Tag: eastern orthodoxy

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.

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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How Sweet the Sound

 

What would Black Gospel Music sound like if it blended with Eastern Orthodox liturgical tradition? Though liturgical traditions have a reputation for their timelessness, or at least for not changing, the Eastern Orthodox liturgy of singing and chanting antiphonally has changed over the past 2,000 years, particularly when Orthodoxy has met with other cultures whose own musical talents and understandings are different.

Though the broad outlines of a Russian or Greek liturgy are substantially identical, with the same prayers, the same order of service, the same structure, they do not exactly sound the same, even setting aside the language differences.  Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Shawn Wallace, Director of Jazz Studies at Ohio State University, and an Orthodox Christian himself, presented a project long in his heart.  How Sweet the Sound was a concert that presented an Orthodox vespers service as blended with, and sung in the style of Black Gospel music.

Words are inadequate to properly describe the concert.  It was beautiful, joyful, and above all worshipful, weaving traditional Gospel and other Protestant hymns in and through the prayers, psalm reading, and hymns of vespers – a service sung and chanted to mark the ending of one day, and herald the beginning of the next.  Holy Holy Holy wove in and out of Psalm 104, Wade in the Water carried, like waves Lord I have Cried, and Amazing Grace brought Psalm 117 to a beautiful crescendo.

Book Review: Memories of His Mercy

 

The name Peter Gilquist is incredibly well known in the Orthodox churches of America today. Father Gilquist, along with several other pastors, led a mass conversion of Evangelical churches into the Antiochian Orthodox Church in 1987, after nearly 15 years of searching for the historical Christian church as described in the book of Acts, and in the epistles of the New Testament. That quest is told in his more famous work, Becoming Orthodox, and in related works by others from that movement (I reviewed one such memoir, Surprised by Christ, late last year), but towards the end of his life, Reverend Gilquist wrote a different sort of work – personal memoirs of many of the key seminal moments in his life, ministries, and faith. Those memoirs were compiled and published several years after his death in the book Memories of His Mercy: Recollections of the Grace and Providence of God.  

In Memories of His Mercy, Fr. Gilquist tells stories of his upbringing within a devout Christian home, the men and women who mentored him in his family and beyond, and the courtship of the woman he would later marry. He later moves through some of his fondest memories, particularly of people whose lives touched his. His aim is not to write an overarching narrative, but a much humbler one of attempting to convey how faith, charity and empathy for others, and a strong work ethic tempered by consistent honesty can allow one, with the grace of God, to both be a blessing to others, and be blessed in turn.  

The various tales are also quite simply experiences that he genuinely enjoyed and wanted to share (such as when he helped ghost-write Johnny Cash’s autobiography in the 1970s), or of which he was particularly and personally proud (such as his involvement in the creation of the Orthodox Study Bible). His greatest personal joys were, of course, in his wife and family, and so their lives feature prominently in the stories too. Through it all he talks about how he saw every interaction with other people as an opportunity to evangelize and make friends.

Icon, Part 12: Ascension

 

The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.

Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.

And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.1 — Acts 1: 11, ESV

Icon, Part 11a: The Theotokos

 

During this long break of the Paschal season, which ends with the Ascension, I thought I would turn to another iconographic theme post, similar to my essay on why we have icons in the first place, and specifically of Christ, and discuss what may be the most popular icon type (in terms of numbers of icons): The Theotokos, Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Next to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, no other person is so highly venerated within Orthodox or Catholic churches.  Due to the length of this subject, this essay will be in two parts.  In the first part, I discuss why she is so highly esteemed, from both historical / traditional reasons, and from experiential reasons.  In the second part I will present a sampling of the major forms her icons take, and by what names they are called.

At the outset it bears noting that, outside of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Mary is rather a controversial figure.  Within the Protestant churches, aside from the more liturgical Lutherans and Anglican / Episcopalians, Mary is rarely mentioned aside from Christmas, and traditional understandings of Mary (that she had herself no further children, that she was far younger than Joseph, and that she was taken up bodily like Enoch) are disputed.  This is somewhat surprising as both Martin Luther and John Calvin esteemed her greatly, and for all else over which they broke with Rome, on these they remained in agreement.  For inquirers into either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, the veneration of Mary remains stumbling block – not just for the imagery all over the churches, but for the liturgical prayers and entire feast days dedicated to Mary.  For anyone coming from a church where In Christ Alone is a popular praise song, encountering Mary face to face is jarring, and may feel heretical or bordering on pagan.  This need not be the case.

Icon, Part 11b: Icon Types of the Theotokos

 

Hodegetria icon on the iconostasis of my own church

In Part A I gave an overview of just why Mary is so highly venerated in the Orthodox Church.  In this second part I will show some of the major examples of her icon types, and what they each represent.  This will not be exhaustive, of course, for styles and types have changed over the centuries, and some nations and regions have seen the emergence of different themes that have not gained as much traction in the wider Orthodox world.  Each major type has a different message to convey about both the Theotokos and Christ (for her importance is a reflection of Christ), and so each will be found in a different context within either church or home.

