Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Anglican Church to Consider Letting Vicars Divest

The implosion of the Anglican Communion continues unabated.  With the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate, the soon-to-be-expected ordination of women bishops, blessing of gay "marriages' , not protecting or being even a willing voice for the ongoing persecution of the Christians in the Middle East, and a theology more concerned with oil and bankers and corporations than with that which actually is a catholic message of salvation, the only question Anglicans should ask now is not "when the Anglican Church will cease to exist," but "How fast can we get there?"  Every new and novel policy and action the Anglicans  now adopt will only hasten their own destruction. 

The Anglican Church's newest move towards self-destructiveness:  allowing clergy to wear whatever they wish.  The justification?  Flexibility and the need to relate to the modern man because modern Christians and those outside the church are "offended" or "turned off" by such vestments.  Here is another instance of the praxis and doctrine of the church being dictated by those "outside" of the Church or those who are only nominally churchgoers.  It should be emphasized that the Church exists first and foremost for those who have been received and called to worship the Lord who is the Church's head.  It is not a business and should not adopt business practices to increase a customer base.  Nevertheless, that is precisely what the Anglicans have been doing as well as the Protestants in general and even the Catholics have started down this road.  How long before it really starts to affect the Orthodox?

Vestments are often looked at as being gaudy and ostentatious and, thus, wholly unnecessary.  The standard argument goes like this:  Christ Himself never wore vestments when he was teaching His apostles or feeding the hungry or healing the sick, therefore, His priests shouldn't need to dress up like that.  If not then, Jesus preached against the temple and its abuses and so the vestments also need to go.

First of all, it is important here to distinguish between Christ the teacher and Christ the high priest.  Christ was outside of the temple when he taught, fed and healed.  He was not acting as a priest and was not in the priestly order.  He never once spoke against the worship in the temple but spoke against the hypocrites who abused their positions in the temple and its worship.  Christ never failed to go to the Temple; his parents certainly didn't.  So, the argument that Christ wanted to start a new worship or temple against the established order is bunk.

Now, with regards to the priest, it is important to remember that the theology of icons pervades the overall theology of the Church.  Now, even if most Christian confessions do not accept the theology of icons as it is practiced in the Orthodox Church, they adopt the ideas of image and likeness to a certain extent, especially Catholics, Anglicans and some Lutherans.  The priest stands in persona Christi.  He, in a manner, in a mystery, becomes Christ and celebrates the Divine Liturgy accordingly.  This is all laid out in the Epistle to the Hebrews which focuses on Christ as the bodily fulfillment of the priesthood according to Melchizidek (see Psalm 109).  The priest may well teach, but that is not his primary function during the Divine Liturgy. His main function is to worship and bring all creation to worship God alongside Himself and to dispense of the gifts of God to His creation.  The vestments are a poor reflection of the glory that the Lord clothes Himself with.  Such is why the vestments are often elaborate.  Also, in the Orthodox Church building, you may find one icon of Christ the teacher, but the icons of Christ that dominate are the Christ the judge (on the iconostasis to the right of the Royal Doors) and Christ the archpriest often placed on the bishop's throne.  Christ is vested the same way the bishops are.

Outside of the church building, the priest and clergy still adopt a certain dress.  This is to identify them as priests.  Why would we want our priests to blend in with the people?  Don't we want people to know the priests as they walk among them?  If a person should collapse in the midst of a crowd and suffering and wants a priest, wouldn't it be easier to grab a person wearing a cassock or collar than it would be to trust some random person wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt that he is?

The wearing of vestments also reinforces humility.  I am  a tonsured reader and chanter and though this is a very minor clergy rank, I still wear a black cassock while performing my duties.  This is to suppress our own personal tastes in clothing and attire and instead to reinforce that our dress is not in service to our friends and fashion critics out among the laity.  Those who complain about the elaborate nature of the priests' vestments probably do not give any thought to the expensive suits and the time it takes Joel Osteen or Rick Warren to get ready before they "preach."  There is no way that Joel Osteen goes out on stage without an extensive visit to hair and make up first and there is no way he is wearing a suit off of the rack at JC Penny's rather than something from Giorgio Armani.

The vestments during the Liturgy are but one way to connect us to the heavens.  Too much has been made of Liturgical worship into merely a mental activity.  True heavenly worship lifts up the entire person in his whole bodily form which must include the senses.  Even in the description of the worship of God in the heavens, as vividly described by the Apocalypse of St. John, there is no lack of incense, icons, hymns, etc.--all things to draw the created to the Creator. 

Anglicans and Lutherans would do well to remember that.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Instead of saying this, say this

Now that the Christmas season has passed (although not yet for the more than 200,000 Orthodox Christians who will not worship the Nativity of the Christ until January 7), let's take a look back at a saying which I have heard repeated ad nauseam on commercials, the blogosphere, facebook, twitter, et al.,  since Thanksgiving came and went.  No, it's not "Merry Christmas" nor is it "Happy Holidays" nor is it "Happy Hannukah."  It is "Put Christ back into Christmas."

Ugh.  I really hate that saying.  I really do, not because it stems from wrong motives necessarily, but because of the wrong emphasis.  Yes, Christmas is celebrated now as a holiday for everyone and there are many, mainly, but not limited to atheists, who insist that saying "Merry Christmas"  or anything with the word "Christmas" in it is the same as trying to force your religion.  I have a different issue. with putting "Christ back into Christmas."  Christ never left even if many have left Christ.  What left was the mass.

Christmas is the modern English for the original Christ's Mass which was celebrated four times over the a 24 hour period in Western Christianity.  There was the Mass of Christmas Eve Morning, the Mass of Christmas Evening, the Midnight Mass of Christmas and the Christmas Day Mass.  The festival and ritual that accompanied each of these masses could last for hours even in humble small parish churches.  Such was the capstone of the long expectation of Nativity.  Family was gathered together in service of the Lord.

Today, those who go to church for Nativity may only go for maybe an hour and sing or (expect to sing only) Christmas Carols.  What happened to the mass?  In Catholic churches, the mass has become stripped down.  In other confessions which adhere to some liturgy (e.g. Anglican and Lutheran), the mass or the Divine Service or whatever it is now called has been removed and festivals of carols have been substituted.  Now there is nothing wrong with such carols.  As I have stated before, Western Christmas Carols are not theologically unsound, but the Mass gives something which the carols cannot, i.e. the very body of Christ.

The celebration of the Nativity is also a celebration of the Incarnation.  The entire theology of small-o orthodox Christianity hinges upon the Incarnation.  If Christ had not taken flesh, then we could not partake of His very self, we could not share in His Crucifixion, let alone His Bodily Resurrection.  To cut out the mass, the Eucharist, in favor of carols and songs, theologically permissible as they are, is to obfuscate what Christ had done by His birth.  God and sinners reconciled, yes, but how?  By Christ becoming consubstantial with His own Creation!  That fact is made omnipresent by the celebration of the Mass. 

The complaints are numerous:  Masses are too long and I don't have time; it's not in a language I can understand; the music isn't good; there is too much clericalism; I want to pray what I want, etc.  The selfishness inherent in each of these betrays how Western Christianity's accommodations to individual wants has helped its own destruction.

The disintegration of Western Christianity will be accompanied by its (continued) rejection of the sacraments and the rejection of the Divine Liturgy in favor of what is hip, relevant and what you feel like.  So, rather than making "Put Christ back into Christmas" your rallying cry, I urge you to "Put the Mass back into Christmas."  Man is not saved by ceremonies, but the Mass is not just something we do, it is something that Christ does for us and we for Him. He is the offerer and the offered.  That cannot be more manifest than in the Mass itself which is rooted in our Lord's Coming in the Flesh.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Western Carols Should Not Be Sung During the Divine Liturgy

From the files of "I said it before and I'll say it again," this installment complains about how western carols have infiltrated Orthodox Divine Liturgies during the Sundays prior to Nativity and even on Nativity itself.  I'm not sure how prevalent this is in other jurisdictions, but it seems that a number of parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, especially those lead by priests who were converts from the EOC (Evangelical Orthodox Church), have made it a regular practice and encouraged their choirs to sing these after the Divine Liturgy or during the people's communion on the Sundays leading up to Nativity and on Nativity itself.  This is a dangerous practice and must be stopped.

