Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Knowledge

Christ is Born! Glorify Him! I sincerely hope all of you and yours have a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year and let us all give thanks and praise to the one who was incarnate for our sakes to break us from the bondage of the evil one!

Last Sunday was the Sunday of Genealogy in the Eastern Rite, where we read Christ's genealogy according to Matthew. The reading serves as proof that the babe that was born in a manger or cave in the city of Bethlehem was not an angel, nor ambassador, nor God in mere appearance of a man, but God AS man. God has human ancestors and a human mother though no human father. Sinners are in this list of genealogy yet God did humble Himself and was born of a virgin and from a line of great murders, adulterers, thieves, traitors and harlots. God comes to dwell among us sinners and has come from a line of sinners. So much for God being a blue blooded, country club member, Republican! (Sorry for the politics!)

And last night, at the Royal Hours of Nativity and the Matins Vigil, we heard the Gospels again about Christ coming into this world as a real human baby. We hear of shepherds and and magi from Persia and angels giving glory to the newborn king. We hear of Mary who gives praise in her Magnificat to God that she would bear a son, though a virgin and then cherishing the gifts of the magi and shepherds. But what do we hear about Joseph? Not a word.

If roles were assigned in a church Christmas Program, I think that the only role worse than that of a shepherd (from the perspective of speaking parts; In a "Charlie Brown Christmas, Shermy resents that every year he has to play a shepherd!) would be Joseph. There is not one single recorded word of St. Joseph in the Scriptures. Make no mistake, he DOES a lot. He is responsible for ensuring that Mary suffers no disgrace and marries her despite being pregnant outside of marriage and for ensuring that Christ is protected from the murdering jealousy of King Herod and raises the Christ as his own though he knows the child is clearly not his. But he is silent. Yet, he does all these things because, as the epistle lesson from the Galatians at the Third Royal Hour proclaims, of his faith. St. Joseph is the epitome of faith.

Despite his overwhelming silence, in the Royal Hours, there are several idiomela hymns where the hymnographers have given Joseph some speeches. Of course, these are elaborations and such is intrinsic to Byzantine hymnography. He laments the shame that he will incur from Mary's pre-marital pregnancy. Still, it his actions and his faith that allow us a glimpse into the whole person of St. Joseph. He takes Mary as his wife and when she gives birth, we read that familiar line that "Joseph did not know Mary until she had given birth to her son." (Matt. 1:24-5).

(Now this verse is often caught in the cross hairs of the debate of Mary as semper virgo. We will not go into that here, though I would point out, very clearly, that those who do not regard Mary as an ever virgin have the onus to prove otherwise. The teaching of Mary as semper virgo has nearly 2000 years of teaching and preaching ascribed to it whereas those who deny it have only been around for 200 years or so and are tainted by a suprarationalism which, in effect, denies that anyone can exist without sexual drives.)

The verb in Greek to know is gignoskein. In the Greek language just as in King James Version English, the word "know" can also be used as a synonym or euphemism to describe sexual intercourse. But why must this verse always be read only in this context? What if we read, in this passage, a journey of Joseph that progresses from faith to knowledge? When Mary gave birth to the Incarnate Word of God, the Emmanuel "God with us", he then realized who she was because of who her Son was. Though ashamed and confused and heartbroken to hear of Mary's pregnant state, he still, by faith, overcame those and protected her and her Son. The knowledge that the Son of God was born from her and confirmed the faithful acts which he had performed. Knowledge is born of the faith.

There is an old Augustinian catchphrase, "Credo ut intellegam" which means "I believe so that I may understand." In the later Middle Ages, some theologians disputed that and reversed it saying "Intellego ut credam" which means "I understand so that I may believe." This was their version of the chicken and the egg! Which comes first--a faith that breeds understanding or a knowledge that allows us to see everything through faith? If St. Joseph is to be used as a type or exemplar, I say that Augustine was right. We believe in order to understand. St. Joseph did all those acts, believed and was lead by his faith and, as a result, truly knew who his wife was from the birth of her Son, our Saviour.

In the forty days of our preparation for the feast of the Nativity, our fast has been supported by our faith in God that He has sent us His Son, the Word, incarnate for our sakes. Last night our faith was confirmed in the Knowledge that only such could be the case. And St. Joseph then knew his wife, intimately, but not sexually as the Theotokos, the "God bearer."

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Nativity Fast

On November 15, the Holy Orthodox Church begins its preparation to celebrate our Lord's incarnation. Our Lord's taking on human flesh and the celebration of the Theophany a little more than a week later are but the mere beginning of our Lord's mercy to save us from the passions which consume us every day. But in order to feast and celebrate, we must first fast and prepare. This fasting must never be done in a manner to draw attention to ourselves, nor should we do so with sadness, but with joy. Fasting is a discipline that must be accompanied by prayer. Without prayer our fasting is only dieting. And we should not only fast from food, we should also fast from other pleasures. For me, I'm taking a break from the internet, save for email so I will not be writing anything again (not that I've been writing much lately) until Nativity. I will be using the extra time to devote to more reading and prayer. This is not a meritorious activity. I do it not to earn points with God but because God has done so much for me that a break from certain foods, TV and internet is really but a small recompense.

For those of you who are about to enter the fast, I wish you well. We must remember that most of our fellow Christians, even our fellow Orthodox Christians do not observe the fast. We must remember St. Paul's advice that we are not to judge because one brother eats meat and another doesn't.

Many still believe that in spite of what I just wrote that fasting is nothing more than a legalism. I challenge you to prove that. I also am reprinting these words from which give a brief synopsis on what fasting is and isn't. I shall return on Nativity when I hope you will rejoice with me, chanting: Christos Gennetai! Blessed fast.

The Purpose of Fasting

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example.

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.
We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us.
We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together.
Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now.
Most of all, we should not devour each other. We ask God to “set a watch and keep the door of our lips.”

Do Not Fast

between December 25 and January 5 (even on Wednesdays and Fridays);
if you are pregnant or nursing a newborn;
during serious illness;
without prayer;
without alms-giving;
according to your own will without guidance from your spiritual father.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Who are the barbarians?

The very famous Troparion of the Cross, chanted at every Matins and also on feast days of the Cross as a dismissal hymn (Aug. 1, Sept. 14 and 3rd Sunday of Lent) is known by these words:

O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting to Thy people victory over all adversaries and by the power of Thy Cross, preserving thine estate.

Such is what we chant. However, even a basic knowledge of Greek will indicate that the boldfaced words are poor translations (if not politically correct) of the Greek. What should be said is that victory be granted to our "kings" over "barbarians." Granted, kings is probably not going to resonate with our democratic/republican tendencies. And barbarian even less so because who are we to judge? But here's a good take on why barbarian should be the preferred translation and used. In short, it's because there are still barbarians around us. My thanks to Fr. Milovan Katanic for his thoughts on this.

For those of us who have only a superficial knowledge of trends when it comes to social issues, we realize that in about a decade's time the acceptance of homosexual marriage and relations as well as abortion on the demand has gone up amongst people who consider themselves faithful Christians. That is probably due to the fact that many, if not most, of us actually know a person or persons who are gay and know women who have had abortions. I myself can attest to both. I wish I did not know those things, not because I don't like these people, but because I have a terrible tendency to be judgmental and condemnatory and I fear that such would get the best of me. Of course, it's not my business, but somehow that knowledge gets passed along.

Even for Orthodox Christians, the number of the faithful who actually support legislation granting marriage to homosexuals and keeping abortion legal in all situations, is a majority of Orthodox Christians. Though I'm sure many of these faithful people say that they are repulsed by abortion and would never sanction one in their own family, why is it not wrong for everyone else, but wrong for us? A firm, consistent and moral clarity is obviously lacking.

OK. So, what does this have to do with barbarians? Fr. Katanic reprints this incisive critique from Fr. Gregory Jensen of the OCA:

According to the PEW survey, the majority of Orthodox laity agree that abortion and gay marriage should be legal. It may surprise you, then, that the problem isn’t Schaeffer – it’s us; specifically, it’s the clergy. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, we clergy are not effectively communicating the moral tradition of the Church to the laity. Or, if we are, the laity aren’t listening—which would imply that the clergy are willing to tolerate the laity ignoring the Gospel.

We see the same prevalence of pro-choice, pro-gay marriage positions among Orthodox politicians. This kind of a consistent pattern of belief does not just happen. As in the Catholic Church, we see in the Orthodox Church evidence of a significant pastoral failing. This appears to be more than just a widespread lack of sound moral education for the faithful. It appears to be an embrace of, or at least resignation to, the influence of secularism in our parishes.

This is a very serious problem. This isn’t a debate about the practices of potentially faithful followers—as can be the case when addressing, say, Old Calendar or New Calendar, or the issue of women wearing headscarves, or whether priests should have beards and wear cassocks, or whether we have pews or not, or whether to use an organ to lead the choir. This goes much deeper—to the heart of Christian discipleship. It seems that we have simply lost sight of the beauty and power of Christian virtue; perhaps worse, it seems that we have given over leadership to moral barbarians.

