Archive for the ‘Information on the Orthodox Faith’ Category

What Do Angels Guard?

December 13, 2008

angelguardianIt is a commonplace in our culture to speak of guardian angels, particularly when we have come close to a physical disaster and survived. Thus, a near-miss in an auto-accident, or even a survival from a terrible accident, conversation often lightly turns to mention of “my guardian angel.” Of course, such references also raise the question about those who do not survive their accidents, or when near-misses become “head-on.” Are we to infer that one person’s guardian angel did a better job than another’s?

The task of our guardian angels, as understood in the Church’s tradition, is the guarding of our salvation. That guarding may very well include physical protection – though the greater danger for us all in each and every day is the spiritual danger that surrounds us.

These dangers are not simply the things that assault us – but those things that assault us in such a way that our soul itself is imperiled. The mystery of what is to our soul’s benefit and what is to its harm is known to God alone, or to those to whom He choose to reveal it. It is this mystery that the guardian angels serve. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?”

The traditional “prayer to my guardian angel” guides our words to this understanding:

O Angel of Christ, holy guardian and protector of my soul and body, forgive me everything wherein I have offended thee every day of my life, and protect me from all influence and temptation of the evil one. May I nevermore anger God by any sin. Pray for me to the Lord, that He may make me worthy of the grace of the All-holy Trinity, and of the Most Blessed Theotokos, and of all the Saints. Amen.

The language of “angering God by sin” is the traditional metaphor of Scripture in which our sin sets us in opposition to God and thus puts us in the path of His “wrath.” It is not a description of a God whom we make angry.

In like manner, we pray that the Lord will make us worthy of saving grace and of the help of the prayers of the Theotokos and of all the saints. Of course, they will pray for us whether we are worthy or not (else who would ever be prayed for?).

However, the Tradition teaches us all a lesson, and that is to value our salvation above all else. Greater than our wealth, our physical safety, all things in our life. For our salvation (living communion with the True God) is nothing other than our true life. Without that true life we are not physically safe or wealthy or anything that the world values. Without true life we live in a deadly delusion. It is against such deadly delusion that our Guardian Angel and all the saints work and pray. They do not do so as substitutes for the grace of our good God, but in cooperation with that very grace. All of heaven yearns for our salvation and for us to know our true life.

May God keep us!

The Consequence of a Full Faith

July 8, 2008

As noted in a number of earlier posts, I prefer to use the term “fullness” when describing the Orthodox faith because it is far more explanatory than simply saying that we are the “true Church,” etc. “Fullness,” of course does not deny this, but it moves us onto more fruitful ground. I want to take a short look in this post at some of the consequences of giving one’s life to the “fullness of the faith.”

