Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christianity "close to extinction"

In a word: DUH!  The details are here.

In my own congregation, there are several Arab families who came to the United States fleeing the civil war in Lebanon as well as persecutions from governments and local officials in Syria, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Jordan as well as being caught between the Jewish and Palestinian conflict (the Israelis, largely, do not seem to distinguish between Arab Christians and Arab Muslims), and there is very little hope among them that Christians will be able to remain a presence in the Holy Land. 

The Arab Spring and the rise of democratically elected Islamist Fascists in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya, which will soon probably be replicated in Syria and even Iraq will probably fall into that trend has pretty much guaranteed that though there may be Christians in the Holy Land, those Christians will largely be monks and clergy and mere caretakers of Holy Sites.  Christian families will disappear.  When this will happen, who knows, but the fact is that it is happening.   We should all weep for this.  Christianity will no doubt survive, but the living faith should not and cannot be removed from the place of its own Nativity.  God help the Christians of the Holy Land.

The Sunday of Genealogy

Oh, no. Not THAT Sunday again.  Oh, yes, the Sunday before Nativity is when the priest reads the Gospel passage from that of St. Matthew detailing the 14 generations from Abraham to David, the 14 generations from David to the Babylonian Captivity and the 14 from the Babylonian Captivity to Christ's incarnation and birth.  As far as interesting goes, this is probably one of the few passages most people would skip over if they were to read the Gospel according to St. Matthew since it reads like a laundry list or grocery list.   Why do we bother with it?

Well, perhaps we should first ask why it was included in the narrative in the first place.  If anyone has any experience reading oral epic poems that were later written down, one would notice that lists are a trademark of that particular genre.  The lists serve any number of purposes.  For instance, in Book II of the Iliad, Homer gives the famous "Catalogue of Ships."  It details all the Greek heroes who came to Troy, in how many ships and where the Greek heroes came from.  A much shorter catalogue is given for the allies of the Trojans at the End of Book II. 

We must remember that our society is a text society; the ancient world was an oral society even if there were people who could both read and write, but the percentage has to be around 3-5% worldwide, if that.  Literature was recited and meant to be recited.  At great festal occasions like weddings, funerals, parties, epic poems or other oral poems were recited by professionals.  And these professionals were singing for a particular group of people who probably wanted to hear a particular story.  And since these events were family affairs, the family would want to hear tales which involved their family.  Thus, the catalogue of ships.  It is reasonable to assume that the famous Catalogue of Ships was recited to family who claimed lineage or kinship with the great heroes who fought at Troy.  It's no different from today when a person takes personal pride that his grandfather fought at Normandy or Kiev or the Battle of the Bulge or Iwo Jima or took part in the Doolittle raids.  These lists are meant to foster connection between the "mythic" world of the past and the current age now.

With Matthew's genealogy, we are meant to make connections between the God-Man Christ and his ancestors.  And this connection was one of blood.  Christ did not simply appear, but became Man taking on flesh, the flesh he received from his mother.  What's even more striking is that this list is not populated with necessarily the most outstanding pillars of virtue.  Let's look at a few.

Judah--After having become a widower, he indulged his lusts with a woman he thought was a prostitute, who turned out to be his daughter-in-law, Tamar.  When she was found to be pregnant, Judah ordered her execution only to find out that it was he who caused her pregnancy in the first place.  He spared her and realized his own sin.

David--David was both an adulterer and a murderer.  Wanting to take Bathsheeba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, for his own, he ordered Uriah into a battle which he had little chance of surviving so that Bathsheeba would be his.  Eventually, he would repent of his lust and his murder and this comes down to us in Psalm 50 (51).

Manasses--The Assyrians had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel years before so only Manasses' kingdom of Judah remained.  In his role as king, he undid the reforms of his father, Hezekiah and re-instituted pagan worship and idolatry.  Later, he repented of his and was forgiven.  The Prayer of Manasses, used by the Orthodox at Great Compline, is his prayer of repentance.

Jechonias--His reign and his sins were so bad that there was no longer a Kingdom of Judah as he and the Jews were carried off to Babylon.  Because of him, God cursed him and swore that no one borne of Jechonias' line would ever sit on the throne of Israel.

This is just a small sample.  Of course, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob did some pretty bad things, too.  The point is that Jesus' ancestors were not great pillars of virtue and fear of God.  They were idolaters, lustful for power, women, murderers, etc. And yet, Jesus was pleased to be born of this line.

St. Gregory the Theologian remarked that "anything unassumed by Christ [in His Incarnation] is unhealed."  Christ came into this world from family that was wounded by many sins, mortally wounded.  The Irmoi of several canons state that the Lord appeared NOT as an angel NOR as an ambassador but incarnate of the Virgin.    He is one of us; He is not mere human but entirely human. We are the mere humans,  mere likenesses to humanity and corrupted.  If Christ could come from the most sinful among us and still carry flesh uncorrupted by sin, which he would redeem by His coming, His death, His Resurrection and His Ascension, then the battle against the flesh which we wage every day should be winnable because of what He did and what He was up against.

The Sunday of Genealogy is more than just names. It reveals why God had to become incarnate and not just appear:  To save everyone from all sins which had been committed since the beginning.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The World Didn't End Today

So I guess we'll just have to go on repenting.

I remember a story someone once told me of a very old monk who was very close to death.  He was pleading with doctors and his visitors that if there was some way to avoid death, he would take it.  It wasn't that he feared death; he just knew and believed that he had not even begun to repent. 

Why does it always take some false prophecy about the world ending from some nutcase or nutcases to remind me that I have not even begun to repent?

My soul, my soul - arise!
Why are you sleeping?
The end is drawing near,
And you will be confounded.
Awake then, and be watchful,
That Christ our God may spare you,
Who is everywhere present and fills all things.--
Kontakion of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, plagal tone 2

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Politicizing Jesus at Christmas

It never ceases to amaze me how the American Left likes to politicize Christmas for its own agenda.  I will certainly grant that the American Right does this, too. But the American Left is largely non Christian and those of its adherents who do consider themselves as Christians are only nominally Christians, thinking that nothing is special about Christianity and that it can be mingled and syncretized with other religious belief systems and philosophies.  I know why they do it, of course. What greater authority is there for Christians (i.e. those who practice it) than Christ?  If Christ can be made as the poster child for any number of the left's pet causes then these Christians will have no choice but to become leftists themselves.

In order to make these arguments, the leftists first have to mold Jesus in such a way that makes Him exactly what they want Him to be.  Consider the following myths and half-truths told about Jesus by the left at this time of year, every year.  These are in no particular order.

Jesus was poor.

Jesus was an illegal immigrant.

Jesus was a minority.

Jesus was homeless.

Jesus' race had just come out of genocide.

Jesus' land was being exploited for its resources.

Jesus' mother was unwed (and maybe she should have stayed that way for the sake of empowering her).

Jesus' arrival was heralded only by a few poor country shepherds.

All these are brought up to show that Jesus, if he were here now, would side with the leftist agenda.  Each of these can be debunked.

Jesus was poor.  Maybe.  He certainly wasn't rich. The vast majority of the people in the ancient world lived at or below what we would call the poverty line.  But Jesus' father, Joseph, was a carpenter.  It is reasonable to assume that he made a good living as Jesus grew up in a home in Nazareth.  It is also reasonable to assume that as Jesus was well traveled in Judaea and Galilee that he must have had some material resources to do so.  Also when you consider that Mary's side of the family included priests such as Zecharias, many of whom were wealthy, that some of that might have passed on to her and to her family.  Jesus certainly talked a lot about compassion about the poor, but you don't necessarily have to be poor to speak with compassion about them.

Jesus was an illegal immigrant. This refers to the flight of Jesus, Joseph and Mary into Egypt following Herod's decree that all new borns be slaughtered.  They went into Egypt without a visa and did the work that native Egyptians didn't want themselves.  Hogwash.  First of all, there was no Roman law (as both Egypt and Judaea were Roman provinces--Egypt was an imperial province under direct control of the Roman Emperor himself) which prohibited travel from one province to another (unless you were a Roman senator who tried to go into an imperial province without the Emperor's permission; hence why the Roman hero Germanicus got into such trouble with the Emperor Tiberius).  For someone to be illegal there must be a law broken.  No law broken, no illegality.  Also, it is important to note that there were checks made on the Roman roads by soldiers so it is not unreasonable to assume that Jesus, Joseph and Mary were inquired as to their origins and destinations.

