Speaking of Christianity – Part 4 of the Meaning of Words


Some years back, the Evangelical-convert-to-Rome, Thomas Howard, wrote a book, Splendor in the Ordinary. In it he argued for a sacramental world view and spoke of how that might effect the local home. I recall the book because it came out while I was in seminary and caused a minor stir. Some of us were interested in a more sacramental life – but we as yet had no idea either of the scope of the problem nor of the seriousness of the cure.

The creation of “ordinariness,” is itself a bit of a problem. According to the Oxford English Dictionary – the word comes into its present meaning in the 16th and 17th centuries, having had much more technical legal and ecclesiastical meanings prior to that.

(Please forgive the aside…in Anglican usage, a seminary frequently is an island unto itself, not subject to a particular Bishop – as such it is known as a Peculiar. The Dean, who heads the seminary is thus in charge of its order, as a bishop is of a diocese and is thus its Ordinary. When I was in seminary we relished the fact that our Dean was, technically, the Ordinary of the Peculiar. There was much debate as to whether he was more ordinary or peculiar but this was never settled….)

But the rise of the new meaning of “ordinary,” meaning “common” or “just the usual,” was thus a modern, or post Reformation event. Howard argued in his book that the rise of the ordinary was the mark of the fall of the sacramental. As the world became rid of sacramental presence, it became something else – the ordinary world. And, of course, with a word like ordinary or usual, it was presumed that the sacramental was thus somehow extraordinary and unusual. As goes the sacrament, so goes God. Adam and Eve had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. With the 16th and 17th century, man returned the favor.

This is another way of speaking about a two-storey universe – a world where there is ordinary and extraordinary, usual and unusual. If one adds to this the sameness of mass-produced goods, and the sameness of the Organization Man,  our modern world has little room for either man (as unique) or God. It is hardly surprising that we’re as crazy as we are.

Not until we cease to divide the world into ordinary and extraordinary, into usual and unusual, into sacred and secular, will we have either the possibility of knowing God, much less living the Christian life. What substitutes for both is a second-storey belief system that is held up either by rigid abstract dogmatics or various fundamentalisms, or by fear of the abyss of atheism and meaninglessness. The first is not necessary and the second is our own creation.

Father Alexander Schmemann is quoted as saying that when we bless something, we do not make it into something other than what it is, but reveal it to be what it has always been. This can either be viewed as “theological sleight of hand” or (by some) as somehow lessening the sacraments – making little distinction as it does between ordinary and the holy. On the other hand, when Orthodox priests go to various portions of water at Theophany – the local river, an ocean, a spring, etc., and do the service for the blessings of waters, how far does the blessing extend? Is there a three mile limit to sanctity? We call on the rivers, “the blessing of Jordan.” A similar question: how long does the blessing last? What is the half-life of holiness? We have been blessing all the waters of the world for centuries. Schmemann’s explanation is the only one that makes sense.

It is certainly the case that holy water is holy water – and yet when Christ entered the waters of the Jordan – we are not told that John prayed a blessing over the water. None was necessary. Christ is who He is, and the waters are what they are (and they are more than what many think the waters to be). The icon of the Theophany reveals the Jordan to be Hades itself, the chaos of darkness into which we had plunged ourselves. Christ enters the waters just as at the Cross He entered Hades. In the waters He “crushed the heads of the dragons” (quoting the psalm noted in the prayer of blessing), just as in Hades He crushed that old serpent, the enemy of man.

At Christ’s Baptism there is a Theophany, a revealing of God, but there is also an Epiphany, a revealing of the world in its greater meaning. Every tree, every rock, every word and action – all things have their meaning in relationship to God – not as things-in-themselves. And it is only as they are handled as having their meaning in relationship to God that they will be handled rightly. The earth itself bears the scars of man’s declaration of ordinariness. It is not a word of blessing but a curse.

My oldest daughter, Matushka Mary, was relating to me some things from the writing of a diocesan priest in the area around Krasnoyarsk, Russia (she lived there for a year). He was commenting on various Scriptural events, with an eye to its typology that was wondrously revelatory. He noted, she said, that Christ took away the curse that had been on the earth when he accepted the crown of thorns. The earth had been cursed on account of the first Adam when it was said:

…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. ” (Genesis 3:17-19)

My daughter (quoting the priest) added, “not only does he bear the thorns brought forth from the earth as in the curse, but for the sweat of man’s brow, he offers His own sweat as blood, when He does the righteous work of prayer and obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane.”

What wonderful images!

