Orthodox Archives

Collecting the Canon

I’ve begun reading John Behr’s (so far) two volume series (three are reported as planned) subtitled Formation of Christian Theology. The first volume, in soft cover from SVS Press, is entitled The Way to Nicaea. This books covers aspects of the formation of Christian theology, focusing on the development of the answer to Jesus query to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Volume 2 is split into two books and covers in some detail the controversies surrounding the two councils which developed the Nicene creed.

The first chapter of this book begins with a look at how the Scriptural canon for the Christian church developed and was set. There were a lot of alternative canonical choices at the end of the second century when the canon was set. But the result, to summarize Behr, was that two key criteria were used to select what books and epistles were included in the New Testament canon. They are that the books chosen were “according the the Scriptures” and that the cross (the passion) was central. The phrase “according the the Scriptures” meant specifically that the acts and narrative account in the selected book connected these actions with the accounts and prophecies of the Old Testament. This meant that books like the Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic works were excluded. Behr defends his interpretation of this development of canon by examining the methods and arguments used by St. Irenaeus in discussing various heresies of his day at the close of the 2nd century.

David Schraub blogging at the Debate Link, dislikes the term “Judeo-Christian”. This term admittedly can be misused. The above historical notes demonstrate how this term is at the same time correct and how the traditions diverged. For certainly in the context of investigating first and second century theological currents and ideas that term is relevant. Throughout the first century the majority of Christians were Jews who felt that Jesus was in fact the awaited Messianic figure, the fulfillment of Scriptural promise. At the same time, there is here a key difference which will form the basis possibly for the contention that this term does not make sense. Christians over the centuries following embarked on a program to reinterpret the Jewish Scriptural canon through the “lens of the cross”, i.e., via the life and passion of Jesus. That is they re-examined and reinterpreted, often as “type”, events and prophecies of Scripture to be interpreted specifically in the context of Jesus message, and his crucifixion and resurrection. Christian theology at the end of the second century defined itself and its theological methods in the light of Jewish writing. At the same time however, it was beginning to highlight the differences by beginning a program of returning to and examining that same canon in a radically different way (although it might be noted that “different” way was himself a 1st century Jew).

Holy Week & Eastern Traditions: Wednesday Night, Unction

Tonight’s service continued the Matins in the evening theme. The service ended with the Sacrament of Unction, a anointing with oil for the remission of sins and healing of body (following the epistle of James). Tonight I thought I’d offer some remarks on the canon, which accompanies matins (or the Vigil service which varies with different tradition) in ordinary times.

The Nine “Canticles” of the early church were taken from Scripture directly. These Canticles were originally read as part of services but through the years additional prayers (the canons) were written as meditations on the Canticles. More and more canons were written and some assigned to “ordinary” times in the year and others to accompany feasts and fasts that follow in the church liturgical cycle. Eventually the canons often replaced the canticles for brevity (although I’m guessing monastic practice does both). What are the nine canticles:

  1. Canticle One: The Song of Moses. Exodus 15:1-18. This would be read verse by verse with a refrain. In this case for example, refrain is taken from the first verse “for He has triumphed gloriously” (the whole verse reads “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea”.
  2. Canticle Two: The Song of Moses. Deuteronomy 32:1-42. This is quite long and I’ve come to understand canticle (and therefore canon two) are read only on Tuesdays in Great Lent as it is a lamentation.
  3. Canticle Three: The Song of Hannah 1 Samuel (or 1 Reigns in the Septuagint): 1-10.
  4. Canticle Four: The Song of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:2-19)
  5. Canticle Five: The Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 26:8-21)
  6. Canticle Six: The Song of Jonah (Jonah 2:1-9) The Canons written about the next three invariably connect these events as types of the Resurrection.
  7. Canticle Seven: The Prayer of the Three Holy Children(Daniel 3:26-56)
  8. Canticle Eight: The Song of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:57-88)
  9. Canticle Nine: The Song of the Theotokos (In the West this is the Magnificat) and the Song of Zacharias (the Benedictus) Luke 1:46-55 and 68-79 respectively.