  • It is to accept the corporate nature of our salvation. The model of what it means to be a Christian is to be found in the life of the Holy Trinity. Thus we live no longer for ourselves but for everything and everyone.
  • It is to embrace the Christian faith “without onesidedness” (to quote Fr. Serge Verhovskoy of blessed memory). Thus we do not reduce Christianity to a tension between grace and law, or to an expression merely of the sovereignty of God or any such other reductionist models that have come to be in the past half-millenium.
  • It is to embrace the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, as the full and complete revelation to us of God. His words, His life, His actions, are the complete salvation of all mankind. As He said on the cross: “It is complete.”
  • It is to accept that the faith is larger than we are and that we cannot reduce it to anything less than its fullness and be faithful.
  • The consequence of this last point is that we attend Church always with an attitude of humility for we are standing within the larger life which is itself revealing God to us.
  • We renounce our selves as “autonomous individuals” and recognize instead that we are children of the One God who directs our lives in His commandments and He alone is the definition and meaning of our life.
  • We accept that the Holy Mysteries of the Church (such as Baptism, Chrismation, Penance and Eucharist, Unction, Marriage, and Ordination, are sure means by which God gives His very Life to us, though He may give His life to us in many other ways as well.) Thus we view this Life of Mystery as our true life and not simply an organizational expression of the Church.
  • We accept that we are only the current representatives of this faith on the earth, but that we are joined by a great “cloud of witnesses,” the Saints, by whose prayers we are aided and by whose Holy relics we are encouraged to run the race faithfully to its end. Thus we honor them as Holy friends, and our companions on the road of salvation.
  • Among the saints we recognize the unique place of the Mother of God, whose obedience to the word of God undid the disobedience of Eve, and through whose cooperation with the working of God, salvation became incarnate in the God-Man, Christ Jesus.
  • We recognize and accept that our salvation is nothing other than true and living communion with God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit. This salvation is a whole life and not a single decision. It is lived in a community (the Church, the Body of Christ) and lacks nothing for God has provided it with all that is necessary for our salvation.
  • We recognize the authority of the Scriptures within the life of the Church and accept with the Apostles that all of Scripture is understood only as it reveals Christ, for “these are they which testify of Me.” We recognize as well that Scripture is a gift to the Church and read them in and through the living Tradition of the Church as expressed in the Fathers, the worship life of the Church, and the decisions of the Holy Councils of the Faith.
  • We see in the world an icon of the world to come – the Scriptures as icon – the Saints as icons – the Church as icon and we live for the age when all things will be made known.
  • We believe that the fullness of the faith can only be known through the revelation of God as we follow the way of the Cross, tracing the steps of Christ’s humility, taking upon ourselves, as He took upon Himself, the sins of the world, and from within that humility praying for all to the gracious God Who alone can save.

I could, of course, continue writing until my last breath for no lifetime can exhaust or express completely the fullness. This modest list, however, seems a reasonable place to begin. In particular they are points which have been written about in some detail in the posts I have placed on this blogsite. God, forgive me, for I fail so completely in all of them.

Icons Will Save the World

December 20, 2007


Standing before the icon of Christ in the front of St. John Orthodox Church, I prepare to offer my confession at the Sacrament of Forgiveness. The Holy image of the One Who Forgives comes forth to meet me, as the father comes forth to welcome home the prodigal son in the familiar gospel passage (Luke 15:11–32). The love of Jesus pours forth from his prototype (the icon), sees the offering of my broken heart, and raises it to the heavenly realm.

And excellent article in First Things by Susan Cushman of Memphis, TN.

And Now For Something Completely Different – Music From the Ethiopian Orthodox

December 20, 2007

I am barely familiar with the Ethiopian Orthodox. They are in communion with the Oriental Orthodox Churches but have a very close relationship with the Eastern Orthodox. Among the most ancient of Orthodox Churches, they are also perhaps the most unique. Ethiopian and East African culture are seen clearly in this music, although this is not the music of the liturgy. It’s religious, but I’m not sure of its position to the Church’s usage. But I thought it worth sharing.

The Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos

December 8, 2007


From the OCA Website:

St Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, was the youngest daughter of the priest Nathan from Bethlehem, descended from the tribe of Levi. She married St Joachim (September 9), who was a native of Galilee.For a long time St Anna was childless, but after twenty years, through the fervent prayer of both spouses, an angel of the Lord announced to them that they would be the parents of a daughter, Who would bring blessings to the whole human race.The Orthodox Church does not accept the teaching that the Mother of God was exempted from the consequences of ancestral sin (death, corruption, sin, etc.) at the moment of her conception by virtue of the future merits of Her Son. Only Christ was born perfectly holy and sinless, as St Ambrose of Milan teaches in Chapter Two of his Commentary on Luke.The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in Her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although She committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, She would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from Her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibilty of our salvation is in doubt.

The Conception of the Virgin Mary by St Anna took place at Jerusalem. The many icons depicting the Conception by St Anna show the Most Holy Theotokos trampling the serpent underfoot.

“In the icon Sts Joachim and Anna are usually depicted with hands folded in prayer; their eyes are also directed upward and they contemplate the Mother of God, Who stands in the air with outstretched hands; under Her feet is an orb encircled by a serpent (symbolizing the devil), which strives to conquer all the universe by its power.”

