All posts by Nicholas Sooy

China’s Peaceful Warrior

by Matthew Franklin Cooper

China is now portrayed in much of the news media as the world’s fastest-growing Christian country, and an increasing amount of attention is being paid to the plight of Christians inside China. Without downplaying either the successes or the struggles of modern Chinese Christians, particularly vis-à-vis the state, much of this coverage lacks a certain historical dimension, relevant to modern Orthodox and Catholic efforts inside China. Christianity – Eastern Christianity – has a long history in China which includes notable and well-respected individuals in Chinese culture.

An interesting bit of history I came across recently in my traverses through Chinese opera in prose translation, is that Guo Ziyi 郭子仪, the ‘loyal and martial’ Prince of Fenyang 汾阳郭忠武王, historical military governor (jiedushi 节度使) of Shuofang Prefecture 朔方郡 (centred on present-day Ordos in Inner Mongolia) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and literary inspiration for one of the heroes of Hong Sheng’s opera The Palace of Eternal Youth 《长生殿》, was in fact a member of the Syriac-Persian Nestorian Church of the East, a committed advocate for the rights of Christians in the Tang Empire, and – if such a thing can be believed – a peaceful warrior.

Guo’s portrayal in The Palace of Eternal Youth was that of an ‘upright and loyal official’ (zhongchen 忠臣) of the Tang court, an embodiment of Confucian virtues and righteousness, a cautious and deliberating general, generous to his troops and therefore popular, and one of the earliest officials to understand the deep threat posed by allowing An Lushan to go free. It was Guo’s swift and timely actions that allowed Emperor Minghuang to escape Chang’an with his life, and which allowed Emperor Suzong to regain control of the Empire after Yang Yuhuan’s death.

Guo Ziyi served as a military general under four Tang Emperors (Minghuang, Suzong, Daizong and Dezong), and was distinguished by his service to the Tang in putting down the rebellion of An Lushan. However, some of his greatest victories were achieved by being a peaceful warrior. In the true spirit of Sun Wu (or, indeed, in the spirit of some of the military martyrs of the Church!), Guo Ziyi was able to ‘subdue the enemy without fighting’. In the wake of the An Lushan rebellion, sensing weakness, the semi-independent Tibetan Empire and the Uighur Khaghanate sent invasion forces to loot, pillage, harry and invade chunks of the Tang Empire. Guo Ziyi was able to force the Tibetans to retreat with a mere four thousand tired and grumbling troops, using misdirection and trickery (lighting fires at various intervals and firing off firecrackers to confuse them and make them believe they were surrounded). In another instance, at the age of seventy, he went himself, unarmed and unarmoured, toward the Uighur camp. When they, who had been told he was dead, saw him and recognised him, they knelt down and surrendered to him at once, and joined his army to fight against the Tibetans.

He ‘turned the other cheek’ in domestic affairs as well – never fighting back even when he was slandered by jealous members of the eunuch faction at the Tang court, particularly Yu Chao’en. In another instance, his son boasted to his wife, a Tang princess, that his father Ziyi, powerful general that he was, could become Emperor any time he wanted. Guo Ziyi, who valued loyalty above every other consideration, punished his son severely for that boast, imprisoning him and offering him up before Emperor Daizong for judgement. But when Emperor Daizong entered the court, he forgave the junior Guo, saying, ‘When son and daughter fight, it’s better as old men to pretend to be deaf.’

Interestingly, however, it was Guo’s selfless and grateful treatment of the great Tang poet Li Bai 李白 – then suspected of desertion during the An Lushan rebellion – that exhibited in literary critic Wu Jingxiong’s 吴经熊 view the Christian temperament of the good general. Li Bai had saved Guo’s life long before, when he had been facing court-martial and execution for offending his commander in Shanxi. From The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry (pardon the Wade-Giles):

Unfortunately for Li Po, the troops of Prince Ling were routed in 757, and our poet had to escape to P’eng-tse in Kiangsi, but was caught and put in prison. He was sentenced to death, but Kuo Tzu-i, whom he had saved twenty years before, and who was by this time Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the imperial troops, went to the new Emperor and offered to ransom the life of Li Po by giving up his own official rank. Incidentally, Kuo Tzu-i, the greatest soldier-statesman of T’ang, was a Nestorian, and in this case he certainly showed the spirit of Christ. As a result of his intercession, the death sentence was remitted, and instead Li Po was banished to Yeh Lang.

For all of Guo Ziyi’s distinction in military service, being a servant of Christ he was also truly a man of peace, who desired peace and stability for his country above everything else, even though that state was not guided by Christian values. He was willing to subordinate his own personal interests and even suffer personal insults from high officials without complaining or retaliating, if doing so meant that he could preserve the dynasty. Interestingly, the same virtues and skill that made Guo Ziyi a great general who could win battles without fighting and who became respected without striving for power and titles, also made him respected among the Confucian literati of his own time.

Guo Ziyi’s example may be something for Chinese Christians – indeed, all Christians – to consider. Balancing one’s loyalties to the ‘two cities’ is never easy, let alone practising an ethic of peace from a position of military authority, and Guo Ziyi’s example shows both the limitations and the personal sacrifices and risks entailed. At the same time, the fascination of Guo is that he shows a loyalty both to the Chinese dynasts and to Christian praxis to be possible.

Death has Died, War is Over!

August 15 we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, the falling asleep of Mary. August 15 is also the anniversary of the end of the Arab-Byzantine wars, by a miracle of the Theotokos.

For centuries, the Romans faced instability on their eastern front. The longest conflict in history is the series of Roman-Persian wars, which began 50 years before the birth of Christ. These wars ended in the 7th century when the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates conquered the Sassanid Empire. This did not bring peace to the Byzantine Empire, however, for these new Empires began their own expansionist campaign known as the Arab Conquests. This campaign culminated in the siege of Constantinople in 718.

The Byzantines were a notoriously peace-loving people, and viewed with derision by their contemporaries for this. They preferred to avoid open battle, often refused to fight offensively, and went to great lengths to achieve diplomatic solutions, even if it meant paying hefty tributes. As such, when the siege began, the Byzantine Emperor offered a gold ransom for every single person in the city if the siege were called off. Unfortunately the Umayyads refused.

What followed was a grim thirteen moth siege. Unfavorable winds hindered the Umayyad navy, while a harsh winter overwhelmed the troops. On August 15, 718, the Umayyads decided the siege was a failure and withdrew. Reportedly, a great storm and volcanic activity hindered the retreat of the invaders.