The canons themselves I find a treasure. They contain caches and pieces of wonderful liturgical theological and biblical poetry. And good example of that was the canons read last night weaving the harlot and her repentance, my sinful state, and Judas’ scheming blended all together artfully.

Holy Week & Eastern Traditions: Bridegroom Matins Reprised

As an introduction for those of Western traditions or are unfamiliar with the Eastern Christian traditions, during our Holy Week this week I thought it might be useful to summarize what we do at our Church during this week and some of my thoughts and impressions during the week.

Tonight we celebrated the last of the three Bridegroom Matins services. Wiki informs us in the post on Holy Week (and the East) that tonight in Greece a significant (majority?) of the sex trade industry workers attend this service. Why? Well, while the service has other things which it touches on two major themes play back and forth throughout the service. The first of these keys on the event from Luke 7 with the Pharisee and the harlot, the second is Judas starting to unfold his particular role in the Passion narrative (and in a later parallel devotion in which Mary sister of Lazarus anointing Jesus feet with expensive perfume).

One of the striking things is the repetition and insistence of two points. The harlot’s sins where egregious (and she was repentant and was forgiven) but mine are worse … and while she has begged forgiveness … why have I not done the same. Specifically in one of the refrains sung, “Though I have transgressed more than the harlot, O Good One, I have not offered You a flood of tears ….” Toward the end, we sang a poignant and beautiful hymn which I will relay here (at least the text). Cassia is apparently the name appointed to the harlot (by the whom or what tradition I do not know).

The Hymn of Cassia

The woman had fallen into many sins, O Lord,
yet when she perceived your divinity,
she joined the ranks of the myrrh-bearing women.
In tears she brought You myrrh before Your burial.
She cried: “Woe is Me!
For I live in the night of licentiousness,
shrouded in the dark and moonless love of sin.
But accept the fountain of my tears,
as you gathered the waters o the sea into clouds,
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
as You bowed the heavens in your ineffable condescension.
Once Eve heard your footstep in paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul?
Do not despise Your servant in your immeasurable mercy.”

It should be noted in the Matins services and in scattered throughout Orthodox liturgical prayer, canon, and hymnody great praise and honor is granted to those women called the Myrrh bearing Women who first came to the tomb and discovered it to be empty and met the angel therein. This harlot, this prostitute is granted the same honor and praise for far before his passion she too bore myrrh and tears as a precursor to those other women as well.

The Gospel reading was far shorter tonight, only John 12:17-50.

Holy Week & Eastern Traditions: Bridegroom Matins

As an introduction for those of Western traditions or are unfamiliar with the Eastern Christian traditions, during our Holy Week this week I thought it might be useful to summarize what we do at our Church during this week and some of my thoughts and impressions during the week.

Tonight is the second of three “Bridegroom Matins” services, held in anticipation not in the morning but in the previous evening. Matins is normally a morning service but during Holy week in anticipation this is moved forward to the prior evening. Jewish tradition held that the day begins at sundown. Liturgical tradition follows that, but as noted above “in anticipation” moves the Matins service at time at which in more ordinary times Vespers services would be held.
Read the rest of this entry

Happy Easter: A Hymn to Share from East to West

A blessed Easter to those who celebrate that festival today. The following link is a performance (in Old Slavonic) of a well loved Paschal (Easter) song The Angel Cried. It is sung in many if not most Slavic Orthodox churches during the season between Pascha and Pentecost. I love singing it (and look forward to it on our Easter/Pascha starting next week), and I hope you too enjoy listening to it. In SATB arrangement it even has a decent tenor line, which is alas all to often not the norm.

The Angel Cried

The angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace:
Rejoice, rejoice, O Pure Virgin! Again I say: Rejoice!
Your Son is risen from his three days in the tomb!
With Himself — He has raised all the dead!
Rejoice, rejoice, O ye people!
Shine Shine! Shine O New Jerusalem!
The glory of the Lord has shone on you!
Exult now, exult and be glad, O Zion!
Be radiant, O Pure Theotokos,
in the Resurrection, the Resurrection of your Son!

