Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Commemoration of Sts. Peter and Paul, Patrons of the Patriarchate of Antioch

You read correctly. Both Sts. Peter and Paul are the patrons of the Patriarchate of Antioch which they both founded and were both bishop, long before either of them had even gone to Rome. Those facts alone should automatically give Antioch precedence over Rome! But I don't want to get into papal supremacy at all right now.

Today, June 29 (Revised Julian Calendar), the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the martyred apostles, Sts. Peter and Paul. The synaxarion from the Prologue of Ohrid will be found below. On this feast, I wanted to share this story about St. Peter.

We all know of St. Peter's threefold denial of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We also know that, despite his refusal to confess and proclaim Christ's name to those who would persecute him as well as his Master, he wept bitterly for his denial and is a model of repentance. According to legend, before his martyrdom, St. Peter, it seems, reverted to old habits. Knowing that he would be persecuted and probably killed for his faith in the Lord, St. Peter fled from Rome. On the road leading outside the city, he encountered the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. St. Peter asked, "Lord, where are you going?" Christ responded, "I am going to Rome to be crucified." Immediately, St. Peter realized his sin and turned back to receive martyrdom by being crucified, though upside down.

If St. Peter had fled Rome and avoided martyrdom, he may well have lived another 10, 20 or 30 years and proclaimed the Lord wherever he went. Peter might well have believed that he had a lot to live for rather than to die for. But Peter knew in his heart that any further proclamation of the Lord which resulted from him fleeing death would be no proclamation of Christ at all. It would be hollow and it would be as fickle as St. Peter's cowardice. So, St. Peter returned and was martyred. Is that not true faith?

From the Prologue of Ohrid:

Peter was the son of Jonah and the brother of Andrew, the First-called. He was of the Tribe of Simeon from the town of Bethsaida. He was a fisherman and, at first, was called Simon but the Lord was pleased to call him Cephas or Peter: "And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, He said, You are Simon the son of Jonah: you shall be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, a rock" (St. John 1:42). He was the first of the disciples to clearly express faith in the Lord Jesus saying: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (St. Matthew 16:16). His love for the Lord was great and his faith in the Lord gradually strengthened. When the Lord was brought to trial, Peter denied Him three times but after only one glance into the face of the Lord, Peter's soul was filled with shame and repentance. After the descent of the Holy Spirit, Peter appears as a fearless and powerful preacher of the Gospel. Following one of his sermons in Jerusalem, three-thousand souls converted to the Faith. He preached the Gospel throughout Palestine and Asia Minor, throughout Illyria and Italy. Peter worked many powerful miracles; he healed the sick, resurrected the dead; the sick were healed even from his shadow. He had a great struggle with Simon the Magician who proclaimed himself as god but in reality Simon was a servant of Satan. Finally, Peter shamed and defeated him. By order of the evil Emperor Nero, Simon's friend, Peter was condemned to death. Installing Linus as Bishop of Rome, counseling and comforting the flock of Christ, Peter proceeded joyfully to his death. Seeing the cross before him, he begged his executioners to crucify him upside down for he considered himself unworthy to die as did his Lord. Thus the great servant of the Great Lord reposed and received the wreath of eternal glory.

Paul was born in Tarsus of the tribe of Benjamin. At first, he was called Saul, studied under Gamaliel, was a Pharisee and a persecutor of Christianity. He was miraculously converted to the Christian Faith by the Lord Himself Who appeared to him on the road to Damascus. He was baptized by the Apostle Ananias, was called Paul and numbered in the service of the great apostles. With a fiery zeal, Paul preached the Gospel everywhere from the borders of Arabia to Spain, among the Jews and among the Gentiles. He received the title "Apostle to the Gentiles." As horrible as his sufferings were, so much more was his super human patience. Throughout all the years of his preaching Paul, from day to day, hung as one on a weak thread between life and death. Since he fulfilled all days and nights with labor and suffering for Christ, since he organized the Church in many places and since he attained such a degree of perfection he was able to say: "It is now no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero at the same time as the Apostle Peter.

Through their intercessions, may the Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Our Saviour, both God and Man

We confess one and the same individual as perfect God and perfect Man. He is God the Word Which was flesh.

For if he was not flesh, why was Mary chosen? And if He is not God, whom does Gabriel call Lord?

If He was not flesh, who was laid in a manger? And if He is not God, whom did the angels who came down from heaven glorify? If He was not flesh, Who was wrapped in swaddling clothes? And if He is not God, in whose honor did the star appear?

If He was not flesh, whom did Joseph take when he fled into Egypt? And if He is not God, who fulfilled the prophesy: Out of Egypt have I called my son?

If He was not flesh, whom did John baptize? And if He is not God, to whom did the Father say: This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased?

If He was not flesh, who hungered in the desert? And if He is not God, unto whom did the angels come and minister?

If He was not flesh, who was invited to the marriage in Cana of Galilee? And if He is not God, who turned water into wine?

If He was not flesh, who took the loaves in the desert? And if He is not God, who fed the five thousand men and their women and children with five loaves and two fish?

