Archive for November, 2007

Friday – the Day of the Cross

November 30, 2007


From an earlier post on the Cross.

In writing about our union with Christ I offered the following as the response to a question. It seemed to me, worth a posting of its own, though it be short. I have, however, added a few thoughts to it.

There are many ways of which to speak of Christ’s work on the Cross, all of them, of course, seeing it as central. In some ways, it is the whole of the Old Testament in a single moment. Which image of sacrifice is not fulfilled in that Great Sacrifice, and yet there are many images? Christ is also the Paschal Lamb, which itself is not part of the normal sacrificial system and yet it is in the Cross as well.

Nor does the sacrificial system make much sense except by some aspect of union with that which is offered. But on the Cross, Christ completes His union with us, if I may be so bold, by assuming even our death that by death He might trample down death.

The mistake too easily made is to think of the Cross as only one thing. The Cross is everything. All things are summed up and completed by Christ on the Cross, just so, everything is summed up and healed in His resurrection from the Dead. On the Cross He is the serpent lifted in the wilderness. On the Cross He is the Lamb of the Passover. On the Cross He is the Offering of Atonement. On the Cross He is Moses’ staff stretched over the waters of the Red Sea. On the Cross He is the arms of Moses stretched out at the destruction of Amalek. On the Cross He is the ram in the thicket that God gave in place of Isaac. On the Cross He is Blood poured out on the Mercy Seat. On the Cross He is the love of God made manifest in its utter self-emptying. On the Cross He is the Bridegroom now come for His bride to bring her back from the dead. On the Cross He is man in His alienation from God and God in His union with man.

All of these are part of the fullness of what it means to be forgiven, and I have only barely touched the edge of it. God has reconciled us to Himself through the Cross of Christ. This is not to say one thing – it is to say everything.

We’ll have read my writings wrong if it is seen that I have offered “the” explanation of the Cross. The Cross is the explanation of everything else, while no one other thing can explain the Cross.

Thursdays – the Holy Apostles and Great Hierarchs

November 29, 2007


Thursdays in the Orthodox Church are devoted to the Holy Apostles and the Great Hierarchs, especially St. Nicholas of Myra, the Wonderworker. As someone noted earlier, Thursday is the “twelfth” day of the week (if Sunday is eight) thus the association of the 12 Apostles – though which came first – the designation or the reckoning is known only to the angels – but that was Monday…

St. Paul states: the Church is built upon the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The “prophets” here refer to the Old Tesament writers. But for the present the Church stands as well on the living work of the Apostles, and I might add that great number of saints who bear the title “equal-to-the-apostles” not because they held such a rank in the Church, but their actions of proclaiming Christ was either equal to the Apostles in its importance (as Mary Magdalene, Equal to the Apostles, is as the first witness of the resurrection), or because their work brought about the conversion of whole nations (St. Vladimir, St. Patrick, St. Nina of Georgia, etc.).

Nothing replaces the cornerstone, for it is always Christ that is preached. But it is significant that what St. Paul cites as the foundation of our life and existence in Christ are people. It is the living stones of the Apostles that make our faith possible. And those foundations continue with the living apostolic witness of the Church. For we have not accepted mere theory about the risen Lord, or a mere set of abstract doctrinal statements, but the Living Lord Himself, who is presented to us in the Apostolic witness. I know Christ – the same Christ as was known and preached. Thus the Church remains a living Church, not because of historical witness, but because that “historical” witness abides in the Church in a living form, whether in the living successors of the Apostolic work, the Bishops, or in those who, gifted by God, continue that same living witness, all, of course, through the abiding, living presence of the Spirit.

As for St. Nicholas, great wonderworker and Ecumenical Teacher! Why are some saints so popular in the Orthodox Church? I assure you it is not their historic importance. St. Nicholas was but a minor voice and bishop at the council of Nicaea. It is the fact that as an intercessor before God on behalf of the people of God, he remains powerful and dependable. People love St. Nicholas because they know him! and they know the power of his prayers! All the historical arguments by all the theologians cannot change this simple existential vote of the people of God. Thus St. Seraphim, St. Nektarios of Aegina, St. Panteleimon, and a host of others who are not large forces in the pages of anyone’s history book, remain among the most active members of every congregation. I cannot explain one saint over another – but I know the power of their popularity and have watched it grow even within the ranks of converts. Go figure.

Unexpected Travel

November 28, 2007

I am rather unexpectedly traveling to Indianapolis for a meeting Thursday and Friday and will post as I get a chance (hotel at night, I suppose). I would appreciate prayer and patience with the blog as I will be out-of-pocket for most of the next two days.