First, let me state that there is nothing, per se, "wrong" with these Western Carols on a theological level or even on a musical level.  Many of them I continue to enjoy myself as I have many recordings of them.  But their presence in the Divine Liturgy can do detrimental damage to the good order of the Church and is akin to the issue many Protestants have with incorporating "praise worship" into their ceremonies.

1)  They do damage to the good order of the Church.  The Holy Orthodox Church's Offices and Divine Liturgy are not structured so that priests can choose what hymns, prayers and other texts based on their personal preference.  The Typicon of the Great Church of Christ (used by Antioch and Greece) and the Typicon of Mar El Sabbas (used by the Slavic Churches) exist to prevent innovations and to ensure that the liturgies celebrated in each community are consistent the world over (with some differences due to calendar issues and saints that are venerated in one community as opposed to another).  The liturgies celebrated on any given day the world over are one Liturgy of worship to God and His Glory.

2)  Protestantism and even Catholicism for years have been changing their respective ceremonies.  It is not uncommon to walk into a Catholic Mass and mistake, understandably, what you see as a generic Protestant service and vice versa.  During Christmas, this confusion is even more pronounced as both Protestants and Catholics use the same carols to usher in this time of year. 

It is no secret that many Orthodox adherents in the Antiochian jurisdiction are converts from mainline Protestantism and Catholicism (though more of the former than the latter).  In its reception of converts from mainline Protestant or from other Christian confessions in general, the Antiochian jurisdiction has done a great disservice by its insistence, or rather non-insistence, that those being received into the una sancta should not have to put away their former customs when it comes to the traditions and practices of the church:  Hence, why we have sanctuaries decorated with Christmas trees and pointsettas, Western Christmas Carols sung during the Divine Liturgy,  "Merry Christmas" replaces "Christ is born!", etc..  I am not saying that these practices are bad, but they are NOT Orthodox.  

If we have willingly given ourselves to the Orthodox Church and the deposit of faith she guards, then we must give ourselves to it entirely and not bitterly try to cling on to those things (good things that they may be) for use in the church during her Divine Services, all of them.  The Church's liturgy is constantly being altered to make room for hymns to new saints, but its fundamental structure remains unchanged for about 1200 years.  And there is good reason for maintaining this.  Look at the churches that have a pick and choose mentality when it comes to their worship services.  Those churches are dieing.  There is no center to hold them in place.  They will, of course, claim that they are being moved by the spirit and by the message of Jesus.  Those people are wrong.  Jesus never condemned the Liturgy or the worship of the temple.  NEVER! The spirit makes everything new even if it were a prayer written 1000 years ago.

Again, there is nothing theological questionable about most Western Carols.  Many of them are quite good.  But why should "Silent Night" replace the megalynarion "I behold a strange and wonderful mystery?"  Why should the Apolytikion "Thy Nativity" be replaced by "We Three Kings?"  Now, I'm not saying that these things are happening and hopefully they never were (I have heard of a Ukrainian parish replacing the first two antiphons at Liturgy with "Little Drummer Boy").  But we must be vigilant to safeguard the Liturgy.

The Liturgy is a gift from God to us so that we may reoffer it back to Him just as Christ in the Eucharist is the offerer and the offered.   To make changes to it or to suggest changes because we miss where we came from is to have doubts about the strength and character and efficacy of the Eastern Rite.  It is not deficient in any way.  It is only deficient to those who have placed their own personal wishes above that of the communal nature of the church.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Christmas (but don't call it that) Greeting for Liberal Protestants

Dearly beloved, I, (insert name of priest/bishop/archbishop of a liberal Protestant church of your choice)  your most reverend, most enlightened and of unquestionable authority wish you peace and happiness in this time of great joy:  namely, the birth of some person in Bethlehem.  (We don't want to offend anyone by using His name).

Today, on December 25, we recall the birth of the Sun God Mithras from his virgin mother because it is only for this reason that the stupid and patriarchal and intolerant of others' religions forefathers of the early church placed the birth of Jesus on this date--to compete and sheep steal.  We should really be celebrating in April or May but that's beside the point.  Your priest at your local parish will be ordered to give a 30 minute homily with a PowerPoint presentation on that very fact in due time.  Still, despite its inaccuracies, we wish you the best of the season.

Actually, come to think about it, we should really point out all the inaccuracies of this celebration because as Christians in the modern world it is far better and more appropriate to be skeptical and not actually believe what happened on that original December 25, though it was really happened in April or May.  First, virgin birth?  Yeah, right.  Contemporary scientists say that there is no possibility of anything close to parthenogenesis in human evolution and since they are the eye through which we see the world, I invite you, if you even say the Nicene Creed, to make that part optional.  Second, who was born in Bethlehem?  A teacher, a great teacher, a great human teacher.  Some say that God was born there, but that doesn't make sense and clearly reason is exactly what this teacher preached about time and again in his sermons as to how to be in communion with God.  I know he said faith a lot, but higher criticism, which is as infallible to us as the Pope is to those nutty Catholics who still actually believe him  to be the vicar of and speaker for Christ and His Church, which we are too enlightened to accept (but don't you dare criticize me or take a position opposite me;  I'll excommunicate you so fast it will make your head spin) is the same thing as reason.  Bart Ehrman assures me of such from almost no evidence whatsoever so that's good enough for me.  So, again, if you say the Nicene Creed, you may want to excise those portions that suggest that this person is God or even the Son of God.  It just doesn't make sense. On third thought, just don't say the Nicene Creed at all and take a stand against patriarchy!

Let us truly reflect and give thanks for this day, because that first X-Mas (We don't want to use "Christmas" because that term is obsolete and might offend non Christian readers of this little letter, even though it's not intended for them.  Please refrain from using this in public. Remember the first amendment!) brought to the attention of the world a horrible calamity:  homelessness.  This person was born homeless to make the point that all governments need to forcibly take money from the citizens in the form of taxes (rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's) for all sorts of social programs to alleviate this horrible insult to human dignity.  Even though this person was not technically homeless since his family was from Nazareth and they couldn't find a hotel room (Expedia, anyone?), this is the Gospel message--to care for others less fortunate by bestowing on those more fortunate curses and vituperations.

On this day, we are called to be joyful, be happy and if it feels good, do it.  The birth of this person was to herald a new age of feeling good about ourselves and developing our self esteem.  Again, that darn creed suggests that the birth of this person was meant to save us from our sins and grant us salvation.  Sins? What sins?   If there's a recognition of sin, then what follows?  That's right--repentance.  And we don't want that.  It's too much work.  Besides, you can't possibly be responsible for any sins.  God made you that way.  Just accept it.  Unless, of course, you're a Republican and against gay marriage, gay adoption, women's ordination, 100% tax on rich people, etc.  If so, YOU have plenty of repenting to do.

X-mas is about indulging and family (i.e. non-traditional family) and consumerism but not too much.  I sincerely hope all of you remembered to research your purchases and make sure they weren't going to  big, greedy corporations. It is about giving.  It is about political activism.  That is the reason this person was born.

So, to all of you who celebrate today, I wish you  a very Merry X-Mas.  I also wish you a belated Hannukah and Kwanza wishes since I know many people in our churches have decided to be multicultural and diverse and celebrate everything even though it is contradictory.  Even if you don't believe anything of note happened today, that's OK.  Doctrine is yesterday's Christianity.  I don't believe in it so why should you?  As long as you believe something, it's all Christian, as long as it is not what people believed 50 or 100 or 1000 years ago.  Those are WRONG beliefs.  Still, Merry X-Mas and best wishes for the new year.

In the name of ______________ (insert non-Christian deity here or philosopher),


P.S.  After the festivity and joy of the holidays have passed, we plan on suing several parishes and dioceses that have still chosen to remain stuck in the mud when it comes to doctrine which is not relevant anymore.  Please feel free to include a check to help us bring these parishes to their knees so that we can evict them and then sell their property to non-Christians resulting in a huge financial loss in the process.  Thank you.

