Thursday, April 24, 2008

evangelical Bible-thumpers

Last night was my first time witnessing the sacrament of holy unction. (In the Orthodox Church, what RCs often know as "extreme unction" is actually available many times throughout life, for both physical and spiritual healing.) It is commonly administered to anyone who wants to receive it, the Wednesday before Easter.

I don't know how it's done in more isolated applications, but in this service, it begins with the chanting of a canon, followed by 14 Scripture readings--seven from the Epistles and seven from the Gospels, alternating along with seven prayers. I suppose it probably seems long and repetitive to anyone who's not used to "liturgical" services. (Our service was a concise two-hours-and-ten-minutes.) At the conclusion, the faithful kneel under the upraised Gospel book, which is held open, pages facing down over their heads, while the priest prays. Then, one by one, they are anointed with oil, again coming under the Gospel book.

I guess some people think that Orthodox don't give enough attention to the Bible. They put too much emphasis on Tradition, they don't do enough personal reading, etc. But it's a tough accusation to substantiate. Their treatment of the Bible is certainly different from Protestant expectations. But to call it a de-emphasis of Scripture misses the point. Last night was, in a sense, a warm-up for tonight's reading of the Passion Gospels, in which the accounts of Christ's sufferings and death will be read from all four Gospels, with the faithful kneeling for each extended reading. There's a lot of Scripture reading in Orthodox public worship, and a lot of context for that reading. No one had to explain last night that unction is for both physical and spiritual healing--it's obvious from the selection of readings. And in general, if you pay attention to what passages are used and how and when, you start to see a lot of connections between the biblical text and the substance of faith and practice. Often, too, there will be accompanying icons and actions; there is extensive quoting from and allusion to Scripture in Orthodox hymns; often the point of the sermon is to tie it all together and make explicit what is otherwise implicit.

Orthodox bow when the Gospels are carried into the nave, when they are opened to read, when they are closed at the end. The book sits enthroned on the altar whenever it is not in use. It is venerated during the Orthros service. It is used in situations like holy unction to convey the presence of Christ in the midst of his people. The Gospel is laid on the head of the person in need of healing, and the priest lays his hands on the Gospel. It is Christ, first and foremost, who heals; the priest is just there to do the leg-work. Similarly, the Gospel is laid across the neck of a bishop at his consecration. No one's ever explained to me why that is, but I can guess that at least some of it is to show the burden he is taking up as one with primary responsibility to convey the Word of God to his people. It also shows that Christ's yoke is on him, and Christ is the one laying hands on him, blessing him for the work of leadership.

There is no question in Orthodoxy of the divinity of Scripture, of its power for salvation, of its inspiration by God, its truth, its status as God's Word. Scripture is woven throughout all of the Church's worship and is regularly referred to as the standard for the lives of the faithful. It is integral to the authority of the priests and bishops and essential for the Church's gathering as the Church. If that's not evangelical (centered on the Gospel), what is?

As a side note, Orthodox seminarians are currently attempting to hand out 400,000 booklets of the Gospel of Mark in Moscow subway stations during Holy Week.

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