Wednesday – The Cross and the Betrayal of Christ

November 27, 2007


Wednesdays and Fridays of the Orthodox week are always observed more solemnly than other days in terms of fasting and prayer. The use of these days in this manner can be dated as early as the first century. The Didache, a Palestinian Christian document as old as many parts of the New Testament but not included in the canon, mentions fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays and contrasts it to the Jewish (Pharasaic) practice of fasting on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Regardless of the reasons those days may have been observed as days of fasting in the first century, Tradition quickly associated them with the Cross (Friday especially) and Wednesday with the betrayal and sufferings of Christ (although in Holy Week the betrayal of Christ occurs, it seems, on Thursday).

Nonetheless as Tradition has handled Wednesday – the pace of the week changes. Our thoughts turn to the fact that we were bought with a price – nothing other than the self-sacrificial love of God on the Cross. Our own lives are so far removed from this self-sacrifice that we do well to stop and remember this sacrifice frequently. Indeed St. Paul told the Corinthians that he had determined to know nothing among them “except for Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

I have frequently wondered how many conversations we would have were we standing at the foot of the Cross. Not that we would not have conversations – but how the conversations would change. The whole world stands before the foot of the Cross whether it chooses to see it or know it and all that happens will be judged by that standard. The only word of judgment from the Cross itself, of course, is “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” But even that word of forgiveness judges us (or we put ourselves into judgement) as the banality of our concerns turn to ashes before the love of God made manifest.

What can I say before the Cross other than to echo the words spoken there? To admit that I thirst and that God, in His love, thirsts for me, though I refuse to give Him drink. That everything is finished, all is accomplished, and yet I live as though Christ had not already gained every victory and made all things well. That I am part of the family of God, loved by His Mother whom He has given to His Church and adopted as God’s son by so great a love. What more could we say or want to know?

Wednesday in the world is known as the “hump,” the middle of the week when we “get over the hump.” In too many ways we get over the hump by selling Christ for silver. You work out the metaphor.

It is Wednesday – time to eat less – to pray more – to stand before the Cross – to keep my eyes and hands away from the silver the world would give me. Better to starve than to eat the bread of the wicked.

Psalm 50(1)

November 26, 2007

The singing of Psalm 50(1) from Romania

Tuesday – the Day of the Forerunner

November 26, 2007


Tuesdays in the Orthodox week, are dedicated to St. John the Forerunner and Baptist of our Lord (to use his full title). For me he is one of the most remarkable figures in all of Holy Scripture. Referred to by Christ as the “greatest of those born of women” (yet “less than any in the Kingdom of God”), he stands as the end of one Covenant and the bridge to the beginning of another. One of my favorite details of his life is that he is the first human being to show devotion to the Mother of God (“the babe in my womb leaped at the sound of your voice,” his mother said to the Theotokos in her greeting).

Orthodoxy has a devotion to him that is largely absent in Western Christianity. His icon, in some forms of Orthodox tradition, is always to be found on the icon screen that frames the Sanctuary (altar area) of the Church. The Church’s devotion to St. John underscores the fact that Orthodoxy venerates saints of the Old Testament as well as the New.

It is a part of Church Tradition that St. John, martyred prior to the arrest and sufferings of Christ, entered Hades ahead of the Lord to prepare the way of His coming there (on Holy Saturday) just as he had prepared the way for His coming on earth. It is a wilderness indeed that heard the crying of his voice!

One of my favorite icons of St. John is also on the icon screen in my parish. There, in typical iconic fashion, the icon shatters all the limits of time and space and depicts the whole of St. John and his message in the image of a single icon. He is dressed in camel hair, the mark of his asceticism. He is depicted with wings, like an angel, for he is the “Messenger (Angelos in Greek) who will go before My face.” A tree with an axe is shown marking his prophecy, “Therefore the axe is laid to the root.” His head is shown on a platter as well in one corner of the icon to note the manner of his death. Over time I have come to love this icon and have offered many moliebens (a service of special supplication) before it for particular needs in my congregation and family. I also have a few treasured stories of the icon from the lips of parishioners over the years.

St. John, Baptist and Forerunner of our Lord, is a link of Old and New Testament – and in that capacity is among the many reminders that the faith is a fullness. The Law has not been abolished but fulfilled. We have not forgotten the Old but now see it in the fullness of its meaning.

Troparion of the Forerunner – Tone 4

Prophet and Forerunner of the coming of Christ,
although we cannot praise you worthily,
we honor you in love at your nativity,
for by it you ended your father’s silence and your mother’s barrenness,
proclaiming to the world the incarnation of the Son of God!

