“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. . .”*
The Pentecost feast-day reading from Acts (2:1-21) is absolutely galvanized with spiritual energy, isn’t it? It radiates with the brightness of faith coming into being in an extraordinary mystical experience including the whole community gathered in prayer; so that, in the words of Romanos’ Kontakion for Pentecost: “they glorified the All-Holy Spirit” (E. Lash, trans. 1995, 207). This abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit, revealed to us in Scripture, is a foundational treasure of Orthodox Christianity. It is the Holy Spirit who is leading us through the Liturgy, who gave courage to the early men and women martyrs, who guided the Ecumenical Councils, and who defined the Canon of Holy Scripture.
We are fortunate that the Acts of the Apostles was crafted so soon after the events it describes. While it is a story involving a whole panorama of remembered characters and beloved episodes contributing to the seeding and growth of the Primitive Church, it is the action of God—the living divinity of God we know as the Holy Spirit—which is most urgently, most excellently portrayed here. “It is no exaggeration to conclude that Early Christians looked upon the Holy Spirit as the chief external witness to the presence of Christ’s reign” (J.T. Koenig, Charismata: God’s Gifts for God’s People, 1978, 73). In fact, Acts might better be titled “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit.”
Recently, a newspaper article brought to the attention of the public a rather unusual request made by an Orthodox believer to his bishop in Romania. The believer asked the bishop why the Church is not doing anything about the situation of the thousands of orphaned and abandoned children in the country. The believer even proposed a practical solution: to establish a sacrament of adoption as a precondition for receiving ordination. In this way, part of the problem would be solved. The hierarch answered by pointing to the philanthropic activity of the Church already in place and the difficult process that has to be followed for adoption, and for financial reasons, he excluded the possibility of linking adoption with ordination. The young family would not have the material resources to adopt a child straightaway.
Now, pause for a second and try to move beyond whatever you might think about the answer of the bishop or the initial impression of awkwardness the proposal elicits. The hierarch is right to reject conditioning the ordination on adoption, although for reasons other than the one he mentioned: not only that any sacrament should not be forced on anyone, but also that forcing someone to adopt a child to obtain a position might lead to instrumentalizing the child, and this would not necessarily improve the life of the little one. Still, there is much to be appreciated here. The proposal comes from a good place, burning with the care and compassion characteristic of the Christian ethos ever since the first centuries, when Christians adopted the disabled children abandoned at the side of the road by the pagans. There is also some truth in the assumption that if adoption were a sacrament, the practice would receive more visibility, and more Orthodox faithful might be encouraged to assume it. But, more importantly, the author of the letter invites us to reflect on a fundamental question: Is there any reason against considering adoption a sacrament? From the perspective of systematic theology, I am tempted to say no.
In preparing to participate in the services leading to Pascha, a memorable element of the Liturgy for many of the faithful is the Hymn of St. Kassia (ca.810-ca. 865 CE), “Lord, the Woman Fallen into Many Sins.” It is remembered as a heartwarming centerpiece of the Tuesday Evening service, and sung as the Doxostikon of the Aposticha, when the Wednesday “Bridegroom Matins,” is offered. The robust popularity of the “Kassiani,” as the hymn itself is often called, may stem from its appealing melody and the opportunity it provides for the chant to be elaborated on the tune with flourishes of extemporaneous melismatic ornaments which leave worshippers spellbound. Emotional urgency simmers through the story in light of the approaching Passion of Our Lord.
Because the text cries out from the inner landscape of the woman’s soul, there is a graceful fluid commingling in it of both the Gospel women who anoint Jesus at supper, the one in Luke read at the service (7:36-50) and the one in Matthew (26:6-13) as well; and, it is the same haunting amalgamation of women used by St. Romanos in his longer metrical homily, the kontakion, “On the Harlot.” So, this is a hymn rich with paradox and parallels, and a credit to the scriptural literacy of the Orthodox listener. Like Romanos, Kassia gives voice to the woman, here praising God for the majesty of Creation:
Each year since his death in 1983, Father Alexander Schmemann’s legacy is evoked through an established annual lecture in his name at St. Vladimir’s, the theological seminary in New York in which his ideas flourished, nourishing generations of clergy and faithful and, through numerous publications and lectures, reaching the broader world. A permanent academic chair or annual event implies that the individual named represents a benchmark of thought and achievement for the institution, a legacy which his spiritual heirs are committed to honor and promote. Here, I ponder how Fr. Alexander might formulate the Church’s response to the crisis of our time.
In a foundational idea of his work, perhaps best expressed in his famous lecture, Between Utopia and Escape, Fr. Alexander advocates for the middle path between two extremes—a sectarian isolation from the real world at one pole, and at the other pole, its counterpart of “progress” towards an ephemeral secular utopia. Yet his proposed middle path is not a compromise between the two extremes, but rather the victory of an ascension out of both dead-ends towards an eschatological vision of the tangible, real world, the home of the Incarnate Lord of history.