Category Archives: Personal

Lexington in exemplum

Bluegrass Airport is a microcosm of Lexington, KY. It is also a fantastic example of everything I love about living here. To be sure it is a small airport: one terminal, two concourses and a collection of puddle-jumpers that fly only to larger airports. But everything about flying here reminds me of why I choose to live in the Bluegrass.

There is never traffic leading into the airport, nor could you get confused about where to go. Everything is clearly labelled. The landscaping is well appropriated and the buildings are clean, modern and offer free WiFi. I have only once seen a line for security, and it was when a large group was flying. Every employee, both public and private, smiles and wishes you good day or a safe flight.

Flying out of Lexington may be small on features, but it is big on charm. It has one restaurant (deSha’s) and one coffee stand. But the food is always high quality, prepared quickly and at a fair price. On my last trip, upon approaching the desk of the coffee stand, I was offered an apology that they had just raised their prices. However, they told me that since I was the first customer since the price raise they would give me my item at the old price!

This theme extends all over Lexington. While it may not have everything, it is big enough to have everything you need without the problems larger cities face. It is clean, friendly, well appointed and with an abundance of charm (especially, driving through its nearby horse farms). You couldn’t ask for a better place to raise a family!

Seth Vidal in Memoriam

I was extremely saddened today to hear of the loss of Seth Vidal. Although I can’t claim to have known him well, we had met on several occasions and was able to work on a side project with him. Seth will always be special to me because my first foray into Python was reading and attempting to understand some code he had written. Seth also had a great sense of humor. He could turn almost anything into a joke. Seth’s impact on Fedora was in many ways immeasurable. Judging by his code and infrastructure alone couldn’t do him justice. His wit and enthusiasm were contagious.

My sincerest condolences go out to his family and friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Dish Network Goes Back on their Word

Earlier this year I cancelled my Dish Network account. I found I really didn’t watch TV much anymore and had no interest in continuing my service. At first the cancellation process seemed to go smoothly. The representative was quite nice on the phone. After offering to give me a special deal, she promptly agreed to close my account and even offered to wave the shipping fee to return the receivers. The boxes came and I shipped back the equipment. Within a week I even received a refund from Dish Network since I had over-paid my service. “Wow!” I thought, “that was easy.”

Until November 16th, when I received a call from a debt collector attempting to collect outstanding Dish Network charges of $31 and change. The only correspondence that I had previous to this from Dish Network was a bill clearly outlining my balance at $0 and the refund. At first I thought this must have been a simple mistake, one that could be easily fixed by a simple phone call.

So the same day I called Dish Network support to inquire about these strange charges. I was informed by the representative that the cancellation agent did not have the authority to waive the shipping charges for return of the equipment and that these had been applied after the refund check had already been issued. I told the CSR that she may not have had the authority to do so, but that I was nonetheless told that I would not have to pay them and that Dish Network needs to honor this, especially since I had never received notification of any charges. The CSR replied that she did not have the authority, so I escalated to the floor supervisor. After taking some time to listen to my request, the floor supervisor agreed with my complaint and offered to credit my account for the amount of shipping and to rescind the amount from collections. I of course agreed.

Today, November 30th, I received a call again from the same debt collector. I again repeated that I am disputing the charge and called Dish Network. The first Dish Network agent I spoke to reiterated the old line: “you have to pay these charges.” I again escalated to the floor supervisor. Not only did the floor supervisor refuse to honor the word of, not one, but two previous Dish Network agents, she also told me that there was no record of my escalation to the floor supervisor on November 16th and therefore no record of her agreeing to credit my account!

Dish Network, if you are listening, do the right thing. If a customer representative tells you that something will happen, do it. If they misspoke in violation of your internal policy, respect your customer enough to bend the rules and honor your word. And, for God’s sake, if you promise to credit someone’s account, do it!

The Dark Mountain Project

I was tipped off to The Dark Mountain Project by bekkos. It is, as indeed he suggests, a sobering read. You can read the full “manifesto” here, but here is a preview:

There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight — Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.

This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.

Ever since St. Augustine‘s “City of God” became a classic in Western Christendom, the genre of analyzing the razing of an empire has become a permanent fixture in Western literature.  In fact, it is so much so in our modern age that, when G.K. Chesterton was asked to write his own such analysis (“What’s Wrong with the World“), he begins with an analysis of the genre:

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called “The Remedy.”

