Pascha: A Feast of Theology

As we approach Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, it is fitting that we consider once again the nature of the banquet to which we are invited.  As we will sing at Matins on Holy Thursday, we are called to ascend, with our minds on high, to enjoy the Master’s hospitality, the banquet of immortality in the upper chamber, receiving the words of the Word.  The nourishment that we are offered is a feast of theology; the food that we will feast on is the body and blood of the Word, the one who opens the Scriptures to show how they all speak of him and provide the means for entering into communion with him.

Our chapel here at St Vladimir’s Seminary is dedicated to Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.  Although they each have a particular day of celebration, our patronal feast celebrates them together, as the Three Great Hierarchs.  The hymnography for the feast celebrates first of all their words, their words of theology, how they spoke about God.  The feast was conceived in the eleventh century as a feast of oratory: it was a celebration of those who found the words adequate to express the Word of God.  Such theology is a sacred art – the Byzantines even called it a mysterion, a sacrament – and it is charged with divinity.  It embraces and elevates the words of men to convey Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

The Church celebrates the Three Hierarchs as great examples of those who took on this work.  Having studied at Athens and other intellectual centers of the ancient world, they used all their God-given intellectual powers for the celebration of this divine task.  If we too wish be disciples, or, more accurately, “students” of Christ, we must take on this task of theology, learning Christ and being renewed in our minds.  And there are two very important aspects of this that we always need to bear in mind.

First, that theology is not an abstract discipline or specialized profession.  It is not speculation about God himself, separated from his own revelation or what his revelation says about us.  It is not taking all the things that humans might think of as divine – omnipotence, omniscience, immortality – and then projecting them into the heavens.  This approach creates nothing better than a “super-human”, with divine attributes, perhaps, but nothing more than the best we can humanly conceive.  Rather, theology begins and ends with the contemplation of the revelation of God, as he has shown himself to be.  Anything else is not theology at all, but fantasy.  We do theology when we contemplate God’s own revelation: God, whose strength and wisdom is shown in the weakness and the folly of the cross.  Christ himself, the Word of God, demonstrates his strength and power in this all-too-human way, by dying a shameful death on the cross, in humility and servitude – trampling down death by death – showing that true lordship is service.  This one is the image of the invisible God: in Christ the fullness of divinity dwells bodily – the whole fullness, such that divinity is found nowhere else and known by no other means.

All of us, therefore, all of the people of God, must focus on the transforming power of God revealed in Christ by the power of the Spirit.  As the Great Hierarchs affirmed, we cannot know what God is in himself, but we know how he acts.  We are invited to come to a proper appreciation of the work of God in Christ by the Spirit.  We are called to understand that Jesus Christ is indeed the Word of God, whom, by the same Spirit, we must convey in our words.  To recognize him as the Word of God is not a matter of human perception, but to find the words to convey him certainly demands the application of our minds.  It requires that we raise our minds to a properly theological level, that we may be transformed by the renewal of our minds.  As Great Lent prepares us for the Feast of Feasts, so also honing our mental skills should prepare us for the feast of theology.

The second point to remember is that the theology that we celebrate is a pastoral theology.  The hymns for the Great Hierarchs proclaim that the pastoral power of their theology has overthrown the illusory words of the orators, of those who play with words, speaking on a merely human level.  Their theology is pastoral, in that it shepherds us into true life.  It invites us to understand ourselves, and the whole of creation, in the light of God revealed in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  This is not simply a matter of asking “What Would Jesus Do?”  Nor is it simply a matter of being “pastoral,” as we often hear that word used today, in the sense of ministering to others on their own terms, enabling them to feel comfortable with themselves.  Rather, it is the challenge to transfigure our own lives by allowing God’s own transforming power to be at work within us.

This means that we must confront our own brokenness and weakness, for this is how God has shown his own strength: it is only in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect.  And we will only have the strength to do this, we can do this only if we begin with God’s own revelation, if we begin with the theology taught to us by the Great Hierarchs.  We have to abandon what we humanly think divinity is, and to let God show us who and what he is.  We must begin, therefore, with the God who confronts us on the cross, who shows his love for us in this:  the love that he embodies.  Reflect on this: that when we are confronted with divine love in action, it is in the crucified Christ.  This reality reveals two things: how alienated we are from the call that brought us into existence, yet, at the same time, how much we are loved and forgiven.  In the light of Christ, we can begin both to understand our brokenness, our emptiness without him, and also to be filled with his love.  Theology shows us that the truth about God and the truth about ourselves always go together.

