The reorientation of modern Christendom toward an untransfigured world was, as I indicated in in another post, the central project of the Renaissance. This Renaissance project was inspired by the values of the classical pagan world, but it was also motivated more immediately by the desire to escape the increasingly pessimistic anthropology of medieval western Christendom. Humanists like Mirandola proclaimed a new humanity to their generation, one that possessed free will, one that enjoyed complete autonomy. This was the dream of the Renaissance, and it became over the centuries an inalienable feature of our modern culture. Continue reading
In two weeks, Orthodox Christians throughout what was once the Soviet Union will be celebrating the memory of the New Martyrs and Confessors of that land (those following the Western calendar in America and elsewhere celebrated the event yesterday). These people were killed for their faith between the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the collapse of Communism in 1991. Recognized as saints since 1982 by the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, they were eventually canonized in Russia by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 2000. That event itself was a symbolical milestone in the history of Christendom, for it represented the restoration of traditional Christianity to a place of vitality within our culture. Continue reading
The Age of Division, volume two of my history of Christendom, has now been released by Ancient Faith Publishing.
Building on The Age of Paradise, it carries the story of the rise and fall of what the West once was beyond the first millennium. Opening with events surrounding the fateful Great Schism of 1054, it follows efforts by the papacy to impose a thorough-going reform of Western Christendom. In addition to improving the spiritual quality of church life, the Papal Reformation also unleashed other forces including the crusades and, more indirectly but tragically, a penitential piety that slowly eroded the place of paradise within Western culture.
The book also tells the story of Eastern Christendom during this period, when the Fourth Crusade and the Turkish onslaught finally brought Constantinople to its knees. Nevertheless, in Russia the Orthodox Church continued to nurture the culture of the old Christendom, despite growing isolation from the West and the depredations of Ivan the Terrible.
The Age of Division concludes with a reflection on the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, which both continued the process of transformation begun by the papacy in the eleventh century and, in very significant ways, brought it to an end.
Almost totally unknown in the West is the Orthodox Church’s commemoration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. The holiday is one of twelve annual “great feasts,” and it occurs on January 6. It is known most commonly as Theophany (Greek for “divine appearance”), but also as Epiphany. That is the name for the feast among Roman Catholics and some Protestants. However, in the latter case the event commemorated is not the baptism of Christ but the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. The Orthodox do not discount the Magi (they are actually featured extensively in the hymnography of Christmas). But they attach far more significance to the baptism, seeing in the image of Christ standing in the waters of the Jordan the fulfillment of the Incarnation. What this holiday represents is the heavenly transformation of the cosmos.
There are several reasons for this. One is historical. In the early Church, the celebration of the Incarnation originally occurred on January 6, not December 25. Epiphany was a liturgical catch-all for a range of events associated with the great turning point in history of the world. Eventually, these were separated from one another to enhance the celebration. The Circumcision of Christ eight days after his birth (January 1); the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple forty days after (February 2); and the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary nine months prior (March 25) all filled in the calendar. Both East and West came to celebrate these events, but in the East January 6 remained the Incarnation’s central liturgical event.
Another reason is biblical. The scriptures present Christ’s appearance at the Jordan as the beginning of his public ministry, and not his birth. While some of their content speaks of the immediate impact of his birth (in addition to Matthew’s account of the Magi there is Luke’s account of the shepherds in the field), that event is in most ways obscured. The Magi themselves come and go without speaking to anyone but Herod. Once they do, the wicked king orders the Massacre of the Innocents in order to destroy Jesus. The short term outcome of the birth is in fact the flight into Egypt and continued hiding in Nazareth after the return. The baptism is the turning point from obscurity to evangelism. Matthew and Luke have almost nothing to say about the first thirty years of Jesus’s life. Mark, for his part, literally locates the “beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” with the baptism. And all four Gospels make yet another important point. It was only at the baptism that the Holy Trinity was fully revealed as Son of God was immersed, God the Father bore witness to him, and God the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove.
A final reason for the primacy of the Theophany in Orthodox Church is cosmological, and this bears most directly on the holiday’s significance for the culture of Christendom. By immersing himself in the waters of the Jordan, Christ brought the Incarnation to its fulfillment. Having assimilated our humanity to his divinity, he submitted to the consequences of our brokenness, repentance. He was sinless and had no need of repentance, but by undergoing the baptism offered by John he joined the human race in its desperate turn to God for redemption. By doing so he sanctified the cosmos.
