23 June 2007

Why This Nativity?

The Church commemorates the saints on their dies natale (Latin: “day of birth”). This “heavenly birthday” is not the day the saint was born, but the day the saint received the crown of life (Jas 1.12; Rev 2.10). For most of the early saints, this dies natale was their day of martyrdom. For this reason, the dies natale supersedes the day they entered this world in the flesh. Hence, unlike the world which celebrates its hero’s birthdays, the Church celebrates her hero’s death-days—and calls them “true birthdays” (dies natale).

There are, however, three notable exceptions to this rule: the Nativity of Our Lord (25 December), the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 September) and the Nativity of St John the Baptist (24 June). One reason is that these are the birthdays of the only individuals who were without, or cleansed from, ancestral sin. St Augustine suggests another reason: “The Lord wished John to be an attestation to his own first coming; for if Christ had come too suddenly and unexpectedly, men might not have recognized him. And on this wise John was a figure of the Old Testament, and showed in his own person a typical embodiment of the Law; for he heralded beforehand the coming of the Savior, even as the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us to the grace of Christ.” In other words, St John’s nativity points to Our Lord’s nativity; which means that the Nativity of St John the Baptist teaches us (as do all the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary) that Our Lord God deigned to take our human nature so that He might dignify and elevate it by penetrating it with His divine nature.

For more by St Augustine on this feast, see this excerpt.

For an fine piece on the same topic by St John the Wonderworker of Shanghai & San Francisco, see this piece at Christ is in our Midst.

Lutherans to Juxtapose Lutheranism & Orthodoxy

The Augustana Ministerium announces that, at its Second Annual Theological Conference and Plenary Session, it "will address two important areas that need discussion and clarification in our midst. The first is to put Eastern Orthodoxy into focus vis-à-vis Confessional Lutheranism." The second area will be a discussion on Sanctification.

This society includes many good friends who were "comrades in arms" during my years as a Lutheran pastor. Most would identify themselves as either "confessional Lutherans" or "evangelical catholics"--or both. Their desire, simply put, is to maintain within their own local communities or parishes the historic understanding of Lutheran theology and practice, and to strive for extending their influence into larger Lutheranism. For most, this includes embracing the patristic and liturgical roots of Lutheranism. However, from this side, I would say that these friends often embrace these roots with a view toward interpreting the texts within a peculiar Lutheran tradition (peculiar because it is both peculiar to the context of the patristic and liturgical texts, and embraces a hermeneutic peculiar to modern Lutheranism).

What interests me about the Ministerium's upcoming Theological Conference is that they propose to juxtapose Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran teachings. (The language suggests a legal proceeding: "EO vs. confessional Lutheranism on Original Sin; on Justification; on Sanctification/Theosis.")

Now I firmly contend that it is within the purview of any denomination or theological society to describe and distinguish their teachings "vis-à-vis" or in juxtaposition to another that they determine to be in error. And sometimes this can be done for no other end than bolstering the faithful. (Preaching to the choir can be salutary, especially when the choir needs to improve!)

However, it is my hope and prayer that those who facilitate and those who comment do the hard work of understanding and fairly presenting the Orthodox ("other") perspective. This hard work begins with eschewing straw men, caricatures and rumors; and continues by comparing apples with apples (i.e., not some local Orthodox priest with a Lutheran dogmatic text; or an Orthodox theologian with a confessional standard). But most of all, understanding and fairly presenting the Orthodox perspective means (a) understanding the true context from which Orthodoxy speaks; and (b) understanding that the Orthodox confessional standard is of a different sort than the Lutheran standard.

In short, these two shibboleths ought to be avoided:

(1) seeing the Orthodox liturgical texts as no different for Orthodox clergy and laity as Lutheran liturgical texts are for Lutheran clergy and laity (i.e., man-made compositions open, under certain conditions, to wholesale change)

(2) refusing to acknowledge that Lutheranism, as much as Orthodoxy, admits to reading the Scriptures through the lens of a particular tradition (i.e., no "we oppose Tradition trumping Scripture" while waving the 1580 Book of Concord)

Above all, I shall pray for my former comrades in arms, whom I still upright and godly friends. I shall pray that they discuss, compare and contrast Lutheran and Orthodox teachings with a fair, honest and good heart.

Principle Issues: Theosis, Justification & Sanctification

My good friend at Lutheran Enigma has left a "teaser-post" in which in promises a "series of blog posts under the title 'Sanctification, Third Use of the Law, and Theosis.'" His fear is that the "primacy of justsification" is sacrificed by those who embrace the patristic principle of theosis; that one can "go down the path of theosis away from the primacy of justification."

As he ponders and constructs these posts, I make bold to offer my friend a few suggestions:

* A definition of the term "primacy of justification" would be helpful. In other words, how does justification take primacy over sanctification, especially considering that several Lutheran theologians describe the two concepts as two sides of the same coin.

* On the surface it is easy to think that the patristic/Orthodox view of theosis is a subcategory of the Western/Lutheran view of sanctificatio. However, it is not; and, in fact, has many aspects that line up nicely with the best understanding of justificatio.

* In the Lutheran Book of Concord, it seems that what drives both justification and sanctification is Christology. Christology is also key to understanding theosis. I suggest that this is the "common ground" and, therefore, a good place to begin.

* It took me a while to understand that the patristic/Orthodox view of theosis is not a dogma or doctrine (one bit among many; one spoke in the wheel), but rather is something akin to a governing or foundational principle. In this regard, theosis is akin to Christology; and, in fact, I will be so bold as to state that theosis is simply Christology applied (potentially) to every man. (Of course, the essence/energy distinction is crucial in understanding this claim correctly.)

The above point did not become clear to me until I read more carefully and understood more fully the key writings of St Maximos the Confessor and the issues at stake in the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils. Until then, I willingly conceded the premises my friend has staked out; namely, that theosis is simply a Greek term for a different or fuller view of sanctificatio.

17 June 2007

Our Lord Does Eat with Sinners

Excerpts 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 Pharisees and scribes hurled their statement as a sarcastic barb; but we hear it as kindly praise. They meant it as a cruel insult; but we hear it as a joyous compliment. They sought to expose a fraud; but we hear the revelation of a merciful Savior. They were being condescending; but with their words we are lifted up and exalted. For this is most certainly true: Our Lord Jesus receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

And for us men and for our salvation, it is good that He does so. For those who promote themselves as worthy, those who think they are deserving, those who insist they are not sinners—they stand before Our Lord not in humility, but in pride; not in repentance, but with indifference; not willing to submit all and sacrifice all, but interested only in getting theirs and what they are cocksure they are entitled to. But those who broken and contrite in heart, Our Lord does not despise. He hears and helps those who cry to Him out of the depth of their anguish and misery. Our Lord does not turn away, but embraces those who take up their cross and follow Him. And just as He scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts and has put down the mighty from their seat, so He also has exalted the humble and meek and fills the hungry with good things. For, in His own words, Our Lord came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.


Let us ... take to heart that, for our sake, Our Lord ignores the murmuring and insults of the self-righteous. And He does not disdain to be with us sinners, to welcome us to His table and to eat with us. He has purposefully and determinedly sought us out. He has brought us to this time and place, and has placed before us the sacred things that minister to our salvation. In fact, He has not only sat down with us, but He has set the table. And at this holy table, He serves up His own flesh and blood to be our meat and drink.

So it is not just that Our Lord Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. He also feeds us—with the food that is truly His own immaculate Body, and that this is truly His own precious Blood.

That we may worthily and in true faith sit with Our Lord and accept His loving embrace, let us pray that He have mercy upon us, and forgive us our transgressions, both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance; and that He make us worthy to partake without condemnation of His immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of our sins and unto life everlasting. For to Our Lord Jesus Christ, together with His all-merciful Father in the unity of His life-giving and all-holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor and worship, throughout all ages of ages.