Christ is Risen!

For those unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, the term Theotokos is commonly used for Mary. It means literally “birth giver of God”, in the late antiquity there were controversies whether the term “Christotokos” (birth giver to the anointed one) vs Theotokos should be used. We use that term frequently and in doing so affirm that the term Theotokos is correct.

Confession

Confession is a sacramental rite which is, to my admittedly somewhat incomplete knowledge, waning amongst the Roman Catholic communities (especially in the US) and very rare to non-existent in the Protestant communities. For myself, as a somewhat recent convert to Orthodoxy (a community which has not left confession behind), I have had had just a little exposure to confession. I have found the experience, actually, surprisingly salutary. Father Andrew, the priest of my parish, shared some interesting thoughts on confession which I would like to attempt to share.

A common notion about confession is that is a juridical one. In the juridical view, we confess to Christ with the priest as our advocate and adviser of the sins of which we are aware. After (and perhaps by) our confession and repentance we are then forgiven those sins. The juridical formula is clear. We admit our guilt and sin, we repent and are perhaps assigned penance, and are forgiven and our slate wiped clean.

This is not the Orthodox understanding of confession. When I am in a relationship with someone I love, sharing of our thoughts, our desires and so on is part of growing close to that person. Of those thoughts and desires and actions regarding the beloved which were contrary to that relationship which are accompanied by repentance and sorrow are especially important toward growing ever closer. Confession to the beloved of those actions and thoughts are especially painful and difficult. Often the difficulties, especially with a loving and forgiving lover, lie not with the other but with the facing of those part of one’s self. But the experience is enormously helpful in growing ever closer to your beloved. Confession then is exactly this sort of sharing. It is sacramental because it involves our relationship with God. Its purpose is to help us in our striving toward Theosis, toward communion with the Creator. It can be hard, in fact should be difficult. Because, honesty about our failings hurts. Facing our sinful nature and in particular our memories of our past sins is needful for this is one of the large obstacles holding us back from growing closer to God. Confession of these sins helps us move beyond these memories and helps us to confront those parts of ourselves.

The weakness of the juridical view of confession is that it is less effective in aiding us in repentance and to move to a place in our relationship with God in which we are less likely to commit those same sins yet again. A communal sacramental view of confession is stronger. It places the motivation in a different place as well. It is not a penal/juridical action. It is an action which is intended, like so very many other parts of this season of Great Lent, to bring us closer to God. That is a motivation which seems at the very least, much more positive in outlook and ultimately if stronger a better one to help us tame our passions and to stoke the fire of the Spirit of God within us.

Two Sides of a Coin

Duality is a mathematical property linking structures through transformations. One of the simplest duality transformations for illustration are the Platonic solids (tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron). The simple transformation one performs on these solids is to “exchange” corners and faces.¬† A cube transforms into an octahedron … which is simple enough to imagine in one’s head. The icosahedron and dodecahedron also exchange through this transform. The tetrahedron, mathematically speaking, is special as it is “self-dual” and under the same transformation is unchanged.

Similarly in emotional contexts, various emotions and other notions are thought dual. The yin-yang of Taoist Chinese thought brings up a host of dual concepts and emotions: good/evil, love/hate, strong/weak, male/female and so on. The eight(seven) cardinal sins and virtues of Evagrius (Pope Gregory) also have a parallel structure.

Tonight, in as part of the Compline service after the second night of reading the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete we said the (famous) “Great Lenten” prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk.
(Prostration)

But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.
(Prostration)

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brothers and sisters. For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.
(Prostration)

O God, cleanse Thou me a sinner (12 times, with as many bows, and then again the whole prayer from the beginning throughout, and after that one great prostration)

This prayer also has a duality construct as noted above, but the pairings are not traditional to our ways of thinking. Sloth/chastity, despondency/humility, patience/lust for power, and love/idle talk. One has two options when considering this pairing. One is that the pairing is mistaken that the author, St. Ephrem, did not mean for the connection to be made. However the monastic and meditative life that was much more common in the times in which St. Ephrem lived and for that reason I think that it is more likely than not that the connection was intended.

