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30 May 2013

Some Undermining Premises

It is always fun hearing a Confessional Lutheran argue against Lutheranism (see comment 2)! I remember those days with some fondness, yet not for that reason alone but because they stand closer to the angels and with a few firmer roots in the Tradition, I shall always cheer for the Confessional Lutheran.

Yet I do so with sadness, knowing that two premises undermine their argument (both against Lutheranism and with the Orthodox and Catholics). These are:

1) Confessional Lutheran arguments cannot escape the atmosphere and water of Lutheranism within which they are formed. In other words, many suppositions of Lutheranism still lurk beneath and within the Confessional Lutheran argument--something I many fought to deny for many years, but ultimately could not. As support, I point not only to the arguments among Confessional Lutherans about their own self-understanding of the Confessions, but also to the odd co-mingling of Chemnitz and Gerhard (among others). There is a discernible gap among the former and anything that grew up in "Lutheran Orthodoxy."

2) At the end of the day, there is no Confessional Lutheran ecclesiology, not simply because ecclesiology is hardly a topic in the 16th-18th centuries (one has to look to Loehe to find the beginnings of an attempt), but also because Lutheranism and Confessional Lutherans agree on an ecclesiology that is at variance with the "faith once delivered"--an ecclesiology which was clearly apparent in Luther and Chemnitz, but which changed dramatically the day that Lutherans accepted the fact that they are Lutherans.

As for this present presentation by the learned Subdeacon, his main point still needs to be reckoned with; namely, how can the Lutheran Confessions, in several places, speak of God being reconciled to man. One of my Lutheran pastor friends once tried to argue this case, but it was not convincing, especially when he was asked to play by his own rules ("bible-locatedness"). It shall, I fear, forever remain a puzzle for those of us who have rejected the notion that Jesus was praying that the Father had abandoned Him (Ps 21 [22]), thereby consigning Him to a wrath and fury worse than hell, all so that He might appease God's wrath.

But now I'm back where I began--with the Lutheranism (i.e., Robert Jensen's "Calvinism with a bizarre sacramentology attached") which hides within the Confessional Lutheran defense.

21 April 2013

Passiontide Encouragement

I was granted the privilege of preaching the homily at the pan-Orthodox Vespers this evening at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church hosted by the Council of Orthodox Christian Churches of Detroit. What follows is the homily. I pray that you find the words encouraging.

In less than two weeks, we will be celebrating the Queen of Feasts, the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Even now, we should be eagerly anticipating this feast. For it is the highlight not of spring, but the highlight of our life in God. And even if you’ve not been successful thus far at keeping the fast—not merely the fast from food, but the more important fast from sin; and not merely the abstention from meat but the abstention from mean-speaking and thoughtless prayer and living as if you mattered most—even if you’ve struggled with this Lent’s fast, nevertheless we should all be longing to delight in the gracious invitation that St John Chrysostom will once again issue on Easter Day. And to see the resplendent gold and candlelight, to repeat the uplifting hymns, to add our vigorous Amen to the prayers that warm our hearts—that should even now increase our expectation to celebrate this joyous day.

Yet in these next two weeks, even if he cannot steal our faith or blunt our resolve, the devil will seek to subdue our joy and depress our delight, and disrupt our gladness. And so be on your guard. For in these final days of the fast, you will be besieged by various temptations. The devil will play upon your addicting weaknesses. He will urge you to ignore your well-formed conscience, and will entice you to give into your ungodly passions. And he will haunt you with your past sins, and will play upon your vulnerabilities, and will seduce you to crave other joys, and lead you to despair of your weaknesses and mortality. And all this he will do so that you will be downcast and shame-faced as the Feast of Feast approaches.

Yet do lose heart. For Our Lord’s Spirit in the Church has given us the means to combat this wily foe, and to endure these next two weeks. And so we are not left to our own devices, nor must we by our own strength somehow seek to deceive this Deceiver. Instead, we can combat this Accuser of our souls in three ways.

First, let us in the next few days make a good confession. Let us bend under the protecting stole of our spiritual father, and hold nothing back, and make no excuses, but say honestly what we have done and leave everything on the table. For when we’ve said it aloud, the devil’s ability to sap our strength is weakened. And then let us hear with an open heart, and take into ourselves, the absolution prayer that our father speaks. For his words will certainly give us the courage and grace to combat the devil’s allurements, and will help us live through our past darkness. And that word of mercy will certainly cause of the sun of righteousness to warm our soul.