Jesus was a minority.  In Egypt, probably. However, there was a sizable Jewish community in Egypt at this time.  It was in Egypt that the Hebrew Scriptures were first translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint).  The Jewish Philosopher Philo had his home in AlexandriaJesus, Mary and Joseph probably settled in a Jewish community, but we don't know much more than that.

Jesus was homeless.  Patently false.  If we're talking about the manger, Jesus was born there because his parents couldn't get a hotel room!  Even the Scripture acknowledges that. Here's what St. Luke says:  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.   Big difference.

Jesus' race was a victim of genocide.  Defeated in war certainly.  But genocide?  The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucids and the Romans all had control of this area since about 700 B.C. There was still a Jewish race and it was still growing both within Palestine and without.

Jesus' land was being exploited for its resources.  The Roman occupation of Judaea was for long term strategic purposes.  That does not mean that the Romans were benevolent despots.  They frequently derided Jewish customs and its belief in only "The One God."  But the Romans knew that to keep order, they couldn't do so merely with the sword.  If you objectively examine Roman history, the amount of rebellions against Roman rule can be counted on two hands.  The people under Rome's rule did not rebel.  Why?  Because the Romans gave their "oppressed" subjects the creature comforts of civilization.  I'm reminded of the part of Monty Python's Life of Brian when the People's Front of Judaea is trying to rationalize how the Romans' gifts of aqueducts, sanitation, order, wine, roads, education, irrigation, medicine, public baths, etc. still warrants their expulsion.  (You can see that clip below; always a laugh)


Jesus' mother was unwed (and maybe she should have stayed that way for the sake of empowering her).  She was betrothed to an older man when she found out she was going to bear the Saviour of the Nations.  Joseph was going to divorce her but married her anyway, though he was much older and she, only a teenager.  And Joseph was no absentee father. Though we don't hear much of  anything of him after the flight into Egypt and back to Nazareth (except for what the Proto Evangelion of James says), he probably took his duties as a surrogate parent quite seriously.  Jesus was thus born into a family with a father and a mother as well as half-brothers and half-sisters (from Joseph's previous marriage).

Jesus' arrival was heralded only by a few poor country shepherds.  Did we forget the part about a great multitude of the heavenly host appearing and singing "Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace, good will towards men?"

All of this goes to show that Jesus' birth does not fit the left's narrative.  Even if it is twisted, the facts speak for themselves.  Jesus can and should be a model for the political debates we have in this country, but if Christ only came to serve a political point, then we have really missed the point of His coming in the flesh:  God came in the flesh, assuming everything that we are so that we may be totally healed and so that we, though mortal men, may become [as] God, not in essence but in grace.

We should also remember that as soon as Jesus is born, we are immediately set out on the journey to Golgotha and the Cross.  And there is no political narrative that can monopolize or even have part of that for its own.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Contemporary Worship Destroys Congregations

I left the Lutheran Church right in the midst of its "Worship Wars"--the never ending battle between advocates of the historic/ traditional Liturgy of the Western Rite and advocates of the "do-what-you-feel", "happy-clappy", "Everything's gonna be OK", "Raise your hands" type of "worship."  I remember walking out of the church whenever the worship ensemble would start to play and figuratively dusted my shoes off at the entrance.  Sure, I was probably being rude, but I knew even at that age (I was in my late teens) that this was not worship.

While I was reading some of the other blogs out there, I came across this one from Fr. Peter's blog, Pastoral Meanderings. This congregation, a Lutheran WELS church, did everything it was supposed to do according to the church growth movement people.  It took out the pews and put in more comfortable chairs. It replaced the organ with a contemporary worship ensemble. It put in a coffee shop. It created a casual atmosphere. The pastor was stripped of vestments and replaced with polos and khakis.  Sermons were replaced in favor of kids' messages.  Sin was replaced with "God loves you anyway so why strive to be better." Attendance peaked at 50 and then declined to nothing.  The church building is now for sale.

The pastor of the church is quoted as saying that this was the right move but at the wrong place and the wrong time.  If I may be so bold, it was the right move at the right time and right place, but the problem for its failure is that you didn't keep building on the high.

Contemporary worship and contemporary music is like being addicted to a drug.  Eventually, the same old stuff on Sunday mornings just won't get you that same "feeling" that will last for a long time.  Then, what happens?  Congregants search out for a new high, a new church that will breathe new life into their desire for more contemporary tunes, more comfortable chairs, more varieties of cappuccino, etc.  What's worse is that the church in question realizes that congregants are leaving to "shop" around and so it is constantly retooling things so much that it cannot keep up with all the changes and the same result ensues but only delayed for a short time.

Now, I will grant that there are many churches that serve the traditional liturgy and that people may leave searching out a church that is even more traditional, that chants instead of reads, that does it in Latin versus English, where priests are decked out even more so than the last guy.   And many of these churches try to rebuild themselves as being more and more traditional.  But, this scenario is the exception that proves the rule.  I've seen very few traditional churches, whether in the Protestant or Catholic traditions, that try to go "more traditional" than what they are already doing. The converse situation is by far the more common and that is destroying more congregations than building new ones.  It's a failed model, but the CCW people just don't seem to get it.

So, you'll forgive me if I don't gloat a little that this church is no longer.  Some may say that because this church is gone that even those 50 people will not be hearing the Gospel.  To be honest, knowing the constructs of contemporary worship, I doubt they heard it anyway.  Contemporary worship is about pleasing oneself and doing it quickly.  When it doesn't serve that purpose, the parishioner trots off somewhere else to get his spiritual "high."  That's not worship of God, but worship of self. 

New Patriarch of Antioch and the East elected

Not even two weeks have passed since Ignatius IV, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, reposed.  But now the Antiochians in the Middle East and in all the world have a reason to turn their sorrow into joy:  A new Patriarch has been elected, who will take the name John X.  Many years to the new Patriarch.  He certainly has big shoes to fill and is coming into a situation (i.e. Syria's civil war) which will no doubt test him on many levels.  For a biography of His Beatitude, go here.

Εις πολλα ετη, Δεσποτα!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rush inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame!

Ok, I know this has nothing to do with religion or Christianity, but may people, including myself, have almost "religious" devotion to certain bands and composers with whom we can connect.  I think my first real favorite rock n' roll band of all time is Rush and today, as I was listening to the radio, I was so overcome with joy when the names of the inductees were read and finally, finally, after many years of being passed over (wrongly), Rush is now an official member of the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame.

There are few bands which have the musical chops that Rush does.  Geddy Lee has inspired more bass players than anyone else save for, maybe, Paul McCartney. Unlike Paul McCartney, Geddy can actually play bass and play it well (McCartney stepped into it simply because no one else would).  Geddy's rubbery tone on his vintage Fender Jazz Bass is the standard tone which no one else can replicate.  (To be honest, I'm rather disappointed that Geddy tends to slap more and has adopted a more percussive tone, but that's another part of Rush's longevity: their ability to innovate, push the limits and not be pigeonholed into one "style" or "genre"). Also, Geddy's ability to play keyboards, bass and sing at the same time is a small miracle in of itself.  Not everyone is a fan of Geddy's voice (Micki Mouse on Helium is a common insult hurled at him), but for the 1970s, it was quite appropriate when you consider that Rush initially sounded like Zeppelin only to incorporate more and more progressive elements such as King Crimson.

