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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Not Exactly “Bah Humbug!” but …

Orthodox Christianity has a complicated attitude towards western Christmas.  First there's the date.  I have lost count of the number of times I have had to put people right on this when they have said:-“Oh, your Christmas is later in January isn't it, the 6th I think?”  “Er no,” I reply.  “We use the New Calendar so our celebration is on the same day as yours.”  True, Easter (which we call Pascha) is usually on a different date and the same across the whole Orthodox world (except Finland for reasons I won't go into now) but Christmas (which we call Nativity!)  is celebrated on two different days across the Orthodox Church.  In the Slav and some other traditions Christmas is celebrated on the civil calendar on the 7th of January (not the 6th) but this is only because the Church in Eastern Europe, Russia, Mt. Athos and Jerusalem did not change the Church Calendar when the civil calendar, starting in the 16th century in Western Europe advanced 11 days to take account of inaccuracies in the astronomical measurement of the year which had accumulated over the centuries.  As of now this gap and the reckoning has widened to 13 days which is why Old Calendar Orthodox churches celebrate the Nativity of our Lord 13 days after 25th December on 7th January.  Remember though that even there the Church Calendar is still showing 25th December.  Confused yet?!

The complications don't end with the date.  Please don't say to an Orthodox priest (particularly):- “Oh I suppose this must be your busiest time of year,” because it isn't.  Far from it; is one of the slowest and easiest times of the year … except of course a priest is never off duty.  Pascha (Easter) is a time when we have more services; here in Manchester in my parish at the last count some 15 services across nine days.  At the Nativity (Christmas) I shall have just 4. 

It’s not that the Orthodox don't believe in Christmas for goodness sake!  The birth of Christ, the feast of the Incarnation is a major feast of the Lord and at the heart of our faith but we don't go in for wall to wall carol services and all the commercial razzmatazz but now makes of Western Christmas a feast of Mammon.  There are some theological differences as well though and it must be conceded that notwithstanding the importance of the Incarnation it is the death and resurrection of Christ at Easter that provides the main driving force of Orthodoxy’s confession of faith.  Since culturally, this has never been quite the same in the West and particularly in northern Europe, the Christian perception of Christmas has been obscured by the rather bloated growth of a secular sentimentality concerning the birth of the “baby-Jesus.”  Even that is gone now to be replaced by an orgy of consumption in a secularised version of the feast.  So there is something of a muted “Bah Humbug!” coming from the Orthodox direction here.  Won’t you let us give us your Christmas back please?

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The "E" Word and the "P" Word

In the first case I refer of course to "evangelism."  This has become a very difficult word to use in polite Christian circles today.  We Orthodox, sadly, may have very confused notions about "evangelism" regarding it as synonymous with that other great unmentionable, "proselytism."  When words have become debased in common usage, it is often helpful to turn to the dictionary for a more unbiased definition:-

"Evangelism" - preaching of the gospel
"Gospel" - etymology: "godpsel" (Old English: good news)*
"Proselytism" - (from "proselyte") - convert from one opinion, creed or party to another
*an exact translation from the Greek "evangelion" = good news
(source: The Concise Oxford Dictionary)

According to these definitions, "Evangelism" is a word with which the Orthodox should be entirely comfortable.  Is the gospel not to be preached?  Does not the Liturgy itself bid us to pray for "evangelists"?  How the preaching the gospel is accomplished, however, is an entirely different matter and to this question we shall return shortly.

As to "proselytism"; well, notwithstanding the habitual response of the Orthodox ("we don't proselytise"), this also is a word with which we should have no problems.  For example, regarding those whose "opinion, creed or party" is not Orthodox Christian, should we not work for their salvation by prayer, faith and good works?  If we cannot agree on that then presumably there are some Orthodox who really don't mind if others perish in heresy or unbelief.  Is that consistent with our faith in God who "desires that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth?" (1 Timothy 2:4).  At one time no Christian blinked at the idea that pagans should be proselytised or that those of any other faith or none should come to know Christ.  Has this changed?  If it has then the Church (the fullness of which is the Orthodox Church) has forsaken Christ's Commission:- "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19)  I cannot believe that we have forsaken that teaching, or at least, I hope not!

What then is the difference between "evangelism" and "proselytism"? Personally I don't think that there is much fundamental difference, except perhaps in that "evangelism" is a proclamation of the gospel and "proselytism" is a focussed commending of that gospel to individuals and groups. We now turn to the question of HOW we Orthodox evangelise and proselytise.

