Archive for December, 2007



My blog has nothing to do with HGH, baseball, steroids, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Brangelina, TomKat, X-Files, or the Sybian

But it’ll be interesting to see how much search engine traffic I get now that all those things are listed in a post title.

(That said, it might be about OK Soda.)

End-of-Finals-Week miscellany

In a nutshell: Greek not so good, Syriac very good.

cursivegkms-640w.gifGreek this semester (my third) has been a war over a particular person getting to make a particular point, fought in such a way so that it is those in the classroom who have been the collateral damage, and the final was very much a final salvo. I’m being deliberately vague for a lot of reasons; suffice it to say I did the work, put in my time, and learned a lot, but it is questionable how much of a high point it will wind up being on my transcript. Oh well; it happens.curetoniansyriac-640w.gif

By contrast, I handed in my Syriac final feeling quite chipper, on the other hand, and I felt quite justified in my chipperness when I saw the posted grade this morning.

Now I get to spend the break reviewing Latin for next semester. Opto, optare, optavi, optatus. Sum, esse, fui, futurus. Femina, feminae, feminae, feminam, femina

Dr. Liccione has an essay entitled “Freedom, evolution, and original sin” which he posted yesterday. It’s the kind of thing which, when I read it, makes me think things along the lines of, “You know, maybe things could be worked out between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy within my lifetime…” I’m not qualified to engage the post on any kind of a theological or doctrinal level, but I do want to point out a few things.

Kecharitomene is an interesting word in Greek. If my Greek teacher were to ask me to give its syntax on a test, I would say that it is a feminine singular participle, perfect tense to show completed aspect, passive voice, in the vocative case, agreeing in gender, number, and case with the unexpressed subject (being the Virgin Mary), and it is being used attributively.

What in the world does all of that mean?

A participle as a verbal adjective; in English we end participles with “-ing” and then use them in conjunction with the verb “to be” to express various tenses periphrastically. If I say, “I am walking,” “am” is the finite verb and “walking” is the participle–it’s attributing the characteristic “walking” to me rather than expressing it directly as a finite verb, whereas a single finite verb in Greek, “baino,” says all of that on its own—the “o” ending indicates that it’s first-person singular, so the subject is already implied, and it in the present tense, so it doesn’t need the helper verb “to be.” In Greek, you would use the participle perhaps to express a parallel thought to the main idea of the sentence (e.g., in “The turkey being cooked, we will now eat dinner”, “being cooked” would be expressed as a participle), often to indicate a present state before an action is taken (my Greek teacher likes to use the example that instead of “Take the money and run,” Plato would say, “Taking the money, run!”), and also to attribute verbal characteristics to people. Think of the movie “The Running Man,” and you’ve got the idea. Kecharitomene is an example of this last use—the verb is being applied to the Virgin Mary as an attribute, and therefore is singular and feminine, since in Greek adjectives must agree with what they modify in gender, number (singular/plural, as in “I/we”), and case. This is direct address, and that case is called “vocative.”

Participles, while not being finite verbs, have tenses like finite verbs; we usually think of tenses as expressing time, but Greek (at least how my teacher taught us) is a little more granular, expressing both time and aspect, aspect being the state in which the action is being performed. There is simple aspect, which means that the action is done once; progressive or repeated aspect, which means that it occurs continuously or over and over, and completed aspect, which means that the action is, well, done to completion. “I am walking” is present time, progressive or repeated aspect. “I was walking” is past time, progressive/repeated aspect. “I walked to the store” is past time, simple aspect. “I have walked home” is present time, completed aspect. And so on. Kecharitomene is in the perfect tense, which indicates present time, completed aspect. One thing about Greek, though, is that participles, if they communicate time at all (outside of the indicative mood, tenses lose connotation of absolute time and only have to do with aspect) communicate time relative to the main verb. “Chaire, Kecharitomene!” being a greeting (“Chaire” is the imperative form of the verb which means “rejoice,” used idiomatically in Greek to mean “Hello”), there’s not really a main verb, so an argument can be made that we can’t really say anything about the time in which this action was performed, only that it is done to completion.

There are two grammatical voices in English, active and passive. In the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb; “I throw the ball.” In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb; “I am thrown the ball.” Greek has both of these as well (plus a middle voice, where the action is performed reflexively or causatively or there’s some other special meaning being communicated). Kecharitomene is passive, which means the Virgin Mary has received the action of the verb; somebody else has performed the action (presumably, God).

Having now explained the syntax, the base meaning of the verb conjugated as Kecharitomene is “endow with grace.”

