31 December 2008

Scenes from Christ Mass Eve

The sanctuary project at Holy Incarnation is not yet complete, but enough has been completed so that the altar could be repositioned for Christ Mass Eve. Below are scenes from Christ Mass at Holy Incarnation.

29 December 2008

Sister Parish in Oklahoma City

Fr Mark Wallace, the priest of St Andrew Orthodox Church (a Western Rite mission), reports that they celebrated their inaugural Mass in their new location on Christ Mass Eve. What a joy for that parish!

Photographs of the new location and liturgical space may be viewed here.

25 December 2008

Thank You

to the anonymous donor who, once again, generously gave a gift certificate to one of my favorite sites. Your kindness toward me and my family is very much appreciated.

24 December 2008

Christ Mass Greetings

The painting “Adoration of the Kings” by Benedetto Bonfigli (right) depicts the worship of Our Incarnate Lord.

Notice how Our Lord is adored: certainly with gifts and by some on bended knee; but also by the poor as well as the rich, by animals as well as by humans. Notice also how the serene Holy Virgin, who accepts no accolades for herself nor is giddy at what she has done, casts her gaze on her Son. Her joy is contained in Him; and so to Him she looks. And with her dispassionate gaze, she urges us to see and believe that her Son is our joy as well.

Most striking of all, however, is that Bonfigli deigns to include the crucified Lord. As you see Our Lord on the cross, your eye once more has little choice but to follow the lifeless peaceful gaze of the Crucified One to the Holy Child who is blessing all who approach. It is as if the crucified Lord is saying, “For this reason I was born, and for this cause I took human flesh from the pure Virgin—so that I might bless both rich and poor, both pure and sinful, both man and beast.”

Such words should put our heart at ease, and should chase away whatever fear and sadness we presently endure. For the Incarnate Lord is born to put an end to death and misery, and to unite us to His salvation by uniting us firmly to Himself.

May our hearts and minds, in all joy and confidence, ever be reminded, especially this Christ Mass tide, that Our Lord Jesus came into our flesh to unite Himself to our mortality and afflictions and to bear our sin, so that we might share in the blessing of His life, peace and mercy.

And may the richest blessings of this Holy Nativity be with you and yours.

The Icon of the Nativity

A message from our Bishop alerted me to this explanation of the Icon of Our Lord's Nativity. On the Eve of the Holy Nativity, I share it with you. (Note: the numbers on the icon refer to the numbers in the article below.)

What is the meaning of the icon of the Lord’s Nativity?

In this icon, the whole Gospel message of the incarnation of our Savior from the Virgin Mary is depicted, along with details added from the Holy Tradition. In many Nativity icons there are a multitude of details, in others less. In the diagram above, taken from a drawing for an icon, we can identify at least nine major elements.

The focus of the icon, of course, is on the birth of our Lord from His most pure virgin mother Mary (1). The Blessed Virgin is shown larger than any of the other figures, reclining on a mat or blankets, and looking not at her new-born Son, but rather with love and compassion towards her spouse, St. Joseph the Betrothed (8), and seeing his affliction and bewilderment over this most strange and divine birth. He is shown in the left bottom corner, conversing with Satan (7), disguised as an elderly, hunchback shepherd. The posture of St Joseph is one of doubt and inner trouble, for he wondered if it might be possible that the conception and birth were not by some secret human union. How blessed he was to serve the Mother of God and her divine Son, in spite of these thoughts and temptations, and to protect her from the evil gossip of the people who could not yet possibly understand so great a mystery. Tradition relates that Joseph was an elderly widower, thus having white hair and beard. Our Lord is shown in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, “for there was no room for them in the inn” (cf. Luke 2). The back-drop for the manger is a dark cave (3), which immediately reminds us of the cave in which our Lord was buried 33 years later, wrapped in a shroud. In the cave are an ox and ass, details not mentioned by the Gospels, but which are an invariable feature of every icon of the Nativity. The scene is included to show the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “the ox knows his Owner, and the ass his Master’s crib, but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me” (Isaiah 1:3). Above this central composition, in the very center of the icon is the wondrous star (2) coming from heaven, which led the Magi (6) to the place where our Savior lay. Tradition speaks of the Magi being representative of all mankind: one being young (beardless), one being middle-aged (in the center of the group, and one being elderly (closest to the cave). The star reminds us of the heavenly orb we see on icons of the Theophany, or Pentecost, wherever divine intervention is indicated. The cow (animals) and star illustrate that all creation rejoices at the birth of the Messiah: the lowly and the great, the earthly and the heavenly.

