When Did Orthodox Worship First Begin

I am currently engaged in an “Old Testament Challenge” being led by Fr. John Peck at the Preacher’s Institute.  I often think that the model for the worship of our Church dates back to Exodus and Leviticus, when the priesthood of Aaron was instituted.  Of course, it dates back farther than that.  In fact, we see perhaps the earliest example in Genesis 15:17 when God is making the first covenant with Abram.  After Abram prepared the sacrifices we see a smoking fire pot and torch (Masoretic OT) passing between the sacrifices.  The smoking fire pot would best be rendered in modern parlance as a censer.  As Fr. Peck pointed out on his Facebook page, the LXX text is rather more trinitarian, indicating a flame, a smoking “furnace”, and lamps of fire.  Interesting stuff, and that’s only part way through Genesis!


Apostolic Succession and Anglicans


The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) recently was invited to Russia to meet with the Patriarch.  Kevin Allen at Ancient Faith Radio, after this meeting, interviewed Keith Ackerman, a bishop in the ACNA, and Fr. Chad Hatfield, Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.  Both are actively engaged in interfaith dialogue between Anglicans and the Orthodox, and Ackerman had attended the meeting in Moscow (I’m unclear as to whether Fr. Hatfield attended or not).  As time permits, there are a few points raised during the interview, that I hope to address.  For now, I will limit myself to one point.

Kevin raises the question of the branch theory and Apostolic Succession.  He wonders if the ACNA still holds that it is, in fact, one of the branches of the original church.  This theory is widely held by Anglicans, and in particular by Anglocatholics, of which Ackerman is one (or at least used to be, I haven’t spoken with him in years).  Ackerman responds by saying he is, in fact, looking at his apostolic succession while participating in the interview.  That is, he is looking at the line of bishops, presumably leading back to the apostles, and beginning with the bishop who ordained him as a priest in the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) many years ago.

This points to an issue that will prove to be a major problem.  You see, the Orthodox Church does not accept that Ackerman, or any Anglicans are in the “Apostolic Succession.”  Even Rome doesn’t accept it, and they hold to a view of Apostolic Succession somewhat more in line with the Anglican view.  The Anglican perspective is that Apostolic Succession is merely about the laying on of hands by subsequent generations of bishop.  That there is something magical in that act that keeps one perpetually a member of the historic church.  This goes along with their belief that once you are ordained a priest you are always a priest.  Nothing you do changes this.  If you were to become a bishop, then decide to become a buddhist, you would still have the ability to pass along this apostolic succession to someone else – even, presumably, if they were not Christian.  Anglicans would argue that it is nothing “magical” but rather God’s grace, but the Orthodox don’t believe that God’s grace is permanently affixed to someone such that they can’t turn away from it and leave it behind.

The Orthodox perspective on Apostolic Succession includes the laying on of hands, but also requires a continuation in the teaching of the Apostles.  Following is from a piece by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Vlachos on Rome, but it applies here:

Apostolic Succession is not simply a series of ordinations, but at the same time it is the sharing of revealed truth.  When a church cuts itself off from the trunk of the Orthodox Church because of doctrinal differences, this means it no longer has the mystery of the priesthood.  That is, when revelatory truth is lost and heretical opinions are adopted, this has implications int he Apostolic Succession.  The Apostles transmitted the gift of the priesthood, but at the same time they gave, through regeneration, the entire revelatory tradition.

In his book on the Person in the Orthodox Tradition, he goes into some more detail, and I will attempt to post some of that later.  However, this requirement to continue in the revealed truth is then problematic for the Anglican churches.  Ackerman can claim that he holds entirely Orthodox beliefs (which obviously he doesn’t, at least not on this count), but in order for him to still be in succession, the requirement is that he be continuing in that stream.  That is, nobody in his line of succession cut themselves off from Orthodox doctrine prior to their laying hands on him.  I think he would be hard pressed to establish that all of his predecessors held even AngloCatholic beliefs, let alone Orthodox, so there is no practical way for him to still be in that line of succession.

As an addendum, we have several instances that I was aware of back in my Anglican days, where an individual would wander off and establish his own branch of Christianity that bore little semblance to historic, Orthodox Christianity.  For amusement, you may want to read this.  You can see several examples of sects arising out of this mistaken notion of Apostolic Succession, to whom the word heretic could be applied, but that might not go far enough.


I guess a theme is developing for this blog.  I’ve been wanting to post some thoughts on Rick Warren, as his name keeps coming up in conversation.  This blog is not about him or his teaching or church growth views, but it is going to be part of the foundation.

Today driving in to the office, I was listening to this podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.  The first thing that struck me was that the development of our faith is dependent on prayer and fasting.  Actually, convicted is more the word.  I definitely felt convicted, and was thinking again about this post, about how the purpose of the Church is creation of saints.

Then I read todays epistle reading, and was struck by the last verse,

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

Now this verse, of course, refers to the apostles, but I suspect it is reasonable to assert that this is what all people involved in evangelism are called to be, the aroma of Christ to God.  After all, that is what a saint is, and thus it is what we are all called to be.  What is so great about the aroma metaphor is that aroma’s so often reveal the substance of the thing.  Consider a plate of food, such as this yummy looking hot fudge sundae:


I want a bite of this, don’t you?  However, if you were to smell it, you would discover it doesn’t have an aroma.  This particular sundae is fake.  It is a prop.  Depending on how the prop is made, it probably doesn’t have a taste, or it has a bad one.  Sometimes, food looks good but smells really bad.  Either way, the aroma reflects the substance.

It is fairly easy to be a good looking Christian.  Show up to church once in a while.  Throw a few dollars in the collection plate.  Put a couple of icons up in your house.  It is much more difficult to smell or taste like a good Christian.  In order to accomplish that, you need prayer and fasting.

If we are concerned with evangelizing people, and as Orthodox Christians, we should be, then we need to be very concerned with becoming the aroma of Christ.  Not only to lead people to Christ, but to also not drive them away with a bad smell, or a bad taste.  This post reminds me of something that happened many years ago, interestingly to a non-Christian colleague.  We were at a restaurant for dinner, and the waiter brought a tray of desserts by the table for us to see before we made a selection (or chose not to have one as we had just eaten a big meal, which is likely why the visuals).  My colleague grabbed his spoon, stuck it in an apparent bowl of ice cream and put it in his mouth before the waiter could react.  The “ice cream” was, in fact, pure lard.  The dessert was a prop.  The look on his face reflected the taste of the “ice cream”.  We should all be concerned that when non-Christians sample us, they get what they see on the surface, not a bad taste.


