Friday, March 30, 2012

The Saturday of the Akathist Hymn

In the modern Greek tradition, the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, thought to the composition of St. Romanos the Melodist is sung in its entirety on the Fifth Saturday of Great Lent (or, in parish practice, at Compline on Friday night).

As we have just come out of the Feast of the Annunciation (at least those of us on the Revised Julian Calendar), this Saturday gives closure to the greatest gift God has given: His Son, born of the Virgin for us and for our salvation, humbled to become that which was lower to elevate us to that which is higher. It is a glorious hymn and it is little wonder that this hymn is often sung in monasteries daily before the noon meal.

A prince of the angels was sent from heaven, to say to the Theotokos, "Hail!" And seeing Thee, O Lord, take bodily form at the sound of his bodiless voice, filled with amazement he stood and cried aloud to her:

Hail, for through thee joy shall shine forth:
Hail, for through thee the curse shall cease.
Hail, recalling of fallen Adam:
Hail, deliverance from the tears of Eve.
Hail, height hard to climb for the thoughts of men:
Hail, depth hard to scan even for the eyes of angels.
Hail, for thou art the throne of the King:
Hail, for thou holdest Him who upholds all.
Hail, star causing the Sun to shine:
Hail, womb of the divine Incarnation.
Hail, for through thee the creation is made new:
Hail, for through thee the Creator becomes a newborn child.
Hail, Bride without bridegroom!--First Oikos

"When God so wishes," said the bodiless angel, "the order of nature is overcome and things beyond man's power come to pass. Believe that my words are true, all-holy Lady, utterly without spot." And she cried aloud, "Let it now be unto me according to thy word and I shall bear Him that is without flesh, who shall borrow flesh from me, that through this union of natures He may lead man up unto his ancient glory, for He alone has power to do so."--Third Sticheron at Psalm 140 of Vespers for the Saturday of the Akathist Hymn

The marvels of the Incarnation are not put forth so profoundly anywhere else. What a perfect hymn as we ever draw closer to our Lord's Passion and Resurrection which was to make man as God.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I've said it before and I'll say it again...

The Word of God is a WHO, NOT a what.

In other words (no pun intended), when we speak of the Word of God, just as St. John the Theologian does in the Gospel that bears his name, we refer specifically to the Theanthropos, the Man-God, Jesus Christ. The Word of God is not a thing, it is not a book. Many Christians today seem unable or unwilling to grasp this necessary distinction. Word does not equal Scriptures.

The Word (Jesus Christ) is the revelation or manifestation of God to the world. The Scriptures are the witness to this revelation and manifestation.

The Word (Jesus Christ) gives life and heals both the body and the soul through the mysteries. The Scriptures nourish the mind.

The Word (Jesus Christ) is the head of the Church. The Scriptures were written and produced by the Church as a witness to her head.

The Word (Jesus Christ) saves. The Scriptures say He does.

This is not to say that the Scriptures are unimportant or secondary or to be taken lightly. God forbid. But if a church's entire ecclesiology and sacramental theology is based strictly off of "what's in the Bible" then it is standing on one inch ice and will soon plunge into the cold waters. How can that which is the witness contain Him who is uncontainable? It cannot. Those who have such an opinion of the Scriptures are misguided.

I could go on and on, but until the Protestants, both Evangelical and mainline, and a good number of Catholics put away this false belief, any talk of reunion should be off of the table. Without acknowledging faithfully and correctly that Christ is the Word, then the Scriptures only become a morality tale with a tincture of theism.

Let us believers praise and worship the WORD, coeternal with the Father and the Spirit born of the Virgin for our salvation. For He (the WORD) took pleasure to ascend the Cross in the flesh to suffer death and to raise the dead by His glorious Resurrection.--Apolytikion of the Resurrection, Plagal first tone

Disclaimer: Sorry for the rant, but I grow tired of being told otherwise.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Some random thoughts on the Annunciation

Today, the Holy Orthodox Church (Revised Julian Calendar jurisdictions) observe and celebrate the Annunciation to the Most Holy Theotokos. This is one of the 11 great feasts of the year. Below are a collection of random thoughts on this day, not all of them being connected. Take them for what their worth.

