28 May 2007

Principle Issues: Orthodoxy and Confessional Documents

For several years, I was frustrated in my attempts to locate the "confessional documents" of the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy has catechisms, systematic theology books, councils, canons and statements as well as church fathers. Some time ago, I read a list of "confessional documents" supplied by Bishop Kallistos Ware and thought I had finally found what I was looking for--only to be told that the list was not the list I wanted, and then to read Bishop Kallistos more carefully to learn that he himself did not claim what I hoped he had claimed.

Gradually, in time, I began to understand two key principles. First, Orthodoxy has no central body of "confessional documents" because it does not have a central hierarchical authority. This does not mean that Orthodoxy has no authority. It's authority is the authority of the Spirit of Christ, whose Word is enshrined in the Scriptures yet comes alive in the myriad chronological, historical and pastoral contexts of the Church.

Second, the closest thing that Orthodoxy has to a body of "confessional documents" is the liturgy. In Orthodoxy, the liturgy is inviolable because it is understood to be not of human origin but of the Spirit. (NB: "Liturgy" in Orthodoxy refers not exclusively or legalistically to the texts or rubrics.) Hence, as I once heard said, what is in the liturgy is what is to be believed. This puts the liturgy on par, then, with the various "confessional documents" common in post-reformational western churches.

On this latter point, the following words by the late Jaroslav Pelikan have proven quite helpful.

14.1 The Ambivalence of the Orthodox Church Toward "Symbolical Books"

Several factors in Christian history have often led to the issuance of confessions of faith, including the challenge from a hostile environment, the crisis of doctrinal schism, and the necessity of indigenization. A review of these would show that they have been at least as powerful within Eastern Christendom since the schism between East and West as they have been in the West, even in the West since the Reformation with its plethora of confessions. And yet, during most of the history of Eastern Orthodoxy, those factors did not produce a vast corpus of confessions of faith, as they had done in the early church and as they went on doing in the West especially during and since the Reformation, but only a select few statements of faith that became more or less official (and usually "less" rather than "more" official). As a result, to a degree that would not be true of most other communions that have official confessions, it is possible for two scholars almost exactly a century apart to speak about the "identity" of Orthodoxy without so much as mentioning these statements of faith. (399-400)


14.2 The Liturgy as the Church's Preeminent Confession of the Faith

A principal reason for this ambivalent position of "symbolical books" within Eastern Orthodoxy lies, however, in the distinctively Eastern versions, articulated in a special way in the Philokalia, of the inseparable connection between "the rule of prayer [lex orandi]" and "the rule of faith [lex credendi]." That connection has been important throughout Christian history, across the various boundaries of denomination and confession, also in the West. But interpreters of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, whether sympathetic or critical, are agreed on the proposition that within Eastern Orthodoxy The Divine Liturgy According to Saint John Chrysostom is an especially forceful illustration of the universal principle of lex orandi lex credendi; as noted earlier, it differs from the liturgies of other traditions, including even The Book of Common Prayer of Anglicanism, by being accorded a special position among the Eastern Orthodox confessions in the standard published collections of "symbolical books." Anastasios Kallis...introduced his edition of the liturgy with the explanation: "The identity of Orthodoxy consists neither in a doctrine nor in an organizational system, but in the correct praise of the Triune God, which has its center in the celebration of the Eucharist, or simply in the Liturgy, through which the one congregation assembled in the name of Christ becomes his body, his church." (405; emphasis added)

From Credo by Jaroslav Pelikan

27 May 2007

God as a Guest in our Hearts

An excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, a Western Rite Vicariate parish in the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

Today’s great feast celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Twelve Apostles. Through them, the Father’s Word and Spirit is offered to all men and bestowed upon all those who receive Him in true faith. And through this ministry in the Spirit, the holy Catholic Church is constituted as a real, concrete, visible body which gathers around the Holy Eucharist, in communion with all faithful bishops.