Being who you are…

Taylor Lipsett

Taylor Lipsett

This is, perhaps, a bit out of scope for this blog, but on the other hand I am hoping that in the process of writing down these thoughts it would force me to apply some Orthodox phronema to my thoughts and attitudes, and perhaps provide me with a bit of guidance.

I have a genetic bone disorder, known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI).  I have type I and a fairly mild case of it.  By shortly after my 15th birthday, I had broken a bit over 20 bones.  I don’t remember the exact number, but after that I stopped fracturing for another 23 years.  Because I was so mild, I really wanted to be normal.  It was so close that I always felt that it was right there in front of me.  My parents, who had to deal with the results of broken bones – the cost, the challenges to everyones day to day activities, and the difficulty of having a child in pain, ultimately opted to have me stay in a wheelchair throughout much of my childhood.  Until fairly recently, I disagreed with that decision.  Now I’m not so sure.

In college, I gave up my wheelchair.  I put it away and never looked back.  I took up boogey boarding and racquetball.  I loved being normal.  The problem is that I really wasn’t.  The risk of subsequent fracture was always there, but pushed out of the way.  Only when I attempted to learn to ride a bike, was I reminded of that.  My own sense of self preservation made such an effort fruitless, and I ultimately gave it up.  As married life, children, and work took up much of my time, I moved away from any form of exercise.  I tried tennis briefly, but it was too difficult to run that fast.  Again, a bit of fear was in the back of my mind, and perhaps that kept me from more damage.  Then, at 38, the fractures started again, in a big way.  Now, 11 years, three broken femurs, one crushed tibia, and numerous stress fractures later, things are a bit different.  Along the way, I did finally get a bike.  Well, actually, a trike.  Fortunately it was pretty cool looking, so I didn’t feel quite so abnormal.  Lots of “normal” folks ride them too, and that was important to me.

This year, I had an epiphany.  It was a bit slow in the making, but once it hit, well…

It started with the 2014 paralympic games in Sochi.  There was an event I had never heard of before called sled hockey.  And there was a member of the US team with OI, named Taylor Lipsett.  He had the same type as I did, but appears to mostly break legs.  He largely used a wheelchair for day to day activities.  In hindsight I suspect that this is because the risk is too high to walk about.  If he breaks a leg, he won’t be playing hockey for a while.  Why take that risk?  He accepted that he wasn’t normal.  There is absolutely no way he could ever play standard hockey.  Instead he opted to accept who he was and what he had and chose to become an international class athlete.  He has achieved more being disabled than he would have had he attempted to be normal.  In other words, he accepted who he was, and worked with that.

How does this apply to Orthodoxy?  Orthodoxy is all about transformation.  Leaving the fallen state that we are in to become

Jordanne Whiley

Jordanne Whiley

deified, to become one with God.  It is very much not about accepting our limitations.  Isn’t that the opposite of what Taylor did?  Not at all.  His limitations are real, and there is nothing he can do about them to make them go away.  He has brittle bones, and, for the time being, nobody has developed a means to make that go away.  So his choice is to either accept that and simply never develop his physical talents, or to accept that and, through it find a means to develop his talent.  Like the parable, he can either bury the talent, or put it to work.  By accepting his weakness, he can actually move beyond it.  Many of the holy men and women we learn about in the Church, have found in their various physical maladies a means to grow stronger, much like Taylor has in a physical sense.  I’ve since met other athletes much like Taylor, including Jordanne Whiley, who also has OI, and, like her father, and Taylor, has decided to accept that and move far beyond the limitations such a disorder can present.

But there is another piece to this.  To some degree, you can live in a state of delusion.  I refused to use a wheelchair as if by that refusal I wouldn’t have a disability.  Instead, I increased my disability – and failed to see the pathway to growth and development of some talents.  But then, the epiphany happened.  Not very long ago, I decided to accept my disability.  I started using  wheelchair more often for daily activities, and I took up a wheelchair sport.  Now I can do more than I could trying to pretend that I wasn’t disabled.  I’ve decided to be who I am, and take that and make it grow, and it has been a world of difference.  That is, I think, a more Orthodox way.

The blog author competing at Indian Wells this year

The blog author competing at Indian Wells this year

The Decline of Orthodoxy in America

St. Seraphim and Motovilov

St. Seraphim and Motovilov

A friend sent out an email recently regarding this article from Orthodox Christian Laity, in which it is noted that the Orthodox church in the United States is shrinking according to a recent PEW forum survey.  The question posed, then, is what do we make of this?

Logic alone tells that there are only two possible reasons why the numbers are shrinking.  The first is people leaving the church, and the second is few new people coming in.  I anticipate that both reasons are in play.  Typically, I would expect each reason to require a different response, and frequently we see people approaching these as having two different causes.  People not coming in is because we don’t evangelize enough.  We don’t get the message out, we don’t invite people to our church, we don’t welcome people when they do come for a visit.  People leaving is because we aren’t providing the programs that they want, or aren’t satisfying them in some way.  Outside of the Orthodox Church we see pushes for more dynamic entertaining worship services.  Even Within the Church there is a drive to model our behaviors on those of apparently successful megachurches.  I say apparently because these churches only exist for a while, typically, then fall apart as their charismatic leader either retires or falls from grace due to some indiscretion.  What they do is create programs that tickle the current perceived needs of the spiritually starving masses, then market their product, pretty much using the same approaches as one would use to market a Ford Fusion or the latest Carl’s Jr. hamburger.

But why are people really leaving?  I would argue that they are leaving because the Orthodox Church, in America especially, but perhaps everywhere, has become irrelevant.  Many members of the Church from my generation went to church on Sunday morning because it is what they were trained to do.  I saw this during my life as an Episcopalian (born and raised).  Of greater importance, they grew up in an American culture where people went to Church on Sunday.  Little Tommy Romero went to the Catholic Church, Johnny Berg went to the local Presbyterian or Lutheran Church, and Ben Ludlow attended the Episcopal Church.  Nick Maropolous?  To the Greek Church.  It was what was done.  21st century America, on the other hand, no longer has need of church on Sunday.  If there is no cultural imperative to attend church on Sunday, why bother with the Orthodox Church, or any other?  Church, itself, is irrelevant.  I think this comic captures the notion best.

The purpose of the Orthodox Church is to create saints.  I’ve heard this before, and was reminded of it again during a recent visit to another parish in the San Diego area on All Saints.  The priest made this and some other key points during his homily.  If parishes are actively engaged in this “saint building” practice, then we should expect that membership would not be on the decline quite as much.  After all, the Church is providing something other than simply a cultural experience.  Unfortunately, for a great number of Orthodox parishes, there is very little focus on the building of saints, and instead the primary focus is on cultural activities.  As new generations of members come to adulthood, they will find themselves less connected to their ethnic origins, and these cultural activities will also become less relevant.  At that point, where there is no cultural motivation, people simply leave.  They go to other churches that “feel” better, or more than likely, they simply stop entirely.  I’ve seen it outside the Orthodox Church (in particular in the Episcopal Church), and thus I’m not surprised to see it here.

What about bringing in new members?  What is limiting us here?  As pointed out earlier, many would have us model our evangelism after those of popular mega-churches.  We should market our church as if it is simply a competing product.  In an environment where we are not focused on the building of saints, but rather other less central programs, then we are simply a competing product.  Unfortunately, we are a competing product of ancient music, long services, and ethnic isolation.  There is little within that to be of much appeal to the average American.  If I felt like I needed to do something “spiritual” on a Sunday, I’d rather go to the local St. Starbucks and have a frap while watching a rock band (yes, a local North County megachurch is known for having an on-site Starbucks).  Of course, if I was really smart, I’d simply sleep in then go play for the rest of my last day off before the work week.

However, if we were to offer something of great spiritual significance, like a means to grow saints, to provide a pathway for people to become united with God, then we would have something.  Well, the Orthodox Church has that means.  We’ve had it from the beginning.  The question is, how do we let people know?  Many proponents of marketing campaigns would look to to glitzy ads, social media, and the like to get the point across.  They would point to the New Testament and early Church looking for examples of people spreading the gospel to non-believers.  Frequently, however, they overlook a key component.  Who is it within the New Testament and Early Church that is doing the evangelism?  Who is drawing believers to the Church?  Typically it is a saint.  We see that all the way up to the modern times.  So, if we have a proper saint building program within the Church, we will have the means of drawing people in.  Holiness is really quite attractive to many people.  We cannot simply say we have something.  We have to demonstrate it.

What this means is that the solution to both causes of the decline of the Orthodox Church is to focus on the building of saints.  The Orthodox Church has that program.  It is the sacraments, fasting (and related ascetic practices), and confession (which included spiritual guidance).  It requires a proper catechetical underpinning so that people are properly educated.  Nothing new needs to be invented, we simply need to do what the Church has always done, at least until recent times.  In the sermon I mentioned earlier, the priest also reminded us that becoming a saint requires suffering, hence the focus in the Orthodox Church on asceticism.  This stands in contrast to the feel good focus that underlies many of the megachurches in the US, as well as competing religious systems.  That, by itself, is a bit challenging to market.  However, like a good sports program, if you develop a number of top level athletes, then people will be drawn to the program, even if you tell them they will need to work hard and suffer to achieve their objectives.  There is, of course, an interesting corollary to this.  If, instead of a great athlete, the sports program puts out a consummate couch potato as the example of what they produce, will that be very appealing?

If we look around the Orthodox Church in the United States, we can find many examples of growing parishes, and the one thing they have in common is a focus on the growth of saints.  Those parishes who have, as a primary focus, cultural activities, are simply another flavor of country club.  One without golf, tennis, and with an inconvenient program time.

Orthodox Fundamentalism, A Response

Recently a friend pointed out this article, by a George Demacopoulos, who is a professor of Historical Theology and the Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.  His position and title are somewhat germane to the following analysis.

When I asked about what I thought regarding the article, I was going to write up a response, then decided not to when I ran across this response posted by Fr. John Whiteford.  My friend has since posed the following response:

I went back and reread Father Whiteford’s response. I didn’t read Democopoulos’ piece as if it were a piece of systematic theology. It was only a couple of pages long, more of an essay or a precis to an essay. I think W. Is taking D. a little too literally. I think D. was trying to relate to the reader some of his reservations with Orthodox fundamentalists (I think you and I probably agree on who he’s talking about without putting too fine a point on it). Speaking as a convert, I agree with D., generally speaking. But if I interpreted D. In W’s terms, I wouldn’t agree.

Perhaps D, could have been a little less polemical with his terms, but don’t you think D. got most of it right?

I’m going to come right out and say that, no, I don’t think he got most of it right.  Before I commence, a few caveats are important.  One is that I lean toward the traditional side in my Orthodoxy.  I have a great number of friends who are likely the targets of Demacopoulos’ piece, and I may be classified in the same group by him.  I suspect I would be.  I’m sure Fr. John would be.  The other is that Fr. John and I are both survivors, not without some injury, of the Episcopal wars that have led to an increasingly irrelevant religious body that stands for nothing except for what is in opposition to the history of the faith.  We see individuals within the Orthodox Church who make statements that are very similar to the sorts of things one would hear out of so-called Episcopal theologians say 20 or 30 years ago.  Thus, we are likely a bit sensitized to such things.  Finally, I will say that I know nothing much about the Volos conference, although I guess I’ll have to look further into it, and perhaps post back more regarding it.  My difficulties with the Demacopoulos piece are with the piece itself.


I will agree that the piece was not meant to be a significant theological treatise.  However, it is much more than an offhand remark made in passing or during some form of interview.  Rather, this was a widely posted essay (and yes, really more the introduction to what could become a much longer piece) meant to effectively belittle the more traditional Orthodox.  If it was merely an introduction, followed by a more detailed essay with citations, I could accept it a bit more, although it is still replete with errors.

I think that people some times have more that should be demanded of them because of the position they hold.  Professional athletes, for instance, are chastised for behaviors that are not entirely uncommon in our society (drug use, dishonesty, etc.), and are in fact, somewhat accepted by many, precisely because of their position as role models for young athletes.  They may not have specifically set out to be a role model, but it is a necessary part of their job.  Professors and other academics have an expectation placed upon them for a certain amount of intellectual rigor.  Straw men, broad generalizations, and blatant untruths are the things of politicians, and we are right to expect better out of those charged with educating our children and our future leaders.

Professor Demacopoulos comes across in this piece as either a standard issue politician or a petulant child who’s favorite toy (in this case a conference his university hosts) has been broken by some neighborhood children.  Frankly I expect better.

The Bogey Man

Demacopoulos starts out aiming his piece at a Orthodox fundamentalist.  While Fr. John is correct in pointing out that the term is technically inaccurate, I think he gets a bit carried away.  We know precisely why Demacopoulos chooses the term.  It is because the best connotation it brings is Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, which are largely held in low view throughout this country, and certainly amongst the intelligensia, while the worst connotation is that of ISIL and their current campaign to send the Middle East, and frankly the rest of the world if they have their way, back to the stone age.  By tarring Orthodox Christians who disagree with Demacopoulos and those of his view as fundamentalists, he is seeking to shut down argument immediately.  It is polemic at its very lowest.

Orthodoxy does change over time, but quite slowly.  New hymns are introduced, but slowly.  Vestments have morphed, the structure of the service has both contracted in some places and expanded in others.  All of this, however is done very slowly as we are necessarily cautious.  The controversies that led to the early church councils are the reason.  We know that something new needs to be evaluated to ensure that it is in keeping with the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”  We’ll come back to this specific point later, but it is important to note that within Orthodoxy there are those who are very hesitant to accept things that appear to be new, and in particular that appear to contradict the faith.  At times, this can take the form of unnecessary polemic, and there are certainly those who are too ready to trot out the term heretic and apply to thus and such a person.  I think that labeling a person as a heretic is best left to Ecumenical Councils, but I think it is appropriate to use the term heresy or heretical teaching.  That being said, those of us who are traditional should show more than a bit of restraint and analyze new teachings with a spirit of charity before assigning labels.

Demacopoulos attributes several statements to this fundamentalist bogey man in his piece.  However, since we have no references, citations, links, etc. to anyone or any organization actually making these statements, we are left to take him at his word (for instance, when he says “radical opportunists in the Church of Greece accused it and its bishop of heresy”, it would be nice, given the tone, for him to provide some backup).  Given some issues he has with accuracy elsewhere in his piece, I’m not entirely sure why anyone would take him at his word.

The Bogey Man made of Straw


The bogey man is claimed to hold four specific positions.  The first, and apparently the key error, is that he believes that “the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters”, and that Orthodoxy has never changed.

The second is that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching.

The third is that the Church Fathers were anti-intellectual.

The fourth is that adhering to the teaching of the Fathers requires resisting all things Western.

Again, we have no actual examples of anyone holding these views.  I will say that I know of no one who actually holds even one of these views.  The great modern teachers that those of us of a more traditional approach like to read, such as Fr. Romanides, or Metropolitan Hierotheos, never make such claims.  I’d have to go back and look, but if ever these topics arose, I’m sure they would argue against them.  Amongst the rank and file  traditional Orthodox, I similarly have never heard such statements.

As my friend points out, we know to whom Demacopoulos is referring.  People who criticize a priest because of the lack of a beard, or who doesn’t push adherence to the fasts, or who tends to cut services short at times.  At times the priest can be accused of heresy (and similarly bishops) for these sorts of “infractions”.  Some of these represent reasonable criticisms, although there is often examples of a judgmentalism that is, itself, not Orthodox, and we all must remember to tend to our own failings first.  However, Demacopoulos, by constructing this straw man and knocking it down, seeks to dismiss traditional Orthodox out of hand.

Errors and Weak Foundations

Demacopoulos uses his straw man as the basis for arguing for the truth of the matter.  However, he is guilty of some rather significant errors, some of which Fr. John highlights.  In other cases, he is not so much in error, but there is left an ambiguity which can then become the foundation for error, as the foundation itself is in error.

The first error is the assertion that Sts. Peter and Paul disagreed over circumcision.  Orthodox and Catholics are often accused by protestants of not reading the Bible, and I fear that Professor Demacopoulos comes across in that statement as someone who has not read the Bible, and is, instead relying on someone else’s interpretation.  Acts 15 records the very first Church Council.  As we are told, St. Paul and St. Silas go to Jerusalem to address adherence to the Old Covenant practices with regard to Christians.  St. Paul clearly is of the opinion that the faith that was revealed to him by Christ after his conversion experience does not require adherence to the Jewish practices.  St. Peter arises, during the council, and makes a brief, but eloquent speech, in which he agrees with St. Paul.  The Apostles and Elders determine, based on the revelation that had been given them, that circumcision was not to be required.

Subsequent to this event, St. Paul describes an event in Galatians 2, where, unfortunately, St. Peter appears to be playing the part of the hypocrite.  It is not that he believes differently about circumcision, witnessed by the fact that he will eat with the Gentiles, but that instead of standing up to the Judaizers, he acquiesces when they are around and withdraws from the Gentiles.

A similar error, as Fr. John points out, exists in the description of what St. John of Damascus did with the hymnography.  For the Orthodox, the hymnography is one of the safeguards of theology, so messing with it would be significant, and abandoning it would be unthinkable.  What St. John did was to add some hymns into the mix.  Over time, the Biblical odes fell into disuse in most churches, and only those additional hymns remain.  I suspect this was acceptable because the hymns provided a summary teaching of the odes that preceded them.  The assumption is likely that people are familiar with the odes and their contents, and so the summary teaching, the interpretation, is more critical.

None of this is to argue that the Fathers were in complete agreement on all things.  However, what tends to happen is that people like Demacopoulos take the idea that there are disagreements in the Fathers at times, and thus all things are open to revision.  Now, this is decidedly my assertion about where he is heading, and so is necessarily unfair as he has said nothing directly like this in this article or elsewhere.  He may not even believe it, but there are those who will take what he says as the foundation for such a teaching.  This is where my history in the Episcopal Church comes into play.  I’ve seen this very thing argued.

Demacopoulos further supports my assertion when he says “The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world”.  Really?  I would challenge Demacopoulos to support that assertion.  I’m a chanter (or at least I try to be), so I can say that over the 8 years or so that I’ve been involved in that ministry I have chanted a great number of hymns about various Fathers of the Church.  For many/most bishops among the saints, the hymns read similar to this one for St. Athanasius:

You were Orthodoxy’s steadfast pillar, holding up the Church with godly dogmas, O great Hierarch, for you did preach unto all that God the Son is one essence in very truth with God the Father; thus you did shame Arius.  Righteous Father Athanasius, do you entreat Christ God that His great mercy may be granted unto us.

Or, this one, for St. Basil

Your sound has gone forth into all the earth, which has received your word.  Thereby you have divinely taught the Faith; you have made manifest the nature of all things that be; you have adorned the ways of man.  O namesake of the royal priesthood, our righteous Father Basil, intercede with Christ God that our sould be saved.

For others that were either monastics of great piety or martyrs (that is, we know of them primarily from their martyrdom), the hymns have a different flavor, although typically it is that they were deep in piety and adherence to Orthodoxy, such as St. Pelagia.  The “soul-wrenching quest to seek God” isn’t a process for these saints of starting from something new, or attempting to create something new, but rather is a process of deep adherence to Orthodoxy and its ascetical disciplines.  While their quest is a great example, and is significant, it is not “the signficance,” or the hymnography for those concerned with dogma would be quite different.  Demacopoulos reveals a bit about himself on this point that underscores the opposition he has received.