Therefore, if we were to try to incorporate every last nuance of the above into a literal English translation of “Chaire, Kecharitomene”, it would come out to “Hello, woman completely endowed with grace (don’t know when that happened, it’s just the way it is)!”

Doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, does it? Regardless, Dr. Liccione’s summary of the implications is worth a glance:

[The Virgin Mary’s state of being kecharitomene] is sola gratia: a direct product of divine power divinizing. And it is itself but the most proximate effect of…the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of that divine person who is Mary’s Son, a process in which we are all destined to participate, thus becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Amen! Others can hash it out further.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is an interesting figure, even to the Orthodox; Fr. Seraphim Rose was quite critical of him, and others (such as Fr. John Meyendorff, I believe) evidently thought he hit the nail on the head. I’ve never read any of his works myself, but I don’t claim to have any particular interest in the creation vs. evolution issue. If we are to understand time as a part of creation, and if we are to understand the Fall as having corrupted all of creation, then presumably time was part of what was corrupted, as well as how we perceive it. For all I know (and I wasn’t there), the Genesis account is exactly and literally what happened, but we’re on the wrong side of the event to be able to see empirical evidence of it. I don’t know, and it frankly is irrelevant to me, having no bearing on the personal struggle to become a partaker of the Divine Nature. Maybe that’s a shortsighted point of view, but there we are.

Moving on…

I’m still stewing deep in thought about my Greek class. I can’t really go into a lot of details because the players would easily identifiable, and I don’t want to go there. What I will say is that after the first year of Greek (assuming use of a introductory textbook like Hansen & Quinn, which appears to be the closest the Greek world has to a standard like Wheelock’s is for Latin), I can imagine a very compelling case being made for Religious Studies departments having a second-year sequence running parallel to a Classical Studies department’s sequence. For example, this semester, we spent roughly three-fourths of the term on Plato’s Ion, and the last three or four weeks on the New Testament. That’s all well and good for classicists, but let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of love left over for anything written Anno Domini, and I believe I would have ultimately benefited more from the ratio having been reversed, particularly since the fourth semester, as taught here, is radio station WHMR, all Homer, all the time.

It also occurs to me that one thing from which my beloved Hansen & Quinn textbook could benefit, faithful and constant companion, friend, and projectile over the last year as it has been, would be something of a supporting library along the lines of what’s available for Wheelock’s. It’s also quite amusing, looking back at the sentences I slaved over for hours in September 2006; if anyone would like an exact count of how many ways Homer can send the brothers into the battle in the country on the road with books, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.

OK. Enough for now. Finals week is over, Deo gratias, the syntax of “deo” being that it’s an indirect object “to/for” dative, and in the singular number you decline that deus, dei, deo, deum, deo…

Christmas extended in both directions

nativityicxc.jpgAlden Swan, who does some interesting blogging about Christianity and culture, posted a piece called “The Joy of Christmas Insanity.” Here’s an excerpt:

I was speaking with someone a week or so ago about how fast Christmas seems to be coming; it always seems to catch me by surprise, which just adds to the stress. […] Christmas now begins in late October or early November, and by December it’s in full swing, with parties, decorations, music, movies, concerts, shopping and food. It is an all-out celebration, involving all aspects of our lives. Those who are of other religions (or no religion) have by now realized that “the train, it won’t stop going…” and they either join in ignoring the religious aspects, or live in misery.

Eating, drinking, singing, spending lots of money buying gifts, giving to charity, all can be expressions of joy, even if we don’t realize it.

For those of us who are Christians, I don’t think we need to detract at all from the secular aspects of the holiday; I think that joy, even the non-spiritual version, is something that humans need to express for their emotional health. In America, we’re a pretty joy-constipated bunch. So, let everyone celebrate. But, Christians indeed have a joy which is of a different nature than that of the world (I think it’s okay to have both), and we get to express that, too.

Think about all that for a moment. Christmas gets going in October—I was noticing a few Christmas decorations out shortly before Halloween, as I recall—and “is an all-out celebration” basically until the shopping season wears off, sometime shortly after New Year’s.

As Mr. Swan also puts it, “It seems that there are two ways to deal with the oncoming train: either we live in denial (and get creamed), or we run headlong into it.” For purposes of contrast, let me offer the following as a possible third way.

