Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Byzantine Speaks

From Procopius, Buildings:

[Describing a person entering Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, after a lengthy description of the building and its construction]
"And whenever anyone enters this church to pray, he understands at once that it is not by any human power or skill, but by the influence of God, that this work has been so finely turned. And so his mind is lifted up toward God and exalted, believing that He cannot be far away, but must especially love to dwell in this place which He has chosen. And this does not happen only to one who sees the church for the first time, but the same experience comes to him on each successive occassion, as thought the sight were new each time."

I have two thoughts on this. The first is academic: Procopius is emphasizing the Emperor's nearness to God throughout the Buildings. It is the essence of his project, and as Hagia Sophia is the starting point for his work, and is also a divinily appointed building by a divinely appointed Emperor, when we notice the nearness of God, in Hagia Sophia, we are noticing His nearness through the medium of the Emperor who has in a very real sense, revealed Him for us. I'm going to leave that as it is.

The second is to believe that perhaps this statement could also be taken at face value, as a genuine expression of piety; Byzantine rhetoric does not exclude personal sentiment. The sentiment expressed is not one usually associated with "late antique religion;" it would not be used in a paradigm for Byzantine Christianity, and her emphasis on the nearness of God (I don't think hardly anyone in the history department has ever thought to emphasize that). Perhaps it should.

Of course, a Western Christian today who walked into the same building would probably be overwhelmed by God's distance. Which is more important to have as the basic paradigm -- to insist on God the ineffable, or Jesus lover of my soul? In any case it is refreshing to enter, if only for a moment, into the world of a man who is inspired anew by God's nearness, as we search desparately for something to awaken in us a sense of God's otherness. A balance must be struck, for in the end this is simply the mystery of the incarnation revisited. Jesus who wept with women at the death of his friend is the same rider on the pale horse with all hell following behind him. However, I think that the divinity of Christ (and therefore the absolute holiness of God) must be the starting point: the incarnation is no mystery if you start (theologically) with the babe already born.

No comments: