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?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sacrifice: Expiation or Propitiation?

We Orthodox make use of the word "sacrifice" a lot in our prayers and Liturgies and we use it both as a noun and verb. Many non-Orthodox see the use of this word and decry it for the use of that word, to them, suggests that we are doing it to "get right with God" and thus nullify God's grace. If the sacrifice of praise we offer to the Lord were propitiatory, such a criticism would be right on. However, the sacrifice of praise that forms the core of Eastern Rite Liturgies and prayers is expiatory. There is a difference. Expiatory sacrifice is directed towards us, towards changing us because our sinfulness makes perfect worship, like what goes on in the Heavens, impossible. Propitiatory sacrifice, on the other hand, is meant to assuage God's wrath by some sort of appeasement. The latter definitely is a "theology of works" which is rightly decried as something lacking God's grace. To make the distinction even clearer, reference this little snippet from St. Anthony the Great.

God is good, dispassionate and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, while turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right to imagine that God feels pleasure or displeasure in a human way. He is good, and He only bestows blessing and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him; but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. it is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us, and expose us to demons who punish us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him change, but that through our actions and our turning to God, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God's goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.--St. Anthony the Great, "On the Character of Men" from the Philokalia.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Procession of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross

Today, August 1 (and my birthday!), the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the procession of the Holy Cross of our Lord. On this day, the beginning of August which is usually the hottest month (or it was in Constantinople), the monks and clergy in Constantinople would take the true cross and process it around the city for the veneration (not worship!) of the faithful for deliverance from disease, death and enemies at the gates. The cross was processed through the city for the full 14 days of the Dormition Fast when we prepare ourselves to glorify God when He translated the Holy Virgin after her death to the Heavenly Realm.

In the Orthodox Church, every Sunday cycle of services is dedicated to the mystery of the Cross and the Resurrection, as are the hours on Wednesdays and Fridays which conclude with stavrotheotokia, the Orthodox equivalent to the Roman Catholic Stabat Mater Dolorosa. Also, on three specific days, Orthodox Christians venerate the cross: September 14, the third Sunday in Lent and August 1. Orthodox Christians sing this hymn on these days:

O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting to Thy people victory over all adversaries and by Thy Cross, preserve Thine estate.

Some would say that such procession of crosses and the veneration of the faithful is just some backward superstition. The cross has no power to cure disease or to save a nation-state, they say. The Cross is how we are justified with God. That is true, I will concede, but why must that be the only way to approach the Cross? Is not the Cross the source of life? Is not the cross a deliverance from disease? Did not St. Constantine conquer with the Cross as his sign and shield? Did not the defenders of Constantinople wear the cross as they battled against Moslem invaders for years? Isn't the cross more than just a token of forgiveness? When we sign ourselves with the cross, we do not merely proclaim that Christ has died and risen again for the forgiveness of sins, but we do it as a means of protecting ourselves from the cunning adversaries who are frightened of it. Why would the devil and his demons be frightened of only a token that says to a person "your sins are forgiven?" Satan can still pursue them, but the Cross is the giver of life, it is a bulwark against adversaries, both temporal and spiritual and it heals our infirmities.

Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross many times during the offices and Liturgy and private prayers. For some, I'm sure, it is done merely as a pious custom or done as something traditional. You can tell who those people are since they make the sign of the Cross so fast it looks as if they are swatting flies or something. We make the sign of the Cross upon ourselves because it shows that we are Christ's. The psalmist says, "The seal of Thy countenance has been signed upon us" (Psalm 4). We Orthodox Christians venerate the cross reverently and so so because this is what makes us His. And if we are in Christ, then there is nothing, not persecution, not revilement, not desolation, not pain, not even death that can separate us from Him. The Cross is the seal that we are the people of His pasture and the work of His hand.

The Procession of the Cross also occurs at this time two other reasons. First, we are now entering the Dormition Fast where we prepare ourselves to glorify God through His mother, when we contemplate that "strange mystery, great and mavelous" when Mary is translated unto life from death. She is the very icon and embodiment of the saved. Our Lady needed the cross as all of us sinners need it now. I don't want to rehash all the anti-Catholic polemics, but making Mary into some co-redemptrix who could never taste death because of a lack of [original] sin, makes Mary less human and into something else. She needed the cross because she was still stricken with the same mortality and corruption of nature which we have all inherited. But to prepare for this "Resurrection" we need the power of the Cross as an aid. It is the same for why we venerate the cross on the third Sunday of Lent--to be a bulwark and aid to us to continue the fast and prepare.

The second reason the procession of the cross is placed here is because of its proximity to Transfiguration. Today we chanted the Katavasiae of the Canon of the Cross as well as the kontakion of the Transfiguration. The event of the Transfiguration happened 40 days before our Lord's Crucifixion. We honor the cross today and all the things it has accomplished but we do so in the context of realizing Who it was Who was crucified, the God-Man, Jesus Christ. On Mt. Tabor, He revealed Himself as truly God and truly Man, that it was God Who was about to die on the Cross, not just some "holy man" and that such a death was a willing death, not done for some sort of honor or wrath to be appeased but for the simple reason that God loves.

Let us rejoice this day in the cross of our Lord, which heals not only our souls, but also our bodies as well.

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection, we glorify.