So with that in mind, consider that one might need to counter those sins of sloth with chastity, despondency with humility, lust for power with patience, and idle talk with love.

A Quote

From the book on Father Arseny, a Russian priest who suffered decades of inhumane treatment in the Stalinist gulags and “special camps” for being an active member of a subversive organization (the Christian church).

I remember the visit of Bishop N. in 1962. He was a serious theologian, a philosopher, and many said, a good confessor. He came to have Father Arseny hear his confession. Many spiritual children of Father Arseny were going to the church where Bishop N. served.

He stayed for two days, during which time he confessed to Father Arseny and also heard his confession. They talked about the fate and the future of the Church in the Soviet Union and about what was important for the believers. Looking at Father Arseny’s library he pronounced, “The faithful one needs only the Gospel, the Bible, and the works of the Holy Fathers. All the rest isn’t worthy of attention.”

Father Arseny remained silent for a few moments and answered, “You are right, Your Holiness, the most important things are in those books, but we must remember that man as he develops nowadays is very different from man in the fourth century. The horizon of knowledge has become wider and science can now explain what couldn’t be understood then. The priests today must know a great deal in order to be able to help believers make sense of the contradictions he sees. A priest has to understand the theory of relativity, passionate atheism, the newest discoveries in biology, medicine and most of all modern philosophy. He gets visited by students of medicine, chemistry, physics, as well as by blue collar workers, and each one of them has to be given an answer to his or her questions such that religion doesn’t sound anachronistic or just a half-answer.”

Four Books and Lent

Last year for Lent, I had an (inspired?) somewhat strange idea for Lent. There is a age-old wedding tradition in the form of a little ditty aimed at guiding the bride when she prepares her garment for the feast. That tradition goes in the manner of a ditty, she is to wear,

Something old,
Something new,
Something borrowed, and
Something blue.

I read. If I had time and less concerns I’d read a lot more, but I really enjoy study and reading. As a result, my Lenten tradition, now all of two years old, is to read 4 from books during the Lenten journey. And … the strange part is, I select these books based for good reason on that marriage ditty. I don’t have my borrowed book as yet, but the other three are the following:

  1. The old book is a book I’ve read and am going to re-read. For this book, I’m going to re-read The Brothers Karamazov. I finished this about a year ago but just before completing it I read in this little book on theodicy The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart that a important theme in the Brothers K is the posing and the Christian answer to the theodicy problem.
  2. The new book is a book newly acquired. Two books have vied for this as both seem really good. But I’ve selected¬†God, Man and the Church by Vladamir Solovyev. Mr Solovyev was a late 19th century religious philosopher who influenced both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, judging by his wiki page and the introduction which I’ve glanced through, this will be an interesting read.
  3. And the blue book, is likely going to recur as the blue book for quite some time to come, Saint Silouan, the Athonite by the Archimandrite Sophrony has a blue cover … and is full of the teaching and example of an exemplary saint. Mount Athos is the holy mountain in Greece, a treasured and holy place for the Eastern Orthodox churches. Twenty monasteries dot the hillside and many, if not most, have been there for more than a millenia.

As Lent Nears

Soccer and ashes. Fat or Shrove Tuesday is celebrated by liturgical Western Christians tonight. Tomorrow with less sackcloth but still with ashes they begin their Lenten journey. The Eastern half of Christianity begins Lent at sundown (or after Vespers) Sunday night this weekend as the Julian calendrical calculation this year puts Lent a week later than the Gregorian.