1) What a great blessing that Annunciation always falls during Great Lent! And how much even more a blessing that it falls during a Sunday in Great Lent! Y, the commemoration of St. John Climacus (of the Ladder) was trumped and it is also very interesting how other liturgical churches of the Western Rite have attempted to handle it. You can read about some of those controversies here.

In spite of what other churches may do with regards to what trumps what liturgically, it is great that Annunciation is never trumped. When it coincides with a Sunday of Great Lent, the texts of the Resurrection are largely preserved. The Church understood that the feats dedicated to our Lady and those of Sunday go hand in hand together. Even when Annunciation coincides with Holy Week or Great Friday or even Pascha itself (which may happen with Old Calendar jurisdictions), Annunciation is never transferred but its service texts are combined with that of the day. The reason? Because Annunciation, the announcement that the Lord Himself was to be incarnate of a woman and the season of Lent all direct us to God's mission here on earth: the full restoration of communion between man and God. For this to happen, God had to become man and had to endure death by crucifixion and rise again on the third day to loosen us from death's grip.

The Orthros Doxasticon for this feast makes it very clear that theosis is the goal of the human existence, no matter what season, penitential of festal, we are currently in. The goal of human existence is not some mere declaration that sins are forgiven (forensic justification), though that does happen. But if that is it, that's a pretty incomplete existence. I liken it to a courtroom verdict. You're proclaimed not guilty. That's great, but what then? Forensic justification leaves one with the joy that the sins are cast from him, but where does he go from here? There is no path. Here is the text of the Doxasticon:

Today is disclosed the mystery before the ages; and the Son of God shall become the Son of Man, that by His adoption of the lowest He may grant me the highest. Of old Adam failed to become a God as he desired, so God became Man that Adam might become [as] God. Wherefore, let creation rejoice, and nature exchange greetings, for the archangel did stand reverently before the Virgin and offered her joy instead of sorrow. Wherefore, O our God, Who by Thy compassion became man, glory to Thee.

While we are currently in the Lenten contest to purify ourselves by fasting and prayer, the Annunciation is a ray of light to give us a brief respite from our struggle. Much like the feast of the Cross last Sunday was to give us hope that our labors are not in vain because Christ's victory on the Cross for us and our salvation was not in vain, Annunciation clarifies our existence and its end goal (telos).

2) The hymns on feasts of the Mother of God, particularly her Nativity, her Presentation and today's feast of Annunciation all begin with "Today." Even the Doxasiton quoted above does that. Of course, numerous hymns begin this way. This is not a ground breaking revelation. Anyone who has been Orthodox for a long time and has paid attention to the hymns knows well that "today" is one of the most common words we will hear. For some, it may be a bit tiresome. It should not be. The one thing liturgy cannot be or become is simple remembrance (anamnesis). Once liturgy becomes a simple remembrance then why break out all the hymns in the first place, why even attend Liturgy, why even receive the Eucharist? We have to be very careful that we do not fall into the pitfalls of modern Protestantism/Evangelicalism which reduces everything to mere remembrance. Remembrance will only allow intellectual assent. It, in itself, lacks transformative power.

In St. Augustine, the mind is a Trinity of Memory, Reason and Will. For us men, all three are flawed and since all three are interconnected, one aspect of the mind is not stronger than the other. Our memory extends in only one direction--backwards, but only if we have present consciousness. For the angels, their memory goes towards what we call the past, the present and the future. As a result of this, their reason is perfect and their will is aligned with that of God.

During the Liturgy, we call to mind things that have not actually happened, most particularly Christ's Second Coming. The liturgy we offer is called "rational worship." The Liturgy transcends yet still is in time. The more Liturgy becomes focused on what was as opposed to what is and what will be in holistic communion, the more we have isolated ourselves from God and the more worship becomes anthropocentric than Christocentric.

3) This feast like all the other Marian feasts hammers down Orthodox theology when it comes to the Incarnation. As some theologians have put it, Mariology is Christology. The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann is famous for saying that the Theotokos is not the great exception but the great example. This feast certainly clarifies the latter.