NB:  THIS POST IS INTENDED AS SARCASM.  Please make a note of that.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

All I Want for Christmas: The Sunday of Genealogy and (Importance of) Family

The Sunday before Christ's Nativity, the Church appoints the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew to be read at the Divine Liturgy.  It lists all the progenitors of Christ from Abraham to David, from David to Joseph.  Now, even though Christ's human nature (in terms of DNA) did not originate from any of these, as Jesus was a natural child only of Mary and her ancestors, the point is that we celebrate the Lord's consubstantiality with his own creation and celebrate his legal inheritance of David's throne through his earthly father, Joseph.  We confess regularly in the creed and the Divine Liturgy of the Trinity's consubstantilaity among its three persons, but it is at this time of year that we should (although we should do it all year) focus on Christ's consubstaniliaty with His creation, namely us.

This is the main point of this Gospel reading and why it is placed on this Sunday liturgically, but there are any number of ancillary conclusions we can draw from this particular reading.  One of which is this:  the importance of family.  The family was the central unit of every day life. The children in this genealogy were all produced in the husband-wife context (with some exceptions; see Solomon. Note that his mom is not mentioned by name) producing and raising children. Is not even the most iconic picture of this season that of Christ surrounded by his mother and father and others whom He created?  Family is naturally connected with the First Christmas.  Even in the continued secularization of the Christmas holiday, the importance of being close with friends and family is almost universally shared, regardless of one's own religious convictions.  The importance of family has often been used as a reason why people miss the Divine Liturgy or any other service on Christmas Eve/Day, but if the love we show to our family and frienss is even but the faintest shadow of how God has loved His Creation, then I think we should stop throwing our hands up in the air lamenting how people skip church. (aside: I remember one time being told by my priest before I was married that there is no difference between being in church and being with family. I no longer had to choose between the two because the two choices lead to the same path.  Post for another time:  When St. Paul says that the single man is concerned for God and the married man for his wife, he is not saying that one should be preferred over the other.  Rather, he is arguing that the two are different means to the same end.  End of digression). 

I didn't get to see this, but my wife did and mentioned it to me.  It's a very sad story from CBS Sunday Morning about a young woman at college who wanted only one thing for Christmas:  A family, specifically parents, even if only for a few hours which she would pay for.  Her life growing up was one of pain.  The only things she can recall are punishments and abuse from a father and the noticeable absence of her mother.  When December came around and heard her friends talk about their holiday plans, it always made her feel out of place as she never had a familyShe took out an ad on Craigslist of all places.  Craigslist has become the go-to place for anything these days, it seems.  And she got a number of responses.  She was even contacted by people who were in the same situation she was. Needless to say, she got what she wanted, even for free. I've embedded the videoclip below. 

So, before we go off condemning people for not coming to church on Nativity or even on Sundays or whenever, but in particular on Christmas, we should remember that family is a wonderful thing, that the gift of family was even given to our Lord who needed it for the purposes of effecting our salvation.  If He needed it, then surely we all do and we should take some time to embrace and celebrate it, even if we do miss church as a result.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thinking about Shopping on Thanksgiving? Just Don't!

HT:  Katrina Trinko at National Review Online

Look, do what you want.  But if you feel that, for whatever reason, you must shop on Thanksgiving Day, at least ask yourself:  How does shopping on Thanksgiving show how thankful you are for what God has given you?  Also, ask yourself this:  Is it not hypocritical to condemn stores for making employees work on a holiday while going to these same stores?

Ms. Trinko at NRO makes the case far better than I do.  For those of you who have never worked retail (I have), this is not a fun time to work.  Most people who shop on Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday or even throughout the whole "holiday season" are unreasonable, demanding, rude, mean, snappy, discourteous, sinister, etc.  The people who work retail are the recipients of some of the nastiest comments ever heard.  So, why add to their misery during this season by making them give up a day off which is meant to be shared with family and friends and substituting instead all sorts of vitriol?

Ms. Trinko writes:

Just don’t do it.

Don’t shop on Thanksgiving Day. I don’t care how much joy shopping gives you. You’ve got 25 days to shop for Christmas if you start on Black Friday. That’s enough.

Yes, you’ll have the opportunity to shop: At least 15 major retail chains will be open on Thanksgiving, including Walmart, Macy’s, and Best Buy (according to ThinkProgress).

How fantastic would it be if no one showed up?

We already have people stuck working to man the airports and restaurants. We shouldn’t be asking even more people to work, particularly when shopping (thankfully!) isn’t even part of our Thanksgiving tradition, unlike traveling to be with family or enjoying a meal together.

I worked at Borders for a couple of summers and a Christmas during college. That’s not very much retail experience: Many of my colleagues in journalism had worked several years already in retail. But it was enough to give me a taste of what a nightmare the work schedule could be. You don’t get weekends off when you work retail — if anything, they’re the days you’re least likely to get off because everyone else is out shopping then.

Yes, most of us got two days off at some point during the week. But they could be any days, and they could change from week to week, too. Managers hated requests for particular days off. You could sometimes swap a shift with someone else or get them to take on your shift, but it was a little risky to rely on that for an important occasion.

For many of us, our workweeks are Monday through Friday. We have weeknights and weekends off, and so do most of the people we know. That makes it significantly easier to see one another, and to have gatherings of family and friends.

But if you work retail or other jobs that involve regular weekends and nights — and many of your friends and family do — it’s tougher to get everyone together. It’s hard to find a day when everyone is off and can gather together.

It used to be that holidays were those days: A time when just about everyone, regardless of his job, was able to spend the day with loved ones.

Making Thanksgiving a working day is going to change that. It’s going to take away from retail employees a rare universal day off.

And frankly, I can’t imagine what you could buy on Thanksgiving that would make that trade-off worth it to our culture.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Starting to Understand the Compassion/Loving Kindness/Mercy of God

I was once told that the only way to begin to understand, even in the most basic of terms, the compassion/loving kindness/mercy (choose alternate noun) of God was to become a parent.  No child, no matter how well he or she is raised, no matter how good his or her intentions are will never ever love his/her parent as much as the parent loves him/her.  At the time I heard this I was single and was not planning on marrying, let alone have kids, but it stuck with me.

Fast forward several years and I am now happily married to a beautiful woman and am a father to wonderful little 16 month old son who is the light of every day.  His giggle alone is enough to forget everything that happened on the worst of days.  My son is at that age of temper tantrums and not taking a liking to the word "no."  He's also in the habit of throwing things which can really hurt you if they get you in the right spot.  I was sitting down next to my son who was playing with his toy piano.  He's able to hold it one hand and with it, he just smacked me across the cheek with it.  I went down.  That blow really hurt.  I immediately corrected him and took the piano away and then went to get some ice to counter any bruising or swelling that may ensue.

I sat in my chair for awhile icing down my cheek and for the rest of the evening, my son would come up to my chair and put his head down between my legs while grasping my knees.  When he came up to me, his expression was not a happy one, but almost as if he was experiencing some regret.  I wasn't mad at him; he simply doesn't know better at his age.  Nonetheless, it still looked like he was apologizing to me and feeling guilty about what he had done.  I didn't want my son to feel guilty or bad in any way so I picked him up and held him, assuring him that I was not angry and that I loved him.

At that one singular instance, I understood, as much as any human can, the compassion and mercy of God.  Here was this little boy, feeling bad (and it may not have been due to his hitting me, but this was too much of a coincidence) and coming to me.  And I, sitting in my chair, nursing my wound (which turned out to be nothing), was not angry in the least.  Would I have felt the same if my son didn't come up to me like he had?  I believe so.