Mission and Worship – America and the Orthodox

November 26, 2007


The following post is an expanded version of a comment I wrote in a recent thread. The question to which it responds is the Scriptural mandate of St. Paul (1 Cor. 9:19-23):

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

 To what extent should the Church be “enculturated” in its presentation of the Gospel? The question grew out of a discussion occasioned by observations on the development of “niche Churches or services” in which a specific market niche (of music) is used to target a particular segment of our culture. The answer I wrote, I feel, bears wider reading than is generally found in the comments section of the blog, and worthy of wider conversation. I have also edited and expanded it.

Orthodox mission historically has always sought to “enculturate” the gospel – whether in antiquity or in modern times. The Russian mission to Alaska in the 1700’s and early 1800’s immediately developed native alphabets, translated texts and trained and ordained native clergy. In antiquity the Orthodox held steadfastly to this rule and developed an alphabet for the Slavic languages and missionized Eastern Europe and Russia. Today it is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa in a very successful mission under the direction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. This enculturation is, for the Orthodox, a matter of dogma. It is the Incarnation in practice in the life of the Church.

The American experience (as well as Western Europe to some extent and Australia) is slightly different. Here, much of the Orthodox population did not arrive as missionaries but as economically oppressed peoples who then went to work in mines and factories. They were not trained as missionaries. For them, the Church came first to provide pastoral care for a “diaspora.” Thus there remains an “ethnic” portion of Orthodoxy in America who have, to some extent, maintained ties with their native cultures. When converts or those interested in Orthodoxy first encounter the Church in such ethnic settings – it is easy to conclude that the Orthodox are not interested in mission or that St. Paul’s mandate is being ignored. Sometimes such parishes are the only Orthodox option within an entire city or even larger area. But this is only one aspect of Orthodoxy and one occasioned by unique historical factors. That it will eventually cease and take on a more normative form is simply a given. Time, language and shifting circumstances will bring about a change regardless of other events.

 There is also a strong Orthodox mission component in America very sensitive to the mandate of St. Paul. But in thinking of culture and enculturation, we should not confuse American culture with the music, etc., being marketed by mass media to various niche groups. My teenage daughter recently gave my wife and I an education in the various groups that constitute her high school including the fashions that mark them and what music they listen to. She is very ecclectic and had with her samples of almost every group. It turned a Thanksgiving trip into an Anthropology class in American Teen, 101.

What we heard is not folk culture – it is not even necessarily American culture – it is mass culture – produced and marketed to people’s passions to exploit in many cases the very lowest elements of their nature. It provides a manufactured identity which is naturally sought by teenage insecurity. But, as such, it should not be confused with culture.

Much American music (by no means all) is to music what pornography is to art. St. Paul did not adopt the pornographic culture of Corinth for the purposes of the Church but rebuked it. The Orthodox Church is speaking English (increasingly) and has already become American (if there are Orthodox who think the Church is not enough American yet, go overseas and you’ll see just how American we are already). The Orthodox are engaging the main issues of this culture as clearly as anyone if not more clearly than most.

No one says that mainline Episcopalians are not American, but they have a recent history of funding abortion, and endorsing the revisionism of Hollywood culture. Such practices present only a distortion of the gospel, wrapping liberal American rhetoric in theological jargon. Thus arguments in favor of women’s ordination, regardless of Scriptures cited, are inevitably rooted in American Constitutional thought and not theology.

Orthodoxy speaks English and says clearly that abortion is wrong and destructive to both mother and child. It speaks to our consumerist economy and says that consumerism has no place in the spiritual life of the Church. Rather it is destructive of the human spirit. Worshipping God primarily in a manner that you find pleasing isn’t spiritual, it’s just more consumer nonsense. The Scriptures tell us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1).

Of course the Church has to be able to speak to a culture. My Orthodox parish is full of converts (possibly as much as 85% of the congregation). It ranges from those with a high school diploma only to PhD physicists – from every background – atheist, wiccan, protestant, catholic, evangelical, you name it. We have probably 8 or more nationalities (out of 150 people). They have not had to embrace a culture foreign to America in order to be Orthodox, but have to embrace God who will transform this and every culture that it might become the Kingdom of God. 

Ascribing to the notion that we have to cater to the market whims of American music in order to reach people is simply not true. Such ideas are destroying the very evangelical movement that gave them birth. Finney (one of the fathers of modern evangelicalism) was wrong about a number of things – but the modern translation of his evangelical mandate into the culture morphing of the “niche” Churches is perhaps the worst use ever made of his ideas. “Praise” is used as a very large metaphor to cover much that is simply an indulgence of the flesh.