Inside the city that day, the faithful had gathered in the churches to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition, the falling asleep of the Theotokos. The people of Constantinople attributed the peace that had broken out to Mary, and began commemorating the day as a ‘miracle’. They did not attribute the peace to their soldiers or their defensive capabilities. Rather, they saw in the decision of the Umayyads to withdraw the intervention of the Queen of Peace, who softens the heart of those who have grown violent.

In the aftermath, peace and stability was established on the eastern front for the first time in 9 centuries. Historians attribute this to the events of August 15, 718. The Byzantines refused to take advantage of the weakened state of the Umayyad forces following the siege. Had they done so, they could have conquered much of the Arab territory, and may have sown the seeds for another few centuries of conflict. Instead, they sought to win peace and security. Aside from scattered instances of banditry, the frontier did not experience any major war again until the thirteenth century with the beginning of the Ottoman-Byzantine conflict. The Abbasid Empire replaced the Umayyad, and the Roman Byzantines sent emissaries on peace missions, establishing a robust cultural exchange and several centuries of peace. For once, in the middle of Byzantine history, war was over.

The Dormition appropriately coincides with the commemoration of this peace every year. Observance of the feast began sometime in the sixth century, just at the end of the Roman-Sassanid wars. It commemorates the death of Mary. But rather than being referred to in these terms, the phrase Dormition, or falling asleep is used. The reason for this is that the Dormition became a mirror of Christ’s glorification. Christ died violently on the cross, while himself remaining nonviolent, so that death itself could be killed. Christ stormed hades so that no one else would have to languish there. Christ was glorified by the Father, gaining a resurrection body and returning to the shekinah of the Heavenly Father. Christians commemorate this with a great fast, followed by a great feast.

The traditions that came to be associated with the Dormition mirror this. Christians first fast for fifteen days, and then feast. Mary is commemorated as dying peacefully, and then after three days is glorified, raised from the dead and taken to the shekinah presence of God. Because Christ has been glorified and death has died, Mary does not fully die as one would have before Christ. Rather she ‘falls asleep’ and is then raised and glorified. Everything evokes Christ’s death, but is modified. The icons of the Crucifixion and Resurrection are filled with action. The Dormition icon rests peacefully. Christ holds the infant Mary, evoking and contrasting the tumultuous birth of Christ. The reason behind this modified parallelism is that Mary comes to represent all humanity. All humans are destined not to die, but to be raised because of the raising of Christ. And with Mary we see this in the middle of history, rather than at the end.

Taken together, these two commemorations complement one another. Death has died because Christ is risen and we have seen this in this world, in the middle of history. War is over because of the victory of the Prince of Peace, and we can see this as well in the middle of history. War, death, destruction have lost. Peace is secured. This is not just an end times proclamation, but insofar as we live in Christ and honor his mother, we too can taste of these things in our own time.

As Mary herself showed us on the Feast of the Dormition in 718, there is no better icon of the death of death than the end of war.

Nicholas Sooy

editor, In Communion

Christmas is the Real Birthday of Each of Us

 

Children who are born on a day close to Christmas may fear or feel that their birthday celebration is lost in this day, but there is a deep way in which it cannot be a loss because Christmas is the real birthday of each of us and to approach Bethlehem is to approach the moment of our own birth.

This is because God in accepting human life revealed all human life joined to eternity, your birth and my birth are shown too, by the birth at Christmas, to be endlessly beginning in God. Life is divine and human because of the Godmanhood of Jesus. There is no death, all things are eternal. Egocentricity lets go of its boundaries and is born in personhood.

A child approaches Christmas with a joy and sense of wonder which are already an intuition of this. For those older, for us, there is a journey perhaps back and inward to that beginning which is our own Bethlehem, past all of the routine and tiredness and memory of things done poorly, of failures, of gain and of loss, roads taken and untaken and of the shadow of death, of having come to terms with life as it is, past all that to a beginning.

… my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored:
“O my Joy,” she sighed to it,
She wept, “O my Lord!”

This going back and inward, this meditation, aims on an individual level to imitate what God has accomplished at Christmas on a cosmic level.

The happiness that I wish you at this Christmas is then profound and new it does not arise from our perhaps pious Christian practice over the years, good though that is in its way, nor even from those childhood memories which are themselves close to the beginning but only an intuition of it. As Eric Rohmer expressed it “it is a living joy a joy of today. The birth we celebrate is not only that of Jesus but our birth as well, each of us is asked to believe in a fresh joy for tonight, we must pledge ourselves in a new hope.”

Then we see that the star above is the Christmas star, and all things that live are in its light. The holiness of the real is always there, totally accessible, intimate and immediate…

We see at this place where time and eternity meet, this beginning place, that it is indeed a beginning for us today whatever our age, the beginning of a way of life and an adventure in joining moment to moment on the way into that holiness which is life as adventure, life as becoming and becoming as divine.

The Christmas message of His Grace Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist)

The Radical Hope of Christmas

Christians are the people of hope.
This is especially the case during the season of advent and the following celebration of Christmas. Hope is a peculiar thing in this world; without God the violence and death of the world would be all that most humans would have to look forward to. Yet, we find in this season a great joy and a hope for a kingdom of peace and life. The most striking poems of hope come from the Prophets, those lone voices speaking out at the edges of civilization, declaring that another world is possible.

The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
For You have broken the yoke of their burden
And the staff across their shoulder,
The rod of his oppressor,
As in the day of Midian.
For every warrior’s boot used in battle,
And the garments rolled in blood,
Will be used for burning as fuel for fire.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end

These are the words of the Prophet Isaiah who announced this Kingdom of Peace from of old. The words of the prophets are full of life, of the Holy Spirit. They speak hope to a world “rolled in blood.”

There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the lamb together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse,
Who shall stand as a banner to the people;
For the Gentiles shall seek Him,
And will assemble the outcasts of Israel

The prophets spoke of a world without killing, without enmity, without exploitation. A world where the violent are converted to the way of a peaceful child. A world where the outcasts of Israel, and even those gentile foreigners, are brought together. Where race and nationality no longer divide. These things would all be brought about by the Messiah. The Christ. The King. This King would raise a new banner for the nations. A banner of peace. A banner of hope. When this Christ comes, the order of the nations will be overturned. The Kingdom of God turns the way of the world on its head.

And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

In these ancient words we hear their hope and expectation, foretelling of a great wonder. Mary herself continues this tradition, writing the oldest advent hymn in history, the Magnificat. In this hymn she references the prophets of old and continues their prophetic message, singing

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.

