Mary 22 – Dormition of the Theotokos

Posted: February 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 22 – Dormition of the Theotokos

Dormition of the Theotokos

This feast, celebrated on August 15 following a fourteen day fast, is the last Great Feast of the Orthodox liturgical year. I find it interesting and fitting that their liturgical calendar begins and ends with a feast of Mary. Dormition means ‘falling asleep’ using the Christian term from the New Testament for death. The term reflects our belief that death has been defeated by Christ; the metaphorical gates of Hades or Sheol have been burst asunder and death no longer enslaves humanity.

Tradition holds that the apostles were miraculously summoned and, except for Thomas, were all present when Mary reposed. Thomas arrived a few days later and desiring to see her one more time, convinced them to open the tomb. When the tomb was opened, it was found empty. This event is seen as one of the firstfruits of the resurrection of the faithful.

The feast is celebrated as the Solemnity of the Assumption by the Roman Catholic Church and focuses on her bodily assumption rather than her death. In fact, the dogma is phrased in a way that leaves open the question of whether or not Mary experienced death at all and many Catholics believe she did not. Pope Pious XII made the Assumption a dogma of the Catholic Church on November 1, 1950 as follows.

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

As with other such dogmas established in Catholicism as acts of Papal Infallibity, the Orthodox perceive this as another addition to the faith by the Catholic Church, widening the schism between the two. In this case, unlike the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Orthodox essentially agree on the event itself. But the Orthodox believe it is preserved in the faith through the liturgical life of the Church and not as a dogma.

Below is a recording of an ancient hymn of the feast in English.


Mary 17 – Synaxis of the Theotokos

Posted: February 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 17 – Synaxis of the Theotokos

This is an Orthodox feast held each year on December 26. A synaxis is a feast day  in honor of a saint with special services (matins, vespers, etc.) written for that day. It typically occurs following a major feast day and recognizes a saint that participated in the event of that feast. So, for instance, the Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner falls on January 7, the day after Theophany. The Synaxis of the Theotokos, fittingly, occurs the day after the Nativity of Christ. This feast is likely the oldest feast of Mary within the Church and the beginning of her formal veneration in the liturgical cycle of the Church.

The Akathist to the Holy Virgin Theotokos by St. Romanos the Melodist is normally done each Friday during Great Lent, but this post on the Synaxis seems like an appropriate time to share it.

You can read one translation of the service here and another one here.

Frederica Mathewes-Green reads her own translation of the hymn in this podcast.

 


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 14 – Presentation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 14 – Presentation of the Theotokos

Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple

This feast is also called The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in Orthodox tradition and The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition. It commemorates the entrance or presentation of Mary as a child at the Temple in Jerusalem by her parents to serve as one of the Temple virgins. It’s celebrated on November 21.

It’s not clear to me exactly where this feast ranks in Catholic tradition, but it’s one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox liturgical year. (Four of the Great Feasts commemorate the Theotokos; this is the second one. As a note Pascha is not one of the twelve Great Feasts. Rather, it is considered the Feast of Feasts and stands alone and above all other feasts.)

Fr. Thomas Hopko has an essay online about the feast that’s well worth reading. As he notes, a central theme of the feast revolves around Mary entering the Temple to become herself the living Temple of God. As such, her entrance into the Temple celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God.


Mary 12 – Protection of the Theotokos

Posted: January 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mary 12 – Protection of the Theotokos

Icon of the Protection of the Theotokos

The Orthodox Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos celebrates an appearance of Mary, the Mother of God, at Blacharnae as recorded by St. Andrew, the Fool for Christ. (St. Andrew is depicted in the above icon wearing only a cloak.) The story of St. Andrew is available here. And the story of the manifestation of the Theotokos can be read here. The feast is commemorated on October 1.

The question St. Andrew asks his disciple, “Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?”, is an image which staggers me and yet, which feels right. Mary is always praying for us all.

