Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Study Notes: 12 MAR 2015

Posted in D.Min. Study Notes, Women in the Church by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 12 March 2015

Notes of the study of liturgics

On whether the Apostle Paul’s comments about women are politically incorrect

NB: these are only random thoughts which are not necessarily correct.

In Orthodoxy, we see God not so much as a judge who punishes criminals, but rather as a physician who heals the sick. Thus, when God gives a punishment, it is not meant as torture but medicine. This medicine may be bitter, and the medical procedure may be painful, but pain is not the goal. For example, when a surgeon takes a knife and cuts into a man to remove cancer, he is not doing this because he enjoys hurting men, but rather because he wants to heal them: “He did not actually curse Adam and Eve, for they were candidates for restoration” (Tertullian).

Furthermore, when we look at the medicine, we can guess at the diagnosis. For example, if I know that you take antihistamine, I may guess that you have allergies. If I know that you take ibuprofen, I may guess that you have some inflammation.

So, when we look at the kind of medicine that God gave to Adam and Eve, we may begin to make guesses about their afflictions. To Adam God said: “You will work hard” (Gen. 3:17-19). Perhaps, Adam was lazy? Perhaps, instead of cultivating the garden of his soul, he let it get overgrown with weeds? Perhaps, he did not fertilize it enough with virtues? To the woman God said: “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (16). It is immediately after that that Adam called his wife’s name–that is to say, he asserted authority over her (20). This, of course, is a reversal of what God had said prior to sin: “A man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife.” Since Adam did not have a mother and father (and, presumably, was not expected to leave God), this was the social order for their descendants (2:24). And yet what happened after the fall is the exact opposite: the woman leaves her father and mother (her family) and cleaves to her husband. And the visible symbol of this is that she changes her family name and takes on her husband’s family name.

If such is the medicine–submission to her husband–what, then, was Eve’s illness? Perhaps, she aspired to rule over Adam? This is not immediately clear to us from the text, but since we are studying worship, let us look at the fall through that lens. Certainly, the story of the fall is not about a stolen apple (or pomegranate).

Who is so foolish as to think that God, in the manner of a gardener, planted a paradise in Eden, toward the east, and … that a person could be a partaker of good and evil by eating what was taken from the tree? … I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries. (Origen)

Adam and Eve were to partake of the fruit, which is communion with God, but they needed to prepare themselves first. They needed to till the garden of their souls and partake of the fruit as a gift from God. Instead, they chose to steal it. Eve saw the fruit and thought three things: it is good for food, it is delight to the eyes, and it gives knowledge. She fell into the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). It is as if one were to go up for communion in church and think within himself: “Hmmm… This is a pretty chalice, I wonder if it is an antique. The wine is quite tasty (now, the bread could be better). And I am glad that everyone is looking at me; they think that I am so spiritual.”

So, rather than partaking of the fruit as a sacrament, with due preparation and from the hands of God, Eve just took it of her own human will, and “she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). In other words, she communed him, she asserted her role above Adam. Instead of Adam receiving the fruit directly from God, Eve asserted her role as an intermediary between Adam and the fruit–it was in her possession, she usurped the right to distribute it.

If such was Eve’s illness, it makes sense that God gave her the medicine that He did, and that the Apostle Paul said what he said about Eve having been deceived in the garden. Thus, it is not about political correctness at all, but rather, it is about medicine. If someone were to ask us to undress, we would think such a request odd and politically incorrect. But when a doctor asks us the same thing, we just do it, because we know that it is for our benefit. And we patiently subject ourselves to various procedures, poking and probing, pills, mixtures, needles, etc.–all the things we would never tolerate from anyone except a physician.

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On whether women epitomize humanity and men epitomize divinity

The problem is that divine nature is different from human nature. By nature, we are not the same as God. But for men and women, nature is the same–the one human nature. By nature (ontologically), men are the same as women. This nature is manifested in two different forms–male and female–and in many different persons (or, rather, through many different hypostases), but it is one and the same nature. This is why the Apostle says that in Christ, there is neither male nor female. That is to say, both males and females by nature have equal access to communion with Christ, salvation in Christ, theosis, sanctity, etc. Women are not “lesser” creatures. They certainly do not “epitomize” humanity while man “epitomizes” divinity. One could argue that as a general rule, men seem to rely more on rational thinking while women seem to rely more on intuition or the feeling of the heart. But this only proves that women are closer to the spiritual world, since the spiritual world is not understood by the rational mind and is instead experienced through the heart.

If men are to be icons of the divinity and women are to be icons of the humanity, then we may find a bit of difficulty in tracing the two different paths to salvation. If we propose that all men somehow naturally are icons of the divinity (what does that even mean?), and all women are somehow equally naturally born as icons of the humanity, then we may have a hard time explaining this concept with any degree of intelligibility. And if we propose that men and women are born the same, but then for the sake of salvation men have to represent divinity while women must try to represent humanity, then that makes even less sense and presents an even larger theological difficulty (at least, in my mind).

Furthermore, this goes against the Scripture. Note that when Paul speaks about men being like Christ and women being like the Church, he is essentially (ontologically) talking about the same thing. Christ is both divine and human, and so is the Church. There is no Christ without His Body, which is the Church. There is no Church without Christ. Without Christ, a “church” becomes a Bible-study club or a Christian song concert. The Church, in order for is to be the Church, has to be fully human and fully divine. Christ and His Church are “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably” united into one. What is even more fascinating, in Eph. 5:31, Paul introduces this concept by re-establishing the original order of Gen.: a man will leave his father and mother–it is almost as if he were trying to say that the Son of God left His Father and cleaved to His Church to become one flesh with Her.

