A photograph of an Orthodox bishop I posted on Monday prompted a faithful and respected reader to leave the following comment:
Is it just me, or do these Bishops present the literal image Greco-Roman Emperors or high-level potentates (despota) more than Christ? I mean that my imagination has acrobatic gymnastic to see the kenotic Christ here.
I was initially at some loss of how to reply. Viewed solely in terms of outward insignia and vestiture, he certainly had a point. My subsequent observation that Christian liturgy has been imbued with imperial court ritual since at least the fourth century, even if there had been a particular appropriation of imperial regalia by bishops since the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, also did not amount to a properly theological response.
I am therefore very grateful to Aaron Taylor of Logismoi for sending me the following passage from a forthcoming book by Metropolitan John (Zizoulas) of Pergamon entitled Receiving One Another: Being in Otherness—Studies on God, Man, the Church, and the World Today, ed. Fr Gregory Edwards (Alahambra, CA: Sebastian, 2009), that neatly addresses the objection:
Unfortunately, the pietism which has crept into our consciousness and our worship has misled us into the mistaken idea that richness in vestments and in the decoration of churches is a bad thing. Just one simple observation shows how alien to the Orthodox tradition this idea is: the richest and most splendid vestments in our Church are to be found in our monasteries, and particularly on the Holy Mountain, the most important and authoritative monastic center for Orthodoxy. Why, then, does the genuine Orthodox monk, who according to the Sayings of the Fathers should wear such a shoddy and threadbare riason [outward robe] that he could hang it outside his cell door in the certainty that no one would be tempted to steal it — why during the Liturgy does this same man, as celebrant, put on the most splendid vestments, yet without being scandalized or scandalizing anyone else? Quite simply, because the eschatological character of the Eucharist remains vivid in his consciousness: in the Eucharist, we move within the space of the age to come, of the Kingdom. There we experience “the day which knows no end or evening, and no successor, that age which does not end or grow old,” in the words of St. Basil. We have every possibility for practicing our humility outside the Liturgy. We do not have the right to turn the Eucharist into an opportunity to show off our humility, or a means to psychological experiences of compunction. Besides, “He who offers and He who is offered,” the real celebrant, is Christ, and indeed the risen Christ as He will come in His glory on the last day, and those who celebrate the Liturgy are nothing more than icons of this eschatological Christ. And of course “the honor paid to the icon passes to the prototype.”
While I readily admit that I often find myself in objection to many of His Eminence’s words, I find this passage wholly admirable and very helpful.