It is commonly quoted today in the Church whenever this issue is raised that St. Seraphim of Sarov's teaching exclusively and only applies.  He said, you will recall:- "Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved."  Now, no one can disagree with this.  It must come first.  If we do not have the Holy Spirit, if we do not know Christ in all humility and gentleness, then we should keep our mouths firmly shut to all save our confessor before whom we should repent until we are cleansed and filled with the Holy Spirit.  However, to claim that all has been said when this teaching has been followed is just plain false.  A selfish spirituality in which we keep the knowledge of God to ourselves and do not share it with others will soon corrupt itself from within as the heart becomes fearful, withdrawn and cold.  We should rather be like the Prophet Jeremiah: "Then I said, ' I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name but His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.'" (Jeremiah 20:9)

The falsity of wordless evangelism is also exposed by the practice of the Church.  Aside from all the ancient Enlighteners whom we commemorate, in more recent times there have been many Orthodox evangelists who have been quite open about preaching the gospel to any who will hear in any environment.  Consider the New Martyr St. Kosmas the Aetolian, Equal-to-the-Apostles (1714 - 1779) who went about Greece preaching the gospel from village to village in the closing decades of the Ottoman Empire.  Metropolitan Kallistos has called this saint the "John Wesley" of the Orthodox Church, (in fact John Wesley was his contemporary).  Or what about St. Nicholas of Japan (1836 - 1912) whom God used to establish the Japanese Orthodox Church? St. Nicholas even sent out his Japanese missionaries in pairs to witness to Christ and taught neophytes in catechetical groups led and run by newly converted Japanese believers, (much again like the early Methodists with their "classes.")  Then more recently still there is Hieromonk Cosmas, Apostle to Zaire (from Grigoriou Monastery on the Holy Mountain: 1942 - 1989).  He exemplifies the long term nature of our commitments and centredness on God when it comes to evangelisation.  I close with a quotation from this modern day Orthodox evangelist for it neatly summarises our Orthodox way of doing things:-

"The missionary is free and when he is open to the grace of God, the Holy Spirit will speak riches in his heart and indicate to him what to do, gradually and in correspondence to the development of the work. Let us leave room for prayer to act without rushing the situation with narrow logic, absolute measures or the assessments of critics at each stage."

So we should not be embarrassed or dismissive about either the "E" word" or the "P" Word.  There are ample precedents for the Orthodox engaging in both evangelism and proselytism.  Let us just make sure though that we really are doing it in the Orthodox Way!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Old Hat Which is Deism

So Stephen Hawking has discovered that he does not need the "God hypothesis" to account for creation out of nothing.  Spontaneous generation is all that is required ... but you see his "nothing" is not my "nothing" because he is working from an assumption of Deism, whereas I am not.

Hawking on the BBC

This is a classic case of an atheist/former agnostic not knowing much theology. The "God-who-lit-the-blue-touch-paper" is the Deist god .... completely incompatible with most of the worlds major religions ... particularly those which subscribe to the creation 'ex nihilo' (out of nothing) belief. 

The Deists, who came to prominence after the Enlightenment, believed in a god who kick-started the Universe but who then left it to its own devices having given it laws to regulate itself. Unsurprisingly these people rejected any form of interventionist god ... so prayer, miracles and the Incarnation (for Christians) went out of the window. The Deists, however, still THOUGHT they needed their god to start the whole thing off.

All that Stephen Hawking is saying is that this is unnecessary .... and I agree with him .... because, although I am an Orthodox Christian and a priest, I am not a Deist.

A spontaneous creation merely describes and explains HOW the Universe came into being. The favourite explanation today is that a quantum irregularity in the substrate vacuum superinflated and the resultant energy field eventually condensed into the baryonic matter that each one of us is made of.

Now, only a Deist god would be needed to nudge that quantum irregularity UNLESS superinflation was built into the irregularity itself. So the "nothing" of which Hawking speaks is not the "nothing" of which (primarily) monotheists speak. Strictly speaking (and here words are inadequate) we believe in "being" from "non-being," ... and whatever that seething quantum vacuum is, it is not "non-being."

So, sorry Stephen, get to grips with the theology please. At least I make an effort with the science.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Dormition of the Mother of God

The feast of the Dormition probably dates from the late fifth century (though it may be earlier).  It refers to an actual event remembered from the beginning but not celebrated liturgically until somewhat later.  It was always celebrated in Jerusalem on the same date as now. In Egypt it was celebrated on January 18th.  Later it spread to other places, some choosing August 15th  and some January 18th. In the 7th century, however, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice decreed that the Dormition was to be celebrated everywhere on August 15th, Later the Pope adopted the same date for the feast in the West, and it has been celebrated on that date in both East and West ever since.

In the West the feast is called the Assumption, for both Roman Catholics and Orthodox believe that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. There is, of course, no mention of this in the New Testament. The story comes from apocryphal sources but it has a secure place in the memory and Tradition of the Church for all that. We believe it, because it accords with the experience of the Church and her theology of Incarnation and Resurrection.