Likewise Neil Peart, the Professor.  This is a drummer without equal.  Just listen to the opening fast section of the Overture to 2112 and listen to those fills.  He just doesn't keep the beat, he owns the beat. He makes the drums an integral part of the melody.  Peart also doesn't stand still with his musical development.  He produced an entire album (on his own time) to Buddy Rich, a swing drummer.  He even incorporated some swing drumming into 1996's Test for Echo where he was really cutting the downbeat very close to give a little bit of a "dragging effect" which really lends well to the overall "alternative" sound that the band was going for at the time.  Neil Peart also authors the band's lyrics and though he too has been lampooned by the critics, his lyrics are thoughtful and free from the cursing which is omnipresent in other bands' lyrics (but that's art, remember).  Mr. Peart suffered two tragedies with in a year: He lost his daughter in a car accident and then his wife less than a year later from cancer.  I cannot imagine (nor would I presume to) the pain he suffered at the time.  I'm sure a lot of that was reflected in his songs.

Finally, Alex Lifeson.  Sometimes considered the least talented member of the group, he's still head and shoulders above most guitarists in the biz.  In a trio, it's very tempting for the guitarist to just play a lot of power chords.  Alex did a lot of that at first, but he soon became much more linear in his playing and I think he is one of rock's best contextualists along with the Edge of U2 (though Alex is better).  I think Alex has also consistently gotten better as a guitar player over his 40 years with Rush.  Each album, I think, shows some new growth.

A small tribute should be given to John Rutsey, Rush's first drummer.  He played on Rush's first album.  He was dismissed from the band, not because of bad drumming or bad behaviors, but because he was a diabetic and the incessant touring after the first album really caught up with him.  John formed Rush and got them their first gigs and even came up with the name.  He died a few years ago from complications due to diabetes.

Even bloggers on the subject of religion can still be fans of rock n' roll, right?  Rush has been a staple of my musical library for about 20 years now. And I'm disappointed that it took me so long to discover them. The person who brought Rush to my attention was named Steve who worked maintenance at one of the Sprint buildings (when they had a lot of buildings) in the Kansas City area.  I worked there during the summer.  He was the one that brought them to my attention so I went out and bought 2112.

For the longest time, I though rock n' roll was boring and mundane and loud and clumsy.  They changed my perceptions entirely.  Through them, I began to bridge out to discover a lot of other bands I really connected with such as Queen, Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd, Cream, Metallica, Dio, Black Sabbath, Kansas, Alice in Chains, Queensryche, Soundgarden, etc.  That's a pretty diverse list only because Rush has a pretty diverse repertoire.  You can find elements of all the sub-genres of rock n' roll in Rush's music spanning four decades.

Well, enough of being a fan.  Congratulations, Rush.  Well deserved. I'm sure the critics are up in arms that you finally got in, but you deserve it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch Has Reposed

Today, December 5, the Patriarchate of Antioch, founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, mourns the passing of His Beatitude, Ignatius IV (Hazim), Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.  Memory eternal.  αἰωνία ἡ μνήμη!

A biography of His Beatitude can be found here.

With the recent passings of Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria and now Patriarch Ignatius IV there are now two sees devoid of leadership.  And only recently did the Coptic Church select a new Pope since His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III reposed several months ago.  Pray that the Lord guides both synods to elect Patriarchs to continue to shepherd the faithful as we sojourn on earth.

This may well prove to be an interesting time for the Patriarchate of Antioch especially as Syria is now in the midst of civil war.  How will that civil war affect the Patriarchal elections?  Will a candidate from Lebanon emerge as the frontrunner or maybe a candidate even from the diaspora (real long shot)?  At this time, it is useless to speculate how this will pan out. 

Worshipping like Jesus

Here is yet another out-of-the-park home run from Fr. Peters at Pastoral Meanderings.  He's quite right:  when those who are so anti-liturgy say that they only want to worship like Jesus, they seem to forget (more likely ignore) that Jesus worshiped in the temple in a liturgical format with priests who wore vestments, with incense, with an altar of sacrifice, with candles, with grand processions, chanting of psalms, readings from the Scriptures (what we would call the Old Testament), etc..  To say Jesus would prefer what goes on in the evangelical communities with pastors wearing polo shirts and khaki pants, with praise music that sounds like stuff you hear on any FM radio, no readings from Scripture (Old or New Testaments), etc. is nothing short of hubristic. 

Jesus NEVER did condemn the worship of the temple (Find one example; I dare you).  He DID condemn the hypocrisy of people who worshiped in the temple, but condemning the people is not the same as condemning the worship itself.  The Liturgy is described as Divine.  The offices are described as Divine.  These were given from on high, granted with some help from us humans here. For us to shove the divine liturgy out of the way what many consider relevant and not boring is to reject the divine and to supplant it with the human.  Of course, they never will admit that.

Thanks, Fr. Peters.  Another well written piece.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Patron saints and commemoration of St. John Damascene

Shortly before my chrismation, I was in a dilemma as to which saint I would want who would be my personal intercessor before the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ.  This is no easy task as any saint would do. Of course, most people, especially those received into the faith later in life and who did not necessarily have the luxury of having someone else (like a parent or godparent) choose their "church" name, go for the big name saints, usually who have some universal popularity like the Apostles or the three holy hierarchs or great martyrs, etc.  And that is totally fine.

I have no idea how St. John Damascene came to me. (Long digression: To be honest, I was leaning more towards St. Augustine (yes, he IS a saint) simply because I was very familiar with him and his writings and his Latin (very good Latin, by the way), but I was kind of being drawn away from that mainly because there is much opprobrium directed at him in the Orthodox Church, mainly the result of Fr. Romanides' influence.  And I think even my priest was hesitant simply because Augustine is often (wrongly) associated with the errors and heresies of the Roman Catholics and Protestants who use him to justify their theology even when I'm sure he would have nothing to do with those). The only real "reading" of St. John Damascene I had ever done was for a paper I had written in my senior year of college on the Great Schism between east and west.  His name  had come up in some of my research on the theological quarrels of the time.  But my exposure to him was minimal and was only in a strict academic sense.

Nonetheless, I chose him.  It was fortuitous since John also happens to be my middle name which is also my father's name.  But, I really have no reason why I chose him.  Looking back, it almost seems I chose his name out of a hat.  Or did I choose him?

Someone once told me (I can't remember whom) that we do not choose our patron saints; they choose us. They choose for whom they will intercede.  That does appear logical.  If it were strictly left to us, I believe that there are a great many of us who would end up "saint shopping" to see if we can get a better one if we deem the one we have to not live up to his/her part of the bargain.  And that's dangerous.  Every saint intercedes for us, especially out patron saints, but once we start thinking that our prayers aren't being answered because our patron saint is slacking, we turn our problems outward rather than acknowledge that we are the problem.  But, even in spite of that, the patron saint's work of intercession is never done.

And what an intercessor I have before the dread judgment seat.  I admit I did not know all that much about him, but as I progressed in the faith and with all that I did learn about him, I realized that he is very much a kindred spirit.  I'm not saying that I'm a  great theologian or composer as he was (you've read my blog. Would you compare it to St. John's work?), but as a chanter and someone who likes to think, he has provided me with great material from which to draw.  Though St. John may not have written all the hymns in the octoechos, he probably did give them their present form and the many works we know he did write are of such great prominence in the church's liturgical life that we end up praying through St. John's words.  For years I could not pray simply because whenever I tried to pray to God, every word was insufficient and  seemed vacuous and empty.  His words filled that void.

The canons of Pascha, Nativity, Ascension, two of the pre-communion prayers, the funeral service, any number of hymns and compositions enrich our prayer life as Orthodox Christians.  He shares this day of commemoration along with St. Barbara the Great Martyr who probably receives the lion's share of attention.  But I think it is quite appropriate that they share today.  St. Barbara commended her spirit and her flesh to God through torture and death; St. John gave his intellect and creativity to God through suffering a long life.

O Righteous Father John the Damascene, pray to God that our souls be saved!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Jesus Loves You...Regardless of Whether the Bible Says So

Growing up, I was taught in Sunday the school the very popular song "Jesus loves me."  And, to be completely honest, I've never cared for the song.  In fact, I can say that I hate the song. It's a bad tune and it's bad theology.  Let me explain.

