The Gospel in Chairs

Posted: June 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Last year I posted (among a host of others) Steve Robinson’s video contrasting the Orthodox view of salvation with the Western view of salvation using two chairs. If you haven’t watched it, take a minute and do so. It’s well worth the time.

This weekend, Kingdom Grace posted a somewhat extended version of the Gospel in Chairs. (It was Steve’s video that was posted on Jesus Creed — the same video I posted above. I recall that he’s a tonsured reader and may also be a subdeacon, but he’s not an Orthodox priest. He’s talked about some of the reasons behind that in his Steve the Builder podcasts. I found those podcasts interesting, personally.) At any rate, I found the somewhat extended version by the Protestant pastor Brian Zahnd also quite good. He added some additional emphasis, notably on the point that God is fully revealed in Jesus, that I liked quite a bit. So I thought I would post that video as well.

I’m not sure most people realize how central and critical that point is. For some reason, a lot of the things I hear revolve around trying to paint a picture or build a framework describing God apart from Jesus and then fitting Jesus into that picture or framework. As Christians, our central claim is that Jesus is God fully revealed. If we ask what God is like on any level or in any context, our answer lies in what Jesus is like. Period. Apart from Jesus, we can say nothing about God.

As I’ve written elsewhere, that’s one of the reasons I’ve always been incredulous about the often repeated modern assertion that God is holy and can’t be around sin or evil. Nowhere do we see that in the story of Jewish and Christian God, but it’s absurd whenever we look at Jesus. He sought out the “sinners” and those considered ritually unclean and acted as though he could make them clean through association rather than the opposite. Jesus certainly had no problem “being around” sin. In fact, that was one of the major criticisms leveled at him. At one point, he almost shrugs and says he didn’t come to the healthy, but to the sick. And in the fullness of that revelation, in case we missed the point of a God who goes looking for man from the moment in the story of the garden when he asks Adam where he is, Jesus shows us a God seeking out “sinners” and always facing man wherever we might flee.


Mary 15 – Annunciation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 

Annunciation of the Theotokos

 

This feast, celebrated on December 8, is called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception within the Roman Catholic Church. The feast in both traditions celebrates the conception of Mary. However, it’s not one of the twelve Great Feast in Orthodoxy, but it is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, which places a greater emphasis on the feast.

The Catholic feast name actually marks a point in dogma (at least since 1854) on which the Catholic church differs pretty significantly from the Orthodox. Here is the Catholic definition of the dogma from Ineffabilus Deus issued by Pope Pious IX.

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.

The Orthodox have no issue with the idea that the Theotokos lived a blameless life and that she lived a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem, however, lies in their difference with Catholicism over the definition and meaning of the ancestral sin. Notably, they do not believe that the ancestral sin is passed along genetically as a burden of guilt as the doctrine of original sin requires. As such, in the Orthodox perspective all infants are born blameless and untainted by any guilt. However, we are all born mortal, subject to death and all the evil and brokenness in the world.

Once you understand that view, it’s easy to see that it is necessary that Mary and later Jesus be born fully as one of us.  As an often-quoted saying about the Incarnation of our Lord states, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus inherited the fullness of our nature from his mother. He became sarx or flesh. It’s not the general term for body, which was soma.  From what I understand, it could be translated meat. He became mortal and subject to everything we suffer. Because he was also God before the Ages, the Incarnate Word, he was able to remain faithful where we fail and thus heal humanity and grant us the possibility of union with God.

I’m not Orthodox, but it’s my understanding that the Orthodox perceive the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as something Catholics have added to the faith and, as such, it’s a problem for them. Despite the doctrinal difference, the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos is still an important Orthodox feast even though it’s not one of the Great Feasts.

One thing I’ve noticed about many Protestants is that they almost seem to view Mary as little more than a “vessel” for the Incarnation. It’s as though they believe Mary simply served a biological function and any other vessel would have sufficed. In other words, if Mary hadn’t worked out, God would have just picked another vessel to bear the Word. (In reality, I believe that was actually a part of one of the ancient heresies that’s found new life today.) There’s no indication anywhere that’s true. Mary’s ‘yes‘ to God heals Eve’s ‘no.’ Nowhere is there any hint that God had a Plan B. Moreover, Mary did not merely give birth to Jesus. She raised him. She taught him. She loved him as his mother and shaped his human formation. That’s simply amazing if you allow yourself to think about it. We see in Jesus’ first recorded proclamation in the synagogue echoes of the Magnificat.

