A blessed Advent! For my friends in the Western Ecclesial traditions, a little explanation: the Eastern Pre-Nativity Fast starts today. Advent is, of course, a Western Name, but we call it the Advent Fast here in America’s mostly-convert communities. Yes it is a bit longer than Western Advent, but for what it’s worth Advent is also a fast, like (or close to) the fast of Lent. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is treated to a sumptuous feast by his host who, in response to the compliments, reminds his guest, “It is a fast.” For Orthodox Christians of the Western Rite, Advent is a period of fasting (reduced food intake) and abstinence (from flesh meat) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
This is the first of my seven Advent Meditations for this year. It’s an annual practice, and it helps the Pre-Christmas focus. The meditations, as always, take a starting place the Great O Antiphons that are recited on the nights leading up to Christmas in the monasteries of the West.
Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter, suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
Wisdom, who proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, reaching out mightily from end to end, and sweetly arranging all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.
I was reminded on Friday that the Wisdom of God is Jesus, the Pre-incarnate Logos: when the Word is spoken, the Silent Wisdom becomes the Verbum, the Word of God, reaching out mightily to order all things from Alpha to Omega, from End to End. There is nothing that is not God’s action through his word.
But humans… now: we can get it wrong and, let’s face it, the Church is filled with humans who will, often get it wrong. We pray for wisdom (Sophia = Jesus) to teach us the way of prudence.
Orthodoxy is very circumspect. We don’t have one man to be omnipotent in the crafting of rules. We don’t even – officially – teach that the Ecumenical Councils, themselves, are infallible: there are many actions of the councils that are, essentially, ignored. (Have you seen anyone forced to Abstain from Communion for 10 or more years while praying on their knees in the back of the Church?) Orthodoxy is a religion of prudence. While this saint or that elder may, himself, be very strict or very free with his spiritual children, it is not the saints that are infallible, in their teachings, but rather the Church, herself. And the Church speaks most clearly in her Liturgical Texts, both east and west, in her prayers. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief, or “As you pray so you believe”. Only the Apostles’ writings to their Children carry the weight of law (as the New Testament) but even then, the Orthodox Church is not a “Bible Church” because she wrote the Bible. The Bible is there for the application of it to the lives of people. There is no one place to point and say: believe all that and you’ll be Orthodox.
Orthodoxy is a life – life in communion. Orthodoxy – East and West – is liturgical life. Liturgy as a way of life is, it must be admitted, sloppy. What one parish does, the other doesn’t. What one saint admires, the other admonishes. Basil loved verbosity, Chrysostom brevity. The former, however, was brief in the pulpit while the latter was quite the opposite! Seraphim Rose (whom many regard as holy, if not clearly a saint) could be seen as quite the controversial convert whom some forbid to their enquirers. Mt Athos is either the holiest place on earth or a place to send all the single men in your parish just to keep them out of trouble.
I like rules, truth be told. Rules are the same for everyone. They are black and white. They are clearly lined up along the wall to prevent you from escaping. Liturgy, however, is designed to give you something to do if you don’t wander away. Stand here – and do this. Not, “DON’T DO THAT!!!!” Rules do, in fact, make life easier: but they are not living.
Liturgy is living: it is a dance before the Throne of God the Father with God the Son, conducted by God the Holy Spirit living and breathing in all of us. It is confession and communion where my sins become the percussion session, where the absolution is the brass, and where my prayers, coupled with the prayers of the priest and all the church, is the strings and the woodwinds. And we dance.
Orthodoxy is life – not a rule book. It must be lived in community, in liturgy: this is why we pray for wisdom and prudence in Advent.
I pray for a blessed Advent Fast for all of us, East and West. Meditation #2 will be posted on the 20th.