Yet St Gregory the Great reminds us that there is also another aspect that we celebrate at this great feast—an aspect which you might find more personal and of greater comfort. St Gregory declares that “this solemnity…commemorates the coming of God as a guest in our hearts.” By pointing us to this aspect of today’s feast, St Gregory is reflecting on the words Our Lord Jesus spoke to His apostles. Just a few minutes ago, you hear Our Blessed Lord say, “If a man love me, he will keep my words; and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.”

Together with His Son in the Holy Spirit, our merciful and loving Father does indeed enter the hearts of the faithful who love and desire Him. For the person who loves the Lord with his whole heart, the person who desires God with his entire being—that person cries out, “Come, Holy God, and make your home within me. Fill me with your Holy Presence, and comfort me with your unending Consolation, and relieve me with the peace that only You can give.” And Our Lord does not disappoint, but readily and speedily comes to those who call upon Him in true faith; and He helps those who earnestly seek His help; and He comforts those who lay aside their pride and submit their cares entirely to Him.

26 May 2007

It's hard to say "I'm sorry" & "I forgive you"

I wrote this several years ago, and perhaps I've posted it here before (I can't recall). Nevertheless, it seems apropos.

I can’t decide which is harder—to say “I’m sorry” or to say “I forgive you.”

Based on my own personal experience as well as the experience of observing and encouraging parishioners, I know that both statements are very difficult to say with conviction. This is especially true when the hurt is deeply felt; or when you’re embarrassed, ashamed or frightened by what you’ve done.

When that’s the case, it’s a lot easier for us to ignore the situation or seal ourselves off from others. It’s a lot easier to make like nothing happened, and hope the problem goes away. And it’s a lot easier to hold a grudge, or blame someone (or something) else for the wrong we’ve done.

On the one hand, we’re afraid that if we apologize it won’t be accepted; or worse yet, that another confrontation will occur. And on the other hand, we’re afraid that if we forgive, then the other person will think everything’s back to normal, or that the offense meant nothing.

Do you see how much we are controlled by our fears? Our fear of talking to another person keeps us from apologizing. And our fear of being abused keeps us from forgiving.

Because of our fears, we falsely assume that it’s best if we simply don’t deal directly with the person who wronged us—or who we wronged. Oh, we’ll complain to others and talk about what someone has done (or not done) to us. But we falsely (and, often, stubbornly) believe that it’s easier and better—for them and you—just to avoid the other person.

I’m convinced that we so easily avoid the hard thing of saying “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” because we’re so practiced at it. How many people do you avoid at work or in your family simply because you can’t bring yourself to say “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you”? How many grudges do you carry? How many times have you left or avoided an event just because the other person was there—and you didn’t want to (or were afraid to) run into them?

Yet that is not how the mercy of Our Lord calls us to act. Precisely because that is not how Our Lord acted toward us.

Consider this: When Adam & Eve, when Cain, when the children of Israel, or when the Jewish leaders offended Our God and Lord, did He simply write them off? Did He ignore and avoid them? Did He run from them, or act as if they didn’t exist? Or did He seek them out, and reach out to them, and extend His forgiving hand, and offer the way to make amends? In short, did He do whatever it takes to achieve reconciliation?

Granted, in many of these instances—to get our attention or theirs—Our Lord speaks harshly and sternly. But even that is better than avoiding and ignoring. And so even Our Lord’s harsh speaking and threats are motivated by His mercy for us—and His desire to be reconciled to us.

Love and mercy—that’s what motivates Our Lord God to sacrifice His Son on the cross. For love and mercy are at the heart of reconciliation. His love for us—each of us—moves Our Father to do whatever He can to reconcile us to Himself. And this He does, even though we are the ones that wronged Him—and that continue to wrong Him (especially when we wrong each other).

Do you see what great lengths our heavenly Father goes to in order to repair what we damaged, and to bridge the gap between us and Him? St. Paul reminds us that “He did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Rom 8.32). And in another place, the Apostle reminds us that God send His pastors and priests to us in order to accomplish His ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5.17-20).