We can see that, thus far, Chesterton has perfectly described the above manifesto: it begins with an analysis of the downfall of our civilization, statistics describing our contemporary “ecocide” and then moves on to what the authors see as the solution.  If Chesteron’s perspicuity is to be evaluated from only the veracity of his opening observation, than what follows should bring any reader of the genre great pause:

It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that “The Remedy” is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology. It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure. But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease. …

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs. The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it. …

This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out. We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing. We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious [abusive? -NM] priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one. Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong. The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. …

I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

This is precisely the difficulty of The Dark Mountain project: we all agree that the problems of ecocide and econocide, among others, are evil.  Yet it is precisely on this most important question, namely “What is the end (telos) of man?” for which we disagree.  This key question is a philosophical one, and I daresay it is especially a religious one.  Therefore to avoid doing this philosophical/theological work, to seek to avoid any metaphysical speculation altogether, is the most certain way to avoid finding any actual remedy for the evil upon which we all agree.  And yet, it is precisely this metaphysical work that the Dark Mountain Manifesto eschews.  The Dark Mountain manifesto assumes that man is, by nature, uncivilized and that he is unable to overcome his nature.  It is from this first premise that cause of the ecocide emerges: man has thought himself able to transcend his nature.

One thing in particular must be noted from this picture. In spite of the flow of the manifesto, the actual progression of ideas is in reverse: from solution statement to problem statement.  It is not the fact that man thought himself able to transcend nature which lead to their belief that he is unable to do so.  Rather, it is their belief that man is unable to transcend nature that leads them to conclude that our contemporary malaise is caused by denying that fact.  They themselves seem to admit this at several points. In one place they lament the loss of the myth as a feature of our modern age.  This is regretful for the authors precisely because they view the story as constitutive of existence, saying “With stories, with art, with symbols and layers of meaning, we stalk those elusive aspects of realitythat go undreamed of in our philosophy.”  In another, they quote Joseph Conrad saying “Facts! … as if facts could prove anything.’ (interestingly enough they change Conrad’s wording from “explain” to “prove”).  This flow from solution to problem highlights precisely the difficulty that Chesterton points out: it is over our metaphysics that we must debate, not the problem.

In spite of their attempt to avoid meta-narrative, otherwise stated as their desire to be “humble, questioning, [and] suspicious of the big idea,” this manifesto does exactly the opposite of its intended goal: it establishes a meta-narrative.  Further, this narrative is a familiar one: Man evolves [is created] from apes [dust].  He believes himself to be able to become a god and transcend his nature by his ingenuity [consuming the fruit of knowledge].  This false belief [sin] results in the fall of civilization.  This narrative is why, while reading this work, I at times actually chucked.  In spite of its explicit espousal of naturalism and its inapt identification of natural transcendence with Christianity, there is an unaware affirming of Classical Christian metaphysics.  The authors fail to realize that Christianity has from the very beginning taught that the chief failure of man is his audacity to think that he can constitute his own nature; and thus I could not help but think that anyone who reads this manifesto would be primed for reading St. AthanasiusOn the Incarnation, whose argument in chapter 1 (paragraphs 3-5) is roughly as follows:

  1. Man’s nature is to not exist (“By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing”)
  2. God is life (“for it is God alone who exists”)
  3. God by grace brings man into existance (“If they guarded [God’s] grace …, then [life] should be theirs”)
  4. Man therefore transcended his nature (non-existance) in existing only by God sharing His nature with them (“he bears also the likeness of Him who is, and if he preserves that likeness … then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt”)
  5. When Man refuses to contemplate God’s nature, but attempts to constitute his own existence, he returns to his own nature and dies (“For [turning from the contemplation of God] was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again”

Thus, the only significant difference in the overall flow of the meta-narrative is that The Dark Mountain project believes man’s nature to be ape-like, while Athanasius considers man’s nature to be non-existence.  While I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which view is more adept at explaining human experience, I would like to point out that, irregardless of culture, it is death which forms the ultimate existential lens of human experience, not sitting in a biology class learning the process of evolution.  I would thus suggest that Athanasius’ work represents a more serious engagement with human experience.  Though, this should come as no surprise due to the Dark Mountain project’s stated goal of avoiding metaphysical speculation.

It is thus their lack of metaphysical engagement, their inability to define what precisely is the goal of man, that causes them to be unable to accurately diagnose the problem of modern man.  Yet, all the while they tacitly accept the metaphysical assumptions which brought our civilization to the point where it is today, leading to a solution which is unable to actually transcend the problem.  They have not yet refuted Sartre’s maxim, which is, I suspect, the crowning observation of the entire modernist enterprise: “Man is a useless passion.” It is precisely at this point that their solution to the consumerism that results in ecocide and econocide is absurd: sell a book, go on speaking tours, run a website where people can publish poems about how ape-like humans are.

