If This Is the End, I Will Know It Is Not Love

His Grace Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic)  |  српски

In European cities, the period of anticipation of the joyous feast of Christmas has turned into a commercial and consumerist custom. Why are we so far away from an authentic approach to the feast?

There will always be a number of those who see in Christmas another opportunity to evoke the past and traditionalism, which returns to the past by “protological” mindset. Man aspires to archetypes. However, I would say that those who are faithful among us are also responsible for the commercialization of Christmas. We have begun to look for symbolism in the “past” (the cave, the fire, and such) by conjuring up the atmosphere of the Bethlehem cave. We have contributed to directing the meaning of the holiday to the past, and not the future. The entire event of the Birth of Christ—by which, as we know, the New Testament begins—is in the sign of future events: the God-child has come to save the human race, but its salvation is not completed by the incarnation of God alone, but by the events that follow, such as the Resurrection and Pentecost. This perspective requires another set of eyes and logic far from an archetype point of view but instead from an “eschatotype”. With such a perspective, Christmas is connected not with a romantic winter night, but with a startling desire for salvation from death.

The thought of a Polish writer Stanisław Jerzy Lec, which goes: “the most difficult time for the truth is the one in which everything can be truth”, seems to be valid for our time as well?

In the newest edition of the English language dictionary the word post-truth has found its place. On one hand, it is an inevitable result of the relativizing spirit of the post-modern era, and on the other hand, it is an ironic reaction to the trend of modern times in which “everything can be truth”, and against the ideas proposed by the Polish writer Stanisław. One should not be naïve. The slogan “post-truth” poses a threat not only to theology, but to democracy as well.  To face every dilemma or crisis, a discernment is needed i.e. the possession of spiritual criteria on the basis of which one can discern what comprises a theologically and spiritually legitimate perspective and what is theologically necessary for the very esse of the church life. At the same time, to evaluate the present, one needs to have a vision of the future, and at exactly this point—the relationship between the future and a historical discernment—lies the heart of the ecclesial theory and practice of the discernment of Truth. The saints have, by personal example of forgiveness and non-vengefulness, shown that they have incorporated the future into their lives and discernments.

What is the spiritual rhythm of modern times and present day people? Can you sense that spiritual pulse and tell us what the characteristics of our time are?

I think we are all moving in a time machine which takes us through pre-modern, modern and post-modern time simultaneously. For us though, it is very important to know how to orient ourselves and then we can combine all of this in an authentic way! It is comforting that in no epoch, God left not himself unwitnessed (cf. Acts 14:17). As opposed to many present day Serbs, (whom I do not reproach but I simply state the difference) the “East-West” dichotomy is foreign to me. It is an invention of the twentieth century; one significantly contributed by Orientalism expert Edward Said. He introduced into his lectures the idea of the East, characterized by religious sensibility, familial social order, and long tradition, as opposed to the Western rationalism, composed of material and technical dynamism as well as individualism.

In my opinion, the entire problem of the so called Western mentality lies in the interpretation, or hermeneutics. I personally consider that not all of the West are individualistic (as opposed to some collectivistic East) but that in the Western tradition a person is interpreted individualistically. So, history written by a Westerner is more frequently interpreted in an individualistic key. A personal or relational view, which the Church offers, is something else. However, everything has its rhythm and its time. Still, political conditions should not fetter original creativity in art, science, culture… Yet it is something we notice today: conservatism kills creativity and modernism warps it.

Contemporary spirituality frequently appears under different deceptive masks, fleeing from facing reality…

I agree. As the leading Orthodox psychologist, Fr. Basil Thermos points out, the fear of freedom as a lasting trait of a human being, begets the need to resort and to subjugate to some other “ego”. In our time this translates to an imagined “I” projected through the lense of computers and the virtual world. Besides, it is one thing to desire the truth and another to aspire to own it. Sometimes we forget that it is worth nothing to have the truth if we do not have love. That end should greatly interest us, mostly as a test or fulfillment of our historical quest. And the quest for God itself has no end. Saint Gregory of Nyssa summed it up wonderfully.

What is your impression—do we have today an active critical public opinion and strong creative people?