Yes, Jesus does love you.  There can be no denying that or even questioning that.  The Christian who denies this or questions it cannot be considered to be Christian at all.  However, my loathing of the song is not the what but the how.  How do I know Jesus love me according to the song? Because the Bible says so. 

So, if the Bible did not say so, would the truth of Jesus' love be in doubt?  Of course not.  Then why say it that way?  I suppose that a great many the early Christians were wondering if Jesus loved them as they were going to their deaths as martyrs, many years before the Scriptures existed.   But they went, confident in the faith in Christ and the love He poured out upon them.  Like anything else I learned as a kid growing up in the Lutheran church, I suppose this was a covert way of promoting the false hermeneutic and doctrine of sola scriptura.

Christ's love for His creation cannot be questioned for a second. And it doesn't require the witness of Scriptures.  The very act of creation is in itself an act of love for mankind.  Creation is love.  I don't need a Bible to confirm that.  Rather than teach kids the truth that Jesus loves them, whoever wrote that song decided that it was just as important to put in a little epistemology rooted in Reformed "theology" which serves no other purpose than being polemical.

As a new parent, I'm fully committed to ensuring that my son learns the faith in the best way possible: learning the prayers of the church (in Greek, of course), constant and faithful prayer, faithful attendance at divine liturgy and the offices. Jesus' love for mankind is profoundly articulated in these ways.  I absolutely refuse to teach my son these ridiculous songs.  He will learn the haunting and beautiful Byzantine melodies and the hymns they accompany.  They are so much richer in theological truth and have greater musical value.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Story of Advent's Life...No Respect

I have to hand it to Fr. Gregory Alms, the blogger at incarnatus est.  He has hit the nail right on the head when it comes to the season of Advent.  Even though we Eastern Christians have a longer period of time of preparation for the Nativity of our Lord in the flesh, we don't seem to embark upon it with any of the seriousness that is called for.  It, like Rodney Dangerfield (memory eternal) gets no respect.  We are supposed to be preparing ourselves, spiritually (through prayer and almsgiving) and physically (through fasting) for the greatest gift God could have given:  His Son, incarnate.  And what do we do?  Go to parties and feast like Christmas is already here.  There can be no feasting (or there should be no feasting) until we have fasted and prepared.  But that's too somber and archaic. 

I reprint the article in full below.  Though Fr. Gregory is Lutheran, his words are just as relevant for Orthodox as they are for Western Christians.  Thank you, Fr. Gregory.  Very well said.

Advent is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Church Year seasons. It gets no respect. In the mad rush to Christmas, the season of Advent can get pushed aside like hapless shoppers in the way of a bargain at Wal-Mart. When churches try to keep this time of preparation for the birth of Christ and His second coming, people easily get impatient. Where are the Christmas decorations? Why cant we turn on the lights on the tree at church? Why we cant sing more Christmas hymns since we hear them at the mall? When the entire world seems to be awash in Santa and decorations, no one seems to care much about Advent.
But we lose much if we throw away Advent. It has its own special message that helps deepen our faith in Christ, especially in the midst of the consumerist carnival that engulfs December. Advent encourages Christians to have a proper attitude toward possessions. It teaches us that waiting and faith are central to our Christian lives, and it prepares our hearts to receive and welcome Christ. Advent is the antidote for the commercial Christmas frenzy and a template for our entire Christian lives.
We want so much when the season of gifts rolls around. But Advent says that this worlds treasures are temporary. The lessons and hymns for the end of the Church Year and Advent proclaim that this world will soon end. The possessions and things we so ardently wish for will be burned up with fire: Flames on flames will ravage earth, as Scripture long has warned us (LSB 508).
But presents cannot give us what we truly desire. Advent tells us that what we really want for Christmas is to be joined to our Creator, who made us in His image. The hymns of Advent repeatedly express this longing and desire for Christ. We call out, O, come desire of nations (LSB 357), and we pray, Come thou long expected Jesus (LSB 338). Only the Son of God who comes in human flesh in the manger, dies on the cross and will soon return can fill this desire.
Advent reorients all our frantic wanting and points it to the manger. The Word of God takes on our flesh to fill us with Himself, making us partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). He takes on our flesh in order to blot out our sins with His blood.
Indeed, the one who comes to us from heaven is our hearts true desire. Blessed is He whom comes in the name of the Lord (Ps. 118:26). Advent tells us we are empty, hungry sinners but proclaims even more loudly that the One who can fill us will soon appear.
The time of Advent also teaches us that we must wait. Even the commercial Christmas is filled questions like, How many days until Christmas?
Advent in the church is also a season of not yet. Another way of saying this is that Christians live by faith. As the letter to the Hebrews tells us, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).
Living by faith means waiting for what is not yet here. Christ promises to return and to bring the new heaven and the new earth where all tears are wiped away. But while we wait, we hear Gods Word, cling to His promises and endure suffering.
In reality, all our life is one big Advent season. Christians are always called to be watchful, and thus we ponder our need for a Savior as well as our sin and mortality. This is a lesson that we absorb now but practice all year long: repentance, faith and waiting for the One who comes in our flesh to die for us, take away our sin and one day return.
Advent also directs us to Jesus presence among us now by pointing us to the Virgin Mary. Mary had her own Advent season before she gave birth to Jesus, but Marys season of waiting was not an empty one. Instead, she was filled by the Word of God, and she received that Word in faith.
That welcoming is what the church does now. As we wait for Christmas and Christs final coming, we are not alone. Christ is not far from us. We welcome Him as Mary did: hearing His Word and receiving it in faith. When Gods Word is proclaimed to us, Christ comes and is present with us. The Holy Spirit, working through the Word just as He did with Mary, creates faith in us so that we might receive Christ. Then, the church, like Mary, is filled with His presence by being filled with His Word.
Advent is a time to want and to wait, but it is also a time for all of us to welcome Christ by hearing His voice and believing in it. The church receives Christ but also gives birth to Him through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, through the faithful witness of men and women in the world in their vocations and through their sharing of the love and message of Christ.
This Advent, don't be so quick to hurry on to Christmas. Hear what the hymns and Scriptures have to say. What we truly want is a Savior, and while we wait for Him, we fill ourselves with His Word. Someday soon we will welcome His glorious coming, joining with Him and all the saints in the feast that never ends.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Commemoration of St. Catherine, the Great Martyr

Let us praise the all-lauded and noble bride of Christ, the godly Catherine, the guardian of Sinai and its defense, who is also our support and succour and our help; for with the Holy Spirit’s sword she hath silenced brilliantly the clever among the godless; and being crowned as a Martyr, she now doth ask great mercy for us all.--Apolytikion of the Feast to the Prosomion "Let us Worship the Word", plagal tone 1

The Alexandrians’ city, bright and godly, on thy remembrance keepeth festival in gladness, O august Martyr Catherine, honoring thy contests, which thou didst endure courageously for Christ God; and holding her head up high, she doth cry to thee:  O much-suffering virgin maid, who in celestial abodes art found with thy Creator now, rejoice, O Martyr most marvelous.--3rd Kathisma at Orthros for the feast to the Prosomion "When the Bodiless Ones", plagal tone 4

Through her intercessions, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, may we be saved.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Give Thanks

Everlasting King, Thy will for our salvation is full of power. Thy right arm controls the whole course of human life. We give Thee thanks for all Thy mercies, seen and unseen. For eternal life, for the heavenly joys of the Kingdom which is to be. Grant mercy to us who sing Thy praise, both now and in the time to come. Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.--Kontakion 1 of the Akathist of Thanksgiving

The Metropolitan TRYPHON (+ 1934) wrote this akathist shortly before his death in a prison camp in 1940. (The attribution to Fr. Gregory Petrov who supposedly wrote this before he died in a prison camp in 1940 is a nice story, but false).  Though not yet glorified as a saint, he is under consideration as one of the New Martyrs of Russia.  Here's a brief summary of the end of his life when this akathist was written:

Shortly before his falling asleep in the Lord, Metropolitan Tryphon wrote his astonishing Akathist which became his spiritual testament. ‘Thanks be to God for all things!’ – in these words, the sum total of the spiritual experience of the Russian Orthodox Church in the times of the most cruel persecution which ever existed in the history of the Church of Christ. In 1924, the Metropolitan of Petrograd, Veniamin (Kazansky), who had been falsely charged with misappropriation of Church valuables, used these same words at the end of his speech in his trial. He was then sentenced to be shot. Christ Himself says, ‘be of good cheer; I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). That is why, however hard and sorrowful the events of history, the power of God always triumphs.

The Resurrection was only possible after Golgotha. Similarly, the defeat of millions dying for their faith and the truth was turned into victory, being the way to eternal life, joyful and never-ending. Of this sings the inspired great son of Russia, Metropolitan Tryphon, thanking God ‘for all Thy good things both manifest and hid’; that is, having multiplied the talents entrusted to us, we will enter into the eternal joy of our Lord: Alleluia! Metropolitan Tryphon entered into his rest on 14 June 1934 and was buried in Nemetsokoye cemetery in Moscow. His grave is the object of veneration for countless Orthodox Russians.
Whatever our own beliefs may be about what Thanksgiving is and how it should be celebrated, Christians (not just Orthodox Christians) should bear in mind that this feast has its origins in people who came to this country to escape religious persecutions.  Whether it was first started by Pilgrims in Massachusetts or refugee Huguenots who  came to Florida, our Thanksgiving should be rooted always in thanks to God.  Yes, be thankful for good jobs, family, good friends, good golf games, good leaders (there are a few), etc., but be thankful to Him Who gave those.  And, though I admit it's easy for me to say this right now, be thankful even in the times of tribulation and sorrow. 

Metropolitan TRYPHON lived in a Russia full of tribulation and sorrow.  Holy Russia was being ravaged by the atheist communists.  Her priests, her churches, her monastics, her people were suffering.  Yet, he gave thanks to God.  And so should we....always or, as Metropolitan TRYPHON said, from age to age no matter what the circumstance.

A very happy thanksgiving to you and yours.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Modern Orthodox Wisdom

From within this festal celebration unity between humanity and the angels is revealed. The diversity of human existence joined to the diversity of angelic life forms a symphony of created plurality maintained within the unity and plurality of the Holy Trinity.--Fr. Robert Arida

For the rest of this wonderful sermon on the feast of St. Michael and all Angels which is celebrated today by Orthodox Christians on the Old Calendar, go here!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Presentation of the Theotokos

I cannot believe that I have never written anything about this particular great feast.  There are a number of reasons that is the case.  First, it always seems to fall right smack in the midst of the preparations or actual festivities of the Thanksgiving Holiday here in America so it is put on the back-burner.  But, I think more accurate, the reason I probably have never written about this feast is simply because I just don't really even begin to understand the theological underpinnings of this feast.

Mary's Nativity and Dormition are, in my mind, no-brainers.  The birth of the very temple of God goes hand in hand with the incarnation of the Lord Himself.  Her death shows that even the living temple of God was in need of Christ's death and triumph over death through His Resurrection.  Her taking up into heaven is an example, an icon, if you will, of the very same fate that will await all Christians at the hour of death.  But, what are we to make of her Presentation to the Temple?

Protestants will naturally insist that the reason for my confusion is simply to be found in the absence of the event (including Mary's birth and death) in the Canon of the Scriptures.  That's outright bunk.  Our theology is not simply contained in an infallible book but in the living tradition of the Holy Church through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  You may not like that answer, but our theology is not dependent upon "your" rules.

Mary's presentation into the temple indicates that Sts. Joachim and Anna were obedient to the law and the Prophets.  Just as Mary, years later, would present her son, the Incarnate Logos, 40 days after his birth to the temple, so Mary's parents did with her.  This shows that God's salvation was not a deviation or a breaking from a law, but the law's fulfillment. 

According to the tradition of the church, after her presentation, Mary then spent her life in the temple's courts until she was in her teens where she was nourished by angels both mentally and physically. She grew up learning the Law and the Prophets from the priests in the temple.  Afterwards, she was betrothed to Joseph and you get the Christmas story.  So, even if we do not/cannot/ will not accept the story as fact, what truth does it communicate?

As Mary is regarded as the icon of human existence, maybe this feast is another reminder of what it means to have a life in Christ.  Mary spent a great many years in the temple learning from the Scriptures entirely unaware that she was to be the very " who would conceive and bear a Son, Emmanuel."  She grew mentally to love the Lord who gave her life which was needed before she could literally bear God Himself in her body.  Perhaps it was that training in the temple that made it very easy to say "yes" to Gabriel's message that she would give birth to Christ.

Christians today want Christ in them at all times, but they are unwilling to put in the work to achieve that.  Yes, God gives of Himself freely, but gifts may be rejected or, as is the custom of today, to regift them to someone more willing.   Christians go to church, expecting even demanding to be uplifted to the heights of heaven only to come away with great disappointment when they are not "magically" transported to some blissful state where all their cares melt away.  Such, though, is not the Christian life.  Christ never said "Follow me and you'll always have me in you and you'll be happy and prosperous."  Even if you don't take prosperous in material terms, this is still a dangerous thought.  The Christian life is not easy as we are always under attack by the evil one.

There is an inevitable struggle. I am positive that the Theotokos, during her earthly life, was besieged by the temptations  of the evil one.  If she had given in, who knows how the history of salvation may have changed?  Struggle, though, is the essence of Christianity.  "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling."  These words of St. Paul cannot mean anything else besides that not only is work required but that such work will be in the presence of what chills us to the bone even to the point where we would give up.

If we want Christ in us, we must prepare.  Too many people simply hope to walk into church and be transformed.  If you came to church from a party with your friends, do you think you are more or less likely to feel that transformation than someone who has entered the church after a morning of solitude and contemplation?  I suppose it can happen, but my point is that there can be no living the Christian life with Christ in us without some preparation.  Mary worked and lived in the temple, the Holy of Holies to physically carry within her the very Temple of God in the flesh.  Even if we can carry Christ mystically within our bodies, shouldn't that require some sacrifice and preparation on our parts?

I'm sure that this feast has broader theological implications than what I have considered here and I'm happy to leave that at the feet of more learned theologians than I.  But, as we Orthodox Christians (at least those on the Revised Julian Calendar) are now on the road to Bethlehem and the cave to behold the Incarnation of the Saviour, we cannot get to our destination without preparation and the actual journey.  This especially holds true for the big picture.

Happy feast!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Second Day of the Nativity Fast

Great is the mystery of the fear of God who is our Strength.  He who is pure and blameless became a man like unto me to carry my transgressions.--Prosomion hymn based on "O House of Ephratha" Tone 2

O Lord, the prophets rejoiced for they beheld Thine Incarnation, as truly promised.  Thoud dist show forth Thy radiance upon the benighted world, and thereby opened wide the Kingdom.  Therefore, O Thou who art beginningless, grant us to behold Thy wondrous Nativity and praise the emptying of Thyself.--Doxasticon, Plagal tone 2

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The First Day of the Nativity Fast

O house of Ephratha, august and holy city, thou glory of the prophets, prepare the house wherein the Divine One shall be born for us.--Tone 2

O our Lord that cometh, O Emmanuel, enlighten us by Thy radiance, banishing our sorrow. Strengthen us by Thy love for us, making us stand upright and firm in hope:  O our Lord that cometh, O Emmanuel.--Plagal tone 2

Monday, November 5, 2012


The Coptic Church yesterday was given its new spiritual leader, Pope Tawardos (assuming he keeps that name), yesterday after the church's former spiritual head, Pope Shenouda III, reposed last March.  The new pope has any number of challenges to face including an Egypt which has undergone a revolution and has put into power people who, though they say they will protect the Coptic Christians, may well increase the institutionalized persecution that was already present in Egypt under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. 