Who Watches the Fountain? – Part 1

So, I’ve been pretty sick the last few days.  Thankfully, I only have strep and not the flu as well.  So unable to work and unable to read, I was able to catch up on a few movies I’ve wanted to see for a while.  The one that intrigued me the most after seeing it was the 2006, soma-induced, Americana neo-Buddhist, “scifi” flick The Fountain staring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.  One of the things that intrigued me the most was how many similar themes this box office flop had with another title I had seen recently: Watchmen.  Both of these films were actually quite visually stunning, if not outright visceral at parts, and both received mixed reviews, mostly due to their inaccessibility (a problem I find with most post-Cartesian philosophical works which often find hubris their raison d’être).  Watchmen did considerably better in the theaters than The Fountain, I think due to the allegiance of the comic book crowd and the action-packed plot which forced the deeper meaning to the periphery.  It is the later of these reasons that gives Watchmen a subtle-quality not present in The Fountain, which opts for a rather predictably direct approach.

The Fountain features only Jackman and Weisz, with the small remaining dialogue (less than 10%?) handled by transient characters.  It is basically a mythos conjoining three separate plots:

  1. Scientist (Jackman) with dying wife (Weisz) is driven through sleepless nights and spousal neglect searching for a formula to eternal life and finds it just after his wife dies.
  2. Conquistador (Jackman) with near-to-execution queen (Weisz) searches for Tree of Life and, upon finding it, consumes its sap greedily to his own death (and presumably hers).
  3. Cosmic traveller (Jackman) journeys to Xibalba in an ecosphere, consuming a tree (which symbolizes Weisz) to keep him alive, killing the tree in the process moments before reaching Xibalba where the traveller becomes enlightened, burmese zazen style, and sacrifices himself to give the tree life.

The main intention of the writers is to get across the following points:

  1. Life is angst
  2. Angst is caused by fear of death
  3. Cessation of angst is attainable
  4. The path to cessation of angst is acceptance of death and enjoyment of life

If you noticed similarities to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, that would make you an astute reader.  However, there are several departures from traditional Buddhism.  First and foremost, The Fountain does not deal with suffering, but angst.  In fact, shockingly, the film depicts almost no suffering.  To be sure, the Scientist must have felt deep pain at the loss of his wife, yet what is portrayed on the screen is not suffering but angst at his refusal to accept death, even at her burial this still haunts him.  Secondly, Samsara (rebirth, reincarnation) is depicted not as a spiritual problem to be overcome but a material reality to be revelled in.  This is seen throughout the film, but most plainly in the last scene where the Scientist plants a tree above his wife’s grave.  Finally, the noble eightfold path or “middle way” is replaced by the dialectic of acceptance of death and enjoyment of life.

With this the recasting of historic Buddhism into Amero-existentialism is complete.  The inability of this film, and American neo-religiosity in general, to deal with the real question, the question of suffering, is I think what caused its failure to engage its viewers. While suffering is a universal phenomena, angst is the suffering of those with nothing to believe.  This is the result of a privileged life which, unexamined, faces the finality of death and, refusing to admit that he has not lived the good life, redefines the good life in his own image: a life where personal relations boil down merely to one’s own enjoyment.  This may be painted somewhat rose coloured for the well-to-do such as the characters in this film.  Yet, what hue should be used to write the icon of one whose life consists of suffering, punctuated by few moments, if any, of reprieve?  As Fr. Cantalamesa said in his 2007 Good Friday sermon: “Suffering is certainly a mystery for everyone, especially the suffering of innocent people, but without faith in God it becomes immensely more absurd, even the last hope of rescue is taken away. Atheism is a luxury that only those with privileged lives can afford.”

The Fountain fails to address universal human experience and, unsurprisingly, it provides a less than compelling answer to its predicament.

Stay tuned for notes from Watchmen and a comparison of the paradigms bolstering the arguments of each film.

Justification and Orthodoxy

I just finished reading this article which I enjoyed. Its a fine article and a great stab at trying to understand Orthodoxy from an evangelical perspective.  He makes some mistakes, of course, but one can’t expect him to be aware of the subtlety of our doctrine as a non-Orthodox.  However, I would like to comment on a mistake I see quite often in people looking in at Orthodoxy from the outside.  I am speaking of his assertion that “The Eastern presentation of salvation can smudge the distinct steps of salvation. Justification and sanctification often get folded into the broader concept of theosis, and they become so blurred that Orthodox believers often don’t know what to make of the terms.”