His final major error, I would argue, is his views of Ecumenical Councils.  He asserts that Orthodox Theology has changed “or else there would have been no need for the Fathers to build consensus at successive Ecumenical Councils.”  I look to a distinction that Metropolitan Hierotheos uses in his book on the Person in Orthodox Theology.  There is an experiential theology, which is the actual theology of the Church.  It is the experience of God that the saints of the Church have had.  It is this that comprises the Faith once delivered.  Over the centuries, when you read the stories of the great ascetics, you find remarkable unity, from the earliest desert Fathers up to St. Seraphim of Sarov.  Then there is dogmatic theology.  As Met. Hierotheos states, this is necessarily more polemical.  It’s purpose is to express the experiential theology in dogmatic fashion.  It is where the Fathers have had to adopt various philosophical terms and at time get quite technical.  This is what was happening at the councils.  It was not a consensus building exercise in order to develop new teaching – or worse yet, revise teaching.  It is commonly taught among certain Orthodox (and it is positively dogmatic in the Episcopal church at this point), that since the councils were constructing new teachings, we can construct new teachings now, which might necessarily mean we strike down old teachings.  Finally, it is hard to describe the entire process as one of consensus.  Certainly the dating of Pascha was essentially consensus building and harmonization.  Likely the punishments for those involved in the Arian heresy was probably consensus as the subject is quite pastoral in nature.  However, with regard to the main issue, that of the teaching of Arius, it is hard to describe the process as consensus building when the following is stated in a letter to the Church in Egypt from the council:

The holy Council has anathematized all these ideas, barely able to endure it as we listened to such impious opinions (or rather madnesses) and such blasphemous words.

Yes, as I indicated before, I am reading into some of this essay, and so perhaps I’m being unnecessarily critical.  But I hear the not so faint echoes of the sorts of things that were being taught by leaders in the Episcopal Church not so long ago.  If I imply that the Fathers are only significant as pious examples, I exclude them as sources of dogmatic teaching.  If I imply that the councils were developing new theology through a process of consensus building, I open the door to simply creating new theology now.

So, to reiterate, I find that Democopoulos got his letter mostly wrong, not mostly right.




The Rapture, Ancient Teaching or Recent Heresy?

With the upcoming release of the first “Left Behind” movie, a lot of attention has been brought to a teaching that is largely peculiar to American evangelicalism, that is the doctrine of a pre-tribulation rapture.  The basics of the teaching are that there will be a great tribulation that will fall on the whole earth, and that at the end of the tribulation Christ will return for the last judgement.  Before the tribulation, however, Christ will also come and take away all true believers so that they don’t have to experience the tribulation.

There have been numerous arguments brought forth against this teaching, but one of the more common in recent years is that the concept of a pre-tribulation rapture is a novel teaching, having largely been promulgated by John Darby in the 19th century, with some support from  17th and 18th century American evangelists.  For non-Orthodox, I think the point of this argument is that if a pre-tribulation rapture was truly authentic, it would have been a common teaching earlier in history.  I find this an interesting argument to see Protestants bring forth, as they pride themselves on being Sola Scriptura, and thus a new teaching doesn’t necessarily reflect an incorrect teaching.  As long as it is established from Scripture, then it would be a valid teaching.  I understand the argument from a Roman Catholic perspective, as they believe in the development of doctrine, and so a completely new teaching would be a bit troubling.  The thing I find really surprising is to see Orthodox apologists trot out this argument.  Orthodoxy is all about the teachings that have been handed down from Christ and the Apostles.  In this regard, a new teaching would clearly not qualify.  On the other hand, even if the teaching appeared much earlier in history, it would not become any more valid.  Arianism is a pretty ancient teaching, but it is still a heresy.

In response to this, adherents of the pre-trib rapture theory have endeavored a response on two levels.  Both of these were posted by a friend of mine on Facebook, hence my response here.  The first argument, which is a bit fallacious, is that a lack of known evidence that the doctrine was taught earlier in history is not sufficient proof that it wasn’t.  This is sort of a special pleading.  The burden of proof clearly lies with those arguing that the teaching did exist in history.  It is virtually impossible to ever prove that something absolutely doesn’t exist.  I can’t prove that the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist, nor can I prove that ancient Greeks didn’t hold an annual festival in central Oklahoma.  However, if I were to assert that either of those things are true, the burden would fall to me.

The second argument is that the teaching did exist in history, and a variety of sources are brought out to establish that.  It is this that I promised to respond to, and thus I will.  I’ll go one by one through the listed sources:

2 Esdras

A quick note that this refers to what among Orthodox would be known as 4th Esdras, a piece of Jewish apocalyptic literature that is only considered canonical by the Ethiopian Church.  2 Esdras or 2 Ezra is a different book in the Orthodox canon.  At any rate, we have three passages from this text.  The first is from the 6th chapter, beginning at the 18th verse:

“The days are coming when I draw near to visit the inhabitants of the earth, and when I require from the doers of iniquity the penalty of their iniquity, and when the humiliation of Zion is complete. When the seal is placed upon the age that is about to pass away, then I will show these signs: The books shall be opened before the face of the Firmament, and all shall see my judgment together. Children a year old shall speak with their voices, and pregnant women shall give birth to premature children at three or four months, and these shall live and leap about. Sown places still suddenly appear unsown, and full storehouses shall suddenly be found to be empty, the Trumpet shall sound aloud and when all hear it, they shall suddenly be terrified At that time friends will make war on friends like enemies, the earth and those who inhabit it shall be terrified. Then we have the tribulation period, then at the end when Jesus returns with us, as the armies of heaven : They shall see those who were taken up, who from their birth had not tasted death, and the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit. For evil shall be blotted out and deceit shall be quenched, faithfulness shall flourish, and corruption shall be overcome, and the Truth, which has been so long without fruit, shall be revealed.

The passage clearly refers to the tribulation before the final judgement.  The question has to do with the line that begins “Then we have the tribulation period…”  I have looked at the RSV version of this passage at the University of Michigan, and another version from sacred-texts.com, and both don’t include that passage.  Instead, the closest we have is from the RSV:  ”

And it shall be that whoever remains after all that I have foretold to you shall himself be saved and shall see my salvation and the end of my world. And they shall see the men who were taken up, who from their birth have not tasted death; and the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit. For evil shall be blotted out, and deceit shall be quenched; faithfulness shall flourish, and corruption shall be overcome, and the truth, which has been so long without fruit, shall be revealed.”