The Coptic Church and her flock, despite its second-class status in Egypt, continues to thrive despite all the roadblocks in the way and the number of people who have fled to Europe and the United States.  I hope and pray that, despite the fear of increased violence and renewed persecution by the new Islamist dominated government, that the new Pope may build on the foundation poured by the late Pope Shenouda III and protect the flock from any encroaching dangers.  It would be a horrible shame for Egypt to lose its Christian heritage.  May God grant the new Pope many years!  ΑΞΙΟΣ!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pope canonizes Roman Catholic's first Native American Saint

You can read the details here.  This is a big deal in any number of ways.  The Catholic Church is, frankly, not gaining any ground in Europe.  Within the next hundred, barring some great awakening, the churches in Europe will be more empty than they already are.  The practicing faithful will be reduced to a mere few to carry on the faith for the next generation.  Yes, people will be married and children will be baptized in churches, but that will be done more as a mere nod to tradition than an actual sincere proclamation of faith in the sacraments. 

The Roman Catholic Church is very aware of this and despite the outreach to Europe, the Pope and the hierarchy know that the future of Catholicism (if it has any future) is in the new world.  But even that mission is encountering resistance from Pentecostal and other Evangelical movements deliberately targeting Catholics.  I'm not trying to suggest that the Pope's canonization of the Native American, Kateri Tekakwitha, is singly going to cause a boon for Catholicism in the New World, but it does make a radical statement that the Pope and the Roman Church simply cannot rely on Europe for the continued propagation of the faith.  I'm sure that new American saints, especially  Native American saints and not just European transplants, will be canonized more regularly during the remainder of Pope Benedict's pontificate as well as during his successor's. 

But why did this take so long?  Catholicism has been here in the "New World" for 500 years now.  There had to be other candidates for sainthood during this time.  I certainly grant that sainthood, canonized sainthood, is not something that just occurs, but is a long and arduous process.  If I may play the conspiracy theorist, I think that the Roman Church is, in many ways, trying to shed the image of it resembling an aristocratic European social club.  What point is there in retaining that image especially when the church is more or less in a holding action in Europe, almost bordering on retreat?  If the Americas and third world countries are the future for Catholicism, then these people need to know they are valued and for more beyond mere numbers.

Would it surprise you to know that the Orthodox Church already has two Native American saints?  Orthodoxy has been in America for less than half the time that Catholicism has, but we already have twice as many canonized saints.  They are St. Peter the Aleut and St. Jacob of the Yukon.  St. Peter was a martyr saint who bravely defended his Aleut people from being converted forcibly to Catholicism by the Jesuits.  St. Jacob was also an Aleut and was a famous evangelizer among his people.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Importance of Keeping and Preserving the Liturgy

As Orthodox Christians we have a plethora of treasures and resources which aim for us to become one with God (i.e. theosis). Few would argue that one of the most important of those treasures is that of the Divine Liturgy (whether that of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil or St. Gregory the Great).  We may meet God and the Divine in any number of different ways, but the Liturgy's democratic (for lack of a better word) reach makes it something not only worthy of preserving, but something absolutely necessary of preserving.

I grow tired of those Orthodox who think that the Divine Liturgy is too long or is too archaic or is too "high church" (whatever that really means).  The Liturgy is exactly as long as it needs to be; it is archaic only in the sense that many of the hymns go back more than 100 years (some even 2900 years like the Psalms) ; it is "high church" only if you think that a priest should only be wearing khakis and a polo shirt.  The Liturgy connects us with the past and the present; it connects the earth and the heavens; it connects the people of God to one another; it is made present by the power of the Holy Spirit whose invocation we readily call upon with the hymn, "O Heavenly King..."  We must preserve the Liturgy.

The following words are not my own, but I think they do a good job summarizing why we should preserve the Liturgy and resist calls to shorten it, "Protestantize" it, make it "more relevant", etc.  And these are not the words of an Orthodox priest, but those of a Lutheran pastor who has seen firsthand what the abandonment of the Lutheran (Western) Liturgy has done to that confession. 

 The liturgy is not our domain -- corporately or individually.  It is the domain of Christ and the means of grace that deliver to us what Christ has done in the once for all sacrifice of His body and blood on the cross.  It is the domain of the Church, more than merely the assembled congregation, in which the saints of old and the saints of today receive with joyful faith what Christ has done.  It is not so much a moment in time as the timeless moment in which yesterday and tomorrow encroach upon today, bring the past to the present and in this mystery anticipating the future promised.

We guard the liturgy not because we have some slavish obedience to the past but because this liturgy keeps us from stealing worship away from the hands of Christ and making it into what we do, what we offer, and what we accomplish.  It is entirely too easy for us to fall in love with our own voice in praise so that we forget who is being praised and, worse, forget that such praise is possible only when and where He has revealed Himself to us and given us permission to enter that mystery.
Good words, I think.  Pastor Peters is entirely correct.  Without the Liturgy, too many Christians have become the center of their worship rather than God.  The Liturgy serves to stand as a corrective. It is tested and it is true. 

Lutherans, I believe, can be divided into three camps when it comes to the Liturgy.  First, there are those who regard it as a gift from God and pray it faithfully because it is timeless and connects not only with the past but also of the things to come keeping Christ at the center.  Second, there are those who regard the Liturgy as something that is only historically important, but as there is no strict command from Scripture (sola Scriptura) to use it, it may be used or discarded at the whim of the pastor and/or the congregation.   It's nice, but not required.  Third, there are those who have thrown out the Liturgy altogether simply because it looks "too Catholic" and thus prefer their own individual service.  Man becomes the center here.  There are probably subgroups as well, but that's too much to speculate on.

It would really be a shame if the traditional Liturgy for the Orthodox faithful becomes something nice, but not required.  So far, we have been immune from the individualist tendencies which have plagued the Lutheran confessions, but eternal vigilance is necessary.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reap what you sow

Celebrations are occurring now for the anniversary of Vatican II. With all the reminiscing of what the "good things" that came out of Vatican II including the revisions (by which, I mean the gutting) to the Tridentine Rite and its celebration in vernacular languages (which isn't bad, but let's face it, English is a very impoverished language to pray in), the video below should NOT surprise anyone.  Sure, the Episcopalians and the Lutherans may have beaten the Catholics to "performing" the Liturgy in this way, but Vatican II opened the door.  Reap what you sow.  This is not Liturgy, this is not prayer, this is entertainment and if parading the Bible into a church with the same fanfare as what you get with carnivals, then you are in a sad state.

Watch (if you can for more than one minute) and weep.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Don't get all twisted out of shape about a papyrus fragment talking about "Jesus' wife"

I remember having a conversation many years ago with a friend of mine about the movie, Dogma.  This movie was causing quite a stir because it blatantly mocked and tried (but failed) to repudiate basic Christian teachings.  I had not seen the movie so I was dependent upon my friend to fill me in on what people found objectionable.  Because I had not seen it, I really could not provide much for the conversation.   I can't remember all the points he made, but I do remember this very poignantly:  "Those with a strong faith will laugh at it; those with a weak faith will be repulsed by it."  Those may not be the exact words of my friend, but you get the idea.

I finally did see it, years later.  I remember one scene in particular where Chris Rock, playing the so-called "13th apostle" says that the Virgin Mary giving birth to Christ is true but that believing she was ever virgin (semper virgo for you Western Riters out there) was due to just plain gullibility.   I suppose that in the minds of the writers of Dogma, a virgin birth of God in the flesh is way more believable than a married couple refraining from intercourse since obviously that NEVER happens, right?

Those who hate Christ and His Church will always try to find ways to destroy the faith and the faithful.  This should come as no surprise.  Most recently, a papyrus fragment was brought to world attention.  This small fragment, written in Coptic, dating to the fourth century, is no larger than a credit card.   The contents of the papyrus say that Jesus was married and that Mary Magdalene was an apostle.  Well, stop the presses!  Everyone pack up your bibles and catechisms and prayer books because we've got to rewrite doctrine!  Of course, not even the woman who brought this to light is saying that this is a definitive find.  Numerous more tests are to be conducted to determine the document's authenticity. 

I'm not going to spend my valuable time debunking the find. It's actually really easy to do when you consider that this one fragment has no corroboration in any other written source in any other written language in any other geographical area from before or after the fourth century.  When a "tradition" like that has such a limited provenance, it's most likely that that particular tradition was held by a radical minority or is a forgery.