Second, let us find inspiration and strength in the prayers of St Simon of Cyrene. With reluctance, he took up the Lord’s cross. And yet, as he carried the cross, Our Lord was beside St Simon, strengthening him and increasing his faith, so that what began as a burdensome task was converted into a joyous duty, even to the point that he wished to be crucified with Our Lord. So learn from St Simon the audacity to follow Christ with your mind and spirit even when your flesh wants to go another way. And so beg his prayers, so that your heart may also not shrink from the burden of these remaining days, and may find joy in what others will say is an onerous and arduous and inhuman obligation.

Third, above all else, let us make truly our own the words of Christ’s heartfelt prayer to His Father. You know that in the midst of His agony in the garden, as He feels in His human nature the weight of His burden, Our Lord Jesus aligns His will with the Father’s will by saying, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Let this also be your heart’s desire. And let these words focus and concentrate your mind during these coming weeks. For as our will becomes the Lord’s will, as we take up our cross and follow him, as we are supported and buoyed by the prayers of St Simon, then will we be able to celebrate Our Lord’s resurrection with unbridled joy, and our gladness will be unhindered, and our singing will be unimpeded, and our approach to the chalice will be unhesitating.

And in this way, by these means, the grace and merits of Our Lord’s Passion will safely escort us through these next two weeks, and guided us unscathed past the snares and machinations of the devil.

By the prayers of St Simon, St Mary of Egypt whom we commemorate this day, and of all the saints, may it be so. And by their prayers, may we attain the fullness of the heavenly kingdom where, without assault, we shall worship full-throatedly the holy and blessed Trinity; to whom belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.

14 April 2012

East vs. West??

Several times I've read and even participated in discussions concerning the differences between Orthodox and Catholic theology. Too often I see that these differences are boiled down to "East vs. West." For example, it is simplistically implied that to become Orthodox is to reject Western philosophical categories or Western theological approaches, upon which is blamed every heresy (real or imagined).

I think, however, the differences in Eastern and Western Christian approaches are too often overdrawn. Differences in approach have existed since before the schism and, too often, they are magnified out of proportion. When this is done, acceptable distinctions become seemingly inseparable differences. A regrettable result is that these differences are laid at the foot of the West generally or a Western approach; or vice versa. The problem, in my view and in the view of some Orthodox and Catholic theologians, is not the West or the East but these distorted magnifications which overwhelm or skew or (in a few cases) negate these different but acceptable approaches. The solution is to eschew the simplistic tendency to blame the West, and to embrace the good which both approaches offer. 

03 April 2012

Living Repentance

The Irish Catholic Bishops have recently published a letter on repentance which, I think, says many good things. Here are a few choice excerpts.

The word ‘repentance’ means seeking forgiveness for our sins, but more than that, it involves transforming our attitudes and our lives. The New Testament word, metanoia, means a profound change of outlook. Repentance or penance is not a question of inflicting pain or hardship on ourselves for its own sake. Penance – fasting, prayer, works of mercy, giving to those who are in need and so on – is done ‘because the kingdom of God has come near’; we repent in order to ‘believe in the good news’. It is a change of outlook that allows us to see more clearly what God is doing in us and for us.

The reason for carrying out acts of penance is that we know we have often failed to appreciate that everything we have and are is a gift from God. We have all pursued our own interests, standing and influence as if these were our goal in life. And so it is good to pray, fast and give alms –activities which express a realisation that the pursuit of such goals cannot be what makes ultimate sense of our lives. That points to the second and more important way of looking at why we do penance – in order to receive the Good News. The words that come from the mouth of God are not just rules or demands. It is in the words of promise and love that come from the mouth of God that we find the meaning of human life.

If we allow lesser realities to occupy the place in our lives which belongs to God who is love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), we inevitably obscure our understanding of the full reality of God’s gift. The lesser things that we pursue can be important and good. Everyone needs goals and hopes in life, but no created reality can fully and eternally satisfy us: Let us say once again, we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.3 Penance or repentance is not simply an exercise that we do from time to time. It is, one might say, what our life is about.

