Taking Down from The Cross
Last week, I was asked about the Orthodox Church’s views of cremation. News from Greece is that there is a push to authorize cremation. The real story is that the push is coming from the secular government and it is being opposed by the Church. The teaching of the Church is clear, cremation is not allowed. We hear the argument that it is more economical and that the environment will be helped. These are just excuses. It is true that in Japan, where the state mandates cremation, the Church reluctantly has to accept the practice. But, it happens after the funeral service has taken place, with the body in the Church.
What is the theology of the Church’s teaching? The mystery of death has many facets, not the least being the attitude concerning the body. The earliest and most vital aspect of this teaching is the story of creation itself. Genesis 1, 26 clearly teaches that humanity is made in the “image and likeness of God.” This creation is not only our spirit, but our physical body as well. Christ with His Incarnation assumed our physical body. St. Gregory the Theologian states in his first letter to Cledonios: “The unassumed is unhealed, but that which is united with God is also being saved.” We also read in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel. ” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1, 14) At the Resurrection and again at the Ascension, we believe that the Glorified Body of the Lord rose and ascended to sit at the right hand of God the Father. With this act of salvation our body is united to Christ. The Church teaches at the Second Coming our Glorified bodies will rise to meet the Lord.
We read in Genesis 3, 19, “…till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Holy Church believes that we are holistic creatures and that our bodies should be allowed to decay naturally. Respect for the natural order is strongly upheld in the Church’s teachings. The question comes to mind, what about times when out bodies are burned or lost at sea, or blown up? These are not wilful acts. Cremation is the choice of humans and intervenes in the natural order, because it is the direction of our will not God’s. St. Paul teaches ” Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6, 19 – 20). Our bodies are anointed with the Holy Spirit at Chrismation and are Spirit filled! They belong to God.
It is the Orthodox doctrine that to consider the material world sinful is wrong. We believe that the material world can be sanctified by God’s grace. The Holy Spirit consecrates wine and bread into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Church sanctifies water, wheat, oil, food and our bodies. The witness of the saints is a convincing illustration of this glorification of the body. Many saints’ bodies, after their falling asleep in the Lord, do not corrupt. Their bodies testify to their glorification by God in Christ and His victory over death. The holy relics of the saints become Spirit bearing and many miracles are associated with them. Our consecrated temples, altars and antimensia contain relics of the saints. Additionally, the reverence given to Christ’s body at the Crucifixion by St. Joseph, St. Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing Women is a prime example of the reverence we Orthodox have for the body. The hymns and services of the Holy Passion are replete with references to the body and the respect which the Church affords it. The act of cremation is a violation against the body and is not allowed by the Church. Your questions can be asked by E- mailing me. Thank you.
Prophet and Forerunner of the coming of Christ, we honour you lovingly but cannot extol you worthily; for by your birth your mother’s barrenness and your father’s dumbness were unloosed; and the Incarnation of the Son of God is proclaimed to the world.
This week, our Holy Church commemorates the Nativity of the Friend of the Bridegroom
St. John the Forerunner
(see book by S. Bulgakov). St. John the Forerunner, a cousin of Jesus, but what is more important, he was, as Jesus himself said, “…among those born of women there has risen no one greater that John the Baptist” (Matt. 11, 11). There is the portrait of John the Baptist, which is presented in the Gospels. We learn that St. John was the answer to a prayer. His parents, Zachariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years. They prayed for a child. Like Sarah, the wife of Abraham, Elizabeth was beyond the time of bearing children. But, God had a plan of salvation and John the Baptist was to be His messenger (Is. 40, 3). God intervened so that His plan could be accomplished. Elizabeth and Zachariah became the parents of a child, who they were instructed to name John. In the first chapter of Luke, we read John was chosen to be the one to prepare the people of Israel for the Lord (Luke 1, 16). What was his message of preparation? This preparation was contained in one word, Repent! If we look at this word closely, John was not asking for sad eyed sorrow for what had been done. He was calling for change, a radical change of direction. Basic to John’s message were the admonitions to stop, think, examine and change. Change the way you live, the way you treat others, the attitudes in your heart and make a new beginning. This new beginning was and is preparation for the KINGDOM OF GOD. This kingdom will arrive with the Incarnation of Our Lord. God with Us, Emmanuel; this is the decisive moment in the history of the world and in our life. John was born to deliver a message, to bear witness to Christ, to be His friend and to disappear(John 3, 30). Do we still hear his message today?
Representatives of the Local Orthodox Churches were called to meet by his All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. They met the 6th – 12th June 2009 at the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva, Switzerland to discuss one topic, the Orthodox Churches of the Diaspora. We are the Diaspora. The definition of what the “Diaspora” can be found below (see the underlined text) in the portions of the communiqué that was issued at the conference. The reason that this whole process has started is because our Church structure is, quite frankly, uncanonical. Why you ask? Well, the canons of the Church state: that there is One Orthodox Bishop in a city for all Orthodox in that geographical area. Here in the States, for example, you can have a Greek Orthodox bishop, an Antiochian Orthodox bishop, an OCA bishop, a Serbian bishop and more in the same city. THIS IS NOT THE WAY THE SYSTEM WAS DESIGNED. Our history is quite complex and the reality is that the Orthodox in America, Western Europe and Australia are organised ethnically. This is not an acceptable situation. His All Holiness and the other Church leaders realise this and are starting to begin a process that will remedy this situation. The representatives met under the president-ship of Metropolitan John of Pergamon,
Metropolitan John of Pergamon
who was appointed by the Patriarch. This is part of their statement.
