Autobiographical

Holy Saturday

There is a tradition among secular media outlets and certain Christians who wish to appear down “with the times” to question the historicity of the Gospels, particularly the Resurrection of Christ. This sad spectacle prompts more faithful followers of our Lord to set forth arguments and evidence of mixed weight in favor of the Biblical account. I won’t restate them here; a quick Google search will direct you to a plethora of books, articles, and websites dealing with the matter. Not surprisingly, few skeptics are ever convinced by these apologetics. There’s too much at stake ideologically for them to give any credence that Christianity is true. As for Christians themselves, including Catholics, there remains a sense—perhaps even a strong sense—that while Christ’s death on the Cross “did something,” whatever happened on Holy Saturday and Pascha is of peripheral importance. Maybe Christ rose from the dead; but if he did not, then we shouldn’t get too worked up about it. What is “crucial,” what is “central,” is that by at least arising in the hearts of his closest followers, Jesus and the message of peace he (allegedly) came to spread lives on to this very day among those who call themselves Christians.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who, following the questionable thinking of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, profess that something really happened after the Crucifixion, namely Christ enduring radical suffering in hell. And although those who challenged Balthasar on this point were for many years subjected to derision and false accusations on the grounds that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI endorsed Balthasar, Lyra Pitstick’s Christ’s Descent into Hell (Eerdmans 2016) demonstrates that Balthasar’s heterodoxy never met with papal approval. Where the desire for the tormented Christ comes from is anybody’s guess. However, it is not entirely surprising that those whose views cut along Balthasarian lines tend to lean Universalist as well, perhaps believing that the profundity of Christ’s suffering at the hands of the devil could only give rise to such a powerful explosion of grace that even the hardened unbeliever, the unrepentant sinner, and the far larger mass of humanity which has always been lukewarm will be saved. (Exceptions to this “rule” include Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)

For those orthodox souls who still hold to the traditional understanding of Holy Saturday, an opportunity is presented to meditate on not only Christ’s salvific work, but the present state of the Catholic Church. For more than 50 years, the faithful have been forced to watch the passion of the Church, how she has been made to suffer terribly and almost seem to die in those lands which for over a millennium accepted her. Although this suffering may no longer be over, orthodox Catholics find themselves in the darkness of Holy Saturday and the confusion that accompanies witnessing the Church—which is of divine origin—decline and crumble like a mere human institution. While faith tells these Catholics that the Church can never truly die (“the gates of hell shall not prevail”), that she will ultimately overcome the present trials God has given her, there remains an understandable distress among the faithful over when she will rise up again. It is not surprising that this distress gives rise to certain eschatological expectations that may or may not be warranted.

Distress often gives way to despair, something that Catholics have no right to do. It is not possible to remain faithful to the deposit of faith and hold that the Church is coming to an end. This is why it is imperative to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope and love; without them there is no conceivable way a man can endure the ongoing crisis. Even if one is not inclined toward embracing the moral depravity that contemporary society has worked so hard to normalize, the temptation to abandon the narrow path to Heaven out of a belief that Catholicism no longer has anything to offer (or, rather, nothing “exclusive” to offer) still pulls at the hearts and minds of many. It is very hard to take seriously what so many in the Church no longer seem to care about, namely Salvation—“the one thing needful.” If eternal bliss or, absent that, metaphysical surety and mundane comfort, are to be found primarily in one’s “authentic life choices,” then what use is the Church? Is it not merely a cultural expression, a barely living artifact destined to go the way of the cult of Apollo or the Norse religion?

Heaven forbid that thought should enter the mind of any Catholic, but it does every day. Perhaps then on this Holy Saturday and certainly tomorrow’s Paschal celebration we should rejoice in Christ’s conquest over death while directing that joy into fervent prayer for God to illumine those tempted by the darkness of despair. A season of great joy is upon us; let us not celebrate selfishly in the confidence that we are not lost, but rather hope that the Paschal Mystery will be felt by those tempted to abandon the Faith altogether. For who knows what scandal, what false teaching, or poor example from a priest or prelate will rattle our commitment to the Church. And on that day, won’t our souls long for the grace to remain resolute so that we, too, may join the choirs of angels and saints in Heaven, singing praises before the Throne of God?

Lazarus Saturday

For those following the Byzantine Rite, today is Lazarus Saturday, which recalls the narrative of Christ raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. It is a liturgical commemoration that rests between the sorrowful days of Great Lent and the joyful Resurrection of Our Lord while pointing beyond itself to the General Resurrection. This liturgical day, like the Gospel account which undergirds it, is unique insofar as it brings into sharp relief both the humanity (“Jesus wept”) and divinity (“Lazarus, come forth”) of Christ.

As with all things Byzantine, this day can be invested with all sorts of spiritual meaning, some less saccharine and more sober than others. Many Orthodox Christians in particular will likely recall the scene from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where Sonya reads Raskolnikov the Lazarus pericope, perhaps compelling them to connect the death due to their own sinfulness with the need for Christ’s love to overcome it. Lazarus, who by virtue of his friendship with Our Lord, most likely lived a far less sinful life than you and I, and yet he was condemned to death—that gross interruption in God’s plan for us brought into the world by our first parents and perpetuated to this very day. Lazarus, a holy man, still perished; he suffered a death that only the command of Christ could overcome. It is the same death we are all doomed to suffer, without prior knowledge of when, where, or how it will occur. All that we know, all that we can know, is that it will be Christ alone who calls us forth from the tomb to eternal life, one spent either with Him in bliss or with Satan in eternal torment.

