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!