This past Sunday evening, I learned the awful news that Matthew Baker, my friend of ten years, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston and a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at Fordham University, was killed in a car accident on the way home from Vespers. His six children were in the car with him—they had all survived relatively unhurt, and his wife Katherine was at home recovering after having given birth to a stillborn son just a couple weeks before. Matthew was thirty-seven years old.
In the days that have followed, the reaction from those who knew him well and from the thousands who had been touched by him has been almost unbelievable. Not only are tributes being published on the Internet, but a support fund for his wife and children has, as of this writing, raised nearly half a million dollars, with donations from thousands of people. (And if you are able to give, please do. Katherine has many years of active motherhood in front of her without her husband’s income to support her.)
My own immediate reaction, which I wrote up the morning after his death, was a scrambled combination of personal shock, concern for his family, and something like an anger at what had been lost—not just by those who knew and loved him, but by the Orthodox Church and the broader Christian world. It is of this last piece that I wish to speak here.
Matthew’s favorite figure to study was Georges Florovsky, the twentieth century Orthodox priest, theologian, historian, scholar and ecumenist. Florovsky’s contributions in all these areas are nearly unparalleled in twentieth century Orthodoxy—and yet, in many ways, the Orthodox Church still has not quite digested them all. Matthew’s main scholarly work was to to be his interpreter, and the guardian of many of his papers and personal effects. But he was also very much like Florovsky—something that was apparent to all who knew him and who knew his intellectual predecessor’s work.
Most Orthodox scholars and theologians of the modern era largely work within the clear confines of the texts and sources of Orthodox tradition—the church fathers, the liturgy, the decrees of the ecumenical councils, and so on. And those were sources that Matthew knew well. His mind could access references to that vast textual corpus with a speed and depth that made even people who thought themselves smart and well-read react with astonishment.
But, like Florovsky, Matthew had also delved just as deeply into the theological and philosophical worlds that have developed outside of the Orthodox tradition. Over the ten years that I knew him, having first met him in one of the seminaries where he studied (some among his circle joked that he would eventually attend every Orthodox seminary), I could never keep up with the dizzying breadth of his knowledge. I always needed him to explain things to me. It seemed that he knew almost everything.
But while some great minds make you feel as though they live at the top of a mountain that you could never climb, some show you the secret passages to get to the top yourself. Matthew was this latter kind of genius, the kind that always was inviting you into his own delightful vision of things.
It was Matthew's capacity for friendship—particularly for friendship with many contemporary scholars—that informed his reading, discussion, appreciation and critique of philosophy and theology outside of the visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church. He was one of the few men I knew who could, for instance, discuss the similarities and differences between Roman Catholic theology and praxis as opposed to those of Orthodoxy without falling into polemics and misunderstandings based either on historical movements that no longer exist or on strawmen that never did.
He was both faithful to Orthodoxy and open to engagement with non-Orthodox traditions. He was the one who told me the “open secret” that most of the seminal works of Orthodox dogma and theology throughout the centuries had actually not been ruminations on established texts and practices but rather engagement with theological and philosophical challenges offered by the non-Orthodox. He sought, like Florovsky, to do what the church fathers themselves had been doing—something Florovsky called “Neo-Patristic Synthesis,” a phrase which occupied a good deal of Matthew’s scholarship.
And even though Matthew had not quite finished his doctoral work (he was fiercely close to completing his dissertation, a work not just on theology but also on history and philosophy), he had already been published in multiple journals and even in multiple languages. He had spoken at conferences in Moscow and Bulgaria, and had worked with a close friend to head up an annual patristic symposium hosted at Princeton Seminary for several years in a row. For someone without a doctorate, his curriculum vitae was surprisingly full and broad.
What was perhaps least known about Matthew was his desire to be a priest; I remember that he often spoke of this desire. He had been ordained to the priesthood only a little over a year before his death, and had finally been given a pastorate just weeks before.
One of his favorite subjects for exploration and meditation was the priesthood of Jesus Christ, who is called “the Offerer and the Offering” in the Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn during the primary eucharistic liturgies of the Orthodox Church. Matthew seems to have modeled his life after this image, giving himself wholly to whatever he took up—particularly in his studies, which took on an obsessive quality that took some years to bring into balance with the disciplines of being a student (he hadn’t bothered to get a bachelor’s degree, for instance, when he began the first of his two Master’s degrees), but also in his role of being a husband and a father. This total self-giving is what also made him the kind of friend that one reads about in panegyrics of old.
A tradition of the Orthodox Church is that, when a priest is to be buried, his face is covered with the aer—a rectangle of cloth that veils the bread and wine as they are offered on the altar for consecration to become the body and blood of Christ. Such a veiling of honor is especially fitting for this man, who had become, truly, both an offerer and an offering.
May his memory be eternal, and may his soul dwell with the blessed.