We are grateful that Our Lord does not treat us as we treat each other; that He continually offers us reconciliation in His Son; and that He does not take the easier road, but does the most painful and necessary thing. In short, we are grateful for His mercy and love.

But do we understand that being reconciled to God means that we also ought to be reconciled to each other; that we ought not let grudges linger; that we ought not hold things against anyone else—especially if he or she is of the household of faith? That is the point when St Paul pleads with us to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5.20). God has already reconciled us to Himself. For us to be reconciled to Him, we ought to be reconciled to one another.

That means we need to do the hard thing by saying either “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” (Have you noticed that often you need to say both?) And it also means that we need to put away our fears by saying those words to all who need to hear them—Christian or not; stranger or loved one; member or non-member.

For to this you have been called by the mercy of God: to live in the mercy that He has shown and given and poured into you.

Of course that’s not easy! But it is necessary. And, most importantly, it is our Life in God.

The Jewish Pentecost & the Church's Pentecost

This comparison by Dom Prosper Guéranger in his The Liturgical Year is helpful in placing the coming feast in its Scriptural and historic context. These paragraph are just the beginning of a much lengthier (5670 word) essay which is reproduced halfway down this webpage.

In the old and figurative Law, God foreshadowed the glory that was to belong, at a future period, to the fiftieth day. Israel had passed the waters of the Red Sea, thanks to the protecting power of his Paschal Lamb! Seven weeks were spent in the desert, which was to lead to the promised land; and the very morrow of those seven weeks was the day whereon was made the alliance between God and His people. The Pentecost (the fiftieth day) was honoured by the promulgation of the ten commandments of the divine law; and every following year, the Israel­ites celebrated the great event by a solemn festival. But their Pentecost was figurative, like their Pasch: there was to be a second Pentecost for all people, as there was to be a second Pasch, for the Redemption of the whole world. The Pasch, with all its triumph­ant joys, belongs to the Son of God, the Conqueror of death: Pentecost belongs to the Holy Ghost, for it is the day whereon He began His mission into this world, which, henceforward, was to be under His Law.

But how different are the two Pentecosts! The one, on the rugged rocks of Arabia, amidst thunder and lightning, promulgates a Law that is written on tab­lets of stone; the second is in Jerusalem, on which God's anger has not as yet been manifested, because it still contains within its walls the first fruits of that new people, over whom the Spirit of love is to reign. In this second Pentecost, the heavens are not overcast, nor is the roar of thunder heard; the hearts of men are not stricken with fear, as when God spake on Sinai; repentance and gratitude are the sentiments now uppermost. A divine fire burns within their souls, and will spread throughout the whole world. Our Lord Jesus had said: 'I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I, but that it be kindled?' The hour for the fulfilment of this word has come: the Spirit of love, the Holy Ghost, the eternal uncreated Flame, is about to descend from heaven, and realize the merciful design of our Redeemer.

Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims, who have flocked thither from every country of the Gentile world. They feel a strange mysterious expectation working in their souls. They are Jews, and have come from every foreign land where Israel has founded a syna­gogue; they have come to keep the feasts of Pasch and Pentecost. Asia, Africa, and even Rome, have here their representatives. Amidst these Jews pro­perly so called, are to be seen many Gentiles, who, from a desire to serve God more faithfully, have embraced the Mosaic law and observances; they are called proselytes. This influx of strangers, who have come to Jerusalem out of a desire to observe the Law, gives the city a Babel-like appearance, for each nation has its own language. They are not, however, under the influence of pride and prejudice, as are the inhabitants of Judea; neither have they, like these latter, known and rejected the Messias, nor blasphemed His works whereby He gave testimony of His divine character. It may be that they took part with the other Jews in clamouring for Jesus' death; but they were led to it by the chief priests and magistrates of the Jerusalem which they reve­renced as the holy city of God, and to which nothing but religious motives have brought them.

