Wednesday, October 14, 2009

HUMAN COMMUNITY, BODY OF CHRIST, UNITY OF THE HOLY TRINITY

INTRODUCTION

This is the English text of the lecture that I gave in Moscow on September 29th last within the framework of the annual theological and social Conference organized by the Sretenye Brotherhoods. For many years, I used to send the text of my lecture by email and the Russian version was read by one of the Brothers. I have been in contact with most of the spiritual religious movements of the Orthodox Church over the past 30 years, to begin with in Scandinavia, then in Western Europe, especially focusing on the connections that exist between Judaism and Oriental Christianity.

In 1988, I had organized (to my knowledge this remains the only meeting on the subject) "988-1988 : Thousand years of Jewish Presence in the Slavic world" in order to celebrate the Millenium of the Baptism of the Rus' of Kiev and its subsequent impact on the Russian Orthodox Church, the Oriental Byzantine Churches. This took place at the multi-ritual monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium, near Namur/Namen, a place that had been i.a. initiated by late Metropolitan Andrii Sheptytsky.

My whole service as a deacon and ordination as an Eastern Orthodox priest within the Russian tradition continued this call to serve for the betterment of a possible launching of encounter between Judaism and Christianity, in particular in view to assist the Israeli newcomers and other citizens that belonged to the Church and/or and together to some way to Jewish communities. Since 1998 - a bit earlier in fact - I was appointed to the Rum Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem in order to carry out this very special task. All over the years, from Scandinavia down to Jerusalem, I met with the numerous hierarchs, clergy and lay people who finally got to some point of liberation that burst in 1989 and sometimes later in the different former communist countries, mainly in the former Soviet Union. This freedom for the Church that rose from the Catacombs launched a profound movement of renewal; it is deeply rooted in the old Russian and Slavic Traditions which has prevailed throughout history and need to be considered with much respect.

My task is not only to pray in Hebrew. I do not believe that this constitute a linguistic reality. There is much more: Hebrew challenges the Church as a living and constantly reviving tongue. Hebrew does not mean that we adopt some political attitude or concede to some ethnic national group. Hebrew is the language that God the Father chose to speak to all human beings through the TaNaCh and that always includes the Oral Law or Talmud put down after the destruction of the Temple in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Modern Hebrew is a complex "dialect" that is also very marked by the Jewish Ashkenazi world of the Yiddishkayt that frequented the Eastern Oriental Christian traditions, indeed with much hardships and mutual rejection. In 1842, before the birth of Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the reviver of Modern Hebrew, Hebrew was the Liturgical language used for the Divine Services at the Ecclesiastical Mission of the then-Moscow Synod. They had blessed the rich translation made by Fr. Levinson. I use this version till now because it is the only version that got the official blessing and recognition of the Orthodox Church.

Praying in Hebrew in the State of Israel is much more important that just making use of a specific language that directly connects with the Jews and the Modern Israeli speakers. It implies to get aware of cultural, social, behavioral, psychological attitudes and customs. Thus, the Christian soul that accepts to pray in Hebrew has to resolve more question about the identity given by God, the Divine Providence, Mystery of Redemption.

I never stepped down in serving in Hebrew, as also in other languages. Consequently, many groups from various countries contacted me and the different faithful that attend the Services. They wanted to share about the develop of liturgical koinonia/Communion in the Messiah and not only linguistic skills or acculturation. In terms of Hebrew in the Church everything has to be created because it cannot simply copy or duplicate any existing Eastern Orthodox tradition. It must include all of them because the faithful do come from many backgrounds. It must also be acceptable to the Church as the Body of the Resurrected Lord and somehow be also audible to Jewish scholars and simple Israeli citizens, not in terms of proselytism but linguistic and cultural consistency.

I am thus in contact with world-wide groups, praying in all sorts of languages. Finns, Macedonians, Georgians, Romanians and Moldovians/Bessarabians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians as well as Icelandic Scandinavian and English Eastern Orthodox and others come on a regular basis. The Arabs are also very interested in different places of Israel.

