Sunday, January 31, 2010

St. John (Kochurov) -- Estonian Saints, part 3

St. John Kuchorov (Joann in Estonian), who was martyred by the Bolsheviks

As we continue to look at various Saints from Estonia, we turn again to a martyr. Again, St. John was martyred by the Bolsheviks in 1917. As a priest, St. John requested to be sent to the United States as a missionary priest and was very involved in translating theological and liturgical works into English.

When he returned to Europe in 1907, he was assigned to Narva, Estonia, where he continued to teach catechumens about Holy Orthodoxy. In 1916, he was transferred to St. Petersburg, where he became very popular.

On October 31, 1917 (old style), the Bolsheviks entered Tsarskoe Selo in force and arrested Fr. John. He was taken by the Bolsheviks out of town where he was summarily shot. By this act, Fr. John became the protohieromartyr of the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet yoke. Fr. John was buried several days later in the crypt of St. Catherine's Cathedral.

On December 1994, Fr. John was glorified by the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, in session at St. Daniel's Monastery, Moscow, Russia, as the first of the new martyrs of the 20th century. In United States he is also honored as a missionary and inspired preacher.

You can read more here.

Troparion (Tone 1)

Aflame with love for God,
You gave your life as a martyr for Christ and neighbor;
O Hieromartyr, John,
Entreat the Most Merciful God
To preserve the Holy Church in peace and save our souls.

Kontakion (Tone 8)

As you zealously fulfilled your pastoral service,
You brought your soul to God as a well-pleasing sacrifice, O Father John.
Entreat Christ God to grant peace to the world and great mercy to our souls.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Very Interesting Icon

Thanks to St. Joseph's parishioner Doug Burns and to John Sanidopoulos, author of the Mystagogy blog for the following story

Famous Ukrainian artist Oksana Maks has crafted an amazing icon of the Virgin Mary out of painted wooden Easter eggs.

The icon is currently in the Holy Church of St. Sophia in Kiev.

The moasaic of eggs took 9 months to complete with 70 artists working on it, among whom were students of the local art school, a nun and many young children.

In the end, the masterpiece reaches 7 meters high, weighs appriximately 2.5 tons, and is worth about $80,000.

Friday, January 29, 2010

He Will Save His Soul (James 5:19-20)

19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Finally, St. James urges his flock to work to bring back those who have strayed away from the faith. FF writes, “If persecution, hardship, or sickness have driven anyone of them from God, so that one strays from the truth of the Gospel, they should do all things possible to win him back. The community should not simply turn a blind eye to the defection and loss of one of their own. Like the Savior who calls all impious sinners to Himself, one should strive to persuade the apostate brother to return” (56).

In the final verse of the epistle, St. James assures his readers that the reward is great for those who succeed in winning back a lost sheep: he will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. FF believes that St. James is referring to the person’s own sins; in other words, he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will cover a multitude of his own sins. He elaborates:

“James’ statement about covering (or winning forgiveness for) a multitude of one’s own sins should be interpreted against the Jewish background of such passages as Sirach 3:30: “Almsgiving atones for sin,” and Tobit 12:9, “Almsgiving…will purge away every sin.” That is, pious almsgiving brings God’s blessing, so that (for example) when sickness strikes, God will not judge the pious sick man for his sins, but will forgive and heal him. James here asserts that reclaiming the wandering brother is a truly pious act and one that wins such forgiveness from God. Reclaiming one’s erring brother is a good work, and the one doing it will be blessed in his doing (1:25)” (56).

Of course, the sins that get covered could also be those of the person turned back to the faith, which perhaps is a more straightforward way of interpreting St. James’ statement. If a Christian is able to turn a wandering brother or sister back to the faith, helping them get back into a right relationship with God, then the “rescuer” has certainly helped the person to avoid much sin, and in that sense has covered a multitude of sins. In any case, these two interpretations need not be mutually exclusive.

Note St. James’s free usage of the phrase “save a soul.” Some Christians argue that the verb “save” in regard to souls should be reserved for God alone. St. James obviously didn’t get the memo on this, for he clearly says that a person can save another’s soul. Of course, “save” here has a different meaning that when it is used in reference to God. Ultimately, only God can save; he has already done so by sending Christ to the world to unite divine and human nature and to defeat death through his own death. He is in the process of doing so by conforming us to his image through the activity of the Holy Spirit. And he will do so finally at the Last Judgment when our faith and our deeds are laid before him.

But there is certainly a sense in which one person can save another. We save others, as St. James clearly states, by preventing them from wandering from the path of righteousness, thereby forfeiting their own chance at salvation. We can also save others by introducing them to Christ and helping them get on the path of salvation. We can save others by praying for them, strengthening their faith. In short, we save others by helping them to begin and/or complete the Christian life. This knowledge explains why in the Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians unashamedly say, “Most Holy Theotokos save us!” We are not saying that the Theotokos has the same power as God to save. We are asking her to save us through her prayers.

Finally, listen to FF’s concluding words about the epistle: “The epistle of James ends on this note of hope. In one’s walk of faith, there are many trials: persecution, hardship, sickness. Many temptations rise up to divert us from our way: temptations not to actualize our faith by good works, to indulge in sinful partiality to the rich, to misuse our tongue to quarrel and condemn. But should we veer from the true path, the way of repentance and salvation always remains open. James encourages the faithful to help one another home along the way, thereby not only saving the erring brother, but winning God’s grace for ourselves as well” (56).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Call (An MK Comes Home, Part 18) -- by James Hargrave

With friends & roommates at James' apartment in Inglewood

That year in Korea was wonderful and tough: becoming a Christian is a long, slow, and painful process. Giving up destructive habits and turning towards Christ was not a breeze, but with the example of the Korean Orthodox faithful and the loving guidance of Fr. Ambrosios and Fr. Daniel, the slow path of repentance and transformation became possible. But all too soon, my contract was up and St. Paul’s sent me on my way to the most foreign, exotic, and just-plain-weird place I’d ever seen: California.

