Archive for December, 2006

The Smallness of God and Anglican Struggles

December 21, 2006

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Whom have we, Lord, like you –

The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,

The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,

The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.

Blessed is your honor!

St. Ephrem the Syrian

We draw near to the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, and I cannot fathom the smallness of God. Things in my life loom so large and every instinct says to overcome the size of a threat by meeting it with a larger threat. But the weakness of God, stronger than death, meets our human life/death by becoming a child – the smallest of us all – man at his weakest – utterly dependent.

And His teaching will never turn away from that reality for a moment. Our greeting of His mission among us is marked by misunderstanding, betrayal, denial and murder. But He greets us with forgiveness, love, and the sacrifice of self.

This way of His is more than a rescue mission mounted to straighten out what we had made crooked. His coming among us is not only action  but also revelation. He does not become unlike Himself in order to make us like Him. The weakness, the smallness, the forgiveness – all that we see in His incarnation – is a revelation of the Truth of God. He became the image of Himself, that we might become the image we were created to be.

My heart has continually turned this week to thoughts of the Anglicans – many of them friends from an earlier time in my life. The news tells me that a number of congregations in Virginia have said they will no longer remain in communion with the Episcopal Church. It will be a painful Christmas for many. My prayer for them is not merely success in one more of the ongoing skirmishes that mark life in our post-Christian era, but that God give them the gift of smallness – to be meek, to be weak, to lose if need be. No one can defeat you if you are willing to be small enough, meek enough, weak enough, if you are willing to lose. Christ traded a throne for a cave. Some may have to trade buildings and beloved properties for the Kingdom of God. It’s a swap that’s been made before.

Orthodox Christians in America and England should never forget the kindness shown to us by Anglicans. Many of our Churches were allowed to grow in their parishes, in a kind sharing of facilities. St. Vladimir’s Seminary first met at the General Seminary in N.Y. St. Tikhon himself, I am told, once lived on that campus.

There was a great generosity from Anglicans that helped make St. Sergius Theological School in Paris a reality. More than that was the simple friendship and warmth given to refugees when huge parts of the Orthodox world seemed to be collapsing. Organizations such as the Fellowship of St. Sergius and St. Albans helped to foster understanding that certainly enriched parts of the theological world.

Today the Orthodox Church has, in its turn, provided a home for many Anglican refugees, fleeing a different collapse – but the hospitality is the same. Many of us had to become “small” in order enter the narrow door of Orthodoxy. But again, this is the way of the Kingdom.

May God give His grace to all – even to those whom I have counted as enemies. It is for their sake that God became small in the first place. How can we do less?

The Priests’ Priest

December 20, 2006

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Today, December 20, is the feast day of St. John of Kronstadt, a modern (early 20th century) Russian priest who is admired by many priests in the Church today. His own asceticism (fasting, etc.) was well beyond what is normally seen in parish priests. He had numerous gifts of the Spirit: prophesying, healing, etc. There were even some unusual liturgical practices associated with his ministry (for that time), such as doing group confessions. These were especially needed because of the huge number of people who came to him for help.

I think to a large degree his popularity among Orthodox priests today is the same as the popularity (if one can use such a word when speaking of the saints) of any saint. They are popular because they inspire by their example and because their prayers are found to be particularly effective. He inspires and, I know, prays mightily for parish priests.

Of my own life I need say nothing. God is good. But I know of many priests who work amazingly long hours and give of themselves emotionally, spiritually and in every possible way in their love for the gospel and the souls of those entrusted to them. This ministry in the Church is itself a “sacrament” or “mystery,” making present a measure of grace that would otherwise not be available to us. The most peculiar part of this mystery is that the priest is a sacrament of Christ. He speaks in His name (in fear and trembling), pronounces the forgiveness of sins (again in fear in trembling), seeks to guide souls, and most especially to intercede and pray for the flock entrusted to him.