An Akathist (particular sort of hymn) to the Protection of the Theotokos can be read here. I recommend reading it in its entirety, but I wanted to highlight the second prayer.

O my most blessed Queen, my all-holy hope, Receiver of orphans and Defender of the strangers, Helper of those in poverty, Protector of the sick, behold my distress, behold my affliction. On all sides am I held by temptation, and there is none to defend me. Help me then as I am weak, feed me as I am a pilgrim, guide me as I have strayed, heal and save me as I lie without hope. For I have no other help, nor advocate nor comforter, save Thee, O Mother of all the afflicted and heavy laden. Look down then on me, a sinner lying in sickness, and protect me with Thine all-holy Veil, that I be delivered from all the ills surrounding me and may ever praise Thy Name that all men sing. Amen.

Finally, the video below includes a slide show of many of the different icons of this feast as a hymn of the feast is sung.


Mary 10 – Nativity of the Theotokos

Posted: January 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 10 – Nativity of the Theotokos

Next in the series, I plan to write briefly about the major feasts of Mary in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Many of the main ones are common to both traditions (which is hardly surprising since they were mostly one tradition for a thousand years). The Roman Catholic Church today has many more Marian feasts than Orthodoxy. I’m not familiar with all the Roman Catholic feasts, so I won’t even try to write about each and every one, but I will try to cover the major ones.

This feast is the first major feast of the traditional Church year on September 8th on both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic calendar. (I won’t discuss differences between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars in this series.)  In the Catholic Church, this feast is called the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The feast celebrates the birth of Mary to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna.

Here’s a short Orthodox hymn for this feast.

Your Nativity, O Virgin,
Has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God,
Has shone from You, O Theotokos!
By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal Life.

And a recording of the above troparion as well as some other hymns for this feast.


Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

Posted: January 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

The oldest surviving complete text containing the even older oral tradition of the life of Mary is the Protoevangelion of James from the second century. There appear to be some older works that are quoted in later writings, but none of those have survived. The Protoevangelion of James is about the life of Mary up to the events surrounding the nativity. It’s not written by James, of course, which is why the Church did not include it in the canon lists of the New Testament. The only texts considered Scripture by the Church were those surviving texts written by an apostolic author — someone who had seen and been sent by the risen Lord. However, while some works were rejected completely and were not to be read at all, there were in the ancient world (as continues to be true today) many works that were considered valuable to read even though they were not Scripture. The Didache (often considered to have been distilled by those who were ‘traditioned’ the faith by Paul and/or Barnabas) and the Shepherd of Hermas are such works from the first century. This is one from the first half of the second century. If you’ve never read it, it’s not very long and worth taking the time to read.

The writing also describes a couple of events that are celebrated as major Feasts within the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. It describes the Nativity of the Theotokos, born to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna. And it describes the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple (the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the West).

I happen to find some of the things people use to reject the protoevangelium interesting. For instance it describes Jesus being born in a cave as is depicted in the icons of the Nativity. If you look around online, you’ll find some people attributing the reference to a cave as Mithraic in origin and a reason to reject the account. Ironically, modern archeology has revealed that animals in that region at that time were often kept in naturally insulated rock-cut caves. It’s an instance where an ancient tradition that had been discounted by many is now known to be pretty likely. And that makes sense. Many of the people who preserved the text lived in that region. If the text (or the older oral traditions it captured) had been discordant with things they knew, they wouldn’t have accepted and preserved it.

You’ll also find people who reject the tradition because of its description of temple virgins. They attribute those references to the pagan Roman vestal virgins. However, there’s ample evidence in the text of Scripture and in extra-biblical sources like the Mishnah for a liturgical role for specifically Jewish temple virgins. Moreover, the document and the oral tradition it captures date from a time when many Jews were still converting to Christianity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was not some distant event. It was still recent. And, at least according to apologists like Justin Martyr, Jewish leaders were trying to stem the conversions and discredit the Christian claims. If the description of temple virgins had had no basis in reality, there would have been no ground for the tradition to take root. That should be easy to see with just a little bit of historical imagination.

