Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:Al Masih qam! Christós anésti! Christós voskrése! Hristos a înviat! CHRIST IS RISEN!ARE WE A CULT?
Cult, n. 1. A system of religious devotion directed towards a particular person or object, e.g., 'The cult of the Black Madonna'. 2. A person or object that is popular among a particular group of people or section of society, e.g., 'Harold and Maude (1971) is a cult film'. 3. A new religious movement whose beliefs are at odds with more established versions of the religion.
Sect, n. 1. A group of people with somewhat different beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from the larger group to which they belong. 2. A philosophical or political group, especially one regarded as extreme or dangerous.
In the years between 70 to 120 BCE, an obscure, exclusive, reputedly extremist sect, made up of a few Palestinian outcasts, worshipped a dead rabbi and, some said, secretly ate his flesh. In the space of half a century, this new movement attracted an increasing number of Gentiles and appealed mostly to outcasts - a particular section of society. So devoted were its adherents to its Crucified God that many were willing to die for him. Expelled from the synagogue, with which they differed more than somewhat, this dangerous, extremist sect arrogantly called itself 'the Way' (Acts 19.9) and met in private homes or lecture halls. Fearful, distrusted if not maligned, the Way (ἡ ὁδὸς) survived on one belief: that a man called Yēšūa was God - the one and only - and that he died on a cross in order to burn death out from inside.
Extreme as only belief in the Risen Christ can be, devoted to a particular Person, and appealing to a marginal section of society - does that sound familiar? Add to the rumours the sheer control that Peter, James, and John surely exerted over disciples of the Way and there you have a cult. Must we hide behind hastily mumbled Greek, ululating chanters, and stained Byzantine robes to forget that 'Christendom' - normal, mainline religion - was never Christianity? Must one blend in with mainstream unbelief in order to dull the sectarian edge of the Gospel?
A sect? Nay, a cult. The cult of the Nazarene, as pagan Pliny would have dubbed it, still shows its face from time to time in a small, tightly-knit family in Christ that nothing unites but Christ and each other.
As our exile draws to a close (at least for now), we are looking into a variety of schools and hall facilities. In the four months of our exile, the internet has enabled me to keep in touch with many members of our parish family who were unable to reach our 'catacomb'. A record number have watched our Divine Liturgies, Passion Week, and Paschal services live-streamed from a home. Our use of English, hard-hitting homilies, and a congregation where 55% are ages 35 or under still see numbers growing. Until we are safe and secure in a new home, I shall keep addresses confidential among those who proved so faithful since Theophany 2023. If you attend the parish regularly, please do likewise. We do not seek numbers, any more than that handful of disciples, once dubbed the Way. We seek brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let those liturgical theatres called 'mainline Orthodoxy' pander to crowds. Let gilded icons and carved iconostasis glitter in the eyes of those who hunger for nothing more substantial than that slice of tsouréki, nothing more filling than the bowl of lukewarm borscht. If they are satisfied with Christendom, let them seek it. We seek only the Risen Christ.
We seek Treasure in his empty Tomb and find him in a garden where, as with Mary Magdalene, he calls each of us by name (John 20.16).
A POOL CALLED MERCY: Paralytic Sunday
Christianity is more than a series of events. It is a record of salvation. Of the six (6) Sundays of Pascha, only the first three recount what happens. Christ rises from the dead. Thomas touches his wounds. The women bring myrrh and find the empty Tomb. The fourth Sunday, like the fifth and sixth, suggests what Resurrection means.
The pool of Bethesda (beiṭ hesdā, house of mercy) has five porticoes where invalids lie, waiting for alms or a chance to bathe in the magical waters. The Law, i.e., mainline Judaism, has five books. From time to time, an angel stirs the pool and the waters take on powers to heal. When Mercy himself sees a man who has lain paralysed for thirty-eight years, he asks: 'Do you want to be healed?' (John 5.7). Mainline religion take it for granted. Christ, the sectarian, realises that the man must ask. 'Rise', he commands, 'take up your bed and walk!' (John 5.9). Unlike a 'cult' that controls the mind, the Way inspires minds and hearts to desire it consciously. It resurrects the paralysed.
The kontakion hymn for the Sunday asks Mercy to raise us up from 'thoughtless acts;' to a life that is aware of itself. The most 'thoughtless' act of pseudo-faith is mechanical belief in God that we call mainline religion.
WATER JUG: the Samaritan Woman
North of Judea and south of Galilee, Samaria (Šōmrōn) was a dubious region in the eyes of the Judeans. Aramean, Canaanite, and Syrian blood blended in its inhabitants. A land of half-pagan cults ever since the Assyrians captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE, Samaria is Judea's chief image of the stranger at the gates. Raised in Galilee, Our Lord shocks his Judean listeners by depicting a grateful Samaritan leper (Luke 17.16), let alone a Samaritan who proves more merciful to a mugging victim than a Judean priest (Luke 10.33).