But we don't need to get into arguments related to paleography or papyrology or history or language to rebut this.  We have, as Orthodox Christians, 2000 years of unbroken tradition, safeguarded by the Bride of Christ, the Church.  One little papyrus fragment the size of a credit card will not bring down the Church.  I don't worry about it; you shouldn't either.

Unlike the Muslims in the Middle East who work themselves into a tizzy every time their Prophet is mocked or not venerated by non-Muslims, we Christians have put up with a lot of assaults on the faith; most of us have come to accept that such is the price of admission.  We bear the assaults and we should continue to do so with joy.  We don't and shouldn't call for the death of those who wield the attacks.

Those who are really upset with this find are no different than those who felt threatened by the movie, Dogma or who are consistently appalled by the covers of Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, etc. around Easter time, when those periodicals feel the need to convince the Christian faithful that what some "scholar", who lives in his mom's basement, thinks should make them throw out what they believe. Bottom line:  Those offended people have a weak faith.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Who says Orthodoxy isn't catholic (i.e. universal)

A traditional Greek prosphora seal with the Ι(ΗΣΟΥ)Σ Χ(ΡΙΣΤΟ)Σ ΝΙΚΑ.

A Chinese prosphora seal.

Different cultures, different languages, but still the same universal truth.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Exaltation of the Cross

In the Orthodox Church, there are three major commemorations of the Cross itself, on August 1, on September 14 and on the third Sunday of the Great Lenten fast.  When you add in other minor festivals and events where the cross figures prominently (including the stavrotheotokia at Vespers on Tuesday and Thursday nights) and also the troparia of the hours on Wednesday and Friday, the Cross is commemorated in Orthodox hymnography and prayers for the entire year.   As St. Paul said, "God forbid that I should glory except in the Cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ."  Our boasting is in an instrument where God humbled His very Self.  No longer is it instrument of torture and death; it is now the means to life itself.  And no longer is it merely a symbol, but it is a weapon.

The Lord Himself used His own Cross as a weapon when He broke down the doors to Hades and lifted up Adam and Eve and the Patriarchs and their descendants from the bondage which kept them.  You can see that in the icon reproduced for this post.  Christ holds His Cross with one hand and with the other reaches out to Adam. 

For us, too, the Cross of our Lord should be a weapon.  It is the weapon which the demons fear and for which they have no countermeasure.  The psalmist says,"The light of thy countenance O Lord, is signed upon us."  And it has been signed on us with the cross which was made upon our heads, hearts, hands, feet when we were baptized and chrismated.  It is a weapon which we all have when we sign ourselves and which we can call upon at any time to fend off the attacks of the evil ones.  We should never fear to use it.

For this reason, and many more, do we then exalt in our Lord's Cross.  Historically, this feast commemorates the retrieval of the Cross from the Sassanids by the Roman Emperor Heraclius I in the 7th century which was then returned to Jerusalem.    Even Heraclius, I would presume, recognized the power of the cross to vanquish enemies of the faith and maybe that is why he set out to retrieve it.  But whatever the historical basis for this feast, we should always rejoice in the cross and make it part of our spiritual arsenal.  Sign yourself with the cross daily and with faith.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Parable of the Vineyard and the Tenants

On the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, the Church's lectionary appoints the reading of parable of the vineyard and the tenants from the Gospel according to St. Matthew 22:33-42.  It is especially fitting that this Gospel be read at this time of year.  We have just begun a new year and our Lord's Crucifixion and Triumph over death is manifest everywhere in our hymnography as the Exaltation of the Cross is not even two weeks away. 

There are many interesting things to speak about this parable and my priest did that on Sunday, but one thing that I thought he could have really hit home on relates to Orthodox soteriology and how it fundamentally contrasts with the soteriology defended by the Roman Catholics and Protestants.  I need not give a full synopsis of the parable, but one notices that the Master of the vineyard repeatedly sends his servants to the tenants to collect what he is owed. Each time the tenants prevent the servants from fulfilling their duty either by beating them, stoning them, or killing them. 

It's interesting to note that the Master, after the first incident, did not just immediately go there himself and deal with the tenants, but kept giving them chance after chance to repent and do what was required.  As the Master did, so our Lord God has continually given us chance upon chance to repent and come to realization of our errors.   In Catholic and Protestant soteriology, God's honor was so hurt and violated with the onset of Adam's sin that He, essentially, turned away from man.  He could not look at man in the face again because divine justice dictates that His honor be satisfied first.  And His honor was satisfied by having man wail on His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.  And since that event, God can now look us in the eye once more.

This is known as Penal Satisfaction and has been promulgated by such scholastic thinkers as Anselm and refined by people like Bernard of Clairvaux and Martin Luther.  It is such a disgusting system of thinking about God.  And it is so fraught with legal and juridical terminology that one can wonder if God has any compassion at all!

But contrast this with the Orthodox view.  In our view, God has never "turned his back on us," sinners though we be.  We have turned our back on Him.  And every time we do turn our back on Him, He comes to meet us face to face.  He has done this since the first sin in the garden.  That is a major difference between the Orthodox understanding of God and the Protestant/Catholic view.  As a result of this, the Orthodox do not hold to the notion that God's sense of divine justice warranted that His own Son be horribly beaten and mercilessly put to death in order to satisfy that wrong done to the Godhead.

Such is the same with the Master of the Vineyard. He did not just turn his back on the tenants waiting for his honour to be satisfied somehow.  He kept sending servants as the Lord sent Prophets.  Then, he even sent his own son as the Lord sent His Christ.  The sending of the Prophets and the Theanthropos, Christ, was done with our Lord trying to look us in the eye, not from us trying to look to Him which couldn't be done because His back was turned.

In this new year, we are given even more chances to do the right thing, to give what is the Lord's.  We are still in need of our Lord's Cross and Resurrection, for without it, there is no hope in our salvation.  But if there was no room for us to do anything, then why would God send Prophets or His son?  Evil people we may be, but we are not automatons.  Evil people still have a free will, wounded as it is.  Automatons do not.

On a side note, ccording to sacred tradition, this particular parable was delivered on Holy Tuesday.  It is noteworthy that at the end of the parable, St. Matthew says that the Pharisees and the High Priests were afraid to arrest Him, because, in the eye's of the crowd, Jesus was a prophet and they did not want to rouse the crowds against them.  What a difference 24 hours make!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The New Year

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance to our God" (Isaiah 61:1-2).  

On September 1, our Lord Jesus Christ arose in the synagogue to take his turn to read from the Prophets.  He read that passage from Isaiah and then claimed that Isaiah's prophecy had now come to fulfillment and his message of repentance for the Kingdom of God was at hand officially began.  Thus, we commemorate today as the beginning of the Church year.  Happy New Year!  May God grant all of us a year of blessings and peace and repentance.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Need Proof that Lutherans are Iconoclasts?

Give this a listen. 

Now, I don't know how mainstream or accepted Pr. Curtis' viewpoint is on the subject of the depiction of images and their use in the liturgical life of the church, but considering that this program aired on a station that is aligned with the LCMS, I'm sure it has some official imprimatur.  Essentially, Pr. Curtis disagrees with the way that iconoclasm arose and was implemented throughout mainly the confines of the Eastern Roman Empire (i.e. Byzantine Empire), but agrees with their overall intent.  Images can be worshipped and since they can be abused and misused, they must, therefore, be removed or only used as pictures of art for strictly education purposes, but never used as devotional objects for a deeper spiritual relationship with the Lord.  This is really quite fascinating since the Lutheran Confessions subscribe to the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, because (quia) they agree with the Scriptures not insofar (quatenus) as they agree with the Scriptures.

This is nothing more than gnostic dualism, a total disregard for the material world as something evil and that the body, the flesh have no role in repentance or in our salvation.  Of the five senses, Lutherans only will allow one in worship:  that of hearing which comes from an overreaching interpretation of the passages in the Gospels that faith comes from hearing.  Given the propensity of Lutherans to define everything in strict categories, I'm sure that some Lutheran theologians have wanted to insert the German word allein after those passages as Luther did with Romans 3:28.

