Sunday, February 10, 2013
The Patriarch's Hopes and My Passionate Fear
His Beatitude, John the Tenth, newly elected Patriarch of Church of Antioch, was enthroned today in Damascus, Syria. You can find his enthronement speech here. The speech is certainly worth reading if you are at all interested in what the "spirit of Antioch" is. It is not an emotional speech, yet it is moving. It is moving in that His Beatitude lays out some of the emphases of Orthodox, particularly Antiochian Orthodox, Christianity; and he lays them out in a series of paragraphs introduced with the phrase "God is not pleased," or some equivalent statement. I think this emphasis on humility (how we have not pleased God) portends good things. It suggests that whatever His Beatitude thinks may need to be done or stressed during his reign as Patriarch of Antioch will be done in a spirit of repentance and the humility born of the desire to turn from what has displeased God.
The first thing that God is not pleased with is authoritarian leadership. That His Beatitude would begin with this suggests that it is his sincere intention to lead not as an autocrat, but as a servant, brother and father. Such a leader at the top helps set the tone for the entire Patriarchate of Antioch. Of course the daily realities of leading a large organization of any kind are such that it will be very difficult "not to command as if he [were] an autocrat" (one of many citations from the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the speech). Nonetheless, the fact that His Beatitude would specifically mention this matter as the first item with which God is not pleased bodes well for the future of Antioch.
The second matter with which God is not pleased is that we do not care enough for the poor. Here, citing St. John Chrysostom and sounding in many ways like a son of this great saint, His Beatitude challenges us to set as our goal not to "possess anything that [we] have," for all that we have is both ours and our neighbours', "like the sun, the air and the earth." He then connects this care for the poor with the care for the youth in our churches who "drift away, leave the flock or become indifferent." He suggests that the way we can do this is through "liturgical revival."
This comment on liturgical revival leads to the third matter with which God is not pleased, and that is "clinging to the letter of things." "Eccclesial Tradition," His beatitude says, "is not something motionless or stagnant but a tool of salvation." We must "differentiate between the one Holy Tradition and the many secondary traditions and practices to which we often cling." This renewal is to include the modernization of texts "to make them understandable in the language of our time."
Further, "the Lord is saddened" by violence. His Beatitude calls us "to carry the cross of our countr[ies] and to pray and work for reconciliation, brotherhood, peace, freedom and justice in our region[s] categorically refusing all kinds of violence and hatred." And finally, "Jesus cries" over the divisions in the Christian world. His Beatitude encourages us to "try and instil harmony between the Eastern and Western churches and to strengthen cooperation in the fields of ministry and pastoral care."
I'd like to comment briefly on this liturgical renewal and ecumenical work that His Beatitude calls for. As a former Protestant who saw the Main-line Protestant Churches slide into a moral and theological liberalism under the guise of liturgical renewal and ecumenicism, I must admit that His Beatitude's desire to "liberate some of our practices from monotony," to modernize the language of liturgical texts, and "to take daring religious initiatives so that we may reach, in God's good time, the communion [presumably with Rome] in the one chalice" at first strikes me as frightening.
However, I wonder if this initial fear response in me is a passion fuelled by past painful experiences and not based on the reality of the Orthodox Christian experience. Once I take a few deep breaths and pray peacefully for a moment or two, I see that my emotional response to these words is indeed merely a passion. The demise of the (already heretical) Main-line Protestant traditions was based not at all on liturgical renewal or ecumenical dialogue, but on the theological liberalization of Main-line Protestantism that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. Liturgical renewal and ecumenicism were merely the pretexts to manifest openly the theological change that had already taken place.
On the contrary, Orthodox Christianity is, well, Orthodox. It has nothing in common with the liberalized and academic theology of 19th and 20th century Main-line Protestantism. Rather, as His Beatitude points out, as Orthodox Christians firmly rooted in our faith and Tradition, we are free to love and be open to others, to all others.
There is no compromise here. There is only a hope. It is a hope that Christians and Moslems can cooperate, as "sons and daughters of this good earth" to build societies of freedom and justice. It is a hope that "in God's good time," all Christians will be united in one chalice. And after all, isn't this what we pray for in the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil when we pray that God would cause "the schisms of the of the Church to cease"? And it is a hope that guided by the Holy Spirit, as in previous generations, we may be able to communicate the Gospel clearly within the Tradition we have received, a Tradition that has and will continue to discover and lay aside traditions (small "t") so that the Light of Christ may shine brightly in specific contexts as the needs demand.
Of course what will happen remains to be seen. Yet as a son of Antioch--an adopted son at that--the least I owe my Church and my Patriarch is love, and love casts out fear. Love also "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things." So I choose to hope too. I choose to believe that God has given the Holy Church of Antioch the right man for the job (and certainly I have no reason to doubt this). And I choose to bear all things with patience and prayer that the hopes and dreams of our beloved Patriarch John X will indeed "in God's good time" come about.