I had accepted a position as an AmeriCorps volunteer with Catholic Charities in Lennox, a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood. I lived on the corner of Century and Crenshaw in Inglewood. If you listen to hip-hop, this might ring a bell. And if you’ve ever watched Boyz N Da Hood, you’ve seen my apartment building. St. Margaret Center, where I worked, was just two miles away. But on my morning commute I would cross Prairie Avenue and move from one world to another. Inglewood was the “ghetto” that you hear about in rap songs and see in gangsta movies, but Lennox was like a mountain village in Guatemala. The tiny houses were painted bright colors and surrounded by gorgeous tropical flowers. Parrots squawked in cages and chickens ran loose on side streets. On the main avenues, murals of the Virgin of Guadelupe adorned the sides of taquerias and car washes.

At St. Margaret Center I was in the middle of this rich landscape. But life in Lennox was also very tough, and the people who came to us were often in the worst of circumstances. We provided a variety of services to the homeless, immigrant, and low-income population of the area, but there were limits to our abilities. And my job was often to man the front desk, listen to long stories about incredible pain, and then try to help.

James with his co-workers at St. Margaret Center

I had grown up in the famine-stricken deserts of Africa. I’d seen poverty worse than this. But I’d been a kid. It had never been my problem, the way that suffering and pain was my problem now. So often there was so little I could do—give a sandwich to a guy who really needs a family to care about him. Help a woman apply for food stamps when what she really needed was a faithful husband.

But my boss and fellow staff were amazing and supportive people. They taught me how to work for good within the nightmarish world of California social services, and how to maintain joy in the midst of great sorrow. My roommates, also in service to the poor, provided a great community where I could grow. My parish, St. Matthew in Torrance, kept me grounded in the hope of the Resurrection. My priest, Father Simeon, offered counsel, friendship and encouragement.

And most importantly, as I stood at that counter Christ crucified was on the wall behind me. As I mourned with my deeply wounded friends on the street, I knew that my God was suffering with them. And that while I might be able to offer only a sandwich, I worked on behalf of one who could heal the lame and raise the dead.

This reality made my year with AmeriCorps not only the toughest but also the most joyful time of my life yet. It put flesh to Fr. Moses’ words from years before. And it made my calling clear: whatever life held, it was to be in full-time Christian service to those in need...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Prayer of a Righteous Man (James 5:13-18)

Icon of the Prophet Elijah

13Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

St. James begins to wrap up his epistle by exhorting his hearers to find contentment in God, no matter what their life situation. First, he exhorts those who in trouble (FF translates it “suffering hardship” – in fact, he points out that the Greek word used is the same word used in verse 10 to describe the sufferings of the prophets). This “trouble” or “hardship” is, as FF says, “mainly that of suffering persecution…but here includes any form of suffering” (53). Interestingly, FF adds that “one should not pray to God to remove the hardship, but for strength to endure it and use it for good, to purify the heart” (both quotes are from 63). I would tend to disagree with the first part of the statement; both Jesus and St. Paul prayed for relief from suffering. There is nothing wrong (in my opinion) with asking for relief from sufferings. But if God does not grant relief, we must certainly pray for strength to endure our suffering and to learn from it. We cannot always prevent suffering, but we can certainly control our reaction to it.

Next, St. James urges the cheerful to sing songs of praise, thanking God for the blessings that cheer them. As FF writes, “Daily blessings ought not to be taken for granted, but should be acknowledged as gifts from God and should anchor us in Him” (54). The passage literally says simply “let him sing,” and the Greek word for “sing” is psallo, which is the verbal form of psalmos, “psalm.” So the songs of praise (words which the NKJV translators supplied) that St. James has in mind are most likely the psalms. There are psalms for all types of occasions, including joyful times. We should use them in our prayers and our expressions of thanksgiving to God as many of the Fathers recommend.

In verses 14-15, St. James commands the sick to “call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” He adds that “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” This is the origin of the Orthodox practice of anointing the sick with oil while praying for healing, a practice also known as the Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Unction. Listen to FF’s comments on this verse:

In St. James’ day, the one who was very ill (“wasting away,” Gr. kamno; used for the fatigued, but also for the dying; see Wisdom 15:9) would call for all the presbyters in the city, and they would gather around him to pray. They would anoint the sick person with oil, invoking the Name of the Lord Jesus over him and praying for his healing (compare Mark 6:13). The presbyters thus represented the totality of the Christian community, united in intercession for one of their sick. The sick one would of course pray also, confessing his sins and asking God’s mercy. If he has [sinned] (it is not stated as a certainty), it will be forgiven him, for the healing from God would come upon his soul as well as his body” (54). Of course today, only one presbyter is usually able to do the anointing, even though the official service rubrics of Holy Unction call for seven priests to be involved when possible.

Note also the connection that St. James makes between physical healing and spiritual healing. Sometimes (but certainly not always!) our physical problems are caused by sin. Sometimes repentance, with the accompanying change of lifestyle can bring physical healing. And the service of Holy Unction, even when it does not bring about physical healing, can always result in spiritual healing, which is even more important. As FF’s literal translation makes clear, verse 15 literally says “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is wasting away…” not “the prayer in faith will make the sick person well…” as the NKJV translates it.