The vestments he wears point to this sacramental “Christlike” character of his ministry. Vesting on the morning of a liturgy, the priest becomes aware that the vesting is not about himself, but about “putting on Christ.” The hour or so involved in the service of the Proskomedie, the preparation of the bread and wine for the Liturgy, is rarely witnessed by the faithful. But it is a time of great intimacy, of prayer, of stepping ever deeper into the life of Christ.

St. John of Kronstadt lived at a time when priests in Russia were frequently derided as little more than civil servants. Many were poorly trained. The middle classes were drinking deeply from the wells of modern ideas and assuming that priests were part of all that was passing away. St. John appeared suddenly and contradictorily to the modern world. He was everything the Church had always said priests should be – and he was undeniably real.

Today, when you remember to pray, remember to pray for your priest and give thanks to God that He calls men to live in a manner that is not for themselves, but for others. May St. John pray for parish priests and ease their burdens – but especially to strengthen them for the coming days. For the coming days are always difficult. Such are the times in which we live.

A Word from Romania on our Happiness

December 19, 2006

Father Piciorus Dorin Octavian, who writes the Blog Teologia Pentru Azi (see the Blogroll), posted the following article (in English, thank you). It is about our happiness.

When you have a good heart you begin to see God in yourself. Our happiness is our conscience, is a good intention towards God. For a good conscience you need to reconcile with God and with your heart. The celebration of God’s Nativity is a moment of meeting with our selfs and reconciliation with our past. My happiness is exactly this unity between God’s forgiveness and the beatitude of mercy. This happiness is experienced by the Orthodox Christians in our celebration, in this fullness of grace.

Father Piciorus Dorin Octavian.

Those words are specialy for our Father Stephen from Orthodox America.

I look forward to growing relations with Father Piciorus and the wonderful ties with Orthodox throughout the world. Fr. Piciorus would be interested to know that I have baptized three Romanian babies in the last month. There is a growing Romanian community in our area. Perhaps he should come visit!

The Ancestors of Christ

December 19, 2006

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Prepare yourself, O Ephratha!
The Lamb is on her way to give birth to the Chief Shepherd she carries in her womb.
The God-bearing forefathers will rejoice, beholding Him,
and with the shepherds, they will glorify the Virgin nursing Him.

Kontakion of the Sunday before the Nativity


Part of being a modern man is having relatively few ancestors. At a certain stage in life, it seems, we get interested in geneology (or at least some do). I have a few pages of research, enough to have reached the name of my first direct ancestor to have come to America and vague hints at where in England he may have come from. But I have nothing more.

This is more than some. The modern world, as modern, is inherently anti-historical. History is a limit; tradition an artificial limit to be overcome. We famously re-invent ourselves, the memory of the public being frightfully short.

Watching a prominent politician the other evening, I asked my wife, “Wasn’t he involved in some sort of plagarism scandal a few years back?” She confirmed my memory, but his continued national prominence underlined either the moral bankruptcy of our Republic or the feebleness of our collective memory.

Unless we are royalty, we rarely define ourselves by our ancestors. They, indeed, are the limitations we seek to overcome – each generation excelling the previous. This is the myth of progress.

It should be no surprise that a culture that remembers the Mother of God only with difficulty (even at Christmas sometimes), has virtually no thought for the ancestors of Christ. That the Orthodox Church generally gives two Sundays to their memories is decidedly unmodern.

To hear the reading of the gospel in which the ancestors of Christ are recounted is not only unmodern, it can be decidedly embarrassing (if we were the sort of people to be embarrassed by ancestors).

In St. Matthew’s account Rahab the harlot is mentioned (though she is not referred to as “the harlot”) but it does indelicately state that “David begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah.” The ancestry of Christ is recalled with flagrant reminders of some of its most unseemly moments.