If He was not flesh, who slept in the ship? And if He is not God, who rebuked the waves and the sea?

If He was not flesh, with whom did Simon the Pharisee sit at meat? And if He is not God, who forgave the sins of the harlot?

If He was not flesh, who wore a man's garment? And if He is not God, who healed the woman with an issue of blood when she touched His garment?

If He was not flesh, who pat on the ground and made clay? And if He is not God, who gave sight to the eyes of the blind man with that clay?

If He was not flesh, who wept at Lazarus' grave? And if He is not God, who commanded him to come forth out of the grave four days after his death?

If He was not flesh, whom did the Jews arrest in the garden? And if He is not God, who cast them to the ground with the words: I am He?

If He was not flesh, who was judged before Pilate? And if He is not God, who frightened Pilate's wife in a dream?

If He was not flesh, whose garments were stripped from Him and parted by teh soldiers? And if He is not God, why was the sun darkened upon His crucifixion?

If He was not flesh, who was crucified on the cross? And if He is not God, who shook the foundations of the earth?

If He was not flesh, whose hands and feet were nailed to the cross? And if He is not God, how did it happen that the veil of the temple was rent in twain, the rocks were rent and the graves were opened?

IF He was not flesh, who hung on the cross between the two thieves? And if He is not God, how could He say to the thief: Today thou shalt be with me in paradise?

If He was not flesh, who cried out and gave up the ghost? And if He is not God, whose cry caused many bodies of the saints which slept to arise?

If He was not flesh, whom did the women see laid in the grave? And if He is not God, about whom did the angel say to them: He has arisen, He is not here?

If He was not flesh, whom did Thomas touch when he put his hands into the prints of the nails? And if He is not God, who entered through the doors though the doors were shut?

IF He was not flesh, who ate at the sea of Tiberias? And if He is not God, on whose orders were the nets filled with fishes?

If He was not flesh, whom did the apostles see carried up into heaven? And if He is not God, who ascended to the to the joyful cries of the angels, and to whom did the Father proclaim: Sit at My right hand?

If He is not God and man then, indeed, our salvation is false, and false are the pronouncements of the prophets.

--St. Ephraim the Syrian, The Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God, Third Kathisma, Third Stasis, #23

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Want to know and live the Orthodox faith? Pray Orthros

In a follow up to what I wrote yesterday at being at home during the Liturgy, my priest gave a sermon today about ways for us in this "ordinary" time to still remain connected to Christ through the faith that He has bestowed upon us through the Church. I was actually quite shocked that Fr. Don, though I do know he is very liturgically minded, actually did not mention the Liturgy and the offices of Vespers and Orthros as ways of not only educating oneself in the faith but also in living and practicing the faith. What he mentioned were all good things: reading Scripture, having and keeping a rule of prayer, reading lives of the saints (his main focus of today's homily), etc.. But I was still floored that praying the Liturgy and the offices was not explicitly mentioned especially as we usually have only four people besides the priest and us chanters at Vespers on most Saturday evening and only one or two who make it through 90% or more of Orthros on Sunday morning. Heck, most people who come for Liturgy come late, some coming after the Cherubimic Hymn!

Despite Fr. Don's lack of a plug for Orthros, he has told me many times that if people really wanted to know and to live the Orthodox faith, there is no better office than Orthros. It is no coincidence that it is my favorite office to chant with all the variables and hymns. No other office of all the Orthodox services can compare to Orthros. On Sunday, it is a mini-Pascha. All the hymns, except if there is a major commemoration or Feast of the Mother of God, are dedicated to the incarnation of our Lord and His Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. Those are the bedrocks of our theology--God becoming man and the God-man enduring death to raise us up from corruption.

Reading books is a fine practice and I'm not mocking it (I'm a bibliophile myself) but if I were a priest (and I cannot and should not ever be one) instructing catechumens or even cradle Orthodox about the faith, I would be less insistent on using books such as Bishop KALLISTOS' The Orthodox Church or Fr. Anthony Coniaris Introducing the Orthodox Church or Metropolitan HILARION's The Mystery of Faith or any other of Fr. Schmemann's or Fr. Hopko's fine tomes to teach the faith, but insist more that they make the effort to come for Orthros every Sunday. Sure, it means you have to get to the church at 8:45 rather than 10:00 and you have a lot more psalm readings and such, but it is worth it. Plus, the fact that hardly anyone attends gives you the perfect atmosphere to absorb everything that you hear in near silence (save for my obnoxious chanting style!) and contemplate it. Plus, reading any of the aforementioned volumes, to explain the faith, one will find that the explanations involve quotations primarily from Orthros!

Orthros is a gem of the church. I wish and hope more people would try and search it out. Praying Orthros is a great way to feed the mind as preparation to feed the soul at the Divine Liturgy!

Just my opinion, of course.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Being "at home" during the Liturgy

I have to credit Pr. Peters at his Pastoral Meanderings blog for giving me some food for thought. Thanks, Fr. Peters!

