Monday, January 30, 2012

Commemoration of the Three Holy Hierarchs

Today, January 31, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the three holy hierarchs: Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.

In contemplating the lives and works of Basil, Gregory and John we realize, more than anything else, how a small group of faithful people can do much for the edification of the Church and the salvation of souls. We see also how no one can live in isolation, how even the greatest of the saints needed other saints to inspire and encourage them, to instruct and support them in their service. We see as well that intelligence and learning are not enough. Peoples' minds must be devoted to God and to divine wisdom and truth, but one must love God not only with all one's mind, but with one's heart, soul and strength as well. The three holy hierarchs were men of ascetic discipline and fervent prayer. They were men of the Church, and not of the academy. Andy they were men who were willing not only to preach, but to practice what they preached; not only to talk but to work and not only to work but to suffer for the Word of God Who came himself into the world not only to preach, but to suffer an die for the sake of the salvation of all.--Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha, p. 168

Let us who love their words come together with hymns,
To honor the three great torch-bearers of the Triune Godhead,
Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom,
These men have enlightened the world with teh rays of their divine doctrines.
They are flowing rivers of wisdom,
Who have filled all creation with the springs of heavenly knowledge.
They ceaselessly intercede for us before the Holy Trinity.
--Apolytikion of the Feast

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Taking Muslim Sensitivity Way Too Far

In this post-Christian world there have been numerous attempts to ensure that Muslims or any other non-Christian faith, but particularly Muslims, are shown an excessive amount of deference and sensitivity. We all have seen and know what happens whenever cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad are printed or Korans are burned (or just threatened to be burned). Of course, rather than condemn the Muslims who get offended over just about anything with regards to their religion (FYI: anti-Christian depictions in art, literature and in media far exceed any negativity that is shown to Muslims), the solution is to prevent such acts which trigger the violent responses from Muslims usually be judicial fiat or making such acts criminal.

This is not a piece about liberties in the modern world, though I strongly believe that people should have the right to speak about and think about and write about anything whether in positive or negative terms, no matter how offended people may be. My belief: if you're expecting to go through life and not be offended, you're going to be miserable. And if you're offended because someone believes differently than you, you're going to be in even worse shape.

Now, to the point. The Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Frontiers are all publishing Bibles which excise the terms "Father", "Son" and "Son of God" because those terms would offend Muslims and how they conceive of God.

So, Bibles now have to be sensitive to Muslim theology and their concepts of God? What's the point? If the Scriptures are the witness to the Revelation of God in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and that is all excised, the Trinity, the bedrock of Christian orthodoxy is thrown out. God still retains His essence but not the Hypostases. This opens up the way up to modal-ism or Sabellianism, which has been rightly condemned. But what it really does is try to communicate to Muslims that there is no difference between the God they worship and the God Christians worship. Then, if that's the case, then Christians should be Muslims and Muslims Christian--there's nothing that divides us. Patently ridiculous.

We must be mindful that the struggle to consistently teach God as One Essence in Three Hypostases was vigorously fought for nearly three hundred years. Even the adoption of the Nicaeo-Constantinopolian Creed by the whole church did not bring everyone back into the fold. The Arians who believed that Jesus was a created being continued to thrive, the Nestorians who believe that there are two persons of Jesus Christ are still around and various sects of Monophysites and Miaphysites still can claim adherents. These struggles were bitter, violent and reprehensible in that it caused many to depart from Christian orthodoxy. What is even more ironic is that the passages in Scriptures referring to Jesus as Son of God and any other Trinitarian references, used by all sides to defend their respective positions, are the ones being thrown out. We should be mindful of the painful history in which these passages were argued over again and again, but they should not be replaced. They should be understood in proper context.

The persons behind this effort, I'm sure, have good intentions. But such good intentions will only further divide the divided Christian confessions. And it will do absolutely no good to seek understanding with Muslims. Muslims aren't going to see these efforts as attempts to develop new relations. In fact, I'd wager that the Muslims would probably laugh and say "we've won. The Christians don't even believe in their own theology anymore." Also, if there is some lofty expectation on the side of the translators that the Muslims would reciprocate in some way, don't bet on it.I doubt they will take out the passages about the Muslims' responsibility for killing Christians or Jews or saying that Christ was the product of a rape.