There are also icons in which St Anna holds the Most Holy Virgin on her left arm as an infant. On St Anna’s face is a look of reverence. A large ancient icon, painted on canvas, is located in the village of Minkovetsa in the Dubensk district of Volhynia diocese. From ancient times this Feast was especially venerated by pregnant women in Russia.

In the Secret Place of the Most High God

December 1, 2007


He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Psalm 91:1

There aren’t many secrets anymore. I live in a city that is known as the “Secret City,” because in the Second World War it was one of the main sites of the Manhattan Project where the atom bomb, or elements of it, were developed. I have lived here for 18 years and have come to take the name as a comonplace. But secrets are all too commonplace. During the war this city held nearly 100,000 people, most of whom had no idea what they were working on. Those who lived around the town had no idea at all.

It is obvious to me that secrets can be kept. But it is also obvious to me that, for whatever reason, secrets are being kept less and less. For some, the word “secret,” is synonymous with something nefarious and evil. Things that are secret must be bad or we would let everyone know.

There is another place for secrets. Psychologists would place them in the category of “boundaries.” In theology we would see them as an essential part of what it means to be a Person.

It is important, it seems to me, that Scripture uses the phrase “Secret Place” to describe the most intimate of places we can be with God. It is secret because I cannot share it, I cannot find words to speak of it. I am in it only because I was invited and once there (having removed by shoes) I am on holy ground and the “secret” is nothing evil, but the very Good Himself.

What do I do with the Secret? When I stand in the Secret Place of the Most High, I can worship. Anything less would be sacrilege. I can adore the Most High God, even if I can find no words to give voice to my praise.

Every human being has a “secret place,” that within them that is most intimate – that is beyond words – that is made for God. Learning to enter this place is a very difficult thing and only comes with time and practice. But our culture, the world where the most secret things in our lives are shouted from the rooftops, tells us to profane our secrets and to shout them to the world. And thus we lose something at the very core of our Personhood. Violated, every man and woman becomes a harlot.

The Church, particularly the Orthodox Church, has a very different attitude towards the Secret. It is not to protect the evil or to create a conspiracy – it is to honor the most holy thing within each of us. Thus we learn to approach the Secret Place with great reverence, even in silence and awe. Many modern Americans visit in an Orthodox Church and find it offensive that the altar is occasionally hidden from their sight behind closed doors and a drawn curtain. It is an offense to their ingrained sense of democracy (a sentiment which has no place in the Presence of God). Where the Church would seek to teach them that there is such a thing as the “Secret Place,” that there are things before which they should be silent and into which not all can enter – we seek in our Promethian madness to democratize everything, defiling every secret place we can find, including the one within ourselves. [n.b. You will find some variation of doors, curtains, silence, in Orthodox Churches, including some whose doors stand open for the whole service, etc.]

The Church would bid us come to a very secret place – to come and discover that place within ourselves. Standing before the icon of Christ in the presence of His priest, we enter the secret place of our heart and speak what should often be spoken to no one else, and confess our sins. There is no legal exchange taking place (God’s forgiveness for your contrition). Here the priest only listens – he is forbidden to judge (though he may offer advice if it seems to help, it is nevertheless considered a great sin for a priest to judge the confession of someone repenting before God). The priest stands beside the penitent “only as a witness” as the prayers of confession make clear. He will speak the words of forgiveness when all is said as God’s representative, and then all that he has heard will be wrapped in silence, hidden in the Secret Place of the Most High, where God will purge and destroy our sins and make us new. The Fathers of the Church called the sacrment of confession, “a second baptism.”

It is also learning to recover our hearts, our secret place. The priest will never speak of it (on pain of being deposed). Indeed, it is normally understood that the penitent should not speak to others of what he or she has said in confession. Unless there is forgiveness of others that needs to be sought, all is done.

There is much in Orthodox worship and life that seeks to teach humanity of the Secret Place of the Most High and of the secret place that lies within our own heart. The lack of such knowledge robs us of our ability to worship God, of our ability to fully realize our own Personhood, of our ability to love others rightly, and of our right mind. Only a crazy world would destroy the secret places. Without them, we become human beings who have no center. Violated by the presence of others where we should be alone, we become mad with the madness of Legion.