Finally, the priest may be an icon of Christ’s divinity for the people, but at the very same time he represents the people or Christ’s humanity before God, he is also an icon of the Church. When he turns to the laos and says, “Peace be unto all,” he bestows Christ’s blessing on them. Yet in the very next minute he turns to the Theos and offers prayers for and on behalf of the people.

In other words, I would have a difficult time justifying a concept of women being icons of humanity and men being icons of divinity, or even comprehending this concept. But perhaps, I do not fully understand your argument? What precisely do you mean when you say that, “The man is essentially a microcosm within humanity of God, whereas the woman is the ultimate representation of humanness. As such, humanity in relation to God is feminine. God in relation to humanity is masculine.” What exactly do you mean by this? If it is feminine to be meek, and humble, and to serve, rather than to be served, if it is feminine to obey the will of the masculine, and to love, then Christ is… the perfect example of femininity! His interaction with His Church is expressly feminine. Eve are created a helper, a servant for Adam? (Gen. 2:20) Then she is an image of Christ, because Christ is the Servant (see Isaiah 52-53, Matt. 8:17 and Acts 8:34-35), He is the one who washes feet (John 13). By the way, in this context, to become an icon of Christ is to strive toward what is commonly misunderstood as feminine traits, not masculine ones.

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More to the Point: Should Nuns Light Their Icon Lamps?

Posted in Women in the Church by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 28 April 2010

As a continuation of the discussion started in my previous paper, “On ‘Ritual Impurity’: In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin),[1] I now would like to address some of the issues that have been raised in greater detail.  The problem that has been posed by Sister Vassa is as follows:

When I entered a convent of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in France, I was introduced to the restrictions imposed on a nun when she has her [monthly] period. Although she was allowed to go to church and pray, she was not to go to Communion; she could not kiss the icons or touch the Antidoron; she could not help bake prosphoras or handle them, nor could she help clean the church; she could not even light the lampada or iconlamp that hung before the icons in her own cell: this last rule was explained to me when I noticed an unlighted lampada in the icon-corner of another sister.[2]

The conclusion at which Sr. Vassa arrives after a study of early Church writings and contemporary opinions expressed by a handful of ecclesiastical bodies is that the rules surrounding “ritual impurity” are “a rather disconcerting, fundamentally non-Christian phenomenon in the guise of Orthodox piety.”  In my previous paper, I raised some very general concerns about Sr. Vassa’s methodology in addressing the issue of ritual impurity in the Orthodox Church.  In this paper, I wish to attempt to find some constructive ways forward…

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On “Ritual Impurity”: In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin)

Posted in Women in the Church by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 27 April 2010

I recently read an interesting paper by Doctor Sister Vassa (Larin) concerning the issue of ritual impurity in the Orthodox Church. This topic is extremely important both because the bodily functions that give rise to this issue have been around presumably since the fall of Adam and Eve and because they are not likely to go away any time soon, save for an imminent parousia.  Namely, Sister Vassa explores the attitudes in the Church toward menstruation, although the issue of ritual impurity is broader than that, and I shall return to this point.

In a sort of deconstruction of the Orthodox tradition with respect to menstruating women’s participation in the liturgical life of the Church, Sister Vassa briefly examines the evidence of this tradition and conflicting opinions from various sources—the Old Testament, the Protoevangelium of James, writings of the Church Fathers—and notes some of the recent developments which point to the instability of the tradition.  The conclusion to which Sister Vassa arrives is that ritual impurity “finds no justification in Christian anthropology and soteriology.”  But is this really so?  I believe that a few comments made by Sister Vassa deserve further examination.

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Reflections on Female Spirituality

Posted in Women in the Church by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 13 November 2009

Every man, at least every married man, is faced with the task of deciphering female psychology.  Popular wisdom provides plenty of evidence to the many differences between men and women, but more scholarly works are equally plentiful.  Additionally, a large body of feminist thought has now provided insight not only into the unique psycho-emotional makeup of men and women, but also into differences in male and female worldview and spirituality. 

The following are very unscientific reflections and observations of one man on just a few ways that expressions of female spirituality may be seen through a male prism, or, as they like to say nowadays, window of understanding…

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On the Role of Women in the Church

Posted in Articles, Practical Matters, Theology, Women in the Church by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 13 November 2009

The issue of women in the Church has been raised many times during the history of Christianity, beginning with the very first decades of the Church’s existence.  That is why, when in the twenty-first century one asks about the role of women in the Church, one does not speak of this role—Christ Himself spoke about it and the Apostle Paul wrote about it in his letters—but the continuing problem of the relationship between genders in the family, society, and the Church.

In Church consciousness, this problem is usually expressed in terms of bearded men in black possessing administrative authority which they withhold from women, even if the latter choose to glue on a mustache and don a black robe.  From the point of view of modern Western culture—to which not only immigrants making their lives in the United States belong, but also in a significant way Orthodox people living in the European part of Russia—there is clear evidence of the discrimination of the Church against women only because they were born women.  This is why it seems somewhat strange to me that I, a bearded man in a black robe who possess some limited administrative authority in my parish—a small part of the Church, have been invited to tell women about their place in the Church…

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