12 March 2012

Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a time of restraint and self-control. It is time when we earnestly strive to live within boundaries, not just in what we eat but also with the words we use, in what possesses our imagination, and in how we treat another.

Lent is a time when we stop focusing on our wants and desires. For only when we limit our self-gratifications and discipline our passions can we truly begin to see what God wills. And only when we control our appetites can we truly begin to see what others need.

Lent, then, is a time when we push aside our needs and put ourselves in the background, and instead have the Word of God take first place and likewise let the needs of others come before what we like.

05 March 2012

Faith alone is not enough

Very few folks in America vote against God. The vast majority say they believe in God. The better questions is which god they believe in, and what they believe about God. But rarely are those questions pursued in public discourse or even in "mass evangelization." For our nations Protestant roots have embedded in us the notion that it is simply enough to believe. So much is this false notion emdedded within us that we often hear the slogan absent the object: "Just have faith" or "You've gotta believe." As if faith alone is enough.

Commenting on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25, St Augustine confronts head-on the false theology which says that faith alone is sufficient. When examining that scene, he points out that Our Lord charges the condemned "with having failed, not in faith, but in good works."
He does not rebuke them because they have not believed in him, but because they have not done any good works. For assuredly, lest anyone should promise himself eternal life by reason of his faith (which without works is dead), He went on to say that He would separate all nations, which before had been herded together, and were accustomed to use the same pastures... These [condemned] had believed in Him, but had not taken pains to do good works, as though they could achieve eternal life by means of that same dead faith.
Notice how our holy father among the saints characterizes the understanding of faith alone, or faith without works. He says that it is "dead faith." Living faith, however, is what Our Lord desires; and it is that faith which attains eternal blessedness and grants us the beatific vision. This living faith is active in love; in fact, the two are inseparable. For to believe in God is both to love Him and to love Him in others.

St Augustine indicates that this is the point that not only St James, but also St Paul also makes when he says, "Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing."

04 March 2012

Kissing Metal

Amongst the Byzantine and Slavonic Orthodox churches, the First Sunday in Lent is known as the "Orthodoxy Sunday" or "Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy." That day commemorates both those who suffered or were martyred for defending icons, and the victory of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm. Above all else, this Sunday reiterates the confession that in Christ God assumed created matter, and so is able to be depicted. Hence, the prohibitions in the Old Testament do not apply to Christ Jesus or His saints (in whom He lives), or any likeness (e.g., dove or cloud) in which the Divine reveals Himself. (As an aside, while the West did not suffer iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, they consistently agreed with the doctrine and confession of the Eastern churches.)

Icons are not only the chief expression of this doctrine; they are a particular visible form of confession amongst the Orthodox generally and the Byzantine and Slavonic churches specifically. Hence, icons are consistently venerated, particularly by being kissed. (Notice: there is a clear distinction linguistically and theologically between "veneration" and "worship.") These icons are made of various media; most commonly painted wood, mosaics, or enameled or painted or engraved metal.

Because of our practice of venerating icons, Orthodox Christians are often accused of greater or lesser degrees of idolatry. The most virulent will recite the words, "Thou shalt not make any graven image/icon" while others will confuse the veneration of the icons with the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In the case of the former, the particular doctrine described above is not understood; in the case of the latter, the distinction between sacrament and sacramental is lost.

The irony of this criticism is clearly shown when one remembers the ceremony that took place a few weeks ago at the end of the Super Bowl. One by one, players and coaches from the victorious New York Giants football team lined up to kiss the Lombardi trophy. No one took that ceremony as strange. No one accused these men who were kissing engraved metal of idolatry. In fact, most everyone understood what they were doing - giving true lip-service to their joy at having reached their season-long goal.

If football players are permitted to kiss their metallic symbol, then why should anyone look askance when Orthodox Christians affectionately kiss their symbols of faith? If athletes can venerate their signs of victory, then why is it hard to understand Orthodox Christians who venerate the signs of their Victor and victors? If it is accepted when others hug tightly those things which depict such mundane and fading accomplishments, then surely there should be no qualms with Orthodox Christians embracing sacramentals which which depict their God and Lord, and His glory in His saints.