Many visit, as I have noted, in an Orthodox Church and are offended at its practice of secret things, of the hiddeness of God. Some draw back at doors and curtains, others draw back at the exclusivity of the altar. I am asked, “Why can only men be priests?” And I respond, “It is not “only men” who can priests, but only a few men.” Some few are set aside to stand in that most Secret Place and offer the Holy Oblation. Democracy and equality stop at its doors because before God no one is justified, no one is worthy, no one may make a claim. We come only as we are bidden. And those who have been bidden to stand in that place at the altar and to hold in their hand the Most Holy Body of our Lord, God and Savior, do so with trembling if they do so rightly. For they stand in the Secret Place of the Most High God.

The most profound moment in all of the Liturgy occurs as the curtains are opened along with the doors and the Deacon cries out: “In the fear of God and with faith draw near!” And the faithful come forward to receive the Body and Blood of God. That which is Most Holy, which lies in the Most Secret Place, is now brought forward as a gift to the believer who receives in joy, in faith, in repentance, and in a renewed knowledge of the God Who dwells in the Secret Place, and Who now enters into our most secret place.

I live in a city that is nicknamed “the Secret City,” but I long for the true, Secret City, that is known only to God and to those to whom He reveals it. Interestingly, one of my parishioners is a native of Nagasaki, Japan. My joy is that in Christ she and I can meet in Christ’s Secret City and know that in that place, all are safe for God will not violate nor harm any. Even He, the Most High God, will enter our own secret place only at our invitation. Such is His humility and love. Such is His respect for our Personhood, a reflection of His own Personhood: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

I will offer a short exhortation: if you keep a website or a blog, do not make it a place for your secrets (as is too often done). There is no virtue in this, but only sin. Bring your secrets to God and stand next to His priest. There you will find love and respect, not judgment. And you will find a balm for your soul. This most public of all places (the internet) hates your secrets and would only use them to destroy you. Learn to be silent and speak to God in your heart. I offer this begging…if you have posted your secrets – remove them! Close the doors, draw the curtain and stand in secret before the Most High God!

Saturday – the Most Holy Mother of God and the Faithful Departed

December 1, 2007


On Saturdays, the Orthodox Church remembers the Most Holy Mother of God and the faithful departed. During Holy Week, the Church celebrates Christ’s descent to the dead and His trampling down death by death on Holy Saturday, just as a week before on Lazarus Saturday, it remembers Christ’s raising Lazarus from the tomb. Throughout the year, but especially during Great Lent, there are a number of Saturdays that are “Soul Saturdays,” or days on which the departed are remembered and prayed for. At no time can we forget the triumph of Christ and the hope of the departed.

I have not found good sources to speak about Saturday’s association with the Mother of God. Doubtless a reader or two will have something to share with the rest of us. As I thought about this myself (and thus you should take it for nothing more than my thought) I recalled verses associated with the Mother of God:

The LORD hath sworn in truth unto David; he will not turn from it; Of the fruit of thy body will I set upon thy throne. If thy children will keep my covenant and my testimony that I shall teach them, their children shall also sit upon thy throne for evermore. For the LORD hath chosen Zion; he hath desired it for his habitation. This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy. (Psalm 132:11-16)

The fulfillment of these verses are linked to the Incarnation. The resting place and habitation of God (Zion) is frequently understood by the fathers and the hymnody of the Church to refer to the Mother of God. She is the “ark of God’s rest.” It was this particular thought that made a connection for me with Saturday, the day of rest. For the true rest of God is found in His habitation, most perfectly fulfilled in the womb of the Virgin.

I would gladly hear more of this good day and the joy it gives us all.

In the 4th Tone

Rejoice, O Virgin, Theotokos

The Lord is with Thee.

Blessed art Thou among women

And blessed is the fruit of Thy womb,

For thou hast borne the Savior of our Souls.

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.

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.

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!