Granted, not every Jewish girl lived in the temple for 12 twelve years and was ministered to by the angels and certainly not every Jewish girl received news that she was to give birth to the Lord Himself. Exceptional she may have been, she was still given a choice which can be accepted or rejected. She answered "I am the handmaiden of God. May it be with me as you have said." And when it comes to God's will and His requests of us, we still have that same power to say "yes" or "no." The result of what happens when "yes" is the answer differs from person to person, naturally. But yes is still yes to the Lord whether uttered by saint, sinner or even the Mother of God.

Like I said, some random thoughts. Happy Annunciation everyone.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Some Q&A regarding the Mother of God

As we approach the great feast of Annunciation, it is sometimes good to remember why we commemorate the Mother of God, not only on her feast-days but also as part of our daily liturgical and prayer life. From my friend, John Sandipoulos over at Mystagogy.

By Fr. Deacon J. Smolin

Q.: Why do you pray to the Mother of God?

A.: Since Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead, conquering death for us, there is no reason why we cannot ask those in heaven to pray for us just as we ask those still living on earth for their prayers. After all, in Christ all are alive. Therefore we ask the Ever-Virgin Mary to pray to her Son for us, just as we also ask the angels, the saints ,and all faithful believers here on earth to pray on our behalf, as Scripture Commands us to do: "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men... I will therefore, that men pray everywhere" (I Tim. 2:1,8). We turn readily to our friends and neighbors to ask for their prayers in our time of need; are not those in heaven even more our friends than those on earth? Why should they not intercede for us also before the throne of God?

Q.: Why do Orthodox Christians call the Virgin Mary "Mother of God"? This term seems to imply that God is not the creator and origin of all things.

A. We call the Holy Virgin Mary the Mother of God (from the Greek, Theotokos: literally, the "Birth giver of God") because it is Scriptural: the righteous Elizabeth addressed the Virgin with these words: "And whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43). Who is this "Lord" of which Elizabeth speaks? It is Christ, the Lord God. For this reason we say, correctly, that the Virgin Mary is the Mother of God. She is not the Mother of God the Father, but the Mother of God the Son, who was begotten by the Father before all ages, and took flesh from the Virgin Mary.

Q.: Why do Orthodox Christians give so much honor to the Mother of God?

A.: We honor her because Jesus Christ Himself honored her on several occasions recorded in Scripture. He fulfilled her requests and also gave her special thought even while He was dying on the cross (Luke 2:51; John 2:3-9; John 19:26-27). Even before Christ was born, she was honored by heaven when the Archangel Gabriel appeared and said to her: "Hail, thou that art full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women" (Luke 1:28). Holy Scripture further proclaims of her that "henceforth all generations shall call me blessed" (Luke 1:48), because from her womb came forth God in the flesh. This means that all who believe in Christ and in the Bible must give special honor and veneration to the one that is "blessed among women." It is not enough to merely give attention to her at Christmas time, when she appears in the manger scenes of western Christian churches. No, this "one full of grace" must occupy a very special place in the hearts of those that follow her Son, just as she did among the first Christians.

Q.: Didn't our Lord, during His earthly life, sometimes place His mother (and His other kinsmen) in a decidedly secondary position, emphasizing spiritua1 virtues over kinship according to the flesh?

A.: No one who accepts the Gospel can believe that our Lord was in any way lacking respect for His mother. Any seeming disrespect on His part can only be due to a faulty, superficial interpretation of Scripture, due sometimes to understandably imperfect translations into modern languages.

When, for example, at the marriage of Cana, His mother tells Him: “They have no wine,” and our Lord replies: "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" (John 2:l) -- one must understand that although the word "woman" might sound disrespectful in modern English, it was not so in the ancient East; it is the very word our Lord used to address His mother as He was dying on the Cross and entrusted her to His beloved disciple (John 19: 26). His words to her at the marriage feast in no way indicate disrespect, but only emphasize the importance of the miracle which was to follow (the changing of water into wine) -- a miracle which He indeed performed at her request.

When our Lord extends the concept of spiritual kinship to all those who "do the will of God," (Mark 3:34-5) He does not deny such a higher kinship to His own family; we know of several of His kinsmen who were Apostles (James, Jude, Simon), and especially "blessed" in this spiritual kinship, of course, was His own mother, of whom alone does the Scripture say that "all generations shall call me blessed" (Luke 1:48). Again, when a certain woman praises His mother for being the one who bore Him, and our Lord says, "Yea, indeed, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it" (Luke 11:28), He has a higher degree of veneration for His mother: she is blessed not only for bearing Him in the flesh, but even more for being one who "hears the word of God and keeps it."