To begin with, I serve for Russian speakers. I started in Slavonic, then Ukrainian and Modern Russian. Hebrew has always been the main language I used. It is evident that the groups that consider it is normal to pray in Modern Russian came and discussed the matter with us. This is how I got in contact with Fr. Georgiy Kotchetkov whose work has to be be implemented slowly and much wisdom. Other "liberal groups" were evident to me for more than two decades (spiritual children of late Fr. Alexander Men). I do maintain that we can search ways to renew and innovate without getting astray from the Church as late Patriarch Aleksei II said "You have to sing in the choir". Eastern Orthodox choirs mirror the symphony of redemption in all languages. But the task is immense and requires a lot of patience. The main problem that exist in Russia with regards to Modern Russian is that the Modern tongue is not "contemporary Russian" but "Sovietskii iazyk/Советский язык - the Soviet language". Similarly, Modern Hebrew is the national language of Israel and the vernacular medium for Judaism that needs to be considered with more insights when referring to "Talmudic Semitic Hebrew" and mainly way of thinking.

I used to send my lectures to be read in Russian through emails! My lecturing was known to my spiritual Father. This year, I was told it was a bit ridiculous not to accept the invitation to join the conference in Moscow. I was reluctant for another reason: obedience. This aspect has curiously played a major role in all my pastoral life. Patriarch Theophilos III had not visited Russia since he was elected Patriarch of Jerusalem. For a long time, I considered I could not go there before he paid a visit. In the past months, Patriarch Kyrill, whom I had met several times in Jerusalem became the new patriarch of Moscow and of all Russia.

I asked for the oral blessing by Patriarch Theophilos and he accepted that I could participate in the conference. There is one more detail: I live in a very poor way. Some visitors do understand that, others are not aware or don't understand. I see all the time "spiritual guides and theologians of all sorts" that travel here and there and back and forth and use, misuse, abuse the financial hospitality they are proposed. I do not accept such a behavior. Things could be settled this year.

It also gave me the rare opportunity to consider the work accomplished the past thirty years in very difficult circumstances and restricted means of all natures and to meet wit those "pillars of the present Church" and those very precious friends who accompanied me and mines on this special way of the Cross and the faith in Resurrection. And, for the first time, Hebrew was used for ecphoneses at the Sunday Divine Liturgy in a monastery of the Kremlin.

The Russian version is a bit different - with a lot of improvised phrases and comments. But this text gives a picture of the topic I developed. It needs to be correctly interpreted and the members of the Conference did explain some aspects that could be obscure for those who do not know or understand our situation.

THE LECTURE

Dear Friends,

It is my pleasure to be with you this year after so many years of emailing and friendly if not “comradely” reading of my lectures by D. G.. I am also glad to share with your community, which means that we encounter and can participate together in a socializing act of understanding of being "a spiritual joint-venture". We try in this Conference to avoid being strangers or estranged within the Church.

I come from Israel; I am a priest within the Israeli society and among the Jewish communities. I put it in a plural form because though considering that Klal Israel/the Community of Israel is ONE, it is multi-faceted. I serve within the framework of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Greeks have inherited or they prolong in their ways the Early Church Hellenistic community, also known as "Ecclesia ex Gentibus -Church from the Gentiles" that succeeded - at times we can say superseded - the "Ecclesia ex Circumcisione - Church of the Circumcision" that totally disappeared with the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicea II on September, 24, 787, exactly 1222 years ago.

Canon VIII (8) stressed that "camouflaged Jews should not be received into the ecclesial community unless they have made a total renunciation of their Jewish ways, especially of the Shabbat". We can explain this decision by the fact that the Fathers firstly wanted to condemn the conduct of the "Syrian" i.e. "Semitic emperors who had used iconoclastic propaganda". Then most Jews and Judeo-Christians abandoned the Byzantine Empire and got sheltered in the Arab empire, passing "over" to the new religion of Islam as "malawi". They belonged to the cast of the "Kuttab - scribes". Thus, they strongly influenced the Quran and the related texts by introducing elements of specific Judaeo-Christian character.