I have spent plenty of time with youth of both highschool and college years, who have been nurtured in Orthodox life. They’re not anti-music, etc. (indeed I like a lot of contemporary music and appreciate my children sharing it with me), but these same youth know what it is to worship God and when it is time to lay aside “all earthly cares” and offer God praise that is worthy (if any praise can be worthy) and in a spirit that is yielded to God and not something else. Presenting the Gospel to youth in America very much means to draw them beyond the boundaries of their own “niche” and into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.

I agree that we have to minister to a culture, but I do not think that each age group’s niche music is the same thing as culture – nor many other facets of American life. Having drive-through communion, for instance, (which is done in some few Protestant places), certainly incorporates an element of American culture – but it borders on blasphemy. Where do you draw the line when it comes to enculturation? I draw the line at accepting the received Tradition of the Church and translating that into our culture. This, of course, is a difficulty with Evangelicalism in which the Tradition of the Church has been rejected in favor of modernist assemblies.

If the Tradition of the Church is followed it will certainly mean that worship will be liturgical (which is not foreign to American culture) and according to the form given us from the Fathers, though it will be in English and in music that is accessible to Americans (thus far, the range of music within Orthodoxy has been sufficient for American evangelism, though we continue to write more). But our lives will be focused on the Gospel, and the Traditions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as given to us by the Fathers (Orthodoxy and Orthodopraxis). This is the saving work given to the Church.

American pop culture (the “culture” produced by the entertainment industry) is one of our major exports. It exists not as culture but as an economic activity (all they want is your money). When the Church marries itself to one of these “cultural” forms and offers it as worship it inevitably becomes a missionary tool of the American economic enterprise. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of American “rock and roll” Churches in Russia being established to compete with the native Orthodox Church. I have no doubt that such strategies are successful – but successful at what? Attendance numbers are no measure of the spiritual life. American Protestants are surprised when Orthodox in these countries resist their presence and see them simply as “foreign agents.” Culturally they are.

St. Paul’s rule in 1 Corinthians 9 is what the Orthodox describe as “economy.” Under the economy of salvation, I may stretch the limits of the canonical life (the regular life of the Church) in order to bring salvation to others. One of my favorite examples of such economy is found in the original Orthodox Alaska mission.

Missionaries there found a tribe of Native Alaskans who lived exclusively on cariboo. There were no vegetables in their diet – only cariboo. The first conundrum arose with the question of fasting. It is traditional for Orthodox to fast from meat, fish, wine, dairy and olive oil during a fast period (such as Great Lent). What to tell these native Alaskans? The missionaries wrote back to the Bishop who responded: “During the fast, tell them to eat less cariboo.” A perfect Orthodox solution.

Orthodox worship represents 2,000 years of Christian practice. It not only embodies the Gospel and our worship of God, but also teaches, in an embodied form, important aspects of the spiritual life. Learning sobriety, humility, the reality of the communion of saints, the capacity for awe and the ascesis of prayer (prayer is work – and hard work at that), are all very deep parts of Orthodox worship. Their loss in much of Western worship (particularly in the liturgical reforms of the last 50 years) have guaranteed a weakening of Christian spirituality at a time when it is needed more than ever.

If our culture is ever to wake up from its enthrallment to Mammon and enter seriously into the life God has prepared for us – I can see no vehicle other than Orthodoxy that is prepared to teach such an awakening in an embodied form. I have no idea what the future holds for our culture or for world culture. God alone knows that. But I do know that whatever the future holds, knowing God deeply and learning the practices proper to the Christian life will be more essential rather than less. “Dumbing down” our schools is not working for education – spiritually “dumbing down” Christianity cannot be good for us either. We do not need less – we need more – we need the fullness. Why ask for less? To read more on this last question see my article: How much is too little? How much is enough?

Monday – the Day of the Holy Angels

November 25, 2007


Yesterday I set out to write a short piece on each day of the week. In the Orthodox calendar, each day of the week has its own particular dedication – an aspect of the life and ministry of Christ or of our life as Christians. Monday is remembered as the Day of the Angels. The hymns for this day will always reflect, in some manner, the ministry of angels.

The Scriptures are filled with the stories of angels – whether encounters with angels by men or women – or visions of angels (described in numbers that represent a near infinity) surrounding God or His throne.