I know that sounds like a harsh judgment, but what else can one call it? A barbarian isn’t a bad person. A barbarian isn’t likely to love his wife and children any less than you or I. He isn’t necessarily an atheist or polytheist. In fact, many barbarians believed—and believe—in Christ, though for the same reason that they believed in the old gods: to secure power for their people.

John Courtney Murray writes in his introduction to The Civilization of the Pluralist Society that “the barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand.” Instead he…

…may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen with which to write his advertising copy. In fact, even beneath the academic gown there may lurk a child of the wilderness, untutored in the high tradition of civility, who goes busily and happily about his work, a domesticated and law-abiding man, engaged in the construction of a philosophy to put an end to all philosophy, and thus put an end to the possibility of a vital consensus and to civility itself.

In Murray’s view, the perennial “work of the barbarian” is “to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived.” He does this not “by spreading new beliefs” but…

…by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life is dimmed and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed, so that finally what you have is the impotent nihilism of the “generation of the third eye,” now presently appearing on our university campuses. [This was written in 1958!] (One is, I take it, on the brink of impotence and nihilism when one begins to be aware of one’s own awareness of what one is doing, saying, thinking. This is the paralysis of all serious thought; it is likewise the destruction of all the spontaneities of love.)

In the modern world, then, “the barbarian is the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs. He is the man who reduces all spiritual and moral questions to the test of practical results or to an analysis of language or to decision in terms of individual subjective feeling.” By these criteria, it seems that we live in an increasingly barbarian world—even in our own parishes.

Those of us who are involved heavily in our churches, whether as clergy or laity, know that the war against Christ and the teachings of His Church is wages from within far more than from without. Mainstream Protestant denominations are suffering from a hemorrhage of people because of the "liberal" stances these church bodies take when it comes to social issues of the time. Though the Orthodox have preserved the fullness of the faith, neither adding nor subtracting to it, and though we have preserved the Liturgy and the Offices unlike the Protestants and Catholics, how much longer will it be before Orthodox churches start to look like high church mainstream Protestants? The barbarians are no longer at the gates; they're inside sipping the wine.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 6

O Lord, rebuke me not in Thine anger, nor chasten me in Thy wrath. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled and my soul is greatly troubled; but Thou, O Lord, how long? Turn to me again, O Lord, deliver my soul; save me for Thy mercy's sake.--Psalm 6: 1-3, HTM translation

The divine wrath is not some sort of irritation; God does not become peeved or annoyed. The wrath of God is infinitely more serious than a temper tantrum. It is a deliberate resolve in response to a specific state of the human soul. In Romans, where the expression appears twelve times, the anger of God describes His activity toward the hard of heart, the unrepentant, those sinners who turn their backs and deliberately refuse His grace, and it is surely in this sense that our psalm asks to be delivered from God's wrath. It is important to make such a prayer, because hardness of heart remains a possibility for all of us to the very day we die...The taking away of sin required the shedding of Christ's blood on the Cross. This fact itself tells us how serious is this whole business of sin.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Psalm 6

Monday, October 25, 2010

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 5

But as for me, in the multitude of Thy mercy shall I go into Thy house; I shall worship toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee.--Psalm 5:6, HTM Translation

To pray is to enter the house of God. The context for this worship, nonetheless, is still the life of struggle against evil. When the Christian rises, it is always on the battlefield.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Psalm 5

For in their mouth there is no truth; their heart is vain. Their throat is an open sepulchre, with their tongues have they spoken deceitfully; judge them, O God.--Psalm 5:8-9

Sin is abhorrent to God. He not only loves justice; he also hates iniquity...When the psalmist prays for the destruction of the wicked, this is not personal sentiment, so to speak. it is a plea that God vindicate His own moral order. He hates it [sin] vehemently. Jesus on the Cross had not one word to say to the blasphemous, unrepentant thief...

The idea is abroad these days that , whereas the Old Testament God was a no-nonsense Divinity, the God of the New Testament is quite a bit more tolerant.

Such an idea would have surprised the Apostles. Romans 3:8-10, for instance, which is a melange of various psalm verses describing the evil of sin, cites a rather violent line from our present psalm with reference to evildoers: "Their throat is an open sepulcher." Indeed, the descriptions of sin in Romans 1 and 3 make a good commentary on many verses of Psalm 5.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Psalm 5

The stench of our sin

Every morning at Orthros (Matins), the 6 psalms (hexapsalmoi) are prayed. Each of these psalms, according to our tradition, will be ready by our Guardian Angels as we stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ on the last day. These 6 psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102 and 142) convict us and yet cause to remember that is only by the mercies and compassion of God that we can be saved. In Psalm 37, we pray "My bruises are become noisome and corrupt in the face of my folly." (HTM translation) Perhaps a better translation for corrupt is foul or putrid, which conveys the sense of rotting flesh. The Greek verb here is esapesan, derived from the Greek verb sepo, hence where we get medical words as sepsis, etc.

In Christianity today, especially in more mainline, liberal christianities, there is less and less talk of sin. But even in churches where sin has not been excised from the pulpit and the teachings, there has been a great tendency to "internalize" sin. Sin is something that only affects your mind and soul, it does not have outward manifestations such as wounds or even flesh.

However, the Scriptures, particularly the Psalms, the hymnography of the Church and many of the patristic writings assert that sin does have physical consequences as spiritual consequences. In our society where privacy is given such sacrosanct status, sin is viewed as a private matter which has no or limited repercussions for society as a whole.

If only we had keen spiritual noses. Could you imagine what the world would smell like if everyone's sin did emit a particular odor? We'd probably be forced like the Roman nobility of old who, when walking down the streets, would hold a rose to their nose to cover the stench of rotting garbage thrown out from the homes, taverns and businesses onto that street. But even alone, our own sins would probably be enough to completely overwhelm us.

But some of the great saints did have a nose for sin. My fellow blogger John Sanidopoulos at MYSTAGOGY relates this tale from St. Nicolai Velimirovich:

The saints were able to discern which passion possessed a man by the kind of stench he emanated. Thus it was that St. Euthymius the Great recognized the stench of the passion of adultery in the monk Emilian of the Lavra of St. Theoctistus. Going to Matins one morning, Euthymius passed by Emilian's cell and smelled the stench of the demon of adultery. Emilian had not committed any physical sin, but had adulterous thoughts that were being forced into his heart by the demon, and the saint already sensed it by its smell.

How different our society would be if we all had such noses? I think it would make us even worse sinners since we could tell what sin someone had committed by their odor. "You smell like you robbed someone today" or "You smell as if you cheated on your wife." Perhaps we should be grateful to lack such a "gift."

Though we may casually dismiss sin as having physical consequences, we should not pretend that such doesn't happen. Someone's cancer may well or may not be due to a person's sinfulness or even holiness. Such is not for us to tell. Yet our Lord Christ tells us that His Body and Blood are for the healing of BOTH soul and body. The Eucharist has cured many from diseases thought untreatable by modern science so has fervent prayer and fasting.

But it is a sad state that as many christian confessions no longer teach that sin has physical consequences are the same ones who say that sin is no longer an issue.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 4

Know also that the Lord hat made wondrous His holy one; the Lord will hearken unto me when I cry unto Him.--Psalm 4, HTM translation

The Hebrew term here, translated as "godly" [i.e. holy one] is hasid(hosios in the Greek, sanctus in the Latin). That is to say, the life in Christ is the life of the "holy ones," the hasidim; it is the "hasidic" life, the life of separation from the sinful standards of the world. The adjective, hasid is used in the Hebrew Old Testament 32 times, of which 21 are found in the Book of Psalms, a proportion strongly suggesting that the prayer and praise of God are a major component of the biblical doctrine of holiness. One cannot live a worldly life and still expect to be able to pray the psalms. The Psalter has nothing to say to the worldly; it is not for the unconverted, the unrepentant. It is, rather, the prayer book of those who strive for holiness of life and the unceasing praise of God.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Psalm 4, Christ in the Psalms

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 3

O Lord, why are they multiplied that afflict me? Many rise up against me...Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God, for Thou hast smitten all who without cause are mine enemies; the teeth of the sinners hast Thou broken.--Psalm 3, HTM translation.

To relinquish any one of the psalms on the excuse that its sentiments are too violent for a Christian is a clear sign that a person has given up the very battle that a Christian is summoned from his bed to fight. The psalms are prayers for those engaged in an ongoing spiritual conflict. No one else need bother opening the book.--Fr. Patrick Reardon, Psalm 3, Christ in the Psalms

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 2

Psalm 2 commences: "Why do the heathen rage and the people imagine something vain." The "blessed man" introduced in Psalm 1, Jesus our Lord, is an affront to the wisdom of this world. The powers of this world cannot abide Him. The moral contrast described in Psalm 1 becomes the messianic conflict named in Psalm 2.--Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, Psalm 2, Christ in the Psalms

On another note, for those of you who are music lovers, you may notice that in Handel's oratorio, Messiah, the text that is sung before the great Hallelujah chorus is from Psalm 2. Charles Jennens, the man who compiled the libretto for Handel's Messiahmust have understood the power of Psalm 2 and the need to resolve it with the majesty of the words of Revelation.