This specific date and Church Canonic decision is still in force in the Eastern Orthodox Church and put an end to the theological Schools of Antioch and Alexandria that had played an immense role in the development of the Church for fully seven centuries. As a consequence, Empress Theodora obliged the Fathers of the Council of Constantinople of 834 to institute the Feast of the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" with a procession of icons and celebrating the Church's victory over all heresies. Subsequently, the Ecclesia ex Circumcisione was wiped out from the Unity of the One Church and seemingly erased from the living memory of the One Church.

I serve within the Rum Orthodox Church of Jerusalem and you also belong to the same Rum-Orthodox Church. In Russia, it is an later extension of what firstly started with the five original patriarchates and subsequently developed inside of the Roman Eastern and Western Empire and also till the Rus' of Kiev just a few years ((in fact it took a long time and it is not certain that it succeeded to overcome paganism) before the Great Schism of 1054. The center of the Church later moved to the Rus' of Moscow.

We still live in a conception of RUM ROMAN EMPIRE CHURCH though the Church is "one, holy, catholic (kafolicheskaia/кафолическая) and apostolic", gathering in "people of all races, nations, tongues" and expands to the ends of the Earth. The Church as the RISEN BODY OF JESUS CHRIST AND IMAGE OF THE HOLY TRINITY has no human or spiritual borders or limits. It is definitely universal. Nobody is a stranger in the Church just as it is said in the Psalm "ולציון יאמר איש ואיש יולד בה... - Indeed it shall be said of Zion, "every man was born there" (Psalm 87:5). True, the Church expanded beyond the limits of the Roman empire: in Semitic Churches, then other Churches in the East, Persia till India and China.

Still, serving in the Church of Jerusalem as a Rum-Orthodox priest I have to seriously take into account the essential decision of the 8th Canon of the Nicea II Council. It has not been abrogated, neither by the Eastern Orthodox Church (I prefer to mention this in the singular form) nor by the Roman Catholic Church that encompasses more than 10 different rites beside the Latin rite.

Please note that the Roman Catholic "Nostra AEtate" document voted in 1964, deals with Judaism and Islam as other religions. It is positive toward a further recognition of Judaism, but it did not correct or remove the final decision of the 7th Council of Nicea II at all! We do not pay much attention to that. “Nostra AEtate” was accepted by the participants of the Second Council of the Vatican, but the Oriental Patriarchs did not proceed to confirm the decision in their own oriental-rite patriarchates. Then, only a full Ecumenical pan-Orthodox Council AND TOGETHER with the entire Roman Catholic Church would eventually be entitled to change or remove this historic decision. I prefer not to mention the "Protestant Churches" that do not take these decisions into account the same way we do. In the event of any desire to change this 8th Canon tracking back to 787, thus in very exceptional circumstances that we cannot anticipate at the present, it is more than certain that such a decision should also be submitted to the opinion of the Jewish Communities, which simply shows the depth, width, breadth and length of such an unforeseeable decision at the moment.

The decision taken during this Ecumenical Council is of major importance: it is the last Ecumenical Council that is common before the "split" that affected the One Church of the Roman empire whose we are the heirs and faithful. The decision, that was then taken, broke the community shared with the Jewish roots and spiritual Tree of Life.

It also envisioned the community of Israel with much suspicion, rejection, later a desire or understanding that Jews should be converted to the faith. We continue, in particular in our Eastern Orthodox Churches, to measure, "judge" each other. At times we "suspect" the exactitude of the Creed and the faith confessed by our fellow believers. We love to check, verify and interrogate who the believers are, how close, far, foreign, and even enemies they can be, provided that "my" community is the right one, and the other ones are or can be heretics.

You try to determine how we can build up authentic "communities, societies, brotherhoods" united by the reality of the Holy Trinity that reigns over the universe and overshadows all of us. You face problems as local Church members.