Though Muslim sensitivity may be the "official" reason behind these new translation, I suggest that there are other more clandestine motives. Many Christians, especially post-modern ones, have finally come to the conclusion that their scholarship and research and "insight" into the Scriptures which justify things like ordination of women to the priesthood, making abortion a sacrament, fornication (whether heterosexual or homosexual) cannot be justified by the Scriptures. So, when that fails, the only recourse is to change what the words say. They're not creating a new translation or even interpretation, they're creating a new text. Right now words like Son of God, Father and Son are excised. How soon until whole chapters or even books, especially those of St.Paul, are excised from the canon altogether by such groups. Keep in mind that this is hardly a novel idea: Marcion tried this in the second century and his ideas didn't catch on.

Defending the Truth is a hard thing, but to throw up one's hands for the sake of unity and harmony and everyone getting along leaves one adrift with no anchor. Christ is no longer an anchor, He's not even a plank of wood to grab on to when you're overboard. He only becomes the hope for one of those things.

Friday, January 27, 2012

On Mozart's birthday we do this?

Some of you may have already seen this commercial recently released by JC Penney:

The music is from selections of Mozart's Requiem Mass, K. 626, the last work he ever wrote which he never completed (It was completed, however, by his pupil Franz Sussmayer; what you see in the movie Amadeus is not fact). It is one of the most famous Requiems of all time. So today, as we celebrate Mozart's birthday which occurred 257 years ago, we are reminded of his great enduring works as they are used to promote sales at JC Penney. Sadly, this is not the first time a requiem mass has been used to promote a particular store or brand. The Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem has been used in car commercials.

I doubt anyone realizes what the text says. If they understood Latin and their audience understood Latin, maybe they would hesitate. The text of the Dies Irae was written in the middle ages perhaps between 1200 and 1300. The traditional author is Thomas de Celano though others have been suggested such as Bernard of Clairvaux. The Latin Text is a seuquence hymn which is centered around the day of judgment.

The text reads:

Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeculum in favilla
teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus
Quando iudex est venturus
Cuncta stricte discussurus.

The translation:

The Day of Wrath, that day
When the earth is consumed in ash
As David prophesied with the Sibyl.

How great an earthquake there will be
When the judge is seated
about to reveal all hidden things.

I doubt this is the case, but if JC Penney had done any bit of homework, could they conclude that perhaps it is a bit over the top to play a hymn of the last judgment and equivocate it with missing a sale? Again, I doubt it.

One thing I find interesting even more is that as much as many Christian churches are seeking to incorporate the tunes of the world into their version of "heavenly" worship, the advertisement community largely looks to the classical world, and especially its religious music, to sell its wares. I'm sure Mozart would be most relieved to know that his music written for the church was now being used to promote a store. Is it any wonder then that the youth of this country are confused when it comes to "church music?" The church music they are hearing is what they are hearing on TV and hearing on radio.

I really doubt that the persons behind this commercial put any more thought into it than thinking about a work that is, even by today's musically illiterate population, still known and that it is in minor key, conveys the sense of depression that so many people feel whenever they miss a sale. But, does anyone remember when good church music was actually used in the church?

Happy birthday, Mozart. A fine tribute to your great contributions to mankind.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What if this were really done?

Consider this news story which my wife forwarded to my inbox this morning:

Mega-church downsizes, cuts non-essential members

WINSTON-SALEM — Julie and Bob Clark were stunned to receive a letter from their church in July asking them to “participate in the life of the church” — or worship elsewhere.

“They basically called us freeloaders,” says Julie.

“We were freeloaders,” says Bob.

In a trend that may signal rough times for wallflower Christians, bellwether mega-church Faith Community of Winston-Salem has asked “non-participating members” to stop attending.

