Approaching Wittenberg from the East

This year, the end of the present month of October will mark a full half-millennium since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the entrance doors of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Many have begun to commemorate this event throughout the world. For Protestants, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the many positive achievements of the Reformation. Many Roman Catholics and Roman Catholic publications have also joined in, noting the historically momentous and undeniably profound contribution of the Reformation upon modern Christianity. But where have the Orthodox been in this commemoration?  Continue reading

America’s Second Thanksgiving: Mother’s Day

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. whitman-chocolates-mothers-day-ad-1946-05-06Money 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? 1414012760267_wps_5_Pic_David_Crump_21_10_14_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.

What Child is This?, or, On the Rise of “Baby Jesus”

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

On the Diminution of Angels

The reorientation of modern Christendom toward an untransfigured world was, as I indicated in in my post this past summer, 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

An Eastern Perspective on the Western Renaissance

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

Why Do They Hate Us So? (Toward a Definition of “Us”).

Less than a week ago, Muslim terrorists attacked and killed more than a hundred people in Paris, leaving many more wounded and suffering. France, recently distinguishing herself as aloof from America’s “war on terror,” has now (in the words of President Francois Hollande) declared herself “at war” with ISIS. French jets have begun to bomb military targets in Syria to defend France and the west from radical Islam.

Indeed, not only the west but the world community has expressed deep sympathy for France, reminding one of the global expressions of solidarity with the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. FRANCE-ATTACKS-EIFFEL TOWERThe United States and France, along with the west as a whole, have much in common. We are hated by Muslim extremists.

Why?

Apart from the psychological fact that fanatics always need someone to hate, the following are three particularly apparent reasons: Continue reading

A Cathedral, a Skyscraper, and a Swimming Pool

The story of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow is a remarkable one, and well known by many Orthodox Christians in our time. Like so many of the stories of the New Martryrdom, however, few Americans know about it. cathedral_of_christ_the_savior_russia_moscow_hdr_95755_3840x2160One of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, it was originally built in the nineteenth century. But it was blown up on orders of Joseph Stalin in 1931, and became the site of a remarkable–and almost comic–effort by the Communists to establish a new, post-Christian culture. Rebuilt after the collapse of Communism, it is in some ways a monument to the resilience of Christianity in the modern world and of the durability of Christendom.  Continue reading

“Who Will Destroy Whom?”

Political revolutions cost lives, and so can cultural ones. This is true when the agent of change is the government, and that government is totalitarian. It is even more true when the totalitarian government is wedded to an ideology such as Communism.

In recent posts I have introduced the Soviet cult of Lenin within the context of the Communist Party’s violent assault on Christians. The Communists could not avoid violence in general because it was built into the ideology they inherited from Karl Marx. I will speak elsewhere about Marx’s place in the history of Christendom, but here I want to emphasize the role of violence in Marxism’s vision of history. History could not move forward without it. And history had to move forward. In the nineteenth-century “age of progress,” absolute standards of good and evil, cultivated by centuries of Christianity’s influence, were exchanged for a relativistic morality of progress. That which brought it about was good, and that which hindered it was evil. Continue reading

The Fool Says . . .

One of the really remarkable things about the Soviet cult of Vladimir Lenin was its religious character. It is a reminder that strict atheism is rare, even in the modern world.

There is a Psalm verse that speaks of how unusual and even ridiculous atheism is: “The fool says in his heart, there is no god” (Psalm 14:1). The Communists were adherents to the philosophy of Karl Marx and therefore strict atheists. They were convinced religion is an “opiate of the masses” imposed by class oppressors upon the workers and that there is in reality no god whatsoever. The Soviet Union was the first government in world history that committed itself to atheism. And yet, it was also the first government in history to invent a new culture, or system of beliefs and values, that was pseudo-religious. This can be seen in several features of the Lenin cult. Continue reading