The body exists, and I am one: the mystagogy of the time of the Nativity

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photo by me

One of the graces of Byzantine churches is our habit of celebrating echoes. The Feast of the Meeting marks the end of the Nativity season, and that should be the end – more Christ was born as a greeting, more Christmas decorations, more hymns from the Nativity to the liturgy – and yet, as if to give us one last time for a last feast, we have the feast in echo of the Saint and Righteous Simeon the God -receiver and the Holy Prophetess Anne just after the Meeting of the Lord, when presented by the Theotokos, herself the temple of the Lord who had been received in the temple, at the temple. As the calendar has this year, the next day will be Publican and Pharisee Sunday, the first day of the Season of Preparation for the Great Fast, leading up to a week where we are forbidden to fast, lest we let us become proud by our fast and not join the tax collector by beating our chest and repeating the prayer of Jesus, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, sinner. We will do a lot of this during the Great Fast, especially when we fall prostrate after prostration in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete both the first and before the fifth week of the fast. The first thing to exclude from our praxis is pride itself.

This is as opportune a time as any to reflect on the prayer of these past months. Throughout the blog I have written about how I carry the Nativity icon with me where I go and how to practice a Nativity spirituality that informs my policy. The prayer of the past few months has provided a time for more focused reflection, as our mission in Chicago has practiced reader services where we pray for social justice, as well as with the High Holidays. As this Nativity season draws to a close and the Great Fasting movement begins at Easter and Pentecost, it may be time to take stock of this movement from Christmas to Candlemas.

One of the things that I have realized time and time again in this church is that the statement of intent is overrated. Of course, this is what we are told to do in a secular world, that a programmatic agenda of work and reflection must be developed and followed. This way I have been educated with intention and am generally good at stating what I am going to do. What I have learned in spiritual life, however – which is the truest reality of real life – is that intending to do something is not the same as doing it. . In doing so, I detected two conflicting movements in my life which began to manifest in my catechumenate and now continue to conflict with each other, although, as my father once told me spiritual, We win, in the sense that I make at least an effort, however small, to conquer life in the mode of pure intentionality. The second movement, I find, is that which allows the mystagogy of our church, and is that you could get a general idea of ​​what you will get in a religious service by reading the headings and the properties, but there is nothing quite like being thrown in the middle of it. The consolations – and the desolations too, when the person next to you dominates the song or when the liturgy is not done quite correctly or the cantor pushes the tone much too high – cannot be anticipated. They happen to me suddenly, and the unexpected then itself becomes food for thought. In this way, practice precedes intention. It’s not, I’m learning, that intentions don’t matter, as I used to say to my friends when this double movement was overwhelming. It’s more that my intentions are shaped by thinking about my action. This is, of course, what most people in history have called praxis.

The reflection that I have on the mystagogy of the last months from the fast of Saint-Philippe to this Feast of the Meeting is part of this line of praxis. I think my intention during this time was to think mystagogically about the concept I tried to understand in my academic work – the post-secular – but that has never really happened, except in my scholarly writing, which takes place outside of this blog. What I arrived at last night as I was writing my thoughts for the Encounter, however – and this after writing an extremely hesitant article on the New Calendar celebration of the same feast – is how much the feasts and the fasts of this first movement of the liturgical year constantly bring our contemplations back to the reality that we are first and foremost bodies. In the Encounter, the Theotokos – herself a temple that has entered the temple – brings the glory of the Lord into the temple in the fragility of her forty-day body. Together, they meet a prophet and a prophetess, Simeon and Anna, who have dwelt bodily in the temple while awaiting the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise. Simeon, seeing the Lord, asks to be dismissed from his body.