Justification and Sanctification are, at their heart, sacramental terms and their proper context is the sacramental life.  We Orthodox are very clear on the (single) stage of both justification and sanctification: Baptism.  Our Baptism service proclaims (while the chrism is being removed): “You are justified; you are illumined. You are baptized; you are illuminated; you are anointed with the Holy Myrrh, you are sanctified; you are washed clean, in the Name of Father, and of Son, and of Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Our epistle reading during that service is Romans 6:3-11:
“Brethren, do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Thus, I would argue that the protestant concepts of justification and sanctification have entirely lost their sacramental context and have become merely a philosophical construct.  St. Paul clearly warns against this “philosophizing” of salvation in Col 2.  St. Paul says essentially that the fullness of God exists bodily in Christ and is appropriated to us through baptism and faith.  He warns us to avoid “hollow and deceptive philosophy” which are namely: 1. Christ isn’t fully divine/human 2. Justification is appropriated by any other means than baptism and faith (i.e. circumcision, dietary codes, etc).

Much confusion arrives when protestants ask Orthodox “are you saved”?  For protestants, “saved” means “justified.”  For Orthodox, “saved” means a variety of things (including justification) but ultimately “fulfilling the purpose for which mankind was created; namely union with God.”  This terminological mismatch leads protestants to think there is some confusion about the doctrine of justification on our end.  Yet the confusion exists on the other end.  St. Paul clearly teaches that we are justified and sanctified through baptism and faith, which is precisely what we proclaim.

Let Us Become Dispassionate, that We Might Receive the King of All

My good friend Ben wonders about dispassion.  By dispassion we do not refer to sloth (acedia; lack of caring about the world due to laziness) which is one of Aquinas’ seven deadly sins (rightfully so), but we speak of apatheia.  However, before we talk about dispassion, we must first talk about an Orthodox understanding of passion itself.

While there is some disagreement within the Fathers (John Climacus especially), the majority of Orthodox theologians hold that the passions were actually created by God.  For instance, God created:

  1. Love so that we may love Him and others
  2. Hatred so that we would hate evil
  3. Hunger so that we would hunger after the Bread of Life
  4. etc…

Yet, the very nature of Satan’s temptation in the garden was to take these passions and corrupt them:

  1. True love becomes love of myself
  2. True hatred becomes hatred of God and others
  3. True hunger becomes a quest to fulfil my own desires

This is not just a problem of a singular fall event but, as Orthodox believe, the events in the garden were the catalyst for a continual denigration of humanity.  St. Athanasius echoes this well in “On The Incarnation” and further ties it to the passions:

When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree… Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins.

Thus, the problem of our passions is not that they are evil but that we use them for evil, even “devising new kinds of sins.”  Further, the passions have become so noisy that they drown out our ability to hear God.  St. Irenaeus says that, because of our passions, we could behold nothing apart from our own flesh, necessitating the incarnation: that we might behold God in our own flesh. Christ then, through the Holy Mysteries, invites us to partake of His flesh (Eucharist) and of His death (Baptism), that our own flesh might be renewed.

We have now come to the heart of the matter: in Christ, dispassion is the “renewing of our minds” so that the passions would be silent before God and in beholding God (in His divine energies) we would once again become the image in which we were created: Christ Himself.  Thus, Orthodox prayer services are hard as one often finds the mind wandering.  Their purpose is not to “stir us up,” as in a football game or Icthus, but to “quiet us down.” Before communion we pray:

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice holy hymn to life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of All who comes mystically upborne by the angelic hosts. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

In the Greek (which is unfortunately not rendered well in English), the statement “lay aside all earthly cares” is literally “apatheia” or dispassion.  The call is to quiet the passions so that we may receive the King of All.  If we do not quiet the passions, we may miss Him!  What a frightful thought!  But this is the nature of the passions: they blind us to God.  This is why Fr. Seraphim Rose warns us, in “The Religion of the Future,” his great polemic against modern religion:

The  life of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction lived by most of today’s “Christians” is so all-pervading that it effectively seals them off from any understanding at all of spiritual life; and when such people do undertake “spiritual life,” it is only as another form of self-satisfaction. This can be seen quite clearly in the totally false religious ideal both of the “charismatic” movement and the various forms of “Christian meditation”: all of them promise (and give very quickly) an experience of “contentment” and “peace.” But this is not the Christian ideal at all, which if anything may be summed up as a fierce battle and struggle. The  “contentment” and “peace” described in these contemporary “spiritual” movements  are quite manifestly the product of spiritual deception, of spiritual self-satisfaction – which is the absolute death of the God-oriented spiritual life. All these forms of “Christian meditation” operate solely on the psychic level and have nothing whatever in common with Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, which fully begins only with the dissolution of this temporal world…

The difficulty that Orthodox have with something like Icthus is that when our passions run wild through our flesh, how can Christ reorient them to Himself without stillness in our heart?  For truely the goal of our regeneration in Christ is to once again set our hearts aflame with love for Him: this is the healing of our passions.  Yet how do we do this without fasting, prayer, stillness, service and obedience?