I have to admit I find it odd that so many people who don’t hesitate to read modern commentaries, theological, and inspirational books, reject out of hand ancient works that fall into the same category. You do have to be discerning, of course. But in a modern landscape filled with the likes of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, and Bishop Spong you have to be pretty discerning in what you choose to read today as well.


Mary 1 – Theotokos and Mater Dei

Posted: January 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 1 – Theotokos and Mater Dei

Elizabeth Esther recently published a post on Mary and a fairly lively discussion ensued in the comments. I contributed several comments and the discussion has been bouncing around my head ever since. I’ve decided to develop those thoughts into a blog series. If you pose a question and my response to it is in a later post, I’ll probably just say that rather than try to summarize my future post in a comment.

I’m not a sociologist, though I tend to read at least some papers and books in that field. I’m not a historian, though I’ve had a deep interest in history for seemingly my entire life. I’m not a theologian or a bible scholar, though I tend to read quite a few of both. I’m not Roman Catholic, though I attended a Roman Catholic school for several years and have a number of Catholic relatives (including my mother, though I had been ‘out of the house’ for some years before she converted). I’m not Orthodox, though I’ve read and listened to many Orthodox past and present. If you are in any of those groups and at any point in this series feel I’ve misstated or misrepresented something, please say so. I do the best I can to speak accurately and truthfully, but I can and do sometimes misunderstand or misinterpret things I’ve read or heard.

I am basically Protestant, but I don’t think that term means what most people seem to think it means. I think it means that in matters of faith, I ultimately decide what I choose to believe or not believe is true. That’s not something I can turn on or off. I’ve been doing it my whole life, whether or not the things I believed at the time were Hindu, Christian, or something else. Of course, most Protestants don’t actually decide for themselves what to believe or not believe. Instead they accept their beliefs on authority from someone who has previously asserted that right to choose and has chosen to believe differently than the traditional Christian Churches. (That latter category is pretty much limited to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and what we call Oriental Orthodox.) Nevertheless, even if most people don’t personally employ that core Protestant ethos, the right to decide for yourself what Scriptures mean and what Christianity is lies pretty much at the core of Protestantism. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I find myself largely in agreement with the Eastern Orthodox on virtually everything that matters, but I arrived at that point in a distinctly Protestant manner.

I want to open this series with a reflection on two of the most common titles for Mary.  I wrote one in Greek and the other in Latin for a reason. While both are used in the Eastern and Western traditions, the former is more common in the East and the latter in the West.

Theotokos translates as God-bearer or Birth-giver of God. This name emphasizes that he who was conceived in Mary was God before the ages. It has a post-Nicea emphasis. Arius, of course, held that Jesus was not God, but a created being. Others had held that Jesus was born an ordinary human being who at some point (most often his Baptism) had become divinized. No, the Church responded, and emphasized that the child conceived in Mary was indeed true God of true God. And this has remained the emphasis in the East, whose liturgies were largely fixed in that era. It’s an important point, but it’s not the only one that must be made.

Mater Dei translates as Mother of God, and is the most common name for Mary in the West, though Birth-giver or God-bearer is also used (as Mother of God is used to a lesser extent in the East). The theological flavor of this name is different. It emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. As with all of us, he not only had a mother, he required a mother. His mother breastfed him, wiped his butt, taught him to speak, cared for him, loved him, and nurtured him. This name for Mary has a post-Chalcedon feel to it. Jesus was not just true God; he was true man as well.

Both of those emphases are important. We need both names for Mary in our devotion. Within them, we find our creeds.


Thirsting for God 17 – Mary, The Theotokos

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

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

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin discusses something which I’ve noticed often leads evangelicals to act and react in strange ways, the veneration of Mary, the mother of our Lord. The prayer which I’ve quoted above is one I learned when I attended Catholic school (as a non-Catholic) and it has stayed with me across the decades. It’s a prayer I remember finding myself praying even when I considered myself more Hindu than anything resembling Christian. It would spring to my mind at odd times — sometimes when meditating, at times under stress, and from time to time during other activities as well. It was never constantly running through my mind, but I never forgot it and at odd moments it would surface.