Christ in the Psalms--Psalm 1

I've undertaken reading Fr. Patrick Reardon's Christ in the Psalms. After his visit to the Omaha area a month ago and hearing the Scriptures really come alive through this man, I was inspired to read one of his books. So I picked up a copy of Christ in the Psalms. I decided that the best way to read it was not to just read it cover to cover but to focus on one psalm every day (no matter how long or how short), read the psalm, read Fr. Reardon's take on it (they are meditations of no more than 1 1/2 pages usually) and then reread the psalm. I will tell you that a whole new world of understanding and praying the psalter has been opened up to me.

As Orthodox Christians, we are privileged and blessed to have such hymnography at our fingertips each day. However, for as much as the psalms are at our ready disposal, we too easily cast them aside for prayers for church fathers (not that the prayers of the fathers of the church are bad or anything) or for nothing at all. The Psalter is the hymnbook of the church. So, let us start treating it that way.

Just who is this "blessed man" of whom the psalmist speaks? It is not man in general. In truth, it really is not simply a "human being." The underlying words, here translated as "man", are emphatically masculine...They are not the Hebrew (adam) and Greek (anthropos) nouns accurate translated as "human being." The "man" of reference here is a particular man. According to the Fathers of the Church, he is the one Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ. The Law of the Lord, which is to be our delight and meditation day and night, finds its meaning only in Him.--Psalm 1

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I need my kids baptized...just in case

I wish I could say that the vast majority of the reading I do of material on the internet is somehow useful, inspiring and educational. Sadly, probably the vast majority of things that come up in my daily course of readings from various news media are useless, depressing and vapid. And my commenting on such vapid, depressing and useless things only exposes more people to them rather than letting them be ignored. Exposing faulty and ignorant things in our society is a two edged sword. On the one hand, you can refute such ridiculousness but, on the other hand, you make such farces known given more exposure than if you had just let it perish among all of the internet hogwash out there.

I came across this story today in my readings. I'll give you the short version. A person calls his pastor at the church he irregularly attends (denomination doesn't matter) and asks the pastor if he would be available to baptize his two young children (I think they were both under 10) before they go out of town on a trip to Disney World. The man's rationale was that though this looked to be like a safe trip with little chance of anything happening to his children, it was his choice of words that really pinched a nerve with me. He said he wanted his kids baptized "...just in case."

As I said, this man was an irregular attender of his local church. I don't know what is in his heart though you can plainly see that he does have concern for his children's well-being. I don't know what the pastors decision would be after hearing this and I leave it to his judgment. But I'm troubled by this rationalization for baptizing his children.

It is true that we could die at any moment. That is why, as St. Andrew of Crete, tells us in his Great Canon which is chanted through Great Lent, our soul must not be asleep but watchful for the great day of the Lord is coming. Our journey towards theosis must be at the front of our "things to do" list every day. Repentance must not be a mere lingering thought.

But if we do these things for the "just in case" scenario then we are cheapening our Lord's call to repentance. We are even cheapening the very essence of our faith in Christ. Our Lord, before his Ascension into heaven said to His disciples to go forth and preach the Gospel to all nations baptizing them in the name of the +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are also told that he who believes and is baptized shall be saved. Notice the juxtaposition there of belief and baptism. If there is no faith, then there can be no baptism.

Though we baptize infants who are expected to grow in the faith, they have sponsors or "godparents" who make the professions of faith for them. We hope that they then grow in the faith and generate the fruits of the Word implanted in them at their baptism. But if a parent wants to have his kids baptized because he is merely fearful of what could happen to them rather than trusting in the compassion of God, then this is profaning baptism.

Our Lord gave us the mysteries (i.e. sacraments) for us so that we can be regenerated. But there must also be faith present in the person who receives. If a person has no faith in God, how can absolution be granted him? If he has no faith, how can he be renewed in soul and in body by the power of the Eucharist? Such is why the mysteries are given only to the faithful and not to everyone.

If there is no faith present here either in the father or in his two children, baptizing them jay be a waste of time. But, for too many in our culture, the sacraments are seen more as "insurance policies" rather than as means for us to become true communicants with God and grow in theosis. There are those who baptize their children because it is part of their "culture" or "tradition" or what have you. As long as such attitudes persist in modern Christianity, then how long will it be until people don't even think they ever need baptism or the Eucharist for themselves or their kids?

If these kids are baptized, I must also say that God's mercy and compassion are beyond whatever faith we can muster in the first place so perhaps what I wrote is a moot point. Double-edged sword indeed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Even the Saints were "only human"

I think it is very easy to forget that the great saints whom we commemorate on our Orthodox calendar, day in and day out, were human. Yes, they have been now glorified by God and crowned and they intercede for us sinners daily at Christ's dread judgment seat. They have finished the race in glory, but they started the race in a much different state. But, too often, we forget that.

Even if we are in the presence of a person who just exudes holiness, exudes the grace of God from him or her just being in the room, humbled and awed as we may be, we must never forget that even these people have "human needs" as do the rest of us. Sure, they eat, though they may eat far less. They sleep, though they may sleep much less. They pray, but pray for a lot longer and more fervently than what we can begin to imagine. A fellow blogger at MYSTAGOGY posted this wonderful story.

By Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol

Many years ago when I was at Katounakia [a rugged area in the southeast of the Athonite peninsula] I would often spend time with that great contemporary holy elder Father Ephraim [Katounakiotis], Papa Ephraim, as he was popularly called. I am not sure whether our century will give birth to another great elder like him, a man of continuous prayer who radiated the abundance of God's grace.

When a group of us visited him at his hermitage one day, he complained that he was tired of Katounakia and expressed a wish to go live at Monoxylites for awhile. That's an area near the borders of Mount Athos. It is a valley between two mountains filled with pine-tree forests, vineyards and olive groves. It is a very beautiful area with abundant running waters, an earthly paradise. He said, "I want to go there and rest. Here at Katounakia there is nothing except rocks and prayer, prayer and rocks, day in and day out. I am really tired. I need a change."

I was shocked when I heard him say that. I wondered how it was possible for a great saint like him to have a desire to change his environment, to go to Monoxylites? I could see young monks like ourselves having needs of this sort. But how is it possible that this great saint in whose life God is always present has such needs? It was then that I realized that even saints are human beings subject to the law of alterations.

I heard later that Joseph the Hesychast [d. 1959], the great elder of Papa Ephraim, expressed similar needs during his life. Elder Ephraim himself told us once that his elder underwent a period of deep sorrow and was subjected to many temptations. One day he asked his then disciple Ephraim, "Papa Ephraim, go and bring Pseudo Vasili here to amuse us." Pseudo Vasili was a layman who lived and worked near the Skete of Saint Anna. He was a simple man who was reputed for his outrageous lies. In his presence it was impossible not to roar with laughter. As in my case, Papa Ephraim was scandalized. "How is it possible," he reasoned, "that the elder has a need for a jester like Pseudo Vasili to amuse him? Why can't he do something else, like more prayer?" As you can see, even great saints occasionally have such needs by virtue of their being human.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Growth of Orthodoxy in the USA

Whitney Jones
October 6, 2010
Huffington Post

America's Eastern Orthodox parishes have grown 16 percent in the past decade, in part because of a settled immigrant community, according to new research.

Alexei Krindatch, research consultant for the Standing Conferences of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, said the 16 percent growth in the number of Orthodox parishes is "a fairly high ratio for religious groups in the United States."

The number of Orthodox parishes has reached 2,370, and the Orthodox community in America consists of more than 1 million adherents across 20 different church bodies, according to the 2010 U.S. Orthodox Census.

The top five largest Orthodox churches in the U.S. are Greek Orthodox (476,900), Orthodox Church in America (84,900), Antiochian Orthodox (74,600), Serbian Orthodox (68,800) and Russian Orthodox (27,700).

Two of these church bodies--the Bulgarian Orthodox Eastern Diocese and the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese--experienced a growth rate of over 100 percent. Both churches began with a small number of parishes in 2000 and are supported by a community of established Eastern European immigrants.

"It takes immigrant communities a little while to establish a religious community," Krindatch said. "They settle, then begin to think about their religious lives."

Even though the majority of Orthodox church bodies grew, some lost parishes. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church and Armenian Apostolic Church of America all experienced a slight decrease in the number of parishes.

The study, which was part of the national Religious Congregations and Membership Study 2010, also shows that just 27 percent of members attend Orthodox churches regularly.

