Sunday, May 3, 2015

From Sacred Canons to Hope and Back

I had one of those privileged experiences 1-2 May, the dedication of a new church this time in Kherson, not far from either of the two fronts of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

I try to spare my poor arthritic knees long trips like this: seven hours twice in a row, of one day over, one day back by car from Kyiv to Kherson for the dedication of the new parish church of St. Volodymyr, now the largest in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Exarchate of Odessa. The picture is of the procession with the relics of the holy martyrs, which were then sealed into the church's stone altar.

This was not my first experience of a church dedication; over my years in Ukraine, I took part in the dedication of the new cathedrals in Kolomyia and in Kyiv, as well as of a big new parish church in Ivano-Frankivsk. Such occasions speak of accomplishment and of hope for the future. I would say that hope, strong and beautiful, probably resonates above all else from this latest celebration. The liturgy formed the centerpiece, if you will, of a spring meditation there in Kherson, but also all along the road, rain and shine: great expanses of dark green winter wheat, other fields bright yellow and promising of vegetable oil, fallow land in abundance and the black of newly plowed soil, across a landscape flatter and seemingly more limitless, if that is possible, than the Midwest of the United States.

Besides gazing out the window and daydreaming, I did manage to read one very good book about the holy founders of the Cistercian Order and moved along quite a bit with another book which may seem a bit incongruous to the scene I have sketched above: The Seven Ecumenical Councils (Henry R Percival). The author is a bit flippant English, but the work lists the seven councils and their canons, explaining why each of these early councils is held to be ecumenical by the Christian world and for all time. He gives authoritative interpretations for historical sources, background material of interest and in most cases glosses which get beyond the bare bones of the laconic canons themselves as is the case with this Canon XII from Antioch in Syria.

"If any presbyter or deacon deposed by his own bishop, or any bishop deposed by a synod, shall dare to trouble the ears of the Emperor, when it is his duty to submit his case to a greater synod of bishops, and to refer to more bishops the things which he thinks right, and to abide by the examination and decision made by them; if, despising these, he shall trouble the Emperor, he shall be entitled to no pardon, neither shall he have an opportunity of defense, nor any hope of future restoration." [Kindle Highlight Loc. 4862-67]

This particular text and many others like it have moved me to a deeper appreciation of the Byzantine world and the way that it too struggled against what ended up being a centuries long conflict in the Western Church over the curse of lay investiture. Canon XII says more and that more got me thinking about the new drive on here in Ukraine for the establishment of one local orthodox Church in the tradition of the ancient Byzantine See of Kyiv founded from Constantinople more than a millennium ago. As much as we have to thank St. Volodymyr for his cooperation with God's grace so as to bring about the Baptism of the people of the Rus over a millennium ago, the Church, even for Constantinople and certainly for Kyiv for whatever meaning can be drawn from the notion of symphonia, remains Church under God in Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The princes must know their place in the temple of the Lord and the bishops and clergy must know that their only court of appeal beyond the Synod, or in our case the Apostolic See, would be on bent knee before the Heavenly Throne.

Although fasting and penance may not be appropriate to the glorious Easter Season, I hope and pray that our Orthodox brothers and sisters are pleading before the Heavenly Throne for the grace of the Holy Spirit for the upcoming deliberations of their bishops in search of reconciliation among the various bodies within Ukrainian Orthodoxy, which still find themselves very much divided. Humanly speaking, the savvy may clearly understand that the historical reasons for the present divisions, which have rent the seamless garment of Christ, are rooted in sin and human failure. Even so, the Fathers of Antioch and many more teach that recourse to the strong arm of the "Emperor" would also be a crime.


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