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

26 February 2012

Dying to Self: The Lenten Fast

With its fast and penitential exercises, Lent enables us to associate ourselves with and participate spiritually in Christ’s work of redemption. In rebellion against God, our souls have truly become slaves of the world, the flesh and the devil. To break that slavery, we need the grace of God which comes with abstention and fasting coupled with prayer and almsgiving. For as the holy fathers teach us, our fasting from food is unhelpful unless we are striving to fast from sin by subduing our passions of our flesh, which are enticed by the devil and fueled by society’s aberrant morality. Therefore, during the holy season of Lent, we are invited by the Church both to put into practice the teachings of Christ and to follow His example in fighting the devil and the powers of evil by means of self-denial as we attend to His holy Word.

Lent is a kind of retreat from the world. Just as Our Lord, after His baptism, retreated from the world for forty days to immerse Himself in fasting and prayer, so we follow His example. Yet our retreat is not to fight our own battles, just as Our Lord’s retreat was not to fight His own battle. Our Lord retreated in order to enter into our fray; and we retreat in order to participate in His passion. He strove against Satan so that, on the cross, He might overcome Him and win for us the victory. We wrestle and strive “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” so that we might not lose the blood-bought victory, and might attain the crown. This retreat, then, ought not be seen as a means of winning what we do not have, but as a means of not losing what we’ve already been given, and also a means of growing in what we already have.

Dying to ourselves so that we might live to God in Christ is the purpose of this holy quarantine. The question the devil continually put to Christ is little different from the question the accuser asks us. To Our Lord he said, “Are you truly the Son of God?” To us the devil asks, “Are you truly a child of God?” As the accuser, Satan produces evidence of which we are all too familiar—evidence from our past, evidence from our desires and passions, evidence that may even lurk deeply within us. This evidence the devil with throw up against us in order to cause us to question our status as a child of God. Because this evidence comes to mind especially when we fast, we need to be more reliant upon the grace of the absolution of God. Frequency in the Sacrament of Penance, then, is necessary during the Lenten fast.

Yet we must not also lose sight of the devil’s desire. With Christ, the devil desired that He not re-enter the world as the Savior and Messiah. With us, the devil desires that we not re-enter the world as children of God. His goal is to beat us down so that we question both Our Lord’s love for us and our desire to live for Him, and thereby give in to our passions thinking that we can put off holiness for another moment or day. So during this Lenten fast, let us be clear-minded by recalling both that Our Lord was tempted in all points as we are so that He might overcome our adversary; and also that we retreat not to avoid re-entry but so that we might increase in holiness. To increase in holiness means that we decrease in self-reliance while increasing in our dependence upon grace.

Decreasing in self-reliance is the death of self that fasting seeks to instill in us. No longer do we live to gratify our flesh; now we live to love God by gratifying whatever another desires. Our hold, then, on the things of this world must loosen, as Christ teaches us so plainly in His great sermon (cf Luke 6.27-36). Likewise, our fear of missing out—which so often drives the “need” to feed our passions by the feeling that we need to experience all that “life” offers—also must die. Fasting, when properly practiced, teaches both our body and our soul this self-mortification. As we put to death the desires of the flesh, we will see, through prayer, that the desire of the spirit will enhance our life and thereby increase our joy. A greater detachment from the empty pleasures this world offers will lead us to be more generous both in our almsgiving to others as well as in our time to God in worship and prayer.

Let this Lenten fast, then, be the occasion and means for leaning less upon our desires and more upon God’s unending grace. Let it purify our souls as we seek to cleanse our bodies. Above all else, let this holy season by a time when we immerse ourselves more and more in the faith and love which the Spirit has so generously poured upon us so that we might truly seek and find our happiness and treasures not in the pleasures of this world but in the unfading riches of the life of the world to come.

22 February 2012

Orthodox Ash Wednesday

For all Orthodox Christians, the Holy Season of Lent begins on the First Sunday in Lent (4 March in 2012), and the Lenten fast begins a few days prior. For Byzantine Orthodox Christians, the First Day of the Great Fast is on the Monday before the First Sunday in Lent; and for Western Orthodox Christians the Lenten fast begins on the Wednesday before, commonly known as Ash Wednesday.

While both traditions observe a 40 day fast, the different starting dates for the fast are related to how the fast is calculated. Among the Byzantine Orthodox the 40 days include only weekdays (not Saturdays or Sundays), and are figured by including two weeks of pre-Lenten "preparation" when abstention from first meat and then dairy are enjoined. (The Sunday before abstention from meat is known as "Meat Fare Sunday" and the Sunday before abstention from dairy is known as "Cheese Fare Sunday.") Early on in the West, however, the Lenten fast never included Sundays and the pre-Lenten "preparation" was limited to monastics and clergy. (This preparation begins three Sundays before Ash Wednesday on Septuagesima Sunday). Therefore, in order to achieve 40 days, since at least the 7th century the Western Orthodox have fast not only for six fully weeks (i.e., 36 days) but also four additional days. Hence, for about 1400 years the Lenten fast in the West has begun on the Wednesday before the First Sunday in Lent.

It is not clear when the Wednesday beginning the Lenten fast began to include the imposition of ashes. Originally, the imposition of ashes was one of several public rites required of those penitents who wished to be restored to the church. As early as the 4th century, these rites were associated with a 40 day fast. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is too thin to be conclusive. What does seem clear is that, by the end of the 10th century, it was customary in western Europe (but not yet in Rome) for all the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast. In 1091, this custom was then ordered by Pope Urban II at the council of Benevento to be extended to the church in Rome. Not long after that, the name of the day was referred to in the liturgical books as “Feria Quarta Cinerum” (i.e., Ash Wednesday).

The ashes that are placed on the heads of the faithful are made from burning the blessed palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Parishioners are taught to place these blessed palms behind crucifixes and icons in their homes throughout the year, and then return them to the parish church during the weeks before Ash Wednesday. After they are burned, the ashes are then blessed by the priest, usually immediately before the Ash Wednesday mass.

While they may be distributed outside of the mass or any liturgical service, commonly the faithful receive their ashes immediately before the Ash Wednesday mass. As the choir sings various chants, the priest places the ashes on each person while saying, “Remember, man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” (Gen 3.19) These words indicate that the ashes are a sign of mortality, and thereby spiritually call each person to mortify their flesh during the season of Lent through the sacrificial acts of prayer, fasting, almsgiving. In fact, the Scripture readings for the Ash Wednesday mass say as much. From the prophet Joel, the faithful hear that they are to return to the Lord with all their heart by means of fasting, weeping, and mourning; and in this way, they rend their hearts and turn to the Lord God. Likewise, in the Gospel lesson the Lord admonishes the faithful to fast in order to recall that their hearts are to be fixed not on earthly but heavenly treasures.

For Western Orthodox Christians, the reception of ashes together as a community on the first day of the Lenten fast is a tactilely poignant sign that their fast is not simply the denial of foods, but the ascetic discipline of subduing the passions and putting to death ungodly ways so that they may strive to attain, with repentant joy, not only the great celebration both of the Queen of feasts, but also the heavenly riches and abundant life that await those who remain faithful in word and deed.