‘As He spoke our fathers.’ What did God speak to our fathers? He spoke of casting down the mighty from their thrones, of sending the rich away, of lifting up the lowly, and of filling the poor and the hungry with good things. This is a prophecy of hope. There are so many in this world today who are oppressed by the mighty, who are poor and starving, who live daily in fear of death from violent men. The way of the world is a way of death. And yet Mary, in the tradition of the Prophets, found a “great light” to hope in. This light would destroy the Kingdoms of this world and their way of death.
And then was born, a child. And it was proclaimed by heaven itself,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill among all people.”

This is the proclamation of the Kingdom for which the ancient tradition of hope had waited. Peace on Earth. Good will among all people. And this peace did not come through overthrowing the kings of this world with violence, as many zealots had hoped. It did not come on a fiery chariot. It did not come with a sword. It came in a manger, as a little child. The little child that Isaiah foretold, leading the lion and lamb. The most helpless, weak, meek, and poor child the world had seen. Born as a political refugee under a violent Herod. Born to a poor, teenage, unwed mother. Born to the care of the elderly Joseph, a working man. This King wore only a crown of suffering. He overthrew death by dying rather than by killing. He conquered the violent and dark world, not with more violence as so many from Alexander to Napolean have tried to do, but with simple words, with love, with peace. Just as the prophets foretold, he exalted the poor and lowly. Christ Jesus began his ministry with the words of Isaiah, echoing his prophecies,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.

This day as I sit, filled with joy of the Nativity services, of the birth of our Lord, of family and of love I think of all those who do not have homes or family or peace. Those who now are clinging for their life in the face of violence, poverty, hunger, and captivity. And I hope for the Christ who has come and will come again to set us all free. I think of the words of the Christmas poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote many years ago in the face of the darkness of the American Civil War, where brother killed brother,

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

With these words I remember that Christ was not born once long ago, but that he is indeed born in us whenever we imitate him, in meekness, in poverty, in righteousness, in peacemaking. And I remember that even after the Christmas season is over, we remain in advent, in the season of hope. An advent that will last until Christ’s Kingdom comes, on Earth as it is in heaven. Until that time we will continue to proclaim the words of hope, as we do every liturgy, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will among all people.”

The Saint Who Refused to be Commander-in-Chief

Today is the feast day of St. Cybi the Tanned. He was born in 483 the son of Salomon, a warrior king in Wales. Cybi left his home while he was still young and traveled to Jerusalem and to Rome to venerate the Holy sites of Christianity. While there he became a priest and then a bishop. When he returned home he discovered that he was now the king and the commander of his father’s army. He refused to accept these positions. He refused to be the commander-in-chief.

Today is also election day in the United States. Many Americans today will go to the ballot and choose the next commander-in-chief, as well as many other officials. This will conclude a very lengthy and divisive election season that has seen many self-proclaimed Christians compete for the office of commander-in-chief.

In the Church, we confess Jesus to be the King. He is our ruler. At various times during Church history, this  has distinguished Christians as a peculiar people. St. Theagenes of Parium for example, who lived during the reign of St. Constantine, was martyred for refusing to pledge allegiance to Licinius, Constantine’s co-emperor who co-wrote the Edict of Milan. St. Theagenes said “I serve my King, and I cannot serve another… I am a Christian, and it is not possible for me to desert my Lord and King.” Or in another of my favorite anecdotes, after the fall of communism in Russia, a monk was interviewed. He was asked if he were glad that the oppression had ceased and that a better government was now in place. The monk replied that it did not make much of a difference to him. He said he was only surprised that it happened during his lifetime. He told the reporter that earthly kingdoms come and earthly kingdoms fall, and we should care not much for these, for it is the eternal kingdom where our hope is.

Christians were often reviled in Roman empire for their proclamation that Jesus was King. They were called atheists for refusing to worship the imperial gods. And their proclamation that Jesus was King often meant that Caesar was not. St. Luke records the anxiety that some had about Christians in the Book of Acts: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too… and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king—Jesus.”

St. Cybi is not the only saint who has refused to rule because of his Christianity. St. Cadoc, a contemporary of Cybi who lived not to far from the saint also refused to succeed his father as king and refused to command his father’s army. Similarly, in 155, in one of the earliest works of Christian apologetics, a disciple of St. Justin named Tatian writes: “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.” Such a sentiment is not that far off from what Jesus himself practiced. Before Christ began his ministry, he went off into the wilderness to fast and pray. While there Christ faced several temptations sent by the devil. These temptations all concerned various ways that Christ could fulfill his messianic mission, different ways that he could conduct his ministry. Christ was tempted to act as many of his contemporaries expected him to, to perform great miracles and to conquer the world, ruling it as Messiah and King. Christ refused these temptations, instead choosing to be a different type of Messiah, a different type of King. The evangelist tells us that if Christ were to have conquered the nations and ruled them all, that this would not have served God, but would have served Satan. “The devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.””

Jesus must have told his disciples about these temptations, since none of the evangelists were there to witness this event. So it is likely that he wanted them to know just what kind of Messiah he was to be.  And the evangelists must have included them early in their narratives to signal to us what kind of ruler Christ was. But not all of his disciples got the point. One tradition states that Judas betrayed Christ not because he hated him or did not believe in him. Rather, Judas was fed up with Christ not fulfilling the Messianic prophecies. Judas was likely a Zealot, who wanted the Messiah to rise up and conquer the Roman empire and rule as King in their place.  Is possible that Judas thought that if the Romans came to arrest Jesus, it would force his hand and he would begin the revolution. St. Peter may also have had this in the back of his mind when he drew his sword and cut off the ear of the soldier who tried to arrest Christ. But here again it is recorded that Christ broke with expectations, healing the soldier and reprimanding Peter.

So what do we make of St. Cybi  and the rest of these traditions? Should we conclude that temporal rule is always incompatible with Christianity? Some may draw this conclusion, and there is evidence that many saints thought as much, but this is not that kind of essay.  There are in the Christian tradition many saints who were rulers. I’m particularly fond of the saying of St. Vladimir, the great Christian prince:

Above all things: do not forget the poor, but support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man. Take not the life of the just or the unjust, nor permit him to be killed. Destroy no Christian soul, even though he be guilty of murder.

This essay isn’t meant to criticize any Christian who seeks higher office (Lord knows that they will get plenty of criticism without my help). Nor is it meant to discourage anyone from voting. I voted in this election with St. Vladimir’s words in mind, using my vote to support the poor, protect the widow, and to keep the mighty from destroying men and from taking the lives of the just and the unjust. But I also have many Orthodox friends who never vote, because they consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians and for them this means living as the citizen of another Kingdom. Vote shares the same root as devotion after all. Some of these friends are monastics and clergy who refrain from voting as an expression of their tonsure, while others are lay. But however you vote or don’t vote, the life and witness of St. Cybi still remains relevant.