10 June 2007

Beg God for the Cure to Pride

Handmaid Leah, at Christ is in our Midst! has posted a wonderful wisdom story from one of the elders. It suggests that, like Job, we need to see the root of our sins which will explain why the Lord allows us to be afflicted and that for which we truly need to pray. The elder also builds on the early church fathers, who said that pride was the heart of the first and ancestral sin.

Here is the story:

Someone asked the Elder: “Why is it that, when I pray for a friend of mine or to be freed of a passion, sometimes God hears me and sometimes He doesn’t, even though I struggle more in prayer?”

He replied: “God examines more how much humility we have rather than how much effort we put forth. What does it profit us if we beseech God to remedy our falls and He hears us and heals us of them if we have pride, which brings about our falls? For this reason, the Good God does not listen to us, for it may be that our many falls will bring us to our senses so as to become humble. Therefore, when He does not heal us of our passion, we must realize that pride exists, and we must beg Him to cure us of our pride; then everything else departs of itself.”

Attending to the Things of God

Excerpts 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.

There is really only one thing that prevents us from doing the right thing. The world allures and entices us, and the devil whispers his deceptive lies into our heart and mind. But the one thing that keeps us from doing the right thing is what St Paul calls our “sinful flesh.” It is what believes the devil’s lies and is attracted by the world’s invitations. And so the flesh is what tells us that doing the right thing is too difficult or too inconvenient, or that we can do it later. Just as it is the flesh that helps us make excuses because we preferred feeding or resting or satisfying our flesh rather than disciplining its passions and desires so that we might attend to the things of God.


Those who live according to the flesh attend to the things that are of the flesh; but those who live according to the spirit, attend to the things that are of the spirit.

Beloved, let us attend to the things of the Spirit. Let us not be dissuaded by the demands of our flesh; let us not be deceived by the empty promises of the devil; let us not be distracted by the glamour or rewards that this world falsely offers. Instead, let us fix our hearts and minds on Jesus. He is the author and finisher of true faith. Having joy set before him, He endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God.

Now when our eyes are fixed on Jesus, then we shall readily sacrifice the delicacies, the niceties and the things that our flesh prefers. Instead, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will truly learn to taste and see that the Lord is good. And when we have tasted with repentance, with the awe that sees that we stand before the throne of God and live only by His mercy—then we shall neither hunger nor thirst anymore for the things that we falsely believe are so important, so necessary, so worthwhile.

09 June 2007

Chrysostom: "Behold, Thou Eatest Him!"

The following is copied from the lesson for the Second Nocturn for the Sunday within the Octave of Corpus Christi as posted at Breviary.net. It is a portion of a homily by St John Chrysostom designated as Homila 60 ad pópulum Antioch.

Since the Word saith: This is my Body: let us be persuaded of the truth of his words; and let us believe, and look upon him with the eyes of our understanding. For Christ hath not given us a reality cognizable by the senses, but rather tokens of that reality, which same are sensible things, altogether cognizable by the understanding. For example, consider Baptism: wherein by means of a sensible thing, (to wit, water,) a gift is bestowed, but the intelligible reality which is conferred is birth and renewal. For if thou wert bodiless, he would have given thee incorporeal gifts; but inasmuch as thy soul is united to a body, he giveth thee intelligible realities under visible things which pertain to the senses. How many are there now who say, Would that I could behold his form, his face, his garments, his sandals! Behold, thou dost see him; thou touchest him; thou eatest him. Thou wouldst fain see his mere garments, but he granteth thee not merely to see him, but to eat him, to touch him, to take him within thyself.