No, if Jesus is important to us, then Mary has to be. I don’t see any alternative.

 


Mary 11 – Our Lady of Sorrows

Posted: January 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 11 – Our Lady of Sorrows

This feast is a devotion of the Roman Catholic Church to the seven sorrows Mary suffered. Many Catholic Churches have Our Lady of Sorrows as their patron and name, so most of us have probably heard it before, even if we didn’t understand what it meant. The feast was officially added to the calendar of the Latin Rite in the 19th century, but it goes much further back than that. The seven sorrows are as follows.

  1. The prophecy of Simeon. (St. Luke 2: 34, 35)
  2. The flight into Egypt. (St. Matthew 2:13-14)
  3. The loss of the Child Jesus in the temple. (St. Luke 3: 43-45)
  4. The meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross.
  5. The Crucifixion.
  6. The taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross.
  7. The burial of Jesus.

And there are seven graces Mary is said to bestow on those who pray seven Hail Marys daily while meditating on the seven sorrows.

  1. I will grant peace to their families.
  2. They will be enlightened about the divine mysteries.
  3. I will console them in their pains and I will accompany them in their work.
  4. I will give them as much as they ask for as long as it does not oppose the adorable will of my divine Son or the sanctification of their souls.
  5. I will defend them in their spiritual battles with the infernal enemy and I will protect them at every instant of their lives.
  6. I will visibly help them at the moment of their death, they will see the face of their Mother.
  7. I have obtained from my divine Son, that those who propagate this devotion to my tears and dolors, will be taken directly from this earthly life to eternal happiness since all their sins will be forgiven and my Son and I will be their eternal consolation and joy.

There’s much more to the feast and devotions, of course, but I’m just trying to provide a brief window into them in these posts, not an in-depth exploration. I will just note, since it’s an area that can become confusing, that Catholics and Orthodox don’t generally mean the same thing when they speak of grace or graces. And as a rule, neither of them usually mean what Protestants typically mean when they use the word. I know, it can be hard to communicate effectively when people use the same words, but mean different things when they use them. But that’s just the way language works sometimes. It’s just something to keep in mind.


Mary 9 – Hail Mary

Posted: January 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 9 – Hail Mary

In this post I want to look at one of the best known Marian prayers in the West, the prayer known simply as Hail Mary. It’s a prayer that’s so widely known and recognized that even those who weren’t raised Roman Catholic are often familiar with it. I learned it when I went to Catholic school for three years in Houston. It’s not a prayer I typically pray today, though when it springs to mind, I always try pause and pray it. As I’ve written elsewhere, I seem to be one of the people to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and that prayer, rather than any distinctly Western prayer, remains at the core of my simple and poorly followed prayer rule.

But I do appreciate this prayer and the entire rosary prayer rule that often accompanies it. For those unfamiliar with the rosary, it’s a devotional crucifix with a chain of larger and smaller beads. You use the beads to count prayers and over the course of the rosary eight different prayers are typically prayed as the person praying meditates on different mysteries from the lives of Mary and Jesus. The most often recited prayer is the Hail Mary, but over the course of the rosary the Apostle’s Creed is recited as well as the Our Father, the Glory Be and others. (By contrast, the Orthodox prayer rope is usually just used to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, sometimes with prostrations. And you aren’t taught to meditate on any mysteries; the ultimate goal is prayer of the heart.)

I suppose to those who had a less pluralistic formation than my own, this will sound strange. But I remember fairly often reciting the Hail Mary (mentally or verbally) during my Hindu oriented meditations. I had actually forgotten that tidbit until I was writing this post. I wouldn’t say I was praying as Christians understand prayer, but looking back it seems like I was heard anyway. I suppose that’s not surprising. If we truly believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the true and faithful man and became true humanity, joining our nature to his divine nature, then in some sense through her yes to God, Mary became the mother of humanity. And your mother always hears you, though she may not do as you intend or expect. I had never really thought in those terms before.