Sadly, there are less and less authentic critics of reality. Instead we see anonymous or semi-anonymous dominate the internet. In contrast, Hieromonk Justin Popović frequently wrote and critically commented upon the church situation of the period between the two world wars. However, I would personally always put freedom in Christ and the Church before a critical stance of doubt and denial. I have recently noticed that some people gladly say “The Church” does not do this or that well”, or they point to a “historical defeat of the Church”. I think that this is the mentality of the post-modern time. However, if we refer to the Fathers of the Church, we will see their “crazy love” for Christ and the Church, which they do not simply understand as hierarchy or an institution (such understanding dominates in present day theological discourse), but as a “Paschal mystery of Christ” and “eternal Council of God”; the Church whose roots are before the creation of the world and which identify with the Kingdom to come.

Today, can we speak in the realm of theology, as we can, for example, in the realm of culture, about some determined, offered or forced dominant theological paradigm? Priestly sermons, published church books, public lectures, church magazines?

I would say that theology (especially one starting from the Paschal mystery) naturally resists forced paradigms. “The history of dogma”, from the beginning until today, bears witness to that life élan and growth which leads to “the new song” and ever different theological expression. Every era gave a different tune or a new song to its contemporaries through the Fathers, those trumpets of grace of the Holy Spirit. From the church assembly, listening to the voice of the Spirit and the beat of time, emerges the essential music which enables us to experience death as conquered.

Enamored with Christ, we love his Church. One summer when I was listening to Ed Sheeran’s song “I am in love with the shape of you” with a youth group from California, I said: Let us translate it “eclesiologically”, understanding the Church as the shape of Christ. Such language was close to them. It is known that Saint John Chrysostom said about Apostle Paul: “For he loves Christ not because of Christ’s things, but for the sake of Him, he loves things that are His, and only at Him he looks and the only thing he fears is to stop loving Him”.

Starting with ourselves, we should exercise moderation in our modern unfettered freedom to criticize “everything and anything”…Only then will the priestly sermons, published church books, public lectures, and church magazines bear witness to the “theology of surprise”.

This year we commemorate 800 years of autocephaly of the SOC. Are you going to commemorate this day in your diocese in any special way? How do you, when we separate Saint Sava from the well-known common discourse, personally experience Saint Sava, the first Archbishop of Serbia?

The feast of autocephaly is, in my humble opinion, the feast of unity and not the feast of “independence”. For the Church—and through it the entire creation—has one crux which serves as a leavening agent of history, one grace which sanctifies each and all. Historical circumstances and dénouements of the 19th century brought Saint Sava to Nicaea in 1219, and the patriarch of Constantinople at that time, cloaked in the robe of weakness (a refugee to Nicaea), granted “autocephaly” to the Serbian state.

Contrary to our modern manners, Sava did not confront the East and the West, but aspired towards their synthesis. As Saint Nikolaj of Žiča said, “In him the East and the West have met in full harmony. He was prone to deep meditation as an Easterner and energetic in action as a Westerner.” That is the model for both that time and the modern day. Through careful reading of his biography one can see that Sava personally pacified the Hungaro-Latin alliance directed against Serbia, traveled through the Latin Kingdom as if through his own land, and sent his emissary to the Pope in Rome. It is for a reason that his biographer Domentijan mentions that the Sultan of Cairo respected Sava and called him “the true man of God”.

A more profound incorporation of the tradition of the Great Church of Constantinople and of Jerusalem, the Church of Zion, elevated Sava to a new level of spiritual and cultural understanding. Architecture, iconography, music, poetry, and prose from Sava’s time all lead the Serbian people towards spiritual maturity and impressive creations.

While celebrating the jubilee of the autocephaly, unless we include everything in it, the East, the West, the North, and the South, we will not be up to the task given to us by Sava Nemanjić.

We have more recent “waves” at the pan-Orthodox level…

The one who follows history “from within” knows that one should wait when it comes to pronouncing judgments and should avoid judging especially. The history of the Church teaches us that Providence is revealed through upsetting and paradoxical events. Church councils have accepted schismatics back into communion at the slightest sign of repentance. Let’s hope that the current turmoil in the Orthodox world is a temporary problem. If the Church is divided over a canonical turbulence, it would mean it is not so great, but small, and lost even before the split. My hopes are that the final goal should be the elevation into the liturgical life of a huge majority of the people who—for various, justified or unjustified reasons—have so far remained outside the reach of the Eucharist of the true Church…

We should believe that the Church will overcome these temptations and that everyone will be grateful these exact temptations appeared. The Church of Christ historically wins when it appears to be losing. Seen in the long run, perhaps this is a leavening agent of a much more profound unity which will come after our generation.

His Grace Maxim (Vasiljevic) is bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America. 

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.