Water is the most elemental part of the cosmos and sustains its life. Just as the Son of God assumed a human body, by immersing himself in the waters of baptism he joined himself to a material creation which he himself brought into existence and in which he blessed the human race to live. The result was the transfiguration of the world, revealed in all of its glory on Mount Tabor later in his ministry.
The celebration of Theophany is therefore of great importance in revealing paradise to this world. This is why it has always been so solemnly kept as a holiday of heavenly immanence in the East. One of the Greek fathers, Sophronios of Jerusalem (d. 638), even composed a sacramental rite of water blessing for its celebration. Originally enacted at the Jordan River itself, the rite became standardized throughout the Orthodox Church and continues to be enacted at springs, rivers, lakes, and seas throughout the world today.
The most remarkable thing about this rite is its profoundly theological and poetic reflection on the union of heaven and earth. In addition to its statements about the participation of the material elements in the holy baptism of Christ, it unites the “today” of this world with the eternity of heaven. A brief excerpt from what is a long prayer provides a sense of this. “In the preceding feast we saw thee as a child,” the priest declares, referring to Christmas, “while in the present we behold thee full grown, our God made manifest, perfect God from perfect God.”
For today the time of the feast is at hand for us: the choir of saints assembles with us and angels join with men in keeping festival. Today the grace of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon the waters. Today the Sun that never sets has risen and the world is filled with splendor by the light of the Lord. Today the moon shines upon the world with the brightness of its rays. Today the glittering stars make the inhabited earth fair with the radiance of their shining. Today the clouds drop down upon mankind the dew of righteousness from on high. Today the Uncreated of his own will accepts the laying on of hands from his own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Master, but stands before him with trembling, seeing the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions of men are washed away by the waters of the Jordan. Today paradise has been opened to men and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us.
A world so understood, in which the incarnate God is united with man, in which time is joined to eternity, and in which material things are transfigured by the presence of the immaterial–such a world is what Christendom has always sought to be.
The secular holiday that Americans along with so many other nations around the world celebrate today is often regarded, by historians, as the product of commercial interests. After Anna Jarvis (d. 1948) succeeded in obtaining Woodrow Wilson’s presidential approval for a national day of honoring mothers in 1914, the story goes, national associations of florists, stationers, and chocolatiers seized on it as an opportunity for expanding their still regionalized and modest early twentieth-century markets. Money was to be made in the commemoration of motherhood, and, as so often happens, capitalists hijacked what otherwise would have been a grassroots effort to honor one of the most altruistic experiences of human life. Indeed, poor Jarvis herself, later in life, appears totally to have lost confidence in the official holiday and became notorious for her interventions in its continued celebration, more than once being arrested for demonstrating publicly against the influence of commercial interests.
Such is the madness of modern Christendom. But what is also interesting in the story of Mother’s Day, celebrated (following the date set by Wilson) in nearly one hundred different countries on the second Sunday of May, is that it perpetuates a feature of pre-capitalist, pre-industrial, and even pre-secular Christendom. This feature is the organization of time around a calendar rooted not in this world, but the kingdom of heaven. That calendar was originally liturgical, grounded in the experience of man’s relationship with God. It was established over the course of many centuries by the early Christians, who looked on the ancient world’s calendars as powerless to communicate the radically new life they were experiencing. That life, centered upon the incarnation of God, was one of gratitude. And so, an entirely new system of time measurement arose between the first century and the eleventh century that gave thanks to God for the salvation he had delivered to the human race in Jesus Christ.
There came to be innumerable feastdays in this Christian calendar. And some of them remain today in our post-Christian Christendom as reminders of its Christian origins. One of the most prominent is Christmas Day, which literally commemorates the incarnation (though, as traditional Christians following the ancient calendar will know, the Lord’s Nativity is only one of several incarnational feasts that include Theophany/Epiphany, Meeting of the Lord/Presentation, and the Annunciation).
On a weekly basis, though, much more influential by reason of its frequency is what we call in the English language Sunday, but which most other languages influenced by Christianity name with some variant of “The Lord’s Day.” This was the name for the First Day of the week among ancient Christians, and it caught on over time as faith in Christ’s resurrection on that day spread from one European and non-European people to the next. Hence, Kiriake (Greek), Dominicus (Latin), Dimanche (French), and Domingo (Spanish). Beautifully and uniquely (I do not believe any other tongue on earth does this), the Russians call the day not The Lord’s Day, but The Day of the Resurrection (Voskresene).