Thus, the movement of the fasts and feasts of this last season begins long before the fast of Saint Philip, where the Holy Apostle Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch mutilated in his body and joins him to the Body of Christ so that he no longer says never that it is a dry tree. With the Theotokos herself as the temple of the Holy Spirit, we are brought back to the beginning of the ecclesial year, to her Nativity just after the Indiction. We start with it as a body, and in this sense, as a temple in its own right. Indeed, the genius of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since 1989 has been to situate this meditation at the very beginning of the ecclesial year, at the Indiction, by calling it World Day of Prayer for the protection of creation. We are bodies in the world. In the words of Patriarch Dimitrios, calling for prayer that educates the faithful in ecological justice: “It is a fundamental dogma of his faith that the world was created by God the Father, which is confessed in the Creed as being” the maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. According to the great Fathers of the Church, man is the prince of creation endowed with the privilege of freedom. Being both a participant of the material world and the spiritual world, he was created in order to return creation to the Creator so that the world could be saved from decay and death. Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate projects the first step of the liturgical year, from the Indiction to the Meeting, as a prolonged service of Vespers, beginning with creation, descending into our sin, lighting the lamps and announcing the Word of God in the evening. The point is, the Nativity is literally about the birth of bodies into the world, and these feasts and fasts of this first movement show them to us as temples, first of the bearer of God and then of the God who was born into the world.

I wouldn’t say our church has a body reflective bounty. It might be strange to say this, but when I was an evangelical there was a lot of thinking about bodies. Teenager, I read Jerry Bridges’ book Pursuit of holiness, an evangelical classic associated with the group of Navigators, where he speaks of the holiness of the body and the need to care for it as a temple of the Holy Spirit. I took classes at Regent College, where speakers like Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson, as well as most of the professors there (especially Loren Wilkinson), talked about taking the Sabbath, eating well, and fasting because that the body is what the Lord created for us. to be. We read texts by exegetes Joel Green and Walter Brueggemann who challenged the popular Christian notion that we are souls in bodies and that Scripture advocates a monist version of existence, that all we have are bodies and that when we are raised from the dead as the Lord was as the firstfruits of the new creation, it will be to be in a resurrection body. In this way, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, the great ecumenist of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, was very popular among many of us, especially his argument that we shift from a biological mode of existence when we have a ecclesial dimension to exist because we no longer live to survive, but live with a resurrection orientation and therefore have nothing to fear from death.

What I am saying is that in this church I do not need to be reminded of these concepts as ideas to focus on when I am part of the liturgy. The whole of this first liturgical movement of the first part of the year obliges me to participate as a body in these somatic contemplations. I sing, I stand, I revere, I bow down, I read: these are all skillful practices that leave little time to think too much. Acting in the body is not only a good idea, it is almost still in the Theology of the body, which really only explores the sexual dimension of bodily life – and this usually from the perspective of a single man who has never been married and therefore often inhibits his thinking in the realm of ideas and not practice (for this reason, I much prefer the Sacrament of love). Acting in the body is a act (and I have the impression that this is where the thought of John Paul II really shines, not only in The interim person, but in his meditations on Saint John of the Cross), and the participation in the liturgy which brings us back in the temple to our bodies as temples requires the action of the body.

It is the rooting in the body as a temple that motivates my life in the world. I feel like I have been encouraged over the past few months to write about my academic work, as well as the little things I do in my community to work for social justice, explicitly highlighting feminist beliefs and ecological which also informed my sense of bodily life and why it is not killable. But this daring does not come from ideology. It is not a set of ideas mixed up with my intentions that keeps me writing, thinking and acting a little more. It is to act itself in a sense of bodily competence and integrity, to practice first and to reflect later. It turns out that the mothers and fathers of the church had this thinking before me, and they designed church services to educate someone like me – someone committed to a secular ideological way of thinking. and therefore overthinking everything – dragging myself out of it. Unexpectedly, these reflections may even coincide with feminist reflections on affect, a dimension of contemporary academia that I never thought I would love, and while I certainly don’t fall for the celebration of the posthuman and post-anthropocene in these currents, I wonder if I could finally be fairer in my commitments with them because of this mystagogical education in which I am bathed. Of course I will take their views on self-care more seriously, that the idea that we are bodies means that we cannot work like machines or think like pure minds. You have to eat, you have to move, you have to love; these truths are shared between anti-capitalist feminists and the Catholic social doctrine of Rerum novarum.

I expect the asceticism which runs from Christmas to Candlemas – or more fully, from Indiction to the after-feast of the Meeting – will be extended in the next movement starting today in Preparation for the Great Fast. But maybe once again my expectations will be exceeded, so I will have to keep the future open in anticipation of what this mystagogical journey has in store for me.


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