Of course, there are qualms; the veneration is not understood; and the kisses are denounced. And I suggest that this occurs because those who reject such Christian piety understand precisely what the Orthodox Christian is doing; he is confessing that Him whom the world cannot contain was conceived in the flesh of the Virgin; and that this same Virgin together with all the saints pinned their hopes to their undying victory in this God-Man.

HT: Fr William Bartz, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Detroit and homilist at the COCC (Metro Detroit) Inter-Orthodox Lenten Vespers at St Mary's Basilica.

02 March 2012

Doing the Impossible - Loving Your Enemies

The words "Love your enemies" are the most radical of all words ever spoken. No other religion or philosophy urges such a demanding and seemingly impossible thing. Most religions and philosophies entreat their followers to follow the "golden rule." Words similar to that rule articulated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount can be found in the teachings of Confucious, for example. However, even the gentlest of philosophers never urged his disciples to love his enemies. The closest that one comes to that command apart from Jesus is the notion not to hate your enemies.

What does it mean, then, to love your enemies. To love is to sacrifice. That is how love looks, how love lives. It is more than an emotion or feeling; it is stronger than liking; it far exceeds tolerance or the lack of hatred. To love means to give all that you have and all that you are to another. To love your enemy means, therefore, to be willing to sacrifice yourself and your goods for the person who is set on killing you.

Most men do not let Jesus' words, "Love your enemies," stand as bare as they truly are. Instead, they interpret them ironically or paradoxically. Yet Jesus is not speaking sardonically, or commanding the impossible. To be sure, these words seem impossible to live and, at the least, demand the very difficult. But as we consider these words, it is good to keep in mind what our holy father in the faith, St Jerome, once wrote about them: "Many people measure the precepts of God by their own weakness rather than by the strength of the saints." He then points to the examples of David loving Saul and Absalom; of Stephen loving those who stoned him; and of Paul being willing to be damned in order to save his persecutors.

And then, of course, there is the example of Our Lord Himself. When He commands us to love our enemies, Jesus is merely imploring His disciples to follow in the path that He trod; to love as He loves. And in doing so, Our Lord knows that such such is able to convert an enemy to a friend.

29 February 2012

Syrian Christians Prefer Assad

On this blog I generally eschew news or commentary about political or geo-political events. In this instance, however, the situation in Syria is especially relevant to a priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese.

Seeing and hearing precious little about how the Syrian "revolution" is affecting minorities and why the dictator retains support, I found this NY times article especially helpful. The following excerpt is especially of interest to me:

Syria’s minorities have the example of Iraq in considering their own future, should the Assad government fall: Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and others were brutally persecuted by insurgents. In Egypt, where a similar paradigm was toppled with the long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak, Christians have experienced more sectarian violence, increasing political marginalization and a growing link between Islamic identity and citizenship.

“Christians are all saying that Syria risks becoming the new Iraq, a country divided among ethnic and religious lines where there is no place for Christians,” said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, the editor in chief of AsiaNews, a Catholic news agency. Syria, while not a democracy, “at least protects them,” he said.

27 February 2012

Not a legalistic exercise but a spiritual discipline

In the midst of a lengthy post concerning the Byzantine Lenten fast, John, at Ad Orientem, offers these sage words which we do well to heed:

[F]asting is not a legalistic exercise. God does not particularly care how
strictly you are able to observe a 5th century dietary code. Eating a
Cheeseburger during Lent on a Friday is not a mortal sin (except possibly to
your waistline). If you do eat one and happen to die before going to confession
you do not need to plan on being buried in an asbestos suit. Point in fact very
few Orthodox laymen keep the fast in its full rigor. I certainly have yet to
keep the fast with anything close to perfection.

That said one should not just blow it off. Fasting is a spiritual
discipline intended to stretch the body and help tame the passions. And it is a
very important weapon in the spiritual warfare that we are engaged in more or
less continuously until we die. So when you fall, don't give up. Pick yourself
up, dust yourself off and get back on the wagon.

Also it serves no purpose to abstain from all manner of food and drink if
we do not also give up our vices. In particular be wary of gossip.
Your fast is your own business and no one else's (save God's and your
confessor's). Likewise how others are keeping their fast is not your