Earlier in the week the “March for Life” rally as held in Washington, D.C. It is held to coincide with the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision. This year marked the 38th. anniversary of that court ruling. The question I would like to pose does not have direct bearing on the issue of abortion, as disturbing as it is; but the general topic of the Church and social consciousness. Do we, as an Orthodox community, speak out as often as we should or with a loud enough voice on pressing social issues and moral concerns in this country?
Looking below the surface of this question, what the real question that underlies this concern is; are we comfortable in this country, yet? Have we grown comfortable and confident enough to freely comment on the pressing issues of our society or that confront our nation? This question has bearing on the degree, which we now view ourselves as fully American. Is this country home; or do we still feel like the Diaspora? If we answer by declaring this home, then we absolutely have an obligation to speak with a loud voice of moral guidance based on an Orthodox ethos and ethics.
There is part of me that looks at our reticence to speak with a loud voice as a consequence of our immigrant background. As an immigrant Church, we did not speak out due to our own sense of isolation and insecurity. Our community and even our leadership, both clergy and laity, felt isolated, inferior and was focused introspectively. We looked inward. Fortunately, these days are behind us; or are they? It is fitting to raise our voices in the event of a catastrophe or a difficulty befalling a sister Orthodox community anywhere in the world. This is our duty and our responsibility, to focus the American society and leadership on the difficulties our fellow Orthodox face. But, do we not also have a responsibility to speak to issues that our country faces. Please, encourage our leadership to speak out. Hierarch, clergy and knowledgable lay leadership need to speak out and to attempt to positively influence the course of our nation. The Orthodox social conscious can be that new perspective that the American society needs to make better choices in these crucial times. May Our Lord Guide us all and may the Theotokos ever protect this great country.
If you take a quick look at January’s ecclesiastical calendar you notice that it is dominated by big events. Christ’s Circumcision, St Basil, Epiphany and its associated feast days, St. John the Forerunner, St. Anthony, Sts. Athanasios and Cyril and the Three Hierarchs (together and separately). Goodness, it’s enough to make you tired. With this post, I would like to look at some of the other commemoration; lest they slip by us. January has a great number of saints that are not featured in bold type, but are extremely interesting in their diversity and their spiritual examples to us. From the very first day, we see the unfolding of families of holiness with Gregory of Nanzianzos (Sr.), father of Gregory the Theologian, to the last day Sts. Cyrus and John the Unmercinaries. We see examples of piety, sacrifice, people who defended the faith and ascetics. There really isn’t enough space to write concerning each saint, but needless to say the variety and diversity are a little mind boggling.
Perhaps, it is more beneficial to think a moment of the intent of the Church to commemorate saints at all. Why do we bother? What good do all these strange names and strange sounding places do us? Most of the people held up for our consideration are literally strangers. We might know someone named Gregory or Tatiana, but few of us know a Hermylos or a Kalogeras. What good do all these historical figures do us? It would seem to me that we can all acknowledge that we live in an age of celebrity. All over television, radio, newsstands and the internet we can not get away from what some “personality” wore last night, said inappropriately, or with whom they were seen. From film stars, to sports’ figures, politicians or the new name of the week; we are constantly inundated by useless prattle about someone who is looking for their fifteen minutes of fame. The sad truth is that many times, we stop and pay attention; only, so that we are “in the know”. What a sad commentary! When confronted by the Church calendar, do we think that these people, who are commemorated, have been held up as examples for hundreds or even thousands of years? How many present day celebrities will have that kind of staying power? The answers to these rhetorical questions truly challenge us to put our priorities straight. Who do we wish to understand, some temporary here today gone tomorrow plastic celebrity or a saint who has been remembered by Christians throughout the ages. Perhaps, we should put a little effort in getting to know a new saint a month. Pick one, choose a new name and look them up. You can even Google most of them. Make this a project this year. Less fluff and more substance; it might be fun and think of how edifying it will be when we know twelve new saints. Within these saints there very well might be a new friend or someone who catches our imagination with the way they brought Christ alive in their time. If you would like refer to Prologue of Ohrid for information on the saints. (http://www.westsrbdio.org/prolog/my.html.)
It is regrettable that periodically we must have this conversation! What “fun” is it to sit and spend time flooding the comment section of a blog with all sort of junk. Look, I read and evaluate each comment, and will answer those that call for personal attention. I get hundreds of comments all the time. So that my serious readers understand, I am tired of emails that are lewd, pornographic, attempts to sell internet services, pharmaceuticals, or to entice me to open some link to wherever. PLEASE, KNOCK IT OFF. I will always identify you as spam and delete you; so quit wasting time – both yours and mine!!!! Thank you and God Bless.