Member Post

 

Dostoevsky paid attention to the dramatic conventions of hagiography: A biblical parable would teach people more than any Cartesian meditation. The sayings of the Desert Fathers are part and parcel of Dostoevsky’s literary device. This is how Father Zosima is introduced in the book: as an elder surrounded by disciples, weak and strong, who are […]

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Pilgrimage

 

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

It was not to Canterbury I wended, but to rural Pennsylvania and the hills outside of Pittsburgh (distinguishable from the hills inside Pittsburgh primarily by the lack of buildings, roads, and navigable rivers). Nor was it in “Aprill” (though from the rain and the ambient temperature it was hard to distinguish the months) but in mid-June. Not all pilgrimages need be long and arduous, not in today’s world where everything can be reached by car — some need only the effort of a few hours, or a few days. Yet the trips are no less profound for being short in time, for what they lack in arduous work they provide amply in timelessness. In English, we have but one word for Time, and that is Time. We call it by other names, of course, mostly pejorative nicknames (The great thief, the destroyer, one damned thing after another, etc.) but we all know what we mean — The Clock. Yet other languages have multiple concepts of Time. Greek has Chronos-Time, which is The Clock, but they also have Kairos, which is time apart: eternal time, time perpendicular to our own. Chronos has little power here.

One might say that this was my fourth pilgrimage. I had three times visited a monastery not far from my home for weekend retreats, and there Kairos clearly holds sway. The routine of the monks, in daily prayers and services, meal times and readings, and work on the property in the gardens and shops, continues day by day, the eternal rotation of the seasons being interrupted only (but profoundly) by the eternal Kairos of the Hours and Liturgy in which it is said the angelic hosts eternally participate.

Icon, Part 10: The Harrowing of Hades

 

What is the full meaning of Christ’s crucifixion on the cross, and His resurrection? Was it an atonement for our sins? A payment for our sins? Or was it something else far deeper? What was it that Jesus actually did, and why does it matter? For Orthodox Christians, the focus of Great and Holy Pascha (their word for Easter), the Feast of Feasts, is about far more than the empty tomb or some sense of payment, but about Life itself. “Christ is Risen!” we will greet each other, “Truly He is Risen” we reply. Christos Anesti! Alethos Anesti! And again and again we sing the Troparion:

Christ is Risen from the grave,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

“Trampling down death by death.” We hear that phrase again and again, and it is an old one. The emperor Justinian used it in his hymn, which we sing every Sunday.

Member Post

 

At that time, when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two Disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything […]

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The Fifth Sunday of Lent: Saint Mary of Egypt

 

What is repentance? Can one truly repent if one has sinned greatly? Repentance is a turning back to God, and so long as we draw breath, no matter how low we may have sunk, we can turn back. But that turning back may be arduous and painful. On the final Sunday of Great Lent, we are reminded that, so long as we choose to repent, the door is open.

On the final Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate Saint Mary of Egypt. The account of Saint Mary comes to us through Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem (himself an interesting figure in his own right), which he transcribed as it has been verbally passed down for perhaps a hundred years at that point. Mary was from Alexandria and had lived as a prostitute for 17 years, from the age of 12. Moreover, she claimed that she lived that way as much for pleasure as for the money.  Yet in a moment she changed.

She encountered a group of men about to sail for the Holy Land, so as to be in Jerusalem on the day of the Exaltation of the Cross. She had no money to pay for the journey but prostituted herself for the passage. Yet upon reaching Jerusalem, when she tried to enter the Holy Sepulchre with the others, she was barred from doing so, though not by any visible guards.  

Member Post

 

Back in the mid-1990s when I lived in Southern California, I attended a non-denominational evangelical mega-church.  During that time, while I was trying to get up to speed on evangelical Christianity, I would tune into the Bible Answer Man broadcast on my hour long drive home from work.  Hank Hanegraaff was then and today still […]

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The 3rd Sunday of Lent: The Precious and Life-Giving Cross

 

In Paradise of old the tree stripped me bare; for by giving me its fruit to eat, the enemy brought in death. But now the Tree of the Cross that clothes men with the garment of life has been set up on earth, and the whole world is filled with boundless joy. Beholding it venerated, O ye people, let us with one accord raise in faith our cry to God: His house is full of glory.  Third Kathisma for the Holy Cross

The 3rd Sunday of Lent is The Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.  We are now at the midpoint of Great Lent proper, and then at halfway through the week following the 3rd Sunday also halfway to Pascha (Holy Week is not considered part of Great Lent).  In some outward respects, the purpose of the Sunday of the Cross is similar to the Elevation of the Cross commemorated in the early Autumn, yet it is also different.  Christ is coming and will enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and as one writer expresses it, “…before the arrival of a king, his royal standards, trophies, and emblems of victory come in procession and then the king himself appears in a triumphant parade… so does the feast of the Cross precede the coming of our king, Jesus Christ.” (Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion, p79)  

Every Sunday during Lent serves to remind us of the coming of Pascha – the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and His resurrection signaling the defeat of Death, and the restoration of Mankind to communion with God.  We have had two commemorations of Orthodox history and theology, first with the Sunday of Orthodoxy (with the final affirmation of the Incarnation of God in the flesh), and then the Sunday of Gregory Palamas (affirming that while God is unknowable, He makes Himself known to us through His energies), and now the affirmation of how the symbol and tool of a painful death is turned in its purpose into a symbol of eternal life.  Throughout the services of this day, we are reminded of this counterpoint time and again.  As Adam brought death into the world through consuming fruit from a tree, the Cross has instead become the tree of life, and the curse of Adam has been broken.  The outstretched arms of Moses before the Red Sea are compared to the Cross as well.  There are many more besides, referenced throughout the Canticle read during Orthros.