For those who do partake of the Lent tradition, I’d like to offer an invitation from the East. This Monday through Thursday many of the Eastern churches will be offering the The Great Canon: The Work of Saint Andrew of Crete as an evening Lenten meditation and prayer. I’d invite any who are interested in a meditative liturgical very repentant service to search out and find an Orthodox parish near them (for Americans this may serve as one place to look but other ethnic Orthodox churches may be closer, their web site should give a time when the Canon is being offered and directions.) and this coming Monday to partake of the Canon. For those Western visitors, please be aware the Orthodox perform prostrations during this service. It serves to heighten the sense of repentance for those taking part. As a note to visitors, there is no stigma in not taking part. If you do not feel this movement is part of your worship vocabulary … that is perfectly fine. Depending on where you go, the music (a capella voice) might be a little, uhm, shaky. But the Canon is primarily not a musical experience, listen to the words and think on their meaning and connection to you. This is an extended walk through Scripture connecting events through repentance to your life. A microcosm of Lent in four days. A jumping off point for the rest of the journey to Pascha (Easter).

Failing that invitation, two books might be of interest. Orthodox liturgist Alexander Schmeman’s Great Lent: Journey to Pascha and Khouria Frederica Matthews Green’s First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew both are books which can provide background and perhaps a gentler introduction to the Great Canon and are both well recommended reading for the season.

The Light of Christ

One book, which is treasured today by the modern Orthodox community derives from the experiences of an extraordinary man who survived the gulag experience in Russia. This book, Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father : Being the Narratives Compiled by the Servant of God Alexander Concerning His Spiritual Father, I recently acquired. I’ve read about half of it, and I’d like to share a little from what I’ve read. The first part of the book are stories and fragments collected from prisoners who remembered Fr Arseny during their imprisonment. From a fragment entitled, O Mother of God! Do not Abandon Them! we find a recounting of a time in which Fr Arseny became very very ill. He was expected by all around him to die. During this time he recalled having out of body experience. At the first part of this, he recalled viewing the following:

As he prayed, he cried, begging God, the Mother of God, and all the Saints to have mercy on them all. But his prayer was wordless. And now the barracks and the entire camp appeared before his spiritual eyes in a very different way. He saw the whole camp with all its prisoners and its prison guards as if from inside. Each person carried within himself a soul which was now directly visible to Father Arseny. The souls of some were afire with faith which kindled the people around them; the souls of others, like Szikov and Avsenkov, burned with a smaller yet ever growing flame; others had only small sparks of faith and only needed the arrival of a shepherd to fan these sparks into a real flame. There were also people whose souls were dark and sad, without even a spark of Light. Now, looking into the souls of the people which God had allowed him to see, Father Arseny was extremely moved. “O, Lord! I lived among these people and did not even notice them. How much beauty they carry within them. So many are true ascetics in the faith. Although they are surrounded by such spiritual darkness and unbearable human suffering, they not only save themselves, but give their life and their love to the people around them, helping others by word and by dead.

“Lord! Where was I? I was blinded by pride and mistook my own small deeds for something grand.”

Father Arseny saw that the Light burned not only in the prisoners, but also in some of the guards and administrators, who, within the limits of what they could do, performed good deeds. For them this was extremely difficult, because it was very dangerous.

This image, of those around us, burning with varied lights some stronger some weaker and the need for us to encourage the sparks and growing or lessening flames of faith in those around us. This is a powerful metaphor, one which could spur us to find a way to put our faith in action. To listen, to love and to encourage that spark in our neighbor, in our family, and in all those with whom we come in contact. Even, or perhaps especially, those to whom, like the guards in Fr Arseny’s camp, we would normally see as those who are working against us.

Indvidual Choice and the Church

Pro-choice, the Madison avenue euphemization for by the pro-abortion crowd is on some reflection an odd choice of terminology. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis (haireomai, “choose”), and means either a choice of beliefs or a faction of dissident believers. Pro-heresy might be an interesting alternative phrasing. Relabeling is in vogue these days, where it is common for those with the bully pulpit to recast the opponents and terms to favor their cause, which perhaps is why Mr Obama is trying to identify Mr Limbaugh as a conservative leader. If turnabout is fair play, perhaps recasting pro-choice as pro-heresy might help the pro-life cause within the liberal Christian community.