The pain on Pope Shenouda III’s face.
One of the sad consequences of our Orthodox disunity on this continent became so evident this week. Unless you have been totally disconnected from current events, you could not help but noticing the tragic events in traditional Orthodox lands. In Egypt, we witnessed the bloody martyrdom of Coptic Christians. In Alexandria, the city of Sts. Athanasius, Cyril and many more luminaries of Orthodoxy, our sister Coptic Orthodox Christians were massacred by fanatics. In “Northern” Cyprus, Orthodox were murdered and Churches desecrated. In Lebanon, a leader of the Christian community has correctly labeled the systematic elimination of Christians in the Middle East as genocide. In Palestine, we continue to here terrible reports from Fr. and Pres. Khoury about the misery the Palestinian Christians endure each day. Even in New York, we continue to await the resolution of issue of St. Nicholas Church at ground zero. What do all these issues have in common? The small voices of divided Orthodox leaders are barley heard above background noise! Archbishop Demetrios issues a statement, Metropolitan Jonas prays for Egypt and unfortunately Constantinople must remain silent! Since our voices are not united they can barely be heard. Who cares what we say since, we have succeeded in marginalizing ourselves!
Our own disunity and divisions assure that no one pays attention to us. We are small ethnic enclaves who are quoted in our own jurisdictional press and by a few niche publications. We don’t make an impact; consequently we don’t make a difference. Critical events and essential issues present themselves and we provide little cogent Orthodox witness. We live not only in a time when national and international events occur at break neck speed, but when moral and ethical judgments need an Orthodox compass.
If we insist on staying apart, how can we begin to have a louder voice? What about a joint press office that would issue simultaneous press releases in New York and Washington, perhaps under the auspices of the Assembly of Bishops of the Orthodox Church. What about a joint commission of Orthodox Theologians who could speak to moral and ethical concerns. Little voices are whispers and are not heard. We must begin to act united and who knows it might get to be a habit!!
“Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened for all. Prepare o Ephratha,
for the tree of life has blossomed forth in the cave from the
Virgin; for her womb did appear as a spiritual paradise
in which is planted the divine Plant,
whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam.
Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of old.”
Opening Prayer of the Office of Preparation.
As I listen to this prayer at every liturgy and look at the icon of the Nativity hung over the Prothesis Table, it becomes Christmas at each liturgy. This year, the Days of Blogging, have been one way to centre our attention on the manger and the cave. In these days there is a great need to find the manger spiritually. Our financial, political and international situations call for a return to innocence of spirit. We lack simple trust. No longer do we trust governments, institutions, including the Church, or even the future. Our lost trust is a by product of a great age of cynicism. Now is a good time to reflect on the manger. The manger is more than a place to see on Christmas cards and to sing of in hymns and carols. The manger in a cave is the focus of salvation history. The beginning of the trip to another dark place – the tomb. Here in this Opening Prayer, we begin the journey of the Theanthropos, the God/Man to redeem humanity. His route leads from Bethlehem to Golgotha; from the manger to the Tomb, from paradise to Hades. Our cynicism can be erased and our trust restored if we respond to God’s plan. God’s plan is His outreach to us his creatures. It is God entering Human history because of His great love. We are the recipients of God’s unconditional love. It is our calling to respond.
Question: How are the Old and New Testament related? This time of year is the best time to ask this question. As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity in the Flesh, the best thing we can ask is what relationship between the two parts of the Bible. For we Orthodox, the Old and New Testaments are inexorably linked. The Old Testament is the foretelling of the New. It holds up a mirror to Christ and to all the individual features of his life. What do I mean? Shall we look at the details?
- Virgin Birth: Isaiah 7, 14 and Ezekiel 44, 27 – 44:4
- Birth in Bethlehem: Micah 4 – 5
- The Adoration of the Magi: Numbers 24, 15 – 17
- Christ the Prince of Peace: Isaiah 6, 6 – 7.
These details of the Nativity show how God prepared the world through His prophets. The Old Testament provides us Christ in shadow and in smoke. The word that the Church uses for this relationship is foreshadow. The arrival of the Messiah was an event for which God had to prepare the world. Christmas is two days away, are you spiritually prepared?