Let no one therefore come with disgust, no one carelessly, but all kindled, all fervent, and eager. For if the Jews ate the lamb hastily, standing having their sandals on their feet, and grasping their staves in their hands, it is far more needful that thou shouldst be on the alert. For they were about to make their journey to Palestine, and for that reason assumed the character of travellers; but thou art to make thy journey to heaven. Wherefore thou must needs be watchful in all aspects, for no light punishment is set before those who receive unworthily. Think how wrathful thou art against the traitor, and against them who crucified him. Ponder therefore, lest thou shouldst be guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ. They slew that most holy Body; thou, after so many acts of his goodness, often receivest him in a polluted soul. For it was not enough for him to be made Man, to be smitten with buffets, and to be crucified ; but he also maketh himself one with us ; so that not in faith alone, but in very deed, we become one with his Body.

Ought not one then to be very clean, if he is to partake of such a Sacrifice? Yea, more glorious than the sunbeam should be the hand which distributeth that Flesh ; yea, and likewise should be the mouth which is filled with that spiritual fire, and the tongue which is ruddy with that most awful Blood. Ponder what an honour it is with which thou art graced; what a Table it is thou dost enjoy. That which the Angels tremble to hold, and dare not look upon freely, because of the glory which shineth from it, with this we are fed, to this we are united, and become one body and one flesh with Christ. Who can express the noble acts of the Lord, or shew forth all his praise? What shepherd doth feed his sheep with his own blood? And why should I speak of a shepherd? For there are many mothers who, after the pains of childbearing, entrust their children to other nurses. This he did not endure to do, but himself doth feed us with his own Blood, and unite us to all things unto himself.

06 June 2007

Conservative Philosophy

For 18 months, in addition to various other tasks, I've been teaching formal classes in Philosophy on the junior college and high school level. While I've always found teaching to be personally invigorating, explaining the history and concepts of philosophy has been quite stimulating as it has sharpened my thinking, hopefully my writing (you can be the judge of that), and broadened my mental Weltanschauung.

During this past year, I've used a variety of resources in the high school classroom. FIRST THINGS has become a staple especially when discussing morals & ethics to Catholic students. The conversion of Dr Robert C. Koons has led me to investigate Right Reason, a blog that I'm sure I'll continue to use as a resource.

Currently on Right Reason, Alexander Pruss has been offering an occasional commentary on love. I've found it fascinating, especially since the high school Christian Philosophy class ended the year studying Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est. (It yielded some of the best papers by high school students that I've ever read.) I'll also want to spend some time reading omments on Nietzsche.

Therefore, I'm commending Right Reason to my readers--especially those who are interested in philosophy.

05 June 2007

Abstracting the Concrete

Yesterday on the FIRST THINGS blog, Adam G. Cooper wrote a commentary on the conversion (or, as some are calling it, "reversion") of Robert C. Koons from Lutheranism to the Catholic Church.

Koons is a reputable philosopher at the University of Texas and, until recently, a life-long Lutheran in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. In announcing his decision to leave Lutheranism and join the Catholic Church, Koons points his readers to a fairly extensive document that reveals his thinking on several doctrinal points.

Cooper's summary is worth reading. In particular, I found several points that resonated with me. Obviously, I came to a different conclusion (for several key reasons) than Dr Koons, but the following issues were the same.

Cooper writes:

How is it that a teaching so strongly incarnational in principle is so pervasively idealist and nominalist in practice? Just how does Lutheran theology go about describing justification from the point of view of what happens bodily, in this or that person?

Of course, conceptually, it is right, even necessary, to insist on a strict distinction between justification and sanctification. Even Cyril of Alexandria could have said the same about the two natures of Christ—in the abstract! But concretely, is it possible to draw such a hard and fast line? True enough, Lutheran theologians have always admitted that the distinction between faith and works is more logical than temporal. Perhaps Koons overstates the narrowness of the Lutheran position when he represents the confessions as teaching that “no active cooperation by us is involved” in our eventual transformation. Whatever might be said in actual Lutheran preaching, however, the Formula of Concord explicitly asserts a necessary synergy between the regenerate will and the operations of the Holy Spirit. To refuse to cooperate is effectively mortal.