But this is just the point. The God who became incarnate did not come into a humanity that had been pristinely prepared. His geneology, though chosen, hallowed and sanctified by His name, was still full of murderers, thieves and harlots. The most pure virgin stands as a near exception to a common rule (I should certainly add her righteous parents, Joachim and Anna as well).

But it is the brute ugliness of humanity that is remembered in many of the pages of the Scriptures, all of which are a record of sorts of the ancestors of Christ.

But we are all the descendants of harlots, theives and murderers (particularly if you claim any royal blood). The story of humanity, as recalled in Scripture remembers that the murder of a brother was among the first crimes. Such is the human race.

And such is the love of God that He took flesh from that human race and became man. The fact that almost all Christian Churches make no formal mention of the ancestry of Christ, much less a feast day, demonstrates a distinctly modern touch, a growing amnesia that may all too likely forget who Christ Himself is.

He is the God Man who taking our flesh, emptied Himself and entered into the depth of our sin and death. Becoming sin, to use a Biblical expression, He even enters Hell itself to rescue a humanity that we would more easily forget.

When the Orthodox pray for the dead, we sing a hymn, “Memory eternal.” It is far more descriptive of God than us. Our memory is but a feeble flicker, growing ever dimmer. His, a blaze of life, raising the dead. 

The Christmas Tree

December 18, 2006

This is my last comment on Christmas trees this year. Having just drug the 31st tree of my married life into the house and placed it in its stand (involving a drill and not a little work) I believe that whatever the origin of the Christmas tree, it was a curse placed on us by earlier pagans. I will continue to put up trees, but will remember the years of difficulty – the year the tree fell over at least three times, frequently aided by the cat (a questionable creature). Tonight, my son and I have managed to place it in its spot, to be joined later by the ladies of the house who will supervise its decoration. God gave us the Christmas tree in order to create humility at this time of year.

Giving Offense in the Time of Peace and Goodwill

December 18, 2006

I have (undeserved or not) a general reputation as a kind priest, and merciful, and hope that my postings on this blog will maintain that reputation. God help me if I don’t.

It interests me, that making comments about paganism drew not only an unusual number of views for the weekend (that tells me that lots of pagans use the internet). I also found that the simple title “Mother of God” draws quick comment from Protestants who have failed to honor her in accordance with tradition and have lots of the same reasons I’ve heard for years (certainly nothing new) in defending themselves.

I do not need to hear what I’ve heard so many times (particularly when it was wrong the first time it was stated). Both Martin Luther and John Calvin believed that Mary was Ever-Virgin, that is, that she never had children by St. Joseph. To misread Scripture in this manner (that is to see the brothers and sisters of Jesus as literal flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters) runs counter to virtually the unanimous tradition of the Church and even of the first Reformers.

The descendents of these second-generation reformers sought to destroy stained-glass, outlawed Christmas in England, murdered monastics, stole property from the Church, and participated in a bloodbath that would have made the Roman Catholic attrocities of the inquisition look mild. I do not care to sit idly by, while their offspring, many centuries since think to verbally abuse the tradition as if they do not have the blood of generations on their hands. Read some Church history, for heaven’s sake!

If you have to attack Rome, then go visit a Roman Catholic site, they exist in plenty. I cannot and will not defend Rome, I’m Orthodox.

But as a new comer to the blogosphere I’m learning. Certain buzzwords draw readers like flies.

 I will remind others of our general rules around here. If you want to argue, you’ve come to the wrong site. I don’t like to argue. If you disagree, that is fine. Ask questions. I’ll treat all questions with respect. Attacks will simply be deleted. Don’t waste your energy.

May God bless all of you and give you joy, because no matter what you think, He loved you enough to become one of us, and even to enter into Hell to get us out. Can’t get better than that.

As someone on the rescue list I welcome any who will join me.

Peace on earth and goodwill toward men!