Krindatch said the definition of each of the groups affected this statistic. Church "adherents" was the most inclusive category, consisting of anyone who occasionally participated in church life, while "regular attendees" are those who attend church on an almost weekly basis.

More information on the survey can be found at

I would strongly encourage you to view the powerpoint at the above website. Though it really only measures responses from GOA laity and clergy, it is still very insightful.

Acquiring the Kingdom of Heaven

Those of you who know me know that I am a Star Trek fan. No, I'm not a Trekker or a Trekkie and I can honestly say I've never been to a Star Trek convention, but I am a fan of the show, own a lot of DVDs and can quote extensively from episodes of all series except for Voyager and Enterprise which I have dubbed "too lame by Star Trek standards."

One of the species in the Star Trek universe is a race called the Ferengi. I knew I would like them from the start. They are venture capitalists, if not outright thieves, in some cases. Their soel motivation in life is the acquisition of profit. A Ferengi without profit is no Ferengi at all, we are reminded throughout the series. Their guidebook, their Bible, if you will, is the Rules of Acquisition. In place of "See Spot. See Spot Run. Run, Spot, run!" Ferengi youths are taught "See Brack. See Brack aquire. Acquire, Brack, acquire!" When you hear the verb "acquire" in this context, it starts to come off with only negative characteristics.

I was at my girlfriend's church today. The Gospel that was read was from St. Matthew, chapter 13 where Christ speaks in parables to his disciples and the multitudes of the Kingdom of Heaven. In verse 44, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a hidden treasure of a field which a man finds, buries it and then sells all his possessions to acquire the field and thus the treasure. In the next verse, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a great pearl which a merchant desires and so sells off all his possessions to acquire it.

I am very thankful that whenever I read the Scriptures or have them read to me I find new insights. One of those new insights was that, in the first case, the man doesn't simply take the treasure and run off with it. For the field in which the treasure is found is not his. So he then proceeds to give up everything he has to obtain the place where the treasure is buried and thus acquire it. The merchant who desires the Great Pearl must do the same--sell all his possessions to acquire it. Both parables, though, both speak to the necessity to give up everything you have to truly possess the Kingdom of God. It is not just given to you. It is something that you must work to obtain even to the point of ridding yourself of your very livelihood to obtain it. One question that ran through my head was, "how would both of these men live after they have sold everything to acquire the field or the pearl? They can't and won't sell the treasure and pearl which they have just painstakingly purchased for the basic means of life." And, of course, Christ's parables don't give us an answer to such a question.

When we acquire possessions in this world, we acquire something ephemeral and fleeting. How willing would any of us really be to rid ourselves of those possessions to acquire something much greater? Would we be willing to follow Christ's message of "sell everything and follow Him?"

In this life, acquiring possessions requires a lot of work. We have to find a means to make money and then spend it wisely. With the acquisition of the Kingdom, we have to, in a sense, empty ourselves in order to acquire. Another one of those Christian paradoxes! But that emptying of ourselves requires work behind it as well. It is not simply something that happens.

The spiritual life is warfare and I can think of no other profession, save for farming, where more work and resources go into than that. If we are not prepared to do battle against the evil one and our very selves to empty and rid ourselves of the passions and anything else that bind us to this world, then we can acquire nothing of truly great value, i.e. profit.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ex tempore prayer--more meaningful?

I guess I only needed a few days to get some inspiration to write something.

One of the frequent criticisms I hear about Orthodoxy or any so-called "High Church" Christian confession, whether Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Anglican is that the people pray prayers written by other people. In other words, the prayers said during Liturgy or during the offices lack the spontaneity of true devotion and thus are somehow not as well received by God as compared to something that comes from a few seconds' thought. Ridiculous!

I've been to many church services where all the prayers were of the spontaneous variety and, honestly, they all sounded the same. Now, I do not doubt, in any way, the intentions of the persons praying them, but isn't there so much more than just to be "thankful for being in Your presence" etc.? The added over emotionalism of trying to generate tears to go with the spontaneous prayer only makes the person prayer look ridiculous. Again, I do not doubt the intentions of such people, but they will insist that God wants us to pray like that and that it will be more received than some dry prayer written by someone 300, 500, 1000 or even 2500 years ago. Some of these very same people will even refuse to say the Lord's prayer, going so far as to call it a "vain repetition" which is a gross abuse of that passage in Scripture.

Written prayers are not bad nor is their use a sign of spiritual weakness. The key is to move the prayers from the lips to the mind to the heart. Once prayer moves to the heart and the heart prays unceasingly, then it truly becomes your own. Yes, I pray prayers of St. Basil, St. John Damascene, St. John Chyrsostom, St. Ephraim, etc.. I also pray the Psalter, which is God's given prayer-book to us. I also pray the prayer that our Lord gave to us. I didn't author them but they are truly mine because I have fused them to my heart.

There is also humility in praying like this. It demonstrates that I am at a loss at what to say to God, but the words of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church are my guide to communion with God through prayer. For many years I was unable to pray. When I discovered these prayers, I finally found the words I was looking for all along and made them my own.

Ex tempore or spontaneous prayer isn't bad, but what more spiritual benefit does it impart? It doesn't give anything more. I will close with these words from an Anglican from 1649:

No man can assure me that the words of his ex tempore prayer are the words of the holy Spirit: it is not reason nor modesty to expect such immediate assistances to so little purpose, he having supplied us with abilities more then enough to expresse our desires aliundè, otherwise then by immediate dictate; But if we will take David’s Psalter, or the other Hymnes of holy Scripture, or any of the Prayers which are respersed over the Bible, we are sure enough that they are the words of Gods spirit, mediately or immediately, by way of infusion or extasie, by vision, or at least by ordinary assistance. And now then, what greater confidence can any man have for the excellency of his prayers, and the probability of their being accepted, then when he prayes his Psalter, or the Lords Prayer, or any other office which he finds consigned in Scripture? When Gods spirit stirres us up to an actuall devotion, and then we use the matter he hath described and taught, and the very words which Christ & Christs spirit, and the Apostles, and other persons, full of the Holy Ghost did use; If in the world there be any praying with the Spirit (I meane, in vocall prayer) this is it.

Jeremy Taylor, An Apology for authorized and set forms of Liturgy against the Pretence of the Spirit (1649).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Haven't written in a while

A few people have asked when I'm going to write another piece for my website. And my honest answer is "I don't know." They ask me if I have writer's bloc or some related affliction. I then reply that it is partially due to writer's bloc but has more to do with just how, over the last few weeks, after doing some reading of Scripture and other works and attending faithfully the prayer offices and Liturgy of the Church, I have become all the more acutely aware of how much I do not know and how much more wary I am of exposing my ignorance. I guess, then, it is a matter of pride.

But I often wonder about what do my readings contribute to the Church, our Lord or the saints (both capital "S" and lower-case). I am not writing this to solicit comments of support and empathy and encouragement to write. I remember that I wrote a few months ago, that if you do read my mediocrities here, please don't do it at the expense of reading the Word of God, whether in the psalter, the epistles or the Gospel.

So, for now, I have nothing more to contribute. I have nothing to say. Those of you who know me well know that I rarely am at a loss for words, but there it is. I hope to contribute at least one minor morsel of thought food a month, but I cannot make promises. Expect me when you see me.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Want Chalcedonian Theology? Better come to more than just the Liturgy!

This past weekend, we were very fortunate to have a visit from Fr. Patrick Reardon, pastor of All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago. Fr. Patrick is the author of many books (none of which I admit I have read, but will get to eventually) including, Christ in the Psalms, Christ in the Saints, Chronicles of History and Worship, etc.. His talk was on the saints and what that means especially in an age of apostasy in which we now live.

The Q&A session was all over the place with questions ranging from hymnography to dogmatic theology to systematics to hagiography to icons to Scriptural exegesis. In short, there was something for everyone.

I cannot remember exactly how this came up, but Fr. Patrick revealed something that I have never fathomed before: The main liturgies of the Orthodox Church (i.e. the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great) are pre-Chalcedonian. This, of course, refers to the Fourth Ecumenical Council which convened at Chalcedon in 451 to discuss and clarify the doctrine of Christs' Hypostatic Union which was an extension of clarifying Mary as Theotokos at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431. I never had thought of that before.

The Liturgies of St. John and St. Basil then predate Chalcedon. I should be very clear that despite the clear presence of Chalcedonian theology, there is NOTHING heretical or unorthodox about either of these. The liturgies were in place for a long time, but the hours, such as Vespers and Orthros did not come into their settled format until much later, way after Chalcedon.

My priest makes it very clear that if people want to really know their faith, they should come to Orthros on Sundays. Few do, preferring the Liturgy only. And that's fine because the Liturgy is a great gift to us from God in which we receive the life giving Eucharist of our Lord. Coming to Orthros and not staying to pray Liturgy with the rest of the Christian family is not a good idea.

