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Book Review: The Winter Pascha

Reviewed by Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos of Etna

The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season. By [Father] Thomas Hopko. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984.

While re-reading Father Hopko's little volume of spiritual texts on the Christmas (Nativity) and Epiphany (Theophany) season—a text published almost a decade ago—, I was simultaneously reading excerpts from a book by another instructor at St. Vladimir's Seminary, Professor John Erickson. In this latter book, the good professor touches on matters canonical in a way that left me disturbed. He makes some very good and accurate observations. On the whole, however, his thinking is too analytical and too removed from a spiritual life in which the Canons are not laws and rules to be manipulated and restated, but spiritual principles that are applicable to an everyday encounter with the Church—the kind of encounter which Sunday and Feast Day Orthodox do not fully grasp.

It suddenly struck me that this same detachment from Orthodoxy as a way of life taints Father Hopko's small book on the Nativity-Theophany period. There are some inspirational insights in the book. There are even some very profound theological observations (see for example his comments on "Adam's sin," p. 175). But there is often a snide tone with regard to Orthodox tradition, as though Father Hopko were writing about the spiritual life of the Orthodox Church from a distance, gleaning his observations from outside the ethos of the Church. For example, those of us who have learned of Orthodoxy from within the Church know of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, the subject of one of Father Hopko's readings, from what we have heard in Church services and from the life of the Saint, as well as from what we have read in the Fathers. The image that we have formed of this great Saint comes to us in the wholeness of our spiritual experience, a wholeness which bears the mark of truth and authenticity.

Father Hopko, on the other hand, understands St. Nicholas only in a fragmented way, believing one thing from here and rejecting another from there. Thus he calls St. Nicholas' display of outrage at the heresy of Arius an "alleged incident." Unless the Fathers of the Church are naive liars, this incident did indeed occur, and it is part of our very experience of the witness of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Father Hopko also observes that "...the extraordinary thing about the image of St. Nicholas in the Church is that he is not known for anything extraordinary." Those of us who celebrate the memory of this great Saint with long vigils are more accustomed to hearing words such as these about him: "Let us now praise the Hierarch in song, the shepherd and teacher of the inhabitants of Myra ...; for behold, he hath appeared entirely pure, uncorrupt in spirit..., as a Hierarch purified in soul and body." Extraordinary traits, indeed! To Father Hopko's claim that St. Nicholas "was not an ascetic and did no outstanding feats of fasting and vigils," we must retort with incidents from the Saint's life. As a child, he did not suck at his mother's breast on Wednesday and Friday. On becoming a Priest, we read, St. Nicholas "added ascetic labors to ascetic labors, keeping vigil and remaining in unceasing prayer and fasting." So great was his asceticism, in fact, that he is praised for leading a life equal to that of the Angels.

Now, if we reap what we know about this Saint from the impious scholarship of those who believe that the St. Nicholas of whom we hear in the Church is actually another Nicholas, not the Bishop of Myra, or that the Church has transformed a simple man into a wonderworker, then none of what I have said has meaning. Nor does the teaching authority of the Church have any significance. Nor should we learn from within our Faith, but rather from the hermeneutics of suspicion which many follow today in explicating, but unfortunately defiling, the traditions of the Church. If we fail to heed the witness of the wholeness of truth that reaches us through Scripture, Holy Tradition, the Patristic witness, and Divine Services, then we might just as well follow the Latins and relegate St. Nicholas to the stature of a "non-saint." Such is the ultimate end of those who touch on things spiritual with the faulty tools of would-be academic sleuths.