When making arguments one must consider one’s audience. When convincing a secular audience that one should rely on secular arguments, which is the primary place in which these arguments are taking place these days. If on the other hand, one is speaking to a Christian community, then Christian argument and theology should be used. Rarely however it seems to me does the pro-heresy community attempt to cast their arguments for abortion in the light of Christian tradition and theology. And for good reason … because Christian tradition and theology has stood against abortion for almost 2 millenia. Read the rest of this entry

For the Feast-Day of St. Ephrem the Syrian

Why St. Ephraim. Today is his feast day. Today, centuries ago, St. Ephrem fell asleep with the Lord. For me, just under two years ago, on the Saturday before Pascha I was chrismated and became an Orthodox Christian. Part of the process also entailed choosing a patron Saint, who for native Orthodox persons was chosen at your birth and that is normally also your given name. I had spent some months considering and reading about various Saints. Some of whom I had read somewhat extensively prior even witnessing an Orthodox liturgy. The choice of which Saint I might select was difficult. St. Mark was one choice, gospel author and witness to the Coptic peoples … and my first name is Mark (the patron Saint is sometimes called your “name” Saint as that is the name by which you are referred to at Eucharist).

Some of those I considered were:

  • St. John Cassian’s writings powerful and thought provoking.
  • St. John Chysostom’s homilies are also were accessible to modern sensibilities.
  • Metropolitan John Zizioulas wrote powerfully about the cosmic ontological theology of St. Maximus the Confessor echoed many centuries later by secular philosopher Sartre.
  • and St. Theophan the Recluse a Russian monastic and Bishop of the 19th century.

But … throughout Lent, through the poetic piercing stanzas of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and in the presanctified liturgies and Vespers services always ending every service was the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian:

O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother,
for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Many have talked and written about this prayer. Fr Schmeman wrote a little book, Great Lent, which talks about it at some length. But remembering that prayer, I looked at St. Ephrem’s body of work and found it extensive … and almost all of it Psalmody. St. Ephrem is referred to by some as the Psalmodist of the New Testament, where King David was the Psalmist of the Old Covenant. And psalm and psalmody connects with me through music. I am not a poet. But music, harmony and polyphony, chant and song connect. My harmony teacher in college often remarked that those in math and physics often did the best in music because of connections between music and mathematics. Between the prayer above, the music connection, and St. Ephrem’s life of asceticism, prayer, and example … my choice was made.

This book, Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God, has a collection of prayers penned by St. Ephrem, translated and collated after the manner of the Psalms of David by St. Theophan the Recluse. This latter book is something of an scandal in my opinion. It is virtually unknown in the West … but should be in every Christian home and in every pew or prayer corner. The crime is that it is not a Christian best-seller only superseded by the Bible. Those prayers in that book, some of which you can find excerpted and remarked upon by me here … read like they were written about me, to me, for me by St. Ephrem. And I found this book months after having chosen St. Ephrem (or perhaps being chosen by St. Ephrem).

Fasting: Left and Right

I was recently reading about some protesters fasting in order to raise awareness for one cause or another.

It struck me that the secular left and the religious right have very different notions about fasting and its means and purpose. Read the rest of this entry

On Your Personal Jesus

One of the common notions of this age, especially as compared to others in the past, is the supremacy of the individual. That is to say, that notion that oneself is the final and best arbiter of what is best for oneself is dominant. Many if not most of our community has sufficient ignorance of history and the changes in culture that have occurred in the past century or two that by and large there is rampant ignorance that this is in fact a radical departure from the past. While it is a common trite saying that those who forget the past, are doomed to repeat it. It is also the case that those who forget the past can’t understand which choices they make are better or worse than those of prior ages. One might suggest that those who are unaware of the past, will believe anything they do as better than before, alas without any knowledge of whether that is indeed the case or not.
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