So, as we approach the Feast of Feasts, let us prepare ourselves to receive this revelation of God on his own terms.  Let us prepare ourselves for the challenge that his revelation presents, so that the Resurrection will transform us and renew our minds and we will find the words appropriate to offer the Word to others.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is Dean and Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His early work was on issues of asceticism and anthropology, focusing on St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. After spending almost a decade in the second century, Fr John began the publication of a series on the Formation of Christian Theology, and has now reached the fifth and sixth centuries. He has recently completed an edition and translation of, and introduction to, the remaining texts of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He has also published a synthetic presentation of the theology of the early centuries, focused on the mystery of Christ. He is also a passionate cyclist, often rescheduling family events around the Tour de France. Fr. John’s wife, a Tour de France enthusiast and armchair cyclist, teaches English at a nearby college, and their two sons and daughter are being taught to appreciate the finer points of French culture: the great “constructeurs” of the last century, Le Grande Boucle, and … cheese.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “Pascha: A Feast of Theology

  1. The female of the species is part of the divine story. It begins with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and it ends with the suffering of Christ on the cross, which was shared in part by Mary, his mother and by Mary Magdelene, who was His most loyal and supportive associate. Both of them remained with Jesus, in spite of how horrifying it was to witness his slow death by torture. It was Mary Magdelene who witnessed the resurrection, and who put it into words, which is the basis of Christianity. Her words were at first not believed by the male disciples. The actions of Mary the Virgin, and of Mary Magdalene are recorded in history, but not their words. They too have a story to tell, but we, the human species, have been denied this.

  2. Reblogged this on Orthodox in the District and commented:
    Thoughtful words from Fr. John (Behr), Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminar in Crestwood, New York and Professor of Patristics as we approach the end of Great Lent, the solemnity and transcendent mysteries of Holy Week, and the mystical beauty and triumphant joy of Pascha!

  3. Adrian B.

    Dear Madeline,

    where has this article seemed exclusive, “man-ONLY-have-a-story-to-tell”?

  4. You wish to defend it without considering my response, and my feelings towards this sermon. I was just supposed to swallow it. You are asking me to defend myself. The sermon speaks of nourishment, a banquet, of theology scriptures, of the 3 great male Hierachs, of the feast of oratory, of the words of men and their God-given intellectual powers. It sounds like an all male party to me. Perhaps the women cook the banquet, and clean up after it, and have to listen to the men whereas the men do not have to listen to the women, or read their words. Do men not realize how tiring and tedious it gets to have to listen to men all the time? Try it yourself sometime. I dare you. Listening to a woman. This is all that women are worthy of, at the great table of life? You make no mention of the point I made that the words of women have been erased, mostly, for over 2,000 years. There is a sort of blindness to that.

    • Adrian B.

      Dear Madam,

      I apologize if you felt offended – by no means I tried to offend you. I was and I still am very surprised of your reading into this article, as it seems to come more from a personal perspective than from the text itself, maybe?! I have listened and read Fr. Behr many times before – never have I found his theology to be exclusive “men only”. He has many wonderful articles about the Theotokos, for instance (no, not for “washing the dishes” in a “banquet of theology”, but her place and example in our own salvation). In his classes, Fr. John always uses “anthropos” and/or “Adam” to translate “human”.
      (p.s.) I truly believe we hardly know each other that you may assume I have never listened to anyone, man or woman. No, by no means I find it “tiring and tedious”, but an uplifting and a learning experience, a witness to the Divine. Thank you for the “dare”, it’s actually part of my current job description as a chaplain.

  5. I didn’t mean listening to women as a chaplain. I meant listening to and reading the words of women and giving them the same respect as the speeches and texts of men. Things move slowly, but they do move. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, women have gained the right to vote, and the right to own property. I don’t think Jesus was against this, and I don’t think He is the one who has been holding us back, from equal respect and equal input and influence in His church. Women have unique gifts which can enrich the church. They tune into the emotional needs of adults and children, which men tend to negate. So the flock is not fed as it could be.