Anyway, the prayer itself developed in the West during the medieval period, with something at least similar to the form we have now dating back to the thirteenth century. That’s why it’s really only found in the Western Church. By that time, the rift between East and West was pretty much complete. The prayer itself is simple.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Though it’s a short prayer, it’s filled with richness. The first part of the prayer comes entirely from the Holy Scriptures. The first two lines contain the Gabriel’s initial greeting to Mary. Her state as blessed is then reinforced twice more. Elizabeth, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also calls Mary blessed among women. And then, inspired by the Holy Spirit in her Magnificat, Mary herself prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. The third line is also uttered by Elizabeth and surely it’s one we must all affirm. The fourth line of the prayer asserts a critical theological point. Mary did not simply give birth to a man who later became divinized. The baby growing in her womb was a human child, but he was also God before the ages. The prayer then closes petitioning Mary to pray for us, something she surely does anyway, but it’s still good to ask.

Truthfully, I’ve never understood why so many Protestants seem to hate this prayer. It’s mostly taken from the Scriptures which they hold in high esteem and is a rich and beautiful prayer that is easily remembered. But then, many Protestants today don’t seem to actually consider, much less call, Mary blessed. I guess we all pick and choose the Scriptures we want to honor and follow to one extent or another.

As I wrote this post, it dawned on me for the first time that I probably owe more to Mary for praying and acting in ways to bring me to her Son than I had every realized. And in my blindness, I never even said, “Thanks.”

Thank you, Mary, for loving me even as I despised Christianity and rejected your Son.


Neither Do I Condemn You

Posted: August 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

From the day I first read the Gospel of John, I’ve been haunted by the Jesus in it. Even as young as I was, I had read the Bhagavad Gita. I had read the Tao Te Ching. I had read the Life of Prince Siddhartha. I had studied tarot, palmistry, numerology, and astrology. My childhood was deeply and thoroughly pluralistic. When I started reading John, it felt comfortable, but as I read it began to turn things upside down. John’s Gospel, as much as anything else, drew me to Christian churches, where I discovered something very odd. Most Christians are uncomfortable with John. It’s not something you notice immediately. After all, John 3:16 seems to be one of the most popular verses in the world. But pay attention. Many Christians shy away from John except for a few select verses or passages. John challenges. John turns the way we want to view the world on its head. John gives no easy answers or safe directions.

Neither do I condemn you.

Those are the words in what we call chapter 8. They captured me. My whole life, I’ve known what it means to be loved. And I’ve known what is to be condemned — even sometimes by those I thought loved me. That truth was driven home at a very young age when two of my three closest friends held me at school while the third punched me in the stomach. I was hurt, but even more I was bewildered. I remember to this day the high school girl who took the time to comfort me when she stumbled across me.

Neither do I condemn you.

People try to qualify or dismiss those words in John 8. Unfortunately, that’s the message Jesus repeats again and again in John. In the prologue, we read that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John introduces him as the one who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. Jesus sits and speaks with a Samaritan, a woman, and one who has had multiple husbands and he does not condemn — someone that everyone else condemned. He warns that those who dehumanize themselves by doing evil face condemnation — but it’s not an external condemnation. He feeds people and tells them that he is giving them his body to eat and his blood to drink. God is providing himself as their food. And then a woman caught in adultery is thrown at his feet. And in the context of all that has happened in John, he tells her the sweetest words ever spoken by God and ever heard by man.

Neither do I condemn you.

I grew older and became a teen parent in a story I’ve told elsewhere. I faced condemnation everywhere, from Christians and non-Christians alike. But the condemnation of Christians hurt the worst — for I had read John. I tried to walk away and dismiss Christianity. I honestly wanted nothing more to do with it. Ever. But —

Neither do I condemn you.

And then one day I met a Christian pastor who, to my astonishment, did not condemn me. Indeed, he did what he could to help my family. And I was undone. I had tried to block those words from my mind, but they came flooding back.

Neither do I condemn you.

Last night I read a post by Young Mom. My heart ached, but I couldn’t think of any words of comfort to write. I still can’t think of any words of my own. But I know the words that matter.

Neither do I condemn you.


The Jesus Prayer 23 – The Third Stage of the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 23 – The Third Stage of the Jesus Prayer

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

For this section, Khouria Frederica continues to draw from a treatise, About the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Grace,  by Archbishop Anthony Golynsky-Mihailovsky (AD 1889-1976). The third stage is described as follows.

The third level, according to Abp. Anthony, is Mental-Heart Active Prayer, and in it the mind prays within the heart; “the entire inner man prays.” The site where attention rests “appears naturally in the depth of the breast, in the region of the heart.” It is still “active” because the person still follows her own will sometimes, God’s will other times; her whole being has not yet been united in the service of God.

