Archive for the ‘Prayers’ Category

Friday – the Day of the Cross

November 30, 2007

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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

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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.

Confession and Forgiveness in Solzhenitsyn

November 11, 2007

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My dear friend, Fr. Al Kimel (known to many as the Pontificator) sent me a link to this wonderful excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, including some insightful commentary. The piece may be read in its entirety on the Blog, Word Incarnate (on WordPress). My thanks to the writer, Abbot Joseph (a Byzantine Catholic) for such excellent writing, and to Fr. Al for the head’s up.   The passage describes a young woman who was in the throes of grief and misery over her grievous sins, which included affairs and betrayals and a general turnaing away from God – Leaving the solitude of the place she was living – for fear she would commit suicide – she walked and walked until she found herself outside a church – she went in and was struck by the huge icon of the Pantocrator (“Ruler of All”) in the dome of the church – Solzhenitsyn describes her experience:

“At present it was in semi-darkness but, lit from below, the countenance of the Lord of Hosts, majestic in conception, was half visible and half recognizable. There was no trace of consolatory tenderness in the Creator’s tense expression, nor could vengefulness or menace have any place there. He Himself was the heaven above us all and we were sustained by Him… But from beyond and through what was painted there, the unimaginable looked down—a portrayal of the Power that sustains the world. And whoever encountered the gaze of those celestial Eyes, and whoever was privileged to glimpse even momentarily that Brow, understood with a shock not his own nullity but the place which he was designed and privileged to occupy in the general harmony. And that he was called upon not to disrupt that harmony.

“There Zinaida stood, and went on standing, with her head thrown back, staring into that immensity, deaf to what was happening in the church… What floated above her could not be conveyed in words, was indeed out of reach of thought. It was a wave of life-giving will, surging also into the human breast… she stood shivering like a sacrificial victim awaiting the stroke… A passive receptacle of the Divine Will, she began to feel easier and stronger. Gone was the burning desire she had felt at home to break out, run away… She stood staring upward, her neck growing numb, but the iron bands that had immobilized her for so many days relaxed, gradually fell away, released her…”

This was but the beginning of her liberation from sin, however. She needed also to meet Christ on the level of his com-passion, his suffering-with her, in addition to his awesome and all-encompassing majesty and power. So she approached a different icon of Christ. “It was a completely human face, though its complexion was not of this world… The eyes held an enigmatic omniscience… knowing all, from the beginning to the end of time, things of which we never dream. A mind at ease might not have responded to these depths. But Zinaida, with her heightened perception, saw that Christ was suffering acutely, suffering yet not complaining. His compassion was for all those who approached him—and so at that moment for her. His eyes could absorb whatever pain there yet might be—all her pain, as they had absorbed many times as much before, and would absorb whatever pain was still to come. He had learned to live with pain as something inevitable. And he could grant release from all pain. A weight was lifted from her.”

She began to examine her life, her sins, as the church choir sang penitential psalms. “She shuddered. Her whole story had been known here before her coming. They were proclaiming it aloud.”

She had not come for confession, but there was a priest there hearing confessions, and when the others finished, their eyes met and he invited her to come. There was a lectern there upon which rested the Gospel book and a crucifix. “Gospel and crucifix watched over her confession. The lectern—she saw it now—was a steep slope, a rough steep slope—and up that slope she had to drag her whole life, struggling under the burden, and against the friction… She plunged in without preliminary explanation, throat dry, voice cracked. ‘I have seduced a married man’…”

One by one she dredged up, with great difficulty, the sins that were crushing her soul, or rather burning her from within. Solzhenitsyn describes her struggle with repentance and confession thus: “It was like using the grapnel at a wellhead, with three hooks facing different ways—and what you have to do is find down there, in the dark depths of your soul, a hot stone, fish for it, grip it, only the hooks won’t take hold, it breaks loose, seventy times over it breaks loose until at last, with delicate movements, as cautiously as if it was your dearest treasure, you latch on to it, draw it upward, raise it carefully, carefully, then seize it. You burn your fingers but you have rid your soul of it… It was as if every stone thrown out had ceased to be a part of her…so that she could look at it objectively instead of dragging it around inside her… But once you have learned how to drag these stones out with your grappling hook—your throat is less dry, speech becomes less hesitant, confession flows faster, until your words tumble over themselves as you hurry to snatch at and identify all your betrayals…