22 May 2007

On Adjectival Christians

It seems more common, and more necessary, to modify most Protestants with one or more adjectives. For example, it is not uncommon to modify the word "Episcopal" with the words "high" or "low" or "broad" or "conservative" or some such. Likewise, it is not uncommon to modify the word "Lutheran" with "liturgical" or "confessional" or "conservative"--or the corresponding pejoratives. The same is true of (and in) many other Protestant denominations.

To be sure, there are adjectival Orthodox. However, the adjectives generally denote ethnicity (Russian, Serbian, Greek) or rite (Byzantine or Western). One rarely, if ever, modifies Orthodox with "liturgical" or "conservative." To say it another way, the adjectives do not modify the distance one is perceived to be from his own tradition or from the Fidei Depositum.

Why this observation? It was prompted by my need to modify the word "Lutheran" in the previous brief obituary; and because, now that the school year is winding down and the teaching load lessening, I have occasion to think and write about such things.

Fr Gene Evans: A Brief Obituary

No doubt this news will not make much of a ripple within the Lutheran pond, and I'm certain it will have no effect outside of Lutheranism; nevertheless, it needs to be reported that Reverend Father Gene Evans has reposed.

For twenty years (1975-1995), Fr. Evans was the Pastor of Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit and, during much of that time, also a member of the Editorial Board of The Bride of Christ. Both the parish and the journal were of some significance among liturgical confessional Lutherans during Fr Evans' lifetime.

In the last twelve years, Fr Evans served a small mission, which he founded and which was unaffiliated with any bishop or denomination.

Fr Evans passed away on Saturday, 19 May. He is survived by his wife, Arlyss. A requiem Mass will be celebrated at Charity Lutheran Church in Detroit on Friday, 25 May.

Requiescat in Pace.

20 May 2007

Sacerdos et Pontifex

On the bishop's arrival, the Priest presents him with a crucifix to be kissed; the Cantors then intone the following Antiphon:

Sacerdos et Pontifex *
et virtutum opifex
pastor bone in populo,
sic placuisti Domino.
T.P. Alleluia.

O priest and bishop, *
thou worker of all virtues,
good shepherd of thy people,
pray for us to the Lord.
Paschaltide: Alleluia.

Liber Usualis, p. 1840
Saint Ambrose Hymnal, #372

What a Pleasant Surprise!

Today at Holy Incarnation, we were pleasantly surprised with a visit by His Grace, Bishop MARK. As the Bishop of Toledo & the Midwest in the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, Bishop MARK is the diocesan bishop for Holy Incarnation.

When he entered at the beginning of Lauds, His Grace was greeted with the chant Sacerdos et Pontifex. The Bishop presided from the bishop's throne during Lauds and Mass. At appropriate times during the Mass, His Grace blessed the thurible and sang "Peace be with you." At the end of the Mass His Grace gave the pontifical blessing and then was once again serenaded with Sacerdos et Pontifex during the retiring procession.

Bishop MARK then joined the parish for its monthly meal, and spoke briefly with the parishioners encouraging them to remain faithful.

Ad multos annos, Bishop!

Ye Also Shall Bear Witness

An excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, a Western Rite Vicariate parish in the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

The Spirit does not testify to us so that this Comfort and Love of God remains concealed within ourselves, or within this little community. For that is not Love’s way. Love has given Himself to us by His Spirit so that, through us, the Spirit might constantly testify. Listen again to Our Lord: He shall testify of me: and ye also shall bear witness.

Without a doubt, these words are spoken chiefly to the Holy Apostles, because Our Lord continues by saying because ye have been with me from the beginning. And so they are the primary witnesses. And by the Spirit this testimony and witness-bearing has been handed down to their successors, even to His Grace, Bishop MARK around whom we are today gathered. His Grace has received the grace of the Holy Spirit so that, by his life, by his character, by his preaching, by his shepherding, and by his benevolent rule in the Church, His Grace might testify and bear witness of the Love of God whose sacrifice is both our means of salvation and our life. And so we have prayed for His Grace, that he would “be in word and conversation a wholesome example to the people committed to his charge, that he with them may attain unto everlasting life.”