On 15 November, Orthodox Christians (those following Byzantine practice, anyway, since Western Rite does things a little differently) begin to observe the Nativity Fast, or Advent. It is a forty day period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. Much like Great Lent before Easter, ideally we abstain from animal products (although often, in practice, this fast is not as severe as the Lenten period), hopefully our parish situation is such that we are able to attend additional services throughout the week to make up for spiritually what we are denying ourselves physically, and we look for ways to be Christ to those who need it.

Some understand this period to be penitential, for the purpose of self-examination; it is also often explained as a time where the faithful prepare themselves for the coming of Christ into the world. However it is understood, on 25 December, the faithful participate liturgically in the moment where eternal reality and historical reality intersected, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observe this, as we observe all major feasts, with a Divine Liturgy; Christmas is the “Christ Mass,” after all. Just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood and dwell within us.

Then, after all this preparation, the party starts. Remember “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Well, that’s what we actually do. Maybe not with lords a-leaping in a pear tree, but after the forty days of fasting, we’re ready to celebrate in body and soul. Gifts and singing and dancing and rich food and sweets and so on now have a spiritual context, and we’re thankful for it. The Bridegroom is now with us, and we feast. It is truly “a joy which is of a different nature than that of the world.”

For us, feasting and fasting must be understood in terms of each other—fasting prepares for feasting, feasting has been prepared for by fasting. Great Lent and Easter are the same idea on an even bigger scale. On a smaller, day-to-day level, this plays out even in how we receive Holy Communion: if we intend to commune on a Sunday, we prepare for that feast with prayer and by fasting starting the night before.

Without intending to offer judgment, compare this to our cultural mindset where we extend Christmas in both directions, starting the party in the October and going on for two and half months or so (by which point we’ve probably gained twenty pounds).

One more wrinkle—if you’re following the Julian Calendar, you celebrate on 7 January, by which point the secular party has completely stopped and everybody has moved on. I’m told there’s a real spiritual peace in observing the Nativity at a time when the world has finally quieted down; I can only imagine.

Not that Mr. Swan has asked my opinion, but it seems to me that we need not convince ourselves that our only options are to grumpily swim against the tide or to surf the wave.

“…prepare yourself for the opportunities it presents”

Darrell Bock at Christianity Today posted an article today entitled, When the Media Became a Nuisance: How to respond to the next blockbuster book/documentary/movie that questions traditional Christianity. He makes points similar to mine about the Gospel of Judas fiasco, essentially saying that commercial media and serious scholarship don’t mix terribly well—but also saying we need to get used to it and adapt:

We need to understand that public discussion of the Christian faith has changed—permanently. So the next time you hear an earth-shattering announcement about Jesus from the media, don’t get angry. Rather, take three deep breaths, sit down with your Starbucks coffee, and watch how the announcement is treated on blogs and other media. Above all, prepare yourself for the opportunities it presents.

One of the main opportunities he posits, and I wholeheartedly agree with this, is the opportunity for Christians to really educate ourselves about our history and our origins. If someone comes up to us and starts talking about the Gospel of Judas and we’re able to tell them about how St. Ireneaus of Lyons was arguing against this document back in the late second century, and then explain who St. Ireneaus was and who the Cainites were and why we care about what St. Irenaeus had to say about them, that’s going to be a much more powerful answer to somebody than just, “Well, that’s not what my Bible says so it has to be wrong.”

And make no mistake—we’ve got to know our stuff better than the people who want their name on the next Newsweek cover story, and that’s true at every level. I have to know, for example, what Nestorius said better than somebody who would claim that Nestorius was simply persecuted by the institutional church (and I don’t—this is why I’m going to grad school). If I don’t, I’m gonna get my lunch eaten, and it’s going to be a poor witness for the faith. (Maybe not as bad as claiming that nothing predates Christianity, but still not good.) I’m sure we all know people by this point who think that the Council of Nicea decided on what counted as Scripture by taking a vote and burning everything that didn’t make the cut; we’ve got to be able to answer that, clearly, authoritatively, and lovingly, in a post-Da Vinci Code world.

Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg, and John Crossan are on speed-dial for anybody in the media covering stories like this. It’s not that there aren’t necessarily good reasons for this; there is good scholarship that has come out of all of them—the problem is balance. If we can actually take advantage of the opportunity to engage people and interest them in real Christian history and not the Enquirer version, if we can get them interested in J. N. D. Kelly’s or Jaroslav Pelikan’s version rather than Dan Brown’s, then maybe eventually Susan Ashbrook Harvey or Fr. John Behr or Dn. John Chryssavgis can get on the “to call” list as well—but we have to educate ourselves. Ignorance won’t give us credibility. We have to engage from an informed stance.

Books? What books? Do we have any books in this house?