We all wound God every day in our sins.  Does He still forgive even if we don't come up to Him and look like we're sorry?  Yes.  Do we understand why?  No.  While we dwell on earth, we cannot just openly look upon the majesty of God, but can only perceive Him and His Energies piece-meal and opaquely.  I started to understand.  God doesn't forgive because we're repentant (some of us; most, probably aren't), but because He loves and out of love created.  In the same way, I did not harbor resentment towards my little boy nor want him to be punished, but forgave him, not because of his act, but because he is my son.  A tautology, I'm sure and circular reasoning.  But if there is a better reason to forgive because I am someone's child, I don't know what it is and I don't want to know.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Politics of the Cup

This is a very thought provoking article from Father Stephen. I encourage every one to read it in its entirety.  For me, the defense of closed communion rests with what Fr. Stephen says here:

 Those who separate the Eucharist from the Church also separate themselves from the Church – they seek to eat while “not discerning the body.” The treatment of the Eucharist clearly reflects the treatment of the Church.
The mystery of the Eucharist is integrated into the Church.  The Eucharist cannot be anything more than a token of hospitality outside of the Church.  For all those demanding to receive the Eucharist, but refuse to be a member of Christ's body this comment astutely sums it up:

A person who receives communion from a church but refuses to be a member is a little like a person who has a friend with benefits who [sic] he refuses to marry.

Share and comment.

HT:  Father Stephen at Glory to God for All Things

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Importance of the Incarnation

One of the many criticisms directed against the Orthodox Faith and her adherents is that it places way too much emphasis on the Incarnation of the Lord when it should be more or exclusively centered upon the Lord's Cross and Crucifixion.  I find it fascinating then that those who make such criticisms even bother to celebrate the Christmas season since its focus is on the Lord's appearance in the flesh.   The other problem is that those who make such criticisms are stuck in an "either...or" mentality.  Pascha and Christmas embrace one another in the Orthodox faith.  One cannot be without the other.

The Scriptures and the hymnography of the Church are replete with many examples of how Christ is consubstantial with His creation, namely, us humans.  Although many of the early battles over orthodox doctrine centered upon whether Christ was consubstantial with the Father, Christ's consubstantiality with His creation was not and cannot be simply forgotten.  It is the very foundation for our salvation, which is more than simply a declaration of forgiveness, but is an ontological reality in which we are made, by grace, one with the one who created us.

With this "both...and" approach instead of the "either...or", as we begin the long march towards Bethlehem let us also have our sights set on Calvary. 

Jesus lay as an infant int he cavern in the reign of Caesar Augustus that He might lay in the tomb under Pontius Pilate.  He was hounded by Herod that He might be caught by Caiphas.  He was buried in baptism that He might descend into death by the Cross.  He was worshiped by wise men that the whole of creation might adore Him in His triumph over death.  The Pascha of His cross was prepared by the Pascha of His Coming. The Pascha of His Resurrection was begun by the Pascha of His Incarnation.  The Pascha of His Glorification was foretold by the Pascha of His Baptism.--Fr. Thomas  Hopko, The Winter Pascha, p. 11

Monday, November 11, 2013

Positively Labeling

I was reading a story the other day about some religious topic where the writer got off topic and referenced an incident that occurred in a bookstore.  A man of Hispanic origin (I don't know why he felt the need to include the man's ethnicity in this) ran into this writer in the Bibles section of a bookstore asking if the writer could help in selecting a Bible for him, but with the insistence that the Bible be a Catholic Bible.  The writer asked why and the man responded that he is a  Catholic, not a Christian.

There are probably any number of variants upon a story like this which end with  "I'm not Christian, I'm (fill in the confession here)."  Of course, we could spend hours arguing with this man in the article that Catholics are Christians but not all Christians are Catholics ad nauseam.  And, it won't do a lot of good.  Of course, there is the reverse situation. Many people will identify themselves as Christians but go out of their way to insist that they are NOT Lutheran, they are NOT Methodist, they are NOT (Roman) Catholic, they are NOT Presbyterians, etc.  So, what are we to do with labels?  Should we embrace them?  Discard them?  A little of both?

The fact is that as human beings we have this need to categorize and define.  In fact, I would argue that our western civilization's existence is predicated upon the need for nice and neat categories, following the lead (or we think we are following the lead) of Aristotle who held that all that is known is knowable.  And because what is known is knowable, there are different categories to explain how something is known.  I've always thought Aristotle was the most boring philosopher.  If anyone takes the time to read him, his works read like dry lecture notes from a college professor who has been teaching the same college course for 45 years in the same tweed jacket.

We label both positively and negatively.  We label ourselves by what we are and by what we are not.  I would submit that we do the latter more than the former simply because it's much easier to say what were against and thus be vague to proclaim what we are in favor of.  So, what should we do with labels in the Christian world? 

I argue that we keep the labels and we keep them positively.  Rather than define ourselves by what we aren't, Christians of all confessions need to state emphatically what they are.  And my reasoning is simple: it's the honest thing to do.

How many people have left one church for another because they heard good music at the new church, or they heard the pastor's sermons were good, or they had a good kids' program?  So they go to the new church and later on they hear a sermon on something doctrinal which leaves the recent converts in a state of shock.  "What?" they ask.  "That's what this pastor, this church, this congregation believes?  I didn't sign up for this."  They leave as quickly as they came.

Of course, it helps if the label is defined consistently across the board.  Seventy five years ago, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans didn't have the internal differences from church to church they do now.  One person's Lutheran church is often not the same as another person's Lutheran church.   Lutehran does not mean the same for an ELCA Lutheran as it does for an LCMS Lutheran.  What's more important then?  The name or the meaning behind the name?

We Orthodox have many problems in this country.   One of our big problems is that as we are being introduced to more and more people across the USA,  too often we end up defining ourselves in terms of what we're not.  Oh, we're not like those Protestants and their clappy happy praise services.  We're not like those Catholics and their allegiance to the pope or opposition to birth control.  Defining yourself in terms of what you're not leaves too much room for people to guess who you really are.  Is that the kind of introduction you want to give to seekers?  No one introduces himself by saying, "Hi, my name is not Mr. Smith or Mr. Williams or Mr. Jones."

The would-be Bible purchaser above probably knew exactly what he meant by Catholic.  We, Orthodox, too should know exactly (as far as human speech allows) what is meant by Orthodox and articulate that positively.  Saying who we're dislike only invites antagonism.  If we begin saying that we're not like the Presbyterians, it would not be completely unfair to hear the retort "what have you got against them?"  Let us use the label Orthodox positively, let it be defined and, most importantly, practiced positively. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Whom do we want in the Church

A few days ago, I was on YouTube looking up the video for the induction of the band, Rush, into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, which I had never seen, despite the fact that I call myself a diehard Rush fan.  But I've had other things to do.  After I had watched the video, I was looking at the videos appearing on the sidebar which are related.  One of the videos was entitled "RUSH Does NOT Belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."  I was immediately horrified and offended.  How can anyone make this argument?  I'm glad I watched the video.  (Warning:  Some foul language used)

The person who made the video, who, at first sight looks like someone you would never take seriously (long hair, wearing a stocking cap. He looks like Jay from movies like "Clerks," "Dogma," and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).   After I got past that, the guy makes a very cogent and  persuasive argument.  I expected it to be a vitriolic attack on Rush based on personal taste, but it's anything but.  His argument rests that Rush is actually too good and too pure for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which has repeatedly admitted into its halls many artists who are not Rock and Roll artists period.  This would include people like Michael Jackson, Arethra Franklin, Run DMC, etc.  Now, I myself would never deny any accolades to these artists, but the guy has a point:  They are not rock n' roll artists.  Why are they there then?

To him and also to me, the reason is simple:  Commercial success.  Rush does have commercial success and always has.  But that reason alone has been used to justify the exclusion of other great artists.  Case in point:  Metallica.  Metallica has had great commercial success and is largely responsible for making thrash or speed metal a staple of American mainstream heavy metal music.  Who else has done this?  Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth.  Are any of them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?  No.  Should they be?  Since they are not as commercially successful as Metallica, probably not.

The guy on the video has a valid point.  Rush does not deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because it was never guided by simply commerical success.  In fact, Rush is a favorite victim of music critics and magazines for as long as they've been around (40+ years). Rolling Stone has constantly and consistently either ignored them or derided them.  But, Rush is now in and the critics can't complain any more (I guess they can, but it's pretty useless now).

This got me thinking about the Church. Should the Church receive anyone and everyone that may want in even if they're even the most nominally Orthodox or Christian?  If the Church is truly catholic, i.e. universal, then it is for all.  However, it seems that many churches today in the Christian world want to be catholic in terms of diversity of opinion rather than in unity of the faith.   True catholicity is the latter, not the former.  The faith is catholic.  The faith is unchanging and for all.

