Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Photo of the Week

Savior, like a bird to Thee,
Weary and wounded my soul would flee;
O let me fold my wings and rest
Peacefully, trustingly, on Thy breast.

- from the hymn "Savior, Like a Bird to Thee," by W. Howard Doane, 19th century

Monday, April 29, 2019

Quote of the Week

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

- G. K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Christ is alive, the conqueror of all his foes, and ours.
Christ is alive, and in his hands are the keys of death.
Christ is alive, and in him we are born again
To a living hope and an eternal inheritance.
We praise you, O Christ,
For your resurrection victory.
We acknowledge you as our living Savior and Lord.
We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.

- Frank Colquhoun

Friday, April 26, 2019

Hallelujah, He is Risen!

It seemed fitting to write an Easter hymn this week. So here's my new offering, written to the tune of the well-known hymn "Revive Us Again." 

Hallelujah, He is Risen!

Oh, lift up your voice to proclaim Jesus' praise,
And let us declare now the triumph of grace!

     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

He bore all our sins as he suffered and bled,
But sin could not hold him; he rose from the dead!
     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

The tomb is laid bare, and the stone rolled away;
Our Lord is alive and is reigning today!

     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

Death, where is your sting? Where the grave's victory?
Yes, Christ has consigned them to endless defeat!

     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

With angels and saints, with creation we praise
The all-conq'ring Savior, the Lamb who was slain!

     Hallelujah, he is risen! He is risen indeed!
    Hallelujah, over death he has won victory!

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Is It OK to Call Easter "Easter"?

Within certain Christian circles, there's an undercurrent of debate as to what we should call the annual celebration of Jesus' resurrection. Should it be "Easter" or "Resurrection Sunday"? Most English-speakers have always called it Easter, and still do. But there are some Christians who make the case that we should only call it "Resurrection Sunday" (or some similar name) because "Easter" is derived from a pagan festival honoring the Germanic fertility goddess Eostre. The historical claim being made there is, as you'll come to see, highly debatable. This post is mostly written for the benefit of people who have always called it "Easter" and are wondering if they can still do so in good conscience. If, however, you're the sort who wants to call it "Resurrection Sunday" just for the sake of clarity and not out of a burdensome sense of anti-pagan legalism, well, that's fine too.

But I'm going to start things off by tipping my hand a bit. I'm more a fan of grace than I am of legalism, so my feeling is that unless you're actually spending the day performing acts of worship for an ancient fertility goddess, you're probably OK. (It's similar to my feelings on Halloween, which you can read about here and here.) Now let's assess the case made against Easter:

Eostre, who has apparently mistimed her jump and is about to crush her tiny worshipers
- First, let's start by assuming the "Eostre" etymology is correct (a notion that we'll debunk a bit later on). Even if that were the case, the use of the name would not be problematic for Christians, especially since it comes out of early-medieval Christianity, which had a fairly robust theology of Christ's triumph over pagan culture. You see, the use of the name has never implied any doctrinal relativism. That is to say, as far back as we can see in the historical record, there has never been a case of Christians calling this holiday "Easter" because they're actually using it to secretly celebrate a pagan goddess instead of celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Rather, the name appears from some Germanic origin (again, we'll discuss the etymology arguments below), and people go on worshiping Jesus on that day. Regardless of what name it is called by, this holiday, in its Christian context, has always and exclusively been a celebration of Christ's resurrection from the dead. In a very similar manner, I can call the day of this writing "Thursday" and still do all my regular Thursday things without ever once worshiping the pagan god Thor. The early medieval church actually liked to take over old pagan stuff and use it for Christian purposes, partly as an expression of the triumph of Christ over the old pagan order. They would intentionally take the foundations of pagan temples and build churches on them. Why? Because Jesus triumphed over the demonic powers behind all false gods when he died on the cross and rose again, so we can build monuments to his victory right on top of every pagan tradition we find. I'm rather a fan of this outlook, far more than of our modern-Christian practice of eschewing anything associated with other religions just because they haven't always been exclusively Christian symbols. As Paul said, "We take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ!" If Easter really did come from Eostre, it's possible that early Germanic Christians kept the name of the holiday so that they could taunt the vanquished goddess by turning her day over to the celebration of Christ's victory over her.

Freya, showing here a good use for cats that for some reason has fallen out of practice
- And if we're going to get nitpicky about it, then the "Resurrection Sunday" folks have to stop using "Sunday" (and really, all names for the days of the week), because it relates to the Greco-Roman practice of honoring the sun, moon, and planets, which were also reverenced as gods. Further, they can't call Good Friday by that name, because it alludes to the Norse goddess Freya. (I guess they could just call it "Good Day," but that could get confusing in places like Australia.) And to make it even worse, if you really wanted to be consistent on this issue, you'd have to stop calling God "God," because that comes from the old pagan Germanic word for deity. So, if you're not going to do "Easter," you at least have to drop the "Sunday" reference too, and just go with "Resurrection Day" or the traditional "Pascha" (the latter option is one I actually like). Or you could make up your own name, perhaps by following the "Christmas" pattern, and call it "Risemas." Anyway, the point here is that the argument against Easter is a little bit too nitpicky on cultural grounds, and not really very compelling on theological grounds. 