But the hymnography of Orthros and Vespers is so rooted in the Ecumenical tradition following both Sts. Basil and John. Such great hymnographers as Romanos the Melodist, St. John Damascene, St.Cosma, etc. synthesize and weave such great tapestries of the dogmas of the church together to really proclaim the fullness of the faith. Again, if one really wants to understand their faith, Orthros and Vespers are a must.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sin and the Dragon

I was going through some old email and a friend of mine wrote this to me when I was going through some major spiritual warfare which seemed to be coming out in favor of the evil one. These words gave me great hope and encouragement to recommit to the battle. I've still lost many battles, but the war is far from over. Here is what he said:

Remember that the demon who tells you that you should despair over your sin is the same demon who tempted you to sin in the first place. They are playing a game with you. Follow the head of the dragon which is attacking you down to its tail and you will find the lie (falsehood) which he is using to mess with your head. For example:

"You have fallen into the same sin again- how dare you presume on the mercy of God? You are beyond forgiveness!"

"You have chosen to give in to your passions and have sinned."

"Your passions are unbridled."

"Salvation depends on your sinlessness."

The dragon's tail is a lie. Salvation does not depend on sinlessness, but on the infinite Mercy of Christ. It doesn't depend on you or your "merits". It depends on Christ.

Thank you, my friend.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Universal Exaltation of the Life Giving and Precious Tree

Today, September 14 (Revised Julian Calendar), the Orthodox Church universally exalts and uplifts the Cross of our Lord from which came our salvation, the defeat of the death, the manifestation of the powerless grip of the devil, the weapon against the passions and the ensign of our inheritance as true children of God. Today, we raise the cross but we also bow down before it, venerating it and Him who, of His own free will and good pleasure, ascended it.

To simply categorize the Cross is to miss the point. For it is many things and it does many things. That is why, when piety demands it, we make the sign of the cross upon ourselves. We do it when asking for mercy, asking for protection, glorifying the Trinity, receiving the Eucharist, entering into God's holy temple, etc. But, as I was reminded recently, from reading the all too famous passage from St. John's Gospel about God giving His Only Begotten Son, that He did so not for some satisfaction of legal contracts or jurisprudence, but that He did so simply out of love for His own creation. Now, I don't dismiss that many great saints, including St. Paul himself, use juridical terminology especially in his Epistle to the Romans, but to divorce the Cross from love and make it a symbol of appeasing God's wrath is to render St. John's famous dictum as mere legal sophistry. If love is removed, then there can be no salvation.

When we Orthodox Christians make the sign of the Cross, for whatever reason, I believe, the first and foremost thought on our minds, our hearts and our lips should be "He loves us." Making the sign of the Cross reveals us as God's children, as His possession, thus a stalwart reminder to demons who attempt to ensnare us to do the work of the evil one. The demons are repulsed by love and thus are repulsed by the Cross, the Tree which undid the ancestral curse from the first tree in paradise. God cast us out of Eden for not just violating a rule, but for breaking communion with Him, breaking the covenant of love between Creator and creature, between Father and child, between master and servant.

Let the love of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, through His Precious and Life-Giving Cross, the sign of which we make upon ourselves, endure forever.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some new pics of the St. Mary Iconostasis

My church, Dormition of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church (its official name, but, to save time, we'll simply call it St. Mary) has been blessed over the past two years to have some of the white washed away by the additions of icons over the baldachino or canopy. The first addition was a Platytera icon, generously donated by a couple no longer attending our parish and now we have an Annunciation icon boxing the Platytera. The funds were contributed by the faithful and this beautiful icon went up in early August before our patronal feast and the visit of His Grace, Bishop BASIL.

Traditionally, the Annunciation Icon goes on the Royal Doors which guard the Sanctuary along with icons of the Four Evangelists. But, St. Mary is not a traditional Orthodox church. It was originally built by an Assemblies of God congregation and became the property of St. Mary back in the 1970s, I think. There is way too much white space. But we are finally working towards correcting that. Some would say that if you have too much there, it would be distracting. We must remember that the Liturgy and our prayers are not strictly for the uplifting of our hearts and minds, but all of our senses. We believe in a bodily Resurrection, do we not so why should not all parts of the body be stimulated and elevated during the Liturgy? That is why the Orthodox use incense, music, artistry, do things which involve tactile sensation (e.g. making the sign of the cross) and receive the Eucharist. The Psalmist says for us to "taste and see that the Lord is good." He is not directing us to some metaphorical or symbolic tasting, but LITERAL tasting, in this case of our Lord's Immaculate Body and Precious Blood.

With icons, they are more than just pretty pictures. They are theology in color. They are words for the illiterate. They are educational. Even the most unlearned person can be educated and enlightened by an icon. Also, they are gateways to heaven. I remember once hearing a story of a woman, an atheist, who went into a Russian Church just to look at the icons because she was interested in the artwork. She left nearly in terror. Why? She said that she was not only looking at the icons, but they were looking at her! Windows go both ways. The Lord, the saints are all there, mystically and in reality.

Anyway, sorry to preface that, but hope you enjoy the pictures of the Iconstasis and the new icons over the baldachino.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Nativity of the Theotokos

Today, September 8 (Revised Julian Calendar), the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the birth of Mary, the Theotokos.

Friends of mine have been trying to have children for several years now. Each time the pregnancy could not be carried to term. Such times were very hard on them. Thanks be to God, through in vitro fertilization, my friend is pregnant and is now past 15 weeks which is the cut-off point for predicting success. My friends are overjoyed beyond belief and I rejoice with them. I can only imagine, had this pregnancy not happened, how my friends would have looked at themselves if they had gone through the rest of their lives childless. Or, to use a much more sinister and harsh term, to go through the rest of their lives barren.

I'm sure that such thoughts were equally on the minds of Sts. Joachim and Anne. Though today it is more often the case, even fashionable, for married couples to not have children. Sometimes it is out of necessity and sometimes it is out of a desire to not lose the freedom that invariably comes when children come into the picture. But, in classical antiquity, to be childless or, again that bad word, barren was considered to be a great stain. Today, we might laugh at the story of Niobe who bragged because she had more kids than the goddess Leto. Leto then ordered her twins, Apollo and Artemis to take out Niobe's children because of Niobe's haughty boast. But to the Greeks and other civilizations of the Mediterranean world, having children was not considered only a blessing but an obligation. The more, the better. However, Sts. Joachim and Anne had none.

They may well had never thought about it until one year when St. Joachim, already very aged, went to the temple to offer his sacrifice. St. Joachim was turned away by the high priest because Joachim's lack of children made him unworthy. Distraught, Joachim retreated to the desert. Anne heard of Joachim's withdrawal into the wilderness and she began a fast and fervent prayer. The Archangel, Gabriel, appeared to both of them announcing that even in their old age, barren as they appeared to be, they would become parents. And, today, on September 8, we celebrate the result of that announcement--the birth of Mary.

This birth though was certainly unusual because of the age of the parents, but, all and all, it was a normal birth. And Mary entered this world just as the rest of us, inheriting the corruption which we all have because of the ancestral sin. She was not immaculately conceived, as the Roman Catholics say, but she was marked and chosen of God. Today is the beginning of our salvation.

Though the story of Sts. Anne and Joachim is not found in Scripture but in the Protoevangelion of St. James and the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, neither of which are considered canonical Scripture, subscribing to the literal truth should not be at the expense of the theological truth. Even if the Gospels only mentioned Sts. Anne and Joachim and their offspring, the Theotokos, I think the Church would still rightly honor all of them on this day and tomorrow (September 9 is the Feast of the Synaxis of Sts. Joachim and Anne). What is this theological truth?

The epistle for this feast is taken from St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (2:5-11) where St. Paul reminds us that "...[Christ] made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Christ's perfection is revealed and demonstrated in weakness. The barrenness of Sts. Joachim and Anne is made perfect in giving birth to the Theotokos who carried the One who cannot be contained!

Such knowledge should be a source of great joy for us! Barren as we are because of our sins, because of Christ's rising from the tree of barrenness, can we not also now bear fruit, living the life that Christ has set before us? This feast, though dedicated to Mary, and like every other Marian feast, points us directly to Christ just as she points to Him in our iconography. Mary's Nativity sets the stage for the Incarnation. If her birth was not an ordinary birth, then could Christ really assume all that we really are so that our nature could be wholly healed? No.

The Church places this feast at the start of the New Year. Our Church year ends with the Dormition of the Theotokos. At Vespers at Psalm 140 and the Aposticha and at Orthros at the Praises, there is always a hymn dedicated to Mary, called the Theotokion. Mary is the seal which brings God and Man together and such is the theme of such Theotokia. Without our Lady's birth, there could be no Incarnation and without our Lord's incarnation there could be no Crucifixion and Resurrection and without those, there would be no reason to celebrate Mary's Dormition. All these feasts are tied together.