The question is, what is meant by “And they shall see the men who were taken up”?  Does this refer to some rapture event?  The phrase is qualified as “those who from birth have not tasted death” as the restatement of those who were taken up.  After seeing these, people’s hearts will be changed.  The King James translation has the text saying this:

Whosoever remaineth from all these that I have told thee shall escape, and see my salvation, and the end of your world.  And the men that are received shall see it, who have not tasted death from their birth: and the heart of the inhabitants shall be changed, and turned into another meaning.

Which implies that the men that are received are, in fact, those believers who came through the tribulation.  It is their witness, in effect, that changes hearts.  This interpretation is actually closer to the historic, Orthodox understanding that Christians will undergo the tribulation, and some will make it through the tribulation without losing their faith, but others will not be so fortunate.  There is some discussion of people who escape tribulation, and we will discuss under what circumstances that happens a bit later on.

The next quote is from chapter 13:

The days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth, And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who inhabit the earth. They shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and Kingdom against Kingdom. When these things take place and the signs occur that I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed”.

The King James as this section as follows:

Behold, the days come, when the most High will begin to deliver them that are upon the earth.  And he shall come to the astonishment of them that dwell on the earth.  And one shall undertake to fight against another, one city against another, one place against another, one people against another, and one realm against another.  And the time shall be when these things shall come to pass, and the signs shall happen which I shewed thee before, and then shall my Son be declared, whom thou sawest as a man ascending.

And the RSV:

Behold, the days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth.  And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who dwell on the earth.  And they shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and kingdom against kingdom.  And when these things come to pass and the signs occur which I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea. 

I would be curious to see the underlying text (in Latin or Greek) from which this passage comes.  I suspect that the man coming up from the sea may more appropriately refer to coming up from the depths or the grave.

Regardless, does this speak of a pre-tribulation rapture?  Nothing in this speaks to the rapture.  We see that God will deliver (or begin to deliver depending on the translation) those who are on earth.  This will happen at the second coming, so what in these passages point to a pre-tribulation rapture?

The last passage is the following, from chapter 16 v. 74 and following:

“Listen, my elect ones, says the Lord, the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them. Do not fear or doubt, for God is your guide. You who keep my commandments and precepts, says the Lord God must not let your sins weigh you down or your iniquities prevail over you .

The other translations by and large agree with this one, but on the other hand there is nothing here that argues for a pre-tribulation rapture.  Yes, being delivered from the days of tribulation could be used to support that teaching, but it hardly establishes that it was the teaching at the time.  Further on, when I discuss the Orthodox understanding of the end times, I will explore what it means to be delivered from tribulation.

Before leaving Esdras, I must highlight that the translations my friend posted for the first quote don’t compare well in that critical sections with the RSV or KJV.  The translation, in fact, contains a line that sound almost like an insertion written by a pre-trib rapture proponent.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal except that as we are about to see, there appears to be a tendency among some groups supportive of the pre-tribulation rapture to simply manufacture evidence to support their position.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been a treasure house of insight into the religious environment of the holy land around the time of Christ.  We have great evidence regarding the various manuscript traditions that would ultimately inform the various translations of the Bible that we have today.  Given the amount of scholarship that has gone into the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they provide a tempting target for use to defend a certain belief.

In this case, we seem to have a situation where a group, in the interest of defending their view, seems to have fabricated a quote from the Dead Sea Scrolls.  What my friend posted was the following:

The Dead Sea Scrolls 150+ BC
“The Rapture will occur suddenly. And countless thousands will vanish from the earth. Swept up to heaven to live with Jesus and escape the torment of the Tribulation, the others will be left behind.”

The first problem is that the Dead Sea Scrolls have all been catalogued.  Typically, references to quotes within them include a reference to the cave and fragment associate with the quote.  As I said previously, there has been a great deal of scholarship associated with the scrolls.  The absence of any reference makes it impossible to study this quote in any manner.

Attempting to find this scroll through online searches has only yielded one result.  That this scroll doesn’t exist, and that it was fabricated by Jack Van Impe Ministries.  The referenced scholar and theological school don’t appear to exist.

It is sad that people resort to fabricating evidence to support their views.  Between this, and the interesting modification to the Esdras text we saw above, I have to admit I have a greater than normal sense of skepticism regarding any claims by dispensationalists about the existence of evidence supporting their view.

One other thing we must be on guard against is the reading back into ancient texts, modern notions.  This is especially risky when one is fishing for the odd quote to support their position.  I think we will see a bit of this in the following.

The Shepherd of Hermas

This text would be very interesting if it taught a pre-trib rapture.  Primarily, this is because it was held in sufficiently high regard that it nearly became part of scripture.  The quote that was provided is:

“You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and ye spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly.”

However, let’s actually read the quote with more context:

Clothed, therefore, my brethren, with faith in the Lord and remembering the great things which He had taught me, I boldly faced the beast. Now that beast came on with such noise and force, that it could itself have destroyed a city. I came near it, and the monstrous beast stretched itself out on the ground, and showed nothing but its tongue, and did not stir at all until I had passed by it. Now the beast had four colours on its head— black, then fiery and bloody, then golden, and lastly white.

Now after I had passed by the wild beast, and had moved forward about thirty feet, lo! A virgin meets me, adorned as if she were proceeding from the bridal chamber, clothed entirely in white, and with white sandals, and veiled up to her forehead, and her head was covered by a hood. And she had white hair. I knew from my former visions that this was the Church, and I became more joyful. She saluted me, and said, Hail, O man! And I returned her salutation, and said, Lady, hail! And she answered, and said to me, Has nothing crossed your path? I say, I was met by a beast of such a size that it could destroy peoples, but through the power of the Lord and His great mercy I escaped from it. Well did you escape from it, says she, because you cast your care on God, and opened your heart to the Lord, believing that you can be saved by no other than by His great and glorious name. On this account the Lord has sent His angel, who has rule over the beasts, and whose name is Thegri, and has shut up its mouth, so that it cannot tear you. You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then you prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and you spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly.
Read in context, we see that God protects the Shepherd from tribulation by “shutting up the mouth” of the beast, not by removing the Shepherd.  There are a couple of different ways to read this.  One is that the Lord will literally not allow devout Christians to be harmed in the tribulation.  The other is a more spiritual reading, that the devout Christian who does not doubt, even in the face of tribulation will not be spiritually harmed by it.  I prefer this latter reading, because it is more consistent with what we know of the martyrdoms that were very common at the time this text was written, and it is more consistent with earlier portions of the Shepherd, that indicate that everyone can expect to undergo actual tribulation.
So, the support from the Shepherd of Hermas really isn’t there when you read the text in context.  In fact, the protection from tribulation here is much more similar to what we saw earlier in Esdras.  Faithful Christians will not suffer spiritual damage.  They will be protected from succumbing to the tribulation, not protected from undergoing it.
(Update on November 14th, 2014):  I was just listening to Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick delivering a talk on the Pre-Tribulation Rapture and he pointed out this line from Jesus’ high priestly prayer:  “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.”  So Jesus asks the Father to keep believers from tribulation, but not by removing them from this world.