If, like me, you have maintained the time honored tradition of having a bad Lent, one where the devil rides you hard and all of the spiritual commitments, sacrifices, and personal reforms you set out to accomplish go by the wayside before the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Lazarus Saturday holds out the hope of new life in the Lord. After being spiritually dead in the tomb of life’s distractions, petty trials, and fuss, Jesus still desires that we come forth to join him on Palm Sunday for his triumphant procession into Jerusalem and then to suffer by His side in Holy Week. We do not have to wait for the 11th hour; there is still time to labor for Christ, to pick up our cross and follow Him to Golgotha, to recollect ourselves in the anticipation of Holy Saturday, and rejoice with the Blessed Mother of God in the Resurrection of her Son on the third day. The only question that must be answered on this day is if we will respond to Jesus’ call and come forth, or opt instead to wallow in the darkness of our own sinfulness by refusing His love.

A Reflection Unrelated to St. Patrick’s Day

In an earlier post on this web-log, I remarked that a portion of American Orthodoxy comes down to LARPing, especially among converts. What I did not get into were the possible reasons for this, the most likely being that putting on the appearance of a Russian peasant, Athonite monastic, etc. helps those living in a decidedly postmodern, geographically western environment to feel “connected” with an iteration of Christianity which, for many centuries, has survived as a particular ethnic-cultural expression with obvious, but fading, ties to the glory days of the Byzantine Empire. As amusing as this phenomenon is from the outside, I must confess that I can sympathize with the desire to feel rooted in something concrete, particularly in America where fluidity and superficiality reign supreme. Still, in the long run, such posturing won’t do much for American Orthodoxy except make it appear even more as a museum piece than it already is. The possibility of a living, breathing, and vibrant Orthodoxy—the hope and dream of some of American Orthodoxy’s brightest lights—appears to be on hold at the moment while the national mother churches of America’s overlapping jurisdictions battle it out over trivial slights and ecclesiological innovations.

Greek Catholics living in the geographic west, by and large, cannot escape their environment with fanciful appeals to the alleged ways and means of the “old country.” Nor, for that matter, can they deny that their Eastern patrimony has had to find a way to survive in a primarily Latin environment. Although some Greek Catholics may exercise the LARPing option or, worse, exempt themselves from Catholic teachings they don’t like under the banner of being “Orthodox in Communion with Rome,” most desire to retain their particular identity without denying that they live in a liturgical, theological, and spiritual tension between East and West. It is a tension that has existed since the days of the “Unia,” one that made Greek Catholics out to be the second-class citizens of the “Roman Church” before the slow, and often interrupted, process of self-assertion and reclamation began. And as often as Greek Catholics today may speak of being true to themselves and their Byzantine-based heritage, part of that truth includes the reality that for centuries their forebears connected with, adopted, and internalized aspects of Latin Christianity that helped draw them closer to Christ.

Having come of age during a time when the Greek Catholics of Eastern Europe were beginning to breathe freely again, I can recall praying and worshipping in a still heavily Latinized Greek Catholic environment; it would take some time before the higher level theories of “authenticity” being discussed in certain academic circles would begin to trickle down to the parish level. Even today my tiny, perhaps even unremarkable, parish retains several Western-style icons and an Infant of Prague statue all the while serving the Divine Liturgy in a manner indistinguishable from how one might find it served in the Orthodox Church in America or the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese. There are still pews, though most people today stand throughout the entire service except, perhaps, at the anaphora where a few still kneel. Some still cling to Rosaries, others to prayer ropes. Mnohaya lita is sung at the end of the liturgy in honor of birthdays and anniversaries, followed by reciting the Latin recensions of the Pater, Ave, and Gloria for the intentions of the parish. I don’t know what “purists” would think of all of this, but I don’t really care either. My parish, like so many others, does what it can to be true to itself, to what has been handed down and kept alive over the decades. If that doesn’t fit within a LARPing vision of what “pure Greek Catholicism” ought to be, then all the better.

Speaking only for myself, having been back in the Catholic fold now for some six years, I have found living ecclesiastically between East and West to be…refreshing. Having had little exposure to the Roman Rite growing up outside of banal, if not ridiculous, Novus Ordo liturgies that I was compelled to attend from time to time, I found great profit in immersing myself in the Tridentine Mass and setting aside my Horologion in favor of the Roman Breviary. I do not want to say that I was “on vacation” from the Byzantine Rite that I had known for many years, but in a way I was. The last thing I wanted to maintain was a ghetto mentality, and when I saw that I was developing a new one through an over-exuberant embrace of traditional Latin Catholicism, I did what I could to take a few steps back; survey the terrain; and recommit myself ecclesiastically to where I had come from. This choice, though by no means easy, has done more to sustain my faith through some extremely trying times than hiding out in a liturgical shack somewhere. It has also refreshed my sense that what is truly good, beautiful, and pure in Christianity transcends peculiar historical developments—and those developments must be judged by whether or not they continue to convey what is good, beautiful, and pure in Christianity.