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Tag: Eastern Orthodoxy

Melito of Sardis, On Pascha

Today is Orthodox Easter. Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!

To commemorate, I am posting a passage from Melito of Sardis’ On Pascha, the oldest surviving Easter Sermon (c. 160-170), and one not included in ANF due to being unknown to the English-speaking world until 1940. The whole sermon is here, as well as available in a translation by Alistair Stewart-Sykes from SVS Press. The image provided is not Patristic, but it is the traditional icon of the Resurrection for Orthodox Christians.

100. But he arose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven. When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one who was buried,

101. he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed.

102. Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ.

103. Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand.

104. This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human via the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

105. This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Great and Holy Thursday

Orthodox Easter is only a week after Western Easter this year, so today is Great and Holy Thursday for the Orthodox Church. First, a patristic-era image of the Last Supper, a sixth-century mosaic from the basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.

Next, a passage from Mar Jacob of Serugh, something not in Read the Fathers (from Roger Pearse), a few decades after the mosaic in the Near East:

The bread and wine our Lord made Body and Blood; which (thing) Melchizedek also thus depicted mystically. The high priest who was more excellent than Abraham sacrificed bread and wine to God, and nothing besides; and he taught the earth that the bread and wine is the Body and Blood which the Son of God gave to the world to be pardoned withal; and on the eve of the passion the Mystery shone forth from 16 our Saviour, who broke His Body and gave to His Apostles, as we have said.

Here let the soul of him who is to speak clothe itself in awe-; for save with awe the Son of God may not be spoken of. Let our mind glow with the fire of love that eats up stumblings and doubts, and then let it look upon the Son of God. With Faith, that leaps over pits and gulfs, our discourse shall run, and thus it shall not have fallen among the disputers.

His Body with His hands our Lord divided upon the table; and who is he that will dare to say now that it was not the Body? He said “This is My Body”; and who will not affirm it? For if he affirm it |286 not he is no disciple of the apostleship. The Apostles assented to Him; and while He was alive and reclining with them they ate Him; and dead whilst living they knew Him (to be), without doubting. If He were not dead, then His bread was not His Body; (p. 485) and if He were not alive He would not have broken His Body and given to His Apostles.

He brake the bread, and made it the Body, and gave to His Apostles; and the taste of the Body, wherein was life, was in their mouths. From when He took it and called it Body it was not bread 17, but 18 His Body, and it (or “Him”) they were eating whilst they marvelled. They eat His Body, and He is reclining with them at the table; and they drink His Blood, and they hear the voice of His teaching. They affirm that He is slain, whilst they look upon Him alive and speaking; and He is mingled with them whilst they eat Him, without doubt. And faith is bright and stands manfully, and doubts not either that He is alive or that He is slain. And He reclines slain at the table, and is not investigated; and they drink His Blood and affirm that it is Blood, while He is alive. And there are not there, neither pryers nor disputers, (p. 486) nor investigators, nor yet scribes of wise (opinions). They were not questioning, when there was place to ask: “Dost Thou indeed call it Body, Lord, when lo, it is bread? ” Faith stoops not to questionings: she knows to affirm; to investigate she has never learned. The Apostles were anxious to assent to the Son, not to investigate or question as daring (men).19 The bread that He brake and called His Body, Body they knew it (to be); and thus they thought, that yea, in truth His Blood was dropping 20 (there). Who would have been able to sacrifice the Son before His Sire, unless He had sacrificed Himself by His own hands before He suffered? He, our Lord, is the High Priest of the perfect Sacrifice; and therefore He sacrificed Himself before His Father. He is the Dead who when dead was alive, and was not investigated, Priest and Burnt Offering, whom to examine is too high for the disputers. He brake and divided His Body with His hands to His twelve, who, if they had not seen how He brake, would not have broken. He stood as Priest and performed the priest’s function upon Himself among His disciples, that He might depict a type to the priesthood for it to |287 imitate. He taught them how to break His holy Body and distribute it to the sons of the household of the faith, (p. 487) He made known to them how they should drink the cup of His Blood, and give the nations and worlds and regions to drink of it. With His Blood He sealed the new Covenant, which He made that it might be for remission of debts for ever. Simon He taught, and to John He gave an example, that as He did they should be doing when He was taken up.

Fr. Georges Florovsky on “The Lost Scriptural Mind”

Georges Florovsky

Fr. Georges Florovsky

Father Georges Florovsky (1893–1979) was an Eastern Orthodox priest, theologian, and historian. Expelled from Russia in 1920, he became a professor at Orthodox seminaries in Paris and New York, then a professor at Harvard University and Princeton University. In this excerpt from a 1951 essay titled “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” Florovsky argues that the fathers of the Christian church are more relevant than modern theologians. You can read the full essay here.

Christian ministers are not supposed to preach their private opinions, at least from the pulpit. Ministers are commissioned and ordained in the church precisely to preach the Word of God. They are given some fixed terms of reference — namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ — and they are committed to this sole and perennial message. They are expected to propagate and to sustain “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Of course, the Word of God must be preached “efficiently.” That is, it should always be so presented as to carry conviction and command the allegiance of every new generation and every particular group. It may be restated in new categories, if the circumstances require. But, above all, the identity of the message must be preserved.