Bishop Victorinus of Pettau

The following is the quote from this Bishop:

“Seven angels having the last seven plagues, for in them is completed the indignation of God. And these shall be in the last times when the church shall have gone out of the midst.”

This is taken from his commentary on the Revelation of John, specifically the 15th chapter.  The difficulty here is that this comment is somewhat vague.  What is meant by the “church shall have gone out of the midst”.  Does it mean they have been raptured away, or does it mean something more akin to the church having gone out of the midst of the sinners?  Given his treatment of chapter 14, where he makes reference to the people mingling with the nations, followed by a discussion of certain nations being destroyed by God during the tribulation.  Further, previously, he notes that the faithful will be gathered together in Judea, where they will “be supported there for three years and six months from the presence of the devil.”  Whether Judea refers to Israel or the Bishop is referring to a more spiritual understanding is unclear to me from the limited reading I’ve been able to give this text, but there is nothing in his writing to indicate that he believes the Church will be physically taken away to heaven.  Given that this notion of heaven and hell being separate physical places is a bit modern, it would be quite surprising if it were otherwise.

So, once again, we see that there is a bit of proof texting going on.  Taking one quote out of the overall context, both of the text from which it is derived, and of the environment in which it is being taught, can lead people to incorrect conclusions.  This is particularly a risk when one is approaching the text with the express intent of finding support for their position

The ancient Church has always taught, as laid out in the Bible, that Christians will undergo tribulation.  Some will escape that fate, but it is because they died before those time.  Further, when we see a phrase, such as the Church has gone out from the midst, this avails of multiple interpretations.  One that comes to mind, especially in light of recent events, is that this is the time when the Church leaves its public place and goes back into hiding.

So what

So, why does it matter about the historicity of the teaching about the rapture?  As I mentioned earlier, from an Orthodox perspective, that is not terribly relevant.  It is that this teaching is not that which was handed down from Christ and the Apostles that is the issue.  So, why am I particularly concerned with this, why would Orthodoxy be concerned with this teaching?

The problem isn’t whether or not the teaching is historic, but whether it is correct.  Because this isn’t a teaching we have received from the beginning, we would automatically suspect that it might not be correct.  However, it is that it teaches things contrary that which we have received that should concern everyone, and it is in these contradictions that a real danger lies.

The Contradiction

The teaching of the pre-tribulation rapture opposes the Orthodox teaching in two key areas.  One has to do with the “geography” of heaven and hell, as one Orthodox Priest has described it, and the other has to do with what could be regarded as an essentially fundamental aspect of being a Christian, that of suffering.

From the geography perspective, the notion that Christ will come and take people away to heaven, as if it is a physically separate place.  As addressed, both here, and even better, here, that notion is mistaken.  It is, in fact, a somewhat modern idea.  It is a basic Christian teaching that God is present everywhere.  The concept for this is see within the Psalms and elsewhere.  Within the Orthodox Church, we say a prayer at almost every service that starts with “O God, who is everywhere present and sees all things.”  If God is truly everywhere present, where exactly would Heaven be, if not everywhere?  The fact that we do not perceive heaven, in fact, speaks to our state, not to God’s.  The experience of heaven and hell, then, has much more to do with our spiritual state, and not with geography.  In a talk to an Orthodox youth group, one Orthodox theologian points out that the river of fire, and the pain it causes the unrighteous, is, in reality, God’s grace.  To the righteous, to those that have learned to love others and God before themselves, this grace will be light and warmth.  To the the unrighteous, to those who love themselves above others, this grace, this essentially pure love, will be painful.  I’m giving the full teaching short shrift, so I would recommend reading the linked articles to fully get the nuance involved here.  I will say, to wrap this up, that it is well known among the Orthodox that there is much more around us that we do not routinely perceive, but are occasionally given glimpses of.  Many stories exist, frequently of adults, but much more often involving young children, that describe them seeing things around us that those of us who’s vision has been darkened by our sins cannot see.  From saints and angels to priests surrounded by fire during the liturgy, to my own daughter who, when very young simply let out a big “wow” at a very holy moment in the liturgy (we’ll never know what she saw), there is an ever present reality of heaven that we simply don’t get.  We see through a glass, darkly, is how the Apostle puts it.  Some day – after the second coming – we’ll see clearly.  The pre-trib rapture theory seems to imply that none of this is true.  That God exists somewhere up on the second story of our universe, which is where we’ll go if we behave ourselves.  If we follow the rules.  There seems to be little in the theory that speaks to our experience of God Himself.  Frankly, it all feels rather hollow.

The other problem is, in many ways related.  The theory, developed during a time when Christianity was the law of the land, implies that somehow Christians won’t need to suffer.  It was promulgated largely by people who had never really experienced persecution, and who seemed blissfully ignorant of the real history of Christianity.  As noted earlier, when we read documents such as the Shepherd of Hermas, who states, in part, “Happy you who endure the great tribulation that is coming on,” is writing in a time when Christians were subjected to torture and death frequently.  Christians knew that there was, in fact, benefit to this suffering, that it helps purify us.  Refines us as if by fire.  When we look at the the prototype of prototypes, Christ, we see that our salvation is realized through His suffering.  When we look at the the Protomartyr Stephen, we see that he has a vision of heaven as he is being stoned.  He isn’t angry or scared.  He doesn’t curse his persecutors.  No, God protects him from the tribulation, not by removing him from it, but by being strengthening him, which is really the promise we find in the ancient writings quoted.  Those who propose that good Christians will never experience a great tribulation, are not only historically ignorant, but ignorant of current events.  Some of that ignorance is self imposed, because it threatens their world view, such as the fact that Christians have been persecuted by the state of Israel for years.  The rest is because the U.S. media is largely uninterested in reporting things, such as the fact that Christians have been driven out of Nineveh for the first time in 2000 years, and that children are beheaded because they are Christian.  Denying ourselves is a key component of our growth as Christians.  It is why Christians have always practiced things such as fasting.  It is a very small taste of suffering that helps us learn to put others ahead of ourselves, to love others, to be more conformed to Christ.  To propose that suffering is somehow something that God will not allow us to endure is not only unbiblical, it is outright spiritually dangerous.  Of course, many Christians will never experience true tribulation, but the problem here is the assertion that somehow all Christians will be removed from it at some point in time.