Going into an Eastern Orthodox Church for first timers can be a strange and even frightening experience. They come in and see the church, usually with low lights if they are arriving at the ending portions of Orthros before the Great Doxology begins, with its iconostasis, most people standing in prayer, the chanters chanting in some foreign tonal system, hymns with large chunks of theology that almost seem undigestable, the smell of incense, the doors behind which stand the altar are shut, a priest wearing lots of colorful vestments, etc.. How can one possibly feel "at home" during all of this? For a Western Christian or even non-Christian, it must take a lot to feel "at home" in this environment, Sunday in, Sunday out.

But such feelings of uneasiness are not just reserved for newcomers or even recent converts to the faith, but for Orthodox who have been baptized and raised in the faith all their lives. I see it every week. I see many of the faithful hanging on to their service books and their bulletins for dear life, as if the moment those are discarded, they will be totally lost in the actions of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

When you go to a house of a person whom you may not know very well, you are not given a booklet or an instruction manual or a rulebook (at least I've never received such when I visit new friends' homes!) on the every day goings-on at that particular household. You go there, you get acquainted and you soak it in. Such should be the way all of us should act when we enter an Orthodox Church, regardless of whether it is the Liturgy or an office being prayed. Go in and absorb.

The Eastern Orthodox are very very fortunate to have such a collection of prayer books and other aides for the spiritual life. Use them at your home, but when you come to the Lord's house, bring only yourself and resist the temptation to merely only follow along and not participate. Granted, you may only be able to participate very little for you may not know the hymns or the texts. It will come; give it time!

So many of our recent converts and people who have been Orthodox for years cling to their service books for dear life and then complain that they don't know their faith. As a teacher, I can tell you that you will never learn anything or make it a part of your very self if you are constantly using an aid. You cannot learn Latin or Greek by having a dictionary and/or phrase book in front of you all the time. Toss the service book for just one Liturgy or one Vespers. Get rid of it and allow all your senses to be uplifted by the divine action that is going on.

At the same time, don't expect to understand everything. If you were able to understand every nuance of the Divine Liturgy, there would be no need for one for we would be God. The Liturgy is God coming to us in the mystery of the Eucharist. We work collectively to feed our minds so that we can partake of the feast to feed our souls. You will be so much more hungry and so much more satiated if you would put away the animal crackers to get you through the Liturgy! Then you will be instinctively at home!

Just a few thoughts. Thanks again, Fr. Peters for some inspiration. I haven't had any for a while!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Commemoration of our St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius

Today (new calendar), June 15, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates (at least some of it does) our father among the saints, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius. In the west, his feast day is celebrated on August 28 and with much greater solemnity and feasting than the East. Many Eastern churches (I'm talking about individual parishes and jurisdictions) will flatly refuse to commemorate St. Augustine today. In fact, his name is not even found in the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Great Horologion which has become standard use among many Orthodox churches of various jurisdictions in this country. Other jurisdictions give him only a passing notice. Consider St. Nicholiai Velimirovich's entry from the Prologue of Ohrid:

Augustine turned from paganism to Christianity, thanks to the counsels, tears and prayers of his mother Monica. He was a great teacher of the Church and an influential writer but with certain unapproved extremes in his teaching. As bishop of Hippo, he glorified the Lord for thirty-five years and lived a total of seventy-six years on earth (354-430 A.D.).

A lot of saints have this much said about them, but mainly because there are so few details about their lives that it warrants only a few words. Other Orthodox churches will commemorate him but will give him a different honorific, preferring to call him "blessed" (Latin, beatus; Greek, makarios) which shows the apprehension that many Orthodox show to him.

For me, Augustine is a saint. I think to call him less does a great disservice to what God did through this man. Was he incorrect in some of his teachings? Absolutely, but what great father of the Church is completely free of some error? St. Isaac of Syria had a Christology that was near Nestorian; St. Gregory of Nyssa believed that even Satan would be saved, a universal salvation! That's only two notable examples, but we have no problems commemorating these two men on the calendar.

Every year, during Great Lent, I try (operative word) to get through Augustine's Confessions. Truly, it is a masterpiece of Latin literature. The reason I like this work so much (I've read it many times since I first picked it up in my junior year of college for a seminar) is that this autobiography is the story of what kind of life man must live--the life of repentance. For all his defective theology on grace and free will, show me one Church Father who writes as much, who preaches as much, who lives as much repentance as Augustine? I will bet you would be hard pressed to find one, though I'm sure there are a few.

Sainthood has never meant perfection. We venerate those men and women as saints who fought the good fight and ended their lives in fervent repentance for the sake of what Christ did. Augustine was not perfect, nor was St. John Chrysostom, nor was St. Seraphim of Sarov, nor were the Emperor saints like Constantine or Justinian. The problem is not so much about Augustine's writings as much as it is about how his writings have been used (and distorted) by the Roman Catholic Church to perpetuate dogmas and doctrines which are clearly outside of the consensus patruum and the deposit of the faith, handed down, once and for all to the saints (Jude 3). St. Augustine, in many ways, is guilty then by association.

