Monday, September 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sin and the Dragon

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

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

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

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

"Your passions are unbridled."

"Salvation depends on your sinlessness."

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

Thank you, my friend.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Universal Exaltation of the Life Giving and Precious Tree

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some new pics of the St. Mary Iconostasis

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Nativity of the Theotokos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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