In the next verse, St. James encourages his readers to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.” Some interpreters have seen the seed of the modern day Mystery of Confession in this exhortation, but FF begs to differ. He says, “This confession is not to be confused with today’s regular sacramental confession and absolution (which in the early Church was mostly confined to reconciling the penitent who had been excommunicated from the Church). What James has in mind is the sick man openly confessing his sins to God before those who have come to pray for him. (James speaks of confessing sins to one another, for sickness may strike any, and the one who today prays for the sick and hears his confession may tomorrow become sick and make a confession.)

He continues: “Such confession was commonplace in the early Church. An early church manual, dating from around AD 100 and called the Didache (or “Teaching”), urges Christians to confess their transgressions before gathering on the Lord’s Day so that their Eucharistic sacrifice may be pure (ch. 14). What the Didache probably envisions a similar confession of sins on the part of the sick, but in the presence of the presbyters who visit him to pray and anoint him” (54-55).

I love the second part of verse 16, which in the old King James Version says “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” In case one of James’ readers might think that the elders of the Church might not be able to bring about healing through their prayers, St. James assures them of the effectiveness of the prayer of a righteous person. FF’s comments here are very comforting: “The elders may be no more holy than the others (especially if some unrighteous ones have been ordained; see 3:14). But one does not require the supernatural sanctity of the angels to pray effectively. God is able to hear the prayers of mortals as well” (55). I, for one, am thankful for that!

Finally, to illustrate his point, St. James cites the example of the prophet Elijah. Because off Elijah’s prayers, there was no rain in the land of Israel for three and a half years. This is an amazingly long time (even in dry Palestine), and the lack of rain for such a long time indicates divine intervention. Then, Elijah prayed for it to rain again, and God granted this prayer. As FF writes, “Clearly, men on earth can effectually avail with the God of heaven…In all situations of life, therefore, whether in hardship, in good times, or in sickness, one should turn to God, referring all things to Him” (55).

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Do Not Swear (James 5:12)

Jesus delivers the Eight Beatitudes (Sermon on the Mount)
by Cosimo ROSSELLI -from Cappella Sistina, Vatican

12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment.

St. James concludes his epistle with a series of exhortations that deal mainly with oaths and prayer. First, he speaks about oaths. Note how he echoes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount almost word for word. St. James may well have been part of the crowd when Jesus gave that sermon; if not, he surely heard Jesus teach on this subject many times. After all, he grew up in the same house as the Lord!

Fr. Farley’s comments on this verse are so good that I will quote them here in full:

“Casual oaths were part of the everyday language of the Palestinian Jew, and the Pharisees had a series of gradations by which some oaths were considered as not binding (for example, swearing by the Temple), an other oaths as binding (such as swearing by the gold of the Temple; see Matt. 23:!6). The result of such legalistic casuistry was to devalue the spoken word and make rash vows very common.

“For James, as for his Lord (See Matt. 5:34-37), the Christian should not swear at all, but be so truthful that his yes means yes and his no means no, so that no other oaths are necessary. Otherwise, God will hold him accountable for oaths rashly sworn, and he will fall under judgment. The compassion and blessing promised in verse 13 can only be gained if the Christians do not invite God’s judgment with their tongues.

“In our culture, we are not given to making hasty oaths and promises to God. We are, however, given to a casual use of the divine Name, and James’ counsel here rebukes that also. The Name of God and Jesus Christ should be pronounced by Christian’s only with reverent love” (52).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Korea ( An MK Comes Home, Part 17) -- by James Hargrave

The north gate to the walled city of Suwon, where James lived

In February of 2003, just as I was entering my catechumenate, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center sponsored a Korean Orthodox priest to visit parishes in North America. Father Daniel Na came to St. Stephen’s on a weekday evening, where he gave a presentation on Korean Orthodox Christianity to just a handful of people.

At the time, I was looking for work as an English teacher in Japan. I made the rookie mistake of thinking that Korea and Japan have anything to do with each other, and asked Fr. Daniel what he could tell me about Japanese Orthodoxy. He replied, “I don’t know about that. But you should come to Korea.”

Playing pat-a-cake with a student in his English class

I spent the summer trying and failing to find work in Japan, and by August had indeed landed a job in Korea. My school was located on the north side of Suwon, a short commute both from Seoul and from Fr. Daniel’s parish in Incheon. Paul, a friend from Africa who was also a recent convert to Orthodoxy also found work teaching English near Incheon, so he and I became communicants at St. Paul Orthodox Church.

St Nicholas Cathedral in Seoul

St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seoul was also nearby, so I’d go there for weekday services and for confession. My father confessor was a priestmonk from Greece, and it was under Fr. Ambrosios’ guidance that my catechism continued in earnest. He had me read some important books—St. John of Damascus’ Lives of Barlaam and Ioasaph, Archimandrite Vasileios’ Hymn of Entry, and Zizioulas’ Being as Communion. St. John’s long parable is the best catechism I could have asked for, and the latter books did much to re-orient my life and worldview around Christ and the communion of his Church.

Father Daniel Na, James' priest at St. Paul Orthodox Church in Incheon

But far more important than text was Fr. Ambrosios’ patient love as he worked with me through my confessions, through my disordered attitudes towards life and towards my neighbor. I was Orthodox but still didn’t really know what it meant to live a Christian life; under Father’s guidance these things started to straighten out.

Father Daniel and all the faithful of St. Paul’s immediately welcomed Paul and me into parish life. We served as acolytes, taught English to the youth, and were even invited to say the Creed and Our Father each week in English (the rest of the service was entirely in Korean). Over hearty bowls of noodle soup after Liturgy, Fr. Daniel would translate his sermon for our benefit, and we often spent the bulk of every Sunday with the parish community.