Be that as it may, one cannot help but think Koons is on the mark when he alerts us to the virtual gnosticism in the Lutheran position, at least as it is commonly stated and practiced. Recall Augustine’s famous line: While God created us without us, he doesn’t justify us without us. But it is precisely creatio ex nihilo and Christ’s resurrection from the dead that Lutheranism fastens onto as parallels to God’s act of justifying sinners. I am not denying the fitness of the analogies. After all, they are Pauline (Rom. 4: 17). But once again, what would happen if we tried to read them “bodily” or, as it were, “from below”: Who or what is justified, and to what end?

Similar concerns arise when one considers the insistence in forensic justification on all the real changes taking place coram Deo (before the face of God). Here again, Lutheran teaching is liable to tend toward abstraction. But where else is coram Deo except in the concrete means of grace: baptism, absolution, the sacrament of the altar? Locating our righteousness outside ourselves—in the Christ personally present and active in those means—is fine. Koons observes that epistemologically and phenomenologically speaking, this emphasis is entirely accurate: imputed righteousness “is not introspectible or internally ‘feelable.’” But in order to save, the means of grace must still intersect with real people with real bodies and intellects and wills. Surely it must be admitted that somehow we are involved, unless one approves of a gnostic disdain for the natural, creaturely order.

Koons has some salient points to make on sola scriptura as well. In Lutheran teaching, each individual believer is obliged to attach him- or herself to an orthodox congregation, using Scripture alone as an evaluative norm. But this, says Koons, is “an impossible burden.” In contrast, “on the Roman Catholic view, the individual believer can recognize the true church, not only by examining its doctrines one by one, but also by investigating its historical connection (via a physical and social chain of transmission) to the apostles.” Koons does not want to his readers to escape their individual responsibility. His point is simply that doctrinal fidelity cannot be separated from institutional unity as a mark of catholicity.

03 June 2007

Loved Restores what Love Created

Excerpts 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 praise, worship and adoration of the Most Holy Trinity separates Christianity from all other religions. For none other “worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” (Quicúmque vult) ... [So] the chief thing is not the teaching, but the worship. The chief thing is not that we can adequately and reasonably describe the mystery of three persons in one God. The chief thing is that we continually and equally ascribe all glory, honor and worship to the Father through His only-begotten Son in the Holy Spirit.

For this reason we were made. ... When God determined to make man, He did so in order that He might build a relationship with us. He desired to extend the love that He is beyond Himself; and He desired that we be the creatures who could and would return His love. He desired to create men so that He might make His home in them; and He desired that we would receive Him. He desired to show mercy; and He desired that we give Him thanks.

It was all, then, designed to be a true, loving relationship, with God as the initiator and we as the respondents; with God saying, “Let us make man,” and we responding, “Thy hands have made me and formed me”; with God begetting in love and pouring out His love and ceaselessly extending love; and we being in love—in the love that He is and gives.

Yet when we broke this covenant of love—when we determined to love ourselves, rather than loving Love Himself; when we determined to take pride in ourselves, rather than praising the Lover who loved us into being; when we determined that we deserved to be love, and to initiate our own self-loves, and to gratify whatever we thought was lovely; when we determined to do whatever we pleased with what God’s love had made. Then our love turned cold, and our life in God spiraled out of control, and our desires became disordered. But worst of all, our praise, worship and adoration for the Trinity ceased to flow purely and truly; and so it dried up in our hearts and died on our lips.

Yet this did not quench Our Lord’s love for us. Neither did it cause Him to turn against us. With us, spurned love quickly turns to hate, and jealousy begets rage. But with Our Lord, spurned love increased His desire to seek us out, to entice us back, and to restore lost love. So, in the cool of the day—that is, when our love had cooled toward Him—the Lord God came looking for us as a good father eagerly yearns for his prodigal son, as a Good Shepherd earnestly seeks a lost sheep, and as an innocent and pure woman diligently searches for a lost coin. ...