The Old Testament tells us that Enoch and Elijah were assumed bodily into heaven.  We believe, however, that Mary, being sanctified by grace was chosen because of her purity to be the Mother of God.  This purity and God-bearing in her womb, together with her total dedication to her Son fitted her in this life to share immediately in the resurrection of her Son and so she, like Enoch and Elijah before her, was assumed into heaven.  This Assumption attests to the fact that she has been deified, that is, her humanity has been glorified by God and united with him. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are promised that we also shall all be deified, achieving the likeness as well as the image of God, and receive Resurrection bodies (though for most of us all this will happen beyond this life). The Mother of God is therefore our example and inspiration.  She is the first to receive her crown of glory as Queen in heaven, but no less shall we with her be kings and queens also by the saving work of God.

Although Orthodox Christians believe in the Assumption of the Theotokos, it has never been made into a dogma of the Church (as it has in the Roman Catholic Church).  This is because the Dormition or Assumption is something that follows on from the resurrection of Christ but is not part of our public preaching of salvation by Christ, which dogma can only can be.
Indeed apart from "Theotokos" or "God-bearer" which is a title defending the Incarnation, the Orthodox Church has generally avoided formulating doctrines about the Mother of God.  "Theotokos" requires that we believe that she is the Virgin Mother of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man.  The Dormition is perhaps best summed up in one of the great hymns sung at Vespers for today (it is the last idiomelon of the aposticha):
"When you were translated to him who was born of you in an inexplicable manner, O Virgin Theotokos, there were present James, the brother of the Lord and first of the Chief Priests, and Peter, the honoured head and leader of theologians, with the rest of the divine rank of Apostles, clearly uttering divine words, praising the amazing divine mystery, the mystery of the dispensation of Christ God, and with joy preparing your body which was the God-receiving originator of life, O most glorified one, while the most holy angels looked on from on high, struck with astonishment and surprise, and saying one to another; Lift up your gates and receive the Mother of the Maker of heaven and earth. Let us praise with song her sanctified, noble body, which contained the Lord, invisible to us. Therefore we, too, celebrate your memory, O all-praised one, crying; Exalt the state of Christians and save our souls."

Returning to this Blog!

I am sorry that I have been unable to post here for some months.  I am now returning to this task and hopefully I shall be able to write some engaging, thought provoking and discussion stimulating pieces.  I am starting with a straightforward piece ... my sermon for tomorrow on the Feast of the Dormition.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Global Warning! (mine them, don't fear them)

There is a danger facing us on this planet perhaps even more severe in its implications for humanity than the global warming. It concerns the global depletion of resources and the impact this will have other seemingly ever increasing population.

Sustainable development has been an issue for decades and yet we do not seem to have made much progress in dealing with it. When I was a teen report was published by the Club of Rome called ' The Limits to Growth ' (1972). This has been updated at least twice since other writing is still on the wall. We cannot keep on living as we have without endangering the ecosystem upon which we depend, but if we must as a species continue to grow numerically and economically, then we cannot look to the earth as an infinite resource for us to plunder indefinitely.

I think we need to advance on two fronts. We must learn to live within our needs upon the earth so that the human family might flourish safely whilst at the same time recognising that if we are to have a long-term future there will come a point when we have to look for resources elsewhere. It is either this or we radically reduce population size through mandatory birth control or we let disease famine and war achieved the same result. Neither alternative is at all acceptable in my view. At the moment everyone is talking about sustainable development and this is right and good. It must be where we concentrate our efforts both to avoid the excesses of global warming and to be morally responsible agents of care for creation. However the other question that we must address is where our future resources are to come from if we are not to regress into a low maintenance Stone Age society. We have nearly exhausted the Earth’s treasures already, so the inescapable conclusion has to be faced. In the future our natural resources will have to be sought ' off-world '.

The solar system is the new frontier. Eventually there will be new prospectors but this time the untamed wilderness will be the asteroid belt and the sands of Mars not the wild West. Many people are curiously reluctant to face this issue but the logic of expansion is inescapable if population collapse is to be avoided. One thing is for certain. These new frontiers will not be opened up by governments. History has shown that whereas governments have often funded such ventures, (think of Columbus and the King of Spain), it has always been intrepid explorers and entrepreneurs that have broken the new ground.

We need now not only to curb our greed but to extend our reach. There is no incompatibility between these options. There seems no logical reason why the human enterprise should not continue to expand to the stars. Indeed our divine destiny might be precisely this: to be priests of the WHOLE of creation; to co-work with God in a transformation of truly cosmic proportions. Preserved by divine grace and energised by human dreams, is this not a worthy goal for our species 10,000 years hence?

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