“No more Mr. Nice Church,” says the executive pastor, newly hired from Cingular Wireless. “Bigger is not always better. Providing free services indefinitely to complacent Christians is not our mission.”

“Freeloading” Christians were straining the church’s nursery and facility resources and harming the church’s ability to reach the lost, says the pastor.

“When your bottom line is saving souls, you get impatient with people who interfere with that goal,” he says.

Faith Community sent polite but firm letters to families who attend church services and “freebie events” but never volunteer, never tithe and do not belong to a small group or other ministry. The church estimates that of its 8,000 regular attendees, only half have volunteered in the past 3 years, and a third have never given to the church.

“Before now, we made people feel comfortable and welcome, and tried to coax them to give a little something in return,” says a staff member. “That’s changed. We’re done being the community nanny.”

Surprisingly, the move to dis-invite people has drawn positive response from men in the community who like the idea of an in-your-face church.

“I thought, ‘A church that doesn’t allow wussies — that rocks,’” says Bob Clark, who admires the church more since they told him to get lost.

He and Julie are now tithing and volunteering. “We’ve taken our place in church life,” he says. •

Now, before you let out gasps of disbelief or give a cheery "right-on", this is satire. This never happened. I actually had to have my wife tell me that after I read it; so if you fell for it as fact, you're not the only one.

But, what if this were really the case? What if a church decided to tell members who did not show up or tithe or volunteer or any combination of other things that they should go somewhere else where there apathy may be more appreciated? Frankly, I doubt any church really reaches out by saying "Are you apathetic or just lazy? You're welcome here."

Christianity is not a do ut des religion unlike the religions of ancient Rome and Greece. There, the creed was "I give so you give." Tit for tat; quid pro quo. Christ said "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest." He did NOT say "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest provided you come to church regularly on Sundays (that's the day of my Resurrection; we'll get to that later) and contribute 10% of your income to the needs of the church all while going out and making disciples of all nations and leading a small group Bible study (what's a Bible? We'll get to that in a few hundred years)." Reductio ad absurdum, I know. We all talk of the need for church workers, but those are few, though many are called.

Instead, I think we have great need for church resters. These are the people that maybe come to church only 2 times a month if not less or maybe only for Nativity and Pascha. They don't participate in many ministries and may contribute significantly less money to the operating costs of the church than anyone else. But, they are there. They hear the Word and receive the Lord Himself in the Eucharist. And rather than work for a church sponsored ministry, they work for the greatest job one can ever have in the spiritual life--working for their own salvation with fear and trembling, as St. Paul wrote.

Yes, we want people who call their church a home to work to maintain it. You don't buy your own house to have guests come and clean it (though some do). What's more important is that the house be filled as Christ reminds us in his parable. Excuses aside, Christ wants his Church, his banquet table to be filled and never at a price save for love of Him. And that never costs a cent.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Commemoration of St. Mark of Ephesus

In the late 1300s through the mid 1400s, the Eastern Roman Empire (i.e. Byzantine Empire) was under constant threat from the Turks. Year after year, more and more territory was lost, church lands were confiscated by the infidels, hierarchy, priests and monastics were killed on mere suspicion of treachery against their new masters. The promises of the first Crusades were hollow resulting in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by Western armies under Venetian leadership which set up a Latin Empire and a Latin Patriarchate. Three new Empires were carved out of that: the Nicaean, the Empire of Trebizond and the Despotate of Epirus. Even after the Latins were kicked out, the Nicaean Emperors were legally recognized as the Eastern Emperors but the territories controlled by Trebizond and Epirus were lost forever.

Ecclesiastically and culturally, the Empire was suffering. The Hesychast Controversy was eventually settled and St. Gregory Palamas was vindicated as was doctrine of the distinctions between energies and essence of God as well as the Hesychastic method of prayer. Still, with this triumph, there was cultural loss. Many Greeks, such as Bessarion (who later became a Catholic Cardinal) and Pletho (the foremost Platonist of his day) who were not in the Hesychast camp fled to Western Europe, often taking scholarly positions at Western Universities as well as all sorts of books and manuscripts from the ancient Greeks with them.