Yet as His Grace bears witness as the Church gathers around him, so also ought we—and all the faithful—to bear witness together in unity with His Grace. For Our Lord Jesus says ye also shall bear witness; that is, “all of you shall testify of Me.” For the Spirit is given not to one man only, but to the whole Church. And He is given, not so that one may bear witness for all, but so that all might together bear witness in the unity of the Body. As St Augustine says, “The Holy Spirit by His testimony made others testify.” Together with the Bishop, then, we are to bear witness and testify that the love of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.

Let us recall, however, that our testimony is not only a testimony in words; and that we testify not chiefly by what we say. Rather, the martyrs and saints have taught us that we testify chiefly by how we live—by the love we show all men, even those who are not of the household of faith. “Converting the hatred of our enemies into love” (St Augustine)—that is what the Spirit has testified to us by pointing us to Love Himself. For how did He respond? When he was reviled, [He] did not revile: when he suffered, he threatened not: but delivered himself to him that judged him unjustly.

13 May 2007

Describing Western Orthodox

At his blog, Ben Johnson has posted a piece that helpfully explains the difference between the Orthodox parishes that employ the Western rite and the Catholic parishes that employ the Byzantine rite. The title captures his point: "The Western Rite is Not "Reverse Uniatism."

In the midst of his explanation, Ben provides the following gem that succinctly articulates the place of the Western liturgical tradition within the Orthodox Church.

Western Rite Orthodox do not have a unique or different approach to theology from our Eastern Orthodox brethren. While we look with understandable affection at forefathers like Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose of Milan, the Venerable Bede, and St. Peter Chrysologos, we also kneel at the feet of Sts. Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, and John of Kronstadt. We differ in nothing. We are simply Orthodox Christians who worship according to an approved, Western liturgy that expresses both Orthodox theology and our Western heritage.

The entire post is worth your time.

The Problem with Impatience

Impatience often kills the holiest desire and threatens the purest prayer, because impatience doubts that the promise is true, that the Giver is good, and that the gift is worth having. But true patience, like true love, gladly and eagerly anticipates the full flowering of the petition since it knows that the Father knows best not only when to give, what at what time His gift will produce the greatest joy.

What does Our Lord say? Ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. Consider, then, that Our Father delays not to torture you or cause you to lose faith, but to increase your joy—and in doing so, He also increases your trust, your confidence, your hope, and your faith in Him.

Ask Anything?

An excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.

Our Lord’s invitation to ask anything in His name leaves the field wide open. And so we are tempted to believe that we can pray for whatever we want. And when we believe this, then we are tempted to focus on our earthly desires—things or events that we’re sure will make our life smoother, easier, better.

However, to ask anything does not mean that we can ask whatever we like. St. Augustine reminds us “that nothing is to be asked of the Father in the Name of the Savior which is against the work of our salvation.” In other words, all our asking should focus not on things earthly, but things heavenly; not on meeting our selfish desires, but on meeting the needs of another; not on things that bring fleeting gratification, but on things that bring lasting, full joy; and not on things that lead to smug satisfaction, but on things that lead to humility, contrition, patience, kindness—and, above all, mercy.

Prayer, then, is true and well-pleasing when we look beyond our will, beyond the food and staples we desire, beyond the ways we’ve been hurt and the evils we endure, and instead center our heart and mind on living within the Lord’s hallowed Name, striving for His kingdom, consonant with His will, hungering for the bread He deigns to provide, forgiving with the same quickness and liberality as He has forgiven us, and avoiding all temptations while enduring patiently every evil.

So Whatsoever ye shall ask is whatsoever will help you retain the victory Our Lord has won for you, and remain in the mercy He has given you, and also attain the fullness of salvation that He has laid up for you.