Should the Orthodox Church or any church for that matter, in an attempt to reach out and be truly catholic do so at the expense of her own doctrine?  Should the churches reach out to atheists, practioners of other religions, nominal Christians, etc. and say that they are welcome to bring their own beliefs into the church with them?  I would hope most serious Christians would answer no, but the fact is that the opposite is happening.  Churches are reaching out by saying that doctrine doesn't matter, unity of the faith doesn't matter.  The only thing that matters is that we call ourselves by the same name, whether that be Catholic or Orthodox or Lutheran or Methodist, or what-have-you.  What you actually believe is between you and God.

The inevitable result is that you have many people under the same roof and as many as divergent opinions.  How would you even preach to this group?  How would this group even worship together?  How would this group even decide on a building together?

Our faith is a communal one, not only with God but also with our fellow man.  And that community acts and works together in the worship of God.  It has to.  Otherwise, it is absolute chaos.  So, what are we to do with people in the church who, for whatever reasons, insist on believing what they wish even when it stands in stark contrast to the faith handed down to the saints once and for all?  Are they to be anathematized and cast out or are they to be tolerated within the ranks of the church?

My fear is that such "tolerance" will lead to two things.  First, those who clearly hold heterodox beliefs will demand more and more concessions to accommodate their heterodoxy and if such concessions are not immediately granted, they will threaten to leave.  Second, once concessions are granted and more and more are given, the faithful will break off and there will be schism.  This is exactly the situation we find in today's Anglican Church, the ELCA and even the United Methodist Church.    Why are churches more concerned with the number of people rather than the purity of the message?  Maybe it's the same reason why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame admits artists who are not rock and roll artists:  commercial success.

The sad thing is that even if churches recognize the why, the fact is churches are not making plans to change.  Catholicity now means encompassing the whole regardless of the faith instead of the faith encompassing the whole.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Which sign is more appropriate for your church?

I was reading the blogosphere (not a good idea when you're tired and you should be going to bed) about some of the controversy that has been stirred up by Rod Dreher's article "I'm Still Not Going Back to the Catholic Church" in the latest issue of Time.  Mr. Dreher makes many salient points about the state of the American Catholic Church in particular and about Roman Catholicism and christianity in general.  It is well worth the read.  Though Mr. Dreher is now a communicant in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is very easy to naturally ascribe to him some vendetta or schadenfreude for the confession he left behind.  I, personally, don't see that there, but I do see that he is right on the money with his observations of not just the Catholic Church but also Christian confessions across the spectra.  Whatever his motivations may be for writing this article, let's look at some of his complaints about modern Roman Catholicism here in the states.

  • I could count on one hand the number of homilies I heard that addressed abortion or sexuality in any way. Rather, the homilies were wholly therapeutic, almost always some saccharine variation of God is love.  
  •  In his recent book about Anglicanism, Our Church, the English philosopher Roger Scruton says the greatest problem in the modern world is the “loss of the habit of repentance.” Broadly speaking, there seemed to me to be no particular interest in the American Catholic church in repentance, because there was no particular interest in the reality of sin.
  • All this put the moral unseriousness of the American church in a certain light. As the scandal raged, one Ash Wednesday, I attended mass at my comfortable suburban parish and heard the priest deliver a sermon describing Lent as a time when we should all come to love ourselves more. (emphasis mine)
  • In his interview, the pope used a metaphor for the Church that is often employed by Eastern Orthodox Christianity: he called it a “field hospital” where the walking wounded can receive treatment. He’s right, but it’s important to discern the nature of the cure on offer. Anesthesia is a kind of medicine that masks the pain, but it’s not the kind of medicine that heals the underlying sickness.

Response:  He's absolutely right.  Should we deny that God is love?  Absolutely not.  But should we proclaim it at the expense that sin should be avoided?  Again, absolutely not.  Too many sermons concentrate on what God has done for us, but have lost focus on why God has done what He has done. He wasn't bored one day and decided to send His Only-Begotten Son to be delivered to men to be crucified and ultimately resurrect.  What was the cause for all this?  Silence.
Too many Christians forget that both John the Forerunner and Christ began their ministries with the key word--repent--which, in Greek, is μετανοιετε.  Literally, the word means to change one's nous.  The nous is described by St. John the Damascene as the eye or window to the soul. It is NOT the soul, but the means by which our souls become receptive to the energies of God to change our life in an ontological reality, i.e. a real change of life as opposed to an imputed declaration of righteousness.  Theological niceties aside, churches and priests do not advocate change (unless it's political change whether left or right) of self and if they do, it is marred in such psychotherapeutic jargon that you may as well listen to Dr. Phil.  

We are called to love ourselves.  But the problem as sinners is that we tend to love ourselves to the point that there is no love or even passing concern for others.  Besides, Christ said that if any man loved Him, he is to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Him.  Take up the Cross and be crucified with Him.  That's not love of self; that's denial of self, destruction of self for the sake of Christ.  Lent is not about how we don't love ourselves enough; it's about how we do love ourselves too much that we have become estranged from God, hence why He came in the flesh.

I don't stand outside my house in the busy street thinking that if I get hit, thankfully, there's a hospital nearby where they can immediately numb the pain.  The church is a hospital, but it does more than simply give anti-pain meds.  The hospital is there to heal the body, not to fool it into believing there is no pain with medication.  Churches all over America keep giving out the morphine drip, but are reluctant to prescribe any physical therapy.

Response over.  I could go on and on, but, Mr. Dreher is right.  And he's right not just about what is happening in the Catholic Church but in Protestant churches and--dare I say it?-- the Orthodox Churches.  Are there exceptions?  Of course.  But our churches tend to bend to the culture rather than try to make the culture bend to the church.  And that's the wrong direction.

Since Mr. Dreher has published his article, he has been praised and maligned by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Most of the Catholics who understand his position are still upset (read some of the responses) that he still left the Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church.  They say that the Orthodox Church has its flaws and he should have stuck with what he grew up with.  I,with Mr. Dreher, believe that the spirit of the Catholic Church is too connected to whomever may occupy the Throne of St. Peter at any time.  For eight years that was the theological stupor and conservatism of Benedict XVI; now it is the humility and liberality of Francis.  If the spirit of the church is that fragile and moves as its leader changes, then I can understand why Mr. Dreher would leave.
But once one leaves, whether from Catholicism or Lutheranism or Evangelicalism or whatever, trying to find that perfect ecclesial fit, what mindset should be adopted for the journey.  It's not an unfair point to bring up that many people who leave one Christian confession for another will probably not be happy in the new one they find.  And they leave again.  It's easy and natural to be idealistic when going "church shopping."  

The problem is that the seeker is overwhelmed with a perfect picture of what is out there.  It may exist; it may not.  So, let us say, for argument's sake, that you are coming into Holy Orthodoxy.  If you are coming with the same frustrations as Mr. Dreher, which of these two churches are you more likely to enter based on the sign alone?

To the zealous wannabe convert, both signs are troublesome. They both say that he shouldn't expect to find the Orthodox Church he has read about in so many books or heard about in the blogosphere.  Both of these signs though also do invite an indictment against all confessions of Christianity, most of which are trying to be inclusive and reach out to "nones", "spiritual but not religious", "millennials," "atheists", "others", etc. Too many churches are trying to not be what they were founded to be.  Lutherans are going farther away from the Book of Concord; Anglicans from the 39 Articles; Methodists from the Book of Discipline; Presbyterians from the Westminster Confession; Catholics from their tradition.  Do/should churches really only want new members who are content to reduce their expectations and be lukewarm about the faith?  Do/should churches try to attract only reasonable people with reasonable expectations?  It seems to me that if any church has any variation on either of the signs above, there will always be Rod Drehers who go looking for the next ideal thing.  