The witness of the saints should redirect our lives towards greater piety and a deeper life in Christ. So in celebration of St. Cybi we should prayerfully examine ourselves and our conscience. Where do we place our hope? It is in rulers and in princes? As we Orthodox pray in the words of the psalmist during our divine services, “Put not your trust in princes, or in mortals in whom there is no salvation.”

While we might not get martyred for proclaiming Christ as King, we still may ask ourselves, do we really behave as if Christ were the King of our lives? How often over the past year have we talked about  Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? How many hours have we spent watching clips of them, reading about their activities, attending events, giving money. How many times have we promoted them on social media?  And how often over the past year have we talked about Jesus Christ? How many hours have we spent praying to him, reading the gospel, attending Church, giving our money and time to meet him in the poor, the prisoner, the sick, and the hungry? How many social media posts have we made promoting Christ? Have we used our social capital to push people towards our preferred candidate, who will be gone in 4 or 8 years or have we used our social capital to promote our King, who will reign forever? How anxious are we about the next 4 years? In the Gospel for yesterday (on the new calendar), Christ tells us “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on… For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.” Are we mindful of this, or do we seek what all the nations of the world seek?

Though we may vote and throw our lot in with the nations of this world we should not forget to devote ourselves to Christ first and foremost. We should not allow political divisions to keep us from loving others, and should not allow politics to give occasion to hate our brethren. We proclaim that there is another King (or another president) named Jesus whenever we place the Kingdom first, whenever we choose love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, charity over greed. We pledge our allegiance to Christ whenever we live according to the Beatitudes rather than the virtues of the world, mercy rather than severity, peacemaking rather than warmaking, meekness rather than strength, poverty rather than wealth. And in this way how we live on November 7 and November 9 matters far more than how we vote on November 8. We live according to the words of the anonymous second century Christian apologist, “The Christians dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.” We share in the responsibilities of this world as citizens, while at the same time being a stranger to it.

And this leaves us with one final reflection. What is November 8, 2016? Is it election day first and the feast of St. Cybi second? Or is today the feast of St. Cybi, a day for celebration and greater commitment to Christ first and foremost, which also happens to be the day of the election? We should ask ourselves what we are trying to gain today. Are we seeking to gain wisdom and devotion from the holy saints, or are we trying to gain a political victory? Which matters to us more, truly and sincerely today? Is it Christ? And what good will it do us to gain the whole world if we are to lose our soul?

St Cybi was called “the tanned” because he would often walk facing the sun, and so grew tan. The Church teaches that Christ is “the sun of righteousness” and that if we spend our life seeking him, we will glow with the radiance of his light. Let us then seek to always hold the sun before us, above all else. Let us walk in this light and not stray towards any other goal.

May St. Cybi give us the strength To walk facing the Son of God, seeking not to rule others, but to be ruled by our Lord.

 

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Transfiguration

A light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. “This is my son whom I love, listen to him,” said the voice. The disciples fell to the ground. Christ then said to them “Do not be afraid.” This event on Mt. Tabor was a great mystery to the world, the Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration is not just a sign that Christ shows us the Divine, but a sign that we too will one day shine in the radiance of Divine life. The Church teaches that every human is the bearer of the image of God and is the real Body of Christ. The Earth too bears that image, for it bears us, it is the chalice which holds the most sacred thing in creation- life. Orthodox Christians believe that all creation will be transfigured, and that if we just “listen to him,” we will love all humans, love all creation, love all life, and honor the sacred beauty therein.

71 years ago today, on the feast of the Transfiguration, a light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. In an instant 66,000 souls fell to the ground, never to get up again. The city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single bomb, the A-Bomb. The land was disfigured, irradiated. Over 100,000 ended up perishing from its effects, and those who survived it were changed, bearing the disfiguration in their bodies. This Bomb was a great mystery to the world, and through it the United States meant to speak to the world and to say “Be afraid.”

The primary goals of the bombing were as much military as psychological. The Americans were hoping to strike fear into the Japanese, forcing them to surrender, and to strike fear into the world, establishing the dominance of the United States. Hiroshima was ideally suited to these ends, due to its compact nature. Nuclear weapons expend most of their energy at the epicenter of the blast, and so a special city would be required to showcase how disfiguring the weapon could be. As a bonus, there were weapons stored in the city which could legitimate the civilian casualties of the attack.

Hiroshima was chosen to be the site of revelation to the world. The bomb had been revealed to a select group in New Mexico earlier that summer. The scientists and officials watched with great reverence and devotion. One blind woman miles away said she saw the light as well. A semi-official report of that first blast read “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” The operation was named Trinity.

The Orthodox Church teaches that the Transfiguration is a second Theophany. At Theophany, the Trinity was revealed to the world. At Transfiguration, it was revealed to a select group.

Visit Hiroshima today, and you may still see the disfiguration. As Robin Wright recounts,

Everything about Hiroshima is haunting, particularly the stories and remnants of extinguished young lives collected in the museum. There’s a battered lunchbox belonging to Shigeru Orimen, who was in his first year of junior high. His mother was able to identify the boy’s burned body because he was still clutching it. There’s a shredded school cap and uniform on a skeletal mannequin. They were assembled from meagre rags of clothing left on three boys, aged twelve to fifteen, who happened to be a thousand yards from the bomb’s hypocenter above Hiroshima. There’s a re-created panorama of a woman and child fleeing the blast. Covered with soot and dust, their skin is scorched and bloody, their hair, fried, stands on end, and ripped pieces of clothing hang off their bodies as they attempt to escape the fires consuming the city. The eeriest display is a ghostlike shadow imprinted on a stone step as the blast vaporized the human being who had been sitting there.

Also present in the museum is a small, charred tricycle. It belonged to a three year old boy who had been outside riding it when the 16 kiloton bomb, called “Little Boy” by the Americans, was dropped on the city. His father would find him later in the rubble, on death’s doorstep, still clinging to the handlebars of the tricycle. What did the world gain with the death of this child and the many other children of the city?

Overhead, another American plane accompanied the B-29 bomber. This plane was there to silently observe the effects of the bomb. It was named “Necessary Evil” by the Americans.