It’s at this stage, when the active mind engages with the perceiving nous, that the extent of the threads of evil and sin within ourselves begins to become apparent. Our minds begin to find and expose the deep roots of the compulsions which drive us. When we work through those battles and corresponding confrontations with the evil one, the mind becomes free to descend into the heart. Abp. Anthony writes:

The Lord Himself, residing in the heart secretly up to this point, starts dwelling openly and with the full authority in this shelter that was destined for Him from the very beginning, and rests there on his throne.

Khouria Frederica writes that the next three levels or stages that Abp. Anthony describes are beyond her comprehension. That means they are certainly beyond mine as well. These three beginning stages may well take years or decades, though, and are more than enough to keep us occupied.


The Jesus Prayer 22 – The Second Stage of the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 22 – The Second Stage of the Jesus Prayer

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

For this section, Khouria Frederica continues to draw from a treatise, About the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Grace,  by Archbishop Anthony Golynsky-Mihailovsky (AD 1889-1976). The second stage is described as follows.

The next stage, according to Abp. Anthony, is Mental Active Prayer. Here the Prayer is still carried on by the action of the mind, rather than effortlessly by the Spirit, but hope begins to awaken as a person can perceive just a bit what the forthcoming fruits can be. The mind “begins immersing itself in prayer gradually and with pleasure. … Do not force yourself to move with your attention to the heart — it occurs naturally later.”

Disruptive thoughts, memories, and even distraction by lofty theological ideas are apparently normal during this stage. It’s in and through the direct connection of prayer that God heals us, and the devil most of all wants us to cease praying. We are also tempted to judge and that’s a very dangerous path to follow. Our minds are engaged and we tend to judge everything and everyone, anyway. It gets even worse if we begin to believe that we can do this — that we can pray.

Don’t judge anyone. “I am the foremost of sinners,” said St. Paul (1 Tim. 1:15). How could that be? You can see people everywhere whose overt sins are more egregious than your own. But you cannot see what they struggle against inside, or know how many or few talents their Master has allotted them to draw on. You can know only yourself, and should expect that the more that knowledge grows, the more you will be shocked at the duplicity and meanness within. Abp. Anthony says, “Even what has been understood up to this point as good turns out to be a cunningly knit web of the devil.”

Any and every time we judge ourselves a better person than another, we are falling into that trap. We become the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. It’s a more subtle, but highly effective attack.


The Jesus Prayer 21 – The First Stage of the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 21 – The First Stage of the Jesus Prayer

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

For this section, Khouria Frederica draws from a treatise, About the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Grace,  by Archbishop Anthony Golynsky-Mihailovsky (AD 1889-1976). Abp. Anthony suffered greatly under Communist rule. He was sustained by the Jesus Prayer and was unfailingly kind and forgiving. His treatise was circulated in handwritten copies and was only published legally after the fall of the Soviet Union. He explains that the Philokalia intentionally skips the first levels of the prayer. Those who are ready for it find it helpful and it will not harm those who are not yet ready.

Abp. Anthony describes first the beginner’s experience, that of saying the Prayer simply as an act of will, a phase variously called “verbal,” “vocal,” or “oral.” He prescribes how many prayers should be said as what times, interspersed with physical gestures. After each ten repetitions, he says, one should make a metania (pronounced “meh-TAN-yah”), making the sign of the cross and bowing, reaching the right hand to the floor. After thirty-three repetitions, one should make three prostrations, kneeling and then touching the forehead to the floor. You don’t have to perform those gestures, of course, though you may well benefit if you do. They are a standard part of a monastic’s prayer life.

This is thus the Verbal or Oral Stage of the Jesus Prayer. In the beginning, it’s hard work. Our minds wander constantly and we have to keep bringing our attention back to the prayer. Gradually it becomes easier as the peace and beauty of God’s presence begins to draw the mind’s attention. Abp. Anthony notes that because true prayer is hard work, we should get adequate rest, speak less, express opinions less, and avoid controversy. I’m not very good at any of the things in his list. I’m rarely shy about expressing opinions and I seem to be constantly busy.

At this stage, we also need to be careful not to be deceived by any supernatural or visionary experiences. In my own mind, I’ve long contrasted the modern charismatic movement with the stories of the ancient monks. While charismatics often embrace any supernatural or ecstatic experience or visitation, the ancient monks were much more cautious. Even when visited by a true angel, they would initially reject the idea that an angel would visit anyone as unworthy as they perceived themselves. They remembered always that the devil can appear as an angel of light and that every spirit is not the Holy Spirit.