In another place in this little book, Father Hopko shows an astounding lack of familiarity with Patristic texts. Admitting that the Orthodox Church insists that Christ was conceived supernaturally and that the Theotokos is forever virgin, he claims, on the other hand, that "there is no teaching of any other sort of miracle in regard to His birth; certainly no idea that He came forth from His mother without opening Her womb." As early as Justin Martyr, the Fathers have always taught that, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (e.g., Ezekiel 44:2: "This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no one shall pass through it; for the Lord God of Israel shall enter by it, and it shall be shut" [Septuaginta]), Christ passed through the Virgin Mother's womb without violating it. It is this "virgin birth," along with the seedless or virgin conception, which we Orthodox uphold as a great miracle. Let us simply cite the words of St. John Damascus on this matter. In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, he assures us that Christ "passed through" the Virgin Mary, "keeping her womb closed," coming through this "Gate" without injuring "her seal."

Not only is Father Hopko's claim against the inviolate nature of the Theotokos without Patristic substantiation, but it can be supported only by discarding the witness of the services appointed to the Nativity and Theophany period about which he is writing. Everywhere our Church's hymns speak of the Mother of God bearing a Son in purity, the Redeemer having passed through her closed womb without violating it. Let us cite three very clear instances of this: one a stichiron from the Vespers of the Forefeast of the Nativity (December 24) according to Slavic usage, in which the Theotokos herself speaks; another, the oikos appointed after the sixth ode for the Matin's Canon of the Feast of the Synaxis of the Theotokos (December 26), composed by St. Romanos the Melodist; and a third, a verse from the Lity of the Feast of the Nativity, in which the Virgin Mary again speaks:

Thou hast been born without destroying my virginity, but Thou hast kept my womb as it was before childbirth....

For the All-Perfect God is born a babe of her, and by His birth He sets the seal upon her virginity.

Thou art my God, for seeing the seal of my virginity unbroken, I proclaim Thee to be the immutable Word....

There is one reference used by those who support Father Hopko's un-Orthodox notion of the Virgin birth, a verse by the Monk John appointed for the Lity for February 2 in the Menaion (the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord): "Nyn ho katharos theos, hos paidion hagion, metran dianoixan agnen, heauto hos theos syncomezetai." Bishop Kallistos, in The Festal Menaion (London, 1969), translates this verse as follows: "Now the God of purity as a holy child has opened a pure womb, and as God He is brought as an offering to Himself." However, the verb "dianoigo" is translated too literally here. This verb also has the meaning of "moving" or "passing" through and does not carry with it the literal implications of the verb "anoigo," "to open." Thus one might better render the verse in this way: "Now the pure God, as a holy child, has made a way through a chaste womb, and as God is brought as an offering to Himself." When correctly translated, this verse, the single instance of supposed support for a notion foreign to the Church's conscience, offers no challenge to the universal teaching of the Orthodox Church about the miraculous way that Christ came forth from the womb of the Virgin.*

Father Hopko's book, like others from modernist Orthodox writers, contains some very good material. However, as I have indicated, the spirit of such writings reflects a certain separation from Orthodox spirituality as it is derived from orthopraxis, or an Orthodox way of life. The danger of embracing a Faith on the weekends and Feast Days and with a spirit of intellectual "objectivity"—an artificial Faith—is not only that such folly cuts one off from the sources of genuine spirituality; it eventually leads one into error. For if in science and scholarship a spirit of doubt leads to discovery, in spiritual things it leads to snide arrogance, the denigration of revelation, and a departure from that wholeness of the spiritual experience in which truth resides.

Moreover, while writers like Father Hopko are undoubtedly simply repeating the erroneous views of their mentors, there is a further danger in mere intellectual approaches to Orthodoxy. One can easily become a victim of his own psychology. Living a superficial religious life separated from the daily miracles of true spiritual life and lacking any direct experience with the transformed life, one can come to resent and to revile sanctity. Seeing his own life untransformed, an unfulfilled spiritual aspirant will often attempt to make the miraculous something more human. The ascetic feats by which one transforms himself he will try to set aside, making the supernatural aspects of sanctity a matter of naive superstition. The greater the distance between his own mundane life and that of the Saints, the greater becomes his need to lower the spiritual to the level of imagery and metaphor.