To close, I will need to add one more aspect of the pre-tribulation rapture related to this escape from suffering concept that I find, at the very least, to be a sad thing to witness.  The people I know who are very heavily into this teaching seem to focus on the notion that the coming tribulation is bad, and if you want to escape it you should become a Christian.  While warnings of dire consequences to the lapsed are hardly unknown biblically, this does not sound much like the Gospel.  Where did Christ say that he was coming so that individuals could escape suffering?  When did Christianity become all about punishment and reward?  The Gospel message of the pre-tribulation rapture is that you better become a Christian or else you will suffer.  The message of the Gospel is that you will become a Christian and suffer, but you should fear not.  “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28).  According to Blessed Theophylact, “Those who slay accomplish the destruction of only the body, while they are perhaps the benefactors of the soul.”  Christianity is about having life, and having it abundantly, not about avoiding pain and suffering.  It is about being united to Christ, not avoiding punishment.  When we turn Christianity into something entirely about punishment and reward then we turn it into another religion.  Love isn’t about punishment and reward.  As Orthodox, we understand that while we strive to become more righteous there is nothing that we do which merits a reward.  While those who adhere to a belief in a pre-tribulation rapture claim to believe this as well, their views about the rapture seem to indicate otherwise.



Liturgy, Music, and Hesychia

In the course of the debate between St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam on what the Orthodox approach to prayer and spiritual growth should rightly be, St. Gregory responded to the notion that Barlaam had put forth that we must focus our mind outside of ourselves in order to find God:

For if, as the Psalmist says, “all the glory of the king’s daughter is within”, why do we search for it without?  And if, according to the Apostle, “God has given His Spirit to cry in our hearts, Abba, Father,” how is it we too do not pray with the Spirit in our hearts?  If, as the Lord of the prophets and the apostles teaches, “the Kingdom of God is within us”, does it not follow that a man will be excluded from the Kingdom if he devotes his energies to making his mind go out from within himself? (The Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of the body, from the Triads)

The services of the church provide a forum for us to participate in worship with our fellow Christian.  At the same time, it can be argued that the services of the Church serve as a training ground for us to seek out God within us.  How is that accomplished?  One mechanism is that all of the senses are actively engaged and focused on spiritual matters, in order to help us avoid getting distracted by wordly thoughts.  We have the icons, incense, prayer ropes and candles to hold in our hands, the taste of the holy gifts, and the music.  All of the senses are engaged to help us avoid worldly distractions.  At the same time, the engagement isn’t intended for us to focus on all those elements.  Instead, it is meant to free our nous to “descend into our hearts” as the Fathers say.  For it is there that we can find God.  One priest I know of said the following with regard to worship, “We will get more out of the services if we pray rather than merely attend them.  Allow the hymns to enter your heart, and make their words your own.”

When we look at music, we know that the style of music can have a great affect on our moods and attitudes.  Certain songs raise your energy level, while others can darken your mood.  Some can cause you to enter deep into thought, while others can lead you to move about with little thought.  It is therefore important to pay attention to the style of the music used in Worship.  It is not merely the words, but the ability of the music itself to alter your approach to the words that is important.  Traditionally, the Church has treated its hymns in the same way it has treated its theology.  One does not simply make up a new hymn just as one does not simply make up a new doctrine – hymns reflect established doctrine and go through a very slow process before they are accepted.  Similarly, although people may write new settings for hymns, they follow rules regarding the musical structure and format.  One major reason for this is precisely that the stylistic elements of the tune can impact your reaction to the words that are being sung with it.  As my chant teacher told us recently, some hymns are available in all 8 modes, so that we me reflect on the words of those hymns in different ways as we experience them through these different melodies.

So, although worship is corporate, because we are corporate beings, it is also personal, as it is the means to enter into closer communion with God.

From an anecdotal perspective, I must relate my experience of Holy Week this year.  We had a monk, Fr. Maximos, visiting with us for the week.  Currently a professor at Holy Cross School of Theology, he is also a monk from Simonopetra Monastery on Mt. Athos.  You can “meet” him in this 60 Minutes special on Mt. Athos.  For that week we had Fr. Maximos and our Protopsaltis, Dr. Alexander Khalil leading chanting.  The services were longer, in general, than they had been in the past, because we were not doing some of the reduction of the services that had happened in years past.  I chanted the entire week through these longer services.  Yet, at the end of the week, while physically tired, I was spiritually refreshed in a way that I had never been during our previous Holy Weeks.  It was more reminiscent of my sensation after a weekend at one of monasteries.  Reflecting back on the week, I think the beauty of the chant, and participating in it, brought me into a much more meditative space.  I feel that, at least for brief pieces of time, my mind had moved to at least the edge of the kingdom.  I think it was coming just that close to God was so spiritually refreshing.



The Blind Man

In the Orthodox Church, the sixth Sunday of Pascha is the Sunday of the Blind Man from the Gospel according to St. John.  This year was a bit different, as the sixth Sunday landed on May 25th, which is also the celebration of the third finding of the head of John the Baptist, but we still sing and read the hymns of the man born blind.

The story is, on a factual basis, about the healing of a man born blind, the nature of sin, and the ability of Christ, as the Son of God, to forgive sins.  Although one could argue that this has impact on our lives, after all, the ability of Christ to forgive our sins is significant, there doesn’t seem to be much application of this story to our lives.  However, the hymnography of the Church once again provides us with the deeper meaning of this story, and its impact on our lives.  The kontakion for the day goes as follows:

In the eyes of soul have I become unseeing.  Unto You I come, O Christ, as did of old the man born blind, and in repentance I cry to You.  For those in darkness You are the most resplendent light.

The key to this passage is not that Christ is able to heal us physically (which he is), nor that he can forgive our sins (which he can and does), but rather that he can provide us with the ability to clearly see with the eyes of our soul.  The eye of our soul is known as the nous, and is that aspect of humanity that permits us to attain knowledge of God.  While the nous is blind, we can see either not at all or, at best, as St. Paul puts it, dimly.  However, as our nous becomes healed by our relationship with Christ, our ability to perceive God, and enter into communion with Him, grows.  That is the goal of the Christian life, to become deified via communion with God.

And that is the point of that particular Gospel story.