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By The Rev. Mark Stanley
For the first time in my life, I am presenting a resolution to the Diocesan Convention–a resolution on the topic of the early church theologian, Origen of Alexandria. I realize that it is pretty nerdy, but it has been bothering me that such a brilliant man was never canonized as a saint. Many early church scholars, including Henri Crouzel, SJ (Professor of Patristics at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse and the Gregorian University in Rome), have asserted that Origen has been “unjustly branded a heretic” (Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, pg 503). Trying to correct this wrong, I am presenting a Resolution at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s Convention on May 13, 2016 for Origen of Alexandria to be included in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of “saints.”
Born to Christian parents in 185 AD, Origen spent the first part of his career as a teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. During the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimius Serverus in Alexandria in 202, in which his father was killed, teenage Origen desired martyrdom but his mother prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes. Because of his Christian faith, Origen chose to lead a strict ascetic life of fasting, prayer, and voluntary poverty. According to the historian Eusebius, Origen supposedly even castrated himself because of his misinterpretation of Matthew 19:12. (Recent scholars have questioned the truth of this story, however, speculating that this may have been just a rumor circulated by his detractors.) In 250 AD, during a later persecution, Origen was imprisoned for being a Christian and cruelly tortured, after which he survived only a few years.
Refusing to deny his beliefs, Origen’s willingness to undergo personal suffering gave witness to his dedication to Christ. Origen, who was renowned for the breadth and depth of his scholarship, wrote influential works in the fields of theology, textual criticism, biblical commentary, preaching, and spirituality.
Hundred of years after the death of Origen, the Emperor Justinian instigated Origen’s condemnation and had many of his works burned. In 553 AD, the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople seems to have condemned Origin as a heretic. That this council actually condemned him is both “enigmatic and problematic” (Philip Esler, The Early Christian World, Volume 2, pg 262). The Catholic Encyclopedia (volume 11, pg 308) even states that Origen “does not deserve to be ranked among the promoters of heresy.”
Scholars today call Origen “the church’s first systematic theologian” and “the foremost biblical scholar of the early church.” Saint Jerome proclaimed Origen the “greatest teacher of wisdom and knowledge after the apostles.” Yet many of Origen’s works did not survive due to his condemnation several centuries after his death. This needs to be corrected. Some of this later criticism comes from Origen’s wide ranging philosophical speculation at a time when Christian orthodoxy was still forming. It is problematic to label as heresy Origen’s theories about the pre-existence of souls or the Son being inferior to the Father (which he may not have actually claimed) since the church at that time did not yet have official teachings on these matters.
Unfortunately some of the accusations against Origen were actually due to misunderstandings of his writings as well as the attribution of later speculations by his followers to him. Another point of controversy is Origen’s concept of Apokatastasis, that all creatures (even the Devil) could ultimately be reconciled with God. While scholars today debate whether Origen truly taught a version of Universal Salvation, Origen’s emphasis on the patience and enduring mercy of God, rather than on Divine punishment, might be seen in our own day as not heresy but as Good News. The great Anglican historian Henry Chadwick puts it this way, “If orthodoxy were a matter of intention, no theologian could be more orthodox than Origen, none more devoted to the cause of Christian faith.”
Origen is deserving of a place on our liturgical calendar with his rare combination of scholarly genius and a saintly life dedicated to Christ. The next step is a Resolution recommending Origen be included in the next edition of A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations. Then, on to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 to work for final approval from the national church.
Origen scholar, The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Lyman, states, “if anyone represented Anglican rationality, love of scripture, and holiness of life, it is Origen.”
Sometimes I make mistakes, sometimes other people make mistakes, and sometimes we both make mistakes. A lot of communication is required in order for us to sort out what the mistakes are, and where the misunderstandings are, and to get to the point where authentic apologies are made. Now, that’s a tough process to go through, so I’d rather avoid it as long as possible.
Some issues get swept under the rug because it would be more trouble than it’s worth to deal with them openly. Some problems are so pressing that one simply has to deal with them right away. There’s a sorting process where we have to decide which problems are worth delving into, and which ones are minor enough to drop.
The word ‘sorting’ reminds me that I need to clean out my attic and go through some old stuff so I can decide what to get rid of, what to keep, and what to recycle. I’ve been putting it off. I’m sure there are old issues built up in my life that I need to sort through as well. In the attic of my mind, there is junk stored away, old hurts, patterns, and feelings, that I have not wanted to address.
That’s why the beginning of Lent, this Wednesday, comes as such a relief. I can’t wait to set aside time to deal with my old issues because in the past I’ve felt so much better afterwards. Lent is a forty-day season set aside by the Church each year for the purpose of preparing for Easter, taking responsibility for things we have done and left undone, and for reconciliation with those whom we have hurt. Lent is a time for reassessing priorities, and for repentance; turning around and going in a different direction.
Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday when we acknowledge before God that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are mortal beings with a limited number of days to live. We recognize that God wants us to orient our lives around loving others, rather than hurting people and carrying around the burden of shame.
I’m already thinking about how I might live a holy Lent. I’ll set aside some extra quiet time to think and pray, and I’ll make lists of those things that are bothering me, about myself, in my relationships, and in the world. As I try to die to my old ways, I have hope that God will show me the path to live a new and resurrected life, renewed by Christ, and empowered for ministry.
—The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley