Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom:: The Vision of the Good Life

(For the next several months I will be participating in this book club on Desiring the Kingdom, hosted by Mystie at Simply Convivial. If you missed my earlier posts you can find them here)

To be honest as I thought about writing this week I really did not have much to say about the first part of this chapter (or even the rest of it for that matter). Chapter three is a closer examination by Smith of some of the practices that exist in our culture that he would classify as liturgies: practices aimed at shaping and forming the persons that we are.

In this week's section of the chapter he took a look at the practices which he described a bit in the introduction when he explored the culture of the shopping mall as a kind of liturgy which draws us in and has the capacity to turn our hearts toward something other than Christ. Maybe because I don't like malls, or because I consciously (try to) reject the ideas of consumerism and materialism I am left with little to say about this. I get it: the culture of "stuff" is a culture that has turned toward all that stuff (including the actions associated with the concrete products) for fulfillment, rather than toward Christ.

So, since I haven't anything of consequence to add to Mr. Smith's points in this chapter, I thought I'd like to take a look at how the vision of the Good Life implicit in the practices of the Orthodox Church presents itself and how it counters the liturgies of the mall and other non-Christian cultural practices. (I did read ahead a little bit and I see that a detailed discussion of Christian worship is coming up in chapter 5, so I'm focusing here on the vision as a whole rather than the details of the actions of worship.)

The first thing to understand about the Orthodox is that we like love physical, material things. We use the tools we have been given to point our hearts toward worship in spirit and truth. When one enters the nave of an Orthodox church there is a tangible shift in atmosphere. There are icons (images of Christ and His saints) everywhere - in the front, along the walls, in the back, on the ceiling. There is gold everywhere - the Gospel is covered in heavy gold covers, the candles are hung in gold lamps, the priest blesses the people with a gold cross, the censer is gold. There are candles burning, and incense as well. The actions of the faithful who enter also reflect this shift: the sign of the cross is made, icons* are venerated with bows and kisses, voices are raised in song singing of the glory of God and asking His mercy on His people.

All of these things have a purpose and they point our bodies, our minds and our hearts toward God. There is a union of heaven and earth that takes place. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book The Eucharist, describes it as
...the gathering together of heaven and earth and all creation in Christ - which constitutes the essence and purpose of the Church. 
...it is an incarnation of the vision of the Church as sobor [a word which translates as both assembly and cathedral], as the union of the visible and invisible worlds, as the manifestation and presence of the new and transfigured creation.  
He describes it as an incarnation, the embodiment of the Church in heaven and the Church here on earth. What happens then, is that the material is used to point our desire toward the immaterial. Our gut is grabbed by physical sights, sounds, smells, actions and, most importantly, taste. This capturing of the senses then aims our desire toward Christ. This really is a vision - even more than a vision, an experience - of the kingdom of heaven. The Kingdom: the only kingdom that matters. The roots of our worship are in the Old Testament,* so this vision of heaven was made possible for us by the grace of God when He gave the law to the Israelites all those thousands of years ago.

The union of heaven and earth that I'm speaking of is not mere poetry or some kind of metaphor. What I am speaking of is a real, actual occurrence that happens when the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and the people are united by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. We step outside of time into the eternal celebration of the presence of God where the angels and all the saints are continually singing "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!" It's not just nice feelings or an ideal or some kind of representation of what will come in the future. It is here and now, in the present. It's hard to describe in words; experience is a better teacher here.

In Smith's book he talks about how the practices of consumerism and materialism end up breeding competition between people because we compare ourselves to each other. The standard set is "the person next to me". In contrast the standard in the Church is only ever Christ and His saints, who by living for Him have become like Him. The question then changes from "how can I be better than my brother?" to "how can I become more like my Lord?" This standard is set before us in images, words and actions, always pointing us toward Christ. Every single practice in the Orthodox Church has been carefully and lovingly preserved so that our hearts might be purposefully and deliberately aimed at pursuit of the Kingdom of Heaven. In God's kingdom all have life in Christ, and the life in Christ is the only life worth having.

 book club

*If you're interested in the Jewish roots of Christian worship you might like to listen to/watch this video.

*For those of my readers who are not Orthodox, and are unfamiliar with what we believe about icons, here is a short explanation, which was taken from this article: So what is an icon? Webster defines an icon as an image (Webster, 1966). In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role... an icon is “theology in imagery, the icon expresses through color what the Gospel proclaims in words”.
We venerate and honor icons as sacred, but we reserve our worship for God alone. 


  1. Very thoughtful post. I have had a hard time with the book. I think it is because I am frustrated that its author can "know" all that he knows without coming to Orthodoxy. No offense intended at all, I just personally wonder how he has remained protestant.

    1. I've felt the same way as you, Amanda. I'm trying my best to keep my annoyance/frustration at bay, but I do feel it. So I just try to leave him out of it altogether and instead take the truths that he's saying and examine my own actions in that light. In spite of the fact that I feel like most of what he's saying is old news from our perspective it's been very enlightening to really take the time to think about how this all can carry over to our daily habits. I'm hoping to write a bit more on that eventually...

    2. In that sense, yes, the book is very convicting. I have so much to soak in as far as habits go. He has really made me take a hard look at that. But, as far as separating the author from his book, well, I am afraid that is an impossible way to read for me. LOL! When I read a book I start thinking I am personal friends with the author. Am I weird or what? Many times I catch myself desiring to set down with this man and just hash things out over a good cup of coffee.

    3. I don't find it weird at all. I'm probably the more strange in that I approach authors in the same way that I approach new friends: I keep them at an emotional distance unless I sense a deep connection. We have to be kindred spirits. If not, I guard my heart very carefully and approach with caution.

  2. I love your line "the only kingdom that matters." That is true. We reformed types also celebrate that worship takes us up into the Holy of Holies in heaven with all the other worshiping saints around the world and throughout time. Being formed by a true liturgy is essential, and I'm looking forward to how he fleshes that out in chapter 5.

    1. I've begun to poke around chapter 5 a bit, but haven't read it very carefully yet. It looks like it will be very interesting.


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