If churches are serious, really serious, about growth and commitment of their members, then they need to be true to what they were founded upon.  No, it's not sexy; no, it's not relevant to the culture.  But for every reasonable/reduced-expectation-person that a church gains, it will lose two Rod Drehers who have about five times the commitment than those gained.  Maybe this is the best sign to have:


Friday, August 23, 2013

Workin' them angels...overtime

At the end of day, at Small Compline, Orthodox say a prayer to their guardian angel:

O Holy Angel, attendant of my wretched soul and of mine afflicted life, forsake me not, a sinner, neither depart from me for mine incontinence.  Give no place to the evil demon to subdue me with the oppression of this mortal body; but take me by my wretched and outstretched hand, and lead me in the way of salvation. Yea, O holy Angel of God, the guardian and protector of my hapless soul and body, forgive me all things whatsoever wherewith I have troubled thee, all the days of my life, and since I have sinned this day.  Shelter in this present night and keep me from every affront of the enemy lest I anger God by any sin; and intercede with the Lord in my behalf, that He might strengthen me in the fear of Him, and make me a worthy servant of His goodness.  Amen. (From the HTM prayerbook)
What a task this must be for our guardian angels, whom our Lord has appointed " to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone." (Psalm 90: 11-12)  As we are always in sin and in danger, our angels were appointed, even created possibly, to safeguard man, the jewel of God's creation.  

It is important to pray this prayer often. For we need to ask forgiveness of the angels just as we would ask forgiveness of anyone who is entrusted to protect us, whom we may have offended.  But they keep working just as our parents and guardians do.  We need to be reminded that the plan of salvation is not just some "personal relationship" between you and God.  Others are involved from the Church, the saints and, particularly, the angels. Our prayers for them to intercede on our behalf demonstrate the communal nature of our salvation which Christ has granted to us.

The other day, I was listening to Rush's album, Snakes and Arrows, from 2007. Rush is an all time favorite of mine and it was really cool to see them in concert two weeks ago, thanks to a gift from my lovely wife.  One song from this album, which they did not play is entitled, "Workin' them Angels."  The lyrics of the chorus are:

All my life
I've been workin' them angels overtime
Riding and driving and living
So close to the edge
Workin' them angels - Overtime

Now, Rush is not a Christian band.  The drummer, Neil "the Professor" Peart is an avowed secular humanist.  Geddy Lee, the frontman, bass guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist, etc. is a son of Jewish Holocaust survivors and, from what I've read, the Jewish faith is heritage, not a practiced faith.  Alex Lifeson, the guitarist, was originally named Aleksandar Živojinović and was born in Canada to Serbian immigrants.  Lifeson is the English translation of Živojinović. I don't know if he is practicing Serbian Orthodox or not.  Whatever their religious proclivities may be, that's not the point. The point I am trying to make is that truth is truth regardless where it originates. 

Those in the church growth movement insist that we need to find new, hip, relevant ways to draw the young to church. I am not, for a second, advocating that Rush music be used to celebrate the Liturgy like the Episcopalians and Lutherans have been using U2 and the Beetles (ugh!).  But teaching the faith using cultural examples as this can be a good start, but should not be an end. The words of this chorus do not even begin to substitute for the prayer reprinted above. 

Nonetheless, when I heard this song as I was driving into work, it reminded me of that prayer to the Guardian Angel.  I'm always in need of his defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ and his intercessions.  I'm always working him because I have given him no reprieve to stop as I keep in my sinful ways.  I do work him...overtime.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Be perfect...then marry?

I was reading an editorial in the morning paper written by Tom Purcell about the rapid decline in the marriage rate in America when compared to marriage rates in 1960.  The statistics should be alarming as we seem intent on breeding ourselves out of existence.  The usual reasons are stated for this decline, e.g. economy, concentration on careers, personal fulfillment and happiness, fear of loss of freedom.  But here's what caught me:

And then there is the “soul mate” factor, a modern construct.

 But nowadays, many single people are holding out for the perfect person — perfect looks and personality — and the good-hearted CPA isn’t likely to make the cut.

The fact is, no one person can ever live up to our high soul-mate ideals — so many people remain single.
Marriage is on the decline because people and circumstances aren't perfect (people are not far enough in career, no house, too much debt, etc.) and because the person they would marry isn't perfect (not funny enough, not good-looking, not financially independent enough, etc.).  Since when did marriage require perfection as a must before going through with it?  Apparently in this current generation.

If people were to be really honest, there are no perfect set of circumstances anymore.  The economy is not what it was and is still in a very tenuous position for a lot of people.  There are no perfect people.  That's a no-brainer.  Yet, shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette  and commercials like those for e-Harmony, Match.com and ChristianMingle.com constantly peddle the idea that there is a perfect person for you, that there is a soul mate for you.  Don't settle.  There's someone better.  It's no longer "Love the one your with;" it's now "love [only] the one you want."  What's worse is that finding a marriage partner and then planning for marriage has been reduced to a
checklist with objectives that need to be reached before saying the "I do."

For the Christian who believes that marriage is a sacrament, a union of man and woman in one flesh, Christ uniting with His Church, marriage is not the end, but the beginning of perfection.  We marry because we want to strive for perfection with Christ as our guide.  Marriage is an ascetic struggle, a death of self to our spouse (as Christ died for the Church and as the martyrs died for Christ; hence why we sing hymns to the martyrs on weddings in the Orthodox Church) so that we may become more like Christ and hence, become perfect.  Marriage is no different from monasticism in that respect.

If perfection were required before any participation in the mysteries/sacraments of the Church, then no one would receive the Eucharist, no one would be baptized, no  one would be ordained, no one would be married, no one would be given holy unction and monasteries would be completely empty.  The perfect have no need of the sacraments.  They are for imperfect people who desire that perfection.  

I certainly grant that secularists would not subscribe to marriage as a death of one's self for the sake of Christ, but they need not have to.  As long as it is taught to our children (i.e. those of us having children) that marriage is a means, not an end (whatever that end may be), perhaps a reversal of the decline may occur. 

However, I suspect that as long as happiness is defined strictly as having no cares and no responsibilities beyond those which give one personal fulfillment and landing only the perfect person, the marriage rate will continue on its current trajectory.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

This Old House

Can it be made new again?

Several weeks ago, I attended a family reunion for my mother's side of the family in Hanoverton, Ohio.  In 1956, my grandparents and their kids, came to this small town (now 200 years old) from Germany to start a new life.  When I was a child, my summer vacations involved us coming to Hanoverton for a week or so.  Countless days, weeks and months were spent there during my childhood.  I can still remember almost every detail of that house.

My grandparents sold that home in 2003 and went to live close to my uncle.  They were getting older and needed some help and they didn't want to go to a retirement home so they packed up and left.  The house was bought, but it was abandoned over a year ago.  The place has been on the market for the low, low price of $ 38,000, but there have been no takers thus far.  It has remained uninhabited and possibly even uninhabitable for over a year.

We decided to go by the old house and I was utterly shocked by what I found.  This old house, built in 1915 (also the year of my Opa's birth) where I spent a lot of my childhood, was in absolutely horrible condition.  The blue paint, which replaced the green paint I knew, was chipping everywhere.  The porch where I often played with my brother and sister and received visitors like my Aunt Katharina who lived next door, was covered with weeds.  The garden that was the pride and joy of my Oma and Opa which had beautiful flowers and vegetables growing year in, year out was now just a patch of grass with no trees.  The antenna, which I often climbed despite the fact I was so often told not to, was rusty.  The stone steps which lead to the extension my Oma and Opa built where we played our board games as kids were growing mildew and moss.  The door from the showerroom to the outside was now covered with a piece of plywood, painted blue to match the rest of the house.  The garage still had my grandfather's workstation.  The hole in the ground of the garage which had housed the water tank was covered with dirt and a crushed can of Mountain Dew.  The kitchen still had the same cabinets that I could remember where things were placed.  There was a brand new sink but it wasn't flush with the window which created a little drop off.  I found a little spoon left behind.  The roof was in shambles, the gutters were coming off.  Weeds in the flower gardens around the edges of the house overtook the last remaining plants.  Unwanted trees were growing.  The only things that seemed to be intact and working was the thermometer on the porch which my grandparents didn't take and the cables around the branches of the large tree to prevent them from breaking off.  My mother was close to tears.  I was, too.

My mom's cousin, Bonnie, came by to greet us.  She told us that the situation concerning the old house was not atypical for Hanoverton.  Even if people were to buy this home, there was no guarantee people would maintain it or even make it presentable.  Such was the standard.  I suppose that the situation is due in no small part to the state of the economy which has hit a lot of small towns especially hard.