Three days later, another bomb was dropped over Nagasaki. The crew were all Christians and just before leaving, they sat with two Christian Chaplains who blessed them and their mission. Nagasaki was home to the largest Christian community in Japan. Over half of the Christians in Japan were killed by the bomb, succeeding where 200 years of intense persecution by the Japanese government had failed. The steeple of the Cathedral of St. Mary was used by the bombers for targeting. The bomb exploded directly over the Cathedral, which was the largest Christian Church in the orient at the time, with over 15,000 members. Exactly one week before Hiroshima was bombed was the feast of St. John the Soldier of Constantinople. St. John was canonized for his refusal to kill Christians and other innocents and for disobeying orders to do so. Some of the crew expressed doubt about the bomb they were dropping, but “orders were orders.” Orthodox Christians were among those killed in the blast.

Orthodoxy was brought to Japan by St. Nicholas, a Russian. He was a voice of peace, having once nonviolently disarmed a Samurai through his preaching. He was protected by the people during the anti-Russian sentiment that reined during the Russian-Japanese war, for he was beloved. The bomb was not as merciful to the Christian population.

 

In the ensuing years, wars were waged over the bomb. An arms race broke out in the world, to be won by those who could disfigure the world the most, even destroy it. Proxy battles were fought in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan. We still live in the shadow of the bomb today. But there is not just shadow, but also the light of Tabor.

Today we celebrate. The Transfiguration is a promise to a broken world. A promise that all scars will be healed, all divisions overcome, all wars ended, and all souls restored. The Earth will no longer be a crucible of destruction, but the realm of the Kingdom. Atomic radiation will not shine forth from broken bodies, but the uncreated light from transfigured ones. Men will no longer aspire to harness the power of God, but will kneel before their king. There will no longer be cause to be afraid.

Today we remember. Once again the human race had looked upon itself and the world it inhabited with fear, hatred, and violence, and resorted to the most heinous mass execution of civilians that had ever occurred in an instant- the fruits of our dehumanizing fear. Against this, we find the words of the Transfigured whispering to us, “do not be afraid.” Let us pray that we do not need another great cloud and light before we “listen to him.”

Nicholas Sooy

contributing editor, In Communion

Jesus, Superheroes, and the Presidency

Recently I’ve been reading an alternate universe Avengers comic in which Captain America is elected president of the US. It’s a very powerful fantasy that I find captivating. President Cap is the American to the bone, bleeding red white and blue. He’s the apple pie and baseball, blond hair and blue eyed super-soldier. He is America’s very own ubermensch, the ‘blond beast’ of Nietzche’s dreams and of Nazi propaganda. And it’s pretty cool. He flies around in his jet, jumps into crises with battle armor, and punches terrorists in the face.

He is fed up with the bs that is politics, and locks politicians in a room until they come to a compromise. And violence is his go-to solution for problems. He can’t stand doing the job of the president though, sitting behind a desk and talking to people. It’s time to get to work. And his advisors tell him “They didn’t elect you to be the president, but to be a symbol . They don’t want a president, they want a king.”

And as much as I enjoy it, a man wrapped in red, white, and blue, doing everything we fantasize about doing as president when we were teenagers (no wonder they don’t et kids vote), at some point I have to put down the comic and come back to the real world. Presidents aren’t superheroes and they aren’t saviors.

When Jesus came as the Messiah, lots of people had ideas about what he would do. They expected the Messiah to be a warrior King, someone who would swoop in, and punch those Romans in the face. He was supposed to be the ubermensch. If you read texts from the early Christian period, you’ll discover that Jesus is described as short, unattractive, and of a crooked face. He wasn’t the super-soldier the zealots hoped for.  He was supposed to take over the world and lead Israel into greatness. And instead Jesus exalted humility, meekness, peacemaking. He said he would be found among the poor. before starting his ministry, he went into the desert and was tempted to rule all the kingdoms of the world, but he refused this temptation. He chose to die rather than to call down the legion of angels he had in the wings. He told Peter to put away the sword, and he let that terrorist and Christian-persecutor Paul become the leader of his movement. He told Pilate that his Kingdom was not of this world, for if it was of this world his disciples would fight, but they do not fight.

One of my bad habits is that I still like to read these comics. They are powerful fantasies. Even though I know that fantasy and nationalism are both condemned by Orthodox Christianity, it’s a fun thing to imagine: president Cap. It’s tempting to want a president who can give us everything we want, who through their sheer force of personality can move mountains and make our nation into heaven on earth. Essentially, it is a messianic hope, that our president would be a king who inaugurates the rule of the Kingdom of God within the boundaries of our nation, who is a Messiah in every way that Jesus refused to be. But at some point I have to choose, who am I going to live like? Whom do I follow? President Cap or Jesus? “Put not your trust in princes,” the psalm reads, “in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.”

An Orthodox Christian mentor of mine once told me “The Pharisees were the conservatives, and the Sadducees were the liberals, and Jesus didn’t have time for either of them.” I’m trying to keep that in mind this year as my country chooses the next person who will ‘lord power over others, the way the gentiles do.’

 

The Council After the Council

By now, everyone has left Crete. Everything has been wrapped up. My skin, for its part in this, is a shade darker and a shade redder. The Council has ended. But the conciliar process has not.

One of the phrases that is used in the Council documents is “liturgy after the liturgy.” This phrase is meant to capture the manifold ways in which prayer, love, and sacramentality are to shape the whole of life and the cosmos, and not just the experiences we have during liturgical services. After the liturgy each day at the Council, bells would ring. But they weren’t the bells attached to the monastery. These bells hung around the necks of the goats which fed off the mountainside. It was a refreshingly simple sight, peaceful, joyful. A fitting reminder each day of the world for which this Council is held. A reminder of the ‘liturgy after the liturgy.’

The Council may be over, but conciliarity is just beginning. We now enter the long stretch that belongs to the ‘council after the council.’ It is the role of the primates to speak to the world on behalf of the Church. Now they have done so. But the words they have spoken are not the point. The specific phrases of “The Mission of the Church in Today’s World” are important insofar as they call upon the whole Church for a renewed prophetic witness. But more important than that call is the missionary witness itself. It is now up to the body of the Church to fulfill that mission.

This is what I mean by the ‘council after the council.’ Whether this Council is a global turning point in the history of salvation, signalling a new Pentecost which heals the problems of modernism, or if it is just a failed Council depends entirely on the conciliar authority of the whole Church now. By this I mean more than whether the loudest voices begin to preach or denounce this Council. Rather, the real test is the fruit of this Council.

When the Council of Nicaea happened, it was a turning point in the Church. Prior to that, Christianity was divided. Not only had Arianism taken over, but the Church had not gathered in Council before. In the changing landscapes of post-Constantine Christianity, the Church rose to meet the new challenges of the world through Council. A creed was proclaimed, but this creed wasn’t just a formula, it was a confession. The Church came together as one and confessed the faith.

