there is also a very real sense in which the Evil One’s rule over the fallen world is “legitimate”! (please note that his rule is finite in scope and in duration).

• We pray for our leaders even as we embrace the martyrdom they force us into.

• Again, the liturgy and prayers of the Church are the best teachers here. We prefer just and rational leaders, but work within the framework given.

• Note that Orthodoxy tempts many towards apathy/endurance.

3) What aspect of your own religious tradition do you see as contributing the most to political conflict?

• It is based on Dogma and absolute morality. This puts us at odds with others when they want things that counter Dogma and absolute morality. No one likes prophets when the times are wicked.

• In humility, it must be admitted that Orthodox theology and institutions (“tradition” with a little “t”) have sometimes been perverted in a way that supported xenophobia (philatism), imperialism, anti-Semitism, and other evils.

4) What aspects of your own religious tradition do you see as contributing the most to the resolution of political conflict?

• Unity is the desired end state of history (it is where we are headed), and Orthodoxy allows us a foretaste of it now. This is actually experienced in our worship and shared through our prayers etc.

• More “practically”, we are called to see both the “divine image” and Christ Himself in everyone we meet. This means that we are able to serve everyone objectively and without passion and to demonstrate this possibility to others.

• Our attitude towards creation provides the perfect balance for ecological policies and conflict.

• The ascetic tradition teaches how we can become more human, how to resist temptation, and how to become truly rational. Very few people and cultures even recognize the reality of spiritual warfare, much less offer tools for victory in it. The monastic tradition is the most visible aspect of this, but the seriousness of our laity (and white clergy) is a strong witness, too.

• Orthodoxy demands simplicity, charity, and hard work. To the extent this spreads, conflict diminishes and peace becomes more sustainable.

• The willingness of our saints to suffer public martyrdom and our prophets to speak the truth is both a cause of conflict and a source of its resolution.

5) How should religion respond to the dominance of secular beliefs and political institutions in the modern world?

• By remaining constant in their commitment to the Truth. This single commitment leads to various outcomes/expressions: prophecy, martyrdom, and cooperation.

• Balancing this commitment with engagement. Monks and laity do both (commitment and engagement), but focus on different aspects. The existence of the monastic Episcopate suggests that the greatest temptation is over-accommodation (to the extent monastic bishops are more conservative).

• In a pluralist world, the trick is to devise a system that is built on and strengthens our commonalities without suppressing our differences. As I have noted, I think this is best done with limited government.

In summary, I know that it doesn’t sound sexy, but I think that we are called to muddle through with humility and perseverance; knowing that victory, unity, and love have already won.



Update on the ghetto hot tub.

Update on my new landscaping tool.

Two big funerals here. A generation is passing.

Classes have started back up: lots of interest in The Screwtape Letters, and continued interest in The Way of Ascetics.

Funny Thing: a recent Touchstone article (Barton Swaim’s “Novel Ideas” in the November/December 2009 edition) warned about use of fiction as a Trojan Horse for fallen worldviews; now Graham Hancock is writing fiction to share his ideas about drugs and consciousness (and actually said the switch from “non-fiction” to fiction was so that he could influence people better).


Vol’ya Segment

Two articles that bring up questions that we – and especially our parishes – need to deal with (and ignoring them is the way many “deal”):

As We Move Towards Unity” by Fr. Gregory Jensen. Starts with a very good point (learned from Wall Street and the Roman Catholic Church): we must tend to our institutions. We cannot assume that they will endure no matter how we act. In the Church, parishes and dioceses must maintain the trust and respect of their members. His point is that we have a trust/respect problem because our parishes have not opened up to America (to include the English language). As he concludes: “This means that as we move toward administrative unity we must keep in mind that the Church does not need to BECOME American; the Church is ALREADY American. What needs to change is our willingness to see the benefits of the Church’s American character. We must find the resources for unity not simply in our past as Greeks or Russians but also in the genius of the American experiment.” Let me deal with two points: unity/trust and culture/language.

Fr. Gregory is right that we need to tend to our Church institutions and our people. We can destroy the people and institutions that we were given to serve. This can happen through willful abuse (e.g. sexual and financial crimes), lying to people (e.g. cover-ups), and – as the author implies – by not understanding the people/place we serve. I’ll deal with language and culture in a moment, but if we are talking about unity, then there is another way that we can destroy the very thing we lead. Unity will be painful – even if it is handled well, I daresay that there is a risk we will lose people and parishes. There are always wolves looking to pick off untended sheep. In the case of American Orthodox (administrative) unity, these “untended sheep” are likely to be the nationalists (and perhaps the “ultra-orthodox”). I have heard well-meaning folks react to their concerns callously, as if their concerns were not worthy of serious consideration. But they, too, are our sheep. We should not drive them into danger.

As for culture, I think that Fr. Gregory is right on the money. Orthodoxy is a way of life that demands a robust supporting culture. This demands that we either double-down with the Orthodox (old-world) nationalists or intentionally augment the remnants of our old-world religious culture with American/western ones. Both strategies are theoretically workable. But in practical terms, most of our parishes do not have the community support to build the kind of self-contained ghetto that would make the old-world nationalist strategy workable. That means that most of our parishes need to do something that they are their leaders have not been doing: embracing and blessing elements of American culture (not all of it!). This will create tension within parishes and within our dioceses. The most predictable division will be between the old guard nationalists and the new accommodationists. Pastors and board leaders, bishops and consistory leaders will need to be prepared to diffuse and redirect this division. Pray that they will be!

The second article is a “Cross Currents” article from The Ukrainian Weekly by Andrew Sorokowski entitled “Pandemonium in the pews”. The most interesting part of the article is his description of the divisive politics in several Ukrainian Catholic parishes, both past and present. He gives case studies of people who got really crazy about their parishes, their priests, and their property. I am very familiar with the history of this parish, so I am familiar with the situation he describes. And while I am thankful that we have moved beyond this kind of passionate divisiveness so that we can focus on Unity and Perfection in Christ, Andrew Sorokowsky sees our unity as a sign of our secular materialism; “if all this strikes us as strange or amusing…, it is partly because we have ourselves become alienated from a religious worldview.” I completely support his agenda: he wants to make sure our communities preserve their records and encourage people to write parish histories. I support this, but I think that much of went on during those turbulent times was completely wicked and worldly (!!!) – so I’m not sure how much it will make us pine for the glory days of yore; nor do I think that much of those behaviours are worthy of emulation. But in the end, I strongly share Andrew’s hope that such honesty will; “help our churches navigate between the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of the ghetto.”