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From the October, 2000 issue of Touchstone


Eastern Lights & Shadows by Addison H. Hart

Eastern Lights & Shadows

Reflections on Orientale Lumen IV

by Addison H. Hart

The fourth Orientale Lumen Conference was held from Monday, June 19, to Friday, June 23, at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C. About 150 were in attendance to listen to a fine array of speakers and to discuss the theme “Eucharist: A Prayer for Unity.” As with the previous three conferences, it was sponsored by the Society of St. John Chrysostom (a society made up of Catholics and Orthodox, dedicated to the promotion of knowledge and understanding of the Eastern churches), the Eastern Churches Journal, and the School of Religious Studies of Catholic University. Jack Figel, the conference chairman, should be congratulated, along with those others who assisted him, for making this conference once again a reality.

I was privileged to be sent by the Catholic Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, affording me the opportunity to see old friends and to make new ones. In fact, one of the best aspects of this annual gathering is those ample times of casual socializing. Despite the schism between East and Latin West, the tensions between Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, and the ongoing irritations among various Orthodox jurisdictions, the mutual sharing and respectful relationships cultivated among those at these conferences is usually genuine and unaffected. This achievement alone is something worthwhile, and I hope it continues and bears fruit for many years.

Unity & the Eucharist

The co-moderators were Bishop Kallistos Ware of Diokleia and Father Raymond Collins, former dean of CUA and professor of Sacred Scripture. Bishop Kallistos set the tone for the conference on the first evening in his opening remarks. After speaking on the unity of the Body of Christ as caused from within the Church through the Eucharist, citing 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 and the Didache, and commenting on the fruitful ambiguity in the phrase Communio Sanctorum, Bishop Kallistos then drew attention to the fact that even at this conference our daily celebrations of the Eucharist itself (Orthodox and Catholic) would illustrate the sad divisions between us, ironically while being acknowledged as the cause of Christian unity. At each of the conference’s Eucharistic liturgies either only Catholics or Orthodox would be able to receive the Sacrament. This point—that the Eucharist causes the Church’s unity and yet we are sadly divided—highlighted a logical inconsistency that would be directly addressed during the third plenary session on Wednesday by Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East; but we’ll come to that shortly.

Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., vice rector and professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, delivered the first plenary session on Tuesday morning, addressing the topic of the Trinitarian and Pneumatic emphases in the Eastern Eucharistic liturgies. Of particular importance, he noted, is the rich theological understanding that communion with Christ in the Eucharist is also communion with the Holy Spirit and the Father, precisely because of the essential union of the divine Persons. Every aspect of the Eastern liturgies, including the consecrated Blood of Christ in the chalice, includes reception of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) and communion with God the Father (the fountainhead of the Trinity). Such a liturgical emphasis reveals the impact on the Church’s worship made by the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, which were mostly concentrated in the East.

Tuesday afternoon was spent in visiting local churches, ending up at the beautifully frescoed St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, where vespers was offered and Bishop Kallistos delivered the second plenary session. His topic was “Eucharistic Sacrifice: Who Offers What to Whom?” As one would expect, this was an erudite and substantial presentation, laced at times with Bishop Kallistos’s markedly British wit.

The Fire That Unites

Most engaging, in my opinion, was the third plenary session, given on Wednesday morning by neither a Catholic nor an Orthodox. Mar Bawai Soro is a bishop of the Church of the East (often referred to as the Assyrian Church) in the western United States. His theme was simply that of the conference itself, “Eucharist: A Prayer for Unity.” He spoke from the perspective of his church’s ancient tradition, a church with a unique—indeed for a long time, isolated—tradition. Although rooted in the biblical and Syriac patristic tradition of Antioch, the Church of the East came to be regarded as heretical (because Nestorian). However, old Orthodox/Catholic assumptions and condemnations regarding the actual meaning of its theological language and Christology are being reevaluated and, in fact, relinquished. Talks between the Assyrian Church and the Holy See began in 1984. Within the next few years it is hoped that a mutual statement and full communion will be established between the two churches.

Mar Bawai’s talk was given in three sections. The first, which he called “The Ministry of Reconciliation,” was focused on St. Paul’s understanding of the church’s mission (seen most strikingly in 2 Corinthians) as reconciling man to God. Reconciliation is the ultimate objective of the Church, and it is therefore possible for human beings to be reconciled among themselves in the Church because Christ—living in us—has already ended the supreme alienation, that between God and man. God’s forgiveness of our sins gives us the freedom to combat evil and to love others, thereby revealing to outsiders who God is. Reflecting on the Fathers of the Church of the East, Mar Bawai noted the common patristic view that all divisions in the Church are rooted in pride and hardness of heart, which make impossible the necessary gestures that lead to reconciliation. Divisions undermine the mission of the Church by undermining reconciliation itself.

The second portion of his talk dealt with the Eucharist as “the Fire that Unites.” The Syrian Fathers used the image of fire for the divine power of the Eucharist, which sanctifies the human heart and mind, and consumes sin. They likened this “fire and Spirit” (St. Ephrem of Syria) to the fire that consumed Elijah’s sacrifice on Mt. Carmel and the glory that filled Solomon’s Temple. The members of the Church, so empowered by God in the Eucharist, are transformed, reassured of salvation, and called to embody and carry forth the gospel.