There are some Orthodox writers such as Fr. John Romanides and Dr. Rev. Michael Azkoul who will absolutely show no quarter to Augustine, going so far as to call him an arch-heretic. But others have shown a more balanced treatment. One of the few books I would ever recommend of Fr. Seraphim (Rose) is his book The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (There we go with "blessed" again!).

Augustine will probably be forever vilified, glossed over, ignored or paid only lip-service in the Eastern Churches, but, though I am saddened by that, I don't think he is losing sleep over it nor ceasing in his intercessions for us to come to that life of repentance. Through his intercessions, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Protestants and Evangelicals: Replacing Good Sound Theological Hymns with this

Disclaimer: If you go to youtube to view this, there are links that take you to videos which may be offensive to you. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Exhibit A as to why Contemporary Worship should be stopped!

Commemoration of our Father Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria

The Holy Orthodox Church commemorates Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria today on June 9 (new calendar). He is one of the great thinkers and pillars of Orthodox theology. A later post will set him more in his historical and the christological context. Suffice it to say that no matter how controversial he may appear to be with his lack of theological precision with respect to vocabulary, this man was a great saint and there should be no hesitation in singing hymns in honor of him.

Cyril's Disimssal Hymn (Plagal of Tone 4): O Guide of Orthodoxy, Teacher of Piety and Holiness, Luminary of the World, O God-inspired adornment of Hierarchs, O Wise Cyril, by thy teachings thou hast illumined all, O harp of the Spirit: Intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved!

From the Prologue of Ohrid:

Cyril was of noble birth and a close relative of Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, after whose death he was consecrated as patriarch. During his lifetime, he led three bitter struggles: with the Novatian heretics, with the heretic Nestor and with the Jews in Alexandria. The Novatianists had their origin in Rome and were named after Novatian the presbyter and leader of the heresy. They took pride in their virtues, walked about dressed in white garments, forbade a second marriage, held that prayers should not be said for those who committed a mortal sin, nor to receive back into the Church those who, at one time, had fallen away from the Church even though they bitterly repented. Cyril defeated them and drove them out of Alexandria together with their bishop. The struggle with the Jews was more difficult and bloodier. Since Alexander the Great founded that city, the Jews from the beginning, became strong in Alexandria. Their hatred toward Christians was vicious and insane. They killed Christians by treachery, by poisoning and by crucifying them on a cross. After a long and difficult struggle, Cyril succeeded with Emperor Theodosius the Younger to drive the Jews out of Alexandria. However, his struggle against Nestor, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was resolved at the Third Ecumenical Council [Ephesus 431 A.D]. Cyril himself presided at this Council and, at the same time, represented Celestine the Pope of Rome at his request who was unable to attend the Council because of old age. Nestorius was condemned, anathematized and was banished by the emperor to the eastern boundary of the empire where he died a horrible death (for worms consumed his tongue by which he had blasphemed the Birth-giver of God calling her the Birth-giver of Christ). After the completion of this struggle, Cyril lived in peace and zealously tended Christ's flock. He presented himself to the Lord in the year 444 A.D. It is said that he composed the prayer: "Rejoice, O Virgin Birth-giver of God, Mary full of grace!" [The Hail Mary].

Cyril and the Christological Controversy

Today, June 9 (New Calendar), the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates St. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria. Sometimes considered a controversial figure, especially in context of the Christological debates which were going on at the same time, Cyril was an ardent defender of Orthodoxy and foe of the Nestorians who believed, wrongly, that Mary should only be venerated as "Christotokos" (Mother of Christ) as opposed to "Theotokos" (Mother of God), which is the title that the Holy Orthodox Church proclaims as the Truth since Mary gave birth to the Theanthropos (God-Man), Jesus Christ. To say otherwise, as the Nestorians contended, suggests that Jesus and the Logos were two distinct persons (hypostases) rather than one person in two natures which is the formula that was adopted at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. Nestorius was condemned and Cyril vindicated following the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 which codified and confirmed the title "Theotokos."

Though considered a staunch bulwark of Christian Orthodoxy, Cyril is sometimes attacked as being a crypto-Monophysite. Such is unfair if only because Cyril's acquittal of himself on one issue made him open to attack on another. For instance, Cyril when expressing his Christology used the formula "one nature [physis] of God the Word assumed flesh" which was not from St. Athanasius, as he had believed but from Apollinarius. The Apollinarian party believed that Christ had take on only a human body, not the full human nature; that the Logos had "taken the place of the rational and mimmaterial elements in the human body" (Meyendorff, 1975, 20). Cyril's lack of precise theological category should not be grounds enough for leaving him open to modern attack as a heretic, though this is often done.

Cyril, like Augustine, who is often attacked (and somewhat rightly) for overemphasizing the grace of God in man's salvation to the point that man becomes a puppet (Augustine, at the end of his life, made many clarifications and revisions of his earlier theological works which were compiled in his famous Retractationes, Retractations, NOT Retractions; Augustine was still working on this until he died in 430), does embrace the Christology which was upheld at Chalcedon in 451. Though he would not demand that the Antiochians adopt his terminology (Meyendorff, 1975, 21) and Chalcedon served as a necessary corrective for his defective vocabulary, Cyril clearly believes that the two natures of Jesus are not complements to each other, as the Apollinarians suggested, but united hypostatically in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now, why does this matter? Why do the arguments of calling Mary "Theotokos" as opposed to "Christotokos" matter? Why does the Chalcedonian Christology of Christ matter for us lowly, non-academic, non-theological people? They matter because the crux of the issue is theosis, which is where Man becomes God, not in substance, but by participation in his energies. The Athanasian and Irenaen dictum of "God became man so that man might become God" is really misunderstood by those outside of the Eastern Churches.