Q.: Yet in your church services I have heard Orthodox Christians call on the Mother of God to "save" them. How can she "save" anyone, since Christ is the only Savior?

A.: We believe that there is only one Lord God and Savior of mankind, Jesus Christ. No one is equal to Him, and no one but Him can save mankind. We do not turn to Mary, the Mother of Christ our God, as to a savior, and we certainly do not put her on the same level as her Son, but we turn to her as to one who helps us by her prayers, just as St. Paul himself said that he had become all things to all men, "that I might by all means and in any way save them" (I Cor. 9:22). St. Paul was not claiming to usurp Christ as the savior; he merely wanted to help and strengthen others on the path to salvation. It is in this sense that we Orthodox Christians say, "Most Holy Mother of God save us" -- that is, "Please help us toward salvation by your prayers."


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Memory eternal!

"In Heaven, God will not ask us why we sinned. He will ask us why we did not repent."--His Holiness Pope Shenouda III

Memory eternal to the Coptic Patriarch and Successor to St. Mark

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Third Sunday of Great Lent--The Veneration of the Precious and Life Giving Cross

The Cross is NOT a sign of humiliation, at least not for the Christian. For the Christian, the Cross is an emblem of victory, a weapon against all enemies, most especially the principalities of darkness. It is no longer a symbol of death, but the giver of life. So, why give the Cross its own day during Lent? Isn't that better reserved for Holy Week?

As Orthodox Christians, we have three feasts of the Cross (on Aug. 1, Sept. 14 and the Third Sunday of Lent), the sixth and ninth hours of prayer are dedicated to the events on Golgotha, Wednesday and Friday are consecrated to those same events. In short, the Cross is omnipresent in our daily prayers and hymns and theology. So, why have the Third Sunday of Lent dedicated to the Cross?

It is precisely because we need it. Most of us cannot attend the daily vigil nor pray the sixth and ninth hours on our own. Even the most devout lay Orthodox may have difficulties going to the extra prayer services which bring for the reality that we are dead in sin and need the Cross. The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it best:

The meaning of all this is clear. We are in Mid-Lent. One the one hand, the physical and spiritual effort, if it is serious and consistent, begins to be felt, its burden becomes more burdensome, our fatigue more evident. We need help and encouragement. On the other hand, having endured this fatigue, having climbed the mountain up to this point, we begin to see the end of our pilgrimage, and the rays of Easter grow in their intensity. Lent is our self-crucifixion, our experience, limited as it is, of Christ's commandment heard in the Gospel lesson of that Sunday: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). But we cannot take up our cross and follow Christ unless we have His Cross which He took up in order to save us. It is His Cross, not ours, that saves us. It is His Cross that gives not only meaning but also power to others. (emphasis mine)..Thus, refreshed and reassured, we begin the second part of Lent
--Great Lent p. 46

The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian

So come forth boldly, O sinner. the door is already open and ready to receive you. Bring the Lord a sacrifice of tears and go freely to Him. He does not demand gifts, nor does He have any respect of persons. He is kindhearted to men and willingly forgives the sins of repentant sinners.--Third, Kathisma, third stasis, Number 21.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Segregation within the Church

As a former Lutheran, I remember going to church on Sundays to see the various ways as to how to divide the congregation.

First, there were three services which were out of necessity. The church was too large to accommodate all of them into that one place for just one service so there were three. Of course, I can hardly recall any one time where the church was full at one of those services to justify having two more. Still, it went out.

Then, the three services were given different characters. The 8:00 was "traditional", the 9:30 "blended" and the 11:00 "contemporary." But even after that, it was not uncommon for elements of the "contemporary" service to work their way into the "traditional" service. I remember walking out a few times when the music between the Epistle and the Gospel began with a drumbeat. Very few kids would be present in any of the first two services (see below).

During the 9:30 service there was a fellowship hour in the gym. People could get donuts, coffee, and orange juice. Kids would run around and play while adults would talk. Also during that time, there was Sunday school for all ages and bible studies. There were some bible studies which focused on the lectionary readings for the day; others which catered to women; others still which catered to men. So, the congregation was further divided.

