Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christianity "close to extinction"

In a word: DUH!  The details are here.

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

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

The Sunday of Genealogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

The World Didn't End Today

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Politicizing Jesus at Christmas

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

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

Jesus was poor.

Jesus was an illegal immigrant.

Jesus was a minority.

Jesus was homeless.

Jesus' race had just come out of genocide.

Jesus' land was being exploited for its resources.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2012

Contemporary Worship Destroys Congregations

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Patriarch of Antioch and the East elected

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

Εις πολλα ετη, Δεσποτα!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch Has Reposed

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

A biography of His Beatitude can be found here.

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

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

Worshipping like Jesus

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

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

Thanks, Fr. Peters.  Another well written piece.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Patron saints and commemoration of St. John Damascene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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