Sunday, July 12, 2009

flying Simon

I had the opportunity last night to attend the patronal feast-day vigil at the ROC chapel of Ss. Peter and Paul here in Elkridge. (As much as I would love to have a full Orthodox parish within walking distance, it is still very cool to have a little chapel nearby, like some old-world village where scrounging up a priest to come out and celebrate the patronal feast at a local, all-but-abandoned shrine is an annual highlight. Or more to the point, I would love to see a revival of the tradition where everyone goes to the church dedicated to a particular saint on that saint's feast day. My circumstances don't always allow me to do it, but getting to the only Orthodox house of worship in Elkridge for its patronal feast is definitely going to be high on my recurring priorities.)

I had two revelations in the course of the service. (Not that kind.) First, knowing how to read Greek (loosely interpreted as meaning, at least I know the alphabet and a few other odds and ends) apparently means that I can follow along in the printed Slavonic service books. I hadn't really tried before. In the past, I just relied on my general knowledge of how the services run and getting my bearings whenever they switched to English. But at some point last night I started watching the Slavonic pages as well, and although I can't put together the sounds on my own, I found that I could track in the book with what was being chanted. That was helpful in keeping my place in the service; it also gave me some hope that, even without actually learning Slavonic, I might be able to pick up the pronunciation and improve my understanding of the script just by following along.

The second revelation had to do with the content of the service. Once again, I'm stuck having to rely on a passing observation, without finding a copy of the text; but I'm positive that one of the odes of the canon referred to the confrontation between Peter, Paul, and Simon Magus, where he flew about over the city of Rome, and they prayed to cast him down. I think it was back when I was in college that I was preparing a sermon outline or some such thing on the first part of Acts 8. In looking for more information about Simon Magus (I suppose I was trying to ascertain whether his conversion was genuine or not), I came across this passage in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and Paul:
Then Simon went up upon the tower in the face of all, and, crowned with laurels, he stretched forth his hands, and began to fly. And when Nero saw him flying, he said to Peter: This Simon is true; but you and Paul are deceivers. To whom Peter said: Immediately shall you know that we are true disciples of Christ; but that he is not Christ, but a magician, and a malefactor. Nero said: Do you still persist? Behold, you see him going up into heaven. Then Peter, looking steadfastly upon Paul, said: Paul, look up and see. And Paul, having looked up, full of tears, and seeing Simon flying, said: Peter, why are you idle? Finish what you have begun; for already our Lord Jesus Christ is calling us. And Nero hearing them, smiled a little, and said: These men see themselves worsted already, and are gone mad. Peter said: Now you shall know that we are not mad. Paul said to Peter: Do at once what you do.

And Peter, looking steadfastly against Simon, said: I adjure you, you angels of Satan, who are carrying him into the air, to deceive the hearts of the unbelievers, by the God that created all things, and by Jesus Christ, whom on the third day He raised from the dead, no longer from this hour to keep him up, but to let him go. And immediately, being let go, he fell into a place called Sacra Via, that is,Holy Way, and was divided into four parts, having perished by an evil fate.

The story stuck in my head at the time, probably as evidence of how wildly fanciful these apocryphal stories were. But apparently it was embraced in the Tradition of the Church as an authentic encounter. This doesn't mean that the book itself is inspired Scripture, but at least in this instance it happens to record something that actually happened. After a few years of reading lives of saints, I like to think that my take on what's "wildly fanciful" is a bit less biased than it used to be. For some reason, Evangelical Protestants have developed a habit of accepting at face value the supernatural powers manifested in biblical narratives, while discounting out of hand anything extra-biblical that really goes no further. Does it require more faith to believe that Simon flew by demonic power than to believe that demons could give superhuman strength or send a herd of pigs over a cliff? Is it any more fantastic that Peter would pray to end this blasphemous display than any exorcism found in the New Testament? Which came first--the assumption that such things only happened in the first century, or the refusal to accept them on any authority but the Bible?

Anyway, my point in bringing this up is not to preach. I'm just tickled that, after all these years, it turns out I can believe the story really happened.

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