As the latter example shows, the Day of the Lord is the day on which early Christians proclaimed that Christ had risen from the dead, and on this day a special celebration of thanksgiving became standardized almost immediately. So, when many centuries later, in an increasingly secular twentieth-century America, Anna Jarvis and her supporters managed to have a day set apart for the commemoration of mothers, it was natural and providentially appropriate that that day be Sunday. Of course, for many at the time Sunday had ceased to carry its solemn liturgical meaning of Thanksgiving. It was by then simply the day of the week most likely to accommodate family get-togethers and festivities. So it is in our time.
Yet, the echo of human gratitude to God echoes still a bit on Mother’s Day. Apart from the annual celebration of Thanksgiving Day, this secular feast is probably the most gratitude-laden. Jarvis herself had insisted that the day be named in the possessive singular and not in the possessive plural (“Mothers’ Day”) to enhance personal feelings of gratitude and love by individual children for their individual mothers.
And what could be more faithful to the early Church’s vision of the calendar than that? By the hundreds of millions, on this day people throughout the cosmos assemble to give thanks for what they had no control over: Their origins through the care and love of their mothers. Many mothers fall short, and all who are worthy of their role would be the first to admit that. But few human relationships better incarnate the sacrificial love that Christians have always experienced in their God, a love which, since early times, was built into the very calendar by which they lived their lives.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Photo credits: David Crump Daily Mail.
The renaissance was a time of dramatic shifts in the culture of western Christendom. It was a time of origins, when former patterns of thought and culture faded into the background and modern values began to appear. This was true in the case of humanism, and it was true in the art it came to influence. Famous paintings of the renaissance document this shift.
One type of painting that came to represent the epitome of renaissance art was the Madonna. We are used to this term, but its historical background is interesting. It comes from the medieval Italian Ma Donna, or “My Lady,” and entered the English lexicon as a specific type of painting depicting Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. As such, it is simply the descendant of a long tradition of artistic representation in Christendom dating to the early centuries.
The image of Mary holding Jesus itself came to be standardized not in the medieval or renaissance west, but the Byzantine east, where a range of icon types were developed such as the icon of She Who Points the Way (Hodegetria in Greek). Whereas such earlier depictions of Mary and Jesus were primarily liturgical, however, the renaissance Madonna gave rise to a new conception of the two, one that was increasingly worldly. I commented briefly on this development in an earlier post, and here I would like to take the reflection a step further. Continue reading
The Renaissance was a reaction to medieval pessimism about the human condition. Petrarch, Mirandola, and other early humanists celebrated the dignity of man because western culture, despite deep roots in the anthropological optimism of traditional Christianity, had for centuries come to diminish the human experience of paradise in this world. Having explored this reaction in light of eastern Christendom, I would now like to turn to one of the most famous elements of the Renaissance, its art. Continue reading
In the nineteenth century, the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt famously characterized the Renaissance as a revival, after a full millennium, of the non-Christian values held by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This was not new, as contemporaries of the Renaissance such as Giorgio Vasari had themselves used “rebirth” as the metaphor of the culture of their time. Vasari (d. 1574) all but dismissed the value of the arts between the rise of a Christian culture in Europe after the conversion of Constantine and the rediscovery of classical art in his own time. But Burckhardt (d. 1897) canonized this interpretation for a modern audience. Henceforth the period of Christian art and culture that flowered for a thousand years was dismissed as the “middle ages” when traditional Christianity obscured the worldly potential of human greatness.
This view is no longer held in its purest form by historians, many of whom have today come to discover the riches of medieval art and culture. But like all great ideas it has cast a lasting shadow over our understanding of the past. Continue reading
The Christendom of the late-medieval west was a soil desiccated of the experience of paradise. Centuries of Roman Catholic piety had enriched this soil with faith in the kingdom of heaven, but not far below the surface there was an aridity that caused longing for a more immediate experience of it. Growing frustration was expressed in the period’s proliferation of mystics, and also in the life work of the man that would unintentionally inspire modern Europeans to depart from Christianity altogether, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (d. 1374). Continue reading
By the late middle ages, western Christianity contained within it the distinctly pessimistic anthropology I described in my previous post. As I noted, this contrasted sharply with the anthropological vision of the east, recently defended by Gregory Palamas in the form of hesychasm. And when disasters struck in the west beginning with the fourteenth century, this pessimism was exposed and began to assume an even greater force. The Black Death in the middle of that century killed more than half of the population of western Europe. The Hundred Years War, by the time it was over in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought France and England to a point of exhaustion. Despair and the pessimism that accompanies it ran deep. Continue reading