12 May 2007

Working Out Salvation

One of my colleagues, Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, writes a weekly meditation which he calls "Pastoral Ponderings." Fr. Pat posts these on his parish's website and distributes them via email. I find them to be both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

The "Pondering" for this week touches on a statement from St. Paul concerning which I was often confused. I especially appreciated the distinctions made in the opening paragraphs.

It was somewhat late in Christian history, I believe, when certain believers were made nervous by Paul's exhortation to the Philippians, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (2:12). I suppose this anxiety was occasioned by the proximity of the noun "salvation" to the verb "work," a juxtaposition that might lead to heaven knows what sorts of heresies. Indeed, one suspects that the decision to translate katergazesthe as "work out," instead of the more usual meanings of the verb (such as "achieve," "accomplish," "bring about," or "be engaged in") was prompted in some measure by the same apprehension.

Anyway, commentators were quick to mention that the expression "work out" means something different from "work for." This distinction, however, though it is certainly valid (in the sense that salvation can never be earned), is also something of a distraction from what the apostle has in mind to say. Paul does not mean, "Work out the consequences of being saved." That is to say, there is nothing in the passage to suggest that this working out is the fruit of a salvation already accomplished. On the contrary, in telling the Philippians to "work out" their salvation, Paul is thinking of salvation as something ongoing, not yet achieved, still to be accomplished. Salvation remains to be . . . well, "worked out." The tense implied in the text is the future.

If you'd like to read the full meditation, visit the All Saints Orthodox Church website this coming week. And if you'd like to receive these by email, click on this link and then type "subscribe" on the subject line. You can also listen to Fr Pat's Pastoral Ponderings by podcast at Ancient Faith Radio.

06 May 2007

Patience & Trust

An excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.

There are two kinds of sorrow, two types of grief. One kind we bring upon ourselves, because it traces to the sins we have done and the hurt we have caused. For these offenses we should be brought to contrition, and feel sorry. We should know true sorrow and heartfelt grief for what we’ve done wrong, and for the good we’ve failed to do. And with a contrite heart and a humble spirit, we should seek mercy from God our Father and from those whom we have hurt or offended.

The other kind of sorrow, the other type of grief, is the sorrow and grief we experience when something happens to us. Sometimes we are grieved by the sins of others. We often we grieve because of loss—because someone has moved, or departed this life, or turned against us, or ignored and forgotten us. The sorrow and grief we feel in these instances is different than contrition and remorse. Instead, we feel left alone and forsaken.

Our Lord God does desire that we sorrow and feel contrition for our sins. And such sorrow, such grief, such contrition He does not despise or belittle. For a sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, [God will] not despise; and The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart: and he will save the humble of spirit. And so, when Our Lord sees that sorrows fills our heart, He quickly comes to our aid and rushes in with His mercy and embraces us with the full measure of His love and pours upon us the abundance of His loving-kindness.

The same is true when Our Lord sees that we sorrow and grieve because of what has happened to us, or because we have suffered some loss. At these times also, Our Lord is ready and willing and quick to comfort us, to soothe our troubled spirit, to calm our anxious heart, and to console us with His unending solace. This is especially true when He is the cause of our sorrow and grief; when we are heartbroken because of something He has done. For this you should always remember: Our Lord doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. Rather, when He causes grief, when His actions produce sorrow, when His plans—however mysterious—cause us to weep and lament, then there is Our Lord once more, ready to soothe our hurt and give us His comfort and peace which surpasses all human understanding.

Yet the Lord’s comfort and consolation does not always come quickly. Not because He is unwilling or unready, but because He wishes to strengthen our trust and confidence in Him; and because He desires to produce godly patience. Patience and trust—that is the way of all those who hope in the Lord. Patience and trust—that is what draws us closer to Our Lord and urges us to love Him all the more. Patience and trust—that is what our life in God is all about. For when we have patience and trust, then we have true freedom—freedom from fear, freedom from anxiety, freedom from grief and heartache. And when we have patience and trust, then we have put aside our selfish desires, and our passions are aligned to Our Lord and His will.