Mary's birth was a time of joy for St. Joachim and St. Anne, but it should also be a happy and joyous time for all creation. "Thy Nativity, O Theotokos, hath brought joy to the whole universe" says the Apolytikion of the Feast. This is the foreshadowing of the eventual triumph over death and barrenness that our Lord will accomplish at His Pascha. Let us rejoice!

Monday, August 30, 2010

No Excuse Sunday

From Fr. Milovan Katanic's blog Again and Again:

To make it possible for everyone to attend church this Sunday, we are going to have a special “No Excuse Sunday”:

Cots will be placed in the foyer for those who say, “Sunday is my only day to sleep in.”

There will be a special section with lounge chairs for those who feel that our pews are too hard.

Eye drops will be available for those with tired eyes from watching TV late Saturday night.

We will have steel helmets for those who say, “The roof would cave in if I ever came to church.”

Blankets will be furnished for those who think the church is too cold, and fans for those who say it is too hot.

Scorecards will be available for those who wish to list the hypocrites present.

Relatives and friends will be in attendance for those who can’t go to church and cook dinner, too.

We will distribute “Stamp Out Stewardship” buttons for those that feel the church is always asking for money.

One section will be devoted to trees and grass for those who like to seek God in nature.

Doctors and nurses will be in attendance for those who plan to be sick on Sunday.

The sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who never have seen the church without them.

We will provide hearing aids for those who can’t hear the preacher and cotton wool for those who think he’s too loud!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Young Christians and "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism"

No, I did not make that up. My friend on Facebook, Fr. Peter Pappas, posted this article from which talks about how a majority, and a growing one at that, of young Christians today view God as a therapist to help boost their self-esteem. Though I don't think that such a view of God, in of itself, is inherently contradictory with the teachings of the Church, when it is made a viewpoint that is totally divorced from our Lord's call to repentance, then this should make all Christians very worried.

Today, the Orthodox Church commemorates the beheading of St. John the Forerunner. From this reading in the Gospel we are taught many things but one teaching stands out above the others, in my opinion--that we must be prepared to sacrifice for our Lord and God and Saviour. Our Lord Jesus Christ said that the servants are not greater than the master. Our Lord says that the world hated Him and it will also hate you. He said that the world persecuted Him and it will persecute you. Christ didn't seem to think it more important that your self-esteem was protected.

Like John the Forerunner, our Lord's ministry to the world began with the same word--REPENT! Where is repentance in the world of the moralistic therapeutic deist? It's not there because your sins (assuming that you believe that anything you do can be considered sinful) are taken away by God, the great giver of self-esteem. I've yet to see that title applied to God in any theological book I've read thus far. But, as we know from St. Paul, we should not sin more so that grace may abound more. "God forbid," he says! Forgiveness of our sins is without doubt freely offered by our Lord, but without repentance, it is like the seed that falls on the path and is eaten up by the birds.

So what's causing this? The article says it is a common trait among more liberal Protestants and Catholics while Evangelicals and Mormons do a great deal more about instilling passion of the faith. The blame lies with both parents and pastors. And there is merit to that. Most liberal Protestant Churches have said that sin no longer exists or that the only great sins are not defending and adhering to leftist political dogma such as endorsement of gay marriage, abortion on demand, radical environmentalism, etc.. Without sin, there is no need for repentance, so what is left except for Christ to be transformed into the Buddy Christ that the Catholics were trying to sell in the movie, Dogma. In these same denominations, the "liturgy" is more a free-form of entertainment, meant to instill in the "worshipers" that God is your friend and chum. People are happy, but are they joyful? There is a difference between the two and that is a post for another time. (In the meantime, I will direct you to my friend's blog at Kyrie Eleison for her excellent insight)

But I believe that instilling passion in youth should not be the guiding criterion for averting viewing God as a new age psychotherapist. You can instill in youth the passion to see God that way! Yes, Evangelical youth are excited about the faith, but I've seen their church services, I've seen them in action. Tell me what the passage of Scripture means and they are at a loss. They know that abortion is wrong, but tell me why God became Man and they'll assume that such is Catholic nonsense. They're passionate about God, no question, but they only know God in a one dimensional manner and such is not a far cry from those who see God as your new best friend to give you a shoulder.

Parents are the problem. They are the problem because parents today generally don't want to parent their kids. They give their kids every luxury item they can, they let them do whatever they wish, even to the point of breaking the law. Their rationale is that as long as they're doing such things in a safe place, it's OK. We are a nation of siblings; hierarchy has gone the way of the dodo. Are there exceptions? Of course. But the exception proves the rule. Why go to a church which preaches a God the opposite of them?

Pastors are also the problem. They have become more like business CEOs than ordained servants of God. They tailor the message to draw in the maximum number of people thinking that as long as more people hear some of the Gospel, the better. Whatever happened to preaching the totality of the Gospel, even if only for the very few? Our Lord even said that many will be called, few will be chosen.

Kids aren't stupid. I've taught high school aged kids for awhile and they're more articulate and thoughtful than what most people give them credit for. They can be articulate and thoughtful, but instead adults pander to them. Parents and pastors want their kids in church but think that they have to dress it up in fake platitudes of what is "cool" and "hip" and "relevant." Kids can spot a fake fifty miles away. They're good at it. What is the result? These kids fall away from Christianity or adopt a warped view of God.

The Evangelical modus operandi of importing Rock n' Roll into church, which has infiltrated even more conservative, liturgical churches, has not worked. It has only contributed to this phenomenon. If kids are taught that God is someone to be there when they need them to comfort them, then why should they thank Him, why should they pray, why should they even sacrifice? If such a viewpoint were practiced 2000 years ago, St. John the Forerunner would have restrained his tongue and left to live, St. Matthew would have stayed in his tax booth, the apostles would never condemn sin and prefer to live and let live, the saints would never endure martyrdom for confessing Christ and great hymns of the church would never have been written because it's all about "me and Jesus." When the Gospel preached includes nothing of repentance, then God's greatest gift to mankind of the incarnation of His Son is the biggest non sequitur of all time. If that were preached from the pulpits, and I don't believe you have to only be Orthodox to believe in the incarnation, perhaps our youth stand a greater chance of staying in the churches, leading decent moral lives in a context that gives glory to Christ our Saviour.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Does it really matter...

...if our current President, Barack Hussein Obama, is really a Muslim? There's been a lot of discussion about this lately both on news shows, internet news and even on blogs of friends of mine. I don't like to mix politics and religion here, but I'll chime in with my own thoroughly researched conclusion: DOES IT EVEN MATTER? In a word, no.

Of course, a lot of people says it does matter. They say that Obama professes to be a Christian but supports a lot of ideologies and policies that favor abortion, homosexual marriage, the mosque at Ground Zero, etc.. Well, it should be mentioned that if he does support the first two things--abortion and gay marriage (the third is not covered by church teaching nor should it be, imo)--he can still be a Christian just not a very traditional or, dare I say it, "good" Christian. One should also be reminded that Islam does not endorse those things either. So, if Obama were Muslim, he would probably be, in Muslim eyes, a "bad" Muslim.

Then comes the other argument that Obama's father is Muslim and that makes him a Muslim. Maybe according to Muslim law it does, but that still doesn't make him a practicing Muslim. I've known many Jewish people who are still considered Jews because of their mother's heritage but have never gone to their synagogue or lit the candles on a menorah or played the dradle or even had a Bar Mitzvah! They may consider themselves Jews or not.

But, to all this, I say it doesn't matter. Even Martin Luther said he would rather be governed by a virtuous pagan than a tyrannical Christian. I do not believe Obama to be virtuous in the least (his actions dictate otherwise), but I don't believe we should use a "Christian" litmus test for our leaders. Mitt Romney, who contended for the GOP nomination during the last election cycle, was repeatedly dogged by questions about his Mormonism and whether that should qualify or disqualify him from office. It's interesting that many people who say that Obama should "prove" his Christianity by going to church more seem to forget that Ronald Reagan, an icon among many Christian people in this people, rarely, if ever, went to a local church while he was President. I don't think his Christian credentials were ever examined.

Does going to church make you a Christian? A friend of mine wrote a piece about this and I disagree. I would say it helps you to be a Christian, but there are a great many examples of great saints who lived most of their lives in the deserts, repenting. They never set foot in a church and were maybe brought the Eucharist once a year, or maybe even once in their lives! Would we dare call such great saints as St. Mary of Egypt, St. Simon Stylites and other ascetics as anything but saints? God forbid! Though they had no access to a church building, they were still in the Church! I recall even reading an article once about an atheist who went to church every Sunday, sang in the church choir, participated in the church's charitable works, but still remained a staunch atheist and refused to believe. Yet, he went every Sunday. If the going to church=Christian test is true, this atheist was very devout!