There are a lot of analogies I could make with the vacation home of my childhood.  It could be as the house of my soul, which, as St. John Chrysostom, is unworthy for the Lord, made that way because of sin.  It could be as any number of churches which have become empty and the once glorious house is now a dilapidated shadow of its former self.  It could be even positive, still standing on the strength of the base as the Church stands on the strength of Christ even if it doesn't look like much. It could be like any number of different things.  Perhaps I'm just getting nostalgic at my age.  At nearly 37, with a wife and child, I think I'm entitled to a little of that now and again.

All in all, I think the lesson to draw from this is the reminder that all temporal things do come to an end.  Maybe the house will be bought and new life will be injected into it.  Until then, it will sit empty.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Supreme Court Rulings on DOMA and California's Prop 8

There have been enough analyses of the decisions handed down yesterday and I would only be repeating what they have said.  However, there has been been scant commentary about how each of these decisions could affect Christian churches, particularly those which will not marry and/or bless same sex couples. 

The effects of yesterday's decisions do not give a universal right to gay marriage unlike what happened with Roe v. Wade in 1973 where the Supreme Court found (i.e. invented) a universal right to abortion.  There is speculation that this is merely an incremental step to a larger program of nationalizing gay marriage so as to avoid the controversy that occurred with Roe.  Marriage, gay or straight, still is the province of the states, as it should be and is a victory for federalism.  But, the majorities in both cases essentially hold that the only reason to rule against gay marriage is not because of any legal or constitutional argument, but is rooted strictly in animus or bigotry against gay people.  Here is part of the dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia:

It takes real cheek for today’s majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here—when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the majority’s moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress’s hateful moral judgment against it. I promise you this: The only thing that will “confine” the Court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with. [emphasis mine]
So, where does this leave the churches?  President Obama, in his haste to congratulate the plaintiffs, promised that the churches who oppose gay marriage would be left alone.  He said:

 On an issue as sensitive as this, knowing that Americans hold a wide range of views based on deeply held beliefs, maintaining our nation’s commitment to religious freedom is also vital. How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions.  Nothing about this decision — which applies only to civil marriages — changes that."
However, the Obama administration has demonstrated that freedom of religious expression should only be protected as long as that religious expression is an expressed endorsement of his statist goals.  One need only look at the administration's opposition to a Lutheran church in the Hosanna Tabor decision, where a unanimous supreme court said that the federal government had no business telling a church who it could ordain and who it couldn't.  And right now, there are many cases going on where businesses are fighting the HHS mandate that employers are required, under Obamacare, to provide abortifacients and  birth control to employees, regardless of whether they want them or not.  Some of these challenges are progressing favorably against the administration.  So, I take President Obama's statement cum grano salis.  We should not forget that the Supreme Court ruled that Bob Jones University did not qualify for tax exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating.  Well, if that form of bigotry is penalized by the state, is it unreasonable to ask how long before churches would be penalized in a similar way for not marrying same sex couples?

I don't care if two gay or lesbian people are together. That's their business and I have many other important things to worry about.  However, the insistence of the gay lobby that everyone else must accept and rejoice in what is their private business is offensive.  That's not tolerance; that's sanction. Tolerance is live and let live. Sanction means approval. And the two are not one and the same.  Justice Kennedy pretty much declared that those of us who oppose gay marriage are bigots. And if gay marriage ever becomes the law of the land (whether by judicial fiat, congressional action or if all states approve it), then those of opposed will be on the same level as racists and segregationists and members of the Ku Klux Klan.  If anyone thinks that if such a scenario ever occurred that churches would be exempted are wrong.  History is replete with examples.

In Italy, during the Mussolini reign, Catholic priests who actively preached against and condemned fascism were invited by the Fascist Leadership to have a couple of drinks.  One week, it would be one drink. If the behavior persisted, the next time would be two drinks and so on.  The drinks in question were castor oil, too much of which will be fatal and pretty gruesome. 

I certainly hope that the Orthodox Church is not forced into marrying gay couples.  The Orthodox Church has not had to deal with the issues that other Christian confessions are confronted with because of our own unique history and our relative immunity to the rampant secularism of Europe. 

At the same time, maybe a good persecution is what we need. (More on that later)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Explanation of the Icon of Pentecost

Happy Pentecost.  This great feast now brings to a close (for the most part) the season of the Church Year where the Pentecostarion has been our main guide to the weeks since Pascha.  After next week, we will put it away for another year and resume ordinary time with almost exclusive use of the Octoechos and the Menaion.  For more than a third of the year, we have been guided through the life of Christ with almost exclusive use of the Triodion and the Pentecostarion.  Now, the Spirit must take over and guide us in the Life of Christ through His Saints. 

The Icon of this feast has baffled me for a long time and I've never been able to figure it out, but thank goodness there are wiser people out there in the blogosphere who have access to knowledge which I lack.  The following is an explanation of the icon of Pentecost and how the Eastern depiction differs from depictions in the west.

This explanation is taken from the book The Meaning of Icons by Vladimir Lossky and reprinted on the website Mystagogy.

The Eastern icon representing the Great Feast of Pentecost is probably unfamiliar to most Westerners. In the Western painting tradition, the tongues of fire and the presence of the Holy Mother of God are emphasized along with, of course, the twelve apostles. At times, depending on the artist and style of the period in which the work was created, the scene can be quite animated with gesticulating figures and a composition suggesting confusion or wonderment. Excitement may seem to permeate the atmosphere.

In the Eastern tradition, icons of the Pentecost don’t always depict tongues of fire. Instead, at the top of the icon a circle or semicircle represents heaven and from its center, twelve rays point downward toward the twelve apostles, symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Also, absent from the scene (in many Eastern icons) is the All-Holy Mother of God which is strange because the Acts of the Apostles makes a point of telling she was present. Such a glaring omission begs for an explanation. Here it is: The Pentecost icons of the Eastern Church, unlike the images of the event in the Western Church, stress the underlying ecclesiological meaning of Pentecost and less so the narrative details of the descent of the Spirit or observable physical facts, as reported in Acts.
Along the same lines, in the icon at the bottom of (many) Eastern icons, is an image of something not reported in Acts. It appears to be a tomb with a king standing in the blackness of the interior. He holds a white cloth supporting twelve written scrolls. The king actually personifies the great multitude of people gathered in Jerusalem for the holy day. The image is called “Cosmos” and the dark place in which the king stands represents the whole world which had formally been without faith and had suffered under the weight of Adam’s sin. The red garment the king wears symbolizes pagan or the devil’s blood sacrifices, and the crown he wears signifies sin which ruled the world. The white cloth and twelve scrolls symbolize the twelve apostles who brought Christ’s light to the world through their teaching.

That is the core message of the Eastern depiction of Pentecost. The message is not so much about the physical manifestations of the descent of Holy Spirit as it is the substantial presence of the Spirit in the Church, acting through the Church, to sanctify the world. The Ascension of the Lord represented the end of Christ’s earthly mission and Pentecost represented the beginning of the residency of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Rather than a general disturbance - often portrayed in Western images of Pentecost - caused by the descent of the Spirit, Eastern icons of the event express an overall sense of order, calm and solemnity. Here we see the unity and singleness of purpose of the hierarchic Church in converting the world. A formal arrangement of the apostles in a semi-circle surrounding the tomb and king is broken only by an empty space in the seating arrangement at the top of the bend. It is the seat reserved for Christ, the head of the Church. On close inspection, you will notice that the apostles are depicted in inverse perspective: the size of the figures grow bigger the closer they are to the seat reserved for Christ. St. Peter sits to the right (our left) and St. Paul, to the left (our right). St. Paul, of course, was not present at Pentecost, but that fact is not relevant here where the meaning of the icon is the substantial presence of the Spirit in the institutional Church. Actually, there are a few others also represented here who were not of the original twelve apostles: Luke the Evangelist (third from the top on the left) and Mark the Evangelist (third from the top on the right). They hold their gospel books. Paul also holds a book, symbolizing his letters. Others hold scrolls, symbols of having received the gift of teaching.