“She had blurted out all she had to say, however horrible it was; she had done all she had to do, and now she crouched with her head pressed to the crucifix, breathless. But another Breath, the Spirit, hovered over her and stole tremulously into her. ‘May the Lord our God Jesus Christ [said the priest] through his grace and the munificence of His love for mankind, forgive you, my child, all your transgressions. And I, an unworthy priest, with the authority vested by Him in me…’ He stressed not his authority, but his unworthiness. Grief-stricken witness of her struggle against grief, he testified to her forgiveness. ‘I pardon you and absolve you of all your sins…’

“He withdrew his stole, and she quietly raised her uncovered head… Yes, he had understood her question, and let it be seen that he had… ‘In each of us [he said] there is a mystery greater than we realize. And it is in communion with God that we are able to catch a glimpse of it. Learn to pray. Truly, you are capable of it.’”

St. Michael the Archangel – And Other Angel Stories

November 6, 2007

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Some years ago, when I was a young seminarian, I served with an Episcopal priest who greatly disappointed me in conversation one day by telling me that he saw “no need” for angels. “There’s nothing that angels are described as doing that the Holy Spirit could not do instead.” This kind of heavenly economy had never been offered to me as a theological reason before. When I thought about it, I realized that there was nothing that we could do that the Holy Spirit couldn’t do better, and wondered whether we existed. It seemed silly to me to posit something as not existing simply because you saw no need for it.

Later that week I was in a prayer group with this same priest (in his parish where I worked). It was a fairly informal group, and I have to confess to pure naughtiness when I said to the group, “Father said he sees no need for angels.” I don’t know what I expected, but the response was a sudden torrent of people sharing stories about angels that were purely wonderful. It included a story by an elderly woman who told of seeing an angel by the bed of her dying child. By the end of the evening, my priest friend had recanted and professed a belief in angels.

That is a story from the confusing time of an Anglican seminarian. What do you do when your professor and mentor just ups and denies a cardinal doctrine of the faith? I didn’t know at the time, so I probably did something wrong – though the outcome was good.

In the years since then I have had occasion in sermon or in a class to share a story about an encounter with an angel, or the intervention and help of an angel (I have a few such stories to tell). Without fail the result has been the same as that first night in a prayer group in Chicago. The story I tell is met with a torrent of similar stories. It seems that many people have angelic encounters but (at least in the circles I was in) were afraid to tell anybody.

Apparently if you live in a two-storey universe and you tell about an encounter with a second-floor creature, some people are afraid of the consequences. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of living in a one-storey universe where God is everywhere present, where the holy angels surround us moment by moment, and at the same time we have a great conspiracy of silence not to tell anyone about how things really are. Secularism is just one large myth.

Tonight my wife and I prayed the Akathist to the Archangel Michael (we were offering intercession for a friend). At the end of the prayers my wife said quietly to me, “St. Michael has always been a good friend to us.” It was a time for me to pause and remember how many times through 33 years of marriage we have stood together and asked St. Michael to come to our aid. Sometimes it has been through our own need, other times for the needs of others. But what we have known has been the faithfulness of the “Chief Captain of the Heavenly Hosts” to do battle for us and protect us in all of our spiritual battles.

I do not have an answer for someone who would deny the Holy Angels and subscribe to some form of theological minimalism. With a God who doesn’t make two snowflakes alike, what place does minimalism play in the universe? I’m Orthodox – which is always maximalist. Our God is a great God.