Khouria Frederica also shared a brief historical aside on prostrations. I wanted to share it as well.

Prostrations sometimes occur during Orthodox worship services, particularly in Lent. When I was first introduced to this practice I said, “Like the Muslims?” and my friend replied, “The Muslims got it from us.” To be more precise, much of the Muslim Middle East used to be Eastern Christian. Christians and Muslims both got the practice from Judaism. A Bible concordance will show many Old Testament references to “They fell on their faces.”


The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

It’s not possible to delve very far into Orthodoxy without encountering the concepts of essence and energies. The development of that language goes all the way back to at least the fourth century, though in truth we see elements of it in the texts of the Holy Scriptures themselves. This language for describing God is an attempt to describe the indescribable in a way that helps us understand how we can be one with God (and each other) as the Father and the Son are one. Thus the concepts are ultimately rooted in the Incarnation. Many of the major disputes over the course of the first millenium of Christianity were specifically focused on the Incarnation itself. The great heresies either made Christ less than God or other than fully human.

His [Christ’s] entry into human life began the healing and restoration of that life. What’s more, if God could take on human form, our bodies are capable of bearing God’s presence in return. An ordinary human body can literally become a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). That can sound alarming — wouldn’t God’s presence destroy my feeble frame? — but Eastern Christians frequently draw an analogy to the burning bush. Just as Moses saw that the bush burned with God’s fire but was not consumed, so God’s presence can fill us while preserving — even completing — our embodied personhood.

As always, we have to remember that God is always everywhere present and filling all things. All creation is filled with the fire of the glory of God. It’s that light which sustains it. And just as Christ became man and remained God, we can be infused with the Spirit in our bodies without being destroyed.

Oddly enough, the word energy occurs frequently in St. Paul’s letters; he says, for example, “God is energon [energizing] in you, both to will and to energein [energize] for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Energy is a word we imported into English directly from the Greek. But there was not equivalent for this word in Latin, so in his masterful translation of the Bible, St. Jerome (AD 347-420) used operare, that is, “operate” or “work.” When the Bible began to be published in English, its translators stood at the end of a thousand years of devout reading, preaching, and studying the Bible in Latin translation. Our English Bibles refer to God “working,” not “energizing,” but isn’t there a difference? If we hear that God’s energy is within us, then union with him becomes more imaginable.

It’s a good example of the way language can deeply influence understanding and practice. Latin also lacked a word for the Greek concept often rendered in English as “repent.” So it was rendered as “do penance.” Over time, that had a profound effect on the belief and practice in the West.  It’s the same thing here. The idea of God “working” or “operating” made it seem more external and eventually led to the idea that these operations were not God himself, but creations of God we could experience. I’m not an expert, but I think this was part of the root behind the idea of created grace and similar Western concepts.

Instead, the energies of God are uncreated and just as much God as our hands and mouth and eyes are part of our being. When we experience the grace of God, we experience God himself — directly and unmediated by any created thing. It is true we can never know the essence of God. God transcends us. But in truth, we can’t truly and directly know the essence — the core being — of any other person either, even though they are finite, created beings. Instead we know them through their actions, words, expressed emotions — through their bodies. But we would never say that we do not know or experience other human beings as a result. In a similar way (God, of course transcends any direct statement), we truly know God through his energies. We can directly encounter him.

The Jesus Prayer is a way to help us toward that true encounter.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 20

Posted: February 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 20

51. God is the limitless, eternal and infinite abode of those who attain salvation. He is all things to all men according to their degree of righteousness; or, rather, He has given Himself to each man according to the measure in which each man, in the light of spiritual knowledge, has endured suffering in this life for the sake of righteousness. Thus He resembles the soul that reveals its activity in the members of the body according to the actual capacity of each member, and that itself keeps the members in being and sustains their life. This being the case, ‘where will the ungodly and the sinner appear’ (1 Pet. 4:18) if he is deprived of such grace? For if a man cannot receive the active presence of God on which his well-being depends, and so fails to attain the divine life that is beyond age, time and place, where will he be?

This text refines and expands on the question from the previous text. If God is the one who is the source of our life, where will those of us who do not want that life be? It’s really an important question. The answer cannot be in some place apart from God since there is no such place. Nothing can exist apart from God. Personally, I like the time St. Maximos takes to properly develop the question. It’s a most serious one.