Augustine, Gregory and Barlaam on Knowing God

Fr. Gregory Hogg has a great post comparing Sts. Augustine and Gregory on the ability and expressability of knowing God’s substance.  Go read the excerpts from Augustine and Gregory on his post, otherwise the following won’t make much sense…

There are a few things to note in further comparing these two passages:
1. Both Gregory and Augustine agree that it is impossible to express God’s substance (“inexpressibly seen”).  This seems to be pretty well supported by earlier writing and appears to be an ancient assumption of the church.
2. Gregory says BOTH that it is “difficult” and “impossible” to know God’s substance.  He also prefaces the “impossible” statement as opinion.  Further, Gregory’s reference to Plato is clearly an apology for his thesis of “impossibility”.
3. “Impossible” is a more developed theology than “difficult.”  The move here is from the empiric to the ontological.
4. Augustine is NOT talking about the Beatific Vision.  For Augustine, lack of purity of mind is the impediment to seeing the “inexpressible reality.”  For Beatific Vision, our current ontological state is the impediment.
5. As western theology develops, “difficult” becomes “impossible in this life.”  This is again a move from empiric to ontological.  Further, death as ontological agent (gloficiation/purgatory) also becomes a major theme in western theology.  This is to effect the ontological shift from this life where we cannot see God’s substance to the next life where we are able to see His substance.  This is the meaning of Aquinas’ Beatific Vision.
6. Barlaam’s doctrines are representative of a much later (thomistic) school of western thought, primarily that of Beatific Vision.

We must, therefore, be careful in our analysis.  Augustine is far closer to Gregory than he is to Barlaam and probably represents an older school of theology than both Gregory and Barlaam (at least in this regard). The development of theology appears to be from “difficult” to “impossible” (East) and “impossible in this life” (West). Further complicating the matter, is that the “impossibility” thesis (as far as I am aware) first appears in gnostic thought: “the Propator … was known only to Monogenes, who sprang from him … while to all the others he was invisible and incomprehensible.” – Against Heresies 1.2.1

To make things clear, I am a proponent of the Nazianzen/Palamite terminology.  This is primarily because it solves the “seeing God without becoming God” problem.  I suspect that Gregory, like the Nicenes (ousias), critically appropriated a gnostic terminology where it made sense without accepting their errors.

It has begun…

With the intoning of our first Bridegroom Matins, Holy Week has begun. It has always astounded me how fickle the crowds in Jerusalem appear. One week they proclaim their King with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Yet only days later, this same crowd exclaims “Crucify Him!” If I am, however, honest with myself, I am no less fickle than this crowd (and in all probability, more so).

The contrast between the joy of Palm Sunday and the sobriety of Bridegroom matins is no less striking. We have come through the resurrection of Lazarus and the waving of palm branches. But just, seemingly, moments later, the call for our souls to awaken rings slowly and meditatively. This is what makes Bridegroom matins a truly frightful and awful service: it lays before us a plain view of ourselves. Eschewing all pretext, through haunting melodies and vivid imagery, it brings us to our own hearts so that we might (if only this once) see what truly lies there. First, we are reminded to, like the wise virgins, be prepared for the bridegroom who comes at midnight. We are then warned to produce fruit, unlike the fig tree which wasted its talents by burying them in the ground. However, the depth of Bridegroom matins, and its placement in Holy Week, is most clearly seen in the juxtaposition of some seemingly unlikely hymns: that which speaks of the voluntary passion of Christ and that of the bridal chamber. We sing:

Thy bridal chamber, O my Savior, I see adorned,
and I have no raiment with which to enter therein.
Enlighten the garment of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.

What does the passion of Christ have to do with the bridal chamber? The bridal chamber is no less the tomb of Christ. The hymns of Pascha make this clear: “It was fitting for the Lord to come forth from the grave as from a bridal chamber!” This is the call of Bridegroom matins, that we too might take up our cross and follow after Christ, that dying with Him we might also be raised with Him. Yet can I honestly say that I desire nothing but Christ, to lay down my life so that I might find it? This is why Bridegroom matins seeks to stir us from sleep like the foolish virgins:

Why art thou slothful, O my wretched soul? Why do useless cares occupy thy thoughts amiss? Why dost thou busy thyself with things that pass away?

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, And blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching, And again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, Lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God, Through the Theotokos have mercy on us.