The Eastern Emperors, who were the only legitimate Roman Emperors, seeing the sunset of their kingdom did what they could to delay and even prevent the fall of their Empire. In the past, their skilled diplomatic maneuvers and arrangement of marriages had prevented invasions from the West and East. But time was no longer on the Emperors' side. In the past, aid was requested from the Western nations and also the Pope. But there was always a price tag attached: submission to the Pope and acceptance of various Latin doctrines.

Enter St. Mark of Ephesus. In one last ditch effort to gain military aid from the Western nations and have it sanctioned by the Pope, a council was convened at Florence in 1439. It was attended by John VIII Palaelogus, Emperor of New Rome, Pope Eugenius V, Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople, Metropoltian Mark of Ephesus, Bessarion of Nicaea, George Scholarius who would later become Patriarch of Constantinople (with the name Gennadius) amid many others. It was clear from the beginning that the Latins would have the upper hand. John VIII Palaelogus, so eager for military aid to defend his faltering kingdom, forbade the theologians in the Orthodox camp from arguing against the Latins for fear of offending them and, thus, not gaining the military hope he desperately needed. St. Mark would have nothing of it.

Despite being hamstrung, St. Mark consistently and forcibly defended the Holy Orthodox faith and decried all sorts of heresies propagated by the Roman Catholics such as the filioque, purgatory and the supremacy of the Pope. Though he was clearly getting the better of his Latin counterpart, John VIII Palaelogus silenced him and the Latin position was then, by default, proclaimed as the true expression of the faith. A decree of union was crafted. St. Mark, even in the presence of both allies and the schismatic Catholics, was the only one who refused to sign. He returned back to his See of Ephesus where he died in 1444 after a long bout with intestinal illness.

History was to vindicate St. Mark. Many of the Orthodox prelates who signed the decree of union were banished by their own flock because, in their eyes, these prelates had "sold out." For example, Isidore, Metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia, returned home to proclaim the union and commemorate the Pope during the Divine Liturgy. But the clergy and monastics, often who are the real defenders of Orthodoxy, rose up in rebellion against him and forced him into a monastery as a prisoner and had a new Metropolitan elected in his stead. The people even knew their faith was being sold out. The nature of the church being conciliar, the people are often the last defense against heresy and schism.

Thus, St. Mark's stand was the stand of True Orthodoxy. His stances were politically inconvenient and hostile to the Romans as they should have been. St. Mark should be our patron saint in our current world of ecumenism when the Orthodox are routinely called upon by other christian confessions to abandon the faith which Christ has left and has been preserved by us for the sake of unity. There can be no unity without unanimity of the faith. As St. Mark once said, "We seek and we pray for our return to that time when, being united, we spoke the same things and there was no schism between us." To be unified when so much still divides does no glory to Christ or His Church.

Holy Saint Mark, intercede before Christ's dread judgment seat that we may keep the faith as steadfastly as you!

By your profession of faith, O all-praised Mark
The Church has found you to be a zealot for truth.
You fought for the teaching of the Fathers;
You cast down the darkness of boastful pride.
Intercede with Christ God to grant forgiveness to those who honor you!
--Troparion of St. Mark, Tone 4

Saturday, January 14, 2012

WARNING! Triodion starts in 3 weeks

I was looking ahead on the calendar for the next few Sundays and to my surprise and also to my satisfaction, we start Triodion on February 5!

We have just taken leave of Theophany. The Christmas gifts are still being appreciated and though there is no snow right now, the weather has been getting colder again to make it seem like winter! Now, in three weeks time we will begin the preparation for Lent which prepares us for Pascha.

That's what I love about the Church calendar. It keeps you on your toes and does not allow you to be complacent about repentance for too long!

I guess I had better start preparing "Do thou open for me the Gates of Repentance" for Orthros!