The woman drawing water from Jacob's Well near Sychar is no quasi-pagan. She belongs to no cult per se. Rather, she adheres to her own Jewish sect (Luke 4.20) that adheres to the tradition of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rather than King David. Her five (late) husbands and the man with whom she lives testify to no strange beliefs but an everyday, this-worldly lifestyle, as homely as the water jug that she lays by the well. Christ 'enlightens' her with a new faith: one based neither in Jerusalem nor Mount Gerizim (Luke 4.21-24). The new Holy Land is no custom but worship 'in spirit and in truth' (Luke 4.23) - in brief, Orthodoxy. Amazed at this novel 'cult' of truth, she runs into the city to spread news of the Galilean. Most striking, however, is one object: the water jug (Luke 4.29) that she leaves behind. A newly-illumined follower of the Way, she is no longer content with everyday religion.
We nickname her Photinē (or Svetlána), the illumined one. The extremist cult of the Nazarene is able to enlighten more souls than inherited custom.
WHO SINNED?: Sunday of the Blind Man
A multitude of glorified saints enlightens the month of May: Athanasius of Alexandria, Evangelist John the Theologian, Cyril and Methodius (enlighteners of the Slavs), and Pachomius from the Egyptian desert. Like all extreme, sectarian, and therefore dangerous followers of the Way, they believe not out of habit but consciously. No pawns of an impersonal fate, they are free agents. In other words, they are not stones but men.
'Who sinned', ask those naive disciples, 'this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' (John 9.2). Calvinists before the time, these twelve conventional Jews assume that ill fortune must be the penalty for sin: Adam's, one's parents, or one's own, predestined before birth. (They should read Job). Christ refutes a childish lust for penalties and rewards. 'This man was born blind', the Physician declares, 'in order that God should open his eyes' (John 9.3-5). Dabbing spittle into dust, he rubs the clay into the corneas. Just as he shaped Adam from clay, so Christ re-creates a man.
Mainline Judaism expels him. His candour - 'So what if this Healer healed on the Sabbath? I know, only that I was blind and now I see' - dooms the beggar to his newfound cult. Sensing that the healing miracle was a parable, the mainstream Pharisees ask ironically: 'So, are we blind, too?' 'If you were', the Physician responds, 'you would have no sin. But because you say, "We see", your sin remains' (John 9.41). Mainline religion is not amused.
The 'typological' Sundays of Pascha - the Paralytic, the Samaritan Woman, and the Man Born Blind - suggest that the only real death is being unconscious. A paralysed beggar who cannot move, a blind one who cannot see, and a housewife who cannot see beyond the everyday: the dead are everywhere. If so, resurrection means becoming conscious.
ABOVE THE HEAVENS: the Ascension
Bad enough, to believe that a Virgin of twelve conceives. Worse, to believe that the Infant inside is God. Even worse, to believe that this God actually hungers, thirsts, weeps, bleeds, dies, and kills death. If you really wish to outrage mainline 'Abrahamic' religion, tell it that this thirsting and weeping Body now sits 'at the right hand' of the inconceivable Creator. True, the Risen Christ neither bleeds nor weeps. Nonetheless, his Body is fully human. Humanity invades heaven.
On a mountain called Har ha-Zeitim (Mount of Olives) to the east of Jerusalem, the One whose pierced side Thomas touched and who breaks bread with two disciples on the road to Emmaus lifts his arms. In full sight, he rises above the clouds. As the onlookers gaze with open mouths, two young men all in white ask: 'Why are you staring? In the same way that he rose, this Yēšūa shall come again' (Acts 1.11). Only a 'cult' could believe that.
Is an actual human Body seated beside the Creator of heaven and earth inconceivable? If so, it is no easier to conceive of God conceived in a womb, dripping Blood from a Cross, or giving his Precious Body and Blood … to you. It is no easier to believe in a handful of marginalised Jews and Gentiles carrying faith in a Risen God-Man to the corners of the globe.
Or indeed, in a handful of marginalised believers actually surviving in an obscure corner of the North London suburbs. Our fervent, intimate, above all conscious parish has braved the odds because we are still the Way. In other words, the Cult.
CULT OF OUR LADY: Little Walsingham
Our Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary forces no one. The Mother of England is no more a tyrannical cult leader than a responsible Orthodox priest. Instead, she invites even the heirs of those who burned her image in 1539 to visit 'England's Nazareth'.
Our annual Pilgrimage to Walsingham is scheduled for Saturday 27 May (the Afterfeast of the Ascension), leaving Liverpool Street by coach at 8:00 am. Mother Melangell, the resident Orthodox nun, is expecting us. We shall tour the Shrine, drink the healing waters and gather for the Akathist to Our Lady at 3:00 pm. We return to London by the evening.
by this Thursday 4 May. We hope to guarantee the lowest cost per person.
WALKING BY FAITH, NOT BY SIGHT
In his mercy, Christ our true God sends me trials in order to remind me that I withstand them. As I struggle to read under insufficient light or to recognise your faces in the shadow, my soul claps its hands and sings. Great is the joy that comes from straining to see, then slowly, painfully, and surely recognising a familiar face.
In this Paschal month of the Blind Man, this half-blind priest rejoices that his parish family is as truly a 'cult' as the Way.
Yours faithfully in the Risen Christ,
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