Serving as an acolyte at St. Paul Orthodox Church in Incheon

It was this experience, early in my life as an Orthodox Christian, that helped me become comfortable with “ethnic” expressions of the faith in cultures quite different from my own. Of course it was tough to worship in a foreign language, but even when I didn’t know the words I did know that we were singing “Lord have mercy,” or that Father was proclaiming, “This is my body, broken for you.” And being invited—within weeks of arrival—to full participation in parish life introduced me to what will be a constant theme: becoming completely a part of the Church in places and countries where I’m identified as a minority or alien in every other aspect of life...

Planting a tree at church with Paul

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fr. Farley on the Importance of the Church (Part Two)

Interior, St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Novi Sad, Serbia

Here is the second part of the excerpt from Fr. Farley's podcast on Acts 1:1-2 regarding the Church. talking about all that Jesus began to do and to teach, the clear implication is that in the Church, through the prophets, through the providential outpouring of the Holy Spirit that guides the Church every step of the way in its early initial expansion, Jesus continued to do and He continued to teach so that the apostolic teaching that you have available in the Church is the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Jesus teaches you through the Church. If your heart is open on Sunday morning, you receive teaching from God. If your heart is open, Jesus will teach you through your priest. Christ spoke anciently through Balaam’s ass, he can speak through me. He can speak through anyone. What matters is not the quality of the homily; what matters is the quality of the hearer.

If you come with an open and hungry heart, God will teach you. Open your mouth wide, the psalmist says, and God says, “I will fill it.” Jesus continues to do His mighty deeds. He continues to save men. He continues to heal men and to teach through the ministry of the Church.

You see this in Acts Chapter Nine for example. It’s significant. It’s not just that St. Luke is reporting what St. Peter actually said; St. Luke is, as well, furthering his own didactic purpose. This can be found in
Acts 9:32-34.

Peter is traveling through the regions that he was traveling through, and he came down to the saints who lived at Lydda. And there he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years, who was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Arise and make your bed.” And immediately he got up.

See what Peter says. “Jesus Christ heals you.” You say, “I thought Jesus Christ was finished healing. He was ascended into heaven.” No. He continues to heal. He continues to do. He continues to pour out His grace upon His Church.

The Church as the
Soma Christou is the fulness of Christ. Christ is still present in His Church.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fr. Farley on the Importance of the Church (Part One)

Fr. Lawrence Farley, Bible teacher extraordinaire

During my years in the Baptist Church, I was always taught that the Church was a "divine-human institution." Despite the fact that the word "divine" was always stated first, the reality was (and is) that most Baptists and other Evangelicals place more emphasis on the human factor. In other words, for Evangelicals, the Church is more of a "human-divine" institution. Of course their definition of who is part of the Church is very different from that of Orthodox Christians, but I this is a topic for another discussion. For now, I wish to focus on just how "divine" the Church is, and, by extension, just how important the Church is.

Recently, when I gave an interview on the differences between the Evangelical and Orthodox understanding of certain Christian doctrines and practices, I discussed (among many other things) the contrasting ideas of the Church. For some reason, my brain seemed to lock up during this section, and I ended up doing a lousy job of explaining just how divine the Church is seen to be in Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy, we see much more emphasis on the Divine Presence in the Church than is apparent in any of the manifold branches of Protestantism. The Church, of course, is not to be identified with Christ; the Church is not Christ. But the Church is His presence on Earth, and when Christ works in the world, he generally does so through the Church.

On his wonderful podcast The Coffee Cup Commentaries, Fr. Lawrence Farley recently began a series on The Acts of the Apostles. In the second lesson in the new series, in which he comments on the first two verses of Chapter 1, Fr. Farley gives one of the best explanations of the Orthodox view of the Church that I have ever heard. It is concise and easy to understand (unlike most of the writings of the well-known Orthodox theologians). I wish I had heard this prior to my interview! Anyway, over the next couple of days, I am going to excerpt parts of Fr. Farley's lesson, the parts that deal most directly with the nature and importantance of the Church. I hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed listening to them.

If our Lord had not founded the Church, if our Lord had lived and taught and died and rose again and there was no Church, then you would not have the salvation that we have today. You would have, not the Church, but you would have Jesus’ words being simply a philosophy. It could take its place among the great philosophies of the world.

You have the philosophy of Socrates, of Plato, of Aristotle, of Buddha, of Confucius. And Jesus would take His place in this philosophical pantheon among all of them, which is to say, “Who cares?” Man doesn’t need philosophy. He doesn’t need to be told what’s right. Our problem is that even when we know what’s right, we can’t do it.

Our problem is not that we’re just uninformed. Our main problem is that we’re dead. Our main problem is that we’re enslaved. And as St. Paul says that even when know what’s right, we delight to do what’s right, we still do the evil that we hate. The problem is not that we’re students needing to be taught. It’s that we are slaves needing to be liberated. We’re dead men needing to be enlivened.

That’s what the Church is. The Church offers us, not a philosophy, but the life of Jesus. The Church offers us the very life that the Son of God had; that is infused into us. That’s what Baptism is about. That’s what Holy Communion is about. Our salvation is not a matter of having a course in miracles, or something like this or some sort of instructional program.

Our salvation consists of incorporation into the Church, because the Church is the
Soma Christou, the body of Christ. It is the very life of Jesus here and available for us. Christ came down and united humanity to His divinity in the womb of the Virgin, so that we could have access to that divinity, so that the life of God that is in the Incarnate Christ could flow into us as well. That’s what the Church is about.