This just proves that as much as the LCMS is trying to reassert some degree of its confessionalism, it is picking and choosing from its tradition.  Quite unfortunate.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Joyous News

Courtesy of a proud papa, my son, Simon Eleftherios, was received into the Holy Orthodox Church through the mystery of Baptism.  He was also chrismated, tonsured and received his First Communion. He made very little fuss and was very good about being dunked three times by some stranger (i.e. my priest) and being held for the majority of the time by his godfather (who is, incidentally, my godson), someone he also didn't really know.

The chanters chanted marvelously and it was a joy to have friends and family to share in this great moment.  After being so elated seeing him come into this world from my wife, I was equally elated to see him come into the Kingdom (with some Greek helping him along the way)!

Εις ετι πολλα!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Who celebrates the Liturgy?

What you may see:

What you SHOULD see:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Apolytikion of the Feast of Dormition

A Lutheran friend of mine decided to give me guff this morning about the Feast of the Dormition, particularly focusing on the Apolytikion (Dismissal Hymn).  I got the usual "talking points"--it's not Scriptural, Mary's no different than the rest of us, invoking saints is bad, etc.  I don't think he actually read the hymn's text which I posted in Greek (if he knows any Greek, I'd be surprised; Lutherans are particularly weak on language).  I'm going to go through the hymn line by line and I would encourage anyone (especially my Lutheran friends) to find anything objectionable:

Ἐν τῇ Γεννήσει τὴν παρθενίαν ἐφύλαξας.  Translation:  In birth-giving, you guarded your virginity.  Was Mary not a Virgin when she gave birth to Christ?  Did not the Prophets prophesy that it was a virgin who would be the Mother of God?  See Isaiah 7:4 and then the fulfillment in Matthew 1:22-23 which quotes Isaiah (Septuagint version) directly.  

This does not address the issue of the semper virgo, whether Mary was ever-virgin.  Of course, we Orthodox do believe that Mary was ever-virgin as did the Luther. In the Lutheran confessions, she is always referred to as semper virgo.  I don't understand how something from the confessions which demands a quia subscription by Lutheran pastors AND laity is now reduced to a "pious opinion."  But, I digress...

ἐν τῇ Κοιμήσει τὸν κόσμον οὐ κατέλιπες Θεοτόκε.  Translation:  And in your Dormition, you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos (God-bearer).  The unnecessary categorical distinction between the church militant and the church triumphant only causes confusion.  Does not St. Paul say that in Christ shall be made alive? (1 Cor 15:22).  Doesn't that even extend to those who are no longer in the world (ο κοσμος)?  If not, why not?  The saints make intercession for this world though they are no longer of this world, having been changed.  If it is considered good and worthy to ask for your friends and family to pray to God on your behalf, why not for those saints to do so?  

Now, with regards to the term Theotokos, most appropriately translated as God-bearer, but sometimes erroneously translated as Mother of God, this term has been applied to Mary for as long as there has been a Church catholic.  The term is not found in Scripture, but there can be no doubt (especially from the long introduction of the Gospel of St. John that the Jesus is BOTH man and God, Thenanthropos) that whom Mary gave birth to was God, born in the flesh.  The term Theotokos came under assault by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who, desiring to protect the honour and integrity of the God-head, favored the term Christotokos--Christ-bearer.  But such a description would divide Christ into two persons and we know (from Scripture) that the members of the Trinity are individual persons.  Nestorius was rebuked at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. though he still has followers in the Middle East. (I believe the Jacobites in India are Nestorian as are the Assyrian Church--I'll have to check that).  Lutherans accept the 7 ecuemnical councils because, according to them, they agree with Scripture.  Calling Mary only Mother of Jesus is Nestorian and too many Lutherans have unfortunately accepted this as correct and that is heretical.

Μετέστης πρὸς τὴν ζωήν,  translation:  Thou wast translated to life.  A note first about translation.  The verb is active, but rendered here passively.  It's not intended to be reflexive for that would imply she went into the heavens by her own power, which is not held in Orthodox theology.  This was simply the best way to render it into English.  

The Greek prefix μετα implies material change.  And doesn't St. Paul say that we shall all be changed when we enter into our Lord's glory.  Mary is glorified because of the glory that her Son gives to her.  

μήτηρ ὑπάρχουσα τῆς ζωῆς, Translation:  Being the mother of life.  This is pretty self explanatory.  Mary is not only the mother of God, but God is the author of our life.  There are a myriad of Scriptural references on that.

καὶ ταῖς πρεσβείαις ταῖς σαῖς λυτρουμένη, ἐκ θανάτου τὰς ψυχὰς ἡμῶν.  Translation:  delivering by thine intercessions our souls from death.  In many churches, the participle λυτρουμενη is rendered as an imperative verb.  You will hear "Deliver our souls from death" which is not correct.  So instead of merely describing what Mary is doing, it looks like an invocation which rubs Lutherans and other Protestants the wrong way.  Of course, we Orthodox do not shy away from invoking the saints and asking for their prayers (see above), but, there is none of this here.  

Lutherans will say that there is no doubt that the saints intercede for us.  See Revelation 8:3-4 for example.  So, why then the objection to this hymn?  The hymn restates the  fact that the saints (all of them, both in the world and in the heavens) pray for us and probably pray for any number of things for us.  And why shouldn't those prayers include deliverance from death (i.e. the Devil and his ways)? 

There should be nothing objectionable to this hymn from Lutherans, none at all.  It fulfills  your artificial criterion of Scriptural support, even though there is much more to Mary and the saints in our theology than just this hymn which may or may not find direct Scriptural support.  But, what is more significant is that many Scriptural "proofs" do exist for other doctrines and beliefs that Lutherans find objectionable, but those Scriptures were removed by Luther. These are the so-called Apocrypha which include books like Sirach, Tobit, III Maccabees, etc.  Luther excised those because he didn't like that they actually supported doctrines that he himself didn't like.  Luther wasn't only trying to correct abuses that had snuck into the Medieval Catholic church and return the church to the doctrinal purity of the apostles or those following, but wanted to purge doctrines that he himself hated because Luther thought that he was above the church despite the Scripture that it is the Church which is the guardian and bulwark of Truth, not the Bible.  

I again challenge how this hymn could be objectionable.  Of course, debate over doctrine is generally fruitless and futile so I'm sure that if I do receive anything, it will be more in the form of polemic and invective.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Lamentations for the Feast of the Dormition

In many churches, especially Greek churches dedicated to the Theotokos, it has been custom to sing the  Lamentations of the Theotokos on the feast commemorating her Dormition on August 15.  These hymns are modeled after and are sung to the same melodies as the Lamentations we chant on Great Friday during Orthros.  Studies suggest that the Lamentations for the Dormition came out of Jerusalem but were never really codified in Greece until maybe the 16th century.  In the past 25 years, these Lamentations have become increasingly popular, though it should be noted that neither Mt. Athos nor the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople have added these hymns in their celebrations of this feast.

It is important to note that on this day, we commemorate the reality that "one of our own" died and has experienced the Death's Destruction through the death and Resurrection of her Son and our Lord.  We do not commemorate the embellishments of Byzantine Hymnographers so going over these hymns literally will avail you nothing.  The following are from the first stasis.  There are there stases total; the first two chanted in plagal tone 1 and the last chanted in tone 3.

1. In a grave they laid you
yet, O Christ, you are life
and they now have laid the Mother of Life as well:
both to angels and to men a sight most strange!

2. We exalt you greatly,
Theotokos most pure,
and we glorify your holy dormition now,
as we bow before your honored precious tomb.

3. In your womb you held him
who cannot be contained;
you are life to all the faithful: how can you die,
and your body be contained within a tomb?

4. You brought forth, Pure Maiden,
God the heavenly King,
and today in manner royal are carried forth
to the Kingdom of the Heavens as a Queen.

5. Holy Theotokos,
You have passed from this world,
in departing not forsaking those left on earth,
but delivering this world from every ill.