- Now, the historical argument: does the name "Easter" actually come from "Eostre"? Possibly, but there's plenty of room for doubt. The first suggestion of this comes from a great historian of the early-medieval church, the Venerable Bede, who throws Eostre out as a possible etymology. However, this association strikes a lot of historians as actually being pretty unlikely (and Bede, by his own admission, was sometimes fond of making guesses to fill in the gaps in his stories). Some make the case that a stronger association can be found in the early Germanic word for "east," which is very similar to "Easter" and "Eostre." Just as we still do today, ancient Christians often celebrated Easter Sunday with early-morning services oriented toward the rising sun (in fact, all churches used to be oriented toward the east simply as a matter of tradition and symbolism). If this latter theory is correct, then Easter got its name simply because it was the day that Christians got up early, faced east, and had a sunrise service. 

Ishtar, tragically frozen in carbonite, Han Solo-style, for the past four thousand years
- Let's disabuse ourselves of a few other ridiculous Easter-myths while we're at it. If you poke around the open cesspool of the Internet for awhile, you might run across the theory that Easter has something to do with the pagan Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. As far as any serious historians know, there's no direct link whatsoever between the two. Such arguments are usually just trying to make the case that the resurrection story itself was foreshadowed by ancient myths that bore some vanishingly vague similarities--i.e., a goddess dies and then somehow comes back--but such myths are clearly myths, none of them even pretending to be read within a real historical context, as the account of Jesus' resurrection is. To associate Easter with the Ishtar myth is a little bit like saying that the Gospels must have been George Lucas' main inspiration in having his devilish villain Darth Maul come back into the Star Wars story (in the cartoon series) even after his apparent death in The Phantom Menace.

Easter bunnies on their way to a nefarious pagan ritual
- What about eggs and bunnies? So, it's actually true that eggs and bunnies were pagan symbols once upon a time. That's also true of the sun, moon, stars, trees, flowers, clouds, wind, water, fire, mountains, valleys, rocks, and basically every species of animal you can think of. (Check out Dr. Boli's satirical list of pagan Easter associations here.) But, again: to my knowledge, no "Easter worshipers" (to use an apparently up-and-coming PC term for Christians) are currently using bunnies and eggs in pagan fertility rituals, so it seems like their pagan significance is a little moot at this point in history.  Eggs, for their part, actually do have a plausible Christian connection to Easter celebrations--since the time of the early church, the egg has been a Christian symbol of both new life and eternity. In fact, an egg is one of the symbolic foods regularly present at Jewish Passover feasts (that is, the feast that corresponds with our Easter), and some scholars have suggested that its presence in the Passover liturgy actually hails back to the influence of early Jewish Christian practice in the first and second centuries AD. Bunnies, as far as I can tell, have no connection to Christian symbolism, other than the fact that God made them. (One could stretch the argument and say that the way bunnies hop in and out of holes in the ground is a reminder of Jesus popping out of the tomb, but we're getting a little ridiculous at that point.) Anyway, to my mind, there's a legitimate Christian association with the egg at Easter, but not the bunny. I don't have anything against bunnies as a cultural symbol at Eastertime (except where they're used as a substitute for the actual meaning of Easter), but I don't have much use for bunny-symbolism in Christian celebrations of the holiday.

- The bottom line is this: Easter is a day for celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can call it whatever you like, as long as that's its meaning. However, if you find yourself amongst a group of Christians who are nervous that Eostre might somehow reclaim the day for herself, then go along with them and call it Resurrection Sunday, or Risemas, or go early-church on them and call it Pascha. As the Apostle Paul taught us, minor disputes like these are not worth endangering the unity of the Body: if you find yourself in that situation, go along with the restrictions practiced by the weaker brother, so as not to offend his sensibilities regarding the faith. But aside from that situation, as long as you're celebrating Jesus' resurrection, then you can call it both "Easter" and "Sunday" (two possible pagan references in one!) to commemorate Jesus' triumph over Eostre, Sol Invictus, and all the powers of false gods everywhere. And you can still do that Easter egg hunt, too.

Pilgrimage Memoir: Finding Shelter in His Glory

God is so good, He wears a fold
Of heaven and earth across His face—
Like secrets kept, for love untold.
But still I feel that His embrace
Slides down by thrills through all things made,
Through sight and sound of every place:
As if my tender mother laid
On my shut lids her kisses’ pressure,
Half waking me at night; and said,
"Who kissed you through the dark, dear guesser?"

- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “A Child’s Thought of God”
~ ~ ~

            Our next adventure (after a lunch feasting on “St Peter’s fish”) took us a bit further away than our morning jaunts around the lake: Mount Tabor, the traditional site for the story of the Transfiguration. This is one of those stories for which no one is really sure where exactly it might have happened; the Gospels simply don’t give us enough historical detail to answer the question with any measure of certainty. All we know is that it was on “a mountain apart,” and perhaps the travel time it took to get there from the previous Gospel story (six days on foot from Caesarea Philippi). By those measures, Mount Tabor is one of several sites that fits the bill, and it’s the one that has been hallowed the longest by the prayers of pilgrims. It is indeed “a mountain apart,” rising in singular majesty from the plains below, and a mountain that would have been well-known to Jesus, standing as it did in relative proximity to both Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.