Friday, January 13, 2012

New link

On the left side of the web-page, you will notice the "My Blog List" containing some other blogs that I follow and often read, some more than others. The most recent edition is Roads from Emmaus authored by Fr. Andrew Damick, an Orthodox Priest in Pennsylvania. Fr. Andrew is also author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, a book which contrasts the tenets of the Holy Orthodox Church's faith with that of other world religions and the other confessions of Christianity.

I've read Fr. Andrew's book and his blog and I ask you to visit it as you are able for some very good insights. DISCLAIMER: The site is from the Orthodox perspective. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Something I've noticed, but maybe it's nothing

I've been reading the daily lectionary in the original Greek as one of my New Year's Resolution. So far, so good, but sometimes it has really tested me especially when you get comfortable with one author and style like St. Paul and then move to St. James. But I like having these difficulties because it sometimes does allow me to get insights that an English translation may not be able to give.'

Yesterday's Gospel reading was from that of St. Mark 8:30-34. Christ has just healed the blind man at Bethsaida and like so many other places in the Gospel of Mark he tells the person healed and this disciples NOT to mention the event to anyone. I need not go into the debunked theory of William Wrede's Messianic Secret interpretation. However, it is interesting for all the times in ALL the gospels where Christ heals, he forbids people to speak about it. In addition, when preaching of His Kingdom Christ speaks not straightforwardly but He tells parables to the crowds because the secrets have not been given to them yet, but only to His disciples (cf. Matt 13:10). If there were conspiracy theorists back then, I'm sure they'd wonder "What's He hiding?"

But in this pericope, Christ openly (parresiai)tells that the Son of Man must suffer many things at the hands of scribes and high priests and elders of Israel, to suffer death on the Cross but to rise again after three days. And he tells this not only to his Disciples but also the crowd which had been following him since His healing of the blind man in Bethsaida. So, why the change? Why speak so openly about this yet speak in parables and forbid others to speak of His miracles?

Now, I don't know how consistent this reasoning is across all four canonical Gospels or even within just the Gospel of Mark. It bears some more study on my part. But getting back to the matter at hand, could it be so easy as that the only way to understand the miracles and the parables is to follow Christ to the Cross and partake of His Resurrection? Then will everything else be revealed? I think it is. Too many Christians and fans of Jesus love to talk about how they love Jesus but don't go for that whole crucifixion and Resurrection stuff. But even Christ seems to say that the only way to understand His own miracles and psalms is only by taking up the cross and following Him. He would probably say to such people "You're putting the cart before the horse!"

In the Symbol of Faith, the Nicene Creed, there is no mention of Christ's miracles or parables. Of the actions of Christ recorded there are only His Incarnation, His death, His Resurrection, His Ascension and His Second Coming. The Fathers at Nicaea and Constantinople may not have been thinking of this particular Gospel selection, but I think it is safe to say that the parables of Christ and His miracles cannot be understood unless viewed from the lens of God Incarnate dieing on the Cross and rising in three days.

I don't think this is any great revelation especially to those seasoned theologians and academics who pour over the Greek New Testament like syrup on waffles, but it made me see the spiritual life in a new light.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Another post on women's ordination

When I wrote about women's ordination in the past, I prefaced it by saying something to the effect that I'm not writing for the purpose of setting off firestorms. There was no real negative fallout from those posts; a few people disagreed but their arguments amounted to little more than "This is just how I feel." Of course, such is the only recourse for the neoliberal who cannot justify anything by any means except with appeals to emotion. Their reasons are not grounded in fact, in reason or argument. The worst part is that you cannot use facts, reason or argument successfully against one's feelings.

Anyway, reading something else I stumbled upon this article. The author is a pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a christian confession which, currently, does not ordain women to the priesthood. Of course, her reasons for doing so are different in many ways than what has been revealed to and through the Holy Orthodox Church. Nonetheless, I found it intriguing, because he essentially breaks down the "arguments" for women's ordination into four umbrella categories, all of which are build upon emotion and/or holding the ego as the judge for what is God's will. Since the proponents of women's ordination cannot give any "biblical" or "historical" or "systematic" justification, these four steps are what remain. They are as follows (and edited slightly):

Step 1. Adopt Enthusiasm Early On

By this I do not mean what the term as come to mean, i.e., that you are passionate and excited. The Scriptures, the Creed and the Canons are “living documents,” which means you’re totally free to disregard them when you need to. No, this enthusiasm is the one that says God the Holy Spirit tells you stuff apart from and before the Word.

