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.