Western Christendom has been anchored in the Anselmian idea of redemption through the "penal satisfaction" of Christ on the cross for the sins of mankind. What happens through this strictly juridical interpretation of Christ's saving work on earth is that Christology becomes a separated category from both anthropology and pneumatology which the East strives to maintain. Whereas Western Christendom is so driven by a need to have theology nicely sorted and separated into respective categories, the East sees theology holistically. If Christ's redemptive work is separated to a category all its own, then theosis is out the window with it. Fr. John Meyendorff writes: ...[t]he true nature of man means life in God [theosis], realized once and for all, through the Holy Spirit, in the hypostatic union of the man Jesus with the Logos and made accessible to all men[emphasis mine], through the same Holy Spirit, in the humanity of Christ, in His body, the Church, Christology acquires a new and universal dimension. (Meyendorrf, 1979, 32).

Thus, the Christological controversy cannot be separated anthropology or life in the Spirit and it cannot be separated from soteriology. Christ's humanity, wholly human, wholly "appropriated" by the Logos creates in reality the destiny we seek (Meyendorff, 1975, 21). To call Mary only "Christotokos" rather than "Theotokos" is to say that Christ's flesh was independent of Him that was incarnate. It was in the flesh, as we confess, that Christ died, suffered and rose again. It was in that flesh that we find ourselves redeemed for communion with the Holy Spirit. And that is what theosis is--true communion with God! Thosis is how we become truly human! To be human is to dwell with the divine as Adam was.

The Anselmian juridical model provides no framework for this communion with God nor did the Antiochene Christology which Cyril opposed. More categories only divide and conquer the holistic nature of Eastern Christian thought; such is why the Eastern Churches are so apprehensive about adopting Western Christian definitions and categories and systems. The Cappadocian Fathers and other early Greek Christians were not opposed to using Greek philosophical problematics but were determined not to be imprisoned by strict systems (Meyendorff, 1979, 25).

Such a need for systems even spoiled over to debates regarding the Eucharist. If the East viewed the Eucharist from only one action of Christ's Life--the Crucifixion--then there would still be no room for theosis. As we confess in the Synodikon from the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Christ "reconciled us to Himself by means of the whole mystery of the economy, and by Himself in Himself, reconciled us also to his God and Father, and, of course, to the most holy and life-giving Spirit."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Commemoration of the Righteous Bessarion

Today, June 6 (new calendar), the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the Righteous Monk, Bessarion. This monk, one of the desert fathers, is the subject of one of my favorite moral stories about the importance of seeing our sins even in our brothers and that the struggle for the virtues in this earthly life, the failures, setbacks and even victory are not individual or ego driven, but communal. The story of his life from the Prologue of Ohrid:

Bessarion was born and educated in Egypt. He dedicated himself to the spiritual life at an early age and "did not stain his spiritual garment in which he was clothed at baptism." He visited St. Gerasimus by the Jordan and learned from St. Isidore of Pelusium. He subdued his body through extreme fasting and vigils but he concealed his life of mortification from men as much as possible. At one time, he stood for forty days at prayer, neither eating nor sleeping. He wore one garment both in summer and winter. He possessed the great gift of miracle-working. He did not have a permanent dwelling place but lived in the mountains and forests until a ripe old age. He healed the sick and worked many other miracles for the benefit of the people and to the glory of God. He died peacefully in the year 466 A.D.

See the humility of Bessarion here in this story:

The following is said about St. Bessarion: on one occasion all the monks were gathered in church for prayer. The abbot approached a monk who had committed a sin and ordered him to leave the church. The monk started to leave and Bessarion followed him saying: "And I, also, am the same kind of sinner!"

Through his intercessions, may Christ, our Lord and God and Saviour have mercy upon us and save us.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Commemoration of Sts. Martha and Mary, sisters of the Righteous Lazarus

Today (new calendar), June 4, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates Sts. Martha and Mary, sisters to St. Lazarus, whom Christ had raised from the dead after he was four days dead. Following Christ's crucifixion, Martha and Mary joined the other myrrh-bearing women (who are commemorated on the second Sunday following Pascha) to anoint Christ's body with oil and spices. They were the first witnesses to Christ's Resurrection and Triumph over death. Following His Ascension, the sisters with their brother departed from Galilee and preached the Gospel together in Cyprus, where Lazarus was also later made bishop. All three reposed there, according to local Cyprus tradition.