Try this one: “God has given me all these gifts and He wants me to use them to glorify Him.” If you’re one of those stuck-up types, you might be inclined to object that Scripture doesn’t speak this way, but this objection is no problem for the Enthusiast. You know what God said because… well, you just do. And because God’s thoughts just popped into your head, no one can question them! But closely tied to this step is the next…

Step 2. Monasticism is Your Friend

I have to become a nun? Of course not! You want to bypass that entirely and be a priest, or maybe even the bishop. After all, the Kingdom of God is a hierarchy, and the closer you are to God in the organizational chart, the better. Why risk your salvation on staying a laywoman? Everyone knows that being a pastor is, like, a Get-Into-Heaven-Free card. And of course it goes without saying that priests are by their very nature holier than anybody else.

Think of the argument from Step 1. Not only do you have all these swell gifts, and you’d be just as good a priest as any man, but you know the only way to use these gifts is to be a priest. Remember: Only priests are really serving God. Feel free to step on any other vocation in order to make that of priest even higher — that’s what monasticism’s all about, remember? Fair warning: your pesky opponents might force their brainwashed wives into arguing along with them that they are content that they serve God “in their own vocations as wife and mother.” Whatever. No woman really thinks that way. The more you denigrate the vocations of wife and mother, the stronger your argument becomes. Bonus points for throwing stay-at-home mothers and homeschoolers under the bus as well.

One thing to remember: try to avoid too much talk of exactly what pastors are, what they do, and how they get to be priests. Doubly so when engaging biblical texts on the matter (we’ll cover that in Step 3 in greater detail). Your new appreciation for monasticism reminds you that the priest is just the guy in the church that God likes best, so feel free to point out how Jesus seemed to hold women in high regard. Holding women in high regard = He wants them to be priests. Your opponent won’t understand what that argument means, but hey, he’s probably a man. Remember how Yahweh said in the Old Testament, “I like Levi best, so his sons can be priests, but I hold all the other tribes in lower regard, so none of them gets anything special — especially Judah.” It’s somewhere in one of those long boring lists of names.

Step 3. Two Words: Higher Criticism

This step is probably remedial for you, but if it isn’t, you’ll need to understand how higher criticism works. Don’t worry, it’s really easy. You already know what God is like, right? He’s a lot like you. So throw out all the times when God (or Jesus) does or says something you know He wouldn’t, throw out all the commands that you know God wouldn’t really have made, and definitely throw out all the events you just know couldn’t really have happened. When’s the last time you saw a blind man see again without millions of dollars worth of surgery? I thought so.

But what does this have to do with women’s ordination? Well, remember, your opponents are basically knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing fundies with academic credentials only slightly higher than Oral Roberts — so they’re going to be using the Bible as a crutch. They can quote the Bible all day long, but remember they approach it like total simpletons and take it at face value. You know better. You know what Jesus is really like (see Step 1), and He was all about radical inclusion. Again, your opponent will have no idea what that means, but you know it means He totally wants women priests. They might bring up the fact that Jesus didn’t actually bother to make a woman a priest during His earthly ministry, but you can just counter by thinking of the name of a woman in the Bible and claiming she was really a priest.

Oh, and don’t forget the value of the New Perspective on Paul. Jesus was the radical inclusivist who wanted everyone to be happy and get along and never said a mean word to anyone, but then Paul came along and gave the church that nasty mean streak. Learn it well, because your opponents will be quoting Paul. A lot.