The ministry of Jesus finds its fulfillment, if I may put it like this, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, which is to say that it finds its fulfillment in the ongoing life of the Church. Because as someone has finally said, what is the Church? The Church is a continual Pentecost. It is the life of Jesus available to us dying children to make us alive, to make us the radiant sons and daughters of God.

(To be continued)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

You Also Be Patient (James 5:7-11)

"See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain"

7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. 8 You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! 10 My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

St. James now turns away from the rich (nominal) members of his flock and again addresses the poor. Many of the poor members of his flock have been suffering under the oppression of their rich supervisors, and it is only natural that they would be tempted to take matters into their own hands—to violently rebel against their oppressors. St. James, however, nips this idea in the bud, urging his readers to instead be patient, waiting until the coming of the Lord. On that day, they would receive justice and would be rewarded for their patient endurance.

Since most of his listeners were undoubtedly farm workers, they would understand the analogy that he uses in verse 7 to illustrate the patience they need. In FF’s words, “It is only after these [fall and spring] rains that harvesting can begin. Attempts to harvest early result in no fruit. In the same way, they must also be patient and not imagine that justice will come if they attempt to harvest early by violence or revolution. They must therefore establish their hearts and refuse to be shaken from their serene stability in Christ. His coming draws near. He will come soon enough” (51).

One temptation faced by everyone who is under any kind of stress is to “grumble against one another,” or (as FF says) “to break into factions…even as fearful animals have a tendency to snap and bite” (51). But this is unacceptable for Christians, even if they are undergoing persecution. If Christians spend their lives attacking and condemning each other (instead of loving one another), they will themselves be condemned at the Last Judgment. (Let US take this to heart, brothers and sisters!)

To inspire his suffering readers, St. James cites the example of the prophets, many of whom suffered greatly for their faithfulness to God. As FF writes, St. James would “Let them remember the sufferings of Elijah, whose life was persecuted by his king (1 Kg. 19). Let them remember the sufferings of Jeremiah, who was beaten, imprisoned, cast into an empty cistern, and left to die (Jer. 19:37-38). Let them remember the martyrdom of Isaiah, who was sawn in half (Heb. 11:37). Despite their sufferings, we now count them blessed who persevered through such things. We too therefore will be blessed on the Last Day if we persevere as they did” (51).

Finally, St. James points out the example of Job, who, despite the many trials he underwent, remained faithful to God (and that, in spite of his wife urging him to “Curse God and die!”). At the time of his sufferings, Job did not know that things would turn out well, but we DO have that knowledge. We know that God always rights all wrongs and brings forth justice…even if not in this world. So, when we face trials, suffering, or even persecution, we can and should take comfort from this knowledge.

FF concludes his commentary on this passage with an interesting and comforting observation: “The word rendered full of heartfelt love [“compassionate” in the NKJV] is the Greek polysplagchnos, derived from poly (“many”) and splagchna (lit. “innards”). The innards were spoken of as the seat of emotion; thus, to love from the splagchna is to love from one’s deepest hear, with an abundant overflowing love. St. James says here that God’s heart overflows with love for us. He longs to be compassionate and merciful, to wipe away our tears and fill us with joy. Let us persevere and hold to our faith, waiting for the Lord to bless us in the age to come, even as He blessed Job after his sufferings were over” (51-52).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Weep and Howl (James 5:1-6)

"Your gold and silver are corroded..."

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! 2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. 4 Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. 5 You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.

St. James had concluded the last passage by saying, “to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” Now he elaborates on what that good thing is that his rich audience was not doing. Specifically, they were amassing riches by defrauding their laborers of their wages.

Speaking very much like an Old Testament prophet, St. James warns these rich oppressors that a Day of Judgment is coming. They may be living in pleasure and luxury now, but miseries will one day come upon them if they do not repent. Their money and possessions may be splendid now, but soon they will be corrupted, corroded and moth-eaten! Given this, they need to show true repentance by weeping and howling.

As FF writes, “The rich think they will live forever and justice will never find them out. But it is in the last days that they treasure up their wealth. They should have known the Day of Judgment was fast approaching and used their wealth to help the poor” (50).

In verse 4, St. James uses the Hebrew term “Lord of Sabaoth.” This term literally means “Lord of Hosts” or “Lord of Armies” and is a common OT term for the Father. As FF says, “The use of the term Lord of Sabaoth places this [passage] squarely within the prophetic tradition in which God executes justice on the earth; compare for example Is. 2:12.”

Notice again that St. James accuses them of murder. By defrauding their poverty-stricken laborers, they actually in some cases hastened their deaths. Listen to FF’s words about this: “[The rich] should have known the Day of Judgment was fast approaching and used their wealth to help the poor” (50).

And so must we. “From whom much is given, much is expected.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

You Do Not Know What Will Happen Tomorrow (James 4:13-17)

"...what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away."

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; 14 whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” 16 But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.

In verse 13, St. James begins a new discussion, focusing first on the need to avoid presumption, keeping in mind the brevity of life, and acting on that knowledge. We can tell that he is primarily addressing the rich by his reference to those who are planning to buy, sell, and make profits (the poor in St. James’ day wouldn’t be doing such things). These people proudly planned out their lives, assuming that they would be able to carry out all their plans. In so doing, they did not give any acknowledgement to God, or to the fact that they might not even have a tomorrow in which to conduct their business. In short, they were being presumptuous and arrogant.

What they needed to do was to realize the transitory nature of this life. And we need to do the same. We are not promised tomorrow. This might be our last year, our last month, or even our last day on this earth. When we make plans, we should do so with the knowledge that they may not actually come to pass. And if they do come to pass, it is only because God has graciously given us more time to live our lives. As hard as it can be, we should live every day as if it will be our last. Among other things, this means living in a state of continual repentance for our sins and not having any relationships that are broken (or at least that are broken because of us; we should do everything we can to restore them, knowing that restoration depends on the other person as well).

