Tag: Eastern Orthodox Christianity

Book Review: Thinking Orthodox

 

“What truly makes Orthodox Christianity different? Is it simply that we do not have a pope? That we preserve ancient liturgical forms and rituals? That married men can be priests?
The question does not lend itself to a simple answer because the reality is complex. In fact, the essence of Orthodox uniqueness lies far beyond these fundamentals… It is hidden, subtle, deeper than the outward forms, customs, or specific theological beliefs that manifest the divergence. The Orthodox phronema (“mentality,” “stance,” or “approach”) is the foundation of Orthodox Christianity. It is usually unexpressed and unexamined, and rarely discussed, but it affects not simply what we believe and why but — above all else — how we think.”⁠1

It needs to be said at the outset that Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind, by Dr. Eugenia Constantinou, is not exactly a book of Orthodox theology (though it contains much). It might be described as a book about Orthodox theology. But it is better described as a book about how to begin to think and understand like an Orthodox Christian, and so to understand Orthodox theology, while avoiding traps, heresies, and dangers along the way.  

The book is guide to understanding how the very culture we live in is imbued with a mindset (a phronema, to use the Greek idiom the author introduces) and spirit that is very often hostile to, or at least at odds with Orthodox Christianity. Even Western Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestent forms, has a very different mindset. In this the book is a valuable guide for converts, inquirers, and even cradle-Orthodox who may not be aware how different that understanding is. But the book is of great value even for non-Orthodox Christians, for much of it is a guide for our times, where Christianity is in retreat, and where the internet can deceive us all into thinking ourselves experts after half an hour on Wikipedia, or lure us towards extremists and zealots who seek division. Much of Dr. Constantinou’s book should indeed be read by all Christians who could find themselves arguing theology with strangers through a keyboard.

Member Post

 

As the birthday of the impudent Heron was being kept, the object of the termagant dancer’s oath was achieved; for the head of the Forerunner was cut off and offered on a charger, as food for those reclining.  What a loathsome banquet, replete with wickedness and horrible murder.  As for us, we bless the Baptizer, […]

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Icon, Part 15: The Dormition of the Theotokos

 

When Christ our God wanted to take to Himself his own Mother [to be] with him, then three days before, through an angel, He informer [her] of her departure from Earth. “[It is] time,” he said, “to bring my Mother to me. So do not be disturbed about this but accept the word with joy for you will receive eternal life.” And through [her] desire about departing to Sion, she went up to the Mountain of Olives to pray with sincerity in [her] usual way…⁠1 (St. Andrew of Crete, 8th Century)

On August 15 in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate the final Great Feast of the liturgical year, which began on September 1, and whose first Great Feast was the Nativity of the Theotokos,⁠2 with Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos. This is more commonly called The Dormition of Mary, since “dormition” is a Latin-derived word that means “the falling asleep.” In Greek this is called “Koimesis.”⁠3 In the Roman Catholic Church this same day is observed as “The Assumption of Mary,” and frankly quite a lot of Orthodox may refer to the feast by the same name. There are subtle differences in the meanings and theology between Assumption and Dormition, but these are fairly minor.

The Dormition, as the last of the Great Feasts, is also the last of the Marian feasts, during which we commemorated not only her Nativity (her birth) but her Presentation at the Temple,⁠4 and the greatest of all her feasts, the Annunciation.⁠5 We have also been with her at Jesus’s Nativity⁠6 (Christmas), Jesus’s own Presentation at the Temple (Candlemass),⁠7 His Crucifixion,⁠8 and his Ascension,⁠9 as well as at Pentecost.⁠10 Mary is the mother of the Church. Jesus, on the cross, put her in the care of the apostle John, and tradition tells us that John cared for her to the end of her days. And while Luke may not have written an account of her death, many believe that the personal touches and remarks of Mary in Luke’s gospel may have been directly due to Luke know her. It is fitting that we honor her death.

Icon, Part 14: The Transfiguration

 

by Theophanes the Greek

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.  And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him!” And when the disciples hear it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.  But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”  When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.  Matthew 17: 1-8, Orthodox Study Bible (OSB), 2008.

Book Review: Big in Heaven

 

“Don’t worry, my friend, for Raskova,” she whispered to me. “I clean baby [crap]. It small thing. You sit. Read.” She said, “I am here,” tapping the pages with socket-wrench fingers. “At Dachau too, my job, priest say, sew sheets for vestment, is very small, he tell me, but big in heaven.” (p. 13)

Big in Heaven is a book of short stories, by Fr. Stephen Siniari, centered in and around the people of the fictional Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish* parish, an ethnically Albanian church in a Fishtown neighborhood. The stories mostly follow the parish priest, Father Naum, through a variety of times, places, and narrators (some more reliable than others). The stories are not sequential. In some we find Naum young and impatient, in others, we find Naum near retirement, wiser, but bearing the scars of many years. In all of the tales, we bear witness to how the parishioners and their friends and neighbors are simply living their lives as well as they know how saints and sinners alike.