The holy angels (4) are seen both glorifying God and bringing the good tidings of the Lord’s birth to the shepherds (5) who look in awe at the angles. The fact that Jewish shepherds and heathen magi were among the first to worship our Lord shows us the universality of this great event, meant for the salvation of all mankind.

The final detail of this icon, the scene of the washing of the Lord (9) is an element that has caused some controversy over the ages. In some churches of the holy monasteries of Mount Athos, the scene in the frescoes has been deliberately obliterated and replaced with bushes or shepherds. There was a prevailing opinion that this scene was degrading to Christ, who had no need of washing, being born in a miraculous manner from a pure virgin. But we retain this image on our icons, being part of the holy tradition passed on to us; truly it does not degrade the Lord, but magnifies Him, as is evident in the prayer that is appointed to be read at the time of Baptism for the midwife of a child: (from the Old-rite Potrebnik, 2nd Prayer for the midwife) “O Master, Lord our God… Who didst lie in a manger and didst bless the midwife Salome who came to believe in an honorable virginity…” (According to Tradition, Salome was a daughter of St Joseph by his previous marriage.) Who, more effectively than a midwife, could testify to the divine and virginal birth? Therefore we do well to understand the importance of this blessed scene.

Finally, as we look at the icon as one united composition, we can only be filled with joy, not only because of the bright colors and the festive activity depicted thereon, but for the joyous news of our salvation so clearly proclaimed by it. In it, all creation rejoices at the birth of our Lord: the heavens (a star and angels); the earth (the mountains, plants and animals), and especially mankind, represented most perfectly in the figure of the new Eve, the most pure Mother of God.

Christ is Born! Let Us Glorify Him!

12 December 2008

Avery Cardinal Dulles, RIP

The Jesuit America Magazine reports that Avery Cardinal Dulles, son of the late John Foster Dulles and one of America's foremost Catholic theologians, passed away this morning.

Dr Dulles is famous for his writings, particularly his popular book on the church. He also wrote several articles for FIRST THINGS.

May he, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace.

11 December 2008

Understanding St John & His Question

At issue is the question the disciples of St John the Baptizer bring to Jesus; namely, "Are you the Coming One or should we look for another?" (cf Mt 11.2ff) The question is whose question this is? Is St John sending his disciples to Jesus to voice his own internal doubts and fears as he sits in prison with execution hanging over his head? Or is St John answering their doubts and fears as they wrestle with the mercy of God hidden within St John's impending decolation?

The church fathers teach that St John is not raising his own doubts, but is gently guiding his disciples to seek an answer to their doubts. For what it's worth, Martin Luther agrees. However, an existentialist reading (i.e., projecting what we would do, seeing ourselves as St John, making ourselves the subject of the inquiry), which became common after the Reformation (see Kierkegaard, et al.), suggests that St John is not so pious as to be above doubts and fears; in fact, to deny the possible doubts and fears to St John is to deny his "humanity" and, perhaps, call into question his need to be "saved from original sin" (assuming, of course, that original sin is the primary thing from which one needs to be saved).

In his characteristic manner, a friend offers a clear view of the "question behind the question" (i.e., which tradition is running one's hermeneutics).

As in so many other questions, it’s hard to separate an honest and open exegesis of the text from what we have theologically at stake in the answer. What is at stake here is: “Is John the baptist freed from original sin on this side of glory?”

You can see that the traditional answer to that question is Yes by looking at the Calendar. Only three people have liturgical celebrations of their physical birth: Jesus (Dec. 25), Mary (Sept. 8), John the Baptist (June 24). Normal saints are celebrated on their death days - their heavenly birthday... As explained in Weiser’s Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, that John and Mary get additional days for their physical births reflects the church’s ancient belief that Mary and John were cleansed of original sin before birth: thus John can leap in the womb and be full of the Spirit even there, and in Mary’s case, many believed that she was preserved from original sin altogether. ...

So, that’s what is lying behind this argument for many people. If you are invested in John being cleansed of original sin in the womb, you simply cannot understand him to be wavering in doubt. If you are invested in John being “just another sinner” then you will really want to jump on this verse as “proving” your point.

But I do not think that this verse can profitably act as a fulcrum to pry an opponent into one’s own camp. One’s opponent reads this verse (as oneself does) in light of a prior commitment: is John cleansed from original sin in this life ahead of the Consummation?