The Fathers of the Church remind us to keep the remembrance of death always before us as a means of keeping ourselves in a state of repentance; the seed of this teaching is seen in this passage, particularly in verse 14. Here St. James uses yet another picturesque metaphor; that of our lives being nothing more than a vapor. As FF writes, “Human life vanishes as quickly as the morning mist, and we can therefore not presume on our permanency” (48).

Instead of acting as if we will live forever (or even as long as we want), we should say “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” When I lived in Bosnia, I noticed that every time I said something like “I’ll see you tomorrow” or “We’ll get together again next week,” they would always respond “Ako Bog da…” (If God wills). This really made an impression on me. Here was a people that understood St. James’ teaching here and took it to heart. Let us do likewise, for as FF says, “…in humility [we] must confess that all human planning is contingent and utterly dependent on the will of God. Perhaps we live through the night, or perhaps not. If we live, perhaps we will fulfill our plan, or perhaps not. All is in the hand of God. Refusal to acknowledge this shows our pretensions, our vain boasting. It is not a sign of commendable energy, of our being a real ‘go-getter,’ but of evil” (48).

Finally, notice how St. James defines what we today call a sin of omission. Sin is not just doing, thinking, or saying something wrong. It can also be failure to do what is right at certain times. “Sins of omission bring God’s judgment, just as do sins of commission” (Farley, 48).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Becoming Orthodox (An MK Comes Home, part 16) - by James Hargrave

St. Stephen's Orthodox Church in Longwood, FL

In January of 2003 I returned to Florida for a final semester at Stetson University, and continued attending Orthodox Christian services at St. Stephen’s.

Because the services were in English, it became harder and harder for me to maintain the idea that although Orthodox Christian worship is holy and unique, the things that Christians believe are superstitious and irrelevant. The worship of the Church, I had to admit, was formed entirely by the faith upheld by the Church. Faith and worship were not two loosely connected entities but rather two threads woven in one seamless garment.

As I grappled with this reality, and continued to meditate on Fr. Moses’ words about the Christian life, I became convinced that it was necessary to make a decision about Christ and his Church. If the faith was truly false, then the worship was also false and I needed to run for the hills. But if the worship was truly real, then it was grounded on a real faith and it was high time to get serious.

So I started investigating the things that Christians believe, beginning with basics like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. At each step, I found something similar: although I was a smart kid and could come up with convincing rationales for anything I wanted to believe, my head-games didn’t do anything to make me a better person or help me cope with the difficulties of life. The Church also had some smart thinkers who had convincing rationales for all the things that Christians believe.

But the Church had more than just pretty arguments. The Church had a united faith shared by billions of people all across time and space. This faith had transformed lives and brought healing wherever it went. I could already see my life being transformed for the better, just by my peripheral association with the Church.

Not to say I was particularly rosy-eyed—remember, from the beginning I’d learned mostly bad things about Orthodox Christianity: pogroms, oppressions, etc. But as Jesus Christ became real to me, the need to join his Church also became unavoidable.

Towards the middle of Lent I asked to become a catechumen, warning Fr. Mark that I would be graduating from college in a few weeks and would probably head overseas to teach English somewhere. He decided (rightly, I believe) to receive me into the Church on Holy Saturday, together with two catechumen families whose preparation had been much more thorough.

So when I was received into the Orthodox Christian Church on Holy Saturday of 2003, I still didn’t know a whole lot about the faith that I’d accepted. A week later I graduated from college, left town, and found a job teaching English as a second language in Suwon, South Korea. It was in the Korean Orthodox Church that my catechesis would continue in earnest...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

St. Platon - Estonian Saints, Part 2

St. Platon, Martyr Bishop of Tartu

The second of the Estonian Saints that we will discuss is St. Platon, who was martyred by the Bolsheviks in 1919. He is a very important Saint for the Estonian Orthodox faithful. In fact, the Estonian Orthodox Church has started a seminary, which is named the St. Platon Seminary.

Here are a few excerpts from his martyrdom:

"This is the devil we wanted", the Red Guards shouted. The commissar even commanded the Bishop to take off his shoes, in order to find "gold". So began the imprisonment of Bishop Platon, which lasted 12 days...The Bishop placed his panagia under his shirt so that he might be recognized, should he be shot.

In the prison Bishop Platon was forced to clean the toilet of the prisoners with his bare hands. This was on Sunday January 12. On the same evening the Bishop felt sure that he would be put to death. He told his fellow prisoners that, if this happened, they should transmit his last blessing to all his Orthodox flock and parishes: he urged them to flee if possible from the Communist terror, but at the first opportunity to return. During his imprisonment Bishop Platon often read from the Greek Gospel, especially from chapter 24 of St. Matthew. Half an hour before his death the Bishop, together with pastor Hahn, read the passion of Christ in St. Mark, chapter 15.

On January 14, 1919, at about 10 o'clock in the morning a commissar with two Red Guards summoned Bishop Platon to come out. During a previous examination at night the commissar had insisted that the Bishop should cease to preach the Gospel. To this Bishop Platon answered, "As soon I am set free, I shall praise God".

A Photo of St. Platon

After some time the prisoners heard gunshots from the cellar. Then Archpriest Nikolai Beschanitzki, Archpriest Michael Bleive and Professor Hahn were ordered to come out. A witness, who was working at the time in the prisoners' clothing store, has testified that he saw from the window how the prisoners were taken to the cellar where they were murdered. He heard how Bishop Platon was beaten, but not a single cry came from his lips. About a quarter of an hour later he heard shots from the cellar, into which the prisoners had been conducted in their underwear.