I suppose that experience, as much as anything else, made me skeptical of evangelical critiques of Mary as I encountered them. While the factors that ultimately led to the completion of my journey into something like Christian conversion are many and varied, Mary certainly deserves part of the credit. Some part of me believed the prayer above long before I accepted anything else about Christianity.

Moreover, the evangelical aversion to Mary, the Mother of God, does not strike me as entirely rational. After all, the first sentence of the prayer above pretty much comes straight from the Holy Scriptures and the second sentence is simply a humble request for intercession. Mary, herself, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesied in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. It’s almost as though evangelicals have adopted the view that the Mother of God was nothing more than a vessel for the Incarnation and that if she had said no, any other woman would have sufficed. Such a view is actually a fresh expression of an ancient heresy, for it diminishes the humanity of Jesus. He was not merely inhabiting flesh and needed an impersonal vessel to grow that flesh. No, Jesus became fully human which means that Mary was an active agent in the Incarnation. Everything human that Jesus was and is, he drew from her.

And there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that God had a Plan B. Mary’s yes to God is poetically described in Christian tradition as healing Eve’s no. Mary is sometimes called the new Eve as Jesus is the new Adam. In this sense, then, Mary’s yes to God saves us all, for without that yes, there would have been no Incarnation and our salvation rests wholly in Jesus of Nazareth.

In a lesser sense, the same thing is true for each of us, though the magnitude and scope of our choices and their consequences are not as broad as Mary’s were. When we say no to God, he doesn’t go pick another vessel to magically replace us. If that were true, creation would not be as broken as it is.

Matthew opens with a poignant story of his brother, who died many years before.  I’m going to quote his next few paragraphs because I think they reveal a problem which has long bothered me in my Baptist circles.

Now, not one of my Protestant friends would think it strange if, while standing before that bookshelf [holding the picture of his brother], I were to pick up Barry’s photograph and give it a kiss. But what happens when I take two large strides to the right to my icon shelf, and kiss the icon of Mary, the Theotokos? Now, suddenly, I’m an idolater. What changed? What’s wrong with Mary, that she’s not worthy of the kind of love and respect I would give to my departed brother?

Or suppose I kiss the icon of my daughter’s patron saint, Vera. Just like my brother Barry, she died a violent death. Nineteen centuries ago, at the age of twelve, she was martyred for the sake of Christ, along with her mother and two younger sisters. But in Protestant eyes, showing her the kind of love I would give to my brother is a sinful thing to do.

Just what is the problem here? When I began to struggle with this issue, I saw something paradoxical in my old Protestant attitudes. On the one hand, I would condemn people who honored Mary and the saints; yet on the other hand, I saw nothing wrong with honoring respected Protestant preachers and teachers, living or dead. It was perfectly okay to sing the praises of these people, to watch videos and slide shows that recounted their deeds, and get all misty-eyed as someone performed “Thank You for Giving to the Lord.” But if I saw someone giving laud and honor to the woman who bore the Savior in her womb — why, the very act made that person’s Christianity questionable!

Is Mary special or isn’t she? Be careful how you answer that question, for one thing seems to me to be certain. Mary is at least as special to the one called Jesus the Christ as our own mothers are to us. But it goes even deeper than that. Mary is not called Theotokos (literally God-bearer) by chance or accident. Although the title can be traced as far back as the second century, it was affirmed in the Council of Ephesus in 431 over and against competing titles such as Anthropotokos (bearer of a man) and Christotokos (Christ-bearer). The competing views were not really about Mary, but about the nature of the child she bore in her womb. And the competing groups rejected the idea that Mary had carried and given birth to God. The affirmation of the title Theotokos was an affirmation that Jesus was fully God.