“The Conference expressed the willingness of Orthodox Churches to solve the problem of the canonical organisation of the Orthodox Diaspora, conforming to ecclesiology, tradition and canonical practice of the Orthodox Church. The Conference decided to create new episcopal assemblies in some regions of the world to order the question of the Diaspora, i.e. the Orthodox faithful installed in areas beyond The traditional boundaries of the local Orthodox Churches. The presidents of the Assemblies are bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the given region, and in their absence, the bishops in accordance with the order of the Diptichs of the Churches. All the bishops of the Orthodox Churches who exercise their pastoral ministry in the communities existing in each of these regions are members of these Assemblies. The Episcopal Assemblies are for the mission to manifest and promote the unity of the Orthodox Church, to exercise pastoral diakonia to the faithful of the region and to render to the world their common witness. The decisions of the Episcopal Assemblies are taken in accordance with the principle of unanimity of the Churches represented within these Assemblies by bishops.
…The remaining topics of the holy and great Council, i.e. the method of proclaiming of autocephaly and autonomy, and the order of Diptichs, will be discussed in future meetings of the preparatory inter-orthodox commission and will be submitted for approval to the following Pre-conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conferences.”
These representative will meet again, in the mean time we PRAY!
Last February, I wrote on this same subject, but his coming Sunday the Church commemorates two feasts that interest me enough so that I will discuss it once more. The first feast is All Saints Sunday. In our lectionary and movable calendar, All Saints is always the Sunday after Pentecost. The Western churches mark this feast on the day before Halloween. Honestly, the connection has become lost in all the Halloween nonsense. Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween for toddlers and pre-school children…they’re really cute all dressed up, but after that it goes down hill fast. The whole thing has lost its dimension. Never mind that now, All Saint’s Sunday has been set aside to commemorate all people enlightened by the Holy Spirit. The beauty of this feast day is that the Church remembers those souls who are unrecognised saints. What? Those persons who we do not recognise as saints, but who have known God and whom he knows. This group of people has lived in all times and places, and has reflected Christ in their lives. Each of us have known such people of faith and have said to ourselves: “He/she is a real saint.” Well, the Church sets a side this Sunday to commemorate them. Don’t think the rest of the year these people are forgotten. At every liturgy, immediately after the consecration ,the celebrant prays for a group of saints who have been ‘well-pleasing to God’. Each function they have provided the Church is listed from ancestors, to apostles, to teachers, the last phrase spoken is “every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.” Again, we are called to understand that we can’t recognise everyone who is righteous, only God has this insight. This Sunday we take time to acknowledge our own limited perceptions.
The second commemoration we observe this Sunday is taken from the fixed calendar book of the months. The Menaion for June 14 celebrates St. Elijah the prophet and St. Methodios I, Patriarch of Constantinople. Methodios is someone extremely special to me. You see, he was the subject of my doctoral studies. I spent time getting to know Saint Methodios. I could go on for many pages about this saint of the Church. Reading my book (See link below) I would like to point out that Patriarch Methodios started out as a complete stranger, but the real man came to life as I studied him. I understood his humanity, moreover I became aware of his sanctity and the contribution he made to the Church. Each of us need to know a saint, really know him or her. They are more than names on a calendar or a figures in an icon, they are people who struggled and overcame their humanity to become a reflection of Christ. Holy Saints of God Pray for Us!
Last Sunday, we commemorated the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council who met in Niceae in the early fourth century (325 AD). When I got home I started to think about why we haven’t had an ecumenical council since the eighth century. Historically, we should review some facts about all the councils. All these gatherings had some common denominators.
The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council
- The were never called as “ecumenical” councils.
- They were later recognised as such.
- They were called to decide specific questions, which had arisen and troubled the Church.
- These included : “Who was Jesus?” and “What is the nature of the Holy Trinity”?
- They also settled issues that were derived from the above questions such as: “Who was Mary?”
- They were convened by Imperial Decree.
OK, what is the hold up, it’s been since 787AD. Haven’t we had burning issues in the Church since the eighth century? What about the Great Schism? Didn’t this issue warrant a great conclave to settle the dispute? It seems to me (just personal speculation) that two related reasons may have disturbed the accustomed polity of the Church. One was the person and influence of the imperial house. Namely, the emperor who, following the example of St. Constantine, always convened the councils. What happened after the eighth century was Islam. The Byzantine Empire was confronted by the peril of Islam and the Church’s regular relationships between all the five ancient patriarchates was disturbed. Later, the emperor was literally fighting for the life of the empire. We all know about the estrangement of the western church through political issues and ego. Then came the crusades and the relationships between the East and West deteriorated. There were several attempted councils of “reunion”; but they were, quite frankly, coerced in the face of the eminent fall of Constantinople and the Islamic threats. The works of St. Mark Eugenics detail the difficulties for the Orthodox at Council of Ferrara-Florence in the mid 15th century. Then came the times of captivity, both the Ottoman and the Communist eras.
Now times have changed, but one thing that has not changed is the great need for the Church to come together and discuss things that need attention. I, for one applaud, His All Holiness for moving in the direction of calling a great council of the Church. Let’s not be so cynical by immediately thinking of “evil agendas” and “egos”. This week as we prepare for Pentecost, don’t we, as Orthodox Christians, still believe that the Holy Spirit lives in the Church? The council will convene and the Spirit will assure the outcome, not the machinations of politics and human desires. What should you and I do to guarantee the outcome? PRAY, start from now and fervently pray for the council. Then and only then can we as the faithful influence the conclave.