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.