The challenge today is the same. Arianism is not the challenge we face, there are other isms now with which we must grapple- modernism,  ethno-phyletism, nationalism, jurisdictionalism, militarism, consumer capitalism, globalism. All these are addressed in one way in another. In the face of these, it is the duty of the Church again to gather and to confess.

It is now our turn to sit and the conciliar table and to add our voices.

Something shifted in the spirit of the Church during the Council. Each day after liturgy, there was a real camaraderie that developed among those in attendance. The Council began with a formal liturgy where everyone knew their place. The opening session involved prepared speeches. But as the Council wore on, dialogue happened, and friendships broke out. Bridges were erected within the Church, something that has long been needed.

There of course has been intrigue and controversy. There is a lot more about the proceedings of the Council that I could have written about this past week. There are more stories to tell and controversies to be gossiped about.  But that doesn’t interest me so much. It is not the immediate ups and downs of the conciliar process which matters. Rather, it is the Gospel that matters.  The most significant guide for me during my time at the Council was the Gospel. It was instructive to read Christ’s words to love our enemies while I sat waiting to see if the Council would work out its statements on other Christians. It was grounding to read Christ’s call to take the lowest position while awaiting decisions about the diaspora.

Every day there was a press conference, and a liturgy, and at the end there were more speeches. And now we have documents. The whole way there has been speculation and controversy, but the consistent word from the Bishops has been that we should not focus on such things. And I personally found it quite exhausting to keep up to date with each new bit of gossip about the Council. It is better, I think, to recognize this Council as a first step. There may be flaws and controversy, but Moscow has called for another Council, and this Council has called for more. This is the first step in the conciliar process. And it was a good step. As one representative said during the press conference, the bishops were honest and open. They discussed everything from metaphysics to poverty, and the atmosphere was sincere, emotional, and empathetic. It was as if the Holy Spirit really was acting.

In this respect, the discussions are more than the statements. The live voice of the Church, speaking in love and brotherhood, manifests in these real person to person encounters. These encounters constitute the conciliar identity of the Church, for it is only in such an encounter that love can manifest. Now it is the duty of the whole Church to open itself to real, personal interaction. The ‘council after the council’ much like the ‘liturgy after the liturgy’ is simply this space for encounter, for dialogue, for compassion, for co-suffering love.

As I walked down the long, dusty, sun-soaked road that led away from the Orthodox Academy for the last time, I turned and saw about a half dozen goats mulling about the sparsely vegetated hillside. Bells clanged around the necks of each. I paused for a moment and smiled at their presence here, reminding me of the ‘pastoral’ vocation of the Church. They fulfilled their God-given purpose so well. I wonder if we will live up to ours.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion

 

War and Peace in Today’s Council

Today my response to “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” was published on Public Orthodoxy, the blog of Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies center. You can find it here. I’m also posting the text below, and you can find an expanded version posted on our own website.

The Mission document is monumental for its statements on war and peace. Warfare and nuclear weapons are unequivocally condemned, without qualification, as an expression and fruit of sin. What strikes me about all of this is that I haven’t been able to find any discussions of these aspects of the document anywhere. From what has been released regarding the minutes of the Council, the discussion of this text centered entirely on the proposals of the Church of Greece about the use of the word ‘prosopon’ (person) and against religious syncretism. The war and peace sections were not discussed. That means they passed exactly as they were formulated at the pre-conciliar consultations, where this document was signed by all 14 patriarchates, and not just the 10 who have shown up. None of the 4 absent patriarchates cited the sections on war and peace as problematic. So as far as I can tell they are not controversial.

Even those outside the Council aren’t talking about these sections, as far as I can tell. I haven’t been able to find any other articles or commentaries on these sections. They are literally unremarkable, in that no one is making any remarks.

I find this silence remarkable, given how groundbreaking this document is for the Church. The highest level of Church authority has unequivocally condemned nuclear weapons and warfare, and has issued a call for Orthodox peacemaking, and for Orthodox cooperation with and involvement in organizations that promote peace.

There are some very radical consequences to these statement. Will the Orthodox Church lead the push for nuclear disarmament? Will Russia give up its nuclear weapons? Will peaceful opposition to warfare become the new norm for Orthodox Christians around the world?

War and peace issues, apart from the document, are being discussed quite regularly at the Council. Nationalism has been condemned many times by the bishops present, a statement was made about the attack on the Syriac patriarchate, and terrorism has come up several times at the press briefings. Territorial disputes are also on everyone’s mind. The last two days, the issue of the ‘New Lands’ between the EP and Greece has been all ablaze. Similarly, today at the press briefing, the Serbian and Romanian spokesmen were asked about the dispute between those patriarchates. This Council has been a voice for peace on most of these accounts. As special meeting was set up between the Serbian and Romanian patriarchate this evening, to discuss the issue in a spirit of humility and conciliarity. Thankfully, the atmosphere among the bishops and delegates is very open, direct, humble, and brotherly.

At the press conference today, it was suggested that this Mission document may be signed today, if so then it has already been signed. But it was also said that there are nearly 300 bishops signing these documents, and they sign them in all the official languages of the Council. During the press conference, the signing of the documents on autonomy and the diaspora was taking place, and it was taking a long time. So the Mission document might be signed tomorrow if it hasn’t already been signed.  I’m especially glad for the timing of this, being posted on Fordham’s blog today as the document is being signed. Today is also the first day of the Tradition, Secularization, Fundamentalism conference put on by the Orthodox Studies Center at Fordham.

The Mission document isn’t perfect, and I make some criticisms of it in my response. But these criticisms are constructive in nature. This document is a wonderful starting point to the conversation within global Orthodoxy on this vital topic. This Council is calling for future Councils to take place to continue to discuss these and other topics, a proposal which is consonant with Moscow’s and others’ calls for a fuller Council at a later date. The primates of this Council want the global Church to have regular Councils and synods, just as the ‘local’ Churches have regular synods of their bishops. So I hope my suggestions for ways to expand upon this work can be considered and codified at a later Council. Having talked to those behind the scenes, I know they are sympathetic to these points, and my text on this document did end up in the hands of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So we can only pray that the Orthodox Church would truly become a voice for peace and healing in the world, declaring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”

WAR AND PEACE IN TODAY’S WORLD

“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers timely statement on war, peace, and justice. The nature of conflict has evolved and the Church needs to counsel the faithful on the peacemaking vocation. This document offers an authoritative peace stance, and makes recommendations, but these are mostly too vague and incomplete. In particular, more should be developed regarding faithful responses to violence.