More on the life and service of this great Saint can be read here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Coptic East Africa (An MK Comes Home, Part 15) - by James Hargrave

Coptic Hospital, Nairobi, Kenya

I continued to attend St. Stephen’s OCA parish in Longwood, FL for the rest of the 2002 Nativity Fast until finishing my semester. I began sitting in on an inquirer’s class along with two couples in their catechumenate and Fr. Mark, the head priest, made himself available for questions.

After the semester ended I went to Kenya to spend Christmas with my parents and sisters. At RVA, my old boarding school, I was surprised to meet a senior who had become an Orthodox Christian catechumen. Jonathan told me about his own journey—he was much more convinced about the truth of Orthodox Christianity than I was—and told me a little more about what the Orthodox Church in East Africa looks like. He also advised that I meet Abouna Moussa (Father Moses), the Coptic Orthodox priest in Nairobi.

A few days after the New Year we were back in Nairobi, so I stopped in at St. Mark’s. I’d known about that parish all my life, as it was only a few doors down from my parents’ guest house, but this was the first time I’d ever stepped inside.

The priest was busy that day. His parish also ran a hospital and there were patients waiting for him. The bishop was in town. And it was almost Coptic Christmas. Still, he took some time to sit with me in the temple. I used that time to ask about Chalcedon and the distinction between Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. After talking with Jonathan I wanted to know more bout the canonical issues regarding ancient Christianity in Africa.

Abouna answered a few of my questions and humored me for a while before excusing himself, as the bishop needed his assistance. As we said farewell, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “James, if you want to be a Christian—if you want to be Orthodox—do you know what you have to do?

“You have to love your neighbor.”

I felt ashamed. Father Moses had brushed aside all my spiritual feelings and intellectual games with a sharp reminder that we are saved not by our ideas or feelings but by our neighbors. If we love God truly, then we love those around us and work out our salvation in service to them.

It took some time, but those words did bring me back to faith in Christ and into the Orthodox Christian Church. They are words that I still strive—and fail—to live up to, and words that return me to my senses when I get obsessed by ecclesial politics or scandal. In the short term, those words got me thinking seriously about being more than an onlooker in the life and worship of the Church...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sayings of St. Anthony

This coming Sunday, I will be preaching on the life and sayings of St. Anthony the Great. In honor of this great saint, I thought I would share a few of my favorite of his sayings. These are quoted from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (alphabetical collection), translated by Benedicta Ward.

Someone asked Abba Antony, "What must one do in order to please God?" The old man replied, "Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved."

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, "This is the great work of a man: always to take blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath."

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, "What ought I to do?" and the old man said to him, "Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

Abba Anthony said, "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, "Humility."

He also said, "Our life and death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ."

And finally, there is the wonderful saying that the saint is pictured holding in the icon above: I no longer fear God, but I love Him.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Open Wide...This Might Hurt a Bit...

This afternoon, I spent some time in a place where I hate to go (and, I might add, a place where I have spent WAY too much time this past year), Can you guess where? If not, then watch the following hilarious video of Steve Martin performing in the 1986 musical movie Little Shop of Horrors. Enjoy!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Double Bible Update (OSB and CCC)

In a post that I wrote just over a year ago, I told you of the plan that Jennifer and I had to follow the two-year reading plan of the Old Testament part of the Orthodox Study Bible.

Now it's confession time.

We didn't quite get halfway through the Old Testament as we had planned. Several things got in the way.

We started out strong, rarely missing a day (and when we did, always catching up) until the beginning of Lent. During Lent, we decided to temporarily set aside the reading plan to read through Fr. Thomas Hopko's excellent book The Lenten Spring with our daughter Audrey as a daily devotional. This was more for Audrey's benefit than for ours, and we thought about not doing it. Jennifer and I could certainly have read through the book individually and gotten just as much out of it. But Audrey wouldn't have read it. Plus, we had a family tradition going back several years of doing a daily devotional with her during Lent. We didn't want to break that tradition.

We decided that it would be too much to try to read through Fr. Hopko's book AND to continue on the Bible reading plan, so we set the plan aside for a while. And, to be honest, we had arrived at the beginning of a long stretch of the OT that contains a great deal of material that is (forgive me) not exactly exciting reading.

After Lent and the frenzy that is Holy Week, we finally got back on track with our Bible reading. But by then, Jennifer was in the home stretch of her last semester. Then she had finals. Then we had her graduation and then Audrey's. Then later in the summer, we had vacation and the start of another school year. Jennifer started working and was often loaded down with extra work that had to be brought home, which made her more exhausted. Then there were Karate classes, illnesses, school events, etc, etc. In short, life got in the way.

The PDF document that contains the two-year reading plan has a total of 26 pages. This means that in order to be on track, we should have finished the thirteenth page by the end of 2009. I am embarrassed to say that we barely made it past page 6. This means that we are actually on the four-and-change year plan. We are going to try and do better this time. We're almost to First Samuel (called 1 Kingdoms in the Septuagint), which is wonderful reading (as are the three books after it). The four books of the Kingdoms read like a novel. I'm looking forward to that.

Now on to some good news. After heroically spending more than a year teaching through the Gospel of Luke, Fr. Lawrence Farley has begun a series on the Acts of the Apostles in his wonderful podcast The Coffee Cup Commentaries (or CCC for short). This is going to be great. Acts is one of the most fun-to-read books in the whole Bible. It too reads like a novel. If you are not yet a regular listener to CCC, I encourage you to become one ASAP. If you do, you will be blessed (not to mention the fact that you will learn a whole lot about the Scriptures).