View from the top of Mount Tabor
            Popular 19th-century pilgrims’ accounts narrate harrowing stories of ascending Mount Tabor—tales of weariness, cantankerous pack animals, and the constant danger of getting lost on the slopes. The experience today is a good deal smoother and quicker, but still a little harrowing. Because of the steepness of the slopes, the road up to the peak is not open to tour buses, which would have difficult navigating the hairpin switchbacks. Instead, you’re asked to park at the base of the slope and pay for a ride in one of several tightly-packed vans operated by local drivers. I was wedged, along with another pilgrim, into the front-row passenger seat, and so I got a marvelous view straight down the many cliff faces of Mount Tabor whenever we careened around a switchback turn. There were no seatbelts to speak of, so I simply had to hang on to a strap over the window. Had I ever suffered from a fear of heights, it might have been a terrifying journey, but I’ve had my fair share of eye-opening traffic experiences from all around the world, and I found that I rather enjoyed it.
            Here, as in many places along our tour of Israel, memories of the Crusades are everywhere. The pilgrimage-sites of Israel truly are a snapshot of the whole world of Christianity: while most of the local traditions and current Christian populace represent the Orthodoxy of the East, the Crusades and their legacy left a massive, indelible mark of the Western church upon the Holy Land, not only in ruins but in active religious communities that have existed there from the 1200s until today. Here, on the top of Mount Tabor, Christian East and Christian West met again: an Orthodox church on one side, and a Roman Catholic on the other, amid the tumbledown ruins of Crusader walls, and in and amongst all the pathways walked a hundred pilgrims from every nation and denomination upon the earth. I had a deep historical interest in the Crusades, but even I was surprised by the extent of the lasting mark they had left on Israel. Truth be told, in my preparations for my pilgrimage, I had been far more interested in a different period of the region’s Christian history: the age of church fathers and desert saints, from the fourth to the seventh centuries; but in that period it had been Jerusalem and the Judean wilderness that were the epicenters of their influence. In Galilee, however, it was my Crusading forebears that marked the hillsides with the stones of their memory.
            There is a beautiful Catholic pilgrim-church on Mount Tabor today; larger than any of those we had visited by the lake that morning, but still a good deal smaller than a suburban parish church would be. It was one of the loveliest buildings we saw in the Holy Land: soaring like a cathedral and gilt in golden radiance that called to mind the Gospel story, it shone in both its simplicity and its ethereal beauty.
            But we didn’t actually go first into the church. As was our practice, we found a wayside spot to gather and do a little service. As it happened, the church was surrounded by the ruins of an old Benedictine monastery, and it was the little chapel of that community that hosted our gathering. This was the second of my two stories to tell: like the Annunciation, I had chosen the story of the Transfiguration because it meant something to me. During an earlier stage of my spiritual journey, it had been Orthodox theology that helped bring me out of a season of doubt, and Orthodox theology made much of the Transfiguration—not just as a revelation of the nature of Christ, but as a revelation of the true nature of humanity when illuminated by the divine energies of God. Naturally, I didn’t seize the moment to launch into a treatise on theosis; I merely recited the marvelous story of Christ’s transfiguration. We sang and prayed together there, where faithful monks had sung and prayed eight hundred years before, and then began a tour of the church. 
            The interior was uplifting and beautiful, but the most interesting features of all were two little side-chapels, one dedicated to Moses and the other to Elijah. If you recall the story of the Transfiguration, these two Old Testament saints appeared with Jesus in the cloud of God’s glory on the mountaintop, and Peter, in his blustery confusion, suggested that they set up shelters for Moses and Elijah. While his suggestion wasn’t taken up during the time of the Gospels, now you can go to the Mount of Transfiguration and find “shelters” on either side of the church commemorating both the great lawgiver and the prophet.
            At the end of our time on the mountain, I stole a few minutes to wander through the ruins of the old monastery. The peace of that place, and the memory of those old monks, breathed grace to my soul in the midst of a day where it felt we were always on the run. At the end of my little explorations, I happened upon a chapel where I found one of the loveliest icons I had ever seen. It felt as if it had been left there to minister to my heart: that I, who had gained so much inspiration from Orthodox faith, should, on that mountain that represented the heart of Orthodox theology, find such a beautiful symbol of the Orthodox tradition waiting for me at the end of my little pilgrimage through the monastery. It was a reminder to me that this place--and all the places of the Gospels--were the scenes of Jesus' signs, laid out not only for his own disciples to see, but for all his followers throughout history. The story of the Transfiguration was my story, the story of Jesus' glory radiating in my life, and it felt like I had received a personal welcome there on Mount Tabor: a shelter not only for Moses and Elijah, but for me. With a prayer and the sign of the cross, I bid the place farewell and rejoined my companions.