The Church is a hospital. Inside the building, God is worshiped, the Gospel is proclaimed and the Mysteries distributed to the faithful. The church through Christ offers healing to those who want it. We Orthodox believe that the Church is the meeting of heaven and earth. Such beauty occurs that it can still cause people to wonder if they are on heaven or on earth as the emissaries of St. Vladimir to Constantinople once said, after witnessing the Liturgy at Hagia Sophia. Even with all the beauty and joy that comes from the Divine Liturgy, there are many Orthodox who come week in, week out, only because it's part of their heritage.

At the same time, why are we so concerned about Obama's religious affiliation? Perhaps if Obama were to claim that he was an Orthodox Christian, then maybe I'd take some more interest in it. However, there are plenty of Orthodox Christians in public service such as Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, the former Senator Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and even former Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis. None of these politicians I would vote for and I find their unwavering support for abortion rights to be sickening and in direct contradiction to church teaching. But I don't stay up every night worrying about it. I have my own salvation to work out with fear and trembling, as St. Paul says. Once I have done that, maybe then I can concern myself with the "Christian-ness" of others. And I shouldn't presume to do it now.

For those people who are worried about Obama's Christianity, I say "relax." Christ tells us with great assurance that "By their fruits, you will know them." If you heed that warning, then you can stay clear and work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Dormition of our All-Holy Lady, the Theotokos

Yesterday, August 15 (new calendar) was the feast of the Dormition of our Lady, the Theotokos (which means birth-giver of God, not mother of God, the two are not synonymous). We were very fortunate and blessed to have His Grace, Bishop BASIL of DOWAMA (Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America) present with us for our patronal feast and to have him lead us in the hierarchical liturgy.

This one of my favorite times of year, liturgically speaking. August begins with the Procession of the Cross, which begins the fast of Dormition. The hymns of the Cross prepare us to celebrate our Lord's Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor on August 6, an event which occurred 40 days prior to our Lord's Crucifixion and Resurrection. Now, after two weeks of prayer and contemplation and fasting we have come to our Lady's Dormition, her falling asleep. After Lent and Pascha, this is my favorite time of year, Nativity season coming behind it.

Whenever it comes to the feasts dedicated to our Lady, the first thoughts that crop into well meaning Christians who are not Orthodox is that the honor given to our Lady or any of the saints is nothing more than idolatry. I cannot convince anyone who holds such an opinion otherwise through rational argumentation. The honour given the saints is not the same as the worship given God. Such people will often retort that they can't tell the difference. And that is the crux of the issue--THEY can't tell the difference. We Orthodox who have lived the faith know (maybe not to the point that they can explain it--that, too is a mystery) the difference but because someone on the outside can't, we must therefore be guilty of transgressing God? If that is the way they want to play it, fine.

But what we contemplate in these feasts dedicated to our Lady is not the embellishments of various Byzantine hymns. But we contemplate the realities. Protestants accept that there was a Mary, who gave birth to God in the flesh (though Nestorianism has started to run rampant in many Protestant denominations of late). So, let's begin with that. If Mary were a real person, then it follows that she was born and she died. Both of those days are commemorated on the Church Calendar, September 8 and August 15, respectively which are the beginning and the end of the church year.

At the Doxasticon of the Praises (Ainoi) of Orthros yesterday, I chanted the following in the plagal of the second tone:

At thy deathless Dormition, O Theotokos, Mother of Life, clouds caught the apostles up into the air: though dispersed throughout the world, they were brought together to form a single choir before thy most pure body. And burying thee with reverence, they sang aloud the words of Gabriel: 'Rejoice, thou who art full of grace, O Virgin Mother who knewest not wedlock, the Lord is with thee. Entreat Him who is thy Son and our God to save our souls.'

Though the Orthodox contemplate the realities and not the embellishment of the hymnography, note the paradox of "deathless Dormition" which can be read as also "deathless death." The late +Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes in his Celebration of Faith, Volume 3 on p. 40:

But what is the meaning of this contradictory, apparently absurd conjunction of words? In the Dormition, the whole joyful mystery of this death is revealed to us and becomes our joy, for Mary the Virgin Mother is one of us. (emphasis mine).

To paraphrase another gem of +Fr. Schmemann, the thing which separates the Orthodox understanding of our Lady's Dormition and the Catholic understanding of Mary's Assumption (the two are not the same!) is that for Catholics, Mary is the great exception. For Orthodox, she is the great example. In Catholic theology, Mary does not even die. For the Orthodox, she has died, just as the rest of us will die. Mary's death and resurrection is what will await all of us on that dread and terrible day when all of our souls will be reunited to our bodies. Honoring her death and resurrection, we worship Christ as He died and resurrected. Mary was in the grave for only three days. Bishop BASIL reminded us yesterday that at the last day, every single person's soul will be reunited with the body, regardless of when that body stopped breathing. Some will be reunited with the body after a millenium, some after two days, some after one and some after a split second from the repose. The time span is irrelevant; for it will happen to all.

Fr. Schmemann goes on and says (ibid):
Here [at Dormition], death is conquered from within, freed from all that fills it with horror and hopelessness. Death itself becomes triumphant life. Death becomes the "bright dawn of the mystical day." Thus, the feast has no sadness, no funeral dirges, no grief but only light and joy. It's as if in approaching the door of our inevitable death, we should suddenly find it flung open, with light pouring from the approaching victory, from the approaching reign of God's Kingdom.

Protestants object that to honour Mary is to take her away from God. Not so! The Church Fathers have overwhelmingly and consistently stated that to remove one bit of Mary from the prayer life of the church is to insult Christ! Mary points us to Christ. One type of her icon is called "Directress" where she is literally presenting us her Son and our God as the Way, the Life. But because she became the living Ark, the Holy of Holies for the Holy One, she has already been resurrected and united to her body along with other saints. As such, they have a hallowed place at the dread judgment seat of Christ where they petition Him to save us, unworthy sinners as we are. If I'm allowed a friendly ecumenical critique, the great heresies of the church (e.g. Arianism, Nestorianism, Iconoclasm) have all cropped up because their adherents, well-intentioned and pious as they may have been, were worried that the calling Jesus the Son of God was dishonoring God, in the case of Arianism, for how could God be separated? With Nestorianism, its adherents believed that calling Mary, Theotokos took away honour from God for how could God become man? And so on.

Mary's falling asleep is for us. It is our festival too because she is one of us. She needed the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection as the rest of us. But whereas we commune with Christ, while we live here on earth, at least most of us, in mystical fashion, she communed with Christ literally carrying the Uncontained One in herself! Honour to her is not just nice, it is demanded for that is God's Providence and Dispensation towards us for our Salvation.

Happy feast to all the Orthodox faithful! By her intercessions, may our Lord Jesus Christ save our souls and resurrect us at the last day!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I hate to do this

but, effective immediately, if you wish to post comments (and let me reiterate that I do welcome them) you can no longer do so anonymously. You may post with the anonymous tag, but you must sign your name at the end. I will not ask for full names since such can be dangerous, but you must include at least your full name and the first letter of your last name. If a comment lacks that, it will be deleted. You need not use your real name, if you're that uncomfortable with it, but don't try to make it that far-fetched and unrealistic.

Why am I doing this? Because hiding behind "anonymous" is, quite frankly, rude. Don't agree? Fine, but you will not be allowed to post that. This is my blog and I set the rules.

It's unfortunate that it only takes one or two to ruin the fun for everyone and frankly, I have better things to do than police what goes on here. My apologies for the inconvenience.

Post scriptum: I'm going back on what I said here. I've enabled comment moderation instead so I will preview remarks before they become part of the blog. Agreeing with me does not automatically get you on here so be warned.

Monday, August 9, 2010

If you're taking time out of your day...

to read my mediocre ramblings here, I do thank you from the bottom of my heart. I really do. I really like it when my thoughts can generate a flow of ideas and dialogue. But, let me please also exhort you that if you are coming to my blog to read my meanderings, I would recommend that you take the time, if you haven't already, to read instead some selections, of your own choosing or following the lectionary, of the Holy Scriptures. There is far greater wisdom contained there, then what I could ever hope to post here.

Thanks for reading, but make sure you take care to read something of what is really important. And that especially goes for me!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A trip to the Zoo

I'm very fortunate to have a great girlfriend. Undeserving as I am of her, she still sticks with me. Anyway, last week was my birthday. As a present to me, she took me to the Henry Doorly Zoo here in Omaha. Now, I've lived in Omaha for over six years now and I've only been to this world famous zoo once before, but I was unable to see much because it was early March and most of the exhibits were not open yet. It is widely regarded as one of the best zoos in the nation, coming in second only to the San Diego Zoo. Regardless of where it falls in the stats, this was a great trip. It was very hot and very humid and we walked the entire day sweating in the heat only to be cooled by random misters placed round the park.

Within this small enclosed area, I got to see the Lord's creation up close. From all corners of the world, from the depths of the sea to the ethereal regions, there was such a great diversity of life, a testimony to the wonders and majesty of creation which we cannot begin even to fathom, since we are created beings ourselves, though endowed with gifts that the rest of the animal kingdom lacks.