May the Lord bless you all. More Bible studies on St. James' Epistle soon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

St. Isidore - Estonian Saints, part 1

Fr. James and I have decided that I will make a few posts about Estonian Saints. Since I spent several years in Estonia (as a Protestant missionary), these saints are near and dear to my heart. There are several to choose from, but the first one that I will talk about is St. Isidore and the 72 martyrs that were with him.

You can read more about him here.

Here is an excerpt from that link:

On 6 January 1472, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the priest Isidore, with all the Orthodox, duly went forth to the River Omovzha with the precious cross to bless the water. There, on the Theophany waters, Isidore and the men and women with him were arrested by Germans, sent by the headman and the bishop, and dragged before the bishop and the civil judges. Great was the torment of the warriors of Christ, which they endured in the judgment hall for their faith, which the Germans tried to force them to renounce. But Isidore and all the Orthodox confessors with him, turning first to the bishop, then to all their judges, replied unanimously: ‘God forbid, enemies of the Truth, that we Orthodox renounce the True Christ and the Orthodox faith! We will not spare our bodies for Christ our God, however much you torture us, but we beseech you, wretched, spare your own souls for the Lord’s sake, for you are God’s creation’.

St. Isidore an the other faithful were eventually martyred for their faith. The Germans forced the faithful into the frozen lake through the hole that had been created for the blessing of the water, where they were all drowned.

Another excerpt (and my favorite):

Spring came. The River Omovzha overflowed its banks. Nearly three miles upstream from Yuriev, beneath a tree by a hill, there appeared the bodies of all the confessors of Christ. They were all incorrupt and lay facing the east, as though they had been laid there by human hand. Fr Isidore lay in their midst in his vestments. Thus the Lord glorified His saints. The Orthodox merchants of Yuriev took up the relics of those that had suffered and buried them in the city, around the church of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, where they rest until the Second Coming of Christ. Orthodox soon began to venerate the memory of the Hieromartyr Isidore and his fellow martyrs.

What a wonderful witness.

Troparion, Tone 2

O blessed passion-bearers of the Lord, with boldness ye preached the Orthodox faith of Christ, and reproved the false teachings of your enemies at the place of judgement. Therefore, having been cast into the depths of the river, O holy ones, your souls now dwell in the heavenly abodes, where ye stand with the saints before the throne of God, the King of all. Beseech Him for all Orthodox Christians, who honour and venerate your feat of martyrdom.

Kontakion,Tone 4

With hymns let us honour the choir of Christ’s martyrs, who suffered mightily for the true faith of Christ, and cast down the pride of enemies until the end. For having shone with the grace of the Uncreated Trinity, O glorious ones, who suffered with the Hieromartyr Isidore, like stars ye enlighten the whole world. Now beseech Christ unceasingly, and defend us from invasions of hostile heathen, O ever-vigilant intercessors for our souls.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Humble Yourselves in the Sight of the Lord (James 4:7-12)

St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

7 Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up. 11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?

Submitting to another person is both a way of showing humility and also a way to learn humility, and this is why the authors of the Bible often speak of the importance of submission (passages such as Eph. 5:22 and Rom. 13:1 come to mind right away). And who better to submit to but God himself?

The importance of the second half of verse seven cannot be overemphasized. If we merely resist the devil, the demons, and the temptations that they send, they will flee. After being tempted in the wilderness, Jesus told the Devil, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” and he did. The reason that we fall victim to temptation is precisely because we DO NOT resist! All the great ascetical Fathers of the Church teach is that we too can send away temptation by resisting them. With the sign of the Cross, a prayer for help (particularly the Jesus Prayer), and ignoring the temptation any further, we can fight them off. That doesn’t mean the tempter will not ever return, but when he does, we must continue to resist. We must not grow weary and give in.

When we drive away temptations, however, we must not be like the man in Jesus’ parable who drove out a demon from his house, swept it clean, and then was surprised to find seven demons re-occupy it. We cannot merely say “no” to temptation and drive it away; we must also draw near to God (verse 8) and fill ourselves with his sacraments and his teaching. If we do so, St. James promises us, he will also draw near to us, to protect and comfort us. We need to also cleanse and purify our hearts by repentance and confession. We must not be like those to whom St. James is writing in this passage, who are double-minded (dipsychos, literally “double-souled”).

An important part of repentance is what St. James commands in verse 9, namely, lamenting, mourning, and weeping. Note that St. James is not commanding the original readers (or, by extension, us) to do this ALL the time, for as we read in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (3:4). But when we, like St. James’ original audience, have strayed from God and need to purify our hearts, that is the time to weep and mourn, to be sorry for our sin and to turn away from it. As St. James has mentioned before, and now repeats in verse 10, another key part of repentance is humbling ourselves before God. When we do this, God will lift us up and restore us.

St. James concludes his discussion on community strife and its antidote (namely, meekness) by urging his readers to not speak evil of, and therefore judge, others. Previously, they had cursed and reviled their fellow men during their feuding and quarrelling. But the time had come for this to stop.

I’ll let FF have the final words on this passage: “The Law commands us to love our neighbor (Lev. 19:18), and to condemn our brother is to condemn the Law, since we are thereby defying its commandment. Anyone who would presume to judge and condemn the Law is manifestly not a doer of the Law (as all Jews strove to be). Instead, this one is a judge. And that is to usurp God’s role, for He alone is the one Lawgiver and Judge—the only One who is able to save and to destroy. Do they imagine that the power of life and death is with them? Then let God be Judge alone, and let them refrain from judging their brothers. For who are they to think they can usurp God’s role?” (47).

Let us also refrain from judging our brothers and sisters.