O chosen leader of the heavenly hosts and defender of the human race, we that are delivered by thee from afflictions offer unto thee this hymn of thanksgiving; and as thou dost stand before the throne of the King of Glory, do thou free us from all dangers, that with faith and love we may cry unto thee in praise:

Rejoice, O Michael, great supreme commander, with all the hosts of Heaven!

Kontakion 1 from the Akathist to St. Michael

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep…

November 5, 2007

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This delightful old English prayer said by children and their parents at bedtime has long ago been shortened to only its last verse. There is more (as I was taught):

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

The are four corners to my bed,

Four angels round my head,

One to watch, and one to pray,

And two to bear my soul away.

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

If you know more of the tradition of this prayer please share it.

Prayer to My Guardian Angel – A Post Revisited

October 3, 2007

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WordPress provides a fair amount of information to its bloggers – it gives you a chance to see some of what works and occasionally why. Then there are mysteries. One of my mysteries is the popularity of this particular post which first went up last January. Since then it has generated over 2800 views – probably more than 5 times the number of any other single post. Interestingly, it is daily listed among my top posts. Recently its viewing is simply growing everyday so that yesterday it had more views on that day than on its first day. I have looked at the listing of “referrals” (more information WordPress gives). I can’t see where the traffic is coming from. I don’t mind it. It’s a nice post. I was reading an article by Ochlophobist today that reminded me of it. So I am reposting it. If any of you have any hints as to why such a post would continue to grow in popularity (without generating comments particularly) I’d love to hear your thoughts. Enjoy. Thanks. 

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O Holy Angel, who stand by my wretched soul and my passionate life: do not abandon me, a sinner, neither depart from me because of my lack of self-control. Leave no room for the evil demon to gain control of me through the violence of this mortal body. Strengthen my weak and feeble hand, and instruct me in the path of salvation. O holy Angel of God, the guardian and protector of my wretched soul and body: forgive all the sorrows I have caused you, every day of my life. If I have sinned in this past night, protect me during this day. Keep me from every adverse temptation, that I may not anger God by any sin. Pray to the Lord for me, that He may establish me in His fear and make me, His servant, worthy of His goodness. Amen.

My wife recently asked me, “Do you know the prayer to the Guardian Angel?” I admitted that I was familiar with the prayer but she said, “No. I mean have you learned it yet?” I admitted I had not (she memorizes things much more easily than I do – that’s my first excuse). But it turned my attention to this simple prayer, and to the remembrance of my guardian angel. In Orthodoxy, by prayer, an angel is specifically assigned to your life as part of the rite of Baptism. I’ve always liked that fact, and known that my angel watches over me.

Many people associate Guardian Angels with “getting out of a close one” or barely avoiding a wreck. While traveling in England this summer, we apparently ran a red light on a roundabout (they rarely have lights on roundabouts so we were unprepared). A car pulled out, and all of us in the car were completely convinced by our eyes that we must have hit this car. By visual report it is impossible that we did not hit this car – but there was no sound. There was a bit of a dirty look and the other car drove on. We got out just a short bit down the road to see if we had been hit or touched in any way. There was no evidence. Part of me wanted to go back and look for feathers, thinking surely that a Guardian Angel had been injured in the event (I don’t think that’s actually possible).

But there is great comfort in thoughts of my Guardian Angel. According the traditional teaching, though, the task of my Guardian Angel is not to make up for my lack in driving skills (although I did not drive in England) but to see me safely to the harbor of salvation. “Safe” is the same thing as “saved,” and that’s not over ’til it’s over.

Another prayer you will find written no where else. It was created by my son when he was four years old (that was almost 16 years ago). He had a small statue of St. Michael the Archangel beside his bed on his nightstand. He liked it so we bought it for him. It was a very manly Michael, with a great and terrible sword drawn, and the devil, stuck beneath one of Michael’s feet, writhing helplessly.

My son’s prayer (still a family favorite):

Dear St. Michael, guard my room.

Don’t let anything eat me or kill me.

Kill it with your sword. Kill it with your sword. Amen.