Me? I tend to believe that Mary did, in fact, pray and intercede for me, even when I didn’t really believe in her or her Son, much less believe I was a ‘sinner.’ In fact, I believe to this day she is more likely to pray for us than many of the people who tell us to our faces that they will. I do the best I can not to tell someone that I will pray for them unless I’m sure I will, but even so my record is less than stellar. I have a sense that failing is not unique to me.


Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

Posted: July 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

In this chapter, we move into specifics of some of the various prayer traditions. Scot McKnight begins with Eastern Orthodox because it is arguably the oldest tradition. Orthodox prayers are also online here:

http://www.oca.org/ocselect.asp?SID=8

Scot notes in the introduction to the chapter something that simply needs quoting rather than summarizing.

“Eastern Orthodoxy has a singular theme in all its teaching about prayer: Union with God is the final goal of human existence. All of the prayer traditions, not the least of which is the Jesus Prayer, focus on this goal. By turning our hearts to God, whether alone in our own Portiuncola or with others in the church, we are joining ourselves together to strive for union with God.

“The Orthodox remind us of a central truth about prayer: The purpose of prayer is not to get good at it, but for the Church to become good through it. And the Church becomes good by utilizing set prayers at set times. The Orthodox use both the Jesus Prayer and, as we will show later in this chapter, a special prayer book.”

The Jesus Prayer was one of my most exciting discoveries in this chapter this past summer. You see, in my own effort to incorporate breath prayers and to begin to work toward prayer that does not cease (something I’m still a long way from), I had found that the simple phrase “Lord Jesus have mercy” did something profound for me. Though I might have no other words, I would feel that the words I might have used were heard. I found my racing mind and body would grow quieter. And as I said it in the midst of a busy day, I found it would by itself alter my perception of what was around me. I would shift from working with no awareness of God to seeing that reality color everything.

And yet all through this long period of discovery, I was completely unaware that this simple prayer is one of the oldest continuing prayer traditions of the church. Very early in the history of the church, in an effort to make Paul’s exhortations about prayer a reality, many in the church had arrived at two ideas. One group learned they could say the name Jesus over and over again throughout the day, perhaps in rhythm with their heart and thus remain prayerfully focused on our Lord. Others took their cue from the story in Luke 18 and would repeat throughout the day, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or some variation. The Jesus Prayer took those two traditions and combined them. In one common modern form, it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

In essence, I had independently rediscovered one of the oldest prayers of the church. Truly the preacher was correct, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But it was also a validation for me that I wasn’t simply wandering somewhere off in left field discovering things that merely “worked for me.” I live aware of that strong tendency in everything I do. This discovery gave me greater confidence in the guidance of the Spirit and in the awareness that something can “work for me” and I can trust in that experience. It is not automatically syncretic or a perception-based distortion.

There are a lot of ways to vary this simple prayer. The one I used is a common one and among the oldest forms of the prayer. And it can be said with your heartbeat to incorporate your body into the prayer. You can also say it in a pattern. Add a word each time until the entire prayer has been recited. And then start over. Moreover, it’s a prayer for which you can never claim you had no time. It can fill the interstices of your day as well as it can fill a time of silence and solitude in the wee hours of the morning. The Jesus Prayer is probably the single best introduction into the prayer tradition of the church.

The second best, which Scot also mentions in the opening of this chapter, is the variation of the Shema that Jesus taught. Although I can’t claim to have reached the point where I automatically think of it each time I lie down or rise, it does come to mind fairly often. And using it with my eighth grade class at least has them now at the point where they have it memorized, even if they claim they don’t. (I listen to them carefully.) And again, this is a part of the ancient prayer tradition of the church that is not at all a difficult discipline to acquire. It simply requires the desire.