  6. Another example of the blindness of men is the Samaritan woman at the well. She recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, and proclaimed it to the people. She was not believed at first, probably because she was “only” a woman, just as Mary Magdelene was “only” a woman and so was not believed at first.

  7. Adrian B.

    Blessed Holy Wednesday!
    Hymn of Kassiani:

    O Lord God, the woman who had fallen into many sins having perceived Thy divinity received the rank of ointment-bearer offering Thee spices before Thy burial wailing and crying: Woe is me, for the love of adultery and sin hath given me a dark and lightless night; accept the fountains of my tears O Thou Who drawest the waters the waters of the sea by the clouds incline Thou to the sigh of my heart O Thou Who didst bend the heavens by Thine inapprehensible condescension; I will kiss Thy pure feet and I will wipe them with my tresses I will kiss Thy feet Whose tread when it fell on the ears of Eve in Paradise dismayed her so that she did hide herself because of fear; who then shall examine the multitude of my sin and the depth of Thy judgment? Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Deliverer of my soul turn not away from Thy handmaiden O Thou of boundless mercy.

  8. Oh brother. The depth of your wish to degrade the female sex surpasses anything I was imagining. This is a good thing, because it is exposing your true colours, for all to see.

    • Adrian B.

      This is a beautiful hymn sung in the Church on Holy Wednesday. Written by a woman, about a woman, usually sung by a woman…..and all of us (men and women alike) who are cognizant of our own sinfulness also relate….. No intentional “degrading”, just humility and acknowledging our sinfulness to receive Christ. It’s our Holy Tradition.
      I am sorry if you maybe understand it differently – in your own faith tradition, maybe?

  9. Again you are speaking with condescension to me and dismissal of my thoughts. You are not aware of how you come across, and how your stance affects a woman. You are a very young man, and I am a woman of 66. You are convinced that you have nothing to learn from me, whereas I am supposed to be learning from you. I assure you, you have not taught me anything yet, other than that you unconsciously hold yourself very high above women. Don’t you realize that women cope with this all around them all their lives, and can pick it up instantly, whether it comes from clergy or sales clerk. This will not bode well in your work as a chaplain. There is nothing righteous about it, no matter how men cling to it and justyify it. It is a cherished power and prestige, and it contributes to wars and the runaway greed of huge corporations with the corresponding rise in poverty and homelessness. It looks like men would rather destroy the world, than share the responsibility and decisions with women.

  10. Adrian B.

    I believe there is a disconnect in how we hear each other. I actually posted the Hymn of Kassiani as a way to AGREE with what you previously said (even if partially): to show that our theology (as I heard it in our Church service last night) emphasized the great faith and love of a woman – she was able to recognize Christ and His Divinity (as the Hymn spells), as opposed to the betrayal of Judas, initially a friend and disciple of Christ. And the hymnology of this service on Holy Wednesday has this underlying theme and encouragement: be like this woman, NOT like Judas.
    I am sorry if – again – it may have read differently to you. I was in no way trying to offend you or any other woman, nor to “teach you”. At this point, I really don’t know what to say, if even my attempt to find “common ground” and to affirm what you say comes across as “condescension”, “dismissal”, disrespect or so on – none of which I intend to.
    May God gives us both His wisdom and His peace of mind and guide us from where we are to His kingdom. Forgive me.

  11. I do forgive you, since you are trying to communicate with me, trying to hear me. In the churches, women are allowed, by men, to have love and faith all right, but they are largely excluded from decision making, influence, and the power positions. There is no good reason for this. It is outmoded. The arguments for it are specious and can be seen through.

  12. I understand that in the Jehovah Witness Faith, men in the congregation are designated as counsellors, for all sorts of personal problems, such as marital conflicts. No matter how old and experienced adn educated a woman is, she may not be deemed a counsellor, whereas a young, inexperienced man will be. You write of yourself as working as a chaplain. I am wondering if any women in your church work as chaplains, and if not, why not.