Now that’s a fine prayer, particularly for a four year-old. I’m not certain what made him think of things that would eat him, but when you’re four, it’s good to cover all possibilities. The prayer worked. He has been safe all these years. The only thing eaten in his room have been several tons of pizza.

I do not really understand the objections that Protestants have to such prayers. I’m told “there is only one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.” Well, of course. But that sense of mediation is a meaning of the word that Christ alone could perform. No angel, no other creature can unite me to God. Only God become man is able to unite man to God.

But we’re talking about prayer, not union, per se. Can someone else pray for me? I hope so and the last time I checked, even Protestants are allowed to pray for me (please do). Can angels pray for me (yes they can and they do). Is it wrong to ask them to do so or thank them for it (certainly not). Can saints in heaven pray for me (the Bible says they do). Is it wrong to ask them (Holy Tradition says it is not). In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man prays to “Father Abraham” to intercede with Lazarus for him. It is of no use in his case, but he was not rebuked for speaking to Abraham. Being told “No,” and being rebuked for even having the conversation are two very different things.

I give thanks to God for the dear fellowship of the saints. For those who pray for me that I have asked, and for the many who have prayed for me that I have known nothing about. I just know that part of the joy of being an Orthodox Christian is the fact that prayer is never a lonely thing. God is the “Lord of Hosts.” He is always surrounded by such a cloud of Angels, saints, etc. He cannot be approached “alone.” This great company of witnesses, as the book of Hebrews calls them, bears witness to my prayers before God, and hopefully improves greatly upon them. They see so much more clearly than I what I see. I see and know so little. Thank God someone is praying who knows. God knows, but it is His delight, in the utter humility of His nature, to share that knowledge and to invite us to pray.

May all the saints in heaven pray for you. May St. Michael pray for you and guard your room. May your Holy Guardian Angel pray for you and the saint whose name you bear. And may you know the great fellowship of heaven even here on earth. They are truly with us.

Now Lay Aside All Earthly Cares

June 18, 2007

This youtube video has the music of Tchaikovsky’s Cherubimic Hymn.

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice holy hymn to life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of All who comes mystically upborne by the angelic hosts. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

On the Feast of Pentecost

May 26, 2007

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O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

On this day (Sunday) the Orthodox Church marks 50 days after the feast of Pascha and commemorates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church as recorded in the Book of Acts. In Russian tradition, the feast is known as Troitsa, the Trinity, and is the first of three feast days (including Monday and Tuesday). It is customary to bring boughs and branches into the Church – with the priest vested in Green. Thus, the Temple becomes a very green place on this feast – emphasizing not only the gift of the Spirit to the Church, but the Spirit as the Lord and Giver of Life.

Our secular world (and our culture – even our religious culture in America is decidedly secular) tends to see God and the world in very distinct compartments. This is the essence of secularism – not that there is no God – but that the world can be seen as somehow distinct from Him. From a proper Christian point-of-view the only name for the world existing apart from God is Hell. We do not have a feast which celebrates Hell.

Instead we have this glorious feast of Pentecost in which we once again begin to sing “O Heavenly King.” In this we proclaim that God is everywhere present and fillest all things. There is nothing that exists of its own. “In Him we live and move and have our being,” the Scriptures say.

God and creation are distinct in the sense that God Himself is not created; He is not contingent. But we do not see the world rightly if we see it apart from God. It is difficult for us, given our modern habit of thought, to think of things existing only relationally – but this is the teaching of the faith. When we are united to Christ, we do not become something other than we were created to be – we finally become in fact what we were created to be.

We do not exist alone – we are contingent beings. The truth of our existence is found only as we are known in relation to God and to one another. Thus love becomes the most fundamental existential reality. I love, therefore I am.

May God bless us all on this great Feast.

Come and abide in us, cleanse us from all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One!

All the Fullness of Christ

May 18, 2007

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When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:4-21)

Please forgive such a lengthy quote of Scripture, though such a lengthy quote is precisely what we need to read. First, it underlines that St. Paul’s goal for his converts was indeed lofty: “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpassess knowledge….” It is also a way to underline that the goal we have for ourselves should be no less lofty. When someone says that it will take a lifetime – it’s an understatement.