Step 4. Argumentum ad Misericordiam

Lastly, never underestimate the power of an argument from your own personal suffering. After all, you have a husband, parents, children, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens, but there’s no one for you to serve until those meanies let you be a priest. Be sure to include as much detail about your own suffering over this as possible. Remind everyone how you feel like you’re on the outside because they won’t let you in. Remind everyone about how many great gifts you have that can only be used if you were wearing a collar. What a burden that must be. Oh, and feel free to inflate the number of fellow sufferers there might be.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Holy Theophany

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest, for the voice of the Father bore witness unto Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son and the Spirit in the likeness of dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and enlightened creation, glory to Thee!--Apolytikion of Nativity, Tone 1

Four verses! All we get for this feast from the Gospel according to St. Matthew is four verses? What great profound theological truth can be found in four small verses? The apolytikion quoted above is more or less a paraphrase of the last two verses from today's Gospel reading. That's it?

Yes. For comparison's sake, Transfiguration isn't a long, drawn-out narrative nor is teh Circumcision of our Lord, nor is the Annunciation to the Theotokos nor Ascension nor Pentecost (which aren't even in the Gospels). There are chapters upon chapters leading up to Great and Holy Friday and our Lord's Pascha, but Nativity barely yields a chapter. The Nativity of the Theotokos, her Presentation and her Dormition are nowhere in the canonical records. Some would argue that this is a deficiency in the Scriptures or that, being conspiratorial, we're not given the whole story. Rubbish!

The profound theological truth revealed to us is Christ Himself, revealed as being truly God and Man, a hypostatic union (to borrow from the Council of Chalcedon) where the two natures exist side by side, unified but not commingled. Scripture confirms the testimony of that revelation much as the Spirit confirmed the testimony of the Father's words to His Son, "This is My beloved Son, Whom I love, in Whom I am well pleased." This was no mere illusion of a man that stood before the Forerunner, John, this was the very Lord Himself. Being the Lord's cousin, he must have known about our Lord's special and different nature for a very long time and still he shuddered at the time appointed for him to baptize the Messiah!

In four short verses, we are made to understand all this. The Gospel writers didn't need to expound upon what had happened, waxing wisely. The Church Fathers and hymnographers certainly did that.

We have the whole story in Theophany, nothing edited, nothing added, nothing subtracted. God came in the flesh to be baptized by John. He was and the heavens opened and God called out to His Son, saying that He loved Him and, by extension, loves us because He sent His Son to His creation. Does this passage need more commentary than that?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Eve of Theophany

Make ready, Zabulon; prepare thyself, o Nepthalim. River Jordan, stay thy course and skip for gladness to receive the Sovereign Master, Who cometh to be baptized. O Adam, be thou glad with our first mother, Eve; hide not as ye did of old in Paradise. Seeing you naked, He hath appeared now to clothe you in the first robe again. Christ hath appeared for He truly willeth to renew all creation.--Apolytikion for Feast of Theophany, Tone 4 sung to the melody "Joseph was Amazed"

So, what's the reference to Zabulon and Nepthalim? This is from the Prophecy of Isaiah. Zabulon and Nephthalim are metaphors for the northern kingdom which, to Isaiah, was the kingdom of darkness as opposed to the true Kingdom of Judah, the southern. Christ's baptism occurred in the regions of the former northern kingdom. It is from this previous kingdom of darkness that the opening word of both St. John the Forerunner and Christ was proclaimed: Repent!

The location of Christ's saving work is as important as the work itself. Christ does not proclaim to the people to repent in a place filled the righteous. He was not born in a place where everyone was waiting to receive Him with joy. He was not baptized in a land that did not need the Lord's redemption. As Christ Himself said, "I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners." And He does this by going into the very midst of sinners--the house of Simon the Leper, the homes of tax collectors. He associates Himself with harlots and Pharisees. He has revealed Himself so that we can commune with Him in reality, not some mystic metaphorical contemplative way. The only way Christ triumphs over sin is by being in the midst of sin. That is why He had to take flesh and dwell among us and not direct our salvation from the comforts of His heavenly throne.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Circumcision of our Lord, the circumcision of our hearts and resolutions for a new year

On January 1, the Holy Orthodox Church not only commemorates our Father among the saints, Basil the Great but also the Circumcision of our Lord. Though not one of the seven great feasts of the Lord, its importance cannot be emphasized enough as these days from Nativity to Circumcision through Theophany rightly emphasize that it is God become flesh, flesh that He would take with Him to His Cross on Great and Holy Friday and flesh that would rise again after death and be deified with Christ's Ascension to His Father and our Father. That flesh assumed from the Holy Virgin would be washed and ceremonially cut.