One may also remember the story of Martha and Mary from the Gospel according to St. Luke. Jesus visits the home of the sisters and as Martha is going about the house to fulfill her duties to their guest, Jesus, Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet, hanging on to His every word. When Martha complains to Jesus saying that Mary should be helping her in the kitchen and in the house. Jesus responds that "Mary has chosen the better part for herself." Together, the sisters represent the two necessary bedrocks of Christian spirituality, contemplation (Mary) and action (Martha).

On another note, the day before Palm Sunday is Lazarus Saturday which replays the drama of Christ resurrecting Lazarus shortly before His own crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. In the Arab Orthodox churches there is a hymn, often used as a koinonikon (i.e. communion hymn) and also used on Palm Sunday during the Procession called, "Rejoice, O Bethany." It is a dialogue between the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and the Lord and one of the hymns that I, as a chanter, look forward to chanting every year as we approach Holy Week and Pascha. Below you can hear an English version of this hymn based on the Hijaz-Kar scale of Byzantine modal system as chanted by the Boston Byzantine Choir.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Protestants and Catholics Now Majority in Russian Siberia, Far East and Other Border Lands

I remember not too long ago when two very young, just fresh out of high school, men came to my apartment and asked me to help sponsor them for a mission trip. I courteously invited them in so that they could explain what they are interested in doing and how much they wanted. They explained to me that they were members of a local Baptist Church who wanted to go abroad to Greece to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to help the people there to develop a "deep personal relationship" with Christ. Being Greek Orthodox (I didn't have the opportunity to tell them I was Greek Orthodox at this point), I asked them what religion or spiritual belief they thought the Greeks had. They responded that they really didn't know. I then filled them in that about 95% of Greece belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and that the additional 5% is subdivided between Greek Catholics, Moslems and a few Protestants. They either couldn't or didn't believe that. But, it didn't matter, because we then got to the crux of the conversation. They said that regardless of what Christianity they profess, they don't have the basic freedoms that we have as Americans and that their brand of Christianity would be more appealing. I then bluntly stated, "So your intention is to make them Americans rather than Christians." Both looked at me, not knowing what to say. I thanked them for coming over and showed them out.

As I read this article about Protestants, particularly Lutherans, Baptists and Pentecostals along with Roman Catholics becoming the dominant Christian confessions in Holy Russia, I am reminded of the story I told above. Most of the Protestant Missionaries in Russia are from America. And I'm really puzzled about how misinformed these missionaries are about the religious and spiritual life of the land they are sent to. Many of these good intentioned people sent to these places are simply misinformed and I believe that such misinformation is disseminated by the people who send them, people who do know that Russia is an historically Orthodox country whose religion was all but stamped out by the atheist Communists and has enjoyed brief periods of revival, but nothing systemic. The senders see this as an excellent opportunity to spread American ideas of freedom and liberation which are, frankly, at odds with what Christ means when he uses such terms in the Gospel.

Now, the argument that I often hear is since the Orthodox Church isn't making any great gains to keep these people in their church, the responsibility falls to others who will. I will certainly concede that the Church could do a lot more, but it is still recovering from the communist era. It's only been 20 years since the undoing of the Soviet State and will require a lot more than that to undo the damage of over 80 years of oppression and systematic eradication so that the Church can effectively minister to its lost flock again. The people in these border lands are already Christian, Orthodox Christian nominally. They may not have a priest to minister to them or have to wait years before a priest can actually come to them. But that is no grounds for sheep stealing.

I always react with amazement as to how many heterodox Christian confessions can't wait to spread their Gospel to lands which are already Christian. They go to places like Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Greece, other dominantly Orthodox countries. They try to make Americans out of these people. Why go to these places rather than preach to those who are truly lost such as the people in Iran, Afghanistan or even Saudi Arabia? Could it be that to spread the Gospel in such lands you may actually have to suffer for it, even die?

Now, you may argue that the Orthodox go to countries where there is an already established Christian confession. You have Orthodox in Lutheran Germany or Orthodox in Anglican Britain or Orthodox in Catholic France. That is true, but they were not sent there as missionaries but to minister to the great number of expatriates who fled Russia following the 1917 Revolution as well as other Orthodox countries following the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe in 1945. This is not sheep stealing; it is ministering to those Orthodox Christians in the "diaspora." But when the Russians came to Alaska in 1794, they spread the Gospel to the Aleuts, Inuit and other natives who had never heard it before. When the Protestants and Catholics got there about 100 years later, they decided that these Orthodox people weren't Christian enough and started to persecute them and force them into their brands of Christianity.

Sheep stealing needs to stop. I have no problem with Catholics or Protestants telling others of Jesus Christ especially those who have never heard it before. I don't believe the Protestants nor Catholics have the full Gospel or the full faith, but salvation is between persons and God.

What do we really mean when we pray for the peace of the world?