One of the desert fathers as he lay on his deathbed began to weep. The brothers asked him why – he had lived the ascetic life with such completeness. His reply, “I have not made a beginning of repentance.”

Neither should any of this cause us to lose heart. It should have the opposite effect! I cannot turn aside because the goal is too wonderful!

It also underlines the nature of conversion to Orthodoxy and why it can never be merely an intellectual assent. Where God is taking us “surpasses knowledge.” Why would we want to limit ourselves to the intellect? You’ll need all the intellect you have, but it won’t be enough. You are more wonderfully made than that!

If someone asks me (and I do get asked) what do I have to believe in order to become Orthodox? My eventual answer (my children say my answers are very long indeed) is something like, “Everything.” It is this very character of Orthodoxy – that it is indeed the existential reality of the life in Christ – that makes conversion more of an invitation to a way of life than the acceptance of a set of propositions. And this is very difficult in our American culture.

One of my members who was received several years ago along with wife and children said to me, “Becoming Orthodox feels more like joining a tribe than joining a Church.” (Stanley Hauerwas would have loved the statement!) He meant not that the Orthodox Church is tribal – but that it was like accepting and becoming part of a family, a way of life. And this is true.

It also underlines a danger that exists for us all. The American model of the parish is simply less than what a parish should be. Our suburban lifestyle has much to do with it. I have members who drive more than an hour to reach our Church. I’m flattered and heartbroken (that there should be so few Orthodox Churches). But it also forces a sort of suburbanization of the parish. When we were in the process of finding a location for our parish, several of the land candidates were in “great locations.” What they lacked, however, was actually being located somewhere. Now that, of course, sounds silly, but it is quite possible to live somewhere in America that isn’t really anywhere.

Our current location is our own building, but we share parking with an insurance agency (which is another building) a dental office, and CPA. I like having that much traffic in and out of our parking lot daily. It feels like we are somewhere. I contrast where we are with broken heart when I think of the village churches I saw in England last summer. Driving across the countryside you will see a copse of trees every few miles and standing above the trees the steeple or tower (mostly towers) of a Church. Stopping in a village I could see where Churches (and people for that matter) belong.

I ask forgiveness again, but the American suburban neighborhood is probably the worst invention in human history for the dwelling of human beings. A vast number of people do not know their neighbors. Last week I met a woman and her young son when my wife and I and my son’s fiancee went for a walk. The mother and son joined us. They have lived in their house (40 feet from mine) for over four years and I did not know them. That is my sin (I do know my other neighbors much better).

Now admittedly, we go to different Churches and that does not help. She may go to a different grocery story, and that does not help. If she lives in Oak Ridge, she undoubtedly goes to Walmart, but everyone goes there and I don’t really have opportunity to meet her or her family there.

In such settings, the local parish becomes a commodity perveyor. Our homes are consumer units (they all have televisions – usually more than one or two). Each home, indeed, contains all that is necessary for the family to get by: Washers, dryers, etc. When I lived in an apartment building while in school at Duke, we met people while doing the laundry, walking about, swimming at the pool, etc. As awful as I thought that housing was, it was probably functionally superior to the average neighborhood.

Ideally, the Orthodox Church is the village temple. Indeed our prayers often call the Church building a “temple.” It is God’s house, a place of prayer. In many countries it will remain unlocked and there will be someone present who will offer candles for sale (so they may be lit for prayers). This also provides someone to direct you to the priest and the like. But its function is normatively a very integrated function. Church itself is part of the way of life.

When Europe was still civilized (America has long lost any Christian civilization), there were over 50 days a year set aside as feast days on which no work was done other than the festival of the Church. One of the reasons the Reformation resulted in such an increase of wealth, was it lengthened the work-year by 50 days (including, under the Puritans, Christmas and Easter).