The Mother of God

December 18, 2006

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One aspect of Christmas (including Protestant Christmas) that I always enjoyed was the increasing attention given to the Mother of Jesus. Christmas cards feature her; hymns of “Mary, meek and mild” are sung. And even though such popular treatments will fall far short of the theological fullness of the one who gave birth to God the Word, it has always, nevertheless, been comforting to hear her get at least some public mention.

In the Orthodox world public mention is the least of the matter. There is a recognition of the radical implications contained in the phrase, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord, be done unto me according to Thy word.” These implications grew in the Church – they are already there in Scripture for those who had the eyes to see – finally to a point where they spilled over into the prayers and praises of the people of God. At some point, at least by the early 4th century, she was being hymned as the “Theotokos,” the “one who gave birth to God.” It was the only fitting title, if Christ was who the Church said He was, fully God and fully man. There was no lack of subtlety in the Church’s understanding. Anyone capable of writing on the exact nature of the hypostatic union is also capable of being quite precise about the meaning and limits of the word “Theotokos.”

But a clear understanding developed: there could be no incarnate Word of God that was not accompanied by the Mother of the Word. No incarnation is possible without the “yes” of Mary. And this yes is significant and not accidental.

Fathers of the Church, studying Scripture saw not only what was said in the New Testament, but saw as well what was “almost said” in the Old Testament. That the Word would become Man and dwell among us is largely hidden in figure and allusion in the Old Testament. Its meaning never becomes clear until it is reread in the light of Christ Jesus. So, the language of Mary would not be clear until read in that same light.

If He was the Light of the World, she was the Lampstand (as in the Temple). Indeed if He is God among us, she is the Temple. She was the Bush who was on fire and yet not burned – in that she was the Virgin who gave birth and yet remained a virgin. She was the Ark of the Covenant containing not the tablets of the law, but the Law of God incarnate.

And the figures go on. Orthodoxy does not worship Mary. She is not God, she is not such as can be worshipped. But among all of God’s created order there is nothing, no one, like her. Her obedience and humility are a fitting throne for God. Her devotion at the Cross was what the devotion of the brave disciples should have been. This woman, was “bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh” or rather, “He was bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.

In some small ways our culture will acknowledge her this year. They are small ways because without the fullness of dogma she cannot be properly extolled.

But every week, every day in the year, she is remembered in the Orthodox Church with the ancient hymn, Axion Estin.

It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos,

Ever blessed and most pure and the mother of our God.

More honorable than the cherubim,

More glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,

Without corruption you gave birth to God the Word,

True Theotokos, we magnify you!

How Do We See Our Neighbor?

December 18, 2006

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This is a short excerpt from the book, The Monk of Mount Athos, by Fr. Sophrony on the life of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. It says much about how we see one another, and how the transformation of the world has to begin with our own selves.

We see in others that which our own spiritual experience has shown us about ourselves, and so a man’s attitude to his fellow is a sure sign of the degree of self-knowledge he has attained. Whoever has experienced the deep and intense suffering of the human spirit when excluded from the light of true being, and, on the other hand, knows what it is to be in God, has no doubt that every human being is a permanent eternal value, more precious than all the rest of the world. He is conscious of man’s worth, conscious that ‘the least of these my brethren’ is dear in God’s sight, and so he will never think of murdering, harming or even giving offense to his neighbor.

The man who merely ‘believes’, the man with only a moderate personal experience of grace and a still vague sense of the reality of eternal life, will in the measure of his love for God keep himself from sin; but his love will be far from perfect and may not prevent him from hurting his brother.

But the man who pitilessly, for his own benefit and interest, harms another, who plots or commits bloodshed, has either become like a wild animal and acknowledges in his depths that he is a brute being – which means that he does not believe in eternal life – or has set his feet on the path of demoniac spirituality.

His vision of Christ gave the Staretz [St. Silouan] to experience man’s godlike state. He hailed all men as bearers of the Holy Spirit, of that Light of Truth which to some degree inhabits and enlightens every man. The man who knows this Light beholds it in others.