Question: What is an apostolic father? Today, this is a fitting question. It is the feastday of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer. St Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch after St. Peter. Back to the original question, Ignatius is an apostolic father; because he was a disciple of an apostle of Christ. In St. Ignatius’ case, he was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple of Christ. His writings allow us to see the development of theology in the first part of the second century. Ignatius was sentenced to death in the arena at Rome about 108 AD. On his way to his death from Antioch, Ignatius wrote several letters to various Churches along the route. These epistles give a serious glimpse into the early theology of the nascent Christian Church. Some of the most interesting topics which Ignatius discussed were the three distinct pastoral offices: bishop, presbyter and deacon, the concept of divine economy (God’s plan of salvation), the idea of Christ as the God/Man, the theology of the Episcopos (Bishop) and the role of Rome in the early Christian community.
Ignatius is known as the “God-bearer” which features his theological concept of being in Christ. This is the idea that centres us on Bethlehem. Each of us are called to welcome Christ to be born in our hearts as He was in the manger. Ignatius prays for the Church:
I pray that there may be a union based on the flesh and
the spirit of Jesus Christ, who is everlasting life, a union
of faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred, but
especially a union with Jesus and the Father.
(Epistle to the Magnesians)
Here we see Christians are united to Christ. They allow Christ to be born into their hearts and their community through the Eucharist, in communion with their Bishop. All Christians are called to be Christ-bearers as was St. Ignatius. This is our calling. This is the destination of our journey to Bethlehem.
Question: I have heard other “church leaders” say that virgin birth is just a myth, is this true? The only thing true about this statement is that it has been said. For us Orthodox Christians one of the sad things about modern Christianity is that we have stopped using the word Heresy. It is quite “vogue” to point fingers at historical beliefs of the Church and to say, “Oh those were unsophisticated ideas for simple people.” If one takes the time to read the theological opinions and treatises of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, you cannot use the word “unsophisticated” about them in any way. The post-modern concepts that ridicule the teachings as “unscientific” and folk tales only cast shadows on the expounders of such ideas.
The theology of Virgin Birth took hundreds of years to be developed and formed in the life of our Church. The theology of Christ as Fully God and Fully man had an impact on the understanding of Mary of Nazareth. Today, in the Gospel reading of the Genealogy of Christ, Matthew 1, 1 – 25. We are confronted by the humanity of Christ and His entire human lineage. But, what about “virgin birth” how could that happen? There is the greatest question of all. It could happen, because God willed to happen! This is the Mystery of Incarnation. God willed to be contained in His creation, born of His creature contained in the womb of a young Virgin. To continue this Mystery, God further willed that she would bear a child by the Holy Spirit, the pre-eternal God. The unbelievable is real. The Theotokos bears the God/Man, while retaining her virginity. For us Orthodox (and Roman Catholics), Mary remains a Virgin before, during and after Christ’s birth. How can this be? By faith, we thus believe in God’s promise and fulfilment in Christ Jesus. Mary is the “panagia” forever holy. Perpetually Virgin, pure and a willing participant in the greatest miracle in the history of the world. Miracles are not explained they are believed. Our icons of the Theotokos testify to this reality. The stars on the maphorion (veil) of the Theotokos show us three stars. One on her Forehead and one each on her shoulders. A Virgin: before, during and after the Nativity of our Lord.
Question: Do I know what the Church is? This might at first appear to be a foolish questions to ask, but I do not ask it lightly. Most of us adults in the Church are too embarrassed to admit we don’t understand. What don’t we understand? We don’t know what the Church is! Perhaps, the most basic question we should ask is: “Do we have a personal relationship with Christ?” Ours is a personal God who came to earth, being born in a manger, so that each of us could enjoy a personal relationship with Him. After His crucifixion and resurrection, He sent His Holy Spirit to empower us; so that we could truly live. With our Baptism, we become new creatures in Christ, free of sin. With our Chrismation, we are given, as a free gift, His Spirit to allow us to grow in Him. By partaking in Holy Communion, we become united to Christ. The added dimension is that we are also united to everyone who participates in His Body and His Blood. The Church is actualised when we, as the faithful, come together and become the Body of Christ.
Through God’s Holy Spirit, we are no longer lonely individuals. We become personally united with Christ and through Him with each other. The Church transcends time and space. It has a cosmic dimension that connects us withHim and all Christians. This bond is not limited by physical death, time or place. The Church is Christ and all who are joined with him. This miracle is a mystery of faith. As St. Paul explains in his Letter to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11, 1). We cannot see the Church, yet it is! It is for us the ultimate reality; the Kingdom of God on earth and a foretaste of heaven. This is as personal a relationship that we could ever experience. Once again, St. Paul says it best, “ I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.