One has to be sure that one is preaching the same gospel that was delivered and that one is not introducing instead any “strange gospel” of his own. The Word of God cannot be easily adjusted or accommodated to the fleeting customs and attitudes of any particular age, including our own time. Unfortunately, we are often inclined to measure the Word of God by our own stature, instead of checking our mind by the stature of Christ. The “modern mind” also stands under the judgment of the Word of God.

Modern Man and Scripture

But it is precisely at this point that our major difficulty begins. Most of us have lost the integrity of the scriptural mind, even if some bits of biblical phraseology are retained. The modern man often complains that the truth of God is offered to him in an “archaic idiom” — i.e., in the language of the Bible — which is no more his own and cannot be used spontaneously. It has recently been suggested that we should radically “demythologize” Scripture, meaning to replace the antiquated categories of the Holy Writ by something more modern. Yet the question cannot be evaded: Is the language of Scripture really nothing else than an accidental and external wrapping out of which some “eternal idea” is to be extricated and disentangled, or is it rather a perennial vehicle of the divine message, which was once delivered for all time?

We are in danger of losing the uniqueness of the Word of God in the process of continuous “reinterpretation.” But how can we interpret at all if we have forgotten the original language? Would it not be safer to bend our thought to the mental habits of the biblical language and to relearn the idiom of the Bible? No man can receive the gospel unless he repents — “changes his mind.” For in the language of the gospel “repentance” (metanoeite) does not mean merely acknowledgment of and contrition for sins, but precisely a “change of mind” — a profound change of man’s mental and emotional attitude, an integral renewal of man’s self, which begins in his self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit.

We are living now in an age of intellectual chaos and disintegration. Possibly modern man has not yet made up his mind, and the variety of opinions is beyond any hope of reconciliation. Probably the only luminous signpost we have to guide us through the mental fog of our desperate age is just the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” obsolete or archaic as the idiom of the Early Church may seem to be, judged by our fleeting standards.

Preach the Creeds!

What, then, are we going to preach? What would I preach to my contemporaries “in a time such as this?” There is no room for hesitation: I am going to preach Jesus, and him crucified and risen. I am going to preach and to commend to all whom I may be called to address the message of salvation, as it has been handed down to me by an uninterrupted tradition of the Church Universal. I would not isolate myself in my own age. In other words, I am going to preach the “doctrines of the creed.”

I am fully aware that creeds are a stumbling block for many in our own generation. “The creeds are venerable symbols, like the tattered flags upon the walls of national churches; but for the present warfare of the church in Asia, in Africa, in Europe and America the creeds, when they are understood, are about as serviceable as a battle-ax or an arquebus in the hands of a modern soldier.” This was written some years ago by a prominent British scholar who is a devout minister too. Possibly he would not write them today. But there are still many who would wholeheartedly make this vigorous statement their own. Let us remember, however, that the early creeds were deliberately scriptural, and it is precisely their scriptural phraseology that makes them difficult for the modern man.

Thus we face the same problem again: What can we offer instead of Holy Scripture? I would prefer the language of the Tradition, not because of a lazy and credulous “conservatism” or a blind “obedience” to some external “authorities,” but simply because I cannot find any better phraseology. I am prepared to expose myself to the inevitable charge of being “antiquarian” and “fundamentalist.” And I would protest that such a charge is gratuitous and wrong. I do keep and hold the “doctrines of the creed,” conscientiously and wholeheartedly, because I apprehend by faith their perennial adequacy and relevance to all ages and to all situations, including “a time such as this.” And I believe it is precisely the “doctrines of the creed” that can enable a desperate generation like ours to regain Christian courage and vision.

The Tradition Lives

“The church is neither a museum of dead deposits nor a society of research.” The deposits are alive—depositum juvenescens, to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus. The creed is not a relic of the past, but rather the “sword of the Spirit.” The reconversion of the world to Christianity is what we have to preach in our day. This is the only way out of that impasse into which the world has been driven by the failure of Christians to be truly Christian. Obviously, Christian doctrine does not answer directly any practical question in the field of politics or economics. Neither does the gospel of Christ. Yet its impact on the whole course of human history has been enormous. The recognition of human dignity, mercy and justice roots in the gospel. The new world can be built only by a new man.

The Modern Crisis

The first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” It is by no means an intellectual endeavor. Belief is just the map of the true world, and should not be mistaken for reality. Modern man has been too much concerned with his own ideas and convictions, his own attitudes and reactions. The modern crisis precipitated by humanism (an undeniable fact) has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, in which we do believe. The rediscovery of the church is the most decisive aspect of this new spiritual realism. Reality is no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas. It is again accessible. It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.” This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized. It is already recognized by many that the true solution of all social problems lies somehow in the reconstruction of the church. “In a time such as this” one has to preach the “whole Christ,” Christ and the church—totus Christus, caput et corpus, to use the famous phrase of St. Augustine. Possibly this preaching is still unusual, but it seems to be the only way to preach the Word of God efficiently in a period of doom and despair like ours.

The Relevance of the Fathers

I have often a strange feeling. When I read the ancient classics of Christian theology, the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians. The fathers were wrestling with existential problems, with those revelations of the eternal issues which were described and recorded in Holy Scripture. I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with the maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God had done for man. We have, “in a time such as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience.1

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