There are places that have intentionally created communities in which the Church is in “walking distance,” and it is a very good idea and certainly a place to begin. But we are not likely to change the infrastructure of America any time soon. Thus the home has an increasing role to play in Orthodox prayer – indeed it always has – even when the Church was in the village.

Having a family “beautiful corner” (an icon corner) is important – and is equally an important place where prayer for feasts can be read in addition to other prayers. All of these “small things” are really about the one really “large thing,” the knowledge of Christ in His fullness. I am in the process of gathering materials for home usage – I’ve had some good suggestions from some responders already. And the calendar – something largely used in the West and East – originally for Church purposes alone – becomes indispensable. The flow of the days and the feasts carry us deeper into the faith and deeper into the knowledge of Christ Who is our Salvation.

We not only need to believe the Christian faith – our goal is to become the Christian faith.

How Much Is Too Little? How Much Is Enough?

May 17, 2007

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One of the most pervasive rules in Christian believing is the Latin phrase, “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” usually rendered, “The Law of Praying is the Law of Believing.” It is a simple way of saying both that we believe what we pray (praying will inevitably bring about a conformity in believing), and that if something is to be preserved it must become part of the liturgical life. Time and history have largely born this out.

It has been a rule that concerns people who write or translate liturgies – and it has been a rule for those who helplessly watch as others write and translate liturgies. For it is simply the case, if the people do not pray it, in time they will cease to believe it.

This principle is linked in my mind to the question of what is needed in theology. What do we need to believe to actually confess the Christian faith? Are there elements, which if neglected, would bring about a change in the faith – possibly even a fatal change?

I believe the answer to this last question is quite clear: it is possible to leave certain elements aside with the result that what is left is no longer Christianity, however it may be disguised.

When I was studying systematic theology (I know, Orthodox Theology is rarely accused of being systematic), it was well understood that if something was not an integral part of the faith, it would soon enough become not a part of the faith. Doctrinal belief is like muscles in our body – if left unused, it atrophies.

I am convinced that for an increasing number of Christians, an increasing number of essential elements are no longer essential to what they believe – the result being the creation of increasingly new belief systems. These may still be described as Christianity, because they are religions centered around the figure of Jesus Christ, but are, in fact,  new belief systems.

I began to be convinced of this as I read the systematic theologies of others. The same conclusions can be reached by anecdotal evidence – speaking with various believers about what they think is important.

This morning, for instance, I celebrated the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Ascension of Christ (40 days after Easter). I was also aware that probably two, possibly three other Churches in my town were doing something similar. There is a Catholic Church and I’m sure there was at least one mass, if not more. There is an Episcopal Church, and it is possible, though not not necessarily the case, that there was a liturgy today or tonight. I would also think it possible that the feast was kept by one or two of our Lutheran congregations. What I have mentioned is indeed a minority in our Southern town. For most Christians, the Ascension of Christ will never be mentioned to them in a way that would make them think that the event was significant.

We had a number of conversations within my congregation (which is largely convert) back at the end of Holy Week and during the early parts of Pascha. Most of them admitted that it was not until they became Orthodox that they even realized that Christ descended to the dead when he died on the Cross. Some even told stories of having been in Bible studies when young, and, when reading the verses regarding Christ’s descent to the dead, were told, “We don’t know what these verses mean.” Needless to say in the churches these people had first acquired the Christian faith, it made no difference that Christ had descended into Hades.

I believe that there is a truncated version of Christianity that is moving towards a dominant position with our religion. It is simply the atonement – largely taught in the language of penal substitution, as the only important dogma of the faith. Thus to believe that “Christ died for our sins,” means anywhere and everywhere that he paid a price that we could not pray and that by trusting in Him we will be spared the punishments of Hell.

Everything else, if mentioned at all, is simply a corollary to that single thought. Thus (and I know this is extreme) some years back I had an argument with an Episcopal priest friend who said, “I would be much more comfortable with the doctrine of the resurrection if we could find the bones of Jesus.” He certainly believed that Christ had paid the price of his sins, and that through faith in Christ he would be saved. But the bodily resurrection of Jesus was not important to that theology and he found its primitive, literal quality to be a bit of a bother.

