19 January 2009

'Thou hast crushed the heads of the dragons'

Today, 6 January on the Church’s calendar, Orthodox around the world celebrate the Holy Theophany of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Unfortunately in Oklahoma we don’t have any freezing water to dive into, but we did have our own, modest Blessing of the Waters. This to me has always been one of the more distinctively Orthodox aspects of the feast, and it is very well summarised in the introductory material to Mother Mary’s and Archimandrite [now Metropolitan] Kallistos’s translation of the Menaion of the Great Feasts (The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1998], p. 58):

When Christ went down into the water, not only did He carry us down with Him and make us clean, but He also made clean the nature of the waters themselves. As the troparion of the forefeast puts it, ‘Christ has appeared in the Jordan to sanctify the waters’. The feast of Theophany has thus a cosmic aspect. The fall of the angelic orders, and after it the fall of man, involved the whole universe. All God’s creation was thereby warped and disfigured: to use the symbolism of the liturgical texts, the waters were made a ‘lair of dragons’. Christ came on earth to redeem not only man, but—through man—the entire material creation. When He entered the water, besides effecting by anticipation our rebirth in the font, He likewise effected the cleansing of the waters, their transfiguration into an organ of healing and grace.

This idea that the waters were a ‘lair of dragons’ is especially interesting to me, due in no small part to the whole legendary status of dragons. Metropolitan Hierotheos writes that ‘according to St John of Damaskos, Christ was baptised in order to crush the heads of the dragons in the water, for there was a conception that the demons dwell in the water’ (Metropolitan Hierotheos [Vlachos] of Nafpaktos, The feasts of the Lord: An introduction to the twelve feasts and Orthodox Christology, trans. Esther Williams [Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2003], p. 102).

Most especially, it calls to my mind the great Old English poem, Beowulf. In the episode of Beowulf’s descent into the ‘mere’ to fight Grendel's mother (ll. 1422-1631), many readers have seen echoes of Christ’s baptism and the harrowing of Hell, as well as the baptism of all Christian faithful. According to Howell Chickering’s translation (Howell D. Chickering, Jr., ed. and trans., Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition [NY: Anchor, 1989], p. 131), when Beowulf and his men tracked Grendel's mother to the mere—

They saw strange serpents,
dragonish shapes, swimming through the water.
Water-beasts, too, lay curled on the cliff-shelves,
that often slither off at dark daybreak
to attend men’s sorrow upon the sail-roads,
sea-beasts and serpents. (ll. 1425-30)

Quoting from the Latin prayers of blessing said for new baptismal water on Holy Saturday, M.B. McNamee points out:

To an audience familiar with this symbolic meaning of immersion into and emersion from waters infested by the powers of hell and purified by the powers of God, it would have been natural to see in Beowulf’s descent into the serpent-infested mere and his triumphant ascent from those waters purified of their serpents a symbolic representation of the death and burial and of the resurrection of Christ, and, in the purification of the waters, a symbol of the redemption of man from the poisonous powers of evil. (M.B. McNamee, SJ, ‘Beowulf—An Allegory of Salvation?’, An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, ed. Lewis E. Nicholson [Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1963], pp. 340-1)

Even the motif of light that we find in the texts of the Theophany services—the last sticheron from Vespers for the feast reads, ‘Thou . . . hast crushed the heads of the dragons. Thou hast descended into the waters and hast given light to all things’ (Menaion, p. 339)—is echoed in the poem. In his article on the parallels between Beowulf and baptism (‘Beowulf and the Liturgy’, Nicholson, p. 223-32), Allen Cabaniss has called attention (on p. 224) to the ‘beam of preternatural light' in ll. 1570-2:

Then the cave-light shone out, a gleam from within,
even as from heaven comes the shining light
of God’s candle. (Chickering, pp. 139, 141)

Of course, it’s too bad that it is Grendel's mother and not the dragon himself that is killed in the mere. But still, the connection with baptism, and especially, to me, with Theophany, seems rather striking. I shall close with the final stanza, the 18th, of St Romanos’s full Kontakion for the feast (from St Romanos the Melodist, Kontakia on the Life of Christ, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem [Lash] [San Francisco: HarperCollins, n.d.], p. 47):

At the divine command, Zachary’s offspring raises his mind on high,
and stretching out his palm places it on the King,
washes in the streams, then leads back to land the Lord of land and sky,
whom the One who cried, ‘This is my beloved Son’
pointed out from heaven by a voice as by a finger.
To the Father himself then and to the Son
who was baptized and to his Spirit I cry,
‘Crush those who afflict my soul;
end my errors, my Redeemer,
the unapproachable Light.'


orrologion said...

When Christ went down into the water, not only did He carry us down with Him and make us clean,

I know this wasn't really the point of your post, but this jumped out at me. It gets at something that has intrigued me about Orthodox anthropology, and christology as soteriology. V. Lossky alluded once to the idea in Maximus (don't know where and not citation was given) that Christ saved our nature, but we must save our persons. This quote on Theophany seems to point in the same direction: Christ took us (our single, common human nature) down into the Jordan with Him and cleansed it (us) but we still must enter into that cleansing personally (hypostatically) by also being baptized ourselves; Christ defeated death by death, resurrected and reformed us and set us at the right hand of the Father, and yet we must still enter into each aspect of the saving accomplishment of Christ, personally (hypostatically). This is something important, I think, in addressing the either/or aspect of Protestant sola gratia/fide soteriology.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yeah, I've come across some of that stuff before, particularly about the common human nature. Your notion that it is relevant to the Western grace debate seems right to me, but in all honesty I should point out that such things are not my area of expertise! I WOULD enjoy seeing a post about it from a blogger who is more adept than myself in these kinds of theological issues.

orrologion said...

Perhaps you could suggest intelligent bloggers we should ask to post about it. If not, I'll have to hack my way through it and that would be a shame for all involved.

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, if I was forced to pick someone besides yourself, I suppose my first though would be Fr Freeman. I'm sure Esteban has some wonderful insights on this matter, but I get the feeling that he assiduously avoids such issues on his blog. Perhaps he has too many Reformed readers to risk alienating.

orrologion said...

Life in a Greek parish has actually made me a little allergic to Greek, oddly enough. But, my fascination with my lack of understanding regarding Maximos is one of the things (in addition to reading the NT and Septuagint in the original) that actually gets me jazzed about trying to learn Greek. More and more I get the sense that the major theological differentiation between East and West can be found in Maximos, and since he is a major authority of the 6th EC and thus of the Universal Church... (Of course, the real difference between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches is not theological, but ecclesiological, in my view. The papacy is the root problem of the filioque and other innovations and not vice versa).