Too many Christians, of both the Orthodox Church and the various heterodox confessions, believe that when we pray for peace, we are referring to cessation of wars and the kind of brotherly love that would make Rodney King proud. Not so! Our Lord makes it very clear that the peace we seek in our Litanies at Liturgy or other office is NOT the peace of this world, but the Peace only He can bring. St.
Nikolai Velimirovch says the following about peace and, also, prosperity:

Does peace kill? Yes, godless peace kills. Does prosperity destroy? Yes, prosperity without God and contrary to the laws of God can destroy. Simple are they who seek such a peace and they who run after such prosperity are fools. For, in essence, they do not seek peace but rather the sword and are not running after prosperity but rather after destruction. What is the peace of the simple and what is the prosperity of fools? The peace of the simple is physical peace and the prosperity of fools is physical feasting. King Herod wanted such a peace and he was consumed by worms. Jezebel wanted such a prosperity and dogs consumed her.

By what name would we call a man who, in deciding to build a house, thinks that he will place the roof in the air first and afterward erect walls and then lay the foundation of the house? We would call him a simpleton and a fool. Much the same are all those who are attempting to establish peace in the world without interior peace and to establish exterior prosperity for men without interior prosperity. The Christian Faith is the only one which builds from the foundation and the foundation is Christ, a firm and indestructible rock. Thus, the Christian Faith for the peace and prosperity of men builds on Christ. An internal, blessed and joyful peace is built on Christ the Lord and on this peace, external peace is built. So also is true and lasting prosperity. It is still better to say that true peace and true prosperity is like a well-built house and external peace and prosperity are like the external adornments of the house. However, if the adornments fall, the house will stand but if the house is destroyed, will the adornments then hang in the air?

O my brethren, the Christian teaching is the only reasonable teaching about peace and prosperity. All else is madness and foolishness. For, how could the servants build a mansion on the estate of the Master without permission of the Master and without His help?

O Lord, the source of eternal true peace and true prosperity, save us from the peace of the simple and the prosperity of fools.

New Documentary on the Jesus Prayer

Prayer is the bedrock of all Eastern Christian spirituality. To borrow a Latin phrase, lex orandi lex credendi--the law of prayer is the law of faith--our theology, our dogma, our praxis, our entire life in Christ is centered around prayer. When we think of prayer, I believe that many people overlook the very fact that Christ Himself prayed. He prayed to His Father while tempted in the desert for 40 days, before His betrayal in Gethsemane, He prayed while on the cross. Such prayer manifested the communion between the three persons of the Trinity, which is a communion borne out of love and prayer.

Today, we read books on prayer, but never seem to do much of it. We take some moments to pray spontaneously, but they seem hollow, no doubt sincere, but hollow. How do you speak with humility to the Most High?

In Eastern Christian praxis, there is a prayer, taken from the prayer of the Publican in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The parable is that of the Publican and Pharisee where the Pharisee goes into the temple and with haughtiness thanks God for not being like other men, doing all of this with his eyes lifted up with pride. The Publican, a tax collector, a despised member of society, also prays, but does so with humility, looking down saying "Lord have mercy upon me." The Jesus Prayer was taken from this prayer of the Publican. In its entirety, it reads: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me [the sinner]. Nothing more than nine simple words which can really change one's life forever.

Monks routinely pray this prayer for hours at a time. Prostrations usually accompany each recitation. Some monks have a rule of prayer that calls for saying this prayer thousands of time in a day to the point that they no longer need to speak it; the prayer becomes a very part of their being. It is said when they sleep, it is prayed when they are at other tasks. Such prayer is meant to be transformative, looking inward at our very sinful nature, perceiving it, wrestling with it to the point that perhaps we can see the Uncreated Light which shone forth from Christ on Mt. Tabor.

Many people believe, wrongly, that since monks have this practice it is not for the ordinary layman. Such is not the case. Granted, those of us in the world do not have the hours of time we can dedicate to this task, but it can and should be practiced. At the same time, there are many misconceptions about the Jesus Prayer. Next year, a documentary will come out about the Jesus Prayer and how it is incorporated into the lives of monks from throughout the Orthodox World. It should be worth it.

Check out the teaser:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Modern Orthodox Wisdom

The veneration of icons is an integral part of Orthodoxy from which it cannot be separated. That the veneration of icons appears to some people the same as idolatry is no proof against icons. To the Jews, it seemed that Christ worked miracles by the power of Satan and not God and to the Romans, it seemed that Christian martyrs were ordinary sorcerers and magicians. Saint Nicephorus said to Leo the Armenian the iconoclastic emperor: "The icon is a divine thing and not to be worshipped." Following this, he explained "how God commanded Moses to make a serpent of brass and to raise it in the wilderness even though, just before this, He had commanded: "Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image" (Exodus 20:4). He commanded this in order to save the chosen people from the idolatry of the Egyptians and He commanded that He, the One and Most High God, would manifest His power through a visible thing. In the same manner He manifests His power through icons. That is His holy will and our aid for salvation. If icons are things of little significance or even idolatry, why would many of the holiest and most spiritual men and women in the history of the Church have suffered to the death for icons?--Prologue of Ohrid, St. Nicholai Velimirovch

The Unia are Dangerous

Though often used with derision, which is not intended here, the term Unia refers to many historically Orthdox Churches who, following the Councils of Florence and Ferrara in the mid-1400s, decided to remain Orthodox in their outward signs such as vestments, chanting and rituals but Catholic in their theology and dogma. These churches agreed to recognize the Pope as the Head of the Church (rather than Christ) and to adopt the Pope's heresies. Hence, these churches, largely to be found in Ukraine, some parts of Greece and the Middle East are called Uniates because they are in union with Rome.