The first sort of story I find of interest because it says we are not alone – that is – not alone among sentient creatures. We are not the only creature who can give voice to praise. We are told in Scripture that the angels are “ministering servants” – as far as we are concerned they are here to help.

I have collected (mentally) many stories of modern angelic encounters over the years and marvel at each one. Some are simply unusual but otherwise mundane – a stranger who acted on someone’s behalf and then seemed to have vanished. Others are stories of angels that could have been taken from Scripture – complete with wings! Among those is one related from the childhood of Mother Alexandra (the former Princess Ileana of Romania).

Of the visions recorded in Scripture – I find it interesting that there is no description of a heavenly vision of God or His throne (however obliquely God may be described) that does not include a numberless host of angels. God is not spoken of as the Alone – but as the Lord God of Sabbaoth (Hosts).

Thus I begin my Monday with a remembrance that I am not alone – my prayers and praises are part of a vast chorus that fills the universe and beyond. Nor do I dwell alone. I am watched and guarded by the good God who created me, and by His angels that surround me.

Troparion to St. Michael in the 4th tone

O Commander of the Heavenly Hosts,

We who are unworthy beseech you

That by your prayers you will encompass us

Beneath the wings of your immaterial glory

And protect us who fall down and cry:

Deliver us all from harm,

For you are the commander of the powers on high.

Sunday Morning – Resurrection

November 25, 2007


God willing, I offer a set of short meditations this week – on the days of the week. In Orthodoxy each day has its own “dedication,” something which marks the day and its hymnody, etc. Some of those days are more obvious than others.

Perhaps the most obvious day of all is Sunday – the Day of Resurrection. This is the day of the central gathering of the community for worship and to receive Christ’s Body and Blood. It has been so since the beginning despite some recent deviations by uninformed founders of “denominations.” “On the first day of the week,” is the common phrase to be found in the New Testament to describe this day – or St. John’s “On the Lord’s Day,” in his wonderful Revelation.

We gather not to make something happen, but because something kept happening on this day as we gathered. The disciples would find themselves behind locked doors on “that” day only to have the Risen Lord suddenly appear in their midst and say, “Peace be to all.”

Sunday is the great day because it is the Sabbath beyond all Sabbaths. The Orthodox have never argued against Saturday as the Seventh day (Sabbath=Seven in Hebrew). Indeed, to this day the Orthodox treat Saturdays as different than other days.

But Sunday is different in a unique way. The Fathers of the Church called this the “Eighth Day,” meaning the day that had broken the endless cycle of sevens – the Sabbath cycle that marked the life of ancient Israel. This was a day that fulfilled those days and then went beyond into something more – something truly fulfilled. The first Sabbath is described in Genesis as marked by the Lord’s “resting.” Having created the universe, “He rested from all His labors.” Thus God hallowed the Seventh Day.

This cryptic saying (surely you don’t think God got tired and needed to lay down) makes no sense until it is fulfilled in Christ. In the life of Christ we see the first Saturday explained, for, having completed His labor among men, Christ says on the Cross, “It is complete (finished),” and He “gave up the ghost,” i.e. He died. This is God’s rest. Having truly completed the work of creation God “fell asleep,” as the New Testament describes those who have died.

And in His sleep (death), a spear was thrust into His side. Blood and water flowed from that side, and thus the Church, His Bride, was born. Blood and Water, Eucharist and Baptism, are the means by which the Church is birthed and nourished. God’s Great Sabbath was this sleep on the Cross when Creation was truly finished.

And as He slept the sleep of Death, so He harrowed Hell, trampling down death by death, and bringing light to those who had sat in darkness. On Sunday morning He broke the bonds of the captives and smashed the limitations of death, and rose victorious. How, given all of that, do Christians not press forward and celebrate as the Day of Days, that Day which has completed the Sabbath? We do not wait on Saturdays any longer for something to come. It has come and we will never be the same. And now, week after week, we gather in His name, marking that Day of Resurrection, and receive His Body and Blood.

As I noted early, the Orthodox continue to have great reverence for Saturdays, the Sabbath. We are the only Church in Christendom that refrains from celebrations of the Eucharist on Monday through Friday during Great Lent. But we do not fast from such celebrations on either Saturdays or Sundays. These days are different.

But having kept the type, it is far more than incorrect to ignore its fulfillment.

This is Sunday, the Day of Resurrection. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, let us keep the feast.

Safe Return

November 24, 2007

Thank you for your prayers. We have returned safely home – just in time for the weekend’s services. I’ll return to the conversation Sunday evening or Monday morning. Many thanks to all. It looks like there is plenty to look at when I return to my desk.