There are also Orthodox ecumenists who are deeply embarrassed by our Church's pious veneration of the Saints and its literal belief in miracles. Rubbing elbows with Roman Catholics who consider St. Nicholas the product of legend and with Protestants who question the seedless conception, let alone the miraculous physical birth, of Christ, these Orthodox set forth to show that their Church too is "enlightened." Bereft of any real spiritual experience and substituting Church politics for that void, not a few Orthodox ecumenists are willing to take Father Hopko's errors to their logical conclusion, dismissing not only the singularity of Christian truth, but also the primacy of Orthodoxy.

Again, then, one must exercise every caution in reading and assessing materials which are at odds with the Church's traditional teachings. Even the most innocent errors amidst perhaps inspiring writings can serve ends which are dangerous to the Faith, the Faithful, and the soul.

*See Professor Ioannes Kalogyrou’s Maria he Aeiparthenos kata ten Orthodoxon Pisten (Thessaloniki, 1957).

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IX, No. 2&3.

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I read your response a long time ago to Thomas Hopko, who says that the Orthodox church does not teach that the Virgin Mary was physically untouched by the birth of Christ. You say that all of the liturgical texts support you. But how about these three items: Paschal Matins, "He opened the Virgin’s womb" and Luke 2:23, "Every male that openeth the womb," Exodus 13:2, "opening every womb," the Matins reference obviously being to Christ and the two other scriptures, I am told, being references to Christ according to the church fathers. (S.P., MA)

In a lengthy review of Father Thomas Hopko’s Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), Archbishop Chrysostomos has clearly demonstrated that Father Thomas does not reflect the doctrines of the Orthodox Church as they are expressed in the Patristic witness and in the Church’s liturgical traditions (see Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IX, Nos. 2&3 [1992], pp. 7, 22-23). With regard to the passages which you cite, in each instance the Greek verb "dianoigo" is translated "open." It is taken to mean the same as the Greek verb "anoigo," "to open," when it fact it can also be used to express something more akin to "moving" or "passing through" something; that is, opening a path in an abstract way.

As for your reference from Paschal Orthros, taken from a Troparion of the Fourth Ode, this passage might be better translated: "Christ revealed Himself to be of the male sex when He passed through ["dianoixan"] the Virgin’s womb...." That such a translation is proper, and that the Virgin’s womb was not physically opened by the birth of Christ, we see a little farther on, in the Troparion of the Sixth Ode, where Christ is praised as having not "broken the seal ["tas kleis"] of the Virgin by...[His]...birth...."

The Scriptural passages to which you refer are, indeed, understood by the Fathers to be references to Christ, the New Testamental passage ("Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord") simply being a reference to the words of the Old Testament prophecy regarding Christ ("And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Sanctify to me every first-born, first produced, opening every womb among the children of Israel both of man and beast: it is mine" [Septuaginta]). But here, too, the Church does not understand these passages to refer to a literal "opening" of the Virgin’s womb at Christ’s birth. St. Amphilochios of Iconium clearly states that, "the words every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord, refer to the Lord alone." Yet he admonishes us: "Listen intelligently: in the Virgin Birth, the virginal gates were in no way opened." Likewise, St. Hesychios of Jerusalem, referring to this same passage, tells us: "This what the Law says. Christ, however..., being the Lawgiver, was above the Law, yet He fulfilled His own Law. Nor did He open the womb, but left the Gate of the Virgin closed. He did not spoil the seal of nature....He preserved Her virginity intact."

Both by translating and understanding the verb "dianoigo" with greater care, and in studying liturgical and Patristic references to the birth of Christ in their whole, and not just selectively, we cannot but conclude that the Orthodox Church, contrary to what Father Thomas Hopko argues, has always believed that Christ was born into the world in a supernatural way, leaving the Theotokos wholly physically unviolated. Arguments to the contrary, as we have pointed out, are based on poor scholarship, poor translations, and an inadequate knowledge of the pertinent liturgical and Patristic sources.

A follow-up excerpt from "Liturgical Notes" in Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIV, No. 4, pp. 55-56.