At the Great Vespers of the Feast, we read three Old Testament readings, the first from Genesis saying thus:

God said unto Abraham: Thou shalt keep My covenant, thou and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. And this is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. Every male among you shall be circumcised, ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of a covenant between Me and you. And the child that is eight days old shall be circumcised by you, every male throughout your generations. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin on the eighth day, that soul shall be cut from his generations, since he hath set at naught My covenant.

At the Gospel of the Liturgy of Circumcision, we read from that of St. Luke, which is one of the shortest pericopes for the feasts of our Lord:

And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

So, Jesus' parents fulfilled the law as commanded them, even though it was very clear since the revelations of Gabriel to both Mary and to Joseph that the child that they would raise would not be any ordinary child, but the Saviour and the Messiah, even if they couldn't comprehend then as it would be revealed after His Resurrection from the dead. Still, they did as commanded by God for the sake of the covenant.

Despite Jesus' keeping of the Law, St. Paul says that the circumcision that Christians endure is not one of flesh, but one of the spirit. In his letter to the Colossians, which is the Epistle for the day, St. Paul spiritualizes our Lords's circumcision, that we still are circumcised but through the mystery of baptism. He writes:

In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

On great feasts of the Lord, at the Trisagion hymn, we sing St. Paul's words "As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ." Our baptism is the start of our communion with God and is maintained through our participation in the other mysteries such as confession and, of course, the Eucharist. We did not sing that hymn today (a Liturgical oddity, but that's a post for a different time). Still, we have put on Christ in baptism and that baptism initiates us into everything Christ did, from His birth to His Death and Resurrection to His Ascension and to His second, glorious coming. We should also put on his circumcision.

But it should not be a circumcision of the flesh (though many of us here in the US have undergone that. Did you know that only Israel and the United States are the only two countries which mandate circumcision for newborn males? Sorry, I digress...); it should be a circumcision of the heart. As originally the Law was written on tablets of stone, so the new covenant is written on our hearts. As the original circumcision was on the foreskin, now we are called to circumcise the hardness of our own hearts.

In many ways, this feast falls perfectly on the beginning of the civil new year when many of us are planning resolutions for what we want to do differently for 2012. The circumcision of our own hearts should be right up there along with losing weight, paying off debts, reading more, etc. Circumcising the heart can be done in many ways, but it should always be accompanied by prayer. With that in mind, let me offer you how I plan to circumcise the hardness of my heart in the coming year. These are in no particular order.
1) Read the appointed readings of each day in the original Greek and in the Latin translation according to St. Jerome. Not only do I get to read the words which bear witness to the Fountain of Life, but keep my Greek and Latin in some good practice.
2) Every morning, with or after the morning prayers, read the Hexapsalmi. These six psalms are read at every Orthros, and, according to our tradition, these same psalms will be read by our Guardian Angel before the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ. They are psalms of the penitent who knows his sin yet places his hope in God. The psalms are 3, 38 (37), 62 (61), 88 (89), 102 (103) and 142 (143).
3) Small compline every night. It's 15 minutes and it shouldn't be that much of a burden before going to bed.
4) Confession once a month. It's not a requirement, but I think just a good thing to do.
5) Log in less to the discussion boards. Hardening your heart is so easy every time you need to log in and say someone is wrong.

There it is, my planned circumcision(s) for 2012. Like other circumcisions, I mean, resolutions, I'm sure that my consistency will be sorely lacking, but I am thankful that our salvation is never dependent strict adherence to our works.