For years, especially since Vatican II and the papacy of John Paul II, the Unia were trumpeted and heralded as a great example of how unity with the Orthodox Churches could be accomplished. The Orthodox could retain their rituals, their praxis, their outward signs of the faith, but would recognize the headship of Rome. This has been routinely denounced as not an acceptable means to true unity, even by His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch VARTHOLOMAIOS I, himself an ecumenist with the papists. But the Vatican is an expert at diplomatic intrigue and negotiation. Once upon the time such honors were bestowed upon the Byzantine Empire, which held off its own destruction for centuries due to its diplomatic cunning. How times have changed.

Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to make a trip to Cyprus later this week. He was invited by the President of Cyprus and so it would seem that Benedict XVI is traveling there only in his capacity as head of the Vatican State which is one of his titles. However, while there, he will be meeting with the Roman Catholic faithful and be celebrating the Liturgy in a few stadiums. The problem is that the Catholics of Cyprus are Uniates, i.e. look Orthodox but are in full union with the Pope. The Holy Synod of Cyprus is rightly alarmed by the Pope's visit, but member bishops have been threatened with removal from the synod for a year by the head of the Church of Cyprus, Archbishop CHRYSOSTOMOS II. These bishops realize that the Pope will be celebrating Liturgy according to the Eastern Rite alongside these uniates, a number of them from the Middle East, which will create the illusion that there were joint prayer (i.e. ecumencial) services with the Orthodox. The media can't discern between Uniates and Orthodox from outward signs because there is no outward difference and then again, for the media, the existence of an Orthodox Church is basically ALL they know about the Orthodox Church. Watch the 60 Minutes show on Patriarch VARTHOLOMAIOS I to see how the media can only picture the Orthodox through a papal lens.

Metropolitan Paul of Kyrenia, a member of the Holy Synod of Cyprus says the following:

The Roman Catholics once again proved to be excellent diplomats. As made evident in the daily Press, they had arranged the Pope's schedule in such a manner that - by means of worship congregations, especially the one that will take place in the closed stadium of Nicosia where Roman Catholic clergy from the Middle East will be present - confusion will ensue among the pious Orthodox of Cyprus, who are not in a position to discern the Uniates. Seeing them participate in the ritual, dressed in Orthodox vestments, it is certain that they will be misled and scandalized, by perceiving them to be Orthodox clergy. It is also not precluded that many foreign Press agencies - also fooled by the external appearance of the Uniates - will erroneously transmit the news that it is common prayer with "all of the Eastern Orthodox Churches". The attempts of the Vatican to exploit the opportunity and present the Pope as the leader of Christianity and the entire world is very obvious.

He is right. The Unia are dangerous and are in existence only to lure the Orthodox faithful away from the Holy Orthodox Church, the One, Holy, Catholic Church and bring them to the Papacy of the Roman Catholics. Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing as the old fable goes. That is what the Unia are--wolves in sheep's clothing.

There is talk, just talk at this point, that there may be an ecumenical council sometime in the future. We've not had one for over 1000 years, but it's time for one. Hopefully, if such were to occur, the issue of how to deal with the Unia and its dangers would be on the agenda.

This situation in Cyprus represents the dangers not only of the Unia but the Vatican and why we, as Orthodox, should be very much on guard against modern ecumenism, whether with Papists or Protestants.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Commemoration of our Righteous Father, St. Justin the Philosopher, also called the Martyr

Today (new calendar), the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the memory of St. Justin the Philosopher also known as the Martyr. Author of one of the earliest defenses of Christianity to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius and of another one to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, St. Justin was a man who came to believe in Christ only after a great and long struggle. Many would suggest that he came to belief only from a logical disproving of some of the other great mystery religions and superstitions of the time, but there is no way to measure how much his heart could have been moved seeing the martyrdom of Sts. Ptolemy and Lucian or in his reading of the Scriptures. Such we can never know for sure. Nevertheless, this man was a fervent defender of Christ and His Church for which he was martyred.

Through the prayers of St. Justin the Philosopher, O Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us.



Whoever belongs to Christ, that one dies for Christ,

Saint Justin, defender of the truth,

Recognized the power of Christ and expressed it,

Fearlessly turned around the entire empire

Defending the righteous; the heathens admonishing,

To the entire world, with truth shining.

He was from the city of the unbaptized where once ten lepers,

To Christ the Savior, bitterly cried out

By His word, they were healed,

And now, Justin, the leprosy of falsehood

By the power of Christ's Faith, alleviated,

As a father, he protected Christians,

The foolishness of paganism he unmasked,

To the emperors, he speaks the truth -

He was a light until the candle burned down,

Until the evil ones, his body took,

His soul to Paradise, the angels raised

That in heaven, it shines like the sun

To whom his Apologia shines,

Glorifying the name of the immortal Justin

Teaching the world, what is the truth.