In the Church of Jerusalem, we are called not to judge each other but to see that there every believer is born, continues to be born into the ONE MOTHER OF ALL THE CHURCHES OF GOD. Do not worry! I don't dream! This is a huge, terrible, exceptional challenge, a real and truth-testing, faith-experiencing challenge. Beyond any human will, Jerusalem and Israel encompasses all creeds and faiths from the Western Wall to the Holy Sepulcher/Anastasis (Place of the Resurrection).

I would never dare exclude any soul or nation, God forbid! – Still, I minister inside Israel and not the Arab world though it is evident that I do not make any difference and this is perfectly felt by the local clergy and faithful. I mean that we have a local and universal call. But we cannot mix all people, nations etc. into indefinite entities. I serve in a special Church as you also do. The important point is to recognize that we serve God in determined conditions relating to space, time, age.

But it is important to point out that the above mentioned decisions are "crucial" and will require centuries to be corrected. It will take centuries to correct total and ongoing process of estrangement as defined by Hans Urs von Balthasar who wrote a very interesting book "Einsame Zwiesprache mit Buber - Lonely (“monologue”) dialog with Buber". We cannot improvise some correction right out of the blue. We have to be aware of history and this is something that is sometimes very confused. We have not right to supersede the identity of believers – at the same time, it is indeed very hard to upgrade the life of ancient traditions.

And YOU, YOU ARE MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS AND WE SHARE IN COMMON EVERYTHING or should as mentioned in the Edenic verse of the Acts of the Apostles.: “And the multitude of the them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own: but they had all things in common “ (Acts of the Apostles 4:32).
If we theologically approach the mystery of the Ecclesia or Kahal or the Church in her totality, we can indeed speak of the daily problems we have to face. They are not new with regards to history of faith and religions.

But what I would like to point out is the intimate conviction that the BODY OF THE RESURRECTED LORD still cannot be torn, broken or ignored. It is the Sacramental Presence of God in our age of history. It ran throughout long ages and should endure till the ends of time, the eschaton; and eschaton does not belong to us but depends on God’s will.

This reality can cure those faithful or those who consider themselves as believers because they have to accept the fact that the Church requires faith but cannot oblige anyone to believe; moreover the Church runs in unexpected ways and moves toward directions that are mainly unknown to us. The Church compels to take into account the value of time, also in terms of “communities”. This can also help the members of the Church whenever and wherever they are located and in whatever conditions they must witness that the Kingdom of God is close to every soul and human being.

Now, there is in Biarritz (French border with Spain) a famous Russian "sobor/собор -cathedral". In this church, there is an interesting icon: on a full gold background, different Saints of different ages, periods and locations are shown. It shows the diachronic and synchronic reality of the Church. I often notice in Jerusalem that we do meet - if we pay attention to people - individuals of different "ages" and "cultural historic attitudes". Indeed the Church relies upon history.

In Jerusalem, it is possible to encounter people whose cultural, psychological, linguistic and spiritual behaviors show us this sort of "unifying and fulfilling icon of redemption", i.e. some can be of the 4th, 7th, 10th, 13th, 17th, 19th and present century. This is the fascinating aspect of the mental and religious life-witnesses who share the same period of history. People meeting without encountering, "speaking without talking". They/we get united beyond their unlikeness and disagreements. This is the point: The Divine Presence and the Holy Trinity overshadow them.

The “Pirqey Avot/פרקי אבות – Saying of the Fathers”(Avot 3:4) state: “If three have eaten at a table and uttered words of Torah there, it is as if they had eaten at the Table of God, for it is said : « זה השולחן אשר לפני ה' – this is the table which is before [the countenance of] God» (Psalm 23:5; Introduction to the Zimmun leBirkat HaMazon\זימון לברכת המזון – first prayer and portion said before sharing a meal, part of the Graces after Meal).

The same saying is uttered by Jesus Christ: “[Again, I say unto to you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them by my Father Who is in heaven]; For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). This is the positive aspect of the “community, assembly gathered in by the Holy Trinity”. The other aspect is also very human as described by Jesus: “For wheresoever the carcase (corpse) is, the vultures (eagles) will be gathered together”. (Matthew 24:28).

