The Hierarchical Universe and the Transfiguration (with a postscript on icons)

TransfigurationIt is easy for us in our putative democratic society to disdain hierarchy, and thus part of the reaction by some against the idea of the saints, and our necessary use of them in and with our prayers.  Saint is a word our language obtained from French – – but French from Latin (sanctus), for which it means holy, though it also refers as well to the saints. For us it has become the peculiar accolade for those the Church has said are surely now in the presence of God. The rest of the Christian world refers to them simply as the holy ones, or the sanctified, as their language warrants. What has this to do with Transfiguration and hierarchy? Our necessarily hierarchical world, it could not be otherwise, given the structures of reality, was something admitted fairly freely by all, at least until we come to William of Ockham in the West, who severed God from his creation, making creation but an arbitrary construct chosen from an infinity of arbitrary constructs (this is being simplistic to what the friar was attempting, which in many ways was trying to keep God from being so tightly bound to His creation that to divine the one was to divine the other). Luther adhered on multiple levels to Ockham’s thought, it animating his need to bridge the gap with this infinitely removed God. Luther’s theology began with Deus absconditus (the God who hides himself) and moved from there. Most of the Reformed as well were voluntarists not only in their cosmogony, but also in their soteriology: Calvin asserted that God’s acceptance of Christ’s righteousness for us was based wholly on the divine caprice, and not in anything of worth in Christ’s acts themselves.

So, leaving Protestant thought to one side, why is the world necessarily hierarchical? I shall give four reasons, and then come back to the Transfiguration, and end with a note on icons.

First, there is a hierarchy within the Trinity. This is not a hierarchy of glory, or love, or even of divinity, but a hierarchy with respect to revelation, divine origin, and cosmogony and cosmology. When we read that “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made,” and that “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God,” we see already that God’s reality, God’s scheme of things, is not one in which Creator is separated from creature, but instead that the Creator – – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – – is both Artificer and Orderer of the cosmos. Indeed, that the Father creates the universe through His Word tells us that the divine logic (a word whose etymology is from the Greek logos) stands not merely behind creation, but within it. This key notion cannot be understated, for it puts the lie to Gnostic pessimisms and cosmogonies that sees creation as an accident, a mistake, or a Fall.

Second, God operates beyond just the activity of the Logos in mediating grace and life to the world, for we see that the angelic powers were present at creation, at the Fall, and throughout the Old Testament. St. Paul tells us that the Covenant given to Moses was mediated by the angels, and this is why images (icons) of angels appear in the tabernacle and in the temple. It is also why the cherubim sit guarding the throne upon the ark of the covenant, and also the entrance back to the Garden. When we sing the Cherubic Hymn at the Great Entrance we acknowledge the part played by the angels in our redemption and in our lives, for we sing with them the thrice-holy hymn (the Trisagion), that is, we with them are part of the celestial choir ministering to the Trinity. And it is at the Entrance that we commemorate all the living and the dead, as well as the angelic hosts, recognizing that cherubim and seraphim surround the throne of God, and are the direct ministers to God.

Third, in our creation we were made, we are told in the 8th Psalm, a little lower than the angels, even though we are crowned with honor and glory. Much of our honor and glory is lost at the Fall, but certainly not all of it. We still honor earthly powers, we still honor any person, for they are made after God’s image and likeness. Indeed, the whole protocol of honor and dignity is one we in the United States have lost. The only places this seems still to exist is in the military, and also in reverencing either the flag or the anthem, or else rising at the entrance of the president coming into the room. But we shake hands with everyone, and the old formalities of bowing and curtsying have vanished. This is not the case the further East you get in Europe. The U.S. was born in independence from aristocracy and title. The third “right” in the Declaration of Independence, the right to the “pursuit of happiness” is actually an anti-aristocratic declaration that no one has more of a right to pursue their own ends than anyone else (there’s another whole post here on state redistribution of wealth, but that’s another day). I am not arguing here for aristocracy, or even for monarchy (I do, by way of confession, agree with the Philosopher that the best polities are those which are a mix of republicanism, aristocracy, and monarchy), but merely call attention to the fact that we have lost the whole notion of paying deference and honor to those ordered above us. Indeed, would we not stand in the presence of any angel, and saint? But that is just the least of it. Should we not bow in honor of them? Because we have lost the whole notion of hierarchy, we have also lost thus the distinction between veneration and worship, making the English word worship now a omnium gatherum for all acts of honor, and asserting that they belong only to God. But is this not the logical outcome of the nominalist world, the world of both Luther and Calvin, in which there can be no relative worship, no relative honor, for the world is a binary between Creator and creature (and this is the pivot on which so much of Van Til’s apologetic sits, an aspect of his clear indebtedness to Kantian idealism and his rejection of Cartesianism)?

And now to the Transfiguration: when Christ on the holy mountain – – as St. Peter termed it – – was metamorphasized before Sts. Peter, James and John, he appeared with Moses and Elijah, St. Peter wanted to make tabernacles to all three. But the divine voice corrects St. Peter, who had already admitted by the revelation of God that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. He misses that Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, testify to Christ and that they are not His equals, but below him. The making of the tabernacles was not the problem: the problem was that Moses and Elijah were somehow on par with Christ, or more aptly, that Christ was on par with them. As discussed in an earlier post, however, while Moses and Elijah only saw Christ’s glory distantly, we see it now fully, and in fact we shall ourselves be turned into this glory. Thus, the hierarchy of the universe is not some static reality, but a dynamic one.

This can be seen in the ancient hymn of St. Athanasius to the Blessed Virgin Mary, that she is far higher than the Cherubim and Seraphim, for while the former guarded God’s throne, she was God’s throne; and while the later are those closest to God as his ministers, she is now one fully with God in that God took His human nature from her, and has glorified the Mother, the Queen standing at his right hand. But this is not something peculiar to Our Lady, but is the lot of all Christians, that someday we as well shall be taken up fully into the life of the Trinity (for we even are now, though only partially).

Which brings us to icons. In icons we recognize not the wood and paint, but the reality beyond it. My daughter, when she was about six, said to me of the Pantocrator icon, “Dad, I think Jesus is behind there looking at me.” As Pr. Bill Tighe said, with a great smile: “Out of the mouths of babes.” When we reverence icons it is no more an act of worship than when David and Jonathan prostrated themselves before each other, or when David prostrated himself before the Ark of the Covenant. We have lost the vision of the ordering of the universe, and thus as well lost sight of the symphony that we are part of, and our places in it. Icons point us to the structure of the world as something other than merely what our eyes see, but a ladder that ascends to heaven, with the saints as it were as rungs to help us on our way: not for us to put our feet on, but to elevate us up. C. S. Lewis cautioned about democratic sentiments, the modern world built on science and the reduction of values and qualities to their most atomistic and basic levels. Democracy was fine, Lewis said, if we see in it only a way to organize voting, but it quickly breeds that envious and petty spirit of “you are no better than me.” But as Orthodox, and this is the fourth point, the world is necessarily hierarchical, for if each of us confesses that we are the chief of sinners, how can it not be?

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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One Response to The Hierarchical Universe and the Transfiguration (with a postscript on icons)

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