Contrasting with the uniformity of the semi-circle, and in harmony with the hierarchic detail, are the variety of poses in the figures of the apostles. No two figures strike the same pose. This goes to the inner meaning of the icon: although there is the one Spirit - one Body - each member is given special gifts.

As liturgical art, icons open a door for the worshiper into a transfigured world and into an experience of sacred time. An icon compresses events into one image and folds time into a holy present in order to communicate an inner meaning. It all comes together in this icon to show us the divine guidance given to the hierarchic Church in the conversion of the world.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Nothing is your fault

You may have read the headlines yesterday where the AMA (American Medical Association) labeled obesity as a disease.  That's right.  Obesity has now joined the undistinguished and now easy to get into club of diseases joining AIDS, cancer, alcoholism, the common cold, flu, chicken pox, etc..  You can read details here. 

What does this say about the AMA and society at large?  We have essentially made a lack of willpower into a disease which is therefore out of someone's hands to control and must be treated medically.  Are we saying that the deadly sin of gluttony is just a medical condition?  I hope not.  Now, before you condemn me for being insensitive, let me be clear that I do realize that there are medical conditions such as those that affect the hypothalamus or thyroid gland that can trigger overeating and also obesity is a trait in my family and something that I particularly have to guard against especially if I want to remain on the earth long enough to raise my son with my wife.

So, what is the AMA telling us?  Quite simply: it's not your fault.  Just like alcoholism: it's not your fault. You have a disease. You're powerless. You need medicine, you need doctors, you need pills, you need hospitals or rehabilitation centers.  YOU'RE NOT AT FAULT!

I doubt if the AMA was looking towards modern Protestantism when it redefined obesity as a disease, but modern Protestantism does seem often enough to emphasize that it's not your fault since God loves you anyway.  Maybe that same cultural opinion has informed the AMA.  The point is that this should not be surprising in any way.  Our culture regards sin as something that results from mitigating circumstances.  The reason he murdered that person is because he wasn't loved as a child. The reason she stole is because she grew up impoverished.  The reason he raped is because he was spurned by women.  The list goes on and on.  What are we responsible for anymore?  Nothing, it seems.  Everything can be reduced to a legal justification and now, a disease.

When Christ (and also St. John the Baptist) began his ministry, his first word was "repent!"  Now, the Greek word for "repent" is μετανοιετε.  Literally, it means to change your nous which is often mistranslated as mind.  The nous is called the window into the soul by St. John Damascene.  It is more than an intellectual sifter. I could dedicate a whole post to what the word means.  The nous, though, is something that sets us apart as human beings, created in the image of God, from the animals.  Repentance is created by change of our very self, not mere words or platitudes we say, but a  change in who we are to grow in union with Christ.   If nothing is our fault, then there can be no repentance.  Repentance demands us to see fault.  How can we change if we don't know from what we need to flee? 

Repentance also demands the use of our will oriented towards God.  St. Augustine says that the will is a medium bonum, a so-so good thing.  It can be used for good just as it can for evil.  The will also is one of the Trinity of the mind.  Will is joined with memory and reason.  All of those coexist or subsist within each other yet will is not reason and reason is not memory and memory not will. (Very Trinitarian, wouldn't you say?). If one of those is shackled then the others are affected.  God's will, reason and memory are perfect.  Ours are not.  But if God is also just, how can any of us be condemned if we were not responsible for our own actions?  Free will may be shackled, but it can still break the chains.

I wonder how many of us will plead before the dread judgment that our sins are not our fault?  Hopefully, someone will shut us up before we get that far.  Fortunately, Christ is also merciful and compassionate and loving; maybe He will overlook the fault that we should declare and simply say, "Come and sit at my right hand."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kermit Gosnell Verdict

Two days ago, the abortionist Kermit Gosnell was found guilty on three counts of first degree murder and several other lesser charges.  He will spend the rest of his days in  jail, having agreed to not appeal in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table.  Gosnell severed the spines of three (most likely many more) babies who had survived failed abortion attempts (from him).  The babies were out of the womb, breathing and viable, yet he decided to finish the job anyway.  The sickening, chilling, appalling actions of this person are too graphic to be retold here.  One thing we opponents of abortion should not do is regard this as a victory:  it isn't.

All that has happened is that society actually agrees (for now anyway) that murdering  someone outside of the womb is reprehensible and that justice needs to be served.  This verdict in no way has moved the needle, morally or legally, on whether society deems murder inside the womb as something that needs to be addressed within a legal and/or moral context.  Abortions are still occurring every year, reaching over 1,000,000 every single year.  Every anti-abortion law or notification law is either struck down or held up in the courts pending appeal or review or injunction.  Third trimester abortions are still condoned by pro-abortion groups.  Nothing has changed.

Even NARAL, the bona fide pro-abortion group, even lauded the decision, but with a noticeable caveat.  They say that Kermit Gosnell is what happens when anti-abortionists create laws against abortion or make it less accessible.  You can read their talking points propaganda here.  I can refute the claims of NARAL one by one (here's one: NARAL's argument that opposing abortion drives people to Gosnell is akin to saying that criminalizing rapists and putting them behind bars will amount to more horrible rapes.), but it's interesting that NARAL refuses to consider Kermit Gosnell as one of their own.  They've distanced themselves from him saying that he goes beyond their stated objectives.  Gosnell killed babies only minutes old out of the womb and NARAL sanctions it as long as the baby is inside the womb.  What's a few minutes of time when it comes down to human life when you think about it?  Enough to make Gosnell a monster, an aberration while NARAL is represented as moderate and having common sense.

Still, in this country, abortion is legal for all times, all circumstances.  There may be delays, but the end result is the same.  Even though certain polls over the last few years have indicated that the majority of Americans will allow for abortion for life-saving instances only and a plurality favors outlawing it for all cases, there has been little to change the amount of abortions that happen in this country.  That 1,000,000 mark is as consistent now as it was in 1973.  This will continue to be the case as long as Roe v. Wade, a decision which even some of the most fierce pro-abortionist leftists condemn as bad constitutional law (cf. Michael Kinsley).

There is nothing to celebrate here.  Yes, we should be grateful that this person can no longer murder babies who survived his abortions.  But as far as a game changer in the whole abortion debate and its legal status in this country, nothing has changed and the so-called "common ground" that pro and anti-abortionists share is still only that killing persons outside of the womb is reprehensible and should be punished.

One more thing on a side note: The proponents of gay marriage tell us that gay marriage should be allowed because of the advances in science with regards to sexuality.  Science should be our guide, not some old religious objection.  Well, science has also opened the door very wide to know that children in the womb feel pain, they respond to stimuli and even smile and laugh.  They have heartbeats, they have fingernails.  But apparently, that science is not to be considered.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Χριστος Ανεστη

May He who arose from the dead grant all of you eternal life and the Great Mercy.  Belated Pascha.  Χριστος Ανεστη!  Καλω Πασχα!  Here's some music to give you joy...just in case some of it may have been lost since last Sunday.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Blessed is he who is found watching

The Holiest of weeks is now here and we usher it in with this chant:

Ἰδοὺ ὁ Νυμφίος ἔρχεται ἐν τῷ μέσῳ τῆς νυκτός, καὶ μακάριος ὁ δοῦλος, ὃν εὑρήσει γρηγοροῦντα, ἀνάξιος δὲ πάλιν, ὃν εὑρήσει ῥαθυμοῦντα. Βλέπε οὖν ψυχή μου, μὴ τῷ ὕπνῳ κατενεχθής, ἵνα μῄ τῷ θανάτῳ παραδοθῇς, καὶ τῆς βασιλείας ἔξω κλεισθῇς, ἀλλὰ ἀνάνηψον κράζουσα· Ἅγιος, Ἅγιος, Ἅγιος εἶ ὁ Θεός, δια πρεσβαις των Ασοματων ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς.

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching,
and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not
be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God, Through the intercessions of the Bodiless Powers, have mercy on us.

May Christ our God, who is going to His voluntary Passion, bring us with fervent faith and joy to worship His Crucifixion, Death, Burial and Resurrection and bestow upon us eternal life and the Great Mercy.