Orthodoxy in the Postmodern World

December 17, 2006

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It is a very different landscape we inhabit than our parents or grandparents. I am probably closer to my parents, generationally, than I am to my children. Though we share some songs of rock’n’roll, most of their music is lost on me. It’s not as foreign to me as mine was to my parents, but foreign enough. I find myself saying things that sound like my dad talking (it’s scary).

Our religious landscape has changed as well. I posted an article over the weekend in which I made some comments on pagans. Of course, they’re out there and they offered comments. Not unkind, but corrective. I’ve not left the comments on the blog, by choice, it’s not a conversation I choose to have – or at least not here. And I have to make choices about here because that’s my job (here).

But I will say to all of my pagan readers out there – if I offended you unfairly, I am sorry (I don’t know if pagans practice forgiveness). But everyone is due serious conversation and not something else.

As an Orthodox Christian I am in a time of preparation, looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth. For us it’s a time of moderate fasting (all celebrations are prepared for in that manner). But like Great Lent, it should be a time for forgiving your enemies (and your friends), not a time for giving offense.

My pagan ancestors inhabited the British Isles (none seem to have come from elsewhere). They embraced the Christian faith in what would have been an Orthodox form (there was no other form in those years 400-600 a.d.). They doubtless were later Roman Catholics when that became the Island’s Creed. Those who made it to America got here as dissident Baptists, Free Churchers of one sort or another. According to one account there were over 50 of them that became ordained ministers in the years 1730-1917 (when that count was made).

So that gives me a context that I will not deny. We’ve come full circle. Back to an Orthodoxy (now with Russian, Greek and Arab flavors, that might have been lacking in early Britain).

But the search, daily, is the same, to be at one with the True and Living God. I seek to bear no ill will to any (and fail). But I won’t quit seeking while I have breath.

May God give us a good Nativity celebration this year, by renewing our faith in His love and our surrender to His grace.

Praying Like a Publican

December 17, 2006

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Sometime back someone said to me, “Whenever I’ve sinned I never feel like praying. I feel unworthy and I just can’t pray.”

The statement sounded correct – I’ve had the same feeling often enough. But I kept thinking about it until the question came to me, “What am I waiting to feel before I pray?”

In the case at hand, I would suppose one would be waiting not to feel like such a sinner. And then I understood.

There is the story in Scripture of two men who went to pray, one a Pharisee and one a Publican (bad tax-collector for Rome) (Luke 18:10-14). We are told that the Pharisee prayed easily, lifting his eyes to heaven, and thanking God that “he was not like other men.”

The publican did not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

What struck me on reflection, however, was the puzzle of not wanting to pray when I feel guilty of sin. Having sinned, I do not wish to pray, I do not feel worthy of prayer. What am I waiting on?

I think, upon reflection, I’m waiting until I feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so I can pray, without realizing that such prayer is almost useless. Indeed, strangely, I pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” with greater ease when I feel like a righteous man than when I feel like a sinner.

And this is part of the disease of religion – for make no mistake – religion is frequently a disease.

Relgious feelings (the Pharisees were masters of them) a deceptive in the extreme. I think I feel like praying, I am in fact feeling “pious.” And it’s a deep tragedy. I am not ready to pray – I’m eaten up with myself as a pious man.

When you feel like a Publican, then y0u can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell me, “Father, I can’t serve in the altar today, I don’t feel worthy.” No doubt. But you’re in much greater danger when you do feel worthy.

Come in and approach God’s altar knowing you are not worthy and you will find grace and forgiveness.

None of this is to say don’t go to confession. But it’s good for us to say, sometimes, “Father, forgive me, I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere.

To see the truth of ourselves is a very hard thing. And to love God precisely in the truth of ourselves is harder still. But this He wants from us. Pray like a publican. There are so many more times available for prayer if you do. And while you’re there, pray for those who are praying like a pharisee. May God free us from delusion.