With these ideas set before us, Mar Bawai continued with the third portion of his talk, under the heading “A Bride Seeking Comfort from Her Bridegroom.” The Church’s goal, he said, must always be to overcome evil and to transcend the personal (and divisive) weaknesses of her children. How has she the power to do this? By calling on her Bridegroom, Christ, to wage war on her children’s sin and evil. Our Lord gives us two commands: to celebrate the Eucharist and to make disciples of all nations; and in obedience to these commands we find the source for restored unity and the comfort that the Bride seeks.

At this point Mar Bawai made his particularly challenging contribution to the conference’s discussion. Apostolic churches (presumably, those whose heritage is unquestionably and directly apostolic in origin and theology) should increasingly be permitted to partake together of the saving, powerful, and unifying Eucharist. Without this inherent power of the Sacrament (through which, as Archimandrite Robert Taft taught in the first plenary session, the Holy Spirit is communicated; and which, as Bishop Kallistos told us on the first evening of the conference, unites the Church from within), all we are left with is speculative theology and dialogue. The Church of the East, seeing in the Eucharist the divine fire, recognizes the inherent transforming power of the Sacrament. Ecclesial unity cannot simply depend on the churches’ full ecclesiological agreement, but on its Communion with Christ—which is already present. Jesus’ prayer “that they all may be one” in John 17 must be seen as directly related to the shared food of everlasting life in John 6. As the Didache exhorted Christians to pray at the Liturgy, the scattered children of God are to be drawn, like so many grains of wheat into one Eucharistic loaf, to become one Church and Christ’s Body.

Barriers, Issues & Worship

I have little expectation that Mar Bawai Soro’s proposal will be taken with the seriousness it merits. The cynical part of my nature wants to say that it is just too sensible. Practically speaking, Catholic and Orthodox history has more than a millennium’s worth of abuses and grievances, not to mention the resulting rigid ecclesiological barriers; and thus a surplus of excuses exists for both churches to dismiss such a proposal out of hand, and continue on with their dubious notion (a sad point of actual agreement between them) that full ecclesiological agreement must precede partaking together in the Sacrament. The likelihood of Mar Bawai’s proposal being ignored as naive or dreamy is fairly certain. Still, despite all theoretical or practical arguments to the contrary, if the Eucharist indeed does have a causal connection with the unity of the Body (as the New Testament teaches, and as Orthodox and Catholics believe), and if it does communicate a power—a fire—that consumes sin and wages war on evil, then I believe that Mar Bawai has the better case by far, and stands with the apostles and Fathers in this matter. I cannot imagine, for example, the Apostle Paul exhorting us to pursue a much different course. We would do well to take this proposal with utmost seriousness.

The remainder of the conference’s talks were of varying interest. Father Raymond Collins gave a session on New Testament passages dealing with the Eucharist. (I would have preferred less confidence on his part in the “Higher Critical” dogmas of dating the New Testament books.) Chorbishop John Faris, adjunct professor of Canon Law at CUA, spoke on “Sacramental Sharing in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.” Father Thomas FitzGerald, who teaches history at the Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, and who is a member of the U.S. Orthodox-Catholic Theological Dialogue, spoke on the gradual way the schism between East and West came about (it didn’t simply happen in 1054). He spoke of the present state of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, assured us that there is reason to be hopeful, but also to be realistic that the process of reunion—like the schism itself—will be gradual.

The concluding panel discussion included Bishop Kallistos, Fr. Collins, Fr. FitzGerald, and Bishop Nicholas Samra (Melkite). Bishop Kallistos commented there that the issue barring shared Communion between Orthodox and Catholics is the matter of the nature of papal primacy. (One of the Orthodox priests present commented to me later that the very title “Vicar of Christ,” for example, poses Christological difficulties for many Orthodox. Christ promised to be with us until the end of the age, he pointed out, and thus he needs no vicar on earth. It would do little good to protest, as a Catholic, that the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t use the term “Vicar of Christ” in a way that undermines that Christological truth; but this priest’s words served to remind me of the fact that the language we customarily use is itself often a barrier to understanding.)

The conference was honored to have present throughout Bishop Vsevolod of Scopelos (Ukrainian Orthodox), one of the most prominent Orthodox voices for a sturdy dialogue with Rome. We were visited as well by Metropolitan Theodosius of the Orthodox Church in America, and by Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore. The conference received greetings from both the Holy See and the patriarch of Constantinople.

Lastly, the worship at the conference was living and rich. The various celebrations of the Divine Liturgy (both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic), orthros/matins, vespers, the akathist to the Mother of God, and the moleben to the Holy Spirit were beautifully done. The single exception was the “Latin Rite” Mass (actually, the English “translation”—to speak loosely—of the Latin Editio Typica from the 1970 American Sacramentary), sadly lacking the choir whose plane was delayed. Even so, had the choir been present, I suspect it would still have been the weakest of the liturgies. It had the double misfortune of following the impressive Orthodox Divine Liturgy of the day before; and I must confess that I was rather relieved that most of the Orthodox didn’t show for it. Being “Latin Rite” myself, I mention this with some concern: the current condition of Roman Catholic worship, with a few notable exceptions (I think, for example, of St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago), remains typically flat and anemic, and never seemed more so to me than when it was experienced at this conference, back-to-back with the glorious liturgies of the Eastern churches. Sadly (and I write hesitantly now as a former Anglican), I know very well that the Western liturgy doesn’t have to be so lacking in depth and spiritually impoverished.  

For those interested in the Society of St. John Chrysostom or Eastern Churches Journal, contact: The Society of St. John Chrysostom, P.O. Box 146, Fairfax, Virginia 22030; phone: 703-691-8862.

Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.

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“Eastern Lights & Shadows” first appeared in the October 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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