Having seen all this, I could only say "In wisdom, Thou hast made them all." Though I do sometimes wonder at the "reasoning" behind creations of such creatures like bats, snakes and even jellyfish, they are still our Lord's creation. (Side note: I saw a marquee of a church that asked "Why didn't Moses swat those two flies?" Humorous it may be and as much a I hate insects, I think that is a cavalier attitude towards creation). Now, you may ask, where I am going with this?

I was reminded of an instance in St. Augustine's Confessions where he traveled around North Africa in his search for God. He asked all the plants, animals and even mountains if they were God and they all responded "no." He then asked what they could tell him about God. And as if they spoke like an angelic choir, they responded "He made us." As I walked through the zoo and saw the diversity of creation, I asked myself, "Why isn't it simply enough to know, like those plants and animals and mountains of Augustine's vision that God created? Why must so many Christian people be obsessed with the "how" of creation?" I am speaking of evolution and related issues. Why must some Christians dogmatize fervently that God created every individual creature in 6 days and then go into the science of how such was done? I have no problem with people who believe such a thing. I also have no problem with those Christians who maybe believe that there was some sort of evolution that took place. However, I DO have a problem with those Christians who believe that creation and evolution happened independent of God. This is modern day deism, that belief that God is a clock maker who lets his creation go after He's done with it.

Why are so many Christians obsessed with the how that they even denigrate other Christians as being somehow less because of this one issue? (Disclaimer: I'm not suggesting for a moment that such can be used for Christian proponents of abortion or homosexual relations as equal to heterosexual quite simply because the Church HAS dogmatized on such issues, very clearly and articulately from the beginning). An issue such as this should be left to individual conscience. I find that whatever the viewpoint is regarding Christianity, those who most fervently condemn the opposing side really do not understand the underlying "science" they cling to.

As for me, I really don't have an opinion on this one way or the other. I don't think that if Adam and Eve were descended from an ape-like ancestor does not in any way denigrate or lessen the importance of Christ's Incarnation. Adam and Eve are still the ancestors of the human race and Christ's humanity is still preserved intact. I probably also don't have an opinion on this issue because I really don't believe it changes my perspective on creation. Again, the issue is that God created. And why did God create? For the simple reason that He loves. Creation is the natural result of the love which is shared between the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Transfiguration of our Lord

Today, August 6, the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. Arguably one of the more forgotten festivals because it occurs in the summer and during a fasting season, Transfiguration is nevertheless well placed at this time because, like the Dormition of the Theotokos, which we will celebrate in a week's time, it is a foreshadowing of the glory that awaits us in the heavens as we are taken "from glory to glory."

This feast is perhaps my favorite outside of Pascha and Theophany. And I think that it has become my favorite simply because I never celebrated it growing up Lutheran. The Lutherans moved the feast of Transfiguration to the beginning of Lent because, according to Church tradition, this event happened 40 days before Christ's crucifixion which does make sense. However, I can remember no time, not one single instance, when it was celebrated prior to the start of Lent. Perhaps it is that lack of it in my youth that made me appreciate the wonders of the feast.

The Lutheran placing of Transfiguration before Lent does seem logical, but the Orthodox place it here for several reasons not least because Great Lent, and every Sunday is already saturated with hymns to the crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. First, this feast does confirm that old Theopaschite formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria, that it was God who died in the flesh on the cross. And this feast is sandwiched in between two important feasts of the cross, the first on August 1 and the second on September 14 (August 6 is 40 days prior to Septmber 14), that being the exaltation of the Cross. In fact, the seasonal Katavasiae that we sing at the Canon for Orthros are all from the Canon of the Cross.

Second, as already mentioned, we are in the Dormition fast when we commemorate the falling asleep of the Mother of God. We contemplate that "strange mystery, great and marvelous" where the Virgin Theotokos, the Ark of God who carried the Uncontainable God in a containable place, died and was taken up in glory to the heavens. As the apostles Peter, James and John were present at our Lord's Transfiguration, but unable to bear the uncreated light of our Lord and God, so were they present as they gathered at Gethsemane to bury the New Eve and be witnesses to her partaking of the first fruits of the Resurrection which will be for us all. Transfiguration and Dormition, thus go hand in hand. When we die, we will be taken up for death has no longer any power over us and when we are called to Christ's right hand, we will partake of that uncreated light in true communion. And unlike Peter, James and John our faces will not be downcast.

There are many stories of various saints whose life in Christ was so perfected and profound that the uncreated light literally shone forth from them. St. Seraphim of Sarov, for instance, was said to wear a veil because his face beamed so powerfully with the created light of Christ that no one could look directly at him. Some would decry that as a mere fiction. But our Lord said that if we had but the faith of a mustard seed we could move mountains and such faith is from prayer and fasting. Why wouldn't the uncreated light of God be accessible as well by prayer and fasting? If our goal in life is to have a Christ like life, wouldn't that not also include physical manifestations?

It is regrettable that Transfiguration is lost amongst the "dog days of summer" and that so many people are worrying more about last minute vacation plans before school starts and before the fiscal year begins. But the Church Calendar places it here with great precision. We do not look at individual feast days as individual events but within the context of the whole. Just as the Liturgy is the re-presentation of all of God's saving acts in Christ's life and the saint's lives, thus the Church Calendar. We cannot examine any great feast as some independent happening; it exists in the context of what comes before and after. The life in Christ is not only living out his way to Golgotha, but also being baptized at Theophany, being resurrected at Pascha, being made vessels of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, ascending at Ascension and being transfigured here on earth before partaking of the communion of God in the heavens.

Thou wast transfigured on the Mount, O Christ our God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as much as they could bear it. Let Thy everlasting light shine upon us sinners, through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee!--Apolytikion of the Transfiguration

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Managing what we have instead of acquring more

On the way home from work this afternoon, my radio dial drifted to the talk radio station, where the conversation was about how the state of Nebraska does a very poor job (like a most other states and the federal government) of actually inventorying what assets it possesses. It's true. Now, if you were to ask most individuals about what major assets they possess, they'd probably be able to do it, mentioning cars they own, homes, 401Ks, other investments, etc. Knowing what assets you have is the first step towards managing those assets and directing your income to maintain them and grow them effectively. The state of Nebraska has a very poor infrastructure in place to know what its major assets are and thus wastes so much money every year by not knowing where to direct resources to most effectively manage them. The state of Nebraska, though, is very good about acquiring more and more assets, but, since it has no effective infrastructure to inventory those new assets, the problem begins anew and there is less management of that which it already owns.

I got to thinking: What if we apply this principle on a spiritual level? What if we make an effective inventory of what spiritual gifts we have rather than try, sometimes in vain, to acquire more? What if we try to manage those gifts we already have effectively instead? Wouldn't we be able to do more with less?

It seems to me that in the modern spiritual life, there is an overabundance of messages out there saying that "you need to acquire x as a spiritual gift." X can mean anything you want. It can be prophesy, preaching, administration, poverty, compassion, singing, chanting, teaching, wisdom, speaking i[n tongues], writing, etc. We're frequently inundated with messages of gifts we need to acquire if we're to be spiritual people. Pentecostals insist that everyone needs to have the gift of speaking in tongues, for instance, though clearly not everyone has that gift.

St. Paul, in numerous passages, references how it is important that all of us, as members of the Body of Christ, work together as the body. We can't have everyone being an eye, or else how would we hear? If everyone were an ear, how would we see? And so on.

At my church, my priest encourages people to sing because he believes, wrongly I think, that signing=participation in the prayers. I disagree. For you can pray without singing the notes. Not everyone has the gift of singing well. Most people in the congregation are tone deaf and have no training, whether formal or informal, in music. I'm blessed with some musical talent and that is why I am a chanter, though by no means am I a great one or even good one. However, I know that I am not qualified to sit on the parish council. People assume that because I am a chanter I am devout (I'm not, really) and therefore am qualified. I most certainly am not. Unless the parish council becomes a chanting seminar, I'll stay on the solea rather than set foot in the board room.

Frequently, people lament that they don't have a spiritual gift. A friend of mine from church once confided in me that he wished he had the gift of talking to people about the Orthodox Church and faith. I asked him why. He said that he wished he had it to bring his friends and his family to faith in Christ through the Church. I said that, though his intentions were good, that his family's and friends' faith in Christ through Orthodoxy will not happen from a skilled tongue. I told him that I thought his spiritual gifts were generosity and kindness towards others (I am not his priest nor his godfather so I told him that my advice was strictly my own opinion and not to be spiritually binding). I told him that if you use such gifts towards others and treat them as icons of Christ, as I know that you have so often treated the people around here, that will reap more souls for Christ than if you suddenly became Chrysostom! I think he felt a little better after that.

Inventory what gifts you have and manage those. Don't look for what you don't have. Look at and rejoice at what you do possess. God gave it to you. Who are you to cry out to God and suggest He should have given you more or even less?