As with all prayer traditions, the Orthodox prayer book is grounded in the Psalms. However, in addition to those and the Jesus Prayer, “the Orthodox have produced out of their nearly two millenia of thinking and practice some of the church’s best known prayers.” And flowing from the practice of the Shema, the Orthodox focus on set prayers at morning and evening. In addition to prayers, the Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers is designed to be used with a lectionary to guide in the reading of the Bible.

Scot McKnight finds their tradition somewhat difficult over the long- haul because it is repetitive and, like a good American, he desires more variation in his set prayers. Yet it strikes me that the Jewish tradition was pretty repetitive and it was initially established by God. Moreover Jesus doesn’t seem to have offered a huge array of novel prayers. He modified the Shema and provided only one new recorded set prayer that I can recall. And even that one prayer he only provided in response to a direct request by his followers. So I know it cuts against our grain. (I like variation myself.) Nevertheless, that may be something within us that should be reshaped. I’m at least willing to consider the possibility that the primary purpose of prayer is not to satisfy our craving for novelty.

Scot also notes that on days when he doesn’t feel like praying or his spontaneous prayers are shallow and empty, the prayer books and praying with the Church tends to bring life to his own private prayers and to fill his mind with prayers he should offer. The set prayers energize the private prayers. And I’ve experienced something similar, even though I don’t yet regularly use a prayer book. On days when I better remember to recite the few set prayers I use, I find I spend more time in prayer in general than on days when I don’t.

Eastern prayer is marked by three things: “an acute realization of man’s enslavement to sin, a deep sense of the Divine majesty and glory, and the frequent references to the Mother of God.” The contrast between our enslavement to sin and God’s great glory leads to an emphasis on God’s goodness and grace. References to the “theotokos” (Mother of God or literally God-Bearer) will probably make good Protestants uncomfortable. Scot also notes that Eastern prayers are deeply Trinitarian in nature. Lines are said three times. The Trinity is explicitly mentioned. The morning prayer tradition, for example, begins as follows:

“When you awake, before you begin the day, stand with reverence before the All-Seeing God. Make the Sign of the Cross and say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Once again, it’s a prayer practice that can easily be incorporated into anyone’s daily life. Can there be a better way to start the day than standing in prayerful contemplation before our Lord?

Scot then provides a number of examples from the Eastern manual. And they are all well worth reading and considering. But in his closing, he has a statement I just have to quote. I love it.

“I sometimes jokingly tell my Protestant students that when we get to heaven the first thing we will have to do is learn the prayer books of the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. ‘Why?’ they often ask. ‘Because,’ I reply, ‘those are the prayers they know, and we’ll be asked to join in with them during prayer meetings.’ Such quips, of course, don’t tell the whole truth — but neither are they falsehoods.”

I want to add a present-day footnote to this post. Recently, Fr. Stephen published a post to the Memory Eternal of Donald Sheehan. In it, he included a link to this essay by him. The essay itself is interesting, but toward the bottom is an autobiographical section. There are many things that struck me in his life story, but the one most pertinent in this context and the one which brought tears to my eyes was his story of the way the Jesus Prayer came to him when he did not know what it was, did not about Orthodoxy, and was mystified. My own experience was not nearly as dramatic, but his story was the first time I had heard about someone else to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and previously unknown. I still pray it. I have used a variety of prayerbooks since I wrote the above and my prayer rule overall remains inconsistent. But the Jesus Prayer is never far from me. Since I read that chapter in Scot McKnight’s book I’ve learned a lot about Orthodoxy and much of the impetus behind learning about them has been the fact that “my” prayer is a deep tradition of their church. I don’t feel I’ve discovered much new in Orthodoxy. As with the Jesus Prayer, most of what they believe was already what I believed. I found better words, sometimes, in the ways that they say it. But nothing in Orthodoxy feels “new” to me. Beyond that, I’m largely at a loss about what I should do. For some reason, it was important to me to know that I’m hardly the only one to whom the Jesus Prayer comes without a context or traditional setting. If you pray at all, pray the Jesus Prayer in one form or another. Let it seep into your heart and shape who you are.