But these are images that reveal the ground to be what it now isblessed because it was the tomb of Christ’s body. The trees, blessed because upon them hung the one who suspended the universe. The rocks are blessed, because they reveal Christ, who as the Rock was cleft and water flowed to save Israel from its thirst. Everything is blessed and revealed as blessed when we know the One Who blessed it. Only in knowing Him do we see the world for what it is, and understand that the gates to Paradise have been opened to us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


13 responses to “Speaking of Christianity – Part 4 of the Meaning of Words”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo of Theophany in Oak Ridge, 2002. What we wouldn’t do for that snow now! With me are Subdeacon Innocent (Krieg) and now (Fr.) Hermogen Holste, my son-in-law. Of course, the saintly priest in the photo is me, walking on the water. 🙂

  2. Jack Avatar

    “shalt thou eat bread”

    there is blessing in the curse
    eucharist is hidden in the thorns

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Once you start learning how to read everything through Christ, the banquet table is all set. What joy!

  4. ochlophobist Avatar

    What a wonderful post.

    “The earth itself bears the scars of man’s declaration of ordinariness. It is not a word of blessing but a curse.”

    I remember reading a passage by Thomas Merton years ago in which he wrote something along the lines of “most men, when they see a tree, can only think of cutting it down.”

    I know that if I was at all serious about the blessedness of water, trees, and rocks I would live much more carefully and gently than I do. I act much more reverently in church than I do at work or at the grocery store, but if Fr. Schmemann’s explanation is the right one, then to act in an irreverent manner in my backyard is to disrespect what goes on in the sanctuary at church. This all seems to compel one to seek to live a quiet, circumspect, sober life.

  5. C Grace Avatar

    What a wonderful post. Thank you

  6. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Lovely! The seamless tapestry of divine revelation is evident in the typology.

  7. Mark Avatar

    Somewhere in his writings, I seem to recall Fr Alexander Schmemann noting that that the proper telos for bread and wine is to become body and blood, and that in the Eucharist, this telos is fulfilled in Christ by the the Spirit.

    That resonates with the observation that blessing something reveals what it has always been (and is intended to be).

    Am I remembering that rightly? Anyone know the reference?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    I don’t have it at hand, but I believe it is in For the Life of the World. If I wanted to be very patrisitic, I would say that proper relationship with created things would reveal to us each of their “logoi” which is itself something of a reflection of the Logos. But I’m trying to write somewhat understandably. Hence my use of terms like first and second storey.

  9. Fr. Philip Avatar
    Fr. Philip

    The reference to Fr. Schmemann is:

    “We offered the bread in remembrance of Christ because we know that Christ is Life, and all food, therefore, must lead us to Him. And now when we receive this bread from His hands, we know that he has take up all life, filled it with Himself, made it what it was meant to be: communion with God, sacrament of His presence and love…It is the Holy Spirit who manifests the bread as the body and the wine as the blood of Christ.” -Fr. Alexander Schmemann “For the Life of the World”-43

    He continues of course, but I think that quote gives the gyst of it. That whole chapter, and in fact the whole book is worth the read. We have to work to not lose the sacredness of the world that we are living in. This world, as in the physical make-up of the world is not the enemy, but is the vehicle by which we have been given to see and to know God. All of the blessings that we do help us to see the world for what it is, our way to communicate with God.

    “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.”-Romans 1:20

  10. AR Avatar

    Do Orthodox interpret Paul’s statement about women being saved through childbirth in this sacramental sense? Since having my baby a year ago I’ve often thought that tearing one’s body and pouring out one’s blood to give another human being life is like an echo of what Christ did. And I wondered whether going through it in faith and love wouldn’t become a means of participating in him and so contribute to my salvation.

  11. Mark Avatar

    Thank you, Fr Philip. I need to spend some time with that wonderful little book – it’s a gem!

    Fr Stephen, I think your two-storey/one storey model is really quite helpful, and I appreciate your reflections. Certainly, two-storey language can lead us astray down into all kinds of problematic rabbit-holes.

    Nonetheless, I’ve been wondering about the enduring value of some two-storey language, since it is a recurring part of our Scriptural/Creedal tradition. Surely there is some kataphatic value to it, since the fathers retained it in the Creed (“He came down from heaven…”). While not absolutizing it, it seems a vital facet to the Tradition in all its figural richness and splendor…

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    Obviously the language continues – but apophatic theology teaches us not to treat it in the manner that would remove God from us (second storey). At least that’s how I would treat it. I’m not certain I’ve seen it’s (second storey language) positive value in my ministry. Instead, I find that it is grist for the mill of modern unbelief.


    I have never seen an Orthodox treatment of St. Paul’s saying on childbirth. Your meditation sounded like it had value. I would be interested in what my wife thought (she is a very close theological partner in my world).

  13. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    AR, There are two types of blood anxiety: blood shed by killing and blood shed by birthing. To archaic peoples both were regarded as powerful and potentially dangerous, requiring priestly ministry either to deal with blood guilt through sacrifice of an animal or to deal with blood contamination through purification. Your’s is of the second type and is mysteriously blessed by the Mother of Christ God. Even her sacrifice was taken care of by the priest when she presented herself according to the purification laws of Israel. Complete this working out of your salvation by seeing your priest and observing what the English Church quaintly calls “the churching of women.”

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