Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Humility and Glory in the Liturgy

A photograph of an Orthodox bishop I posted on Monday prompted a faithful and respected reader to leave the following comment:
Is it just me, or do these Bishops present the literal image Greco-Roman Emperors or high-level potentates (despota) more than Christ? I mean that my imagination has acrobatic gymnastic to see the kenotic Christ here.
I was initially at some loss of how to reply. Viewed solely in terms of outward insignia and vestiture, he certainly had a point. My subsequent observation that Christian liturgy has been imbued with imperial court ritual since at least the fourth century, even if there had been a particular appropriation of imperial regalia by bishops since the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, also did not amount to a properly theological response.

I am therefore very grateful to Aaron Taylor of Logismoi for sending me the following passage from a forthcoming book by Metropolitan John (Zizoulas) of Pergamon entitled Receiving One Another: Being in Otherness—Studies on God, Man, the Church, and the World Today, ed. Fr Gregory Edwards (Alahambra, CA: Sebastian, 2009), that neatly addresses the objection:
Unfortunately, the pietism which has crept into our consciousness and our worship has misled us into the mistaken idea that richness in vestments and in the decoration of churches is a bad thing. Just one simple observation shows how alien to the Orthodox tradition this idea is: the richest and most splendid vestments in our Church are to be found in our monasteries, and particularly on the Holy Mountain, the most important and authoritative monastic center for Orthodoxy. Why, then, does the genuine Orthodox monk, who according to the Sayings of the Fathers should wear such a shoddy and threadbare riason [outward robe] that he could hang it outside his cell door in the certainty that no one would be tempted to steal it — why during the Liturgy does this same man, as celebrant, put on the most splendid vestments, yet without being scandalized or scandalizing anyone else? Quite simply, because the eschatological character of the Eucharist remains vivid in his consciousness: in the Eucharist, we move within the space of the age to come, of the Kingdom. There we experience “the day which knows no end or evening, and no successor, that age which does not end or grow old,” in the words of St. Basil. We have every possibility for practicing our humility outside the Liturgy. We do not have the right to turn the Eucharist into an opportunity to show off our humility, or a means to psychological experiences of compunction. Besides, “He who offers and He who is offered,” the real celebrant, is Christ, and indeed the risen Christ as He will come in His glory on the last day, and those who celebrate the Liturgy are nothing more than icons of this eschatological Christ. And of course “the honor paid to the icon passes to the prototype.”
While I readily admit that I often find myself in objection to many of His Eminence's words, I find this passage wholly admirable and very helpful.

5 comments:

Robert said...

All true and well, Ora, as long as true humility indeed is practiced. Pardon the skittishness, what with strange news coming from the hierarchial quarters of late.

Felix Culpa said...

It's my policy not to comment on such things, but: 1) the main perpetrator of the crimes in the OCA was a married priest; the bishops were (allegedly) culpable largely for their silence; 2) the Metropolitan of the Antiochian Archdiocese is currently overlooking the very dignity of his fellow bishops, trying to make them into little more than mitred altar-boys.

Neither point, however, speaks directly to the main point of the passage from Metropolitan John, which concerns the dignity of *any* liturgical celebrant.

Anonymous said...

Right you are. What I am referring to is that comments such as you received, it speaks volumes as to the presence of (and reasons for) distrust and prejudice. Or so it struck me. And in the larger context of things, we must keep in mind a bishop is not merely a liturgical celebrant. Ought his dignity (and humility) not be evident in all and to all? Where have we gone wrong?

Indeed the cited passage is laudable and certainly most apropos to your point, and I thank you for sharing it.

This is a difficult time, a crisis of sorts. I am working my way through it.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Bishops and priests are at times during the liturgy icons of Christ, who is surrounded by unapproachable glory that these vestments hardly approximate. Just because they're fancier than the polyester leisure suit worn by a Baptist pastor means nothing. Behind the ostentation lies the iconographic mentality of the Church, not pride.

orrologion said...

Another way I look at the question of ornate vestiture and temples is that these are not the rich things of today. It would be one thing if our churches and priests were changing vestments to accord with the whims of society, it is another thing to enshrine one particular, past expression of power, might, and authority as a sort of universal lanaguage. It becomes universal in its particularity, much in the way that Christ became a particular man in a particular culture and society, but Who is the God-man uniting all human nature with the Godhead. If you're going to choose something to wear, it may as well have meaning, and it may as well be out of fashion and capable of carrying meaning beyond what it originally did. The real Passover was Pascha, not the 'original' Passover in Egypt - it's just that particularity was able to foreshadow and 'carry the charge' of holiness until the true Pascha, and ever since.