Understanding the "simul doctrine"

A good friend has made the claim that "Luther's simul [justus et peccator] doctrine...is [not] at home in the East." (Simul justus et peccator means "righteous and sinner simultaneously.") I offer the following points for consideration:
  • The Orthodox rejection of the medieval notions distorting the patristic understanding of sin does not necessarily negate the understanding that the man of faith is simultaneously righteous and sinner.
  • The Orthodox principle of theosis (that the Christian is in communion with and participates in God by faith) does not necessarily negate the understanding that the man of faith is simultaneously righteous and sinner.
  • The Orthodox teaching that man, by God's grace, "works out his salvation with fear and trembling" (synergy) does not necessarily negate the understanding that the man of faith is simultaneously righteous and sinner.
  • The clearest evidence for the three points above is found in the pre-communion prayers (both Byzantine and Western rites) which acknolwledge both man's unworthiness to approach God while, simultaneously, acknowledge the faithful man's participation in the Eucharist due to God's mercy. Such prayers (as well as other prayers and the teachings of the fathers on these points) are incomprehensible without a lively understanding that the man of faith is simultaneously righteous and sinner.

10 December 2008

The Conception of the BVM - Some Thoughts

My dear friend, Rev Dr Burnell (Fritz) Eckardt, a Lutheran minister, ponders and debates within his mind (for all to see) whether he should institute in his parish the formerly Lutheran custom of celebrating the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In no particular order, I've suggested the following points for his consideration:

1. The Feast of the Conception of the BVM (as it is known in Orthodox churches, and was previously known to Lutherans) is not tied up in notions of (original) sin or guilt (which, popularly amongst Rome, seems to mathematical), but is yet another opportunity to exalt the human nature in Christ.

2. Three (and only three) nativities are celebrated by the Church: Christ, Mary and St John the Baptizer. In the same way, three conceptions are also celebrated (25 March, 8 Dec, 25 Sept). Asking why only these nativities are celebrated might lead one to consider why celebrating the conceptions is important.

3. The Marian feasts, generally, not only exalt the human nature in Christ, but also God's magnificent mercy; namely, that He deigns to save man. ("What is man, that thou art mindful of him?")

4. That the Gospel reading for the Feast in the historic Western tradition is Mt 1.1-16 (exalting the ancestry of the Christ) should be instructive.

5. The icon "The Conception of the Theotokos" (above) teaches a story told five previous times; namely, that in the ancestry of Jesus, God intervenes with a miraculous conception and birth for a barren woman. (Sarah-Isaac, Rebecca-Jacob/Esau, Rachel-Joseph, Samon's mother-Samon, Hannah-Samuel, Anna-Mary, Elizabeth-John -- all leading to the ultimate conception; namely, the conception and birth for a woman who "knows not a man").

09 December 2008

Scenes from Last Night's Mass

The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was celebrated last evening (8 Dec) at Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church. Bishop MARK, our diocesan Bishop, presided at both Vespers and Mass. He then spoke encouraging words to the parishioners concerning the progress of the Sanctuary Project.

Photographs of the evening candlelight Mass can be viewed here.

06 December 2008

Condolences from a Metropolitan

Metropolitan PHILIP, of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, has penned a letter of condolence at the repose of Patriarch ALEXY II. You may read the Metropolitan's letter here.

Patient Preparation (the Advent fast)

Like little children impatiently staring at the presents under a Christmass tree we eagerly await the celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity. Yet our kind and loving Mother Church gently but firmly urges us not to celebrate too soon but to remain patient. For those who begin the celebration too soon do not celebrate with the fulsome joy of those who have patiently waited with fasting and prayer. And those who know no patience have set their hearts and stomachs on the worldly distraction which threaten to overtake the true spiritual benefits of Christ Mass. Therefore, patient preparation is the Church’s exhortation: “Not yet, but soon!” So let us force our fleshly desires and our impatience to submit to the Church’s wise counsel.

02 December 2008

Bishop to Visit Holy Incarnation

His Grace Bishop MARK will preside at Holy Incarnation as the parish joints the Church in celebrating the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary next Monday (8 December).

Vespers begins at 5:30 p.m., and Mass will be celebrated at 6:00 p.m.

During His Grace's visit, Bishop MARK will inspect the work on the Sanctuary project.

Note: In the Western tradition, the Conception of the BVM is commemorated on 8 December, while in the Byzantine tradition this feast is commemorated on 9 December.

Holy Incarnation Featured

Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church is featured on the Diocese of Toledo website. Read about the history of Holy Incarnation, and view various pictures.