It is no mistake or mere coincidence, then, that after Our Lord’s Passion had loved the world back to God; after the Lover, in Love, gave up and then resurrected His Beloved; after Love covered a multitude of sins—it is not happenstance that Our Lord Jesus directed His first bishops to reclaim and restore all men, one by one, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. For in baptism for the remission of sins, in baptism which returns life where there was death, in baptism which restores and renews lost love—in this “the Trinity is united in showing mercy” (St Peter Chrysologus), in the same way that the Trinity was united in creating man.

So man is begotten by the love of the Father through the Son in the Spirit; and man is re-begotten by that same love. Man is loved into being by the Most Holy Trinity; and man is restored in love by the same Holy Trinity. Man is created, and man becomes a new creature, by the fullness of the Godhead. And in this way, by the initiative of the Father, Son and Spirit, the covenant of love is renewed; and the relationship is repaired; and the true synergy between God and man is re-established.

Faith in the Trinity

The Faith which the holy Patriarchs and Prophets received from God before his Son was made Flesh, the Faith which the holy Apostles heard from the Lord himself present in the Flesh, the Faith which the same Apostles learnt by the teaching of the Holy Ghost not only to preach by word of mouth, but also to leave behind them in their writings for the healthful instruction of all that should come after,--that Faith teacheth that the Trinity, that is to say, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, is but one God.

From The Book on Faith by St. Fulgentius (Source)

01 June 2007

Principle Issues: Books Along the Way

More often than I can count, I've been asked to recommend books that I found useful as I contemplated becoming Orthodox. More often than not, the inquirer is looking for only a few noteworthy books. Moreover, the inquiry presumes that one can read his way into the Church. One can't. For the Church is not an academy or library; rather, she is a living organism, a body. Therefore, what is key is not knowledge but relationship; and not the letter, but the Spirit.

Nevertheless, knowledge and letters (i.e., books) are not unimportant. For they help clarify the relationship and articulate the organism. Or, to say it another way, while faith does not require understanding, understanding forms and informs faith.

As I've pondered the question in order to give a reasonable and cogent answer, I have reviewed the past five years and determined that there certainly are many books that have been most helpful. But I keep coming back to three in particular--the three that I am certain formed my understanding of and stoked my desire for the Church. These three are: the English Missal, the Anglican Breviary and daily selections of homilies from the Church Fathers.

During the five years leading up to my chrismation, I daily read these three books as a celebrated daily Mass at the Lutheran congregation that I served. During that five I period, I gradually drifted away from trying to "Lutheranize" these texts by careful editing (as had been my arduous practice), but rather to let the propers, Psalms, hymns, prayers, and fathers speak for themselves, earnestly endeavoring to understand their context while determining that I was not smart enough to correct self-perceived mistranslations or accretions but humbly attempting to hear and learn from these texts. In Lutheran parlance, I no longer exercised a magisterial but a ministerial use of reason concerning the liturgy and the fathers.

I am convinced that this use of these texts, more than anything else, led me in time to the understanding that, while I miraculously and wondrously exercised the grace of the Holy Spirit through preaching and the Sacraments, I did so outside of the Church--much like the man in Mark 9.

As I stated above, along the way many other books, articles and discussions were helpful. But these three texts--the Scriptures in the liturgy, the Scriptures in the breviary, and the Scriptures interpreted by the fathers--were, for me, the most formative in my "journey."

On a Personal Note

This week I was officially hired to teach full time at Cabrini Catholic High School. I'll be teaching Philosophy, German, World Religions, and Scriptures. I am grateful to Fr. Joe and all the folks at Cabrini who have graciously extended me this opportunity.

In addition to my teaching duties, I will continue serving Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church as well as part-time teaching for an online junior college.