I warned you – it was an extreme case. Many if not most Christians believe that Christ was raised from the dead – but they increasingly do not know why, other than as a reassurance to us that we will be raised as well (Lazarus’ resurrection could have done as much). Indeed the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is troublesome for many Christians who would rather prefer to believe in “Life after death, or eternal life.”

This same principle can also be applied to the sacraments of the Church. Many are the young couples who would say, “I don’t need a piece of paper declaring me to be married.” Joni Mitchell sang in her sweet warble, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall/ keeping us tied and true/my old man/ keeping away my blues …” The rate of illegitimacy for children in the black community exceeds 50% and draws closer to that mark in the white community. And this, of course, is only thinking about the sacrament of marriage.

The sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism may soon be on the way out for many. Many Churches long ago reduced them to something done at a service other than Sunday morning, and then only four times a year. It is not a sacrament that seems integral to the story of salvation as that Church teaches. Never mind the fact that Christ said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”

I spoke this week to someone who was joining one of the new “Anglican” Churches, I believe the one that is under an African Primate. I asked him about their communion teaching. “Do they practice open communion?” The answer was yes, with the addition that there was some sort of statement of what the Church believed and asked that only those who ascribed to that statement should receive communion. This, of course, is far more than is required in most Christian Churches today, despite the fact that closed communion was the normative practice of virtually every denomination of Christians until the late 1960’s.

Private Confession, long ago jettisoned by most Protestants, has become fairly rare for many within the Catholic Church. Lent as a season of fasting has atrophied beyond recognition.

Actually writing or summarizing the teaching of the Church in which all of the major events in the story of our salvation are given their proper weight is a minimal requirement if one is actually to be or become an Orthodox Christian. What is it about the Descent into Hades that is necessary to our salvation? What is it about the Resurrection that is essential to our salvation? What does the Ascension have to do with being saved (and it does)? What does the second and glorious coming of Christ have to do with our salvation? What does being born of a Virgin have to do with Christ’s saving of mankind?

In Orthodox understanding, all of these things are integral parts of Christ becoming what we are in order to make us what He is. The metaphor of the substitutionary atonement, though not unknown, is simply too thin and weak to bear the full weight of the story of our salvation. Christ became fully human, that we might have a share in His divinity. It was into the depths of our humanity that He descended when He entered the Virgin’s womb, having done no damage to the freedom that belongs to mankind. It was into the depths of our damnation that He descended, when, dying on the Cross, He entered Hades and loosed the bonds of the captives. Now there is no where we may go that He has not filled with Himself. It was still in glorified union with our humanity that He rose from the grave, having trampled down death by death. It is our humanity that he bore (“like a yoke” we sang last night) into the very heavens themselves and in that union sat our humanity down at the right hand of the Father.

These actions, all primary statements in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, not only provide a summary of the events in the life of Christ – they are the utterly essential elements of our salvation. As the Creed states: “…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…”

All that Christ did is and should be an integral part of any proper account of Christian salvation. They should thus be integral parts of the worship and prayer life of the Church. Where they have been relegated to some lesser status – there you may be sure that some essential part of our faith has been laid aside and remains in danger of ceasing to be part of the Christian faith – except for the fact that it will remain a part of Scripture.

Two years ago this was demonstrated in an embarrassing manner when a large number of Christian Churches in America closed their doors for Sunday worship in order to steer clear of conflict with the “family holiday” of Christmas.

There is no lowest common denominator of Christianity. There is no modest form of the faith around which we may gather. There is only the “faith, once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Anything less is either no longer Christian, or building a foundation for something that in time will not be Christian.

How much is too little? How much is enough? I consider that if Christ thought it necessary to do certain things and to give us certain things, it was because they were needed for the fullness of our salvation.

How much is too little – anything less than everything.

How much is enough – only everything.