Outside of Sundays, there were men's groups and women's groups and youth groups all of which had meetings and outings and did works of charity...but never together. I didn't realize it then, but this had potentially harmful effects. Not only did the congregation not know about and interact with the other 2/3, but it perpetuated the idea that every person needs something different from the church so the church needs to cater to it. That is the essence of the modern "church growth" movement and it is now infiltrating Orthodox churches, which must stop because it is rooted in egoism.

In my current church family, a Ministries Vision Team has been charged with creating all sorts of new ways to further divide up the congregation. Yes, we still all pray together at one Liturgy on Sunday and during the other offices and liturgies of the year, but shouldn't the fruits of our prayer be continued together outside of the church? I would say yes. Why have children do the works of the Lord apart from their parents? Why have husbands do the work of the Lord apart from their wives? Why have brothers do the work of the Lord apart from their sisters? Why have the elderly do the work of the Lord apart from younger? If we can all pray together then certainly we can do the Lord's work together. Why perpetuate the myth that we can only reach theosis with those in the same age group or of the same sex? Is the Body of Christ not one?

I was formerly the advisor to the teen group at my church. As much as I tried to get them involved in the church's liturgical life outside of Sunday's liturgy I was rebuffed and told that because they were younger they wouldn't want to do more because it's not fun and it's not focused on them. This was coming from Orthodox parents! I couldn't believe that Orthodox parents would actually think that going to a Vespers once in a blue moon would be considered detrimental. But, many of these cradle Orthodox parents have been influenced by modern "church growth" and Protestant ideals which their spouses, who came from these traditions, bring with them to the marriage and from their friends.

This influence must stop. I don't know how to do it, but I'm all ears.

My thanks to Fr. Peters for the article he quoted which got me thinking about this.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Liturgy of the Presanctified

I love the Presanctified Liturgy. It is one of those great "western" imports into the Eastern Orthodox Church in that it's author was St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome. With the exception of Great Compline with the Great Canon (and even without the Great Canon), no other service is imbued with the Lenten penitential character as this one.

From the Third Wednesday's hymnography:

I have blindly squandered my father's riches. I am now empty, living in a land of evil men. In my foolishness, I have become like the senseless beasts, and am now stripped of every divine grace. So in my return, I cry to thee, O merciful and compassionate Father: I have sinned, O God, receive me in repentance and have mercy on me.--1st Sticheron at Psalm 140, Fourth tone

I, the prodigal, have wandered away into a land of evil and I have squandered the riches which thou hadst given me. Now I am pining with hunger, O compassionate Father. Clothed in the same of transgression, I am now stripped of righteous deeds and grace. I cry to Thee: I have sinned, but I know Thy goodness. Receive me as one of Thy servants, O compassionate Christ, through the prayers of the apostles who loved Thee.--4th Sticheron at Psalm 140, Plagal of the Second Tone

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Quote of the Day

Far too many in the Church today fail to understand the reality of our enmity with God. They are unknowing rebels, convinced of the righteousness of their own cause, who imagine God's grace as an understandably friendly disposition towards those who basically deserve his sympathy.

Source: The Ugley Vicar Blog

Sunday, March 4, 2012

It's not a popularity contest

A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’ The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’ He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’ And the old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.’

Abba Macarius the Great, saying 23

A good thought especially now for those of us engaged in the fast. We should not fast for the sake of winning praise or receiving scorn, but solely for the spiritual benefits that can ensue.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

One week of Lent nearly done--How are you doing so far?

When it comes to things like Great Lent and New Years, many of us are all about making plans or "resolutions" as to how we are to conduct ourselves. Whether that involves eating less, praying more, reading more, watching TV less, all of our good intentions eventually slip up. And unfortunately, in our society, once we do slip up, we assume that we have failed and can do nothing else so we go on slipping up so that we are, spiritually, on the floor for the rest of the season. For those of us who have slipped up, the important thing is not that we have fallen, but that we've gotten back up to resume our course. Here's an easy diagram to help thanks to my friend at Pitless Thoughts.

So, don't give up. That's why the Church has extra prayer services and why confession is always available. Get back up. That's the first step towards true repentance.