I come from a country, Israel, where the sense of resurrection is deeply felt by the citizens of Jewish origin. I say that because I have always been aware of being essentially and unwillingly a member of the community of Israel. Other Jews are fully entitled to have other views than mine or to position in different ways. Is it possible for a Jew to pretend to be Christian and to belong to both the Community of Israel and the Church? The problem is that of the CHURCH AS A TOTALITY. In this time of history, we can only pave the way to come close and to open a dialog, without any pretence that cannot be confirmed by any religious community as a “legal” reality.

There is a Jewish daily blessing: “Blessed are You Lord of the Universe/ Who gathers in the exiled of (His) people Israel (מקבץ נדחי עמו ישראל = meqabetz nidchey ammo Israel ). The word is of the same root as “Kibbutz”. To begin with, people had to share everything. As in the Gospel, it lasted the time of a short verse. But we cannot pretend that the spirit or desire to sharing everything did not or doesn’t exist. In daily life, I only see people who mostly look for themselves, can be terribly self-centered, in particular in the Church and there is definitely not sense of the Church being the “Body of Christ”, i.e. we are all together to build together. It is the consequence of faith being perceived as a strictly personal experience.

We have a tremendous problem of identity because – even the local Arab Christians of any denomination – would think they can be asked to prove that they belong to a Church as a living Body of the Risen Lord. The usual experience will be that “we do and go to whom and where we want : the less it costs, the more simple a procedure is and often the shorter, the better it is”. Just as in some American Evangelical groups, “Christians” does not mean “I belong to the Church”; it means: am I a true believer? The question goes on by constantly testing the faith of the others. True faith implies and leads to trust. “In God we trust” as written on the US Dollars, still firstly God trusts in us and it requires a lot of insights to get to that point.

Our question today is in fact a sort of reflection upon “Who is my neighbor? And You shalt love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:19). Jesus summarizes the Torah in two commandments of “Loving God with all our soul, heart and strength = resources” and “Loving your neighbor as yourself”. These words are present in the Synoptic Gospel (Deuteronomy 6:5-11:13 – 30:6 and Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27 along with Lev. 19.18).

You belong to the Russian Federation that was created out of the Union of the Soviet Republic. Till now, your country encompasses numerous nations, people, of numerous cultural, religious, linguistic traditions. For political of ideological, religious or ethnic reasons – whether rational or not – many nations and individuals would require at the present some sort of “self-ruled autonomy and/or independence”. One of the new trends is the requirement of micro-entities to get “self-ruled or autonomous” as given by the example of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church that recently declare that she wanted to be “independent”.

We have the right in the Church to be who we are. This is why I mentioned, to begin with, the most-affecting, in-depth-harming decisions of Canon 8 at the Second Council of Nicea. We cannot dream out how we would like to implement the concepts of independence or unity in our communities. I am a member of the Israeli society and a priest, I serve in that community and State, being an Eastern Orthodox member of the clergy and thus called to bear the witness for the Holy Trinity in Jerusalem, in that and not another local Church.

Thus, I have the obligation which concerns each of us in the Church, in Jerusalem or here in Russia, “to sing in the choir “ (a reminder of late Patriarch Aleksei II), together with people, clergy, cultures, traditions that should not be split because of human misunderstanding of desire for power. I have chosen – whatever price it may cost – to remain faithful to the local Church that is recognized as such by the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Kingdom of Jordan.

Frankly, when I was appointed there 14 years ago, some European and local hierarchs and clergy together with lay people said with some irony: “he (= I…) got what he was looking for”. The work is known to be an “impossible mission”. They did not prevent me about the situation and the dangers, though I was aware of them. I said: if we are the people of the Church and do trust that we belong to a specific local Church because of what or who we are, we have to keep the good work. In our case in Jerusalem, it is like “playing chess on a six dimensional basis” as an Israeli expert declared.