The basis for peace is the dignity of the human person (1.2), and peace is defined as the manifestation of dignity, social justice, freedom, the unity of mankind, and love among peoples and nations (3.1). War, conflict, violence, the arms race, and destructive weapons are all identified as the result of evil and sin (2.2, 4.1). Thus, peace and war are viewed first through a theological lens. The Church’s mission is to address the spiritual roots of conflict; however, the Church is also called to respond to conflict in the world and to make peace. St. Basil is cited as saying “nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker” (3.2).

This document definitively states, “The Church of Christ condemns war,” and condemns nuclear weapons and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also calls it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5). Specific actions are recommended, including prayer, cooperation with social institutions, cooperation among nations and states, cooperation between Christians, peacekeeping, solidarity, and dialogue (1.2, 3.1, 3.2, 6.1, 6.6).

This list is good, but is incomplete and vague. The Church “supports all initiatives and efforts to prevent or avert [war] through dialogue and every other viable means;” such a statement should be strengthened by specifying some other viable means (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament or limiting the production and trade of arms, and the use of nuclear weapons is not unequivocally condemned. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water. In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of modernist nationalism generally (4.3). Orthodox nationalism should be condemned, since it divides.

Similarly, while the proven strategies of peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, they should also be explicitly called for. In particular, the viability of nonviolent campaigns and institutions has risen dramatically over the past century. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals, and each decade the ratio increases. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many including Patriarch Kirill, while Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept” with Orthodox roots. Given the role of nonviolence in the contemporary world, nonviolence should be mentioned. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation; the Middle East and former Soviet countries exemplify this. Nonviolence is most effective in such contexts, and the Church should recommend Christian investment and participation in nonviolent action, while condemning violent action.

War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding participation in war, “When war becomes inevitable, the Church continues to pray and care in a pastoral manner for her children who are involved in military conflict for the sake of defending their life and freedom” (4.2). While language of ‘inevitability’ is better than the theologically problematic language of ‘necessary evil,’ it would be better to say that the Church cares for all involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions fighting is allowed. The only conditions listed are for life and freedom, but ‘freedom,’ a common excuse for unnecessary fighting, is undefined. Martyrdom should also be mentioned as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs faced death and imprisonment, and are lauded over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for such causes, but instead are employed in ‘humanitarian’ interventions or fighting insurgents. These realities should be addressed, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another (4.3, 6.5).

Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. In this document, the Church promises care to those who fight, but a similar pledge is not made to those who for Christian reasons refuse. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend conscientious objection or disobedience in at least some circumstances. Nothing is said of this, or of the practice of universal conscription in countries like Russia and Greece.

There is a final weakness in the account of violence. Peace is aptly defined as the presence of justice and dignity, rather than the cessation of violence. Along these lines, “oppression and persecution” in the Middle East are condemned, along with religious fanaticism, because they “uproot Christianity from its traditional homelands” (4.3). In response to this, the document calls for a “just and lasting resolution” (4.3). These statements, along with other condemnations of things like secularism and globalized consumer capitalism, are too vague to accomplish anything. In particular, such condemnations can and have served as pretexts for Orthodox Christians to take up arms and engage in interventionist warfare. Peace is defined as the “reign” on earth of “Christian principles” of justice and dignity, and such language may be seen by some to warrant Christian warfare for the sake of establishing such a ‘reign’ (3.1). It would be counterproductive if a document condemning war allowed escape clauses for Christian nationalists to undertake war in defense of “traditional homelands,” or some other noble cause. Such inconsistencies threaten the integrity of the document, and as such the Great and Holy Council should clarify which methods and means are acceptable for addressing injustice. As it is, greater clarification and revision is needed.

Nicholas Sooy

contributing editor, In Communion

Facing the Church

This morning I stepped off my bus into Kolymbari right in front of the Avra Imperial Hotel. “Imperial” is an appropriate title. While it’s not the most elaborate building I’ve seen, it seems imperial in contrast to the relatively simple fishing village that surrounds it. This hotel is where a number of the bishops and delegates are staying. I suppose it wouldn’t be an Orthodox Council without an imperial presence.

After stepping out from the bus, a police van came from behind me, slowed, and then hovered along the curb. It’s four-way flashers turned on, and a large man with a shaved head stepped out. He opened the back of the van and asked me to get inside.

While this situation might sound frightening to my western friends, I was delighted. The man wore a warm smile. He saw that I was about to embark upon the long hike up the hill towards the Academy and wanted to save me the trouble. He very kindly, reverently and deferentially offered to escort me there directly, in the most official of vehicles. I wasn’t asked for my passport, my bags weren’t searched. He took me straight to the Academy with joy and affection. It was remarkable given the suspicion that plagues the Church. This friendly face of the Orthodox Church, of the police, and of this Council is not one that gets talked about very often. Ugly and mean faces make for better gossip.

There are several competing faces to the Church at this Council. Fundamentally this Council is about the Church facing modernity and responding. The question is what face will the Church present to the world?

This question is ever more apparent for me, for from now on the only events I have access to are the daily press briefings. Everything else will be behind closed doors. Which means my material to write about is drying up — all I have to go on is the face I see on stage. At press briefings, a certain face is worn, a very intentional face.

This face is useful perhaps, for there are other faces which seek to thrust themselves upon the Church. Some celebrate the absence of the four primates, for it makes it look like Bartholomew has egg on his face. Others mourn the withdrawal of the patriarchs, because it shows a divided face to the wold.

What is the face of the Church? When the world thinks of Orthodoxy, do they ‘know that we are Christians by our love?’ Or do they know we are Orthodox because we have Greek festivals, or Slavic food festivals, or because we wear black robes and wield condemning tongues on our dour faces? Are love, hope, joy, and peace the first words that come to mind when people think of Orthodoxy? Or ancient, eastern, fundamentalist, byzantine?

Today the press conference presented a positive face, and isn’t that the goal of talking to the press, to make things seem like they are going well? Others must have made the same observations as I did yesterday, for the whole atmosphere had changed. Questions were collected beforehand, so that preparations could be made. A new translator was called in, one who was the epitome of professionalism. He wore a suit, he was seated at a table with a notepad. Instead of just Bishop Job, a panel of representatives was seated on stage. The war reporter was not called on, though she was always the first to raise her hand.

And the press, to their credit, asked good questions. It was almost with joy and a sigh of relief that the panel heard one journalist ask, “Could you please tell us why the document approved last night is important?” To the more combative questions, the press officer was very direct in asking “Could you please tell us to whom this question is directed?” But when the importance of the document was questioned, she jumped up and said “All representatives will take turns answering.”