I live in a house occupied by two grad students with somewhat arcane interests. Do you suppose we have any books? Better question—do you suppose we have them organized in any useful way? Even better question—do you suppose we even have shelf space for all of them?

Dr. Decker apparently has had a similar problem, and recommends a solution to at least part of the issue. I tried out a demo of Delicious Library at some point in the past—maybe I’ll actually buy the thing and get it going for real over the break…

Cat Emperor of Dune

No doubt many of you have seen this by now, but while I’m preparing for my Greek final in two and a half hours, it brings a much-needed smile to my face…

dune-cat.jpg

“…how dare we think we can do better?”

I think I’ve dealt with some of my funk. I think. I’ll still feel a lot better once Friday rolls around, but I don’t feel quite so much like the world ended anymore.

Jeffrey Tucker over at The New Liturgical Movement posted a link to Google Books’ digitization of the 7th century Gelasian Sacramentary. He has some choice words for those who might find it, shall we say, not quite in the spirit of Vatican II:

Just looking through it, one is touched by how close a connection we have to history in the Roman Rite. Humbling, isn’t it? How dare we litter this pious masterpiece with our own pop music and pop theology, and how dare we think that we can do better by making up our own words and importing our own sensibility to the liturgy?

Standard disclaimers—I’m not Roman Catholic, and I am really less than qualified to deal with issues of theory and theology. (Let’s be honest; I’m really not qualified to deal with much of anything at this point, which is why I’m trying to get into grad school.) Still, even as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, the Gelasian Sacramentary is part of the spiritual patrimony of the undivided Church, and therefore as much a part of my liturgical heritage as it would be for a Roman Catholic.

With that in mind, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. What do you mean, “how dare we”? They’re just words men wrote, after all, somebody had to make them up at some point, somebody had to import their own sensibility into the liturgy somewhere along the line, and surely we can make a case, even for a late antique liturgical book, that it is not much more than a product of what would have been the pop culture of its day. All worship styles were “contemporary” when they were first put into practice, right? How dare we not put these things in the language, context, and culture of our own day?

In The Mystery of Christ, Dr. Fr. John Behr speaks about the difference in how truth is thought of between the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern minds. For the pre-modern, truth is found in what something means. If we want to understand this in terms of grammar, this is the Greek present tense—present time, progressive/repeated aspect. In other words, what does it mean right now and on an ongoing basis?

For the modern, truth is found in what something meant—aorist tense, so past time, simple aspect. What did it mean at the point in the past when it was relevant, and then how do we transplant that to today?

For the post-modern, per Fr. Behr, truth is located in what something will have meant—future perfect tense; future time, completed aspect. Real meaning is somehow always something that hasn’t happened yet, but even once it does it will be something looked back upon, not something occurring on an ongoing basis.

I suggest, therefore, that part of the problem Mr. Tucker describes comes from a modern way of looking at the problem and an attempt at a post-modern solution. The “return to the sources” approach is certainly nothing new, but it seems to me that it what one finds there will depend on one’s assumptions. If you begin with the assumption that an old liturgical practice as received today is somehow beyond the comprehension of the average person in the pews (which already cuts off the possibility of talking about what it might mean here and now), then in looking at the historical context for the development of that practice, you’ll find the reasons to justify your point of view—“See? They had that, that, and that happening, and we don’t, which is why this, this, and this practiced in today’s world makes no sense.” A break from the received tradition now having been justified, something can be inserted which will hopefully take hold and become the received tradition down the road.

“Returning to the sources” doesn’t necessitate a lack of continuity, however; sometimes what it can generate is a reminder of of what something means when many people have forgotten. Many Christians in this country have no idea what an Easter basket actually means, for example, since there’s no fasting or abstention during Great Lent to put it into context.

To reclaim what something like the Gelasian Sacramentary means, however, takes effort—no doubt about that. I suspect that for many who would rather insert contemporary-sounding praise songs, it’s an effort that isn’t worth it; “It won’t reach today’s people the way our music does,” I suspect many would say. In other words, it won’t have meant what contemporary music will have, from their point of view, and I also suggest that the problem is exacerbated by the perception that people will go where they hear what they like, and if one church won’t do it, another will. (Which suggests to me that the biggest threat to cohesion among church communities is the automobile, but that’s a different topic altogether.)

What effort would it it take to reclaim what it means, present tense, here and now? Well, I’ll humbly suggest that if people would dare to think they can do better, then it’s up to those who would hold fast to the received tradition to dare to teach them why they won’t do better.


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