Each of the tales is a brief glimpse into the lives of the people of the parish. Through the changing voices of the narrator we learn, sometimes, of backstories and histories of the people, but not always. Sometimes the backstories are unnecessary or merely inferred. Not all of the people belong to the parish – Father Naum is friends with an Evangelical pastor, and regularly has tea with the rabbi of the synagogue across the street. The author studiously avoids common ecumenical stereotypes, however, in these interactions, and each person has his or her own voice and motivations.

On Hagia Sophia and Spiritual Reclamation

 

Hagia Sophia without the minarets

As of Friday, July 24, 2020, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has been put back into active use as a mosque.  As a Christian, I of course mourn this deeply.  As a historian, however, the move does not surprise me.  Many are the religious sites around the world today that were once worship sites for other deities, for other peoples, and for other mysteries, some barbaric.  That historian in me says we should temper our outrage that the conquerors of a land would choose to make what use of that land that they will, for we have done the same ourselves.  We should be wary of venting too much indignation over the status of a building lost ere Columbus sailed the ocean-blue and started a chain of losses for the peoples who once dwelt where we now live.  In a way, Erdogan was right in his contempt for a foreign opinion on this matter; the Turks rule the roost in Turkey (would that Turkey respected others’ borders and rights as vehemently as he demands for his own country, however, as Cyprus, Syria, Armenia, Bulgaria, and Greece can all attest).

Icon, Part 13: Pentecost

 

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” (Acts 2: 1-13, NASB)

Ten days after Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, the Holy Spirit descended on the Disciples, and they began to “speak in tongues”. From this point forward they are no longer the Disciples, but the Apostles. This is the beginning of the Christian Church.

Each of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church is important, and each marks something else for us to learn about Christ, but there is something qualitatively different about Pentecost. Christ’s death and resurrection were world-changing, but it was from the event of Pentecost that the Apostles, one might say, “found their voice” through the Holy Spirit, and took the message of the Resurrection out into the world. For the three or so years of Jesus’s earthly ministry, His message and His Disciples stayed largely within Judea and Samaria (though holy tradition does speak of journeys and correspondence further afield), but after Pentecost the faith and message of Jesus spread rapidly throughout the entire Roman Empire (which it would fundamentally change over the next 300 years), the Persian Empire, beyond there into India, southwards into Ethiopia, and to points further beyond.

Book Review: Apostle to the Plains

 

Apostle to the Plains is the story of the first Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christian priest to be ordained in the United States: Father Nicola Yanney. This is remarkable in itself, but Father Nicola would, in this role, serve as the sole parish priest for almost the entirety of the Great Plains for over a decade, riding a circuit that would take him regularly from Kanas to Michigan, from Michigan to North Dakota, and from North Dakota back to his home in Nebraska. Along this way, he would perform over one thousand baptisms, numerous weddings, and a number of funerals, including for close relatives, and even his own daughter. His is a very American tale, sharing as it does the travails of millions of other immigrants, but his is also very much a family tale, and a tale of great personal sacrifice.

Of the many tumults of the 19th century, one that is less well remembered today is the Arab diaspora. Millions of Arabs, many of them Christians, facing poverty and Ottoman oppression left their homes in what is today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, for the better opportunities available in the New World. There are many common themes one finds in the history of immigration to the United States, and the necessary exile from one’s homeland. Some of these stories, especially in their broad ethnic arcs, are well known to us today – the Catholic Irish, Italians, and Polish, the Jewish diaspora from all over Europe – and they share much in common with the Arab-immigrant experience. In this, Father Nicola’s early story will feel familiar. In the late 19th century, Nicola and his newlywed bride Martha followed the example of many of his countrymen in leaving behind poverty and Turkish pogroms, with help from loans from others who have already made the journey and established themselves, and found themselves in central Nebraska.

Their story upon arrival is likewise familiar in its contours: Nicola worked hard in a job that also helped him learn English, he and Martha started a family, and when they could afford to do so they became farmers and moved to a sod house out on the prairie, nearer a much smaller town. There was another, sadder, familiarity – Martha died in childbirth with their fifth child, and the little girl, premature, died herself days later. During all this time, the Orthodox communities on the Great Plains had no priests or clergy or churches of their own, and had to rely on the one circuit-riding priest of the time, Father Raphael Hawaweeny. When Father Raphael was consecrated as a bishop in 1904 (the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated in North America), he gained the authority to ordain others as priests, and Nicola Yanney was nominated by his community to be theirs. Given the scarcity of communities large enough to support priests and churches, Father Nicola would serve not only his home community in Carney, Nebraska, but most of the rest of the Great Plains for over a decade.

Member Post

 

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday. Book Review Eastern Orthodox Christianity Explained By MARK LARDAS Preview Open

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