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.
The Saints of January
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.)
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?
The Martyrdom Of St. Ignatius
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.
The Ever Virgin Theotokos
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.
The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit
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.
Let Christ be born in our hearts!
Question: Are we the Church of Christ or the church or Baklava and Kibbeh? This is a serious question. The reality is what started as a way to share our culture and to expose our ethnic heritage to the American public has now become something else. It was a really good purpose, but somewhere along the way we got hooked. What do I mean? The festivals that our Churches sponsor each year have become an income stream for many parishes. They have become a necessity and not icing on the cake. How many parishes dedicate 100% of the receipts to charity, civic endeavours or philanthropy? Just like a narcotic our parishes have learned to depend upon these yearly events, while allowing us, the parishioners, to avoid our personal responsibility to our parish. Stewardship should be the support for our Churches, yet as we rely on outsiders to fund our Churches: we deny our own duty and let the guests support of our parishes.
If we provide according to our means and responsibility then our festivals should be bonuses. There is a deeper question. Are we mature in our faith? Are able to look at our Parish as ours and as given to us by Christ to care for and support. If are faith is centred on Christ, then the parish is Christ and never a burden. The problem is our attitude towards Christ. Are we committed to His Church and to Incarnate Him in the world? During this Nativity season are we prepared to care for Christ out of love or are we content to let others meet our obligations?
The Northern Lights
Northern lights – the Aurora Borealis, this phenomenon has longed amazed us. As we look into the northern skies, we Orthodox should remember that we have our own northern luminaries. Today is a great day to reflect on our own stars from the North. Today, Orthodoxy commemorates the first North American to be canonised a Saint. St Herman (Germanos) of Alaska was one of the trailblazers of the faith, who came to these shore not to find treasure, but to bring a treasure, the Holy Orthodox faith. Yesterday, the Church commemorated a spiritual descendant of St. Herman, a martyr for the faith, St. Peter the Aleut. In these two days, we look at labour and its fruit. St. Herman was the labourer and St. Peter the fruit of the labour. How can we Orthodox faithful in America not rejoice today? No matter what our own backgrounds, how can we not express admiration and ask for the blessing of St. Herman? As the Enlightener of the Aleuts, Herman worked to save souls and to bring Christ to the Native peoples of Russian Alaska. The light by which he enlightened is brighter today because of the seeds St. Herman planted. Orthodoxy is no longer a strange faith from a foreign land, but part of the fabric of life on this continent. As we see in the news, a raging blizzard is blowing across the Midwest. We hear of travel delays, snow and ice paralysing the country, but think how it was in the early nineteenth century in the small hut of St. Herman. He had the warmth of God’s Holy Spirit and the brightness within his heart to warm his hut. He has become an adornment in the northern sky. Even though the Aurora Borealis is a natural occurrence; perhaps, it is God’s way of focusing our spiritual eyes on the great northern lights of Orthodoxy.
The Lights of the North
St. Spyridon of Trimythous
All these icons look alike! How many time have we Orthodox heard this comment about icons. The reality is that there are subtle differences, often with great theological meaning. Today, is one of these times. The saint who we commemorate today is St Spyridon of Thymithous. Look closely, what is different about this icon? We see the familiar icon of a hierarch of the Church with his ecclesial vestments and carrying the Gospel book. Not much different from many icons we see in the Church. But, when we look closely we notice a strange hat on the figure. Most icons of the hierarchs are bare headed, what is the meaning of this strange triangular hat. By reading a bit, we discover that St. Spyridon had been a shepherd and was elected bishop because of his great piety. What did Spyridon do then? According to the Prologue of Ohrid, he continued to live simply and care for his livestock. He also shepherded his spiritual flock the people of his diocese. He was devoted to being a shepherd of souls. As we know, St. Spyridon was present at the first Ecumenical Council. A country bishop from a backwater diocese, really an unsophisticated, uneducated delegate. As his story tells us, the Holy Spirit enlightened Spyridon to expound the true theology of Christ, fully man and fully God. While he preached the truth, Arian one of the most erudite scholars in the Empire was put to shame. A shepherd and a bishop; perhaps our modern hierarchs can remember that they are at their hearts – simple shepherds.
Sts. Joachim and Anna
“Can you tell me the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and our Church?’ I cannot tell you how often I have been asked this question! Well, today is a big part of that answer. Today, we commemorate The Conception of the Theotokos by Saints Anna and Joachim. Last night, I wrote about this holy couple’s great desire to have God intercede in their lives, listen to their prayers and bless them with a child. Not unlike Sara and Abraham and other Old Testament couples, Joachim and Anna were advanced in age, perhaps too advanced. But, God did heard their prayers and allowed them to conceive. This is the first important point that must be noted, the Virgin Mary was conceived in the normal biological manner; the product of the loving union between a husband and wife. God’s blessing and the intervention of His Holy Spirit enabled this to happen. This is one of the reasons Joachim and Anna are the image of married bliss for Orthodox couples.
The Conception of the Theotokos is a source of another divergence in theology between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. We, Orthodox, do not believe in the “Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.” We must be very careful here! We (Orthodox) DO believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ was Immaculately Conceived. Christ being Fully God and Full Man was born without sin. God can not have sin. But this was not the case for his mother, the Theotokos. The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary was born with sin, just as all of humanity. Furthermore, the Church believes that Mary lived a life of purity and she found favour with God because of her righteousness. She was cleansed of her sin by the Spirit of God at the Annunciation, so that she could carry the Christ Child within her body.
Turning to the Roman Catholic understanding, it started to divert from the Orthodox very early. The Western Church began to develop the teaching of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin. Their teaching states that God, fore-knowing, that Mary would bear the Christ; provided that she was born without sin. This teaching was a pious belief until 1854, when Pope Pius lX declared the teaching – dogma of the Catholic Church. This decree was then ratified by Vatican I in 1870. So we can see this is a relatively new doctrine. This is a rather simplistic explanation. There are other deeper theological implications, but nonetheless, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is a major area of theological disagreement between the two Churches.