I may not see the development of an “Israeli acculturated and Hebrew-praying Church”, but it is our duty to pave the way to the future generations. 160 years ago, Hebrew was used in Orthodox celebrations in Jerusalem, long before Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the reviver of Modern Hebrew had started his project. At the present, there is no doubt that the move shall grow, slowly and in various and unexpected ways, it is a reality for tomorrow and even the present. Points of rejection are not relevant because faith consists in measuring what future generations will build up and how. And, as a matter of fact, Israeli Christian communities exist, but not in the way we would define them according to traditional Roman Empire Church patterns.

We do not choose each other in the Church. Never. We are chosen and called to gather in together with others and join the ONE BODY OF CHRIST. Why? Because “friendship, brotherhood” are the fruit of God’s forgiveness and definitely not some human capacities to cope with some or other people. Let’s read again and with true insights the meaning of the Gospel: “I call you not servants; for the servant does not know what his lord does; but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you that you should go and bring forth fruit and that your fruit should remain: that whatever you shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” (John 15:14-16).

Indeed, we cannot choose each other in the Church. When Jesus Christ says that He “chose and ordained his disciples and made them “friends””, He is not acting with some “druzhba\дружба spirit”. This is at times very difficult to declare, especially in Russia and in the Russian culture, because of the immense credit of the “druzhbaдружба-/friendship feelings”.

But “חבר =chaver” in Modern Hebrew means “friend, often a boy (girl)friend”. In the rabbinical tradition “a chaver” is a “ordained member of the community” in order to serve in a Jewish “congregation”. At the Talmudic period, the “chaverim” were ordained and given a letter of ordination. This is why the “chavurah – חבורא\חבורה” is a “religious association”. In a rather ironic way, the “chevra qaddisha” is today the example of love and assistance to our fellow people: they are in charge of burying the Jews with much humanity and decency. There is a Yiddish saying stating that a cemetery is a wonderful model of the world-to-come because it gathers people who are quiet, peaceful and repose in the hands of the Most High.

We all face the constant and very questioning problem of how God can or does redeem us. How does He allow us to be “one and diversified” without fencing ourselves. Viktor Frankl , the famous Jewish Austrian psychiatrist who witnessed to his experience in the Nazi period and concentration camps stated that the following pattern of two human attitudes seems to abide and govern human nature in the best and worse situations. He wrote (Man’s search for meaning, p. 123): “If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life – an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival”.

I have been visiting the sick for more than 30 years, in particular the children. Children are “infants” which means that they are not able to “speak, explain” with words what they feel. If a child faces death directly and is saved “in extremis” it becomes unbeatable. Nothing can seriously affect his “Drang an Leben – force to go ahead of life”. In fact, it does not consist in being “survivors”. It means we can feel we have been saved and called to participate in the process of redemption.

There is no reason for me to be present today with you and participate in your fraternal Conference. It appears that for historic reasons I had no perspective to be born. I nearly died at birth and again 15 years ago. A Russian woman, a professor at the Hebrew University – born in Israel – told me many years ago that I can minister in Israel because I feel at home to the full. True. But also because God gave me to face death in such a close way that life is definitely full of His grace and joys. It leads to patience and consider with a certain sense of time what we can build and what others will eventually build. Fraternity does not consist in mirroring ourselves and ours. It calls to see how we are the heirs of previous people and how we can transmit our experience for the benefit of the Church in her totality.
We experienced the reality described by Viktor Frankl in the Gulags, the labor camps, the extermination camps.

Why moral values in the Church can seeming be affected by the behavior of the faithful? Beyond all sorts of visible separations, misunderstanding, competition and real hatred disguised in the rags of fake love, the Church is still the BODY AND THE VINEYARD that calls to go beyond who and what we think we are.
“Jerusalem built up, a city knit together/ Yerushalayim habnuyah k’ir shechuvrah lah yachdav -
ירושלם הבנויה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדיו (Psalm 122,2, Hebrew version).
“Christ is in our midst! He is and will be unto the ages of the ages”.

Archpriest Alexander Winogradsky (Jerusalem)
September 22/09, 2009 – 4 deTishrei 5770