And they answered well. The night before “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” was finalized. It is the document that responds to the question, “What is the face of the Church?” The importance of the document is that it is the attempt of the Church to face the modern world and take a stand. It condemns war, nuclear weapons, neo-liberalism, economic inequality, environmental degradation, the globalization of finance, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and promotes peace, justice, and the preservation of human dignity.

In answering this question, one representative asked, what is the basis of our ecclesiology? Is it eschatological, based on our vision of heaven? Or is it based on nationalism? He said the Church needs to be right in the midst of discussions about the world, and it needs to lead these discussions, rather than just repeating the same thing.

The Church of Alexandria is very happy with this document, the representative said. It may lack some courage and not be dynamic, but it is important. It is important to recognize the role that the international economy plays. It is important to recognize the role of neo-liberalism. He said we need to point towards these things and identify evil where it is. It is important to recognize how AIDS and poverty are related. He said that African nations are still under colonial tutelage, only it is corporations who run things now.

The Romanian representative said that this document represents the Church’s response to modernity, but more importantly, this document represents the beginning of normalcy. The Church must continue to respond, to face the world. The problems of modernity cannot be solved in one week.

Cyprus agreed. Their representative said that it is up to us, the clergy and the laity, to work together to carry this mission forward. We need to be the Church in a lived way and love one another, for if we do not love one another, we cannot say we love God. We need courage to carry out this mission, to look one another in the eye and preach the message of love.

I suppose this face to face mission is the face of the Church.

All of these words presented a fine and inspiring face to the world, and of course to the press corps. Which raises the question: Is that the real face? To some, this document and these words are wonderful. To others, they are a betrayal. So what is really going on? Is this really a power play, and are the fine words at the press conference just a show? What is the true face of the Church?

I contemplated these things as I sat in the press tent. It is a big, white canvas structure, air conditioned, with food readily available. Comfortable, but simple. Because it was cooler today, sections of the canvas were unzipped, revealing the lush green foliage of the surrounding landscapes through the flaps of the tent. What’s the face behind the curtain?

I walked outside the tent and looked at the beautiful blue coastline. Sometimes what’s behind the wall isn’t all that bad.

Only certain people are allowed to talk to the press, so I am forbidden to interview anyone behind the scenes and I can’t report what they would say. But I have gotten to know a few of those backstage during my time here. We didn’t talk about the Council — there is plenty of noise around that anyway — but we talked about my work and their work. We made friends. And I’ve consistently been pleased. These are good and kind people, the bishops, the delegates, the consultants, the press, and the staffers. There is a friendly atmosphere here, among everyone I’ve had the chance to meet at least. Almost a conciliar atmosphere. Whatever the motives or agendas of those involved with this Council, they are likable people, friendly, energetic. They are enthused about the Church and want it to succeed.

I thought about this secret face of the Council while standing outside, watching the bishops return to their hotels. I was struck by the contrast of it. Bishops, men of the Church, of prayer, flanked by police officers with weapons to kill, official helmets, and flashing lights. Was this again the suspicion of the Church? Then I remembered my experience with the police this morning, a friendly face. It’s a strange sight, the Church behind a wall of police, a wall of media filters, a wall of political intrigue. But behind those walls, I saw a face that I liked, that almost looked like Christ.

Prosopon‘ is the Greek word for face. It used theologically in the Church to refer to the personhood of Christ and of God. Last night the Council discussed whether prosopon could be applied to man as well as God. In the end they decided it could. Theosis can be understood in terms of this. Christ is a divine person, and as we participate in the life of Christ, we too share in that personhood. Our faces begin to resemble to face of God.

This morning, my favorite Gospel text was read, the beatitudes. The beatitudes are a certain face of the Church. They are the heart of the Gospel, the face of the Church which we love and aspire to. Each beatitude builds on the one before it, building up the purity of heart that allows us to see the face of God. And what happens when we see the face of God? Our face, like Moses’s, is transfigured. Our faces begin to resemble the face of God in the person of Christ, in his prosopon. It is just as a child’s face resembles that of their parents. And so in the seventh beatitude it says “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” The culmination of all of this is becoming a peacemaker, just like Christ the Prince of Peace. And then we will bear the face of God. What happens next? We are persecuted, rejected. But it is not worry, for we are peacemakers, and to a peacemaker, conflict is not an obstacle, but an opportunity.

This is the true face of the Church, the face of the peacemaking Church. And that is by and large what is presented in yesterday’s document. The face of a peaceful assembly.

But of course those who are following the Council know that  a ‘peaceful assembly’ is not the only face that is being presented. Many within the Church and without love capitalize on division and divisive issues. So the question remains as to what face will win out? Will we summon ourselves to the difficult task of facing one another and facing the world, with the face of Christ? Or will the disorganization and suspicion of the Church mar these efforts?

I reflected on these things while trying to leave today. Yesterday the shuttle that was supposed to take me to my hotel was not where they told me it was. And today again it was similarly absent. The good old disorganization of the Church, the lack of coordination. Here too the good people of the Council fall prey.

After entreating several staff, I finally found out where the shuttle was, but when I arrived it was not there. Supposing that I had missed it, I walked down to the bus station across from the Avra Imperial, where I had started my day. Again I marveled at the grandeur of it, the impressive face of the building.

About ten minutes later, the shuttle that was supposed to take me back passed — I had missed it because of its lateness. And it did not stop when I hailed it. So there I stood, gazing at the Imperial residence, hunkering down for the hour long wait before the next bus would come.

About fifty minutes in, several police from the Council approached me. They were very large men with protruding muscles, sunglasses, and earpieces. Apparently the suspicion had gotten the best of them. They detained me, searched me, searched my bag, demanded my identification. I gave them my ID and showed them my badge. But still that wasn’t enough. They searched through every card in my wallet. They demanded my passport, which I knew was somewhere in my bag, but in the fluster of it all I couldn’t locate it. So they held me there while the chief officer went inside with my ID to investigate me. What a change from this morning!

During this process, the officers grew publicity-conscious. It didn’t look good for them to be searching an officially dressed and badged Council attendee at a bus stop. So they pulled me behind a car. We don’t want the wrong face showing, after all. I felt humiliated.

When the chief officer returned, he handed me my card and, without breaking the illusion of authority, did his best to thank me for cooperating. And then I realized how difficult it is to make any generalization about this whole event. There are those who are sincere and helpful and those who are overprotective and suspicious, and there is not sufficient coordination between them.

I was so flustered by all this that I nearly missed my bus.

And again I asked myself: What will be the face of the Church?